“Will you show me some of your paintings?”
We smile at each other.
Pari stays a month with Baba and me. In the mornings, we take breakfast together in the kitchen. Black coffee and toast for Pari, yogurt for me, and fried eggs with bread for Baba, something he has found a taste for in the last year. I worried it was going to raise his cholesterol, eating all those eggs, and I asked Dr. Bashiri during one of Baba’s appointments. Dr. Bashiri gave me one of his tight-lipped smiles and said, Oh, I wouldn’t worry about it. And that reassured me—at least until a bit later when I was helping Baba buckle his seat belt and it occurred to me that maybe what Dr. Bashiri had really meant was, We’re past all that now.
After breakfast, I retreat into my office—otherwise known as my bedroom—and Pari keeps Baba company while I work. At her request, I have written down for her the schedule of the TV shows he likes to watch, what time to give him his midmorning pills, which snacks he likes and when he’s apt to ask for them. It was her idea I write it all down.
You could just pop in and ask, I said.
I don’t want to disturb you, she said. And I want to know. I want to know him.
I don’t tell her that she will never know him the way she longs to. Still, I share with her a few tricks of the trade. For instance, how if Baba starts to get agitated I can usually, though not always, calm him down—for reasons that baffle me still—by quickly handing him a free home-shopping catalog or a furniture-sale flyer. I keep a steady supply of both.
If you want him to nap, flip on the Weather Channel or anything to do with golf. And never let him watch cooking shows.
They agitate him for some reason.
After lunch, the three of us go out for a stroll. We keep it short for both their sakes—what with Baba tiring quickly and Pari’s arthritis. Baba has a wariness in his eyes, tottering anxiously along the sidewalk between Pari and me, wearing an old newsboy cap, his cardigan sweater, and wool-lined moccasins. There is a middle school around the block with an ill-manicured soccer field and, across that, a small playground where I often take Baba. We always find a young mother or two, strollers parked near them, a toddler stumbling around in the sandbox, now and then a teenage couple cutting school, swinging lazily and smoking. They rarely look at Baba—the teenagers—and then only with cold indifference, or even subtle disdain, as if my father should have known better than to allow old age and decay to happen to him.
One day, I pause during dictation and go to the kitchen to refresh my coffee and I find the two of them watching a movie together. Baba on the recliner, his moccasins sticking out from under the shawl, his head bent forward, mouth gaping slightly, eyebrows drawn together in either concentration or confusion. And Pari sitting beside him, hands folded in her lap, feet crossed at the ankles.
“Who’s this one?” Baba says.
“That is Latika.”
“Latika, the little girl from the slums. The one who could not jump on the train.”
“She doesn’t look little.”
“Yes, but a lot of years have passed,” Pari says. “She is older now, you see.”
One day the week before, at the playground, we were sitting on a park bench, the three of us, and Pari said, Abdullah, do you remember that when you were a boy you had a little sister?
She’d barely finished her sentence when Baba began to weep. Pari pressed his head into her chest, saying, I am sorry, I am so sorry, over and over in a panicky way, wiping his cheeks with her hands, but Baba kept seizing with sobs, so violently he started to choke.
“And do you know who this is, Abdullah?”
“He is Jamal. The boy from the game show.”
“He is not,” Baba says roughly.
“You don’t think?”
“He’s serving tea!”
“Yes, but that was—what do you call it?—it was from the past. From before. It was a …”
Flashback, I mouth into my coffee cup.
“The game show is now, Abdullah. And when he was serving tea, that was before.”
Baba blinks vacantly. On the screen, Jamal and Salim are sitting atop a Mumbai high-rise, their feet dangling over the side.
Pari watches him as though waiting for a moment when something will open in his eyes. “Let me ask you something, Abdullah,” she says. “If one day you win a million dollars, what would you do?”
Baba grimaces, shifting his weight, then stretches out farther in the recliner.
“I know what I would do,” Pari says.
Baba looks at her blankly.
“If I win a million dollars, I buy a house on this street. That way, we can be neighbors, you and me, and every day I come here and we watch TV together.”
But it’s only minutes later, when I am back in my room wearing earphones and typing, that I hear a loud shattering sound and Baba screaming something in Farsi. I rip the earphones off and rush to the kitchen. I see Pari backed up against the wall where the microwave is, hands bunched protectively under her chin, and Baba, wild-eyed, jabbing her in the shoulder with his cane. Broken shards of a drinking glass glitter at their feet.
“Get her out of here!” Baba cries when he sees me. “I want this woman out of my house!”
Pari’s cheeks have gone pale. Tears spring from her eyes.
“Put down the cane, Baba, for God’s sake! And don’t take a step. You’ll cut your feet.”
I wrestle the cane from his hand but not before he gives me a good fight for it.
“I want this woman gone! She’s a thief!”
“What is he saying?” Pari says miserably.
“She stole my pills!”
“Those are hers, Baba,” I say. I put a hand on his shoulder and guide him out of the kitchen. He shivers under my palm. As we pass by Pari, he almost lunges at her again, and I have to restrain him. “All right, that’s enough of that, Baba. And those are her pills, not yours. She takes them for her hands.” I grab a shopping catalog from the coffee table on the way to the recliner.
“I don’t trust that woman,” Baba says, flopping into the recliner. “You don’t know. But I know. I know a thief when I see one!” He pants as he grabs the catalog from my hand and starts violently flipping the pages. Then he slams it in his lap and looks up at me, his eyebrows shot high. “And a damn liar too. You know what she said to me, this woman? You know what she said? That she was my sister! My sister! Wait ’til Sultana hears about this one.”
“All right, Baba. We’ll tell her together.”
“We’ll tell Mother, and then us three will laugh the crazy woman right out the door. Now, you go on and relax, Baba. Everything is all right. There.”
I flip on the Weather Channel and sit beside him, stroking his shoulder, until his shaking ceases and his breathing slows. Less than five minutes pass before he dozes off.
Back in the kitchen, Pari sits slumped on the floor, back against the dishwasher. She looks shaken. She dabs at her eyes with a paper napkin.
“I am very sorry,” she says. “That was not prudent of me.”
“It’s all right,” I say, reaching under the sink for the dustpan and brush. I find little pink-and-orange pills scattered on the floor among the broken glass. I pick them up one by one and sweep the glass off the linoleum.
“Je suis une imbécile. I wanted to tell him so much. I thought maybe if I tell him the truth … I don’t know what I was thinking.”
I empty the broken glass into the trash bin. I kneel down, pull back the collar of Pari’s shirt, and check her shoulder where Baba had jabbed her. “That’s going to bruise. And I speak with authority on the matter.” I sit on the floor beside her.
She opens her palm, and I pour the pills into it. “He is like this often?”
“He has his spit-and-vinegar days.”
“Maybe you think about finding professional help, no?”
I sigh, nodding. I have thought a lot lately of the inevitable morning when I will wake up to an empty house while Baba lies curled up on an unfamiliar bed, eyeing a breakfast tray brought to him by a stranger. Baba slumped behind a table in some activity room, nodding off.
“I know,” I say, “but not yet. I want to take care of him as long as I can.”
Pari smiles and blows her nose. “I understand that.”
I am not sure she does. I don’t tell her the other reason. I can barely admit it to myself. Namely, how afraid I am to be free despite my frequent desire for it. Afraid of what will happen to me, what I will do with myself, when Baba is gone. All my life, I have lived like an aquarium fish in the safety of a glass tank, behind a barrier as impenetrable as it has been transparent. I have been free to observe the glimmering world on the other side, to picture myself in it, if I like. But I have always been contained, hemmed in, by the hard, unyielding confines of the existence that Baba has constructed for me, at first knowingly, when I was young, and now guilelessly, now that he is fading day by day. I think I have grown accustomed to the glass and am terrified that when it breaks, when I am alone, I will spill out into the wide open unknown and flop around, helpless, lost, gasping for breath.
The truth I rarely admit to is, I have always needed the weight of Baba on my back.
Why else had I so readily surrendered my dreams of art school, hardly mounting a resistance when Baba asked me not to go to Baltimore? Why else had I left Neal, the man I was engaged to a few years ago? He owned a small solar-panel-installation company. He had a square-shaped, creased face I liked the moment I met him at Abe’s Kabob House, when I asked for his order and he looked up from the menu and grinned. He was patient and friendly and even-tempered. It isn’t true what I told Pari about him. Neal didn’t leave me for someone more beautiful. I sabotaged things with him. Even when he promised to convert to Islam, to take Farsi classes, I found other faults, other excuses. I panicked, in the end, and ran back to all the familiar nooks and crannies, and crevasses, of my life at home.
Next to me, Pari begins to get up. I watch her flatten the wrinkles of her dress, and I am struck anew by what a miracle it is that she is here, standing inches from me.
“I want to show you something,” I say.
I get up and go to my room. One of the quirks of never leaving home is that no one cleans out your old room and sells your toys at a garage sale, no one gives away the clothes you have outgrown. I know that for a woman who is nearly thirty, I have too many relics of my childhood sitting around, most of them stuffed in a large chest at the foot of my bed whose lid I now lift. Inside are old dolls, the pink pony that came with a mane I could brush, the picture books, all the Happy Birthday and Valentine’s cards I had made my parents in elementary school with kidney beans and glitter and little sparkling stars. The last time we spoke, Neal and I, when I broke things off, he said, I can’t wait for you, Pari. I won’t wait around for you to grow up.
I shut the lid and go back to the living room, where Pari has settled into the couch across from Baba. I take a seat next to her.
“Here,” I say, handing her the stack of postcards.
She reaches for her reading glasses sitting on the side table and yanks off the rubber band holding the postcards together. Looking at the first one, she frowns. It is a picture of Las Vegas, of Caesars Palace at night, all glitter and lights. She flips it over and reads the note aloud.
July 21, 1992
You wouldn’t believe how hot this place gets. Today Baba got a blister when he put his palm down on the hood of our rental car! Mother had to put toothpaste on it. In Caesars Palace, they have Roman soldiers with swords and helmets and red capes. Baba kept trying to get Mother to take a picture with them but she wouldn’t. But I did! I’ll show you when I get home. That’s it for now. I miss you. Wish you were here.