Once a month, Mr. Wahdati, quite generously, let me borrow his car, and I would drive down to Shadbagh, my native village, to visit my sister Parwana and her husband, Saboor. Whenever I drove into the village, I would be greeted by hordes of hollering children, who would scamper alongside the car, slapping the fender, tapping at the window. Some of the little runts would even try to climb atop the roof, and I would have to shoo them away for fear that they would scratch the paint or cause a dent in the fender.
Look at you, Nabi, Saboor said to me. You are a celebrity.
Because his children, Abdullah and Pari, had lost their natural mother (Parwana was their stepmother), I always tried to be attentive to them, especially to the older boy, who most seemed to need it. I offered to take him alone for rides in the car, though he always insisted on bringing his baby sister, holding her tightly in his lap, as we circled the road around Shadbagh. I let him work the wipers, honk the horn. I showed him how to switch the headlights from dim to full.
After all the fuss about the car died down, I would sit for tea with my sister and Saboor and I would tell them about my life in Kabul. I took care not to say too much about Mr. Wahdati. I was, in truth, quite fond of him, for he treated me well, and speaking of him behind his back seemed to me like a betrayal. If I had been a less discreet employee, I would have told them that Suleiman Wahdati was a mystifying creature to me, a man seemingly satisfied with living the rest of his days off the wealth of his inheritance, a man with no profession, no apparent passion, and apparently no impulse to leave behind something of himself in this world. I would have told them that he lived a life lacking in purpose or direction. Like those aimless rides I took him on. A life lived from the backseat, observed as it blurred by. An indifferent life.
This is what I would have said, but I did not. And a good thing I did not. For how wrong I would have been.
One day, Mr. Wahdati came into the yard wearing a handsome pin-striped suit, one I had never seen on him before, and requested that I drive him to an affluent neighborhood of the city. When we arrived, he instructed me to park on the street outside a beautiful high-walled house, and I watched him ring the bell at the gates and enter when a servant answered. The house was huge, bigger than Mr. Wahdati’s, and even more beautiful. Tall, slender cypresses adorned the driveway, along with a densely packed array of bushes of a flower I did not recognize. The backyard was at least twice the size of Mr. Wahdati’s, and the walls stood tall enough that if a man climbed on the shoulders of another, he still could hardly steal a peek. This was wealth of another magnitude, I recognized.
It was a bright early-summer day, and the sky was brilliant with sunshine. Warm air wafted in through the windows, which I had rolled down. Though a chauffeur’s job is to drive, he actually spends most of his time waiting. Waiting outside stores, engine idling; waiting outside a wedding hall, listening to the muffled sound of the music. To pass the time that day, I played a few games of cards. When I tired of cards, I stepped out of the car and took a few steps in one direction, then the other. I sat inside once more, thinking I might steal a nap before Mr. Wahdati returned.
It was then that the front gates opened and a black-haired young woman emerged. She wore sunglasses and a short-sleeved tangerine-colored dress that fell short of the knees. Her legs were bare, and so were her feet. I did not know whether she had noticed me sitting in the car, and, if she had, she offered no indication. She rested the heel of one foot against the wall behind her and, when she did, the hem of the dress pulled up slightly and thus revealed a bit of the thigh beneath. I felt a burning spread down from my cheeks to my neck.
Allow me to make another confession here, Mr. Markos, one of a somewhat distasteful nature, leaving little room for elegant handling. At the time, I must have been in my late twenties, a young man at the prime of his desires for a woman’s company. Unlike many of the men I grew up with in my village—young men who had never seen the bare thigh of a grown woman and married, in part, for the license to at last cast their gaze upon such a sight—I did have some experience. I had found in Kabul, and on occasion visited, establishments where a young man’s needs could be addressed with both discretion and convenience. I mention this only to make the point that no whore I had ever lain with could compare with the beautiful, graceful creature who had just stepped out of the big house.
Leaning against the wall, she lit a cigarette and smoked without hurry and with bewitching grace, holding it at the very tip of two fingers and cupping her hand before her mouth each time she raised it to her lips. I watched with rapt attention. The way her hand bent at its slender wrist reminded me of an illustration I had once seen in a glossy book of poems of a long-lashed woman with flowing dark hair lying with her lover in a garden, offering him a cup of wine with her pale delicate fingers. At one point, something seemed to catch the woman’s attention up the street in the opposite direction, and I used the brief chance to quickly finger-brush my hair, which was beginning to mat down in the heat. When she turned back, I froze once more. She took a few more puffs, crushed the cigarette against the wall, and sauntered back inside.
At last, I could breathe.
That night, Mr. Wahdati called me into the living room and said, “I have news, Nabi. I am getting married.”
It seemed I had overestimated his fondness for solitude after all.
News of the engagement spread swiftly. And so did rumors. I heard them from the other workers who came and went through Mr. Wahdati’s house. The most vocal of these was Zahid, a gardener who came in three days a week to maintain the lawn and trim the trees and bushes, an unpleasant fellow with the repulsive habit of flicking his tongue after each sentence, a tongue with which he cast rumors as offhandedly as he tossed fistfuls of fertilizer. He was part of a group of lifelong laborers who, like me, worked in the neighborhood as cooks, gardeners, and errand men. One or two nights a week, after the workday was over, they squeezed into my shack for after-dinner tea. I do not recall how this ritual started, but, once it did, I was powerless to stop it, wary of seeming rude and inhospitable, or, worse, of appearing to think myself superior to my own kind.
Over tea one night, Zahid told the other men that Mr. Wahdati’s family did not approve of the marriage because of his bride-to-be’s poor character. He said it was well known in Kabul that she had no nang and namoos, no honor, and that though she was only twenty she had already been “ridden all over town” like Mr. Wahdati’s car. Worst of all, he said, not only had she made no attempt to deny these allegations, she wrote poems about them. A murmur of disapproval spread through the room when he said this. One of the men remarked that in his village they would have slit her throat by now.
That was when I rose and told them that I had heard enough. I berated them for gossiping like a sewing circle of old women and reminded them that without people like Mr. Wahdati the likes of us would be back in our villages collecting cow dung. Where is your loyalty, your respect? I demanded.
A brief moment of quiet passed during which I thought I had made an impression on the dullards and then laughter broke out. Zahid said I was an ass-licker, and perhaps the soon-to-be mistress of the house would ink a poem and call it “Ode to Nabi, the Licker of Many Asses.” I stomped indignantly out of the shack to an uproar of cackles.
But I did not stray too far. Their gossip, by turns, revolted and fascinated me. And despite my show of righteousness, for all my talk of propriety and discretion, I stayed within earshot. I did not want to miss a single lurid detail.
The engagement lasted only days and culminated not in a big ceremony with live singers and dancers and merriment all around but with a brief visit by a mullah, a witness, and the scribbling of two signatures across a sheet of paper. And with that, less than two weeks after I had laid eyes on her for the first time, Mrs. Wahdati moved into the house.
Allow me a brief pause here, Mr. Markos, to say that I will from here on refer to Mr. Wahdati’s wife as Nila. Needless to say, this is a liberty I was not allowed back then and one I would not have accepted even if it had been offered to me. I referred to her always as Bibi Sahib, with the deference expected of me. But for the purposes of this letter, I will dispense with etiquette and refer to her the way I always thought of her.
Now, I knew from the start that the marriage was an unhappy one. Rarely did I see a tender look pass between the couple or hear an affectionate word uttered. They were two people occupying the same house whose paths rarely seemed to intersect at all.
In the mornings, I served Mr. Wahdati his customary breakfast—a piece of toasted naan, half a cup of walnuts, green tea with a sprinkle of cardamom and no sugar, and a single boiled egg. He liked the yolk to run just so when he punctured the egg, and my initial failures to master this particular consistency had proved a source of considerable anxiety on my part. While I accompanied Mr. Wahdati on his daily morning walk, Nila slept in, often until noon or even later. By the time she rose, I was all but ready to serve Mr. Wahdati his lunch.
All morning, as I tended to my chores, I ached for the moment when Nila would push the screen door that opened from the living room out onto the veranda. I would play games in my head, guessing at her appearance that particular day. Would her hair be up, I wondered, tied in a bun at the back of her neck, or would I see it loose, tumbling down over her shoulders? Would she wear sunglasses? Would she opt for sandals? Would she choose the blue silk robe with the belt or the magenta one with the big round buttons?
When she made her entrance at last, I would busy myself in the yard, pretending the hood of the car needed wiping, or else I would find a sweetbriar bush to water, but the whole time I watched. I watched when she pushed up her sunglasses to rub her eyes, or when she removed the elastic band from her hair and threw back her head to let the dark lustrous curls fall loose, and I watched when she sat with her chin resting on her knees, staring into the yard, taking languid drags of her cigarette, or when she crossed her legs and bobbed one foot up and down, a gesture that suggested to me boredom or restlessness or perhaps heedless mischief barely held in check.
Mr. Wahdati was, on occasion, at her side, but often not. He spent most of his days as he had before, reading in his upstairs study, doing his sketches, his daily routines more or less unaltered by the fact of marriage. Nila wrote most days, either in the living room or else on the veranda, pencil in hand, sheets of paper spilling from her lap, and always the cigarettes. At night, I served them dinner, and they each received the meal in pointed silence, gaze lowered to the platter of rice, the quiet broken only by a muttered Thank you and the tinkling of spoon and fork against china.
Once or twice a week, I had to drive Nila when she needed a pack of cigarettes or a fresh set of pens, a new notepad, makeup. If I knew ahead of time that I would be driving her, I always made sure to comb my hair and brush my teeth. I washed my face, rubbed a sliced lemon against my fingers to rid them of the scent of onions, patted the dust off my suit, and polished my shoes. The suit, which was olive colored, was in fact a hand-me-down from Mr. Wahdati, and I hoped that he hadn’t told this to Nila—though I suspected he may have. Not out of malice, but because people in Mr. Wahdati’s position often cannot appreciate how small, trivial things like this could bring shame to a man like me. Sometimes, I even wore the lambskin cap that had belonged to my late father. I would stand there before the mirror, tilting the cap this way and that on my head, so absorbed in the act of rendering myself presentable to Nila that if a wasp had landed on my nose it would have had to sting me to make its presence known.
Once we were on the road, I looked for minor detours to our destination, if possible, detours designed to prolong the trip by a minute—or maybe two, but no more lest she grow suspicious—and thereby extend my time with her. I drove with both hands clenching the wheel, and my eyes firmly on the road. I exercised rigid self-control and did not look at her in the rearview mirror, doing so only if she addressed me. I contented myself with the mere fact of her presence in the backseat, with breathing in her many scents—expensive soap, lotion, perfume, chewing gum, cigarette smoke. That, most days, was sufficient to lend wings to my spirits.