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RASHEED, MY OLD FRIEND, is a beauty with gray, sage-tinted fur and a lean, slick body that can fit under the crack beneath the sofa or into the cave of a dress shoe. With nine lives just like his namesake, he’s the seer of ghosts, the killer of rodents, the warder of hopelessness. When I think of my friend, I cannot help but picture my brother: his face turned up to the sky, his mouth open, hands grasping the air.
The year before my grandfather died, the civil war in Sri Lanka ended and my brother had started praying. At night Karna sat cross-legged under the maple tree in the backyard, hidden beneath the wilderness of Jersey. In the dark the tree and my brother looked like one tall shadow, and if not for the dim back porch light, they would have both blended perfectly into the evening sky. Summer fireflies flickered around him briefly like eyelids opening and then closing.
After school he sat chanting “Om Nama Sivaya” for hours at a time, waiting to be granted a boon. There was no stopping him. I would drag him from the yard by his armpits, my hands stinking with his sweat, but the moment he was loose, he ran back to the tree, barefoot, not breaking his chant. The afternoon our grandfather retold us the story of Kannagi and the King of Madurai, a tale of injustice, Karna was stung by a hornet on the soft, fleshy sole of his foot, but he swallowed his pain until our grandfather finished, and his foot had swollen into a luminous red ball he could not walk on for days.
We were like a family under house arrest, longing for privacy and fearful of solitude. When my grandfather locked himself in the bathroom for five hours, trying to drown out my mother’s voice as she stood at the doorway with enough venom and grief to kill a small elephant, I asked my brother to at least pray for our peace of mind, but he shrugged me off with a reticence that was deeper than adolescence. I would speak to him and he would look right through me. I was eighteen that summer and only knew Sri Lanka through seasons of cease-fires and fighting, and I felt suddenly dumb and selfish then, asking for peace for myself.
At night when I closed my eyes, sleep never came easy. Nothing in dreams is safe. In bed during those vulnerable hours of night I caught stray transmissions from satellites that drifted in the heavens, the only true outside witnesses to the end of the war. As government forces shelled no-fire zones, aiming at hospitals, at Tamil civilians and rebels, naked bodies piled high for satellites that blinked and caught smudges.
On television all we saw of the end was celebration. Parades of men and women marched down the streets of the capital with banners and flags. They smiled and cheered at us as we mourned privately. My mother stood in vigil near the telephone, her eyes red and veiny and her nightgown wrinkled with sleep, while my grandfather watched television all day, trying to catch any news about the war, with the volume so high that I was sure he had lost all his hearing. I still needed to get through the school year and the months before I left for university. By then I was used to my body kicking into dormancy, the long stretch of waiting for life to begin. When my mother kept the gas on after boiling water for tea, no one bothered to turn it off until the stink burned our eyes. Later two of the bulbs went out in the family room and we sat around in darkness, disappearing except for the glare of the television.
We rationed through our days. We didn’t wash our clothes or shower longer than three minutes. We ate pizza until we were all sick off the smell of grease and cheese. We shared a good night’s rest between us, as if someone needed to be on guard, as if we were the survivors.
In the evenings, I ate my dinner outside alone and smoked whatever Rasheed left me. Those nights were mostly starless, so I would light up and make my own mini plasma ball that burned out in a few minutes. What else can you really do? I could still hear the wash of chatter from the television and recalled the tsunami from years ago, when my brother and I sat in our bathtub and held our breath, my mouth opening too soon as Karna whispered to me, “You’re dead.”
In the middle of a nightly broadcast, President Rajapaksa appeared on the screen in a white shirt and a noose of red cloth around his neck. His mustache grinned as he announced in Sinhala that there were no casualties from the war and the people of Sri Lanka were finally free from terror. On hearing his voice, my grandfather threw the mahogany-framed table clock against the wall.
The glass dome of the clock broke into shards and revealed the silver ticking. As I leaned over to pick it up, I rotated a finger along the sharp, circular motion, and held the hands tightly to make them stop. My cut was thin as a splinter. I looked up at this version of my grandfather who could no longer walk up the stairs or speak more than a sentence without feeling parched and tired but still managed to bash the house. I knew he had no plans on dying quietly. After one of his coughing fits, I had found him lying still on the sofa, his head turned inward, and just when I got close enough, an eyelash distance, he sprung at me, flexing his arms, calling my name like his favorite enemy.
He had grown up on a tea estate in Sri Lanka but spent years in the capital right when the war broke out. While other young men stayed and joined the rebels, my grandfather left the country. Brimmed with despair, he might have been a capable fighter, but since he chose the less heroic path, he made sure to find extra ways to suffer: worked the winter months outside without gloves or a proper jacket, drove a fifteen-year-old pickup truck with no AC, ruined one lung and didn’t care to salvage the other.
He stared at the clock, which he had set nine and a half hours ahead so he would be on schedule with Sri Lanka. From the pantry, he handed me a shovel. “Make something fruitful of our misery,” he said and then went to the kitchen to warm two bread slices between his palms.
I stood in the backyard and dug a zigzag of shallow wells into the earth. Handfuls of tulip seeds mixed with onion and bean blossoms. In the end, the garden looked more like a series of mousetraps. I fell asleep outdoors, sore and bruised, and in the early morning darkness woke to the sound of birds. Black feathers sprouted from each ditch. Beaks, the color of golden wheat, rattled with seeds.
All my efforts from the previous night ruined, I washed my hands and face with water from the hose and entered the house, which seemed more desolate. The walls painted a bleached yellow, grainy as pollen, and the hallway adorned with cheap photos of cats walking in gardens and impressive ships sailing on unnamed seas, all bought by my grandfather at yard sales, fishing through the ocean of his neighbors’ garbage to find something usable rather than beautiful. Scattered around the rooms were knickknacks my grandfather had collected from places he had never visited—a bobblehead of the Mona Lisa, a Mickey Mouse lantern, a Stonehenge pepper shaker—and then my mother’s subscription to National Geographic, the magazines piled high in our living room acting as a weight, a record of our thirteen-year stay. As a child, I dreamt of the house sinking into the wetland, falling and falling to the center of the earth. Other days I pictured tornadoes drifting from the Midwest and twirling in the backyard, undressing the house: first the gray shingles on the roof and then the plank sidings, leaving the house naked with its uncovered piping and fat chunks of insulation foam that would in time become a refuge for all the creatures of the Jersey forest. A beaver would chew the wooden frame of my bed as I slept.
* * *
AT THE END of June, Rasheed came home from university. Across the street in his room he offered me a blunt, and I felt content under that haze of smoke. I hadn’t seen Rasheed since Christmas break. In that time he had lost his right molar and three hundred twenty dollars during a drunken New Year’s Eve in Atlantic City but won seventy-five dollars the next month. According to my mother, he was a natural loser, but he was my first friend in the neighborhood and even my mother knew that was worth something.
Rasheed had completed his sophomore year but had failed three out of his five classes and accumulated nine hundred dollars’ worth of parking tickets, and at the end of the semester, his father had taken his car keys and threatened him, holding out the electricity bill like a knife, saying that he needed to get his act together or else he would send him back to Bihar. As events turned out, it was his parents who returned to Bihar that summer for three weeks after Rasheed’s uncle passed away.
While his parents were gone, we had the house to ourselves except for Rasheed’s sister, Aisha, who was doing her residency in a hospital in Newark, and came home only to close her eyes for a few hours at night. In the mornings, Aisha spared her energy to say a few words to us or to the house that we were slowly making our own with unwashed dishes, bottles of liquor, and the flowery scent of weed and Febreze, and I would hear her voice roaming through each room and rousing me from the couch where I slept some days: “You bums,” “Wretched boys,” “Poor, poor Abba.” She never told me to go home, but I could tell she wanted to. “Arjun, isn’t your mother worried? Shouldn’t you be taking care of your grandfather?” she’d say, and I would think of everything I knew and felt but couldn’t show. “The two of you,” she said, shaking her head, dismissing both of us. Long ago Rasheed had informed her how I never blinked in her presence, like I was afraid of losing her even for a second. Seven years older, she still teased me because I was scrawny, all chicken wire and hot air, but certain mornings I woke sweating beneath a blanket, and later in passing, she touched my forehead as if to check for a fever while I tried to fight the warmth rising in my face.
The house felt like an abandoned castle we had returned to. We were not kings but named if not for royalty then for greatness. I was the mythic prince Arjuna, and Rasheed was named after the wealthiest man in his father’s village, who owned a few acres and his own livestock, which Rasheed said showed his father’s expectations for him, but I always remembered what Rasheed’s father said the evening Rasheed walked out of dinner after an argument about the state of his future. Sitting next to me, his father put down his fork and didn’t move. He looked over the room, rested his eyes on the Quran. “I named you to be wise, a thinker, son,” he said, though Rasheed couldn’t hear him and wouldn’t believe me even if I told him. For months, his father had refused to say his name and only referred to him obliquely by his sins. The one who smells of liquor. The one who gambles. The one who breaks his mother’s heart. At the table, with Rasheed gone, his father paused on the word son and turned to me, touched my shoulder, and I knew he was speaking to me too.
Alone in the house, Rasheed and I waited for life to reveal itself. We would climb onto the roof after the sky had darkened. We could hear birds but not see them, and we called out to the unseen, the world around us.
* * *
MY GRANDFATHER WAS becoming more quarrelsome and one morning cornered me in the bathroom asking why I had clogged the sink. I said he was losing his mind like my mother, which he didn’t like so I avoided him and didn’t speak to him the rest of the day. It was only my brother, adrift in his own prayers, who called to me so clearly at night in the room that we shared. “Arjun,” he’d say, “soon I will be granted a boon.” He wouldn’t tell me what he was going to ask for, as if anything he’d want would come true. We spoke in the dark, in brief exchanges. We hid from each other, but in rare glimpses I saw his nature fully—the unrelenting blueness of the sky, the endless dark pit of a sunflower—but always the moment passed before I could raise my voice, utter a simple sound: you.
When Rasheed was around, my brother would tell us a bad joke—What do you call a rooster with no voice? A limp cock—and let me in on his laughter. The beginning of adolescence had made him shy of his body. He’d hunch and compact his long arms and his bristle of legs, trying his best to reverse all that tiresome growing. If he said anything amusing or clever, he wanted both to be seen and to vanish before our eyes.
He looks more like my mother, who supposedly looks like my grandfather’s mother, who was known for her beauty in a small fishing village on the coast of Jaffna. That’s where the story ends and begins because my grandfather was always unwilling to speak of his own life. We knew about the journalist who was killed on his motorbike by paramilitary forces on a Wednesday afternoon before drinking tea, the white van that kidnapped my mother’s classmate on his way back from school, the neighbor who died from fear when shells dropped near his home. My grandfather concealed himself in his stories, which became more vivid the farther he traveled from his own memories. Only myth had any real pleasure left for him. The rubies in a broken anklet were worthless when Kannagi could not save Kovalan.
Besides Rasheed I didn’t know a single young person who called my grandfather by his whole name. “Mr. Muthulingham Padmanathan,” he’d say, and wait for my grandfather to lift himself from his chair as he held the ridge of the cushion for balance, standing so still as not to reveal his limp. It was Rasheed’s formality my grandfather appreciated, perhaps because he still longed for the ability to provoke a spark of fright in us, enough to keep our posture straight, he’d say. His scalp was dry with a ring of dark sunspots and his hands often seized with arthritis.
Some nights as I slept upstairs, my brother stayed with my grandfather in the study room my mother had converted into a bedroom. She had kept a few items, like the globe and the hardcover encyclopedias, fixtures from our school days, to remind us that things were not always this way. I rarely went into that room, especially when my grandfather became really sick, but at night, through my window, I thought I could hear them, their voices searching for me among the bushes and tiger lilies. Of course no one waited and called for me from below, and only that beguiling feeling of longing kept me up listening, so in the morning my sudden waking from a hard punch along my ribs left me restless, not ready for Rasheed’s arrival, his desperate need to talk. He would go on about anything he heard or thought, and said things to me that he told no one else, probably because with me he had nothing to lose.
One afternoon he carried an issue of my mother’s National Geographic magazines upstairs and started to read out loud an article about cobras. He never said it, but I knew he prided himself on his elocution, how he captivated people simply by opening his mouth. The truth was he didn’t even need to open his mouth to persuade anybody. He was handsome and had girls asking him to jump fences to see them in their bedrooms, and in one year, he was seeing three chicks, all living within a quarter-mile radius of his house. He had a sharp memory and remembered things I wished he would forget. Like how I’d wanted to become a biologist to uncover the secret of life, the key to immortality, and Rasheed had showed me a handful of his jizz, curdling and creamy in the sunlight, and said everything I needed to know was right there, just waiting to be released.
After he closed the magazine and described how snakes used their cloaca for excretion and sex, he asked me if my grandfather ever joined the Tigers.
“His parents owned a store by a tea estate in Nuwara Eliya,” I said. “Can you picture him fighting in the forest against the Sri Lankan army?”
“If someone killed my family, I would. Bomb an artillery ship, find some venomous snakes to unleash on their asses.”
I thought of the army with their trophy shine and then the Tigers in the jungle, either extinct or endangered, using kerosene and sesame oil as fuel. My grandfather and his friends referred to the rebels casually as our boys, though there were girls too, while my mother cursed the Tigers for dying and not protecting the Tamil civilians in the end, leaving with all those early promises unfinished. After one of my mother’s nightly phone calls, she reported to us that she now personally knew more of the dead than the living in Sri Lanka. My grandfather reached over to embrace her but she was squirming, her arms kicking like some injured gazelle, but he didn’t let her go, and they both looked exhausted from keeping each other going. My grandfather lowered his voice and spoke to us patiently, forcing us to stretch out our necks.
“Tamil Eelam was never meant for people now, but for the future,” he said.
He kept quiet and I couldn’t hear any hope in what my grandfather said, but I was listening for it.
* * *
RASHEED SAID I come from a lineage of fighters because my father is a Punjabi Sikh and my mother is Eelam Tamil, but I didn’t think so. My father’s father wore a turban and carried a dagger, but my father is slim with short curly hair like me. He used to work long hours in finance and would carry a pocketknife, which he used to slice pears at his desk. Since my mother and grandfather resorted only to verbal violence, nothing from my known ancestry helped me when Rasheed placed me into a headlock and, practicing his wrestling moves, pummeled me with the back of his hand so there was no bruising, no evidence of pain. I was no match for Rasheed, who at the age of fourteen had fought a senior named Roland, who had his hair gelled into spears and wore sleeveless shirts. Rasheed left his mark before having his right hand crushed. He had known early on that our town in Jersey was not for him, and he had been fighting his way out of it since then.
I had plans to leave too. I was headed up north to Vermont in the fall. All I knew for certain was it would be colder than home, that I would need to build up layers of fat to survive. When I visited in the winter, I found that some people didn’t even keep a fridge; they left all their groceries on the porch. Cracked frozen eggs preserved their shape.
Passing those houses, I felt a hunger I didn’t realize I possessed. Rasheed, who ran the mile in a little over four minutes—the track team called him “Zero Gravity”—returned home his freshman year with a visible gut. “Beer,” he told me as he jiggled his belly, but with his hairy face and snarl, I had heard Bear. Later, traveling through Vermont, I envisioned myself foraging outside strangers’ houses, storing food supplies for the long hibernation, where I would sleep undisturbed with a roommate who wasn’t my brother, hundreds of miles away from any place that resembled anything I knew.
My mother was not ready for me to leave because she could not handle more loss, even this temporary abandonment. She complained I spent too much time at Rasheed’s place, and in response I stayed longer with Rasheed and returned only days later when I could not have known if she had wept or called out my name to induce more tears.
The evening my mother cooked her first real meal in weeks, Rasheed stayed for dinner. With my mother, he was always exceptionally polite, complimenting her culinary skills, which most nights consisted of tearing open a box of pasta and boiling water. He might have appeared smug if not for his curiosity. My grandfather spent a week teaching him chess, and Rasheed, only twelve then, didn’t seem to mind losing to an old man, who roared at the board with his reedy battle cry every time he reached checkmate. Even then, Rasheed had a way of listening with his neck bent, eyes lifted like he could see underneath your words and find your true meaning. I suppose the silence of beautiful people contains the power to make you feel perfectly understood, though my mother didn’t fall for his charm. Like Aisha, she didn’t approve of Rasheed’s behavior and considered his influence over me the sole reason for my own rebellious desires, but she treated him as a guest and was eager to ask him questions and for him to own and mend his flaws.
“How are you doing in school?” she said.
“Very well,” Rasheed said, and my mother looked disappointed because she had known otherwise.
Rasheed sat next to Karna, and unwilling to reach over for more food, he ate from my brother’s plate, a handful of fried rice, and with the loss, my brother’s grin widened foolishly, full and satisfied.
“I don’t see Aisha much,” my mother said, “she must be busy in the hospital.”
“People are always getting sick,” Rasheed said.
As if on command, my grandfather started choking on a piece of chicken he had not chewed properly, and my mother shot up, looking frantically for water, and I ran to him with my half cup and tried to make him swallow.
“Bend him forward,” Rasheed said, and after a slap my grandfather continued eating like nothing had happened. He asked for more chicken, and my mother quietly thanked Ganesh, Shiva, Muruga, any god she could think of except us.
I didn’t hang out with Rasheed for almost a week after that evening. From my room, I sometimes saw him sitting on the roof, talking on the phone or smoking. If I left he was gone by the time I returned, and I had the vague feeling that I hadn’t seen him at all. He had friends who swung by and picked him up for parties. Now and then during the day, when Aisha was away at work, a girl showed up at the door ringing the bell.
Though we hadn’t spoken in days, I wasn’t surprised when he came over in the afternoon with a black eye. He winked at me from the doorway, and I saw the color spread across his eyelid in the darkening shade of a sunset. We drank upstairs in my room from the whiskey I stored under the bed. Lying on the sheets, Karna traced the outline of an old Batman sticker on the ceiling. In the fourth grade, he gave a nine-word monologue in the voice of the superhero: I am mysterious, a human hiding inside a bat.
Rasheed leaned against the window and we could hear barbecues, children’s laughter caught in the scent of smoke and burgers. “Aisha kicked me out for the day,” he said. “She doesn’t want her fiancé to see the mess, or maybe just me.”
“Aisha has a fiancé,” I repeated.
“He’s a real asshole,” Rasheed said and balanced his arm on my shoulders like he wanted to tell me I was the better choice.
I didn’t ask him about the black eye, maybe because I was so used to seeing Rasheed falling apart, but really I was thinking of myself and feeling what might have been jealousy under different circumstances, if I thought Aisha might one day have interest in me. In my selfishness, I had wished her a life of loneliness, in eternal service of her patients rather than in the arms of someone else.
By the time evening rolled over us, we were faded and couldn’t move even if we’d been dragged and set on fire. Rasheed spoke without troubling his lips, and my brother, who had downed four shots of whiskey, returned from the kitchen holding a whole chocolate cake, incriminating in his indulgence. He stood at the doorway, drowsy, and when he turned to Rasheed, it took all my energy to grab the cake from his hands and frown at his eagerness. He should have been in the yard chanting like some half-naked yogi, and when I reminded him, he looked at me with such hatred and shame. I turned away because that was what I wanted to see.
Only after my mother and grandfather slept did we stumble to the backyard, tripping over my mother’s potted plants and stone designs. Rasheed showed us the tooth he was missing, and Karna poked his finger through the open window of his mouth. Rasheed said he thought it made him look dignified, like a breast pocket on a suit. We were lying around in the grass and staring up at the sky, and if someone had passed us then, in our quiet, they might have mistaken us for dead.
“I would rather sleep out here from now on,” Rasheed said. He wanted to drive all the way west to Yellowstone and live among all the wildlife, which had been my dream too at some point.
Out of spitefulness or kindness, maybe both, I told Rasheed to take Karna. I knew my brother would want to join him. “He spends a quarter of his day under a tree,” I said. “He’s perfect. Just make sure he brings his inhaler.”
Rasheed turned toward my brother. “What do you say, Karna?”
I was having difficulty focusing. My head hurt and I felt so warm that I wanted to dig myself into the cool earth as I had seen my neighbor Mr. Wu do with his tulip bulbs. As I contemplated the best way to stand upside down, certain the cold would beat the blood rush, Rasheed decided we should drive to the creek by our old middle school and try to fish with my grandfather’s rod. I didn’t think there were any fish in the stream, but Rasheed insisted, smiling with all his remaining teeth.
Below the footbridge, there were only patches of water, and in the summer heat the mud had mostly dried into firm ground, but still Rasheed swung the rod. He didn’t have good aim and kept landing the hook in the branches of tall, leafy trees. Stars reflected underneath us, and I remembered a Tamil word for them, sky fish, and I wanted to tell Rasheed to cast his line into the sky, but he was too busy whipping and yelling at the foliage. My brother looked over the wooden railing and that fatalistic edge I’d always known in him surfaced, glinting under the moonlight.
“I caught a big one,” Rasheed said and grimaced through his elbow, pulling back until he snapped the hook.
I swatted at mosquitoes circling my head. “Enough,” I said, but they multiplied, growing stronger despite my words and attacking everything, finding their way under the skin.
On the way back, I ran over a cat, a lump along the road I first mistook for nothing more than a blur of trash. There had been no sound, no murmur of pain. “Poor thing,” Rasheed said, and I wanted to kill him right there too as I drove in my grandfather’s old pickup truck, raging with my grandfather’s temper, my trifle inheritance. I pulled the truck over and vomited on the curbside under the streetlamp, hours before dawn.
* * *
MY FATHER VISITED us when he had a conference in Jersey. The last time I had seen him was for my high school graduation. He had handed me an empty shoebox wrapped in gold paper that held within it three crisp hundred-dollar bills. My mother called the gift generous, but looking at the box, I had expected more.
He now sat in the living room eating biscuits as my mother held the wallet-sized photo of his newly born daughter. She was half-Japanese, but I couldn’t tell. I sat across from him while Karna greeted him and then went off to pray in the backyard, where Rasheed was discreetly smoking.
My father was always pleasant and understanding with me, so I couldn’t stand him. Shaking hands, he’d look closely at my face and seem to want to feel not bone and muscle but the essence of my thoughts. In our limited time, I couldn’t give him any more than yeses, nos, and a few strings of words that didn’t add up to anything.
We almost had a real conversation a year and a half ago when my father took Karna and me to a park in Jersey City, where he used to hang out with my mom and his brother when they were kids. It was more a plot of grass with some trees and two benches, brightened with a collage of plastic wrappers and aluminum cans. My father had picked up a Corona like he was about to drink from it but then poured it out, let the liquid puddle next to our feet, murky as piss. “Your uncle would come out here in the middle of the night and sometimes fall asleep, and I’d find him stretched out on one of these benches in the morning like a bum,” he said and paused. “Like he didn’t even have a home.”
I had wanted to ask my father if he missed my uncle, how sometimes I didn’t believe he really existed. I was five the last time I had seen him and the world felt then like a flat horizon that would go on and on, my mother and father together, the three of us living in our own house on that wiry road leading to nowhere, the back hills of Kentucky where old racing horses wandered and ate rotten apples.
My mother kept no photographs of her time in Kentucky or her teenage years in Jersey, and sometimes I had difficulty placing her anywhere except in relation to me. Like we were born together. When I mentioned my uncle’s name late one night, my mother shooshed me with the tips of her fingers and before I could even notice a tremble of recognition, she looked behind her as if she heard someone steal away into the house. She went to find my brother, who was asleep on the couch, and without waking him, she cradled his curled body, gave me his foot to hold like he was our lucky charm that would keep us safe.
My mother poured my father some coffee, and watching him stare at her, I wished she had looked more lovely, her face open and startling, a beginning rather than an end.
After my father left, my grandfather said I should treat him with more respect, which was unlike anything he had said of my father in the past. To him, I was always acting like my father, either too stubborn and unforgiving or not stubborn enough and too forgiving. My father became everything we were lacking. I told my grandfather he must be losing his mind to say anything partial about my father. Instead of reprimanding me, he laughed and for the first time in a while he sounded happy.
* * *
TWO DAYS BEFORE Rasheed’s parents returned, he decided to throw a party. Aisha had night shifts at the hospital and wouldn’t return home that weekend. It was a small get-together, mostly Rasheed’s friends from college. On the night of the party, we arranged the bottles and shaved our faces, which we hadn’t done in days. We had gotten looks from customers at the supermarket and shot back with strokes of our beards.
While we all drank, Karna sipped soda from a glass. A girl with pink streaks in her hair threw her cards on the table and rushed to the bathroom after the second round of Kings. Rasheed talked to a girl with a nose ring and zebra pants. He had his hand on her knee and smiled whenever she spoke. She drank careful sips, told him about the last poetry slam she’d performed at, and didn’t look down at his hand, not once. Dressed in his formal clothes, a striped button-down and slacks, Karna watched the two of them. Rasheed twirled a strand of the girl’s hair on his finger like a wedding band before he took her hand and they disappeared upstairs. I was flirting with a girl with toasted orange skin, who kept drinking screwdrivers, which in my mind made her skin more orange. My brother also disappeared the rest of the evening, and I found him hours later asleep in our room, quiet, even after I walked into our wardrobe and fell into his twin bed before finding my own.
* * *
AISHA SAID RASHEED fell off the roof, and maybe he did but I was never sure. She found him in the morning by the shed lying like some brilliant comet that had flashed across the sky and crumbled onto Earth.
At the hospital, Aisha sat beside him in a metal chair holding his wrist, his fingers loose and limp, not ready for a fight. If Rasheed were still conscious, he would have been amazed at how his bones broke, the way nothing in him broke clean, his own rib cage puncturing his lungs. We arrived in the early evening and Rasheed was speaking through machines and vents. My mother held Aisha, who wasn’t crying but sat with her arms folded, hardening herself for what was to come. Their parents were flying across land and ocean, and in a matter of a day would hover over us, and for all Aisha dreaded, through that turbulence of air, they might see their son ascending toward them.
My grandfather was irritable and couldn’t keep still so he spent the time admiring the hospital. He rarely visited my mother when she worked, but now he wandered the hallways and visited the rooms of strangers lying alone in slanted beds who must have been accustomed to the sight of passing strangers watching over them. The fluorescent overcast made patients look ugly, except for Rasheed, maybe because he was not awake to show fear.
In the hospital, death can smell so clean, prepackaged, bacteria-free. I think that’s why my grandfather turned to my mother and said quietly, “Don’t let me die in a place like this.”
I thought of the safe zones, bodies piled in the open, uncremated, unburied, in Mullivaikkal. Enough dead to fill entire cities I have never visited.
Late at night when I’d listen to my mother crying over the phone, I’d sometimes touch my face and feel the shape, the architecture of bones, and then all at once I’d fall apart into the never-ending, my mother saying, “Useless. This life was for what?” Though I had believed we’d been cursed from the beginning, I’d always known, even before my grandfather called to me with the blunted edge of his voice from his deathbed, that we were the lucky ones.
My mother let Aisha sleep and said she’d watch Rasheed through the night. It was the first time my mother had cared for him. She combed his hair with her fingers and spoke to him like he could hear us.
When my grandfather brought us home, I could still hear her voice down the corridor, the tail end of a whisper.
We ate cereal for dinner. Together we finished a whole box of Mini-Wheats, and Karna almost swallowed the copper coin prize. No one could sleep, so we stayed up watching television, squeezed side by side, and I thought how one day I might miss sitting on the couch with the only family I knew. My grandfather kept tapping my head to give me any comfort he had left to offer, which wasn’t much but wasn’t nothing. In the middle of a commercial, he lowered the volume and began to tell a story, and I thought it would be about the war or ancient Tamil literature, but it was about us.
“I was thinking about when you two played manhunt with the neighborhood kids, and no one could find Karna. We were worried, thinking he was missing. But Arjun found him, knew where he would think to hide.”
“He peed his pants waiting to be found,” I said and turned to Karna, who had closed his eyes, his mouth parted for prayer.
We visited Rasheed in the hospital the next day and the next. Even after his parents arrived, we went or I went alone. Rasheed’s mother stayed with him during the day, and his father read to him from the Quran at night after work. He finally had his son by his side, unable to go anywhere, but he wasn’t sure if Rasheed could hear him. Still he read on until he tired, mostly for himself.
That summer before I left home, before my grandfather died, I hardly slept, and I remember on the night of my brother’s last prayer looking through the bedroom window and seeing him collapse into the dry grass by the porch light with his hands and legs shaped into a fox. Only after a minute did he sit up and begin to dig, searching the earth for its dark secret, and I wondered if, like my grandfather had instructed, he was going to make something of our misery.
Karna returned to bed and we did not speak for years. Even later when we began to rely on each other and we both had our share of heartbreaks, he still never revealed his boon, but I know he used it for Rasheed because he did live. He lived countless times, through a car accident, a seven-story-building fire, an upturned boat on the bend of the Colorado River, a grueling horse ride in a sun-drenched desert, a divorce that left him hitchhiking alone across the country. He lived.
Copyright © 2018 by Akil Kumarasamy