A month before I turned five, my little cousin was born. Before that day, I was the youngest in a tight-knit family of cousins, and I felt relieved that there was now someone to come behind me, to revere my words, to defer to my television and fast-food selections. We spent most days together, playing Mario Brothers, singing along to the Tiny Toon theme song, walking to the Winn Dixie around the corner from our houses for pints of Blue Bell ice cream. When I was twelve and he was seven, my mother moved me from New Orleans to Connecticut. It was a terrible culture shock, but mostly I missed my cousin. I was excited for my first visit back primarily so I could see him. We sat on the floral couch in my grandmother's living room, and I told him about the hill we lived on back east, so steep I could ride my bike only halfway up before I was winded. I told him that I could look into the sky and actually see the stars; I told him I missed him. He didn't talk, just sat on the sofa and stared in the opposite direction. His father took me aside that evening, told me my cousin talked about me all the time, but he couldn't say a word while I was there because he still hadn't gotten over my leaving in the first place.
Later when I'd come to visit, my cousin had less and less time for me. He was always more popular than I was. He wasn't far into elementary school before his house became a revolving door of friends: the twins down the block, the older boy across the street. It had been a fairly integrated neighborhood when I left it, but in just a few short years the white families had moved out. My cousin struggled academically, and Schaumberg Elementary was no longer equipped to address his needs. One night at my grandparents' house, my grandfather called him into the den, held up his recent report card, said he needed to do better, that there were no dummies in our family. My cousin's eyes reddened and watered.
I knew what my grandfather meant, that my cousin couldn't be a dummy by virtue of the fact that he was in our family, but my cousin had taken it a different way. I didn't correct him. Like my old neighborhood, I had changed some too. I was one of six black children in a school of 800, and I had started dressing in hooded sweatshirts and baggy jeans like the white girls; I'd lost my New Orleans accent. If it had been years before, I might have taken my cousin aside, explained away the confusion, but I didn't feel connected enough to him to make the awkward effort.
My cousin moved in with my mother halfway through his eighth-grade year. His grades had reached an all-time low; he was staying away from home all hours of the night, and his mother feared for his safety. So my mother took him in, set up a study schedule for him, paid for a tutor. He became the king of Jackie Robinson Middle School. I was away in college, but I called my mother to check on him. She would talk about how her ordinarily quiet house had begun to bustle with my cousin's new friends, eighth graders who wanted to dress like him, talk like him, become him.
One night, she told me my cousin had taken on the cause of a girl who was being bullied. The girl had been attacked so badly that half her hair had been ripped out of her scalp and she'd had to start wearing wigs to cover the empty space. Since then, my cousin walked her to school each morning and waited for her outside her classroom each afternoon. He was 6'1", but it was more than that; the other kids adored him, and his just standing next to the girl deterred anyone from bothering her further.