For a week, I barely saw Hassan. I woke up to find toasted bread, brewed tea, and a boiled egg already on the kitchen table. My clothes for the day were ironed and folded, left on the cane-seat chair in the foyer where Hassan usually did his ironing. He used to wait for me to sit at the breakfast table before he started ironing–that way, we could talk. Used to sing too, over the hissing of the iron, sang old Hazara songs about tulip fields. Now only the folded clothes greeted me. That, and a breakfast I hardly finished anymore.
One overcast morning, as I was pushing the boiled egg around on my plate, Ali walked in cradling a pile of chopped wood. I asked him where Hassan was.
“He went back to sleep,” Ali said, kneeling before the stove. He pulled the little square door open.
Would Hassan be able to play today?
Ali paused with a log in his hand. A worried look crossed his face. “Lately, it seems all he wants to do is sleep. He does his chores–I see to that–but then he just wants to crawl under his blanket. Can I ask you something?”
“If you have to.”
“After that kite tournament, he came home a little bloodied and his shirt was torn. I asked him what had happened and he said it was nothing, that he’d gotten into a little scuffle with some kids over the kite.”
I didn’t say anything. Just kept pushing the egg around on my plate.
“Did something happen to him, Amir agha? Something he’s not telling me?”
I shrugged. “How should I know?”
“You would tell me, nay? _Inshallah_, you would tell me if some thing had happened?”
“Like I said, how should I know what’s wrong with him?” I snapped. “Maybe he’s sick.
People get sick all the time, Ali. Now, am I going to freeze to death or are you planning on lighting the stove today?”
THAT NIGHT I asked Baba if we could go to Jalalabad on Friday. He was rocking on the leather swivel chair behind his desk, reading a newspaper. He put it down, took off the reading glasses I disliked so much–Baba wasn’t old, not at all, and he had lots of years left to live, so why did he have to wear those stupid glasses?
“Why not!” he said. Lately, Baba agreed to everything I asked. Not only that, just two nights before, he’d asked me if I wanted to see _El Cid_ with Charlton Heston at Cinema Aryana. “Do you want to ask Hassan to come along to Jalalabad?”
Why did Baba have to spoil it like that? “He’s mazreez,” I said. Not feeling well.
“Really?” Baba stopped rocking in his chair. “What’s wrong with him?”
I gave a shrug and sank in the sofa by the fireplace. “He’s got a cold or something. Ali says he’s sleeping it off.”
“I haven’t seen much of Hassan the last few days,” Baba said. “That’s all it is, then, a cold?” I couldn’t help hating the way his brow furrowed with worry.
“Just a cold. So are we going Friday, Baba?”
“Yes, yes,” Baba said, pushing away from the desk. “Too bad about Hassan. I thought you might have had more fun if he came.”
“Well, the two of us can have fun together,” I said. Baba smiled. Winked. “Dress warm,”
IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN just the two of us–that was the way, I wanted it–but by Wednesday night, Baba had managed to invite another two dozen people. He called his cousin Homayoun–he was actually Baba’s second cousin–and mentioned he was going to Jalalabad on Friday, and Homayoun, who had studied engineering in France and had a house in
Jalalabad, said he’d love to have everyone over, he’d bring the kids, his two wives, and, while he was at it, cousin Shafiqa and her family were visiting from Herat, maybe she’d like to tag along, and since she was staying with cousin Nader in Kabul, his family would have to be invited as well even though Homayoun and Nader had a bit
of a feud going, and if Nader was invited, surely his brother Faruq had to be asked too or his feelings would be hurt and he might not invite them to his daughter’s wedding next month and…
We filled three vans. I rode with Baba, Rahim Khan, Kaka Homayoun–Baba had taught me at a young age to call any older male Kaka, or Uncle, and any older female, Khala, or Aunt. Kaka Homayoun’s two wives rode with us too–the pinch-faced older one with the warts on her hands and the younger one who always smelled of perfume and danced with her eyes close–as did Kaka Homayoun’s twin girls. I sat in the back row, carsick and dizzy, sandwiched between the seven-year-old twins who kept reaching over my lap to slap at each other. The road to Jalalabad is a two-hour trek through mountain roads winding along a steep drop, and my stomach lurched with each hairpin turn. Everyone in the van was talking, talking loudly and at the same time, nearly shrieking, which is how Afghans talk. I asked one of the twins–Fazila or Karima, I could never tell which was which–if she’d trade her window seat with me so I could get fresh air on account of my car sickness. She stuck her tongue out and said no. I told her that was fine, but I couldn’t be held accountable for vomiting on her new dress. A minute later, I was leaning out the window. I watched the cratered road rise and fall, whirl its tail around the mountainside, counted the multicolored trucks packed with squatting men lumbering past. I tried closing my eyes, letting the wind slap at my cheeks, opened my mouth to swallow the clean air. I still didn’t feel better. A finger poked me in the side. It was Fazila/Karima.
“What?” I said.
“I was just telling everyone about the tournament,” Baba said from behind the wheel.
Kaka Homayoun and his wives were smiling at me from the middle row of seats.
“There must have been a hundred kites in the sky that day?” Baba said. “Is that about right, Amir?”
“I guess so,” I mumbled.
“A hundred kites, Homayoun jan. No _laaf_. And the only one still flying at the end of the day was Amir’s. He has the last kite at home, a beautiful blue kite. Hassan and Amir ran it together.”
“Congratulations,” Kaka Homayoun said. His first wife, the one with the warts, clapped her hands. “Wah wah, Amir jan, we’re all so proud of you!” she said. The younger wife joined in. Then they were all clapping, yelping their praises, telling me how proud I’d made them all. Only Rahim Khan, sitting in the passenger seat next to Baba, was silent.
He was looking at me in an odd way. “Please pull over, Baba,” I said.
“Getting sick,” I muttered, leaning across the seat, pressing against Kaka Homayoun’s daughters.
Fazilal/Karima’s face twisted. “Pull over, Kaka! His face is yellow! I don’t want him throwing up on my new dress!” she squealed.
Baba began to pull over, but I didn’t make it. A few minutes later, I was sitting on a rock on the side of the road as they aired out the van. Baba was
smoking with Kaka Homayoun who was telling Fazila/Karima to stop crying; he’d buy her another dress in Jalalabad. I closed my eyes, turned my face to the sun. Little shapes formed behind my eyelids, like hands playing shadows on the wall. They twisted, merged, formed a single image: Hassan’s brown corduroy pants discarded on a pile of old bricks in the alley.
KAKA HOMAYOUN’S WHITE, two-story house in Jalalabad had a balcony overlooking a large, walled garden with apple and persimmon trees. There were hedges that, in the summer, the gardener shaped like animals, and a swimming pool with emeraldcolored tiles. I sat on the edge of the pool, empty save for a layer of slushy snow at the bottom, feet dangling in. Kaka Homayoun’s kids were playing hide-and-seek at the other end of the yard. The women were cooking and I could smell onions frying already, could hear the phht-phht of a pressure cooker, music, laughter.
Baba, Rahim Khan, Kaka Homayoun, and Kaka Nader were sitting on the balcony, smoking. Kaka Homayoun was telling them he’d brought the projector along to show his slides of France. Ten years since he’d returned from Paris and he was still showing those stupid slides.
It shouldn’t have felt this way. Baba and I were finally friends. We’d gone to the zoo a few days before, seen Marjan the lion, and I had hurled a pebble at the bear when no one was watching. We’d gone to Dadkhoda’s Kabob House afterward, across from Cinema Park, had lamb kabob with freshly baked _naan_ from the tandoor. Baba told me stories of his travels to India and Russia, the people he had met, like the armless, legless couple in Bombay who’d been married forty-seven years and raised eleven children. That should have been fun, spending a day like that with Baba, hearing his stories. I finally had what I’d wanted all those years. Except now that I had it, I felt as empty as this unkempt pool I was dangling my legs into.
The wives and daughters served dinner–rice, kofta, and chicken _qurma_–at sundown.
We dined the traditional way, sitting on cushions around the room, tablecloth spread on the floor, eating with our hands in groups of four or five from common platters. I wasn’t hungry but sat down to eat anyway
with Baba, Kaka Faruq, and Kaka Homayoun’s two boys. Baba, who’d had a few scotches before dinner, was still ranting about the kite tournament, how I’d outlasted them all, how I’d come home with the last kite. His booming voice dominated the room. People raised their heads from their platters, called
out their congratulations. Kaka Faruq patted my back with his clean hand. I felt like sticking a knife in my eye.
Later, well past midnight, after a few hours of poker between Baba and his cousins, the men lay down to sleep on parallel mattresses in the same room where we’d dined. The women went upstairs. An hour later, I still couldn’t sleep. I kept tossing and turning as my relatives grunted, sighed, and snored in their sleep. I sat up. A wedge of moonlight streamed in through the window.
“I watched Hassan get raped,” I said to no one. Baba stirred in his sleep. Kaka Homayoun grunted. A part of me was hoping someone would wake up and hear, so I wouldn’t have to live with this lie anymore. But no one woke up and in the silence that followed, I understood the nature of my new curse: I was going to get away with it.
I thought about Hassan’s dream, the one about us swimming in the lake. There is no monster, he’d said, just water. Except he’d been wrong about that. There was a monster in the lake. It had grabbed Hassan by the ankles, dragged him to the murky bottom. I was that monster.
That was the night I became an insomniac.
I DIDN’T SPEAK TO HASSAN until the middle of the next week. I had just half-eaten my lunch and Hassan was doing the dishes. I was walking upstairs, going to my room, when Hassan asked if I wanted to hike up the hill. I said I was tired. Hassan looked tired too–he’d lost weight and gray
circles had formed under his puffed-up eyes. But when he asked again, I reluctantly agreed.
We trekked up the hill, our boots squishing in the muddy snow. Neither one of us said anything. We sat under our pomegranate tree and I knew I’d made a mistake. I shouldn’t have come up the hill. The words I’d carved on the tree trunk with Ali’s kitchen knife, Amir and Hassan: The Sultans of Kabul… I couldn’t stand looking at them now.
He asked me to read to him from the _Shahnamah_ and I told him I’d changed my mind. Told him I just wanted to go back to my room. He looked away and shrugged. We walked back down the way we’d gone up in silence. And for the first time in my life, I couldn’t wait for spring.
MY MEMORY OF THE REST of that winter of 1975 is pretty hazy. I remember I was fairly happy when Baba was home. We’d eat together, go to see a film, visit Kaka Homayoun or Kaka Faruq. Sometimes Rahim Khan came over and Baba let me sit in his study and sip tea with them. He’d even have me read him some of my stories. It was
good and I even believed it would last. And Baba believed it too, I think. We both should have known better. For at least a few months after the kite tournament, Baba and I immersed ourselves in a sweet illusion, saw each other in a way that we never had before. We’d actually deceived ourselves into thinking that a toy made of tissue paper, glue, and bamboo could somehow close the chasm between us.
But when Baba was out–and he was out a lot–I closed myself in my room. I read a book every couple of days, wrote sto ries, learned to draw horses. I’d hear Hassan shuffling around the kitchen in the morning, hear the clinking of silverware, the whistle of the teapot. I’d wait to hear the door shut and only then I would walk down to eat. On my calendar, I circled the date of the first day of school and began a countdown.
To my dismay, Hassan kept trying to rekindle things between us. I remember the last time. I was in my room, reading an abbreviated Farsi translation of Ivanhoe, when he knocked on my door.
“What is it?”
“I’m going to the baker to buy _naan_,” he said from the other side. “I was wondering if you… if you wanted to come along.”
“I think I’m just going to read,” I said, rubbing my temples. Lately, every time Hassan was around, I was getting a headache.
“It’s a sunny day,” he said. “I can see that.”
“Might be fun to go for a walk.” “You go.”
“I wish you’d come along,” he said. Paused. Something thumped against the door, maybe his forehead. “I don’t know what I’ve done, Amir agha. I wish you’d tell me. I don’t know why we don’t play anymore.”
“You haven’t done anything, Hassan. Just go.” “You can tell me, I’ll stop doing it.”
I buried my head in my lap, squeezed my temples with my knees, like a vice. “I’ll tell you what I want you to stop doing,” I said, eyes pressed shut.
“I want you to stop harassing me. I want you to go away,” I snapped. I wished he would give it right back to me, break the door open and tell me
off–it would have made things easier, better. But he didn’t do anything like that, and when I opened the door minutes later, he wasn’t there. I fell on my bed, buried my head under the pillow, and cried.
HASSAN MILLED ABOUT the periphery of my life after that. I made sure our paths crossed as little as possible, planned my day that way. Because when he was around, the oxygen seeped out of the room. My chest tightened and I couldn’t draw enough air; I’d stand there, gasping in my own little airless bubble of atmosphere. But even when he wasn’t around, he was. He was there in the hand-washed and ironed clothes on the cane-seat chair, in the warm slippers left outside my door, in the wood already burning in the stove when I came down for breakfast. Everywhere I turned, I saw signs of his loyalty, his goddamn unwavering loyalty.
Early that spring, a few days before the new school year started, Baba and I were planting tulips in the garden. Most of the snow had melted and the hills in the north were already dotted with patches of green grass. It was a cool, gray morning, and Baba was squatting next to me, digging the soil and planting the bulbs I handed to him. He was telling me how most people thought it was better to plant tulips in the fall and how that wasn’t true, when I came right out and said it. “Baba, have you ever thought about get ting new servants?”
He dropped the tulip bulb and buried the trowel in the dirt. Took off his gardening gloves. I’d startled him. “Chi? What did you say?”
“I was just wondering, that’s all.”
“Why would I ever want to do that?” Baba said curtly.
“You wouldn’t, I guess. It was just a question,” I said, my voice fading to a murmur. I was already sorry I’d said it.
“Is this about you and Hassan? I know there’s something going on between you two, but whatever it is, you have to deal with it, not me. I’m staying out of it.”
“I’m sorry, Baba.”
He put on his gloves again. “I grew up with Ali,” he said through clenched teeth. “My father took him in, he loved Ali like his own son. Forty years Ali’s been with my family.
Forty goddamn years. And you think I’m just going to throw him out?” He turned to me now, his face as red as a tulip. “I’ve never laid a hand on you, Amir, but you ever say that again…” He looked away, shaking his head. “You bring me shame. And Hassan…
Hassan’s not going anywhere, do you understand?”
I looked down and picked up a fistful of cool soil. Let it pour between my fingers.
“I said, Do you understand?” Baba roared. I flinched. “Yes, Baba.”
“Hassan’s not going anywhere,” Baba snapped. He dug a new hole with the trowel, striking the dirt harder than he had to. “He’s staying right here with us, where he belongs. This is his home and we’re his family. Don’t you ever ask me that question again!”
“I won’t, Baba. I’m sorry.”
We planted the rest of the tulips in silence.
I was relieved when school started that next week. Students with new notebooks and sharpened pencils in hand ambled about the courtyard, kicking up dust, chatting in groups, waiting for the class captains’ whistles. Baba drove down the dirt lane that led to the entrance. The school was an old two-story building with broken windows and dim, cobblestone hallways, patches of its original dull yellow paint still showing between sloughing chunks of plaster. Most of the boys walked to school, and Baba’s black Mustang drew more than one envious look. I should have been
beaming with pride when he dropped me off–the old me would have–but all I could muster was a mild form of embarrassment. That and emptiness. Baba drove away without saying good-bye.
I bypassed the customary comparing of kite-fighting scars and stood in line. The bell rang and we marched to our assigned class, filed in in pairs. I sat in the back row. As the Farsi teacher handed out our textbooks, I prayed for a heavy load of homework.
School gave me an excuse to stay in my room for long hours. And, for a while, it took my mind off what had happened that winter, what I had let happen. For a few weeks, I preoccupied myself with gravity and momentum, atoms and cells, the Anglo-Afghan wars, instead of thinking about Hassan and what had happened to him. But, always, my
mind returned to the alley. To Hassan’s brown corduroy pants lying on the bricks. To the droplets of blood staining the snow dark red, almost black.
One sluggish, hazy afternoon early that summer, I asked Hassan to go up the hill with me. Told him I wanted to read him a new story I’d written. He was hanging clothes to dry in the yard and I saw his eagerness in the harried way he finished the job.
We climbed the hill, making small talk. He asked about school, what I was learning, and I talked about my teachers, especially the mean math teacher who punished talkative students by sticking a metal rod between their fingers and then squeezing them together. Hassan winced at that, said he hoped I’d never have to experience it. I said I’d been lucky so far, knowing that luck had nothing to do with it. I had done my share of talking in class too. But my father was rich and everyone knew him, so I was spared the metal rod treatment.
We sat against the low cemetery wall under the shade thrown by the pomegranate tree.
In another month or two, crops of scorched yellow weeds would blanket the hillside, but that year the spring showers had lasted longer than usual, nudging their way into early summer, and the grass was still green, peppered with tangles of wildflowers. Below us, Wazir Akbar Khan’s white walled, flat-topped houses gleamed in the sunshine, the laundry hanging on clotheslines in their yards stirred by the breeze to dance like butterflies.
We had picked a dozen pomegranates from the tree. I unfolded the story I’d brought along, turned to the first page, then put it down. I stood up and picked up an overripe pomegranate that had fallen to the ground.
“What would you do if I hit you with this?” I said, tossing the fruit up and down.
Hassan’s smile wilted. He looked older than I’d remembered. No, not older, old. Was that possible? Lines had etched into his tanned face and creases framed his eyes, his mouth. I might as well have taken a knife and carved those lines myself.
“What would you do?” I repeated.
The color fell from his face. Next to him, the stapled pages of the story I’d promised to read him fluttered in the breeze. I hurled the pomegranate at him. It struck him in the chest, exploded in a spray of red pulp. Hassan’s cry was pregnant with surprise and pain.
“Hit me back!” I snapped. Hassan looked from the stain on his chest to me
“Get up! Hit me!” I said. Hassan did get up, but he just stood there, looking dazed like a man dragged into the ocean by a riptide when, just a moment ago, he was enjoying a nice stroll on the beach.
I hit him with another pomegranate, in the shoulder this time. The juice splattered his face. “Hit me back!” I spat. “Hit me back, goddamn you!” I
wished he would. I wished he’d give me the punishment I craved, so maybe I’d finally sleep at night. Maybe then things could return to how they used to be between us. But Hassan did nothing as I pelted him again and again. “You’re a coward!” I said. “Nothing but a goddamn coward!”
I don’t know how many times I hit him. All I know is that, when I finally stopped, exhausted and panting, Hassan was smeared in red like he’d been shot by a firing squad. I fell to my knees, tired, spent, frustrated.
Then Hassan did pick up a pomegranate. He walked toward me. He opened it and crushed it against his own forehead. “There,” he croaked, red dripping down his face like blood. “Are you satisfied? Do you feel better?” He turned around and started down the hill.
I let the tears break free, rocked back and forth on my knees.
“What am I going to do with you, Hassan? What am I going to do with you?” But by the time the tears dried up and I trudged down the hill, I knew the answer to that question.
I TURNED THIRTEEN that summer of 1976, Afghanistan’s next to last summer of peace and anonymity. Things between Baba and me were already cooling off again. I think what started it was the stupid comment I’d made the day we were planting tulips, about getting new servants. I regretted saying it–I really did–but I think even if I hadn’t, our happy little interlude would have come to an end. Maybe not quite so soon, but it would have. By the end of the summer, the scraping of spoon and fork against the plate had replaced dinner table chatter and Baba had resumed retreating to his study after supper. And closing the door. I’d gone back to thumbing through Hãfez and Khayyám, gnawing my nails down to the cuticles, writing stories. I kept the stories in a stack under my bed, keeping them just in case, though I doubted Baba would ever again ask me to read them to him.
Baba’s motto about throwing parties was this: Invite the whole world or it’s not a party. I remember scanning over the invitation list a week before my birthday party and not recognizing at least three-quarters of the four hundred–plus Kakas and Khalas who were going to bring me gifts and
congratulate me for having lived to thirteen. Then I realized they weren’t really coming for me. It was my birthday, but I knew who the real star of the show was.
For days, the house was teeming with Baba’s hired help. There was Salahuddin the butcher, who showed up with a calf and two sheep in tow, refusing payment for any of the three. He slaughtered the animals himself in the yard by a poplar tree. “Blood is good for the tree,” I remember him saying as the grass around the poplar soaked red.
Men I didn’t know climbed the oak trees with coils of small electric bulbs and meters of extension cords. Others set up dozens of tables in the yard, spread a tablecloth on each. The night before the big party Baba’s friend Del-Muhammad, who owned a kabob house in Shar-e-Nau, came to the house with his bags of spices. Like the butcher, Del-Muhammad–or Dello, as Baba called him–refused payment for his services. He said Baba had done enough for his family already. It was Rahim Khan who whispered to me, as Dello marinated the meat, that Baba had lent Dello the money to open his restaurant.
Baba had refused repayment until Dello had shown up one day in our driveway in a Benz and insisted he wouldn’t leave until Baba took his money.
I guess in most ways, or at least in the ways in which parties are judged, my birthday bash was a huge success. I’d never seen the house so packed.
Guests with drinks in hand were chatting in the hallways, smoking on the stairs, leaning against doorways.
They sat where they found space, on kitchen counters, in the foyer, even under the stairwell. In the backyard, they mingled under the glow of blue, red, and green lights winking in the trees, their faces illuminated by the light of kerosene torches propped everywhere. Baba had had a stage built on the balcony that overlooked the garden and planted speakers throughout
the yard. Ahmad Zahir was playing an accordion and singing on the stage over masses of dancing bodies.
I had to greet each of the guests personally–Baba made sure of that; no one was going to gossip the next day about how he’d raised a son with no manners. I kissed hundreds of cheeks, hugged total strangers, thanked them for their gifts. My face ached from the strain of my plastered smile.
I was standing with Baba in the yard near the bar when someone said, “Happy birthday, Amir.” It was Assef, with his parents. Assef’s father, Mahmood, was a short, lanky sort with dark skin and a narrow face. His mother, Tanya, was a small, nervous woman who smiled and blinked a lot. Assef was standing between the two of them now, grinning, looming over both, his arms resting on their shoulders. He led them toward us, like he had brought them here. Like he was the parent, and they his children. A wave of dizziness rushed through me. Baba thanked them for coming.
“I picked out your present myself,” Assef said. Tanya’s face twitched and her eyes flicked from Assef to me. She smiled, unconvincingly, and blinked. I wondered if Baba had noticed.
“Still playing soccer, Assef jan?” Baba said. He’d always wanted me to be friends with Assef.
Assef smiled. It was creepy how genuinely sweet he made it look. “Of course, Kaka jan.”
“Right wing, as I recall?”
“Actually, I switched to center forward this year,” Assef said. “You get to score more that way. We’re playing the Mekro-Rayan team next week.
Should be a good match. They have some good players.”
Baba nodded. “You know, I played center forward too when I was young.”
“I’ll bet you still could if you wanted to,”Assef said. He favored Baba with a good-natured wink.
Baba returned the wink. “I see your father has taught you his world-famous flattering ways.” He elbowed Assef’s father, almost knocked the little fellow down. Mahmood’s laughter was about as convincing as Tanya’s smile, and suddenly I wondered if maybe, on some level, their son frightened them. I tried to fake a smile, but all I could manage was a feeble upturning of the corners of my mouth–my stomach was turning at the sight of my father bonding with Assef.
Assef shifted his eyes to me. “Wali and Kamal are here too. They wouldn’t miss your birthday for anything,” he said, laughter lurking just beneath the surface. I nodded silently.
“We’re thinking about playing a little game of volleyball tomorrow at my house,” Assef said. “Maybe you’ll join us. Bring Hassan if you want to.”
“That sounds fun,” Baba said, beaming. “What do you think, Amir?”
“I don’t really like volleyball,” I muttered. I saw the light wink out of Baba’s eyes and an uncomfortable silence followed.
“Sorry, Assefjan,” Baba said, shrugging. That stung, his apologizing for me.
“Nay, no harm done,” Assef said. “But you have an open invitation, Amir jan. Anyway, I heard you like to read so I brought you a book. One of my favorites.” He extended a wrapped birthday gift to me. “Happy birthday.”
He was dressed in a cotton shirt and blue slacks, a red silk tie and shiny black loafers.
He smelled of cologne and his blond hair was neatly combed back. On the surface, he was the embodiment of every parent’s dream, a strong, tall, well-dressed and well-mannered boy with talent and striking looks, not to mention the wit to joke with an adult.
But to me, his eyes betrayed him. When I looked into them, the facade faltered, revealed a glimpse of the madness hiding behind them.
“Aren’t you going to take it, Amir?” Baba was saying. “Huh?” “Your present,” he said testily. “Assefjan is giving you a present.”
“Oh,” I said. I took the box from Assef and lowered my gaze. I wished I could be alone in my room, with my books, away from these people.
“Well?” Baba said. “What?”
Baba spoke in a low voice, the one he took on whenever I embarrassed him in public.
“Aren’t you going to thank Assef jan? That was very considerate of him.”
I wished Baba would stop calling him that. How often did he call me “Amir jan”?
“Thanks,” I said. Assef’s mother looked at me like she wanted to say something, but she didn’t, and I realized that neither of Assef’s parents had said a word. Before I could embarrass myself and Baba anymore–but mostly to get away from Assef and his grin–I stepped away. “Thanks for coming,” I said.
I squirmed my way through the throng of guests and slipped through the wrought-iron gates. Two houses down from our house, there was a large, barren dirt lot. I’d heard Baba tell Rahim Khan that a judge had bought the land and that an architect was working on the design. For now, the lot was bare, save for dirt, stones, and weeds.
I tore the wrapping paper from Assef’s present and tilted the book cover in the moonlight. It was a biography of Hitler. I threw it amid a tangle of weeds.
I leaned against the neighbor’s wall, slid down to the ground. I just sat in the dark for a while, knees drawn to my chest, looking up at the stars, waiting for the night to be over.
“Shouldn’t you be entertaining your guests?” a familiar voice said. Rahim Khan was walking toward me along the wall.
“They don’t need me for that. Baba’s there, remember?” I said. The ice in Rahim Khan’s drink clinked when he sat next to me. “I didn’t know you drank.”
“Turns out I do,” he said. Elbowed me playfully. “But only on the most important occasions.”
I smiled. “Thanks.”
He tipped his drink to me and took a sip. He lit a cigarette, one of the unfiltered Pakistani cigarettes he and Baba were always smoking. “Did I ever tell you I was almost married once?”
“Really?” I said, smiling a little at the notion of Rahim Khan getting married. I’d always thought of him as Baba’s quiet alter ego, my writing mentor, my pal, the one who never forgot to bring me a souvenir, a saughat, when he returned from a trip abroad. But a husband? A father?
He nodded. “It’s true. I was eighteen. Her name was Homaira. She was a Hazara, the daughter of our neighbor’s servants. She was as beautiful as a pari, light brown hair, big hazel eyes… she had this laugh… I can still hear it sometimes.” He twirled his glass.
“We used to meet secretly in my father’s apple orchards, always after midnight when everyone had gone to sleep. We’d walk under the trees and I’d hold her hand… Am I embarrassing you, Amir jan?”
“A little,” I said.
“It won’t kill you,” he said, taking another puff. “Anyway, we had this fantasy. We’d have a great, fancy wedding and invite family and friends from Kabul to Kandahar. I would build us a big house, white with a tiled patio and large windows. We would plant fruit trees in the garden and grow all sorts of flowers, have a lawn for our kids to play on. On Fridays, after
_namaz_ at the mosque, everyone would get together at our house for lunch and we’d eat in the garden, under cherry trees, drink fresh water from the well.
Then tea with candy as we watched our kids play with their cousins…”
He took a long gulp of his scotch. Coughed. “You should have seen the look on my father’s face when I told him. My mother actually fainted. My sisters splashed her face with water. They fanned her and looked at me as if I had slit her throat. My brother Jalal actually went to fetch his hunting rifle before my father stopped him.” Rahim Khan barked a bitter laughter. “It was Homaira and me against the world. And I’ll tell you this, Amir jan: In the end, the world always wins. That’s just the way of things.”
“So what happened?”
“That same day, my father put Homaira and her family on a lorry and sent them off to Hazarajat. I never saw her again.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Probably for the best, though,” Rahim Khan said, shrugging. “She would have suffered.
My family would have never accepted her as an equal. You don’t order someone to polish your shoes one day and call them ‘sister’ the next.” He looked at me. “You know, you can tell me anything you want, Amir jan.
“I know,” I said uncertainly. He looked at me for a long time, like he was waiting, his black bottomless eyes hinting at an unspoken secret between us. For a moment, I almost did tell him. Almost told him everything, but then what would he think of me?
He’d hate me, and rightfully.
“Here.” He handed me something. “I almost forgot. Happy birthday.” It was a brown leather-bound notebook. I traced my fingers along the gold-colored stitching on the borders. I smelled the
leather. “For your stories,” he said. I was going to thank him when something exploded and bursts of fire lit up the sky.
We hurried back to the house and found the guests all standing in the yard, looking up to the sky. Kids hooted and screamed with each crackle and whoosh. People cheered, burst into applause each time flares sizzled and exploded into bouquets of fire. Every few seconds, the backyard lit up in sudden flashes of red, green, and yellow.
In one of those brief bursts of light, I saw something I’ll never forget: Hassan serving drinks to Assef and Wali from a silver platter. The light winked out, a hiss and a crackle, then another flicker of orange light: Assef grinning, kneading Hassan in the chest with a knuckle.
Then, mercifully, darkness.