Justyce is so focused on the upcoming state debate tournament, he barely notices Christmas and New Year’s as they blow by.
Of course, the morning of the tournament itself, it’s the last thing on his mind.
For one thing, two nights ago, he broke up with Melo again, he’s pretty sure for the last time. As they sat in her basement with her rambling about stuff that has no bearing on anything that matters, Manny’s words rang through Jus’s head like a five-bell alarm: If Melo and SJ are diverging paths on the road of life, you’re headed for a dead end.
Speaking of SJ, that’s the other reason he can’t focus. As she steps out of the hotel elevator, smiling at him like he made the sun rise, his brain goes to mush. Though they cleared things up the day after the Melo/SJ cafeteria showdown—Jus: “I’m sorry for sidelining you, S.” SJ: “I forgive you, jackass. Don’t let it happen again.”—seeing SJ now, Justyce can tell how big of an idiot he’s been. Especially considering the fitted skirt-suit and heels she’s rockin’.
“You ready?” she says once she’s standing right in front of him.
He just stares.
Her smile fades and she touches her cheek. “What? Is there something on my face?”
“No.” Justyce clears his throat. “You look really nice is all.”
“Oh. Thanks.” Her cheeks turn pink. Justyce thinks he might combust. She winks and tugs at his tie, which matches the deep maroon of her suit, just like they planned. “You’re not too bad yourself.”
Just then Doc comes around the corner from the breakfast buffet with the rest of the team in tow. “Good morning, my little lion cubs!” He steps between Justyce and SJ and drapes an arm around each of their shoulders. “Ready to rumble?”
“You bet your ass we are—”
“Watch it, Ms. Friedman,” Jus says in Doc’s voice.
Doc and SJ laugh. “Seriously, though,” Doc says. “I know your round isn’t until after lunch, but you feel like you’re ready ready?”
What Doc isn’t saying: he still hasn’t gotten his mind around the fact that his top two debaters elected to forgo the actual debate rounds of the tournament and focus solely on advanced pairs argumentation.
In other words, they’ve got one shot.
“We’re as ready as we’ll ever be,” SJ says. She reaches past Doc to squeeze Jus’s hand.
Jus looks at her, and she smiles.
He has no clue how he’s gonna get through this day.
Truth be told, Jus and SJ hadn’t settled on a topic until a couple of weeks ago. They were in her basement. She was sitting cross-legged with her laptop open in this massive wicker chair Mr. F imported from Israel, and Jus was pacing around the pool table, using the cue like a hobbit staff, trying not to ogle her legs.
He sighed as he passed her again. “Maybe we should just do the stereotype threat thing. We’ve got a solid argument there.”
“Yeah, minus the fact that the guy presenting it wasn’t affected at all.” She smirked.
“Well, we gotta pick somethin’, S,” he said. “Like now. We’re runnin’ out of time—”
“I know, I know. Give me a sec, okay? I’m working on something.”
She went back to typing, and Jus’s mind went in a different direction. Over the past couple of days, it’d really sunk in that this would be his and SJ’s final tournament together. When it was over, his excuse for hanging out with her would be kaput.
And then what would he do?
He glanced over at her again. She was rockin’ her glasses with her hair in a messy knot. His favorite way for her to be. Yeah, just last night he’d been at Melo’s—and definitely not for anything academic—
but being around SJ was just…different. He didn’t wanna let it go but had no clue how to keep it going.
“Oh my god!”
“I think I’ve got it! C’mere!” She uncrossed her legs and made room for him in the chair.
As he squeezed in beside her and felt her whole left side pressed against his right, he had to take a clandestine deep breath—she smelled like fruit and flowers—and force himself to focus.
“So check this out,” she said, rotating the screen so he could see it. “The Myth of the Superpredator” was the title of the article. “The gist of this: back in the nineties, some big-shot researchers predicted that the number of violent crimes committed by African American teen males would skyrocket in the years to follow. The ‘leading authority’ on the matter dubbed these potential criminals superpredators.”
Justyce already knew about the superpredator myth—he’d stumbled upon the whole thing while trying to deal with his own profiling trauma. But he let SJ keep going because when would he get to see her all absorbed in debate research and talking a million miles per minute again? He’d miss this.
“Fortunately, the prediction was incorrect,” she went on. “Crime rates among youth plummeted.”
He smiled. “Okay…”
“Unfortunately, it seems the fear of young black guys created by this research is alive and well.” She ran a fingertip over his wrist.
Annnnd time to get up.
He went back to pacing. “So where would we go with this, S?”
“Well, I’m thinking we could do an argument on racial profiling.”
Jus stopped. “You’re not serious.”
“So you’ve lost it, is what you’re really telling me.”
“Oh come on. What do we have to lose?”
“Uhh, the tournament?”
“Screw the tournament.” She shut her laptop and came over to where he was. “This is something people need to hear about, Jus. It’s an argumentation gold mine!”
“Mmmm…” It wasn’t that he didn’t believe they could form a solid argument—she was right: the numbers spoke for themselves.
The real issue? He didn’t wanna be the black guy accused of “playing the race card” at a state tournament.
He turned to her then. Though he prolly shouldn’t have. Cuz feelings. “I don’t know about this, S.”
“I didn’t sleep for a week after what happened to you, Jus,” she said. “I know we might be throwing away our chance at a win, but if we can get some facts out there, maybe make people think a little bit, it’ll be worth it, right?”
Jus didn’t say a word.
She threw an arm over his shoulders. Boob on the biceps. “It’s our last hurrah,” she said. “Let’s go out with a bang.”
“Come onnnnnn, Jussy!”
He sighed. There would be no turning her down.
“Fine,” he said. “Let’s do it.”
Because of their combined debate record for the season—eight wins, one loss, one tie—Justyce and SJ are the final pair in their division to present their argument. When their names are called, they step into the glaring stage lights and up to the adjacent podiums. The only people Jus can see are the three judges.
The center judge says You may begin, and SJ launches into their introduction. With her final sentence—“We are here to argue that racial disparities in the US criminal justice system are largely due to racial profiling”—a murmur trickles through the audience. Jus’s stomach clenches, and a bead of sweat runs down his side from his armpit. Two of the judges are stone-faced, but when he locks eyes with the third—a white lady—she nods at him.
His eyes shift among the three of them as he and SJ rattle off the statistics that support their argument: drug use versus drug conviction numbers, arrest numbers in minority-populated versus white-populated police zones…By the time they get to the superpredator stuff, all three judges are rapt. That’s when Jus realizes SJ was right: whether or not they win this tournament, he needed to talk about this in a public forum.
When they’re done, Jus feels like he’s walking in a dream. He and SJ get backstage, and the team sweeps them up in hugs and high fives. Doc, with visibly moist eyeballs, tells Jus how proud he is, and a black guy from another team nods at him from across the room. Some random cute girl from another school brings him water with her number scrawled on the cup, and he sees SJ slip it in the garbage when she thinks he’s not looking.
He has no clue how much time passes between them leaving the stage and hearing the emcee return to announce the results, but the next thing he knows, Doc and the team are filing out to return to their seats.
None of it feels real.
Without thinking too much about it, he drapes an arm around SJ’s shoulders. She turns to wrap her arms around his torso, and when she buries her face in his neck, his other arm slips around her waist.
The emcee calls third place. It’s not them. SJ inhales, and Jus feels her ribs expand. When the emcee calls second and it’s not them, Jus squeezes tighter. “S, I just wanna sa—”
“Hush it. You can tell me later.”
She chuckles. It makes him feel better than he’s felt in a long time.
“And your state champions in the advanced pairs argumentation division: from Braselton Preparatory Academy, Justyce McAllister and Sarah-Jane Friedman!”
They don’t let go.
Martin, I think I’m losing it.
I’ve avoided writing to you about this because it really doesn’t have any bearing on the Be Like Martin experiment. Then again, I guess it could be considered a failed attempt at “romantic integration” or something…Anyway, after the dream I just had—which I definitely won’t put in here because it’s not appropriate—I gotta get some stuff off my chest.
So SJ and I won our division of the state debate tournament. When we returned backstage after receiving our medals, everything felt different. I couldn’t stop thinking about the way we were hugging just before they announced all the winners, so when she turned to face me looking all beautiful, I knew that was it. No more resisting.
We’re standing there grinning at each other, so I looked at her lips and leaned in for the kill…
AND SHE TURNED AWAY! Just straight-up rotated 180 degrees and started walking in the opposite direction! “You see Doc anywhere?” she said over her shoulder.
That girl KNEW I was about to kiss her, Martin!
She avoided me for the rest of the night, and then wouldn’t talk to me on the ride back to school in her car Sunday morning. Just cranked up the music like I wasn’t even there.
THEN, when we got to the dorms, and I reached for the car door handle, she goes, “So congrats again on winning the tournament.” (Like she didn’t just win it with me?) “Working with you has been a real pleasure, and I know you’ll do great at Yale. See you around, Justyce!”
It took me a minute to get the hint and exit because I was trying to figure out the identity of this alien cyborg and what the hell it did with my debate partner/good friend/girl-I-really-wanted-to-kiss named SJ.
As soon as I grabbed my stuff and shut the door, she drove off. Just like that.
I was ready to go against my mama for this girl, Martin!
I don’t know what happened. I thought things were going well! I swear since Manny called me out for not being like you, SJ and I have been tighter than ever. The chemistry was off the charts…I know I didn’t read the signals wrong, did I?
I have no idea what to do now. I can’t eat. Can barely sleep. Can’t stay focused…Everywhere I turn, there’s a reminder of this girl. Can’t pass a brunette without doing a double take. Manny’s been on this Carrie Underwood kick, which is what SJ liked to play in the background when we were working on debate stuff at her house. I even went to sleep at home last night thinking being around my mama would help, but when I got there, she was watchin’ Judge Judy! (SJ swears she and Judge Judy are related.)
I guess I should let it go, right? I can’t force her to talk to me if she doesn’t want to…
It makes me feel wack as hell, but in my mind I keep seeing the shrinking taillights of her car as she drove away.
Whatever. I give up.
Gonna try to sleep again now.
But Justyce doesn’t sleep. Not that night, nor the rest of the week.
And it’s not just SJ.
A couple of mornings after she gives him the cold shoulder, he and the rest of the nation learn that Tavarrius Jenkins, a sixteen-year-old black kid shot by police while trying to help an older white woman in a Lexus, has died from his injuries.
On Friday after school, Jus walks into Doc’s classroom wanting to talk about it and finds he’s been beat to the punch: SJ’s in there crying her eyes out. As much as he wants to turn on his heel and jet, he can’t seem to move.
Seeing her there—even as a friend—broken the way she is makes Justyce feel as helpless as he did the night he got arrested. Based on the way she’s scowling at him, Jus can’t help but wonder if he’s partially to blame for her tears.
But how could he be? Didn’t she turn her back on him?
After they’ve stared each other down for forever, it feels, she wipes her face, grabs her stuff, and heads to the door. When Doc calls after her and she doesn’t respond before breezing out, he turns to Justyce. “What’s that all about?”
“Oh, you don’t know?” Justyce says, ready to turn and leave himself. He drops down into a desk instead.
Doc crosses his arms and furrows his eyebrows. “Can’t say I do, Jus.”
“That’s too bad, then,” Justyce says, looking Doc right in the eye. “I was hoping you could tell me.”
Needless to say, Jus doesn’t feel like talking anymore. As soon as he thinks enough time has passed for SJ to get off campus, he says goodbye to a stupefied Doc and heads to his dorm room.
He’s just managed to doze off when there’s a knock at his door, snatching him back into consciousness.
“Who is it?”
“Open the door, fool.”
Jus forces himself out of bed and to the door. “What, dawg?” he says as he opens it.
“Hey, bruh, chill with all that attitude.” Manny pushes past him and into the room, bringing his post–basketball practice BO with him. “You sleepin’ or somethin?”
“Obviously not if I’m standin’ here talking to your stank ass. You need a shower.”
“Shut up. It’s Friday night and we got places to be. Put some clothes on and let’s go.”
Jus returns to the bed. “Sorry, dawg. I don’t really feel like goin’ nowhere tonight.”
“That wasn’t a request, Jus. Don’t think I haven’t noticed how mopey you been this week. Being alone in your current state isn’t good for your mental health, man. Blake’s birthday party is tonight, and you’re coming with me.”
“No. I’m not.”
“All right, then.” Manny pulls Jus’s desk chair over to the bed and sits down. “You wanna stay in bed? Cool. My dirty ass will be right here with you.”
“Aww, come on, Manny! Get outta here with that.” Jus pulls a pillow over his nose.
Manny kicks his shoes off and tucks his hands behind his head, unleashing the full force of his funk into the room. He smirks.
Jus really can’t stand this guy sometimes.
He takes a deep breath…which is a bad idea. “Damn, you stink, dawg. Fine, I’ll go.”
“Great!” Manny hops up. “I’ma go get my car from the lot. I’ll meet you downstairs in ten.”
“Yeah, all right.”
“You won’t regret it, man.” Manny walks out and leaves the door
Justyce really isn’t in the best headspace to be accepting the “pregame beverage” that gets shoved into his hand once they get to Manny’s basement. He’d never say it aloud, but Jus would much rather be at SJ’s watching National Geographic than here waiting for Manny to get ready. Just thinking about her is making him crazy. Before he knows it, his cup is empty and he’s reaching for the flask Manny left on the ottoman.
“Dawg, you cryin’?” Manny says when he finally emerges from his room smelling like he bathed in Armani Code.
“Naw, bruh, I’m good.” Jus wipes his face on his sleeve. “Got something in my eye.”
Manny sits down. “All this about SJ?”
“I heard what happened at the tournament.”
He can’t be serious. “What’d you hear?”
“That you tried to kiss her and she cold-shouldered your ass.”
Jus shakes his head. “How could you possibly have heard that?”
“Small school.” Manny shrugs. “People talk.”
Jus doesn’t reply.
“You were in love with her, huh? Heart’s all broken and shit?”
“Whoa now, dawg. Slow down with all that.”
“Jus, you’re sittin’ here crying abou—”
“I’m not cryin’, Manny.”
“Whatever, fool.” Manny slouches down and stares up at the ceiling. “That’s gotta be love.”
For a minute, they sit in silence, Manny doing whatever he’s doing and Jus trying to keep images of SJ out of his head. He switches gears to the other thing on his mind: “You hear about Tavarrius Jenkins?”
“The kid who got shot in Florida, right?”
“Yeah. He died yesterday.”
“Damn. That’s sad.”
“I keep thinkin’ that coulda been me. What if that cop thought I had a gun?”
“You didn’t, though.”
“Neither did Tavarrius,” Jus says, feeling the anger build. “That’s exactly what I’m sayin’. Guy’s walking down the street with his boys and stops to help a lady who ran out of gas on the wrong side of town. Cops get there and tell him to put his hands up cuz they think he’s robbing her, and when he does, they open fire cuz they think his cell phone is a gun. Shit’s fucked up, man.” Jus grabs the flask again and takes a swig. “Niggas gettin’ shot for carrying candy and cell phones and shit. Can you imagine what woulda happened to me if I’d had my cell phone out that night? I could be dead, dawg. And for what?” He swigs again just to feel the burn.
“Aiight, that’s enough.” Manny takes the flask back and pats Jus’s knee. “Let’s hit B’s party. You obviously need the distraction.”
Part of Justyce wants to shake Manny. Ask why he cares more about some stupid white-boy party than he does about the unjust death of a guy who looks like him.
Too bad he doesn’t have it left in him.
“Yeah, all right,” he says. “Let’s go.”
Perhaps if Justyce hadn’t downed half the liquid in Manny’s refilled flask on the way to Blake’s house, the wooden lawn jockeys with black skin and big red lips standing guard at the bottom of Blake’s porch steps wouldn’t bother him so much. There’s a good chance that if he’d “slowed down” when Manny told him to, he wouldn’t feel fury when he sees that the wall behind the bar in Blake’s basement is lined with posters from “William H. West’s Big Minstrel Jubilee.”
But Justyce didn’t slow down. He kept drinking until Manny literally took the flask from his hand and slipped it into the driver-side door where Jus couldn’t reach it. So when the birthday boy comes running up to Manny and Justyce, Jus is ready to blow.
Manny: Happy birthday, man!
Jus: Yeah, happy birthday.
Blake: Bros! So glad y’all made it!
Manny smiles and winks at Justyce like Told you.
“Yo, listen,” Blake goes on. He’s definitely been drinking too. “There’s this fine-ass black girl here from Decatur Prep, and I was thinking you guys could wingman it up for me and shit. Homegirl’s got the fattest ass I’ve ever seen, and I think if she meets my niggas, I’ll have a good chance of getting’ her upstairs. You feel me, dogs?” He nudges Jus and grins.
Manny’s smile collapses. He looks over at Justyce. Almost like he knows everything’s about to go to hell.
“Is this fool serious right now?” Jus says.
Blake looks confused.
“Jus, chill,” Manny says.
“Hell nah, I’m not ’bouta chill. Ya boy’s got racist lawn gnomes and white people in blackface hanging on the walls, now he pulls this shit, and you want me to chill?”
Blake rolls his eyes. “Dude, none of that crap is mine. My mom’s great-uncle was one of those performers, so she hung up some posters. No big deal.”
“You coming over here asking us to help you use a black girl IS a big deal, Blake. That’s not to mention you tossin’ the n-word around like you own it.”
Blake: You don’t own it any more than I do, bro. Nobody owns words. I’d think you’d know that as someone “smart enough” to get into Yale.
Manny: All right, y’all, let’s calm down before this gets outta hand.
Justyce: It’s already outta hand, Manny. Your boy Blake is a racist.
Blake: What is it with you people and the goddamn race card, huh?
Justyce: We people. You realize Manny is one of us people too, right?
Blake: Except Manny’s got some sense and doesn’t make everything about race. Why don’t you loosen the hell up?
Justyce: Too bad you weren’t around to say that to the cop who cuffed me for tryna to help my girl.
Blake: Ex-girl, you mean? Didn’t she dump your ass?
At this point, Jared and Tyler walk up, both with a red cup in one hand and a beer in the other. “Homies!” Jared says.
It just makes Justyce madder.
Jus: Man, I’m sick of y’all acting like you got all this leeway.
Jared: Wow, dude. What crawled up your ass?
Jus: Fuck you, Jared.
Jared: Whoa, now…
Blake: Dude, don’t disrespect my bros at my party.
Manny: Jus, let’s just go.
Jus: (Points at Blake.) Watch your back, dawg.
Blake: Wait, are you threatening me?
Jared: (Laughs.) Better watch out, B. You know Justyce grew up in the hood. He’s gonna call up his gangsta homies to ride through on your ass and bust some ca—
By the time Jus is seeing colors other than red, his left hand and right jaw are throbbing, and there’s something warm running down his chin. Jared’s scrambling up from the floor with a split lip and a swelling eye, and Blake is on his hands and knees with blood pouring out of his nose and onto the carpet.
No pointed hood to stop the flow this time.
There’s a set of arms around Jus, pinning his arms to his sides. “Let me go,” he says, twisting out of the grip of whoever’s holding him.
Manny. Whose lip is bleeding too.
Tyler seems to be the only one who got away unscathed…but then Justyce sees him shake out his right hand.
Of course a crowd has gathered.
Manny: What the hell is your problem, Justyce?
Jus: Man, don’t even say nothing to me right now.
Manny draws back. “Excuse me? Don’t say nothin’ to you?”
Jus: You’re just as bad as they are.
Manny: What are you talking about? I don’t know where all this me against the world shit is comin’ from but you really need to check yourself.
Jus: These dudes disrespect you—disrespect us—all the time, and you never say anything about it. You just go along with whatever they say.
Manny: These are my friends, Jus. You’re way too sensitive, man.
Jus: Lemme guess: that’s what they said when you took offense at some racist joke, right?
Manny: Bruh, you trippin’ hard. You need to go cool off or somethin’.
Justyce shakes his head. Looks Manny over from head to toe. “You know what, Manny? You’re a sellout. Good luck at Morehouse next year.” He shoves through the crowd and makes his way to the back door with people murmuring as he goes. Just before he pulls it open, he hears, “Thanks for ruining my birthday, asshole!”
Justyce trudges up the hill. Starts walking in the direction he thinks will lead him out of Blake’s megamansion neighborhood. He’s still drunk and can’t see straight, but if he can find his way back to the main road, he can find his way back to school.
He doesn’t know how long he’s been walking or how far he’s gone before a navy Range Rover pulls up beside him.
“Get in,” Manny says from inside.
“Naw, man. I’m good.”
“Jus, it’s thirty degrees and you’re going the wrong damn way. Stop being a jackass and get in the car.”
“I said no, Manny.”
Manny’s car jerks forward and suddenly whips into Justyce’s path.
“What the hell, man? You tryna hit me?”
“Get in the damn car, Jus!”
Justyce clenches his jaw.
“Dawg, if you care anything about this friendship, you will get your
punk ass in the car right now.” Manny looks at Jus.
Jus looks at Manny.
Manny reaches over and opens the passenger door.
Jus turns around and starts walking in the opposite direction.
You know, I don’t get how you did it. Just being straight up. Every day I walk through the halls of that elitist-ass school, I feel like I don’t belong there, and every time Jared or one of them opens their damn mouth, I’m reminded they agree. Every time I turn on the news and see another black person gunned down, I’m reminded that people look at me and see a threat instead of a human being.
There was some white dude on TV after the Tavarrius Jenkins thing broke talking about how cases like his and Shemar Carson’s “deflect from the issue of black-on-black crime,” but how are black people supposed to know how to treat each other with respect when since we were brought over here, we’ve been told we’re not respectable?
What the hell are we supposed to do, Martin? What am I supposed to do? Be like Manny and act like there’s nothing wrong with a white dude asking his “niggas” to help him exploit a black girl? Do I just take what they dish out, try to stop being “so sensitive”? What do I do when my very identity is being mocked by people who refuse to admit there’s a problem?
I know I did the wrong thing tonight, but right now I can’t find it in me to be remorseful. Those assholes can’t seem to care about being offensive, so why should I give a damn about being agreeable?
I gotta say: I’ve been reading your sermons and studying your books for six months now, and it feels like all I have to show for it is frustration and a sense of defeat. I swear I heard some girl ask “Why are black people so angry all the time?” as I left Blake’s house, but how else am I supposed to feel?
My hand hurts. I’m going to bed.
KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK.
Justyce rolls over onto his back and gropes around for his cell phone. Squints at the glaringly bright screen. Seventeen missed calls, four voice mails, and nine text messages from a combo of Manny, Mama, and Melo.
More knocking, then: “Jus? You in there?”
He groans. “Justyce McAllister is unavailable, please leave a message.”
“It’s Dr. Dray, man. Open up.”
Justyce sits up too fast and his forehead smacks against something hard. “Oww!” he shouts.
“Jus, you all right?”
“Door’s open,” he says. Before his head clears enough for him to figure out where he is and how he got here, Doc is squatting near his feet. “Rough night?”
The underside of his mahogany desk swims into focus.
So does the realization that his pants are around his shins.
“Oh shit!” He scrambles from beneath the desk and stands to pull them up, but his head throbs so intensely, he stumbles.
“Whoa there.” Doc positions the desk chair behind him. “Have a seat.”
Once he does, Doc pulls a bottle of Gatorade from his bag and passes it to Jus. “Drink,” he says. “All of it. I’m sure you’re dehydrated.”
Jus turns the bottle up. “What time is it?” he asks between swigs.
“According to that clock beside you, it’s eleven-eleven.” Doc smiles. “Make a wish. Or do kids not do that these days? I can’t keep up with y’all.”
Justyce peers around the room. There’s sunlight streaming through the pieces of tissue paper Braselton Preparatory Academy calls curtains. The thought of it makes his head throb again.
He also needs to throw up. “Uhh…’Scuse me,” he says, falling out of the chair in the direction of the bathroom.
There goes the Gatorade.
He flushes, splashes some cold water on his face, and takes a good look in the mirror.
That’s when it hits him: Doc just found me under the desk in my dorm room with my pants down.
Is he dreaming?
“Uhh…Doc? You still there?”
Jus gulps. “You, umm…got any plans for this fine Saturday?”
“Come on out here, Jus.”
Dang it. “Do I have to?”
“No. But it’d definitely be in your best interests.”
Jus takes himself in one more time and shakes his head.
Doc is sitting with his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped at the edge of Jus’s perfectly made bed (which reminds Jus he didn’t sleep in it. He shakes his head again). Doc smiles. Nods toward the desk chair. “Talk to me, Jus,” he says once Justyce is seated.
Jus runs his hands down his face. “What do you want me to say?”
“Just wanna know what’s up. I got a call from Manny a couple of hours ago. He’s really worried about you.”
Doc smiles. “He told me you’d do that.”
“Whatever. That dude don’t know me.”
Doc’s expression turns serious. “Tell me what happened, man.”
“You mean Manny didn’t tell you when he called to tattle on me?”
Doc doesn’t say a word to that. Just stares at Justyce with his
piercing green eyes. There’s no judgment in them at all.
With Doc eyeing him like that, last night floods Jus’s memory, and the ache in his bruised knuckles seems to intensify. He drops his chin. “I messed up, Doc.”
Jus looks up. “Manny really didn’t tell you anything?”
Doc pulls his phone from his pocket, taps the screen a few times, then holds it up. Manny’s voice pours out of the speaker: Mornin’, Dr. Dray. Don’t mean to bother you on a Saturday…I was wondering if you’d mind going by the dorm to check on Justyce. He’s going through some things and I’m, uhh…Well, he’s not answering his phone, and I’m sure he doesn’t want to see me. If you could just pop by there and make sure he’s all right, I’d really appreciate it. Room two seventeen.
“When I called him back to get more info,” Doc says, “all he said was the two of you had a little to drink and there was a disagreement. He thought you could probably use someone to talk to.”
Jus doesn’t reply.
“So what’s up, man? Why would Manny think you don’t wanna see him?”
Justyce scratches his head. He needs a haircut. “I got drunk, Doc.”
“I figured as much.” Doc points to the empty Gatorade bottle.
“I got drunk and made the mistake of going to Blake Benson’s house. Some stuff set me off, and I just…I really messed up, man.”
“Care to expound?”
Justyce sighs. “Ever since my run-in with that cop, I’ve been on high alert. Noticing stuff I would’ve glossed over or tried to ignore before.”
“This might sound dumb, but I started this…project,” Jus says. “For the past six months, I’ve been studying Dr. King’s stuff again and trying to apply it? I’ve, uhh…” He looks up at Doc. Still no judgment there. “I’ve been writing letters to him in a notebook.”
“That what’s on your desk?”
Jus looks over his shoulder at the blue composition book with Dear Martin in the white space. “Yeah.”
Doc nods. “Go on.”
“Well, it was going fine, I guess, but then…Remember how I told you my dad passed when I was eleven?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Well, he had PTSD from the military and was an alcoholic. When he was alive, he would drink too much and go into these rages, and he, umm…well, he would hit my mom.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Jus.”
Jus shrugs. “Was what it was. I caught a glimpse of his eyes one time —there was nothing in them. It was almost like he wasn’t even in his body, like his fists and feet were on autopilot and his brain had checked out.”
“I think something like that happened last night. I remember being pissed about some stuff in Blake’s basement, and then he came over to me and Manny and said something that just pushed me over the edge. Words were exchanged, and then the next thing I remember, my hand was killing me, and Blake and Jared were getting up from the floor.”
“Yeah.” Jus chuckles. “I feel like I shouldn’t be tellin’ you this because it’s gonna get me expelled.”
“Sounds to me like you’re ‘taking responsibility.’ That’s tenet four of the B-Prep honor code, isn’t it?” Doc grins.
“I guess it is. Anyway, it’s scary to think about now. The last person I ever wanna be like is my dad. Dude died in a fiery car crash with a blood-alcohol level of point two five. But last night I was just like him. I swear I’m never drinking again, man.”
Doc laughs. “That’s a good start.”
“And then Manny…” Jus shakes his head. “I just don’t get why he puts up with those assholes—” He looks up. “Oh. Sorry.”
Doc smiles. “It’s okay. We’re in your domain. You were saying?”
“I know it’s dumb, but when I hear him agree with those guys on stuff he has to know is wrong…I dunno, Doc.”
Doc doesn’t respond.
“Pretty sure I called him a sellout,” Jus says. “Right now, I’m still so mad at him, I don’t even feel bad about it. I know he probably wasn’t trying to take their side last night, but for him to get on me after the stuff Blake and Jared said? It’s like he doesn’t even care that they’re disrespecting him. Or me.”
Doc nods. “Mind if I play devil’s advocate for a sec? Don’t want to dismiss your sentiments, just wanna give you a little perspective.”
“So I grew up like Manny. Until I hit the tenth grade and transferred to a magnet academy in the city, I was the only person of color at my school. You remember how it felt to realize you only have so much control over how people see you?”
“How could I forget?” Jus rubs his wrists.
“That’s what it was like for me at the new school. Everybody saw me as black, even with the light skin and green eyes. The black kids expected me to know all the cultural references and slang, and the white kids expected me to ‘act’ black. It was a rude awakening for me. When you spend your whole life being ‘accepted’ by white people, it’s easy to ignore history and hard to face stuff that’s still problematic, you feel me?”
“And as for you, the only way you’re gonna thrive is if you’re okay with yourself, man. People are gonna disrespect you, but so what? Guys like Jared don’t have any bearing on how far you get in life. If you know the stuff they’re saying isn’t true, why let it bother you?”
Jus shakes his head. “I respect what you’re saying, but it’s not that simple.”
“It’s frustrating, man! When you work hard and earn your way, and people suggest you haven’t and you’re not worthy, that shit hurts, Doc.”
“Course it does, Jus. But who are you doing it for? Them? Or you?”
Jus puts his head in his hands.
“Another quick story,” Doc says. “In grad school, I had this massive ’fro. Usually wore it in cornrows. I’ll never forget the way my doctoral advisor frowned when I stepped into his office for the first time. Throughout my entire PhD candidacy, he was hypercritical of my work. Told me to my face I’d never succeed. Jus, if I’d listened to him, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you.”
“I’ll let you get some rest,” Doc says, rising from the bed. He puts another bottle of Gatorade and a ziplock bag with two pills in it on the bedside table. “Got you some ibuprofen from the infirmary. Try to stay hydrated, all right?”
Justyce nods. “Thanks for coming by to check on me, Doc.”
“Anytime, my man.” Doc shakes Jus’s shoulder.
As Doc pulls his bag strap across his chest and turns to leave, Justyce glances over at his phone. Remembers all the missed calls and messages—and the lack thereof from a certain former debate partner.
“Doc, let me ask you something.”
Doc turns and sticks his hands in his pockets. “Shoot.”
“Do you…uhh…” Am I really about to ask this? “Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Well…” What exactly is he supposed to say?
“This about SJ?” Doc says.
Justyce’s eyebrows lift.
Doc laughs. “You think I didn’t notice the change between you two?”
“It sucks, Doc.” Jus drops his chin.
“She’ll come around. Get some rest, okay?”
“Yeah. All right.”
Jus gets up and goes over to fall on the bed as Doc pulls the door open.
He’s asleep before he hears it click shut.
On Tuesday, Manny and Jared are both missing from Societal Evolution.
Lunch too. Justyce sees Tyler, Kyle, and Blake—who scowls at Jus but keeps his distance—huddled around a table in the senior lounge, whispering.
As the day goes on, there’s an ever-increasing buzz, though Justyce never catches what people are murmuring because they go quiet whenever he gets too close. So when he’s walking to the dorm after classes are over and he sees the bros huddled around Jared’s car without Manny, he knows something is up.
Especially when Jared turns to give Jus the evil eye, and Jus sees his face.
Now, Jus knows he and Jared came to blows, but could he have caused that much damage? Dude looks like half his mug got attacked by a swarm of angry hornets.
When he gets back to his room, Justyce does the unthinkable: he calls Manny.
Of course the guy doesn’t answer.
There’s a knock at the door. “Come in,” Jus says, dropping down into his desk chair. As he pulls out his notebook to skim the letter he wrote Martin after Blake’s party, he hears the door open and close before the bedsprings squeak.
When he turns around, he almost falls out of the chair. “Dawg!”
Manny is stretched out on Justyce’s bed with his hands tucked behind his head. His left hand is all taped up, and it appears one of Jared’s hornets got him in the upper lip.
“Whoa,” Jus says.
Manny just stares at the ceiling.
Something pops into Jus’s head: Manny pushing open the passenger
door of the Range Rover and telling him to get in.
“Hey, man, I—”
“Save it. I know you didn’t mean it.”
Mmmm…“Actually, I did,” Jus says.
Manny shifts his attention to Jus and lifts his eyebrows.
“I just didn’t really consider the bigger picture,” Jus says. “That’s what I’m apologizing for. Not putting myself in your shoes or whatever.”
Manny turns back to the ceiling. “I didn’t really have your best interests in mind either, so let’s call it even and move on.”
Jus nods. “Cool.”
After about half a minute, the silence gets awkward. Jus cracks his knuckles. “So what happened to your lip?”
“I woke up.”
“Okay…” Jus decides to take a page from Doc’s book: “Care to expound a bit?”
Manny smiles but then grimaces in pain. After a few seconds, he sits up and turns to face Justyce. “You know why I couldn’t really get mad about what you said? You were right. I knew you were right the moment the words came outta your mouth.”
“Oh,” Jus says.
“Saturday night, I went to a festival with those clowns. Four times, man—four—I had to grit my teeth to keep from knocking Jared’s punk ass out. Every time he made fun of somebody, it was like sandpaper being dragged over my eardrums.”
“When we saw this black lady with four kids, and this fool called her Shaniqua and made a joke about baby daddies, I couldn’t take any more, Jus. I called him on it, and he rolled his eyes. Told me to ‘stop being so fucking sensitive.’ ”
Jus doesn’t say anything.
“All day Sunday, I sat in my basement, just fuming. I think I listened to Deuce Diggs and played Medal of Honor for like six hours straight.
The whole time, all I could think about was how I said the same thing to you. How right you were. How good of a friend you’ve been—”
“All right with all that soft stuff, Manny.”
“I’m serious, Jus. Them fools don’t wanna hear when they’re being offensive. They couldn’t care less what it’s like to live in our skin. Those assholes aren’t my damn friends.”
Jus doesn’t know what to say.
Wait, yes he does. “So, umm…” He gestures to Manny’s wrapped hand and busted lip. “Those?”
Manny smiles. “This morning I went in to tell Coach I quit—”
“Dawg, I hate playin’ basketball. Only reason I started is cuz when you’re the tall black kid at school, that’s what people expect you to do. Yeah, I happen to be pretty good at it, but it’s really not my thing.”
“Anyway, Jared was in Coach’s office. When I said I was quitting, he made a ‘joke’ about how I couldn’t until Massah set me free. I lost it.” Manny falls back on the bed. “He clipped me once, but I can’t even tell you how good it felt to pound that dude. Coach wanted to keep it on the low cuz he needs Jared to play in tomorrow’s game, so he sent me home and made Jared stay in his office till school let out.”
Manny sits back up. “I just wanna thank you, man.”
“For helping me get my eyes open. Didn’t like what I saw, so I wanted to shut ’em again, but if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t know some of the stuff I’ve always felt around those guys is legit.”
“Okay…You’re welcome, I guess?”
Manny stands and opens his arms. “Bring it in, fella.”
“Man, getcho ass up and give ya boy a hug.”
“You really creep me out sometimes, Manny,” Jus says, complying.
I’ve got a lot on my mind, Martin.
Last night, Manny’s dad came down to the basement. In almost four years of hanging out at the Riverses’ house, I’ve never seen Mr. Julian in Manny’s “sacred space,” as he calls it, so when he dropped down between us on the sofa, it felt like a bomb was about to go off.
For a good three minutes, it was dead silent. Then Mr. Julian sighed. “I wanna talk to you boys,” he said.
I gulped, and glanced at Manny behind Mr. Julian’s head. He looked hella nervous too. “Uhh…sure, Dad.”
Mr. Julian nodded. “Today I overheard an employee refer to me by a racial slur.”
“For real?” I said.
“Yep. White kid, few years post-undergrad. I hired him three months ago.”
Manny looked pissed. “What’d he call you?”
“Doesn’t matter, son. Point is, it reminded me of your recent run-in with Jared. I spent the rest of the day wondering if you being in that situation was my fault.”
“Huh? How the heck could it be your fault, Dad?”
(I was wondering the same thing, Martin.)
“There’s a lot I haven’t told you, Emmanuel,” Mr. Julian said. “Not sure if I was trying to shield you or if I hoped things were better, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about since Justyce was unfairly arrested.” He turned to me. “The whole incident came as a shock, right?”
“Yeah. It did.”
“When that happened, I kept thinking: What if that had been you, Emmanuel? I know you would’ve been downright mind-blown… but I wouldn’t’ve.” He shook his head. “That didn’t sit right with me because as your father, it’s something I should’ve prepared you for, son. And Jared saying what he said? I should’ve
prepared you for that too.”
“No offense, Mr. Julian,” I said, “but my mama’s been ‘preparing’ me for as long as I can remember. I was still caught off guard.”
“You were surprised by what Jared said to Manny?”
“Oh. Uhh…not really,” I said.
“Exactly. That’s what I’m talking about. I wasn’t surprised to hear that kid at the office today say what he said. There’s no predicting people’s actions, but you can be prepared to face certain attitudes. Perhaps if I’d been more open with my own experiences, Jared’s words wouldn’t have been so astonishing to Manny.”
Neither of us responded.
“Both of you know what I do for a living,” he went on, “but very few know my struggle to get there. It took me four years longer than average to secure my position because I was continuously overlooked for promotions. I worked much harder than many of my Caucasian colleagues but rarely received a fraction of the recognition.”
Again, we kept quiet.
“There are still people in that office who refuse to look me in the eye, fellas. They’ll show cursory respect for the sake of keeping their jobs, but a good majority of my subordinates resent having to answer to a black man. I was reminded of that today.”
“You fired that guy, right?” Manny asked.
Mr. Julian shook his head. “It’s not the first time it’s happened, and it won’t be the last. This is what I mean by preparation.”
Manny was livid. “But, Dad—”
“The young man knows I heard what he said. I have no doubt he’ll be on his best behavior going forward. People often learn more from getting an undeserved pass than they would from being punished.”
“That’s kinda deep,” I said.
He shrugged. “Kill ’em with kindness. My point is the world is full
of guys like Jared and that employee, and most of them will never change. So it’s up to you fellas to push through it. Probably best not to talk with your fists in the future…” He nudged Manny. “But at least you have an idea of what you’re up against. Try not to let it stop you from doing your best, all right?”
He rubbed both of our heads and got up to leave.
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, Martin. Frankly, it’s pretty discouraging. To think Mr. Julian has all that authority and still gets disrespected? Hearing it made me realize I still had hope that once I really achieve some things, I won’t have to deal with racist BS anymore.
That’s obviously not the case, though, is it? What do I do with that? I have no doubt you would’ve done exactly what Mr. Julian did, but if it had been me? Well…I mean I punched a guy for using the n-word recently, didn’t I?
The conversation reminded me of something Doc asked me a few days ago: all the work I’m doing to try and get ahead in life, who am I doing it for?
Better yet, what am I doing it for? To prove myself? Gain some respect? Be able to shove it in the faces of people like Jared?
I don’t even know anymore, Martin.
(Side note: Don’t ask about SJ. Still getting cold-shouldered. It’s whatever.)
Jus knows something’s wrong the moment he climbs into Manny’s car Saturday morning. Which is kind of unfortunate because it’s a really nice day. The guys are supposed to be hitting Stone Mountain, but if Manny’s holey wife-beater, flannel pajama pants, house slippers, and scowl are any indication, hiking isn’t real high on his to-do list at the moment.
“You mind if we just drive for a while?” Manny asks once Justyce’s door is closed.
“Course not, man. What’s goin’ on?”
Jus gets his seat belt fastened, and Manny pulls out of the lot. “My folks got a call this morning. Mr. Christensen is pressing charges against me for ‘assaulting’ his son.” He takes his hand off the wheel to do the air quotes.
“You serious, man?”
“As a heart attack. I tried to get in touch with Jared, but Mr. Christensen answered his phone and told me not to call anymore. Said they’d take out a restraining order if I did.”
Justyce is dumbfounded. “Dawg, that is some straight bullshit.”
“You tellin’ me, man. I’ve never seen my dad so fired up.” Manny shakes his head. “All those years that man has looked me in my face and called me his ‘other son,’ and this is what happens.”
“I don’t even know what to say, man.”
“You know what? I really don’t either. I’ve had my little awakening over the past week or whatever, but this is like…Man, I wasn’t prepared for this. All I can think about is that one Socio Evo chat where SJ said Jared and me could do the same crime, but I’m likely to get the harsher punishment. You remember that?”
“I do.” How could he forget?
“Anyway, sorry about Stone Mountain. I just need to drive and clear my head a bit.”
“All good, Manny. All good.”
Jus settles down into the seat and enjoys the wind in his face as Manny turns on some music.
So catch that ball, Nigga; shoot that shot.
Put on them gloves, Boy; knock off ya brotha’s block.
Lace up them track spikes; get ready to run.
Here comes the fun, wait for the sound of the gun…
“This the new Deuce Diggs?” Jus asks.
“Yeah, dawg. Shit’s poppin’.”
“Crank that up.”
Manny turns it up so loud, the whole car shakes from the bass.
When the Range Rover rolls to a stop at a traffic light, Jus looks out his window to find the driver of a white Suburban—white dude, probably early fifties—giving him a dirty look.
He turns the music down. “Damn…dude over here is muggin’ hard.”
Manny checks the guy out and laughs. “Homeboy’s got no appreciation for a lyrical genius such as Deuce Diggs.”
“Apparently not,” Justyce says, shifting in his seat. The way the guy’s scowling at him reminds him a little too much of The Incident. “Man, these red lights are long as hell.”
“You right, dawg.”
When it finally turns green, Manny turns the music back up.
The white Suburban is riding alongside the guys now, and the driver seems pissed. “This dude is giving me the creeps!” Jus yells over the music. “He’s red as a pepper, and he keeps glaring at me with those bulgy eyeballs.”
“I bet he’s totally profiling us right now. Probably thinks we’re drug dealers or something.”
Justyce’s eyes go to his wrists, and Manny glances over and stops laughing. “My bad, dawg,” he says. “I didn’t mean…Sorry, I wasn’t thinkin’.”
“It’s all good, Manny. You’re prolly right.”
They pull to a stop at the Thirteenth Street traffic light.
“Will you assholes turn that goddamn racket down!” the guy in the Suburban shouts.
“Assholes?” Jus says. “How are we assholes?”
Manny leans over the center console to shout out Jus’s window: “What’d you say, sir? I couldn’t hear you over the music!”
The guy looks like he’s about to ignite. “I SAID TURN THAT SHIT DOWN!”
“You weren’t lying about him being red!” Manny laughs. “It’s like all the blood in his body has rushed up into his face.”
Jus turns to the man again.
What would Martin do, Jus?
“Maybe we should turn it down,” Jus says.
“Man, please. This is my car,” Manny says. “I’m done bending over backwards to appease white people.” He pushes a button on the steering wheel, and the music gets louder.
“YOU WORTHLESS NIGGER SONS OF BITCHES!” the guy shouts.
“I know that muthafucka didn’t just say what I think he did,” Manny says.
Jus’s heart jumps up between his ears.
What would Martin do what would Martin do what would Martin —?
“Forget that guy, Manny. Let’s just stay calm—”
“Naw, man. Screw that.” Manny leans over Jus. “Hey, fuck you, man!” he shouts out the window, giving the guy the finger.
“Manny, chill.” Why is this damn light so long? “Let’s just turn it down till we get away from this guy, all right?”
Justyce leans forward to reach for the volume knob.
“Oh SHIT!” Manny shouts—