“I’m afraid the coffee won’t be up to Parisian standards,” I say over my shoulder, pouring water from the pot into the coffeemaker.
“I promise you I am not a coffee snob.” She has taken off the yellow scarf and put on reading glasses, through which she is peering at pictures.
When the coffeemaker begins to gurgle, I take my seat at the kitchen table beside Pari. “Ah oui. Voilà. Here it is,” she says. She flips the album around and pushes it over to me. She taps on a picture. “This is the place. Where your father and I were born. And our brother Iqbal too.”
When she first called me from Paris, she mentioned Iqbal’s name—as proof, perhaps, to convince me she was not lying about who she said she was. But I already knew she was telling the truth. I knew it the moment I picked up the receiver and she spoke my father’s name into my ear and asked whether it was his residence she had reached. And I said, Yes, who is this? and she said, I am his sister. My heart kicked violently. I fumbled for a chair to drop into, everything around me suddenly pin-drop quiet. It was a shock, yes, the sort of third-act theatrical thing that rarely happens to people in real life. But on another plane—a plane that defies rationalizing, a more fragile plane, one whose essence would fracture and splinter if I even vocalized it—I wasn’t surprised that she was calling. As if I had expected it, even, my whole life, that through some dizzying fit of design, or circumstance, or chance, or fate, or whatever name you want to slap on it, we would find each other, she and I.
I carried the receiver with me to the backyard then and sat on a chair by the vegetable patch, where I have kept growing the bell peppers and giant squash my mother had planted. The sun warmed my neck as I lit a cigarette with quivering hands.
I know who you are, I said. I’ve known all my life.
There was silence at the other end, but I had the impression she was weeping soundlessly, that she had rolled her head away from the phone to do it.
We spoke for almost an hour. I told her I knew what had happened to her, how I used to make my father recount the story for me at bedtime. Pari said she had been unaware of her own history herself and would have probably died without knowing it if not for a letter left behind by her stepuncle, Nabi, before his own death in Kabul, in which he had detailed the events of her childhood among other things. The letter had been left in the care of someone named Markos Varvaris, a surgeon working in Kabul, who had then searched for and found Pari in France. Over the summer, Pari had flown to Kabul, met with Markos Varvaris, who had arranged for her to visit Shadbagh.
Near the end of the conversation, I sensed her gathering herself before she finally said, Well, I think I am ready. Can I speak with him now?
That was when I had to tell her.
I slide the photo album closer now and inspect the picture that Pari is pointing to. I see a mansion nestled behind high shiny-white walls topped with barbed wire. Or, rather, someone’s tragically misguided idea of a mansion, three stories high, pink, green, yellow, white, with parapets and turrets and pointed eaves and mosaics and mirrored skyscraper glass. A monument to kitsch gone woefully awry.
“My God!” I breathe.
“C’est affreux, non?” Pari says. “It is horrible. The Afghans, they call these Narco Palaces. This one is the house of a well-known criminal of war.”
“So this is all that’s left of Shadbagh?”
“Of the old village, yes. This, and many acres of fruit trees of—what do you call it?—des vergers.”
“Yes.” She runs her fingers over the photo of the mansion. “I wish I know where our old house was exactly, I mean in relation to this Narco Palace. I would be happy to know the precise spot.”
She tells me about the new Shadbagh—an actual town, with schools, a clinic, a shopping district, even a small hotel—which has been built about two miles away from the site of the old village. The town was where she and her translator had looked for her half brother. I had learned all of this over the course of that first, long phone conversation with Pari, how no one in town seemed to know Iqbal until Pari had run into an old man who did, an old childhood friend of Iqbal’s, who had spotted him and his family staying on a barren field near the old windmill. Iqbal had told this old friend that when he was in Pakistan, he had been receiving money from his older brother who lived in northern California. I asked, Pari said on the phone, I asked, Did Iqbal tell you the name of this brother? and the old man said, Yes, Abdullah. And then, alors, after that the rest was not so difficult. Finding you and your father, I mean.
I asked Iqbal’s friend where Iqbal was now, Pari said. I asked what happened to him, and the old man said he did not know. But he seemed very nervous, and he did not look at me when he said this. And I think, Pari, I worry that something bad happened to Iqbal.
She flips through more pages now and shows me photographs of her children—Alain, Isabelle, and Thierry—and snapshots of her grandchildren—at birthday parties, posing in swimming trunks at the edge of a pool. Her apartment in Paris, the pastel blue walls and white blinds pulled down to the sills, the shelves of books. Her cluttered office at the university, where she had taught mathematics before the rheumatoid had forced her into retirement.
I keep turning the pages of the album as she provides captions to the snapshots—her old friend Collette, Isabelle’s husband Albert, Pari’s own husband Eric, who had been a playwright and had died of a heart attack back in 1997. I pause at a photo of the two of them, impossibly young, sitting side by side on orange-colored cushions in some kind of restaurant, her in a white blouse, him in a T-shirt, his hair, long and limp, tied in a ponytail.
“That was the night that we met,” Pari says. “It was a setup.”
“He had a kind face.”
Pari nods. “Yes. When we get married, I thought, Oh, we will have a long time together. I thought to myself, Thirty years at least, maybe forty. Fifty, if we are lucky. Why not?” She stares at the picture, lost for a moment, then smiles lightly. “But time, it is like charm. You never have as much as you think.” She pushes the album away and sips her coffee. “And you? You never get married?”
I shrug and flip another page. “There was one close call.”
“I am sorry, ‘close call’?”
“It means I almost did. But we never made it to the ring stage.”
This is not true. It was painful and messy. Even now, the memory of it is like a soft ache behind my breastbone.
She ducks her head. “I am sorry. I am very rude.”
“No. It’s fine. He found someone both more beautiful and less … encumbered, I guess. Speaking of beautiful, who is this?”
I point to a striking-looking woman with long dark hair and big eyes. In the picture, she is holding a cigarette like she is bored—elbow tucked into her side, head tilted up insouciantly—but her gaze is penetrating, defiant.
“This is Maman. My mother, Nila Wahdati. Or, I thought she was my mother. You understand.”
“She’s gorgeous,” I say.
“She was. She committed suicide. Nineteen seventy-four.”
“Non, non. It’s all right.” She brushes the picture absently with the side of her thumb. “Maman was elegant and talented. She read books and had many strong opinions and always she was telling them to people. But she had also very deep sadness. All my life, she gave to me a shovel and said, Fill these holes inside of me, Pari.”
I nod. I think I understand something of that.
“But I could not. And later, I did not want to. I did careless things. Reckless things.” She sits back in the chair, her shoulders slumping, puts her thin white hands in her lap. She considers for a minute before saying, “J’aurais dû être plus gentille—I should have been more kind. That is something a person will never regret. You will never say to yourself when you are old, Ah, I wish I was not good to that person. You will never think that.” For a moment, her face looks stricken. She is like a helpless schoolgirl. “It would not have been so difficult,” she says tiredly. “I should have been more kind. I should have been more like you.”
She lets out a heavy breath and folds the photo album shut. After a pause, she says brightly, “Ah, bon. Now I wish to ask something of you.”
“Will you show me some of your paintings?”
We smile at each other.
Pari stays a month with Baba and me. In the mornings, we take breakfast together in the kitchen. Black coffee and toast for Pari, yogurt for me, and fried eggs with bread for Baba, something he has found a taste for in the last year. I worried it was going to raise his cholesterol, eating all those eggs, and I asked Dr. Bashiri during one of Baba’s appointments. Dr. Bashiri gave me one of his tight-lipped smiles and said, Oh, I wouldn’t worry about it. And that reassured me—at least until a bit later when I was helping Baba buckle his seat belt and it occurred to me that maybe what Dr. Bashiri had really meant was, We’re past all that now.
After breakfast, I retreat into my office—otherwise known as my bedroom—and Pari keeps Baba company while I work. At her request, I have written down for her the schedule of the TV shows he likes to watch, what time to give him his midmorning pills, which snacks he likes and when he’s apt to ask for them. It was her idea I write it all down.
You could just pop in and ask, I said.
I don’t want to disturb you, she said. And I want to know. I want to know him.
I don’t tell her that she will never know him the way she longs to. Still, I share with her a few tricks of the trade. For instance, how if Baba starts to get agitated I can usually, though not always, calm him down—for reasons that baffle me still—by quickly handing him a free home-shopping catalog or a furniture-sale flyer. I keep a steady supply of both.
If you want him to nap, flip on the Weather Channel or anything to do with golf. And never let him watch cooking shows.
They agitate him for some reason.
After lunch, the three of us go out for a stroll. We keep it short for both their sakes—what with Baba tiring quickly and Pari’s arthritis. Baba has a wariness in his eyes, tottering anxiously along the sidewalk between Pari and me, wearing an old newsboy cap, his cardigan sweater, and wool-lined moccasins. There is a middle school around the block with an ill-manicured soccer field and, across that, a small playground where I often take Baba. We always find a young mother or two, strollers parked near them, a toddler stumbling around in the sandbox, now and then a teenage couple cutting school, swinging lazily and smoking. They rarely look at Baba—the teenagers—and then only with cold indifference, or even subtle disdain, as if my father should have known better than to allow old age and decay to happen to him.
One day, I pause during dictation and go to the kitchen to refresh my coffee and I find the two of them watching a movie together. Baba on the recliner, his moccasins sticking out from under the shawl, his head bent forward, mouth gaping slightly, eyebrows drawn together in either concentration or confusion. And Pari sitting beside him, hands folded in her lap, feet crossed at the ankles.
“Who’s this one?” Baba says.
“That is Latika.”
“Latika, the little girl from the slums. The one who could not jump on the train.”
“She doesn’t look little.”
“Yes, but a lot of years have passed,” Pari says. “She is older now, you see.”
One day the week before, at the playground, we were sitting on a park bench, the three of us, and Pari said, Abdullah, do you remember that when you were a boy you had a little sister?
She’d barely finished her sentence when Baba began to weep. Pari pressed his head into her chest, saying, I am sorry, I am so sorry, over and over in a panicky way, wiping his cheeks with her hands, but Baba kept seizing with sobs, so violently he started to choke.
“And do you know who this is, Abdullah?”
“He is Jamal. The boy from the game show.”
“He is not,” Baba says roughly.
“You don’t think?”
“He’s serving tea!”
“Yes, but that was—what do you call it?—it was from the past. From before. It was a …”
Flashback, I mouth into my coffee cup.
“The game show is now, Abdullah. And when he was serving tea, that was before.”
Baba blinks vacantly. On the screen, Jamal and Salim are sitting atop a Mumbai high-rise, their feet dangling over the side.
Pari watches him as though waiting for a moment when something will open in his eyes. “Let me ask you something, Abdullah,” she says. “If one day you win a million dollars, what would you do?”
Baba grimaces, shifting his weight, then stretches out farther in the recliner.
“I know what I would do,” Pari says.
Baba looks at her blankly.
“If I win a million dollars, I buy a house on this street. That way, we can be neighbors, you and me, and every day I come here and we watch TV together.”
But it’s only minutes later, when I am back in my room wearing earphones and typing, that I hear a loud shattering sound and Baba screaming something in Farsi. I rip the earphones off and rush to the kitchen. I see Pari backed up against the wall where the microwave is, hands bunched protectively under her chin, and Baba, wild-eyed, jabbing her in the shoulder with his cane. Broken shards of a drinking glass glitter at their feet.
“Get her out of here!” Baba cries when he sees me. “I want this woman out of my house!”
Pari’s cheeks have gone pale. Tears spring from her eyes.
“Put down the cane, Baba, for God’s sake! And don’t take a step. You’ll cut your feet.”
I wrestle the cane from his hand but not before he gives me a good fight for it.
“I want this woman gone! She’s a thief!”
“What is he saying?” Pari says miserably.
“She stole my pills!”
“Those are hers, Baba,” I say. I put a hand on his shoulder and guide him out of the kitchen. He shivers under my palm. As we pass by Pari, he almost lunges at her again, and I have to restrain him. “All right, that’s enough of that, Baba. And those are her pills, not yours. She takes them for her hands.” I grab a shopping catalog from the coffee table on the way to the recliner.
“I don’t trust that woman,” Baba says, flopping into the recliner. “You don’t know. But I know. I know a thief when I see one!” He pants as he grabs the catalog from my hand and starts violently flipping the pages. Then he slams it in his lap and looks up at me, his eyebrows shot high. “And a damn liar too. You know what she said to me, this woman? You know what she said? That she was my sister! My sister! Wait ’til Sultana hears about this one.”
“All right, Baba. We’ll tell her together.”
“We’ll tell Mother, and then us three will laugh the crazy woman right out the door. Now, you go on and relax, Baba. Everything is all right. There.”
I flip on the Weather Channel and sit beside him, stroking his shoulder, until his shaking ceases and his breathing slows. Less than five minutes pass before he dozes off.
Back in the kitchen, Pari sits slumped on the floor, back against the dishwasher. She looks shaken. She dabs at her eyes with a paper napkin.
“I am very sorry,” she says. “That was not prudent of me.”
“It’s all right,” I say, reaching under the sink for the dustpan and brush. I find little pink-and-orange pills scattered on the floor among the broken glass. I pick them up one by one and sweep the glass off the linoleum.
“Je suis une imbécile. I wanted to tell him so much. I thought maybe if I tell him the truth … I don’t know what I was thinking.”
I empty the broken glass into the trash bin. I kneel down, pull back the collar of Pari’s shirt, and check her shoulder where Baba had jabbed her. “That’s going to bruise. And I speak with authority on the matter.” I sit on the floor beside her.
She opens her palm, and I pour the pills into it. “He is like this often?”
“He has his spit-and-vinegar days.”
“Maybe you think about finding professional help, no?”
I sigh, nodding. I have thought a lot lately of the inevitable morning when I will wake up to an empty house while Baba lies curled up on an unfamiliar bed, eyeing a breakfast tray brought to him by a stranger. Baba slumped behind a table in some activity room, nodding off.
“I know,” I say, “but not yet. I want to take care of him as long as I can.”
Pari smiles and blows her nose. “I understand that.”
I am not sure she does. I don’t tell her the other reason. I can barely admit it to myself. Namely, how afraid I am to be free despite my frequent desire for it. Afraid of what will happen to me, what I will do with myself, when Baba is gone. All my life, I have lived like an aquarium fish in the safety of a glass tank, behind a barrier as impenetrable as it has been transparent. I have been free to observe the glimmering world on the other side, to picture myself in it, if I like. But I have always been contained, hemmed in, by the hard, unyielding confines of the existence that Baba has constructed for me, at first knowingly, when I was young, and now guilelessly, now that he is fading day by day. I think I have grown accustomed to the glass and am terrified that when it breaks, when I am alone, I will spill out into the wide open unknown and flop around, helpless, lost, gasping for breath.
The truth I rarely admit to is, I have always needed the weight of Baba on my back.
Why else had I so readily surrendered my dreams of art school, hardly mounting a resistance when Baba asked me not to go to Baltimore? Why else had I left Neal, the man I was engaged to a few years ago? He owned a small solar-panel-installation company. He had a square-shaped, creased face I liked the moment I met him at Abe’s Kabob House, when I asked for his order and he looked up from the menu and grinned. He was patient and friendly and even-tempered. It isn’t true what I told Pari about him. Neal didn’t leave me for someone more beautiful. I sabotaged things with him. Even when he promised to convert to Islam, to take Farsi classes, I found other faults, other excuses. I panicked, in the end, and ran back to all the familiar nooks and crannies, and crevasses, of my life at home.
Next to me, Pari begins to get up. I watch her flatten the wrinkles of her dress, and I am struck anew by what a miracle it is that she is here, standing inches from me.
“I want to show you something,” I say.
I get up and go to my room. One of the quirks of never leaving home is that no one cleans out your old room and sells your toys at a garage sale, no one gives away the clothes you have outgrown. I know that for a woman who is nearly thirty, I have too many relics of my childhood sitting around, most of them stuffed in a large chest at the foot of my bed whose lid I now lift. Inside are old dolls, the pink pony that came with a mane I could brush, the picture books, all the Happy Birthday and Valentine’s cards I had made my parents in elementary school with kidney beans and glitter and little sparkling stars. The last time we spoke, Neal and I, when I broke things off, he said, I can’t wait for you, Pari. I won’t wait around for you to grow up.
I shut the lid and go back to the living room, where Pari has settled into the couch across from Baba. I take a seat next to her.
“Here,” I say, handing her the stack of postcards.
She reaches for her reading glasses sitting on the side table and yanks off the rubber band holding the postcards together. Looking at the first one, she frowns. It is a picture of Las Vegas, of Caesars Palace at night, all glitter and lights. She flips it over and reads the note aloud.
July 21, 1992
You wouldn’t believe how hot this place gets. Today Baba got a blister when he put his palm down on the hood of our rental car! Mother had to put toothpaste on it. In Caesars Palace, they have Roman soldiers with swords and helmets and red capes. Baba kept trying to get Mother to take a picture with them but she wouldn’t. But I did! I’ll show you when I get home. That’s it for now. I miss you. Wish you were here.
P.S. I’m having the most awesome ice cream sundae as I write this.
She flips to the next postcard. Hearst Castle. She reads the note under her breath now. Had his own zoo! How cool is that? Kangaroos, zebras, antelopes, Bactrian camels—they’re the ones with two humps! One of Disneyland, Mickey in the wizard’s hat, waving a wand. Mother screamed when the hanged guy fell from the ceiling! You should have heard her! La Jolla Cove. Big Sur. 17 Mile Drive. Muir Woods. Lake Tahoe. Miss you. You would have loved it for sure. Wish you were here.
I wish you were here.
I wish you were here.
Pari takes off her glasses. “You wrote postcards to yourself?”
I shake my head. “To you.” I laugh. “This is embarrassing.”
Pari puts the postcards down on the coffee table and nudges closer to me. “Tell me.”
I look down at my hands and rotate my watch around on my wrist. “I used to pretend we were twin sisters, you and I. No one could see you but me. I told you everything. All my secrets. You were real to me, always so near. I felt less alone because of you. Like we were Doppelgängers. Do you know that word?”
A smile comes to her eyes. “Yes.”
I used to picture us as two leaves, blowing miles apart in the wind yet bound by the deep tangled roots of the tree from which we had both fallen.
“For me, it was the contrary,” Pari says. “You say you felt a presence, but I sensed only an absence. A vague pain without a source. I was like the patient who cannot explain to the doctor where it hurts, only that it does.” She puts her hand on mine, and neither of us says anything for a minute.
From the recliner, Baba groans and shifts.
“I’m really sorry,” I say.
“Why are you sorry?”
“That you found each other too late.”
“But we have found each other, no?” she says, her voice cracking with emotion. “And this is who he is now. It’s all right. I feel happy. I have found a part of myself that was lost.” She squeezes my hand. “And I found you, Pari.”
Her words tug at my childhood longings. I remember how when I felt lonely, I would whisper her name—our name—and hold my breath, waiting for an echo, certain that it would come someday. Hearing her speak my name now, in this living room, it is as though all the years that divided us are rapidly folding over one another again and again, time accordioning itself down to nothing but the width of a photograph, a postcard, ferrying the most shining relic of my childhood to sit beside me, to hold my hand, and say my name. Our name. I feel a tilting, something clicking into place. Something ripped apart long ago being sealed again. And I feel a soft lurch in my chest, the muffled thump of another heart kick-starting anew next to my own.
In the recliner, Baba props himself up on his elbows. He rubs his eyes, looks over to us. “What are you girls plotting?”
Another nursery rhyme. This one about the bridge in Avignon.
Pari hums the tune for me, then recites the lyrics:
Sur le pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse, l’on y danse
Sur le pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse tous en rond.
“Maman taught it to me when I was little,” she says, tightening the knot of her scarf against a sweeping gust of cold wind. The day is chilly but the sky blue and the sun strong. It strikes the gray-metal-colored Rhône broadside and breaks on its surface into little shards of brightness. “Every French child knows this song.”
We are sitting on a wooden park bench facing the water. As she translates the words, I marvel at the city across the river. Having recently discovered my own history, I am awestruck to find myself in a place so chockful of it, all of it documented, preserved. It’s miraculous. Everything about this city is. I feel wonder at the clarity of the air, at the wind swooping down on the river, making the water slap against the stony banks, at how full and rich the light is and how it seems to shine from every direction. From the park bench, I can see the old ramparts ringing the ancient town center and its tangle of narrow, crooked streets; the west tower of the Avignon Cathedral, the gilded statue of the Virgin Mary gleaming atop it.
Pari tells me the history of the bridge—the young shepherd who, in the twelfth century, claimed that angels told him to build a bridge across the river and who demonstrated the validity of his claim by lifting up a massive rock and hurling it in the water. She tells me about the boatmen on the Rhône who climbed the bridge to honor their patron, Saint Nicholas. And about all the floods over the centuries that ate away at the bridge’s arches and caused them to collapse. She says these words with the same rapid, nervous energy she had earlier in the day when she led me through the Gothic Palais des Papes. Lifting the audio-guide headphones to point to a fresco, tapping my elbow to draw my attention to an interesting carving, stained glass, the intersecting ribs overhead.
Outside the Papal Palace, she spoke nearly without pause, the names of all the saints and popes and cardinals spilling from her as we strolled through the cathedral square amid the flocks of doves, the tourists, the African merchants in bright tunics selling bracelets and imitation watches, the young, bespectacled musician, sitting on an apple crate, playing “Bohemian Rhapsody” on his acoustic guitar. I don’t recall this loquaciousness from her visit in the U.S., and it feels to me like a delaying tactic, like we are circling around the thing she really wants to do—what we will do—and all these words are like a bridge.
“But you will see a real bridge soon,” she says. “When everybody arrives. We will go together to the Pont du Gard. Do you know it? No? Oh là là. C’est vraiment merveilleux. The Romans built it in the first century for transporting water from Eure to Nîmes. Fifty kilometers! It is a masterpiece of engineering, Pari.”
I have been in France for four days, in Avignon for two. Pari and I took the TGV here from an overcast, chilly Paris, stepped off it to clear skies, a warm wind, and a chorus of cicadas chirping from every tree. At the station, a mad rush to haul my luggage out ensued, and I nearly didn’t make it, hopping off the train just as the doors whooshed shut behind me. I make a mental note now to tell Baba how three seconds more and I would have ended up in Marseille.
How is he? Pari asked in Paris during the taxi ride from Charles de Gaulle to her apartment.
Further along the path, I said.
Baba lives in a nursing home now. When I first went to scout the facility, when the director, Penny—a tall, frail woman with curly strawberry hair—showed me around, I thought, This isn’t so bad.
And then I said it. This isn’t so bad.
The place was clean, with windows that looked out on a garden, where, Penny said, they held a tea party every Wednesday at four-thirty. The lobby smelled faintly of cinnamon and pine. The staff, most of whom I have now come to know by first name, seemed courteous, patient, competent. I had pictured old women, with ruined faces and whiskers on their chins, dribbling, chattering to themselves, glued to television screens. But most of the residents I saw were not that old. A lot of them were not even in wheelchairs.
I guess I expected worse, I said.
Did you? Penny said, emitting a pleasant, professional laugh.
That was offensive. I’m sorry.
Not at all. We’re fully conscious of the image most people have of places like this. Of course, she added over her shoulder with a sober note of caution, this is the facility’s assisted-living area. Judging by what you’ve told me of your father, I’m not sure he would function well here. I suspect the Memory Care Unit would be more suitable for him. Here we are.
She used a card key to let us in. The locked unit didn’t smell like cinnamon or pine. My insides shriveled up, and my first instinct was to turn around and walk back out. Penny put her hand around my arm and squeezed. She looked at me with great tenderness. I fought through the rest of the tour, bowled over by a massive wave of guilt.
The morning before I left for Europe, I went to see Baba. I passed through the lobby in the assisted-living area and waved at Carmen, who is from Guatemala and answers the phones. I walked past the community hall, where a roomful of seniors were listening to a string quartet of high school students in formal attire; past the multipurpose room with its computers and bookshelves and domino sets, past the bulletin board and its array of tips and announcements—Did you know that soy can reduce your bad cholesterol? Don’t forget Puzzles and Reflection Hour this Tuesday at 11 A.M.!