The phone keeps on ringing.
The goat woman coughs.
Julien says, more firmly now, “Pari?”
“It’s probably Maman,” Pari says.
“Yes, I am aware of that.”
Irrationally, Pari thinks Maman—with her endless flair for drama—has chosen this specific moment to call to trap her into making precisely this choice: step into the elevator with Julien or take her call.
“It could be important,” she says.
As the elevator doors close behind him, he leans against the hallway wall. He digs his hands deep into the pockets of his trench coat, looking for a moment like a character from a Melville policier.
“I’ll only be a minute,” Pari says.
Julien casts a skeptical glance.
Julien’s apartment is small. Six quick steps and she has crossed the foyer, passed the kitchen, and is seated on the edge of the bed, reaching for the phone on the lone nightstand for which they have room. The view, however, is spectacular. It is raining now, but on a clear day she can look out the east-facing window and see most of the 19th and 20th arrondissements.
“Oui, allo?” she says into the receiver.
A man’s voice answers. “Bonsoir. Is this Mademoiselle Pari Wahdati?”
“Who is calling?”
“Are you the daughter of Madame Nila Wahdati?”
“My name is Dr. Delaunay. I am calling about your mother.”
Pari shuts her eyes. There is a brief flash of guilt before it is overtaken by a customary dread. She has taken calls of this sort before, too many to count now, from the time that she was an adolescent, really, and even before that—once, in fifth grade, she was in the middle of a geography exam, and the teacher had to interrupt, walk her out to the hallway, and explain in a hushed voice what had happened. These calls are familiar to Pari, but repetition has not led to insouciance on her part. With each one she thinks, This time, this is the time, and each time she hangs up and rushes to Maman. In the parlance of economics, Julien has said to Pari that if she cut off the supply of attention, perhaps the demands for it would cease as well.
“She’s had an accident,” Dr. Delaunay says.
Pari stands by the window and listens as the doctor explains. She coils and uncoils the phone cord around her finger as he recounts her mother’s hospital visit, the forehead laceration, the sutures, the precautionary tetanus injection, the aftercare of peroxide, topical antibiotics, dressings. Pari’s mind flashes to when she was ten, when she’d come home one day from school and found twenty-five francs and a handwritten note on the kitchen table. I’ve gone to Alsace with Marc. You remember him. Back in a couple of days. Be a good girl. (Don’t stay up late!) Je t’aime. Maman. Pari had stood shaking in the kitchen, eyes filling up, telling herself two days wasn’t so bad, it wasn’t so long.
The doctor is asking her a question.
“I was saying will you be coming to take her home, mademoiselle? The injury is not serious, you understand, but it’s probably best that she not go home alone. Or else we could call her a taxi.”
“No. No need. I should be there in half an hour.”
She sits on the bed. Julien will be annoyed, probably embarrassed as well in front of Christian and Aurelie, whose opinions seem to matter a great deal to him. Pari doesn’t want to go out in the hallway and face Julien. She doesn’t want to go to Courbevoie and face her mother either. What she would rather do is lie down, listen to the wind hurl pellets of rain at the glass until she falls asleep.
She lights a cigarette, and when Julien enters the room behind her and says, “You’re not coming, are you?” she doesn’t answer.
EXCERPT FROM “AFGHAN SONGBIRD,” AN INTERVIEW
WITH NILA WAHDATI BY ÉTIENNE BOUSTOULER,
Parallaxe 84 (WINTER 1974), P. 33
EB: So I understand you are, in fact, half Afghan, half French?
NW: My mother was French, yes. She was a Parisian.
EB: But she met your father in Kabul. You were born there.
NW: Yes. They met there in 1927. At a formal dinner in the Royal Palace. My mother had accompanied her father—my grandfather—who had been sent to Kabul to counsel King Amanullah on his reforms. Are you familiar with him, King Amanullah?
We are sitting in the living room of Nila Wahdati’s small apartment on the thirtieth floor of a residential building in the town of Courbevoie, just northwest of Paris. The room is small, not well lit, and sparsely decorated: a saffron-upholstered couch, a coffee table, two tall bookshelves. She sits with her back to the window, which she has opened to air the smoke from the cigarettes she lights continually.
Nila Wahdati states her age as forty-four. She is a strikingly attractive woman, perhaps past the peak of her beauty but, as yet, not far past. High royal cheekbones, good skin, slim waist. She has intelligent, flirtatious eyes, and a penetrating gaze under which one feels simultaneously appraised, tested, charmed, toyed with. They remain, I suspect, a redoubtable seduction tool. She wears no makeup save for lipstick, a smudge of which has strayed a bit from the outline of her mouth. She wears a bandanna over her brow, a faded purple blouse over jeans, no socks, no shoes. Though it is only eleven in the morning, she pours from a bottle of Chardonnay that has not been chilled. She has genially offered me a glass and I have declined.
NW: He was the best king they ever had.
I find the remark of interest for its choice of pronoun.
EB: “They”? You don’t consider yourself Afghan?
NW: Let’s say I’ve divorced myself from my more troublesome half.
EB: I’m curious as to why that is.
NW: If he had succeeded, meaning King Amanullah, I might have answered your question differently.
I ask her to explain.
NW: You see, he woke one morning, the king, and proclaimed his plan to reshape the country—kicking and screaming, if need be—into a new and more enlightened nation. By God! he said. No more wearing of the veil, for one. Imagine, Monsieur Boustouler, a woman in Afghanistan arrested for wearing a burqa! When his wife, Queen Soraya, appeared barefaced in public? Oh là là. The lungs of the mullahs inflated with enough gasps to fly a thousand Hindenburgs. And no more polygamy, he said! This, you understand, in a country where kings had legions of concubines and never set eyes on most of the children they’d so frivolously fathered. From now on, he declared, no man can force you into marriage. And no more bride price, brave women of Afghanistan, and no more child marriage. And here is more: You will all attend school.
EB: He was a visionary, then.
NW: Or a fool. I have always found the line perilously thin myself.
EB: What happened to him?
NW: The answer is as vexing as it is predictable, Monsieur Boustouler. Jihad, of course. They declared jihad on him, the mullahs, the tribal chiefs. Picture a thousand fists shot heavenward! The king had made the earth move, you see, but he was surrounded by an ocean of zealots, and you know well what happens when the ocean floor trembles, Monsieur Boustouler. A tsunami of bearded rebellion crashed down upon the poor king and carried him off, flailing helplessly, and spat him out on the shores of India, then Italy, and at last Switzerland, where he crawled from the muck and died a disillusioned old man in exile.
EB: And the country that emerged? I gather it did not suit you well.
NW: The reverse is equally true.
EB: Which was why you moved to France in 1955.
NW: I moved to France because I wished to save my daughter from a certain kind of life.
EB: What kind of life would that be?
NW: I didn’t want her turned, against both her will and nature, into one of those diligent, sad women who are bent on a lifelong course of quiet servitude, forever in fear of showing, saying, or doing the wrong thing. Women who are admired by some in the West—here in France, for instance—turned into heroines for their hard lives, admired from a distance by those who couldn’t bear even one day of walking in their shoes. Women who see their desires doused and their dreams renounced, and yet—and this is the worst of it, Monsieur Boustouler—if you meet them, they smile and pretend they have no misgivings at all. As though they lead enviable lives. But you look closely and you see the helpless look, the desperation, and how it belies all their show of good humor. It is quite pathetic, Monsieur Boustouler. I did not want this for my daughter.
EB: I gather she understands all this?
She lights another cigarette.
NW: Well, children are never everything you’d hoped for, Monsieur Boustouler.
In the emergency room, Pari is instructed by an ill-tempered nurse to wait by the registration desk, near a wheeled rack filled with clipboards and charts. It astonishes Pari that there are people who voluntarily spend their youths training for a profession that lands them in a place such as this. She cannot begin to understand it. She loathes hospitals. She hates seeing people at their worst, the sickly smell, the squeaky gurneys, the hallways with their drab paintings, the incessant paging overhead.
Dr. Delaunay turns out younger than Pari had expected. He has a slender nose, a narrow mouth, and tight blond curls. He guides her out of the emergency room, through the swinging double doors, into the main hallway.
“When your mother arrived,” he says in a confidential tone, “she was quite inebriated … You don’t seem surprised.”
“Neither were a number of the nursing staff. They say she runs a bit of a tab here. I am new here myself, so, of course, I’ve never had the pleasure.”
“How bad was it?”
“She was quite ornery,” he says. “And, I should say, rather theatrical.”
They share a brief grin.
“Will she be all right?”
“Yes, in the short term,” Dr. Delaunay says. “But I must recommend, and quite emphatically, that she reduce her drinking. She was lucky this time, but who’s to say next time …”
Pari nods. “Where is she?”
He leads her back into the emergency room and around the corner. “Bed three. I’ll be by shortly with discharge instructions.”
Pari thanks him and makes her way to her mother’s bed.
Maman smiles tiredly. Her hair is disheveled, and her socks don’t match. They have wrapped her forehead with bandages, and a colorless fluid drips through an intravenous linked to her left arm. She is wearing a hospital gown the wrong way and has not tied it properly. The gown has parted slightly in the front, and Pari can see a little of the thick, dark vertical line of her mother’s old cesarian scar. She had asked her mother a few years earlier why she didn’t bear the customary horizontal mark and Maman explained that the doctors had given her some sort of technical reason at the time that she no longer remembered. The important thing, she said, was that they got you out.
“I’ve ruined your evening,” Maman mutters.
“Accidents happen. I’ve come to take you home.”
“I could sleep a week.”
Her eyes drift shut, though she keeps talking in a sluggish, stalling manner. “I was just sitting and watching TV. I got hungry. I went to the kitchen to get some bread and marmalade. I slipped. I’m not sure how, or on what, but my head caught the oven-door handle on the way down. I think I might have blacked out for a minute or two. Sit down, Pari. You’re looming over me.”
Pari sits. “The doctor said you were drinking.”
Maman cracks one eye half open. Her frequenting of doctors is exceeded only by her dislike of them. “That boy? He said that? Le petit salaud. What does he know? His breath still smells of his mother’s tit.”
“You always joke. Every time I bring it up.”
“I’m tired, Pari. You can scold me another time. The whipping post isn’t going anywhere.”
Now she does fall asleep. Snores, unattractively, as she does only after a binge.