“Kabul is …” Idris searches
for the right words. “A thousand tragedies per square mile.”
“Must have been quite the
culture shock, going there.”
“Yes it was.” Idris doesn’t
say that the real culture shock has been in coming back.
Eventually, talk turns to a
recent rash of mail theft that has hit the neighborhood.
Lying in bed that night,
Idris says, “Do you think we have to have all this?”
“ ‘All this’?” Nahil says. He
can see her in the mirror, brushing her teeth by the sink.
“All this. This stuff.”
“No we don’t need it, if that’s what you mean,” she says. She spits in
the sink, gargles.
“You don’t think it’s too
much, all of it?”
“We worked hard, Idris.
Remember the MCATs, the LSATs, medical school, law school, the years of
residency? No one gave us anything. We have nothing to
“For the price of that home
theater we could have built a school in Afghanistan.”
She comes into the bedroom
and sits on the bed to remove her contacts. She has the most beautiful profile.
He loves the way her forehead hardly dips where her nose begins, her strong
cheekbones, her slim neck.
“Then do both,” she says,
turning to him, blinking back eyedrops. “I don’t see why you can’t.”
A few years ago, Idris had discovered
that Nahil was supporting a Colombian kid named Miguel. She’d said nothing to
him about it, and since she was in charge of the mail and their finances Idris
had not known about it for years until he’d seen her one day reading a letter
from Miguel. The letter had been translated from Spanish by a nun. There was a
picture too, of a tall, wiry boy standing outside a straw hut, cradling a
soccer ball, nothing behind him but gaunt-looking cows and green hills. Nahil
had started supporting Miguel when she was in law school. For eleven years now
Nahil’s checks had quietly crossed paths with Miguel’s pictures and his
thankful, nun-translated letters.
She takes off her rings. “So
what is this? You caught a case of survivor’s guilt over there?”
“I just see things a little
“Good. Put that to use, then.
But quit the navel-gazing.”
Jet lag robs him of sleep
that night. He reads for a while, watches part of a West Wing
rerun downstairs, ends up at the computer in the guest bedroom Nahil has turned
into an office. He finds an e-mail from Amra. She hopes that his return home
was safe and that his family is well. It has been raining “angrily” in Kabul,
she writes, and the streets are packed with mud up to the ankles. The rain has
caused flooding, and some two hundred families had to be evacuated by
helicopter in Shomali, north of Kabul. Security has been tightening because of
Kabul’s support of Bush’s war in Iraq and expected reprisals from al-Qaeda. Her
last line reads You have talked with your boss yet?
Below Amra’s e-mail is pasted
a short paragraph from Roshi, which Amra has transcribed. It reads:
Salaam, Kaka Idris,
Inshallah, you have
arrived safely in America. I am sure that your family is very happy to see you.
Every day I think about you. Every day I am watching the films you bought for
me. I like them all. It makes me sad that you are not here to watch with me. I
am feeling good and Amra jan is taking good care of me. Please say Salaam to
your family for me. Inshallah, we will see each other soon in California.
With my respects,
He answers Amra, thanks her,
writes that he is sorry to hear about the flooding. He hopes the rains will
abate. He tells her that he will discuss Roshi with his chief this week. Below
that he writes:
Salaam, Roshi jan:
Thank you for your kind
message. It made me very happy to hear from you. I too think about you a lot. I
have told my family all about you and they are very eager to meet you, especially my
sons, Zabi jan and Lemar jan, who ask a lot of questions about you. We all look
forward to your arrival. I send you my love,
He logs off and goes to bed.
Monday, a pile of phone messages greets him when he enters his office.
Prescription-refill requests spill from a basket, awaiting his approval. He has
over one hundred and sixty e-mails to sift through, and his voice mail is full.
He peruses his schedule on the computer and is dismayed to see overbooks—squeezes, as the doctors call them—inserted into his time
slots all week. Worse, he will see the dreaded Mrs. Rasmussen that afternoon, a
particularly unpleasant, confrontational woman with years of vague symptoms
that respond to no treatment. The thought of facing her hostile neediness makes
him break into a sweat. And last, one of the voice mails is from his chief,
Joan Schaeffer, who tells him that a patient he had diagnosed with pneumonia
just before his trip to Kabul turned out to have congestive heart failure
instead. The case will be used next week for Peer Review, a monthly video
conference watched by all the facilities during which mistakes by physicians,
who remain anonymous, are used to illustrate learning points. The anonymity
doesn’t go very far, Idris knows. At least half the people in the room will
know the culprit.
He feels the onset of a
He falls woefully behind
schedule that morning. An asthma patient walks in without an appointment and
needs respiratory treatments and close monitoring of his peak flows and oxygen
saturation. A middle-aged executive, whom Idris last saw three years before,
comes in with an evolving anterior myocardial infarction. Idris cannot start
lunch until halfway through the noon hour. In the conference room where the
doctors eat, he takes harried bites of a dry turkey sandwich as he tries to
catch up with notes. He answers the same questions from his colleagues. Was
Kabul safe? What do Afghans there think of the U.S. presence? He gives
economical, clipped replies, his mind on Mrs. Rasmussen, on voice mails that
need answering, refills he has yet to approve, the three squeezes in his
schedule that afternoon, the upcoming Peer Review, the contractors sawing and
drilling and banging nails back at the house. Talking about Afghanistan—and he
is astonished at how quickly and imperceptibly this has happened—suddenly feels
like discussing a recently watched, emotionally drenching film whose effects
are beginning to wane.
The week proves one of the
hardest of his professional career. Though he had meant to, he doesn’t find the
time to talk to Joan Schaeffer about Roshi. A foul mood takes hold of him all
week. He is short with the boys at home, annoyed with the workers streaming in
and out of his house and all the noise. His sleep pattern has yet to return to
normal. He receives two more e-mails from Amra, more updates on the conditions
in Kabul. Rabia Balkhi, the women’s hospital, has reopened. Karzai’s cabinet
will allow cable television networks to broadcast programs, challenging the
Islamic hard-liners who had opposed it. In a postscript at the end of the second
e-mail, she says that Roshi has become withdrawn since he left, and asks again
whether he has spoken to his chief. He steps away from the keyboard. He returns
to it later, ashamed of how Amra’s note had irritated him, how tempted he had
been, for just a moment, to answer her, in capital letters, I
WILL. IN DUE TIME.
that went okay for you.”
Joan Schaeffer sits behind
her desk, hands laced in her lap. She is a woman of cheerful energy, with a
full face and coarse white hair. She peers at him over the narrow reading
glasses perched on the bridge of her nose. “You understand the point was not to
“Yes, of course,” Idris says.
“And don’t feel bad. It could
happen to any of us. CHF and pneumonia on X-ray, sometimes it’s hard to tell.”
“Thanks, Joan.” He gets up to
go, pauses at the door. “Oh. Something I’ve been meaning to discuss with you.”
“Sure. Sure. Sit.”
He sits down again. He tells
her about Roshi, describes the injury, the lack of resources at Wazir Akbar
Khan Hospital. He confides in her the commitment he has made to Amra and Roshi.
Saying it aloud, he feels weighed down by his promise in a way he had not in
Kabul, standing in the hallway with Amra, when she’d kissed his cheek. He is
troubled to find that it feels like buyer’s remorse.
“My God, Idris,” Joan says,
shaking her head, “I commend you. But how dreadful. The poor child. I can’t
“I know,” he says. He asks if
the group would be willing to cover her procedure. “Or procedures.
My sense is, she’ll need more than one.”
Joan sighs. “I wish. But,
frankly, I doubt the board of directors would approve it, Idris. I doubt it
very much. You know we’ve been in the red for the last five years. And there
would be legal issues as well, complicated ones.”
She waits for him, maybe
prepared for him, to challenge this, but he doesn’t.
“I understand,” he says.
“You should be able to find a
humanitarian group that does this sort of thing, no? It would take some work,
“I’ll look into it. Thanks,
Joan.” He gets up again, surprised that he is feeling lighter, almost relieved
by her response.
theater takes another month to be built, but it is a marvel. The picture, shot
from the projector mounted on the ceiling, is sharp, the movements on the
102-inch screen strikingly fluid. The 7.1 channel surround sound, the graphic
equalizers, and the bass traps they have put in the four corners, have done
wonders for the acoustics. They watch Pirates of the
Caribbean, the boys, delighted by the technology, sitting on either side
of him, eating from the communal bucket of popcorn on his lap. They fall asleep
before the final, drawn-out battle scene.
“I’ll put them to bed,” Idris
says to Nahil.
He lifts one, then the other.
The boys are growing, their lean bodies lengthening with alarming speed. As he
tucks each into bed, an awareness sets in of the heartbreak that is in store
for him with his boys. In a year, two at the outside, he will be replaced. The
boys will become enamored with other things, other people, embarrassed by him
and Nahil. Idris thinks longingly of when they were small and helpless, so
wholly dependent on him. He remembers how terrified Zabi was of manholes when
he was little, walking wide, clumsy circles around them. Once, watching an old
film, Lemar had asked Idris if he had been alive back when the world was in
black and white. The memory brings a smile. He kisses his sons’ cheeks.
He sits back in the dark,
watching Lemar sleep. He had judged his boys hastily, he sees now, and
unfairly. And he had judged himself harshly too. He is not a criminal.
Everything he owns he has earned. In the nineties, while half the guys he knew
were out clubbing and chasing women, he had been buried in study, dragging
himself through hospital corridors at two in the morning, forgoing leisure,
comfort, sleep. He had given his twenties to medicine. He has paid his dues.
Why should he feel badly? This is his family. This is his life.
In the last month, Roshi has
become something abstract to him, like a character in a play. Their connection
has frayed. The unexpected intimacy he had stumbled upon in that hospital, so
urgent and acute, has eroded into something dull. The experience has lost its
power. He recognizes the fierce determination that had seized him for what it
really was, an illusion, a mirage. He had fallen under the influence of
something like a drug. The distance between him and the girl feels vast now. It
feels infinite, insurmountable, and his promise to her misguided, a reckless
mistake, a terrible misreading of the measures of his own powers and will and
character. Something best forgotten. He isn’t capable of it. It is that simple.
In the last two weeks, he has received three more e-mails from Amra. He read
the first and didn’t answer. He deleted the next two without reading.
in the bookstore is about twelve or thirteen people long. It stretches from the
makeshift stage to the magazine stand. A tall, broad-faced woman passes out
little yellow Post-its to those in line to write their names on and any personal
message they want inscribed in the book. A saleswoman at the head of the line
helps people flip to the title page.
Idris is near the head of the
line, holding a copy in his hand. The woman in front of him, in her fifties and
with short-clipped blond hair, turns and says to him, “Have you read it?”
“No,” he says.
“We’re going to read it for
our book club next month. It’s my turn to pick.”
She frowns and pushes a palm
against her chest. “I hope people read it. It’s such a moving story. So
inspiring. I bet they make it a movie.”
It’s true, what he told her.
He has not read the book and doubts he ever will. He does not think he has the
stomach to revisit himself on its pages. But others will read it. And when they
do, he will be exposed. People will know. Nahil, his sons, his colleagues. He
feels sick at the thought of it.
He opens the book again,
flips past the acknowledgments, past the bio of the coauthor, who has done the
actual writing. He looks again at the photo on the book flap. There is no sign
of the injury. If she bears a scar, which she must, the long, wavy black hair
conceals it. Roshi is wearing a blouse with little gold beads, an Allah
necklace, lapis ear studs. She is leaning against a tree, looking straight at
the camera, smiling. He thinks of the stick figures she had drawn him. Don’t go. Don’t leave, Kaka. He does not detect in this
young woman even a scrap of the tremulous little creature he had found behind a
curtain six years before.
Idris glances at the
To the two angels in my life:
my mother Amra, and my Kaka Timur. You are my saviors. I owe you everything.
The line moves. The woman
with the short blond hair gets her book signed. She moves aside, and Idris,
heart stammering, steps forward. Roshi looks up. She is wearing an Afghan shawl
over a pumpkin-colored long-sleeved blouse and little oval-shaped silver
earrings. Her eyes are darker than he remembers, and her body is filling out
with female curves. She looks at him without blinking, and though she gives no
overt indication that she has recognized him, and though her smile is polite, there
is something amused and distant about her expression, playful, sly,
unintimidated. It steam-rolls him, and suddenly all the words that he had
composed—even written down, rehearsed in his head on the way here—dry up. He
cannot bring himself to say a thing. He can only stand there, looking vaguely
The salesclerk clears her
throat. “Sir, if you’ll give me your book I’ll flip to the title page and Roshi
will autograph it for you.”
The book. Idris looks down,
finds it clutched tightly in his hands. He has not come here to get it signed,
of course. That would be galling—grotesquely galling—after everything. Still,
he sees himself handing it over, the salesclerk expertly flipping to the
correct page, Roshi’s hand scrawling something beneath the title. He has
seconds left now to say something, not that it would mitigate the indefensible
but because he thinks he owes it to her. But when the clerk hands him back his
book, he cannot summon the words. He wishes now for even a scrap of Timur’s
courage. He looks again at Roshi. She is already gazing past him at the next
person in line.
“I am—” he begins.
“We have to keep the line
moving now, sir,” the clerk says.
He drops his head and leaves
He has parked in the lot
behind the store. The walk to the car feels like the longest of his life. He
opens the car door, pauses before entering. With hands that have not stopped
shaking, he flips the book open again. The scrawling is not a signature. In
English, she has written him two sentences.
He closes the book, his eyes
too. He supposes he should be relieved. But part of him wishes for something
else. Perhaps if she had grimaced at him, said something infantile, full of
loathing and hate. An eruption of rancor. Perhaps that might have been better.
Instead, a clean, diplomatic dismissal. And this note. Don’t
worry. You’re not in it. An act of kindness. Perhaps, more accurately,
an act of charity. He should be relieved. But it hurts. He feels the blow of
it, like an ax to the head.
There is a bench nearby,
beneath an elm tree. He walks over and leaves the book on it. He returns to the
car and sits behind the wheel. And it is a while before he trusts himself to
turn the key and drive away.
Parallaxe 84 (WINTER 1974), P. 5
Five years ago, when we
began our quarterly issues featuring interviews with little-known poets, we
could not have anticipated how popular they would prove. Many of you asked for
more, and, indeed, your enthusiastic letters paved the way for these issues to
become an annual tradition here at Parallaxe. The profiles
have now become our staff writers’ personal favorites as well. The features
have led to the discovery, or rediscovery, of some valuable poets, and an
overdue appreciation of their work.
Sadly, however, a shadow
hovers over this present issue. The artist featured this quarter is Nila
Wahdati, an Afghan poet interviewed by Étienne Boustouler last winter in the
town of Courbevoie, near Paris. Mme. Wahdati, as we are sure you will agree,
gave Mr. Boustouler one of the most revealing and startlingly frank interviews
we have ever published. It was with great sadness that we learned of her
untimely death not long after this interview was conducted. She will be missed
in the community of poets. She is survived by her daughter.
It’s uncanny, the timing. The
elevator door dings open at precisely—precisely—the same moment the phone
begins to ring. Pari can hear the ringing because it comes from inside Julien’s
apartment, which is at the head of the narrow, barely lit hallway and therefore
closest to the elevator. Intuitively, she knows who is calling. By the look on
Julien’s face, so does he.
Julien, who has already
stepped into the elevator, says, “Let it ring.”
Behind him is the standoffish
ruddy-faced woman from upstairs. She glares impatiently at Pari. Julien calls
her La chèvre, because of her goatlike nest of chin
He says, “Let’s go, Pari.
We’re already late.”
He has made reservations for
seven o’clock at a new restaurant in the 16th arrondissement that has been
making some noise for its poulet braisé, its sole cardinale, and its calf’s liver with sherry vinegar.
They are meeting Christian and Aurelie, old university friends of Julien’s—from
his student days, not his teaching. They are supposed to meet for aperitifs at
six-thirty and it is already sixfifteen. They still have to walk to the Métro
station, ride to Muette, then walk the six blocks to the restaurant.
The phone keeps on ringing.
The goat woman coughs.
Julien says, more firmly now,
“It’s probably Maman,” Pari
“Yes, I am aware of that.”
Irrationally, Pari thinks
Maman—with her endless flair for drama—has chosen this specific moment to call to
trap her into making precisely this choice: step into the elevator with Julien
or take her call.
“It could be important,” she
As the elevator doors close
behind him, he leans against the hallway wall. He digs his hands deep into the pockets
of his trench coat, looking for a moment like a character from a Melville policier.
“I’ll only be a minute,” Pari
Julien casts a skeptical
Julien’s apartment is small.
Six quick steps and she has crossed the foyer, passed the kitchen, and is
seated on the edge of the bed, reaching for the phone on the lone nightstand
for which they have room. The view, however, is spectacular. It is raining now,
but on a clear day she can look out the east-facing window and see most of the
19th and 20th arrondissements.
allo?” she says into the receiver.
A man’s voice answers. “Bonsoir. Is this Mademoiselle Pari Wahdati?”
“Who is calling?”
“Are you the daughter of
Madame Nila Wahdati?”
“My name is Dr. Delaunay. I
am calling about your mother.”
Pari shuts her eyes. There is
a brief flash of guilt before it is overtaken by a customary dread. She has
taken calls of this sort before, too many to count now, from the time that she
was an adolescent, really, and even before that—once, in fifth grade, she was
in the middle of a geography exam, and the teacher had to interrupt, walk her
out to the hallway, and explain in a hushed voice what had happened. These
calls are familiar to Pari, but repetition has not led to insouciance on her
part. With each one she thinks, This time, this is the time,
and each time she hangs up and rushes to Maman. In the parlance of economics,
Julien has said to Pari that if she cut off the supply of attention, perhaps
the demands for it would cease as well.
“She’s had an accident,” Dr.
Pari stands by the window and
listens as the doctor explains. She coils and uncoils the phone cord around her
finger as he recounts her mother’s hospital visit, the forehead laceration, the
sutures, the precautionary tetanus injection, the aftercare of peroxide,
topical antibiotics, dressings. Pari’s mind flashes to when she was ten, when
she’d come home one day from school and found twenty-five francs and a
handwritten note on the kitchen table. I’ve gone to Alsace
with Marc. You remember him. Back in a couple of days. Be a good girl. (Don’t
stay up late!) Je t’aime. Maman. Pari had stood shaking in the kitchen,
eyes filling up, telling herself two days wasn’t so bad, it wasn’t so long.
The doctor is asking her a
“I was saying will you be
coming to take her home, mademoiselle? The injury is not serious, you
understand, but it’s probably best that she not go home alone. Or else we could
call her a taxi.”
“No. No need. I should be
there in half an hour.”
She sits on the bed. Julien
will be annoyed, probably embarrassed as well in front of Christian and
Aurelie, whose opinions seem to matter a great deal to him. Pari doesn’t want
to go out in the hallway and face Julien. She doesn’t want to go to Courbevoie
and face her mother either. What she would rather do is lie down, listen to the
wind hurl pellets of rain at the glass until she falls asleep.
She lights a cigarette, and
when Julien enters the room behind her and says, “You’re not coming, are you?”
she doesn’t answer.
EXCERPT FROM “AFGHAN
SONGBIRD,” AN INTERVIEW
WITH NILA WAHDATI BY ÉTIENNE BOUSTOULER,
Parallaxe 84 (WINTER 1974), P. 33
EB: So I understand you are, in fact,
half Afghan, half French?
NW: My mother was French, yes. She was
EB: But she met your father in Kabul.
You were born there.
NW: Yes. They met there in 1927. At a
formal dinner in the Royal Palace. My mother had accompanied her father—my
grandfather—who had been sent to Kabul to counsel King Amanullah on his
reforms. Are you familiar with him, King Amanullah?
We are sitting in the living room of
Nila Wahdati’s small apartment on the thirtieth floor of a residential building in the town of Courbevoie, just northwest of Paris. The room is small,
not well lit, and sparsely decorated: a saffron-upholstered couch, a coffee
table, two tall bookshelves. She sits with her back to the window, which she
has opened to air the smoke from the cigarettes she lights continually.
Nila Wahdati states her
age as forty-four. She is a strikingly attractive woman, perhaps past the peak
of her beauty but, as yet, not far past. High royal cheekbones, good skin, slim
waist. She has intelligent, flirtatious eyes, and a penetrating gaze under
which one feels simultaneously appraised, tested, charmed, toyed with. They
remain, I suspect, a redoubtable seduction tool. She wears no makeup save for
lipstick, a smudge of which has strayed a bit from the outline of her mouth.
She wears a bandanna over her brow, a faded purple blouse over jeans, no socks,
no shoes. Though it is only eleven in the morning, she pours from a bottle of
Chardonnay that has not been chilled. She has genially offered me a glass and I
NW: He was the best king they ever had.
I find the remark of interest for its
choice of pronoun.
EB: “They”? You don’t consider yourself
NW: Let’s say I’ve divorced myself from
my more troublesome half.
EB: I’m curious as to why that is.
NW: If he had succeeded, meaning King
Amanullah, I might have answered your question differently.
I ask her to explain.
NW: You see, he woke one morning, the
king, and proclaimed his plan to reshape the country—kicking and screaming, if
need be—into a new and more enlightened nation. By God! he said. No more
wearing of the veil, for one. Imagine, Monsieur Boustouler, a woman in
Afghanistan arrested for wearing a burqa! When his
wife, Queen Soraya, appeared barefaced in public? Oh là là.
The lungs of the mullahs inflated with enough gasps to fly a thousand Hindenburgs. And no more polygamy, he said! This, you understand,
in a country where kings had legions of concubines and never set eyes on most
of the children they’d so frivolously fathered. From now on, he declared, no
man can force you into marriage. And no more bride price, brave women of
Afghanistan, and no more child marriage. And here is more: You will all attend
EB: He was a visionary, then.
NW: Or a fool. I have always found the
line perilously thin myself.
EB: What happened to him?
NW: The answer is as vexing as it is
predictable, Monsieur Boustouler. Jihad, of course. They declared jihad on him,
the mullahs, the tribal chiefs. Picture a thousand fists shot
heavenward! The king had made the earth move, you see, but he was surrounded by
an ocean of zealots, and you know well what happens when the ocean floor
trembles, Monsieur Boustouler. A tsunami of bearded rebellion crashed down upon
the poor king and carried him off, flailing helplessly, and spat him out on the
shores of India, then Italy, and at last Switzerland, where he crawled from the
muck and died a disillusioned old man in exile.
EB: And the country that emerged? I
gather it did not suit you well.
NW: The reverse is equally true.
EB: Which was why you moved to France
NW: I moved to France because I wished
to save my daughter from a certain kind of life.
EB: What kind of life would that be?
NW: I didn’t want her turned, against
both her will and nature, into one of those diligent, sad women who are bent on
a lifelong course of quiet servitude, forever in fear of showing, saying, or doing
the wrong thing. Women who are admired by some in the West—here in France, for
instance—turned into heroines for their hard lives, admired from a distance by
those who couldn’t bear even one day of walking in their shoes. Women who see
their desires doused and their dreams renounced, and yet—and this is
the worst of it, Monsieur Boustouler—if you meet them, they smile and pretend
they have no misgivings at all. As though they lead enviable lives. But you
look closely and you see the helpless look, the desperation, and how it belies
all their show of good humor. It is quite pathetic, Monsieur Boustouler. I did
not want this for my daughter.
EB: I gather she understands all this?
She lights another cigarette.
NW: Well, children are never everything
you’d hoped for, Monsieur Boustouler.
In the emergency room, Pari is
instructed by an ill-tempered nurse to wait by the registration desk, near a
wheeled rack filled with clipboards and charts. It astonishes Pari that there
are people who voluntarily spend their youths training for a profession that
lands them in a place such as this. She cannot begin to understand it. She
loathes hospitals. She hates seeing people at their worst, the sickly smell,
the squeaky gurneys, the hallways with their drab paintings, the incessant
Dr. Delaunay turns out
younger than Pari had expected. He has a slender nose, a narrow mouth, and
tight blond curls. He guides her out of the emergency room, through the
swinging double doors, into the main hallway.
“When your mother arrived,”
he says in a confidential tone, “she was quite inebriated … You don’t seem
“Neither were a number of the
nursing staff. They say she runs a bit of a tab here. I am new here myself, so,
of course, I’ve never had the pleasure.”
“How bad was it?”
“She was quite ornery,” he
says. “And, I should say, rather theatrical.”
They share a brief grin.
“Will she be all right?”
“Yes, in the short term,” Dr.
Delaunay says. “But I must recommend, and quite emphatically, that she reduce
her drinking. She was lucky this time, but who’s to say next time …”
Pari nods. “Where is she?”
He leads her back into the
emergency room and around the corner. “Bed three. I’ll be by shortly with
Pari thanks him and makes her
way to her mother’s bed.
Maman smiles tiredly. Her
hair is disheveled, and her socks don’t match. They have wrapped her forehead
with bandages, and a colorless fluid drips through an intravenous linked to her
left arm. She is wearing a hospital gown the wrong way and has not tied it
properly. The gown has parted slightly in the front, and Pari can see a little
of the thick, dark vertical line of her mother’s old cesarian scar. She had
asked her mother a few years earlier why she didn’t bear the customary
horizontal mark and Maman explained that the doctors had given her some sort of
technical reason at the time that she no longer remembered. The
important thing, she said, was that they got you out.
“I’ve ruined your evening,”
“Accidents happen. I’ve come
to take you home.”
“I could sleep a week.”
Her eyes drift shut, though
she keeps talking in a sluggish, stalling manner. “I was just sitting and
watching TV. I got hungry. I went to the kitchen to get some bread and
marmalade. I slipped. I’m not sure how, or on what, but my head caught the
oven-door handle on the way down. I think I might have blacked out for a minute
or two. Sit down, Pari. You’re looming over me.”
Pari sits. “The doctor said
you were drinking.”
Maman cracks one eye half
open. Her frequenting of doctors is exceeded only by her dislike of them. “That
boy? He said that? Le petit salaud. What does he know?
His breath still smells of his mother’s tit.”
“You always joke. Every time
I bring it up.”
“I’m tired, Pari. You can
scold me another time. The whipping post isn’t going anywhere.”
Now she does fall asleep.
Snores, unattractively, as she does only after a binge.
Pari sits on the bedside
stool, waiting for Dr. Delaunay, picturing Julien at a low-lit table, menu in hand,
explaining the crisis to Christian and Aurelie over tall goblets of Bordeaux.
He offered to accompany her to the hospital, but in a perfunctory way. It was a
mere formality. Coming here would have been a bad idea anyway. If Dr. Delaunay
thought he had seen theatrical earlier … Still, even if he couldn’t come with
her, Pari wishes he hadn’t gone to dinner without her either. She is still a
little astonished that he did. He could have explained it to Christian and
Aurelie. They could have picked another night, changed the reservations. But
Julien had gone. It wasn’t merely thoughtless. No. There was something vicious
about this move, deliberate, slashing. Pari has known for some time that he has
that capacity. She has wondered of late whether he has a taste for it as well.
It was in an emergency room
not unlike this one that Maman first met Julien. That was ten years ago, in
1963, when Pari was fourteen. He had driven a colleague, who had a migraine.
Maman had brought Pari, who was the patient that time, having sprained her
ankle badly during gymnastics in school. Pari was lying on a gurney when Julien
pushed his chair into the room and struck up a conversation with Maman. Pari
cannot remember now what was said between them. She does remember Julien saying,
“Paris—like the city?” And from Maman the familiar reply, “No, without the s. It means ‘fairy’ in Farsi.”
They met him for dinner on a
rainy night later that week at a small bistro off Boulevard Saint-Germain. Back
at the apartment, Maman had made a protracted show of indecision over what to
wear, settling in the end for a pastel blue dress with a close-fitting waist,
evening gloves, and sharp-pointed stiletto shoes. And even then, in the
elevator, she’d said to Pari, “It’s not too Jackie, is it? What do you think?”
Before the meal they smoked,
all three of them, and Maman and Julien had beer in oversize frosted mugs. They
finished one round, Julien ordered a second, and there was a third as well.
Julien, in white shirt, tie, and a checkered evening blazer, had the controlled
courteous manners of a well-bred man. He smiled with ease and laughed
effortlessly. He had just a pinch of gray at the temples, which Pari hadn’t
noticed in the dim light of the emergency room, and she estimated his age
around the same as Maman’s. He was well versed in current events and spent some
time talking about De Gaulle’s veto of England’s entry into the Common Market
and, to Pari’s surprise, almost succeeded in making it interesting. Only after
Maman asked did he reveal that he had started teaching economics at the
“A professor? Very
“Oh, hardly,” he said. “You
should sit in sometime. It would cure you of that notion swiftly.”
“Maybe I will.”
Pari could tell Maman was
already a little drunk.
“Maybe I will sneak in one
day. Watch you in action.”
“ ‘Action’? You do recall I teach economic theory, Nila. If you do come,
what you’ll find is that my students think I’m a twit.”
“Well, I doubt that.”
Pari did too. She guessed
that a good many of Julien’s students wanted to sleep with him. Throughout
dinner, she was careful not to get caught looking at him. He had a face right
out of film noir, a face meant to be shot in black and white, parallel shadows
of venetian blinds slashing across it, a plume of cigarette smoke spiraling
beside it. A parenthesis-shaped piece of hair managed to fall on his brow, ever
so gracefully—too gracefully, perhaps. If, in fact, it was dangling there
without calculation, Pari noticed that he never bothered to fix it.
He asked Maman about the
small bookshop she owned and ran. It was across the Seine, on the other side of
“Do you have books on jazz?”
“Bah oui,” Maman said.
The rain outside rose in
pitch, and the bistro grew more boisterous. As the waiter served them cheese puffs
and ham brochettes, there followed between Maman and Julien a lengthy
discussion of Bud Powell, Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie, and Julien’s favorite,
Charlie Parker. Maman told Julien she liked more the West Coast styles of Chet
Baker and Miles Davis, had he listened to Kind of Blue?
Pari was surprised to learn that Maman liked jazz this
much and that she was so conversant about so many different musicians. She was
struck, not for the first time, by both a childlike admiration for Maman and an
unsettling sense that she did not really fully know her own mother. What did
not surprise was Maman’s effortless and thorough seduction of Julien. Maman was
in her element there. She never had trouble commanding men’s attention. She
Pari watched Maman as she
murmured playfully, giggled at Julien’s jokes, tilted her head and absently
twirled a lock of her hair. She marveled again at how young and beautiful Maman
was—Maman, who was only twenty years older than herself. Her long dark hair,
her full chest, her startling eyes, and a face that glowed with the
intimidating sheen of classic regal features. Pari marveled further at how
little resemblance she herself bore to Maman, with her solemn pale eyes, her
long nose, her gap-toothed smile, and her small breasts. If she had any beauty,
it was of a more modest earthbound sort. Being around her mother always
reminded Pari that her own looks were woven of common cloth. At times, it was
Maman herself who did the reminding, though it always came hidden in a Trojan horse
She would say, You’re
lucky, Pari. You won’t have to work as hard for men to take you seriously.
They’ll pay attention to you. Too much beauty, it corrupts things. She would laugh. Oh, listen to me. I’m not saying I speak from experience. Of course
not. It’s merely an observation.
You’re saying I’m not
I’m saying you don’t want to
be. Besides, you are pretty, and that is plenty good enough. Je t’assure, ma cherie. It’s better, even.
She didn’t resemble her
father much either, Pari believed. He had been a tall man with a serious face,
a high forehead, narrow chin, and thin lips. Pari kept a few pictures of him in
her room from her childhood in the Kabul house. He had fallen ill in 1955—which
was when Maman and she had moved to Paris—and had died shortly after. Sometimes
Pari found herself gazing at one of his old photos, particularly a
black-and-white of the two of them, she and her father, standing before an old
American car. He was leaning against the fender and she was in his arms, both
of them smiling. She remembered she had sat with him once as he painted
giraffes and long-tailed monkeys for her on the side of an armoire. He had let
her color one of the monkeys, holding her hand, patiently guiding her
Seeing her father’s face in
those photos stirred an old sensation in Pari, a feeling that she had had for
as long as she could remember. That there was in her life the absence of
something, or someone, fundamental to her own existence. Sometimes it was vague,
like a message sent across shadowy byways and vast distances, a weak signal on
a radio dial, remote, warbled. Other times it felt so clear, this absence, so
intimately close it made her heart lurch. For instance, in Provence two years
earlier when Pari had seen a massive oak tree outside a farmhouse. Another time
at the Jardin des Tuileries when she had watched a young mother pull her son in
a little red Radio Flyer Wagon. Pari didn’t understand. She read a story once
about a middle-aged Turkish man who had suddenly slipped into a deep depression
when the twin brother he never knew existed had suffered a fatal heart attack
while on a canoe excursion in the Amazon rain forest. It was the closest anyone
had ever come to articulating what she felt.
She had once spoken to Maman
Well, it’s hardly a mystery, mon amour, Maman had
said. You miss your father. He is gone from your
life. It’s natural that you should feel this way. Of course that’s what it is.
Come here. Give Maman a kiss.
Her mother’s answer had been
perfectly reasonable but also unsatisfactory. Pari did believe that she would
feel more whole if her father was still living, if he were here with her. But
she also remembered feeling this way even as a child, living with both her
parents at the big house in Kabul.
Shortly after they finished
their meals, Maman excused herself to go to the bistro’s bathroom and Pari was
alone a few minutes with Julien. They talked about a film Pari had seen the
week before, one with Jeanne Moreau playing a gambler, and they talked about
school and music too. When she spoke, he rested his elbows on the table and
leaned in a bit toward her, listening with great interest, both smiling and
frowning, never lifting his eyes from her. It’s a show, Pari told herself, he’s
only pretending. A polished act, something he trotted out for women, something
he had chosen to do now on the spur of the moment, to toy with her awhile and
amuse himself at her expense. And yet, under his unrelenting gaze, she could
not help her pulse quickening and her belly tightening. She found herself
speaking in an artificially sophisticated, ridiculous tone that was nothing
like the way she spoke normally. She knew she was doing it and couldn’t stop.
He told her he’d been married
“A few years back. When I was
thirty. I lived in Lyon at the time.”
He had married an older
woman. It had not lasted because she had been very possessive of him. Julien
had not disclosed this earlier when Maman was still at the table. “It was a
physical relationship, really,” he said. “C’était
complètement sexuelle. She wanted to own me.” He was looking at her when
he said this and smiling a subversive little smile, cautiously gauging her
reaction. Pari lit a cigarette and played it cool, like Bardot, like this was
the sort of thing men told her all the time. But, inside, she was trembling.
She knew that a small act of betrayal had been committed at the table.
Something a little illicit, not entirely harmless but undeniably thrilling.
When Maman returned, with her hair brushed anew and a fresh coat of lipstick,
their stealthy moment broke, and Pari briefly resented Maman for intruding, for
which she was immediately overcome with remorse.
She saw him again a week or
so later. It was morning, and she was going to Maman’s room with a bowl of
coffee. She found him sitting on the side of Maman’s bed, winding his
wristwatch. She hadn’t known he had spent the night. She spotted him from the
hallway, through a crack in the door. She stood there, rooted to the ground,
bowl in hand, her mouth feeling like she had sucked on a dry clump of mud, and
she watched him, the spotless skin of his back, the small paunch of his belly,
the darkness between his legs partly shrouded by the rumpled sheets. He clasped
on his watch, reached for a cigarette off the nightstand, lit it, and then
casually swung his gaze to her as if he had known she was there all along. He
gave her a closemouthed smile. Then Maman said something from the shower, and
Pari wheeled around. It was a marvel she didn’t scald herself with the coffee.
Maman and Julien were lovers
for about six months. They went to the cinema a lot, and to museums, and small
art galleries featuring the works of struggling obscure painters with foreign
names. One weekend they drove to the beach in Arcachon, near Bordeaux, and
returned with tanned faces and a case of red wine. Julien took her to faculty
events at the university, and Maman invited him to author readings at the
bookstore. Pari tagged along at first—Julien asked her to, which seemed to
please Maman—but soon she started making excuses to stay home. She wouldn’t go,
couldn’t. It was unbearable. She was too tired, she said, or else she didn’t
feel well. She was going to her friend Collette’s house to study, she said. Her
friend since second grade, Collette was a wiry, brittle-looking girl with long
limp hair and a nose like a crow’s beak. She liked to shock people and say
outrageous, scandalous things.
“I’ll bet he’s disappointed,”
Collette said. “That you don’t go out with them.”
“Well, if he is, he’s not
“He wouldn’t let on, would
he? What would your mother think?”
“About what?” Pari said,
though she knew, of course. She knew, and what she wanted was to hear it said.
“About what?” Collette’s tone
was sly, excited. “That he’s with her to get to you. That it’s you he wants.”
“That is disgusting,” Pari
said with a flutter.
“Or maybe he wants you both.
Maybe he likes a crowd in bed. In which case, I might ask you to put in a good
word for me.”
“You’re repulsive, Collette.”
Sometimes when Maman and
Julien were out, Pari would undress in the hallway and look at herself in the
long mirror. She would find faults with her body. It was too tall, she would
think, too unshapely, too … utilitarian. She had inherited none of her mother’s
bewitching curves. Sometimes she walked like this, undressed, to her mother’s
room and lay on the bed where she knew Maman and Julien made love. Pari lay
there stark-naked with her eyes closed, heart battering, basking in
heedlessness, something like a hum spreading across her chest, her belly, and
It ended, of course. They
ended, Maman and Julien. Pari was relieved but not surprised. Men always failed
Maman in the end. They forever fell disastrously short of whatever ideal she
held them up to. What began with exuberance and passion always ended with terse
accusations and hateful words, with rage and weeping fits and the flinging of
cooking utensils and collapse. High drama. Maman was incapable of either
starting or ending a relationship without excess.
Then the predictable period
when Maman would find a sudden taste for solitude. She would stay in bed,
wearing an old winter coat over her pajamas, a weary, doleful, unsmiling
presence in the apartment. Pari knew to leave her alone. Her attempts at
consoling and companionship were not welcome. It lasted weeks, the sullen mood.
With Julien, it went on considerably longer.
merde!” Maman says now.
She is sitting up in bed,
still in the hospital gown. Dr. Delaunay has given Pari the discharge papers,
and the nurse is unhooking the intravenous from Maman’s arm.
“What is it?”
“I just remembered. I have an
interview in a couple of days.”
“A feature for a poetry
“That’s fantastic, Maman.”
“They’re accompanying the
piece with a photo.” She points to the sutures on her forehead.
“I’m sure you’ll find some
elegant way to hide it,” Pari says.
Maman sighs, looks away. When
the nurse yanks the needle out, Maman winces and barks at the woman something
unkind and undeserved.
FROM “AFGHAN SONGBIRD,” AN
NILA WAHDATI BY ÉTIENNE BOUSTOULER,
Parallaxe 84 (WINTER 1974), P. 36
I look around the apartment again and
am drawn to a framed photograph on one of the bookshelves. It is of a little
girl squatting in a field of wild bushes, fully absorbed in the act of picking
something, some sort of berry. She wears a bright yellow coat, buttoned to the
throat, which contrasts with the dark gray overcast sky above. In the
background, there is a stone farmhouse with closed shutters and battered
shingles. I ask about the picture.
NW: My daughter, Pari. Like the city
but no s. It means “fairy.” That picture is from a
trip to Normandy we took, the two of us. Back in 1957, I think. She must have
EB: Does she live in Paris?
NW: She studies mathematics at the
EB: You must be proud.
She smiles and shrugs.
EB: I am struck a bit by her choice of
career, given that you devoted yourself to the arts.
NW: I don’t know where she gets the
ability. All those incomprehensible formulas and theories. I guess they’re not
incomprehensible to her. I can hardly multiply, myself.
EB: Perhaps it’s her way of rebelling.
You know a thing or two about rebellion, I think.
NW: Yes, but I did it the proper way.
I drank and smoked and took lovers. Who rebels with mathematics?
NW: Besides, she would be the
proverbial rebel without a cause. I’ve given her every freedom imaginable. She
wants for nothing, my daughter. She lacks nothing. She’s living with someone.
He is quite a bit older. Charming to a fault, well-read,
entertaining. A raging narcissist, of course. Ego the size of Poland.
EB: You don’t approve.
NW: Whether I approve or not is
irrelevant. This is France, Monsieur Boustouler, not Afghanistan. Young people
don’t live or die by the stamp of parental approval.
EB: Your daughter has no ties to
NW: We left when she was six. She has
limited memory of her time there.
EB: But not you, of course.
I ask her to tell me about her early
herself and leaves the room for a moment. When she returns, she hands me an
old, wrinkled black-and-white photograph. A stern-looking man, heavyset,
bespectacled, hair shiny and combed with an impeccable part. He sits behind a
desk, reading a book. He wears a suit with peaked lapels, double-breasted vest,
high-collared white shirt and bow tie.
NW: My father. Nineteen twenty-nine.
The year I was born.
EB: He looks quite distinguished.
NW: He was part of the Pashtun
aristocracy in Kabul. Highly educated, unimpeachable manners, appropriately
sociable. A great raconteur too. At least in public.
EB: And in private?
NW: Venture to guess, Monsieur
I pick up the photo and look at it
EB: Distant, I would say. Grave.
NW: I really insist you have a glass
with me. I hate—no, I loathe—drinking alone.
She pours me a glass of the
Chardonnay. Out of politeness, I take a sip.
NW: He had cold hands, my father. No
matter the weather. His hands were always cold. And he always wore a suit,
again no matter the weather. Perfectly tailored, sharp creases. A fedora too.
And wingtips, of course, two-toned. He was handsome, I suppose, though in a
solemn way. Also—and I understood this only much later—in a manufactured,
slightly ridiculous, faux-European way—complete, of course, with weekly games
of lawn bowling and polo and the coveted French wife, all of it to the great
approval of the young progressive king.
She picks at her nail and doesn’t say
anything for a while. I flip the tape in my recorder.
NW: My father slept in his own room,
my mother and I in ours. Most days, he was out having lunch with ministers and
advisers to the king. Or else he was out riding horses, or playing polo, or
hunting. He loved to hunt.
EB: So you didn’t see much of him. He
was an absentee figure.
NW: Not entirely. He made it a point
every couple of days to spend a few minutes with me. He would come into my room
and sit on my bed, which was my signal to climb into his lap. He would bounce
me on his knees for a while, neither one of us saying much, and finally he
would say, “Well, what shall we do now, Nila?” Sometimes he would let me take
the handkerchief from his breast pocket and let me fold it. Of course I would
just ball it up and stuff it back into his pocket, and he would feign an
expression of mock surprise, which I found highly comical. And we’d keep doing
this until he tired of it, which was soon enough. And then he would stroke my
hair with his cold hands and say, “Papa has to go now, my fawn. Run along.”
She takes the photograph back to the
other room and returns, fetches a new pack of cigarettes from a drawer and
NW: That was his nickname for me. I
loved it. I used to hop around the garden—we had a very large garden—chanting,
“I am Papa’s fawn! I am Papa’s fawn!” It wasn’t until much later that I saw how
sinister the nickname was.
EB: I’m sorry?
NW: My father shot deer, Monsieur
They could have walked the few
blocks to Maman’s apartment, but the rain has picked up considerably. In the
taxi, Maman sits balled up in the backseat, draped by Pari’s raincoat,
wordlessly staring out the window. She looks old to Pari at this instant, far
older than her forty-four years. Old and fragile and thin.
Pari has not been to Maman’s
apartment in a while. When she turns the key and lets them in, she finds the
kitchen counter cluttered with dirty wineglasses, open bags of chips and
uncooked pasta, plates with clumps of unrecognizable food fossilized onto them.
A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles sits on the table, precariously
close to tipping over. Pari sees newspapers on the floor, one of them soaking
up the blood spill from earlier in the day, and, on it, a single pink wool
sock. It frightens Pari to see Maman’s living space in this state. And she
feels guilt as well. Which, knowing Maman, may have been the intended effect.
And then she hates that she had this last thought. It’s the sort of thing
Julien would think. She wants you to feel badly. He
has said this to her several times over the last year. She
wants you to feel badly. When he first said it, Pari felt relieved,
understood. She was grateful to him for articulating what she could not, or
would not. She thought she had found an ally. But, these days, she wonders. She
catches in his words a glint of meanness. A troubling absence of kindness.
The bedroom floor is littered
with pieces of clothing, records, books, more newspapers. On the windowsill is
a glass half filled with water gone yellow from the cigarette butts floating in
it. She swipes books and old magazines off the bed and helps Maman slip beneath
Maman looks up at her, the
back of one hand resting on her bandaged brow. The pose makes her look like an
actress in a silent film about to faint.
“Are you going to be all
“I don’t think so,” she says.
It doesn’t come out like a plea for attention. Maman says this in a flat, bored
voice. It sounds tired and sincere, and final.
“You’re scaring me, Maman.”
“Are you leaving now?”
“Do you want me to stay?”
“Then I’ll stay.”
“Turn off the light.”
“Are you taking your pills?
Have you stopped? I think you’ve stopped, and I worry.”
“Don’t start in on me. Turn
off the light.”
Pari does. She sits on the
edge of the bed and watches her mother fall asleep. Then she heads for the
kitchen to begin the formidable task of cleaning up. She finds a pair of gloves
and starts with the dishes. She washes glasses reeking of long-soured milk,
bowls crusted with old cereal, plates with food spotted with green fuzzy
patches of fungus. She recalls the first time she had washed dishes at Julien’s
apartment the morning after they had slept together for the first time. Julien
had made them omelets. How she’d relished this simple domestic act, washing
plates at his sink, as he played a Jane Birkin song on the turntable.
She had reconnected with him
the year before, in 1973, for the first time in almost a decade. She had run
into him at a street march outside the Canadian Embassy, a student protest
against the hunting of seals. Pari didn’t want to go, and also she had a paper
on meromorphic functions that needed finishing, but Collette insisted. They
were living together at the time, an arrangement that was increasingly proving
to their mutual displeasure. Collette smoked grass now. She wore headbands and
loose magenta-colored tunics embroidered with birds and daisies. She brought
home long-haired, unkempt boys who ate Pari’s food and played the guitar badly.
Collette was always in the streets, shouting, denouncing cruelty to animals,
racism, slavery, French nuclear testing in the Pacific. There was always an
urgent buzz around the apartment, people Pari didn’t know milling in and out.
And when they were alone, Pari sensed a new tension between the two of them, a
haughtiness on the part of Collette, an unspoken disapproval of her.
“They’re lying,” Collette
said animatedly. “They say their methods are humane. Humane! Have you seen what
they use to club them over the head? Those hakapiks?
Half the time, the poor animal hasn’t even died yet, and the bastards stick
their hooks in it and drag it out to the boat. They skin them alive, Pari.
Alive!” The way Collette said this last thing, the way she emphasized it, made
Pari want to apologize. For what, she was not quite sure, but she knew that,
these days, it squeezed the breath out of her being around Collette and her
reproaches and many outrages.
Only about thirty people
showed up. There was a rumor that Brigitte Bardot was going to make an
appearance, but it turned out to be just that, only a rumor. Collette was
disappointed at the turnout. She had an agitated argument with a thin, pale
bespectacled young man named Eric, who, Pari gathered, had been in charge of
organizing the march. Poor Eric. Pari pitied him. Still seething, Collette took
the lead. Pari shuffled along toward the back, next to a flat-chested girl who
shouted slogans with a kind of nervous exhilaration. Pari kept her eyes to the
pavement and tried her best to not stand out.
At a street corner, a man
tapped her on the shoulder.
“You look like you’re dying
to be rescued.”
He was wearing a tweed jacket
over a sweater, jeans, a wool scarf. His hair was longer, and he had aged some,
but elegantly, in a way that some women his age might find unfair and even
infuriating. Still lean and fit, a couple of crow’s-feet, some more graying at
the temples, his face set with just a light touch of weariness.
“I am,” she said.
They kissed on the cheek, and
when he asked if she would have a coffee with him, she said yes.
“Your friend looks angry.
Pari glanced behind her, saw
Collette standing with Eric, still chanting and pumping her fist but also,
absurdly, glaring at the two of them. Pari swallowed back laughter—that would
have wrought irreparable damage. She shrugged apologetically and ducked away.
They went to a small café and
sat at a table by the window. He ordered them coffee and a custard mille-feuille each. Pari watched him speak to the waiter in
the tone of genial authority that she recalled well and felt the same flutter
in the gut that she had as a girl when he would come over to pick up Maman. She
felt suddenly self-conscious, of her bitten fingernails, her unpowdered face,
her hair hanging in limp curls—she wished now that she’d dried it after the shower,
but she’d been late, and Collette had been pacing like a zoo animal.
“I hadn’t pegged you as the
protesting type,” Julien said, lighting her cigarette for her.
“I’m not. That was more guilt
“Guilt? Over seal hunting?”
“Ah. Yes. You know I think I
may be a little frightened of her.”
“We all are.”
They laughed. He reached
across the table and touched her scarf. He dropped his hand. “It would be trite
to say that you’re all grown up, so I won’t. But you do look ravishing, Pari.”
She pinched the lapel of her
raincoat. “What, in this Clouseau outfit?” Collette had told her it was a
stupid habit, this self-deprecating clowning around with which Pari tried to
mask her nervousness around men she was attracted to. Especially when they
complimented her. Not for the first time, and far from the last, she envied
Maman her naturally self-assured disposition.
“Next you’ll say I’m living
up to my name,” she said.
Please. Too obvious. There is an art to complimenting a woman, you know.”
“No. But I’m certain you do.”
The waiter brought the
pastries and coffee. Pari focused on the waiter’s hands as he arranged the cups
and plates on the table, the palms of her own hands blooming with sweat. She
had had only four lovers in her lifetime—a modest number, she knew, certainly
compared to Maman at her age, even Collette. She was too watchful, too
sensible, too compromising and adaptable, on the whole steadier and less
exhausting than either Maman or Collette. But these were not qualities that
drew men in droves. And she hadn’t loved any of them—though she had lied to one
and said she did—but pinned beneath each of them she had thoughts of Julien, of
him and his beautiful face, which seemed to come with its own private lighting.
As they ate, he talked about
his work. He said he had quit teaching some time ago. He had worked on debt
sustainability at the IMF for a few years. The best part of that had been the
traveling, he said.
“Jordan, Iraq. Then I took a
couple of years to write a book on informal economies.”
“Were you published?”
“That is the rumor.” He
smiled. “I work for a private consulting firm now here in Paris.”
“I want to travel too,” Pari
said. “Collette keeps saying we should go to Afghanistan.”
“I suspect I know why she would want to go.”
“Well, I’ve been thinking
about it. Going back there, I mean. I don’t care about the hashish, but I do
want to travel the country, see where I was born. Maybe find the old house
where my parents and I lived.”
“I didn’t realize you had
“I’m curious. I mean, I
remember so little.”
“I think one time you said
something about a family cook.”
Pari was inwardly flattered
that he recalled something she had told him so many years before. He must have
thought of her, then, in the intervening time. She must have been on his mind.
“Yes. His name was Nabi. He
was the chauffeur too. He drove my father’s car, a big American car, blue with
a tan top. I remember it had an eagle’s head on the hood.”
Later, he asked, and she told
him, about her studies and her focus on complex variables. He listened in a way
that Maman never did—Maman, who seemed bored by the subject and mystified by
Pari’s passion for it. Maman couldn’t even feign interest. She made
lighthearted jokes that, on the surface, appeared to poke fun at her own
ignorance. Oh là là, she would say, grinning, my head! My head! Spinning like a totem! I’ll make you a deal,
Pari. I’ll pour us some tea, and you return to the planet, d’accord? She
would chuckle, and Pari would humor her, but she sensed an edge to these jokes,
an oblique sort of chiding, a suggestion that her knowledge had been judged
esoteric and her pursuit of it frivolous. Frivolous.
Which was rich, Pari thought, coming from a poet, though she would never say so
to her mother.
Julien asked what she saw in
mathematics and she said she found it comforting.
“I might have chosen
‘daunting’ as a more fitting adjective,” he said.
“It is that too.”
She said there was comfort to
be found in the permanence of mathematical truths, in the lack of arbitrariness
and the absence of ambiguity. In knowing that the answers may be elusive, but
they could be found. They were there, waiting, chalk scribbles away.
“Nothing like life, in other
words,” he said. “There, it’s questions with either no answers or messy ones.”
“Am I that transparent?” She
laughed and hid her face with a napkin. “I sound like an idiot.”
“Not at all,” he said. He
plucked away the napkin. “Not at all.”
“Like one of your students. I
must remind you of your students.”
He asked more questions,
through which Pari saw that he had a working knowledge of analytic number
theory and was, at least in passing, familiar with Carl Gauss and Bernhard
Riemann. They spoke until the sky darkened. They drank coffee, and then beer,
which led to wine. And then, when it could not be delayed any longer, Julien
leaned in a bit and said in a polite, dutiful tone, “And, tell me, how is
Pari puffed her cheeks and
let the air out slowly.
Julien nodded knowingly.
“She may lose the bookstore,”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Business has been declining
for years. She may have to shut it down. She wouldn’t admit to it, but that
would be a blow. It would hit her hard.”
“Is she writing?”
“She hasn’t been.”
He soon changed the subject.
Pari was relieved. She didn’t want to talk about Maman and her drinking and the
struggle to get her to keep taking her pills. Pari remembered all the awkward
gazes, all the times when they were alone, she and Julien, Maman getting dressed
in the next room, Julien looking at Pari and her trying to think of something
to say. Maman must have sensed it. Could it be the reason she had ended it with
Julien? If so, Pari had an inkling she’d done so more as a jealous lover than a
A few weeks later, Julien
asked Pari to move in with him. He lived in a small apartment on the Left Bank
in the 7th arrondissement. Pari said yes. Collette’s prickly hostility made for
an untenable atmosphere at the apartment now.
Pari remembers her first
Sunday with Julien at his place. They were reclined on his couch, pressed
against each other. Pari was pleasantly half awake, and Julien was drinking
tea, his long legs resting on the coffee table. He was reading an opinion piece
on the back page of the newspaper. Jacques Brel played on the turntable. Every
now and then, Pari would shift her head on his chest, and Julien would lean
down and place a small kiss on her eyelid, or her ear, or her nose.
“We have to tell Maman.”
She could feel him
tightening. He folded the paper, removed his reading glasses and put them on
the arm of the couch.
“She needs to know.”
“I suppose,” he said.
“No, of course. You’re right.
You should call her. But be careful. Don’t ask for permission or blessing,
you’ll get neither. Just tell her. And make sure she knows this is not a
“That’s easy for you to say.”
“Well, perhaps. Still,
remember that Nila is a vindictive woman. I am sorry to say this, but this is
why it ended with us. She is astonishingly vindictive. So I know. It won’t be
easy for you.”
Pari sighed and closed her
eyes. The thought of it made her stomach clench.
Julien stroked her back with
his palm. “Don’t be squeamish.”
Pari called her the next day.
Maman already knew.
“Who told you?”
Of course, Pari thought. “I
was going to tell you.”
“I know you were. You are. It
can’t be hidden, a thing like this.”
“Are you angry?”
“Does it matter?”
Pari was standing by the
window. With her finger, she absently traced the blue rim of Julien’s old,
battered ashtray. She shut her eyes. “No, Maman. No it doesn’t.”
“Well, I wish I could say that didn’t hurt.”
“I didn’t mean it to.”
“I think that’s highly
“Why would I want to hurt
Maman laughed. A hollow, ugly
“I look at you sometimes and
I don’t see me in you. Of course I don’t. I suppose that isn’t unexpected,
after all. I don’t know what sort of person you are, Pari. I don’t know who you
are, what you’re capable of, in your blood. You’re a stranger to me.”
“I don’t understand what that
means,” Pari said.
But her mother had already
FROM “AFGHAN SONGBIRD,” AN
NILA WAHDATI BY ÉTIENNE BOUSTOULER,
Parallaxe 84 (Winter 1974), p. 38
EB: Did you learn your French here?
NW: My mother taught me in Kabul when
I was little. She spoke only French to me. We had lessons every day. It was
very hard on me when she left Kabul.
EB: For France?
NW: Yes. My parents divorced in 1939
when I was ten. I was my father’s only child. Letting me go with her was out of
the question. So I stayed, and she left for Paris to live with her sister,
Agnes. My father tried to mitigate the loss for me by occupying me with a
private tutor and riding lessons and art lessons. But nothing replaces a
EB: What happened to her?
NW: Oh, she died. When the Nazis came
to Paris. They didn’t kill her. They killed Agnes. My mother, she died of
pneumonia. My father didn’t tell me until the Allies had liberated Paris, but
by then I already knew. I just knew.
EB: That must have been difficult.
NW: It was devastating. I loved my
mother. I had planned on living with her in France after the war.
EB: I assume that means your father
and you didn’t get along.
NW: There were strains between us. We
were quarreling. Quite a lot, which was a novelty for him. He wasn’t accustomed
to being talked back to, certainly not by women. We had rows over what I wore,
where I went, what I said, how I said it, who I said it to. I had turned bold
and adventurous, and he even more ascetic and emotionally austere. We had
become natural opponents.
She chuckles, and tightens the
bandanna’s knot at the back of her head.
NW: And then I took to falling in
love. Often, desperately, and, to my father’s horror, with the wrong sort. A
housekeeper’s son once, another time a low-level civil servant who handled some
business affairs for my father. Foolhardy, wayward passions, all of them doomed
from the start. I arranged clandestine rendezvous and slipped away from home,
and, of course, someone would inform my father that I’d been spotted on the
streets somewhere. They would tell him that I was cavorting—they always put it
like that—I was “cavorting.” Or else they would say I was “parading” myself. My
father would have to send a search party to bring me back. He would lock me up.
For days. He would say from the other side of the door, You
humiliate me. Why do you humiliate me so? What will I do about you? And
sometimes he answered that question with his belt, or a closed
fist. He’d chase me around the room. I suppose he thought he could terrorize me
into submission. I wrote a great deal at that time, long, scandalous poems
dripping with adolescent passion. Rather melodramatic and histrionic as well, I
fear. Caged birds and shackled lovers, that sort of thing. I am not proud of them.
I sense that false modesty is not her
suit and therefore can assume only that this is her honest assessment of these
early writings. If so, it is a brutally unforgiving one. Her poems from this
period are stunning in fact, even in translation, especially considering her
young age when she wrote them. They are moving, rich with imagery, emotion,
insight, and telling grace. They speak beautifully of loneliness and
uncontainable sorrow. They chronicle her disappointments, the crests and
troughs of young love in all its radiance and promises and trappings. And there
is often a sense of transcendent claustrophobia, of a shortening horizon, and
always a sense of struggle against the tyranny of circumstance—often depicted
as a never named sinister male figure who looms. A not so-opaque allusion to
her father, one would gather. I tell her all this.
EB: And you break in these poems from
the rhythm, rhyme, and meter that I understand to be integral to classic Farsi
poetry. You make use of free-flowing imagery. You heighten random, mundane
details. This was quite groundbreaking, I understand. Would it be fair to say that if you’d been born in a wealthier nation—say, Iran—that you would
almost certainly be known now as a literary pioneer?
She smiles wryly.
EB: Still, I am quite struck by what
you said earlier. That you weren’t proud of those poems. Are you pleased with
any of your work?
NW: A thorny question, that one. I
suppose I would answer in the affirmative, if only I could keep them apart from
the creative process itself.
EB: You mean separate the end from the
NW: I see the creative process as a
necessarily thievish undertaking. Dig beneath a beautiful piece of writing,
Monsieur Boustouler, and you will find all manner of dishonor. Creating means
vandalizing the lives of other people, turning them into unwilling and
unwitting participants. You steal their desires, their dreams, pocket their
flaws, their suffering. You take what does not belong to you. You do this
EB: And you were very good at it.
NW: I did it not for the sake of some
high and lofty notion about art but because I had no choice. The compulsion was
far too powerful. If I did not surrender to it, I would have lost my mind. You ask if I am proud. I find it hard to flaunt something
obtained through what I know to be morally questionable means. I leave the
decision to tout or not to others.
She empties her glass of wine and
refills it with what remains in the bottle.
NW: What I can tell you, however, is
that no one was touting me in Kabul. No one in Kabul considered me a pioneer of
anything but bad taste, debauchery, and immoral character. Not least of all, my
father. He said my writings were the ramblings of a whore.
He used that word precisely. He said I’d damaged his family name beyond repair.
He said I had betrayed him. He kept asking why I found it so hard to be
EB: How did you respond?
NW: I told him I did not care for his
notion of respectable. I told him I had no desire to slip the leash around my
EB: I suppose that only displeased him
I hesitate to say this next.
EB: But I do understand his anger.
She cocks an eyebrow.
EB: He was a patriarch, was he not?
And you were a direct challenge to all he knew, all that he held dear. Arguing, in a way, through both your life and your writing, for new boundaries
for women, for women to have a say in their own status, to arrive at legitimate
selfhood. You were defying the monopoly that men like him had held for ages.
You were saying what could not be said. You were conducting a small, one-woman
revolution, one could say.
NW: And all this time, I thought I was
writing about sex.
EB: But that’s part of it, isn’t it?
I flip through my notes and mention a
few of the overtly erotic poems—“Thorns,” “But for the Waiting,” “The Pillow.”
I also confess to her that they are not among my favorites. I remark that they
lack nuance and ambiguity. They read as though they have been crafted with the
sole aim of shocking and scandalizing. They strike me as polemical, as angry
indictments of Afghan gender roles.
NW: Well, I was
angry. I was angry about the attitude that I had to be protected from sex. That
I had to be protected from my own body. Because I was a woman. And women, don’t
you know, are emotionally, morally, and intellectually immature. They lack
self-control, you see, they’re vulnerable to physical temptation. They’re
hypersexual beings who must be restrained lest they jump into bed with every
Ahmad and Mahmood.
EB: But—forgive me for saying this—you
did just that, no?
NW: Only as a protest against that
She has a delightful laugh, full of
mischief and cunning intelligence. She asks if I want lunch. She says her
daughter has recently restocked her refrigerator and proceeds to make what
turns out to be an excellent jambon fumé sandwich. She
makes only one. For herself, she uncorks a new bottle of wine and lights
another cigarette. She sits down.
NW: Do you agree, for the sake of this
chat, that we should remain on good terms, Monsieur Boustouler?
I tell her I do.
NW: Then do me two favors. Eat your
sandwich and quit looking at my glass.
Needless to say, this preemptively
quells any impulse I may have had to ask about the drinking.
EB: What happened next?
NW: I fell ill in 1948, when I was
nearly nineteen. It was serious, and I will leave it at that. My father took me
to Delhi for treatment. He stayed with me for six weeks while doctors tended to
me. I was told I could have died. Perhaps I should have. Dying can be quite the
career move for a young poet. When we returned, I was frail and withdrawn. I
couldn’t be bothered with writing. I had little interest in food or
conversation or entertainment. I was averse to visitors. I just wanted to pull
the curtains and sleep all day every day. Which was what I did mostly.
Eventually, I got out of bed and slowly resumed my daily routines,
by which I mean the stringent essentials a person must tend to in order to
remain functional and nominally civil. But I felt diminished. Like I had left something
vital of myself behind in India.
EB: Was your father concerned?
NW: Quite the contrary. He was
encouraged. He thought that my encounter with mortality had shaken me out of my
immaturity and waywardness. He didn’t understand that I felt lost. I’ve read,
Monsieur Boustouler, that if an avalanche buries you and you’re lying there
underneath all that snow, you can’t tell which way is up or down. You want to
dig yourself out but pick the wrong way, and you dig yourself to your own
demise. That was how I felt, disoriented, suspended in confusion, stripped of
my compass. Unspeakably depressed as well. And, in that state, you are
vulnerable. Which is likely why I said yes the following year, in 1949, when
Suleiman Wahdati asked my father for my hand.
EB: You were twenty.
NW: He was not.
She offers me another sandwich, which
I decline, and a cup of coffee, which I accept. As she sets water on to boil,
she asks if I am married. I tell her I am not and that I doubt I ever will be.
She looks at me over her shoulder, her gaze lingering, and grins.
NW: Ah. I can usually tell.
NW: Maybe it’s the concussion.
She points to the bandanna.
NW: This isn’t a fashion statement. I
slipped and fell a couple of days ago, tore my forehead open. Still, I should
have known. About you, I mean. In my experience, men who understand women as
well as you seem to rarely want to have anything to do with them.
She gives me the coffee, lights a
cigarette, and takes a seat.
NW: I have a theory about marriage,
Monsieur Boustouler. And it’s that nearly always you will know within two weeks
if it’s going to work. It’s astonishing how many people remain shackled for
years, decades even, in a protracted and mutual state of self-delusion and
false hope when in fact they had their answer in those first two weeks. Me, I
didn’t even need that long. My husband was a decent man. But he was much too
serious, aloof, and uninteresting. Also, he was in love with the chauffeur.
EB: Ah. That must have come as a
NW: Well, it did thicken the
She smiles a little sadly.
NW: I felt sorry for him, mostly. He
could not have chosen a worse time or worse place to be born the way he was.
He died of a stroke when our daughter
was six. At that point, I could have stayed in Kabul. I had the house and my
husband’s wealth. There was a gardener and the aforementioned chauffeur. It
would have been a comfortable life. But I packed our bags and moved us, Pari
and me, to France.
EB: Which, as you indicated earlier,
you did for her benefit.
NW: Everything I’ve done, Monsieur
Boustouler, I’ve done for my daughter. Not that she understands, or
appreciates, the full measure of what I’ve done for her. She can be
breathtakingly thoughtless, my daughter. If she knew the life she would have
had to endure, if not for me …
EB: Is your daughter a disappointment
NW: Monsieur Boustouler, I’ve come to
believe she’s my punishment.
One day in 1975, Pari comes
home to her new apartment and finds a small package on her bed. It is a year
after she fetched her mother from the emergency room and nine months since she
left Julien. Pari is living now with a nursing student named Zahia, a young
Algerian woman with curly brown hair and green eyes. She is a competent girl,
with a cheerful, unfrazzled disposition, and they have lived together easily,
though Zahia is now engaged to her boyfriend, Sami, and moving in with him at
the end of the semester.
There is a folded sheet of paper next to the package.
This came for you. I’m spending
the night at Sami’s. See you tomorrow. Je t’embrasse. Zahia.
Pari rips the package open. Inside is a magazine and,
clipped to it, another note, this one written in a familiar, almost femininely
graceful script. This was sent to Nila and then to
the couple who live in Collette’s old apartment and now it is forwarded to me.
You should update your forwarding address. Read this at your own peril. Neither
of us fares very well, I’m afraid. Julien.
Pari drops the journal on the
bed and makes herself a spinach salad and some couscous. She changes into
pajamas and eats by the TV, a small black-and-white rental. Absently, she
watches images of airlifted South Vietnamese refugees arriving in Guam. She
thinks of Collette, who had protested the American war in Vietnam in the
streets. Collette, who had brought a wreath of dahlias and daisies to Maman’s
memorial, who had held and kissed Pari, who had delivered a beautiful
recitation of one of Maman’s poems at the podium.
Julien had not attended the
services. He’d called and said, feebly, that he disliked memorials, he found
doesn’t? Pari had said.
I think it’s best I stay
Do as you
like, Pari had said into the receiver, thinking,
But it won’t absolve you, not coming. Any more than attending will absolve me.
Of how reckless we were. How thoughtless. My God. Pari had hung up with him
knowing that her fling with Julien had been the final push for Maman. She had
hung up knowing that for the rest of her life it would slam into her at random
moments, the guilt, the terrible remorse, catching her off guard, and that she
would ache to the bones with it. She would wrestle with this, now and for all
days to come. It would be the dripping faucet at the back of her mind.
She takes a bath after dinner
and reviews some notes for an upcoming exam. She watches some more TV, cleans
and dries the dishes, sweeps the kitchen floor. But it’s no use. She can’t
distract herself. The journal sits on the bed, its calling to her like a
Afterward, she puts a
raincoat over her pajamas and goes for a walk down Boulevard de la Chapelle, a
few blocks south of the apartment. The air is chilly, and raindrops slap the
pavement and shopwindows, but the apartment cannot contain her restlessness
right now. She needs the cold, the moist air, the open space.
When she was young, Pari remembers, she had been all
questions. Do I have cousins in Kabul, Maman? Do I
have aunts and uncles? And grandparents, do I have a grand-pére and a grand-maman? How come they never visit? Can we write them a letter? Please, can we
Most of her questions had
revolved around her father. What was his favorite color,
Maman? Tell me, Maman, was he a good swimmer? Did he know a lot of jokes?
She remembers him chasing her once through a room. Rolling her around on a carpet,
tickling her soles and belly. She remembers the smell of his lavender soap and
the shine of his high forehead, his long fingers. His oval-shaped lapis cuff
links, the crease of his suit pants. She can see the dust motes they had kicked
up together off the carpet.
What Pari had always wanted
from her mother was the glue to bond together her loose, disjointed scraps of
memory, to turn them into some sort of cohesive narrative. But Maman never said
much. She always withheld details of her life and of their life together in
Kabul. She kept Pari at a remove from their shared past, and, eventually, Pari
And now it turns out that
Maman had told this magazine writer, this Étienne Boustouler, more about
herself and her life than she ever did her own daughter.
Or had she.
Pari read the piece three
times back at the apartment. And she doesn’t know what to think, what to
believe. So much of it rings false. Parts of it read like a parody. A lurid
melodrama, of shackled beauties and doomed romances and pervasive oppression,
all told in such breathless, high-spirited fashion.
Pari heads westbound, toward
Pigalle, walking briskly, hands stuffed into the pockets of her raincoat. The
sky is darkening rapidly, and the downpour lashing at her face is becoming
heavier and more steady, rippling windows, smearing headlights. Pari has no
memory of ever meeting the man, her grandfather, Maman’s father, has seen only
the one photograph of him reading at his desk, but she doubts that he was the
mustache-twirling villain Maman has made him out to be. Pari thinks she sees
through this story. She has her own ideas. In her version, he is a man
rightfully worried over the well-being of a deeply unhappy and self-destructive
daughter who cannot help making shambles of her own life. He is a man who
suffers humiliations and repeated assaults on his dignity and still stands by
his daughter, takes her to India when she’s ill, stays with her for six weeks.
And, on that subject, what really was wrong with Maman? What did they do to her
in India? Pari wonders, thinking of the vertical pelvic scar—Pari had asked,
and Zahia had told her that cesarian incisions were made horizontally.
And then what Maman told the
interviewer about her husband, Pari’s father. Was it slander? Was it true that
he’d loved Nabi, the chauffeur? And, if it was, why reveal such a thing now
after all this time if not to confuse, humiliate, and perhaps inflict pain?
And, if so, on whom?
As for herself, Pari is not
surprised by the unflattering treatment Maman had reserved for her—not after
Julien—nor is she surprised by Maman’s selective, sanitized account of her own
And yet …
Maman had been a gifted
writer. Pari has read every word Maman had written in French and every poem she
had translated from Farsi as well. The power and beauty of her writing was
undeniable. But if the account Maman had given of her life in the interview was
a lie, then where did the images of her work come from? Where was the
wellspring for words that were honest and lovely and brutal and sad? Was she
merely a gifted trickster? A magician, with a pen for a wand, able to move an
audience by conjuring emotions she had never known herself? Was that even
Pari does not know—she does
not know. And that, perhaps, may have been Maman’s true intent, to shift the
ground beneath Pari’s feet. To intentionally unsteady and upend her, to turn
her into a stranger to herself, to heave the weight of doubt on her mind, on
all Pari thought she knew of her life, to make her feel as lost as if she were
wandering through a desert at night, surrounded by darkness and the unknown,
the truth elusive, like a single tiny glint of light in the distance flickering
on and off, forever moving, receding.
Perhaps, Pari thinks, this is Maman’s retribution.
Not only for Julien but also for the disappointment that Pari has always been.
Pari, who was maybe supposed to bring an end to all the drinking, the men, the
years squandered making desperate lunges at happiness. All the dead ends
pursued and abandoned. Each lash of disappointment leaving Maman more damaged,
more derailed, and happiness more illusory. What
was I, Maman?
Pari thinks. What was I supposed
to be, growing in your womb—assuming it was even in your womb that I was
conceived? A seed of hope? A ticket purchased to ferry you from the dark? A
patch for that hole you carried in your heart? If so, then I wasn’t enough. I
wasn’t nearly enough. I was no balm to your pain, only another
dead end, another burden, and you must have seen that early on. You must have
realized it. But what could you do? You couldn’t go down to the pawnshop and
Perhaps this interview was
Maman’s last laugh.
Pari steps beneath the awning
of a brasserie to take refuge from the rain a few blocks west of the hospital
where Zahia does part of her training. She lights a cigarette. She should call
Collette, she thinks. They have spoken only once or twice since the memorial.
When they were young, they used to chew mouthfuls of gum until their jaws
ached, and they would sit before Maman’s dresser mirror and brush each other’s
hair, pin it up. Pari spots an old woman across the street, wearing a plastic
rain bonnet, laboring up the sidewalk trailed by a small tan terrier. Not for
the first time, a little puff breaks rank from the collective fog of Pari’s
memories and slowly takes the shape of a dog. Not a little toy like the old
woman’s, but a big mean specimen, furry, dirty, with a severed tail and ears.
Pari is unsure whether this, in fact, is a memory or the ghost of one or
neither. She had asked Maman once if they had ever owned a dog in Kabul and
Maman said, You know I don’t like dogs. They have no
self-respect. You kick them and they still love you. It’s depressing.
Something else Maman said:
I don’t see me in you. I don’t
know who you are.
Pari tosses her cigarette.
She decides she will call Collette. Make plans to meet somewhere for tea. See
how she is doing. Who she’s seeing. Go window-shopping like they used to.
See if her old friend is
still up for that trip to Afghanistan.
meet Collette. They meet at a popular bar with a Moroccan design, violet drapes
and orange pillows everywhere, curly-haired oud player on a small stage.
Collette has not arrived alone. She has brought a young man with her. His name
is Eric Lacombe. He teaches drama to seventh and eighth graders at a lycée in
the 18th. He tells Pari he has met her before, a few years earlier, at a
student protest against seal hunting. At first Pari cannot recall, and then she
remembers that he was the one with whom Collette had been so angry over the low
turnout, the one whose chest she’d knuckled. They sit on the ground, atop
fluffy mango-colored cushions, and order drinks. Initially, Pari is under the
impression that Collette and Eric are a couple, but Collette keeps praising
Eric, and soon Pari understands he has been brought for her benefit. The
discomfort that would normally overtake her in a situation like this is
mirrored in—and mitigated by—Eric’s own considerable unease. Pari finds it
amusing, and even endearing, the way he keeps blushing and shaking his head in
apology and embarrassment. Over bread and black olive tapenades, Pari steals
glances at him. He could not be called handsome. His hair is long and limp,
tied with a rubber band at the base of his neck. He has small hands and pale
skin. His nose is too narrow, his forehead too protruding, the chin nearly
absent, but he has a bright-eyed grin and a habit of punctuating the end of
each sentence with an expectant smile like a happy question mark. And though
his face does not enthrall Pari as Julien’s had, it is a far kinder face and,
as Pari will learn before long, an external ambassador for the attentiveness,
the quiet forbearance, and the enduring decency that resides within Eric.
They marry on a chilly day in
the spring of 1977, a few months after Jimmy Carter is sworn into office.
Against his parents’ wishes, Eric insists on a small civil ceremony, no one
present but the two of them and Collette as witness. He says a formal wedding
is an extravagance they cannot afford. His father, who is a wealthy banker,
offers to pay. Eric, after all, is their only child. He offers it as a gift,
then as a loan. But Eric declines. And though he never says so, Pari knows it
is to save her the awkwardness of a ceremony at which she would be alone, with
no family to sit in the aisles, no one to give her away, no one to shed a happy
tear on her behalf.
When she tells him of her
plans to go to Afghanistan, he understands in a way that Pari believes Julien
never would. And also in a way that she had never openly admitted to herself.
“You think you were adopted,”
“Will you go with me?”
They decide they will travel
that summer, when school is out for Eric and Pari can take a brief hiatus from
her Ph.D. work. Eric registers them both for Farsi classes with a tutor he has
found through the mother of one of his pupils. Pari often finds him on the
couch wearing headphones, cassette player on his chest, his eyes shut in
concentration as he mutters heavily accented Thank yous
and Hellos and How are you?s
A few weeks before summer,
just as Eric is looking into airfare and accommodations, Pari discovers she is
“We could still go,” Eric
says. “We should still go.”
It is Pari who decides
against it. “It’s irresponsible,” she says. They are living in a studio with
faulty heating, leaky plumbing, no air-conditioning, and an assortment of
“This is no place for a
baby,” she says.
Eric takes on a side job
teaching piano, which he had briefly entertained pursuing before he had set his
sights on theater, and by the time Isabelle arrives—sweet, light-skinned
Isabelle, with eyes the color of caramelized sugar—they have moved into a small
two-bedroom apartment not far from Jardin du Luxembourg, this with financial
assistance from Eric’s father, which they accept this time on the condition
that it be a loan.
Pari takes three months off.
She spends her days with Isabelle. She feels weightless around Isabelle. She
feels a shining around herself whenever Isabelle turns her eyes to her. When
Eric comes home from the lycée in the evening, the first thing he does is shed
his coat and his briefcase at the door and then he drops on the couch and
extends his arms and wiggles his fingers. “Give her to me, Pari. Give her to
me.” As he bounces Isabelle on his chest, Pari fills him in on all the day’s
tidbits—how much milk Isabelle took, how many naps, what they watched together
on television, the enlivening games they played, the new noises she’s making.
Eric never tires of hearing it.
They have postponed going to
Afghanistan. The truth is, Pari no longer feels the piercing urge to search for
answers and roots. Because of Eric and his steadying, comforting companionship.
And because of Isabelle, who has solidified the ground beneath Pari’s
feet—pocked as it still may be with gaps and blind spots, all the unanswered
questions, all the things Maman would not relinquish. They are still there.
Pari just doesn’t hunger for the answers like she used to.
And the old feeling she has
always had—that there is an absence in her life of something or someone
vital—has dulled. It still comes now and then, sometimes with power that
catches her unawares, but less frequently than it used to. Pari has never been
this content, has never felt this happily moored.
In 1981, when Isabelle is
three, Pari, a few months pregnant with Alain, has to go to Munich for a
conference. She will present a paper she has coauthored on the use of modular
forms outside of number theory, specifically in topology and theoretical
physics. The presentation is received well, and afterward Pari and a few other
academics go out to a noisy bar for beer and pretzels and Weisswurst.
She returns to the hotel room before midnight and goes to bed without changing
or washing her face. The phone wakes her at 2:30 A.M. Eric, calling from Paris.
“It’s Isabelle,” he says. She
has a fever. Her gums have suddenly swollen and turned red. They bleed
profusely at the lightest touch. “I can hardly see her teeth. Pari. I don’t
know what to do. I read somewhere that it could be …”
She wants him to stop. She
wants to tell him to shut up, that she cannot bear to hear it, but she’s too
late. She hears the words childhood leukemia, or maybe
he says lymphoma, and what’s the difference anyway?
Pari sits on the edge of the bed, sits there like a stone, head throbbing, skin
drenched with sweat. She is furious with Eric for planting a thing as horrible
as this in her mind in the middle of the night when she’s seven hundred
kilometers away and helpless. She is furious with herself for her own
stupidity. Opening herself up like this, voluntarily, to a lifetime of worry
and anguish. It was madness. Sheer lunacy. A spectacularly foolish and baseless
faith, against enormous odds, that a world you do not control will not take
from you the one thing you cannot bear to lose. Faith that the world will not
destroy you. I don’t have the heart for this. She
actually says this under her breath. I don’t have the heart
for this. At that moment, she cannot think of a more reckless,
irrational thing than choosing to become a parent.
And part of her—God help me, she thinks, God forgive me
for it—part of her is furious with Isabelle for doing this to her, for
making her suffer like this.
“Eric. Eric! Ecoute moi. I’m going to call you back. I need to hang up
She empties her purse on the
bed, finds the small maroon notebook where she keeps phone numbers. She places
a call to Lyon. Collette lives in Lyon now with her husband, Didier, where she
has started a small travel agency. Didier is studying to be a doctor. It’s
Didier who answers the phone.
“You do know I’m studying
psychiatry, Pari, don’t you?” he says.
“I know. I know. I just
He asks some questions. Has
Isabelle had any weight loss? Night sweats, unusual bruises, fatigue, chronic
In the end, he says Eric
should take her to a doctor in the morning. But, if he recalls correctly from
his general training back in medical school, it sounds to him like acute
Pari clutches the receiver so
hard, her wrist aches. “Please,” she says patiently, “Didier.”
“Ah, sorry. What I mean is,
it sounds like the first manifestation of a cold sore.”
“A cold sore.”
Then he adds the happiest
words Pari has ever heard in her life. “I think she’s going to be fine.”
Pari has met Didier only
twice, once before and once after his wedding to Collette. But at that instant,
she loves him truly. She tells him so, weeping into the phone. She tells him
she loves him—several times—and he laughs and wishes her a good night. Pari
calls Eric, who will take Isabelle in the morning to see Dr. Perrin. Afterward,
her ears ringing, Pari lies in bed, looking at the streetlight streaming in
through the dull-green wooden shutters. She thinks of the time she had to be
hospitalized with pneumonia, when she was eight, Maman refusing to go home,
insisting on sleeping in the chair next to her bed, and she feels a new,
unexpected, belated kinship with her mother. She has missed her many times over
the last few years. At her wedding, of course. At Isabelle’s birth. And at
myriad random moments. But never more so than on this terrible and wondrous
night in this hotel room in Munich.
Back in Paris the next day,
she tells Eric they shouldn’t have any more children after Alain is born. It
only raises the odds of heartbreak.
In 1985, when Isabelle is
seven, Alain four, and little Thierry two, Pari accepts an offer to teach at a
prominent university in Paris. She becomes subject, for a time, to the expected
academic jostling and pettiness—not surprising, given that, at thirty-six, she
is the youngest professor in the department and one of only two women. She
weathers it in a way that she imagines Maman never could or would have. She
does not flatter or butter up. She refrains from locking horns or filing
complaints. She will always have her skeptics. But by the time the Berlin Wall
comes down, so have the walls in her academic life, and she has slowly won over
most of her colleagues with her sensible demeanor and disarming sociability.
She makes friends in her department—and in others too—attends university
events, fund-raisers, the occasional cocktail hour and dinner party. Eric goes
with her to these soirees. As an ongoing private joke, he insists on wearing
the same wool tie and corduroy blazer with elbow patches. He wanders around the
crowded room, tasting hors d’oeuvres, sipping wine, looking jovially
bewildered, and occasionally Pari has to swoop in and steal him away from a
group of mathematicians before he opines on 3-manifolds and Diophantine
Inevitably, someone at these
parties will ask Pari her views on the developments in Afghanistan. One
evening, a slightly tipsy visiting professor named Chatelard asks Pari what she
thinks will happen to Afghanistan when the Soviets leave. “Will your people
find peace, Madame Professeur?”
“I wouldn’t know,” she says.
“Practically speaking, I’m Afghan only in name.”
quande-même,” he says. “But, still, you must have
She smiles, trying to keep at
bay the inadequacy that always creeps in with these queries. “Just what I read
in Le Monde. Like you.”
“But you grew up there, non?”
“I left when I was very
little. Have you seen my husband? He’s the one with the elbow patches.”
What she says is true. She does
follow the news, reads in the papers about the war, the West arming the
Mujahideen, but Afghanistan has receded in her mind. She has plenty to keep her
busy at home, which is now a pretty four-bedroom house in Guyancourt, about
twenty kilometers from the center of Paris. They live on a small hill near a
park with walking trails and ponds. Eric is writing plays now in addition to
teaching. One of his plays, a lighthearted political farce, is going to be
produced in the fall at a small theater near Hôtel de Ville in Paris, and he
has already been commissioned to write another.
Isabelle has grown into a
quiet but bright and thoughtful adolescent. She keeps a diary and reads a novel
a week. She likes Sinéad O’Connor. She has long, beautiful fingers and takes
cello lessons. In a few weeks, she will perform Tchaikovsky’s Chanson Triste at a recital. She was resistant at first to
taking up the cello, and Pari had taken a few lessons with her as a show of
solidarity. It proved both unnecessary and unfeasible. Unnecessary because
Isabelle quickly latched onto the instrument of her own accord and unfeasible
because the cello made Pari’s hands ache. For a year now, Pari has been waking
in the morning with stiffness in her hands and wrists that won’t loosen up for half
an hour, sometimes an hour. Eric has quit pressuring her to see a doctor and is
now insisting. “You’re only forty-three, Pari,” he says. “This is not normal.”
Pari has set up an appointment.
Alain, their middle child,
has a sly roguish charm. He is obsessed with martial arts. He was born
prematurely and is still small for a boy of eleven, but what he lacks in
stature he more than makes up for with desire and gumption. His opponents are
always fooled by his wispy frame and slim legs. They underestimate him. Pari
and Eric have often lain in bed at night and marveled at his enormous will and
ferocious energy. Pari worries about neither Isabelle nor Alain.
It is Thierry who concerns
her. Thierry, who perhaps on some dark primordial level, senses that he was unexpected,
unintended, uninvited. Thierry is prone to wounding silences and narrow looks,
to fussing and fiddling whenever Pari asks something of him. He defies her for
no other reason, it seems to Pari, than defiance itself. Some days, a cloud
gathers over him. Pari can tell. She can almost see it. It gathers and swells
until at last it splits open, spilling a torrent of cheek-quivering,
foot-stomping rage that frightens Pari and leaves Eric to blink and smile
miserably. Pari knows instinctively that Thierry will be for her, like the ache
in her joints, a lifelong worry.
She wonders often what sort
of grandmother Maman would have made. Especially with Thierry. Intuitively,
Pari thinks Maman would have proved helpful with him. She might have seen
something of herself in him—though not biologically, of course, Pari has been
certain of that for some time. The children know of Maman. Isabelle, in
particular, is curious. She has read many of her poems.
“I wish I’d met her,” she
“She sounds glamorous,” she says.
“I think we would have made
good friends, she and I. Do you think? We would have read the same books. I
would have played cello for her.”
“Well, she would have loved
that,” Pari says. “That much I am sure of.”
Pari has not told the
children about the suicide. They may learn one day, probably will. But they
wouldn’t learn it from her. She will not plant the seed in their mind, that a
parent is capable of abandoning her children, of saying to them You are not enough. For Pari, the children and Eric have
always been enough. They always will be.
In the summer of 1994, Pari
and Eric take the children to Majorca. It’s Collette who, through her now
thriving travel agency, organizes the holiday for them. Collette and Didier
meet up with them in Majorca, and they all stay together for two weeks in a
beachfront rental house. Collette and Didier don’t have children, not by some
biological misfortune but because they don’t want any. For Pari, the timing is
good. Her rheumatoid is well controlled at the time. She takes a weekly dose of
methotrexate, which she is tolerating well. Fortunately, she has not had to
take any steroids of late and suffer the accompanying insomnia.
“Not to speak of the weight
gain,” she tells Collette. “Knowing I’d have to get into a bathing suit in
Spain?” She laughs. “Ah, vanity.”
They spend the days touring
the island, driving up the northwest coast by the Serra de Tramuntana
Mountains, stopping to stroll by the olive groves and into the pine forest.
They eat porcella, and a wonderful sea bass dish
called lubina, and an eggplant and zucchini stew
called tumbet. Thierry refuses to eat any of it, and
at every restaurant Pari has to ask the chef to make him a plate of spaghetti
with plain tomato sauce, no meat, no cheese. At Isabelle’s request—she has
recently discovered opera—one night they attend a production of Giacomo
Puccini’s Tosca. To survive the ordeal, Collette and
Pari surreptitiously pass each other a silver flask of cheap vodka. By the
middle of act two, they are sloshed, and can’t help giggling like schoolgirls
at the histrionics of the actor playing Scarpia.
One day, Pari, Collette,
Isabelle, and Thierry pack a lunch and go to the beach; Didier, Alain, and Eric
had left in the morning for a hike along Sóller Bay. On the way to the beach,
they visit a shop to buy Isabelle a bathing suit that has caught her eye. As
they walk into the shop, Pari catches a glimpse of her reflection in the plate
glass. Normally, especially of late, when she steps in front of a mirror an
automatic mental process kicks into gear that prepares her to greet her older
self. It buffers her, dulls the shock. But in the shopwindow, she has caught
herself off guard, vulnerable to reality undistorted by self-delusion. She sees
a middle-aged woman in a drab floppy blouse and a beach skirt that doesn’t
conceal quite enough of the saggy folds of skin over her kneecaps. The sun
picks out the gray in her hair. And despite the eyeliner, and the lipstick that
defines her lips, she has a face now that a passerby’s gaze will engage and
then bounce from, as it would a street sign or a mailbox number. The moment is
brief, barely enough for a flutter of the pulse but long enough for her
illusory self to catch up with the reality of the woman gazing back from the
shopwindow. It is a little devastating. This is what aging is, she thinks as
she follows Isabelle into the store, these random unkind moments that catch you
when you least expect them.
Later, when they return from
the beach to the rental house, they find that the men have already returned.
“Papa’s getting old,” Alain
From behind the bar, Eric,
who is mixing a carafe of sangria, rolls his eyes and shrugs genially.
“I thought I’d have to carry
“Give me one year. We’ll come
back next year, and I’ll race you around the island, mon pote.”
They never do come back to
Majorca. A week after they return to Paris, Eric has a heart attack. It happens
while he is at work, speaking to a lighting stagehand. He survives it, but he
will suffer two more over the course of the next three years, the last of which
will prove fatal. And so at the age of forty-eight Pari finds herself, like
Maman had, a widow.
early in the spring of 2010, Pari receives a long-distance phone call. The call
is not unexpected. Pari, in fact, has been preparing for it all morning. Prior
to the call, Pari makes sure she has the apartment to herself. This means
asking Isabelle to leave earlier than she customarily does. Isabelle and her
husband, Albert, live just north of Île Saint-Denis, only a few blocks from
Pari’s one-bedroom apartment. Isabelle comes to see Pari in the morning every
other day, after she drops off her kids at school. She brings Pari a baguette,
some fresh fruit. Pari is not yet bound to the wheelchair, an eventuality for which
she has been preparing herself. Though her disease forced her into early
retirement the year before, she is still fully capable of going to the market
on her own, of taking a daily walk. It’s the hands—the ugly, twisted hands—that
fail her most, hands that on bad days feel like they have shards of crystal
rattling around the joints. Pari wears gloves, whenever she is out, to keep her
hands warm, but mostly because she is ashamed of them, the knobby knuckles, the
unsightly fingers with what her doctor calls swan neck
deformity, the permanently flexed left pinkie.
Ah, vanity, she tells Collette.
This morning, Isabelle has
brought her some figs, a few bars of soap, toothpaste, and a Tupperware
containerful of chestnut soup. Albert is thinking of suggesting it as a new
menu entry to the owners of the restaurant where he is the sous-chef. As she
unloads the bags, Isabelle tells Pari of the new assignment she has landed. She
writes musical scores for television shows now, commercials, and is hoping to
write for film one day soon. She says she will begin scoring a miniseries that
is shooting at the moment in Madrid.
“Will you be going there?”
Pari asks. “To Madrid?”
The budget is too small. They won’t cover my travel cost.”
“That’s a pity. You could
have stayed with Alain.”
“Oh, can you imagine, Maman?
Poor Alain. He hardly has room to stretch his legs.”
Alain is a financial
consultant. He lives in a tiny Madrid apartment with his wife, Ana, and their
four children. He regularly e-mails Pari pictures and short video clips of the
Pari asks if Isabelle has
heard from Thierry, and Isabelle says she has not. Thierry is in Africa, in the
eastern part of Chad, where he works at a camp with refugees from Darfur. Pari
knows this because Thierry is in sporadic touch with Isabelle. She is the only
one he speaks to. This is how Pari knows the general outlines of her son’s
life—for instance, that he spent some time in Vietnam. Or that he was married
to a Vietnamese woman once, briefly, when he was twenty.
Isabelle sets a pot of water
on to boil and fetches two cups from the cabinet.
“Not this morning, Isabelle.
Actually, I need to ask you to leave.”
Isabelle gives her a wounded
look, and Pari chides herself for not wording it better. Isabelle has always
had a delicate nature.
“What I mean to say is, I’m
expecting a call and I need some privacy.”
“A call? From who?”
“I’ll tell you later,” Pari
Isabelle crosses her arms and
grins. “Have you found a lover, Maman?”
“A lover. Are you blind? Have
you even looked at me recently?”
“There is not a thing wrong
“You need to go. I’ll explain
later, I promise.”
d’accord.” Isabelle slings her purse over her
shoulder, grabs her coat and keys. “But I’ll have you know I’m duly intrigued.”
The man who calls at 9:30
A.M. is named Markos Varvaris. He had contacted Pari through her Facebook
account with this message, written in English: Are you the
daughter of the poet Nila Wahdati? If so, I would like very much to speak with
you about something that will be of interest to you. Pari had searched
the web for his name and found that he was a plastic surgeon who worked for a
nonprofit organization in Kabul. Now, on the phone, he greets her in Farsi, and
continues to speak in Farsi until Pari has to interrupt him.
“Monsieur Varvaris, I’m
sorry, but maybe we speak in English?”
“Ah, of course. My apologies.
I assumed … Although, of course, it does make sense, you left when you were
very young, didn’t you?”
“Yes, that is true.”
“I learned Farsi here myself.
I would say I am more or less functional in it. I have lived here since 2002,
since shortly after the Taliban left. Quite optimistic days, those. Yes,
everybody ready for rebuilding and democracy and the like. Now it is a
different story. Naturally, we are preparing for presidential elections, but it
is a different story. I’m afraid it is.”
Pari listens patiently as
Markos Varvaris makes protracted detours into the logistical challenge that are
the elections in Afghanistan, which he says Karzai will win, and then on to the
Taliban’s troubling forays into the north, the increasing Islamist infringement
on news media, a side note or two on the overpopulation in Kabul, then on the
cost of housing, lastly, before he circles back and says, “I have lived in this
house now for a number of years. I understand you lived in this house too.”
“This was your parents’
house. That is what I am led to believe, in any case.”
“If I can ask, who is telling
“The landlord. His name is
Nabi. It was Nabi, I should say. He is deceased now,
sadly, as of recently. Do you remember him?”
The name conjures for Pari a
handsome young face, sideburns, a wall of full dark hair combed back.
“Yes. Mostly, his name. He
was a cook at our house. And a chauffeur as well.”
“He was both, yes. He had
lived here, in this house, since 1947. Sixty-three years. It is a little
unbelievable, no? But, as I said, he passed on. Last month. I was quite fond of
him. Everyone was.”
“Nabi gave me a note,” Markos
Varvaris says. “I was to read it only after his death. When he died, I had an
Afghan colleague translate it into English. This note, it is more than a note.
A letter, more accurately, and a remarkable one at that. Nabi says some things
in it. I searched for you because some of it concerns you, and also because he
directly asks in it that I find you and give you this letter. It took some
searching, but we were able to locate you. Thanks to the web.” He lets out a
There is a part of Pari that
wants to hang up. Intuitively, she does not doubt that whatever revelation this
old man—this person from her distant past—has scribbled on paper, halfway
across the world, is true. She has known for a long time that she was lied to
by Maman about her childhood. But even if the ground of her life was broken
with a lie, what Pari has since planted in that ground stands as true and
sturdy and unshakable as a giant oak. Eric, her children, her grandchildren,
her career, Collette. So what is the use? After all this time, what is the use?
Perhaps best to hang up.
But she doesn’t. Her pulse
fluttering and her palms sweating, she says, “What … what does he say in his
note, in this letter?”
“Well, for one thing, he
claims he was your uncle.”
to be precise. And there is more. He says many other things as well.”
“Monsieur Varvaris, do you
have it? This note, this letter, or the translation? Do you have it with you?”
“Maybe you read it for me?
Can you read it?”
“You mean now?”
“If you have the time. I can
call you, to collect the charge.”
“No need, no. But are you
“Oui,” she says into the phone. “I’m sure, Monsieur Varvaris.”
He reads it to her. He reads
her the whole thing. It takes a while. When he finishes, she thanks him and
tells him she will be in touch soon.
After she hangs up, she sets
the coffeemaker to brew a cup and moves to her window. From it, the familiar
view presents itself to her—the narrow cobblestone path below, the pharmacy up
the block, the falafel joint at the corner, the brasserie run by the Basque
Pari’s hands shake. A
startling thing is happening to her. Something truly remarkable. The picture of
it in her mind is of an ax striking soil and suddenly rich black oil bubbling
up to the surface. This is what is happening to her, memories struck upon,
rising up from the depths. She gazes out the window in the direction of the
brasserie, but what she sees is not the skinny waiter beneath the awning, black
apron tied at the waist and shaking a cloth over a table, but a little red
wagon with a squeaky wheel bouncing along beneath a sky of unfurling clouds,
rolling over ridges and down dried-up gullies, up and down ocher hills that
loom and then fall away. She sees tangles of fruit trees standing in groves,
the breeze catching their leaves, and rows of grapevines connecting little
flat-roofed houses. She sees washing lines and women squatting by a stream, and
the creaking ropes of a swing beneath a big tree, and a big dog, cowering from
the taunts of village boys, and a hawk-nosed man digging a ditch, shirt
plastered to his back with sweat, and a veiled woman bent over a cooking fire.
But something else too at the
edge of it all, at the rim of her vision—and this is what draws her most—an
elusive shadow. A figure. At once soft and hard. The softness of a hand holding
hers. The hardness of knees where she’d once rested her cheek. She searches for
his face, but it evades her, slips from her, each time she turns to it. Pari
feels a hole opening up in her. There has been in her life, all her life, a
great absence. Somehow, she has always known.
“Brother,” she says, unaware
she is speaking. Unaware she is weeping.
A verse from a Farsi song
suddenly tumbles to her tongue:
I know a sad little fairy
Who was blown away by the
wind one night.
There is another, perhaps
earlier, verse, she is sure of it, but that eludes her as well.
Pari sits. She has to. She
doesn’t think she can stand at the moment. She waits for the coffee to brew and
thinks that when it’s ready she is going to have a cup, and then perhaps a
cigarette, and then she is going to go to the living room to call Collette in
Lyon, see if her old friend can arrange her a trip to Kabul.
But for the moment Pari sits.
She shuts her eyes, as the coffeemaker begins to gurgle, and she finds behind
her eyelids hills that stand soft and a sky that stands high and blue, and the
sun setting behind a windmill, and always, always, hazy strings of mountains
that fall and fall away on the horizon.
“Your father is a great man.”
Adel looked up. It was the
teacher Malalai who had leaned in and whispered this in his ear. A plump,
middle-aged woman wearing a violet beaded shawl around her shoulders, she
smiled at him now with her eyes shut.
“And you are a lucky boy.”
“I know,” he whispered back.
Good, she mouthed.
They were standing on the
front steps of the town’s new school for girls, a rectangular light green
building with a flat roof and wide windows, as Adel’s father, his Baba jan,
delivered a brief prayer followed by an animated speech. Gathered before them
in the blazing midday heat was a large crowd of squinting children, parents,
and elders, roughly a hundred or so locals from the small town of
Shadbagh-e-Nau, “New Shadbagh.”
“Afghanistan is mother to us
all,” Adel’s father said, one thick index finger raised skyward. The sun caught
the band of his agatering. “But she is an ailing mother, and she has suffered
for a long time. Now, it is true a mother needs her sons in order to recover.
Yes, but she needs her daughters too—as much, if not more!”
This drew loud applause and
several calls and hoots of approval. Adel scanned the faces in the crowd. They
were rapt as they looked up at his father. Baba jan, with his black bushy
eyebrows and full beard, standing tall and strong and wide above them, his
shoulders nearly broad enough to fill the entryway to the school behind him.
His father continued. And
Adel’s eyes connected with Kabir, one of Baba jan’s two bodyguards standing
impassively on the other side of Baba jan, Kalashnikov in hand. Adel could see
the crowd reflected in Kabir’s dark-lensed aviator glasses. Kabir was short,
thin, almost frail, and wore suits with flashy colors—lavender, turquoise,
orange—but Baba jan said he was a hawk and that underestimating him was a
mistake you made at your own peril.
“So I say this to you, young
daughters of Afghanistan,” Baba jan concluded, his long, thick arms
outstretched in an open gesture of welcome. “You have a solemn duty now. To
learn, to apply yourselves, to excel at your studies, to make proud not only
your own fathers and mothers but the mother who is common to us all. Her future
is in your hands, not mine. I ask that you not think of this school as a gift
from me to you. It is merely a building that houses the true
gift inside, and that is you. You are the gift, young sisters, not only to me
and to the community of Shadbagh-e-Nau but, most importantly, to Afghanistan
herself! God bless you.”
More applause broke out.
Several people shouted, “God bless you, Commander Sahib!” Baba jan raised a
fist, grinning broadly. Adel’s eyes nearly watered with pride.
The teacher Malalai handed
Baba jan a pair of scissors. A red ribbon had been tied across the entryway to
the classroom. The crowd inched closer to get a better view, and Kabir motioned
a few people back, shoved a couple of them in the chest. Hands rose from the
crowd, holding cell phones to video the ribbon cutting. Baba jan took the
scissors, paused, turned to Adel and said, “Here, son, you do the honors.” He handed
the scissors to Adel.
Adel blinked. “Me?”
“Go ahead,” Baba jan said,
dropping him a wink.
Adel cut the ribbon. Long
applause broke out. Adel heard the clicking of a few cameras, voices crying out
Baba jan then stood at the
doorway as the students made a queue and entered the classroom one by one. They
were young girls, aged between eight and fifteen, all of them wearing white
scarves and the pin-striped uniforms of black and gray that Baba jan had given
them. Adel watched as each student shyly introduced herself to Baba jan on her
way in. Baba jan smiled warmly, patted their heads, and offered an encouraging
word or two. “I wish you success, Bibi Mariam. Study hard, Bibi Homaira. Make
us proud, Bibi Ilham.”
Later, by the black Land Cruiser,
Adel stood by his father, sweating now in the heat, and watched him shake hands
with the locals. Baba jan fingered a prayer bead in his free hand and listened
patiently, leaning in a bit, his brow furrowed, nodding, attentive to each
person as he or she came to say thanks, offer prayers, pay respects, many of
them taking the opportunity to ask for a favor. A mother whose sick child
needed to see a surgeon in Kabul, a man in need of a loan to start a
shoe-repair shop, a mechanic asking for a new set of tools.
Commander Sahib, if you could
find it in your heart …
I have nowhere else to turn,
Adel had never heard anyone
outside immediate family address Baba jan by anything other than “Commander
Sahib,” even though the Russians were long gone now and Baba jan hadn’t fired a
gun in a decade or more. Back at the house, there were framed pictures of Baba
jan’s jihadi days all around the living room. Adel had committed to memory each
of the pictures: his father leaning against the fender of a dusty old jeep,
squatting on the turret of a charred tank, posing proudly with his men,
ammunition belt strapped across his chest, beside a helicopter they had shot
down. Here was one where he was wearing a vest and a bandolier, brow pressed to
the desert floor in prayer. He was much skinnier in those days, Adel’s father,
and always in these pictures there was nothing behind him but mountains and
Baba jan had been shot twice
by the Russians during battle. He had shown Adel his wounds, one just under the
left rib cage—he said that one had cost him his spleen—and one about a thumb’s
length away from his belly button. He said he was lucky, everything considered.
He had friends who had lost arms, legs, eyes; friends whose faces had burned.
They had done it for their country, Baba jan said, and they had done it for
God. This was what jihad was all about, he said. Sacrifice. You sacrificed your
limbs, your sight—your life, even—and you did it gladly. Jihad also earned you
certain rights and privileges, he said, because God sees to it that those who
sacrifice the most justly reap the rewards as well.
this life and the next, Baba jan said, pointing his
thick finger first down, then up.
Looking at the pictures, Adel
wished he had been around to fight jihad alongside his father in those more
adventurous days. He liked to picture himself and Baba jan shooting at Russian
helicopters together, blowing up tanks, dodging gunfire, living in mountains
and sleeping in caves. Father and son, war heroes.
There was also a large framed
photo of Baba jan smiling alongside President Karzai at Arg,
the Presidential Palace in Kabul. This one was more recent, taken in the course
of a small ceremony during which Baba jan had been handed an award for his
humanitarian work in Shadbagh-e-Nau. It was an award that Baba jan had more
than earned. The new school for girls was merely his latest project. Adel knew
that women in town used to die regularly giving birth. But they didn’t anymore
because his father had opened a large clinic, run by two doctors and three
midwives whose salaries he paid for out of his own pocket. All the townspeople
received free care at the clinic; no child in Shadbagh-e-Nau went unimmunized.
Baba jan had dispatched teams to locate water points all over town and dig
wells. It was Baba jan who had helped finally bring full-time electricity to
Shadbagh-e-Nau. At least a dozen businesses had opened thanks to his loans
that, Adel had learned from Kabir, were rarely, if ever, paid back.
Adel had meant what he had said
to the teacher earlier. He knew he was lucky to be the
son of such a man.
Just as the rounds of
handshaking were coming to an end, Adel spotted a slight man approaching his
father. He wore round, thin-framed spectacles and a short gray beard and had little
teeth like the heads of burnt matches. Trailing him was a boy roughly Adel’s
own age. The boy’s big toes poked through matching holes in his sneakers. His
hair sat on his head as a matted, unmoving mess. His jeans were stiff with
dirt, and they were too short besides. By contrast, his T-shirt hung almost to
Kabir planted himself between
the old man and Baba jan. “I told you already this wasn’t a good time,” he
“I just want to have a brief
word with the commander,” the old man said.
Baba jan took Adel by the arm
and gently guided him into the backseat of the Land Cruiser. “Let’s go, son.
Your mother is waiting for you.” He climbed in beside Adel and shut the door.
Inside, as his tinted window
rolled up, Adel watched Kabir say something to the old man that Adel couldn’t
hear. Then Kabir made his way around the front of the SUV and let himself into
the driver’s seat, laying his Kalashnikov on the passenger seat before turning
“What was that about?” Adel
“Nothing important,” Kabir
They turned onto the road.
Some of the boys who had stood in the crowd gave chase for a short while before
the Land Cruiser pulled away. Kabir drove through the main crowded strip that
bisected the town of Shadbagh-e-Nau, honking frequently as he needled the car
through traffic. Everyone yielded. Some people waved. Adel watched the crowded
sidewalks on either side of him, his gaze settling on and then off familiar
sights—the carcasses hanging from hooks in butcher shops; the blacksmiths working
their wooden wheels, hand-pumping their bellows; the fruit merchants fanning
flies off their grapes and cherries; the sidewalk barber on the wicker chair
stropping his razor. They passed tea shops, kabob houses, an auto-repair shop,
a mosque, before Kabir veered the car through the town’s big public square, at
the center of which stood a blue fountain and a nine-foot-tall black stone
mujahid, looking east, turban gracefully wrapped atop his head, an RPG launcher
on his shoulder. Baba jan had personally commissioned a sculptor from Kabul to
build the statue.
North of the strip were a few
blocks of residential area, mostly composed of narrow, unpaved streets and
small, flat-roofed little houses painted white or yellow or blue. Satellite
dishes sat on the roofs of a few; Afghan flags draped a number of windows. Baba
jan had told Adel that most of the homes and businesses in Shadbagh-e-Nau had
been built in the last fifteen years or so. He’d had a hand in the construction
of many of them. Most people who lived here considered him the founder of
Shadbagh-e-Nau, and Adel knew that the town elders had offered to name the town
after Baba jan but he had declined the honor.
From there, the main road ran
north for two miles before it connected with Shadbagh-e-Kohna, Old Shadbagh.
Adel had never seen the village as it had once looked decades ago. By the time
Baba jan had moved him and his mother from Kabul to Shadbagh, the village had
all but vanished. All the homes were gone. The only surviving relic of the past
was a decaying windmill. At Shadbagh-e-Kohna, Kabir veered left from the main
road onto a wide, quarter-mile-long unpaved track that connected the main road
to the thick twelve-foot-high walls of the compound where Adel lived with his
parents—the only standing structure now in Shadbagh-e-Kohna, discounting the
windmill. Adel could see the white walls now as the SUV jostled and bounced on
the track. Coils of barbed wire ran along the top of the walls.
A uniformed guard, who always
stood watch at the main gates to the compound, saluted and opened the gates.
Kabir drove the SUV through the walls and up a graveled path toward the house.
The house stood three stories
high and was painted bright pink and turquoise green. It had soaring columns
and pointed eaves and mirrored skyscraper glass that sparkled in the sun. It
had parapets, a veranda with sparkly mosaics, and wide balconies with curved
wrought-iron railings. Inside, they had nine bedrooms and seven bathrooms, and
sometimes when Adel and Baba jan played hide-and-seek, Adel wandered around for
an hour or more before he found his father. All the counters in the bathrooms
and kitchen had been made of granite and lime marble. Lately, to Adel’s
delight, Baba jan had been talking about building a swimming pool in the
Kabir pulled into the
circular driveway outside the tall front gates of the house. He killed the
“Why don’t you give us a
minute?” Baba jan said.
Kabir nodded and exited the
car. Adel watched him walk up the marble steps to the gates and ring. It was
Azmaray, the other bodyguard—a short, stocky, gruff fellow—who opened the gate.
The two men said a few words, then lingered on the steps, lighting a cigarette
“Do you really have to go?”
Adel said. His father was leaving for the south in the morning to oversee his
fields of cotton in Helmand and to meet with workers at the cotton factory he
had built there. He would be gone for two weeks, a span of time that, to Adel,
Baba jan turned his gaze to
him. He dwarfed Adel, taking up more than half the backseat. “Wish I didn’t,
Adel nodded. “I was proud
today. I was proud of you.”
Baba jan lowered the weight
of his big hand on Adel’s knee. “Thank you, Adel. I appreciate that. But I take
you to these things so you learn, so you understand that it’s important for the
fortunate, for people like us, to live up to their responsibilities.”
“I just wish you didn’t have
to leave all the time.”
“Me too, son. Me too. But I’m
not leaving until tomorrow. I’ll be home later in the evening.”
Adel nodded, casting his gaze
down at his hands.
“Look,” his father said in a
soft voice, “the people in this town, they need me, Adel. They need my help to
have a home and find work and make a livelihood. Kabul has its own problems. It
can’t help them. So if I don’t, no one else will. Then these people would
“I know that,” Adel muttered.
Baba jan squeezed his knee
gently. “You miss Kabul, I know, and your friends. It’s been a hard adjustment
here, for both you and your mother. And I know that I’m always off traveling
and going to meetings and that a lot of people have demands on my time. But …
Look at me, son.”
Adel raised his eyes to meet
Baba jan’s. They shone at him kindly from beneath the canopy of his bushy
“No one on this earth matters
to me more than you, Adel. You are my son. I would gladly give up all of this
for you. I would give up my life for you, son.”
Adel nodded, his eyes
watering a little. Sometimes, when Baba jan spoke like this, Adel felt his
heart swell and swell until he found it hard to draw a breath.
“Do you understand me?”
“Yes, Baba jan.”
“Do you believe me?”
“Good. Then give your father
Adel threw his arms around
Baba jan’s neck and his father held him tightly and patiently. Adel remembered
when he was little, when he would tap his father on the shoulder in the middle
of the night still shaking from a nightmare, and his father would push back his
blanket and let him climb into bed, folding him in and kissing the crown of his
head until Adel stopped shivering and slipped back into sleep.
“Maybe I’ll bring you a
little something from Helmand,” Baba jan said.
“You don’t have to,” Adel
said, his voice muffled. He already had more toys than he knew what to do with.
And there wasn’t a toy on earth that could make up for his father’s absence.
day, Adel perched midstairway and spied on the scene unfolding below him. The
doorbell had rung and Kabir had answered. Now Kabir was leaning against the
doorframe with his arms crossed, blocking the entrance, as he spoke to the
person on the other side. It was the old man from earlier at the school, Adel
saw, the bespectacled man with the burnt-match teeth. The boy with the holes in
his shoes was there too, standing beside him.
The old man said, “Where has
he gone to?”
Kabir said, “Business. In the
“I heard he was leaving
“How long will he be gone?”
“Two, maybe three months.
Who’s to say.”
“That’s not what I heard.”
“Now you’re testing my
patience, old man,” Kabir said, uncrossing his arms.
“I’ll wait for him.”
“Not here, you won’t.”
“Over by the road, I meant.”
Kabir shifted impatiently on
his feet. “Suit yourself,” he said. “But the commander is a busy man. No
telling when he’ll be back.”
The old man nodded and backed
away, the boy following him.
Kabir shut the door.
Adel pulled the curtain in
the family room and out the window watched the old man and the boy walking up
the unpaved road that connected the compound to the main road.
“You lied to him,” Adel said.
“It’s part of what I’m paid
to do: protect your father from buzzards.”
“What does he want anyway, a
“Something like that.”
Kabir moved to the couch and
removed his shoes. He looked up at Adel and gave him a wink. Adel liked Kabir,
far more than Azmaray, who was unpleasant and rarely said a word to him. Kabir
played cards with Adel and invited him to watch DVDs together. Kabir loved
movies. He owned a collection that he had bought on the black market and
watched ten to twelve movies a week—Iranian, French, American, of course
Bollywood—he didn’t care. And sometimes if Adel’s mother was in another room
and Adel promised not to tell his father, Kabir emptied the magazine on his
Kalashnikov and let Adel hold it, like a mujahid. Now the Kalashnikov sat
propped against the wall by the front door.
Kabir lay down on the couch
and propped his feet up on the arm. He started flipping through a newspaper.
“They looked harmless
enough,” Adel said, releasing the curtain and turning to Kabir. He could see
the bodyguard’s forehead over the top of the newspaper.
“Maybe I should have asked
them in for tea, then,” Kabir murmured. “Offer them some cake too.”
“Don’t make fun.”
“They all look harmless.”
“Is Baba jan going to help
“Probably,” Kabir sighed.
“Your father is a river to his people.” He lowered the paper and grinned.
“What’s that from? Come on, Adel. We saw it last month.”
Adel shrugged. He started
“Lawrence,” Kabir called from the couch. “Lawrence of Arabia.
Anthony Quinn.” And then, just as Adel had reached the top of the stairs:
“They’re buzzards, Adel. Don’t fall for their act. They’d pick your father
clean if they could.”
morning, a couple of days after his father had left for Helmand, Adel went up
to his parents’ bedroom. The music from the other side of the door was loud and
thumping. He let himself in and found his mother, in shorts and a T-shirt in
front of the giant flat-screen TV, mimicking the moves of a trio of sweaty
blond women, a series of leaps and squats and lunges and planks. She spotted
him in the big mirror of her dresser.
“Want to join me?” she panted
over the loud music.
“I’ll just sit here,” he
said. He slid down to the carpeted floor and watched his mother, whose name was
Aria, leapfrog her way across the room and back.
Adel’s mother had delicate
hands and feet, a small upturned nose, and a pretty face like an actress from
one of Kabir’s Bollywood films. She was lean, agile, and young—she had been
only fourteen when she’d married Baba jan. Adel had another, older mother too,
and three older half brothers, but Baba jan had put them up in the east, in
Jalalabad, and Adel saw them only once a month or so when Baba jan took him
there to visit. Unlike his mother and stepmother, who disliked each other, Adel
and his half brothers got along fine. When he visited them in Jalalabad, they
took him with them to parks, to bazaars, the cinema, and Buzkashi tournaments.
They played Resident Evil with him and shot the
zombies in Call of Duty with him, and they always
picked him on their team during neighborhood soccer matches. Adel wished so
badly that they lived here, near him.
Adel watched his mother lie
on her back and raise her straightened legs off the floor and lower them down
again, a blue plastic ball tucked between her bare ankles.
The truth was, the boredom
here in Shadbagh was crushing Adel. He hadn’t made a single friend in the two
years they had lived here. He could not bike into town, certainly not on his
own, not with the rash of kidnappings everywhere in the region—though he did
sneak out now and then briefly, always staying within the perimeter of the
compound. He had no classmates because Baba jan wouldn’t let him attend the
local school—for “security reasons,” he said—so a tutor came to the house every
morning for lessons. Mostly, Adel passed the time reading or kicking the soccer
ball around on his own or watching movies with Kabir, often the same ones over
and over. He wandered listlessly around the wide, high-ceilinged hallways of
their massive home, through all the big empty rooms, or else he sat looking out
the window of his bedroom upstairs. He lived in a mansion, but in a shrunken
world. Some days he was so bored, he wanted to chew wood.
He knew that his mother too
was terribly lonely here. She tried to fill her days with routines, exercise in
the morning, shower, then breakfast, then reading, gardening, then Indian soaps
on TV in the afternoon. When Baba jan was away, which was often, she always
wore gray sweats and sneakers around the house, her face unmade, her hair
pinned in a bun at the back of her neck. She rarely even opened the jewelry box
where she kept all the rings and necklaces and earrings that Baba jan brought
her from Dubai. She spent hours sometimes talking to her family down in Kabul.
Only when her sister and parents visited for a few days, once every two or
three months, did Adel see his mother come alive. She wore a long print dress
and high-heeled shoes; she put on her makeup. Her eyes shone, and her laughter
could be heard around the house. And it was then that Adel would catch a
glimpse of the person that perhaps she had been before.
When Baba jan was away, Adel
and his mother tried to be each other’s reprieve. They pushed pieces of jigsaw
puzzles around and played golf and tennis on Adel’s Wii. But Adel’s favorite
pastime with his mother was building toothpick houses. His mother would draw a
3-D blueprint of the house on a sheet of paper, complete with front porch,
gabled roof, and with staircases inside and walls separating the different
rooms. They would build the foundation first, then the interior walls and
stairs, killing hours carefully applying glue to toothpicks, setting sections
to dry. Adel’s mother said that when she was younger, before she had married
Adel’s father, she had dreamed of becoming an architect.
It was while they were
building a skyscraper once that she had told Adel the story of how she and Baba
jan had married.
He was actually supposed to
marry my older sister, she said.
Yes. This was in Kabul. He
saw her on the street one day and that was it. He had to marry her. He showed
up at our house the next day, him and five of his men. They more or less
invited themselves in. They were all wearing boots. She shook her head and laughed like it was
a funny thing Baba jan had done, but she didn’t laugh the way she ordinarily
did when she found something funny. You should have
seen the expression on your grandparents.
They had sat in the living
room, Baba jan, his men, and her parents. She was in the kitchen making tea
while they talked. There was a problem, she said, because her sister Nargis was
already engaged, promised to a cousin who lived in Amsterdam and was studying
engineering. How were they supposed to break off the engagement? her parents
And then I come in, carrying
a platter of tea and sweets. I fill their cups and put the food on the table,
and your father sees me, and, as I turn to go, your father, he says, “Maybe
you’re right, sir. It’s not fair to break off an engagement. But if you tell me
this one is taken too, then I’m afraid I may have no choice but to think you
don’t care for me.” Then he laughs. And that was how we got married.
She lifted a tube of glue.
Did you like him?
She shrugged a little. Truth
be told, I was more frightened than anything else.
But you like him now, right?
You love him.
Of course I do, Adel’s mother said. What a question.
You don’t regret marrying him.
She put down the glue and
waited a few seconds before answering. Look at our lives,
Adel, she said slowly. Look around you. What’s to
regret? She smiled and pulled gently on the lobe of his ear. Besides, then I wouldn’t have had you.
Adel’s mother turned off the
TV now and sat on the floor, panting, drying sweat off her neck with a towel.
“Why don’t you do something
on your own this morning,” she said, stretching her back. “I’m going to shower
and eat. And I was thinking of calling your grandparents. Haven’t spoken to
them for a couple of days.”
Adel sighed and rose to his
In his room, on a lower floor
and in a different wing of the house, he fetched his soccer ball and put on the
Zidane jersey Baba jan had given him for his last birthday, his twelfth. When
he made his way downstairs, he found Kabir napping, a newspaper spread on his
chest like a quilt. He grabbed a can of apple juice from the fridge and let
Adel walked on the gravel
path toward the main entrance to the compound. The stall where the armed guard
stood watch was empty. Adel knew the timing of the guard’s rounds. He carefully
opened the gate and stepped out, closed the gate behind him. Almost
immediately, he had the impression that he could breathe better on this side of
the wall. Some days, the compound felt far too much like a prison.
He walked in the wide shadow
of the wall toward the back of the compound, away from the main road. Back
there, behind the compound, were Baba jan’s orchards, of which he was very
proud. Several acres of long parallel rows of pear trees and apple trees,
apricots, cherries, figs, and loquats too. When Adel took long walks with his
father in these orchards, Baba jan would lift him high up on his shoulders and
Adel would pluck them a ripe pair of apples. Between the compound and the
orchards was a clearing, mostly empty save for a shed where the gardeners
stored their tools. The only other thing there was the flat stump of what had
once been, by the looks of it, a giant old tree. Baba jan had once counted its
rings with Adel and concluded that the tree had likely seen Genghis Khan’s army
march past. He said, with a rueful shake of his head, that whoever had cut it
down had been nothing but a fool.
It was a hot day, the sun
glaring in a sky as unblemished blue as the skies in the crayon pictures Adel
used to draw when he was little. He put down the can of apple juice on the tree
stump and practiced juggling his ball. His personal best was sixty-eight
touches without the ball hitting the ground. He had set that record in the
spring, and now it was midsummer and he was still trying to best it. Adel had
reached twenty-eight when he became aware that someone was watching him. It was
the boy, the one with the old man who had tried to approach Baba jan at the
school’s opening ceremony. He was squatting now in the shade of the brick shed.
“What are you doing here?”
Adel said, trying to bark the words like Kabir did when he spoke to strangers.
“Getting some shade,” the boy
said. “Don’t report me.”
“You’re not supposed to be
“Neither are you.”
The boy chuckled. “Never
mind.” He stretched his arms wide and rose to his feet. Adel tried to see if
his pockets were full. Maybe he had come to steal fruit. The boy walked over to
Adel and flipped up the ball with one foot, gave it a pair of quick juggles,
and kicked it with his heel to Adel. Adel caught the ball and cradled it under
“Where your goon had us wait,
over by the road, me and my father? There’s no shade. And not a damn cloud in
Adel felt a need to rise to
Kabir’s defense. “He is not a goon.”
“Well, he made sure we got an
eyeful of his Kalashnikov, I can tell you that.” He looked at Adel, a lazy,
amused grin on his lips. He dropped a wad of spit at his feet. “So I see you’re
a fan of the head-butter.”
It took Adel a moment to
realize who he was referring to. “You can’t judge him by one mistake,” he said.
“He was the best. He was a wizard in the midfield.”
“I’ve seen better.”
“Yeah? Like who?”
“Maradona?” Adel said,
outraged. He’d had this debate before with one of his half brothers in
Jalalabad. “Maradona was a cheater! ‘Hand of God,’ remember?”
“Everyone cheats and everyone
The boy yawned and started to
go. He was about the same height as Adel, maybe a hair taller, and probably
just around his age too, Adel thought. But somehow he walked like he was older,
without hurry and with a kind of air, as if he had seen everything there was to
see and nothing surprised him.
“My name is Adel.”
“Gholam.” They shook hands.
Gholam’s grip was strong, his palm dry and callused.
“How old are you anyway?”
Gholam gave a shrug.
“Thirteen, I guess. Could be fourteen by now.”
“You don’t know your own
Gholam grinned. “I bet you
know yours. I bet you count down.”
“I do not,” Adel said
defensively. “I mean, I don’t count down.”
“I should go. My father’s
“I thought that was your
“You thought wrong.”
“Do you want to play a
shoot-out?” Adel asked.
“You mean like a penalty
“Five each … best of.”
Gholam spat again, squinted
toward the road and back at Adel. Adel noticed that his chin was a bit small for
his face and that he had overlapping extra canines in the front, one of them
chipped badly and rotting. His left eyebrow was split in half by a short,
narrow scar. Also, he smelled. But Adel hadn’t had a conversation—let alone
played a game—with a boy his age in nearly two years, discounting the monthly
visits to Jalalabad. Adel prepared himself for disappointment, but Gholam
shrugged and said, “Shit, why not? But I get first dibs on shooting.”
For goalposts, they used two
rocks placed eight steps apart. Gholam took his five shots. Scored one, off
target twice, and Adel easily saved two. Gholam’s goaltending was even worse
than his shooting. Adel managed to score four, tricking him into leaning in the
wrong direction each time, and the one shot he missed wasn’t even on goal.
“Fucker,” Gholam said, bent
in half, palms on his kneecaps.
“Rematch?” Adel tried not to
gloat, but it was hard. He was soaring inside.
Gholam agreed, and the result
was even more lopsided. He again managed one goal, and this time Adel converted
all five of his attempts.
“That’s it, I’m winded,”
Gholam said, throwing up his hands. He trudged over to the tree stump and sat
down with a tired groan. Adel cradled the ball and sat next to him.
“These probably aren’t
helping,” Gholam said, fishing a pack of cigarettes from the front pocket of
his jeans. He had one left. He lit it with a single strike of a match, inhaled
contentedly, and offered it to Adel. Adel was tempted to take it, if only to
impress Gholam, but he passed, worried Kabir or his mother would smell it on
“Wise,” Gholam said, leaning
his head back.
They talked idly about soccer
for a while, and, to Adel’s pleasant surprise, Gholam’s knowledge turned out to
be solid. They exchanged favorite match and favorite goal stories. They each
offered a top-five-players list; mostly it was the same except Gholam’s
included Ronaldo the Brazilian and Adel’s had Ronaldo the Portuguese.
Inevitably, they got around to the 2006 Finals and the painful memory, for
Adel, of the head-butting incident. Gholam said he watched the whole match
standing with a crowd outside the window of a TV shop not far from the camp.
“The one where I grew up. In
He told Adel that this was
his first time in Afghanistan. He had lived his whole life in Pakistan in the
Jalozai refugee camp where he’d been born. He said Jalozai had been like a
city, a huge maze of tents and mud huts and homes built from plastic and
aluminum siding in a labyrinth of narrow passageways littered with dirt and
shit. It was a city in the belly of a yet greater city. He and his brothers—he
was the eldest by three years—were raised in the camp. He had lived in a small
mud house there with his brothers, his mother, his father, whose name was
Iqbal, and his paternal grandmother, Parwana. In its alleyways, he and his
brothers had learned to walk and talk. They had gone to school there. He had
played with sticks and rusty old bicycle wheels on its dirt streets, running
around with other refugee kids, until the sun dipped and his grandmother called
“I liked it there,” he said.
“I had friends. I knew everybody. We were doing all right too. I have an uncle
in America, my father’s half brother, Uncle Abdullah. I’ve never met him. But
he was sending us money every few months. It helped. It helped a lot.”
“Why did you leave?”
“Had to. The Pakistanis shut
down the camp. They said Afghans belong in Afghanistan. And then my uncle’s
money stopped coming. So my father said we might as well go home and restart,
now that the Taliban had run to the Pakistani side of the border anyway. He
said we were guests in Pakistan who’d outstayed their welcome. I was really
depressed. This place”—he waved his hand—“this is a foreign country to me. And
the kids in the camp, the ones who’d actually been to Afghanistan? None of them
had a good thing to say about it.”
Adel wanted to say that he
knew how Gholam felt. He wanted to tell him how much he missed Kabul, and his
friends, and his half brothers over in Jalalabad. But he had a feeling Gholam
might laugh. Instead he said, “Well, it is pretty
boring around here.”
Gholam laughed anyway. “I
don’t think that’s quite what they meant,” he said.
Adel understood vaguely that
he’d been chastised.
Gholam took a drag and blew
out a run of rings. Together, they watched the rings gently float away and
“My father said to me and my
brothers, he said, ‘Wait … wait until you breathe the air in Shadbagh, boys,
and taste the water.’ He was born here, my father, raised here too. He said,
‘You’ve never had water this cool and this sweet, boys.’ He was always talking
to us about Shadbagh, which I guess was nothing but a small village back when
he lived here. He said there was a kind of grape that you could grow only in
Shadbagh and nowhere else in the world. You’d think he was describing
Adel asked him where he was
staying now. Gholam tossed the cigarette butt, looked up at the sky, squinting
at the brightness. “You know the open field over by the windmill?”
Adel waited for more, but
there was no more.
“You live in a field?”
“For the time being,” Gholam
mumbled. “We got a tent.”
“Don’t you have family here?”
“No. They’re either dead or
gone. Well, my father does have an uncle in Kabul. Or he did. Who knows if he’s
still alive. He was my grandmother’s brother, worked for a rich family there.
But I guess Nabi and my grandmother haven’t spoken in decades—fifty years or
more, I think. They’re strangers practically. I guess if he really had to, my
father would go to him. But he wants to make a go of it on his own here. This
is his home.”
They spent a few quiet
moments sitting on the tree stump, watching the leaves in the orchards shiver
in surges of warm wind. Adel thought of Gholam and his family sleeping nights
in a tent, scorpions and snakes crawling in the field all around them.
Adel didn’t quite know why he
ended up telling Gholam about the reason he and his parents moved here from
Kabul. Or, rather, he couldn’t choose among the reasons. He wasn’t sure if he
did it to dispel Gholam’s impression that he led a carefree existence simply
because he lived in a big house. Or as a kind of school-yard one-upmanship.
Maybe a plea for sympathy. Did he do it to narrow the gap between them? He
didn’t know. Maybe all of these things. Nor did Adel know why it seemed
important that Gholam like him, only that he dimly understood the reason to be
more complicated than the mere fact of his frequent loneliness and his desire
for a friend.
“We moved to Shadbagh because
someone tried to kill us in Kabul,” he said. “A motorcycle pulled up to the
house one day and its rider sprayed our house with bullets. He wasn’t caught.
But, thank God, none of us was hurt.”
He didn’t know what reaction
he had expected, but it did surprise him that Gholam had none. Still squinting
up at the sun, Gholam said, “Yeah, I know.”
“Your father picks his nose
and people hear about it.”
Adel watched him crush the
empty cigarette box into a ball and stuff it into the front pocket of his
have his enemies, your father,” Gholam sighed.
Adel knew this. Baba jan had
explained to him that some of the people who had fought alongside him against
the Soviets in the 1980s had become both powerful and corrupt. They had lost
their way, he said. And because he wouldn’t join in their criminal schemes,
they always tried to undermine him, to pollute his name by spreading false,
hurtful rumors about him. This was why Baba jan always tried to shield Adel—he
didn’t allow newspapers in the house, for instance, didn’t want Adel watching the
news on TV or surfing the Internet.
Gholam leaned in and said, “I
also hear he’s quite the farmer.”
Adel shrugged. “You can see
for yourself. Just a few acres of orchards. Well, and the cotton fields in
Helmand too, I guess, for the factory.”
Gholam searched Adel’s eyes
as a grin slowly spread across his face, exposing his rotting canine. “Cotton.
You’re a piece of work. I don’t know what to say.”
Adel didn’t really understand
this. He got up and bounced the ball. “You can say, ‘Rematch!’”
“Only, this time, I bet you
don’t score one goal.”
Now Adel was the one
grinning. “Name your bet.”
“That’s easy. The Zidane.”
“And if I win, no, when I win?”
“I were you,” Gholam said, “I
wouldn’t worry about that improbability.”
It was a brilliant hustle.
Gholam dove left and right, saved all of Adel’s shots. Taking off the jersey,
Adel felt stupid for getting cheated out of what was rightfully his, what was
probably his most prized possession. He handed it over. With some alarm, he
felt the sting of tears and fought them back.
At least Gholam had the tact
not to put it on in his presence. As he was leaving, he grinned over his
shoulder. “Your father, he’s not really gone for three months, is he?”
“I’ll play you for it
tomorrow,” Adel said. “The jersey.”
“I may have to think about
Gholam headed back toward the
main road. Halfway there, he paused, fished the rolled-up cigarette box from
his pocket, and hurled it over the wall of Adel’s house.
for about a week, after his morning lessons, Adel took his ball and left the
compound. He was able to time his escapades with the armed guard’s schedule of
rounds for the first couple of tries. But on the third try, the guard caught
him and wouldn’t let him leave. Adel went back to the house and returned with
an iPod and a watch. From then on, the guard surreptitiously let Adel in and
out provided he venture no farther than the edge of the orchards. As for Kabir
and his mother, they barely noticed his one- or two-hour absences. It was one of
the advantages of living in a house as big as this.
Adel played alone behind the
compound, over by the old tree stump in the clearing, each day hoping to see
Gholam sauntering up. He kept an eye on the unpaved path stretching to the main
road as he juggled, as he sat on the stump watching a fighter jet streak across
the sky, as he listlessly flicked pebbles at nothing. After a while, he picked
up his ball and plodded back to the compound.
Then one day Gholam showed
up, carrying a paper bag.
“Where have you been?”
“Working,” Gholam said.
He told Adel that he and his
father had been hired for a few days to make bricks. Gholam’s job was to mix
mortar. He said he lugged pails of water back and forth, dragged bags of
masonry cement and builder’s sand heavier than himself. He explained to Adel
how he mixed mortar in the wheelbarrow, folding the mixture in the water with a
hoe, folding it again and again, adding water, then sand, until the batch
gained a smooth consistency that didn’t crumble. He would then push the
wheelbarrow to the bricklayers and trot back to start a new batch. He opened
his palms and showed Adel his blisters.
“Wow,” Adel said—stupidly, he
knew, but he couldn’t think of another reply. The closest he had ever come to
manual labor was one afternoon three years ago when he’d helped the gardener
plant a few apple saplings in the backyard of their house in Kabul.
“Got you a surprise,” Gholam
said. He reached into the bag and tossed Adel the Zidane jersey.
“I don’t understand,” Adel
said, surprised and cautiously thrilled.
“I see some kid in town the
other day wearing it,” Gholam said, asking for the ball with his fingers. Adel
kicked it to him and Gholam juggled as he told the story. “Can you believe it?
I go up to him and say, ‘Hey that’s my buddy’s shirt on you.’ He gives me a
look. To make a long story short, we settle it in an alley. By the end, he’s
begging me to take the shirt!” He caught the ball
midair, spat, and grinned at Adel. “All right, so maybe I’d sold it to him a
couple of days earlier.”
“That’s not right. If you
sold it, it was his.”
“What, you don’t want it now?
After everything I went through to get it back for you? It wasn’t all
one-sided, you know. He landed a few decent punches.”
“Still …” Adel muttered.
“Besides, I tricked you in the
first place and I felt bad about it. Now you get your shirt back. And as for me
…” He pointed to his feet, and Adel saw a new pair of blue-and-white sneakers.
“Is he all right, the other
guy?” Adel asked.
“He’ll live. Now, are we
going to debate or are we going to play?”
“Is your father with you?”
“Not today. He’s at the
courthouse in Kabul. Come on, let’s go.”
They played for a while,
kicking the ball back and forth, chasing it around. They went for a walk later,
Adel breaking his promise to the guard and leading them into the orchards. They
ate loquats off the trees and drank cold Fanta from cans Adel covertly fetched
from the kitchen.
Soon, they began to meet this
way almost daily. They played ball, chased each other through the orchards’
parallel rows of trees. They chatted about sports and movies, and when they had
nothing to say they looked out on the town of Shadbagh-e-Nau, the soft
hillsides in the distance and the hazy chain of mountains farther yet, and that
was all right too.
Every day now Adel woke up
eager for the sight of Gholam sneaking up the dirt path, the sound of his loud,
confident voice. He was often distracted during his morning lessons, his
concentration lapsing as he thought of the games they would play later, the
stories they would tell each other. He worried he would lose Gholam. He worried
Gholam’s father, Iqbal, wouldn’t find steady work in town, or a place to live,
and Gholam would move to another town, another part of the country, and Adel
had tried to prepare for this possibility, steel himself against the farewell
that would then follow.
One day, as they sat on the
tree stump, Gholam said, “Have you ever been with a girl, Adel?”
“Yeah, I mean.”
Adel felt a rush of heat
around his ears. He briefly contemplated lying, but he knew Gholam would see
right through him. He mumbled, “You have?”
Gholam lit a cigarette and
offered one to Adel. This time Adel took it, after glancing over his shoulder
to make sure the guard wasn’t peeking around the corner or that Kabir hadn’t decided
to step out. He took a drag and launched immediately into a protracted coughing
fit that had Gholam smirking and pounding him on the back.
“So, have you or not?” Adel
wheezed, eyes tearing.
“Friend of mine back at the
camp,” Gholam said in a conspiratorial tone, “he was older, he took me to a
whorehouse in Peshawar.”
He told the story. The small,
filthy room. The orange curtains, the cracked walls, the single lightbulb
hanging from the ceiling, the rat he had seen dart across the floor. The sound
of rickshaws outside, sputtering up and down the street, cars rumbling. The
young girl on the mattress, finishing a plate of biryani,
chewing and looking at him without any expression. How he could tell, even in
the dim light, that she had a pretty face and that she was hardly any older
than he. How she had scooped up the last grains of rice with a folded piece of naan, pushed away the plate, lain down, and wiped her
fingers on her trousers as she’d pulled them down.
Adel listened, fascinated,
enraptured. He had never had a friend like this. Gholam knew more about the
world than even Adel’s half brothers who were several years older than him. And
Adel’s friends back in Kabul? They were all the sons of technocrats and
officials and ministers. They all lived variations of Adel’s own life. The
glimpses Gholam had allowed Adel into his life suggested an existence rife with
trouble, unpredictability, hardship, but also adventure, a life worlds removed
from Adel’s own, though it unfolded practically within spitting distance of
him. Listening to Gholam’s stories, Adel’s own life sometimes struck him as
“So did you do it, then?”
Adel said. “Did you, you know, stick it in her?”
“No. We had a cup of chai and discussed Rumi. What do you think?”
Adel blushed. “What was it
But Gholam had already moved
on. This was often the pattern of their conversations, Gholam choosing what
they would talk about, launching into a story with gusto, roping Adel in, only
to lose interest and leave both the story and Adel dangling.
Now, instead of finishing up
the story he had started, Gholam said, “My grandmother says her husband, my
grandfather Saboor, told her a story about this tree once. Well, that was long
before he cut it down, of course. My grandfather told it to her when they were
both kids. The story was that if you had a wish, you had to kneel before the
tree and whisper it. And if the tree agreed to grant it, it would shed exactly
ten leaves on your head.”
“I never heard that,” Adel
“Well, you wouldn’t have,
It was then that Adel caught
on to what Gholam had really said. “Wait. Your grandfather cut down our tree?”
Gholam turned his eyes to
him. “Your tree? It’s not your tree.”
Adel blinked. “What does that
Gholam bore his gaze even deeper
into Adel’s face. For the first time, Adel could detect no trace of his
friend’s customary liveliness or of his trademark smirk or lighthearted
mischief. His face was transformed, his expression sober, startlingly adult.
“This was my family’s tree. This
was my family’s land. It’s been ours for generations. Your father built his
mansion on our land. While we were in Pakistan during the war.” He pointed to
the orchards. “These? They used to be people’s homes. But your father had them
bulldozed to the ground. Just like he brought down the house where my father
was born, where he was raised.”
“He claimed our land as his
own and he built that”—here, he actually sneered as he threw a thumb toward the
compound—“that thing in its stead.”
Feeling a little nauseated,
his heart thumping heavily, Adel said, “I thought we were friends. Why are you
telling these terrible lies?”
“Remember when I tricked you
and took your jersey?” Gholam said, a flush rising to his cheeks. “You almost
cried. Don’t deny it, I saw you. That was over a shirt. A shirt.
Imagine how my family felt, coming all the way from Pakistan, only to get off
the bus and find this thing on our land. And then your
goon in the purple suit ordering us off our own land.”
“My father is not a thief!”
Adel shot back. “Ask anyone in Shadbagh-e-Nau, ask them what he’s done for this
town.” He thought of how Baba jan received people at the town mosque, reclined
on the floor, teacup before him, prayer beads in hand. A solemn line of people,
stretching from his cushion to the front entrance, men with muddy hands,
toothless old women, young widows with children, every one of them in need,
each waiting for his or her turn to ask for a favor, a job, a small loan to
repair a roof or an irrigation ditch or buy milk formula. His father nodding,
listening with infinite patience, as though each person in line mattered to him
“Yeah? Then how come my
father has the ownership documents?” Gholam said. “The ones he gave to the
judge at the courthouse.”
“I’m sure if your father
talks to Baba—”
“Your Baba won’t talk to him.
He won’t acknowledge what he’s done. He drives past like we’re stray dogs.”
“You’re not dogs,” Adel said.
It was a struggle to keep his voice even. “You’re buzzards. Just like Kabir
said. I should have known.”
Gholam stood up, took a step
or two, and paused. “Just so you know,” he said, “I hold nothing against you. You’re
just an ignorant little boy. But next time Baba goes to Helmand, ask him to
take you to that factory of his. See what he’s got growing out there. I’ll give
you a hint. It’s not cotton.”
that night, before dinner, Adel lay in a bath full of warm soapy water. He
could hear the TV downstairs, Kabir watching an old pirate movie. The anger,
which had lingered all afternoon, had washed through Adel, and now he thought
that he’d been too rough with Gholam. Baba jan had told him once that no matter
how much you did, sometimes the poor spoke ill of the rich. They mainly did it
out of disappointment with their own lives. It couldn’t be helped. It was
natural, even. And we mustn’t blame them, Adel, he
Adel was not too naïve to
know that the world was a fundamentally unfair place; he only had to gaze out
the window of his bedroom. But he imagined that for people like Gholam, the
acknowledgment of this truth brought no satisfaction. Maybe people like Gholam
needed someone to stand culpable, a flesh-and-bones target, someone they could
conveniently point to as the agent of their hardship, someone to condemn,
blame, be angry with. And perhaps Baba jan was right when he said the proper
response was to understand, to withhold judgment. To answer with kindness,
even. Watching little soapy bubbles come up to the surface and pop, Adel
thought of his father building schools and clinics when he knew there were
people in town who spread wicked gossip about him.
As he was drying himself off,
his mother poked her head through the bathroom door. “You’re coming down for
“I’m not hungry,” he said.
“Oh.” She came inside and
grabbed a towel off the rack. “Here. Sit. Let me dry your hair.”
“I can do it myself,” Adel
She stood behind him, her
eyes studying him in the mirror. “Are you all right, Adel?”
He shrugged. She rested a
hand on his shoulder and looked at him as if expecting him to rub his cheek
against it. He didn’t.
“Mother, have you ever seen
Baba jan’s factory?”
He noticed the pause in his
mother’s movements. “Of course,” she said. “So have you.”
“I don’t mean pictures. Have
you actually seen it? Been to it?”
“How could I?” his mother
said, tilting her head in the mirror. “Helmand is unsafe. Your father would
never put me or you in harm’s way.”
Downstairs, cannons blasted
and pirates hollered their war cries.
Three days later, Gholam
showed up again. He walked briskly up to Adel and stopped.
“I’m glad you came,” Adel
said, “I have something for you.” From the top of the tree stump he fetched the
coat he had been bringing with him daily since their spat. It was chocolate
brown leather, with a soft sheepskin lining and a hood that could be zippered
on and off. He extended it to Gholam. “I’ve only worn it a few times. It’s a
little big for me. It should fit you.”
Gholam didn’t make a move.
“We took a bus to Kabul and went to the courthouse yesterday,” he said flatly.
“Guess what the judge told us? He said he had bad news. He said there was an
accident. A small fire. My father’s ownership documents burned in it. Gone.
Adel slowly dropped the hand
holding the jacket.
“And as he’s telling us that
there’s nothing he can do now without the papers, do you know what he has on
his wrist? A brand-new gold watch he wasn’t wearing the last time my father saw
Gholam flicked his gaze to
the coat. It was a cutting, punishing look, meant to inflict shame. It worked.
Adel shrunk. In his hand, he felt the coat shifting, transforming from peace
offering to bribe.
Gholam spun around and
hurried back toward the road in brisk, busy steps.
evening of the same day that he returned, Baba jan threw a party at the house.
Adel was sitting now beside his father at the head of the big cloth that had
been spread on the floor for the meal. Baba jan sometimes preferred to sit on
the ground and to eat with his fingers, especially if he was seeing friends
from his jihadi years. Reminds me of the cave days, he
joked. The women were eating at the table in the dining room with spoons and
forks, Adel’s mother seated at the head. Adel could hear their chatter echoing
off the marble walls. One of them, a thick-hipped woman with long hair dyed
red, was engaged to be married to one of Baba jan’s friends. Earlier in the
evening, she had shown Adel’s mother pictures on her digital camera of the
bridal shop they had visited in Dubai.
Over tea after the meal, Baba
jan told a story about the time his unit had ambushed a Soviet column to stop
it from entering a valley up north. Everyone listened closely.
“When they entered the kill
zone,” Baba jan said, one hand absently stroking Adel’s hair, “we opened fire.
We hit the lead vehicle, then a few jeeps. I thought they would back out or try
to plow through. But the sons of whores stopped, dismounted, and engaged us in
gunfire. Can you believe it?”
A murmur spread around the
room. Heads shook. Adel knew that at least half the men in the room were former
“We outnumbered them, maybe
three to one, but they had heavy weaponry and it wasn’t long before they were attacking us! Attacking
our positions in the orchards. Soon, everybody was scattered. We ran for it. Me
and this guy, Mohammad something or other, we ran together. We’re running side
by side in a field of grapevines, not the kind on posts and wires but the kind
that people let grow out on the ground. Bullets are flying everywhere and we’re
running for our lives, and suddenly we both trip and go down. In a second flat,
I’m back up on my feet running, but there’s no sign of this Mohammad something or
other. I turn and yell, ‘Get the hell up, you donkey’s ass!’ ”
Baba jan paused for dramatic
effect. He pushed a fist to his lips to fight laughter. “And then he pops up
and starts running. And—would you believe it?—the crazy son of a whore is
carrying two armfuls of grapes! One mound in each arm!”
Laughter erupted. Adel
laughed too. His father rubbed his back and pulled him close. Someone started
to tell another story, and Baba jan reached for the cigarette sitting next to
his plate. But he never got the chance to light it because suddenly glass
shattered somewhere in the house.
From the dining room, women
screamed. Something metallic, maybe a fork or a butter knife, clanged loudly on
the marble. The men bolted to their feet. Azmaray and Kabir came running into
the room, handguns already drawn.
“It came from the entrance,”
Kabir said. And, just as he said this, glass broke again.
“Wait here, Commander Sahib,
we’ll have a look,” Azmaray said.
“Like hell I will,” Baba jan
growled, already pushing forward. “I’m not cowering under my own roof.”
He headed toward the foyer,
trailed by Adel, Azmaray, Kabir, and all the male guests. On their way, Adel
saw Kabir pick up a metal rod they used in the winter to stoke the fire in the
stove. Adel saw his mother too as she ran to join them, her face pale and
drawn. When they reached the foyer, a rock came flying through the window and
shards of glass crashed to the floor. The woman with red hair, the bride-to-be,
screamed. Outside, someone was yelling.
“How the hell did they get
past the guard?” someone said behind Adel.
“Commander Sahib, no!” Kabir
barked. But Adel’s father had already opened the front door.
The light was dimming, but it
was summer, and the sky was still awash in pale yellow. In the distance, Adel
saw little clusters of light, people in Shadbagh-e-Nau settling in for dinner
with their families. The hills running along the horizon had darkened and soon
night would fill in all the hollows. But it wasn’t dark enough, not yet, to
shroud the old man Adel saw standing at the foot of the front steps, a rock in
“Take him upstairs,” Baba jan
said over his shoulder to Adel’s mother. “Now!”
Adel’s mother led him up the
staircase by the shoulders, down the hallway, and into the master bedroom she
shared with Baba jan. She closed the door, locked it, pulled the curtains shut,
and turned on the TV. She guided Adel to the bed and together they sat. On the
screen, two Arabs, dressed in long kurta shirts and knit caps, were working on
a monster truck.
“What is he going to do to
that old man?” Adel said. He couldn’t stop from shivering. “Mother, what is he
going to do to him?”
He looked up at his mother,
and saw a cloud pass over her face and he suddenly knew, he knew right away,
that whatever came out of her mouth next could not be trusted.
“He’s going to talk to him,”
she said with a tremor. “He’s going to reason with whoever is out there. It’s
what your father does. He reasons with people.”
Adel shook his head. He was
weeping now, sobbing. “What is he going to do, Mother? What is he going to do
to that old man?”
His mother kept saying the
same thing, that everything was going to be all right, that it would all turn
out just fine, that no one was going to get hurt. But the more she said it, the
more he sobbed, until it exhausted him and at some point he fell asleep on his
Escapes Assassination Attempt.
Adel read the story in his
father’s study, on his father’s computer. The story described the attack as
“vicious” and the assailant as a former refugee with “suspected ties to the
Taliban.” Midway through the article, Adel’s father was quoted as saying that
he had feared for the safety of his family. Especially my
innocent little boy, he’d said. The article gave no name to the
assailant nor any indication of what had happened to him.
Adel shut off the computer.
He wasn’t supposed to be using it and he had trespassed, coming into his
father’s study. A month ago, he wouldn’t have dared do either. He trudged back
to his room, lay on his bed, and bounced an old tennis ball against the wall. Thump! Thump! Thump! It wasn’t long before his mother poked
her head in through the door and asked, then told him, to stop, but he didn’t.
She lingered at the door for a while before slinking away.
Thump! Thump! Thump!
On the surface, nothing had
changed. A transcript of Adel’s daily activities would have revealed him
falling back into a normal rhythm. He still got up at the same hour, washed,
had breakfast with his parents, lessons with his tutor. Afterward, he ate lunch
and then spent the afternoon lying around, watching movies with Kabir or else
playing video games.
But nothing was the same.
Gholam may have cracked a door open to him, but it was Baba jan who had pushed
him through it. Dormant gears in Adel’s mind had begun to turn. Adel felt as
though, overnight, he had acquired an altogether new auxiliary sense, one that
empowered him to perceive things he never had before, things that had stared
him in the face for years. He saw, for instance, how his mother had secrets
inside of her. When he looked at her, they practically rippled over her face.
He saw her struggles to keep from him all the things she knew, all the things
she kept locked up, closed off, carefully guarded, like the two of them in this
big house. He saw for the first time his father’s house for the monstrosity,
the affront, the monument to injustice, that it privately was to everyone else.
He saw in people’s rush to please his father the intimidation, the fear, that
was the real underpinning of their respect and deference. He thought Gholam
would be proud of him for this insight. For the first time, Adel felt truly
aware of the broader movements that had always governed his life.
And of the wildly conflicting
truths that resided within a person. Not just in his father, or his mother, or
But within himself too.
This last discovery was, in
some ways, the most surprising to Adel. The revelations of what he now knew his
father had done—first in the name of jihad, then for what he had called the just rewards of sacrifice—had left Adel reeling. At
least for a while. For days after that evening the rocks had come crashing
through the window, Adel’s stomach ached whenever his father walked into the
room. He found his father barking into his mobile phone, or even heard him
humming in the bath, and he felt his spine crumpling, his throat going
painfully dry. His father kissed him good night, and Adel’s instinct was to
recoil. He had nightmares. He dreamt he was standing at the edge of the
orchards, watching a thrashing about among the trees, the glint of a metal rod
rising and falling, the sound of metal striking meat and bone. He woke from
these dreams with a howl locked in his chest. Bouts of weeping side-swiped him
at random moments.
Something else was happening
as well. The new awareness had not faded from his mind, but slowly it had found
company. Another, opposing current of consciousness coursed through him now,
one that did not displace the first but claimed space beside it. Adel felt an
awakening to this other, more troubling part of himself. The part of him that
over time would gradually, almost imperceptibly, accept this new identity that
at present prickled like a wet wool sweater. Adel saw that, in the end, he
would probably accept things as his mother had. Adel had been angry with her at
first; he was more forgiving now. Perhaps she had accepted out of fear of her
husband. Or as a bargain for the life of luxury she led. Mostly, Adel
suspected, she had accepted for the same reason he would: because she had to.
What choice was there? Adel could not run from his life any more than Gholam
could from his. People learned to live with the most unimaginable things. As
would he. This was his life. This was his mother. This was his father. And this
was him, even if he hadn’t always known it.
Adel knew he would not love
his father again as he had before, when he would sleep happily curled in the
bay of his thick arms. That was inconceivable now. But he would learn to love
him again even if now it was a different, more complicated, messier business.
Adel could almost feel himself leapfrogging over childhood. Soon, he would land
as an adult. And when he did, there would be no going back because adulthood
was akin to what his father had once said about being a war hero: once you
became one, you died one.
Lying in bed at night, Adel
thought that one day—maybe the next day or the one after that, or maybe one day
the following week—he would leave the house and walk over to the field by the
windmill where Gholam had told him his family was squatting. He thought he
would find the field empty. He would stand on the side of the road, picture
Gholam and his mother and his brothers and his grandmother, the family a
straggling line lugging roped-up belongings, padding along the dusty shoulders
of country roads, looking for some place to land. Gholam was the head of the
family now. He would have to work. He would now spend his youth clearing
canals, digging ditches, making bricks, and harvesting fields. Gholam would
gradually turn into one of those stooping leather-faced men Adel always saw
Adel thought he would stand
there a while in the field, watching the hills and the mountains looming over
New Shadbagh. And then he thought he would reach into his pocket for what he
had found one day walking through the orchards, the left half of a pair of
spectacles, snapped at the bridge, the lens a spiderweb of cracks, the temple
crusted with dried blood. He would toss the broken spectacles into a ditch.
Adel suspected that as he turned back around and walked home, what he would
feel mostly would be relief.
This evening, I come home from
the clinic and find a message from Thalia on the landline phone in my bedroom.
I play it as I slip off my shoes and sit at my desk. She tells me she has a
cold, one she is sure she picked up from Mamá, then she asks after me, asks how
work is going in Kabul. At the end, just before she hangs up, she says, Odie goes on and on about how you don’t call. Of course she won’t
tell you. So I will. Markos. For the love of Christ. Call your mother. You ass.
I keep a picture of her on my
desk, the one I took all those years ago at the beach on Tinos—Thalia sitting
on a rock with her back to the camera. I have framed the photo, though if you
look closely you can still see a patch of dark brown at the left lower corner
courtesy of a crazed Italian girl who tried to set fire to it many years ago.
I turn on my laptop and start
typing up the previous day’s op notes. My room is upstairs—one of three
bedrooms on the second floor of this house where I have lived since my arrival
in Kabul back in 2002—and my desk sits at the window overlooking the garden
below. I have a view of the loquat trees my old landlord, Nabi, and I planted a
few years ago. I can see Nabi’s onetime quarters along the back wall too, now
repainted. After he passed away, I offered them to a young Dutch fellow who
helps local high schools with their IT. And, off to the right, there is
Suleiman Wahdati’s 1940s Chevrolet, unmoved for decades, shrouded in rust like
a rock by moss, currently covered by a light film of yesterday’s surprisingly
early snowfall, the first of the year thus far. After Nabi died, I thought briefly
of having the car hauled to one of Kabul’s junkyards, but I didn’t have the
heart. It seemed to me too essential a part of the house’s past, its history.
I finish the notes and check
my watch. It’s already 9:30 P.M. Seven o’clock in the evening back in Greece.
Call your mother. You ass.
If I am going to call Mamá
tonight, I can’t delay it any longer. I remember Thalia wrote in one of her
e-mails that Mamá was going to bed earlier and earlier. I take a breath and
steel myself. I pick up the receiver and dial.
Thalia in the summer of 1967, when I was twelve years old. She and her mother,
Madaline, came to Tinos to visit Mamá and me. Mamá, whose name is Odelia, said
it had been years—fifteen, to be exact—since she and her friend Madaline had
last seen each other. Madaline had left the island at seventeen and gone off to
Athens to become, for a brief time at least, an actress of some modest renown.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Mamá
said, “when I heard of her acting. Because of her looks. Everyone was always
taken with Madaline. You’ll see for yourself when you meet her.”
I asked Mamá why she’d never
“Haven’t I? Are you sure?”
“I could have sworn.” Then
she said, “The daughter. Thalia. You must be considerate with her because she
had an accident. A dog bit her. She has a scar.”
Mamá wouldn’t say more, and I
knew better than to lean on her about it. But this revelation intrigued me far
more than Madaline’s past in film and stage had, my curiosity fueled by the
suspicion that the scar must be both significant and visible for the girl to
deserve special consideration. With morbid eagerness, I looked forward to
seeing this scar for myself.
“Madaline and I met at mass,
when we were little,” Mamá said. Right off, she said, they had become
inseparable friends. They had held hands under their desks in class, or at
recess, at church, or strolling past the barley fields. They had sworn to
remain sisters for life. They promised they would live close to each other,
even after they’d married. They would live as neighbors, and if one or the
other’s husband insisted on moving away, then they would demand a divorce. I
remember that Mamá grinned a little when she told me all this self-mockingly,
as if to distance herself from this youthful exuberance and foolishness, all
those headlong, breathless vows. But I saw on her face a tinge of unspoken hurt
as well, a shade of disappointment that Mamá was far too proud to admit to.
Madaline was married now to a
wealthy and much older man, a Mr. Andreas Gianakos, who years before had
produced her second and, as it turned out, last film. He was in the
construction business now and owned a big firm in Athens. They had had a
falling-out recently, a row, Madaline and Mr. Gianakos. Mamá didn’t tell me any
of this information; I knew it from a clandestine, hasty, partial read of the
letter Madaline had sent Mamá informing her of her intent to visit.
It grows so tiresome, I tell
you, to be around Andreas and his right-wing friends and their martial music. I
keep tight-lipped all the time. I say nothing when they exalt these military
thugs who have made a mockery of our democracy. Should I utter so much as a
word of dissent, I am confident they would label me a communist anarchist, and
then even Andreas’s influence would not save me from the dungeons. Perhaps he
would not bother exerting it, meaning his influence. Sometimes I believe it is
precisely his intent to provoke me into impugning myself. Ah, how I miss you,
my dear Odie. How I miss your company …
The day our guests were due
to arrive, Mamá awoke early to tidy up. We lived in a small house built into a
hillside. Like many houses on Tinos, it was made of whitewashed stone, and the
roof was flat, with diamond-shaped red tiles. The small upstairs bedroom Mamá
and I shared didn’t have a door—the narrow stairwell led right into it—but it
did have a fanlight window and a narrow terrace with a waist-high wrought-iron
balustrade from which you could look out on the roofs of other houses, on the
olive trees and the goats and winding stone alleys and arches below, and, of
course, the Aegean, blue and calm in the summer morning, white-capped in the
afternoon when the meltemi winds blew in from the
When she was done cleaning
up, Mamá put on what passed for her one fancy outfit, the one she wore every
August fifteenth, the Feast of the Dormition at the Panagia Evangelistria
Church, when pilgrims descended on Tinos from everywhere in the Mediterranean
to pray before the church’s famed icon. There is a photo of my mother in that
outfit—the long, drab rusty gold dress with a rounded neckline, the shrunken
white sweater, the stockings, the clunky black shoes. Mamá looking every bit
the forbidding widow, with her severe face, her tufted eyebrows, and her snub
nose, standing stiffly, looking sullenly pious, like she’s a pilgrim herself.
I’m in the picture too, standing rigidly at my mother’s hip. I am wearing a
white shirt, white shorts, and white kneesocks rolled up. You can tell by my
scowl that I’ve been ordered to stand straight, to not smile, that my face has
been scrubbed and my hair combed down with water, against my will and with a
great deal of fuss. You can sense a current of dissatisfaction between us. You
see it in how rigidly we stand, how our bodies barely make contact.
Or maybe you can’t. But I do
every time I see that picture, the last time being two years ago. I can’t help
but see the wariness, the effort, the impatience. I can’t help but see two
people together out of a sense of genetic duty, doomed already to bewilder and
disappoint each other, each honor-bound to defy the other.
From the bedroom window
upstairs, I watched Mamá leave for the ferry port in the town of Tinos. A scarf
tied under the chin, Mamá rammed into the sunny blue day headfirst. She was a
slight, small-boned woman with the body of a child, but when you saw her coming
you did well to let her pass. I remember her walking me to school every
morning—my mother is retired now, but she was a schoolteacher. As we walked,
Mamá never held my hand. The other mothers did with their own kids, but not
Mamá. She said she had to treat me like any other student. She marched ahead, a
fist closed at the neck of her sweater, and I tried to keep up, lunch box in
hand, tottering along behind in her footsteps. In the classroom, I always sat
at the back. I remember my mother at the blackboard and how she could nail a
misbehaving pupil with a single, scalding glance, like a rock from a slingshot,
the aim surgically true. And she could cleave you in half with nothing but a dark
look or a sudden beat of silence.
Mamá believed in loyalty
above all, even at the cost of self-denial. Especially at the cost of
self-denial. She also believed it was always best to tell the truth, to tell it
plainly, without fanfare, and the more disagreeable the truth, the sooner you
had to tell it. She had no patience for soft spines. She was—is—a
woman of enormous will, a woman without apology, and not a woman with whom you
want to have a dispute—though I have never really understood, even now, whether
her temperament was God-given or one she adopted out of necessity, what with
her husband dying barely a year into their marriage and leaving her to raise me
all on her own.
I fell asleep upstairs a
short while after Mamá left. I jolted awake later to a woman’s high, ringing
voice. I sat up and there she was, all lipstick, powder, perfume, and slender
curves, an airline ad smiling down at me through the thin veil of a pillbox
hat. She stood in the middle of the room in a neon green minidress, leather valise
at her feet, with her auburn hair and long limbs, grinning down at me, a shine
on her face, and talking, the seams of her voice bursting with aplomb and
“So you’re Odie’s little
Markos! She didn’t tell me you were this handsome! Oh, and I see her in you,
around the eyes—yes, you have the same eyes, I think, I’m sure you’ve been
told. I’ve been so eager to meet you. Your mother and I—we—oh, no doubt Odie
has told you, so you can imagine, you can picture, what a thrill this is for
me, to see the two of you, to meet you, Markos. Markos Varvaris! Well, I am
Madaline Gianakos, and, may I say, I am delighted.”
She took off a cream-colored,
elbow-length satin glove, the kind I’d seen worn only in magazines by elegant
ladies out at a soiree, smoking on the wide steps of the opera house or being
helped out of a shiny black car, their faces lit up by popping flashbulbs. She
had to yank on each fingertip a bunch of times before the glove came off, and
then she stooped slightly at the waist and offered me her hand.
“Charmed,” she said. Her hand
was soft and cool, despite the glove. “And this is my daughter, Thalia.
Darling, say hello to Markos Varvaris.”
She stood at the entrance of
the room beside my mother, looking at me blankly, a lanky, pale-skinned girl
with limp curls. Other than that, I can’t tell you a single thing. I can’t tell
you the color of the dress she wore that day—that is, if she wore a dress—or
the style of her shoes, or whether she had socks on, or whether she wore a
watch, or a necklace, or a ring, or a pair of earrings. I can’t tell you
because if you were at a restaurant and someone suddenly stripped, hopped atop
a table, and started juggling dessert spoons, you would not only look, it would
be the only thing you could look at. The mask draped
over the lower half of the girl’s face was like that. It obliterated the
possibility of any other observation.
“Thalia, say hello, darling.
Don’t be rude.”
I thought I saw a faint nod
of the head.
“Hello,” I replied with a
sandpaper tongue. There was a ripple in the air. A current. I felt charged with
something that was half thrill, half dread, something that burst upward inside
of me and coiled itself up. I was staring and I knew it and I couldn’t stop,
couldn’t peel my gaze away from the sky blue cloth of the mask, the two sets of
bands tying it to the back of her head, the narrow horizontal slit over the
mouth. I knew right then that I couldn’t bear to see it, whatever the mask was
hiding. And that I couldn’t wait to see it. Nothing in my life could resume its
natural course and rhythm and order until I saw for myself what was so
terrible, so dreadful, that I and others had to be protected from it.
The alternate possibility,
that the mask was perhaps designed to shield Thalia from us, eluded me. At
least it did in the dizzying throes of that first meeting.
Madaline and Thalia stayed
upstairs to unpack while Mamá battered up cuts of sole for supper in the
kitchen. She asked me to make Madaline a cup of ellinikós
kafés, which I did, and she asked me to take it up to her, which I did
as well, on a tray, with a little plate of pastelli.
All these decades later and
shame still washes over me like some warm, sticky liquid at the memory of what
happened next. To this day I can picture the scene like a photograph, frozen.
Madaline smoking, standing at the bedroom window, looking at the sea through a
set of teashade glasses with yellow lenses, one hand on her hip, ankles
crossed. Her pillbox hat sits on the dresser. Above the dresser is a mirror and
in the mirror is Thalia, sitting on the edge of the bed, her back to me. She is
stooped down, doing something, maybe undoing her shoelaces, and I can see that
she has removed her mask. It’s sitting next to her on the bed. A thread of cold
marches down my spine and I try to stop it, but my hands tremble, which makes
the porcelain cup clink on the saucer, which makes Madaline turn her head from
the window to me, which makes Thalia look up. I catch her reflection in the
The tray slipped from my
hands. Porcelain shattered. Hot liquid spilled and the tray went clanking down
the steps. It was sudden mayhem, me on all fours, retching all over shards of
broken porcelain, Madaline saying, “Oh dear. Oh dear,” and Mamá running
upstairs, yelling, “What happened? What did you do, Markos?”
A dog bit
her, Mamá had told me by way of a warning. She has a scar. The dog hadn’t bitten Thalia’s face; it had eaten it. And perhaps there were words to describe what I
saw in the mirror that day, but scar wasn’t one of
I remember Mamá’s hands
grabbing my shoulders, her pulling me up and whirling me around, saying, “What
is with you? What is wrong with you?” And I remember her gaze lifting over my
head. It froze there. The words died in her mouth. She went blank in the face.
Her hands dropped from my shoulders. And then I witnessed the most
extraordinary thing, something I thought I’d no sooner see than King
Constantine himself turning up at our door dressed in a clown suit: a single
tear, swelling at the edge of my mother’s right eye.
was she like?” Mamá asks.
“Who? The French woman. Your
landlord’s niece, the professor from Paris.”
I switch the receiver to my
other ear. It surprises me that she remembers. All my life, I have had the
feeling that the words I say to Mamá vanish unheard in space, as if there is
static between us, a bad connection. Sometimes when I call her from Kabul, as I
have now, I feel as though she has quietly lowered the receiver and stepped
away, that I am speaking into a void across the continents—though I can feel my
mother’s presence on the line and hear her breathing in my ear. Other times, I
am telling her about something I saw at the clinic—some bloodied boy carried by
his father, for instance, shrapnel embedded deep in his cheeks, ear torn clean
off, another victim of playing on the wrong street at the wrong time of the
wrong day—and then, without warning, a loud clunk, and Mamá’s voice suddenly
distant and muffled, rising and falling, the echo of footsteps, of something
being dragged across the floor, and I clam up, wait until she comes back on,
which she does eventually, always a bit out of breath, explaining, I told her I was fine standing up. I said
it clearly. I said, “Thalia, I would like to stand at the window and look down
on the water as I’m talking to Markos.” But she says, “You’ll tire yourself
out, Odie, you need to sit.” Next thing I know, she’s dragging the
armchair—this big leather thing she bought me last year—she’s dragging it to
the window. My God, she’s strong. You haven’t seen the armchair, of course.
Well, of course. She then sighs with mock exasperation and asks that I
go on with my story, but by then I am too unbalanced to. The net effect is that
she has made me feel vaguely reprimanded and, what’s more, deserving of it,
guilty of wrongs unspoken, offenses I’ve never been formally charged with. Even
if I do go on with my story, it sounds diminished to my own ears. It does not
measure up to Mamá’s armchair drama with Thalia.
“What was her name again?”
Mamá says now. “Pari something, no?”
I have told Mamá about Nabi,
who was a dear friend to me. She knows the general outline of his life only.
She knows that in his will he left the Kabul house to his niece, Pari, who was
raised in France. But I have not told Mamá about Nila Wahdati, her escape to
Paris after her husband’s stroke, the decades Nabi spent caring for Suleiman. That history. Too many boomeranging parallels. Like reading
aloud your own indictment.
“Pari. Yes. She was nice,” I
say. “And warm. Especially for an academic.”
“What is she again, a
“Mathematician,” I say, closing the lid of the laptop. It has started snowing again,
lightly, tiny flakes twisting in the dark, flinging themselves at my window.
I tell Mamá about Pari
Wahdati’s visit late this past summer. She really was quite lovely. Gentle,
slim, gray hair, long neck with a full blue vein crawling up each side, warm gap-toothed
smile. She seemed a bit brittle, older than her age. Bad rheumatoid arthritis.
The knobby hands, especially, still functional, but the day is coming and she
knew it. It made me think of Mamá and the coming of her
Pari Wahdati stayed a week with
me at the house in Kabul. I gave her a tour of it when she arrived from Paris.
She had last seen the house back in 1955 and seemed quite surprised at the
vividness of her own memory of the place, its general layout, the two steps
between the living room and dining room, for instance, where she said she would
sit in a band of sunlight midmornings and read her books. She was struck by how
much smaller the house really was compared to the version of it in her memory.
When I took her upstairs, she knew which had been her bedroom, though it’s
currently taken up by a German colleague of mine who works for the World Food
Program. I remember her breath catching when she spotted the short little
armoire in the corner of the bedroom—one of the few surviving relics of her
childhood. I remembered it from the note that Nabi had left me prior to his
death. She squatted next to it and ran her fingertips over the chipped yellow
paint and over the fading giraffes and long-tailed monkeys on its doors. When
she looked up at me, I saw that her eyes had teared a little, and she asked,
very shyly and apologetically, if it would be possible to have it shipped to
Paris. She offered to pay for a replacement. It was the only thing she wanted
from the house. I told her it would be my pleasure to do it.
In the end, other than the
armoire, which I had shipped a few days after her departure, Pari Wahdati
returned to France with nothing but Suleiman Wahdati’s sketch pads, Nabi’s
letter, and a few of her mother Nila’s poems, which Nabi had saved. The only
other thing she asked of me during her stay was to arrange a ride to take her
to Shadbagh so she could see the village where she had been born and where she
hoped to find her half brother, Iqbal.
“I assume she’ll sell the
house,” Mamá says, “now that it’s hers.”
“She said I could stay on as
long as I liked, actually,” I say. “Rent-free.”
I can all but see Mamá’s lips
tighten skeptically. She’s an islander. She suspects the motives of all
mainlanders, looks askance at their apparent acts of goodwill. This was one of
the reasons I knew, when I was a boy, that I would leave Tinos one day when I
had the chance. A kind of despair used to get hold of me whenever I heard
people talking this way.
“How is the dovecote coming
along?” I ask to change the subject.
“I had to give it a rest. It
tired me out.”
Mamá was diagnosed in Athens
six months ago by a neurologist I had insisted she see after Thalia told me
Mamá was twitching and dropping things all the time. It was Thalia who took
her. Since the trip to the neurologist, Mamá has been on a tear. I know this
through the e-mails Thalia sends me. Repainting the house, fixing water leaks,
coaxing Thalia into helping her build a whole new closet upstairs, even
replacing cracked shingles on the roof, though thankfully Thalia put an end to
that. Now the dovecote. I picture Mamá with her sleeves rolled high, hammer in
hand, sweat staining her back, pounding nails and sanding planks of wood.
Racing against her own failing neurons. Wringing every last drop of use from
them while there is still time.
“When are you coming home?”
“Soon,” I say. Soon was what I said the year before too when she asked the
same question. It has been two years since my last visit to Tinos.
A brief pause. “Don’t wait
too long. I want to see you before they strap me in the iron lung.” She laughs.
This is an old habit, this joke making and clowning in the face of bad luck,
this disdain of hers for the slightest show of self-pity. It has the
paradoxical—and I know calculated—effect of both shrinking and augmenting the
“Come for Christmas if you
can,” she says. “Before the fourth of January, at any rate. Thalia says there
is going to be a solar eclipse over Greece that day. She read it on the
Internet. We could watch it together.”
“I’ll try, Mamá,” I say.
like waking up one morning and finding that a wild animal has wandered into
your house. No place felt safe to me. She was there at every corner and turn,
prowling, stalking, forever dabbing at her cheek with a handkerchief to dry the
dribble that constantly flowed from her mouth. The small dimensions of our
house rendered escape from her impossible. I especially dreaded mealtime when I
had to endure the spectacle of Thalia lifting the bottom of the mask to deliver
spoonfuls of food to her mouth. My stomach turned at the sight and at the
sound. She ate noisily, bits of half-chewed food always falling with a wet
splat onto her plate, or the table, or even the floor. She was forced to take
all liquids, even soup, through a straw, of which her mother kept a stash in
her purse. She slurped and gurgled when she sucked broth up the straw, and it
always stained the mask and dripped down the side of her jaw onto her neck. The
first time, I asked to be excused from the table, and Mamá shot me a hard look.
And so I trained myself to avert my gaze and not hear, but it wasn’t easy. I
would walk into the kitchen and there she would be, sitting still while
Madaline rubbed ointment onto her cheek to prevent chafing. I began keeping a
calendar, a mental countdown, of the four weeks Mamá had said Madaline and
Thalia were staying.
I wished Madaline had come by
herself. I liked Madaline just fine. We sat, the four of us, in the small
square-shaped courtyard outside our front door, and she sipped coffee and
smoked cigarettes one after the other, the angles of her face shaded by our
olive tree and a gold straw cloche that should have looked absurd on her, would have on anyone else—like Mamá, for instance. But
Madaline was one of those people to whom elegance came effortlessly as though
it were a genetic skill, like the ability to curl your tongue into the shape of
a tube. With Madaline, there was never a lull in the conversation; stories just
trilled out of her. One morning she told us about her travels—to Ankara, for
instance, where she had strolled the banks of the Enguri Su and sipped green
tea laced with raki, or the time she and Mr. Gianakos
had gone to Kenya and ridden the backs of elephants among thorny acacias and
even sat down to eat cornmeal mush and coconut rice with the local villagers.
Madaline’s stories stirred up
an old restlessness in me, an urge I’d always had to strike out headlong into
the world, to be dauntless. By comparison, my own life on Tinos seemed
crushingly ordinary. I foresaw my life unfolding as an interminable stretch of
nothingness and so I spent most of my childhood years on Tinos floundering,
feeling like a stand-in for myself, a proxy, as though my real self resided
elsewhere, waiting to unite someday with this dimmer, more hollow self. I felt
marooned. An exile in my own home.
Madaline said that in Ankara
she had gone to a place called Kuğulu Park and watched swans gliding in the
water. She said the water was dazzling.
“I’m rhapsodizing,” she said,
“You’re not,” Mamá said.
“It’s an old habit. I talk
too much. I always did. You remember how much grief I’d bring us, chattering in
class? You were never at fault, Odie. You were so responsible and studious.”
“They’re interesting, your
stories. You have an interesting life.”
Madaline rolled her eyes.
“Well, you know the Chinese curse.”
“Did you like Africa?” Mamá
Thalia pressed the
handkerchief to her cheek and didn’t answer. I was glad. She had the oddest
speech. There was a wet quality to it, a strange mix of lisp and gargle.
“Oh, Thalia doesn’t like to
travel,” Madaline said, crushing her cigarette. She said this like it was the
unassailable truth. There was no looking to Thalia for confirmation or protest.
“She hasn’t got a taste for it.”
“Well, neither do I,” Mamá
said, again to Thalia. “I like being home. I guess I’ve just never found a
compelling reason to leave Tinos.”
“And I one to stay,” Madaline
said. “Other than you, naturally.” She touched Mamá’s wrist. “You know my worst
fear when I left? My biggest worry? How am I going to get on without Odie? I
swear, I was petrified at the thought.”
“You’ve managed fine, it
seems,” Mamá said slowly, dragging her gaze from Thalia.
“You don’t understand,”
Madaline said, and I realized I was the one who didn’t understand because she
was looking directly at me. “I wouldn’t have kept it together without your
mother. She saved me.”
you’re rhapsodizing,” Mamá said.
Thalia upturned her face. She
was squinting. A jet, up in the blue, silently marking its trajectory with a
long, single vapor trail.
“It was my father,” Madaline
said, “that Odie saved me from.” I wasn’t sure if she was still addressing me.
“He was one of those people who are born mean. He had bulging eyes, and this
thick, short neck with a dark mole on the back of it. And fists. Fists like
bricks. He’d come home and he didn’t even have to do a thing, just the sound of
his boots in the hallway, the jingle of his keys, his humming, that was enough
for me. When he was mad, he always sighed through the nose and pinched his eyes
shut, like he was deep in thought, and then he’d rub his face and say, All right, girlie, all right, and you knew it was coming—the
storm, it was coming—and it could not be stopped. No one could help you.
Sometimes, just him rubbing his face, or the sigh whooshing through his
mustache, and I’d see gray.
“I’ve crossed paths since
with men like him. I wish I could say differently. But I have. And what I’ve
learned is that you dig a little and you find they’re all the same, give or
take. Some are more polished, granted. They may come with a bit of charm—or a
lot—and that can fool you. But really they’re all unhappy little boys sloshing
around in their own rage. They feel wronged. They haven’t been given their due.
No one loved them enough. Of course they expect you to love them. They want to
be held, rocked, reassured. But it’s a mistake to give it to them. They can’t
accept it. They can’t accept the very thing they’re needing. They end up hating
you for it. And it never ends because they can’t hate you enough. It never
ends—the misery, the apologies, the promises, the reneging, the wretchedness of
it all. My first husband was like that.”
I was stunned. No one had
ever spoken this plainly in my presence before, certainly not Mamá. No one I
knew laid bare their hard luck this way. I felt both embarrassed for Madaline
and admiring of her candor.
When she mentioned the first
husband, I noticed that, for the first time since I had met her, a shadow had
settled on her face, a momentary intimation of something dark and chastening,
wounding, at odds with the energetic laughs and the teasing and the loose
pumpkin floral dress she was wearing. I remember thinking at the time what a
good actress she must be to camouflage disappointment and hurt with a veneer of
cheerfulness. Like a mask, I thought, and was privately pleased with myself for
the clever connection.
Later, when I was older, it
wasn’t as clear to me. Thinking back on it, there was something affected about
the way she paused when she mentioned the first husband, the casting down of
the gaze, the catch in the throat, the slight quiver of lips, just as there was
about the walloping energy and the joking, the lively, heavy-footed charm, the
way even her slights landed softly, parachuted by a reassuring wink and laugh.
Perhaps they were both trumped-up affectations or perhaps neither was. It
became a blur for me what was performance and what real—which at least made me
think of her as an infinitely more interesting
“How many times did I come
running to this house, Odie?” Madaline said. Now the smiling again, the swell
of laughter. “Your poor parents. But this house was my haven. My sanctuary. It
was. A little island within the greater one.”
Mamá said, “You were always
“It was your mother who put
an end to the beatings, Markos. Did she ever tell you?”
I said she hadn’t.
“Hardly surprises me. That’s
Odelia Varvaris for you.”
Mamá was unfurling the edge
of the apron in her lap and flattening it again with a daydreamy look on her
“I came here one night,
bleeding from the tongue, a patch of hair ripped from the temple, my ear still
ringing from a blow. He’d really gotten his hooks into me that time. What a
state I was in. What a state!” The way Madaline was telling it, you might have
thought she was describing a lavish meal or a good novel. “Your mother doesn’t
ask because she knows. Of course she knows. She just looks at me for a long
time—at me standing there, trembling—and she says, I still remember it, Odie,
she said, Well, that’s about enough of this business.
She says, We’re going to pay your father a visit, Maddie.
And I start begging. I worried he was going to kill us both. But you know how
she can be, your mother.”
I said I did, and Mamá tossed
me a sidelong glance.
“She wouldn’t listen. She had
this look. I’m sure you know the look. She heads out, but not before she picks
up her father’s hunting rifle. The whole time we’re walking to my house, I’m
trying to stop her, telling her he hadn’t hurt me that bad. But she won’t hear
it. We walk right up to the door and there’s my father, in the doorway, and
Odie raises the barrel and shoves it against his chin and says, Do it again and I will come back and shoot you in the face with
“My father blinks, and for a
moment he’s tongue-tied. He can’t say a word. And you want to know the best
part, Markos? I look down and see a little circle, a circle of—well, I think
you can guess—a little circle quietly expanding on the floor between his bare
Madaline brushed back her
hair and said, to another flick of the lighter, “And that, my dear, is a true
She didn’t have to say it, I
knew it was true. I recognized in it Mamá’s uncomplicated, fierce loyalty, her
mountainous resolve. Her impulse, her need, to be the corrector of injustices,
warden of the downtrodden flock. And I could tell it was true from the
closemouthed groan Mamá gave at the mention of that last detail. She
disapproved. She probably found it distasteful, and not only for the obvious
reason. In her view, people, even if they had behaved deplorably in life,
deserved a modicum of dignity in death. Especially family.
Mamá shifted in her seat and
said, “So if you don’t like to travel, Thalia, what do you like to do?”
All our eyes turned to
Thalia. Madaline had been speaking for a while, and I recall thinking, as we
sat in the courtyard with the sunlight falling in patches all around us, that
it was a measure of her capacity to absorb attention, to pull everything into
her vortex so thoroughly that Thalia had gone forgotten. I also left room for
the possibility that they had adapted to this dynamic out of necessity, the
quiet daughter eclipsed by the attention-diverting self-absorbed mother
routine, that Madaline’s narcissism was perhaps an act of kindness, of maternal
Thalia mumbled something.
“A little louder, darling,”
came the suggestion from Madaline.
Thalia cleared her throat, a
rumbling, phlegmy sound. “Science.”
I noticed for the first time
the color of her eyes, green like ungrazed pasture, the deep, coarse dark of
her hair, and that she had unblemished skin like her mother. I wondered if
she’d been pretty once, maybe even beautiful like Madaline.
“Tell them about the sundial,
darling,” Madaline said.
“She built a sundial,”
Madaline said. “Right in our backyard. Last summer. She had no help. Not from
Andreas. And certainly not from me.” She chortled.
“Equatorial or horizontal?”
There was a flash of surprise
in Thalia’s eyes. A kind of double take. Like a person walking down a crowded
street in a foreign city catching within earshot a snippet of her native
tongue. “Horizontal,” she said in that strange wet voice of hers.
“What did you use for a
Thalia’s eyes rested on Mamá.
“I cut a postcard.”
That was the first time I saw
how it could be between those two.
“She used to take apart her
toys when she was little,” Madaline said. “She liked mechanical toys, things
with inner contraptions. Not that she played with them, did you, darling? No,
she’d break them up, all those expensive toys, open them up as soon as we gave
them to her. I used to get into such a state over it. But Andreas—I have to
give him credit here—Andreas said to let her, that it was a sign of a curious
“If you like, we can build
one together,” Mamá said. “A sundial, I mean.”
“I already know how.”
“Mind your manners, darling,”
Madaline said, extending, then bending, one leg, as though she were stretching
for a dance routine. “Aunt Odie is trying to be helpful.”
“Maybe something else, then,”
Mamá said. “We could build some other thing.”
“Oh! Oh!” Madaline said,
hurriedly blowing smoke, wheezing. “I can’t believe I haven’t told you yet,
Odie. I have news. Take a guess.”
“I’m going back to acting! In
films! I’ve been offered a role, the lead, in a major production. Can you
“Congratulations,” Mamá said
“I have the script with me.
I’d let you read it, Odie, but I worry you won’t like it. Is that bad? I’d be
crushed, I don’t mind telling you. I wouldn’t get over it. We start shooting in
morning, after breakfast, Mamá pulled me aside. “All right, what is it? What’s
wrong with you?”
I said I didn’t know what she
was talking about.
“You best drop it. The stupid
act. It doesn’t suit you,” she said. She had a way of narrowing her eyes and
tilting her head just a shade. To this day it has a grip on me.
“I can’t do it, Mamá. Don’t
“And why not, exactly?”
It came out before I could do
a thing about it. “She’s a monster.”
Mamá’s mouth became small.
She regarded me not with anger but with a disheartened look, as though I’d
drawn all the sap out of her. There was a finality to this look. Resignation.
Like a sculptor finally dropping mallet and chisel, giving up on a recalcitrant
block that will never take the shape he’d pictured.
“She’s a person who has had a
terrible thing happen to her. Call her that name again, I’d like to see you.
Say it and see what happens.”
A little bit later there we
were, Thalia and I, walking down a cobblestone path flanked by stone walls on
each side. I made sure to walk a few steps ahead so passersby—or, God forbid,
one of the boys from school—wouldn’t think we were together, which, of course,
they would anyway. Anyone could see. At the least, I hoped the distance between
us would signal my displeasure and reluctance. To my relief, she didn’t make an
effort to keep up. We passed sunburned, weary-looking farmers coming home from
the market. Their donkeys labored under wicker baskets containing unsold
produce, their hooves clip-clopping on the footpath. I knew most of the
farmers, but I kept my head down and averted my eyes.
I led Thalia to the beach. I
chose a rocky one I sometimes went to, knowing it would not be as crowded as
some of the other beaches, like Agios Romanos. I rolled up my pants and hopped
from one craggy rock to the next, choosing one close to where the waves crashed
and retracted. I took off my shoes and lowered my feet into a shallow little
pool that had formed between a cluster of stones. A hermit crab scurried away
from my toes. I saw Thalia to my right, settling atop a rock close by.
We sat for a long while
without talking and watched the ocean rumbling against the rocks. A nippy gust
whipped around my ears, spraying the scent of salt on my face. A pelican
hovered over the blue-green water, its wings spread. Two ladies stood side by
side, knee-deep in the water, their skirts held up high. To the west, I had a
view of the island, the dominant white of the homes and windmills, the green of
the barley fields, the dull brown of the jagged mountains from which springs
flowed every year. My father died on one of those mountains. He worked for a
green-marble quarry and one day, when Mamá was six months pregnant with me, he
slipped off a cliff and fell a hundred feet. Mamá said he’d forgotten to secure
his safety harness.
“You should stop,” Thalia
I was tossing pebbles into an
old galvanized-tin pail nearby and she startled me. I missed. “What’s it to
“I mean, flattering yourself.
I don’t want this any more than you do.”
The wind was making her hair
flap, and she was holding down the mask against her face. I wondered if she
lived with this fear daily, that a gust of wind would rip it from her face and
she would have to chase after it, exposed. I didn’t say anything. I tossed
another pebble and missed again.
“You’re an ass,” she said.
After a while she got up, and
I pretended to stay. Then I looked over my shoulder and saw her heading up the
beach, back toward the road, and so I put my shoes back on and followed her
When we returned, Mamá was
mincing okra in the kitchen, and Madaline was sitting nearby, doing her nails
and smoking, tapping the ash into a saucer. I cringed with some horror when I
saw that the saucer belonged to the china set Mamá had inherited from her
grandmother. It was the only thing of any real value that Mamá owned, the china
set, and she hardly ever took it down from the shelf up near the ceiling where
she kept it.
Madaline was blowing on her
nails in between drags and talking about Pattakos, Papadopoulos, and Makarezos,
the three colonels who had staged a military coup—the Generals’ Coup, as it was
known then—earlier that year in Athens. She was saying she knew a playwright—a
“dear, dear man,” as she described him—who had been imprisoned under the charge
of being a communist subversive.
“Which is absurd, of course!
Just absurd. You know what they do to people, the ESA, to make them talk?” She
was saying this in a low voice as if the military police were hiding somewhere
in the house. “They put a hose in your behind and turn on the water full blast.
It’s true, Odie. I swear to you. They soak rags in the filthiest things—human
filth, you understand—and shove them in people’s mouths.”
“That’s awful,” Mamá said
I wondered if she was already
tiring of Madaline. The stream of puffed-up political opinions, the tales of
parties Madaline had attended with her husband, the poets and intellectuals and
musicians she’d clinked champagne flutes with, the list of needless, senseless
trips she had taken to foreign cities. Trotting out her views on nuclear
disaster and overpopulation and pollution. Mamá indulged Madaline, smiling
through her stories with a look of wry bemusement, but I knew she thought
unkindly of her. She probably thought Madaline was flaunting. She probably felt
embarrassed for her.
This is what rankles, what
pollutes Mamá’s kindness, her rescues and her acts of courage. The indebtedness
that shadows them. The demands, the obligations she saddles you with. The way
she uses these acts as currency, with which she barters for loyalty and
allegiance. I understand now why Madaline left all those years ago. The rope
that pulls you from the flood can become a noose around your neck. People
always disappoint Mamá in the end, me included. They can’t make good on what
they owe, not the way Mamá expects them to. Mamá’s consolation prize is the
grim satisfaction of holding the upper hand, free to pass verdicts from the
perch of strategic advantage, since she is always the one who has been wronged.
It saddens me because of what
it reveals to me about Mamá’s own neediness, her own anxiety, her fear of
loneliness, her dread of being stranded, abandoned. And what does it say about
me that I know this about my mother, that I know precisely what she needs and
yet how deliberately and unswervingly I have denied her, taking care to keep an
ocean, a continent—or, preferably, both—between us for the better part of three
“They have no sense of irony,
the junta,” Madaline was saying, “crushing people as they do. In Greece! The
birthplace of democracy … Ah, there you are! Well, how was it? What did you two
get up to?”
“We played at the beach,”
“Was it fun? Did you have
“We had a grand time,” Thalia
Mamá’s eyes jumped
skeptically from me to Thalia and back, but Madaline beamed and applauded
silently. “Good! Now that I don’t have to worry about you two getting along,
Odie and I can spend some time of our own together. What do you say, Odie? We
have so much catching up to do still!”
Mamá smiled gamely and
reached for a head of cabbage.
on, Thalia and I were left to our own devices. We were to explore the island,
play games at the beach, amuse ourselves the way children are expected to. Mamá
would pack us a sandwich each, and we would set off together after breakfast.
Once out of sight, we often
drifted apart. At the beach, I took a swim or lay on a rock with my shirt off
while Thalia went off to collect shells or skip rocks on the water, which was
no good because the waves were too big. We went walking along the footpaths
that snaked through vineyards and barley fields, looking down at our own
shadows, each preoccupied with our own thoughts. Mostly we wandered. There
wasn’t much in the way of a tourist industry on Tinos in those days. It was a
farming island, really, people living off their cows and goats and olive trees
and wheat. We would end up bored, eating lunch somewhere, quietly, in the shade
of a tree or a windmill, looking between bites at the ravines, the fields of
thorny bushes, the mountains, the sea.
One day, I wandered off
toward town. We lived on the southwestern shore of the island, and Tinos town
was only a few miles’ walk south. There was a little knickknack shop there run
by a heavy-faced widower named Mr. Roussos. On any given day, you were apt to
find in the window of his shop anything from a 1940s typewriter to a pair of
leather work boots, or a weathervane, an old plant stand, giant wax candles, a
cross, or, of course, copies of the Panagia Evangelistria icon. Or maybe even a
brass gorilla. He was also an amateur photographer and had a makeshift darkroom
in the back of the shop. When the pilgrims came to Tinos every August to visit
the icon, Mr. Roussos sold rolls of film to them and developed their photos in
his darkroom for a fee.
About a month back, I had
spotted a camera in his display window, sitting on its worn rust-colored
leather case. Every few days, I strolled over to the shop, stared at this
camera, and imagined myself in India, the leather case hanging by the strap
over my shoulder, taking photos of the paddies and tea estates I had seen in National Geographic. I would shoot the Inca Trail. On
camelback, in some dust-choked old truck, or on foot, I would brave the heat
until I stood gazing up at the Sphinx and the Pyramids, and I would shoot them
too and see my photos published in magazines with glossy pages. This was what
drew me to Mr. Roussos’s window that morning—though the shop was closed for the
day—to stand outside, my forehead pressed to the glass, and daydream.
“What kind is it?”
I pulled back a bit, caught
Thalia’s reflection in the window. She dabbed at her left cheek with the
“Looks like a C3 Argus,” she said.
“How would you know?”
“It’s only the best-selling
thirty-five millimeter in the world for the last thirty years,” she said a
little chidingly. “Not much to look at, though. It’s ugly. It looks like a
brick. So you want to be a photographer? You know, when you’re all grown up?
Your mother says you do.”
I turned around. “Mamá told
I shrugged. I was embarrassed
that Mamá had discussed this with Thalia. I wondered how she’d said it. She
could unsheathe from her arsenal a mockingly grave way of talking about things
she found either portentous or frivolous. She could shrink your aspirations
before your very eyes. Markos wants to walk the earth and
capture it with his lens.
Thalia sat on the sidewalk
and pulled her skirt over her knees. It was a hot day, the sun biting the skin
like it had teeth. Hardly anyone was out and about except for an elderly couple
trudging stiffly up the street. The husband—Demis something—wore a gray flat
cap and a brown tweed jacket that looked too heavy for the season. He had a
frozen, wide-eyed look to his face, I remember, the way some old people do,
like they are perpetually startled by the monstrous surprise that is old age—it
wasn’t until years later, in medical school, that I suspected he had
Parkinson’s. They waved as they passed and I waved back. I saw them take notice
of Thalia, a momentary pause in their stride, and then they moved on.
“Do you have a camera?”
“Have you ever taken a
“And you want to be a
“You find that strange?”
“So if I said I wanted to be
a policeman, you’d think that was strange too? Because I’ve never slapped
handcuffs on anyone?”
I could tell from the
softening in her eyes that, if she could, she would be smiling. “So you’re a
clever ass,” she said. “Word of advice: Don’t mention the camera in my mother’s
presence or she’ll buy it for you. She’s very eager to please.” The
handkerchief went to the cheek and back. “But I doubt that Odelia would
approve. I guess you already know that.”
I was both impressed and a
little unsettled by how much she seemed to have grasped in so little time.
Maybe it was the mask, I thought, the advantage of cover, the freedom to be
watchful, to observe and scrutinize.
“She’d probably make you give
I sighed. It was true. Mamá
would not allow such easy amends, and most certainly not if it involved money.
Thalia rose to her feet and
beat the dust from her behind. “Let me ask you, do you have a box at home?”
was sipping wine with Mamá in the kitchen, and Thalia and I were upstairs,
using black markers on a shoe box. The shoe box belonged to Madaline and
contained a new pair of lime green leather pumps with high heels, still wrapped
in tissue paper.
“Where was she planning on
wearing those?” I asked.
I could hear Madaline
downstairs, talking about an acting class she had once taken where the
instructor had asked her, as an exercise, to pretend she was a lizard sitting
motionless on a rock. A swell of laughter—hers—followed.
We finished the second coat,
and Thalia said we should put on a third, to make sure we hadn’t missed any
spots. The black had to be uniform and flawless.
“That’s all a camera is,” she
said, “a black box with a hole to let in the light and something to absorb the
light. Give me the needle.”
I passed her a sewing needle
of Mamá’s. I was skeptical, to say the least, about the prospects of this
homemade camera, of it doing anything at all—a shoe box and a needle? But
Thalia had attacked the project with such faith and self-assured confidence
that I had to leave room for the unlikely possibility that it just might work.
She made me think she knew things I did not.
“I’ve made some
calculations,” she said, carefully piercing the box with the needle. “Without a
lens, we can’t set the pinhole on the small face, the box is too long. But the
width is just about right. The key is to make the correct-sized pinhole. I
figure point-six millimeter, roughly. There. Now we need a shutter.”
Downstairs, Madaline’s voice
had dropped to a low, urgent murmur. I couldn’t hear what she was saying but I
could tell that she was speaking more slowly than before, enunciating well, and
I pictured her leaning forward, elbows on knees, making eye contact, not
blinking. Over the years, I have come to know this tone of voice intimately.
When people speak this way, they’re likely disclosing, revealing, confessing
some catastrophe, beseeching the listener. It’s a staple of the military’s
casualty notification teams knocking on doors, lawyers touting the merits of
plea deals to clients, policemen stopping cars at 3 A.M., cheating husbands.
How many times have I used it myself at hospitals here in Kabul? How many times
have I guided entire families into a quiet room, asked them to sit, pulled a
chair up for myself, gathering the will to give them news, dreading the coming
“She’s talking about
Andreas,” Thalia said evenly. “I bet she is. They had a big fight. Pass me the
tape and those scissors.”
“What is he like? Besides
being rich, I mean?”
“Who, Andreas? He’s all
right. He travels a lot. When he’s home, he always has people over. Important
people—ministers, generals, that kind. They have drinks by the fireplace and
they talk all night, mostly business and politics. I can hear them from my
room. I’m supposed to stay upstairs when Andreas has company. I’m not supposed
to come down. But he buys me things. He pays for a tutor to come to the house.
And he speaks to me nicely enough.”
She taped a rectangular piece
of cardboard, which we’d also colored black, over the pinhole.
Things were quiet downstairs.
I choreographed the scene in my head. Madaline weeping without a sound,
absently fiddling with a handkerchief like it was a clump of Play-Doh, Mamá not
much help, looking on stiffly with a pinch-faced little smile like she’s got
something sour melting under her tongue. Mamá can’t stand it when people cry in
her presence. She can barely look at their puffy eyes, their open, pleading
faces. She sees crying as a sign of weakness, a garish appeal for attention, and
she won’t indulge it. She can’t bring herself to console. Growing up, I learned
that it was not one of her strong suits. Sorrow ought to be private, she
thinks, not flaunted. Once, when I was little, I asked her if she’d cried when
my father had fallen to his death.
At the funeral? I mean, the
No, I did not.
Because you weren’t sad?
Because it was nobody’s
business if I was.
Would you cry if I died,
Let’s hope we never have to
find out, she
Thalia picked up the box of
photographic paper and said, “Get the flashlight.”
We moved into Mamá’s closet,
taking care to shut the door and snuff out daylight with towels we stuffed
under it. Once we were in pitch-darkness, Thalia asked me to turn on the
flashlight, which we had covered with several layers of red cellophane. All I
could see of Thalia in the dim glow was her slender fingers as she cut a sheet
of photographic paper and taped it to the inside of the shoe box opposite the
pinhole. We had bought the paper from Mr. Roussos’s shop the day before. When
we walked up to the counter, Mr. Roussos peered at Thalia over his spectacles
and said, Is this a robbery? Thalia pointed an index
finger at him and cocked her thumb like pulling back the hammer.
Thalia closed the lid on the
shoe box, covered the pinhole with the shutter. In the dark she said,
“Tomorrow, you shoot the first photo of your career.” I couldn’t tell if she
was making fun or not.
the beach. We set the shoe box on a flat rock and secured it firmly with
rope—Thalia said we couldn’t have any movement at all when we opened the
shutter. She moved in next to me and took a peek over the box as if through a
“It’s a perfect shot,” she
“Almost. We need a subject.”
She looked at me, saw what I
meant, and said, “No. I won’t do it.”
We argued back and forth and
she finally agreed, but on the condition that her face didn’t show. She took
off her shoes, walked atop a row of rocks a few feet in front of the camera,
using her arms like a tightrope walker on a cable. She lowered herself on one
of the rocks facing west in the direction of Syros and Kythnos. She flipped her
hair so it covered the bands at the back of her head that held the mask in
place. She looked at me over her shoulder.
“Remember,” she shouted,
“count to one twenty.”
She turned back to face the
I stooped and peered over the
box, looking at Thalia’s back, the constellation of rocks around her, the whips
of seaweed entangled between them like dead snakes, a little tugboat bobbing in
the distance, the tide rising, mashing the craggy shore and withdrawing. I
lifted the shutter from the pinhole and began to count.
One … two … three … four …
We’re lying in bed. On the TV
screen a pair of accordion players are dueling, but Gianna has turned off the sound.
Midday sunlight scissors through the blinds, falling in stripes on the remains
of the Margherita pizza we’d ordered for lunch from room service. It was
delivered to us by a tall, slim man with impeccable slicked-back hair and a
white coat with black tie. On the table he rolled into the room was a flute
vase with a red rose in it. He lifted the domed plate cover off the pizza with
great flourish, making a sweeping motion with his hand like a magician to his
audience after the rabbit has materialized from the top hat.
Scattered around us, among
the mussed sheets, are the pictures I have shown Gianna, photos of my trips
over the past year and a half. Belfast, Montevideo, Tangier, Marseille, Lima,
Tehran. I show her photos of the commune I had joined briefly in Copenhagen,
living alongside ripped-T-shirt-and-beanie-hat-wearing Danish beatniks who had
built a self-governing community on a former military base.
Where are you? Gianna asks. You are not in the photographs.
being behind the lens better, I say. It’s true. I
have taken hundreds of pictures, and you won’t find me in any. I always order
two sets of prints when I drop off the film. I keep one set, mail the other to
Thalia back home.
Gianna asks how I finance my
trips and I explain I pay for them with inheritance money. This is partially
true, because the inheritance is Thalia’s, not mine. Unlike Madaline, who for
obvious reasons was never mentioned in Andreas’s will, Thalia was. She gave me
half her money. I am supposed to be putting myself through university with it.
Eight … nine … ten …
Gianna props herself up on
her elbows and leans across the bed, over me, her small breasts brushing my
skin. She fetches her pack, lights a cigarette. I’d met her the day before at
Piazza di Spagna. I was sitting on the stone steps that connect the square
below to the church on the hill. She walked up and said something to me in
Italian. She looked like so many of the pretty, seemingly aimless girls I’d
seen slinking around Rome’s churches and piazzas. They smoked and talked loudly
and laughed a lot. I shook my head and said, Sorry?
She smiled, went Ah, and then, in heavily accented
English, said, Lighter? Cigarette. I shook my head and
told her in my own heavily accented English that I didn’t smoke. She grinned. Her
eyes were bright and jumping. The late-morning sun made a nimbus around her
I doze off briefly and wake
up to her poking my ribs.
ragazza? she says. She has found the picture of
Thalia on the beach, the one I had taken years before with our homemade pinhole
camera. Your girlfriend?
No, I say.
La tua cugina? Your cousin,
I shake my head.
She studies the photo some
more, taking quick drags off her cigarette. No, she
says sharply, to my surprise, even angrily. Questa è la tua
ragazza! Your girlfriend. I think yes, you are liar! And then, to my
disbelief, she flicks her lighter and sets the picture on fire.
Fourteen … fifteen … sixteen
… seventeen …
About midway through our trek
back to the bus stop, I realize I’ve lost the photo. I tell them I need to go
back. There is no choice, I have to go back. Alfonso, a wiry, tight-lipped huaso who is tagging along as our informal Chilean guide,
looks questioningly at Gary. Gary is an American. He is the alpha male in our
trio. He has dirty-blond hair and acne pits on his cheeks. It’s a face that
hints at habitual hard living. Gary is in a foul mood, made worse by hunger,
the absence of alcohol, and the nasty rash on his right calf, which he
contracted brushing up against a litre shrub the day
before. I’d met them both at a crowded bar in Santiago, where, after half a
dozen rounds of piscolas, Alfonso had suggested a hike
to the waterfall at Salto del Apoquindo, where his father used to take him when
he was a boy. We’d made the hike the next day and had camped out at the
waterfall for the night. We’d smoked dope, the water roaring in our ears, a
wide-open sky crammed with stars above us. We were trudging back now toward San
Carlos de Apoquindo to catch the bus.
Gary pushes back the wide rim
of his Cordoban hat and wipes his brow with a handkerchief. It’s
a three-hour walk back, Markos, he says.
¿Tres horas, hágale
And you’re still going?
¿Para una foto? Alfonso says.
I nod. I keep quiet because
they would not understand. I am not sure I understand it myself.
You know you’re going to get
luck, amigo, Gary says, offering his hand.
Es un griego loco, Alfonso says.
I laugh. It is not the first
time I have been called a crazy Greek. We shake hands. Gary adjusts the straps
of his knapsack, and the two of them head back up the trail along the folds of
the mountain, Gary waving once without looking as they take a hairpin turn. I
walk back the way we had come. It takes me four hours, actually, because I do
get lost as Gary had predicted. I am exhausted by the time I reach the
campsite. I search all over, kicking bushes, looking between rocks, dread
building as I rummage in vain. Then, just as I try to resign myself to the
worst, I spot a flash of white in a batch of shrubs up a shallow slope. I find
the photo wedged between a tangle of brambles. I pluck it free, beat dust from
it, my eyes brimming with tears of relief.
Twenty-three … twenty-four …
In Caracas I sleep under a
bridge. A youth hostel in Brussels. Sometimes I splurge and rent a room in a
nice hotel, take long hot showers, shave, eat meals in a bathrobe. I watch
color TV. The cities, the roads, the countryside, the people I meet—they all
begin to blur. I tell myself I am searching for something. But more and more,
it feels like I am wandering, waiting for something to happen to me, something
that will change everything, something that my whole life has been leading up
Thirty-four … thirty-five …
My fourth day in India. I
totter down a dirt road among stray cattle, the world tilting under my feet. I
have been vomiting all day. My skin is the yellow of a sari, and it feels like
invisible hands are peeling it raw. When I can’t walk anymore, I lie down on
the side of the road. An old man across the road stirs something in a big steel
pot. Beside him is a cage, inside the cage a blue-and-red parrot. A
dark-skinned vendor pushing a cartful of empty green bottles passes me by. That’s
the last thing I remember.
Forty-one … forty-two …
I wake up in a big room. The
air is thick with heat and something like rotting cantaloupe. I am lying on a
twin-sized steel-frame bed, cushioned from the hard, springless platform by a
mattress no thicker than a paperback book. The room is filled with beds like
mine. I see emaciated arms dangling over the sides, dark matchstick legs
protruding from stained sheets, scant-toothed mouths open. Idle ceiling fans.
Walls marked by patches of mold. The window beside me lets in hot, sticky air
and sunlight that stabs the eyeballs. The nurse—a burly, glowering Muslim man
named Gul—tells me I may die of hepatitis.
Fifty-five … fifty-six …
I ask for my backpack. What backpack? Gul says with indifference. All my things are
gone—my clothes, my cash, my books, my camera. That’s all the
thief left you, Gul says in his rolling English, pointing to the
windowsill beside me. It’s the picture. I pick it up. Thalia, her hair flapping
in the breeze, the water bubbling with froth around her, her bare feet on the
rocks, the leaping Aegean flung out before her. A lump rises to my throat. I
don’t want to die here, among these strangers, so far away from her. I tuck the
photo in the wedge between the glass and the window frame.
Sixty-six … sixty-seven …
The boy in the bed next to
mine has an old man’s face, haggard, sunken, carved. His lower belly is swollen
with a tumor the size of a bowling ball. Whenever a nurse touches him there,
his eyes squeeze shut and his mouth springs open in a silent, agonized wail.
This morning, one of the nurses, not Gul, is trying to feed him pills, but the
boy turns his head side to side, his throat making a sound like a scraping
against wood. Finally, the nurse pries his mouth open, forces the pills inside.
When he leaves, the boy rolls his head slowly toward me. We eye each other
across the space between our beds. A small tear squeezes out and rolls down his
Seventy-five … seventy-six …
The suffering, the despair in
this place, is like a wave. It rolls out from every bed, smashes against the
moldy walls, and swoops back toward you. You can drown in it. I sleep a lot.
When I don’t, I itch. I take the pills they give me and the pills make me sleep
again. Otherwise, I look down at the bustling street outside the dormitory, at
the sunlight skidding over tent bazaars and back-alley tea shops. I watch the
kids shooting marbles on sidewalks that melt into muddy gutters, the old women
sitting in doorways, the street vendors in dhotis
squatting on their mats, scraping coconuts, hawking marigold garlands. Someone
lets out an earsplitting shriek from across the room. I doze off.
Eighty-three … eighty-four …
I learn that the boy’s name
is Manaar. It means “guiding light.” His mother was a prostitute, his father a
thief. He lived with his aunt and uncle, who beat him. No one knows exactly
what is killing him, only that it is. No one visits him, and when he dies, a
week from now—a month, two at the outside—no one will come to claim him. No one
will grieve. No one will remember. He will die where he lived, in the cracks.
When he sleeps, I find myself looking at him, at his cratered temples, the head
that’s too big for his shoulders, the pigmented scar on his lower lip where,
Gul informed me, his mother’s pimp had the habit of putting out his cigarette.
I try speaking to him in English, then in the few Urdu words I know, but he
only blinks tiredly. Sometimes I put my hands together and make shadow animals
on the wall to win a smile from him.
Eighty-seven … eighty-eight …
One day Manaar points to
something outside my window. I follow his finger, raise my head, but I see
nothing but the blue wisp of sky through the clouds, children below playing with
water gushing from a street pump, a bus spewing exhaust. Then I realize he is
pointing at the photo of Thalia. I pluck it from the window and hand it to him.
He holds it close to his face, by the burnt corner, and stares at it for a long
time. I wonder if it is the ocean that draws him. I wonder if he’s ever tasted
salt water or got dizzy watching the tide pull away from his feet. Or perhaps,
though he can’t see her face, he senses a kin in Thalia, someone who knows what
pain feels like. He goes to hand the photo back to me. I shake my head. Hold on to it, I say. A shadow of mistrust crosses his face.
I smile. And, I cannot be sure, but I think he smiles back.
Ninety-two … ninety-three …
I beat the hepatitis. Strange
how I can’t tell if Gul is pleased or disappointed at my having proved him
wrong. But I know I’ve caught him by surprise when I ask if I can stay on as a
volunteer. He cocks his head, frowns. I end up having to talk to one of the
Ninety-seven … ninety-eight …
The shower room smells like
urine and sulfur. Every morning I carry Manaar into it, holding his naked body
in my arms, careful not to bounce him—I’d watched one of the volunteers carry
him before over the shoulder as if he were a bag of rice. I gently lower him
onto the bench and wait for him to catch his breath. I rinse his small, frail
body with warm water. Manaar always sits quietly, patiently, palms on his
knees, head hung low. He is like a fearful, bony old man. I run the soapy
sponge over his rib cage, the knobs of his spine, over shoulder blades that jut
out like shark fins. I carry him back to his bed, feed him his pills. It
soothes him to have his feet and calves massaged, so I do that for him, taking
my time. When he sleeps, it is always with the picture of Thalia half tucked
under his pillow.
One hundred one … one hundred
I go for long, aimless walks
around the city, if only to get away from the hospital, the collective breaths
of the sick and dying. I walk in dusty sunsets through streets lined with
graffiti-stained walls, past tin-shed stalls packed tightly against one
another, crossing paths with little girls carrying basketfuls of raw dung on
their head, women covered in black soot boiling rags in huge aluminum vats. I
think a lot about Manaar as I meander down a cat’s cradle of narrow alleyways,
Manaar waiting to die in that room full of broken figures like him. I think a
lot about Thalia, sitting on the rock, looking out at the sea. I sense
something deep inside me drawing me in, tugging at me like an undertow. I want
to give in to it, be seized by it. I want to give up my bearings, slip out of
who I am, shed everything, the way a snake discards old skin.
I am not saying Manaar
changed everything. He didn’t. I stumble around the world for still another
year before I finally find myself at a corner desk in an Athens library,
looking down at a medical school application. In between Manaar and the
application are the two weeks I spent in Damascus, of which I have virtually no
memory other than the grinning faces of two women with heavily lined eyes and a
gold tooth each. Or the three months in Cairo in the basement of a ramshackle
tenement run by a hashish-addicted landlord. I spend Thalia’s money riding
buses in Iceland, tagging along with a punk band in Munich. In 1977, I break an
elbow at an antinuclear protest in Bilbao.
But in my quiet moments, in
those long rides in the back of a bus or the bed of a truck, my mind always
circles back to Manaar. Thinking of him, of the anguish of his final days, and
my own helplessness in the face of it, makes everything I have done, everything
I want to do, seem as unsubstantial as the little vows you make yourself as
you’re going to sleep, the ones you’ve already forgotten by the time you wake up.
One hundred nineteen … one
I drop the shutter.
at the end of that summer, I learned that Madaline was leaving for Athens and
leaving Thalia with us, at least for a short while.
“Just for a few weeks,” she
We were having dinner, the
four of us, a dish of white bean soup that Mamá and Madaline had prepared
together. I glanced across the table at Thalia to see if I was the only one on
whom Madaline had sprung the news. It appeared I was. Thalia was calmly feeding
spoonfuls into her mouth, lifting her mask just a bit with each trip of the
spoon. By then, her speech and eating didn’t bother me anymore, or at least no
more than watching an old person eat through ill-fitting dentures, like Mamá
would years later.
Madaline said she would send
for Thalia after she had shot her film, which she said should wrap well before
“Actually, I will bring you
all to Athens,” she said, her face rinsed with the customary cheer. “And we
will go to the opening together! Wouldn’t that be marvelous, Markos? The four
of us, dressed up, waltzing into the theater in style?”
I said it would be, though I
had trouble picturing Mamá in a fancy gown or waltzing into anything.
Madaline explained how it
would work out just fine, how Thalia could resume her studies when school
opened in a couple of weeks—at home, of course—with Mamá. She said she would
send us postcards and letters, and pictures of the film set. She said more, but
I didn’t hear much of it. What I was feeling was enormous relief and outright
giddiness. My dread of the coming end of summer was like a knot in my belly,
winding tighter with each passing day as I steeled myself against the
approaching farewell. I woke every morning now eager to see Thalia at the
breakfast table, to hear the bizarre sound of her voice. We barely ate before
we were out climbing trees, chasing each other through the barley fields,
plowing through the stalks and letting out war cries, lizards scattering away
from our feet. We stashed make-believe treasures in caves, found spots on the
island with the best and loudest echoes. We shot photos of windmills and
dovecotes with our pinhole camera and took them to Mr. Roussos, who developed
them for us. He even let us into his darkroom and taught us about different developers,
fixers, and stop baths.
The night of Madaline’s
announcement, she and Mamá shared a bottle of wine in the kitchen, Madaline
doing most of the drinking, while Thalia and I were upstairs, playing a game of
tavli. Thalia had the mana
position and had already moved half her checkers onto her home board.
“She has a lover,” Thalia
said, rolling the dice.
I jumped. “Who?”
“ ‘Who?’ he says. Who do you
I had learned, over the
course of the summer, to read Thalia’s expressions through her eyes, and she
was looking at me now like I was standing on the beach asking where the water
was. I tried to recover quickly. “I know who,” I said, my cheeks burning. “I
mean, who’s the … you know …” I was a twelve-year-old boy. My vocabulary didn’t
include words like lover.
“Can’t you guess? The
“I was going to say that.”
“Elias. He’s something. He
plasters his hair down like it’s the 1920s. He has a thin little mustache too.
I guess he thinks it makes him look rakish. He’s ridiculous. He thinks he’s a
great artist, of course. Mother does too. You should see her with him, all
timid and submissive, like she needs to bow to him and pamper him because of
his genius. I can’t understand how she doesn’t see it.”
“Is Aunt Madaline going to
Thalia shrugged. “She has the
worst taste in men. The worst.” She shook the dice in
her hands, seemed to reconsider. “Except for Andreas, I suppose. He’s nice.
Nice enough. But, of course, she’s leaving him. It’s always the bastards she
“You mean, like your father?”
She frowned a little. “My
father was a stranger she met on her way to Amsterdam. At a train station
during a rainstorm. They spent one afternoon together. I have no idea who he
is. And neither does she.”
“Oh. I remember she said
something about her first husband. She said he drank. I just assumed …”
“Well, that would be Dorian,”
Thalia said. “He was something too.” She moved another checker onto her home
board. “He used to beat her. He could go from nice and pleasant to furious in a
blink. Like the weather, how it can change suddenly? He was like that. He drank
most of the day, didn’t do much but lie around the house. He got real forgetful
when he drank. He’d leave the water running, for instance, and flood the house.
I remember he forgot to turn off the stove once and almost burned everything
She made a little tower with
a stack of chips. Worked quietly for a while straightening it.
“The only thing Dorian really
loved was Apollo. All the neighborhood kids were scared of him—of Apollo, I
mean. And hardly any of them had even seen him; they’d only heard his bark.
That was enough for them. Dorian kept him chained in the back of the yard. Fed
him big slabs of lamb.”
Thalia didn’t tell me any
more. I pictured it easily enough, though. Dorian passed out, the dog
forgotten, roaming the yard unchained. An open screen door.
“How old were you?” I asked
in a low voice.
Then I asked the question
that had been on my mind since the beginning of summer. “Isn’t there something
that … I mean, can’t they do—”
Thalia snagged her gaze away.
“Please don’t ask,” she said heavily with what I sensed to be a deep ache. “It
tires me out.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I’ll tell you someday.”
And she did tell me, later.
The botched surgery, the catastrophic post-op wound infection that turned
septic, shut down her kidneys, threw her into liver failure, ate through the
new surgical flap and forced the surgeons to slice off not only the flap but
yet more of what remained of her left cheek and part of her jawbone as well. The
complications had kept her in the hospital for nearly three months. She’d
almost died, should have died. After that, she wouldn’t let them touch her
“Thalia,” I said, “I’m sorry
too for what happened when we met.”
She tipped her eyes up at me.
The old playful shine was back. “You should be sorry. But I knew even before
you hurled all over the floor.”
“That you were an ass.”
left two days before school started. She wore a tight butter yellow sleeveless
dress that clung to her slim frame, horn-rimmed sunglasses, and a firmly
knotted white silk scarf to hold down her hair. She was dressed as though she
worried parts of her might come loose—like she was, literally, holding herself
together. At the ferry port in Tinos town, she embraced us all. She held Thalia
the tightest, and the longest, her lips on the crown of Thalia’s head in an
extended, unbroken kiss. She didn’t take off her sunglasses.
“Hug me back,” I heard her
Rigidly, Thalia obliged.
When the ferry groaned and lurched
away, leaving behind a trail of churned-up water, I thought Madaline would
stand at the stern and wave and blow us kisses. But she quickly moved toward
the bow and took a seat. She didn’t look our way.
When we got home, Mamá told
us to sit down. She stood before us and said, “Thalia, I want you to know that
you don’t have to wear that thing in this house anymore. Not on my account. Nor
his. Do it only if it suits you. I have no more to say about this business.”
It was then that, with sudden
clarity, I understood what Mamá already had seen. That the mask had been for
Madaline’s benefit. To save her embarrassment and
For a long time Thalia didn’t
make a move or say a word. Then, slowly, her hands rose, and she untied the
bands at the back of her head. She lowered the mask. I looked at her directly
in the face. I felt an involuntary urge to recoil, the way you would at a
sudden loud noise. But I didn’t. I held my gaze. And I made it a point to not
Mamá said she would
homeschool me until Madaline came back so Thalia wouldn’t have to stay home by
herself. She gave us our lessons in the evening, after dinner, and assigned us
homework to do in the morning while she went off to school. It sounded
workable, at least in theory.
But doing our studies,
especially with Mamá away, proved nearly impossible. News of Thalia’s
disfigurement had spread all over the island, and people kept knocking on the
door, fueled by curiosity. You would have thought the island was suddenly
running out of flour, garlic, even salt, and our house was the only place you
could find it. They barely made an effort to disguise their intent. At the
door, their eyes always flew over my shoulder. They craned their necks, stood
on tiptoes. Most of them weren’t even neighbors. They’d walked miles for a cup
of sugar. Of course I never let them in. It gave me some satisfaction to close
the door on their faces. But I also felt gloomy, dispirited, aware that if I
stayed my life would be too deeply touched by these people. I would, in the end,
become one of them.
The kids were worse and far
bolder. Every day I caught one prowling outside, climbing our wall. We would be
working, and Thalia would tap my shoulder with her pencil, tip her chin, and I
would turn to find a face, sometimes more than one, pressed to the window. It
got so bad, we had to go upstairs and pull all the curtains. One day I opened
the door to a boy I knew from school, Petros, and three of his friends. He
offered me a handful of coins for a peek. I said no, where did he think he was,
In the end, I had to tell
Mamá. A deep red flush marched up her face when she heard. She clenched her
The next morning she had our
books and two sandwiches ready on the table. Thalia understood before I did and
she curled up like a leaf. Her protests started when it came time to leave.
“Aunt Odie, no.”
“Give me your hand.”
“Go on. Give it to me.”
“I don’t want to go.”
“We’re going to be late.”
“Don’t make me, Aunt Odie.”
Mamá pulled Thalia up from
the seat by the hands, leaned in, and fixed her with a gaze I knew well. Not a
thing on this earth could deter her now. “Thalia,” she said, managing to sound
both soft and firm, “I am not ashamed of you.”
We set out, the three of
us—Mamá, with her lips pursed, pushing forth like she was plowing against a
fierce wind, her feet working quick, mincing little steps. I imagined Mamá
walking in this same determined manner to Madaline’s father’s house all those
years ago, rifle in hand.
People gawked and gasped as
we blew past them along the winding footpaths. They stopped to stare. Some of
them pointed. I tried not to look. They were a blur of pale faces and open
mouths in the corners of my vision.
In the school yard, children
parted to let us pass. I heard some girl scream. Mamá rolled through them like
a bowling ball through pins, all but dragging Thalia behind her. She shoved and
pushed her way to the corner of the yard, where there was a bench. She climbed
the bench, helped Thalia up, and then blew her whistle three times. A hush fell
over the yard.
“This is Thalia Gianakos,”
Mamá cried. “As of today …” She paused. “Whoever is crying, shut your mouth
before I give you reason to. Now, as of today, Thalia is a student at this
school. I expect all of you to treat her with decency and good manners. If I
hear rumors of taunting, I will find you and I will make you sorry. You know I
will. I have no more to say about this business.”
She climbed down from the
bench and, holding Thalia’s hand, headed toward the classroom.
From that day forth, Thalia
never again wore the mask, either in public or at home.
of weeks before Christmas that year, we received a letter from Madaline. The
shoot had run into unexpected delays. First, the director of
photography—Madaline wrote DOP and Thalia had to
explain it to me and Mamá—had fallen off a scaffold on the set and broken his
arm in three places. Then the weather had complicated all the location shoots.
So we are in a bit of a
“holding pattern,” as they say. It would not be an entirely bad thing, since it
gives us time to work out some wrinkles in the script, if it did not also mean
that we won’t be reunited as I had hoped. I am crushed, my darlings. I miss you
all so dearly, especially you, Thalia, my love. I can only count the days until
later this spring when this shoot has wrapped and we can be together again. I
carry all three of you in my heart every minute of every day.
“She’s not coming back,”
Thalia said flatly, handing the letter back to Mamá.
“Of course she is!” I said,
dumbfounded. I turned to Mamá, waiting for her to say something, at least pipe
a word of encouragement. But Mamá folded the letter, put it on the table, and
quietly went to boil water for coffee. And I remember thinking how thoughtless
it was of her to not comfort Thalia even if she agreed that Madaline wasn’t
coming back. But I didn’t know—not yet—that they already understood each other,
perhaps better than I did either of them. Mamá respected Thalia too much to
coddle her. She would not insult Thalia with false assurances.
Spring came, in all of its
flush green glory, and went. We received from Madaline one postcard and what
felt like a hastily written letter, in which she informed us of more troubles
on the set, this time having to do with financiers who were threatening to balk
because of all the delays. In this letter, unlike the last, she did not set a
time line as to when she would come back.
One warm afternoon early in
the summer—that would be 1968—Thalia and I went to the beach with a girl named
Dori. By then, Thalia had lived with us on Tinos for a year and her
disfigurement no longer drew whispers and lingering stares. She was still, and
always would be, girded by an orb of curiosity, but even that was waning. She
had friends of her own now—Dori among them—who were no longer spooked by her
appearance, friends with whom she ate lunch, gossiped, played after school, did
her studies. She had become, improbably enough, almost ordinary, and I had to
admit to a degree of admiration for the way the islanders had accepted her as
one of their own.
That afternoon, the three of
us had planned to swim, but the water was still too cold and we had ended up
lying on the rocks, dozing off. When Thalia and I came home, we found Mamá in
the kitchen, peeling carrots. Another letter sat unopened on the table.
“It’s from your stepfather,”
Thalia picked up the letter
and went upstairs. It was a long time before she came down. She dropped the
sheet of paper on the table, sat down, picked up a knife and a carrot.
“He wants me to come home.”
“I see,” Mamá said. I thought
I heard the faintest flutter in her voice.
“Not home, exactly. He says
he has contacted a private school in England. I could enroll in the fall. He’d
pay for it, he said.”
“What about Aunt Madaline?” I
“She’s gone. With Elias.
“What about the film?”
Mamá and Thalia exchanged a
glance and simultaneously tipped their gaze up toward me, and I saw what they
knew all along.
morning in 2002, more than thirty years later, around the time I am preparing
to move from Athens to Kabul, I stumble upon Madaline’s obituary in the
newspaper. Her last name is listed now as Kouris, but I recognize in the old
woman’s face a familiar bright-eyed grin, and more than detritus of her
youthful beauty. The small paragraph below says that she had briefly been an
actress in her youth prior to founding her own theater company in the early
1980s. Her company had received critical praise for several productions, most
notably for extended runs of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s
Journey into Night in the mid-1990s, Chekhov’s The
Seagull, and Dimitrios Mpogris’s Engagements.
The obituary says she was well known among Athens’s artistic community for her charity
work, her wit, her sense of style, her lavish parties, and her willingness to
take chances on unheralded playwrights. The piece says she died after a lengthy
battle with emphysema but makes no mention of a surviving spouse or children. I
am further stunned to learn that she lived in Athens for more than two decades,
at a house barely six blocks from my own place on Kolonaki.
I put down the paper. To my
surprise, I feel a tinge of impatience with this dead woman I have not seen for
over thirty years. A surge of resistance to this story of how she had turned
out. I had always pictured her living a tumultuous, wayward life, hard years of
bad luck—fits and starts, collapse, regret—and ill-advised, desperate love
affairs. I had always imagined that she’d self-destructed, likely drank herself
to the kind of early death that people always call tragic.
Part of me had even credited her with the possibility that she had known this,
that she had brought Thalia to Tinos to spare her, rescue her from the
disasters Madaline knew she was helpless from visiting upon her daughter. But
now I picture Madaline the way Mamá always must have: Madaline, the
cartographer, sitting down, calmly drawing the map of her future and neatly
excluding her burdensome daughter from its borders. And she’d succeeded
spectacularly, at least according to this obituary and its clipped account of a
mannered life, a life rich with achievement, grace, respect.
I find I cannot accept it.
The success, the getting away with it. It is preposterous. Where was the toll,
the exacting comeuppance?
And yet, as I fold the
newspaper, a nagging doubt begins to set in. A faint intimation that I have
judged Madaline harshly, that we weren’t even that different, she and I. Hadn’t
we both yearned for escape, reinvention, new identities? Hadn’t we each, in the
end, unmoored ourselves by cutting loose the anchors that weighed us down? I
scoff at this, tell myself we are nothing alike, even as I sense that the anger
I feel toward her may really be a mask for my envy over her succeeding at it
all better than I had.
I toss the newspaper. If
Thalia is going to find out, it won’t be from me.
pushed the carrot shavings off the table with a knife and collected them in a
bowl. She loathed it when people wasted food. She would make a jar of marmalade
with the shavings.
“Well, you have a big
decision to make, Thalia,” she said.
Thalia surprised me by
turning to me and saying, “What would you do, Markos?”
“Oh, I know what he would do,” Mamá said quickly.
“I would go,” I said,
answering Thalia, looking at Mamá, taking satisfaction in playing the
insurrectionist that Mamá thought I was. Of course I meant it too. I couldn’t
believe Thalia would even hesitate. I would have leapt at the chance. A private
education. In London.
“You should think about it,”
“I already have,” Thalia said
hesitantly. Then, even more hesitant, as she raised her eyes to meet Mamá’s,
“But I don’t want to assume.”
Mamá put down the knife. I
heard a faint expulsion of breath. Had she been holding it? If so, her stoic
face betrayed no sign of relief. “The answer is yes. Of course it’s yes.”
Thalia reached across the
table and touched Mamá’s wrist. “Thank you, Aunt Odie.”
“I’ll only say this once,” I
said. “I think this is a mistake. You’re both making a mistake.”
They turned to look at me.
“Do you want me to go,
Markos?” Thalia said.
“Yes,” I said. “I’d miss you,
a lot, and you know that. But you can’t pass up a private school education.
You’d go to university afterward. You could become a researcher, a scientist, a
professor, an inventor. Isn’t that what you want? You’re the smartest person I
know. You could be anything you want.”
I broke off.
“No, Markos,” Thalia said
heavily. “No I couldn’t.”
She said this with a thudding
finality that sealed off all channels of rebuttal.
Many years later, when I
began training as a plastic surgeon, I understood something that I had not that
day in the kitchen arguing for Thalia to leave Tinos for the boarding school. I
learned that the world didn’t see the inside of you, that it didn’t care a whit
about the hopes and dreams, and sorrows, that lay masked by skin and bone. It
was as simple, as absurd, and as cruel as that. My patients knew this. They saw
that much of what they were, would be, or could be hinged on the symmetry of
their bone structure, the space between their eyes, their chin length, the tip
projection of their nose, whether they had an ideal nasofrontal angle or not.
Beauty is an enormous,
unmerited gift given randomly, stupidly.
And so I chose my specialty
to even out the odds for people like Thalia, to rectify, with each slice of my
scalpel, an arbitrary injustice, to make a small stand against a world order I
found disgraceful, one in which a dog bite could rob a little girl of her
future, make her an outcast, an object of scorn.
At least this is what I tell
myself. I suppose there were other reasons I chose plastic surgery. Money, for
instance, prestige, social standing. To say I chose it solely because of Thalia
is too simple—lovely as the idea may be—a bit too orderly and balanced. If I’ve
learned anything in Kabul, it is that human behavior is messy and unpredictable
and unconcerned with convenient symmetries. But I find comfort in it, in the
idea of a pattern, of a narrative of my life taking shape, like a photograph in
a darkroom, a story that slowly emerges and affirms the good I have always
wanted to see in myself. It sustains me, this story.
I spent half of my practice
in Athens, erasing wrinkles, lifting eyebrows, stretching jowls, reshaping
misbegotten noses. I spent the other half doing what I really
wanted to, which was to fly around the world—to Central America, to sub-Saharan
Africa, to South Asia, and to the Far East—and work on children, repairing
cleft lips and palates, removing facial tumors, repairing injuries to their
faces. The work in Athens was not nearly as gratifying, but the pay was good,
and it afforded me the luxury of taking weeks and months off at a time for my
Then, early in 2002, I took a
phone call in my office from a woman I knew. Her name was Amra Ademovic. She
was a nurse from Bosnia. She and I had met at a conference in London a few
years back and had had a pleasant, weekend-long thing that we’d mutually kept
inconsequential, though we had remained in touch and seen each other socially
on occasion. She said she was working for a nonprofit in Kabul now and that
they were searching for a plastic surgeon to work on children—cleft lips,
facial injuries inflicted by shrapnel and bullets, that sort of thing. I agreed
on the spot. I intended to stay for three months. I went late in the spring of
2002. I never came back.
picks me up from the ferry port. She has on a green wool scarf and a thick
dull-rose-colored coat over a cardigan sweater and jeans. She wears her hair
long these days, loose over the shoulders and parted in the center. Her hair is
white, and it is this feature—not the mutilated lower face—that jars me and
takes me aback when I see her. Not that it surprises me; Thalia started going gray
in her mid-thirties and had cotton-white hair by the end of the following
decade. I know I have changed too, the stubbornly growing paunch, the
just-as-determined retreat of the hairline, but the decline of one’s own body
is incremental, as nearly imperceptible as it is insidious. Seeing Thalia
white-haired presents jolting evidence of her steady, inevitable march toward
old age—and, by association, my own.
“You’re going to be cold,”
she says, tightening the scarf around her neck. It’s January, late morning, the
sky overcast and gray. A cool breeze makes the shriveled-up leaves clatter in
“You want cold, come to
Kabul,” I say. I pick up my suitcase.
“Suit yourself, Doctor. Bus
or walk? Your choice.”
“Let’s walk,” I say.
We head north. We pass through
Tinos town. The sailboats and yachts moored in the inner harbor. The kiosks
selling postcards and T-shirts. People sipping coffee at little round tables
outside cafés, reading newspapers, playing chess. Waiters setting out
silverware for lunch. Another hour or two and the smell of cooking fish will
waft from kitchens.
Thalia launches energetically
into a story about a new set of whitewashed bungalows that developers are
building south of Tinos town, with views of Mykonos and the Aegean. Primarily,
they will be filled by either tourists or the wealthy summer residents who have
been coming to Tinos since the 1990s. She says the bungalows will have an
outdoor pool and a fitness center.
She has been e-mailing me for
years, chronicling for me these changes that are reshaping Tinos. The beachside
hotels with the satellite dishes and dial-up access, the nightclubs and bars
and taverns, the restaurants and shops that cater to tourists, the cabs, the
buses, the crowds, the foreign women who lie topless at the beaches. The
farmers ride pickup trucks now instead of donkeys—at least the farmers who
stayed. Most of them left long ago, though some are coming back now to live out
their retirement on the island.
“Odie is none too pleased,”
Thalia says, meaning with the transformation. She has written me about this
too—the older islanders’ suspicion of the newcomers and the changes they are
“You don’t seem to mind the
change,” I say.
“No point in griping about
the inevitable,” she says. Then adds, “Odie says, ‘Well, it figures you’d say that, Thalia. You weren’t born here.’” She lets
out a loud, hearty laugh. “You’d think after forty-four years on Tinos I would
have earned the right. But there you have it.”
Thalia has changed too. Even
with the winter coat on, I can tell she has thickened in the hips, become
plumper—not soft plump, sturdy plump. There is a cordial defiance to her now, a
slyly teasing way she has of commenting on things I do that I suspect she finds
slightly foolish. The brightness in her eyes, this new hearty laugh, the
perpetual flush of the cheeks—the overall impression is, a farmer’s wife. A
salt-of-the-earth kind of woman whose robust friendliness hints at a bracing authority
and hardness you might be unwise to question.
“How is business?” I ask.
“Are you still working?”
“Here and there,” Thalia
says. “You know the times.” We both shake our heads. In Kabul, I had followed
news about the rounds of austerity measures. I had watched on CNN masked young
Greeks stoning police outside the parliament, cops in riot gear firing tear
gas, swinging their batons.
Thalia doesn’t run a business
in the real sense. Before the digital age, she was essentially a handywoman.
She went to people’s homes and soldered power transistors in their TVs,
replaced signal capacitors in old tube-model radios. She was called in to fix
faulty refrigerator thermostats, seal leaky plumbing. People paid her what they
could. And if they couldn’t afford to pay, she did the work anyway. I don’t really need the money, she told me. I do it for the game of it. There’s still a thrill for me in
opening things up and seeing how they work inside. These days, she is
like a freelance one-woman IT department. Everything she knows is self-taught.
She charges nominal fees to troubleshoot people’s PCs, change IP settings, fix
their application-file freeze-ups, their slowdowns, their upgrade and boot-up
failures. More than once I have called her from Kabul, desperate for help with
my frozen IBM.
When we arrive at my mother’s
house, we stand outside for a moment in the courtyard beside the old olive
tree. I see evidence of Mamá’s recent frenzy of work—the repainted walls, the
half-finished dovecote, a hammer and an open box of nails resting on a slab of
“How is she?” I ask.
“Oh, thorny as ever. That’s
why I had that thing installed.” She points to a satellite dish perched on the
roof. “We watch foreign soaps. The Arabic ones are the best, or the worst,
which comes down to the same thing. We try to figure out the plots. It keeps
her claws off me.” She charges through the front door. “Welcome home. I’ll fix
you something to eat.”
strange being back in this house. I see a few unfamiliar things, like the gray
leather armchair in the living room and a white wicker end table beside the TV.
But everything else is more or less where it used to be. The kitchen table, now
covered by a vinyl top with an alternating pattern of eggplants and pears; the
straight-backed bamboo chairs; the old oil lamp with the wicker holder, the
scalloped chimney stained black with smoke; the picture of me and Mamá—me in
the white shirt, Mamá in her good dress—still hanging above the mantel in the
living room; Mamá’s set of china still on the high shelf.
And yet, as I drop my
suitcase, it feels as though there is a gaping hole in the middle of
everything. The decades of my mother’s life here with Thalia, they are dark,
vast spaces to me. I have been absent. Absent for all the meals Thalia and Mamá
have shared at this table, the laughs, the quarrels, the stretches of boredom,
the illnesses, the long string of simple rituals that make up a lifetime.
Entering my childhood home is a little disorienting, like reading the end of a
novel that I’d started, then abandoned, long ago.
“How about some eggs?” Thalia
says, already donning a print bib apron, pouring oil in a skillet. She moves
about the kitchen with command, in a proprietary way.
“Sure. Where is Mamá?”
“Asleep. She had a rough
“I’ll take a quick look.”
Thalia fishes a whisk from
the drawer. “You wake her up, you’ll answer to me, Doctor.”
I tiptoe up the steps to the
bedroom. The room is dark. A single long narrow slab of light shoots through
the pulled curtains, slashes across Mamá’s bed. The air is heavy with sickness.
It’s not quite a smell; rather, it’s like a physical presence. Every doctor
knows this. Sickness permeates a room like steam. I stand at the entrance for a
moment and allow my eyes to adjust. The darkness is broken by a rectangle of
shifting colored light on the dresser on what I take to be Thalia’s side of the
bed, my old side. It’s one of those digital picture frames. A field of rice
paddies and wooden houses with gray-tiled roofs fade to a crowded bazaar with
skinned goats hanging from hooks, then to a dark-skinned man squatting by a
muddy river, finger-brushing his teeth.
I pull up a chair and sit at
Mamá’s bedside. Looking at her now that my eyes have adjusted, I feel something
in me drop. I am startled by how much my mother has shrunk. Already. The
floral-print pajamas appear loose around her small shoulders, over the
flattened chest. I don’t care for the way she is sleeping, with her mouth open
and turned down, as though she is having a sour dream. I don’t like seeing that
her dentures have slid out of place in her sleep. Her eyelids flutter slightly.
I sit there awhile. I ask myself, What did you expect? and I listen to the
clock ticking on the wall, the clanging of Thalia’s spatula against the frying
pan from downstairs. I take inventory of the banal details of Mamá’s life in
this room. The flat-screen TV fastened to the wall; the PC in the corner; the
unfinished game of Sudoku on the nightstand, the page marked by a pair of
reading glasses; the TV remote; the vial of artificial tears; a tube of steroid
cream; a tube of denture glue; a small bottle of pills; and, on the floor, an
oyster-colored pair of fuzzy slippers. She would have never worn those before.
Beside the slippers, an open bag of pull-on diapers. I cannot reconcile these
things with my mother. I resist them. They look to me like the belongings of a
stranger. Someone indolent, harmless. Someone with whom you could never be
Across the bed, the image on
the digital picture frame shifts again. I track a few. Then it comes to me. I
know these photos. I shot them. Back when I was … What? Walking the earth, I
suppose. I’d always made sure to get double prints and mail one set to Thalia.
And she’d kept them. All these years. Thalia. Affection seeps through me sweet
as honey. She has been my true sister, my true Manaar, all along.
She calls my name from
I get up quietly. As I leave
the room, something catches my eye. Something framed, mounted on the wall
beneath the clock. I can’t quite make it out in the dark. I open my cell phone
and take a look in its silver glow. It’s an AP story about the nonprofit I work
with in Kabul. I remember the interview. The journalist was a pleasant
Korean-American fellow with a mild stutter. We had shared a plate of qabuli—Afghan pilaf, with brown rice, raisins, lamb. There
is in the center of the story a group photo. Me, some of the children, Nabi in
the back, standing rigidly, hands behind his back, looking simultaneously
foreboding, shy, and dignified, as Afghans often manage to in pictures. Amra is
there too with her adopted daughter, Roshi. All the children are smiling.
I flip the mobile closed and
make my way downstairs.
Thalia puts before me a glass
of milk and a steaming plate of eggs on a bed of tomatoes. “Don’t worry, I
already sugared the milk.”
She takes a seat, not
bothering to remove the apron. She rests her elbows on the table and watches me
eat, dabbing now and then at her left cheek with a handkerchief.
I remember all the times I
tried to convince her to let me work on her face. I told her that surgical
techniques had come a long way since the 1960s, and that I was certain I could,
if not fix, then at least significantly improve her disfigurement. Thalia
refused, to enormous bewilderment on my part. This is who I
am, she said to me. An insipid, unsatisfactory answer, I thought at the
time. What did that even mean? I didn’t understand it. I had uncharitable
thoughts of prison inmates, lifers, afraid to get out, terrified of being
paroled, terrified of change, terrified of facing a new life outside barbed
wire and guard towers.
My offer to Thalia still
stands to this day. I know she won’t take it. But I understand now. Because she
was right—this is who she is. I cannot pretend to know
what it must have been like to gaze at that face in the mirror each day, to
take stock of its ghastly ruin, and to summon the will to accept it. The
mountainous strain of it, the effort, the patience. Her acceptance taking shape
slowly, over years, like rocks of a beachside cliff sculpted by the pounding
tides. It took the dog minutes to give Thalia her face, and a lifetime for her
to mold it into an identity. She would not let me undo it all with my scalpel.
It would be like inflicting a fresh wound over the old one.
I dig into the eggs, knowing
it will please her, even though I am not really hungry. “This is good, Thalia.”
“So, are you excited?”
“What do you mean?”
She reaches behind her and
pulls open a kitchen-counter drawer. She retrieves a pair of sunglasses with
rectangular lenses. It takes me a moment. Then I remember. The eclipse.
“Ah, of course.”
“At first,” she says, “I
thought we’d just watch it through a pinhole. But then Odie said you were
coming. And I said, ‘Well, then, let’s do it in style.’ ”
We talk a bit about the
eclipse that is supposed to happen the next day. Thalia says it will start in
the morning and be complete by noon or so. She has been checking the weather
updates and is relieved that the island is not due for a cloudy day. She asks if
I want more eggs and I say yes, and she tells me about a new Internet café that
has gone up where Mr. Roussos’s old pawnshop used to sit.
“I saw the pictures,” I say.
“Upstairs. The article too.”
She wipes my bread crumbs off
the table with her palm, tosses them over her shoulder into the kitchen sink
without looking. “Ah, that was easy. Well, scanning and uploading them was. The
hard part was organizing them into countries. I had to sit and figure it out
because you never sent notes, just the pictures. She was very specific about
that, the having it organized into countries. She had to have it that way. She
insisted on it.”
She issues a sigh. “ ‘Who?’
he says. Odie. Who else?”
“That was her idea?”
“The article too. She was the
one who found it on the web.”
“Mamá looked me up?” I say.
“I should have never taught
her. Now she won’t stop.” She gives a chuckle. “She checks on you every day.
It’s true. You have yourself a cyberspace stalker, Markos Varvaris.”
comes downstairs early in the afternoon. She is wearing a dark blue bathrobe
and the fuzzy slippers that I have already come to loathe. It looks like she
has brushed her hair. I am relieved to see that she appears to be moving
normally as she walks down the steps, as she opens her arms to me, smiling
We sit at the table for
“Where is Thalia?” she asks,
blowing into her cup.
“Out to get some treats. For
tomorrow. Is that yours, Mamá?” I point to a cane leaning against the wall
behind the new armchair. I hadn’t noticed it when I had first come in.
“Oh, I hardly use it. Just on
bad days. And for long walks. Even then, mostly for peace of mind,” she says
too dismissively, which is how I know she relies on it far more than she lets
on. “It’s you I worry for. The news from that awful country. Thalia doesn’t
want me listening to it. She says it will agitate me.”
“We do have our incidents,” I
say, “but mostly it’s just people going about their lives. And I’m always
careful, Mamá.” Of course I neglect to tell her about the shooting at the
guesthouse across the street or the recent surge in attacks on foreign-aid
workers, or that by careful I mean I have taken to
carrying a 9mm when I am out driving around the city, which I probably
shouldn’t be doing in the first place.
Mamá takes a sip of coffee,
winces a bit. She doesn’t push me. I am not sure whether this is a good thing.
Not sure whether she has drifted off, descended into herself as old people do,
or whether it is a tactic to not corner me into lying or disclosing things that
would only upset her.
“We missed you at Christmas,”
“I couldn’t get away, Mamá.”
She nods. “You’re here now.
That’s what matters.”
I take a sip of my coffee. I
remember when I was little Mamá and me eating breakfast at this table every
morning, quietly, almost solemnly, before we walked to school together. We said
so little to each other.
“You know, Mamá, I worry for
“No need to. I take care of
myself all right.” A flash of the old defiant pride, like a dim glint in the
“But for how long?”
“As long as I can.”
“And when you can’t, then
what?” I am not challenging her. I ask because I don’t know. I don’t know what
my own role will be or whether I will even play one.
She levels her gaze at me
evenly. Then she adds a teaspoon of sugar to her cup, slowly stirs it in. “It’s
a funny thing, Markos, but people mostly have it backward. They think they live
by what they want. But really what guides them is what they’re afraid of. What
they don’t want.”
“I don’t follow, Mamá.”
“Well, take you, for instance.
Leaving here. The life you’ve made for yourself. You were afraid of being
confined here. With me. You were afraid I would hold you back. Or, take Thalia.
She stayed because she didn’t want to be stared at anymore.”
I watch her taste her coffee,
pour in another spoonful of sugar. I remember how out of my depth I’d always
felt as a boy trying to argue with her. She spoke in a way that left no room
for retort, steamrolling over me with the truth, told right at the outset,
plainly, directly. I was always defeated before I’d so much as said a word. It
always seemed unfair.
“What about you, Mamá?” I
ask. “What are you scared of? What don’t you want?”
“To be a burden.”
“You won’t be.”
“Oh, you’re right about that,
Disquiet spreads through me
at this cryptic remark. My mind flashes to the letter Nabi had given me in
Kabul, his posthumous confession. The pact Suleiman Wahdati had made with him.
I can’t help but wonder if Mamá has forged a similar pact with Thalia, if she
has chosen Thalia to rescue her when the time comes. I know Thalia could do it.
She is strong now. She would save Mamá.
Mamá is studying my face.
“You have your life and your work, Markos,” she says, more softly now,
redirecting the course of the conversation, as if she has peeked into my mind,
spotted my worry. The dentures, the diapers, the fuzzy slippers—they have made
me underestimate her. She still has the upper hand. She always will. “I don’t
want to weigh you down.”
At last, a lie—this last
thing she says—but it’s a kind lie. It isn’t me she would weigh down. She knows
this as well as I do. I am absent, thousands of miles away. The unpleasantness,
the work, the drudgery, it would fall on Thalia. But Mamá is including me,
granting me something I have not earned, nor tried to.
“It wouldn’t be like that,” I
Mamá smiles. “Speaking of
your work, I guess you know that I didn’t exactly approve when you decided to
go to that country.”
“I had my suspicions, yes.”
“I didn’t understand why you
would go. Why would you give everything up—the practice, the money, the house
in Athens—all you’d worked for—and hole up in that violent place?”
“I had my reasons.”
“I know.” She raises the cup
to her lips, lowers it without sipping. “I’m no damn good at this,” she says
slowly, almost shyly, “but what I’m getting around to telling you is, you’ve
turned out good. You’ve made me proud, Markos.”
I look down at my hands. I
feel her words landing deep within me. She has startled me. Caught me
unprepared. For what she said. Or for the soft light in her eyes when she said
it. I am at a loss as to what I am expected to say in response.
“Thank you, Mamá,” I manage
I can’t say any more, and we
sit quietly for a while, the air between us thick with awkwardness and our
awareness of all the time lost, the opportunities frittered away.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you
something,” Mamá says.
“What is it?”
“James Parkinson. George
Huntington. Robert Graves. John Down. Now this Lou Gehrig fellow of mine. How
did men come to monopolize disease names too?”
I blink and my mother blinks
back, and then she is laughing and so am I. Even as I crumple inside.
morning, we lie outside on lounge chairs. Mamá wears a thick scarf and a gray
parka, her legs warmed against the sharp chill by a fleece blanket. We sip
coffee and nibble on bits of the cinnamon-flavored baked quince Thalia has
bought for the occasion. We are wearing our eclipse glasses, looking up at the
sky. The sun has a small bite taken from its northern rim, looking somewhat
like the logo on the Apple laptop Thalia periodically opens to post remarks on
an online forum. Up and down the street, people have settled on the sidewalks
and rooftops to watch the spectacle. Some have taken their families to the
other end of the island, where the Hellenic Astronomical Society has set up
“What time is it supposed to
peak?” I ask.
“Close to ten-thirty,” Thalia
says. She lifts her glasses, checks her watch. “Another hour or so.” She rubs
her hands with excitement, taps something on the keyboard.
I watch the two of them, Mamá
with her dark glasses, blue-veined hands laced on her chest, Thalia furiously
pounding the keys, white hair spilling from under her beanie cap.
You’ve turned out good.
I lay on the couch the night
before, thinking about what Mamá had said, and my thoughts had wandered to
Madaline. I remembered how, as a boy, I would stew over all the things Mamá
wouldn’t do, things other mothers did. Hold my hand when we walked. Sit me up
on her lap, read bedtime stories, kiss my face good night. Those things were
true enough. But, all those years, I’d been blind to a greater truth, which lay
unacknowledged and unappreciated, buried deep beneath my grievances. It was
this: that my mother would never leave me. This was her gift to me, the ironclad
knowledge that she would never do to me what Madaline had done to Thalia. She
was my mother and she would not leave me. This I had simply accepted and
expected. I had no more thanked her for it than I did the sun for shining on
“Look!” Thalia exclaims.
Suddenly, all around us—on
the ground, on the walls, on our clothing—little shining sickles of light have
materialized, the crescent-shaped sun beaming through the leaves of our olive
tree. I find a crescent shimmering on the coffee inside my mug, another dancing
on my shoelaces.
“Show me your hands, Odie,”
Thalia says. “Quick!”
Mamá opens her hands, palms
up. Thalia fetches from her pocket a square of cut glass. She holds it over
Mamá’s hands. Suddenly, little crescent rainbows quiver on the wrinkled skin of
my mother’s hands. She gasps.
“Look at that, Markos!” Mamá
says, grinning unabashedly with delight like a schoolgirl. I have never before
seen her smile this purely, this guilelessly.
We sit, the three of us,
watching the trembling little rainbows on my mother’s hands, and I feel sadness
and an old ache, each like a claw at my throat.
You’ve turned out good.
You’ve made me proud, Markos.
I am fifty-five years old. I
have waited all my life to hear those words. Is it too late now for this? For us?
Have we squandered too much for too long, Mamá and I? Part of me thinks it is
better to go on as we have, to act as though we don’t know how ill suited we
have been for each other. Less painful that way. Perhaps better than this
belated offering. This fragile, trembling little glimpse of how it could have
been between us. All it will beget is regret, I tell myself, and what good is
regret? It brings back nothing. What we have lost is irretrievable.
And yet when my mother says,
“Isn’t it beautiful, Markos?” I say to her, “It is, Mamá. It is beautiful,” and
as something begins to break wide open inside me I reach over and take my
mother’s hand in mine.
When I was a little girl, my
father and I had a nightly ritual. After I’d said my twenty-one Bismillahs and he had tucked me into bed, he would sit at my
side and pluck bad dreams from my head with his thumb and forefinger. His
fingers would hop from my forehead to my temples, patiently searching behind my
ears, at the back of my head, and he’d make a pop
sound—like a bottle being uncorked—with each nightmare he purged from my brain.
He stashed the dreams, one by one, into an invisible sack in his lap and pulled
the drawstring tightly. He would then scour the air, looking for happy dreams
to replace the ones he had sequestered away. I watched as he cocked his head
slightly and frowned, his eyes roaming side to side, like he was straining to
hear distant music. I held my breath, waiting for the moment when my father’s face
unfurled into a smile, when he sang, Ah, here is one,
when he cupped his hands, let the dream land in his palms like a petal slowly
twirling down from a tree. Gently, then, so very gently—my father said all good
things in life were fragile and easily lost—he would raise his hands to my
face, rub his palms against my brow and happiness into my head.
What am I going to dream
about tonight, Baba? I asked.
tonight. Well, tonight is a special one, he always
said before going on to tell me about it. He would make up a story on the spot.
In one of the dreams he gave me, I had become the world’s most famous painter.
In another, I was the queen of an enchanted island, and I had a flying throne.
He even gave me one about my favorite dessert, Jell-O. I had the power to, with
a wave of my wand, turn anything into Jell-O—a school bus, the Empire State
Building, the entire Pacific Ocean, if I liked. More than once, I saved the
planet from destruction by waving my wand at a crashing meteor. My father, who
never spoke much about his own father, said it was from him that he had
inherited his storytelling ability. He said that when he was a boy, his father
would sometimes sit him down—if he was in the mood, which was not often—and
tell stories populated with jinns and fairies and divs.
Some nights, I turned the
tables on Baba. He shut his eyes and I slid my palms down his face, starting at
his brow, over the prickly stubble of his cheeks, the coarse hairs of his
what is my dream tonight? he would whisper, taking
my hands. And his smile would open. Because he knew already what dream I was
giving him. It was always the same. The one of him and his little sister lying
beneath a blossoming apple tree, drifting toward an afternoon nap. The sun warm
against their cheeks, its light picking out the grass and the leaves and
clutter of blossoms above.
I was an only, and often
lonely, child. After they’d had me, my parents, who’d met back in Pakistan when
they were both around forty, had decided against tempting fate a second time. I
remember how I would eye with envy all the kids in our neighborhood, in my
school, who had a little brother or sister. How bewildered I was by the way
some of them treated each other, oblivious to their own good luck. They acted
like wild dogs. Pinching, hitting, pushing, betraying one another any way they
could think of. Laughing about it too. They wouldn’t speak to one another. I
didn’t understand. Me, I spent most of my early years craving a sibling. What I
really wished I had was a twin, someone who’d cried
next to me in the crib, slept beside me, fed from Mother’s breast with me.
Someone to love helplessly and totally, and in whose face I could always find
And so Baba’s little sister,
Pari, was my secret companion, invisible to everyone but me. She was my sister, the one I’d always wished my parents had given
me. I saw her in the bathroom mirror when we brushed our teeth side by side in
the morning. We dressed together. She followed me to school and sat close to me
in class—looking straight ahead at the board, I could always spot the black of
her hair and the white of her profile out of the corner of my eye. I took her
with me to the playground at recess, feeling her presence behind me when I
whooshed down a slide, when I swung from one monkey bar to the next. After
school, when I sat at the kitchen table sketching, she doodled patiently nearby
or stood looking out the window until I finished and we ran outside to jump
rope, our twin shadows bopping up and down on the concrete.
No one knew about my games
with Pari. Not even my father. She was my secret.
Sometimes, when no one was
around, we ate grapes and talked and talked—about toys, which cereals were
tastiest, cartoons we liked, schoolkids we didn’t, which teachers were mean. We
shared the same favorite color (yellow), favorite ice cream (dark cherry), TV
show (Alf), and we both wanted to be artists when we
grew up. Naturally, I imagined we looked exactly the same because, after all,
we were twins. Sometimes I could almost see her—really see
her, I mean—just at the periphery of my eyesight. I tried drawing her, and,
each time, I gave her the same slightly uneven light green eyes as mine, the
same dark curly hair, the same long, slashing eyebrows that almost touched. If
anyone asked, I told them I had drawn myself.
The tale of how my father had
lost his sister was as familiar to me as the stories my mother had told me of
the Prophet, tales I would learn again later when my parents would enroll me in
Sunday school at a mosque in Hayward. Still, despite the familiarity, each
night I asked to hear Pari’s story again, caught in the pull of its gravity.
Maybe it was simply because we shared a name. Maybe that was why I sensed a
connection between us, dim, enfolded in mystery, real nonetheless. But it was
more than that. I felt touched by her, like I too had
been marked by what had happened to her. We were interlocked, I sensed, through
some unseen order in ways I couldn’t wholly understand, linked beyond our
names, beyond familial ties, as if, together, we completed a puzzle.
I felt certain that if I
listened closely enough to her story, I would discover something revealed about
Do you think your father was
sad? That he sold her?
Some people hide their
sadness very well, Pari. He was like that. You couldn’t tell looking at him. He
was a hard man. But I think, yes, I think he was sad inside.
My father would smile and
say, Why should I be when I have you? but, even at
that age, I could tell. It was like a birthmark on his face.
The whole time we talked like
this, a fantasy played out in my head. In it, I would save all my money, not
spend a dollar on candy or stickers, and when my piggy bank was full—though it
wasn’t a pig at all but a mermaid sitting on a rock—I would break it open and pocket
all the money and set out to find my father’s little sister, wherever she was,
and, when I did, I would buy her back and bring her home to Baba. I would make
my father happy. There was nothing in the world I desired more than to be the
one to take away his sadness.
So what’s my dream tonight? Baba would ask.
You know already.
Another smile. Yes, I know.
Was she a good sister?
She was perfect.
He would kiss my cheek and
tuck the blanket around my neck. At the door, just after he’d turned off the
light, he would pause.
She was perfect, he would say. Like you are.
I always waited until he’d
shut the door before I slid out of bed, fetched an extra pillow, and placed it
next to my own. I went to sleep each night feeling twin hearts beating in my chest.
my watch as I veer onto the freeway from the Old Oakland Road entrance. It’s
already half past noon. It will take me forty minutes at least to reach SFO,
barring any accidents or roadwork on the 101. On the plus side, it is an international flight, so she will still have to clear
customs, and perhaps that will buy me a little time. I slide over to the left
lane and push the Lexus up close to eighty.
I remember a minor miracle of
a conversation I had had with Baba, about a month back. The exchange was a
fleeting bubble of normalcy, like a tiny pocket of air down in the deep, dark,
cold bottom of the ocean. I was late bringing him lunch, and he turned his head
to me from his recliner and remarked, with the gentlest critical tone, that I
was genetically programmed to not be punctual. Like your
mother, God rest her soul.
But then, he went on, smiling, as if to reassure me, a person
has to have a flaw somewhere.
So this is the one token flaw
God tossed my way, then? I said, lowering the plate of rice and beans on his
lap. Habitual tardiness?
And He did so with great
reluctance, I might add. Baba reached for my hands. So close, so
very close He had you to perfection.
Well, if you like, I’ll
happily let you in on a few more.
You have them hidden away, do
Oh, heaps. Ready to be
unleashed. For when you’re old and helpless.
I am old and
Now you want me to feel sorry
I play with the radio,
flipping from talk to country to jazz to more talk. I turn it off. I’m restless
and nervous. I reach for my cell phone on the passenger seat. I call the house
and leave the phone flipped open on my lap.
Baba. It’s me.”
“Yes, Baba. Is everything
okay at the house with you and Hector?”
“Yes. He’s a wonderful young
man. He made us eggs. We had them with toast. Where are you?”
“I’m driving,” I say.
“To the restaurant? You don’t
have a shift today, do you?”
“No, I’m on my way to the
airport, Baba. I’m picking someone up.”
“Okay. I’ll ask your mother
to make us lunch,” he says. “She could bring something from the restaurant.”
“All right, Baba.”
To my relief, he doesn’t
mention her again. But, some days, he won’t stop. Why won’t
you tell me where she is, Pari? Is she having an operation? Don’t lie to me!
Why is everyone lying to me? Has she gone away? Is she in Afghanistan? Then I’m
going too! I’m going to Kabul, and you can’t stop me. We go back and
forth like this, Baba pacing, distraught; me feeding him lies, then trying to
distract him with his collection of home-improvement catalogs or something on
television. Sometimes it works, but other times he is impervious to my tricks.
He worries until he is in tears, in hysterics. He slaps at his head and rocks
back and forth in the chair, sobbing, his legs quivering, and then I have to
feed him an Ativan. I wait for his eyes to cloud over, and, when they do, I
drop on the couch, exhausted, out of breath, near tears myself. Longingly, I
look at the front door and the openness beyond and I want to walk through it
and just keep walking. And then Baba moans in his sleep, and I snap back,
simmering with guilt.
“Can I talk to Hector, Baba?”
I hear the receiver
transferring hands. In the background, the sound of a game-show crowd groaning,
Hector Juarez lives across
the street. We’ve been neighbors for many years and have become friends in the
last few. He comes over a couple of times a week and he and I eat junk food and
watch trash TV late into the night, mostly reality shows. We chew on cold pizza
and shake our heads with morbid fascination at the antics and tantrums on the
screen. Hector was a marine, stationed in the south of Afghanistan. A couple of
years back, he got himself badly hurt in an IED attack. Everyone from the block
showed up when he finally came home from the VA. His parents had hung a Welcome Home, Hector sign out in their front yard, with
balloons and a lot of flowers. Everyone clapped when his parents pulled up to
the house. Several of the neighbors had baked pies. People thanked him for his
service. They said, Be strong, now. God bless.
Hector’s father, Cesar, came over to our house a few days later and he and I
installed the same wheelchair ramp Cesar had built outside his own house
leading up to the front door, the American flag draped above it. I remember, as
the two of us worked on the ramp, I felt a need to apologize to Cesar for what
had happened to Hector in my father’s homeland.
“Hi,” I say. “I thought I’d
“It’s all good here,” Hector
says. “We ate. We did Price Is Right. We’re chillin’
now with Wheel. Next up is Feud.”
“What for, mija?
We’re having a good time. Aren’t we, Abe?”
“Thanks for making him eggs,”
Hector lowers his voice a
notch. “Pancakes, actually. And guess what? He loved them. Ate up a four-stack.”
“I really owe you.”
“Hey, I really like the new
painting, girl. The one with the kid in the funny hat? Abe here showed it to
me. He was all proud too. I was, like, damn! You should
be proud, man.”
I smile as I shift lanes to
let a tailgater pass. “Maybe I know what to give you for Christmas now.”
“Remind me again why we can’t get married?” Hector says. I hear Baba protesting in
the background and Hector’s laugh, away from the receiver. “I’m joking, Abe. Go
easy on me. I’m a cripple.” Then, to me, “I think your father just flashed me
his inner Pashtun.”
I remind him to give Baba his
late-morning pills and hang up.
seeing the photo of a radio personality, how they never turn out to look the
way you had pictured them in your mind, listening to their voice in your car.
She is old, for one thing. Or oldish. Of course I knew this. I had done the
math and estimated she had to be around her early sixties. Except it is hard to
reconcile this slim gray-haired woman with the little girl I’ve always
envisioned, a three-year-old with dark curly hair and long eyebrows that almost
meet, like mine. And she is taller than I imagined. I can tell, even though she
is sitting, on a bench near a sandwich kiosk, looking around timidly like she’s
lost. She has narrow shoulders and a delicate build, a pleasant face, her hair
pulled back taut and held with a crocheted headband. She wears jade earrings,
faded jeans, a long salmon tunic sweater, and a yellow scarf wrapped around her
neck with casual European elegance. She had told me in her last e-mail that she
would wear the scarf so I could spot her quickly.
She has not seen me yet, and
I linger for a moment among the travelers pushing luggage carts through the
terminal, the town-car chauffeurs holding signs with clients’ names. My heart
clamoring inside my rib cage, I think to myself, This is her.
This is her. This is really her. Then our eyes connect, and recognition
ripples across her face. She waves.
We meet at the bench. She
grins and my knees wobble. She has Baba’s grin exactly—except for a rice
grain’s gap between her upper front teeth—crooked on the left, the way it
scrunches up her face and nearly squeezes shut her eyes, how she tilts her head
just a tad. She stands up, and I notice the hands, the knobby joints, the
fingers bent away from the thumb at the first knuckle, the chickpea-sized lumps
at the wrist. I feel a twist in my stomach, it looks so painful.
We hug, and she kisses me on
the cheeks. Her skin is soft like felt. When we pull back, she holds me at a
distance, hands cupping my shoulders, and looks into my face as if she were
appraising a painting. There is a film of moisture over her eyes. They’re alive
“I apologize for being late.”
“It’s nothing,” she says. “At
last, to be with you! I am just so glad”—Is nussing. At lass, too be weez yoo! The French accent sounds even
thicker in person than it did on the phone.
“I’m glad too,” I say. “How
was your flight?”
“I took a pill, otherwise I
know I cannot sleep. I will stay awake the whole time. Because I am too happy
and too excited.” She holds me with her gaze, beaming at me—as if she is afraid
the spell will break if she looks away—until the PA overhead advises passengers
to report any unsupervised luggage, and then her face slackens a bit.
“Does Abdullah know yet that
I am coming here?”
“I told him I was bringing
home a guest,” I say.
Later, as we settle into the
car, I steal quick looks at her. It’s the strangest thing. There is something
oddly illusory about Pari Wahdati, sitting in my car, mere inches from me. One
moment, I see her with perfect clarity—the yellow scarf around her neck, the
short, flimsy hairs at the hairline, the coffee-colored mole beneath the left
ear—and, the next, her features are enfolded in a kind of haze, as if I am
peering at her through bleary glasses. I feel, in passing, a kind of vertigo.
“You are okay?” she says,
eyeing me as she snaps the seat-belt buckle.
“I keep thinking you’ll
“It’s just … a little
unbelievable,” I say, laughing nervously. “That you really exist. That you’re
She nods, smiling. “Ah, for
me too. For me too it is strange. You know, my whole life I never meet anyone
with the same name as me.”
“Neither have I.” I turn the
ignition key. “So tell me about your children.”
As I pull out of the parking
lot, she tells me all about them, using their names as though I had known them
all my life, as though her children and I had grown up together, gone on family
picnics and to camp and taken summer vacations to seaside resorts where we had
made seashell necklaces and buried one another under sand.
I do wish we had.
She tells me her son
Alain—“and your cousin,” she adds—and his wife, Ana, have had a fifth baby, a
little girl, and they have moved to Valencia, where they have bought a house. “Finalement, they leave that detestable apartment in Madrid!”
Her firstborn, Isabelle, who writes musical scores for television, has been
commissioned to compose her first major film score. And Isabelle’s husband,
Albert, is now head chef at a well-regarded restaurant in Paris.
“You owned a restaurant, no?”
she asks. “I think you told me this in your e-mail.”
“Well, my parents did. It was
always my father’s dream to own a restaurant. I helped them run it. But I had
to sell it a few years back. After my mother died and Baba became … incapable.”
“Ah, I am sorry.”
“Oh, don’t be. I wasn’t cut
out for restaurant work.”
“I should think not. You are
I had told her, in passing
the first time we spoke and she asked me what I did, that I had dreams of going
to art school one day.
“Actually, I am what you call
She listens intently as I
explain to her that I work for a firm that processes data for big Fortune 500
companies. “I write up forms for them. Brochures, receipts, customer lists,
e-mail lists, that sort of thing. The main thing you need to know is how to
type. And the pay is decent.”
“I see,” she says. She
considers, then says, “Is it interesting for you, doing this work?”
We are passing by Redwood
City on our way south. I reach across her lap and point out the passenger
window. “Do you see that building? The tall one with the blue sign?”
“I was born there.”
“Ah, bon?” She turns her neck to keep looking as I drive us past. “You are
“To know where you came
“I guess I never gave it much
of course not. But it is important to know this, to know your roots. To know
where you started as a person. If not, your own life seems unreal to you. Like
a puzzle. Vous comprenez? Like you have missed the
beginning of a story and now you are in the middle of it, trying to
I imagine this is how Baba
feels these days. His life, riddled with gaps. Every day a mystifying story, a
puzzle to struggle through.
We drive in silence for a
couple of miles.
“Do I find my work interesting?”
I say. “I came home one day and found the water running in the kitchen sink.
There was broken glass on the floor, and the gas burner had been left on. That
was when I knew that I couldn’t leave him alone anymore. And because I couldn’t
afford a live-in caretaker, I looked for work I could do from home.
‘Interesting’ didn’t figure much into the equation.”
“And art school can wait.”
“It has to.”
I worry she will say next how
lucky Baba is to have me for a daughter, but, to my relief and gratitude, she
only nods, her eyes swimming past the freeway signs. Other people,
though—especially Afghans—are always pointing out how fortunate Baba is, what a
blessing I am. They speak of me admiringly. They make me out to be a saint, the
daughter who has heroically forgone some glittering life of ease and privilege
to stay home and look after her father. But, first, the
mother, they say, their voices ringing, I imagine, with a glistening
kind of sympathy. All those years of nursing her. What a mess
that was. Now the father. She was never a looker, sure, but she had a suitor.
An American, he was, the solar fellow. She could have married him. But she
didn’t. Because of them. The things she sacrificed. Ah, every parent should
have a daughter like this. They compliment me on my good humor. They
marvel at my courage and nobility the way people do those who have overcome a
physical deformity or maybe a crippling speech impediment.
But I don’t recognize myself
in this version of the story. For instance, some mornings I spot Baba sitting
on the edge of his bed, eyeing me with his rheumy gaze, impatient for me to
slip socks onto his dry, mottled feet, and he growls my name and makes an
infantile face. He wrinkles his nose in a way that makes him look like a wet,
fearful rodent, and I resent him when he makes this face. I resent him for
being the way he is. I resent him for the narrowed borders of my existence, for
being the reason my best years are draining away from me. There are days when
all I want is to be free of him and his petulance and neediness. I am nothing
like a saint.
I take the exit at Thirteenth
Street. A handful of miles later, I pull into our driveway, on Beaver Creek
Court, and turn off the engine.
Pari looks out the window at
our one-story house, the garage door with the peeling paint job, the olive
window trim, the tacky pair of stone lions on guard on either side of the front
door—I haven’t had the heart to get rid of them because Baba loves them, though
I doubt he would notice. We have lived in this house since 1989, when I was
seven, renting it first, before Baba bought it from the owner back in ’93.
Mother died in this house, on a sunny Christmas Eve morning, in a hospital bed
I set up for her in the guest bedroom and where she spent the last three months
of her life. She asked me to move her to that room because of the view. She
said it raised up her spirits. She lay in the bed, her legs swollen and gray,
and spent her days looking out the window at the cul-de-sac, the front yard
with its rim of Japanese maples she had planted years before, the star-shaped
flower bed, the swath of lawn split by a narrow path of pebbles, the foothills
in the distance and the deep, rich gold they turned midday when sunlight shone
full tilt on them.
“I am very nervous,” Pari says
“It’s understandable,” I say.
“It’s been fifty-eight years.”
She looks down at her hands
folded in her lap. “I remember almost nothing about him. What I remember, it is
not his face or his voice. Only that in my life something has been missing
always. Something good. Something … Ah, I don’t know what to say. That is all.”
I nod. I think better of
telling her just how well I understand. I come close to asking whether she had
ever had any intimations of my existence.
She toys with the frayed ends
of her scarf. “Do you think it is possible that he will remember me?”
“Do you want the truth?”
She searches my face. “Of
“It’s probably best he
doesn’t.” I think of what Dr. Bashiri had said, my parents’ longtime physician.
He said Baba needed regimen, order. A minimum of surprise. A
sense of predictability.
I open my door. “Would you
mind staying in the car a minute? I’ll send my friend home, and then you can
She puts a hand over her
eyes, and I don’t wait to see if she is going to cry.
was eleven, all the sixth-grade classes in my elementary school went for an
overnight field trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The whole week leading up to
that Friday, it was all my classmates talked about, in the library or playing
four square at recess, how much fun they would have, once the aquarium closed
for the day, free to run around the exhibits, in their pajamas, among the
hammerheads, the bat rays, the sea dragons, and the squid. Our teacher, Mrs.
Gillespie, told us dinner stations would be set up around the aquarium, and
students would have their choice of PB&J or mac and cheese. You can have brownies for dessert or vanilla ice cream, she
said. Students would crawl into their sleeping bags that night and listen to
teachers read them bedtime stories, and they would drift off to sleep among the
sea horses and sardines and the leopard sharks gliding through tall fronds of
swaying kelp. By Thursday, the anticipation in the classroom was electric. Even
the usual troublemakers made sure to be on their best for fear that mischief
would cost them the trip to the aquarium.
For me, it was a bit like
watching an exciting movie with the sound turned off. I felt removed from all
the cheerfulness, cut off from the celebratory mood—the way I did every
December when my classmates went home to Douglas firs and stockings dangling
over fireplaces and pyramids of presents. I told Mrs. Gillespie I wouldn’t be
going along. When she asked why, I said the field trip fell on a Muslim
holiday. I wasn’t sure she believed me.
The night of the trip, I
stayed home with my parents, and we watched Murder, She Wrote.
I tried to focus on the show and not think about the field trip, but my mind
insisted on wandering off. I imagined my classmates, at that same moment, in
their pajamas, flashlights in hand, their foreheads pressed against the glass
of a giant tank of eel. I felt something clenching in my chest, and I shifted
my weight on the couch. Baba, slung back on the other couch, tossed a roasted
peanut into his mouth and chuckled at something Angela Lansbury said. Next to
him, I caught Mother watching me pensively, her face clouded over, but when our
eyes met her features cleared quickly and she smiled—a stealthy, private
smile—and I dug inward and willed myself to smile back. That night, I dreamt I
was at a beach, standing waist-deep in the ocean, water that was myriad shades
of green and blue, jade, sapphire, emerald, turquoise, gently rocking at my
hips. At my feet glided legions of fish, as if the ocean were my own private
aquarium. They brushed against my toes and tickled my calves, a thousand
darting, glistening flashes of color against the white sand.
That Sunday, Baba had a
surprise for me. He shut down the restaurant for the day—something he almost
never did—and drove the two of us to the aquarium in Monterey. Baba talked
excitedly the whole way. How much fun we were going to have. How he looked
forward to seeing all the sharks especially. What should we eat for lunch? As
he spoke, I remembered when I was little and he would take me to the petting
zoo at Kelley Park and the Japanese gardens next door to see the koi, and how
we would give names to all the fish and how I would cling to his hand and think
to myself that I would never need anyone else as long as I lived.
At the aquarium, I wandered
gamely through the exhibits and did my best to answer Baba’s questions about
different types of fish I recognized. But the place was too bright and noisy,
the good exhibits too crowded. It was nothing like the way I imagined it had
been the night of the field trip. It was a struggle. It wore me out, trying to
make like I was having a good time. I felt a stomachache coming on, and we left
after an hour or so of shuffling about. On the drive home, Baba kept glancing
my way with a bruised look like he was on the verge of saying something. I felt
his eyes pressing in on me. I pretended to sleep.
The next year, in junior
high, girls my age were wearing eye shadow and lip gloss. They went to Boyz II
Men concerts, school dances, and on group dates to Great America, where they
screeched through the dips and corkscrews of the Demon. Classmates tried out
for basketball and cheerleading. The girl who sat behind me in Spanish,
pale-skinned with freckles, was going out for the swim team, and she casually
suggested one day, as we were clearing our desks just after the bell, that I
give it a shot too. She didn’t understand. My parents would have been mortified
if I wore a bathing suit in public. Not that I wanted to. I was terribly self-conscious
about my body. I was slim above the waist but disproportionately and strikingly
thick below, as if gravity had pulled all the weight down to my lower half. I
looked like I had been put together by a child playing one of those board games
where you mix and match body parts or, better yet, mismatch them so everyone
has a good laugh. Mother said what I had was “strong bones.” She said her own
mother had had the same build. Eventually, she stopped, having figured, I
guess, that big-boned was not something a girl wanted to be called.
I did lobby Baba to let me
try out for the volleyball team, but he took me in his arms and gently cupped
his hands around my head. Who would take me to practice? he reasoned. Who would
drive me to games? Oh, I wish we had the luxury, Pari, like
your friends’ parents, but we have a living to make, your mother and I. I won’t
have us back on welfare. You understand, my love. I know you do.
Despite the need to make a
living, Baba found the time to drive me to Farsi lessons down in Campbell.
Every Tuesday afternoon, after regular school, I sat in Farsi class and, like a
fish made to swim upstream, tried to guide the pen, against my hand’s own
nature, from right to left. I begged Baba to end the Farsi classes, but he
refused. He said I would appreciate later the gift he was giving me. He said
that if culture was a house, then language was the key to the front door, to
all the rooms inside. Without it, he said, you ended up wayward, without a
proper home or a legitimate identity.
Then there was Sundays, when
I put on a white cotton scarf, and he dropped me off at the mosque in Hayward
for Koran lessons. The room where we studied—a dozen other Afghan girls and
I—was tiny, had no air-conditioning, and smelled of unwashed linen. The windows
were narrow and set high, the way prison-cell windows always are in the movies.
The lady who taught us was the wife of a grocer in Fremont. I liked her best
when she told us stories about the Prophet’s life, which I found
interesting—how he had lived his childhood in the desert, how the angel Gabriel
had appeared to him in a cave and commanded him to recite verses, how everyone
who met him was struck by his kind and luminous face. But she spent the bulk of
the time running down a long list, warning us against all the things we had to
avoid at all cost as virtuous young Muslim girls lest we be corrupted by
Western culture: boys—first and foremost, naturally—but also rap music,
Madonna, Melrose Place, shorts, dancing, swimming in
public, cheerleading, alcohol, bacon, pepperoni, non-halal burgers, and a slew
of other things. I sat on the floor, sweating in the heat, my feet falling
asleep, wishing I could lift the scarf from my hair, but, of course, you
couldn’t do that in a mosque. I looked up at the windows, but they allowed only
narrow slits of sky. I longed for the moment when I exited the mosque, when
fresh air first struck my face and I always felt a loosening inside my chest,
the relief of an uncomfortable knot coming undone.
But until then, the only escape
was to slacken the reins on my mind. From time to time, I would find myself
thinking of Jeremy Warwick, from math. Jeremy had laconic blue eyes and a
white-boy Afro. He was secretive and brooding. He played guitar in a garage
band—at the school’s annual talent show, they played a raucous take on “House
of the Rising Sun.” In class, I sat four seats behind and to the left of
Jeremy. Sometimes I pictured us kissing, his hand cupped around the back of my
neck, his face so close to mine it eclipsed the whole world. A sensation would
spread through me like a warm feather gently shivering across my belly, my
limbs. Of course it could never happen. We could never
happen, Jeremy and I. If he had even the dimmest inkling of my existence, he
had never given a clue. Which was just as well, really. This way, I could
pretend the only reason we couldn’t be together was that he didn’t like me.
I worked summers at my
parents’ restaurant. When I was younger, I had loved to wipe the tables, help
arrange plates and silverware, fold paper napkins, drop a red gerbera into the
little round vase at the center of each table. I pretended I was indispensable
to the family business, that the restaurant would fall apart without me to make
sure all the salt and pepper shakers were full.
By the time I was in high
school, days at Abe’s Kabob House dragged long and hot. Much of the luster that
the things inside the restaurant had held for me in childhood had faded. The
old humming soda merchandiser in the corner, the vinyl table covers, the
stained plastic cups, the tacky item names on the laminated menus—Caravan Kabob, Khyber Pass Pilaf, Silk Route Chicken—the badly framed poster of the Afghan
girl from National Geographic, the one with the
eyes—like they had passed an ordinance that every single Afghan restaurant had
to have her eyes staring back from the wall. Next to it, Baba had hung an oil
painting I had done in seventh grade of the big minarets in Herat. I remember
the charge of pride and glamour I had felt when he had first put it up, when I
watched customers eating their lamb kabobs beneath my artwork.
At lunch hour, while Mother
and I ping-ponged back and forth from the spicy smoke in the kitchen to the
tables where we served office workers and city employees and cops, Baba worked the
register—Baba and his grease-stained white shirt, the bushel of gray chest hair
spilling over the open top button, his thick, hairy forearms. Baba beaming,
waving cheerfully to each entering customer. Hello, sir!
Hello, madam! Welcome to Abe’s Kabob House. I’m Abe. Can I take your order
please? It made me cringe how he didn’t realize that he sounded like the
goofy Middle Eastern sidekick in a bad sitcom. Then, with each meal I served,
there was the sideshow of Baba ringing the old copper bell. It had started as a
kind of joke, I suppose, the bell, which Baba had hooked to the wall behind the
register counter. Now each table served was greeted by a hearty clang of the
copper bell. The regulars were used to it—they barely heard it anymore—and new
customers mostly chalked it up to the eccentric charm of the place, though
there were complaints from time to time.
want to ring the bell anymore, Baba said one night.
It was in the spring quarter of my senior year in high school. We were in the
car outside the restaurant, after we had closed, waiting for Mother, who had
forgotten her antacid pills inside and had run back in to fetch them. Baba wore
a leaden expression. He had been in a dark mood all day. A light drizzle fell
on the strip mall. It was late, and the lot was empty, save for a couple of
cars at the KFC drive-thru and a pickup parked outside the dry-cleaning shop,
two guys inside the truck, smoke corkscrewing up from the windows.
It was more fun when I wasn’t
supposed to, I
Everything is, I guess. He sighed heavily.
I remembered how it used to
thrill me, when I was little, when Baba lifted me up by the underarms and let
me ring the bell. When he put me down again, my face would shine happy and
Baba turned on the car
heater, crossed his arms.
Long way to Baltimore.
I said brightly, You can
fly out to visit anytime.
Fly out anytime, he repeated with a touch
of derision. I cook kabob for a living, Pari.
Then I’ll come visit.
Baba rolled his eyes toward
me and gave me a drawn look. His melancholy was like the darkness outside
pushing against the car windows.
Every day for a month I had
been checking our mailbox, my heart riding a swell of hope each time the
delivery truck pulled up to the curb. I would bring the mail inside, close my
eyes, think, This could be it. I would open my eyes
and sift through the bills and the coupons and the sweepstakes. Then, on
Tuesday of the week before, I had ripped open an envelope and found the words I
had been waiting for: We are pleased to inform you …
I leapt to my feet. I
screamed—an actual throat-ripping yowl that made my eyes water. Almost
instantaneously, an image streaked through my head: opening night at a gallery,
me dressed in something simple, black, and elegant, encircled by patrons and
crinkle-browed critics, smiling and answering their questions, as clusters of admirers
linger before my canvases and servers in white gloves float around the gallery
pouring wine, offering little square bites of salmon with dill or asparagus
spears wrapped in puff pastry. I experienced one of those sudden bursts of
euphoria, the kind where you want to wrap strangers in a hug and dance with
them in great big swoops.
It’s your mother I worry for, Baba said.
I’ll call every night. I
promise. You know I will.
Baba nodded. The leaves of
the maples near the entrance to the parking lot tossed about in a sudden gust
Have you thought some more, he said, about what we discussed?
You mean, junior college?
Only for a year, maybe two.
Just to give her time to get accustomed to the idea. Then you could reapply.
I shuddered with a sudden jolt of anger. Baba, these people reviewed my test scores and transcripts, and they
went through my portfolio, and they thought enough of my artwork not only to
accept me but to offer me a scholarship. This is one of the best institutes of
art in the country. It’s not a school you say no to. You don’t get a second
chance like this.
That’s true, he said, straightening up in his seat. He cupped his hands and blew
warm air into them. Of course I understand. Of course I’m
happy for you. I could see the struggle in his face. And the fear too.
Not just fear for me and what might happen to me three
thousand miles from home. But fear of me, of losing
me. Of the power I wielded, through my absence, to make him unhappy, to maul
his open, vulnerable heart, if I chose to, like a Doberman going to work on a
I found myself thinking of
his sister. By then, my connection with Pari—whose presence had once been like
a pounding deep within me—had long waned. I thought of her infrequently. As the
years had swept past, I had outgrown her, the way I had outgrown favorite
pajamas and stuffed animals I had once clung to. But now I thought of her once
more and of the ties that bound us. If what had been done to her was like a
wave that had crashed far from shore, then it was the backwash of that wave now
pooling around my ankles, then receding from my feet.
Baba cleared his throat and
looked out the window at the dark sky and the clouded-over moon, his eyes
liquid with emotion.
Everything will remind me of
It was in the tender,
slightly panicky way he spoke these words that I knew my father was a wounded
person, that his love for me was as true, vast, and permanent as the sky, and
that it would always bear down upon me. It was the kind of love that, sooner or
later, cornered you into a choice: either you tore free or you stayed and
withstood its rigor even as it squeezed you into something smaller than
I reached over from the
darkened backseat and touched his face. He leaned his cheek onto my palm.
What’s taking so long? he murmured.
locking up, I said. I felt exhausted. I watched
Mother hurry to the car. The drizzle had turned into a downpour.
A month later, a couple of
weeks before I was due to fly east for a campus visit, Mother went to Dr.
Bashiri to tell him the antacid pills had done nothing to help her stomach
pain. He sent her for an ultrasound. They found a tumor the size of a walnut in
her left ovary.
He is on the recliner,
sitting motionless, slumped forward. He has his sweatpants on, his lower legs
covered by a checkered wool shawl. He is wearing the brown cardigan sweater I
bought him the year before over a flannel shirt he has buttoned all the way.
This is the way he insists on wearing his shirts now, with the collar buttoned,
which makes him look both boyish and frail, resigned to old age. He looks a
little puffy in the face today, and strands of his white hair spill uncombed
over his brow. He is watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
with a somber, perplexed expression. When I call his name, his gaze lingers on
the screen like he hasn’t heard me before he drags it away and looks up with
displeasure. He has a small sty growing on the lower lid of his left eye. He
needs a shave.
“Baba, can I mute the TV for
“I’m watching,” he says.
“I know. But you have a
visitor.” I had already told him about Pari Wahdati’s visit the day before and
again this morning. But I don’t ask him if he remembers. It is something that I
learned early on, to not put him on the spot, because it embarrasses him and
makes him defensive, sometimes abusive.
I pluck the remote from the
arm of the recliner and turn off the sound, bracing myself for a tantrum. The
first time he threw one, I was convinced it was a charade, an act he was
putting on. To my relief, Baba doesn’t protest beyond a long sigh through the
I motion to Pari, who is
lingering in the hallway at the entrance to the living room. Slowly, she walks
over to us, and I pull her up a chair close to Baba’s recliner. She is a bundle
of nervous excitement, I can tell. She sits erect, pale, leaning forward from
the edge of the chair, knees pressed together, her hands clamped, and her smile
so tight her lips are turning white. Her eyes are glued on Baba, as if she has
only moments with him and is trying to memorize his face.
“Baba, this is the friend I
told you about.”
He eyes the gray-haired woman
across from him. He has an unnerving way of looking at people these days, even
when he is staring directly at them, that gives nothing away. He looks
disengaged, closed off, like he meant to look elsewhere and his eyes happened
upon them by accident.
Pari clears her throat. Even
so, her voice shakes when she speaks. “Hello, Abdullah. My name is Pari. It’s
so wonderful to see you.”
He nods slowly. I can
practically see the uncertainty and confusion rippling
across his face like waves of muscle spasm. His eyes shift from my face to
Pari’s. He opens his mouth in a strained half smile the way he does when he
thinks a prank is being played on him.
“You have an accent,” he
“She lives in France,” I
said. “And, Baba, you have to speak English. She doesn’t understand Farsi.”
Baba nods. “So you live in
London?” he says to Pari.
“What?” He turns sharply to
me. Then he understands and gives an embarrassed little laugh before switching
from Farsi. “Do you live in London?”
“Paris, actually,” Pari says.
“I live in a small apartment in Paris.” She doesn’t lift her eyes from him.
“I always planned to take my
wife to Paris. Sultana—that was her name, God rest her soul. She was always
saying, Abdullah, take me to Paris. When will you take me to
Actually, Mother didn’t much
like to travel. She never saw why she would forgo the comfort and familiarity
of her own home for the ordeal of flying and suitcase lugging. She had no sense
of culinary adventure—her idea of exotic food was the Orange
Chicken at the Chinese take-out place on Taylor Street. It is a bit of a
marvel how Baba, at times, summons her with such uncanny precision—remembering,
for instance, that she salted her food by bouncing the salt grains off the palm
of her hand or her habit of interrupting people on the phone when she never did
it in person—and how, other times, he can be so wildly inaccurate. I imagine
Mother is fading for him, her face receding into shadows, her memory
diminishing with each passing day, leaking like sand from a fist. She is
becoming a ghostly outline, a hollow shell, that he feels compelled to fill
with bogus details and fabricated character traits, as though false memories are
better than none at all.
“Well, it is a lovely city,”
“Maybe I’ll take her still.
But she has the cancer at the moment. It’s the female kind—what do you call
“Ovarian,” I say.
Pari nods, her gaze flicking
to me and back to Baba.
“What she wants most is to
climb the Eiffel Tower. Have you seen it?” Baba says.
“The Eiffel Tower?” Pari
Wahdati laughs. “Oh yes. Every day. I cannot avoid it, in fact.”
“Have you climbed it? All the
way to the top?”
“I have, yes. It is beautiful
up there. But I am scared of high places, so it is not always comfortable for
me. But at the top, on a good sunny day, you can see for more than sixty
kilometers. Of course a lot of days in Paris it is not so good and not so
Baba grunts. Pari,
encouraged, continues talking about the tower, how many years it took to build
it, how it was never meant to stay in Paris past the 1889 World’s Fair, but she
can’t read Baba’s eyes like I can. His expression has flattened. She doesn’t
realize that she has lost him, that his thoughts have already shifted course
like windblown leaves. Pari nudges closer on the seat. “Did you know,
Abdullah,” she says, “that they have to paint the tower every seven years?”
“What did you say your name
was?” Baba says.
“That’s my daughter’s name.”
“Yes, I know.”
“You have the same name,”
Baba says. “The two of you, you have the same name. So there you have it.” He
coughs, absently picks at a small tear in the leather of the recliner’s arm.
“Abdullah, can I ask you a
Pari looks up at me like she
is asking for permission. I give her the go-ahead with a nod. She leans forward
in the chair. “How did you decide to choose this name for your daughter?”
Baba shifts his gaze to the
window, his fingernail still scraping the tear in the recliner’s arm.
“Do you remember, Abdullah?
Why this name?”
He shakes his head. With a
fist, he yanks at his cardigan and clutches it shut at his throat. His lips
barely move as he begins to hum under his breath, a rhythmic muttering he always
resorts to when he is marauded by anxiety and at a loss for an answer, when
everything has blurred to vagueness and he is bowled over by a gush of
disconnected thoughts, waiting desperately for the murkiness to clear.
“Abdullah? What is that?”
“Nothing,” he mutters.
“No, that song you are
singing—what is it?”
He turns to me, helpless. He
“It’s like a nursery rhyme,”
I say. “Remember, Baba? You said you learned it when you were a boy. You said
you learned it from your mother.”
“Can you sing it for me?”
Pari says urgently, a catch in her voice. “Please, Abdullah, will you sing it?”
He lowers his head and shakes
“Go ahead, Baba,” I say
softly. I rest my hand on his bony shoulder. “It’s okay.”
Hesitantly, in a high,
trembling voice and without looking up, Baba sings the same two lines several
I found a sad little fairy
Beneath the shade of a paper tree.
“He used to say there was a
second verse,” I say to Pari, “but that he’d forgotten it.”
Pari Wahdati lets out a
sudden laugh that sounds like a deep, guttural cry, and she covers her mouth. “Ah, mon Dieu,” she whispers. She lifts her hand. In Farsi,
I know a sad little fairy
Who was blown away by the wind one night.
Folds appear on Baba’s
forehead. For a transitory moment, I think I detect a tiny crack of light in
his eyes. But then it winks out, and his face is placid once more. He shakes
his head. “No. No, I don’t think that’s how it goes at all.”
“Oh, Abdullah …” Pari says.
Smiling, her eyes teared
over, Pari reaches for Baba’s hands and takes them into her own. She kisses the
back of each and presses his palms to her cheeks. Baba grins, moisture now
pooling in his eyes as well. Pari looks up at me, blinking back happy tears, and
I see she thinks she has broken through, that she has summoned her lost brother
with this magic chant like a genie in a fairy tale. She thinks he sees her
clearly now. She will understand momentarily that he is merely reacting,
responding to her warm touch and show of affection. It’s just animal instinct,
nothing more. This I know with painful clarity.
months before Dr. Bashiri passed me the phone number to a hospice, Mother and I
took a trip to the Santa Cruz Mountains and stayed in a hotel for the weekend.
Mother didn’t like long trips, but we did go off on short ones now and then,
she and I, back before she was really sick. Baba would man the restaurant, and
I would drive Mother and me to Bodega Bay, or Sausalito, or San Francisco,
where we would always stay in a hotel near Union Square. We would settle down
in our room and order room service, watch on-demand movies. Later, we would go
down to the Wharf—Mother was a sucker for all the tourist traps—and buy gelato,
watch the sea lions bobbing up and down on the water over by the pier. We would
drop coins into the open cases of the street guitarists and the backpacks of
the mime artists, the spray-painted robot men. We always made a visit to the
Museum of Modern Art, and, my arm coiled around hers, I would show her the
works of Rivera, Kahlo, Matisse, Pollock. Or else we would go to a matinee, which
Mother loved, and we would see two, three films, come out in the dark, our eyes
bleary, ears ringing, fingers smelling of popcorn.
It was easier with
Mother—always had been—less complicated, less treacherous. I didn’t have to be
on my guard so much. I didn’t have to watch what I said all the time for fear
of inflicting a wound. Being alone with her on those weekend getaways was like
curling up into a soft cloud, and, for a couple of days, everything that had
ever troubled me fell away, inconsequentially, a thousand miles below.
We were celebrating the end
of yet another round of chemo—which also turned out to be her last. The hotel
was a beautiful, secluded place. They had a spa, a fitness center, a game room
with a big-screen TV, and a billiards table. Our room was a cabin with a wooden
porch, from which we had a view of the swimming pool, the restaurant, and
entire groves of redwood that soared straight up into the clouds. Some of the
trees were so close, you could tell the subtle shades of color on a squirrel’s
fur as it dashed up the trunk. Our first morning there, Mother woke me up,
said, Quick, Pari, you have to see this. There was a
deer nibbling on shrubs outside the window.
I pushed her wheelchair
around the gardens. I’m such a spectacle, Mother said.
I parked her by the fountain and I would sit on a bench close to her, the sun
warming our faces, and we would watch the hummingbirds darting between flowers
until she fell asleep, and then I wheeled her back to our cabin.
On Sunday afternoon, we had
tea and croissants on the balcony outside the restaurant, which was a big
cathedral-ceilinged room with bookshelves, a dreamcatcher on one wall, and an
honest-to-God stone hearth. On a lower deck, a man with the face of a dervish
and a girl with limp blond hair were playing a lethargic game of Ping-Pong.
We have to
do something about these eyebrows, Mother said. She
was wearing a winter coat over a sweater and the maroon wool beanie hat she had
knitted herself a year and a half earlier when, as she put it, all the
festivities had begun.
I’ll paint them back on for
you, I said.
Make them dramatic, then.
Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra dramatic?
She grinned weakly. Why
not? She took
a shallow sip of tea. Grinning accentuated all the new lines in her face. When I met Abdullah, I was selling clothes on the side of the street in
Peshawar. He said I had beautiful eyebrows.
The Ping-Pong pair ditched
the paddles. They were leaning now against the wooden railing, sharing a
cigarette, looking up at the sky, which was luminous and clear but for a few
frayed clouds. The girl had long, bony arms.
I read in the paper there’s
an arts-and-crafts fair up in Capitola today, I said. If
you’re up to it, maybe I’ll drive us, we’ll have a look. We could even have
dinner there, if you like.
I want to tell you something.
Abdullah has a brother in
Mother said. A half brother.
I turned to her sharply.
His name is Iqbal. He has
sons. He lives in a refugee camp near Peshawar.
I put down my cup, began to
speak, but she cut me off.
I’m telling you now, aren’t
I? That’s all that matters. Your father has his reasons. I’m sure you can
figure them out, you give it some time. Important thing is, he has a half
brother and he’s been sending him money to help out.
She told me how, for years
now, Baba had been sending this Iqbal—my half uncle, I thought with an inner
lurch—a thousand dollars every three months, going down to Western Union,
wiring the money to a bank in Peshawar.
Why are you telling me now? I asked.
Because I think you should
know even if he doesn’t. Also, you will have to take over the finances soon and
then you would find out anyway.
I turned away, watched a cat,
its tail erect, sidle up to the Ping-Pong couple. The girl reached to pet it
and the cat tensed up at first. But then it curled up on the railing, let the
girl run her hands over its ears, down its back. My mind was reeling. I had
family outside of the U.S.
doing the books for a long time yet, Mother, I
said. I did my best to disguise the wobble in my voice.
There was a dense pause. When
she spoke again, it was in a lower tone, slower, like when I was little and we
would go to the mosque for a funeral and she would hunker down next to me
beforehand and patiently explain how I had to remove my shoes at the entrance,
how I had to keep quiet during prayers and not fidget, not complain, and how I
should use the bathroom now so I wouldn’t have to later.
I won’t, she said. And don’t you go thinking I will. The time has come, you have to be
ready for it.
I blew out a gush of air; a
hardness lodged in my throat. Somewhere, a chain saw buzzed to life, the
crescendo of its whine at violent odds with the stillness of the woods.
Your father is like a child.
Terrified of being abandoned. He would lose his way without you, Pari, and never find his way back.
I made myself look at the
trees, the wash of sunlight falling on the feathery leaves, the rough bark of
the trunks. I slid my tongue between the incisors and bit down hard. My eyes
watered, and the coppery taste of blood flooded my mouth.
A brother, I said.
I have a lot of questions.
Ask me tonight. When I’m not
as tired. I’ll tell you everything I know.
I nodded. I gulped the rest
of my tea, which had gone cold. At a nearby table, a middle-aged couple traded
pages of the newspaper. The woman, red-haired and open-faced, was quietly
watching us over the top of her broadsheet, her eyes switching from me to my
gray-faced mother, her beanie hat, her hands mapped with bruises, her sunken
eyes and skeletal grin. When I met her gaze, the woman smiled just a tad like
there was a secret knowledge between us, and I knew that she had done this too.
So what do you think, Mother?
The fair, are you up for it?
Mother’s gaze lingered on me.
Her eyes looked too big for her head and her head too big for her shoulders.
I could use a new hat, she said.
I tossed the napkin on the
table and pushed back my chair, walked around to the other side. I released the
brake on the wheelchair and pulled the chair away from the table.
Pari? Mother said.
She rolled her head all the
way back to look up at me. Sunlight pushed through the leaves of the trees and
pinpricked her face. Do you even know how strong God has made
you? she said. How strong and good He has made you?
There is no accounting for
how the mind works. This moment, for instance. Of the thousands and thousands
of moments my mother and I shared together through all the years, this is the
one that shines the brightest, the one that vibrates with the loudest hum at
the back of my mind: my mother looking up at me over her shoulder, her face
upside down, all those dazzling points of light shimmering on her skin, her
asking did I know how good and strong God had made me.
Baba falls asleep on the recliner, Pari gently zips up his cardigan and pulls
up the shawl to cover his torso. She tucks a loose strand of hair behind his
ear and stands over him, watching him sleep for a while. I like watching him
sleep too because then you can’t tell something is wrong. With his eyes closed,
the blankness is lifted, and the lackluster, absent gaze too, and Baba looks
more familiar. Asleep, he looks more alert and present, as if something of his
old self has seeped back into him. I wonder if Pari can picture it, looking at
his face resting on the pillow, how he used to be, how he used to laugh.
We move from the living room
to the kitchen. I fetch a pot from the cabinet and fill it at the sink.
“I want to show you some of
these,” Pari says, a charge of excitement in her voice. She’s sitting at the
table, busily flipping through a photo album that she fished from her suitcase
“I’m afraid the coffee won’t
be up to Parisian standards,” I say over my shoulder, pouring water from the
pot into the coffeemaker.
“I promise you I am not a
coffee snob.” She has taken off the yellow scarf and put on reading glasses,
through which she is peering at pictures.
When the coffeemaker begins
to gurgle, I take my seat at the kitchen table beside Pari. “Ah
oui. Voilà. Here it is,” she says. She flips
the album around and pushes it over to me. She taps on a picture. “This is the
place. Where your father and I were born. And our brother Iqbal too.”
When she first called me from
Paris, she mentioned Iqbal’s name—as proof, perhaps, to convince me she was not
lying about who she said she was. But I already knew she was telling the truth.
I knew it the moment I picked up the receiver and she spoke my father’s name
into my ear and asked whether it was his residence she had reached. And I said,
Yes, who is this? and she
said, I am his sister. My heart kicked violently. I
fumbled for a chair to drop into, everything around me suddenly pin-drop quiet.
It was a shock, yes, the sort of third-act theatrical thing that rarely happens
to people in real life. But on another plane—a plane that defies rationalizing,
a more fragile plane, one whose essence would fracture and splinter if I even
vocalized it—I wasn’t surprised that she was calling. As if I had expected it,
even, my whole life, that through some dizzying fit of design, or circumstance,
or chance, or fate, or whatever name you want to slap on it, we would find each
other, she and I.
I carried the receiver with
me to the backyard then and sat on a chair by the vegetable patch, where I have
kept growing the bell peppers and giant squash my mother had planted. The sun
warmed my neck as I lit a cigarette with quivering hands.
I know who you are, I said. I’ve known all my life.
There was silence at the
other end, but I had the impression she was weeping soundlessly, that she had
rolled her head away from the phone to do it.
We spoke for almost an hour.
I told her I knew what had happened to her, how I used to make my father
recount the story for me at bedtime. Pari said she had been unaware of her own
history herself and would have probably died without knowing it if not for a
letter left behind by her stepuncle, Nabi, before his own death in Kabul, in
which he had detailed the events of her childhood among other things. The
letter had been left in the care of someone named Markos Varvaris, a surgeon
working in Kabul, who had then searched for and found Pari in France. Over the
summer, Pari had flown to Kabul, met with Markos Varvaris, who had arranged for
her to visit Shadbagh.
Near the end of the
conversation, I sensed her gathering herself before she finally said, Well, I think I am ready. Can I speak with him now?
That was when I had to tell
I slide the photo album
closer now and inspect the picture that Pari is pointing to. I see a mansion
nestled behind high shiny-white walls topped with barbed wire. Or, rather,
someone’s tragically misguided idea of a mansion, three stories high, pink,
green, yellow, white, with parapets and turrets and pointed eaves and mosaics
and mirrored skyscraper glass. A monument to kitsch gone woefully awry.
“My God!” I breathe.
affreux, non?” Pari says. “It is horrible. The
Afghans, they call these Narco Palaces. This one is
the house of a well-known criminal of war.”
“So this is all that’s left
“Of the old village, yes.
This, and many acres of fruit trees of—what do you call it?—des
“Yes.” She runs her fingers
over the photo of the mansion. “I wish I know where our old house was exactly,
I mean in relation to this Narco Palace. I would be happy to know the precise
She tells me about the new
Shadbagh—an actual town, with schools, a clinic, a shopping district, even a
small hotel—which has been built about two miles away from the site of the old
village. The town was where she and her translator had looked for her half
brother. I had learned all of this over the course of that first, long phone
conversation with Pari, how no one in town seemed to know Iqbal until Pari had
run into an old man who did, an old childhood friend of Iqbal’s, who had
spotted him and his family staying on a barren field near the old windmill.
Iqbal had told this old friend that when he was in Pakistan, he had been
receiving money from his older brother who lived in northern California. I asked, Pari said on the phone, I asked,
Did Iqbal tell you the name of this brother? and the old man said, Yes,
Abdullah. And then, alors, after that the rest was not
so difficult. Finding you and your father, I mean.
I asked Iqbal’s friend where
Iqbal was now,
Pari said. I asked what happened to him, and the
old man said he did not know. But he seemed very nervous, and he did not look
at me when he said this. And I think, Pari, I worry that something bad happened
She flips through more pages
now and shows me photographs of her children—Alain, Isabelle, and Thierry—and
snapshots of her grandchildren—at birthday parties, posing in swimming trunks
at the edge of a pool. Her apartment in Paris, the pastel blue walls and white
blinds pulled down to the sills, the shelves of books. Her cluttered office at
the university, where she had taught mathematics before the rheumatoid had
forced her into retirement.
I keep turning the pages of
the album as she provides captions to the snapshots—her old friend Collette,
Isabelle’s husband Albert, Pari’s own husband Eric, who had been a playwright
and had died of a heart attack back in 1997. I pause at a photo of the two of
them, impossibly young, sitting side by side on orange-colored cushions in some
kind of restaurant, her in a white blouse, him in a T-shirt, his hair, long and
limp, tied in a ponytail.
“That was the night that we
met,” Pari says. “It was a setup.”
“He had a kind face.”
Pari nods. “Yes. When we get
married, I thought, Oh, we will have a long time together. I thought to myself,
Thirty years at least, maybe forty. Fifty, if we are lucky. Why not?” She
stares at the picture, lost for a moment, then smiles lightly. “But time, it is
like charm. You never have as much as you think.” She pushes the album away and
sips her coffee. “And you? You never get married?”
I shrug and flip another
page. “There was one close call.”
“I am sorry, ‘close call’?”
“It means I almost did. But
we never made it to the ring stage.”
This is not true. It was
painful and messy. Even now, the memory of it is like a soft ache behind my
She ducks her head. “I am
sorry. I am very rude.”
“No. It’s fine. He found
someone both more beautiful and less … encumbered, I guess. Speaking of
beautiful, who is this?”
I point to a striking-looking
woman with long dark hair and big eyes. In the picture, she is holding a
cigarette like she is bored—elbow tucked into her side, head tilted up
insouciantly—but her gaze is penetrating, defiant.
“This is Maman. My mother,
Nila Wahdati. Or, I thought she was my mother. You understand.”
“She’s gorgeous,” I say.
“She was. She committed
suicide. Nineteen seventy-four.”
It’s all right.” She brushes the picture absently with the side of her thumb.
“Maman was elegant and talented. She read books and had many strong opinions
and always she was telling them to people. But she had also very deep sadness.
All my life, she gave to me a shovel and said, Fill these
holes inside of me, Pari.”
I nod. I think I understand
something of that.
“But I could not. And later,
I did not want to. I did careless things. Reckless things.” She sits back in
the chair, her shoulders slumping, puts her thin white hands in her lap. She
considers for a minute before saying, “J’aurais dû être plus
gentille—I should have been more kind. That is something a person will
never regret. You will never say to yourself when you are old, Ah, I wish I was not good to that person. You will never
think that.” For a moment, her face looks stricken. She is like a helpless
schoolgirl. “It would not have been so difficult,” she says tiredly. “I should
have been more kind. I should have been more like you.”
She lets out a heavy breath
and folds the photo album shut. After a pause, she says brightly, “Ah, bon. Now I wish to ask something of you.”
“Will you show me some of
We smile at each other.
Pari stays a month with Baba and me. In the
mornings, we take breakfast together in the kitchen. Black coffee and toast for
Pari, yogurt for me, and fried eggs with bread for Baba, something he has found
a taste for in the last year. I worried it was going to raise his cholesterol,
eating all those eggs, and I asked Dr. Bashiri during one of Baba’s
appointments. Dr. Bashiri gave me one of his tight-lipped smiles and said, Oh, I wouldn’t worry about it. And that reassured me—at
least until a bit later when I was helping Baba buckle his seat belt and it
occurred to me that maybe what Dr. Bashiri had really meant was, We’re past all that now.
After breakfast, I retreat
into my office—otherwise known as my bedroom—and Pari keeps Baba company while
I work. At her request, I have written down for her the schedule of the TV
shows he likes to watch, what time to give him his midmorning pills, which
snacks he likes and when he’s apt to ask for them. It was her idea I write it
You could just pop in and ask, I said.
I don’t want to disturb you, she said. And I want to know. I want to know him.
I don’t tell her that she
will never know him the way she longs to. Still, I share with her a few tricks
of the trade. For instance, how if Baba starts to get agitated I can usually,
though not always, calm him down—for reasons that baffle me still—by quickly
handing him a free home-shopping catalog or a furniture-sale flyer. I keep a
steady supply of both.
If you want him to nap, flip
on the Weather Channel or anything to do with golf. And never let him watch
They agitate him for some
After lunch, the three of us
go out for a stroll. We keep it short for both their sakes—what with Baba
tiring quickly and Pari’s arthritis. Baba has a wariness in his eyes, tottering
anxiously along the sidewalk between Pari and me, wearing an old newsboy cap,
his cardigan sweater, and wool-lined moccasins. There is a middle school around
the block with an ill-manicured soccer field and, across that, a small playground
where I often take Baba. We always find a young mother or two, strollers parked
near them, a toddler stumbling around in the sandbox, now and then a teenage
couple cutting school, swinging lazily and smoking. They rarely look at
Baba—the teenagers—and then only with cold indifference, or even subtle
disdain, as if my father should have known better than to allow old age and
decay to happen to him.
One day, I pause during
dictation and go to the kitchen to refresh my coffee and I find the two of them
watching a movie together. Baba on the recliner, his moccasins sticking out
from under the shawl, his head bent forward, mouth gaping slightly, eyebrows
drawn together in either concentration or confusion. And Pari sitting beside
him, hands folded in her lap, feet crossed at the ankles.
“Who’s this one?” Baba says.
“That is Latika.”
“Latika, the little girl from
the slums. The one who could not jump on the train.”
“She doesn’t look little.”
“Yes, but a lot of years have
passed,” Pari says. “She is older now, you see.”
One day the week before, at
the playground, we were sitting on a park bench, the three of us, and Pari
said, Abdullah, do you remember that when you were a boy you
had a little sister?
She’d barely finished her
sentence when Baba began to weep. Pari pressed his head into her chest, saying,
I am sorry, I am so sorry,
over and over in a panicky way, wiping his cheeks with her hands, but Baba kept
seizing with sobs, so violently he started to choke.
“And do you know who this is,
“He is Jamal. The boy from
the game show.”
“He is not,” Baba says
“You don’t think?”
“He’s serving tea!”
“Yes, but that was—what do
you call it?—it was from the past. From before. It was a …”
Flashback, I mouth into my coffee cup.
“The game show is now,
Abdullah. And when he was serving tea, that was before.”
Baba blinks vacantly. On the
screen, Jamal and Salim are sitting atop a Mumbai high-rise, their feet
dangling over the side.
Pari watches him as though
waiting for a moment when something will open in his eyes. “Let me ask you
something, Abdullah,” she says. “If one day you win a million dollars, what
would you do?”
Baba grimaces, shifting his
weight, then stretches out farther in the recliner.
“I know what I would do,” Pari says.
Baba looks at her blankly.
“If I win a million dollars,
I buy a house on this street. That way, we can be neighbors, you and me, and
every day I come here and we watch TV together.”
But it’s only minutes later,
when I am back in my room wearing earphones and typing, that I hear a loud
shattering sound and Baba screaming something in Farsi. I rip the earphones off
and rush to the kitchen. I see Pari backed up against the wall where the
microwave is, hands bunched protectively under her chin, and Baba, wild-eyed,
jabbing her in the shoulder with his cane. Broken shards of a drinking glass
glitter at their feet.
“Get her out of here!” Baba
cries when he sees me. “I want this woman out of my house!”
Pari’s cheeks have gone pale.
Tears spring from her eyes.
“Put down the cane, Baba, for
God’s sake! And don’t take a step. You’ll cut your feet.”
I wrestle the cane from his
hand but not before he gives me a good fight for it.
“I want this woman gone!
She’s a thief!”
“What is he saying?” Pari
“She stole my pills!”
“Those are hers, Baba,” I
say. I put a hand on his shoulder and guide him out of the kitchen. He shivers
under my palm. As we pass by Pari, he almost lunges at her again, and I have to
restrain him. “All right, that’s enough of that, Baba. And those are her pills,
not yours. She takes them for her hands.” I grab a shopping catalog from the
coffee table on the way to the recliner.
“I don’t trust that woman,”
Baba says, flopping into the recliner. “You don’t know. But I know. I know a
thief when I see one!” He pants as he grabs the catalog from my hand and starts
violently flipping the pages. Then he slams it in his lap and looks up at me,
his eyebrows shot high. “And a damn liar too. You know what she said to me,
this woman? You know what she said? That she was my sister! My
sister! Wait ’til Sultana hears about this one.”
“All right, Baba. We’ll tell
“We’ll tell Mother, and then
us three will laugh the crazy woman right out the door. Now, you go on and
relax, Baba. Everything is all right. There.”
I flip on the Weather Channel
and sit beside him, stroking his shoulder, until his shaking ceases and his
breathing slows. Less than five minutes pass before he dozes off.
Back in the kitchen, Pari
sits slumped on the floor, back against the dishwasher. She looks shaken. She
dabs at her eyes with a paper napkin.
“I am very sorry,” she says.
“That was not prudent of me.”
“It’s all right,” I say,
reaching under the sink for the dustpan and brush. I find little
pink-and-orange pills scattered on the floor among the broken glass. I pick
them up one by one and sweep the glass off the linoleum.
une imbécile. I wanted to tell him so much. I thought maybe if I tell
him the truth … I don’t know what I was thinking.”
I empty the broken glass into
the trash bin. I kneel down, pull back the collar of Pari’s shirt, and check
her shoulder where Baba had jabbed her. “That’s going to bruise. And I speak
with authority on the matter.” I sit on the floor beside her.
She opens her palm, and I
pour the pills into it. “He is like this often?”
“He has his spit-and-vinegar
“Maybe you think about
finding professional help, no?”
I sigh, nodding. I have
thought a lot lately of the inevitable morning when I will wake up to an empty
house while Baba lies curled up on an unfamiliar bed, eyeing a breakfast tray
brought to him by a stranger. Baba slumped behind a table in some activity
room, nodding off.
“I know,” I say, “but not
yet. I want to take care of him as long as I can.”
Pari smiles and blows her
nose. “I understand that.”
I am not sure she does. I
don’t tell her the other reason. I can barely admit it to myself. Namely, how
afraid I am to be free despite my frequent desire for it. Afraid of what will
happen to me, what I will do with myself, when Baba is gone. All my life, I
have lived like an aquarium fish in the safety of a glass tank, behind a
barrier as impenetrable as it has been transparent. I have been free to observe
the glimmering world on the other side, to picture myself in it, if I like. But
I have always been contained, hemmed in, by the hard, unyielding confines of
the existence that Baba has constructed for me, at first knowingly, when I was
young, and now guilelessly, now that he is fading day by day. I think I have
grown accustomed to the glass and am terrified that when it breaks, when I am
alone, I will spill out into the wide open unknown and flop around, helpless,
lost, gasping for breath.
The truth I rarely admit to
is, I have always needed the weight of Baba on my back.
Why else had I so readily
surrendered my dreams of art school, hardly mounting a resistance when Baba
asked me not to go to Baltimore? Why else had I left Neal, the man I was
engaged to a few years ago? He owned a small solar-panel-installation company.
He had a square-shaped, creased face I liked the moment I met him at Abe’s
Kabob House, when I asked for his order and he looked up from the menu and
grinned. He was patient and friendly and even-tempered. It isn’t true what I
told Pari about him. Neal didn’t leave me for someone more beautiful. I
sabotaged things with him. Even when he promised to convert to Islam, to take
Farsi classes, I found other faults, other excuses. I panicked, in the end, and
ran back to all the familiar nooks and crannies, and crevasses, of my life at
Next to me, Pari begins to
get up. I watch her flatten the wrinkles of her dress, and I am struck anew by
what a miracle it is that she is here, standing inches from me.
“I want to show you
something,” I say.
I get up and go to my room.
One of the quirks of never leaving home is that no one cleans out your old room
and sells your toys at a garage sale, no one gives away the clothes you have
outgrown. I know that for a woman who is nearly thirty, I have too many relics
of my childhood sitting around, most of them stuffed in a large chest at the
foot of my bed whose lid I now lift. Inside are old dolls, the pink pony that
came with a mane I could brush, the picture books, all the Happy Birthday and
Valentine’s cards I had made my parents in elementary school with kidney beans
and glitter and little sparkling stars. The last time we spoke, Neal and I,
when I broke things off, he said, I can’t wait for you, Pari.
I won’t wait around for you to grow up.
I shut the lid and go back to
the living room, where Pari has settled into the couch across from Baba. I take
a seat next to her.
“Here,” I say, handing her
the stack of postcards.
She reaches for her reading
glasses sitting on the side table and yanks off the rubber band holding the
postcards together. Looking at the first one, she frowns. It is a picture of
Las Vegas, of Caesars Palace at night, all glitter and lights. She flips it
over and reads the note aloud.
July 21, 1992
You wouldn’t believe how
hot this place gets. Today Baba got a blister when he put his palm down on the
hood of our rental car! Mother had to put toothpaste on it. In Caesars Palace,
they have Roman soldiers with swords and helmets and red capes. Baba kept
trying to get Mother to take a picture with them but she wouldn’t. But I did!
I’ll show you when I get home. That’s it for now. I miss you. Wish you were
P.S. I’m having the most
awesome ice cream sundae as I write this.
She flips to the next postcard. Hearst Castle. She
reads the note under her breath now. Had his own
zoo! How cool is that? Kangaroos, zebras, antelopes, Bactrian camels—they’re
the ones with two humps! One of Disneyland, Mickey in the wizard’s hat,
waving a wand. Mother screamed when the hanged guy
fell from the ceiling! You should have heard her! La Jolla Cove. Big Sur. 17 Mile Drive. Muir
Woods. Lake Tahoe. Miss you. You would have loved
it for sure. Wish you were here.
I wish you were here.
I wish you were here.
Pari takes off her glasses.
“You wrote postcards to yourself?”
I shake my head. “To you.” I
laugh. “This is embarrassing.”
Pari puts the postcards down
on the coffee table and nudges closer to me. “Tell me.”
I look down at my hands and
rotate my watch around on my wrist. “I used to pretend we were twin sisters,
you and I. No one could see you but me. I told you everything. All my secrets.
You were real to me, always so near. I felt less alone because of you. Like we
were Doppelgängers. Do you know that word?”
A smile comes to her eyes.
I used to picture us as two
leaves, blowing miles apart in the wind yet bound by the deep tangled roots of
the tree from which we had both fallen.
“For me, it was the
contrary,” Pari says. “You say you felt a presence, but I sensed only an
absence. A vague pain without a source. I was like the patient who cannot
explain to the doctor where it hurts, only that it does.” She puts her hand on
mine, and neither of us says anything for a minute.
From the recliner, Baba
groans and shifts.
“I’m really sorry,” I say.
“Why are you sorry?”
“That you found each other
“But we have
found each other, no?” she says, her voice cracking with emotion. “And this is
who he is now. It’s all right. I feel happy. I have found a part of myself that
was lost.” She squeezes my hand. “And I found you, Pari.”
Her words tug at my childhood
longings. I remember how when I felt lonely, I would whisper her name—our name—and hold my breath, waiting for an echo, certain
that it would come someday. Hearing her speak my name now, in this living room,
it is as though all the years that divided us are rapidly folding over one
another again and again, time accordioning itself down to nothing but the width
of a photograph, a postcard, ferrying the most shining relic of my childhood to
sit beside me, to hold my hand, and say my name. Our name. I feel a tilting,
something clicking into place. Something ripped apart long ago being sealed
again. And I feel a soft lurch in my chest, the muffled thump of another heart
kick-starting anew next to my own.
In the recliner, Baba props
himself up on his elbows. He rubs his eyes, looks over to us. “What are you
Another nursery rhyme. This one about the bridge
Pari hums the tune for me,
then recites the lyrics:
Sur le pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse, l’on y danse
Sur le pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse tous en rond.
“Maman taught it to me when I
was little,” she says, tightening the knot of her scarf against a sweeping gust
of cold wind. The day is chilly but the sky blue and the sun strong. It strikes
the gray-metal-colored Rhône broadside and breaks on its surface into little
shards of brightness. “Every French child knows this song.”
We are sitting on a wooden
park bench facing the water. As she translates the words, I marvel at the city
across the river. Having recently discovered my own history, I am awestruck to
find myself in a place so chockful of it, all of it documented, preserved. It’s
miraculous. Everything about this city is. I feel wonder at the clarity of the
air, at the wind swooping down on the river, making the water slap against the
stony banks, at how full and rich the light is and how it seems to shine from
every direction. From the park bench, I can see the old ramparts ringing the
ancient town center and its tangle of narrow, crooked streets; the west tower
of the Avignon Cathedral, the gilded statue of the Virgin Mary gleaming atop
Pari tells me the history of
the bridge—the young shepherd who, in the twelfth century, claimed that angels
told him to build a bridge across the river and who demonstrated the validity
of his claim by lifting up a massive rock and hurling it in the water. She
tells me about the boatmen on the Rhône who climbed the bridge to honor their
patron, Saint Nicholas. And about all the floods over the centuries that ate
away at the bridge’s arches and caused them to collapse. She says these words
with the same rapid, nervous energy she had earlier in the day when she led me
through the Gothic Palais des Papes. Lifting the audio-guide headphones to
point to a fresco, tapping my elbow to draw my attention to an interesting
carving, stained glass, the intersecting ribs overhead.
Outside the Papal Palace, she
spoke nearly without pause, the names of all the saints and popes and cardinals
spilling from her as we strolled through the cathedral square amid the flocks
of doves, the tourists, the African merchants in bright tunics selling
bracelets and imitation watches, the young, bespectacled musician, sitting on
an apple crate, playing “Bohemian Rhapsody” on his acoustic guitar. I don’t
recall this loquaciousness from her visit in the U.S., and it feels to me like
a delaying tactic, like we are circling around the thing she really wants to
do—what we will do—and all these words are like a bridge.
“But you will see a real
bridge soon,” she says. “When everybody arrives. We will go together to the
Pont du Gard. Do you know it? No? Oh là là. C’est vraiment merveilleux. The Romans built it in the first
century for transporting water from Eure to Nîmes. Fifty kilometers! It is a
masterpiece of engineering, Pari.”
I have been in France for
four days, in Avignon for two. Pari and I took the TGV here from an overcast,
chilly Paris, stepped off it to clear skies, a warm wind, and a chorus of
cicadas chirping from every tree. At the station, a mad rush to haul my luggage
out ensued, and I nearly didn’t make it, hopping off the train just as the
doors whooshed shut behind me. I make a mental note now to tell Baba how three
seconds more and I would have ended up in Marseille.
How is he? Pari asked in Paris during the taxi ride from Charles de Gaulle to her
Further along the path, I said.
Baba lives in a nursing home
now. When I first went to scout the facility, when the director, Penny—a tall,
frail woman with curly strawberry hair—showed me around, I thought, This isn’t
And then I said it. This isn’t so bad.
The place was clean, with
windows that looked out on a garden, where, Penny said, they held a tea party
every Wednesday at four-thirty. The lobby smelled faintly of cinnamon and pine.
The staff, most of whom I have now come to know by first name, seemed
courteous, patient, competent. I had pictured old women, with ruined faces and
whiskers on their chins, dribbling, chattering to themselves, glued to
television screens. But most of the residents I saw were not that old. A lot of
them were not even in wheelchairs.
I guess I expected worse, I said.
Did you? Penny said, emitting a pleasant, professional laugh.
That was offensive. I’m sorry.
Not at all. We’re fully
conscious of the image most people have of places like this. Of course, she added over her
shoulder with a sober note of caution, this is the
facility’s assisted-living area. Judging by what you’ve told me of your father,
I’m not sure he would function well here. I suspect the Memory Care Unit would
be more suitable for him. Here we are.
She used a card key to let us
in. The locked unit didn’t smell like cinnamon or pine. My insides shriveled
up, and my first instinct was to turn around and walk back out. Penny put her
hand around my arm and squeezed. She looked at me with great tenderness. I
fought through the rest of the tour, bowled over by a massive wave of guilt.
The morning before I left for
Europe, I went to see Baba. I passed through the lobby in the assisted-living
area and waved at Carmen, who is from Guatemala and answers the phones. I
walked past the community hall, where a roomful of seniors were listening to a
string quartet of high school students in formal attire; past the multipurpose
room with its computers and bookshelves and domino sets, past the bulletin
board and its array of tips and announcements—Did you know
that soy can reduce your bad cholesterol? Don’t forget Puzzles and Reflection
Hour this Tuesday at 11 A.M.!
I let myself into the locked
unit. They don’t have tea parties on this side of the door, no bingo. No one
here starts their morning with tai chi. I went to Baba’s room, but he wasn’t
there. His bed had been made, his TV was dark, and there was a half-full glass
of water on the bedside table. I was a little relieved. I hate finding Baba in
the hospital bed, lying on his side, hand tucked under the pillow, his recessed
eyes looking out at me blankly.
I found Baba in the rec room,
sunk into a wheelchair, by the window that opens into the garden. He was
wearing flannel pajamas and his newsboy cap. His lap was covered with what
Penny called a fidget apron. It has strings he can
braid and buttons he likes to open and close. Penny says it keeps his fingers
I kissed his cheek and pulled
up a seat. Someone had given him a shave, and wetted and combed his hair too.
His face smelled like soap.
So tomorrow is the big day, I said. I’m flying out to visit Pari in France. You remember I told you I
Baba blinked. Even before the
stroke, he had already started withdrawing, falling into long, silent lapses,
looking disconsolate. Since the stroke, his face has become a mask, his mouth
frozen perpetually in a lopsided, polite little smile that never climbs to his
eyes. He hasn’t said a word since the stroke. Sometimes, his lips part, and he
makes a husky, exhaling sound—Aaaah!—with enough of an
upturn at the tail end to make it sound like surprise, or like what I said has
triggered a minor epiphany in him.
We’re meeting up in Paris,
and then we’ll take the train down to Avignon. That’s a town near the South of
France. It’s where the popes lived in the fourteenth century. So we’ll do some
sightseeing there. But the great part is, Pari has told all her children about
my visit and they’re going to join us.
Baba smiled on, the way he
did when Hector came by the week before to see him, the way he did when I
showed him my application to the College of Arts and Humanities at San
Your niece, Isabelle, and her
husband, Albert, have a vacation home in Provence, near a town called Les Baux.
I looked it up online, Baba. It’s an amazing-looking town.
It’s built on these limestone peaks up in the Alpilles Mountains. You can visit
the ruins of an old medieval castle up there and look out on the plains and the
orchards. I’ll take lots of pictures and show you when I get back.
Nearby, an old woman in a
bathrobe complacently slid around the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. At the next
table, another woman with fluffy white hair was trying to arrange forks and
spoons and butter knives in a silverware drawer. On the big-screen TV over in
the corner, Ricky and Lucy were arguing, their wrists locked together by a pair
Baba said, Aaaah!
Alain, that’s your nephew,
and his wife, Ana, are coming over from Spain with all five of their kids. I
don’t know all their names, but I’m sure I’ll learn them. And then—and this is
the part that makes Pari really happy—your other nephew—her youngest,
Thierry—is coming too. She hasn’t seen him in years. They haven’t spoken. But
he’s taking his R & R from his job in Africa and he’s flying over. So it’s
going to be a big family reunion.
I kissed his cheek again
later when I rose to leave. I lingered with my face against his, remembering how
he used to pick me up from kindergarten and drive us to Denny’s to pick up
Mother from work. We would sit at a booth, waiting for Mother to sign out, and
I would eat the scoop of ice cream the manager always gave me and I would show
Baba the drawings I had made that day. How patiently he gazed at each of them,
glowering in careful study, nodding.
Baba smiled his smile.
Ah. I almost forgot.
I stooped down and performed
our customary farewell ritual, running my fingertips from his cheeks up to his
creased forehead and his temples, over his gray, thinning hair and the scabs of
his roughened scalp to behind the ears, plucking along the way all the bad
dreams from his head. I opened the invisible sack for him, dropped the
nightmares into it, and pulled the drawstrings tight.
Baba made a guttural sound.
dreams, Baba. I’ll see you in two weeks. It
occurred to me that we had never been apart for this long before.
As I was walking away, I had
the distinct feeling that Baba was watching me. But when I turned to see, his
head was down and he was toying with a button on his fidget apron.
Pari is talking about
Isabelle and Albert’s house now. She has shown me pictures of it. It is a
beautiful, restored Provençal farmhouse made of stone, set up on the Luberon
hills, fruit trees and an arbor at the front door outside, terra-cotta tiles
and exposed beams inside.
“You could not see in the
picture that I showed to you, but it has fantastic view of the Vaucluse
“Are we all going to fit?
It’s a lot of people for a farmhouse.”
est de fous, plus on rit,” she says. “What is the
English? The more the happier?”
“Ah voilà. C’est ça.”
“How about the children?
Where are they—”
I look over to her. “Yes?”
She empties her chest of a
long breath. “You can give it to me now.”
I nod. I reach into the
handbag sitting between my feet.
I suppose I should have found
it months ago when I moved Baba to the nursing home. But when I was packing for
Baba, I reached in the hallway closet for the top suitcase, from the stack of
three, and was able to fit all of Baba’s clothes in it. Then I finally worked
up the nerve to clear my parents’ bedroom. I ripped off the old wallpaper,
repainted the walls. I moved out their queen-size bed, my mother’s dresser with
the oval vanity mirror, cleared the closets of my father’s suits, my mother’s
blouses and dresses sheathed in plastic. I made a pile in the garage for a trip
or two to Goodwill. I moved my desk to their bedroom, which I use now as my
office and as my study when classes begin in the fall. I emptied the chest at
the foot of my bed too. In a trash bag, I tossed all my old toys, my childhood
dresses, all the sandals and tennis shoes I had outworn. I couldn’t bear to
look any longer at the Happy Birthday and Father’s Day and Mother’s Day cards I
had made my parents. I couldn’t sleep at night knowing they were there at my
feet. It was too painful.
It was when I was clearing
the hallway closet, when I pulled out the two remaining suitcases to store them
in the garage, that I felt a thump inside one of them. I unzipped the suitcase
and found a package inside wrapped with thick brown paper. An envelope had been
taped to the package. On it were written, in English, the words For my sister, Pari. Immediately, I recognized Baba’s
handwriting from my days working at Abe’s Kabob House when I picked up the food
orders he would jot down at the cash register.
I hand the package now to
She looks down at it in her
lap, running her hands over the words scribbled on the envelope. From across
the river, church bells begin to ring. On a rock jutting from the edge of the
water, a bird tears at the entrails of a dead fish.
Pari rummages in her purse,
digging through its contents. “J’ai oublié mes lunettes,”
she says. “I forgot my reading glasses.”
“Do you want me to read it
She tries to tear the
envelope from the package, but today is not a good day for her hands, and,
after some struggle, she ends up handing me the package. I free the envelope
and open it. I unfold the note tucked inside.
“He wrote it in Farsi.”
“But you can read it, no?”
Pari says, her eyebrows knotted with worry. “You can translate.”
“Yes,” I say, feeling a tiny
smile inside, grateful—if belatedly—for all the Tuesday afternoons Baba had driven
me to Campbell for Farsi classes. I think of him now, ragged and lost,
staggering across a desert, the path behind him littered with all the shiny
little pieces that life has ripped from him.
I hold the note tightly
against the blustering wind. I read for Pari the three scribbled sentences.
They tell me I must wade into
waters, where I will soon drown. Before I march in, I leave this on the shore
for you. I pray you find it, sister, so you will know what was in my heart as I
There is a date too. August
2007. “August of 2007,” I say. “That’s when he was first diagnosed.” Three
years before I had even heard from Pari.
Pari nods, wiping her eyes
with the heel of her hand. A young couple rolls by on a tandem bicycle, the
girl in the lead—blond, pink-faced, and slim—the boy behind, with dreadlocks
and coffee-colored skin. On the grass a few feet away, a teenage girl in a
short black leather skirt sits, talking into a cell phone, holding the leash to
a tiny charcoal-colored terrier.
Pari hands me the package. I
tear it open for her. Inside is an old tin tea box, on its lid a faded picture
of a bearded Indian man wearing a long red tunic. He is holding up a steaming
cup of tea like an offering. The steam from the teacup has all but faded and
the red of the tunic has mostly bleached to pink. I undo the latch and lift the
lid. I find the interior stuffed with feathers of all colors, all shapes.
Short, dense green feathers; long black-stemmed ones the color of ginger; a
peach-colored feather, possibly from a mallard, with a light purple cast; brown
feathers with dark blotches along the inner vanes; a green peacock feather with
a large eye at the tip of it.
I turn to Pari. “Do you know
what this means?”
Chin quivering, Pari slowly
shakes her head. She takes the box from me and peers inside it. “No,” she says.
“Only that when we lost each other, Abdullah and I, it hurt him much more than
me. I was the lucky one because I was protected by my youth. Je
pouvais oublier. I still had the luxury of forgetting. He did not.” She
lifts a feather, brushes it against her wrist, eyeing it as though hoping it
might spring to life and take flight. “I don’t know what this feather means,
the story of it, but I know it means he was thinking of me. For all these
years. He remembered me.”
I put an arm around her
shoulder as she weeps quietly. I watch the sun-washed trees, the river flowing
past us and beneath the bridge—the Pont Saint-Bénezet—the bridge the children’s
song is about. It’s a half bridge, really, as only four of its original arches
remain. It ends midway across the river. Like it reached, tried to reunite
with, the other side and fell short.
That night at the hotel, I
lie awake in bed and watch the clouds nudging against the big swollen moon
hanging in our window. Down below, heels click on the cobblestones. Laughter
and chatter. Mopeds rattling past. From the restaurant across the street, the
clinking of glasses on trays. The tinkling of a piano meanders up through the
window and to my ears.
I turn over and watch Pari
sleeping soundlessly beside me. Her face is pale in the light. I see Baba in
her face—youthful, hopeful Baba, happy, how he used to be—and I know I will
always find him whenever I look at Pari. She is my flesh and blood. And soon I
will meet her children, and her children’s children, and my blood courses
through them too. I am not alone. A sudden happiness catches me unawares. I
feel it trickling into me, and my eyes go liquid with gratitude and hope.
As I watch Pari sleep, I
think of the bedtime game Baba and I used to play. The purging of bad dreams,
the gift of happy ones. I remember the dream I used to give him. Careful not to
wake Pari, I reach across now and gently rest my palm on her brow. I close my
It is a sunlit afternoon.
They are children once more, brother and sister, young and clear-eyed and
sturdy. They are lying in a patch of tall grass in the shade of an apple tree
ablaze with flowers. The grass is warm against their backs and the sun on their
faces, flickering through the riot of blossoms above. They rest sleepily,
contentedly, side by side, his head resting on the ridge of a thick root, hers
cushioned by the coat he has folded for her. Through half-lidded eyes, she
watches a blackbird perched on a branch. Streams of cool air blow through the
leaves and downward.
She turns her face to look at
him, her big brother, her ally in all things, but his face is too close and she
can’t see the whole of it. Only the dip of his brow, the rise of his nose, the
curve of his eyelashes. But she doesn’t mind. She is happy enough to be near
him, with him—her brother—and as a nap slowly steals her away, she feels
herself engulfed in a wave of absolute calm. She shuts her eyes. Drifts off,
untroubled, everything clear, and radiant, and all at once.
A couple of logistical matters
before I give thanks. The village of Shadbagh is fictional, though it is
possible that one by that name exists somewhere in Afghanistan. If so, I have
never been to it. Abdullah and Pari’s nursery rhyme, specifically the reference
to a “sad little fairy,” was inspired by a poem by the late, great Persian poet
Forough Farrokhzad. Finally, the title of this book was inspired in part by
William Blake’s lovely poem, “Nurse’s Song.”
I would like to extend my
thanks to Bob Barnett and Deneen Howell for being such wonderful guides and
advocates for this book. Thank you Helen Heller, David Grossman, Jody
Hotchkiss. Thanks to Chandler Crawford, for her enthusiasm, patience, and
advice. Many thanks to a host of friends at Riverhead Books: Jynne Martin, Kate
Stark, Sarah Stein, Leslie Schwartz, Craig D. Burke, Helen Yentus, and many
more I have left unnamed but to whom I am deeply grateful for helping bring
this book to readers.
I thank my wonderful copy
editor, Tony Davis, who ventures way beyond the call of duty.
Very special gratitude goes
out to my editor, the hugely talented Sarah McGrath, for her insight and
vision, her gentle guidance, and for helping me shape this book in more ways
than I can recall. I’ve never enjoyed the editing process more, Sarah.
Lastly, I thank Susan
Petersen Kennedy and Geoffrey Kloske, for their trust and unwavering faith in
me and my writing.
Thank you and Tashakor to all my friends and all the people in my family
for always being in my corner, and for patiently, gamely, and kindly putting up
with me. As ever, I thank my beautiful wife, Roya, not only for reading and
editing many incarnations of this book but also for running our day-to-day
life, without a whisper of protest, so I could write. Without you, Roya, this
book would have died somewhere in the first paragraph of page one. I love you.