And the Mountains Echoed

Page 53


P.S. I’m having the most awesome ice cream sundae as I write this.

She flips to the next postcard. Hearst Castle. She reads the note under her breath now. Had his own zoo! How cool is that? Kangaroos, zebras, antelopes, Bactrian camels—they’re the ones with two humps! One of Disneyland, Mickey in the wizard’s hat, waving a wand. Mother screamed when the hanged guy fell from the ceiling! You should have heard her! La Jolla Cove. Big Sur. 17 Mile Drive. Muir Woods. Lake Tahoe. Miss you. You would have loved it for sure. Wish you were here.

I wish you were here.

I wish you were here.

Pari takes off her glasses. “You wrote postcards to yourself?”

I shake my head. “To you.” I laugh. “This is embarrassing.”

Pari puts the postcards down on the coffee table and nudges closer to me. “Tell me.”

I look down at my hands and rotate my watch around on my wrist. “I used to pretend we were twin sisters, you and I. No one could see you but me. I told you everything. All my secrets. You were real to me, always so near. I felt less alone because of you. Like we were Doppelgängers. Do you know that word?”

A smile comes to her eyes. “Yes.”

I used to picture us as two leaves, blowing miles apart in the wind yet bound by the deep tangled roots of the tree from which we had both fallen.

“For me, it was the contrary,” Pari says. “You say you felt a presence, but I sensed only an absence. A vague pain without a source. I was like the patient who cannot explain to the doctor where it hurts, only that it does.” She puts her hand on mine, and neither of us says anything for a minute.

From the recliner, Baba groans and shifts.

“I’m really sorry,” I say.

“Why are you sorry?”

“That you found each other too late.”

“But we have found each other, no?” she says, her voice cracking with emotion. “And this is who he is now. It’s all right. I feel happy. I have found a part of myself that was lost.” She squeezes my hand. “And I found you, Pari.”

Her words tug at my childhood longings. I remember how when I felt lonely, I would whisper her name—our name—and hold my breath, waiting for an echo, certain that it would come someday. Hearing her speak my name now, in this living room, it is as though all the years that divided us are rapidly folding over one another again and again, time accordioning itself down to nothing but the width of a photograph, a postcard, ferrying the most shining relic of my childhood to sit beside me, to hold my hand, and say my name. Our name. I feel a tilting, something clicking into place. Something ripped apart long ago being sealed again. And I feel a soft lurch in my chest, the muffled thump of another heart kick-starting anew next to my own.

In the recliner, Baba props himself up on his elbows. He rubs his eyes, looks over to us. “What are you girls plotting?”

He grins.

Another nursery rhyme. This one about the bridge in Avignon.

Pari hums the tune for me, then recites the lyrics:

Sur le pont d’Avignon

L’on y danse, l’on y danse

Sur le pont d’Avignon

L’on y danse tous en rond.

“Maman taught it to me when I was little,” she says, tightening the knot of her scarf against a sweeping gust of cold wind. The day is chilly but the sky blue and the sun strong. It strikes the gray-metal-colored Rhône broadside and breaks on its surface into little shards of brightness. “Every French child knows this song.”

We are sitting on a wooden park bench facing the water. As she translates the words, I marvel at the city across the river. Having recently discovered my own history, I am awestruck to find myself in a place so chockful of it, all of it documented, preserved. It’s miraculous. Everything about this city is. I feel wonder at the clarity of the air, at the wind swooping down on the river, making the water slap against the stony banks, at how full and rich the light is and how it seems to shine from every direction. From the park bench, I can see the old ramparts ringing the ancient town center and its tangle of narrow, crooked streets; the west tower of the Avignon Cathedral, the gilded statue of the Virgin Mary gleaming atop it.

Pari tells me the history of the bridge—the young shepherd who, in the twelfth century, claimed that angels told him to build a bridge across the river and who demonstrated the validity of his claim by lifting up a massive rock and hurling it in the water. She tells me about the boatmen on the Rhône who climbed the bridge to honor their patron, Saint Nicholas. And about all the floods over the centuries that ate away at the bridge’s arches and caused them to collapse. She says these words with the same rapid, nervous energy she had earlier in the day when she led me through the Gothic Palais des Papes. Lifting the audio-guide headphones to point to a fresco, tapping my elbow to draw my attention to an interesting carving, stained glass, the intersecting ribs overhead.

Outside the Papal Palace, she spoke nearly without pause, the names of all the saints and popes and cardinals spilling from her as we strolled through the cathedral square amid the flocks of doves, the tourists, the African merchants in bright tunics selling bracelets and imitation watches, the young, bespectacled musician, sitting on an apple crate, playing “Bohemian Rhapsody” on his acoustic guitar. I don’t recall this loquaciousness from her visit in the U.S., and it feels to me like a delaying tactic, like we are circling around the thing she really wants to do—what we will do—and all these words are like a bridge.

“But you will see a real bridge soon,” she says. “When everybody arrives. We will go together to the Pont du Gard. Do you know it? No? Oh là là. C’est vraiment merveilleux. The Romans built it in the first century for transporting water from Eure to Nîmes. Fifty kilometers! It is a masterpiece of engineering, Pari.”

I have been in France for four days, in Avignon for two. Pari and I took the TGV here from an overcast, chilly Paris, stepped off it to clear skies, a warm wind, and a chorus of cicadas chirping from every tree. At the station, a mad rush to haul my luggage out ensued, and I nearly didn’t make it, hopping off the train just as the doors whooshed shut behind me. I make a mental note now to tell Baba how three seconds more and I would have ended up in Marseille.

How is he? Pari asked in Paris during the taxi ride from Charles de Gaulle to her apartment.

Further along the path, I said.

Baba lives in a nursing home now. When I first went to scout the facility, when the director, Penny—a tall, frail woman with curly strawberry hair—showed me around, I thought, This isn’t so bad.

And then I said it. This isn’t so bad.

The place was clean, with windows that looked out on a garden, where, Penny said, they held a tea party every Wednesday at four-thirty. The lobby smelled faintly of cinnamon and pine. The staff, most of whom I have now come to know by first name, seemed courteous, patient, competent. I had pictured old women, with ruined faces and whiskers on their chins, dribbling, chattering to themselves, glued to television screens. But most of the residents I saw were not that old. A lot of them were not even in wheelchairs.

I guess I expected worse, I said.

Did you? Penny said, emitting a pleasant, professional laugh.

That was offensive. I’m sorry.

Not at all. We’re fully conscious of the image most people have of places like this. Of course, she added over her shoulder with a sober note of caution, this is the facility’s assisted-living area. Judging by what you’ve told me of your father, I’m not sure he would function well here. I suspect the Memory Care Unit would be more suitable for him. Here we are.

She used a card key to let us in. The locked unit didn’t smell like cinnamon or pine. My insides shriveled up, and my first instinct was to turn around and walk back out. Penny put her hand around my arm and squeezed. She looked at me with great tenderness. I fought through the rest of the tour, bowled over by a massive wave of guilt.

The morning before I left for Europe, I went to see Baba. I passed through the lobby in the assisted-living area and waved at Carmen, who is from Guatemala and answers the phones. I walked past the community hall, where a roomful of seniors were listening to a string quartet of high school students in formal attire; past the multipurpose room with its computers and bookshelves and domino sets, past the bulletin board and its array of tips and announcements—Did you know that soy can reduce your bad cholesterol? Don’t forget Puzzles and Reflection Hour this Tuesday at 11 A.M.!

I let myself into the locked unit. They don’t have tea parties on this side of the door, no bingo. No one here starts their morning with tai chi. I went to Baba’s room, but he wasn’t there. His bed had been made, his TV was dark, and there was a half-full glass of water on the bedside table. I was a little relieved. I hate finding Baba in the hospital bed, lying on his side, hand tucked under the pillow, his recessed eyes looking out at me blankly.

I found Baba in the rec room, sunk into a wheelchair, by the window that opens into the garden. He was wearing flannel pajamas and his newsboy cap. His lap was covered with what Penny called a fidget apron. It has strings he can braid and buttons he likes to open and close. Penny says it keeps his fingers nimble.

I kissed his cheek and pulled up a seat. Someone had given him a shave, and wetted and combed his hair too. His face smelled like soap.

So tomorrow is the big day, I said. I’m flying out to visit Pari in France. You remember I told you I would?

Baba blinked. Even before the stroke, he had already started withdrawing, falling into long, silent lapses, looking disconsolate. Since the stroke, his face has become a mask, his mouth frozen perpetually in a lopsided, polite little smile that never climbs to his eyes. He hasn’t said a word since the stroke. Sometimes, his lips part, and he makes a husky, exhaling sound—Aaaah!—with enough of an upturn at the tail end to make it sound like surprise, or like what I said has triggered a minor epiphany in him.

We’re meeting up in Paris, and then we’ll take the train down to Avignon. That’s a town near the South of France. It’s where the popes lived in the fourteenth century. So we’ll do some sightseeing there. But the great part is, Pari has told all her children about my visit and they’re going to join us.

Baba smiled on, the way he did when Hector came by the week before to see him, the way he did when I showed him my application to the College of Arts and Humanities at San Francisco State.

Your niece, Isabelle, and her husband, Albert, have a vacation home in Provence, near a town called Les Baux. I looked it up online, Baba. It’s an amazing-looking town. It’s built on these limestone peaks up in the Alpilles Mountains. You can visit the ruins of an old medieval castle up there and look out on the plains and the orchards. I’ll take lots of pictures and show you when I get back.

Nearby, an old woman in a bathrobe complacently slid around the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. At the next table, another woman with fluffy white hair was trying to arrange forks and spoons and butter knives in a silverware drawer. On the big-screen TV over in the corner, Ricky and Lucy were arguing, their wrists locked together by a pair of handcuffs.

Baba said, Aaaah!

Alain, that’s your nephew, and his wife, Ana, are coming over from Spain with all five of their kids. I don’t know all their names, but I’m sure I’ll learn them. And then—and this is the part that makes Pari really happy—your other nephew—her youngest, Thierry—is coming too. She hasn’t seen him in years. They haven’t spoken. But he’s taking his R & R from his job in Africa and he’s flying over. So it’s going to be a big family reunion.

I kissed his cheek again later when I rose to leave. I lingered with my face against his, remembering how he used to pick me up from kindergarten and drive us to Denny’s to pick up Mother from work. We would sit at a booth, waiting for Mother to sign out, and I would eat the scoop of ice cream the manager always gave me and I would show Baba the drawings I had made that day. How patiently he gazed at each of them, glowering in careful study, nodding.

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