Notes: The story begins when Nina is 11 and Benny is 16.
Nina sat on her fire escape after school same as always. Most people had probably figured out that she loved to go up there and read, but no one ever bugged her. Rarely did her parents even bother calling her in unless it was really important, knowing she'd be so immersed in a book or thought that disruption would be accompanied by massive pre-teen attitude. Today she couldn't find solace in a book though, instead, she angrily brushed away the tears that refused to stop falling regardless of how silly she knew she was being. It was just one bad grade, not even that bad in the grand scheme of things, a B- was nothing to be ashamed of...unless you were an 11-year-old Nina Rosario. Seemingly miles away Nina heard telltale car door slam that indicated the end of Benny and Mr. Rosario's driving lesson for the day. Nina had heard her dad talking to Mrs. Rosario about how all Benny needed was a real shot, and his plans to eventually hire him once he was licensed and had more experience. Of course, that was a secret and they would never have spoken about it if they knew Nina was listening, but she thought it was nice of her dad either way.
As if manifested by her thoughts Nina noticed the object of her musings was suddenly climbing the ladder to her fire escape. Hastily brushing away her tears she tried to make her emotions less obvious in front of the older boy. "Hey, Nina how's it going?" Benny asked taking a seat next to her, not directly addressing her state.
"Okay I guess," she conceded. "How was your driving lesson with Papi?" she asked, mostly to be polite given she and Benny had never been close but he was always nice to her.
He sighed at her question, "I think he wants to strangle me a bit less than yesterday." he shrugged.
"That's good? I think." Nina responded giggling despite herself.
"So tell me something," he asked conspiratorially, "If you're doing okay, why are you out on this balcony alone tryin' not to cry?" he asked.
"Well technically I'm not alone anymore, and before you got here I was pretty much accepting the fact that I was crying," she argued.
"Doesn't answer my question smarty pants." he countered nudging her shoulder with his.
"I'm not smart. Not anymore," she mumbled looking at her hands.
"What!?" he asked incredulously, "You're the smartest girl I know...heck you're way smarter than Usnavi and he's my age!"
Glaring at him Nina reached into her backpack and shoved her disgraceful math paper into his hands, "Not anymore" she argued looking away. She couldn't bear to see the disappointment when he realized she was dumb. Benny was always so much cooler than the other kids, she didn't want him to see her that way, but he was also super stubborn and she knew he'd be there all night badgering her if she didn't relent. Her shyness was instantly overtaken by anger when she heard him chuckle, he was laughing at her! Just as she turned to chew him out he spoke.
"That's it? A B-?" he asked. "Nina, that's a great score.'
"Then why does it have a negative sign?" she demanded.
"Because your teacher is an idiot." he shrugged, not really making her feel better but making her laugh nonetheless. "Tell you what though, if it's really buggin' you I can help you with math after my driving lessons." he offered.
"Are you any good at math?" she asked skeptically momentarily forgetting she'd vowed to be polite to him, but it caused him to outright belly laugh so she figured it was okay.
"My best subject."
"Is it my best subject?" he asked.
"That too, but I mean why help me?"
"One because I like numbers and I'd like to open a business one day and math is necessary if you want to make money. Two, because I want to." at her raised eyebrow he added, "and it wouldn't hurt if your dad liked me better because I was helping you."
"Okay. But can you not tell anyone about the bad grade?"
"What bad grade? As far as I'm concerned Nina Rosario is a straight-A student"
"Thanks. And he already likes you."
"Tell him that!"
"He's teaching you to drive."
"And bustin' my balls every step of the way."
"Because he likes you," she shrugged.
Benny just laughed, "maybe helping you will make him like me less then."
It had been a couple of months since Benny started tutoring Nina if he could even call it that. The reality was that that kid was smarter than he could ever hope to be. Clearly, her current math teacher just wasn't explaining things in a way she understood. In their brief study sessions, they had struck up an odd sort of friendship, not that he would really advertise to the barrio that he enjoyed hanging out with a nerdy little girl. He started teaching her about rap as a way to demonstrate fractions and she, in turn, talked his ear off about every book she'd ever read. He'd even gone out and gotten himself a public library card so he could check out books the school library didn't have. Mostly though, talking to a little kid allowed him to voice his dreams without fear of getting mocked because someone who believed in the magic of a glass slipper certainly had to believe something more realistic like hard work paying off for a kid like himself.
Today, however, was different. He'd just passed his driving test and was on his way to the Rosario's house to personally thank for the lessons with some pastelitos de guayaba, his favorite.
"It's dinner time." Not exactly the greeting he was expecting when he knocked on the Rosario's door.
"Ahi Kevin, no seas asi!" Mrs. Rosario called from behind her husband before addressing Benny, "come in mijo, there's plenty of food are you hungry?" she asked rhetorically already fixing him a plate.
"Um, thank you. I brought this…" he stammered handing Mr. Rosario the pastry box, "as a thank you for all the driving lessons. I got my license today." he finished lamely trying not to cower under the man's unreadable gaze.
Nodding his head once, Mr. Rosario motioned for Benny to take a seat, "I guess this is a celebration. We can call Abuela Claudia over for pastelitos and café con leche." It was more of a welcome than Benny had come to expect from the stern man, Nina, on the other hand, gave him an I-told-you-so look across the table.