"An absolute masterpiece." -Elizabeth Acevedo, New York Times bestselling author of The Poet X
From the first ever poet-in-residence at Lincoln Center comes a bold coming-of-age story told in verse about a young woman who loses a best friend, but finds herself in the process. The joys of basketball, the tumult of high school, and the bonds of family are lyrically woven together in this must-read novel.
With Lay Li I don’t have to think too hard
I’m the friend of the star
& I don’t mind, not at all
It gives me time to think about my dreams & the WNBA
But when I call Lay Li & she don’t pick up
A pit in my stomach grows like a redwood tree
Sky is used to standing in the shadow of her best friend. Lay Li is the sun everyone orbits around. But since high school started, Lay Li has begun attracting the attention of boys, and Sky is left out in the cold. The only place Sky can find her footing is on the basketball court. With each dribble of the ball, Sky begins to find her own rhythm. Lay Li may always be the sun, but that doesn’t mean Sky can’t shine on her own.
With gritty and heartbreaking honesty, a critically acclaimed poet, delivers her first novel in verse about broken promises, fast rumors, and learning to generate your own light.
“A story about heart and backbone, and one only Mahogany L. Browne could bring forth.” –Jason Reynolds, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Long Way Down
An Excerpt fromChlorine Sky
Me & Lay Li ain’t talking
cause she think she cute
cause she think I ain’t.
Must be pretty boy Curtis
all in her head
all in her mouth
making her forget
her home training.
Making her forget
her daddy got a gun for a living.
& her mama gone.
& this is why I think
she ain’t got no sense, nohow.
Cause ain’t nobody but fast girls
checking for Curtis.
& he keep her name close
& she don’t come home
the same way no more.
She must think she cute!
Must think I ain’t!
Like she ZendayaSkaiStormMeganNickiBeyoncé or something
Like she long curly hair movie star perfect
Like she perfect pink nail salon pop queen perfect
Like she all new Macy’s rack & Adidas shell toe perfect
Like she glossy magazine cover most beautiful girl perfect
Like she ain’t never had a bad day in the sun perfect
Like she ain’t never had a bad picture kind of perfect
Like she got a life don’t nobody judge cause she’s so perfect
look how she keep me waiting like
I’m supposed to wait on Curtis
& I hate his light-skinned self!
Especially because he ain’t as funny
as he think.
Especially when he calls me black
& ugly & stupid!
& Lay Li stay grinning
like he the sun
like we ain’t friends
they boyfriends see Lay Li
It’s like they see the best parts of they favorite movie
& they favorite movie got they favorite soundtrack
& they favorite soundtrack make them feel strong
& they swing they arms around & show off to whoever is looking
I mean, sometimes I get caught looking but I ain’t got n o t h i n g to say
Not Lay Li
She act like she never lookin’
She must think she cute
But she ain’t just cute
Lay Li pretty
& they boyfriends at the skate rink
forget they home training around her.
So when Curtis say the things
I’ve already said about myself
& she laugh
I know deep down inside
she ain’t never care about me at all.
Lay Li the sun
& she called me best friend
Called me smart
Called me her ace
Called me her right-hand sis
Lay Li called me my name
Ain’t never call me nothing but my name
When everyone else call me nothing
She say best friend--like sis-patna-friend & she laugh bright bright
Because Lay Li the sun
now I know she just said them lies
to keep my shadow
all up & around her sunshine smile
Like that time we skipped school
for the pool party
& all the girls wear bikinis
but I got my one-piece on
with a white T-shirt on top.
& the boys just looking
like they mama ain’t taught them nothing worth knowing.
Lay Li got that good hair
so she don’t care if it’s wet & loose.
But my hair ain’t close to being good
so I keep it in a real real real tight ponytail
until the sun get so hot
I jump in & cool my sadness down.
It’s like I already know.
So I let my shoulders sink low
like my heart be
& I watch Lay Li
how she walks & everybody stops
& I’m trying to learn
how to walk in a room & turn their heads
how to move in a crowd & be the light
how to keep a boy’s interest
but not just any boy
a boy who remembers my name
maybe a cute one with long eyelashes
& gentle hands
the kind of hands that keep to themselves
how to keep my sister, Essa, from talking bad to me
my older sister tell you “don’t mess up my name,”
she go so far to move her mouth & show her perfect white teeth
it’s “EEEEEE-SaaHHHH like mantra, like a prayer”
how to move through the world
standing tall & demanding to be named properly
how to be more than a baller
how to be someone that keep ’em guessing
how to stop stressing because ain’t nobody
got time for the kind of shade I got
but everybody got time for some
s u n
Lay Li smile at Curtis
& he only a little bit cute
but he ain’t funny or smart
so that’s how I know her grin is a lie.
& I pretend I don’t hear his slur
I pretend I don’t see his hazel eyes
when he say “lose her ugly black ass”
& Lay Li laugh.
Laugh like a knife in the back or laugh hysterical like the girl running from the scary man in a hockey mask or laugh like kids being followed around the mall by security or laugh like I do when my sister, Essa, makes me the butt of the joke. See I laugh & laugh & laugh & laugh &
she say “Shut up, Curtis”
but it sounds like “Come here.”
I dunk my head underwater slow
I wait even longer
for her to say a n y t h i n g like:
“don’t talk about my friend, I don’t care how pretty your eyes is!”
But she just say “shut up”
& she l a u g h
the kind of laugh that make me forget
we even friends
the kind of laugh that make me forget
& I think
I could stay here
where it’s all a blurry aqua blue,
I could stay here
where my eyes
don’t hurt as much
& it don’t feel
like I’ve been looking at the sun
all day l o n g.
Okay, so boom. This is how Lay Li & I met.
At the end of summer, when we ready to head into the first semester of freshman year, I got a problem
with the boys who keep slapping the water. Tyrone & Adam slap the water at me
when I swim by them. Because everybody knows I’m better than them on the basketball court.
Still, I keep calm. I play cool. I see a girl at the edge of the pool. Red swimsuit & long wavy ponytail.
Her right eyebrow lifted skylike: She ready for the joke. But she ain’t laughing.
The boys slap the water. I swim under the current. I head to her side of the pool.
& so do they. They slap the water but her mouth ain’t like mine. It ain’t closed
lock-like & tight, until I’m on the court with a nasty dribble. It ain’t safety pin safe
like my grandmother taught me. Her mouth curse them until their eyes water. Her lips
curl & she cross both her arms “& you betta not do it again!” They laugh
& she don’t. This girl I never seen before got a name: Lay Li.
I wipe my eyes, stinging from the blue water. “Thank you,” I say, pretending it don’t burn.
Two years later & Lay Li bathing suit
Is way better than mine
I hate my royal blue one-piece
It’s a hand-me-down
I rather wear my basketball shorts
but they’re the only pair I got
keep dry when I walk home
Everybody who know somebody
will skip class for the pool party
& everybody will have a cute bathing suit on:
or bright yellow
or periwinkle blue
or one of those two-pieces with candy cane stripes
But not me
I put a T-shirt on top
& try to hide
this ugly-ass basic blue swimsuit
Mines is long in the crotch
so long the water drains slowly down my leg
after I climb out the deep end.
I put a T-shirt on top
& try to hide the history
of where my people from
the ones that got a pit bull with a chain around its neck & smoke clouds everywhere
I put a T-shirt on top
& try to hide where I come from
the kind of folks that park on the lawn & clean they car
with the Gap Band blasting out the door speakers
I put a T-shirt on top
& hope no one asks where my dad works.
Where my dad is?
Why my sister, Essa, & I always fight on the lawn?
I just want to swim
in the teal green sorta blue bubble
& forget all the things that make me different
for a little while.
Basketball Drills #1
both hands grip the orange world
ridges in black talk back to my fingertips
For every letter of their name
I plant my feet aim & shoot
if I flick my left wrist perfectly
I’ll soar like the greats.
After my drills
Lay Li & I both sit in the shade
on the front lawn of the neighborhood candy house
Miss Irene got white hair & a permanent scowl
She got white hair, a little white lapdog & wear a dusty muumuu
She smokes cigarettes, the white stick hanging from the cliff of her lip
Like a daredevil
Miss Irene say she ain’t got time for us kids
& don’t let nobody curse on her front yard
But she got a Costco card & charge pennies on the dollar
for our favorite sweets
We get a dollar worth of candy in a plastic sandwich bag
that we share
After my basketball drills, I walk around the barbed gate
of the neighborhood pool
I climb into the blue green water and float for days
Really I only got an hour before the pool closes
But I don’t care when I’m floating
It lets me think
My eyes closed or searching the sky for animal figures
Ice cream cones & airplanes that skip across the blue blue up
The aqua water carry my arms & legs
A body of girl & whoosh
When I’m too tired to move my calves & arms
I climb out the water & feel less rubber band
& more light light
Most days the water burns everything
my nose & eyes & even my hair is too dry
but I feel clean
I feel more me than when I arrived
Lay Li meets me after the pool
She ain’t get in the pool but she still wears
her tube top bikini, a towel draped around her shoulder
like a comma.
She bites at her cuticles & I already know
It’s been almost two years since silly boys slapped water in the pool
Now the boys are gone & it’s just me doing floating like a log
while Mommy & Me classes happen in the shallow end
my muscles hurt after playing Horse alone
A girl on the basketball court ain’t no different
than any other baller, if you work hard enough
that’s what my cousin Inga say
She the first one to teach me to hold the globe with both hands
to use my right hand to guide the ball.
Finally out of the pool
I can see the harsh water peels my skin
I don’t have any cocoa butter on me
So I pull my legs up, crisscross-applesauce
& focus on Lay Li.
When she bites her nails it’s not because she’s nervous
More like anxious and angry
& always it’s about her mama
“So what happened?” I ask
& she frowns at her hands
Then covers her face from the dipping sun
& instantly I feel bad
I know what it feels like to have
Too much to say
So much you can’t speak
I make noise when I’m nosy
I slap the mosquitoes gnawing at my legs
It’s been a year since we last talked
about her mama but that’s the only
thing that bothers her enough
to bite-ruin her perfect nails
But Lay Li don’t sweat it
she don’t swing at the mosquitoes
she don’t even miss a beat.
“That woman been gone so long
I can barely remember what she looks like.”
I can’t imagine
what it’s like to forget my mother’s face
I sit quiet & wait for her story to unfold
My mama still on drugs
& my daddy ain’t got time for all that
He don’t want us girls to see her like that
He says every child deserve to be the sun
To know they come from the sun
& if the sun snuff itself to dusk before its time
& no shine is left to see
Let it be
One day we woke up & she was already
a cloudy shadow of herself
Then one day we woke up & she was
She only come home when she clean
She only call home when she sorta sober
She ain’t never remembered my birthday
or my sisters’ birthday & I’m like whatever.
When you live where we live
You say what it is & if you can’t say what it is
Or if it hurt too much
Or maybe it’s too confusing
You just say “whatever.”
That way you ain’t no lie
Don’t nobody Want to Call It
Especially when it got more faces than any solitary name
but if I’m honest
I want to know if Lay Li seen the zombies too
The ones who take over my uncles’ bodies
after weeks of playing ghost
only to return him to our front door
with his clothes all crumpled
& eyes brimming red
Lay Li is the only one I can talk to about
The smell of hot ash & burned glass
“You know what it looks like.”
She stands up from the grass
swinging her dry striped towel in the air
“It looks like the walking dead.”
On the way to my house
I need to rinse the chlorine off my skin
I need to remember who I am
Lay Li say, “Where’s your cocoa butter?”
& I know she wants to call me ashy.
When I walk through the front door
I’m surprised no one is home
I turn on the television & tell Lay Li I’ll be right back
Right out the blue Lay Li calls to me already running up the stairs
“I’m just tired of crying
that’s been gone so long.”
Lay Li laughs
like the joke’s on everybody but her
squints into the mirror & pouts
applies more lipstick than a little
takes my lip gloss as backup just in case
Lay Li say
“It’s so boring here. Let’s call Shawn.”
I laugh like the joke is on Shawn
He’s her old crush & first real boyfriend
Since her mama left the house
But then I realized she just called my house boring
& now my feelings are hurt.
Lay Li say
“Don’t be like that. I ain’t mean nothing by it.”
pull my ponytail a little
her hand & brush at my hair
I mimic the mirror
Reach to take back my lip gloss
& my pride
from Lay Li’s hands
It’s the inexpensive kind from the neighborhood CVS
She pretends she’s gonna keep it
like a child & its pacifier
her arms swing above both of our heads
Out of my reach
She is pleased with herself
& giggling to my hands
waving in the air
fire the roof is on fire
but it ain’t
& I don’t crack a smile
This makes her laugh even harder
All her teeth showing
All my steam moving like a cloud when I cut my eyes
rolls her eyes
then tosses it to me before she grabs the phone
& dials with one last perfect pink nail
same color as Essa’s (I think)
But I don’t say anything
Just pucker my lips as
she watches me with boring eyes apply the sheen
Like an impostor.