“Here and there,” Thalia says. “You know the times.” We both shake our heads. In Kabul, I had followed news about the rounds of austerity measures. I had watched on CNN masked young Greeks stoning police outside the parliament, cops in riot gear firing tear gas, swinging their batons.
Thalia doesn’t run a business in the real sense. Before the digital age, she was essentially a handywoman. She went to people’s homes and soldered power transistors in their TVs, replaced signal capacitors in old tube-model radios. She was called in to fix faulty refrigerator thermostats, seal leaky plumbing. People paid her what they could. And if they couldn’t afford to pay, she did the work anyway. I don’t really need the money, she told me. I do it for the game of it. There’s still a thrill for me in opening things up and seeing how they work inside. These days, she is like a freelance one-woman IT department. Everything she knows is self-taught. She charges nominal fees to troubleshoot people’s PCs, change IP settings, fix their application-file freeze-ups, their slowdowns, their upgrade and boot-up failures. More than once I have called her from Kabul, desperate for help with my frozen IBM.
When we arrive at my mother’s house, we stand outside for a moment in the courtyard beside the old olive tree. I see evidence of Mamá’s recent frenzy of work—the repainted walls, the half-finished dovecote, a hammer and an open box of nails resting on a slab of wood.
“How is she?” I ask.
“Oh, thorny as ever. That’s why I had that thing installed.” She points to a satellite dish perched on the roof. “We watch foreign soaps. The Arabic ones are the best, or the worst, which comes down to the same thing. We try to figure out the plots. It keeps her claws off me.” She charges through the front door. “Welcome home. I’ll fix you something to eat.”
It’s strange being back in this house. I see a few unfamiliar things, like the gray leather armchair in the living room and a white wicker end table beside the TV. But everything else is more or less where it used to be. The kitchen table, now covered by a vinyl top with an alternating pattern of eggplants and pears; the straight-backed bamboo chairs; the old oil lamp with the wicker holder, the scalloped chimney stained black with smoke; the picture of me and Mamá—me in the white shirt, Mamá in her good dress—still hanging above the mantel in the living room; Mamá’s set of china still on the high shelf.
And yet, as I drop my suitcase, it feels as though there is a gaping hole in the middle of everything. The decades of my mother’s life here with Thalia, they are dark, vast spaces to me. I have been absent. Absent for all the meals Thalia and Mamá have shared at this table, the laughs, the quarrels, the stretches of boredom, the illnesses, the long string of simple rituals that make up a lifetime. Entering my childhood home is a little disorienting, like reading the end of a novel that I’d started, then abandoned, long ago.
“How about some eggs?” Thalia says, already donning a print bib apron, pouring oil in a skillet. She moves about the kitchen with command, in a proprietary way.
“Sure. Where is Mamá?”
“Asleep. She had a rough night.”
“I’ll take a quick look.”
Thalia fishes a whisk from the drawer. “You wake her up, you’ll answer to me, Doctor.”
I tiptoe up the steps to the bedroom. The room is dark. A single long narrow slab of light shoots through the pulled curtains, slashes across Mamá’s bed. The air is heavy with sickness. It’s not quite a smell; rather, it’s like a physical presence. Every doctor knows this. Sickness permeates a room like steam. I stand at the entrance for a moment and allow my eyes to adjust. The darkness is broken by a rectangle of shifting colored light on the dresser on what I take to be Thalia’s side of the bed, my old side. It’s one of those digital picture frames. A field of rice paddies and wooden houses with gray-tiled roofs fade to a crowded bazaar with skinned goats hanging from hooks, then to a dark-skinned man squatting by a muddy river, finger-brushing his teeth.
I pull up a chair and sit at Mamá’s bedside. Looking at her now that my eyes have adjusted, I feel something in me drop. I am startled by how much my mother has shrunk. Already. The floral-print pajamas appear loose around her small shoulders, over the flattened chest. I don’t care for the way she is sleeping, with her mouth open and turned down, as though she is having a sour dream. I don’t like seeing that her dentures have slid out of place in her sleep. Her eyelids flutter slightly. I sit there awhile. I ask myself, What did you expect? and I listen to the clock ticking on the wall, the clanging of Thalia’s spatula against the frying pan from downstairs. I take inventory of the banal details of Mamá’s life in this room. The flat-screen TV fastened to the wall; the PC in the corner; the unfinished game of Sudoku on the nightstand, the page marked by a pair of reading glasses; the TV remote; the vial of artificial tears; a tube of steroid cream; a tube of denture glue; a small bottle of pills; and, on the floor, an oyster-colored pair of fuzzy slippers. She would have never worn those before. Beside the slippers, an open bag of pull-on diapers. I cannot reconcile these things with my mother. I resist them. They look to me like the belongings of a stranger. Someone indolent, harmless. Someone with whom you could never be angry.
Across the bed, the image on the digital picture frame shifts again. I track a few. Then it comes to me. I know these photos. I shot them. Back when I was … What? Walking the earth, I suppose. I’d always made sure to get double prints and mail one set to Thalia. And she’d kept them. All these years. Thalia. Affection seeps through me sweet as honey. She has been my true sister, my true Manaar, all along.
She calls my name from downstairs.
I get up quietly. As I leave the room, something catches my eye. Something framed, mounted on the wall beneath the clock. I can’t quite make it out in the dark. I open my cell phone and take a look in its silver glow. It’s an AP story about the nonprofit I work with in Kabul. I remember the interview. The journalist was a pleasant Korean-American fellow with a mild stutter. We had shared a plate of qabuli—Afghan pilaf, with brown rice, raisins, lamb. There is in the center of the story a group photo. Me, some of the children, Nabi in the back, standing rigidly, hands behind his back, looking simultaneously foreboding, shy, and dignified, as Afghans often manage to in pictures. Amra is there too with her adopted daughter, Roshi. All the children are smiling.
I flip the mobile closed and make my way downstairs.
Thalia puts before me a glass of milk and a steaming plate of eggs on a bed of tomatoes. “Don’t worry, I already sugared the milk.”
She takes a seat, not bothering to remove the apron. She rests her elbows on the table and watches me eat, dabbing now and then at her left cheek with a handkerchief.
I remember all the times I tried to convince her to let me work on her face. I told her that surgical techniques had come a long way since the 1960s, and that I was certain I could, if not fix, then at least significantly improve her disfigurement. Thalia refused, to enormous bewilderment on my part. This is who I am, she said to me. An insipid, unsatisfactory answer, I thought at the time. What did that even mean? I didn’t understand it. I had uncharitable thoughts of prison inmates, lifers, afraid to get out, terrified of being paroled, terrified of change, terrified of facing a new life outside barbed wire and guard towers.
My offer to Thalia still stands to this day. I know she won’t take it. But I understand now. Because she was right—this is who she is. I cannot pretend to know what it must have been like to gaze at that face in the mirror each day, to take stock of its ghastly ruin, and to summon the will to accept it. The mountainous strain of it, the effort, the patience. Her acceptance taking shape slowly, over years, like rocks of a beachside cliff sculpted by the pounding tides. It took the dog minutes to give Thalia her face, and a lifetime for her to mold it into an identity. She would not let me undo it all with my scalpel. It would be like inflicting a fresh wound over the old one.