The Stars Shine in Queens, Too
by Melissa Goode
Jamie was seventeen. His mother white and his father black. He played basketball on the court at 138th Street and 8th Avenue in Queens. You could see him from the Van Wyck Expressway on the way to JFK Airport, only one hundred yards away. I sat at the side of the court with the other girls and watched the guys play. I watched Jamie and surely they did too.
It was eighty five degrees. His shirt was off and his skin gleamed gold. His hair was straight and usually brown, like his Mom’s, but he dyed it blonde because he said, fuck them, a black man can have blonde hair. He was a man to me. I was sixteen. He wore dark jeans and the belt around his thin hips was studded with silver triangles that glimmered in the sunlight, like mirrors.
He turned to me and smiled, slow and sweet. He didn’t call me Kim, like everyone else—instead he called me by my full name, Kimberley, lingering on each syllable. Or he called me baby.
I was the exception he was making for now. His girlfriend before me, Leah, was black.
“I don’t see white girls,” he said to me at a party at Clay’s house, when everyone else was downstairs and we lay on Clay’s bed, my t-shirt and bra on the floor, and Jamie held the button of my denim skirt.
He had drained a glass of Jim Beam and said, “Alcohol does nothing to me”.
His mouth was hot bourbon and made me taste like him. He lifted his mouth off me long enough to say, “I don’t see white girls”. I understood. He got enough shit for being pale. So for him it was fuck them, I will dye my hair blonde, but to see a white girl was something else entirely.
He undid the button of my skirt and unzipped the zip.
I didn’t tell my Mom about Jamie. She worked two jobs and was sick of the neighborhood. “I want to get you out of here, Kim,” she said, again and again. “Away from the city.”
For years, Mom had dreamt of moving us upstate to Orchard Park where she was born, her hometown. Now Orchard Park had become a plan with a deadline—by the end of summer Mom wanted us there, living in our own place, with me starting eleventh grade in the fall at her old high school.
I didn’t want to go anywhere.
Jamie and I sat on the back step at my place. The only light came from the kitchen doorway behind us. Mom was working the overnight shift at the Fairfield Inn on 40th Street, Midtown. I was supposed to be inside the house with the door locked, not answering it to anyone.
We shared his cigarettes and three cans of Jim Beam Cola. Jamie knew to collect the cigarette butts and cans and take them with him. I would have to wash my hair tonight. He pressed his knee against mine. His sharp, pointy knee in black jeans, mine bare, my skirt starting way up my thigh. He had got the hang of that skirt in the last month. I shifted and pressed my leg against his. We were the same height—femur bone to femur bone.
Jamie’s leg moved fast, distracted, agitated, to some internal rhythm, and we fell apart. He swung his head back to face the sky. I did too. It was violet, contaminated with electricity. A plane flew overhead, getting lower and louder, lights blinking red and white, as it prepared to land. It roared.
“Do you think there is a single star up there?” Jamie said.
“There must be.”
“No. There isn’t,” he said. “They’re somewhere else.”
“Is this the alcohol?” I said.
Jamie laughed and it sounded different, caught in his throat stretched to the sky.
“Bourbon does something to you after all,” I said.
“Like it does to everyone, I guess.” He dropped his head and took hold of my hair. It was blonde. “Your Mom still wants to leave this place, right?”
I shrugged. “She can go.”
He pulled a face. “What? How old are you, baby?”
“You know how old I am.”
“Yeah. Exactly. Sixteen. You’re leaving too,” Jamie said.
I reached behind him and felt each bead of his vertebrae starting from the back of his neck with its caught laugh, and moving down to the very last one beneath the waist of his jeans. He did not let go of my hair. The city hummed.
“I fucking hate Midtown,” Jamie said.
“We’re going,” I said.
He wore a button-down shirt, his hair smooth and falling in his eyes. He smelled of aftershave.
“Is this a farewell tour?” he said, on the train.
“Central Park. Fifth Avenue. Empire State.”
“Kimberley. Come on. Please don’t,” he said. “We’re not tourists.”
“Yes, we are.”
I wanted to see him in those places, those big Manhattan landmarks.
It was not until we were approaching 57th Street station that he took a photo of me on his phone. I wore a pretty halter-neck sundress and thought he did not notice. He did. His smile was quiet when he looked at the photo, rather than at the real thing beside him, and he nodded as if to music. This was how he’d be in the future when I wasn’t here. Maybe by then the photo would be deleted or perhaps saved somewhere, even if it was in his mind, an image he decided to keep.
We walked into the Fairfield Inn during Mom’s afternoon shift. It was my idea. I was so full of love—it filled the foyer, the whole hotel, the entire city. Mom was behind the reception desk and she went still when we appeared, hand in hand. She sighed when she said, “Hello, Jamie”. She knew every kid on that block in Queens, whether she wanted to or not.
“Hello, Mrs Christie,” he said.
There was a beat. “Honey, you can call me Tess.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, his hand sweating in mine.
Mom gave me one long look. “I’m very busy, Kim.”
“We just wanted to say hello,” I said.
A man with a rolling suitcase emerged from the lift into the foyer.
Jamie and I left and he held the door and let me leave first. Mom would have noticed that. She greeted the customer, “Good afternoon, sir. How was your stay?” but I knew she saw us go.
We walked down Fifth Avenue. From the lions, Patience and Fortitude, out the front of the public library and all the way to Central Park, past those exorbitant boutiques, Cartier, Louis Vuitton and the rest of them, and about a million people on the sidewalk and a million more driving down the avenue. The street vendors rattled their tongs against their carts and smoke billowed around us smelling of burnt meat and sugary bread.
Beside me, Jamie lit another cigarette, amused. “It’s a fucking circus,” he said.
An obese woman sat in Sephora with her back to the window, having her makeup done. Maybe she had a date for that night, Saturday night. Maybe she didn’t. A fit Latino woman moved in front of her, with brushes and palettes, doing what she could. It made me want to weep. It made me want to go home.
Jamie bought water for us from a street vendor who wore such a kind expression that I knew we reminded him of something. Youth, love, promise. He must have thought we had the whole damn trifecta.
We got to Central Park and sat on a bench in the midst of it. We didn’t know where we were, the paths circular, interlocking, and directionless. It was a maze. We contemplated the space beneath some low hanging branches of a maple, trying to work out whether it would be enough to hide us and then not caring in the slightest and going straight there.
“Your Mom was pissed off, wasn’t she?” Jamie said, as I lay on the hard earth.
“No. She was cool.”
She wasn’t. I knew that. In any case, he nodded, once, twice, not believing me.
Jamie crawled up my body and lay down on me, the living weight of him. I pushed my face into his neck and breathed deeply, as deeply as I had ever breathed, as if I had run for miles and he was oxygen. Against my skin, he was black.
His hands went to my hair and he pulled the elastic from my ponytail and there was not a second of this that I would forget. His heart beat so hard against me, thundering, just beneath the surface of his skin.