“You know you could at least pretend to be happy for me?”
I decide to leave my cousin’s comment unanswered. I look out her car window and watch as the large suburban houses begin to get smaller and the people in the streets get browner.
“You should trust me when I say that this boy isn’t it!” I huff. We pull into the familiar driveway and Lara immediately pulls out her phone and begins to fix her blond curls into a top knot, showing off her slim, contoured face. I pull out my phone and tie my dark brown braids into a bun, careful to smooth every bump. I slide my index finger over a stray baby-hair when I am finished and look back at the house. It is smaller than I remember and still has Christmas lights up despite it being June.
“Let’s get this over with, yeah?”
We hop out of the car and go through the side of the house to the backyard where we hear music playing. The smell of jerk chicken on the grill is wafting in the air and I feel my mouth water. As soon as we get to the backyard, I freeze. This is way more people than I was expecting. Fairy lights were strung along the house, sectioning off the backyard crowded with brown bodies. I shoot Lara a dirty look and she grins before grabbing my arm and dragging me through the crowds of people.
We sit at a table and Lara eagerly looks around for her boyfriend, Lamar. She rushes over to greet him when she spots him, so I dig my phone out again, trying to look busy. As I scroll through Instagram and Snapchat, I feel a twinge of jealousy as I watch all my friends at their own party seemingly having the best time of their lives. Their smiling faces and blonde hair reflect back at me, I close my phone.
“Now, I know you didn’t come here all dressed up in that flower dress just to sit and stare at your phone, Ren.”
I look to my right and immediately my mouth immediately drops open.
“Kay!” I say in disbelief. I watch his teeth part his dark lips as he smiles and pulls a chair to sit beside me. He reaches out and grabs my shoulder, bringing me closer to him.
“Come here girl!” He says.
He holds me tightly and I am overwhelmed with his scent. It is hard to put a finger on what simply smells like home.
Once he pulls away, my eyes swallow him up. It’s the soft eyes and firm hands that would push me on the swings when we’d go to the park together. He has the same dark hue of skin and the same smile. He’s definitely taller though – and bigger too. He’s no longer the little boy who moved here from Nigeria.
“It’s been awhile right? You don’t come down here anymore since y’all moved,” he says leaning back into his chair.
All the maple hasn’t washed the jollof from his voice. You would think his accent would have vanished by now, but the colder Canada got, the warmer he seemed to be.
“Yeah, I didn’t really see a reason to,” I say honestly.
“Not even for me?”
I feel the smile spread across my face before I can stop it.
“Damn okay, I guess that’s fair,” he says with a knowing smile. “But I know your mom misses me. How’s the family?”
She does miss him.
“They’re all fine. Mom got a job at the bank and Dad still has the same job at the court office.”
There was a time when Kay was at my house nearly every day. We’d walk back to my house after school where my mom would have our favorite snacks waiting for us.
“Kayode is a good boy,” she’d say. “These immigrant kids behave well.” I always rolled my eyes at this. She always said because I was born here and not Jamaica, I had no manners.
“How’s your mom, Kay?”
He shrugs and takes another sip of his drink. “Same old, same old Ren. Everything’s the same as you left it.”
Just by looking around, I could see he was right. All the same people hung out together. Even the stories and the jokes I could hear around me held punchlines I knew. But as similar as everything was, it also felt unfamiliar. I had forgotten how to interact with these people. I had forgotten what friendship with them looked like.
“I’m guessing that means your ass still doesn’t know how to tie your shoes then?” I joke.
Kay shoots me a dirty look. “Chill, stop trying to expose me.”
We both laugh and for a moment, I am 13 again.
We hear someone shout Kay’s name, and see two boys approach us. Kay nods at the two boys and gives them both firm handshakes. When they pull away I see a wad of cash in his hand. I feel my eyes widen as I realize what just happened. I never thought Kay would turn to doing something like this, and I begin to think that maybe things haven’t remained the same as I thought.
I stand up quickly, as if I’ve been jerked away from the table by a leash. “I gotta go,” I say, not meeting his eye.
“What’s the problem, Ren?”
“Don’t call me that,” I snap.
He scoffs and I can feel his eyes burning a hole in my face.
“You think because you moved to that nice neighbourhood, you’re better than us? You ain’t better than anyone here Ren.” He laughs dryly and takes another sip from his drink.
I feel my face heat up. He has no reason to judge me. I am not better because I moved from the neighbourhood, but I didn’t allow the neighbourhood to turn me into another statistic either.
I storm off and begin looking for Lara. Of course, she would ditch me for her man. The backyard is so concentrated with people that looking for her is pointless. It doesn’t matter. At this point, I’ll walk home.
I leave the house and begin heading home. The street is quiet and dark.
They really need to fix these freaking street lamps.
As I’m walking past my old elementary school, I hear Kay’s voice.
“So you gonna talk shit about the neighbourhood, but still think it’s safe to walk around at night by yourself?”
I ignore him and continue on. I can hear his footsteps coming closer. “Leave me alone.”
He finally is walking in stride with me. “C’mon Ren. You’re right, it’s not safe. Let’s go back to the party.” He grabs my elbow gently, trying to keep me in place. “My car’s parked there and I’ll drive you home.”
I pause for a brief second before I continue walking, only looking forward.
“Okay, bet. You wanna walk that’s fine. That’s just more time imma spend annoying you.”
“You’re really irritating, you know?”
Without even looking over I knew he was smiling. “Hey Ren?”
I cut him off. “No. I don’t want to speak. Just walk.”
We walk for five more minutes and I begin to regret not taking Kay’s offer for a ride. The streets are starting to look more and more like the ones we just passed. I begin to wonder if we missed the turn that we were meant to take. Were we supposed to turn on Jane Street? I definitely remember seeing Steeles Avenue, I think.
I glance over at Kay who’s looking forward with his hands in his pockets. He looks peaceful. It’s the comfortable look he often wore when he was in his element, not a wrinkle on his forehead in sight, lips relaxed instead of ready to defend himself whenever trouble came around. And with them, trouble was usually following close behind.
I mean us. With us, trouble is usually approaching from behind.
“You know, you’re right,” I say finally. “I know those people don’t look at me any different.”
“You sure, you not just saying that cuz we’re lost?” He says, his lips pulled tight as he holds back laughter.
I narrow my eyes at him.
“Hey! You were leading the way,” He was holding up his hand defensively. “I didn’t even notice we were lost until we passed the same street twice.”
“I can’t stand you,” I say, shaking my head before looking down.
“Nah, but forreal I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that shit to you…”
Before Kay could finish, we see a dark Chrysler swerve towards us. The car stops abruptly, and I see all the peace immediately fall from Kay’s face. The wrinkles appear, and he licks his lip quickly, but I have a feeling he won’t be using his words.
Two white boys saunter out of the car and Kay immediately pushes me away from him, further away from the boys.
“What’s up man?” one of the boys asks, closing his car door and walking towards us. Kay stays silent and I can feel my heart thumping in my ears.
“Are you deaf?” The other one advances on us. “What do you want?” Kay asks, still positioning himself in front of me. “You can start by giving us that watch,” the first boy says.
Kay’s laugh thickens the tension and he closes the distance between him and the boys. “So take it, big boy.”
The sarcasm drips through his voice, I don’t hear what the boys say but am shocked when one of them throws the first punch. Kay ducks and begins to fight one of the boys. Just as he starts overpowering the first boy, the second one tackles him. The two begin beating on him together. I hear Kay groan and see a glint in his pocket as he pulls out a knife. I scream. Kay shouts at me.
“Leave Ren! The corner!”
I want to argue, but I watch as the boys knock the knife out of his hand and the other puts a knee into Kay’s chest. I immediately run and check my phone. It’s only at one percent.
A few minutes pass and I hear a car speed down the street. A chorus of “whooping” sounds follow. I run back to the street I left Kay on and find him struggling to get up.
“Oh my God Kay! We need to get you some help.”
His breathing is ragged and he spits out blood from his mouth.
“I’m gonna call an ambulance and the police.” My hands shake as I try to unlock my phone.
“Ren.” Kay spits some more before speaking “We can’t call the police.”
Is this boy stupid?
“What do you mean? We have to! You can’t even stand up.” I stoop down to get a closer look. One of his eyes is already beginning to swell and he’s holding his side with one hand.
“No cop is gonna help me and the ambulance will just bring cops. I need you to get me to my car so we can drive to the hospital.”
“I don’t have my license,” my voice sounds high pitched in my own ears.
“I’ll drive,” Kay corrects.
“You have got to be kidding me. Stop this right now, I’m calling.” I reach for my phone again and Kay grabs my arm.
“I’m dead serious Ren. They can’t help someone like me. They won’t.” I stare at him confused. The solution to all of this was very simple.
“This isn’t freaking Nigeria!” I yell. “You can call the police”
Kay closes his eyes, his breathing laboured. “Whether I’m in Nigeria or here, the police will never be an option.”
“Kay, not everything is a race thing. This was clearly an attack. They’ll be on our side.”
“Do you hear yourself right now?” Kay’s eyes are open now. “You must have forgotten which neighbourhood we’re in. Look at us Ren. It’s just gonna cause us more trouble”
“I’m done arguing with you. You can either help me or I’ll get there myself.”
I feel the tears begin to pool in my eyes but I refuse to let them fall. I wrap Kay’s arm over my shoulders and try to stand with him. He yells out and falls a few times but eventually I get him on both feet. We begin to hobble back the way we came. Every few minutes we have to stop for Kay to catch his breath or spit out the blood filling his mouth.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
When I blink, some tears fall onto the sidewalk. “Leave me alone. This could’ve been fixed if you had just let me call the police.”
Kay stops and looks down at me angrily. “And what the fuck did you think the police were gonna do for us?”
He’s yelling and I can smell the blood on his breath. “Those people were not put here to save us. They are here to control us.”
“That’s not true,” I mumble. “My uncles a cop and —”
“And what Ren? You think his pig buddies treat him any better than they will treat us?”
I feel more tears roll down my face and I try to wipe them with my free hand. I try to defend myself. “My friends and I have called the police before and nothing bad ever happened.”
Kay tilts his head back and laughs. “Who called Ren? Was it you or your little white friends?”
I swallow and stay silent. I don’t actually remember who called the police. I don’t remember a lot of details from that day.
“Exactly,” he says. “Those cops didn’t see you. You were just an ornament to them.”
“Can you stop being such an ass!” I scream.
The sudden jolt of my body causes Kay to fall on his side. I see the colour leave his face and his breathing begins to whistle through his mouth.
I scream and fall down beside him.
“Kay I’m so sorry. Please I need to call someone now.” I pull out my phone and see that it’s dead. I look over and Kay’s eyes have slid shut. I begin to shake him.
“Please, just open your eyes!” I gasp for air as my tears fall relentlessly. I keep shaking him but it’s useless.
“Did you hear what I said, sweetie?”
I drift out of my thoughts and look at the doctor standing in front of me. She has a sad smile on her face. I feel bile rising up my throat.
“No, I’m sorry. Could you repeat yourself?”
“Yes, of course hun. I just wanted to let you know that your friend just got out of surgery and is stable now.”
I feel myself release a deep breath I didn’t realize I had been holding the entire ambulance ride over.
“You’re very lucky you called when you did,” the doctor says.
I nod at her, my eyes feeling glassy. “Can I see him?”
“Yes, of course. I believe he’s even awake.”
I jump out of my seat, and the doctor leads me to his room. Kay is laying still with his eyes closed, but they shoot open as soon as I enter the room. He stares, but doesn’t smile as I approach him.
“Hey.” I say, pulling up a chair beside him.
This is what makes him release a lazy smile. “I know you didn’t just wait in a hospital for hours to say ‘hey’ to me, Ren.”
I laugh and rest my head on his shoulder for a few seconds. I don’t want to hurt him. “I told you everything would be okay.”
He shakes his head but reaches for my hand.
“I’m glad things are okay for now, but the police will come tomorrow with questions.” All traces of his smile were gone now. “You didn’t pick up the knife from the street.”
I feel my stomach plummet and suddenly the room feels several degrees too hot.
“I don’t remember seeing the knife when I came back for you” I scan my memories from last night trying to remember.
There’s no way we left the knife there. That would be the one thing the cops would need to screw us over.
He squeezes my hand and I smile, trying to hide how scared I am. “We’ll deal with that, when it happens, yeah?”
The next morning, the police do show up.
They ask us both what happened and many questions that all begin to sound the same after a while. There’s very little information I can offer them because I fled the crime scene. They ask about the knife and Kay refuses to answer without a lawyer present.
The police exchange glances, but say that they found the boys who attacked us and have brought them into questioning. They have street camera footage of the incident and that we shouldn’t worry too much.
But not worrying has never been a privilege we could afford.
When they leave Kay is shaking and I hold him still.