And the Mountains Echoed

Page 29

Julien had not attended the services. He’d called and said, feebly, that he disliked memorials, he found them depressing.

Who doesn’t? Pari had said.

I think it’s best I stay clear.

Do as you like, Pari had said into the receiver, thinking, But it won’t absolve you, not coming. Any more than attending will absolve me. Of how reckless we were. How thoughtless. My God. Pari had hung up with him knowing that her fling with Julien had been the final push for Maman. She had hung up knowing that for the rest of her life it would slam into her at random moments, the guilt, the terrible remorse, catching her off guard, and that she would ache to the bones with it. She would wrestle with this, now and for all days to come. It would be the dripping faucet at the back of her mind.

She takes a bath after dinner and reviews some notes for an upcoming exam. She watches some more TV, cleans and dries the dishes, sweeps the kitchen floor. But it’s no use. She can’t distract herself. The journal sits on the bed, its calling to her like a lowfrequency hum.

Afterward, she puts a raincoat over her pajamas and goes for a walk down Boulevard de la Chapelle, a few blocks south of the apartment. The air is chilly, and raindrops slap the pavement and shopwindows, but the apartment cannot contain her restlessness right now. She needs the cold, the moist air, the open space.

When she was young, Pari remembers, she had been all questions. Do I have cousins in Kabul, Maman? Do I have aunts and uncles? And grandparents, do I have a grand-pére and a grand-maman? How come they never visit? Can we write them a letter? Please, can we visit them?

Most of her questions had revolved around her father. What was his favorite color, Maman? Tell me, Maman, was he a good swimmer? Did he know a lot of jokes? She remembers him chasing her once through a room. Rolling her around on a carpet, tickling her soles and belly. She remembers the smell of his lavender soap and the shine of his high forehead, his long fingers. His oval-shaped lapis cuff links, the crease of his suit pants. She can see the dust motes they had kicked up together off the carpet.

What Pari had always wanted from her mother was the glue to bond together her loose, disjointed scraps of memory, to turn them into some sort of cohesive narrative. But Maman never said much. She always withheld details of her life and of their life together in Kabul. She kept Pari at a remove from their shared past, and, eventually, Pari stopped asking.

And now it turns out that Maman had told this magazine writer, this Étienne Boustouler, more about herself and her life than she ever did her own daughter.

Or had she.

Pari read the piece three times back at the apartment. And she doesn’t know what to think, what to believe. So much of it rings false. Parts of it read like a parody. A lurid melodrama, of shackled beauties and doomed romances and pervasive oppression, all told in such breathless, high-spirited fashion.

Pari heads westbound, toward Pigalle, walking briskly, hands stuffed into the pockets of her raincoat. The sky is darkening rapidly, and the downpour lashing at her face is becoming heavier and more steady, rippling windows, smearing headlights. Pari has no memory of ever meeting the man, her grandfather, Maman’s father, has seen only the one photograph of him reading at his desk, but she doubts that he was the mustache-twirling villain Maman has made him out to be. Pari thinks she sees through this story. She has her own ideas. In her version, he is a man rightfully worried over the well-being of a deeply unhappy and self-destructive daughter who cannot help making shambles of her own life. He is a man who suffers humiliations and repeated assaults on his dignity and still stands by his daughter, takes her to India when she’s ill, stays with her for six weeks. And, on that subject, what really was wrong with Maman? What did they do to her in India? Pari wonders, thinking of the vertical pelvic scar—Pari had asked, and Zahia had told her that cesarian incisions were made horizontally.

And then what Maman told the interviewer about her husband, Pari’s father. Was it slander? Was it true that he’d loved Nabi, the chauffeur? And, if it was, why reveal such a thing now after all this time if not to confuse, humiliate, and perhaps inflict pain? And, if so, on whom?

As for herself, Pari is not surprised by the unflattering treatment Maman had reserved for her—not after Julien—nor is she surprised by Maman’s selective, sanitized account of her own mothering.


And yet …

Maman had been a gifted writer. Pari has read every word Maman had written in French and every poem she had translated from Farsi as well. The power and beauty of her writing was undeniable. But if the account Maman had given of her life in the interview was a lie, then where did the images of her work come from? Where was the wellspring for words that were honest and lovely and brutal and sad? Was she merely a gifted trickster? A magician, with a pen for a wand, able to move an audience by conjuring emotions she had never known herself? Was that even possible?

Pari does not know—she does not know. And that, perhaps, may have been Maman’s true intent, to shift the ground beneath Pari’s feet. To intentionally unsteady and upend her, to turn her into a stranger to herself, to heave the weight of doubt on her mind, on all Pari thought she knew of her life, to make her feel as lost as if she were wandering through a desert at night, surrounded by darkness and the unknown, the truth elusive, like a single tiny glint of light in the distance flickering on and off, forever moving, receding.

Perhaps, Pari thinks, this is Maman’s retribution. Not only for Julien but also for the disappointment that Pari has always been. Pari, who was maybe supposed to bring an end to all the drinking, the men, the years squandered making desperate lunges at happiness. All the dead ends pursued and abandoned. Each lash of disappointment leaving Maman more damaged, more derailed, and happiness more illusory. What was I, Maman? Pari thinks. What was I supposed to be, growing in your womb—assuming it was even in your womb that I was conceived? A seed of hope? A ticket purchased to ferry you from the dark? A patch for that hole you carried in your heart? If so, then I wasn’t enough. I wasn’t nearly enough. I was no balm to your pain, only another dead end, another burden, and you must have seen that early on. You must have realized it. But what could you do? You couldn’t go down to the pawnshop and sell me.

Perhaps this interview was Maman’s last laugh.

Pari steps beneath the awning of a brasserie to take refuge from the rain a few blocks west of the hospital where Zahia does part of her training. She lights a cigarette. She should call Collette, she thinks. They have spoken only once or twice since the memorial. When they were young, they used to chew mouthfuls of gum until their jaws ached, and they would sit before Maman’s dresser mirror and brush each other’s hair, pin it up. Pari spots an old woman across the street, wearing a plastic rain bonnet, laboring up the sidewalk trailed by a small tan terrier. Not for the first time, a little puff breaks rank from the collective fog of Pari’s memories and slowly takes the shape of a dog. Not a little toy like the old woman’s, but a big mean specimen, furry, dirty, with a severed tail and ears. Pari is unsure whether this, in fact, is a memory or the ghost of one or neither. She had asked Maman once if they had ever owned a dog in Kabul and Maman said, You know I don’t like dogs. They have no self-respect. You kick them and they still love you. It’s depressing.

Something else Maman said:

I don’t see me in you. I don’t know who you are.

Pari tosses her cigarette. She decides she will call Collette. Make plans to meet somewhere for tea. See how she is doing. Who she’s seeing. Go window-shopping like they used to.

See if her old friend is still up for that trip to Afghanistan.

Pari does meet Collette. They meet at a popular bar with a Moroccan design, violet drapes and orange pillows everywhere, curly-haired oud player on a small stage. Collette has not arrived alone. She has brought a young man with her. His name is Eric Lacombe. He teaches drama to seventh and eighth graders at a lycée in the 18th. He tells Pari he has met her before, a few years earlier, at a student protest against seal hunting. At first Pari cannot recall, and then she remembers that he was the one with whom Collette had been so angry over the low turnout, the one whose chest she’d knuckled. They sit on the ground, atop fluffy mango-colored cushions, and order drinks. Initially, Pari is under the impression that Collette and Eric are a couple, but Collette keeps praising Eric, and soon Pari understands he has been brought for her benefit. The discomfort that would normally overtake her in a situation like this is mirrored in—and mitigated by—Eric’s own considerable unease. Pari finds it amusing, and even endearing, the way he keeps blushing and shaking his head in apology and embarrassment. Over bread and black olive tapenades, Pari steals glances at him. He could not be called handsome. His hair is long and limp, tied with a rubber band at the base of his neck. He has small hands and pale skin. His nose is too narrow, his forehead too protruding, the chin nearly absent, but he has a bright-eyed grin and a habit of punctuating the end of each sentence with an expectant smile like a happy question mark. And though his face does not enthrall Pari as Julien’s had, it is a far kinder face and, as Pari will learn before long, an external ambassador for the attentiveness, the quiet forbearance, and the enduring decency that resides within Eric.

They marry on a chilly day in the spring of 1977, a few months after Jimmy Carter is sworn into office. Against his parents’ wishes, Eric insists on a small civil ceremony, no one present but the two of them and Collette as witness. He says a formal wedding is an extravagance they cannot afford. His father, who is a wealthy banker, offers to pay. Eric, after all, is their only child. He offers it as a gift, then as a loan. But Eric declines. And though he never says so, Pari knows it is to save her the awkwardness of a ceremony at which she would be alone, with no family to sit in the aisles, no one to give her away, no one to shed a happy tear on her behalf.

When she tells him of her plans to go to Afghanistan, he understands in a way that Pari believes Julien never would. And also in a way that she had never openly admitted to herself.

“You think you were adopted,” he says.

“Will you go with me?”

They decide they will travel that summer, when school is out for Eric and Pari can take a brief hiatus from her Ph.D. work. Eric registers them both for Farsi classes with a tutor he has found through the mother of one of his pupils. Pari often finds him on the couch wearing headphones, cassette player on his chest, his eyes shut in concentration as he mutters heavily accented Thank yous and Hellos and How are you?s in Farsi.

A few weeks before summer, just as Eric is looking into airfare and accommodations, Pari discovers she is pregnant.

“We could still go,” Eric says. “We should still go.”

It is Pari who decides against it. “It’s irresponsible,” she says. They are living in a studio with faulty heating, leaky plumbing, no air-conditioning, and an assortment of scavenged furniture.

“This is no place for a baby,” she says.

Eric takes on a side job teaching piano, which he had briefly entertained pursuing before he had set his sights on theater, and by the time Isabelle arrives—sweet, light-skinned Isabelle, with eyes the color of caramelized sugar—they have moved into a small two-bedroom apartment not far from Jardin du Luxembourg, this with financial assistance from Eric’s father, which they accept this time on the condition that it be a loan.

Pari takes three months off. She spends her days with Isabelle. She feels weightless around Isabelle. She feels a shining around herself whenever Isabelle turns her eyes to her. When Eric comes home from the lycée in the evening, the first thing he does is shed his coat and his briefcase at the door and then he drops on the couch and extends his arms and wiggles his fingers. “Give her to me, Pari. Give her to me.” As he bounces Isabelle on his chest, Pari fills him in on all the day’s tidbits—how much milk Isabelle took, how many naps, what they watched together on television, the enlivening games they played, the new noises she’s making. Eric never tires of hearing it.

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