Desiree Hancock is born during the worst snowstorm New York City has seen in decades. Her entrance into the world takes place on the living room floor of the Marlboro Houses in Coney Island. Her mother Olivia barely survives on public assistance, bringing home any man who is willing to buy food and stay for the night. Desiree only hears rumors about her supposed father, Luis Figueroa, a low-level gang-banger and drug dealer. He never officially claims Desiree as his child because he knows that Olivia is in the habit of having more than one sexual partner. As Desiree matures, he sees some resemblance to his grandmother; this softens his heart enough for him to give Olivia money when she claims to need things for his daughter.
Growing up, Desiree becomes used to Olivia’s staying out all night and seeing a new man sitting at the breakfast table in each morning. She struggles with issues children her age should not have to. One of her biggest problems was staying in school. She is absent whenever Olivia stays out and doesn’t come home the next day.
At school, the other kids wear nice clothes and shoes. Desiree’s clothes are worn thin and sometimes dirty. Despite not wearing the best of clothes, the happiest hours of her day are at school. There she can be a child, and eat lunch without having to share with her sister. At home, there is always the baby to feed, clothes to wash, and a mother who glares at her with hatred.
Desiree makes a few friends at school: her best friend is Sophia Evans, who lives a few buildings away from her. Sophia’s apartment is different from Desiree’s; they have nice furniture and their apartment always smells nice. Sophia has two parents who work. Mrs. Evans works part-time in the school cafeteria, and her father is a security guard. Wallace is Sophia’s older brother, a senior in high school. After graduation, he plans to go into the army, getting out of the projects. As often as Desiree can, she sneaks over to Sophia’s, claiming that she needs help with her homework.
Desiree barely makes it to the eighth grade; she is struggling to keep up with the rest of her peers. The school administrator threatens Olivia if she does not take responsibility for sending Desiree to school on a regular basis. If she fails to comply, the school will recommend a home visit from Child Protective Services. For a short period, things improve, but not much. Olivia stops talking to Desiree, and when she does speak, she yells orders at her.
Olivia is pregnant, giving Desiree a reprieve from her mother’s meanness. Desiree takes this opportunity to spend time visiting Sophia. Wallace notices that Desiree is developing physically, so he hangs around the house during her visits. When it is time for her to go home, Wallace offers to walk with her. He is seventeen and she is fifteen. Wallace is horny and Desiree is primary bait.
Desiree is excited because her sixteenth birthday is approaching. For days, she begs and almost gets on her knees asking Olivia to have a party. A week before her birthday, her mother gives in on the condition that she does all the work. Desiree turns to the only people she knows will help her. On the day of the party, Mrs. Evans makes fried chicken and potato salad, to go with Desiree’s BBQ chicken, rice and string beans. Wallace brings the cake, Sophia uses her allowance to buy the decorations, and she gives Desiree a blue dress to wear.
Olivia leaves to stay at a friend’s house, claiming that she cannot be around the noise. Desiree is not disappointed; secretly, she does not want her mother there. At 4 o’clock, Sophia arrives to help decorate and to style Desiree’s hair. By the time they are done, it is 7pm. Wallace, the DJ, his friend, and Mrs. Evans come to set up the food and the music. At 7:30, Luis (Desiree’s father) shows up, after hearing about the party from Olivia. He asks Desiree if she needs anything, and gives him a list of things that will help to make the party better. Half an hour later, Luis comes back with three girls about Desiree’s age; he introduces them as family members. He brings the items that were on the list. Slowly, the other guests arrive, and by 8:30pm there are fifteen teenagers at the party, Desiree is hoping more will show up. Despite the low turnout, she is having a good time.
Mrs. Evans stays to help serve the food; Luis makes himself useful by setting up an area to serve the soda and water. By 9:00, the party is going full blast; Desiree is asked to dance twice, once by Wallace and then by his friend the DJ. At 10pm, the music stops, so they can sing happy birthday to Desiree. She blows out all the sixteen candles on her cake, and wishes for a better life. A few people give her gifts; Mrs. Evans gives her a card with sixteen one-dollar bills, and Sophia, a pair of blue earrings, her favorite color. Finally, Luis gives her an envelope and whispers in her ear not to open it until she is alone.
Desiree is overwhelmed with emotions, and does not know how to process her feelings. Never in her sixteen years has anybody done so much for her as the people standing in that room. To break the awkwardness of the moment, Mrs. Evans steps forward and gives her a hug. The DJ starts the music and the party continues with everyone eating cake and dancing. At 11:30 pm, Olivia comes back and the party is over. A few people stay to help Desiree clean up, while Olivia sits at the table eating. Mrs. Evans, Wallace, and Sophia are the last to leave. Before they go, Desiree gives Sophia her birthday money to hold for safekeeping, because she knows that Olivia will search her room and take the money.
When Desiree returns to the apartment, Olivia rolls her eyes at her and says, “I guess you consider yourself a woman now that you’re old enough to spread your legs.” Desiree goes to her room and cries herself to sleep. The next day, while taking a shower, she gets her first period. She does not tell her mother; she dresses and goes to Sophia’s. She spends the entire Sunday with Sophia, who teaches her how to take care of herself, because Sophia had gotten her period last year. First, they go to the store to buy feminine products. Sophia warned Desiree not to tell anyone at school when she had her “friend.”
“Friend, what friend are you talking about?”
“That’s what my mother calls having your period.”
Sophia also tells her to wear pants, take two Tylenols, and drink hot tea if she has stomach pain. Desiree goes home after eating Sunday dinner with the Evanses.
She is happy that Olivia is asleep. She goes to her room and finds a good hiding place for her feminine products and the extra cash she has acquired as birthday money. Enjoying the quietness of the apartment, Desiree falls asleep, and is awakened by her mother’s screaming for her to get up and cook.
It is the end of June. School is out; Olivia gives birth to a girl and the baby’s daddy moves into their already crowded two-bedroom apartment. His name is Baron, an unemployed hustler. Despite not having a job, Baron helps around the apartment, and he seems to be happy being a father, maybe because this is his first child. Desiree is lucky to get a summer job as a counselor at a day camp. However, she dislikes Olivia for demanding that she give her fifty dollars from each paycheck, claiming to need the money to buy Pampers. The truth is the money is for Baron.
Sophia goes to her grandparents’ house in Florida. She does not get a summer job, and her parents do not want her hanging around the projects. Wallace’s father gets him hired as security guard at his agency. Desiree is free to spend time with Wallace. He finds a secret place for them to meet, a small room in the basement of the building he lives in. He spreads a blanket on the floor; there is no light, so they use candles. They spend time there eating food that Desiree buys with the money she earns from her summer job. Wallace introduces her to wine, and she discovers that she likes it.
One day before they meet Wallace has another surprise for her; he leads her to the room with a blindfold. When he removes the blindfold, Desiree opens her eyes to see that he has set up a twin mattress, pillows, and a crate with candles and a small radio. Desiree feels special, and she becomes eager to meet Wallace at their special place. Wallace takes an old cooler from his house to keep the wine, beer and water cold. They talk about the future: he tells her about his plans to join the army. Each time they meet, Wallace gets Desiree more comfortable with his touching her. He knows Desiree is a virgin; he likes the fact that no one has touched her, unlike the other girls he has known. It is not too long before Desiree experiences her first time. He makes sure that she drinks a good amount of wine and he gives her a massage, helping her to relax. When she questions him about using a condom, he tells her she is safe, that he will pull out when the time comes. Desiree does not know any better, so she goes along with him…….
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