Vonetta Young | Fiction

I HELP YOU

I shift in my seat, adjusting the seatbelt around my trench coat. I rub my arms, then reach up to turn the knob around the little cone spewing air on my face, careful not to ring the bell for the flight attendant. Still cold, I sit on my hands, raising and lowering my thighs until my palms are at the right place beneath me. My knuckles sweat on the faux leather seat.

The man sitting next to me clears his throat and flicks his newspaper. He glowers at it over the half-moons of his reading glasses, and when I keep moving, he slides his eyes toward his left at me. He is telling me to stop fidgeting, as if I were his child.

But I am not a child. I am 22 years old, and I am on a plane headed to Berlin.

I am going to live with my boyfriend.

*

“Should you really call him your ‘boyfriend’?” My roommate Maggie asked, perching herself on my bed in our dorm room the day before graduation. “You haven’t seen him the whole school year.”

“We’ve Facetimed or Skyped almost every day.” I rolled my eyes. It was actually at least once a week, but I had a point to make.

I met Julio nine months ago while I was studying abroad in Berlin. Two weeks before I was set to leave, we literally ran into each other at a pub, where I spilled Spaten Lager all over his shoes. I apologized profusely, then became speechless when I looked into his green-blue eyes. We wound up talking for so long, our friends left us there at the bar. We met up every day after that until I went home.

He was cute, but I liked his ambition more. He wanted to create his own tech start-up; he was just trying to figure out which problem he wanted to solve first, he said. He’d traveled throughout Europe on vacations with his family growing up. My mom and I had never been on vacation ever, except to go see Mee-Maw in New York when her health started failing. When I studied abroad, I was the first person in my family to travel outside of the country.

“You should come visit me,” Julio cooed one night a few months ago, shirtless and sweaty on my phone screen.

My mom’s number popped up over his face. I firmly pressed Decline. I avoided looking at myself in the tiny box in my phone, my eyes wide but tired, my face brown and slim, as I blurted out, “What if I came to live with you?”

I hadn’t really thought about it. I didn’t know Julio that well. But graduation was a semester away, I didn’t have a job lined up yet, and I didn’t want to go home to Danbury, a tiny, sleepy town outside of Atlanta. At home, my mother waited for me with large open arms, a list of things I could and could not do despite the fact that I was now a legal adult, and a heaping tablespoon of judgment at everything I said. Last year, when I asked her to pass me the milk after I’d made a cup of tea, she asked where my cereal bowl was.

I’d thought about my options, but I didn’t have a lot. I didn’t want to move to New York, where all of my friends were moving. All of my family was in Danbury, now that Mom had moved Mee-Maw back. I wanted to start my life somewhere fresh, where I could be the best version of myself.

*

Mom hadn’t wanted me to go to Germany to study abroad, under the impression it was a dangerous place for a young Black woman. I assured her of Berlin’s safety and pointed out it was probably safer for a Black woman there than in the U.S.

When I added, “Michael Jackson found it safe enough to show the world his baby,” she gasped.

“I’m not throwing my baby over no balcony! I don’t know where you get these ideas from!” Then she stormed off, into her bedroom, leaving me sitting on the couch, clueless.

While I was in Berlin, I couldn’t spend a ton of money on mobile phone minutes, and Mom wasn’t accustomed to using Skype, so we talked for about one minute every few weeks, so she’d know I was still alive. When I landed back in Georgia after six months, I was bubbling over with excitement to tell her about everything I’d seen that I couldn’t tell her during our calls. Mom had never left the country, so I knew she would want to hear about the world, about which she sang the Lord held in his hands.

Outside of the car, before we loaded my luggage, she hugged me and kissed my cheek, and I hugged her tightly back.

“I have so much to tell you!” I said.

“Good,” she said. “But first we have to go pick up your uncle’s medication.”

I shrugged and smiled. “Okay.” I started to tell her about the Nefertiti bust at the Neues Museum. She only nodded.

“That’s interesting,” she said, her light brown face blank and eyes focused on the road.

“And I went by the Aldon Hotel, where Blanket was debuted to the world.”

“Oh, really? That’s nice.”

She was on autopilot, giving me the same canned responses she gave to her senile mother whenever Mee-Maw mumbled on about all the Broadway shows she’d starred in.

I looked out the window at the forest whipping by and instantly missed Berlin. I missed wandering down Tauentzienstrasse and gazing longingly at the designer clothes in KaDeWe, then going to TK Maxx to try to find something that looked similar to them. I missed the smoky smell of doner kebab wafting from food stands. I missed Julio.

*

So, when Julio asked me to visit, I couldn’t help but take it a step further.

I took extra shifts at the library to save up for the flight, knowing my mother wouldn’t help me pay for it. I didn’t tell her I was leaving until immediately after my graduation ceremony. My classmates still milled about the quad. Still wrapped in my black gown, I removed my cap as I said, “Mom, I’m moving to Berlin.”

“Oh?” She said, her forehead wrinkling like she didn’t believe me.

“I’m leaving in two days.”

Her honey-brown eyes narrowed, then widened as she realized I was serious. Her knees buckled and she caught herself on the folding chair she’d been sitting on as I walked across the stage.

She touched her hand to her ample bosom. “But how will you take care of yourself?”

“I met someone,” I hesitated as she gulped in a breath. “We’ll take care of each other.” I wasn’t sure if that was true, but I smiled like I believed it anyway.

Her face went from frightened to stern. “Was this his idea? Don’t let some man tell you where you’re going to go and what you’re going to do, especially getting you to leave your family and go to some foreign country!”

When Mom was dating my father, Dad bought her clothes and jewelry—tokens of affection, she thought. But, one day, he refused to let her out of the house wearing a pair of shorts. She changed into jeans. Then he hated her top, which, he said, showed too much cleavage. Who was she dressing for, him or everyone on the street? Fights about clothes turned into fights about food, which turned into fights about money. Fights my mother couldn’t win.

This went on for years, slowly eating away at Mom. When I was born, they’d been together for almost a decade, since her junior year of high school. I, she said, was the reason she left.

“I wanted to be able to do for you what I wanted to do for you,” she’d told me, her eyes soft and almost shining.

I loved that she finally stood up for herself, and me, but I wondered if, deep down, she hated me for it.

“No, it was my idea,” I said, sure not to match her loud volume. I’d seen her and Mee-Maw get into scream-fests, and I hated every minute of them, crying in the corner. So I always spoke to her calmly. I tried to keep the uncertainty out of my voice.

Mom shook her head and rolled her lips in between her teeth. “I don’t like this at all. You’re making a mistake.”

“I’ll see,” I sighed.

“You’re coming home.” Her voice deepened, sending a shockwave through my spine.

“No, I’m not.” I held onto my cap to keep my hands from shaking.

Mom reached for my arm and clinched it tight, ready to drag me away like she would when I didn’t want to leave the playground. But, this time, I jerked away. The force knocked me into someone walking behind me. I steadied myself and called out, “Sorry!” to them. I looked back at Mom, my eyes saying, “Look what you made me do.” I shook my head and walked away.

She called me the night before I left for Berlin. I picked up my phone and let it vibrate in my hand until it went to voicemail.

*

I disembark from the plane and immediately pull out my phone as I walk to baggage claim and customs. I normally call my mom to let her know I’ve landed, but it feels nice not to have to this time. I send Julio a WhatsApp message: Just landed. 🙂

He responds after only a few seconds: Can not wait to see you.

I get a taxi, reciting the address Julio told me to come to. He would have picked me up, but he had to take his brother to work.

For a flash, I wonder if this is some elaborate scheme to get me to come across an ocean so he could rape and murder me. But then I remember our video calls, the sweetness of his smile, the gentle intensity of his eyes, and I know that it is ridiculous.

I understand family obligations, I’d told him. I’d left off that I used money I’d saved from my summer job in high school to pay the electricity and water bills after Mom’s boyfriend-at-the-time ran away with her tax return money.

I exhale as the taxi drives into the city. The windows are open, and the wind blows some of hair loose from my ponytail. The air is cool today, even though it’s almost summer. But the bright shining sun and the cloudless sky welcome me and make me feel like I haven’t made a mistake. I smile as the skyline comes into view, the TV Tower standing proudly taller than everything else.

The taxi whizzes past a mural painted on the concrete side of a residential building. Two horses, dressed in race gear, fall onto each other in a pile, as if out of the sky. I sigh. I’ve missed the carefree vibe of this city so much.

When I was studying here, I wanted to be one of those artists who squatted in an abandoned building, creating beautiful things with no walls and only a single light bulb on my work after the sun went down. Julio and I stood across the street at an outdoor tiki bar, watching artists work in a hollowed out building, and my mouth salivated.

“What kind of art you make?” He asked me, smiling so flirtatiously I had no choice but to look down.

Smiling at my beer, I said, “I’m not an artist, I’m an anthropologist. I can’t even draw a stick figure.” We giggled and leaned into each other.

When the taxi pulls up, Julio is waiting outside the building. I step out while the driver takes my suitcase from the trunk.

Julio embraces me before we can even say hi. I wonder if I should kiss him, but I don’t want things to go too fast. He hugs me and doesn’t lean in for a kiss.

I remember that he’s more attractive in real life than he’s been on my phone. His skin is the same color as the outside of a warm buttermilk biscuit. His nose is long between his almond-shaped, twilight-colored eyes, but ends in a button I want to laughingly bite.

When he sees my lone suitcase, he says, “That’s all you bring?”

I smile. “Yes, I want a clean slate to start my life with you.”

He smiles back, with his ocean-like eyes and fluffy pink lips. He takes my bag and we go into the building. We walk up a staircase, onto the second floor, and wander down a poorly lit hallway whose walls are painted royal blue.

“So, this is my brother’s apartment,” he says.

I catch my mouth before it falls too far open. “Oh.” My heart starts to beat faster, and my hands shake slightly. Maybe he and his brother are going to try to rape and murder me?

“I gave up my place so we could look for one together.”

I smile and exhale. My heart begins to go back to normal. I stick my hands in my pockets; they take longer to act normal again.

Julio puts my bag down on the dark-carpeted floor. He takes my face in his hands and plants a kiss on my lips, which, I know, are thin for a Black girl’s. I feel like my feet have left the ground. Like I’ve had too much to drink.

“Thank you,” I say, then suddenly I feel the need to clarify, “for the apartment, not the kiss,” I stutter. I shake my head, and Julio laughs. “I meant—” I sigh, tamping down my awkwardness. I take my hands out of my coat pockets and hold his big, creamy hands to my brown cheeks. “That was so thoughtful.”

Smiling, he kisses me again.

As he unlocks the door, Julio says, “My brother is going to sleep on the couch, so we can have the bedroom.” He looks down, then up, turning to face me. He is blushing. “I meant, since you are the guest, you can have the bedroom.”

I smile. “It’s fine for you to join me.”

His face stays pink for several more minutes as he gives me a tour. His brother’s apartment looks like a regular European flat. It’s a one-bedroom whose actual bedroom fits only a bed, and the living room is also the kitchen and dining room. The curtains are open, revealing the empty street below and the clear blue sky above.

“So,” he hesitates, running his fingers through his thick, dark hair. “Are you hungry?”

“I could eat,” I say.

We head to a pub down the street, where we eat fish and chips and each have a beer. We catch up on life since we last saw each other in person, even though we’d spoken fairly regularly. Julio and his brother both do IT jobs, his brother for a university and Julio for a local bank, where he’s worked since finishing college three years ago. After talking for a while, he stops and just looks at me.

“I’m so happy you come here,” Julio says, a fleck of fish breading sitting on the corner of his smile.

I gently flick it off. “Me, too.”

That night, we go out to a bar one of his friends owns. We drink and dance until I can hardly keep my eyes open. We go back to his brother’s apartment and fall asleep in his brother’s bed with our clothes on.

*

The next day, we sleep in, but are determined to go see several apartments. I know what I want: something old and European, sort of like his brother’s place, but bigger. I do not want the cold, concrete, Communist stylings commonly found on the east side of the city. I tell the agent Julio hired that I’d like a larger one-bedroom, with hardwood floors, big windows, and the European charm I can’t get at home.

Julio smiles and nods. He’ll be paying the rent until I find a job, so I’m happy we want the same things.

I nearly shriek with delight walking inside the first building. The ceilings are sky-high in the lobby, and there’s a massive golden chandelier and pink- and red-painted rococo flowers in the crown molding. In the apartment, the agent says the floors are a century old. They’re smooth and make soothing creaks as I walk over them in my boots. The windows touch the walls, and I picture sheer curtains hanging from them while I drink tea on the couch and Julio taps away at his laptop at a desk in the corner. I want to spin around with my arms extended like Maria in the field in the Sound of Music.

“This is too expensive,” Julio tells the agent.

I give him a look. I want him to see how much I want this. But his eyes don’t meet mine.

“Let’s see somewhere else,” he says to the agent.

“But I like this one,” I say, trying not to sound like I’m whining.

He faces me and touches one alabaster palm to my cheek. “I know, but I’ll be paying the rent and I can’t afford this.”

Heat rises to my cheeks. I look down, and we file out of the room, my boots scraping the floor.

The agent takes us across town to East Berlin. The building looks like all the others on the block: cement block next to cement block next to cement block. The apartment is two cement block rooms with a bathroom attached. Even my breathing echoes off the floor.

“It’s too modern, though, don’t you think?” I say, scratching the back of my neck, then shoving my hands into my coat pockets.

“I like it,” Julio says, smiling the biggest I’ve seen him smile all day. He asks the agent how much it costs and is pleased with the answer. “We’ll take this one.”

My eyes widen.

He shakes hands with the agent.

I sigh softly, reminding myself that I’m not the one paying the rent. I can make the apartment work.

Since the apartment is unoccupied and Julio has enough for the deposit, we move in later that day. I hang my clothes in the closet while Julio and his brother move in a couch and bed Julio had a friend holding for him. They speak rapid-fire German to each other. I can’t tell if they’re arguing or happy. I sigh and dump my underwear into one of the dresser drawers.

Later, while he and his brother still toss words between each other, I check my email on Julio’s computer. Mixed in with some messages from stores about upcoming sales are three emails from my mom’s outdated account.

Cici, call me, email me, something, it says. I just want to know you’re safe. Love, Mom.

I sigh, and guilt balloons in my chest. Mom has always needed me. In addition to paying her bills sometimes, she needed me to nod supportively while she talked about work and men. She needed me to encourage her when her brother’s disability and Mee-Maw’s health started to take their toll on her. She needed me to sit still and watch television while she entertained her newest boyfriend in her bedroom. I am tired of being needed.

I blink, considering closing the laptop and joining my boyfriend and his brother in their laughter, even though I don’t know what they’re talking about. Instead, I hit reply and type, I’m safe. Love, Cici.

That night, at a pub, Julio and I cheers to our first place together. As I swallow my beer, I think about the apartment and tears well in my eyes.

“What’s wrong?” Julio asks.

I shake my head quickly. “Nothing. I just… swallowed my beer wrong.”

Back at our place, we hold each other close. Our eyes are closed, but we’re both wide awake, unsure if we should properly christen our new place. I hate everything about the apartment. But I don’t want to go home. I reach for Julio, put my lips on his, and straddle him. I don’t let him get on top, even though I can tell he wants to be by the way he shifts his hips and caresses my shoulders.

The bedroom never gets dark because of a streetlight just outside the square window. When we’re done, Julio snores softly, his breath bouncing off my cheek. I stare through the blinds at the streetlight until my eyes burn.

*

At the East Side Gallery on a windy Saturday, Julio and I stand in front of the Wall. This part is covered in graffiti, fat letters that ooze and drip in hundreds of different colors.

I studied abroad in Berlin not because I wanted to learn German, but to study how art helps heal fractured societies and how those expressions, especially graffiti, encourage unity. When I explain some of the history of hip-hop and graffiti and their impact on the Wall, Julio is impressed, nodding enthusiastically.

“Ultimately, art is all about empathy,” I continue, as a bus hisses and roars in the terminal down the street. Julio leans in to hear me better. “A lot of times, people can see themselves in words better than they can in portraits. This expresses the shape of their guts.” I wrinkle up my nose like a little kid, and Julio laughs.

“I’ve lived here my whole life, and I’ve never been here,” he says.

I smile, not believing him. I take his arm, pulling myself toward his warm body. “How could that be? It’s such a huge part of your history.”

Julio shrugs his other arm.

Growing up, Mom was adamant about extra Black History Month lessons, extending them well past February. She was strict about attending the Juneteenth picnic every summer. I’d always hated when she pushed these things on me, rolling my eyes and dragging my feet as we entered the park. But I secretly treasured them, every single year. The popsicles in the hot sun kept me going back as a kid, until I realized the point of it all when I was a teenager, when the meaning of freedom meant so much more to me.

“My parents focused more on the birthplace of our ancestors,” he says. “I know more about histories of China, Turkey, and Spain than I could ever want to know.” He laughs.

I nod and the wind kicks up my hair. I let go of his arm to smooth it down, thinking, he’s never taken root in his own birthplace.

“But this is your home, right?” I ask.

Julio rocks his head from left to right, thinking. “Yes, but…” He breathes. “My family never feel we could—what is the word? Assimilate? We would live with Germans, but we never feel like we were German.”

I nod, but I feel a twist in my stomach. I bite my lip before saying, “I know how it feels like to feel like a foreigner in your own land, but l don’t understand willingly not making your home home.”

Julio looks at me with narrowed eyes, as if he’s trying to understand what I’m saying. But instead of asking me to elaborate, he looks back at the wall, then smiles and takes my hand, interlocking his fingers in mine.

“I’m glad I’m seeing this for the first time with you,” he says, caressing my hand.

A warmth flushes through my face so strong, I’m scared he can see it through my russet skin. It washes over the tension in my stomach, rinsing it away.

“Working at a gallery means all the more to me, then,” I say, hoping to help him see who he is, through art.

The wind gusts again, and I push hair away from my eyes, then angle my face up to meet his. But he just smiles and keeps staring at the wall. I assume he doesn’t like PDA. He’s German, I remind myself, not French.

On the way home, we decide to walk through Tiergarten, the massive park I loved sitting in for hours on end when I was studying here. Julio and I wind through the forest, shaded by trees that must reach the clouds. Flowers that remind me of Mee-Maw’s perfume line the trail. Birds and bugs chirp as the sun peeks through the leaves, marking the path we walk. Julio spins me around like we’re dancing and kisses me. I wonder if birds will perch themselves on our shoulders as we skip into the sunset.

*

A few days later, while I’m lying on the couch reading, Julio walks into the apartment and says, “I found you a job.”

I sit up. “Really? Where?” He’d never even been to the East Side Gallery; I didn’t know he knew anyone in the art business.

“Teaching English at my brother’s university.”

My face falls and my heart skips a beat. I touch my chest to make sure it hasn’t fully stopped. “What? But you know I’ve been looking for a gallery job. I’ve interviewed with one and—”

“Trust me,” he says, taking my face in his hands. They’re warm and sweaty. “Just trust me.”

“I trust you,” I spit with my eyes closed. My face burns under his milky palms. “Excuse me.” I maneuver away from his embrace and walk to the kitchen for a glass of water. He doesn’t follow me. I hear the couch squeak as he plops down onto it, and German from the TV he turns on.

I stare into the upturned glass as I drink from it. I need a job, I remind myself. The gallery job isn’t guaranteed. I haven’t heard from them in three weeks, so I probably didn’t get it. Every time I check my email, there are only messages from my mother: Come home. You’re making a terrible mistake. I know you’re grown, but this isn’t right. I need a job.

I gulp the last drop of the water. To keep tears from coming to my eyes, at the kitchen sink, I splash water on my face. Reminding myself that I wanted this—I want this—I inhale and leave the kitchen. I sit next to Julio on the couch, then lay my head in his lap, watching as he laughs to a German-language comedy I don’t yet understand.

*

My students are older adults, recent immigrants and refugees who have amazing stories of survival that I am helping them tell in my native language in a country that is foreign to all of us. They stare at me as I introduce myself and state that I am from America.

“But you…” An old man points to me. “You…” He then points to the back of his hand, and I understand he has never personally known a Black American, nor, with his strict adherence to his religious beliefs, has he ever really become familiar with American popular music.

“Yes,” I say, “I am American.” I take a deep breath. “But I live here now, like you.”

I smile, but they cast their eyes down.

At home that night, I tell Julio what happened. “I don’t think I can do this,” I add.

“What you mean?” He turns off the burner under a boiling pot of pasta.

“I just—”

“You can do it,” he says. “We need you to work.” He takes the pot and drains the pasta in a colander in the sink. “You should be happy I found you job.”

“I am.” I cross my arms and look at the floor. “It’s just… it’s not what I wanted.”

“That doesn’t matter,” he says. The pot hisses as he sets it in the sink. “We need to live.”

I inhale to breathe in words to defend myself, but they don’t come because he is right. At opposite ends of the tiny table we bought at an outdoor market, we eat dinner in silence.

My students make progress quickly. The first sentence one woman says completely in English is, “I want to go home,” before she bursts into tears. After that, moments like this happen almost every day, so almost every day, Julio and I meet at a pub by our apartment after work. I ask for whiskey instead of beer.

“Another tough day?” He says, blinking with his fist under his chin, his elbow on the table.

I look into his eyes and think about how much I used to want to swim in water that very color. I take down my shot quickly, my yes to his question.

As the alcohol burns its way down my throat, I think about my mother, who has probably sent me at least 50 more emails by now. I, thank God, haven’t turned on my U.S. phone, and she doesn’t have my German number. At this hour, she is probably working, going from one elderly person’s home to another as an in-home aide. Tonight, she’ll make dinner—two pieces of fried chicken with a side of bagged salad she bought from the grocery store on the way home—and fall asleep in an empty full-sized bed, distraught she has no one to share the thin, raspy sheets.

My mom was named Susana Cecilia after her grandmother and mother. She named me Cecilia after her mother because, she said, we had the same curious eyes that tried to see the whole world all at once. Mee-Maw had moved to New York when she was young and tried to start an acting career, but it never went anywhere. When she met my grandfather and had my mom and uncle, she didn’t try to get another acting job, but she still held onto her dream. After her husband started abusing her, she grabbed my mom and uncle and ran back to her family in Danbury. She left the kids with the family while she tried again, unsuccessfully, to get her career off the ground.

I’d promised Mom that Julio and I would take care of each other. She had never broken a promise to me—albeit she never really made any other promises but to keep me fed, sheltered, and clothed, and she needed me to help her with that, a lot of times.

By giving me her and Mee-Maw’s name, Mom filled out my slate for me at birth. I just wanted tabula rasa like everybody else.

I’m going to make this work, I said silently into my second shot.

*

Several weeks later, over bowls of cereal for breakfast, Julio says, “We should have other people to hang out with, you know?”

I feel my eyebrows crinkle in confusion. “What are you talking about?”

“We spend so much of our time together,” he says, “and I think we should spend some time with our friends. And it’s hard for us to spend time with my brother because he doesn’t speak English so well.”

I remove the spoon from my mouth and swallow the heap of milk, oats, and sugar. “I know,” I say, staring at the table. “Okay.” I consider that I have not made friends since I have been back in Berlin. My students hardly speak English, and my colleagues don’t consider me a real teacher, so they pay me no mind. I mumble, “I came here for you.”

“I know,” he says. The chair screams as he drags it across the cement floor, next to me. He embraces my shoulders and pulls me close to him. “But it can’t be all me always.”

My brain has stopped processing his words. I literally don’t know what to think. He kisses my forehead.

“Meet me at the pub after work?”

I nod. He leaves the table, puts on his jacket, and exits the apartment, leaving his unfinished cereal in the bowl on the table. I press my palms onto the table’s wooden surface. I open my mouth to sigh, but a growling scream comes out instead.

When I walk into the pub that evening, I spot Julio in a small crowd of people. I squeeze my way to him and kiss him hello. I look around and realize the people—four women and two gay men—are now looking at me. I assume they are friends of his I haven’t met in the two months I’ve been here. I smile big and start to introduce myself. Julio speaks before I can.

“Everyone, this is Cici. She’s the one I told you about.”

I shake their hands, then start to slip off my coat.

“But you’re so cute!” The tall blonde man shouts. “You should have no problem finding friends!”

I look at him and try to maintain my smile. “Well, I… work a lot, so…”

“I love your hair,” says the brown-haired guy who also towers over me. He reaches out toward my hair. I awkwardly pull back beyond his reach.

The guys and girls continue talking to me all at once, saying they like my coat, I have beautiful skin, would I like to go shopping sometime?

I look at Julio, my eyes asking him who these people are and what is going on. He smiles and opens his arms. “You said you hadn’t made friends. I help you!”

My face squinches up. “You got me friends?”

He nods proudly.

I realize this is worse than being told what to wear. He had already chosen my apartment and my job, and now he was choosing who I would hang out with. I know he meant well, but where would this end? Would he tell me how to spend my money? Or when to call my mother? Or that I could not go home?

Julio smiles his sweet smile. Those ocean-colored eyes nearly pull me into him, but I can’t think about anything other than what he will choose for me next. That’s not why I came here.

With the guys and girls still complimenting me, I yank my jacket back on. “Excuse me.” I turn around and make my way out of the bar. Outside, the night air has gotten warmer. The sun is hours and hours from setting, even though it’s almost seven o’clock.

“Cici, why did you leave?”

My head turns at the sound of Julio’s voice. I lift my eyes up to his sweet buttermilk face, trying to read something I didn’t yet understand. His thick black eyebrows almost touch each other from confusion. His fluffy pink lips are pursed.

I open my mouth to speak, but I breathe instead. Slowly, I say, “I can’t do this. This isn’t what I want. I’m sorry.”

I start walking down the street.

“What do you want?” Julio calls after me. But he doesn’t run toward me. He just stands there saying, “What do you want?” until I’m out of his sight.

I can’t answer him. All I can hear is my mother’s voice in my head: Come home. You’re making a terrible mistake. I know you’re grown, but this isn’t right.

In the apartment, I quickly pack my bag. When I leave, I lock the door behind me and slip the key into the crack beneath.

On the street, I inhale. I think of hailing a taxi to the airport, using my credit card for the first flight back to Atlanta.

But that’s not what I want, either.

Suddenly breathless, I take out my phone and find the nearest hostel. I walk there. I stare at the ceiling until I fall asleep under the raspy sheets.

Vonetta Young is a writer based in Washington, DC. This is her first published short story. Her essays have appeared in Catapult, Past Ten, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Levo League, and The Billfold, among others. She is an alumna of summer workshops at VONA/Voices, VQR, Yale, Squaw Valley, and Bread Loaf, and holds a BA and MBA from Georgetown University. Vonetta is currently working on a memoir, and a novel and short story collection about the messy collision of race and class in African American families. Follow her on Twitter at @VonettaWrites and visit her website at www.vonettayoung.com.

2018-11-03T01:17:16+00:00