“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.