No one knew about my games with Pari. Not even my father. She was my secret.
Sometimes, when no one was around, we ate grapes and talked and talked—about toys, which cereals were tastiest, cartoons we liked, schoolkids we didn’t, which teachers were mean. We shared the same favorite color (yellow), favorite ice cream (dark cherry), TV show (Alf), and we both wanted to be artists when we grew up. Naturally, I imagined we looked exactly the same because, after all, we were twins. Sometimes I could almost see her—really see her, I mean—just at the periphery of my eyesight. I tried drawing her, and, each time, I gave her the same slightly uneven light green eyes as mine, the same dark curly hair, the same long, slashing eyebrows that almost touched. If anyone asked, I told them I had drawn myself.
The tale of how my father had lost his sister was as familiar to me as the stories my mother had told me of the Prophet, tales I would learn again later when my parents would enroll me in Sunday school at a mosque in Hayward. Still, despite the familiarity, each night I asked to hear Pari’s story again, caught in the pull of its gravity. Maybe it was simply because we shared a name. Maybe that was why I sensed a connection between us, dim, enfolded in mystery, real nonetheless. But it was more than that. I felt touched by her, like I too had been marked by what had happened to her. We were interlocked, I sensed, through some unseen order in ways I couldn’t wholly understand, linked beyond our names, beyond familial ties, as if, together, we completed a puzzle.
I felt certain that if I listened closely enough to her story, I would discover something revealed about myself.
Do you think your father was sad? That he sold her?
Some people hide their sadness very well, Pari. He was like that. You couldn’t tell looking at him. He was a hard man. But I think, yes, I think he was sad inside.
My father would smile and say, Why should I be when I have you? but, even at that age, I could tell. It was like a birthmark on his face.
The whole time we talked like this, a fantasy played out in my head. In it, I would save all my money, not spend a dollar on candy or stickers, and when my piggy bank was full—though it wasn’t a pig at all but a mermaid sitting on a rock—I would break it open and pocket all the money and set out to find my father’s little sister, wherever she was, and, when I did, I would buy her back and bring her home to Baba. I would make my father happy. There was nothing in the world I desired more than to be the one to take away his sadness.
So what’s my dream tonight? Baba would ask.
You know already.
Another smile. Yes, I know.
Was she a good sister?
She was perfect.
He would kiss my cheek and tuck the blanket around my neck. At the door, just after he’d turned off the light, he would pause.
She was perfect, he would say. Like you are.
I always waited until he’d shut the door before I slid out of bed, fetched an extra pillow, and placed it next to my own. I went to sleep each night feeling twin hearts beating in my chest.
I check my watch as I veer onto the freeway from the Old Oakland Road entrance. It’s already half past noon. It will take me forty minutes at least to reach SFO, barring any accidents or roadwork on the 101. On the plus side, it is an international flight, so she will still have to clear customs, and perhaps that will buy me a little time. I slide over to the left lane and push the Lexus up close to eighty.
I remember a minor miracle of a conversation I had had with Baba, about a month back. The exchange was a fleeting bubble of normalcy, like a tiny pocket of air down in the deep, dark, cold bottom of the ocean. I was late bringing him lunch, and he turned his head to me from his recliner and remarked, with the gentlest critical tone, that I was genetically programmed to not be punctual. Like your mother, God rest her soul.
But then, he went on, smiling, as if to reassure me, a person has to have a flaw somewhere.
So this is the one token flaw God tossed my way, then? I said, lowering the plate of rice and beans on his lap. Habitual tardiness?
And He did so with great reluctance, I might add. Baba reached for my hands. So close, so very close He had you to perfection.
Well, if you like, I’ll happily let you in on a few more.
You have them hidden away, do you?
Oh, heaps. Ready to be unleashed. For when you’re old and helpless.
I am old and helpless.
Now you want me to feel sorry for you.
I play with the radio, flipping from talk to country to jazz to more talk. I turn it off. I’m restless and nervous. I reach for my cell phone on the passenger seat. I call the house and leave the phone flipped open on my lap.
“Salaam, Baba. It’s me.”
“Yes, Baba. Is everything okay at the house with you and Hector?”
“Yes. He’s a wonderful young man. He made us eggs. We had them with toast. Where are you?”
“I’m driving,” I say.
“To the restaurant? You don’t have a shift today, do you?”
“No, I’m on my way to the airport, Baba. I’m picking someone up.”
“Okay. I’ll ask your mother to make us lunch,” he says. “She could bring something from the restaurant.”
“All right, Baba.”
To my relief, he doesn’t mention her again. But, some days, he won’t stop. Why won’t you tell me where she is, Pari? Is she having an operation? Don’t lie to me! Why is everyone lying to me? Has she gone away? Is she in Afghanistan? Then I’m going too! I’m going to Kabul, and you can’t stop me. We go back and forth like this, Baba pacing, distraught; me feeding him lies, then trying to distract him with his collection of home-improvement catalogs or something on television. Sometimes it works, but other times he is impervious to my tricks. He worries until he is in tears, in hysterics. He slaps at his head and rocks back and forth in the chair, sobbing, his legs quivering, and then I have to feed him an Ativan. I wait for his eyes to cloud over, and, when they do, I drop on the couch, exhausted, out of breath, near tears myself. Longingly, I look at the front door and the openness beyond and I want to walk through it and just keep walking. And then Baba moans in his sleep, and I snap back, simmering with guilt.
“Can I talk to Hector, Baba?”
I hear the receiver transferring hands. In the background, the sound of a game-show crowd groaning, then applause.
Hector Juarez lives across the street. We’ve been neighbors for many years and have become friends in the last few. He comes over a couple of times a week and he and I eat junk food and watch trash TV late into the night, mostly reality shows. We chew on cold pizza and shake our heads with morbid fascination at the antics and tantrums on the screen. Hector was a marine, stationed in the south of Afghanistan. A couple of years back, he got himself badly hurt in an IED attack. Everyone from the block showed up when he finally came home from the VA. His parents had hung a Welcome Home, Hector sign out in their front yard, with balloons and a lot of flowers. Everyone clapped when his parents pulled up to the house. Several of the neighbors had baked pies. People thanked him for his service. They said, Be strong, now. God bless. Hector’s father, Cesar, came over to our house a few days later and he and I installed the same wheelchair ramp Cesar had built outside his own house leading up to the front door, the American flag draped above it. I remember, as the two of us worked on the ramp, I felt a need to apologize to Cesar for what had happened to Hector in my father’s homeland.
“Hi,” I say. “I thought I’d check in.”
“It’s all good here,” Hector says. “We ate. We did Price Is Right. We’re chillin’ now with Wheel. Next up is Feud.”
“What for, mija? We’re having a good time. Aren’t we, Abe?”
“Thanks for making him eggs,” I say.
Hector lowers his voice a notch. “Pancakes, actually. And guess what? He loved them. Ate up a four-stack.”
“I really owe you.”
“Hey, I really like the new painting, girl. The one with the kid in the funny hat? Abe here showed it to me. He was all proud too. I was, like, damn! You should be proud, man.”
I smile as I shift lanes to let a tailgater pass. “Maybe I know what to give you for Christmas now.”
“Remind me again why we can’t get married?” Hector says. I hear Baba protesting in the background and Hector’s laugh, away from the receiver. “I’m joking, Abe. Go easy on me. I’m a cripple.” Then, to me, “I think your father just flashed me his inner Pashtun.”
I remind him to give Baba his late-morning pills and hang up.
It’s like seeing the photo of a radio personality, how they never turn out to look the way you had pictured them in your mind, listening to their voice in your car. She is old, for one thing. Or oldish. Of course I knew this. I had done the math and estimated she had to be around her early sixties. Except it is hard to reconcile this slim gray-haired woman with the little girl I’ve always envisioned, a three-year-old with dark curly hair and long eyebrows that almost meet, like mine. And she is taller than I imagined. I can tell, even though she is sitting, on a bench near a sandwich kiosk, looking around timidly like she’s lost. She has narrow shoulders and a delicate build, a pleasant face, her hair pulled back taut and held with a crocheted headband. She wears jade earrings, faded jeans, a long salmon tunic sweater, and a yellow scarf wrapped around her neck with casual European elegance. She had told me in her last e-mail that she would wear the scarf so I could spot her quickly.
She has not seen me yet, and I linger for a moment among the travelers pushing luggage carts through the terminal, the town-car chauffeurs holding signs with clients’ names. My heart clamoring inside my rib cage, I think to myself, This is her. This is her. This is really her. Then our eyes connect, and recognition ripples across her face. She waves.
We meet at the bench. She grins and my knees wobble. She has Baba’s grin exactly—except for a rice grain’s gap between her upper front teeth—crooked on the left, the way it scrunches up her face and nearly squeezes shut her eyes, how she tilts her head just a tad. She stands up, and I notice the hands, the knobby joints, the fingers bent away from the thumb at the first knuckle, the chickpea-sized lumps at the wrist. I feel a twist in my stomach, it looks so painful.
We hug, and she kisses me on the cheeks. Her skin is soft like felt. When we pull back, she holds me at a distance, hands cupping my shoulders, and looks into my face as if she were appraising a painting. There is a film of moisture over her eyes. They’re alive with happiness.
“I apologize for being late.”
“It’s nothing,” she says. “At last, to be with you! I am just so glad”—Is nussing. At lass, too be weez yoo! The French accent sounds even thicker in person than it did on the phone.
“I’m glad too,” I say. “How was your flight?”
“I took a pill, otherwise I know I cannot sleep. I will stay awake the whole time. Because I am too happy and too excited.” She holds me with her gaze, beaming at me—as if she is afraid the spell will break if she looks away—until the PA overhead advises passengers to report any unsupervised luggage, and then her face slackens a bit.
“Does Abdullah know yet that I am coming here?”
“I told him I was bringing home a guest,” I say.
Later, as we settle into the car, I steal quick looks at her. It’s the strangest thing. There is something oddly illusory about Pari Wahdati, sitting in my car, mere inches from me. One moment, I see her with perfect clarity—the yellow scarf around her neck, the short, flimsy hairs at the hairline, the coffee-colored mole beneath the left ear—and, the next, her features are enfolded in a kind of haze, as if I am peering at her through bleary glasses. I feel, in passing, a kind of vertigo.