“Baba, this is the friend I told you about.”
He eyes the gray-haired woman across from him. He has an unnerving way of looking at people these days, even when he is staring directly at them, that gives nothing away. He looks disengaged, closed off, like he meant to look elsewhere and his eyes happened upon them by accident.
Pari clears her throat. Even so, her voice shakes when she speaks. “Hello, Abdullah. My name is Pari. It’s so wonderful to see you.”
He nods slowly. I can practically see the uncertainty and confusion rippling across his face like waves of muscle spasm. His eyes shift from my face to Pari’s. He opens his mouth in a strained half smile the way he does when he thinks a prank is being played on him.
“You have an accent,” he finally says.
“She lives in France,” I said. “And, Baba, you have to speak English. She doesn’t understand Farsi.”
Baba nods. “So you live in London?” he says to Pari.
“What?” He turns sharply to me. Then he understands and gives an embarrassed little laugh before switching from Farsi. “Do you live in London?”
“Paris, actually,” Pari says. “I live in a small apartment in Paris.” She doesn’t lift her eyes from him.
“I always planned to take my wife to Paris. Sultana—that was her name, God rest her soul. She was always saying, Abdullah, take me to Paris. When will you take me to Paris?”
Actually, Mother didn’t much like to travel. She never saw why she would forgo the comfort and familiarity of her own home for the ordeal of flying and suitcase lugging. She had no sense of culinary adventure—her idea of exotic food was the Orange Chicken at the Chinese take-out place on Taylor Street. It is a bit of a marvel how Baba, at times, summons her with such uncanny precision—remembering, for instance, that she salted her food by bouncing the salt grains off the palm of her hand or her habit of interrupting people on the phone when she never did it in person—and how, other times, he can be so wildly inaccurate. I imagine Mother is fading for him, her face receding into shadows, her memory diminishing with each passing day, leaking like sand from a fist. She is becoming a ghostly outline, a hollow shell, that he feels compelled to fill with bogus details and fabricated character traits, as though false memories are better than none at all.
“Well, it is a lovely city,” Pari says.
“Maybe I’ll take her still. But she has the cancer at the moment. It’s the female kind—what do you call it?—the …”
“Ovarian,” I say.
Pari nods, her gaze flicking to me and back to Baba.
“What she wants most is to climb the Eiffel Tower. Have you seen it?” Baba says.
“The Eiffel Tower?” Pari Wahdati laughs. “Oh yes. Every day. I cannot avoid it, in fact.”
“Have you climbed it? All the way to the top?”
“I have, yes. It is beautiful up there. But I am scared of high places, so it is not always comfortable for me. But at the top, on a good sunny day, you can see for more than sixty kilometers. Of course a lot of days in Paris it is not so good and not so sunny.”
Baba grunts. Pari, encouraged, continues talking about the tower, how many years it took to build it, how it was never meant to stay in Paris past the 1889 World’s Fair, but she can’t read Baba’s eyes like I can. His expression has flattened. She doesn’t realize that she has lost him, that his thoughts have already shifted course like windblown leaves. Pari nudges closer on the seat. “Did you know, Abdullah,” she says, “that they have to paint the tower every seven years?”
“What did you say your name was?” Baba says.
“That’s my daughter’s name.”
“Yes, I know.”
“You have the same name,” Baba says. “The two of you, you have the same name. So there you have it.” He coughs, absently picks at a small tear in the leather of the recliner’s arm.
“Abdullah, can I ask you a question?”
Pari looks up at me like she is asking for permission. I give her the go-ahead with a nod. She leans forward in the chair. “How did you decide to choose this name for your daughter?”
Baba shifts his gaze to the window, his fingernail still scraping the tear in the recliner’s arm.
“Do you remember, Abdullah? Why this name?”
He shakes his head. With a fist, he yanks at his cardigan and clutches it shut at his throat. His lips barely move as he begins to hum under his breath, a rhythmic muttering he always resorts to when he is marauded by anxiety and at a loss for an answer, when everything has blurred to vagueness and he is bowled over by a gush of disconnected thoughts, waiting desperately for the murkiness to clear.
“Abdullah? What is that?” Pari says.
“Nothing,” he mutters.
“No, that song you are singing—what is it?”
He turns to me, helpless. He doesn’t know.
“It’s like a nursery rhyme,” I say. “Remember, Baba? You said you learned it when you were a boy. You said you learned it from your mother.”
“Can you sing it for me?” Pari says urgently, a catch in her voice. “Please, Abdullah, will you sing it?”
He lowers his head and shakes it slowly.
“Go ahead, Baba,” I say softly. I rest my hand on his bony shoulder. “It’s okay.”
Hesitantly, in a high, trembling voice and without looking up, Baba sings the same two lines several times:
I found a sad little fairy
Beneath the shade of a paper tree.
“He used to say there was a second verse,” I say to Pari, “but that he’d forgotten it.”
Pari Wahdati lets out a sudden laugh that sounds like a deep, guttural cry, and she covers her mouth. “Ah, mon Dieu,” she whispers. She lifts her hand. In Farsi, she sings:
I know a sad little fairy
Who was blown away by the wind one night.
Folds appear on Baba’s forehead. For a transitory moment, I think I detect a tiny crack of light in his eyes. But then it winks out, and his face is placid once more. He shakes his head. “No. No, I don’t think that’s how it goes at all.”
“Oh, Abdullah …” Pari says.
Smiling, her eyes teared over, Pari reaches for Baba’s hands and takes them into her own. She kisses the back of each and presses his palms to her cheeks. Baba grins, moisture now pooling in his eyes as well. Pari looks up at me, blinking back happy tears, and I see she thinks she has broken through, that she has summoned her lost brother with this magic chant like a genie in a fairy tale. She thinks he sees her clearly now. She will understand momentarily that he is merely reacting, responding to her warm touch and show of affection. It’s just animal instinct, nothing more. This I know with painful clarity.
A few months before Dr. Bashiri passed me the phone number to a hospice, Mother and I took a trip to the Santa Cruz Mountains and stayed in a hotel for the weekend. Mother didn’t like long trips, but we did go off on short ones now and then, she and I, back before she was really sick. Baba would man the restaurant, and I would drive Mother and me to Bodega Bay, or Sausalito, or San Francisco, where we would always stay in a hotel near Union Square. We would settle down in our room and order room service, watch on-demand movies. Later, we would go down to the Wharf—Mother was a sucker for all the tourist traps—and buy gelato, watch the sea lions bobbing up and down on the water over by the pier. We would drop coins into the open cases of the street guitarists and the backpacks of the mime artists, the spray-painted robot men. We always made a visit to the Museum of Modern Art, and, my arm coiled around hers, I would show her the works of Rivera, Kahlo, Matisse, Pollock. Or else we would go to a matinee, which Mother loved, and we would see two, three films, come out in the dark, our eyes bleary, ears ringing, fingers smelling of popcorn.
It was easier with Mother—always had been—less complicated, less treacherous. I didn’t have to be on my guard so much. I didn’t have to watch what I said all the time for fear of inflicting a wound. Being alone with her on those weekend getaways was like curling up into a soft cloud, and, for a couple of days, everything that had ever troubled me fell away, inconsequentially, a thousand miles below.
We were celebrating the end of yet another round of chemo—which also turned out to be her last. The hotel was a beautiful, secluded place. They had a spa, a fitness center, a game room with a big-screen TV, and a billiards table. Our room was a cabin with a wooden porch, from which we had a view of the swimming pool, the restaurant, and entire groves of redwood that soared straight up into the clouds. Some of the trees were so close, you could tell the subtle shades of color on a squirrel’s fur as it dashed up the trunk. Our first morning there, Mother woke me up, said, Quick, Pari, you have to see this. There was a deer nibbling on shrubs outside the window.
I pushed her wheelchair around the gardens. I’m such a spectacle, Mother said. I parked her by the fountain and I would sit on a bench close to her, the sun warming our faces, and we would watch the hummingbirds darting between flowers until she fell asleep, and then I wheeled her back to our cabin.
On Sunday afternoon, we had tea and croissants on the balcony outside the restaurant, which was a big cathedral-ceilinged room with bookshelves, a dreamcatcher on one wall, and an honest-to-God stone hearth. On a lower deck, a man with the face of a dervish and a girl with limp blond hair were playing a lethargic game of Ping-Pong.
We have to do something about these eyebrows, Mother said. She was wearing a winter coat over a sweater and the maroon wool beanie hat she had knitted herself a year and a half earlier when, as she put it, all the festivities had begun.
I’ll paint them back on for you, I said.
Make them dramatic, then.
Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra dramatic?
She grinned weakly. Why not? She took a shallow sip of tea. Grinning accentuated all the new lines in her face. When I met Abdullah, I was selling clothes on the side of the street in Peshawar. He said I had beautiful eyebrows.
The Ping-Pong pair ditched the paddles. They were leaning now against the wooden railing, sharing a cigarette, looking up at the sky, which was luminous and clear but for a few frayed clouds. The girl had long, bony arms.
I read in the paper there’s an arts-and-crafts fair up in Capitola today, I said. If you’re up to it, maybe I’ll drive us, we’ll have a look. We could even have dinner there, if you like.
I want to tell you something.
Abdullah has a brother in Pakistan, Mother said. A half brother.
I turned to her sharply.
His name is Iqbal. He has sons. He lives in a refugee camp near Peshawar.
I put down my cup, began to speak, but she cut me off.
I’m telling you now, aren’t I? That’s all that matters. Your father has his reasons. I’m sure you can figure them out, you give it some time. Important thing is, he has a half brother and he’s been sending him money to help out.
She told me how, for years now, Baba had been sending this Iqbal—my half uncle, I thought with an inner lurch—a thousand dollars every three months, going down to Western Union, wiring the money to a bank in Peshawar.
Why are you telling me now? I asked.
Because I think you should know even if he doesn’t. Also, you will have to take over the finances soon and then you would find out anyway.
I turned away, watched a cat, its tail erect, sidle up to the Ping-Pong couple. The girl reached to pet it and the cat tensed up at first. But then it curled up on the railing, let the girl run her hands over its ears, down its back. My mind was reeling. I had family outside of the U.S.
You’ll be doing the books for a long time yet, Mother, I said. I did my best to disguise the wobble in my voice.