“About what?” Collette’s tone was sly, excited. “That he’s with her to get to you. That it’s you he wants.”
“That is disgusting,” Pari said with a flutter.
“Or maybe he wants you both. Maybe he likes a crowd in bed. In which case, I might ask you to put in a good word for me.”
“You’re repulsive, Collette.”
Sometimes when Maman and Julien were out, Pari would undress in the hallway and look at herself in the long mirror. She would find faults with her body. It was too tall, she would think, too unshapely, too … utilitarian. She had inherited none of her mother’s bewitching curves. Sometimes she walked like this, undressed, to her mother’s room and lay on the bed where she knew Maman and Julien made love. Pari lay there stark-naked with her eyes closed, heart battering, basking in heedlessness, something like a hum spreading across her chest, her belly, and lower still.
It ended, of course. They ended, Maman and Julien. Pari was relieved but not surprised. Men always failed Maman in the end. They forever fell disastrously short of whatever ideal she held them up to. What began with exuberance and passion always ended with terse accusations and hateful words, with rage and weeping fits and the flinging of cooking utensils and collapse. High drama. Maman was incapable of either starting or ending a relationship without excess.
Then the predictable period when Maman would find a sudden taste for solitude. She would stay in bed, wearing an old winter coat over her pajamas, a weary, doleful, unsmiling presence in the apartment. Pari knew to leave her alone. Her attempts at consoling and companionship were not welcome. It lasted weeks, the sullen mood. With Julien, it went on considerably longer.
“Ah, merde!” Maman says now.
She is sitting up in bed, still in the hospital gown. Dr. Delaunay has given Pari the discharge papers, and the nurse is unhooking the intravenous from Maman’s arm.
“What is it?”
“I just remembered. I have an interview in a couple of days.”
“A feature for a poetry magazine.”
“That’s fantastic, Maman.”
“They’re accompanying the piece with a photo.” She points to the sutures on her forehead.
“I’m sure you’ll find some elegant way to hide it,” Pari says.
Maman sighs, looks away. When the nurse yanks the needle out, Maman winces and barks at the woman something unkind and undeserved.
FROM “AFGHAN SONGBIRD,” AN INTERVIEW WITH
NILA WAHDATI BY ÉTIENNE BOUSTOULER,
Parallaxe 84 (WINTER 1974), P. 36
I look around the apartment again and am drawn to a framed photograph on one of the bookshelves. It is of a little girl squatting in a field of wild bushes, fully absorbed in the act of picking something, some sort of berry. She wears a bright yellow coat, buttoned to the throat, which contrasts with the dark gray overcast sky above. In the background, there is a stone farmhouse with closed shutters and battered shingles. I ask about the picture.
NW: My daughter, Pari. Like the city but no s. It means “fairy.” That picture is from a trip to Normandy we took, the two of us. Back in 1957, I think. She must have been eight.
EB: Does she live in Paris?
NW: She studies mathematics at the Sorbonne.
EB: You must be proud.
She smiles and shrugs.
EB: I am struck a bit by her choice of career, given that you devoted yourself to the arts.
NW: I don’t know where she gets the ability. All those incomprehensible formulas and theories. I guess they’re not incomprehensible to her. I can hardly multiply, myself.
EB: Perhaps it’s her way of rebelling. You know a thing or two about rebellion, I think.
NW: Yes, but I did it the proper way. I drank and smoked and took lovers. Who rebels with mathematics?
NW: Besides, she would be the proverbial rebel without a cause. I’ve given her every freedom imaginable. She wants for nothing, my daughter. She lacks nothing. She’s living with someone. He is quite a bit older. Charming to a fault, well-read, entertaining. A raging narcissist, of course. Ego the size of Poland.
EB: You don’t approve.
NW: Whether I approve or not is irrelevant. This is France, Monsieur Boustouler, not Afghanistan. Young people don’t live or die by the stamp of parental approval.
EB: Your daughter has no ties to Afghanistan, then?
NW: We left when she was six. She has limited memory of her time there.
EB: But not you, of course.
I ask her to tell me about her early life.
She excuses herself and leaves the room for a moment. When she returns, she hands me an old, wrinkled black-and-white photograph. A stern-looking man, heavyset, bespectacled, hair shiny and combed with an impeccable part. He sits behind a desk, reading a book. He wears a suit with peaked lapels, double-breasted vest, high-collared white shirt and bow tie.
NW: My father. Nineteen twenty-nine. The year I was born.
EB: He looks quite distinguished.
NW: He was part of the Pashtun aristocracy in Kabul. Highly educated, unimpeachable manners, appropriately sociable. A great raconteur too. At least in public.
EB: And in private?
NW: Venture to guess, Monsieur Boustouler?
I pick up the photo and look at it again.
EB: Distant, I would say. Grave. Inscrutable. Uncompromising.
NW: I really insist you have a glass with me. I hate—no, I loathe—drinking alone.
She pours me a glass of the Chardonnay. Out of politeness, I take a sip.
NW: He had cold hands, my father. No matter the weather. His hands were always cold. And he always wore a suit, again no matter the weather. Perfectly tailored, sharp creases. A fedora too. And wingtips, of course, two-toned. He was handsome, I suppose, though in a solemn way. Also—and I understood this only much later—in a manufactured, slightly ridiculous, faux-European way—complete, of course, with weekly games of lawn bowling and polo and the coveted French wife, all of it to the great approval of the young progressive king.
She picks at her nail and doesn’t say anything for a while. I flip the tape in my recorder.
NW: My father slept in his own room, my mother and I in ours. Most days, he was out having lunch with ministers and advisers to the king. Or else he was out riding horses, or playing polo, or hunting. He loved to hunt.
EB: So you didn’t see much of him. He was an absentee figure.
NW: Not entirely. He made it a point every couple of days to spend a few minutes with me. He would come into my room and sit on my bed, which was my signal to climb into his lap. He would bounce me on his knees for a while, neither one of us saying much, and finally he would say, “Well, what shall we do now, Nila?” Sometimes he would let me take the handkerchief from his breast pocket and let me fold it. Of course I would just ball it up and stuff it back into his pocket, and he would feign an expression of mock surprise, which I found highly comical. And we’d keep doing this until he tired of it, which was soon enough. And then he would stroke my hair with his cold hands and say, “Papa has to go now, my fawn. Run along.”
She takes the photograph back to the other room and returns, fetches a new pack of cigarettes from a drawer and lights one.
NW: That was his nickname for me. I loved it. I used to hop around the garden—we had a very large garden—chanting, “I am Papa’s fawn! I am Papa’s fawn!” It wasn’t until much later that I saw how sinister the nickname was.
EB: I’m sorry?
NW: My father shot deer, Monsieur Boustouler.
They could have walked the few blocks to Maman’s apartment, but the rain has picked up considerably. In the taxi, Maman sits balled up in the backseat, draped by Pari’s raincoat, wordlessly staring out the window. She looks old to Pari at this instant, far older than her forty-four years. Old and fragile and thin.
Pari has not been to Maman’s apartment in a while. When she turns the key and lets them in, she finds the kitchen counter cluttered with dirty wineglasses, open bags of chips and uncooked pasta, plates with clumps of unrecognizable food fossilized onto them. A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles sits on the table, precariously close to tipping over. Pari sees newspapers on the floor, one of them soaking up the blood spill from earlier in the day, and, on it, a single pink wool sock. It frightens Pari to see Maman’s living space in this state. And she feels guilt as well. Which, knowing Maman, may have been the intended effect. And then she hates that she had this last thought. It’s the sort of thing Julien would think. She wants you to feel badly. He has said this to her several times over the last year. She wants you to feel badly. When he first said it, Pari felt relieved, understood. She was grateful to him for articulating what she could not, or would not. She thought she had found an ally. But, these days, she wonders. She catches in his words a glint of meanness. A troubling absence of kindness.
The bedroom floor is littered with pieces of clothing, records, books, more newspapers. On the windowsill is a glass half filled with water gone yellow from the cigarette butts floating in it. She swipes books and old magazines off the bed and helps Maman slip beneath the blankets.
Maman looks up at her, the back of one hand resting on her bandaged brow. The pose makes her look like an actress in a silent film about to faint.
“Are you going to be all right, Maman?”
“I don’t think so,” she says. It doesn’t come out like a plea for attention. Maman says this in a flat, bored voice. It sounds tired and sincere, and final.
“You’re scaring me, Maman.”
“Are you leaving now?”
“Do you want me to stay?”
“Then I’ll stay.”
“Turn off the light.”
“Are you taking your pills? Have you stopped? I think you’ve stopped, and I worry.”
“Don’t start in on me. Turn off the light.”
Pari does. She sits on the edge of the bed and watches her mother fall asleep. Then she heads for the kitchen to begin the formidable task of cleaning up. She finds a pair of gloves and starts with the dishes. She washes glasses reeking of long-soured milk, bowls crusted with old cereal, plates with food spotted with green fuzzy patches of fungus. She recalls the first time she had washed dishes at Julien’s apartment the morning after they had slept together for the first time. Julien had made them omelets. How she’d relished this simple domestic act, washing plates at his sink, as he played a Jane Birkin song on the turntable.
She had reconnected with him the year before, in 1973, for the first time in almost a decade. She had run into him at a street march outside the Canadian Embassy, a student protest against the hunting of seals. Pari didn’t want to go, and also she had a paper on meromorphic functions that needed finishing, but Collette insisted. They were living together at the time, an arrangement that was increasingly proving to their mutual displeasure. Collette smoked grass now. She wore headbands and loose magenta-colored tunics embroidered with birds and daisies. She brought home long-haired, unkempt boys who ate Pari’s food and played the guitar badly. Collette was always in the streets, shouting, denouncing cruelty to animals, racism, slavery, French nuclear testing in the Pacific. There was always an urgent buzz around the apartment, people Pari didn’t know milling in and out. And when they were alone, Pari sensed a new tension between the two of them, a haughtiness on the part of Collette, an unspoken disapproval of her.
“They’re lying,” Collette said animatedly. “They say their methods are humane. Humane! Have you seen what they use to club them over the head? Those hakapiks? Half the time, the poor animal hasn’t even died yet, and the bastards stick their hooks in it and drag it out to the boat. They skin them alive, Pari. Alive!” The way Collette said this last thing, the way she emphasized it, made Pari want to apologize. For what, she was not quite sure, but she knew that, these days, it squeezed the breath out of her being around Collette and her reproaches and many outrages.