Edwin kicked off his work shoes and left them by the front door. They were an unimpressive pair of black sneakers with a brand name not worth mentioning, made from a mix of mesh, rubber, and foam, constructed entirely for function not fashion. The thread was starting come loose at the seam on the left toe, which worried him. He needed them to last a couple more months because he’d just spent an inordinate amount of money on another pair of shoes, a completely impractical pair of Air Jordans. More specifically, the Air Jordan 1 Retro High OG in “Bloodline,” in black and white leather with red accents throughout.
Edwin had saved up for months for his first pair of Jordans, and today he finally got the text saying they’d been delivered. He was eager to pick them up, but he was only an hour into his shift at the new tapas restaurant. Taberna Capital wouldn’t open for another week, but Chef wanted the staff fully trained in how to make each dish to his exacting standards. The minute Chef released them, satisfied his crew knew the difference between jamón serrano and the much more expensive jamón ibérico, Edwin raced to catch the first in a series of buses that would take him from DC, across the Potomac River, back home to south Arlington.
He could tell immediately from the shape of the box that his brand-new babies were inside, all $180 worth of flex and flash. He didn’t bother taking off his coat before grabbing a pair of scissors and carefully slicing the packing tape so nothing inside would be nicked. Then he pulled out the Nike box and placed it on the kitchen counter where he waited a beat before opening the lid slowly, ceremoniously, almost expecting a beam of light to shine from within. Next, he folded back the tissue paper to reveal the perfect pair, nestled safe inside like eggs or even precious jewels. He was almost afraid to touch the blackest black and whitest white leather. He inspected his hands for any residual kitchen grime before lifting the shoes out. The insides were stuffed with cardboard and more tissue, and after removing everything, he picked up a single Jordan, buried his nose inside, and inhaled the heady mix of rubber and leather. They would never be this perfect again.
The Air Jordans were an extravagant purchase, totally out of character for Edwin, but he did his best to quiet the niggling voice in his head that reminded him he couldn’t afford them, they were a waste of money, rent needed to be paid, his sister Melany needed new soccer cleats, that he was selfish for indulging in something so costly and impractical. He tried to justify the expense. What did the money mean in the scheme of things, over the course of a month, a year, or longer? $180 represented roughly two days of work, two long shifts on his feet, sweating over a sizzling grill. There was no denying he worked harder than anyone else in his family, more than his mother or even his stepfather Vicente, and certainly more than Melany who had her very own bedroom while he was relegated to the sofa. He deserved a treat for once.
He’d almost succeeded in tucking his guilt away somewhere small enough to ignore, except for one thing: his grandmother, his sweet Lita, could get sick again, and if she did, they’d need to send more money back home. They had already pooled together every dollar needed for her final round of radiation, and Edwin had been happy to help, even happier that she seemed to be doing so well, as if she’d been cured solely from his contributions. Edwin expected neither gratitude nor credit, but even Lita would surely bless this one indulgence now that the crisis had passed.
Since placing the order, Edwin had watched countless YouTube videos about the proper maintenance of Air Jordans, including how to lace them correctly, what products to clean them with, and how to keep them from creasing at the toe. He was ready. He’d been ready for years, ever since the day his friend Daniel sauntered into their ESL class with a fresh pair in royal blue and black, a gift from his father who’d been building houses down in North Carolina. Edwin had looked them up online later that day: Air Jordan 1 Retro High OG. So far out of his price range, he could never ask his mother, but he had longed for them ever since.
Edwin took the shoes and packing materials to the closet in Melany’s room. She always griped about sharing even this minute amount of space, as if there were other options in their two-bedroom apartment. After hiding the boxes under a pile of sweatshirts, he retrieved a pair of clean, white socks from one of his bins. He wanted to try the shoes on at least, even if he wasn’t ready to debut them.
Edwin had just finished putting on a pair of socks and was adjusting the blood-red laces when he heard the apartment door open, followed by the sound of his mother and Vicente’s voices. He stuffed the shoes into the sock bin, covered them up as best he could, and slid the closet door shut. His heart thudded with a familiar panic from his childhood. Whenever he’d played with his Matchbox cars or Star Wars figures, gifts sent by his mother who’d left for America before him, he’d listen for his cousins’ footsteps, ready to stash them back under his bed. Lita had been sympathetic to a point, but she’d usually insist he share his goodies. Edwin had lost enough over the years to learn the value of a good hiding place.
Edwin walked out of Melany’s room directly into his stepfather and mother’s argument. Vicente was slumped on a kitchen stool, and his mother leaned against the counter holding a stack of mail. When neither acknowledged him, he took a few steps backwards and perched on the arm of the sofa just a few feet away, hoping not to be noticed.
“One more job this week and it’ll be taken care of, totally covered,” Vicente said. Edwin could see the outline of his undershirt though his blue work shirt. It had probably looked crisp and professional once, but it was now threadbare and pulled tight across his paunch. “Vicente” was stitched on the front pocket in jaunty, red script.
“But what about the next month? And the next?” his mother asked. “And you still have to pay Lorenzo for the jobs he goes out on.” She threw her hands up in disgust before adding, “I don’t know why you even keep him on the payroll.”
“Twice as many employees means twice as many jobs we can do.”
“But with what you pay him, it’s barely worth it.”
Edwin wished he’d stayed in Melany’s room because he already knew the argument by heart: Vicente had to make another payment on his new van, the one he’d had wrapped with the new logo and slogan for Aguilar Plumbing: “Call the best, flush the rest!” His mother had been opposed to the expense and furthermore, hated the slogan. Vicente had hoped the slick, new van would boost the business’s profile, but it wasn’t working. On top of that, his mother thought he should get rid of his one remaining employee.
“He has a family. I can’t just drop him,” Vicente argued.
His mother threw the stack of mail on the counter. “If it’s a choice between feeding Lorenzo’s family or ours, what’s it going to be?”
His mother looked at Edwin as if just now noticing him. Her eye makeup, which she meticulously applied each morning, was smudged after a day spent babysitting the little girl who lived downstairs, but her hair was still in its thick, tight braid. She only ever let it hang loose and long once a week, for church.
“Edy, what are you doing home so early?”
“Just training today. We don’t open till next week.”
He looked down at his white socks. Though it was impossible, he feared they could smell the new leather from the kitchen. The same shoes that had given him such pleasure a few minutes earlier now taunted him from their hiding place.
“Good,” his mother nodded grimly. “You’ll be home for dinner. We can eat as a family for once.”
She grabbed the stack of mail and started flipping through it, chewing her bottom lip as she separated the bills from the junk.
“Ay, what’s this?” She held up a white envelope with their apartment number on the front.
Vicente lifted his head to see what she was talking about. She ripped open the envelope and pulled out the contents.
“What does this say, Edy?” she asked, waving the paper at him.
Edwin crossed the tiny kitchen to take it. It was an official letter, typed in English with the letterhead of the building management company. Ever since his English had surpassed both his mother’s and Vicente’s, he’d become a translator, asked regularly to interpret forms and correspondence from the bank, doctors, utility companies, and more. He scanned the letter to get the gist, his eyes settling on the words “rent increase” and the number “$200.” He tried to think of how to soften the news but came up empty.
“They’re raising the rent, Mami. Two hundred a month,” he said softly.
This unleashed another round of bickering, but this time, Edwin wouldn’t stick around. He retrieved his work shoes from where he’d left them by the front door and slipped out without a word. It was moments like this when he understood why Melany stayed out as much as possible, more than likely at friends’ houses instead of at school like she claimed. Edwin didn’t fault her for that. The apartment they shared was 850 square feet, barely big enough for the four of them to eat, sleep, and breathe without knocking into one another. Their home was full of love but left little space for much else.
Edwin walked out the front doors of his building directly into a burst of horizontal rain. It was January, but they hadn’t gotten a flake of snow yet, only this merciless, freezing spray. He yanked up his hood and kept his chin tucked into his coat as he trudged up Columbia Pike. He thought he’d take the bus somewhere, but the only place warm and dry he could think of was the mall in Pentagon City. Surrounding himself with places to spend money would only remind him of his own foolish purchase.
As he walked, the seam on his left toe came apart slightly, only about a quarter of an inch but enough to let in a trickle of cold water. By the time he got to the bus stop in front of the bank, the toe of his sock was soaked through.
A few minutes later, a bus arrived and without even checking the route, he climbed the stairs, swiped his card, and took an empty seat near the back. As usual, the heat was cranked way up, but for once he was glad because he was shivering and his left toes were going numb. He put his ear buds in and turned on Spotify. The new J Balvin song came on and he cranked up the volume, letting the reggaeton drown out his thoughts. He leaned his head against the fogged-up window and closed his eyes.
Edwin knew he shouldn’t keep them, his brand-new Air Jordan 1 Retro High OG in “Bloodline,” black and white leather with red accents throughout, but as the beats droned on, he fantasized about wearing them out with his friends, maybe at a club. He rarely indulged in a night out, unwilling to spend the money or waste the time, but a night of recklessness was exactly what he craved now. He could give that cute girl Maya a call or shoot Stefany a text and see what she was up to this weekend. In his mind, he was at the club, the music pulsing, dancing close with one of the girls, it really didn’t matter which one. He was lost in the flashing lights, the crush of warm bodies, nothing existing outside that moment, not his family or his endless obligations to them. As he daydreamed, he tapped his toes along with the steady rhythm, even the frozen ones that were starting to tingle ever so slightly and come back to life.