فصل 06کتاب: و کوه طنين انداخت / فصل 6
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Six February 1974
EDITOR’S NOTE, 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 Etienne 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 hairs.
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, “Pari?”
“It’s probably Maman,” Pari says.
“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 says.
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 says.
Julien casts a skeptical glance.
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.
“Oui, 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. Delaunay says.
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 question.
“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 ETIENNE 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 a Parisian.
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 have declined.
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 Afghan?
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 school.
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 in 1955.
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 paging overhead.
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 surprised.”
“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 discharge instructions.”
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,” Maman mutters.
“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 Sorbonne.
“A professor? Very glamorous.”
“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 Pont d’Arcole.
“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 engulfed men.
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 of compliments.
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 beautiful.
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 brushstrokes.
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 about it.
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 once, briefly.
“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 letting on.”
“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 lower still.
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.
“Ah, 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 magazine.”
“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 INTERVIEW WITH NILA WAHDATI BY ETIENNE 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 been eight.
EB: Does she live in Paris?
NW: She studies mathematics at the Sorbonne.
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 Afghanistan, then?
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 life.
She excuses 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 Boustouler?
I pick up the photo and look at it again.
EB: Distant, I would say. Grave. Inscrutable. Uncompromising.
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 lights one.
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 Boustouler.
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 the blankets.
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 right, Maman?”
“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. Homicidally 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 than conviction.”
“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.
“Ah, non. 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 this compulsion.”
“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 Nila?”
Pari puffed her cheeks and let the air out slowly.
Julien nodded knowingly.
“She may lose the bookstore,” Pari said.
“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 protective mother.
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 negotiation.”
“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 debatable.”
“Why would I want to hurt you, Maman?”
Maman laughed. A hollow, ugly sound.
“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 hung up.
FROM “AFGHAN SONGBIRD,” AN INTERVIEW WITH NILA WAHDATI BY ETIENNE 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 mother.
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 means.
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 knowingly.
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 respectable.
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 own neck.
EB: I suppose that only displeased him more.
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 very notion.
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 shock.
NW: Well, it did thicken the proverbial plot.
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 to you?
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 them depressing.
Who doesn’t? Pari had said.
I think it’s best I stay clear.
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 lowfrequency hum.
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 visit them?
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 stopped asking.
And now it turns out that Maman had told this magazine writer, this Etienne 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 mothering.
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 possible?
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 sell me.
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.
Pari does 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,” he says.
“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 in Farsi.
A few weeks before summer, just as Eric is looking into airfare and accommodations, Pari discovers she is pregnant.
“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 scavenged furniture.
“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 now.”
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 thought …”
He asks some questions. Has Isabelle had any weight loss? Night sweats, unusual bruises, fatigue, chronic fevers?
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 gingivostomatitis.
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 approximations.
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.”
“Non mais, quande-même,” he says. “But, still, you must have some insight.”
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 says.
“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 S?ller 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 says.
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 you, Papa.”
“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.
One day, 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 Ile 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?”
“Non. 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 children.
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 says.
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 with you.”
“You need to go. I’ll explain later, I promise.”
“D’accord, 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 you this?”
“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 short laugh.
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.”
“Your stepuncle, 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 sure?”
“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 family.
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.
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