We live in the dregs of Queens, New York, where airplanes fly so low that we are certain they will crush us. On our block, a lonely tree grows. Its branches tangle in power lines. Its roots upend sidewalks where we ride our bikes before they are stolen. Roots that render the concrete slabs uneven, like a row of crooked teeth. In front yards, not to be confused with actual lawns, grandmothers string laundry lines, hang bedsheets, our brothers’ shorts, and our sneakers scrubbed to look brand-new. Take those down! our mothers hiss. This isn’t back home. In front yards grow tomatoes that have fought their way through the hard earth.
Our grandmothers refuse canes. Our brothers dress in wifebeaters. We all sit on stoops made of brick. The Italian boys with their shaved heads zoom by on bikes, staring, their laughter harsh as their shiny gold chains.
Our grandparents weed their gardens and our brothers smoke their cigarettes and, in time, stronger substances we cannot recognize. Whose scent makes our heads pulse. Our brothers, who ride on bikes, lifting their front wheels high into the air.
If you really want to know, we are the color of 7-Eleven root beer. The color of sand at Rockaway Beach when it blisters the bottoms of our feet. Color of soil. Color of the charcoal pencils our sisters use to rim their eyes. Color of grilled hamburger patties. Color of our mother’s darkest thread, which she loops through the needle. Color of peanut butter. Of the odd gene that makes us fair and white as snow, like whatsername, is it Snow White? But don’t get it twisted—we’re still brown. Dark as 7 p.m. dusk, when our mothers switch on lights in empty rooms. Exclaim, Oh! There you are.
THE DREGS OF QUEENS
The sights in our hometown: central road nicknamed the “Boulevard of Death” by the New York Post, which snakes through our neighborhood like a long gray tongue. Mimi’s Salon with an ad that reads, Mani n Pedi, $15.99! W/ neck massage FREE. Down the boulevard, across the street from the auto repair shop: a branch of the New York Public Library. Book pages smeared with fingerprints, a booger, the remnant of a sneeze. In the corner, a homeless man fortressed by plastic bags snoozes peacefully. We know he’s different from the guy who raps his knuckles on car windows and asks, Little girl, got any change? before our parents zoom away. Welcome to the dregs of Queens: White Castle sign that comes into view when our subway pulls into the station, tracks rumbling above a Honda minivan, a halal food cart called RAFI SMILES with the scent of bubbling oil and smoke that wafts past a forgotten discount electronics store now selling mattresses. Train slogs above a man chomping a Boston cream donut, whose custard filling explodes onto the tips of his fingers. He licks them, waits for the Q11 to arrive. Ray’s Not Your Mama’s Pizzeria with spongy Sicilian slices whose Cheetos-colored oil trickles down our chins when we take a bite. Soap ’n Suds Laundromat filled with steel machines pounding round and round. A ChineseMexican takeout joint beside O’Malley’s, whose carpet of plastic green grass out front is littered with cigarette butts. Our own houses: neat brick rectangles. Hidden, peripheral. Sometimes the sun shines here.
Excerpted from Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades. Copyright © 2022 by Daphne Palasi Andreades. All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.