When the bus ran over my cousin, I knew I couldn’t stick around, but everything happened at once and he was screaming and my impulse was to grab something, so I grabbed an old lady’s purse out of her hands. I wish I hadn’t done it, but I did. She clutched her bag tightly to her chest with her splintery claws, but I snapped her hold and then I reached down to the pavement and took my cousin’s backpack, too. I pushed my way fast through the oncoming crowd of people who had come to help, to watch, to catch the bus home. I didn’t even have to run. Everyone was moving in the opposite direction than I was. But I ran anyway, all the way home.
The air was wet and blew my hair around and made a low hard sound when it banged against our building. I lowered my head against the wind. My tights and sneakers looked very bright against the concrete. My shoelaces were frayed. I saw the grad students who live downstairs with their kids. They’re the kind who’ll come visit my grandfather with their Tupperwares full of bland alu gobi and store-bought nan. But like my cousin always used to say, it’s the thought that counts, not that it ever kept him from copying their apartment keys or taking small change off their children on the swing set.
No one was home when I got upstairs. I was so relieved but still I went straight into the bathroom and shut the door. I dropped Raj’s bag and emptied out the contents of the dirty old purse. Out came an empty bag of Bugles, lint, crumbs, a wad of singles held together by an elastic band, old Kleenex, tic-tacs hard and rattling in their plastic case as they hit the floor.
When I was real young our mother used to buy me and my little sister those Mexican jumping beans they sold by the cash register at Zaire’s. In the car, Raj and I would take all my sister’s beans and she’d cry, but my mother would only mumble to my cousin beside her, “Hai Ram, Raj, you’re so much older,” and then turn up the volume on her worn Lata Mangeshkar tape and keep driving like nothing much was going on in the back of the Nova. My cousin would turn around and cheer me on as I pinched my small sister, and I was glad that he didn’t see me as just another girl. One time, I grabbed my sister’s hair during a bean fight and yanked so hard a clump of her hair came out. To this day she swears that not all of it grew back. In our apartment, my sister would sob in our bedroom and Raj would lead me into the kitchen and dump the beans on the floor. They bounced spasmodically over the linoleum like the flies when we’d tear their wings off and touch an electric wire to them in our grandfather’s garage. After a few days, the worms inside the beans would die and I wonder now what rotted away first, the worms or the beans which had nourished and imprisoned them. The beans sat quiet on the tiles until a day came when my mother might get out of her daybed and sweep the beans into a dustpan and carry them to the trash. One time a moth hatched out of a bean. Each wing was a papery half-moon the size of a fingernail and I think I wanted to keep this insect, feed it more beans or whatever it is that moths like to eat. But Raj wasn’t as interested in playing with me that afternoon, he was listening to his Walkman through his headphones and not looking at me, and so I stood in front of him and smashed the moth theatrically between my thumb and my forefinger, spreading white dust and black juice down into the palm of my hand, hoping that this might get Raj’s attention. That was the day Raj moved out. I didn’t get to see him again until after he started at the college and my mother decided she never again wanted to wake up. But my grandfather didn’t know, he couldn’t know, about those late-afternoon walks from the high school, those mad dashes to make the bus before I’d be late for dinner.
Now I knelt down to the bathroom tiles and put the old lady’s money in my pocket. The rest of her things I stuffed back into the purse, though the floor was still covered with tiny debris. I sat on the cold floor and opened my cousin’s bag. In it there was a Ziploc with a little weed in it. I wanted to smoke it, but didn’t because I never had and didn’t know how. I flipped through his notebook from the college and opened his CD player. I left his keys and his sweatshirt in the bag and took out my bra and his wallet. Inside his wallet there were big bills, fifties and hundreds, and his credit cards and his school ID and driver’s license, which I didn’t look at. But then there were pictures, too: pictures of him and me when I was a baby, pictures I’d never seen before. My cousin holding me in the hospital, his cheeks hairless, his eyes large and strange. Next to him my mother lying on a bed, with circles around her eyes the color of eggplants, but she was smiling, looking happy in a way I never remembered her being. My grandparents stood near her, looking serious and sad. Creases in the photo paper grew out of my small, misshapen head.
The knob turned in the door and there was my sister looking down on me as the phone rang behind her. Someone in the next apartment ran the pipes. I pulled the backpack toward my chest. I heard the front door bang open and there was my grandfather and my grandfather’s hand. All the air blew out my body through my nose and as my face cartwheeled through the room I saw little crumbs of paper on the floor gather themselves into the shape of tiny wings, little half-moons rising up to meet the stucco ceiling, to hatch through and feed on the outside world.