She didn’t know what compelled her to call.
The contact list on her phone was peppered with nicknames and puns and inside jokes. But on this list he was simply Jones, and though they weren’t friends, hadn’t been since they were kids, he meant more to her than most of the nicknames put together.
In theory, she was calling because it was his birthday. Not Jones’ birthday, but his birthday. The him they had in common. They had shared him and even though she was his flesh-and-blood sister, she was sure Jones had loved him just as much as she had, their slick superhero, their one true king. Her brother had had a face lined with radiance, his mouth was a sliver of sun and his eyebrows wiggled at her, becoming furry little animals. She remembered how he had looked all wrong in his coffin, stuffed into a stiff gray suit, eyelids shut and the sun absent from his unsmiling mouth, he had gone cold and dim and powdered. All that paired with the essential wrongness of the coffin at all. Has anyone ever looked good dead?
He hadn’t, that was sure. And worse, he hadn’t looked like himself.
And worse, who cared how he looked? He was dead.
Things always spiral downward. She thought, as she pressed Jones’ number.
Her stomach folded as it rang and the pads of her fingertips felt simultaneously hot and cold and ticklish. He picked up after two rings.
“Hello?” His voice had deepened since the last time they’d spoken. She tried to imagine it attached to a deepened body for a deepened boy, taller, more of a man. She gave up.
Two beats of silence stretched over the phone. “Who is this?” He finally said.
She faltered. Her name clotted up in her mouth and it was thick. Why was it so hard to talk to him now? “It’s Amina.”
“Oh. Hi.” His voice was level and she wondered if he was happy to hear from her or weirded out or what. She’d remembered him being easily excited, bouncy-voiced, bright-eyed. His voice gave away nothing, now.
“Um, I know we haven’t…like, talked in a while. I don’t think we’ve really seen each other since…well, this is random. But you know, it’s um, it’s his birthday today. Was his birthday, I mean. So I thought, I don’t know, I thought maybe we could, um, hang out. Maybe go back to my house and have ramen, just like…just like we used to.”
He didn’t speak and she was suddenly aware of herself, standing outside her school on the street, feeling her cheeks get warm they way they do while kids milled about her and the air froze her reddening ears and the inside of her nose. “You don’t have to. It was just…whatever. It’s fine.”
“Who’s?” The deep voice finally asked.
“You said it’s his birthday? Who’s birthday?”
She crumbled a little, she’d been sure he’d know. How stupid of her, how naive. The ends of her hair curled in embarrassment.
“Miles.” If her own name was clotted, his was ash in her throat.
“Oh.” Jones said in a faraway voice from the other end, somewhere she didn’t know and didn’t know him well enough to guess. “Of course. Miles.”
“Nevermind.” She said, feeling increasingly awkward, hair curled, fingers bristling. “Forget it.”
“No!” Jones said quickly. “Uh, no. I’ll meet you.”
She uncrumbled a little. “Yeah?”
“Soon? 4:00 in front of the Korean grocery on-”
“94th and Madison. I remember.”
Over the line, she heard his deep breath. “Thanks.”
Why had he pretended not to know it was Miles’ birthday? Jones wondered this as he knelt to tie his sneakers. The laces were limp and familiar in his fingers, soft with wear. They were the kind of shoes that Miles, who was a bit of a sneakerhead, talked about in a voice buttered with admiration. They were too small for him now but he kept at them like they were old, sick pets. Miles would have liked them, and that was enough reason to keep wearing them, even if they hurt.
Of course Jones had known it was his birthday. He’d known it was Amina too, even though her voice had become a little different. That one phone call had changed the coloring, the smell of the day. He hadn’t heard from her since they were twelve and she’d disappeared from his life.
So why now? Why had she called him today, out of nowhere? The slap of it hadn’t faded, he still felt it in every pulsing moment. In front of him, Madison Avenue panned out and the universe of Harlem abruptly shifted to the universe of the Upper East Side It was astonishing the difference a few blocks made, like someone twisted a single neighborhood like a double helix, into two separate worlds. He could almost see a line drawn. He didn’t use to be so aware of it, now it rumbled beneath his feet stuffed into old, too-small shoes.
They were from two different worlds, he thought, as he walked up to a small unassuming deli amidst apartments with iron roses adorning their window sills and places for brunch and high-end maternity clothing shops with french-sounding names. In front of the door was Amina.
It was called the “Happy Good Market” and the awning was green and she was standing right there, different and the same. “M-mina?” He breathed, trying to fit together memories with the real girl in front of him.
“Jones!” She stepped forward, her arms bending awkwardly, waiting for a hesitant hug. A second too late, he shifted so they pressed together for a moment, then stepped back in a hurry.
Her black hair had gotten longer and the shape of her face had altered but her small, toothy smile was the same. “I haven’t seen you in forever.” She said.
“I know.” He said and it came out a little defensive.
After a second of silence, she gestured to door of the grocery. “So…shall we?”
He followed her in. The bell on the door jingled, twinkling their arrival. This is so weird. He thought, as he trailed her shoes.
Neither of them had forgotten where they kept the ramen and they did not have to think about it as they moved towards the back, it was purely habitual, instinctual, like falling asleep on the bus and subconsciously remembering to wake up at your stop.
“So, how have you been?” She asked, looking over her shoulder at him, pushing through a narrow maze of shelves.
“Uh, good. I’ve been good.”
“Still playing basketball?”
He could see the back of her head nod. They stood in front of wall of soup, there were the regular brands of chicken and tomato and such, but there was also the cheap ramen and stir-fry. Amina picked up a packet of Chang’s Instant Noodles.
“Look,” she smiled. “A Chinese brand of Japanese noodles in a Korean deli.”
“How American.” Jones quipped.
“These are disgusting.” She picked up two packets. “Why did we like them?”
He shrugged. “Guess we couldn’t tell the difference.”
“Think they still have tofu and nori?”
Jones scanned the shelves, picking up a beat up package of dried seaweed. “I think the tofu’s in the next aisle.”
“Okay, i’ll get it. I have eggs at home.”
They made their way to the register, putting the packets of noodles and nori and cold contained or tofu on the counter. The old man behind it took them slowly while Amina rummaged through her wallet.
“Do you want anything else?” Amina asked.
Jones shook his head.
She looked apologetic. “It’s just, this place has a weird credit card policy. You can’t use cards unless you have a purchase over six dollars. If you want chips or a soda or something, it’d be more convenient. You don’t even have to eat them if you’re not hungry, I just need to add, like, a dollar to the cost.”
He stared at her. “You…you want me to get something because it’d be more…convenient?”
She nodded with question eyes, “yeah, it’s no big deal.”
He turned away from her so she wouldn’t see the disgust on his face. Rich kids, he thought, as he breathed deeply. The waste of it all, the waste she was so comfortable with. She didn’t have to think about it, she just slipped on the waste like a second skin, like it was a part of her. And she expected him to understand it, it was as normal and fundamental as ears or hair or arms to her. A body part. No big deal. He grabbed a bag of potato chips off the shelf violently and tossed them on the counter.
Amina watched him with her head cocked to the side. “Thanks.” She said slowly.
The man rang up their purchase and Amina paid. And she pocketed her credit card after and slipped it into the folds of her bag and they both silently willed it to be forgotten.
They passed some pinafored girls as they walked home. Amina had been a checkered-and-pinafored girl once, the apron-y dress was kind of like the universal uniform for eight year old girls on the upper east side, at least the ones who went to private school. Amina had never even stepped in a public school.
She was preppy, she was rich. She couldn’t help but be these things, and she’d seen Jones’s look when she’d brandished her credit card. It shrunk her to the floor, the look he gave her, all quiet resentment and something else. It was a special kind of condescension, the superiority of a person who knew you were ignorant but was too polite or tired to point it out. Yes, it had shrunk her to the size of rollaway bead. Stupid, she thought bitterly. Why had she taken out her credit card? Jones was different than her other friends, he had a different life, one where money meant different things.
Of course, she was different too. She felt twinges for checkered-and-pinafored girls who looked like her. She knew what it was to grow up with white kids and find out it meant something that she wasn’t a white kid. They were her friends and they were a part of her but they also made jokes. Their mothers thought her mother was the nanny. At least Jones fit in at his school.
When had that difference started to matter?
“How’s your mom and dad?” Jones said suddenly.
Amina kicked a pebble. “They’re good. They won’t be home until later, though. Today is hard on them. They’re going to visit him.”
Jones nodded. “I thought about going but…but I think he’d like this. Us doing this again.”
Amina studied his face for a moment, searching his profile for the jumpy little boy she’d met years ago. “Do you remember the first time? Miles was all excited for us to meet. He was always talking about the kid he was mentoring for community service. And he brought you along after school one day and you were all smiley and loud-”
“Yeah.” Jones picked up the story. “And he said to you, ‘Mina, this is Jones. And guess what? He’s never had ramen.’” He widened his eyes and dropped his jaw in imitation of Miles’ face of mock wonder. “And then he said, ‘let’s make some right now.’”
“And then every week when he picked you up from school we’d go to my house and eat ramen.” Amina said with stars in her voice.
“Remember he used to tell us how the nori and the egg and the tofu were best friends and they always wanted to be together when we ate them?”
“And sometimes he said they were like precious jewels we found on a scavenger hunt through the store.”
Jones face warmed to patches of animation like blush. Light flooded his eyes, getting caught between his eyelashes, making him look like a kid again. “He said the strings of noodles were the necklaces of spirits.
Amina laughed. “We ate it all up. No pun intended.”
Jones grinned. “Yeah, we did. My parents adored Miles too. They thought he was teaching me about his culture.”
“Well, I think the whole ramen thing was less about appreciating our culture and more about something cheap that I liked that we could make together. I was really picky.”
“That’s right, you wouldn’t eat it if it had pork.”
Amina crinkled her nose. “I hate pork.”
“Why pork? That’s such a random thing to hate.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I was picky. Miles liked that you would eat anything. He really loved having you over.”
Jones raised his eyebrows. “Yeah, that’s because I thought your house was a castle. You had the penthouse to yourselves. The elevator opened to your living room. I think when I got home that first day, the first thing I told my parents was that you had two floors and a servant.”
Amina blinked. “Who, Carla? Carla wasn’t our servant. She was our housekeeper.”
Jones’ eyes dimmed. “Looked like it. Why can’t rich people keep their own houses clean, anyway?”
Amina’s smile twitched, taken aback. “I-I don’t know.”
“Well, you should.” He snorted.
“We have a big hou-”
“A big house?” Jones shook his head. “You can’t wash your own dishes and do your own laundry and clean your room because your house is too big? Let me ask you something Mina,” he spat her name, “how come your house is too big for your whole family to clean but not too big for one old woman to clean?”
“Because she’s getting paid for it!”
Jones made a noise like a wounded alley cat.
“Fine.” Amina said, stung. “I won’t speak. Obviously you’re just going to twist my words.”
“I’m not twisting your words. You wouldn’t understand”
She squinted at him for a moment, then dropped her shoulders, looking defeated. “Why are you doing this?” she whispered. “Why are you so angry?”
Whatever else he was, he wasn’t good at hiding his feelings. Pain was so clearly on his face, she felt like she could press a finger in the sensitive area between his eyes and nose and the pain would come off on her finger, like dirt. It was touchable.
“Sorry.” He muttered. “Let’s just go.”
As he remembered, the elevator did open to her living room. It was exactly what you’d picture the penthouse of an upper east side building to look like, the windows nearly made up the wall, the entire sparkling city falling just beneath them, like an ongoing play they could decide whether or not to watch.
“Come on.” Amina said softly, and he came into the kitchen.
They hadn’t seen each other for years but they fell back into their kitchen routine like they fell back into being little kids. Amina put a pot of water on the stove and flicked on the flame. Jones took two eggs, cool and perfect in his palms, and prepared to boil them. When the water had begun to perk and bubble up, hissing and spluttering and hot, Amina dropped the packet of noodles in. She poked the block of noodles with a chopstick, watching it soften and untangle and break apart like matted yellow curls being washed and conditioned. She stirred the pot of curls until they glistened and swum in the same direction, pretty enough to be in shampoo commercials, while Jones left the eggs boiling on the stove. He took out the ready-to-eat tofu, drained the package of water and began to cut the slippery, shiny block into clean squares. Amina turned off the heat, tossed in the soup base and stirred again with her chopstick, watching the so-black-almost-purple powder shift to soup and scallions and scent. The kitchen stretched with the smell of salty, lip-licking, mouth-watering soup. Jones dumped the eggs into cold water to peel away their shells, then held the quivering, blinding jewels up to the light. He sliced through the boiled eggs, with the masterful knifestroke of a samurai-chef, revealing the circles of sun inside, the orange yolk thick and soft. Moving in quiet unison they danced around each other, listening to the sound of boiling water and flame and knives and kitchen noises, the soles of their feet slapping the floor and their hands always busy, always preparing. Together they poured the noodles into two bowls, adding and splitting until they were equal. Together they shredded the nori, until the salt-sparkled green stuck to their fingertips and underneath their fingernails. Together they tossed in the tofu and egg, getting drops of soup on their noses and cheeks. Together they picked out pairs of chopsticks, pretty ones with pink flowers dotting the wood and brought their bowls to the table and sat.
The first bite hurt Jones’ chest, it tightened it. It tasted like years ago, nostalgia laying on his tongue, like Miles and Mina and him, sitting at the table woven with laughter and light and no knowledge of tragedy. It tasted like good memories singed at the edges with the destruction of what was to come. In the filtered light behind his eyelids he could almost see the shape of them together, Miles was thirteen and they were nine and he was spinning them stories because that’s what he did. He showed them ways of believing.
And then the first bite was over and it was just soup. Bad soup, but it was salty and flavorful in that artificial way, and the noodles, curling and flingy felt good going down his throat. He felt suddenly ravenous and, giving into the squeals of his stomach, started to devour it. Amina ate with equal fervor. Neither of them spoke.
When they were finished, she pushed back her bowl and looked at him.
“Jones.” His name sounded like a hesitant first step.
He looked at her, waiting.
“We’re different now, aren’t we?” Her voice was absent of stars, full of acceptance, full of defeat, her throat seemed packed with cold, gray sand.
“I don’t know.” He said. “Maybe we were always different, it just didn’t seem to matter before.”
“But you act so…unhappy.”
“Of course I do! He was like my brother, Amina. I hate it, I hate it, I hate that he died. He was so great, Mina. He was so good. Aren’t you devastated?” His voice cracked and he swallowed with red cheeks.
She trembled. “Yeah. I am. But i’m done being depressed. I know that sounds awful but I mean, I’m done doing nothing and thinking about nothing but him. I’m done avoiding people who remind me of him.” She stared straight at Jones when she said the last part.
Something inside him threatened to burst, a carefully constructed dam. “Is that why you never wanted to see me after? Is that why we never stayed friends? I called you, Mina. I must have called you fifty times.”
“I know.” And now her eyes were filling. “I know and I’m sorry Jones. I’m so, so sorry. I didn’t know how to talk to you after. I know it’s stupid but when he died I got it into my head somehow that it was God punishing me or something. I thought I was cursed. I thought I would lose you too if I got closer to you. So I stopped being your friend while I still had control over the situation, while it was my decision and not life’s. I’m sorry. It was selfish and I’m so sorry.”
He was quiet for a moment while she crumpled and cried. Softly he said, “I thought it was because you were relieved you didn’t have to see me anymore. I thought you were ashamed. You didn’t talk to me at the funeral and you were with all your fancy prep school friends, your real friends, and I could see you didn’t need me. I was just some poor kid your brother mentored out of charity. A community service credit, that’s all.”
Maybe it was horrible, but he had to admit, he felt a little better seeing her horrified expression. “Oh God, Jones,” she breathed. “God that is so fucked up. I made such a mess of things, didn’t I? Of course I didn’t think of you like that. And Miles loved you, he didn’t think you were a…a community service credit.”
“No, I know. I just…”
“Do you hate me for having money?” She asked.
He shook his head. “I don’t hate you Mina. If anything, I thought you hated me for not having money.”
They went silent. The light from the window came in blocks, turning half of her brilliant with sun, it made visible the stains of tears on her cheeks and the downturned left corner of her mouth and the empty bowl of ramen sitting peacefully in front of her. This was just an afternoon. Making soup was a mundane task. But she was not a mundane thing, and neither was he.
Suddenly, she started to laugh, startling him.
“What’s funny?” He asked, smiling a tiny bit in spite of himself.
She shook her head. “It’s so melodramatic. And all we did was make soup.”
“It’s like a soap opera. It’s a soup opera.” He joked.
She groaned but she was smiling. “Oh my god. A soup opera?”
He stuck his tongue out at her. She shook her head. “Very nice. Very corny.”
“Corny is good.” He argued.
“So,” she said after a pause, “are we okay?”
He nodded. “We’re okay.”
“Are we going to have to make friendship bracelets and swear to never, ever fight again?”
She stuck out her tongue at him.
“One more thing.” Amina pulled Jones down the hall, grabbing the plastic bag of groceries on her way.
They walked together until they came to a nook at the end of the hall. There was a little table and on it was a picture of him. Her brother had had a face lined with radiance, his mouth was a sliver of sun, and in this photograph his eyes were full of vast universes. Next to the photograph was the program from his funeral, his framed birth certificate, ten old paper cranes Amina had made after he had taught her how.
Amina dug the last packet of ramen out of the bag and placed it behind the photograph. Her fingers trailed the frame.
“Hey Mi. Happy birthday, you’d be 20 today.” She began in a thin voice. “That’s amazing.” She paused to think about it, building an image of Miles as a man, grown up and still sunny, with a little beard and a job and a girlfriend. “Jones and I got this for you. I’m hoping there are stovetops in heaven so you can cook it.”
“And maybe some spirits in need of jewelry.” Jones added.
Amina nodded, looking serious. “Of course, we musn’t forget the spirits.”
They stayed there for a minute, remembering and sort-of praying and staring, drawn to the photograph. They breathed in and out, closing their eyes, hoping to catch a little of him in the air, thinking about his wink, turning over the pain of missing him and the love they still felt for him in every pocket of their being. Amina finally sighed.
“I love you, Mi.” She said.
“Goodbye Miles.” He said.
They left the altar and the ramen and the photo where they waited at the end of the hall, not to be moved, firmly rooted in the floor.
“So same time next week?” Jones asked as he got back in the elevator.
She couldn’t wait.
Kai Williams. Age 15, Grade 9, The Dalton School, Gold Key