I didn’t grow up in the ghetto I grew up a block away. Lucy lived across the street and one block down in the projects. She was the kind of girl LL rapped about; bamboo earrings, but no extensions in her hair. All the guys wanted to be with her. If not for an eleven second head spin I did one day after school, she would have never noticed me.
I knew the streets well but the projects were off limit. My parents hadn’t yet gotten over the vicious crime spree that swept the city a few years prior. Back then, they used to steal the sneakers off your feet. Everyday the news ran stories about someone getting held up. Every other day, we saw it happen. At the bus stop, in the school yard, and at the handball courts. Break-ins were another problem and although we still had gates on the window and Max, our Doberman, we no longer used three locks, a chain, and a police bar on the front door. Everyone was beginning to breathe easier but still, my parents insisted I had no business in the projects. But when Lucy invited me over, that was all the business I needed.
I almost said no when she asked me over to her house. I had a book report on Catcher in the Rye due that week and only read up to the part where Ackley sat on Holden’s bed popping pimples. But the line of girls asking me out ran one deep. On top of that, she sweetened the offer. “My mom is making Italian food.”
It was one of those days where the weather was stuck in between seasons- too warm for a jacket but too cool for a shirt. Trying to be cool, I opted for the shirt. I told my parents I was going to the library, fixed my curl and headed out. The projects were terra incognita and although I only lived a block away, I was a tourist. Tall pale brick buildings towered over lawns of dirt, proof that the sun don’t shine in the projects. Shattered glass littered the sidewalks where unattended children, one in diapers, played. Lucy waited in front of her building. She was wearing tight, stone washed jeans and a fluffy white sweater. I didn’t notice anything but her. That was a bad thing.
“Waddya looking at?” I vaguely recall hearing. “You ignoring me?” the voice said again. It wasn’t until I saw Lucy’s startled reaction that I turned toward the voice. Just in time to see a three finger name ring and the fist it belonged to coming at me. The ring read -“CHAOS.” They say he once hit a guy so hard; his driver’s license had a black eye. “CHAOS” was scribbled all over the neighborhood. His was a defacing graffiti, a bruise rather than art. Now he was in the midst of leaving a different bruise. His punch made my eyes water and blackened my left eye. I didn’t know what was happening nor why, but I knew I had to put my hands up the way and move my head the way Mike Tyson used to. But before I could retaliate, it ended.
A group of neighborhood tough guys broke up the fight. “He’s my friend!” Lucy shouted. She somehow managed to push me into the building amid all the cussing and screaming of the suddenly large and growing mob that quickly assembled, but not before I saw Chaos drag his finger across his throat in a slashing movement. When we got to her apartment, her family rushed over to us. News spread fast.
Her sister was four months pregnant and her mom three. Lucy’s father, a semi employed community activist shouted from across the room, “You gotta know how to fight if you want to survive.” His right foot was in a cast and propped up on the glass coffee table. He broke his ankle on some jagged Belgian Block while on his way to a save the cobblestone rally. Her sister’s boyfriend jumped in, “man, you’re crazy messing with Chaos. Lucy, you didn’t tell him you and Chaos are seeing each other?”
“Shut up! We’re not seeing each other.”
I felt like leaving but reasoned it was best to let the dust settle. Besides, I was getting hungry. I could tell from looking at her mother that she made pasta the way I liked- with sofrito and sazon.
I sat on the red, plastic covered couch. Lucy’s older brothers were both serving: one in Paris Island the other at Rikers Island. Her sister’s boyfriend put on his jacket and went down to the corner store to buy a stick of butter. I felt cold suddenly when I saw his jacket and wished I would have worn mine.
“Let me get you some ice for your eye,” Lucy said. I asked for a mirror. Lucy led me down the hall past the bathroom straight into her bedroom. Teddy bears wrapped around her room in one continuous row from her bed, to the window sill, and onto her white dresser. Photos of her and her friends covered the mirror. I leaned over to get a good look but not of my eye. “Turn around” she said. She softly pressed the ice against my eye. She pulled me close to her. I felt like I was about to scratch the final number of a winning lottery ticket. I was about to kiss her when I noticed a picture of her with Chaos locked an embrace. Her lips touched mine but I pulled back. I felt like I was kissing Chaos. “You can’t kiss” she scoffed. “Let’s go back.”
I took a seat at the small, round table and thought about the food. I cracked a few jokes and even managed to make Lucy smile. We talked about music, school, and my eye. We laughed and joked about it, her sister’s boyfriend saying that it looked like a shit stain. But it all stopped when I saw the can. Everybody kept talking but I didn’t hear a word. One by one it hit me:
I skipped my homework, got into a fight and disobeyed my parents-all for a can of Chef Boyardee.