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.
A few months before Dr. Bashiri passed me the phone number to a hospice, Mother and I took a trip to the Santa Cruz Mountains and stayed in a hotel for the weekend. Mother didn’t like long trips, but we did go off on short ones now and then, she and I, back before she was really sick. Baba would man the restaurant, and I would drive Mother and me to Bodega Bay, or Sausalito, or San Francisco, where we would always stay in a hotel near Union Square. We would settle down in our room and order room service, watch on-demand movies. Later, we would go down to the Wharf—Mother was a sucker for all the tourist traps—and buy gelato, watch the sea lions bobbing up and down on the water over by the pier. We would drop coins into the open cases of the street guitarists and the backpacks of the mime artists, the spray-painted robot men. We always made a visit to the Museum of Modern Art, and, my arm coiled around hers, I would show her the works of Rivera, Kahlo, Matisse, Pollock. Or else we would go to a matinee, which Mother loved, and we would see two, three films, come out in the dark, our eyes bleary, ears ringing, fingers smelling of popcorn.
It was easier with Mother—always had been—less complicated, less treacherous. I didn’t have to be on my guard so much. I didn’t have to watch what I said all the time for fear of inflicting a wound. Being alone with her on those weekend getaways was like curling up into a soft cloud, and, for a couple of days, everything that had ever troubled me fell away, inconsequentially, a thousand miles below.
We were celebrating the end of yet another round of chemo—which also turned out to be her last. The hotel was a beautiful, secluded place. They had a spa, a fitness center, a game room with a big-screen TV, and a billiards table. Our room was a cabin with a wooden porch, from which we had a view of the swimming pool, the restaurant, and entire groves of redwood that soared straight up into the clouds. Some of the trees were so close, you could tell the subtle shades of color on a squirrel’s fur as it dashed up the trunk. Our first morning there, Mother woke me up, said, Quick, Pari, you have to see this. There was a deer nibbling on shrubs outside the window.
I pushed her wheelchair around the gardens. I’m such a spectacle, Mother said. I parked her by the fountain and I would sit on a bench close to her, the sun warming our faces, and we would watch the hummingbirds darting between flowers until she fell asleep, and then I wheeled her back to our cabin.
On Sunday afternoon, we had tea and croissants on the balcony outside the restaurant, which was a big cathedral-ceilinged room with bookshelves, a dreamcatcher on one wall, and an honest-to-God stone hearth. On a lower deck, a man with the face of a dervish and a girl with limp blond hair were playing a lethargic game of Ping-Pong.
We have to do something about these eyebrows, Mother said. She was wearing a winter coat over a sweater and the maroon wool beanie hat she had knitted herself a year and a half earlier when, as she put it, all the festivities had begun.
I’ll paint them back on for you, I said.
Make them dramatic, then.
Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra dramatic?
She grinned weakly. Why not? She took a shallow sip of tea. Grinning accentuated all the new lines in her face. When I met Abdullah, I was selling clothes on the side of the street in Peshawar. He said I had beautiful eyebrows.
The Ping-Pong pair ditched the paddles. They were leaning now against the wooden railing, sharing a cigarette, looking up at the sky, which was luminous and clear but for a few frayed clouds. The girl had long, bony arms.
I read in the paper there’s an arts-and-crafts fair up in Capitola today, I said. If you’re up to it, maybe I’ll drive us, we’ll have a look. We could even have dinner there, if you like.
I want to tell you something.
Abdullah has a brother in Pakistan, Mother said. A half brother.
I turned to her sharply.
His name is Iqbal. He has sons. He lives in a refugee camp near Peshawar.
I put down my cup, began to speak, but she cut me off.
I’m telling you now, aren’t I? That’s all that matters. Your father has his reasons. I’m sure you can figure them out, you give it some time. Important thing is, he has a half brother and he’s been sending him money to help out.
She told me how, for years now, Baba had been sending this Iqbal—my half uncle, I thought with an inner lurch—a thousand dollars every three months, going down to Western Union, wiring the money to a bank in Peshawar.
Why are you telling me now? I asked.
Because I think you should know even if he doesn’t. Also, you will have to take over the finances soon and then you would find out anyway.
I turned away, watched a cat, its tail erect, sidle up to the Ping-Pong couple. The girl reached to pet it and the cat tensed up at first. But then it curled up on the railing, let the girl run her hands over its ears, down its back. My mind was reeling. I had family outside of the U.S.
You’ll be doing the books for a long time yet, Mother, I said. I did my best to disguise the wobble in my voice.
There was a dense pause. When she spoke again, it was in a lower tone, slower, like when I was little and we would go to the mosque for a funeral and she would hunker down next to me beforehand and patiently explain how I had to remove my shoes at the entrance, how I had to keep quiet during prayers and not fidget, not complain, and how I should use the bathroom now so I wouldn’t have to later.
I won’t, she said. And don’t you go thinking I will. The time has come, you have to be ready for it.
I blew out a gush of air; a hardness lodged in my throat. Somewhere, a chain saw buzzed to life, the crescendo of its whine at violent odds with the stillness of the woods.
Your father is like a child. Terrified of being abandoned. He would lose his way without you, Pari, and never find his way back.
I made myself look at the trees, the wash of sunlight falling on the feathery leaves, the rough bark of the trunks. I slid my tongue between the incisors and bit down hard. My eyes watered, and the coppery taste of blood flooded my mouth.
A brother, I said.
I have a lot of questions.
Ask me tonight. When I’m not as tired. I’ll tell you everything I know.
I nodded. I gulped the rest of my tea, which had gone cold. At a nearby table, a middle-aged couple traded pages of the newspaper. The woman, red-haired and open-faced, was quietly watching us over the top of her broadsheet, her eyes switching from me to my gray-faced mother, her beanie hat, her hands mapped with bruises, her sunken eyes and skeletal grin. When I met her gaze, the woman smiled just a tad like there was a secret knowledge between us, and I knew that she had done this too.
So what do you think, Mother? The fair, are you up for it?
Mother’s gaze lingered on me. Her eyes looked too big for her head and her head too big for her shoulders.
I could use a new hat, she said.
I tossed the napkin on the table and pushed back my chair, walked around to the other side. I released the brake on the wheelchair and pulled the chair away from the table.
Pari? Mother said.
She rolled her head all the way back to look up at me. Sunlight pushed through the leaves of the trees and pinpricked her face. Do you even know how strong God has made you? she said. How strong and good He has made you?
There is no accounting for how the mind works. This moment, for instance. Of the thousands and thousands of moments my mother and I shared together through all the years, this is the one that shines the brightest, the one that vibrates with the loudest hum at the back of my mind: my mother looking up at me over her shoulder, her face upside down, all those dazzling points of light shimmering on her skin, her asking did I know how good and strong God had made me.
After Baba falls asleep on the recliner, Pari gently zips up his cardigan and pulls up the shawl to cover his torso. She tucks a loose strand of hair behind his ear and stands over him, watching him sleep for a while. I like watching him sleep too because then you can’t tell something is wrong. With his eyes closed, the blankness is lifted, and the lackluster, absent gaze too, and Baba looks more familiar. Asleep, he looks more alert and present, as if something of his old self has seeped back into him. I wonder if Pari can picture it, looking at his face resting on the pillow, how he used to be, how he used to laugh.
We move from the living room to the kitchen. I fetch a pot from the cabinet and fill it at the sink.
“I want to show you some of these,” Pari says, a charge of excitement in her voice. She’s sitting at the table, busily flipping through a photo album that she fished from her suitcase earlier.