When I was a freshman, I rushed a fraternity. A white one, because there was no Black Greek life on campus. Ant never let me forget it. We both knew I had other options. Like with the city-wide chapters affiliated with my PWI. I could have made the effort. You make time for the things you want to do. There were guys my year, the ones with cars, who drove off-campus so they could rush a Black fraternity. A handful of others took the city bus. I heard about this one kid who walked back and forth, no matter the time or distance. Too broke for a ride. Too embarrassed to ask for help.
Before I became a pledge, and officially a brother, when the college cafeterias were the only way to ease my stomach, I’d see the Black Greeks sporting their letters and colors among the other Black and brown kids who sat at The Island, a long, elevated table with black metal high chairs in the center of the main cafeteria.
I ate with them my first few weeks of school, knowing no one else. They took me in. They looked out for me, the guys in particular. They introduced me to upperclassmen and girls. They invited me to meetings and kickbacks at their off-campus apartments.
In time, they passed me books about the Divine Nine. They told me what it meant to be part of a brotherhood. A real one. One that lasted until death, not four fleeting years.
They told me that being in a fraternity, a Black fraternity, was about more than dark basements littered with beer puddles. More than blacking out to house music, which wasn’t real house music anyway. More than snorting and popping anything handed to you four and five times a week.
They had their fun, too, of course. They told me how they partied until the sun cracked open the sky. But hours later, they still made it to their service projects—hungover, but there.
Being in a Black fraternity was about leadership, they said. About developing a voice and a vision. About providing resources in all the ways we’re systematically denied them. A support system.
It was about legacy. Always legacy.
And it all sounded good. Good for someone who came to our school from out of town. Or who felt like they were missing something. Or who felt like they needed community—their community.
I was keen on adopting a new one.
I tried my luck with the white fraternities. I dropped the Black kids, the Black Greeks, the second I could—once I became a pledge. Because at the end of the day, most of my time was spent on campus. Not floating around the city. So, all that talk, all that support, all that chatter about brotherhood? It meant nothing. Less than nothing. On my campus the Black kids weren’t worth shit, which meant Black Greeks weren’t worth shit, and I wasn’t trying to catch whatever they had.
Ant, my cousin, went to the community college downtown. He took classes whenever he had enough cash saved up to afford them. But he was the reason I enrolled in the private college fifteen minutes from where I grew up in the South End with my mother, down by the Colt Armory and the adult probation department. Back then, Ant lived in the South End, too. He and my aunt stayed in an apartment above a restaurant on Franklin Avenue, down in Little Italy, which it still was in spirit, though the days when men spent hours upon hours drinking and talking calcio, reminiscing about their villages in the old country, and then stumbled five or ten minutes home, were gone. Most of them now hopped into cars and drove out to the suburbs. To Wethersfield and Rocky Hill and Cromwell and Glastonbury. Returning only to shop and eat and talk shit on lazy afternoons at the Italian grocery stores and restaurants and hangouts that dotted the street.
The neighborhood was now Puerto Rican and Dominican. It was Colombian and Peruvian. There were the Jamaicans who chose not to live with the other West Indians in the North End, and there were the Bosnians who had fled shit we knew nothing about and didn’t care enough to ask. And then there was us, the JBs, the just Blacks, without known ties to anywhere but the South.
Ant and I always went to different schools. When we were younger he stayed local, public. I bused to the suburbs, Catholic. He was a neighborhood insider, while I felt like an interloper. I had one foot in and one foot out. I grew to feel more comfortable with the white kids from school than the Black and brown kids I lived with, even though I was never made to feel out of place because love for me was there. I felt it in the upward nods I would get on the street. I felt it in the way my peers said my name, full-bodied and intentional. But it also felt like the love from a parent you only spend time with on weekends, someone you don’t really know. Like my father, who always said he loved me after bringing me home from our less-than-weekly meetings. I always hesitated to say it back.
Still, after I got home from school, shedding my navy-blue school uniform, I would bike through Colt Park, snake down Wethersfield Avenue, cut up a side street, and then coast down Franklin until I reached the restaurant with Roman statues on the roof. Ant would meet me outside, slinking between old men and women sipping wine and leaning back in vinyl stackable chairs.
Since Ant was bigger, I would knock out the kickstand and move from the torn bike seat so he could take over. I either sat on the loose handlebars, cradled between worn bike grips, or climbed on top of the back pegs, placing my arms on Ant’s broad shoulders, propped up like a perched bird.
Some days, Ant pumped us over to Goodwin Park where we met with his friends and played tackle football, crashing our bodies together as if wearing full pads. Other days, he would coast us over to an alleyway to shoot hoops on a plastic milk crate strung up by a clothes hanger twisted around a metal fence. When we were spent and hungry, we would duck into the Chinese restaurant on Maple Avenue to snag two egg rolls, paid for with a week’s worth of saved-up milk money that Ant was supposed to use for school. After that, night cloaking our bodies, Ant always biked me home.
“Be safe,” he’d say before leaving, though he was the one walking alone.
Summers were different. We spent them together at a sports camp on the same campus I’d later attend for college. Since Ant was only a year older, we were placed in the same group. We played the usual sports: basketball, soccer, and baseball. But we also tried new ones, like handball, which we watched one Olympic summer on the 13-inch television in my room.
One year, Ant got into a fight. He was thirteen, already six feet tall, and had a wingspan that could corral two kids on either side of his arms. It started with a kid older than both of us taunting me, shoving me to the ground, and then stealing my snack during break. It ended with Ant’s long reach catching that same kid in the eye.
Ant was suspended for a week. At the end of each camp day, I biked over to his place to catch him up on what he’d missed. How during indoor swim Kourtney’s basketball shorts slipped from his waist after cannonballing off the diving board. How Mariah flipped a chair and cussed out Lindsey, our counselor that summer, and only because Lindsey asked to be called by her name, rather than Mariah shouting, “Miss! Miss! Miss!” whenever she needed her.
It rained the Friday of that week. Tennis was canceled so we watched movies in one of the science buildings on campus. I told Ant how Melissa Jimenez, a girl his age and in our group, sat next to me. She wasn’t the best-looking girl in camp. That title belonged to Charmaine, a new girl from Guyana who was visiting her cousins for the summer. But Melissa was close.
During Heavyweights she reached over the armrest and placed her hand on top of my mesh shorts, palming my leg. It stayed there for what must have been half of the movie, until she began tracing her fingers along my thighs.
Ant listened intently at the kitchen table in his apartment, which was next to the window overlooking the street, far enough from the stovetop and counters lined partially with double-sided tape to catch the roaches and ants and whatever else crawled out of the cracks in the walls because of the restaurant downstairs.
“I came just before she touched it,” I said.
“Damn,” he said, shaking his head, gazing out the window. “And what she do next?”
“She didn’t know.”
“What you mean she ain’t know?”
“She didn’t know.”
“So, what? You just let her keep goin’?”
“She stopped, eventually, you know, once she realized.” I raised a finger toward the ceiling and curled it over.
Ant laughed, and I knew the jokes were coming next.
Rookie. First timer. Eager ass nigga.
But instead, he leaned across the table and squeezed my right shoulder.
“No sweat,” he said, and I nodded like I knew that already.
We went to that camp year after year. We graduated from campers, to counselors-in-training, to counselors outright. We learned how draining it was to be a counselor. We ambled home each day tired and annoyed, sounding like parents, questioning our campers’ home training and worrying about the future generation and their lack of respect.
Still, we knew we had it easy because we were from the neighborhood. The older campers knew us from when we were campers and the younger ones knew us just because, even me. Our parents knew theirs. Their aunts babysat us when we were kids, feeding us beefaroni with purple Kool-Aid and comforting us when we cried for our mothers after they dropped us off, sitting us on their bouncing laps, saying, “Look here, I’m all you got right now.” We bought marked-up groceries from each other’s corner stores and had oil checks in each other’s backyard garages for free. Their sisters walked upstairs to our apartments when they needed extra scotch bonnet peppers for their stew pork and their abuelas let us into their homes after school, teaching us how to make pollo guisado to pass the time while our parents worked well past sunset.
Ant and I weren’t the only ones from the neighborhood who worked at the camp. We all knew each other. We called each other by our first names, and nicknames, too. There was Manny and ‘Nica, Kareem and Bat, Ebony and Coach, and this 20-year-old guy who’d been called Poopie since we were eight. We were from here. We were locals.
The white counselors who came from out of town, from the 203 instead of the 860, from Fairfield County, from New Canaan, Darien, and Fairfield, the ones who heard about the job from a posting on their college board, who slept in the dorms on the college grounds for the eight weeks the camp ran? They caught it the worst. They were the ones who took the verbal abuse, and physical abuse, too. Male counselors were chumped by the same rowdy ten-year-olds who slapped female counselors’ asses.
But they knew something I didn’t. They were the ones who told me that our branch of the camp, the one in Hartford, was the only one that lived off donations. It was funded by alumni and parents of the college, and local stores like the discount furniture shop on the Berlin Turnpike.
I knew the camp had other sites. But I didn’t know those campers paid to play. I didn’t know we had to qualify to get in. That Ant and I spent our summers there because we were broke.
Ant didn’t see it that way. “Fuck if I care?” he said. “If people wanted to pay for us to have free lunches, play sports, and hang with our friends, our people, I got no problem with it. Besides, what else would we have done?”
When it was time for me to pick a college, Ant framed it the same way. We talked about it on our grandmother’s porch. That year, around the end of winter, Ant’s mother packed up and left to live somewhere in the South, moving from state to state with the guy she was hooked on at the time.
She told Ant he was eighteen, a man, and had no right to hold her back any longer. He told her he never meant to slow her down, that he never knew being alive, something he didn’t ask for, was such a burden. It was the first and last time he talked back to her. She looked at him, slapped him, and left.
After that, Ant moved in with our grandmother in the North End, two blocks down from the nonprofit she used to take us to for our weekly dose of culture. We went to jazz performances and dance recitals. We even took tap dancing classes for a few years, dreamed of becoming Gregory Hines, or Savion Glover, who we once saw in an episode of the Jamie Foxx show.
“You know you gotta go?” Ant said.
“It’s a full ride.”
“But it’s here.”
“What’s wrong with here?”
“Nothing, it’s just—”
“Look at it this way. They payin’ you to go. You get that, don’t you? They payin’ you. Payin’ you to go to school.”
That’s how he put it. That was Ant.
“Plus, we’d still get to hang,” he added, wrapping one of his long arms around me. “You’d still be close.”
I was a pledge the first time I heard “locals” spat out like a slur. My pledge brothers and I had set up for a themed party at our house, which was protected by a black iron gate that resembled something from medieval times. It circled our entire property. There was an opening in the back with a gravel driveway for brothers to park their cars and a doorway in the front that locked with a sliding metal bar.
It was Halloween weekend and the theme of the party was Hell. Our pledge class was split up. Half of us spent the day carting brothers around to different stores where we moped around aisles while brothers picked out costumes and props: Dracula fangs and capes, face paint and fake blood, whips and plastic handcuffs for the dominatrix outfits their girlfriends would wear that night. The other half decorated the fraternity house. We switched the yellow basement lights for red ones, draped store-bought cobwebs in the corners of rooms, hung streamers across the roof, and set up fog machines that pumped smoke every ten minutes.
That night, like all nights, I manned the front gate with one of my pledge brothers. We let in people with tickets, others desperate enough to pay for the extras we had in our pockets, and a few guys who told us jokes funny enough to make us laugh.
We were an hour into the party when a group of teens showed up. Two of them bodied their way to the front while the others talked shit about the people wearing costumes in line.
“You can’t come in,” my pledge brother said quickly.
“Nobody asked to come in,” said one of the kids.
“Just get off our property.”
“It’s an open campus.”
“Not beyond this gate.”
“Is this nigga dumb?” the kid said to his friend. “We’re on the other side of the gate.”
“I’m not a nigger,” my pledge brother said.
“What was that?”
“I’m just saying that—”
“You’re just saying what?”
“Look, you called me a nigger first. I’m just saying I’m not a nigger.”
My pledge brother glanced over at me, gestured for me to chime in.
“I don’t think he meant it any sort of way,” I said.
“Then tell me how he meant it?”
I glanced at my pledge brother who was fumbling with his phone.
“How old are you, anyway?” I asked, as a glass bottle shattered against the side of the gate.
“Yeah, some fucking locals are out here,” my brother said on the phone, using locals with more hate than if he had called the kid a nigger and meant it. “I don’t know. Like five of them. How do I know they’re locals? Because I know what a fucking local looks like,” he added, jumping as a second bottle exploded against the gate. “Just get out here.”
The kids were gone by the time our pledge master came out of the house. His Vineyard Vines polo was drenched with either booze or sweat, making the whale logo look like it was underwater. He slicked back his hair, pulled a can of wintergreen Grizzly tobacco pouches from his back pocket, and hooked two into his bottom lip.
“You’re telling me you couldn’t handle a group of kids?” he asked us.
“They were looking for trouble,” my pledge brother said.
“But they were kids, right?”
“They were locals. Andrews was here, too. He saw them,” he said, referring to me by my last name, like everyone else in my fraternity.
“What did they look like?”
“What do you mean?”
Our pledge master spat tobacco juice to the side, took a deep breath.
“They were, you know,” my pledge brother said, his voice a whisper and his eyes darting between me and my pledge master. “Some kind of Spanish, and a few Black kids, like Andrews,” he said, quickly adding, “but obviously not like Andrews.”
“I meant how tall or short? What were they wearing? Shit that would actually be helpful for Campus Safety.”
“A few were in sweats. Dark hoodies.”
“Well, the leader, the smartass, he was wearing Jordans. Red and black Jordans. I saw the symbol,” my pledge brother said, proud of himself.
I could’ve told my pledge master more. The actual name of the sneakers, the materials, the design: Air Jordan 11 Breds, patent leather with nylon composition and detailed accents. They were black up top with white midsoles and red outsoles. The red Jumpman logo was stitched across the throat and the iconic twenty-three was stamped on each heel.
Ant owned a pair. They were his favorite in a growing collection. They stood out because he only wore them for special occasions, paired with suits at a wedding, or a funeral. He wore them the night I picked him up for a different party.
By then, I was a senior and the only times I saw Ant in the years in between were at family holidays. I made excuses for why we no longer hung out. I was busy with class. I was simply exhausted at the end of each day, including weekends. I was still adjusting to the course load, three and a half years in.
None of it was true. I avoided Ant because I didn’t want to be caught by someone at school with someone who dressed the way Ant dressed. Talked the way Ant talked. Looked the way Ant looked. I had studied my college peers and made the necessary adjustments. I had come a long way.
But the party was off-campus, which meant I would avoid most of my circle, and with a job lined up at the end of the summer that would take me out of state for the foreseeable future, I figured this was the best time, and one of the last times I would see Ant.
Though he said he had no problem taking the bus, I told Ant I’d pick him up for the party. “Look at you,” he said, and even on the phone, his voice carried weight. It demanded your attention, made you want to listen. It’d been that way since we were kids, nine and ten. Back then it scared me. I didn’t understand how such a small body could produce so much power. By then, Ant already had the cut on his face from stepping between his mother and the punk who used to beat on her. One night, during one of their scraps, Ant pulled a knife from the kitchen drawer, intent on putting an end to violence. The words. The slaps. The blunt sound of his mother’s body colliding with the linoleum floor. But before he could act, his mother shoved him to the ground, asked him exactly what fuck he thought he was doing. We should’ve known then she’d eventually leave him, choosing one of her lovers over her own kid. The knife left a clean lick on the right side of Ant’s face, two slits that ran through one of his thick black eyebrows, one below and the other above. When it healed, discolored and pale, it looked like a piece of him was missing, like bark stripped from a tree. At the time, the cut combined with his voice reminded me of Scar from the Lion King, and though Ant had never done anything to make me question him, because of the way the mark menaced his stoic face, the way his weighted voice startled you into attention, I still always wondered what he was capable of.
“What’s this party about again?” Ant asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Whose party is it?”
“Friends of mine from school. Guys on the soccer team.”
“They like your people?”
“Those white boys you be callin’ your brothers.”
“Just be ready when I get there,” I told Ant. “I’ll pick you up, park the car back at my fraternity, and we’ll walk to the party from there.”
“You a funny nigga,” Ant said, laughing.
I sighed, which one only made him laugh more.
“No need to get upset,” he said.
“All right,” Ant responded, snickering. “I’ll be ready when you get here.”
That night I wore a wrinkled yellow button-down, baby-blue khakis that were frayed at the hem, and a pair of rundown boat shoes. It was a disheveled look. It was an unconcerned look. It was a look that my brothers sported most days.
“That’s what you wearin’ tonight?” Ant asked when he got into the car.
“Hello to you, too,” I said, pulling off the corner.
“I’m sayin’, though. I know I taught you better. You look like an Easter egg.”
“Put on your seatbelt.”
“And who bought you this car? When I told grandma that you were scoopin’ me in a car, she said she was hittin’ your mom’s line because she ain’t know she bought you one. You know how grandma is,” he said, placing a backpack into the backseat.
“It’s one of my pledges’ cars,” I said, irritated.
“And they just let you take it?”
“It’s part of the pledging process. A favor.”
“I guess I need more niggas owin’ me favors.”
“That just what we call it. I could’ve had one of them pick you up but, you know, it’s been a while.”
“Yeah. It has been. A while.”
“Here we go,” I said, turning on the radio.
“I say somethin’?”
“Can we just have a good night?”
“Yeah man,” Ant said, grinning, knocking knuckles on the armrest. “We can have a good night.”
It was a ten-minute walk to the soccer house. After I parked and got out of the car, I threw on my college sweatshirt that was in the backseat, and asked Ant if he needed to drop off his backpack in my room.
“It’s for the party,” he said.
We walked downhill. The street was quiet except for students walking and shouting in friend groups, their apartment pre-games leaking into the air. The other houses, those occupied by locals, had their lights off, families settled after a long work week. Children were most likely in bed while parents dozed off and on, their faces blushed blue from the hue of televisions, which shone faintly against flimsy window blinds.
“What did you mean, the bag was for the party?” I asked Ant.
“I grabbed some things from the store. Some brown for us. Craft beers for your friends. I know they like their craft beers.”
Ant worked in a package store on New Britain Avenue owned by this white guy named Sam. It was close to where we went to middle school. It was where his mom would drag us on the nights I slept over his place, making us wait in the car with the engine running while she ran inside to play her numbers.
“You didn’t need to bring anything.”
“I’m going to someone’s house, right?”
“And do you show up empty-handed when you’re a guest somewhere?”
“It’s not a formal thing. Nobody would’ve cared.”
“But these kids. They have, you know, money. Their parents’ money. You should’ve saved yours. They throw theirs around like—”
“It ain’t about what they have and don’t have,” Ant said, stopping mid-stride. “And don’t worry about my pockets. That ain’t your concern.”
A pair of white girls walked past us as we stood in silence. Ant’s eyes pressed me while I looked around to see if he had drawn any attention. One of the two girls glanced over her shoulder and I offered a polite smile.
“Okay,” I said softly.
“Okay,” Ant replied with force.
I looked around again. “How’s work anyway?” I asked, changing the subject and motioning for us to keep walking.
Ant shook his head.
“For real. How’s work?”
Ant let out a sound halfway between huffing and laughing.
“Life’s good on the plantation, man,” he said, finally walking again.
“You should see your face. Sam made the same one,” he said, smiling.
“I don’t get it.”
“It’s like this. You got the formal titles, right? The cashiers and stockers. Or what my co-workers label as those who work the counter and those who work the floor. Or what I call the house niggers and the field niggers. The few women who work in the store are in the house. Them, and a couple of guys who ‘speak well,’ you know, and who are quick on the register.’
“It’s all business in the house. Customers comin’ and goin’, smiles, phone put away, shirt tucked in, register openin’ and closin’, purchases bagged, have a good day sir or ma’am, checkin’ lotto tickets, checkin’ IDs, checkin’ large bills against the store light to make sure them shits is real, monitorin’ the camera for shifty niggas who might try to steal shit. Always on. Always active.’
“The men work the fields. They hand-wheel kegs to cars, carry cases of beer and wine to restock the aisles and fridges, and work the recycling area. There’s more physical work in the fields, but it’s less work overall. It’s less busy than being up front. There’s downtime. Eyes ain’t always on you. Up front it’s different. Even if the store’s dead, you gotta be on the lookout. Sam sits in his office, which is really just an elevated landing next to the main register separated by a wooden swingin’ door, and watches the cameras all day. He scopes his store, his land, and, of course, his property—the liquor and such, I mean,” Ant said, elbowing me.
He kept talking, his body animated and his voice loud, as we neared the soccer house. I nodded and smiled, offering yeahs and rights, trying to make him hurry up and finish the story before we were within earshot of the party. A few guys stood in the front yard, smoking cigarettes. Some sorority girls took photos of each other in the driveway. A couple made out in their car.
Ant was still going when a white boy I knew from class sped past us, bumping into him. The kid glanced over his shoulder, drunk-laughing with his friends, as if it wasn’t a thing and he’d keep going on his way. But when he saw Ant, really saw him, he spun around. He said he wasn’t paying attention. He asked if Ant was okay.
Ant smirked, which could’ve been read any way, until he said it was cool.
“Anyway,” Ant continued, “field niggers don’t got that problem. They can spend a chunk of time hidin’ out in the stock rooms or in the fridge, pretendin’ to check’ the inventory. They can talk shit with the other field niggers or wander up and down the aisles adjustin’ bottles and cans, actin’ productive,” he said.
“So where are you?” I asked. “In the house or the field?”
“You’d know if you ever came in,” Ant said, side-eyeing me. “But yeah, I’m actually in the house. I started in the fields but was moved to the house. Sam knows I’m good with people, so he wanted me upfront. And that’s when I laid this whole thing on him. It fucked his up day,” Ant said, slapping my back on the steps of the soccer house.
He laughed to himself and walked into the house while I thought about pledging. How I always worked the gate, no matter the weather, no matter the party. How I was never assigned a night inside with my pledge brothers, who got to serve beer while drinking beer. Where they danced to music while making rounds around the basement supposedly looking for kids who were too fucked up. Where they slipped into the boiler room for a quick pick-me-up with brothers. At the will of my pledge master, I was in the fields.
The party was what I expected. Overcrowded, bodies spilling into different rooms. The music was too loud. The rooms were too dark. It was perfect. Easy for us, for Ant, to blend in. I tapped him and signaled for him to follow me while I scanned for someone I knew from the soccer team.
We sifted through sweaty bodies. We rubbed shoulders with kids I only knew from passing them on walks between academic buildings. It took all of three songs before one of my brothers spotted me from the kitchen and waved me over.
“This is my cousin,” I said when we made it through the mass.
“Visiting from out of state?” he asked Ant.
“Nah. Crosstown,” Ant said, slipping off his backpack and placing it on the counter. He opened it and handed my brother a beer.
“How’d you get this?” he asked Ant, turning the can in his hand, admiring the label. “I tried to get some earlier this week but the store was sold out.”
“I know a guy,” Ant joked.
“I’d like to know him, too,” my brother said.
They locked hands and traded names, which made me feel comfortable enough to leave Ant so I could find cups. By the sink, I saw one of the girls who had passed Ant and me arguing in the street. I smiled at her, introduced myself. She told me she was a sophomore, a transfer. It was her first time at the soccer house and she was only there because her friend dragged her out. “She told me I needed to make friends,” the girl said, adding that because of me she’d be able to report that she did. She went back to the living room and I went back to the kitchen counter.
“So where crosstown? Like West Hartford?” my brother asked Ant as I returned.
“Not the next town. Crosstown. North End of the city,” Ant said, cracking open the pint he brought. I passed him two cups. He poured whiskey into both and handed me one.
“Andrews, you never said you had a cousin from here.”
“You sure?” I said.
“I’d remember if you said you had a cousin who was a local.”
“He’s local, too,” Ant said, pointing his thumb at me.
“Really?” my brother said.
“Your brother don’t know where you from?” Ant asked.
“You grew up near here?” my brother asked me.
“Almost across the street,” Ant answered for me.
That brother called over another brother I didn’t know was there.
“Did you know Andrews is a local?” he asked him.
“Why you keep sayin’ it like that?” Ant asked.
Both brothers turned their heads, asked him what he meant.
“A local. Why you sayin’ it like that?”
“He’s not saying it any way,” I said.
“He can speak for himself,” Ant said.
“Tell your cousin to relax, Andrews,” the first brother said, reaching into Ant’s backpack for another beer.
“I am relaxed,” Ant said, pulling his backpack away.
“Don’t I know you?” the second brother said to Ant.
I surveyed both of them, looking to see who would speak first.
“That package store on New Britain, right?”
“I don’t think so,” I said, jumping in.
“Yeah, no, it’s you,” he said to Ant. “I’m good with faces. You used to help wheel kegs to my car back when I was a pledge.”
“So your cousin, who’s a local, sells us our booze?” the first brother said.
“Again?” Ant said.
“We’re going to go,” I said.
“Are we?” Ant replied.
“Why are you making this a thing?”
“What aren’t you makin’ this a thing?”
“Because not everything’s personal.”
Ant threw back the rest of the whiskey in his cup and zipped up his backpack.
“You know what, Andrews,” he said. “You stay with your brothers. I’ll go.”
He grabbed his bag and left.
I didn’t chase after Ant. He couldn’t go too far, anyway. The buses had stopped running and he wasn’t the type to call for a car. He would have to come back and find me. He wasn’t my concern.
“Sorry about that,” I said to my brothers, finishing what was left in my cup.
“Does he always get that aggressive?” asked the brother who had started it.
“I wouldn’t call that aggressive,” the second brother said.
“Then what would you call it?”
“Asking a question.”
“Andrews,” the first brother said to me. “What do you think? He’s your cousin.”
“It was unnecessary. The whole thing.”
“See?” the first brother said to the second.
“He was always good to me in the store.”
“There you go again. Always making excuses for them.”
The first brother was in the middle of asking if I wanted another drink when the white girl I had just become friends with came back into the kitchen and asked if I’d seen her friend.
“I haven’t,” I said.
“Well, you might want to get out of here. There’s a fight outside between a student and some locals, and Campus Safety is on the way.”
It was always Campus Safety, rarely the cops. Kids at school said it was because they had more pressing concerns. Deep down we knew it was because the school would rather not have the cops involved. Would rather not open the door to city cops digging through the shit they tried to bury, the student assaults, the student drug trafficking.
As the underage students scrambled to pack up their things and slip out through the back, I muscled my way to the front for Ant. There had been plenty of fights between students and locals, provoked by both sides. A student was even beaten up the year before while walking home from a party. The attack appeared random, but it left him bloody in the street, jaw broken and ribs cracked. It left the community on edge, the college and the city. The school thought it was gang-related. Residents thought it was a drug deal gone bad. Rumors hovered like smog, suffocating the truth, and a full year later nobody truly knew what happened.
But I knew I would know with Ant. I would know how he beat some white kid until he was darker than us. I would know how he didn’t stop until I pulled him off. I would know how he looked on the news that night, and the photo they used, and how his scar appeared to be winking at me from the flash of the camera, and how my brothers blamed me for bringing Ant in the first place.
I forced my way through the house and onto the porch, expecting to see Ant in a full-out brawl. But when I made it to the front, he was only talking to two guys. One was pointing at the soccer team’s goalie and Ant had his arm wrapped around his shoulder, leaning in and talking to him like he had known him his whole life. Like he was me.
Five minutes later, the two guys slunk off around the corner. Everyone went back to what they were doing and I jogged over to Ant who was crossing the street.
“What happened?” I asked.
“It wasn’t nothing.”
“But it’s handled, right?”
“You guess,” he said, walking away from me, back toward my fraternity.
“I thought you were the one fighting,” I said, laughing.
“Why would you even think that?” Ant said, stopping.
“I mean, they said there was a soccer kid and a—”
Before I could finish, Ant and I were face down on the sidewalk. Our arms were yanked behind our backs, faces pressed against the ground.
“Stop resisting,” an officer said.
“I go to school here,” I replied, struggling.
“I said stop resisting.”
“I’m wearing a school sweatshirt,” I said, trying to calm my voice. “My school ID is in my pocket.”
The officer jammed my arm further up my back, making me wince and my body shudder.
Ant stayed quiet throughout the whole thing. He never made a sound.
“He’s telling the truth,” I heard from a voice that I couldn’t see. “He goes to school here. He’s in one of my classes. The other one, too,” the voice continued, lying about Ant. “The guys you’re looking for went off the other way.”
Once they finally let up, I saw the voice belonged to the kid who had bumped into Ant on the walk down. We never gave thanks. He never said welcome.
“Go home,” said the officer who was holding me.
After they left to talk to students hanging outside the soccer house, Ant dusted off his shirt. He licked his fingers, bent over, and scrubbed his favorite Jordans clean.
“A local,” he said when he stood back up.
“There was a soccer kid and a local in a fight. That’s what you were gonna say, right? And you thought it was me?” he said, readjusting his backpack. “Well you know what? The cops knew you were one, too.”
When we made it to my fraternity house, Ant said he had to piss. We had walked back uphill in silence, Ant a pace or two in front of me. It was the first thing he said since we left the party.
I pulled out my school ID to scan us into the building, taking a second to look at the card. It was the same one from freshman year. I read the name of my college. I read when the card would expire. I studied the photo of me with a closed mouth half smile, self-conscious about the gap between my top front teeth. It was a younger me. A different me. Face a bit slimmer, eyes less weary. The card was scratched and worn and faded, but I hadn’t lost it yet. I hadn’t lost myself yet.
“I’m gonna go,” Ant said when he came out of the bathroom. We stood in my fraternity’s dining hall surrounded by polished mahogany tables, a barely-used fireplace, and decades’ old portraits of former brothers who never envisioned people who looked like us would be allowed inside, let alone one who was their brother.
“Stay,” I said.
We sat and slowly ate melted processed cheese between folded-up flour tortillas. We imitated the bad dance moves we saw at the party. We watched the rest of my brothers come home barely conscious from their night out. One of them sat down at our table, talking mostly nonsense, but was lucid enough to tell us that the real cops, the ones who had grabbed us up, came because some kid at the soccer house thought they saw a weapon on one of the two guys Ant had stopped.
After my brother finished the story, he grabbed my empty plate, flipped it over, pulled a tiny vial from the chest pocket of his waxed jacket, and dumped out a small mound of coke. He cut up three lines with his health insurance card, pulled out a bill, rolled it up, and extended his hand to Ant.
“That’s all you.”
I shook my head.
My brother ripped all three lines and staggered off.
“Kid’s not tryin’ to sleep, is he?” Ant said, slightly amused, getting up to fill his glass from the water dispenser. When he sat back down, slouched back in his chair, he peered around the room, looked out onto the front courtyard through the dining hall’s bay windows, and watched the sun begin to rise over the horizon. “You look tired,” he finally said.
“It’s been a long night,” I said, raising a finger to my ear, drawing attention to the chirping birds.
“That’s not what I mean.” Ant leaned forward, extended his arms, as if he might reach out and hold my face, and placed them on the table. “I know you, and I’m tellin’ you that you look tired.”
By the end of that summer, like me, Ant would leave the city. His mother would say she needed blood around her, and Ant, out of loyalty alone, would drop everything and move down the coast to live with her and the random she married on a whim. He would stay down there for a while, about a year, before coming back to live with our grandmother again, himself tired of being tired, of trying for years to protect his mother from herself.
When he left the morning after the party, I walked Ant through the courtyard. We stepped around shards of the empty beer bottles my brothers had tossed from their windows. We watched two squirrels chase each other up one of the witch hazel trees near the front archway. We laughed at one of my brothers who was passed out in the grass in what was now broad daylight.
At the steps leading out of the archway, there was no talk of when Ant and I would see each other again. No final words about the night. We first clapped hands, then pulled in for a hug, embracing one another longer than we probably had with any other man in our lives.
“Be safe,” Ant said before leaving, and for the first time, I walked the short steps home alone, back to my building, thinking about Ant, the city, and the people who had always seemed to know me better than I knew myself.
“Can you hold that?” I heard right before the door closed behind me.
The brother who was sleeping, now awake, staggered over while I propped it open.
“I’ve been waiting for someone to come out. Lost my fucking ID. But that’s a sign of a good night, right Andrews?” he said, smiling.
“It’s Trey,” I said, and went to bed.