فصل 10کتاب: و کوه طنين انداخت / فصل 10
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A few 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 Pakistan, 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.
You’ll be 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.
After 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 earlier.
“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 her.
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.
“C’est 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 Shadbagh?”
“Of the old village, yes. This, and many acres of fruit trees of—what do you call it?—des vergers.”
“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 spot.”
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 to Iqbal.
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 breastbone.
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.”
“Non, non. 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 your paintings?”
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 all down.
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 cooking shows.
They agitate him for some reason.
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, Abdullah?”
“He is Jamal. The boy from the game show.”
“He is not,” Baba says roughly.
“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 says miserably.
“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 her together.”
“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.
“Je suis 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 days.”
“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 home.
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 here.
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 Doppelg?ngers. Do you know that word?”
A smile comes to her eyes. “Yes.”
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 too late.”
“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 girls plotting?”
Another nursery rhyme. This one about the bridge in Avignon.
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 it.
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 apartment.
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 so bad.
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 nimble.
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 would?
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 Francisco State.
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 of handcuffs.
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.
Happy 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 Mountains.”
“Are we all going to fit? It’s a lot of people for a farmhouse.”
“Plus on 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 Pari, unopened.
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 for you?”
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 went under.
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 own eyes.
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. special offers
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