When I still lived away from Mama Khan, I would often visit her for meals and hangouts. Once such time, while visiting one weekend, we happened to be lunching with the television on behind us. My back was to the TV and Mama Khan, who sat across from me, was facing the television with partially glazed eyes taking in the local news. I was only half paying attention as I was attempting to converse with the woman who had birthed me in the limited time we had together since I no longer lived with her, but Mama Khan was engrossed in the case of some tweens who had gotten themselves into legal trouble thanks to what they inevitably thought were just childish pranks.
“Kids today,” Mama Khan muttered. “What do these parents do to raise such awful kids? Such troublemakers?”
“‘Ma, your kids aren’t so innocent you know,” I pointed out, referring less to me and more to my younger brother, who had always been reigning king of little shits. When he was born, my grandma tells me, he was red as a beet and bawling bloody murder. “A child born red is a sign that he’s going to be troublesome,” she had announced. Mama Khan conveniently ignored her as she pored over her new bundle of joy — one whom my gran wouldn’t annex like she had me.
As children, with mostly just each other to entertain ourselves, we got along about as well as any brother and sister does. I was quiet and obedient by nature and he was eager to test everyone’s limits. When I was told not to do something, I rarely needed a reason why, but my brother not only needed a reason but needed to then test the theory presented to him until proven right. This meant that he had touched open flames on candles and burning stovetops just to confirm that he would, in fact, get hurt, as the grownups warned.
While my Mama Khan presented us with an assortment of toys including dolls, cars, and Legos, she never assigned them to us by gender. We were free to and encouraged to play with any and all of them. There were certain toys — like my collection of off-brand Barbie dolls — that I considered inherently mine and mine alone. I kept them in a makeshift apartment I created for them in the bottom shelves of my closet, decorated with the sturdy toy furniture that my gran was always gifting me, complete with a mini wardrobe that held the many hand-sewn clothes my gran made for all of my dolls.
In my waking hours, I would guard these dolls with fury, but when I obediently fell asleep at the proper hour, my brother would remain awake and take the time to sneak into my closet to play with my dolls. This wouldn’t have been so bad if he had been as neat and orderly as I had been as a child, but he wasn’t at all. Instead, I would wake every morning with my closet door ajar, my doll apartment in a mess, doll clothes strewn everywhere — but none ever on any of the dolls themselves — and more often than not, a doll or two lying stark naked somewhere in our apartment.
This wasn’t the only time my little shit of a kid brother tortured my toys. Another time, while allowing us to believe he was indulging in some quiet play, he threw every single one of my stuffed animals out our bedroom window. At that time, we lived on the second floor of an apartment building, above a small bodega with a giant canopy covering the fresh fruits and vegetables laid out in front. Most of the toys landed on the canopy and had to be pushed off by the storekeepers, who found it more amusing than infuriating because my brother happened to be a very cute child.
Though not as guilty, I wasn’t totally innocent myself. Having once watched a cartoon featuring a jolly blue elephant, I took it upon myself to do my brother’s homework, which involved colouring in an elephant to signify the noun beginning with the letter “e.” While he took his nap, I coloured in his elephant with a blue coloured pencil and examined my handiwork. I had stayed within the lines and the elephant looked almost exactly like the one from the cartoon. I closed the book and let my brother discover the happy surprise on his own, but his reaction was far from what i had expected. Instead of hugging me and thanking his big sister for helping him with his homework, he howled and bawled for hours about how I had made him look stupid because elephants were grey and not blue and how his teacher would now think he was a dumb baby who didn’t know anything about elephants. I had considered colouring the elephant grey, but that would have meant using my regular number two pencil to colour it in and I had really wanted to use my new coloured pencils.
And that’s not counting the thousands of other things my brother did to me that were far from innocent: pulling my hair when I wouldn’t give him something fast enough, terrorizing my pet parrot until the poor thing dropped dead of stress, sneaking home a garder snake from a camping trip and insisting it was by accident (we never believed him but to this day, don’t know the truth of how that snake got into my brother’s luggage), reading my diary for years and even sleeping with it under my pillow to sneakily read while I was asleep, and so much more for years and years until he met his wife and finally became an adult.
“Your kids weren’t so innocent when they were younger, you know,” I repeated as these memories flooded back to me. Mama Khan looked at me then back at the TV, shaking her head.
“Nope. Both my kids have always been perfect angels,” she stated in the tone that signified that this subject was now closed to discussion.