Brandon was pretty sure it started with Ayesha.
Ayesha Miles, and P.S. 312.
Or maybe it started it lot earlier than that.
Yeah. It actually started with his father, and Jessica MacMillan. Jessica MacMillan was a new associate at his father’s law firm the year Brandon turned ten. And like he’d always done as managing partner, Brandon’s dad invited the new person over for dinner. On those nights, which didn’t happen too often, Brandon’s mom made him wear a button-down shirt, pressed slacks and the shoes that were usually reserved for church or going to visit his grandparents.
The night Jessica MacMillan came over had been like any other time a new associate came over. Or at least that was how Brandon remembered it. Maybe there had been some subtext that night that he didn’t pay attention to. But it wasn’t much later when he started hearing whispered arguments behind his parents’ bedroom door, and then louder arguments, and finally shouting matches during which neither of his parents even bothered to shut the bedroom door before unleashing on the other.
The details of the arguments varied, but the name often got flung about at the tail-end of some accusation, or a denial: … Jessica! … Jessica! … Jessica!
By the time his father packed all his things and moved out, Brandon knew without asking that Jessica MacMillan was responsible in some way. His mother stopped using the name altogether and called her “that woman” her voice dripping with disgust and rage. His father looked vaguely embarrassed and didn’t meet Brandon’s gaze. Once he was gone, the house was much quieter and Brandon only saw him on occasional weekends. He got a new haircut and wore different clothes. He didn’t look like Brandon’s father anymore.
When Brandon was almost twelve, his father had a baby with Jessica MacMillan and so Brandon had a baby sister whose name was Paulina. She was blonder than Brandon and had bright blue eyes that looked almost unreal. Brandon had to admit to himself that she was so picture-perfect, she looked like a baby from a television commercial. His dad—his and Paulina’s now—treated her like she was made of the most delicate, most brittle glass, and Jessica MacMillan grew still and watchful whenever Brandon picked her up.
It was shortly after Paulina’s arrival that Brandon and his mom moved out of their old house and into the city, into an apartment. Brandon didn’t know whether they moved so that mom could get away from the suburb where his dad and Jessica also lived, or because there was less money. He thought it might be about the money, but he was too afraid to ask.
The apartment was fine, and the neighborhood was fine too. There was a park nearby and Brandon could walk to the store if he needed to, it was so close. “The convenience of city living!” his mom chirped when she saw how close. Brandon knew from her voice that she was just trying to make the best of things.
The new neighborhood was populated with mostly Black people and some brown people, people browner than most of the people in their old neighborhood. The day they moved in, his mother sat him down and reassured Brandon that they were “fine, here. Perfectly fine. These are perfectly fine people. They’re just different than what we’re used to.” Brandon remembered thinking that the reassurances were more for her than for him. He knew a Black kid back at his old school. Kenny St. James. He had known Kenny for a long time. For about as long as he’d known anyone.
Kenny talked about being Black a lot, but in an offhand, casual way like some kids talked about vacationing in Florida or being lefthanded or something. Kenny was Black but he wasn’t like Black people on television. Black people on television were either really cool and hip, or really dangerous. Kenny was just the nerdiest kid in Brandon’s class. Maybe even the whole school.
In the new neighborhood, and in their apartment building, most of the people weren’t like Black people on television either. Sure, some of them were cool and hip, and a few were kind of scary. But most were just regular people, like Brandon. Like his mother and father. Like Jessica MacMillan and everyone else Brandon knew. And even for the scary ones, Brandon was aware that maybe some of the “scary” part was because of racism rather than because of any objective and real threat. Brandon knew he was kind of racist, because according to Kenny St. James, lots of white people were.
“My dad said you can’t help it,” Kenny told him matter-of-factly. “And that I should just feel bad for you unless you use your racism to try to hurt me.”
Brandon tried to think of the move to the new neighborhood as an adventure. It had been over a year since his father left, but he still hadn’t quite accepted that he and his mom had been replaced by Jessica and Paulina. He still thought once in a while that one day his father would return and tell them he’d made a mistake and they were all moving back home; and Jessica would take care of Paulina because after all, Paulina too, had just been a mistake.
Brandon’s mother cried all night the morning before she walked him around the corner to take him to P.S. 312. It was a different kind of school than Brandon was used to—just a red brick building that looked like it could be anything from a firehouse to a church. And unlike his old school, everything was inside. The only outdoor space was a paved-over lot surrounded by high chain link fences to keep people out, and the kids in.
He was too old to need his mom to walk him to school, but she did anyway because she was a little nervous about living in a city, and about sending him walking out on his own anywhere. Brandon let her walk him because he was a little nervous too. She took him all the way to the front office where a bunch of smiling Black ladies—not one white lady in sight—welcomed him and told his mom they would take good care of him, and not to worry.
“We’ll walk Mr. Brandon here right to his class,” the smiling-est of the smiling Black ladies said.
Her name was Mrs. Wilmington, but Brandon didn’t know her name that day. He had probably been told, but he was concentrating on looking and feeling unintimidated.
While he didn’t mind that they were living in a neighborhood and apartment where most of the people were Black and brown, going to school might be different. Because even though he was just a kid himself, he knew that kids could be vicious.
Mrs. Wilmington walked him down a long hallway of painted brick walls, interrupted by doors which were decorated with posters. Each poster was of another famous Black person.
“It’s Black History Month,” Mrs. Wilmington reminded Brandon. “Did you celebrate Black History Month at your old school? And learn about what Black people contributed to the American story?”
“Yes,” Brandon said. His voice sounded small.
But it wasn’t entirely true to say they “celebrated” it. It was remarked upon, and in some classes, teachers would mention how “African Americans” had contributed something to the relevant field. Like in science class they learned about some Black scientist, in English, a Black poet, and so on …
But in his old school, they never said “Black”, they always said “African American.” Though he thought of Black people as Black, Brandon had always gotten the impression it was impolite to call them that. So it kind of surprised him how easily the phrase “Black people” rolled off Mrs. Wilmington’s tongue.
But, she should know, he remembered thinking, whether it was impolite or not to refer to Black people as such.
In his new classroom, the full weight of his whiteness hit Brandon for the first time, maybe in his entire life. There were only about five other kids who even approached his skin-tone and they all had darker hair and were clearly Hispanic or Middle Eastern or something. There were a few Middle Eastern kids in his old school, fewer Hispanic kids. Here, no one else was blonde.
When he entered the room, a little over a dozen dark brown eyes turned in his direction and his new teacher, Mr. North stepped forward. Mr. North was Black, too. Brandon had never had a Black man as a teacher, and definitely not one like Mr. North who looked more like someone’s cool older brother’s best friend, than a teacher.
“C’mon in here, Brandon,” Mr. North said, placing a hand on Bandon’s shoulder and leading him to the front of the room. “Now we’re gon’ make Brandon feel real welcome, aren’t we?”
A chorus of ‘Hi, Brandon!’ went up. The chorus sounded kind of ironic, like when kids are performing niceness for adults but plan to kick your ass later.
“You’ll be sitting right here, my man,” Mr. North said, indicating a table up front. “Right here with Mark, Ayesha, and Tanya.”
The room was set up in tables of four, only four large tables instead of rows with desks. At Brandon’s old school, everyone had their own desk.
Brandon took his seat at the table and avoided everyone’s gaze. And everyone avoided his gaze, too except for one girl. Her skin was the color of tea with milk, her eyes large and dark and her hair arranged in a complicated array of braids that twisted around each other and were piled at the top of her head like a crown.
When Brandon looked at her, his eyes were drawn to that crown. He couldn’t figure out how it had been accomplished. He wanted to reach out and touch it.
The girl with the complicated hair tilted her head to one side. Her eyebrows raised. She seemed to understand his curiosity and be amused by it.
“Alright, listen up!” Mr. North said from the front of the room. “This week is going to be a busy one …”
The girl with the complicated hair turned her attention away from Brandon and toward their teacher, but not before offering him one last smile.
The first week at the new school, Brandon ate lunch alone, pretending not to care that he had no one to sit with. Most of the kids circled him curiously, some of them said ‘hey’ but none of them tried to speak to him beyond that. He developed a low-level resentment for them all, deciding that maybe what they said was true after all, and Black people were mean.
When his mother asked how school was, he told her it was ‘fine’ because he was old enough to understand that that was what she wanted to hear.
The second week at the new school, he came early on Monday, because his mom had a job interview. No one else was in the room, except the girl with the complicated hair, whose name he now knew was Ayesha. She was writing in a notebook, scribbling fast and furiously like she was trying to beat the clock.
She looked up when Brandon entered but said nothing. Her hair was slightly different now. Still complicated, but now the braids weren’t piled together atop her head and were instead gathered low at her nape in a ponytail that rested on her shoulder. Brandon’s fingers itched to take some of those braids in his hands and test their texture and weight.
Instead, he just unpacked his bag and sat across from her.
“Did you do this?”
Ayesha’s voice startled him. He looked up and she had turned her notebook so he could read it. She was working on an assignment from Language Arts, to answer questions about a book they were supposed to have read.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s due today.”
“I know, duh,” Ayesha said. “I didn’t finish. Can I get your answers?”
Brandon hesitated. To share his answers would be cheating.
“O… okay,” he said, haltingly.
“I won’t tell nobody,” Ayesha said, rolling her eyes. “I just can’t mess up again. My daddy will …” She shook her head, like she couldn’t even bear to imagine precisely what her daddy would do.
Brandon took out his notebook and opened it to the page where he had neatly and painstakingly answered all the assigned questions the night before.
Ayesha wrote fast, copying his answers and finishing up just moments before Mr. North entered the room.
“Good morning, Mr. North,” Ayesha sang, deftly sliding Brandon’s notebook back across the table.
“Ayesha, Brandon …” Mr. North responded. His tone was that of someone who knows you’ve been up to no good but isn’t sure precisely what.
“You havin’ lunch with me and my friends today,” Ayesha informed Brandon, just as a few other kids came spilling noisily into the room.
Eating lunch with Ayesha and her friends was like being handed a golden key. Suddenly, Brandon was worthy of conversation. Kids spoke to him that day, and every other day afterward. He was pulled into the fold.
Every day he sat under the only tree in the paved-over outdoor area with Ayesha and her group of friends—Robin and Thomas, and TreShawn and Josie. The boys, TreShawn and Thomas, kind of adopted Brandon after a while, taking only about another week before they stopped calling him “whiteboy.” But even when they had called him that, it was almost affectionate, and not nearly as biting nor as weird as it would have been had Brandon dared to call either of them “black boy.”
Once when some kid Brandon didn’t know called out to him, saying, “Hey! You! White kid!” TreShawn turned sharply, slung an arm across his shoulders and said, “This Brandon. He’s squad.”
It was probably the best thing that had happened to Brandon since he moved to the new school—being called “squad” by a kid as cool as TreShawn.
Watching TreShawn and Thomas over a matter of weeks, Brandon gradually picked up on stuff, and realized he’d been wearing his jeans all wrong. He chose different shirts, wore a fitted baseball cap, and even took to walking a little differently—slower, with a sway rather than a bounce. He saw his mother noticing the changes but she never said anything about them. Only once did she look at him across their small dining table and ask, fake-casually, “everything alright at school?”
Brandon nodded and smiled. “Yeah, Mom. Everything’s cool.”
Her eyebrows lifted a little at that response. ‘Everything’s cool,’ was something else he had picked up from Thomas and TreShawn. He was even considering changing his hair, but the girls—Robin and Josie—liked his hair and sometimes played in it at recess. He liked the way they combed their slender brown fingers through it, lightly scraping his scalp, scooping it up and letting it go again.
“Oh my god, it’s so soft,” Robin would groan.
It became a habit for her to play in his hair every lunchtime while they were sitting and eating until the day Ayesha looked up just as Robin was about pull Brandon’s dark blonde hair back into a man-bun.
“Why your hands always in his hair?” she snapped.
Everyone froze for a few seconds, Brandon included. It wasn’t just what Ayesha said, it was the way she said it. It sounded proprietary.
“It ain’t your hair!” Robin said, once she recovered from her surprise. “Why’s it bother you?”
But she stopped playing in Brandon’s hair.
“You’re not a doll, or a girl,” Ayesha chided Brandon under her breath when they were walking together back to class after recess. “You’re a dude! Don’t be lettin’ people pet you.”
He felt chastened, and immediately started thinking of ways to avoid being “petted” by Robin next time. But he didn’t need to. Robin never tried to do it again.
After that, Brandon started noticing other stuff about Ayesha. Not just her complicated hair, which went through a metamorphosis every two weeks or so, but the way she laughed with her whole entire face and body, the way she stared at him with frank brown eyes and never seemed shy or intimidated when he caught her at it. And the way she commanded the attention and fealty of most of the other girls in their grade and some of the boys as well. She was bossy, but not in an obnoxious, annoying way. She was bossy in a way that made Brandon want her to take notice of him, even if just to include him among the people she bossed around.
He realized that she was super-smart, even though in class she often seemed bored or inattentive. When called on while distracted, Ayesha almost always answered the question correctly even after not paying attention. Soon, whenever he looked at her, Brandon felt his stomach flip with admiration and something else, different and even deeper than admiration. When she looked at him—which he thought might be more often than it used to be—he worried that he might go red in the face.
Ayesha even charmed all the teachers who seemed to know on some level they were being played, but couldn’t seem to help being charmed nevertheless. Most of all, Brandon liked her confidence, and fearlessness. Once after school, her father came to get her, and Brandon saw right away where Ayesha got all her self-assurance. Her father was tall, like a basketball player, and dark in complexion. He walked with long strides, like he owned the very earth beneath his feet. One arm draped easily around Ayesha’s shoulders, he sheltered her with his imposing physicality and chatted with her as he walked her to a big, white SUV at the curb. Ayesha smiled at him when he opened the passenger side door to let her in before going around to get in himself. When she looked at her father her eyes were bright with unrestrained adoration.
After that, it became Brandon’s mission to get Ayesha to smile at him the same way.
He eventually did get one of those smiles. It would be later, much later, much, much later when he and Ayesha were juniors. By then, Brandon had become one of the coolest guys in school himself, along with Thomas and TreShawn who were still squad. He asked Ayesha to a school dance and it was there, finally, that he plucked up the courage to kiss her.
When he pulled away from the kiss, she smiled at him.
“What took you so long?” she asked.
And after that, it was a wrap. Ayesha Miles was the blueprint.
They broke up right before graduation. It was Ayesha’s idea, and Brandon was crushed. But even in college and the ensuing years, he found himself chasing that funny feeling he got the first time Ayesha caused his stomach to flip. He eventually married a girl kind of like her—nutmeg brown skin, smart, charming, and even a little bit bossy. A girl who could slay him with a smile and who wore her complicated hair like a crown.