Maria is waiting for me. I think about that as I walk, my hands deep in my jacket’s pockets, my breath sharp and visible against the night. The block is angry, cold, in that unique way the darkest parts of cities tend to be. I cough. The air tastes sour against my tongue. I stop and watch a group of coffee-colored boys in a circle. Haloed by the light of their cellphones, they look fifteen or sixteen, but their anger has aged them into men. Two square off in the middle, manhood at stake. The weight of knowing they have too little future sags their shoulders. Their faces are tight in practiced masks of intimidation; they only know fear, and that scares them.
“You a bitch,” I hear one of them say, his voice flat. The other swings a heavy fist with his entire body. They dance until spent, and one falls, and those outside the circle get bored, putting away their phones. They glare at me while leaving, daring me to challenge them. I look away and wonder if they know how endangered they are.
The streetlights flicker, their dancing glare vibrating my path. The darkness has an odd texture to it because stars don’t live here. The thought makes me laugh to myself. I pass houses in tight rows, which look like an overcrowded mouth of colorfully crooked teeth. When I get to Maria’s, her window is open. It used to upset me, but now I just shake my head.
“You don’t want people seeing all your shit,” I told her. She never listens. I think she likes hearing the way the block breathes, its hum. I get that, but I know how things can end here.
The house – more like an apartment really – feels close, full of furniture far too big for every room. Maria never said it to me, but I can tell she bought for the future, for when things get better. For when all the dreaming and the hard work pays off. I once told her, “Every room here is like a metaphor for ambition or something. Like some American dream shit.” She smiled, a small one, and moved closer to me, her silence knowing and substantial.
Maria does not look up when I walk over to her, instead she watches some reality show where a perfect blonde couple remodels a house of a slightly less perfect blond couple. “Might as well be a fairy tale,” I told her one night while we lay on the couch, her head on my shoulder.
“Whatever,” she laughed, her giggle tiny and cute. “That’s why I watch it.” She paused then, her tone changing. “It’s inspirational.” I hugged her closer. I didn’t bother telling her the truth about inspiration, how we don’t get that on the block. She should know.
Maria offers her cheek when I walk over, and I offer a small kiss in response. She smells of lilac and something I cannot place. It makes me wonder how hope smells.
“Thought you’d be here earlier,” she says, her voice higher than usual. Something’s on her mind.
“Yeah, took the long way… sorry.” She nods and says nothing, and I sit with her, a cushion between us.
The TV’s light makes Maria’s skin look even more cocoa-colored than usual. Her hair, now a faint cinnamon – she dyed it two months or so ago – is cropped and close to the scalp. It still surprises me sometimes. I used to miss putting my hands in the soft coarseness she had before the cut, but I made sure to tell her I loved it for the first week after she cut it.
I walk over and close the window, pulling down the blinds. The room glows with a harsh fluorescence. We watch a couple’s new kitchen get revealed. The woman who designed it, in heeled boots and a tight flannel shirt, exclaims, “Don’t you love it? It’s reclaimed from your old door.”
They all gush over its smooth finish, all of them happy and carefree.
Maria looks over at me, her eyes soft, wanting. She says, “I missed you today.” I squeeze her hand. I never know what to say to that. I am unsure if I missed her. We watch more couples build their dream homes while not speaking. The staccato pop of gunshots a little ways down the block tells us it’s time to go upstairs.
In bed, Maria whispers, to the ceiling, “We could buy a house.” I wait for her to turn towards me and say it again, but she doesn’t.
I am lying on my stomach, inhaling the faint smell of sweat on my pillow. The sudden and unexpected thought of my dreams dying in the pillow’s softness every morning has kept me awake. It seems like something I should have realized, and that bothers me. Even though I am not facing her, Maria probably knows I cannot sleep. I consider answering. The last time I told her, “We’re not ready yet,” and she said nothing. This time I decide to be quiet and leave the words where they land.
Maria falls asleep before me, her breaths shrinking into small snores. I listen to their rhythm while trying to remember the moment when the size of her dreams started scaring me. I want to tell myself this feeling is new, that something happened, but I know I have always been afraid. The block breeds fear and feeds off it. I have always known this.
Maria’s not afraid of the block. She believes she’s better than it, but I know what the block does to dreamers. Dreams are too expensive here. At some point I fall sleep, the electric warmth of a portable heater not quite enough to keep me from shivering. I roll closer to the edge of the bed.
I leave as the streetlights turn off, taking one last look at Maria. She is calm, probably dreaming. I am envious. Outside, the block is quiet as if unsure of what to be, as if it has a choice.
The sky is the color of cement, and I realize just then, with a suddenness that makes me stop, I have decided to leave Maria. I cannot be there when the truth arrives in her life. I am not strong enough for both of us. I sigh. My breath comes out in a fine cloud. The cold, always eager, has come quietly. I zip my jacket up high to my chin and look around. I wonder if the dope boys who run the block will have brought out their winter coats.
– Luqman Kolade, The Haverford School, Faculty & Staff