When I was nine years old, I watched two boys almost kill each other over an insult to one of their mothers.
Summer in the Bronx lasts forever, and it is like this: naked bodies that are at once child-skinny and child-swollen sprinting through spray-capped fire hydrants, stained popsicle sticks in neat piles on the sidewalk, asphalt that remembers the warm smell of rain long after it storms.
One time, my sister and I get the same unevenly printed words after we suck down our popsicles. Hers is pale pink with artificial strawberry, mine is sticky with blue raspberry.
How does the ocean greet the beach?
What type of bugs do firemen hate?
What kind of bird is always sad?
We never guess it, so it’s a rush to see who can finish their popsicle first. It’s a hesitant thrill—popsicles are things you want to last, if only because you know they won’t.
Junior and Andre. I think they were twelve, maybe thirteen. We were on Junior’s side, because Andre was only ever here in the summer, visiting his grandmother. I don’t remember how it started, just that they were yelling at each other so loud nobody could really make out anything, just watch the spit fly back and forth. And then it was quiet, just the steady stream from the hydrants casting rainbows on the ground.
They were so close to each other. Andre pressed forward and locked his body into Junior’s so that his lips were at the other boy’s ear, so that the tears streaming down his cheek were making Junior’s damp, too. When Andre opened his mouth, it made no sense that what came out was not loving whispers of endearment, but the harshest, most threatening words I have ever heard in my life.
They pulled away from each other. They pushed with their slim shoulders, they shoved. We were waiting to see who would throw the first punch, but they were moving to a dance that had already been choreographed. Like they didn’t like what they were about to do, but like they needed to get it done with more than anything else in the world.
It wasn’t the first time a fight had broken out that summer, it wouldn’t be the last, not even the last between the two of them—but I have memorized the way my heart beat in my chest watching them dance in the street. It was the first time I realized I knew death, and that the other kids on our block knew death. I knew it enough to see it when it was close, and when it was far, and when it hung over my head like mist.
New York inspires in me a rebirth of things I am already always thinking about, like childbirth and astrophysics and caramel. Like joy and pain and death that doesn’t leave you even when you sleep, even when you dream.
I have watched so many boys die from my phone screen, but at night my recurring dream is always about my sister—that she is going to die at a protest, or get snatched away, or caught in the crossfire. That I am going to die at a protest, or get snatched away, or caught in the crossfire—and she is going to have to mourn me. It’s all I think about. I rock myself to sleep thinking about the words I don’t yet have to describe how death has felt inside my body ever since I was born.
I watch a girl get murdered, only sixteen, on my phone. And then I have to put my phone away, and pretend to care about what’s going on during my shift at work, pretend to smile when my white Africana Studies professor grins and asks the class how we are doing. I watch the news, and they call her a young woman, but she was only a girl. I remember summers in the Bronx with my sister, when we were only girls, but they called us, perpetually, young women. I know this story, of girls that do not get to be girls who become women who do not get to be women. Every single thing that happens on the news, or on my Twitter feed, or outside on the block, I already know inside my own body, like I know my birthmarks and back teeth and the pale lines that stretch across the bottom of my foot. Like a secret that everybody knows.
There’s a transaction that takes place every time I leave my apartment and get on the 4 train. I give a piece of myself to every white person who glances at my hair and then away when they find me looking back. I give a piece of myself to every man who calls to me on the street and calls it a compliment. It’s really hard to be a Black woman, but I’ve written these words already. The issue is that I’m writing them again, and that I’ll have to write them again, in sharp prose, or poetry that reads how honey pours. That I’ll keep writing, and nothing will change, because nothing has changed since the first time a woman who did not get to be a girl wrote those words, or sang them, or painted them.
Everything will be the same this summer, and the next, until it’s different.
My body remembers the Bronx in that vague, distant way one recalls their time in the womb. The lines on my aunt’s face are unrecognizable, new; so is the thick carpet of her apartment building hallway. But the smell is the same. The warmth is the same.
The news is the same—children are called adults and people are called bodies. Body, body, bodies. I am a person, and if I die and somebody calls me a Black body, I will come back from the grave: this is what I think each time I walk into a classroom to listen to too many liberal white people discuss the theory that I live every day.
It’s really hard, to be a Black woman. But when I am home in the Bronx I’m reminded that there are things that are worth protecting, molotov cocktails that spark in empty buildings to recall what burning feels like outside of the pit in your chest, little boys that will pummel their brothers over insults to their mothers, little girls who don’t know the rush of waterfalls but have felt New York City water on their bare backs until their skin pruned. Summer here is worth protecting.
Inside my aunt’s house, Junior is home for a gap year because he no longer understands how it’s possible to go to class and smile with people who will never understand you and then come home and grieve another time. And every time I see him, it feels like an insult for me to still have the energy to go to class and care what the rich kids at my liberal arts college—who cosplay poverty for personality traits or write that “Black lives matter” in their Instagram profiles like it’s social currency—think of me.
Junior tells me, “Hey.”
He tells me, “I know.”
He tells me, “I’m tired, too.”
Somewhere upstate my sister is organizing and protesting and fighting, ready to give her life for people who do not love her, over the chance that someday there will be a world where they might. Every time I call her, I tell her that I can’t stop dreaming about how we’ll die.
She tells me, “I know.”
She tells me, “I’m tired, too.”
I remember you, summer in the Bronx that never ends. It’s this: walking to the corner store with your palms stretched open—no sudden movements or reaching for pockets—to buy popsicles for the younger kids. It’s this: partying with your friends until you are hurt by men who mistake girls for women, and dragging them six blocks to the hospital because you are afraid that if you call the police, you will die. It’s this: being scared that you will miss summer this year, because either it will kill you, or you’ll be too busy trying not to get killed that it will pass you by.
Summer like a bad joke, where people who look like you die again and again, until you’re so sick of it that you have to laugh for fear that if you don’t you will lie in bed again crying for days. And every time you write this you think that it’s the last time, but it never is.
I am dreaming of how everybody I know will die for being Black, no matter how they die, or where, or when. I am dreaming of different days, days I don’t think I will get to know in my lifetime. But soon it will be summer, and at least I am still dreaming.