Sophistication

The sky looked like a bruise. I always wondered how the sky got to that color where it’s not quite black yet, not quite blue or purple either, but that in between color. I think I’ve only ever seen the sky that color in Atlanta, or maybe once when I was visiting family in Jamaica as a kid I saw something similar. But it didn’t feel the way this one always does here.

“So,” said Ant, “ya last semester of college. What’s it like?”

I watched him shuffle his hands around a bit and then look at me, waiting for me to answer the question. I smiled a temporary and fake smile while trying to think of a good way to respond.

“Well, honestly it’s a lot like high school,” I said. “You wake up, go to class, learn some stuff that probably has nothing to do with whatever shitty job you get. And then I go back to my dorm at night and lay there thinking, dreaming, relaxing.” I stopped talking for a second and looked over at Ant. Recognizing he wasn’t satisfied by that answer, I let out a sigh and continued. “It’s not really college that you have to worry about, Ant. I know I’m not. It’s what comes after I graduate that’s the scary part…”

My words weren’t very much and it felt like I was ranting a bit, but Ant once told me he loved that about me. I clocked a small grin jump onto his face. “You know you were like one of the the only niggas to go off to college in our class?” Ant said. “We had a few go to community college down the road, but most of them ain’t last very long.”

I scratched my forehead,. “Isn’t that sad?” I said. “Three hundred  seniors graduated four years ago and only a handful of us did something… or at least tried.”

I shook my head, not because I was necessarily sad or disappointed or heartbroken by this, but because I was all three of those things and I should have expected it. “Why didn’t you go to college, Ant? We all knew you were the smartest in our class.”

His hand found its way to my shoulder, and he pulled me off the sidewalk onto the grass. “Hold up, it’s a fuckin’ pig up the road,” Ant responded with a stern voice.

Looking over my shoulder, far enough to go unnoticed by the untrained eye but close enough to strike a bit of fear in young Black boys, I saw a cop car slowly lurking in the distance. They always looked so out of place; clunky black and white vehicles, big lights, speakers, all the bells and whistles rolling through your hood. The buildings around here all seem to be falling apart and the roads cracking, but somehow the cop cars always managed to be nice and shiny.

See, on the west side, you learn in elementary school that the cops drive around your hood looking for reasons to throw your ass on the ground, not to serve and protect. Where me and Ant lived, they stood at the bottom of the stairs in our apartment complex. As kids we’d run by them on the way to the bus. Around here, they’re like air. You just get used to it.

“Okay, he’s gone.” Ant put the joint back to his lips and inhaled deep one time.

In middle school, me and Ant made a pact to always tell one another when a cop was nearby. In the lunchroom, someone made a sideways comment to Ant, said something poking fun at the fact that Ant’s older brother was in jail. I don’t really remember exactly what was said, but as soon as it came out of his mouth everything became a blur of rage and eventual blood. I’d never seen my friend, or anybody really, turn into something like the Tasmanian Devil as Ant did; fists flying, throats snatched, words and chairs being grabbed and thrown.

I tried my best to get Ant off of him, especially once I heard the resource officer, run into the cafeteria.

“Ant, please man stop,” I begged.

But nothing I said or tried could tap him out of that justified rage he was in. It was one of the few topics Ant couldn’t talk about in any capacity.

Once the resource officer got into the fight to break it up, things only became worse. We all knew the officer; we walked by him in the halls every day. Grew familiar with the jingle of his handcuffs and utility belt jingling with every step. None of us trusted him.

Surrounded by a crowd of hollering, nosy students peering into the mess of punches and gritted teeth, the officer grabbed Ant by the back of the shirt and yanked him off the boy like he was grabbing a puppy by the back of the neck. Of course, this caused Ant to turn around swinging, and an entire cafeteria watched as the resource officer –who was at least twice Ant’s size, and around two feet taller than him—beat Ant’s ass. It was one of those events you witness helplessly. We all knew how this would end. Ant would get suspended regardless, and it didn't matter that he didn't start the fight

I could relate to the way Ant responded that day in the lunchroom, because I always had a difficult time talking and thinking about the future. It always seemed so bleak, so frantic. I couldn’t help but see it through anxiety’s kaleidoscope. And I might not have lashed out like Ant did at times, but I would constantly find myself fighting myself in my head about these things.

“Answer my question man,” I asked Ant. “Why didn’t you go to college?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know, fam.”

I pressed him on the question again, genuinely curious and interested in why he never even applied to one university. Especially when he was the one who used to do my math homework for me and tutor me in science. “C’mon man, that’s not an answer. Why not?”

“I’m just street smarts, man. The city taught me a lot, but that shit don’t cut it outside of here… I might have had some good grades, but that shit ain’t the real world.”

“Man, Ant, your street smarts matter outside of Atlanta. I’ve never seen anybody who can run up a check as fast as you can. Or turn a $50 into $500 in a week like you.”

He stopped walking and turned to look at me like I’d insulted his mother. “Dev, did you just pronounce both ‘Ts’ in Atlanta?”

We both busted out laughing, and it covered up the awkwardness of my interrogation with the thunder bellowing from our bellies. I guess I really was losing my touch, because real Atlanta niggas never pronounced either “T” in “Atlanta.”

I put my hand on Ant’s chest to stop him from walking, looked him in the eyes and smiled big. “We’re here.”

We’d been walking for about an hour, just talking, smoking, enjoying each other’s’ presence. We had now arrived at the highway overpass. I think me and Ant discovered it some time around eighth grade.  We used it to smoke weed and talk about life. It was the only place in the West End where you could see the whole Atlanta skyline. We’d always climb over the fence and carefully shimmy our way down the edge of the bridge and jump down onto this piece of grass where the trees hid us. But we could see everything.

We sat there, our backs leaned against our favorite tree, and looked out at the Atlanta skyscrapers underneath the purple-blue, grayish-black sky. When we were kids the buildings weren’t as tall and the city wasn’t as big, but now there’s two football stadiums and at least three concert arenas, and I don’t remember ever asking for them. And I especially don’t remember white ladies walking their dogs in our neighborhood, but I guess they came with the stadiums and arenas and all the new bougie complexes they were always building.

“Momma says the house woulda fallen apart without me,” he said, taking a deep breath and I already knew what he was going to say next. ”You know, without pops there and all…”

I put a hand on his knee. A bit awkward of a thing to do, but he didn’t make me move it.

”How many more years does he got?” I asked.

“Thirty.”

“Damn.”

“It’s not that bad though. I got two jobs, and I’m dealin’ again on the side. And since Kayleigh just moved in with her baby’s daddy, I’m only paying for me, momma, and Lukas now. I think — ”

“It’s okay, Ant.” I cut him off, “We ain’t gotta talk about all our messes right now.”

Right when I said that, he was finished rolling another joint. We always smoked a lot when I was back in the city because it made time go a little slower. Made all our problems feel a little better. Somehow it seemed to make the city feel a little more familiar too, like the bud painted the streets with the Atlanta of my youth. I remember traipsin’ around when I didn’t know who I was and hadn’t yet realized a new city was being born, one that didn’t need us.

I watched him finish rolling the green into the paper. I always loved observing how delicate and steady his rough and calloused hands became when he started focusing on rolling the joint. It was like he breathed a little softer, existed a little differently for a few minutes. There's feeling of patience and delicacy when you're waiting on the joint to be rolled. The whole process was so familiar to me, so intimate.

The thin tip of the paper wedges between my lips and I inhale; I always coughed a lot after I hit it. I used to just bring an inhaler with me and it would help a little, but I haven’t been able to afford to go to the doctor for my asthma in years now. Ant always laughed when I would cough a lot, until one time when I passed out because I lost so much air. He still won’t let me live that night down, but now that time has passed, it’s the perfect roasting material.

“Why you starin’ at me Dev?” Ant asked, moving the joint away from his lips and licking them before passing it to me.

“I wasn’t,” I responded, obviously lying.

“Wallahi, I caught you starin’ at me. I’m used to it by now, nigga.”

I laughed it off, a little embarrassed I got caught staring at him while he smoked the joint. But he had this skin tone, that bold kind of dark that looked as endless as space. And the lips — that’s what I always get caught staring at, really — they’re big like mine and he always kept some chapstick on them. I swear I’ve never seen that nigga with chapped lips.

Ant chuckled. “So in your fancy job and everything, you gotta act all…” he was talking in his white people voice, and he lifted his chin up, putting a look on his face like he was about to say something serious. “Y’all gotta be all… so-phist-oh-cated”

I rolled my eyes. “Shut up.”

“I’m serious, nigga. You gotta wear a suit or some shit at the office and be a ‘so-phist-oh-cated’ ass nigga?” He made air quotes around sophisticated.

“Nah, sophistication is overrated.”

“You mean white?”

“Basically.”

I put my head down after saying that, because the sadness of sophistication set in.

He noticed my head hanging a little low for a few seconds, and I felt him move closer to me and lean his shoulder against mine. “Why’d you say earlier that you’re more scared of what comes after you graduate?”

I shrugged. “I mean, college is a little difficult. But it’s after college that everybody expects you to do a bunch of big shit and make a name for yourself…”

Silence fell over me and a pressure hit my chest. I didn't talk, I didn't think, I didn't focus on anything. Just kind of zoned out for a few minutes. I didn't really know how scary the future could be until I said it aloud to Ant. When I thought about how I had a whole white world against me.

Ant moved his shoulder away from mine and turned his face towards me, his dark eyes meeting mine.

“Just take moments as they come, man.” He leaned his head on my shoulder this time, then continued. “You always worrying about what’s happening five years from now or whatever, but just let that shit happen when it happens and life will continue, insha’Allah.”

I felt Ant pressing his head a little tighter against me, and I took a deep breath. He always knew what to say to make me feel better whenever I was tripping.

“Besides,” I felt his cheeks move against my shoulder and I knew it was his  big goofy smile, “you’re already one of the best things to come out this city.”

I looked down at him and smiled back.. Ant never smiled that often, at least not since middle school

He put his lips against mine before I had a chance to thank him for the compliment. He did that a lot, would touch his lips to mine when I wasn’t ready, like when my lungs were full of thick smoke, when I had to try my best not to inhale or let the smoke out when we kissed.

Ant wasn’t good at talking about his feelings; he let his actions speak for him. Usually, he would roll me a blunt when I was stressed, or get me food from the Beautiful off Cascade late on a Saturday night, or play the perfect music in the car for whatever mood we were in, or put his hands over mine when my hands got too shaky. He’d do all those things and I never had to ask. When the anxiety set in, when my worries all rested in structures and institutions and job applications and cops and whatever else in the world triggered something beneath my ribs, he was there and ready to help.

The kiss continued for just a few seconds more, enough time for me to inhale all the smoke he had to give me, and then he sat back against the tree. I laid my head against his shoulder and my kufi slid off my head a little, exposing how thick my hair had gotten over the past few weeks. But I didn’t mind for the moment. I closed my eyes. Wanted this moment to last long enough for it to carry me through a few days without stress. Wanted the cloud of smoke and early morning dew not to fade into cigarettes and overthinking. And the overthinking always set in as soon as I laid my head against my pillow at night.

Unless Ant was beside me.

“You good?” he said.

“Yeah. Just thinking.”

“Well think out loud then, nigga.”

I could feel his cheek moving against my head as he spoke. And with my hand on his stomach, I could feel his ab muscles tighten a little bit like he was laughing to himself.

“I was just thinking about how much shit can change in a few years,” I said. “The city don’t look the same to me no more. My mom can’t even afford the rent no more cause of all the white folks moving into the neighborhood. I smoke cigarettes now, try to act like a sophisticated nigga half the time, when I know deep down, I’m still that same country-ghetto-ass nigga that came up juuging just like everybody else.”

“Yeah, but you don’t think you’re better than any of us who are still here,” he responded.

“Of course not. I think y’all are better off than me. I’m just afraid that one of these weekends imma come home from college and you won’t be waiting on me. There won’t be a damn Atlanta to come home to. Like, I don’t know…”

I took a deep breath, realized that I was on the verge of getting stuck in that mental rut of mine, replaying scenarios and conversations in my head over and over again until doubt, regret, and anxiety set in. I wanted to talk more but felt my hands a bit shaky and breathing become more burdened, and I knew any words in that moment would be stuttered. My thoughts began racing, almost like they were playing tag with each other; my muscles grew tense.

Ant must have noticed the change in my body, because before I had time to gather myself I felt him shift position and put his arm around me. My head now rested snugly against his chest, he squeezed me tight and said “stop stressin’ fam.”

“I know, I know. I just…” I said wearily.

“Don’t let all that doubt and shit get to you. I know that’s what it is.”

I took a deep breath, inhaled my appreciation for him, for that moment, for the way he was always able to shake away the bad feelings that crept in. The self-doubt, pressure, and anxiety I felt looming over me seemed to melt away either when I was with Ant or during my daily prayers. Maybe Ant was like a prayer or a blessing.

Back in middle school we would always get out of school, hop on Marta, and race each other to the masjid on Broad St. He’d always beat me but would slow down or pretend to trip towards the end of the race just to let me win. Sometimes I feel guilty for that. I remember we’d step into the masjid just in time for prayer and we’d stand towards the back, giggling at all of the people who came into the space of prayer smelling like weed and alcohol.

Our mosque looked different than others; Muslims with hand-knit kufis, sagging pants, and tall-teas would file in line for prayer, and I’d look around and feel some strange form of affirmation from how invisible I was in this space. I would look over mid-prayer to see if Ant was still beside me praying, and many times I’d catch him peeping back at me.

But then I remembered how some of the older men at the masjid gave me strange looks, avoided being near me during prayer. Without words, people’s looks, facial expressions, and movements can tell you how they feel about you with a profound quietness. A quietness that creeps in so close to being unnoticed, if it wasn’t for its boisterous way of making you feel less-than. I watched quiet snickering about me take place, as men with large bellies and seemingly larger beards made intentions known by disinviting me to events and distancing themselves from me. A near-silent uncomfort built around me, like my failing to perform mannish movements was an unbearable disappointment to them.

This went on for weeks, maybe months before it set in as normalcy. I grew used to stale stares and rudeness. Until one day an older, shrinking man with heavy breathing underneath his thobe whispered faggot under his breath as he passed by me at the entrance. Before I realized it, Ant was there, in his face, asking the man, “What the fuck did you just say?” His voice firm and nearly raspy.

“I saw your friend’s Facebook status about wanting to use ‘they/them’ pronouns or whatever!” the man said.

Someone from the masjid must have taken a screenshot of my words online and made it a topic of discussion among the quiet. His voice rose louder, higher, and he pointed at me. “It’s haram! You faggots are bring that haram mess into this masjid!”

“We ain’t no faggots,” Ant quickly replied, pushing the man by the shoulders. I could feel him holding back because we were in the masjid, a place of worship and quiet. Before anything could pop off, I pushed the man out of Ant’s face, placing myself between the two of them, and quickly convinced Ant to just walk away.

The next day, the imam contacted us. We met him at the masjid and had a very long talk about how it is not okay to push people, especially other Muslims, but he did not mention one time about the man calling me a faggot. And while the talk was long and frustrating at times, it made me realize that Ant really did have my back despite whatever anxieties and bullshit was to come my way. Even when the city around me was changing colors more rapidly than I was prepared for. Even went it meant jeopardizing his relationship with the imam who went and visited his dad in prison every month. Ant had my back even if it meant jeopardizing a relationship with a man he looked up to for many years, the man who taught him how to recite surahs and pray properly. And here I was, thankful to have him.

A large truck below us honked at another one, making me jump a bit. We both took a deep breath at the same time. I was stuck in my head thinking all of the good times we had, and from the sound of Ant yawning, he was probably close to falling asleep.

“C’mon, the sun’s comin’ up,” he said as he stood up, helping me to my feet.

He hugged me tight — the kind of tight hug you give an old dog before you drop it off at the vet — and didn’t let go when I tried to pull away.

In a low voice, he said, “Come back sooner next time, Dev.”

We existed inside that hug for a few minutes before we both felt the sun crawl onto our skin.

Then we walked back down the sidewalk. The sun warmed us up along the way. That bruise-colored sky turned to a sweet pink. Shadows fell onto our brown skin as we lingered underneath a tree.

Ant looked at me with a splash of sadness across his face that he quickly hid behind his desire to help me.

“You gotta head back soon right,” he asked, stretching his arms upward until his lower abs were showing. “You need help packing your bags?”

I smiled, wrapped my arms around him mid-stretch, still unclear about the future of my city and if our secret spot will even still be there next time. But for now, it was still there, and we were in another one of those moments that felt like a prayer. I felt him arms come down onto me, around me.

I took a deep breath, “Yeah, I’d love that.”

 

Follow Devyn on Twitter @HalfAtlanta

 

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