فصل 09کتاب: و کوه طنين انداخت / فصل 9
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متن انگلیسی فصل
Nine Winter 2010
When I was a little girl, my father and I had a nightly ritual. After I’d said my twenty-one Bismillahs and he had tucked me into bed, he would sit at my side and pluck bad dreams from my head with his thumb and forefinger. His fingers would hop from my forehead to my temples, patiently searching behind my ears, at the back of my head, and he’d make a pop sound—like a bottle being uncorked—with each nightmare he purged from my brain. He stashed the dreams, one by one, into an invisible sack in his lap and pulled the drawstring tightly. He would then scour the air, looking for happy dreams to replace the ones he had sequestered away. I watched as he cocked his head slightly and frowned, his eyes roaming side to side, like he was straining to hear distant music. I held my breath, waiting for the moment when my father’s face unfurled into a smile, when he sang, Ah, here is one, when he cupped his hands, let the dream land in his palms like a petal slowly twirling down from a tree. Gently, then, so very gently—my father said all good things in life were fragile and easily lost—he would raise his hands to my face, rub his palms against my brow and happiness into my head.
What am I going to dream about tonight, Baba? I asked.
Ah, tonight. Well, tonight is a special one, he always said before going on to tell me about it. He would make up a story on the spot. In one of the dreams he gave me, I had become the world’s most famous painter. In another, I was the queen of an enchanted island, and I had a flying throne. He even gave me one about my favorite dessert, Jell-O. I had the power to, with a wave of my wand, turn anything into Jell-O—a school bus, the Empire State Building, the entire Pacific Ocean, if I liked. More than once, I saved the planet from destruction by waving my wand at a crashing meteor. My father, who never spoke much about his own father, said it was from him that he had inherited his storytelling ability. He said that when he was a boy, his father would sometimes sit him down—if he was in the mood, which was not often—and tell stories populated with jinns and fairies and divs.
Some nights, I turned the tables on Baba. He shut his eyes and I slid my palms down his face, starting at his brow, over the prickly stubble of his cheeks, the coarse hairs of his mustache.
And so, what is my dream tonight? he would whisper, taking my hands. And his smile would open. Because he knew already what dream I was giving him. It was always the same. The one of him and his little sister lying beneath a blossoming apple tree, drifting toward an afternoon nap. The sun warm against their cheeks, its light picking out the grass and the leaves and clutter of blossoms above.
I was an only, and often lonely, child. After they’d had me, my parents, who’d met back in Pakistan when they were both around forty, had decided against tempting fate a second time. I remember how I would eye with envy all the kids in our neighborhood, in my school, who had a little brother or sister. How bewildered I was by the way some of them treated each other, oblivious to their own good luck. They acted like wild dogs. Pinching, hitting, pushing, betraying one another any way they could think of. Laughing about it too. They wouldn’t speak to one another. I didn’t understand. Me, I spent most of my early years craving a sibling. What I really wished I had was a twin, someone who’d cried next to me in the crib, slept beside me, fed from Mother’s breast with me. Someone to love helplessly and totally, and in whose face I could always find myself.
And so Baba’s little sister, Pari, was my secret companion, invisible to everyone but me. She was my sister, the one I’d always wished my parents had given me. I saw her in the bathroom mirror when we brushed our teeth side by side in the morning. We dressed together. She followed me to school and sat close to me in class—looking straight ahead at the board, I could always spot the black of her hair and the white of her profile out of the corner of my eye. I took her with me to the playground at recess, feeling her presence behind me when I whooshed down a slide, when I swung from one monkey bar to the next. After school, when I sat at the kitchen table sketching, she doodled patiently nearby or stood looking out the window until I finished and we ran outside to jump rope, our twin shadows bopping up and down on the concrete.
No one knew about my games with Pari. Not even my father. She was my secret.
Sometimes, when no one was around, we ate grapes and talked and talked—about toys, which cereals were tastiest, cartoons we liked, schoolkids we didn’t, which teachers were mean. We shared the same favorite color (yellow), favorite ice cream (dark cherry), TV show (Alf), and we both wanted to be artists when we grew up. Naturally, I imagined we looked exactly the same because, after all, we were twins. Sometimes I could almost see her—really see her, I mean—just at the periphery of my eyesight. I tried drawing her, and, each time, I gave her the same slightly uneven light green eyes as mine, the same dark curly hair, the same long, slashing eyebrows that almost touched. If anyone asked, I told them I had drawn myself.
The tale of how my father had lost his sister was as familiar to me as the stories my mother had told me of the Prophet, tales I would learn again later when my parents would enroll me in Sunday school at a mosque in Hayward. Still, despite the familiarity, each night I asked to hear Pari’s story again, caught in the pull of its gravity. Maybe it was simply because we shared a name. Maybe that was why I sensed a connection between us, dim, enfolded in mystery, real nonetheless. But it was more than that. I felt touched by her, like I too had been marked by what had happened to her. We were interlocked, I sensed, through some unseen order in ways I couldn’t wholly understand, linked beyond our names, beyond familial ties, as if, together, we completed a puzzle.
I felt certain that if I listened closely enough to her story, I would discover something revealed about myself.
Do you think your father was sad? That he sold her?
Some people hide their sadness very well, Pari. He was like that. You couldn’t tell looking at him. He was a hard man. But I think, yes, I think he was sad inside.
My father would smile and say, Why should I be when I have you? but, even at that age, I could tell. It was like a birthmark on his face.
The whole time we talked like this, a fantasy played out in my head. In it, I would save all my money, not spend a dollar on candy or stickers, and when my piggy bank was full—though it wasn’t a pig at all but a mermaid sitting on a rock—I would break it open and pocket all the money and set out to find my father’s little sister, wherever she was, and, when I did, I would buy her back and bring her home to Baba. I would make my father happy. There was nothing in the world I desired more than to be the one to take away his sadness.
So what’s my dream tonight? Baba would ask.
You know already.
Another smile. Yes, I know.
Was she a good sister?
She was perfect.
He would kiss my cheek and tuck the blanket around my neck. At the door, just after he’d turned off the light, he would pause.
She was perfect, he would say. Like you are.
I always waited until he’d shut the door before I slid out of bed, fetched an extra pillow, and placed it next to my own. I went to sleep each night feeling twin hearts beating in my chest.
I check my watch as I veer onto the freeway from the Old Oakland Road entrance. It’s already half past noon. It will take me forty minutes at least to reach SFO, barring any accidents or roadwork on the 101. On the plus side, it is an international flight, so she will still have to clear customs, and perhaps that will buy me a little time. I slide over to the left lane and push the Lexus up close to eighty.
I remember a minor miracle of a conversation I had had with Baba, about a month back. The exchange was a fleeting bubble of normalcy, like a tiny pocket of air down in the deep, dark, cold bottom of the ocean. I was late bringing him lunch, and he turned his head to me from his recliner and remarked, with the gentlest critical tone, that I was genetically programmed to not be punctual. Like your mother, God rest her soul.
But then, he went on, smiling, as if to reassure me, a person has to have a flaw somewhere.
So this is the one token flaw God tossed my way, then? I said, lowering the plate of rice and beans on his lap. Habitual tardiness?
And He did so with great reluctance, I might add. Baba reached for my hands. So close, so very close He had you to perfection.
Well, if you like, I’ll happily let you in on a few more.
You have them hidden away, do you?
Oh, heaps. Ready to be unleashed. For when you’re old and helpless.
I am old and helpless.
Now you want me to feel sorry for you.
I play with the radio, flipping from talk to country to jazz to more talk. I turn it off. I’m restless and nervous. I reach for my cell phone on the passenger seat. I call the house and leave the phone flipped open on my lap.
“Salaam, Baba. It’s me.”
“Yes, Baba. Is everything okay at the house with you and Hector?”
“Yes. He’s a wonderful young man. He made us eggs. We had them with toast. Where are you?”
“I’m driving,” I say.
“To the restaurant? You don’t have a shift today, do you?”
“No, I’m on my way to the airport, Baba. I’m picking someone up.”
“Okay. I’ll ask your mother to make us lunch,” he says. “She could bring something from the restaurant.”
“All right, Baba.”
To my relief, he doesn’t mention her again. But, some days, he won’t stop. Why won’t you tell me where she is, Pari? Is she having an operation? Don’t lie to me! Why is everyone lying to me? Has she gone away? Is she in Afghanistan? Then I’m going too! I’m going to Kabul, and you can’t stop me. We go back and forth like this, Baba pacing, distraught; me feeding him lies, then trying to distract him with his collection of home-improvement catalogs or something on television. Sometimes it works, but other times he is impervious to my tricks. He worries until he is in tears, in hysterics. He slaps at his head and rocks back and forth in the chair, sobbing, his legs quivering, and then I have to feed him an Ativan. I wait for his eyes to cloud over, and, when they do, I drop on the couch, exhausted, out of breath, near tears myself. Longingly, I look at the front door and the openness beyond and I want to walk through it and just keep walking. And then Baba moans in his sleep, and I snap back, simmering with guilt.
“Can I talk to Hector, Baba?”
I hear the receiver transferring hands. In the background, the sound of a game-show crowd groaning, then applause.
Hector Juarez lives across the street. We’ve been neighbors for many years and have become friends in the last few. He comes over a couple of times a week and he and I eat junk food and watch trash TV late into the night, mostly reality shows. We chew on cold pizza and shake our heads with morbid fascination at the antics and tantrums on the screen. Hector was a marine, stationed in the south of Afghanistan. A couple of years back, he got himself badly hurt in an IED attack. Everyone from the block showed up when he finally came home from the VA. His parents had hung a Welcome Home, Hector sign out in their front yard, with balloons and a lot of flowers. Everyone clapped when his parents pulled up to the house. Several of the neighbors had baked pies. People thanked him for his service. They said, Be strong, now. God bless. Hector’s father, Cesar, came over to our house a few days later and he and I installed the same wheelchair ramp Cesar had built outside his own house leading up to the front door, the American flag draped above it. I remember, as the two of us worked on the ramp, I felt a need to apologize to Cesar for what had happened to Hector in my father’s homeland.
“Hi,” I say. “I thought I’d check in.”
“It’s all good here,” Hector says. “We ate. We did Price Is Right. We’re chillin’ now with Wheel. Next up is Feud.”
“What for, mija? We’re having a good time. Aren’t we, Abe?”
“Thanks for making him eggs,” I say.
Hector lowers his voice a notch. “Pancakes, actually. And guess what? He loved them. Ate up a four-stack.”
“I really owe you.”
“Hey, I really like the new painting, girl. The one with the kid in the funny hat? Abe here showed it to me. He was all proud too. I was, like, damn! You should be proud, man.”
I smile as I shift lanes to let a tailgater pass. “Maybe I know what to give you for Christmas now.”
“Remind me again why we can’t get married?” Hector says. I hear Baba protesting in the background and Hector’s laugh, away from the receiver. “I’m joking, Abe. Go easy on me. I’m a cripple.” Then, to me, “I think your father just flashed me his inner Pashtun.”
I remind him to give Baba his late-morning pills and hang up.
It’s like seeing the photo of a radio personality, how they never turn out to look the way you had pictured them in your mind, listening to their voice in your car. She is old, for one thing. Or oldish. Of course I knew this. I had done the math and estimated she had to be around her early sixties. Except it is hard to reconcile this slim gray-haired woman with the little girl I’ve always envisioned, a three-year-old with dark curly hair and long eyebrows that almost meet, like mine. And she is taller than I imagined. I can tell, even though she is sitting, on a bench near a sandwich kiosk, looking around timidly like she’s lost. She has narrow shoulders and a delicate build, a pleasant face, her hair pulled back taut and held with a crocheted headband. She wears jade earrings, faded jeans, a long salmon tunic sweater, and a yellow scarf wrapped around her neck with casual European elegance. She had told me in her last e-mail that she would wear the scarf so I could spot her quickly.
She has not seen me yet, and I linger for a moment among the travelers pushing luggage carts through the terminal, the town-car chauffeurs holding signs with clients’ names. My heart clamoring inside my rib cage, I think to myself, This is her. This is her. This is really her. Then our eyes connect, and recognition ripples across her face. She waves.
We meet at the bench. She grins and my knees wobble. She has Baba’s grin exactly—except for a rice grain’s gap between her upper front teeth—crooked on the left, the way it scrunches up her face and nearly squeezes shut her eyes, how she tilts her head just a tad. She stands up, and I notice the hands, the knobby joints, the fingers bent away from the thumb at the first knuckle, the chickpea-sized lumps at the wrist. I feel a twist in my stomach, it looks so painful.
We hug, and she kisses me on the cheeks. Her skin is soft like felt. When we pull back, she holds me at a distance, hands cupping my shoulders, and looks into my face as if she were appraising a painting. There is a film of moisture over her eyes. They’re alive with happiness.
“I apologize for being late.”
“It’s nothing,” she says. “At last, to be with you! I am just so glad”—Is nussing. At lass, too be weez yoo! The French accent sounds even thicker in person than it did on the phone.
“I’m glad too,” I say. “How was your flight?”
“I took a pill, otherwise I know I cannot sleep. I will stay awake the whole time. Because I am too happy and too excited.” She holds me with her gaze, beaming at me—as if she is afraid the spell will break if she looks away—until the PA overhead advises passengers to report any unsupervised luggage, and then her face slackens a bit.
“Does Abdullah know yet that I am coming here?”
“I told him I was bringing home a guest,” I say.
Later, as we settle into the car, I steal quick looks at her. It’s the strangest thing. There is something oddly illusory about Pari Wahdati, sitting in my car, mere inches from me. One moment, I see her with perfect clarity—the yellow scarf around her neck, the short, flimsy hairs at the hairline, the coffee-colored mole beneath the left ear—and, the next, her features are enfolded in a kind of haze, as if I am peering at her through bleary glasses. I feel, in passing, a kind of vertigo.
“You are okay?” she says, eyeing me as she snaps the seat-belt buckle.
“I keep thinking you’ll disappear.”
“It’s just … a little unbelievable,” I say, laughing nervously. “That you really exist. That you’re actually here.”
She nods, smiling. “Ah, for me too. For me too it is strange. You know, my whole life I never meet anyone with the same name as me.”
“Neither have I.” I turn the ignition key. “So tell me about your children.”
As I pull out of the parking lot, she tells me all about them, using their names as though I had known them all my life, as though her children and I had grown up together, gone on family picnics and to camp and taken summer vacations to seaside resorts where we had made seashell necklaces and buried one another under sand.
I do wish we had.
She tells me her son Alain—“and your cousin,” she adds—and his wife, Ana, have had a fifth baby, a little girl, and they have moved to Valencia, where they have bought a house. “Finalement, they leave that detestable apartment in Madrid!” Her firstborn, Isabelle, who writes musical scores for television, has been commissioned to compose her first major film score. And Isabelle’s husband, Albert, is now head chef at a well-regarded restaurant in Paris.
“You owned a restaurant, no?” she asks. “I think you told me this in your e-mail.”
“Well, my parents did. It was always my father’s dream to own a restaurant. I helped them run it. But I had to sell it a few years back. After my mother died and Baba became … incapable.”
“Ah, I am sorry.”
“Oh, don’t be. I wasn’t cut out for restaurant work.”
“I should think not. You are an artist.”
I had told her, in passing the first time we spoke and she asked me what I did, that I had dreams of going to art school one day.
“Actually, I am what you call a transcriptionist.”
She listens intently as I explain to her that I work for a firm that processes data for big Fortune 500 companies. “I write up forms for them. Brochures, receipts, customer lists, e-mail lists, that sort of thing. The main thing you need to know is how to type. And the pay is decent.”
“I see,” she says. She considers, then says, “Is it interesting for you, doing this work?”
We are passing by Redwood City on our way south. I reach across her lap and point out the passenger window. “Do you see that building? The tall one with the blue sign?”
“I was born there.”
“Ah, bon?” She turns her neck to keep looking as I drive us past. “You are lucky.”
“To know where you came from.”
“I guess I never gave it much thought.”
“Bah, of course not. But it is important to know this, to know your roots. To know where you started as a person. If not, your own life seems unreal to you. Like a puzzle. Vous comprenez? Like you have missed the beginning of a story and now you are in the middle of it, trying to understand.”
I imagine this is how Baba feels these days. His life, riddled with gaps. Every day a mystifying story, a puzzle to struggle through.
We drive in silence for a couple of miles.
“Do I find my work interesting?” I say. “I came home one day and found the water running in the kitchen sink. There was broken glass on the floor, and the gas burner had been left on. That was when I knew that I couldn’t leave him alone anymore. And because I couldn’t afford a live-in caretaker, I looked for work I could do from home. ‘Interesting’ didn’t figure much into the equation.”
“And art school can wait.”
“It has to.”
I worry she will say next how lucky Baba is to have me for a daughter, but, to my relief and gratitude, she only nods, her eyes swimming past the freeway signs. Other people, though—especially Afghans—are always pointing out how fortunate Baba is, what a blessing I am. They speak of me admiringly. They make me out to be a saint, the daughter who has heroically forgone some glittering life of ease and privilege to stay home and look after her father. But, first, the mother, they say, their voices ringing, I imagine, with a glistening kind of sympathy. All those years of nursing her. What a mess that was. Now the father. She was never a looker, sure, but she had a suitor. An American, he was, the solar fellow. She could have married him. But she didn’t. Because of them. The things she sacrificed. Ah, every parent should have a daughter like this. They compliment me on my good humor. They marvel at my courage and nobility the way people do those who have overcome a physical deformity or maybe a crippling speech impediment.
But I don’t recognize myself in this version of the story. For instance, some mornings I spot Baba sitting on the edge of his bed, eyeing me with his rheumy gaze, impatient for me to slip socks onto his dry, mottled feet, and he growls my name and makes an infantile face. He wrinkles his nose in a way that makes him look like a wet, fearful rodent, and I resent him when he makes this face. I resent him for being the way he is. I resent him for the narrowed borders of my existence, for being the reason my best years are draining away from me. There are days when all I want is to be free of him and his petulance and neediness. I am nothing like a saint.
I take the exit at Thirteenth Street. A handful of miles later, I pull into our driveway, on Beaver Creek Court, and turn off the engine.
Pari looks out the window at our one-story house, the garage door with the peeling paint job, the olive window trim, the tacky pair of stone lions on guard on either side of the front door—I haven’t had the heart to get rid of them because Baba loves them, though I doubt he would notice. We have lived in this house since 1989, when I was seven, renting it first, before Baba bought it from the owner back in ’93. Mother died in this house, on a sunny Christmas Eve morning, in a hospital bed I set up for her in the guest bedroom and where she spent the last three months of her life. She asked me to move her to that room because of the view. She said it raised up her spirits. She lay in the bed, her legs swollen and gray, and spent her days looking out the window at the cul-de-sac, the front yard with its rim of Japanese maples she had planted years before, the star-shaped flower bed, the swath of lawn split by a narrow path of pebbles, the foothills in the distance and the deep, rich gold they turned midday when sunlight shone full tilt on them.
“I am very nervous,” Pari says quietly.
“It’s understandable,” I say. “It’s been fifty-eight years.”
She looks down at her hands folded in her lap. “I remember almost nothing about him. What I remember, it is not his face or his voice. Only that in my life something has been missing always. Something good. Something … Ah, I don’t know what to say. That is all.”
I nod. I think better of telling her just how well I understand. I come close to asking whether she had ever had any intimations of my existence.
She toys with the frayed ends of her scarf. “Do you think it is possible that he will remember me?”
“Do you want the truth?”
She searches my face. “Of course, yes.”
“It’s probably best he doesn’t.” I think of what Dr. Bashiri had said, my parents’ longtime physician. He said Baba needed regimen, order. A minimum of surprise. A sense of predictability.
I open my door. “Would you mind staying in the car a minute? I’ll send my friend home, and then you can meet Baba.”
She puts a hand over her eyes, and I don’t wait to see if she is going to cry.
When I was eleven, all the sixth-grade classes in my elementary school went for an overnight field trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The whole week leading up to that Friday, it was all my classmates talked about, in the library or playing four square at recess, how much fun they would have, once the aquarium closed for the day, free to run around the exhibits, in their pajamas, among the hammerheads, the bat rays, the sea dragons, and the squid. Our teacher, Mrs. Gillespie, told us dinner stations would be set up around the aquarium, and students would have their choice of PB&J or mac and cheese. You can have brownies for dessert or vanilla ice cream, she said. Students would crawl into their sleeping bags that night and listen to teachers read them bedtime stories, and they would drift off to sleep among the sea horses and sardines and the leopard sharks gliding through tall fronds of swaying kelp. By Thursday, the anticipation in the classroom was electric. Even the usual troublemakers made sure to be on their best for fear that mischief would cost them the trip to the aquarium.
For me, it was a bit like watching an exciting movie with the sound turned off. I felt removed from all the cheerfulness, cut off from the celebratory mood—the way I did every December when my classmates went home to Douglas firs and stockings dangling over fireplaces and pyramids of presents. I told Mrs. Gillespie I wouldn’t be going along. When she asked why, I said the field trip fell on a Muslim holiday. I wasn’t sure she believed me.
The night of the trip, I stayed home with my parents, and we watched Murder, She Wrote. I tried to focus on the show and not think about the field trip, but my mind insisted on wandering off. I imagined my classmates, at that same moment, in their pajamas, flashlights in hand, their foreheads pressed against the glass of a giant tank of eel. I felt something clenching in my chest, and I shifted my weight on the couch. Baba, slung back on the other couch, tossed a roasted peanut into his mouth and chuckled at something Angela Lansbury said. Next to him, I caught Mother watching me pensively, her face clouded over, but when our eyes met her features cleared quickly and she smiled—a stealthy, private smile—and I dug inward and willed myself to smile back. That night, I dreamt I was at a beach, standing waist-deep in the ocean, water that was myriad shades of green and blue, jade, sapphire, emerald, turquoise, gently rocking at my hips. At my feet glided legions of fish, as if the ocean were my own private aquarium. They brushed against my toes and tickled my calves, a thousand darting, glistening flashes of color against the white sand.
That Sunday, Baba had a surprise for me. He shut down the restaurant for the day—something he almost never did—and drove the two of us to the aquarium in Monterey. Baba talked excitedly the whole way. How much fun we were going to have. How he looked forward to seeing all the sharks especially. What should we eat for lunch? As he spoke, I remembered when I was little and he would take me to the petting zoo at Kelley Park and the Japanese gardens next door to see the koi, and how we would give names to all the fish and how I would cling to his hand and think to myself that I would never need anyone else as long as I lived.
At the aquarium, I wandered gamely through the exhibits and did my best to answer Baba’s questions about different types of fish I recognized. But the place was too bright and noisy, the good exhibits too crowded. It was nothing like the way I imagined it had been the night of the field trip. It was a struggle. It wore me out, trying to make like I was having a good time. I felt a stomachache coming on, and we left after an hour or so of shuffling about. On the drive home, Baba kept glancing my way with a bruised look like he was on the verge of saying something. I felt his eyes pressing in on me. I pretended to sleep.
The next year, in junior high, girls my age were wearing eye shadow and lip gloss. They went to Boyz II Men concerts, school dances, and on group dates to Great America, where they screeched through the dips and corkscrews of the Demon. Classmates tried out for basketball and cheerleading. The girl who sat behind me in Spanish, pale-skinned with freckles, was going out for the swim team, and she casually suggested one day, as we were clearing our desks just after the bell, that I give it a shot too. She didn’t understand. My parents would have been mortified if I wore a bathing suit in public. Not that I wanted to. I was terribly self-conscious about my body. I was slim above the waist but disproportionately and strikingly thick below, as if gravity had pulled all the weight down to my lower half. I looked like I had been put together by a child playing one of those board games where you mix and match body parts or, better yet, mismatch them so everyone has a good laugh. Mother said what I had was “strong bones.” She said her own mother had had the same build. Eventually, she stopped, having figured, I guess, that big-boned was not something a girl wanted to be called.
I did lobby Baba to let me try out for the volleyball team, but he took me in his arms and gently cupped his hands around my head. Who would take me to practice? he reasoned. Who would drive me to games? Oh, I wish we had the luxury, Pari, like your friends’ parents, but we have a living to make, your mother and I. I won’t have us back on welfare. You understand, my love. I know you do.
Despite the need to make a living, Baba found the time to drive me to Farsi lessons down in Campbell. Every Tuesday afternoon, after regular school, I sat in Farsi class and, like a fish made to swim upstream, tried to guide the pen, against my hand’s own nature, from right to left. I begged Baba to end the Farsi classes, but he refused. He said I would appreciate later the gift he was giving me. He said that if culture was a house, then language was the key to the front door, to all the rooms inside. Without it, he said, you ended up wayward, without a proper home or a legitimate identity.
Then there was Sundays, when I put on a white cotton scarf, and he dropped me off at the mosque in Hayward for Koran lessons. The room where we studied—a dozen other Afghan girls and I—was tiny, had no air-conditioning, and smelled of unwashed linen. The windows were narrow and set high, the way prison-cell windows always are in the movies. The lady who taught us was the wife of a grocer in Fremont. I liked her best when she told us stories about the Prophet’s life, which I found interesting—how he had lived his childhood in the desert, how the angel Gabriel had appeared to him in a cave and commanded him to recite verses, how everyone who met him was struck by his kind and luminous face. But she spent the bulk of the time running down a long list, warning us against all the things we had to avoid at all cost as virtuous young Muslim girls lest we be corrupted by Western culture: boys—first and foremost, naturally—but also rap music, Madonna, Melrose Place, shorts, dancing, swimming in public, cheerleading, alcohol, bacon, pepperoni, non-halal burgers, and a slew of other things. I sat on the floor, sweating in the heat, my feet falling asleep, wishing I could lift the scarf from my hair, but, of course, you couldn’t do that in a mosque. I looked up at the windows, but they allowed only narrow slits of sky. I longed for the moment when I exited the mosque, when fresh air first struck my face and I always felt a loosening inside my chest, the relief of an uncomfortable knot coming undone.
But until then, the only escape was to slacken the reins on my mind. From time to time, I would find myself thinking of Jeremy Warwick, from math. Jeremy had laconic blue eyes and a white-boy Afro. He was secretive and brooding. He played guitar in a garage band—at the school’s annual talent show, they played a raucous take on “House of the Rising Sun.” In class, I sat four seats behind and to the left of Jeremy. Sometimes I pictured us kissing, his hand cupped around the back of my neck, his face so close to mine it eclipsed the whole world. A sensation would spread through me like a warm feather gently shivering across my belly, my limbs. Of course it could never happen. We could never happen, Jeremy and I. If he had even the dimmest inkling of my existence, he had never given a clue. Which was just as well, really. This way, I could pretend the only reason we couldn’t be together was that he didn’t like me.
I worked summers at my parents’ restaurant. When I was younger, I had loved to wipe the tables, help arrange plates and silverware, fold paper napkins, drop a red gerbera into the little round vase at the center of each table. I pretended I was indispensable to the family business, that the restaurant would fall apart without me to make sure all the salt and pepper shakers were full.
By the time I was in high school, days at Abe’s Kabob House dragged long and hot. Much of the luster that the things inside the restaurant had held for me in childhood had faded. The old humming soda merchandiser in the corner, the vinyl table covers, the stained plastic cups, the tacky item names on the laminated menus—Caravan Kabob, Khyber Pass Pilaf, Silk Route Chicken—the badly framed poster of the Afghan girl from National Geographic, the one with the eyes—like they had passed an ordinance that every single Afghan restaurant had to have her eyes staring back from the wall. Next to it, Baba had hung an oil painting I had done in seventh grade of the big minarets in Herat. I remember the charge of pride and glamour I had felt when he had first put it up, when I watched customers eating their lamb kabobs beneath my artwork.
At lunch hour, while Mother and I ping-ponged back and forth from the spicy smoke in the kitchen to the tables where we served office workers and city employees and cops, Baba worked the register—Baba and his grease-stained white shirt, the bushel of gray chest hair spilling over the open top button, his thick, hairy forearms. Baba beaming, waving cheerfully to each entering customer. Hello, sir! Hello, madam! Welcome to Abe’s Kabob House. I’m Abe. Can I take your order please? It made me cringe how he didn’t realize that he sounded like the goofy Middle Eastern sidekick in a bad sitcom. Then, with each meal I served, there was the sideshow of Baba ringing the old copper bell. It had started as a kind of joke, I suppose, the bell, which Baba had hooked to the wall behind the register counter. Now each table served was greeted by a hearty clang of the copper bell. The regulars were used to it—they barely heard it anymore—and new customers mostly chalked it up to the eccentric charm of the place, though there were complaints from time to time.
You don’t want to ring the bell anymore, Baba said one night. It was in the spring quarter of my senior year in high school. We were in the car outside the restaurant, after we had closed, waiting for Mother, who had forgotten her antacid pills inside and had run back in to fetch them. Baba wore a leaden expression. He had been in a dark mood all day. A light drizzle fell on the strip mall. It was late, and the lot was empty, save for a couple of cars at the KFC drive-thru and a pickup parked outside the dry-cleaning shop, two guys inside the truck, smoke corkscrewing up from the windows.
It was more fun when I wasn’t supposed to, I said.
Everything is, I guess. He sighed heavily.
I remembered how it used to thrill me, when I was little, when Baba lifted me up by the underarms and let me ring the bell. When he put me down again, my face would shine happy and proud.
Baba turned on the car heater, crossed his arms.
Long way to Baltimore.
I said brightly, You can fly out to visit anytime.
Fly out anytime, he repeated with a touch of derision. I cook kabob for a living, Pari.
Then I’ll come visit.
Baba rolled his eyes toward me and gave me a drawn look. His melancholy was like the darkness outside pushing against the car windows.
Every day for a month I had been checking our mailbox, my heart riding a swell of hope each time the delivery truck pulled up to the curb. I would bring the mail inside, close my eyes, think, This could be it. I would open my eyes and sift through the bills and the coupons and the sweepstakes. Then, on Tuesday of the week before, I had ripped open an envelope and found the words I had been waiting for: We are pleased to inform you …
I leapt to my feet. I screamed—an actual throat-ripping yowl that made my eyes water. Almost instantaneously, an image streaked through my head: opening night at a gallery, me dressed in something simple, black, and elegant, encircled by patrons and crinkle-browed critics, smiling and answering their questions, as clusters of admirers linger before my canvases and servers in white gloves float around the gallery pouring wine, offering little square bites of salmon with dill or asparagus spears wrapped in puff pastry. I experienced one of those sudden bursts of euphoria, the kind where you want to wrap strangers in a hug and dance with them in great big swoops.
It’s your mother I worry for, Baba said.
I’ll call every night. I promise. You know I will.
Baba nodded. The leaves of the maples near the entrance to the parking lot tossed about in a sudden gust of wind.
Have you thought some more, he said, about what we discussed?
You mean, junior college?
Only for a year, maybe two. Just to give her time to get accustomed to the idea. Then you could reapply.
I shuddered with a sudden jolt of anger. Baba, these people reviewed my test scores and transcripts, and they went through my portfolio, and they thought enough of my artwork not only to accept me but to offer me a scholarship. This is one of the best institutes of art in the country. It’s not a school you say no to. You don’t get a second chance like this.
That’s true, he said, straightening up in his seat. He cupped his hands and blew warm air into them. Of course I understand. Of course I’m happy for you. I could see the struggle in his face. And the fear too. Not just fear for me and what might happen to me three thousand miles from home. But fear of me, of losing me. Of the power I wielded, through my absence, to make him unhappy, to maul his open, vulnerable heart, if I chose to, like a Doberman going to work on a kitten.
I found myself thinking of his sister. By then, my connection with Pari—whose presence had once been like a pounding deep within me—had long waned. I thought of her infrequently. As the years had swept past, I had outgrown her, the way I had outgrown favorite pajamas and stuffed animals I had once clung to. But now I thought of her once more and of the ties that bound us. If what had been done to her was like a wave that had crashed far from shore, then it was the backwash of that wave now pooling around my ankles, then receding from my feet.
Baba cleared his throat and looked out the window at the dark sky and the clouded-over moon, his eyes liquid with emotion.
Everything will remind me of you.
It was in the tender, slightly panicky way he spoke these words that I knew my father was a wounded person, that his love for me was as true, vast, and permanent as the sky, and that it would always bear down upon me. It was the kind of love that, sooner or later, cornered you into a choice: either you tore free or you stayed and withstood its rigor even as it squeezed you into something smaller than yourself.
I reached over from the darkened backseat and touched his face. He leaned his cheek onto my palm.
What’s taking so long? he murmured.
She’s locking up, I said. I felt exhausted. I watched Mother hurry to the car. The drizzle had turned into a downpour.
A month later, a couple of weeks before I was due to fly east for a campus visit, Mother went to Dr. Bashiri to tell him the antacid pills had done nothing to help her stomach pain. He sent her for an ultrasound. They found a tumor the size of a walnut in her left ovary.
He is on the recliner, sitting motionless, slumped forward. He has his sweatpants on, his lower legs covered by a checkered wool shawl. He is wearing the brown cardigan sweater I bought him the year before over a flannel shirt he has buttoned all the way. This is the way he insists on wearing his shirts now, with the collar buttoned, which makes him look both boyish and frail, resigned to old age. He looks a little puffy in the face today, and strands of his white hair spill uncombed over his brow. He is watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? with a somber, perplexed expression. When I call his name, his gaze lingers on the screen like he hasn’t heard me before he drags it away and looks up with displeasure. He has a small sty growing on the lower lid of his left eye. He needs a shave.
“Baba, can I mute the TV for a second?”
“I’m watching,” he says.
“I know. But you have a visitor.” I had already told him about Pari Wahdati’s visit the day before and again this morning. But I don’t ask him if he remembers. It is something that I learned early on, to not put him on the spot, because it embarrasses him and makes him defensive, sometimes abusive.
I pluck the remote from the arm of the recliner and turn off the sound, bracing myself for a tantrum. The first time he threw one, I was convinced it was a charade, an act he was putting on. To my relief, Baba doesn’t protest beyond a long sigh through the nose.
I motion to Pari, who is lingering in the hallway at the entrance to the living room. Slowly, she walks over to us, and I pull her up a chair close to Baba’s recliner. She is a bundle of nervous excitement, I can tell. She sits erect, pale, leaning forward from the edge of the chair, knees pressed together, her hands clamped, and her smile so tight her lips are turning white. Her eyes are glued on Baba, as if she has only moments with him and is trying to memorize his face.
“Baba, this is the friend I told you about.”
He eyes the gray-haired woman across from him. He has an unnerving way of looking at people these days, even when he is staring directly at them, that gives nothing away. He looks disengaged, closed off, like he meant to look elsewhere and his eyes happened upon them by accident.
Pari clears her throat. Even so, her voice shakes when she speaks. “Hello, Abdullah. My name is Pari. It’s so wonderful to see you.”
He nods slowly. I can practically see the uncertainty and confusion rippling across his face like waves of muscle spasm. His eyes shift from my face to Pari’s. He opens his mouth in a strained half smile the way he does when he thinks a prank is being played on him.
“You have an accent,” he finally says.
“She lives in France,” I said. “And, Baba, you have to speak English. She doesn’t understand Farsi.”
Baba nods. “So you live in London?” he says to Pari.
“What?” He turns sharply to me. Then he understands and gives an embarrassed little laugh before switching from Farsi. “Do you live in London?”
“Paris, actually,” Pari says. “I live in a small apartment in Paris.” She doesn’t lift her eyes from him.
“I always planned to take my wife to Paris. Sultana—that was her name, God rest her soul. She was always saying, Abdullah, take me to Paris. When will you take me to Paris?”
Actually, Mother didn’t much like to travel. She never saw why she would forgo the comfort and familiarity of her own home for the ordeal of flying and suitcase lugging. She had no sense of culinary adventure—her idea of exotic food was the Orange Chicken at the Chinese take-out place on Taylor Street. It is a bit of a marvel how Baba, at times, summons her with such uncanny precision—remembering, for instance, that she salted her food by bouncing the salt grains off the palm of her hand or her habit of interrupting people on the phone when she never did it in person—and how, other times, he can be so wildly inaccurate. I imagine Mother is fading for him, her face receding into shadows, her memory diminishing with each passing day, leaking like sand from a fist. She is becoming a ghostly outline, a hollow shell, that he feels compelled to fill with bogus details and fabricated character traits, as though false memories are better than none at all.
“Well, it is a lovely city,” Pari says.
“Maybe I’ll take her still. But she has the cancer at the moment. It’s the female kind—what do you call it?—the …”
“Ovarian,” I say.
Pari nods, her gaze flicking to me and back to Baba.
“What she wants most is to climb the Eiffel Tower. Have you seen it?” Baba says.
“The Eiffel Tower?” Pari Wahdati laughs. “Oh yes. Every day. I cannot avoid it, in fact.”
“Have you climbed it? All the way to the top?”
“I have, yes. It is beautiful up there. But I am scared of high places, so it is not always comfortable for me. But at the top, on a good sunny day, you can see for more than sixty kilometers. Of course a lot of days in Paris it is not so good and not so sunny.”
Baba grunts. Pari, encouraged, continues talking about the tower, how many years it took to build it, how it was never meant to stay in Paris past the 1889 World’s Fair, but she can’t read Baba’s eyes like I can. His expression has flattened. She doesn’t realize that she has lost him, that his thoughts have already shifted course like windblown leaves. Pari nudges closer on the seat. “Did you know, Abdullah,” she says, “that they have to paint the tower every seven years?”
“What did you say your name was?” Baba says.
“That’s my daughter’s name.”
“Yes, I know.”
“You have the same name,” Baba says. “The two of you, you have the same name. So there you have it.” He coughs, absently picks at a small tear in the leather of the recliner’s arm.
“Abdullah, can I ask you a question?”
Pari looks up at me like she is asking for permission. I give her the go-ahead with a nod. She leans forward in the chair. “How did you decide to choose this name for your daughter?”
Baba shifts his gaze to the window, his fingernail still scraping the tear in the recliner’s arm.
“Do you remember, Abdullah? Why this name?”
He shakes his head. With a fist, he yanks at his cardigan and clutches it shut at his throat. His lips barely move as he begins to hum under his breath, a rhythmic muttering he always resorts to when he is marauded by anxiety and at a loss for an answer, when everything has blurred to vagueness and he is bowled over by a gush of disconnected thoughts, waiting desperately for the murkiness to clear.
“Abdullah? What is that?” Pari says.
“Nothing,” he mutters.
“No, that song you are singing—what is it?”
He turns to me, helpless. He doesn’t know.
“It’s like a nursery rhyme,” I say. “Remember, Baba? You said you learned it when you were a boy. You said you learned it from your mother.”
“Can you sing it for me?” Pari says urgently, a catch in her voice. “Please, Abdullah, will you sing it?”
He lowers his head and shakes it slowly.
“Go ahead, Baba,” I say softly. I rest my hand on his bony shoulder. “It’s okay.”
Hesitantly, in a high, trembling voice and without looking up, Baba sings the same two lines several times:
I found a sad little fairy Beneath the shade of a paper tree.
“He used to say there was a second verse,” I say to Pari, “but that he’d forgotten it.”
Pari Wahdati lets out a sudden laugh that sounds like a deep, guttural cry, and she covers her mouth. “Ah, mon Dieu,” she whispers. She lifts her hand. In Farsi, she sings:
I know a sad little fairy Who was blown away by the wind one night.
Folds appear on Baba’s forehead. For a transitory moment, I think I detect a tiny crack of light in his eyes. But then it winks out, and his face is placid once more. He shakes his head. “No. No, I don’t think that’s how it goes at all.”
“Oh, Abdullah …” Pari says.
Smiling, her eyes teared over, Pari reaches for Baba’s hands and takes them into her own. She kisses the back of each and presses his palms to her cheeks. Baba grins, moisture now pooling in his eyes as well. Pari looks up at me, blinking back happy tears, and I see she thinks she has broken through, that she has summoned her lost brother with this magic chant like a genie in a fairy tale. She thinks he sees her clearly now. She will understand momentarily that he is merely reacting, responding to her warm touch and show of affection. It’s just animal instinct, nothing more. This I know with painful clarity.
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