She comes out of the gate wearing jeans and a backpack. Jeans! When did she start wearing those?
“Hi,” she says.
“Radhika?” I ask.
She gives me a hug and slips a bag of airplane peanuts into my pocket. “Who else? Some other cousin you were expecting?”
She smiles. “That place? Give me a break. Now tell me about our cousin Aman. And while doing that, could we get a coffee?”
Coffee? What about tea?
I push her cart of suitcases along the terminal, and stare at those jeans – tight jeans too, designer-type. There’s a coffee kiosk near the parking lot. When she gets her drink, she takes a huge sip and I wonder how she doesn’t burn her insides.
Eight down to one, I count backwards. It’s harder than the other way. You have to think more. And I am enjoying this funny muffin as I count, but ‘funny’ is not the right word. I put down the muffin. What is the right word?
Pick up the muffin. Bite. Count backwards, eight to one. The door opens. Someone is suddenly hugging me. She is wearing lipstick and earrings. Puts her head very close to mine. Smells like oatmeal and oranges. I get caught at five. Am I to kiss her? I kiss her.
“Oh, naughty kid!” she says. “See, Paul? Very affectionate little cousin Aman I have here.”
“Second cousin,” says Paul.
“Whatever,” she returns, rubbing my hair. “Aman, I’m so happy to see you. Do you remember the last time we were together? It was in Rajasthan, we were at Amber Palace, and you kept pulling my hair. And you peed in our bed that night.”
Remember? Yes I do, as I count backwards, eight down to one, and smell her oatmeal smell and lean closer to listen to a time that I don’t remember at all.
Aman’s asleep. Radhika insists on staying up. She’s arranged cereal boxes on the kitchen table and is filling a bowl. “Lovely selection,” she croons. “Can you turn on music?” I click my phone and a speaker comes alive. She’s moving her body, breasts jiggling. The last time I saw her, she didn’t have those. I turn my eyes away, because it’s bad luck to look at the breasts of your cousin. Even if it is your second cousin.
“So really, how is India these days?” I ask.
“Very dirty, Paul. But progressive, you know? Our family got categorized as ‘middle class’. I have no idea what that means.” Her cell phone pings with a text message. “It’s Jolene, my class-mate. She’s got a list of things I have to bring back with me.”
“I can help with that.”
When she’s done a bowl of mixed cereals, she says, “So. What has happened with our cousin?”
She’s wearing lipstick, but it’s smeared because Aman rammed his face into hers. He went to bed insisting on keeping it on him. Wouldn’t let me clean it. She wouldn’t let me, either.
Radhika pulls a pouch of herbs out of her bag. “As requested.”
I can’t help but look at the clothes in the suitcase, the hint of bras, the lace of underwear not properly buried. The tank tops lying on top, that I can’t imagine her wearing.
“They’re just a bunch of herbs,” she says. “We found them in the ditches. Nothing special about them. Are you sure about this?”
“Mom and dad are.”
“My mom said a bunch of doctors saw him, what did they say?”
We sit on the bed. It’s the spare room, the smallest space in the house. There’s one dresser. The closet is full of Indian clothes.
“They say he has schizophrenia.”
There’s three inches separating me from the stretchy skin of her jeans and the super-black of her eyelashes. I think for a moment that she’s going to take my hand, and I wish that she would. But she just sits there, as though these inches are important.
“Why don’t you get him into treatment? Doctors can help him. Back home, they have clinics for this type of thing. Specialists. Drugs.”
I expected her to smell a certain way, but she’s wearing perfume. For all that, she’s still the girl I remember, hanging off the back of a scooter the last time I saw her, arms wrapped around my uncle as they shot off around a bend into the old world.
“Mom and dad don’t believe it. Please don’t tell anyone I used that word.”
I nod. She shakes her head.
I’m not asleep. Why do they think that? I can hear them talking. Close my eyes and I can feel red stone walls, in that other world that’s not mine. I squeeze eyes tight and erase, erase, erase. And I start to build my own world, a bigger one that has the right people in it and that doesn’t smell like this house. Paul says tomorrow is a big day and they are going to heal me, but I squeeze tight and enter a new world, one that hasn’t happened yet.
I have a telescope and a comet is coming towards me. Then I’m on the comet, with a microscope to look at the rock. A little bit of green is growing, as the comet streaks towards the boy looking through the telescope. I’m not asleep. Then morning comes. We had curtains once. They stopped the light. I’m at the window. Looking at the sky. 8, 7, 6, 5, 2, 1. Zero.
The ceremony starts at seven in the morning. The living room is full of people. Radhika is sitting on the girls’ side, in a lengha. She seems strange dressed like that, now that I know what she prefers to wear, and looks bored listening to the Granthi. Dad is behind the Guru Garanth Sahib, waving away incense smoke.
People have put money on the silk fabric in front of the Sahib. It’s mostly coins, some bills. Little kids make a play for it, but their parents pull them back and make them listen to the Granthi.
Mom brings in the pot of boiling herbs. A kid makes a choking noise and someone laughs. But dad has put down the fan and is standing with hands together. Mom bows before the Sahib and puts the pot on a dinner mat.
Aman is brought in by the uncles, two large-bellied men who insist on wearing suits to things like this. They have him by the arms, as though he can’t walk. He’s looking straight ahead, at the window behind the Granthi. The uncles set him down next to the pot and one pulls off the lid. The smell wafts through the living room, displacing the cooking smells that have been building their home here for twenty years. I feel light-headed. Across the room, Radhika is staring at me.
The uncles are murmuring in Aman’s ears, asking him to do something. But mom isn’t waiting. She has Aman’s hands in hers, and brings them to a place over the pot. Steam curls around his skin, condenses on it. It must be hot. But mom keeps his hands there, and the Granthi starts to sing again, a low throaty song that stops the kids dead in their tracks. There’s no other noise in the room. Mom lowers Aman’s hands until they’re just above the metal of the pot. Any further, and he would feel it. He would really feel it.
Radhika’s staring at me. I want to get up, to explain this to her, that this is the way that things have always been done. This is what we do.
I turn back to Aman. His eyes have snapped to the side, scanning the living room as though he’s wondering where all these people came from, what they’re doing here. He sees dad behind the Granthi. He looks over and sees me. And finally, he looks down at the heat curling between his fingers.
Eight, down to one. I have my gloves on. Behind, the house is bright.
It’s so so cold. In warmer days, we had a fish pond. Right here. Should have drained it but didn’t. Should have put fish in but didn’t. Now it’s frozen and on it, snow. Snow, so I move the snow, and put it around the pond, great big mountains that I climb up and over, made of snow.
I’m on the pond. Frozen ice crackling. Start skating, though I never learned that. But the ice is big, as big as the back yard. As big as the street, and the city. So I shuffle, slip, stop. Push off, and suddenly I’m skating. I’m not built for this, I remember someone telling me. I’m not built for Canada, because I’m from a hot place, but this doesn’t mean I don’t know where I am. And that hot place, what’s it called? I can’t remember. I don’t think about it, because I’m skating. I am.
“Aman, come inside please,” says my brother. There is a girl next to him.
“First this,” I tell him. The girl kneels in the snow. The cold will go through her jeans. She wants to touch me. I want her to do that too. But in my pocket is a big leaf that the uncles said I have to keep with me all the time. “I keep a leaf with me, all the time?” I ask them.
“Yes, all the time,” says Paul. “It’s going to help you.”
But the girl is just kneeling there. “I’ve missed you, Aman.” And she hugs me and I hug back and Paul stands to the side and looks over the fence as the house stays bright.
The girl is kneeling there and I have to say something. She is kneeling in snow, and she is getting cold because she was not built for this. And with that, I plant the leaf that is meant to help me, and it starts to grow. Upwards and outwards it grows, shielding that boy my brother and that girl too, melting the snow until we have our fish pond again and everything is warm, like some hot faraway land where nothing bad ever happens and I can count, eight down to one, and never get it wrong.