Elena Mitchell walked-no-bounced- into the bank Manager’s office where she’d been summoned. The long-awaited promotion? Her radiant smile could have kindled the curtained room. Just her and Boss Lady in that room. Boss Lady took her time looking up. She appeared glum, lips pursed, hands folded. Bad sign. She put it to Elena straight. What she said sagged Elena’s entire frame and made her feel as if it was melting.
That afternoon, Elena got lucky. A parking spot lay ripe for the taking in front of her Brooklyn brownstone. She slid out of her silver Mercedes, carrying an attaché case, and froze. The sidewalk facing her stoop was littered with several candy wrappers and bottle caps strewn about like the aftermath of a block party.
“No, uh-uh. This won’t do.” she muttered. She bent to pick up each item, tossed them into a nearby trash bin, and heard the familiar jangling of change in a cup. She turned and there stood Norman, raggedy-looking, middle-aged Norman, the only homeless white guy in the area unafraid of exposing his surrender to despair. Elena shook her head. He approached her and angled his coffee cup. She smiled.
“Norman, you’re sweet, but you are mos def the wrong person to be asking for a hand-out this neck of the woods.”
“All I want is a quarter, lady.” Norman said.
“Mad nerve. Bad enough I have to deal with other people’s garbage.”
She slipped past him and started up the steps, then looked over her shoulder at Norman’s beat-up gray overcoat and battered sneakers. She fought the urge to sweep the bird-droppings off his bald head. Instead, she shoved a wrinkled dollar bill into the coffee cup that read Steal This Mug. Norman frowned and peered into it before trudging off.
“You’re welcome.” she said, still smiling, not caring if he’d heard her.
When Elena entered her two-bedroom apartment, her kid sister Terry was tossing clothes into an open suitcase on the couch opposite the floor-length windows. Typical. Terry wasn’t the type to set down roots. She usually kept a packed suitcase on the off-chance she needed to leave in a hurry. Their eyes met, their greetings were synchronal.
Elena hung her blue chambray blazer on the coat stand. The living room was small. Its three protruding windows rendered a panoramic view of the rust-colored brownstones across the street. The pricey golden rug, TV, coffee table, cordless phone, and corner tables were arranged neatly. Elena snatched up anything scattered on the floor- like the crumpled note on the rug. Terry scowled at her.
“Don’t be doing that now, ‘Lena, okay?”
“It’s your mess,” Elena said, scouring the floor for stray clutter. .
“I do pick up after myself.”
Elena spotted a broken pencil at the foot of the glass coffee table. She stooped down to pick it up. Terry clucked her tongue. “Stop it! You get me all nervous when you scoop up that crap. I feel like I have to help out.”
Elena pocketed the pencil. “Don’t give it a thought, Terry, all right?” She plopped down on the sofa.
Terry sighed and resumed packing. “What are you doing here so early anyway?” she asked. Elena shrugged, scanning the room for other derelict missiles.
“Nothing special,” she said. “Took off from work. Bitchin’ migraine.”
“You ain’t suffered a bitchin’ migraine your entire life, that much I know.”
Terry flung unkempt clothes into her suitcase while her older sister adjusted an askew picture frame. Elena had no idea how they could be related. Maybe they weren’t—they looked different enough. Three years apart. Terry’s deep green eyes, tawny brown face, and cascading black hair belonged to their mother. In contrast, Elena’s skin was medium-dark brown, with a constellation of freckles over high cheekbones, and a slightly broad nose. Where Terry was thin, Elena was curvy. Where Terry was beautiful, Elena was smart because apparently, she couldn’t be both. Still, she wished she’d been dealt a better deck. Terry was always the prettier one.
In essence, Terry had inherited her looks from their mother, whose Spanish roots modified her Telemundo Latina visage. ‘Your mama’s Boricua?’ The neighbors back in Sunset Park would ask in amazement. ‘Ricans can’t be that un-ethnic looking,’ and for Elena it meant that Mami, with her hazel eyes and lustrous chestnut hair, could pass for anything under the Mediterranean sun. One advantage Elena held: she was a much better dresser. Terry’s pullover and jeans were furrowed, looked thrown on. No sense of style, that girl—her entire wardrobe lay on the couch, punctuated by stained sweatshirts and a host of ridiculous pajama pants. It was as if she thought she could get by on her looks alone. Then again, that was more often the case.
Elena still couldn’t understand why Terry was packing. What for and why now? Still, she had more urgent matters to discuss. “Okay, you want the dead nuts?” she said. “I got passed over for that promotion.”
Terry, clutching a camisole she was about to fling into the suitcase, paused, her hand in mid-flight. “Wait-I thought you said you nailed it.”
“That’s how sure I was I’d get it. I’ve been shooting my mouth off about my big promotion coming up to anyone who listened. Huh. Jinxed it is what I did. Now I gotta avoid people.”
Terry raised her perfectly-groomed eyebrows. “Aw, damn, girl. Fill me in.”
Elena crossed her legs and jiggled her foot. “Eight years in that firm and I get hit with the bombshell.”
“So who’d they give it to, the boss’s daughter?”
“Try some white girl only been there two years.”
“Shocker,” Terry responded lamely.
“Yeah, up yours, Teresa.”
“Well, what’d you expect?”
“I expected a promotion.”
“So, what’s to be, Vanderbilt?” Terry asked.
“Perhaps spend my leisure time prepping a speech about how I should be running things instead of Miss America.”
“And that’s gonna change things, huh? Well, I hope it gets results cuz…”
“I’m moving out.”
Elena tightened. “Oh? Is that what the suitcase is about? I meant to ask.”
“Delroy found a place at his cousin’s we can stay at till he finds us a proper home.”
The doorbell buzzed. Too loud, that buzz. It always made Elena jump. She beat Terry to the door and peeked through the peephole. Rolling her eyes, she swung the door open, and there stood Delroy, Terry’s boyfriend, pushing thirty, sporting a dark pin-stripe suit and noisy tie. After a curt nod, he whisked past Elena and hugged Terry. His overripe cologne hung over the room like a sweet mist. Delroy Lately Gately. With his short bumpy nose and razor-thin mustache, with a facade more suited to those conk-headed ‘playas’ from the 1930s club scene. He hiked his eyebrows, surveyed the siblings with a smirk, and smiled at Terry.
“Well, there goes our afternoon rack.” he said. Elena flashed him a look.
“Whoa, did I break some unwritten rule I can’t leave early from work? What’s with the Cotton Club get-up?” She sat down.
Terry waved the question away. “Don’t pay her no mind, Del.”
Delroy padded over to Terry and planted a kiss on her stomach. “To speed things up.” he said. Elena hunched over, her eyes narrowing.
“What’s he getting at, Ter?” she asked.
Delroy’s mouth parted. His eyes swam from Elena to Terry. “Didn’t you tell ‘Lena the good news?”
He stepped closer to Elena, beaming. “My midfielder scored a goal.”
Elena’s stony expression made Delroy back up. Terry forged a smile, unable to meet her sister’s solemn gaze. “My gyno confirmed it yesterday,” she said. “Know what it’s like to upchuck your breakfast for a week and not know why?”
Elena shook off her daze, got up, and kissed Terry’s cheek. “Congrats, Mommy.” Terry’s eyes brightened, as if the kiss granted her permission to rejoice.
“You’re gonna be a Titi, ‘Lena!”
“Que chevere.” said Elena, her eyes downcast. Delroy tapped her arm playfully.
“I wish you wouldn’t talk that funny language when I’m around,” he said. “What’s it called again?”
“Spanish. Congrats, Daddy.” She threw him an air-kiss as she sat back down.
“I already gave it a name,” Terry said. Elena’s brow twitched.
It. She called the child ‘it.’
“Take a guess, Del” Terry said.
“Be quiet. No, it’s-you ready? Daneesha or Akeela, or one of them kinda names.”
. Delroy jumped in. “But if it’s a boy: Todd.”
Elena was not amused. “Don’t mess with me today, Del. Not in the mood.” Delroy drew back and exchanged glances with Terry. She cocked an eyebrow, wagged her head, and Del understood.
“Aaw, damn, Elena. You didn’t get the promotion.”
Elena shrugged it off, sat, and crossed her legs. She stared at her gray Kors pumps. “I only wish I’d kept my mouth shut. Would’ve been a cool proclamation if it’d come true. Hey, life goes on.”
Delroy shook his head as if he were sad enough for both of them. “That’s messed up, no lie,” he said. “But there’s other gigs. Bright lady like you?”
Elena folded her arms. “Oh really, Del? Other gigs? For who? Not for women like me, uh-uh, unless there’s an organization looking to upgrade thirty year-old Afro-Latinas. And I have no intention of quitting.”
“She’s got this terrific self-image,” Terry said to Delroy.
“So when’s moving day, Ter?” Elena asked her pumps. The lovers swapped looks. Terry shut her suitcase.
“I’m thinking the Heights,” she said.
“Wrong answer,” Elena said. A stray piece of tissue on Delroy’s shoe distracted her, but she battled the caprice to snatch it. He caught her split-second twitch.
“Don’t count on it. The Heights, I mean.” Elena said. Delroy’s grin faded.
“Oh, yeah? Why’s that?” he asked.
“I hear they got a low tolerance for chocolate up there.”
“Elena, you are bad news,” Terry said. Elena slid forward to the edge of her seat and nodded at Delroy.
“Do you truly believe you can walk into some fancy-ass real-estate office, with your Armani suit, and charm those people into placing you guys in a white-bread neighborhood?”
Terry scoffed. “Don’t pay her no mind, Del. She’s just jealous cuz your skin’s lighter than hers.” Elena swiveled to face her.
“And Terry, next time you decide to get pregnant, let me know in advance. I like my surprises up front.”
Terry’s eyes went south. Delroy slinked to a corner, his head lowered. “It was an accident,” Terry said, then added, smiling at Delroy, “A happy accident.” Delroy wiped his forehead in mock relief.
“Yeah, well, good for y’all.” Elena said. Terry glowered.
“There’s no end to it, Elena, this bug you got up your ass ever since Popi called me his queen.”
“Does Popi know his queen got knocked up?”
Terry shifted closer. “Popi be the first to know, darlin’. Spoke to him last night.”
Delroy clapped once. “Ladies, come on now, be cool. I refuse to absorb another cross-fire between you two.” Elena shot up, skipped to the adjoining kitchenette, and returned with a can of Bud Lite. She popped it open.
“Bo Ly, as our old neighbor Felipe used to call it.” She knocked back her first gulp and traced Terry’s brown suitcase. The yellow happy face sticker on its side seemed to mock her. An object caught her eye. She fixed on the piece of tissue near Delroy’s shoes and battled the caprice to snatch it. Delroy caught her split-second twitch but said nothing. That little moment did not escape Elena. She was convinced Terry had mentioned Elena’s weird habit to Delroy, the countless post-its stuck to the fridge: ‘Please pick up after yourself, Empty the ashtray, Clean your room once in a while, I am not your maid.’
“Now that you’re packed, Terry, why don’t you hit the wind now?” she said. That felt good. Cards on the table. The world had impinged on her and protocol be damned. Terry glared at her.
“You are so angry,” she said. You’ve been angry your whole life.”
Terry shushed Delroy’s interjection. She pointed at Elena. “She bursts in here like the wrath of God, taking her shit out on me like it’s my fault she wasn’t good enough to earn a promotion!” Delroy stepped toward her, but Terry waved him off. “No, lemme finish—now, all a’ sudden she’s got a problem with me having a baby! And maybe it’s cuz she can’t make babies!”
Wrong choice of words. Elena stiffened and marched to her bedroom. The slam of her door broke the silence.
“Nice going, Terry,” Delroy said. Terry fished out a matchbook from her pocket and flung it to the floor.