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.