Robbie, and she really wasn’t in the mood. He had completely shattered her whole boys-are-cute-until-they-open-their-mouths thing. Not only was he not stupid, he looked at her like she made sense, like they shared some secret language that no one else knew, and that they spoke it even when they weren’t speaking at all. Go casual , she said to herself. Nothing special. Casual with a touch of cute. She chose a skirt and a tube top with a loose white blouse over it. But it was hard work making suggestions and not blatant declarations with her ever-changing Puerto Rican body. Some days her butt was too big; on others she couldn’t even find it. Was it the way her pants hung? What she ate last night? Her mood? Her period? She sighed and glanced sideways at herself. Her butt seemed to be cooperating — it made just enough of a bump beneath her skirt to make itself known without being all extra. Alright then. She laced up her tall combat boots and squinted at herself again. Her hair exploded around her face with its usual reckless abandon. Bennie had insisted on Sierra coming by later so she could braid it. Her skin was another matter. It wasn’t bad skin — a zit here and there and the occasional dry island. But once when she was chatting with some stupid boy online, she described herself as the color of coffee with not enough milk. There was a pause in the conversation, and the words glared back at her strangely, like the echo of a burp in an empty auditorium. She wondered if what she’d typed was burning holes in her chat partner too. Then he typed o thas hot yo and she’d quickly slammed her laptop shut. In the sudden darkness of her bedroom, the words had lingered as if imprinted in her forehead: not enough. The worst part about it, the part she couldn’t let go of, was that the thought came from her. Not from one of the teachers or guidance counselors whose eyes said it again and again over sticky-sweet smiles. Not from some cop on Marcy Avenue or Tía Rosa. It came from somewhere deep inside her. And that meant that for all the times she’d shrugged off one of those slurs, some little tentacle of them still crawled its way toward her heart. Not enough milk. Not light enough. Morena. Negra. No matter what she did, that little voice came creeping back, persistent and unsatisfied. Not enough. Today she looked menacingly into the mirror and said: “I’m Sierra María Santiago. I am what I am. Enough.” She sighed. These days were spooky enough without her talking to herself. “More than enough.” She almost believed it. Downstairs, María and Rosa cackled at some inside joke. Sierra scowled, grabbed her shoulder bag, and walked out of her room.
Bennie’s corner of Brooklyn looked different every time Sierra passed through it. She stopped at the corner of Washington Avenue and St. John’s Place to take in the changing scenery. A half block from where she stood, she’d skinned her knee playing hopscotch while juiced up on iceys and sugar drinks. Bennie’s brother, Vincent, had been killed by the cops on the adjacent corner, just a few steps from his own front door. Now her best friend’s neighborhood felt like another planet. The place Sierra and Bennie used to get their hair done had turned into a fancy bakery of some kind, and yes, the coffee was good, but you couldn’t get a cup for less than three dollars. Plus, every time Sierra went in, the hip, young white kid behind the counter gave her either the don’t-cause-no-trouble look or the I-want-to-adopt-you look. The Takeover (as Bennie had dubbed it once) had been going on for a few years now, but tonight its pace seemed to have accelerated tenfold. Sierra couldn’t find a single brown face on the block. It looked like a late-night frat party had just let out; she was getting funny stares from all sides — as if she was the out-of-place one, she thought. And then, sadly, she realized she was the out-of-place one.