She puts my cap back on, and we go on like this as I chase her with the cart to the register. Just my luck, Sara chooses the one handled by Blue Eyes. To make matters worse, Cutter is standing at the end of the conveyor belt, waiting to bag groceries. Blue Eyes and I been long done, but I still get nervous as those dots of ice bounce between Sara and me. Sara doesn’t notice anything, placing groceries on the belt. I feel damned if I do and damned if I don’t, but I’d rather do something than nothing.
“Hey, Blue Eyes, I heard you’re an aunt now,” I say all friendly. “Congratulations! What’s the baby’s name?”
She glares at me. “Matthew.”
“That’s a cool name.”
“Excuse me,” Sara says.
Blue Eyes snaps, “What?”
“I have coupon for those chickpeas.”
Blue Eyes sucks her teeth so hard it’s a miracle Sara isn’t drenched in spit. “You’ve should’ve told me that before.” She peers over her register and yells, “VOID!”
Sara says, “You know what? Forget it. It’s not big deal.”
I want to say something so bad, but it’ll just make things worse. I already done tried to be cordial, but if Blue Eyes wants to cop an attitude, what am I supposed to do? I ease past Sara and grab a plastic bag so we can book ASAP.
“That’s all right, youngblood,” says Cutter. “Let me take care of that for you.”
“No!” It comes out so loud that Sara and Blue Eyes stop staring at each other to look at Cutter and me. I motion for Cutter to step away from me, and he backs up. If I had my way, we’d just leave the groceries that dope fiend already started to bag.
Without another word, Sara pays. Blue Eyes gives her the receipt, her change and a dirty look. I grab Sara’s groceries while Cutter just stands there looking pathetic. Sara drops her change into the makeshift cup Cutter has made by cutting a milk carton in half. As she does it, she makes eye contact and says, “Thank you.”
“At your service, young lady.”
We walk out of the A&P and don’t speak for a block. I finally say, “You shouldn’t have done that.” Why is it so easy for Sara to look that druggie in the eye but not me?
“Give him money. He’s just going to shoot it up.”
“That’s none of my business.”
I have to laugh at that. “How’s that none of your business? It’s your money!”
“If someone needs help and I’m in a position to, I give it. That’s between my God and me. Now what Cutter does with that money is between his God and him. Like my mother always says, Do good and throw it into the sea.”
“But you’re not helping him, Sara,” I argue. “The dude’s got an addiction, which means he can’t even help himself. By giving him money, you just – what they call it?—enabling him.”
Sara mulls it over. Then she says, “Who doesn’t have an addiction? Or at least an obsession. Everyone has something they struggle to resist even though they know it’s not good for them.”
“Uh-uh, not me!”
“Uh-huh, yes you.” Sara’s dead serious. “You’re addicted to clothes. Not just any clothes either. Brand-name clothes.”
“Clothes ain’t bad for you,” I laugh. “The opposite. How you going to compare that to being addicted to crack or heroin?”
“Don’t you spend all your money on them? Doesn’t it give you a rush to buy them? Doesn’t the high wear off fast?”
“Not the same.”
“So the same.” Sara snatches the Cutter bag from me, and we walk the rest of the way to her building in tense silence. When we reach her door, Sara avoids my eyes as she searches for her keys. “You know, Willie, sometimes you have to look past a person’s surface.”
Even though I feel defensive, I keep my tone in check. Let Sara be mad, so long as she keeps talking to me. “And people also got to be for real.”
“It’d be a lot easier for people to do so if we weren’t so judgmental.” Sara finally faces me. “When you assume and judge, you never find out what they are. Or who they are. And if we’re not going to know people for who they really are, then what’s the point of having relationships?”
She motions for me to give her the other grocery bag. I hold open the door for her as she makes her way inside the building. “So if everyone has an addiction, what’s yours?” I wait for her to say mythology or reading the newspaper. No matter what it is, I’ll have a thousand more questions because I don’t want her to go.
Sara smiles. “Like you don’t already know.” She runs her fingers through my frizzy curls. “I like your hair like this. It’s nice and soft.” Then she pulls off my cap and lays it on my head. “I’ll see you at camp on Monday.”
Self-professed “Ivy League homegirl” Sofia Quintero is a writer, producer, activist, educator, and speaker. Born into a working-class Puerto Rican and Dominican family in the Bronx, where she still lives, she holds a BA and an MPA from Columbia University. She also recently earned an MFA in writing and producing television at the TV Writers Studio at Long Island University in Brooklyn.
Sofia is the author of another novel for young readers, Efrain’s Secret, and she has written several hip-hop novels under the pen name Black Artemis.
When not working on her next young adult novel, Sofia runs an after-school program in the Bronx for a girls’-empowerment organization and is a teaching artist for the National Book Foundation. You can learn more about Sofia and her projects at sofiaquintero.com.