Preston Plains Middle School gave way to Norwich Free Academy once the time came to cross the river and enter high school. NFA cast a wide net, serving, in addition to Norwich proper, the surrounding villages of Yantic, Taftville, and Preston, none of which was capable of sustaining sufficient enrollment to justify a high school in its home district. Norwich extended west to include Norwichtown, the majority of whose residents lived in the sprawling Sylvia Lane Housing Project, where families of every ethnicity shared a single address; Preston had nothing of the sort to rival it within the confines of its town lines.
The handful of kids of color who matriculated together from Preston had little in common with the kids from Sylvia Lane. Sylvia Lane housed mostly kids of color, the kind of kids for whom everything was a hoot, a row, a reason to show their teeth—sometimes bubbling, other times gnashing at anything not deemed Norwich-town cool. From way up in outer space, all those brown faces must have appeared the same. The kids from Preston drew their affiliations along different lines: who had played youth soccer together or Pop Warner football; who had sat next to you since the first day of kindergarten.
Landing in NFA three years ahead of his brother, Langston found the transition jarring. He didn’t mesh with the Sylvia Lane kids. He failed to comprehend their unspoken kinship, didn’t fit well inside their circle. He was not their kind of cool. A couple of Norwichtown girls approached him in the schoolyard during lunch break midway through the first full week of class, scouts sent from the opposing camp to test the bounds of his affiliation: Was he black-eyed pea or blonde? Langston stood mesmerized by the sight of them: large hoop earrings dangling nearly shoulder length; the fingers of both hands covered in silver rings encrusted with various stones of indeterminate worth; hip-hugging jeans stretched tight across early indications of budding curves. Their hairstyles, cut at blunt angles, reminded him of so many video girls proffered as eye candy on Yo! MTV Raps.
Those hoop earrings would be a huge liability in a fight, was the thought that struck him. Tender lobes ripped loose by an errant tug of a finger, a well-placed stab sending your opponent reeling from the most superficial flesh wound. Still, it would be the swiftest way to put an end to the conflict should one arise, though Langston seriously doubted the girls were headed over seeking a physical altercation—unless it was a setup, a skillfully planned diversion meant to conceal a sneak attack from an unprotected front. He adopted an apprehensive stance, angling his chin over either shoulder to broaden his view, the brick face of the cafeteria wall covering his backside.
He put all his senses to work in an effort to gauge friend or foe, causing the girls to stop short of his position. They took turns introducing one another, having sensed the need for a bit less familiarity with their approach: Tasha Davies and Yolanda Liggins, who claimed to be cousins. Tasha made the first move, closing the distance between them. She looked like she stepped straight out of a Benetton ad, beauty as seen through the world’s lens invisible to the naked eye. Her skin was flawless, the darkest Langston had ever seen on a girl, the full spectrum of colors shimmering inside her complexion depending how the sun lit her face.
She steadied him with her stare, electric eyes seemingly set on peering inside the depths of his person to uncover things ordinary eyes failed to see. Her lips parted to reveal a dazzling smile, one meant to indicate friendly intentions between them. “What’s your name?” she mouthed, appearing not the least shy.
“I’m Langston,” he replied, working to invoke whatever remained of his brand of cool.
“What kind of name is Langston?” Yolanda asked, attempting to steal the spotlight from her cousin.
“Like the poet,” Tasha responded.
“Yeah,” Langston confirmed. “Like the poet.”
No one in Preston had ever made the connection. No one would have known that his mother had gone away to Long Island for college. Managed to complete a couple of semesters majoring in African American studies at Stony Brook before realizing she was pregnant, an unintended consequence of a visit home in between semester breaks to keep the fires burning strong with Chester. It was never clear whether Dottie held Chester or Langston responsible for precipitating the demise of her college career. “You get what life gives you,” she said once it became inevitable she return to Preston for good. In the end, she got Langston, and she threw herself headlong into the giggles and laughter and joy that accompany early parenthood. Chester stood by her side, a still eager participant.
She named her firstborn after her favorite writer, having developed an affinity for Langston Hughes’s indelible sense of self despite his mixed heritage: West African, European, and Native American, much like her own. Trajan was lucky to escape having been named “Simple,” given their mother’s fondness for the man who created the character, his most enduring, an affable everyman collected from Hughes’s travels in life.
It’s remarkable how legend transforms itself as the story spreads word-of-mouth across town, the teller amplifying those details that most appeal to his sensibilities, fabricating others to make the story fit until the subject of the legend no longer recognizes the origin of truth behind the lies, his story told to him like he had no part in its making.
“I heard you went nutty a couple summers ago,” Yolanda interrupted.
Tasha leaned a shoulder into Yolanda, a curled lip telling her cousin to hush. “You can tell from those sure eyes he ain’t nutty.”
“I didn’t say he was nutty. I said he went nutty,” Yolanda corrected her.
“I fell,” Langston interjected. “The fall brought on seizures. But I’m better now.” He buried his medical alert bracelet deeper beneath his shirtsleeve.
“Word around school, you tried to hang yourself from a basketball hoop, but the rope caught on your ankle, causing you to bang your head against the concrete,” Yolanda insisted, ignoring the slant of her cousin’s eyes trained on her in a growing state of disbelief.
The notion produced a broad smile on Langston’s face, making him appear all the more nutty to Yolanda, to Tasha even less so. He needed to fend off the urge to lean back in his stance, extend a foot over his head, and then swipe the air with it to show them why he’d adopted the practice of tying his ankle to a backboard support post. If he did, he knew somebody across the yard would mistake the move as boastful and would wander over to show what he could do with his own foot, and another rivalry would take hold. Something Langston could ill afford in his present state.
“Tell you what,” he offered. “From now on, anything you want to know about me, feel free to ask directly. I wouldn’t want the two of you walking around confused, spreading false truths about me.” He put his smile to work again, the warmth of his own hypnotic stare resting on the deep chocolate complexity of Tasha’s brown skin. “We’re good?” he asked.
“We’re good,” she replied, pulling Yolanda by the arm before something even more ridiculous could spill from her cousin’s tongue.
And with that, Langston found a new way through, a break in the sidewalk toward his newfound self. He realized at fifteen that he had, in all likelihood, already experienced his one true love. Everything else in life would, at best, amount to scarcely good enough. He recognized that sometimes the most you can do is like a person, treating her the best you can, according to how you like her. If she likes that you like her, then she might treat you the best she can in return. And that’s the most either of you can ever expect from the other.
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