Pari sits on the bedside stool, waiting for Dr. Delaunay, picturing Julien at a low-lit table, menu in hand, explaining the crisis to Christian and Aurelie over tall goblets of Bordeaux. He offered to accompany her to the hospital, but in a perfunctory way. It was a mere formality. Coming here would have been a bad idea anyway. If Dr. Delaunay thought he had seen theatrical earlier … Still, even if he couldn’t come with her, Pari wishes he hadn’t gone to dinner without her either. She is still a little astonished that he did. He could have explained it to Christian and Aurelie. They could have picked another night, changed the reservations. But Julien had gone. It wasn’t merely thoughtless. No. There was something vicious about this move, deliberate, slashing. Pari has known for some time that he has that capacity. She has wondered of late whether he has a taste for it as well.
It was in an emergency room not unlike this one that Maman first met Julien. That was ten years ago, in 1963, when Pari was fourteen. He had driven a colleague, who had a migraine. Maman had brought Pari, who was the patient that time, having sprained her ankle badly during gymnastics in school. Pari was lying on a gurney when Julien pushed his chair into the room and struck up a conversation with Maman. Pari cannot remember now what was said between them. She does remember Julien saying, “Paris—like the city?” And from Maman the familiar reply, “No, without the s. It means ‘fairy’ in Farsi.”
They met him for dinner on a rainy night later that week at a small bistro off Boulevard Saint-Germain. Back at the apartment, Maman had made a protracted show of indecision over what to wear, settling in the end for a pastel blue dress with a close-fitting waist, evening gloves, and sharp-pointed stiletto shoes. And even then, in the elevator, she’d said to Pari, “It’s not too Jackie, is it? What do you think?”
Before the meal they smoked, all three of them, and Maman and Julien had beer in oversize frosted mugs. They finished one round, Julien ordered a second, and there was a third as well. Julien, in white shirt, tie, and a checkered evening blazer, had the controlled courteous manners of a well-bred man. He smiled with ease and laughed effortlessly. He had just a pinch of gray at the temples, which Pari hadn’t noticed in the dim light of the emergency room, and she estimated his age around the same as Maman’s. He was well versed in current events and spent some time talking about De Gaulle’s veto of England’s entry into the Common Market and, to Pari’s surprise, almost succeeded in making it interesting. Only after Maman asked did he reveal that he had started teaching economics at the Sorbonne.
“A professor? Very glamorous.”
“Oh, hardly,” he said. “You should sit in sometime. It would cure you of that notion swiftly.”
“Maybe I will.”
Pari could tell Maman was already a little drunk.
“Maybe I will sneak in one day. Watch you in action.”
“ ‘Action’? You do recall I teach economic theory, Nila. If you do come, what you’ll find is that my students think I’m a twit.”
“Well, I doubt that.”
Pari did too. She guessed that a good many of Julien’s students wanted to sleep with him. Throughout dinner, she was careful not to get caught looking at him. He had a face right out of film noir, a face meant to be shot in black and white, parallel shadows of venetian blinds slashing across it, a plume of cigarette smoke spiraling beside it. A parenthesis-shaped piece of hair managed to fall on his brow, ever so gracefully—too gracefully, perhaps. If, in fact, it was dangling there without calculation, Pari noticed that he never bothered to fix it.
He asked Maman about the small bookshop she owned and ran. It was across the Seine, on the other side of Pont d’Arcole.
“Do you have books on jazz?”
“Bah oui,” Maman said.
The rain outside rose in pitch, and the bistro grew more boisterous. As the waiter served them cheese puffs and ham brochettes, there followed between Maman and Julien a lengthy discussion of Bud Powell, Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie, and Julien’s favorite, Charlie Parker. Maman told Julien she liked more the West Coast styles of Chet Baker and Miles Davis, had he listened to Kind of Blue? Pari was surprised to learn that Maman liked jazz this much and that she was so conversant about so many different musicians. She was struck, not for the first time, by both a childlike admiration for Maman and an unsettling sense that she did not really fully know her own mother. What did not surprise was Maman’s effortless and thorough seduction of Julien. Maman was in her element there. She never had trouble commanding men’s attention. She engulfed men.
Pari watched Maman as she murmured playfully, giggled at Julien’s jokes, tilted her head and absently twirled a lock of her hair. She marveled again at how young and beautiful Maman was—Maman, who was only twenty years older than herself. Her long dark hair, her full chest, her startling eyes, and a face that glowed with the intimidating sheen of classic regal features. Pari marveled further at how little resemblance she herself bore to Maman, with her solemn pale eyes, her long nose, her gap-toothed smile, and her small br**sts. If she had any beauty, it was of a more modest earthbound sort. Being around her mother always reminded Pari that her own looks were woven of common cloth. At times, it was Maman herself who did the reminding, though it always came hidden in a Trojan horse of compliments.
She would say, You’re lucky, Pari. You won’t have to work as hard for men to take you seriously. They’ll pay attention to you. Too much beauty, it corrupts things. She would laugh. Oh, listen to me. I’m not saying I speak from experience. Of course not. It’s merely an observation.
You’re saying I’m not beautiful.
I’m saying you don’t want to be. Besides, you are pretty, and that is plenty good enough. Je t’assure, ma cherie. It’s better, even.
She didn’t resemble her father much either, Pari believed. He had been a tall man with a serious face, a high forehead, narrow chin, and thin lips. Pari kept a few pictures of him in her room from her childhood in the Kabul house. He had fallen ill in 1955—which was when Maman and she had moved to Paris—and had died shortly after. Sometimes Pari found herself gazing at one of his old photos, particularly a black-and-white of the two of them, she and her father, standing before an old American car. He was leaning against the fender and she was in his arms, both of them smiling. She remembered she had sat with him once as he painted giraffes and long-tailed monkeys for her on the side of an armoire. He had let her color one of the monkeys, holding her hand, patiently guiding her brushstrokes.
Seeing her father’s face in those photos stirred an old sensation in Pari, a feeling that she had had for as long as she could remember. That there was in her life the absence of something, or someone, fundamental to her own existence. Sometimes it was vague, like a message sent across shadowy byways and vast distances, a weak signal on a radio dial, remote, warbled. Other times it felt so clear, this absence, so intimately close it made her heart lurch. For instance, in Provence two years earlier when Pari had seen a massive oak tree outside a farmhouse. Another time at the Jardin des Tuileries when she had watched a young mother pull her son in a little red Radio Flyer Wagon. Pari didn’t understand. She read a story once about a middle-aged Turkish man who had suddenly slipped into a deep depression when the twin brother he never knew existed had suffered a fatal heart attack while on a canoe excursion in the Amazon rain forest. It was the closest anyone had ever come to articulating what she felt.
She had once spoken to Maman about it.
Well, it’s hardly a mystery, mon amour, Maman had said. You miss your father. He is gone from your life. It’s natural that you should feel this way. Of course that’s what it is. Come here. Give Maman a kiss.
Her mother’s answer had been perfectly reasonable but also unsatisfactory. Pari did believe that she would feel more whole if her father was still living, if he were here with her. But she also remembered feeling this way even as a child, living with both her parents at the big house in Kabul.
Shortly after they finished their meals, Maman excused herself to go to the bistro’s bathroom and Pari was alone a few minutes with Julien. They talked about a film Pari had seen the week before, one with Jeanne Moreau playing a gambler, and they talked about school and music too. When she spoke, he rested his elbows on the table and leaned in a bit toward her, listening with great interest, both smiling and frowning, never lifting his eyes from her. It’s a show, Pari told herself, he’s only pretending. A polished act, something he trotted out for women, something he had chosen to do now on the spur of the moment, to toy with her awhile and amuse himself at her expense. And yet, under his unrelenting gaze, she could not help her pulse quickening and her belly tightening. She found herself speaking in an artificially sophisticated, ridiculous tone that was nothing like the way she spoke normally. She knew she was doing it and couldn’t stop.
He told her he’d been married once, briefly.
“A few years back. When I was thirty. I lived in Lyon at the time.”
He had married an older woman. It had not lasted because she had been very possessive of him. Julien had not disclosed this earlier when Maman was still at the table. “It was a physical relationship, really,” he said. “C’était complètement sexuelle. She wanted to own me.” He was looking at her when he said this and smiling a subversive little smile, cautiously gauging her reaction. Pari lit a cigarette and played it cool, like Bardot, like this was the sort of thing men told her all the time. But, inside, she was trembling. She knew that a small act of betrayal had been committed at the table. Something a little illicit, not entirely harmless but undeniably thrilling. When Maman returned, with her hair brushed anew and a fresh coat of lipstick, their stealthy moment broke, and Pari briefly resented Maman for intruding, for which she was immediately overcome with remorse.
She saw him again a week or so later. It was morning, and she was going to Maman’s room with a bowl of coffee. She found him sitting on the side of Maman’s bed, winding his wristwatch. She hadn’t known he had spent the night. She spotted him from the hallway, through a crack in the door. She stood there, rooted to the ground, bowl in hand, her mouth feeling like she had sucked on a dry clump of mud, and she watched him, the spotless skin of his back, the small paunch of his belly, the darkness between his legs partly shrouded by the rumpled sheets. He clasped on his watch, reached for a cigarette off the nightstand, lit it, and then casually swung his gaze to her as if he had known she was there all along. He gave her a closemouthed smile. Then Maman said something from the shower, and Pari wheeled around. It was a marvel she didn’t scald herself with the coffee.
Maman and Julien were lovers for about six months. They went to the cinema a lot, and to museums, and small art galleries featuring the works of struggling obscure painters with foreign names. One weekend they drove to the beach in Arcachon, near Bordeaux, and returned with tanned faces and a case of red wine. Julien took her to faculty events at the university, and Maman invited him to author readings at the bookstore. Pari tagged along at first—Julien asked her to, which seemed to please Maman—but soon she started making excuses to stay home. She wouldn’t go, couldn’t. It was unbearable. She was too tired, she said, or else she didn’t feel well. She was going to her friend Collette’s house to study, she said. Her friend since second grade, Collette was a wiry, brittle-looking girl with long limp hair and a nose like a crow’s beak. She liked to shock people and say outrageous, scandalous things.
“I’ll bet he’s disappointed,” Collette said. “That you don’t go out with them.”
“Well, if he is, he’s not letting on.”
“He wouldn’t let on, would he? What would your mother think?”
“About what?” Pari said, though she knew, of course. She knew, and what she wanted was to hear it said.