He’s just Raf: An All the Little Things Short Story

Zenobia was a surprise hit character in the All the Things series. She started as a throwaway character that was supposed to be in one scene and then ended up being a big part of Rafael’s overall story arc. How naturally her voice came to me was just too great of an opportunity to waste, not to mention Rafael’s fondness of her and the two gravitating to each other wasn’t something I had to force. And readers really responded to her. However, even I wasn’t oblivious to the ways people in their world could perceive their relationship with each other and how problematic it could appear just at first glance. So I conceived this little oneshot of Zenobia trying to figure out just what her relationship with Rafael is and what it means to her.

Also, SPOILERS. Not huge ones, I don’t think. But, know stuff might be spoiled some if you haven’t read all the books in the All the Things series

###

Zen, 15 years and 11 months old

“Akilah.”

She looks up at me. And like every time I look at Akilah, I’m struck by how pretty she is. Her shiny dark skin is smooth with not one bump or pimple. Her dark brown eyes have this sparkle to them, almost like her eyes are always watery but they’re not. And her hair is sticking up in kinks and curls in every which direction because she doesn’t like to comb it. She only does enough maintenance to brush back the edges and tie a silk ribbon around her head to keep her hair out her face.

Maybe by the time I’m her age, I won’t have to deal with acne and my skin breaking out. And maybe I’ll stop feeling like my body’s too awkward for me. Awkward in the sense that it hasn’t developed into the female body the right way. Not awkward like I think I’m trans or something like that. Rafael tells me it’s just that awkward puberty stage and I’ll eventually grow out of it. I’m not sure I believe that yet. But Rafael’s never purposely misled me about things like this.

“Yeah, Zen.”

I’m still not used to how Akilah and Rafael give me their undivided attention when I want something from them. My mom was always dealing with her own shit and my grandma was always tired or working.

In a lot of ways, there wasn’t a lot of difference between living with my grandma and my mom except my mom had men in and out the house while my grandma didn’t, and my grandma paid all the bills on time and we had a decent place to stay. It was always a flip of the coin on whether I’d come home to all our stuff on the side of the road or not when I was with my mom. But in both places, I did what I wanted and no one did a lot of asking about where I was going or who I was hanging out with, even though my grandma tried to put me in environments where I might meet the “right” crowd.

Rafael on the other hand always wants to know where I’m at and where I’m going and who I’m going to be with and always telling me where and when I can’t go somewhere, even though he swears he doesn’t have a lot of rules. Akilah’s a lot more lenient than Rafael in that respect, but a lot more attentive in other ways. Like my sexuality and feelings and all that shit. It’s annoying sometimes but… their caring like that is nice.

“Can you help me with something? For Raf?” I finally ask.

******

Zenobia, 11 years and 8 1/2 months old

Rafael hasn’t said anything to me since he talked the vice principal out of an outright suspension to only a dismissal for the rest of the day and detention for a week for fighting. We only walk silently down the hall, side by side toward the exit. Everyone’s in class right now, so no one’s in the hall right now to see and add more talk to the talk that caused me to get in trouble in the first place.

I can’t tell if he’s mad at me. He looks a little tired. More than usual anyway since I know he doesn’t sleep a lot. Akilah says he has some kind of complex. She didn’t give it a name. Only said that Raf’s always into something new and different and taking on more than is probably a good idea, and he suffers for it by not sleeping. But that’s not that kind of tired on his face.

I think something may be going on with him and Akilah. He hasn’t said anything, but he hasn’t mentioned her in a while. And he’s been hanging out with this other light skinned girl named Bree a lot. And when I called Akilah to ask, she wouldn’t say anything except that they’re working it out even though it doesn’t seem like it.

It’s once we’re in the car that Rafael sighs and leans his head back against the headrest with his eyes closed and asks, “You gone tell me why you were fighting?”

I had this all planned out in my head. What I was going to say to Rafael when I found out he was coming to get me instead of my mother. My mother is easy to deal with. She just cusses a lot, but never says anything worth listening to or worrying about. She may try to ground me, but that doesn’t work. Rafael, though, has a way of making me feel stupid. Not on purpose. He’s just going to expect some kind of logical explanation. There’s no “just because” with him. And when I can’t give him anything beyond that, feeling dumb about something I was sure about is worse than any punishment anyone could give me.

I open my mouth, ready to say what I planned, but none of that is what comes out.

“Well, what else was I supposed to do?” I ask turning to him as he opens his eyes and begins to drive out the parking lot. “People were talking about this girl, more than one girl actually, who gets picked up by this older guy that she tells people is her boyfriend. And they were talking about how it was really cool, and I told them it was really creepy and how it sounded like that R. Kelly stuff from that documentary. And I told them those guys were either their pimps or perverts—”

“You watched that documentary?” Rafael cuts in. “Your mom let you watch it?”

“No. I watched it with Akilah at Perla’s house during the break,” I say.

“She let you watch that,” Rafael says tightly with a hard roll of his eyes. 

He sounds more frustrated about that than he should, and I’m pretty sure it has something to do with the fact that him and Akilah seem broken up right now. If I thought he’d actually let me be nosy about it, I’d try to change the subject to that. But unlike my mom, who’s happy to talk to me about her relationship problems, Rafael usually tells me it’s none of my business.

So instead I keep going. “Yeah. She let me watch it and then I read about it some more on the internet and—”

“I really don’t want to know those details, Zen,” he cuts in.

Oh. Yeah. I’m not supposed to talk about the details of this stuff around Rafael. Akilah told me that when I asked why he would go upstairs and lock himself in his room with loud music on when we watched the documentary all three nights. She said it was triggering for him. Rafael has a lot of those. Triggers, that is. Akilah won’t tell me for what but… I think something happened to him when he was younger that he doesn’t talk about with anyone.

“Right, but they told me I was one to talk because my boyfriend is always coming to pick me up and take me places. And when I asked them who they were talking about, they said they were talking about you. And when I said it wasn’t like that, they asked me then who were you. And when I couldn’t give them a good answer, they started saying things and I had to fight them! It was the only way to get them to shut up!”

When I don’t say anything else, he asks, “Are you done?”

“Yes.”

“Okay,” he says calmly. And I both hate and love this about him. That he’s so calm and cool about everything. There’s not a lot that makes Rafael mad very easily.

“What was it that they—and I’m assuming that’s your classmates—but what was it that they said that was enough to justify you fighting them, Zen?”

Ugh. I cross my arms and look straight out the windshield. I hate when he asks me questions like these.

“I don’t know. Them talking about you like that I guess. It’s weird because you’d never do anything like that. That’s not… You’re not… The only one you’re like that with is Akilah.” And this new girl, Bree. But he’s not going to give me a straight answer about what’s going on with that.

“Then if you know that, why was it such a big deal? What would their talk have done?”

And now he’s making me feel dumb. Because it probably wouldn’t have done anything.

“I don’t know,” I say and before Rafael can say anything, I add, “and I know all that shit about giving people power over me, but I just didn’t want them to tell and you to get in trouble or anything.”

“I’m a grown man, Zen. I don’t need you to protect me.”

“That is the whole point!” I exclaim. “You’re this grown dude who isn’t my mom’s boyfriend and not physically related to me in any way. You’re my fighting trainer and martial arts teacher who for some unknown reason takes me home, feeds me, takes me places, and generally lets me follow you around and be where you’re at. How do I explain that?”

Rafael laughs. “So that’s why it bothers you. You think it’s weird, and someone else pointed that out, and you didn’t like it.”

“No. Yes… I guess,” I grumble. “It’s not even that though. It’s that I didn’t know how to explain it.”

“How do you want to explain it?”

I shrug. “I don’t know. There’s not a word for it. And nothing sounds right.”

“Tell you what? You let me know when you figure it out. And in the meantime, no more getting into fights with people over this. No more getting into fights at all actually,” he adds nudging me in the arm with his elbow.

I try to stay serious, but I can’t help the grin that spreads across my face and the giggle that escapes me.

******

Zenobia, 12 years old

I hear Rafael’s loud music bumping down the road long before Lexis’ and Lex’s mom comes to get me from where I’m lying down in Lexis’ room.

“Honey,” Lexis’ mom says. “Rafael’s here.”

“Did he bring Akilah with him?” I ask.

“I didn’t see her.”

I groan. I outright asked him to make sure he brought her with him. Hardheaded. Frankly, he would be no better than dealing with my mom right now, wherever she is today.

“Honey. Before you leave, can I ask you something?” Lexis’ mom says sitting on the bed next to me.

“Yeah?”

“Who is Rafael?”

I lean down to grab my bookbag. 

“What do you mean?” I ask carefully.

“Like… how is he related to you?”

I should have known she would eventually ask. And a year or so ago I would have been mad at what she’s suggesting but I guess I should be glad people care about who I’m always with now.

“He’s… like an older brother. In a way…”

In a way being that sometimes he does stuff that an older brother would do. Like, he picks me up from Lex’s and Lexis’ house. Or when he sneaks me into his dorm for overnight when I don’t want to be at home. Or when mom punishes me, no matter whether or not she had a good reason for it, he convinces her to lighten up and let him take me to a midnight movie premiere or to whatever place he and Akilah might be going to next.

And sometimes I can tell I’m bothering him, like the day I got into another fight and interrupted something with his fraternity. I wanted to be mad at him that day for fussing at me, but he came to pick me up anyway so I let him. And then after that when he would to hang out with his new frat buddies or even be with Akilah and would brush me off. But when I really need him, he’s there even if I am messing up his plans. At least, that’s what I think a good older brother is like. I only have what Akilah tells me and what Lexis’ and Lex’s older brother do with them to go by.

“But he’s not, is he?” Lexis’ mom asks.

“He’s not,” I say. And then, because I don’t know, I add, “He’s just Raf.”

“Just Raf, huh?”

I shrug.

“Okay, honey. I just want to make sure you’re safe.”

“Trust me. If I’m safe with anyone, it’s with Raf,” I say as I stand and put my bookbag over my shoulder.

I make my way downstairs where Rafael is standing in the living room watching Lexis play on her Xbox. She makes some maneuver on a fighting game and Rafael points and says, “Wait. How did you do that?”

Lexis starts to explain until both she and Raf see me.

“You feeling better, Zen?” Lex asks from next to his sister.

I shrug as Rafael comes up to me and says, “Ready kid?”

I nod and tell Lex and Lexis that I’ll text them later.

As we walk to the car which Akilah is absolutely not in, I say, “I told you to bring Akilah.”

“I couldn’t. She’s got a late class today,” Rafael says. “But I don’t know what you’d need Akilah for while you’re sick that I couldn’t do.”

“When Lexis’ mom said I wasn’t feeling well, she didn’t mean the kind everybody gets.”

“What do you mean not the kind everybody gets?”

I groan and put my hands over my face. God, for someone I know is as smart as Rafael, he can be an idiot.

“Wait a minute,” Rafael says, and when I peek through my hands to see a grin stretching across his face, I know he’s caught on much to my relief and horror. “Did you get your first period?”

“Rafael!” I exclaim. “Oh my God. This is why I wanted Akilah. You don’t know that. I don’t wanna talk about this with you.”

Rafael laughs. “I have a wife. I know what a period is. She can’t keep up with her damn diva cup.”

“Stop talking! I—What’s a diva cup?”

He chuckles and says, “I’ll let Akilah explain that one to you.”

“When does she get out of class?”

“Eight or so.”

“That’s in three hours. I can’t wait that long!”

“Why not?”

OH MY GOD!

“Because there’s a damn blood river running out from between my legs!” I say as I pull my feet up and put my face in my knees.

Rafael only keeps laughing,

“It’s not funny!”

“It probably shouldn’t be, but it is.”

“I hate you,” I mutter. And then feel the car turning and look up to see Rafael getting on the highway. “Where are we going?”

“Perla’s house. She should be home by the time we get there. She’ll help you. Probably will have some extra pads because I used to have to run out to buy them enough times for her.”

“Thanks,” I whisper. “I guess.”

Rafael only starts laughing again. Yeah. Like a brother. In some ways. But not all the time.

******

Zen, 13 years and 10 months old

I search the crowd for familiar faces after the award ceremony my school had for the end of the year, particularly for everyone in the eighth grade who will be going to high school next year. I spot Akilah near the back and instinctively look for Rafael because where she is he’s never too far behind. But he’s not around.

“Where’s Raf?” I ask as soon as I’ve stepped up to her.

“Hey to you too, Zen,” Akilah says.

I hug her, knowing she’s not really offended. Akilah’s great. And when I need her help with girl issues she’s always there, but it’s not like Rafael to not show up somewhere for me when he promised he would.

“He’s here,” she answers. “He had to help your mother with something.”

I blink. “My mother’s here?”

“Yeah,” Akilah says in an unimpressed tone. Unlike Rafael, who for all I know acts like my mother is his best friend who no one can talk bad about, Akilah doesn’t try to hide her annoyance with my mom. I don’t mind. It’s hard for me to hide my annoyance with my mother nowadays too.

“Here they come,” Akilah says pointing to the direction of the doors where Raf and my mother are headed back into the room.

“Hey baby!” my mother says loudly and enthusiastically when she sees me.

“Hey, mom. I didn’t know you were coming,” I say considerably less enthusiastic.

“Of course I was coming. I wasn’t going to miss out on my baby getting all those awards,” she says enthusiastically once again.

It sure looked like she was going to miss it this morning when she was strung out on coke with her latest boyfriend. And based on her behavior, the confident swagger she strolled in with as she walked into the room with Rafael, and the way her pupils are so huge, she’s still high.

I look at Rafael, who’s looking stonily at my mother. Like he could choke her right now. I wouldn’t blame him. Sometimes I want to slap her and scream at her to snap out of it. To stop doing all this to herself. To be more like the mom she was when she first got me back and not this person who’s more of a stranger to me than she was when I was with my grandma and wasn’t allowed to see her.

“Raf,” I say.

He blinks out his glare and turns to look at me before grinning and saying, “Good job kid. All A’s. No fights this year either? Awesome.”

No fights that him or the teachers found out about. And I won’t remind him about the two times he had to come to the school to get me out of trouble for “mouthing off” at a teacher when I wasn’t mouthing off but just expressing my opinion about something said in class. Even Raf thought it was bullshit and went back and forth with the vice principal about if school wasn’t a safe space to express myself then how was I supposed to learn anything and then fought tooth and nail against them suspending me. They suspended me anyway, and I sat with him at the gym all day, and he took me to the movies with a couple of his frat brothers later that night.

He holds out an arm and I grin as I walk into his embrace, wrapping my free arm around his waist and burying my face in his side. He doesn’t initiate physical touch like this with me very often. So when he’s open to it, I jump at the chance.

“No hugs for your mama?” my mother asks.

“I wish you hadn’t come,” I mutter, but she hears me. So does Rafael.

My mother’s expression turns stony, and she opens her mouth to say something back to me, but Rafael gives her a pointed look and then unwraps his arm from around me as he looks down and says to me firmly, “Zen.”

Before he can finish, one of my teachers, Ms. Kenya, comes up to us.

“Good job, Zenobia,” Ms. Kenya, a woman with locks piled high on her head, says. “I’m going to miss you next year. Don’t misbehave too much in high school.”

“I make no promises,” I declare.

Rafael shoves me gently in the shoulder for that one.

“You must be Zenobia’s mother,” my teacher says reaching out to shake my mother’s hand. Then she turns to Rafael and says, “And you’re her uncle I’m assuming?”

She asks in a very unassuming way, but there’s more to it than that. I’m one of those kids, a girl in particular, that the whole faculty worries about in some way or another in both good ways and bad ways. But it’s the bad ways I hear about most. My grandma died. They can never get ahold of my mom. I’ve moved three times this year alone. In essence, I’m the poster child for dysfunctional home life.

Part of the faculty’s concern is about who the hell Rafael is to me. Since I punched that boy in the jaw in sixth grade, no one has the guts to say anything to my face about it. But my classmates, even the ones who call themselves my friends, still talk when I’m not around. And the idea that he’s a predator and he’s groomed me to be his victim is still one of the most popular theories. Right up there with my mother being his side chick. And all the teachers have heard about it.

They ask me things like is everything okay at home. Meaning the normal stuff with my mom. And they ask if anyone’s taking advantage of me.

“No. Raf’s not. If that’s what you’re asking.”

Ms. Kenya is the only one that believes me when I say Rafael’s okay. But even she wonders. So it’s actually very clever of her to ask this way. I guess I can understand how she drew that conclusion. Lord knows Rafael looks out for my mother like a brother would even though me and Akilah don’t understand why. As for acting like an uncle? Well, I guess uncles would come pick up their niece if they got in trouble at school because their only parent couldn’t be contacted. And uncles would take their nieces with his wife and sister and nephew on a family vacation I guess. And an uncle would definitely come to an award ceremony to celebrate my promotion to high school and be mad at my mother for threatening to make a scene while she’s high.

But calling Raf an uncle is just weird. Because he’s not.

“He’s not my uncle. Just Raf,” I say with a shrug. Then I add, “A good friend of the family.”

That works. For now.

Ms. Kenya seems to think that too because she says nothing else on it and hugs me and says she’s going to miss me not just in her class but seeing me around school in general.

“So, dinner? Where we going?” Rafael asks me when Ms. Kenya leaves.

Akilah and I exchange a grin and then we both say, “Italian!”

Rafael groans and says, “You and Akilah kill me with wanting pasta all the time.”

“You work out, like, eight hours a day. A little pasta won’t kill you,” I declare.

“Baby,” my mom says.

I turn to her. She seems to have forgotten her initial anger at me.

She continues, “You have fun okay? Rafael, don’t bring her back too late. You already spoil her.”

I frown. “You’re not coming?”

“Got business to take care of,” she says.

No. She doesn’t. She doesn’t work except for sometimes doing people’s nails when she needs quick cash. She doesn’t have any hobbies. She doesn’t do anything. And even if she did, I’ve been telling her about this for weeks. Was it too much to ask for her to just set aside a day for me? Fuck it. I don’t know why I’m even surprised.

Rafael is giving my mom that stony look again and says tightly, “Sandra.”

“Sorry, Rafael. Sorry, Zenobia. It can’t be helped,” my mother says with a shrug.

Rafael rarely gets angry about anything, but I see his face tighten in a sure sign that he’s angry right now. He starts to say something to my mother, probably something that would have her stomping off in her own anger and dragging me along with her in spite.

“It’s okay. Whatever,” I say before Rafael can say anything.

My mother doesn’t even seem conflicted and instead smiles, pulls me into a hug, and kisses me on the cheek. Then she leaves, and Rafael, Akilah and me watch her go.

After a while, Rafael asks, “So did you ever go online and watch the fight I told you to watch?”

Normally, I love talking about fights and martial arts and stuff like that with Raf, but I want to be angry. I want to throw a temper tantrum really. But Raf doesn’t deserve dealing with that. He’s trying to cheer me up. I’ll leave being difficult and throwing a tantrum for my mother. She deserves it.

“That shit was wild!” I say in response.

“I know right,” Rafael says to me.

The whole way to the restaurant we discuss the fight, with Akilah interjecting every now and then to ask why something was such a big deal and us trying to explain it to her.

******

Zen, 14 years old

My mother thinks I’m stupid. And even more frustrating right now is that Rafael knows I’m not but indulges her anyway. I know she’s leaving. And I know she’s leaving me here with Rafael and Akilah while my brother and sister stay with their dads. And I know she’s never going to take me back.

“How long you think it’s going to take them to just tell you your mom’s going into that program with that Maiko lady and leaving you here?” Anthony asks as we sit in my room on my bed and play Grand Theft Auto on my PlayStation.

I shrug.

Suddenly, Anthony groans and says, “Fuck my life, man!” at the game while running a hand over his head. He used to prefer it pretty much bald but since he started to actually grow facial hair, he’s growing it into a ‘fro to go with the beard he’s trying to grow out because, and I quote, ladies love a chocolate man with facial hair.

“It won’t be so bad though,” Anthony adds once he’s done being angry at the game. “Won’t be bad at all actually. Big-Ra is dope. It’ll be like having a cool dad! Like, not the ones who try to be hip and cool and down with the time, but one that actually is!”

“Ack. Rafael? My dad? That’s weird. He’s not even eleven years older than me.”

“Hey! You never know.”

“Can a boy even do anything with his dick like that at that age? Like, is it big enough to do anything?” I ask looking at Anthony.

“I don’t know.”

“Well was yours?”

He pauses the game and gives me a weird look for a moment and then we both bust out laughing.

“Really, Z?” Anthony says through his laughter. “You really asked me that and want me to answer? Do you realize how that sounds?”

“You know that’s not what I meant. I was just trying to make the point that there’s no way Raf is old enough to be my dad because it probably wasn’t even possible,” I manage to say. “I don’t how a dick grows.”

That only makes Anthony laugh harder.

“You don’t know how a dick grows,” he gasps clapping his hands and then holding onto his stomach as he laughs. “Oh, God. I can’t breathe! I’m dying.”

“It’s not that funny,” I say even though I’m in about the same state he’s in.

Suddenly the door that had been cracked to a silver opens all the way, and Raf is standing there looking at us with his arms crossed and eyebrows raised.

“What have I told you two about being in here with the door closed?” he asks slowly.

“Sorry, Big-Ra. We weren’t trying to do anything. I swear,” Anthony says still grinning. Then he adds, “Well I wasn’t trying to anyway.”

He falls into laughter again.

I hit him in the arm and say, “Shut the fuck up, asshole.”

He doesn’t take me seriously and only laughs at me, which I guess isn’t surprising since I’m still laughing at little too.

“Okay,” Rafael says slowly. “Anthony, mind giving me a minute with Zenobia to talk?”

Anthony doesn’t answer, but gets to his feet and walks out my room, still cackling as he does so.

“What was that about?” Raf asks as he takes the place Anthony was just sitting in on my bed.

“Nothing,” I say shaking my head.

Rafael give me an “okay…” look and then asks, “How’s your neck feeling?”

Instinctively I reach up to touch the fading bruises around my neck from where my mother’s boyfriend wrapped his hands around it trying to choke me when I got in between him beating my mother in the kitchen. He probably got it worse though. I almost popped his eyes out trying to make him let go and then got in a hit to his ribs and nose afterward before running and taking the bus to Rafael’s apartment. And there’s no telling what Rafael did to him when he went to get my mother and siblings from over there. It’s a wonder my mom’s boyfriend—ex-boyfriend now—isn’t dead. He’s lucky Aki, Raf’s cop friend, got over there in time I guess.

“The stiffness is gone,” I finally answer.

“Good. Hopefully, those bruises will have gone away completely before school starts,” Rafael says gently putting his hand on the place where he can still see the bruises.

“What high school am I going to?” I ask.

My mom would have played dumb with me, but Rafael’s never been about trying to hide something from me that he knows I already know.

“We’re trying to get it figured out. Maybe Lex’s and Lexis’ school. I train a guy who knows someone connected to the school boards and admissions and stuff, and they’ll see if we can pull some strings to get you a spot this late in the game,” Rafael replies.

“How long am I going to be staying here?”

“I don’t know.”

“How long do you think?”

“I don’t know that either.”

It may be true that he doesn’t know, but he has just as much of a suspicion as I do that this is going to be a permanent arrangement. And it’s not that I’d mind that I just… so much has changed so fast, and I just want one thing to stay the same whether that’s living with my mother or Rafael and Akilah.

“I know that’s not the answer you want,” Rafael says. I’d say he’s reading my mind, but he also just knows me that well. “But truthfully your mom didn’t give me a lot of information before she left.”

I frown at that. “She’s gone? Like not coming back gone?”

Rafael sighs. “Yeah.”

I don’t say anything for a minute as the reality that my mother left penetrates. Not only did she leave though, but she left without saying goodbye. She left without telling me herself that she didn’t want to deal with me anymore.

“Bitch,” I suddenly say.

“Zenobia,” Rafael says in that tone where he knows he has to fuss at me for something but doesn’t really want to because he understands why I did or said it.

“She couldn’t even tell me to her face that she was leaving me here even though I’ve known for a whole week and a half. And then she just leaves without saying good-bye. Bitch ass hoe,” I snap as everything that’s happened since just after my birthday begins to fill up my senses. I expect Rafael to say something about me insulting my mother but he just sits there silently.

“And I bet she’s not going to call me either,” I continue. “She’s going to let it go straight to voicemail. Or call you and tell you to tell me that she misses me and that she loves her baby. Raised all that hell when I was with my grandma and did all that work to get me back. Did all that work to get me to trust her and realize she wasn’t so fucking bad after grandma died only to prove everyone was right and that she never should have been allowed to have me to begin with. And… And—”

A lump in my throat prevents me from being able to finish and then I choke and burst into tears.

“Hey,” Rafael says as he pulls me to him.

Rafael must be really worried about me if he’s taking me in his arms like this. I guess I’d be worried too. The last time he probably saw me cry is when I threw that tantrum at my grandma’s funeral and tried to fight my mother.

“Why does everyone leave me?” I ask into his shoulder.

“Everyone doesn’t leave you.”

“My dad left me before I was born. My grandma used to leave me all the time to work and then she died. And now my mom doesn’t even want me. Why won’t anyone stay for me? What’s wrong with me?”

“That’s their fuck up, Zen. Not yours. And sometimes… sometimes people are so focused on the bad and what’s not right that they’re afraid of the good.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. How can you be afraid of something that’s good?”

Rafael pauses, probably because he’s afraid to get his words wrong and make me mad because God knows a lot of his beefs with Akilah are because he said something that sounded like something he didn’t mean for it to sound like.

Finally, he says, “Because they think it’s going to be bad like everything else that’s so bad that they’re looking at. But it’s not. They just don’t wanna risk it. And that’s something wrong with them. Not you.”

“Even if I’m always getting into fights with people who deserve it,” I whisper, my tears having stopped for now.

“Even if you are always getting into fights with people who deserve it and I always have to get you out of trouble,” Rafael agrees. I can tell he doesn’t want to though because he doesn’t like to encourage me getting into fights. “But can we please not revive that habit in high school because the first grown ass security guard to slam you into the ground for being a so-called ‘hoodlum’ for defending yourself is going to be a dead ass man. And I really would like to keep avoiding jail if I can help it.”

I snicker at that even though I know very well that Rafael would risk jail to hurt someone over me. He proved that two weeks ago.

Seeing that I’m feeling better, Rafael lets me go and pulls away from me.

“You straight kid,” he asks as he stands to leave the room.

When Raf’s around? Always.

******

Zenobia, 15 years and 10-ish months old

I can’t help but be in something like awe as I look at Anthony. I haven’t seen him in almost a year. Since he left to go to UGA in the fall. I’ve talked to him over phone and text, sure. Interacted on Twitter, yes. Seen a couple of photos, yeah. But wow…

He’s nineteen now as of May 8th. And no longer is he the lanky looking boy trying to grow a beard and his hair out and whose ears seem too big for his face. He’s grown. A lot. Not taller. He’s still the same 5’9, but his chest is wider, his shoulders are thicker, his arms bigger and more muscular, his waist slimmer, and he’s grown a short, neat, closely trimmed beard around his mouth, chin, and the sides of his face with a short afro on his head like he said he’d grow out, and… And just wow.

“Anyway,” Anthony says as he shrugs his shoulders, drawing my attention to their shape and size again, “I gotta go. But somehow I’ve been in the city for two weeks and hadn’t managed to see you and Big-Ra.”

Oh my God, has his voice always been that deep!

“Yeah,” I say breathlessly. He’s about to go, but I say, “Wait!”

Anthony stops and looks at me questioningly. It’s not a look he’s never given me before but why is it so… different now. Why is it making me feel so… weird.

“You okay, Z?” Anthony asks.

I blink out my stupor and say, “Yeah. I’m good. Just… Are you doing anything on next month? On the fourth?”

“I haven’t decided.”

“Um… we’re… I mean, Perla and Raf and Akilah are having a thing at Perla’s house for it. Family. Friends. It’s for my birthday too. Decided to do it all in one shot since a lot of people are going on vacations and stuff after that. But they’re letting me invite whoever I want and uh… you wanna come?” I ask.

“Serious?” Anthony says with a grin and then playfully punches me on the arm. Well, it’s not really a punch. He wouldn’t even do that to me playfully. It’s just him balling his fist and touching it to my arm. “I wouldn’t miss my best friend’s sixteenth birthday party for the world. What time’s it at?”

My heart jumps at hearing him still call me his best friend. I thought that would have changed after going to college and being around people his age. But I’m still his best friend!

“Two-ish?” I answer when I can finally get my voice to work.

“In colored people time that’s four, which means we won’t be eating until maybe six, right?” Anthony says as he puts the date in his phone. “So I’ll get there at like, three thirty?”

“Yeah,” I say breathlessly.

“Bet. I’ll text you at some point. Call you if Ra-man don’t burn me to the ground doing yard work, but gotta get that money while I can before I go back to school,” Anthony says with a sigh.

I scrunch up my face, “Adulting.”

“Right?” he says as he backs out the exit of the gym.

Wow…

A moment later, Rafael slides up next to where I am at the front desk with a logic puzzle book and a stack of novels as always.

“I saw that,” he says.

I feel my face heat up and I look down at my logic puzzle, tapping my pencil in the book.

“You didn’t see shit,” I mutter.

“I absolutely saw that shit,” Rafael says with a grin.

How well I’ve been behaving lately determines whether Rafael will treat me more sternly, like a dad, or more lax, like a good friend. I didn’t get into any fights for all of the school year, not even ones that my teachers didn’t find out about. He also hasn’t been called because I mouthed off at my teachers. I also got all A’s for the year and am being put in AP classes for my junior year. And while I’ve had my misadventures with Lexis and Lex, nothing that Rafael had to bail me out of or that was serious enough for him to punish me for. So lately he’s been acting like the good friend that just looks out for me.

“We’re not doing anything,” I say without looking at Rafael.

“I know you aren’t. Continue not to so neither one of you gets each other caught up.”

I tap my pencil on my logic puzzle book and ask, “Would it be so bad?”

Rafael raises his eyebrows at me. I’ll have to tread carefully because he’ll go from friend to dad in less than a second.

“I mean, not for anything life-changing or anything like that. Just… we’re already friends. Just to experiment…”

Rafael looks like he wants to go into dad mode, but instead, he sighs and rolls his eyes. Probably not at me but something Akilah said to him in how to deal with me as I become a young woman or something along those lines because these are definitely the conversation I usually have with Akilah.

“Zenobia, three years apart doesn’t seem like a big deal. And eventually, it’s not. But right now, it is. You even have to be careful with being best friends right now,” Rafael says carefully.

“Hey. The friends thing wasn’t a big deal before!”

“That’s because you were both still kids. It started getting a little slippery when he was in high school and you were in middle school and you were a freshman and he was a senior. But you were both still doing the same things pretty much and had someone to answer to. But you have to be careful now.”

“That makes no sense. You and Akilah—”

“Dated when she was sixteen and I was nineteen. But that was different. I wasn’t a college student hanging around a high school student who was two years from being able to go to college.”

“What’s the difference between high school and college? They drink, high schoolers drink. They do drugs, high schoolers do drugs. Not that I’m one of them!” I add quickly because that would have sent him into dad mode.

“College students are over age and high schoolers are not. I mean, there are exceptions to that. I was, but… You get it.”

“I really don’t,” I say shaking my head. “I get that there are a lot of fuckity college boys but not Anthony.”

Rafael pauses for a long time. Last time we had this debate, I was fourteen and he didn’t feel like talking about it, so I didn’t push for an explanation. But that was because he was going through it with that sex tape getting out and trying to do damage control.

Today he says, “It’s not that a lot of them are fuckity. I mean, a lot of them are. But even the ones that aren’t, they’re living in a whole different world than you and got way different priorities and have a culture of doing stuff that you can’t do or would be a lot more uncomfortable doing right now. And you don’t wanna be in the position of feeling like you’re being forced to do something that you’re not sure you want to because you’re following him around or trying to impress him and then something happens that could jeopardize your friendship with him. And Anthony wouldn’t want to put himself or you in that position either,” Rafael adds as an afterthought.

“Or put you in a position where you’d have to fuck somebody up and end up in jail,” I add with a laugh.

“That too,” Rafael says sternly. Then he continues more casually, “And I know what Akilah and I did, but I was also in high school with her. And she was a different sixteen-year-old.” He cringes here. “I mean, every older guy who wants to date a teenager will say she’s ‘different,’ but Akilah really was being emancipated so early. Looking back on it though, I still really shouldn’t have dated her, let alone married her when I did. And that definitely came back to bite us later. Maybe if someone had pulled me aside and explained it to me like I am to you, I would have done something different. But that’s what happens when kids don’t have parents to look out for them.”

Rafael seems to consider something for a moment before he shrugs and shakes his head.

I can’t deny that makes sense. Like, I don’t like it. And I don’t think anything like that would be the case for me and Anthony but… I get it.

“Eh. I guess,” I say looking back out the glass windows at the front into the parking lot even though Anthony is long gone. Then I grin and say, “But serious. Did you see him? Like… did you see him?”

“I’m not falling for that trap today.”

The trap is Rafael giving us anything to indicate he’s attracted to other men and then me or Akilah questioning if he’s bi. Rafael continues to insist he’s not and that he trains both men and women so he naturally tends to appraise bodies and that he’s just comfortable enough with his sexuality not to care if someone thinks that makes it seem like he’s attracted to men. It’s still a fun joke though. And sometimes Raf indulges me and Akilah in it.

“Come on. He glowed up,” I say. “You know without a doubt if you swung that way, you’d wanna tap that… or get tapped by it.”

“First, I don’t think it’s socially acceptable for me to talk that way about someone as young as him at my age. Second, I wouldn’t wanna do either. Had a boyfriend once and was on the top and bottom, and I’ve never been able to see the appeal. Whatever floats your boat, I guess. But trust me when I say I have absolutely no sexual or physical attraction to other men,” Rafael assures.

I blink and snap my head to Rafael. “Wait. You had a boyfriend?”

“I called him that. He was really a client back in Miami,” Rafael explains. “Didn’t set up long term shop with guys anymore after that. If I had to be what practically amounted to a live-in hoe, I was going to be somewhat comfortable with it.”

“Oh,” I say. Today must be a really good day for Raf if he’s being so shockingly candid about his past. Then again, since him and Akilah’s wedding, they’ve been acting like they really just got married and haven’t been married for the past six years. So they’ve both been in really good moods lately.

Then I say, “But serious. Anthony’s over age. And it’s not like you’re a forty-year-old creep. You’re twenty-six. You’re fine if you admit that if you saw someone that looked like Anthony and you swung that way, you’d wanna tap that.”

He looks down at a flyer for some event left on the desk and pretends to read it as he seems to consider my question. Then he smirks a little, and I know what’s about to come out his mouth is going to be gold.

“Sweetheart,” he begins and then looks at me with a raised eyebrow, “I’d do a lot more than just tap it.”

I squeal loudly and start laughing as I point at him and accuse, “See! This! This kinda stuff is why me and Akilah think you’re bi!”

Rafael just shrugs and knocks his knuckles on the table before walking off.

******

Zen, 15 years and 11 months old

“Raf,” I say timidly as I approach him first thing in the morning. 

Rafael’s sitting at the table on his computer getting ready before we have to leave at ten. He’s working in conjunction with some organization or another he’s got connection with to put on some community Father’s Day luncheon. I forgot the details, mostly because Rafael’s got his hands in all kinds of social activism though he won’t call himself a social activist. He just says it’s a great way to bring people to and get sponsors for the gym so it can expand and he can take on more free students and get a new place to finish physically separating what he does from the more serious competitive side that he leaves to X. Really? I think he enjoys the work a lot more than he lets on and just doesn’t want to admit it.

“No. You cannot go out to that thing with Anthony and some his friends Friday night,” Rafael says without looking at me. “Anthony already told me about it.”

I temporarily forget why I’m here to talk to him when I say, “Oh come on, Rafaael! It’s not his college buddies. It’s his friends, girls and guys, from last year’s senior class who are my friends too. I’ll be sixteen in less a month. And if you let me go, Lex and Lexis can go. And I promise we’ll be back by midnight an—” I finally remember why I came to talk to Raf in the first place. “You know what. I’m not trying to have that fight with you right now. We’ll talk about that later.”

That gets Rafael’s total attention, and he looks up at me with an “Okay, what?” expression on his face, ready for it to be some other request he’s going to have to argue with me about.

My timidity returns to me as my cheeks heat up and I look down at the floor.

“What is it?” he asks gently.

I look back up, but he’s not looking at me. He’s looking at Akilah who’s standing near the couch behind me. She must give him a signal that everything’s okay and to just wait because Rafael turns to look patiently at me.

I’d had all the words planned out. I practiced in my head for days. And now all the words are gone.

“Here!” I say taking from behind my back the big flat three-foot tall package behind me. He had to have seen it when I walked in. Or maybe he didn’t. For someone so shrewd, Rafael can totally miss things sometimes.

I hold the wrapped item out to him with both hands, looking off to the side.

“What’s this?” Rafael asks in confusion without taking it.

“It’s for you,” I reply.

“But… for what?”

I groan. Why does he have to make this more difficult for me than it already is?

“Um… It’s father’s day and all that. And um… I don’t know my dad but you…” I trail off and look back at Akilah who nods and urges me to keep going. “You know. One of the things I have a problem with about father’s day is, besides the commercialization of something so intimate, it only recognizes men who have either actually adopted a kid or had a kid biologically. And ignores the men who haven’t had a chance to become biological dads or can’t become biological dads or who were going to be and things just didn’t work out. And then rewards the bums whose only donation was a sperm and ignore their kid until it’s time for them to be in the spotlight on Father’s day. And—” I cut myself off again because I’m rambling. None of that is the point. “Anyway. You’re like a dad to me… sometimes. But you’re not a dad to me really. And sometimes not at all. It just… depends. And you and Akilah were going to have a baby and I know you wanted to be a good dad for him but it’s not your fault you didn’t get the chance so… Just. Here!”

Rafael’s looking at me blankly, not immediately moving to take the gift though I wish he’d just take it out of my hands already so I can run to my room and not face him for the rest of the day.

He looks over my shoulder at Akilah again. And she must urge him on because he reaches out with both hands and takes it.

I start to back into the hall and to my room as Raf sets it on the table, but he says, “Wait. Give me a minute to open it.”

Fuck, I really didn’t want to be here for him to open it. But because he asked, I stand next to the table as he tears the wrapping paper off. Careful enough to not accidently ruin the gift underneath, but not enough to preserve the paper like Akilah would have.

Finally, he uncovers the huge multi-frame picture frame. There are twelve pictures in the multi-shaped smaller frames from one of our earliest pictures when I was still small enough to sit on his shoulders when I was nine; to one of me sitting on the couch at Perla’s house and leaning against Raf who sits next to me with an arm around me as we’re both knocked out from a long day; to another one of me, him, and Anthony at Anthony’s high school graduation; another that someone took at him and Akilah’s wedding as he laughs at a totally embarrassed and dressed up version of me as I try not to step on his feet as we dance together. There are more, but those are the ones I specifically looked for and needed Akilah’s help collecting

“Oh,” he breathes. “Zen.”

He slowly runs a hand over the glass of one of the pictures, the one of me at my thirteenth birthday with him and my mother in it. He’s got a protective hand on my shoulder and, unknowing to me at the time, he’s glaring at my mother who no doubt had done something stupid that might have threatened to ruin my day.

“It’s technically a father’s day gift. But it’s really not. It’s just… I thought it was a good day to do it and… I guess… Thank you for being just Raf,” I finish.

I think I broke him because he’s not saying anything, but Akilah assured me before all this that Raf just doesn’t know how to accept a gift because he doesn’t expect anyone to think enough of him to do it.

“Raf… are you okay?” I ask after a while.

“Yeah,” he mutters. Then he rubs his hand under his eyes. “Yeah.”

“Are you crying?” I ask.

He laughs and says, “Shut up, kid, and come here.”

I walk over to him and hug him around his torso, burying my face in the side of his chest and he hugs my shoulders.

“Thanks, Zen,” he mutters. Then he looks around the apartment and says, “Man, how are we going to hang this. It’ll probably need bigger holes than they’ll let us put in the walls here.”

“That’s why we should buy a house,” Akilah puts in.

“We are not buying a house right now, babe,” Rafael says leaving no room for argument. Akilah’s been on a mission to convince Raf to buy a house with her for a little over a year now, particularly because when they do have a baby, all four of us won’t fit in this two bedroom apartment. Rafael, ever the more grounded of the two when it comes to this stuff, flat out told her not now and that they’d worry about it when they put her through law school.

I giggle at the two. Even when they’re fighting, they obviously really love each other.

Then Rafael frowns and says, “Akilah, you better not post that video online.”

So that’s what she was doing behind us with her phone…

Akilah totally does post the video online later that evening. And it totally goes viral by the end of the week.

###

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