I did lobby Baba to let me try out for the volleyball team, but he took me in his arms and gently cupped his hands around my head. Who would take me to practice? he reasoned. Who would drive me to games? Oh, I wish we had the luxury, Pari, like your friends’ parents, but we have a living to make, your mother and I. I won’t have us back on welfare. You understand, my love. I know you do.
Despite the need to make a living, Baba found the time to drive me to Farsi lessons down in Campbell. Every Tuesday afternoon, after regular school, I sat in Farsi class and, like a fish made to swim upstream, tried to guide the pen, against my hand’s own nature, from right to left. I begged Baba to end the Farsi classes, but he refused. He said I would appreciate later the gift he was giving me. He said that if culture was a house, then language was the key to the front door, to all the rooms inside. Without it, he said, you ended up wayward, without a proper home or a legitimate identity.
Then there was Sundays, when I put on a white cotton scarf, and he dropped me off at the mosque in Hayward for Koran lessons. The room where we studied—a dozen other Afghan girls and I—was tiny, had no air-conditioning, and smelled of unwashed linen. The windows were narrow and set high, the way prison-cell windows always are in the movies. The lady who taught us was the wife of a grocer in Fremont. I liked her best when she told us stories about the Prophet’s life, which I found interesting—how he had lived his childhood in the desert, how the angel Gabriel had appeared to him in a cave and commanded him to recite verses, how everyone who met him was struck by his kind and luminous face. But she spent the bulk of the time running down a long list, warning us against all the things we had to avoid at all cost as virtuous young Muslim girls lest we be corrupted by Western culture: boys—first and foremost, naturally—but also rap music, Madonna, Melrose Place, shorts, dancing, swimming in public, cheerleading, alcohol, bacon, pepperoni, non-halal burgers, and a slew of other things. I sat on the floor, sweating in the heat, my feet falling asleep, wishing I could lift the scarf from my hair, but, of course, you couldn’t do that in a mosque. I looked up at the windows, but they allowed only narrow slits of sky. I longed for the moment when I exited the mosque, when fresh air first struck my face and I always felt a loosening inside my chest, the relief of an uncomfortable knot coming undone.
But until then, the only escape was to slacken the reins on my mind. From time to time, I would find myself thinking of Jeremy Warwick, from math. Jeremy had laconic blue eyes and a white-boy Afro. He was secretive and brooding. He played guitar in a garage band—at the school’s annual talent show, they played a raucous take on “House of the Rising Sun.” In class, I sat four seats behind and to the left of Jeremy. Sometimes I pictured us kissing, his hand cupped around the back of my neck, his face so close to mine it eclipsed the whole world. A sensation would spread through me like a warm feather gently shivering across my belly, my limbs. Of course it could never happen. We could never happen, Jeremy and I. If he had even the dimmest inkling of my existence, he had never given a clue. Which was just as well, really. This way, I could pretend the only reason we couldn’t be together was that he didn’t like me.
I worked summers at my parents’ restaurant. When I was younger, I had loved to wipe the tables, help arrange plates and silverware, fold paper napkins, drop a red gerbera into the little round vase at the center of each table. I pretended I was indispensable to the family business, that the restaurant would fall apart without me to make sure all the salt and pepper shakers were full.
By the time I was in high school, days at Abe’s Kabob House dragged long and hot. Much of the luster that the things inside the restaurant had held for me in childhood had faded. The old humming soda merchandiser in the corner, the vinyl table covers, the stained plastic cups, the tacky item names on the laminated menus—Caravan Kabob, Khyber Pass Pilaf, Silk Route Chicken—the badly framed poster of the Afghan girl from National Geographic, the one with the eyes—like they had passed an ordinance that every single Afghan restaurant had to have her eyes staring back from the wall. Next to it, Baba had hung an oil painting I had done in seventh grade of the big minarets in Herat. I remember the charge of pride and glamour I had felt when he had first put it up, when I watched customers eating their lamb kabobs beneath my artwork.
At lunch hour, while Mother and I ping-ponged back and forth from the spicy smoke in the kitchen to the tables where we served office workers and city employees and cops, Baba worked the register—Baba and his grease-stained white shirt, the bushel of gray chest hair spilling over the open top button, his thick, hairy forearms. Baba beaming, waving cheerfully to each entering customer. Hello, sir! Hello, madam! Welcome to Abe’s Kabob House. I’m Abe. Can I take your order please? It made me cringe how he didn’t realize that he sounded like the goofy Middle Eastern sidekick in a bad sitcom. Then, with each meal I served, there was the sideshow of Baba ringing the old copper bell. It had started as a kind of joke, I suppose, the bell, which Baba had hooked to the wall behind the register counter. Now each table served was greeted by a hearty clang of the copper bell. The regulars were used to it—they barely heard it anymore—and new customers mostly chalked it up to the eccentric charm of the place, though there were complaints from time to time.
You don’t want to ring the bell anymore, Baba said one night. It was in the spring quarter of my senior year in high school. We were in the car outside the restaurant, after we had closed, waiting for Mother, who had forgotten her antacid pills inside and had run back in to fetch them. Baba wore a leaden expression. He had been in a dark mood all day. A light drizzle fell on the strip mall. It was late, and the lot was empty, save for a couple of cars at the KFC drive-thru and a pickup parked outside the dry-cleaning shop, two guys inside the truck, smoke corkscrewing up from the windows.
It was more fun when I wasn’t supposed to, I said.
Everything is, I guess. He sighed heavily.
I remembered how it used to thrill me, when I was little, when Baba lifted me up by the underarms and let me ring the bell. When he put me down again, my face would shine happy and proud.
Baba turned on the car heater, crossed his arms.
Long way to Baltimore.
I said brightly, You can fly out to visit anytime.
Fly out anytime, he repeated with a touch of derision. I cook kabob for a living, Pari.
Then I’ll come visit.
Baba rolled his eyes toward me and gave me a drawn look. His melancholy was like the darkness outside pushing against the car windows.
Every day for a month I had been checking our mailbox, my heart riding a swell of hope each time the delivery truck pulled up to the curb. I would bring the mail inside, close my eyes, think, This could be it. I would open my eyes and sift through the bills and the coupons and the sweepstakes. Then, on Tuesday of the week before, I had ripped open an envelope and found the words I had been waiting for: We are pleased to inform you …
I leapt to my feet. I screamed—an actual throat-ripping yowl that made my eyes water. Almost instantaneously, an image streaked through my head: opening night at a gallery, me dressed in something simple, black, and elegant, encircled by patrons and crinkle-browed critics, smiling and answering their questions, as clusters of admirers linger before my canvases and servers in white gloves float around the gallery pouring wine, offering little square bites of salmon with dill or asparagus spears wrapped in puff pastry. I experienced one of those sudden bursts of euphoria, the kind where you want to wrap strangers in a hug and dance with them in great big swoops.
It’s your mother I worry for, Baba said.