reading-everyday

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

June 2001

I lowered the phone into the cradle and stared at it for a long time. It wasn’t until Aflatoon startled me with a bark that I realized how quiet the room had become. Soraya had muted the television.

“You look pale, Amir,” she said from the couch, the same one her parents had given us as a housewarming gift for our first apartment. She’d been tying on it with Aflatoon’s head nestled on her chest, her legs buried under the worn pillows. She was halfwatching a PBS special on the plight

of wolves in Minnesota, half-correcting essays from her summer-school class--she’d been teaching at the same school now for six years. She sat up, and Aflatoon leapt down from the couch. It was the general who had given our cocker spaniel his name, Farsi for “Plato,” because, he said, if you looked hard enough and long enough into the dog’s filmy black eyes, you’d swear he was thinking wise thoughts. There was a sliver of fat, just a hint of it, beneath Soraya’s chin now The past ten years had padded the curves of her hips some, and combed into her coal black hair a few streaks of cinder gray. But she still had the face of a Grand Ball princess, with her birdin-flight eyebrows and nose, elegantly curved like a letter from ancient Arabic writings.

“You took pale,” Soraya repeated, placing the stack of papers on the table.

“I have to go to Pakistan.”

She stood up now. “Pakistan?”

“Rahim Khan is very sick.” A fist clenched inside me with those words.

“Kaka’s old business partner?” She’d never met Rahim Khan, but I had told her about him. I nodded.

“Oh,” she said. “I’m so sorry, Amir.”

“We used to be close,” I said. “When I was a kid, he was the first grown-up I ever thought of as a friend.” I pictured him and Baba drinking tea in Baba’s study, then smoking near the window, a sweetbrier-scented breeze blowing from the garden and bending the twin columns of smoke.

“I remember you telling me that,” Soraya said. She paused. “How long will you be gone?”

“I don’t know. He wants to see me.”

“Is it...”

“Yes, it’s safe. I’ll be all right, Soraya.” It was the question she’d wanted to ask all along-fifteen years of marriage had turned us into mind readers. “I’m going to go for a walk.”

“Should I go with you?”

“Nay, I’d rather be alone.”

I DROVE TO GOLDEN GATE PARK and walked along Spreckels Lake on the northern edge of the park. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon; the sun sparkled on the water where dozens of miniature boats sailed, propelled by a crisp San Francisco breeze. I sat on a park bench, watched a man toss a football to his son, telling him to not sidearm the ball, to throw over the shoulder. I glanced up and saw a pair of kites, red with long blue tails. They floated high above the trees on the west end of the park, over the windmills. I thought about a comment Rahim Khan had made just before we hung up. Made it in passing, almost as an afterthought. I closed my eyes and saw him at the other end of the scratchy longdistance line, saw him with his lips slightly parted, head tilted to one side. And again, something in his bottomless black eyes hinted at an unspoken secret between us. Except now I knew he knew.

My suspicions had been right all those years. He knew about Assef, the kite, the money, the watch with the lightning bolt hands. He had always known. Come. There is a way to be good again, Rahim Khan had said on the phone just before hanging up. Said it in passing, almost as an afterthought.

A way to be good again.

WHEN I CAME HOME, Soraya was on the phone with her mother. “Won’t be long, Madarjan. A week, maybe two... Yes, you and Padar can stay with me.”

Two years earlier, the general had broken his right hip. He’d had one of his migraines again, and emerging from his room, bleary-eyed and dazed, he had tripped on a loose carpet edge. His scream had brought Khala Jamila running from the kitchen. “It sounded like a jaroo, a broomstick, snapping in half,” she was always fond of saying, though the doctor had said it was unlikely she’d heard anything of the sort. The general’s shattered hip--and all of the ensuing complications, the pneumonia, blood poisoning, the protracted stay at the nursing home--ended Khala Jamila’s long-running soliloquies about her own health. And started new ones about the general’s. She’d tell anyone who would listen that the doctors had told them his kidneys were failing. “But then they had never seen Afghan kidneys, had they?” she’d say proudly. What I remember most about the general’s hospital stay is how Khala Jamila would wait until he fell asleep, and then sing to him, songs I remembered from Kabul, playing on Baba’s scratchy old transistor radio.

The general’s frailty--and time--had softened things between him and Soraya too. They took walks together, went to lunch on Saturdays, and, sometimes, the general sat in on some of her classes. He’d sit in the back of the room, dressed in his shiny old gray suit, wooden cane across his lap, smiling. Sometimes he even took notes. THAT NIGHT, Soraya and I lay in bed, her back pressed to my chest, my face buried in her hair. I remembered when we used to lay forehead to forehead, sharing afterglow kisses and whispering until our eyes drifted closed, whispering about tiny, curled toes, first smiles, first words, first steps. We still did sometimes, but the whispers were about school, my new book, a giggle over someone’s ridiculous dress at a party. Our lovemaking was still good, at times better than good, but some nights all I’d feel was a relief to be done with it, to be free to drift away and forget, at least for a while, about the futility of what we’d just done. She never said so, but I knew sometimes Soraya felt it too. On those nights, we’d each roll to our side of the bed and let our own savior take us away. Soraya’s was sleep. Mine, as always, was a book.

I lay in the dark the night Rahim Khan called and traced with my eyes the parallel silver lines on the wall made by moonlight pouring through the blinds. At some point, maybe just before dawn, I drifted to sleep. And dreamed of Hassan running in the snow, the hem of his green chapan dragging behind him, snow crunching under his black rubber boots. He was yelling over his shoulder: For you, a thousand times over!

A WEEK LATER, I sat on a window seat aboard a Pakistani International Airlines flight, watching a pair of uniformed airline workers remove the wheel chocks. The plane taxied out of the terminal and, soon, we were airborne, cutting through the clouds. I rested my head against the window. Waited, in vain, for sleep.

 
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