Later, when they return from the beach to the rental house, they find that the men have already returned.
“Papa’s getting old,” Alain says.
From behind the bar, Eric, who is mixing a carafe of sangria, rolls his eyes and shrugs genially.
“I thought I’d have to carry you, Papa.”
“Give me one year. We’ll come back next year, and I’ll race you around the island, mon pote.”
They never do come back to Majorca. A week after they return to Paris, Eric has a heart attack. It happens while he is at work, speaking to a lighting stagehand. He survives it, but he will suffer two more over the course of the next three years, the last of which will prove fatal. And so at the age of forty-eight Pari finds herself, like Maman had, a widow.
One day, early in the spring of 2010, Pari receives a long-distance phone call. The call is not unexpected. Pari, in fact, has been preparing for it all morning. Prior to the call, Pari makes sure she has the apartment to herself. This means asking Isabelle to leave earlier than she customarily does. Isabelle and her husband, Albert, live just north of Île Saint-Denis, only a few blocks from Pari’s one-bedroom apartment. Isabelle comes to see Pari in the morning every other day, after she drops off her kids at school. She brings Pari a baguette, some fresh fruit. Pari is not yet bound to the wheelchair, an eventuality for which she has been preparing herself. Though her disease forced her into early retirement the year before, she is still fully capable of going to the market on her own, of taking a daily walk. It’s the hands—the ugly, twisted hands—that fail her most, hands that on bad days feel like they have shards of crystal rattling around the joints. Pari wears gloves, whenever she is out, to keep her hands warm, but mostly because she is ashamed of them, the knobby knuckles, the unsightly fingers with what her doctor calls swan neck deformity, the permanently flexed left pinkie.
Ah, vanity, she tells Collette.
This morning, Isabelle has brought her some figs, a few bars of soap, toothpaste, and a Tupperware containerful of chestnut soup. Albert is thinking of suggesting it as a new menu entry to the owners of the restaurant where he is the sous-chef. As she unloads the bags, Isabelle tells Pari of the new assignment she has landed. She writes musical scores for television shows now, commercials, and is hoping to write for film one day soon. She says she will begin scoring a miniseries that is shooting at the moment in Madrid.
“Will you be going there?” Pari asks. “To Madrid?”
“Non. The budget is too small. They won’t cover my travel cost.”
“That’s a pity. You could have stayed with Alain.”
“Oh, can you imagine, Maman? Poor Alain. He hardly has room to stretch his legs.”
Alain is a financial consultant. He lives in a tiny Madrid apartment with his wife, Ana, and their four children. He regularly e-mails Pari pictures and short video clips of the children.
Pari asks if Isabelle has heard from Thierry, and Isabelle says she has not. Thierry is in Africa, in the eastern part of Chad, where he works at a camp with refugees from Darfur. Pari knows this because Thierry is in sporadic touch with Isabelle. She is the only one he speaks to. This is how Pari knows the general outlines of her son’s life—for instance, that he spent some time in Vietnam. Or that he was married to a Vietnamese woman once, briefly, when he was twenty.
Isabelle sets a pot of water on to boil and fetches two cups from the cabinet.
“Not this morning, Isabelle. Actually, I need to ask you to leave.”
Isabelle gives her a wounded look, and Pari chides herself for not wording it better. Isabelle has always had a delicate nature.
“What I mean to say is, I’m expecting a call and I need some privacy.”
“A call? From who?”
“I’ll tell you later,” Pari says.
Isabelle crosses her arms and grins. “Have you found a lover, Maman?”
“A lover. Are you blind? Have you even looked at me recently?”
“There is not a thing wrong with you.”
“You need to go. I’ll explain later, I promise.”
“D’accord, d’accord.” Isabelle slings her purse over her shoulder, grabs her coat and keys. “But I’ll have you know I’m duly intrigued.”
The man who calls at 9:30 A.M. is named Markos Varvaris. He had contacted Pari through her Facebook account with this message, written in English: Are you the daughter of the poet Nila Wahdati? If so, I would like very much to speak with you about something that will be of interest to you. Pari had searched the web for his name and found that he was a plastic surgeon who worked for a nonprofit organization in Kabul. Now, on the phone, he greets her in Farsi, and continues to speak in Farsi until Pari has to interrupt him.
“Monsieur Varvaris, I’m sorry, but maybe we speak in English?”
“Ah, of course. My apologies. I assumed … Although, of course, it does make sense, you left when you were very young, didn’t you?”
“Yes, that is true.”
“I learned Farsi here myself. I would say I am more or less functional in it. I have lived here since 2002, since shortly after the Taliban left. Quite optimistic days, those. Yes, everybody ready for rebuilding and democracy and the like. Now it is a different story. Naturally, we are preparing for presidential elections, but it is a different story. I’m afraid it is.”
Pari listens patiently as Markos Varvaris makes protracted detours into the logistical challenge that are the elections in Afghanistan, which he says Karzai will win, and then on to the Taliban’s troubling forays into the north, the increasing Islamist infringement on news media, a side note or two on the overpopulation in Kabul, then on the cost of housing, lastly, before he circles back and says, “I have lived in this house now for a number of years. I understand you lived in this house too.”
“This was your parents’ house. That is what I am led to believe, in any case.”
“If I can ask, who is telling you this?”