I went to the dining room and sat at the glass table with my eyes closed. I cannot tell you how long I sat there without moving, Mr. Markos, only that at some point I heard stirrings from upstairs and I blinked my eyes open and saw that the light had changed, and then I got up and set a pot of water to boil for tea.
One day, I went up to his room and told him that I had a surprise for him. This was sometime in the late 1950s, long before television had made its way to Kabul. He and I passed our time those days playing cards, and, of late, chess, which he had taught me and for which I was showing a bit of a knack. We also spent considerable time with reading lessons. He proved a patient teacher. He would close his eyes as he listened to me read and shake his head gently when I erred. Again, he would say. By then, his speech had improved quite dramatically over time. Read that again, Nabi. I had been more or less literate when he had hired me back in 1947, thanks to Mullah Shekib, but it was through Suleiman’s tutoring that my reading truly advanced, as did my writing by consequence. He did it to help me, of course, but there was also a self-serving element to the lessons for I now could read to him books that he liked. He could read them on his own, naturally, but only for short bursts, as he tired easily.
If I was in the midst of a chore and could not be with him, he didn’t have much to occupy himself with. He listened to records. Often, he had to make do with looking out the window, at the birds perched on the trees, the sky, the clouds, and listen to the children playing on the street, the fruit vendors pulling their donkeys, chanting, Cherries! Fresh cherries!
When I told him about this surprise, he asked me what it was. I slid my arm under his neck and told him we were going downstairs first. In those days, I had little trouble carrying him for I was still young and able. I lifted him with ease and carried him to the living room, where I gently reclined him on the sofa.
“Well?” he said.
I pushed in the wheelchair from the foyer. For over a year, I had lobbied for it, and he had obstinately refused. Now I had taken the initiative and bought one anyway. Immediately, he was shaking his head.
“Is it the neighbors?” I said. “Are you embarrassed by what people will say?”
He told me to take him back upstairs.
“Well, I don’t give one damn what the neighbors think or say,” I said. “So, what we are going to do today is go for a walk. It’s a lovely day and we are going for a walk, you and I, and that is that. Because if we don’t get out of this house, I am going to lose my mind, and where would that leave you if I went insane? And honestly, Suleiman, quit your crying. You’re like an old woman.”
Now he was crying and laughing, and still saying, “No! No!” even as I lifted him and lowered him into the wheelchair, and as I covered him with a blanket and wheeled him through the front door.
It would merit mentioning here that I did at first search for a replacement for myself. I did not tell Suleiman I was doing so; I thought it best to find the right person and then bring the news to him. A number of people came to inquire about the work. I met with them outside the house so as to not rouse suspicion in Suleiman. But the search proved far more problematic than I had anticipated. Some of the candidates were clearly made of the same cloth as Zahid, and those—whom I sniffed out easily due to my lifelong dealings with their sort—I dismissed swiftly. Others didn’t have the necessary cooking skills, for, as I mentioned earlier, Suleiman was a rather fussy eater. Or they could not drive. Many could not read, which was a serious impediment now that I habitually read to Suleiman late in the afternoons. Some I found to be impatient, another grave shortcoming when it came to caring for Suleiman, who could be exasperating and at times childishly petulant. Others I intuitively judged to lack the necessary temperament for the arduous task at hand.
And so three years on, I was still at the house, still telling myself I intended to leave once I felt assured Suleiman’s fate was in hands I could trust. Three years on, I was still the one washing his body every other day with a wet cloth, shaving his face, clipping his nails, cutting his hair. I fed him his food and helped him on the bedpan, and I wiped him clean, the way you do an infant, and I washed the soiled diapers I pinned on him. In that time, we had developed between us an unspoken language born of familiarity and routine, and, inevitably, a degree of previously unthinkable informality had seeped into our relationship.
Once I got him to agree to the wheelchair, the old ritual of morning strolls was restored. I wheeled him out of the house, and we would go down the street and say hello to the neighbors as we passed by. One of them was Mr. Bashiri, a young, recent graduate of Kabul University who worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He, his brother, and their respective wives had moved into a big two-story home three houses down across the street from us. Sometimes we ran into him as he was warming up his car in the morning to go to work, and I always stopped for a few pleasantries. I often wheeled Suleiman over to Shar-e-Nau Park, where we sat in the shade of the elms and watched the traffic—the taxi drivers pounding palms against horns, the ding-a-ding of bicycles, donkeys braying, pedestrians suicidally stepping into the path of buses. We became a familiar sight, Suleiman and I, in and around the park. On the way home, we paused often for good-humored exchanges with magazine vendors and butchers, a few cheerful words with the young policemen directing traffic. We chatted up drivers leaning against their fenders, waiting for pickups.
Sometimes I lowered him into the backseat of the old Chevrolet, stowed the wheelchair in the trunk, and drove out to Paghman, where I could always find a pretty green field and a bubbling little stream shaded by trees. He tried his hand at sketching after we ate lunch, but it was a struggle, for the stroke had affected his dominant right hand. Still, using his left hand, he managed to recreate trees and hills and bundles of wildflowers with far greater artistry than I could with my intact faculties. Eventually, Suleiman would tire and doze off, the pencil slipping from his hand. I would cover his legs with a blanket and lie on the grass beside his chair. I would listen to the breeze catching the trees, gaze up at the sky, the strips of clouds gliding overhead.
Sooner or later, I would find my thoughts drifting to Nila, who was an entire continent away from me now. I would picture the soft sheen of her hair, the way she bounced her foot, the sandal slapping her heel to the crackle of a burning cigarette. I thought of the curve of her back and the swell of her chest. I longed to be near her again, to be engulfed in her smell, to feel the old familiar flutter of the heart when she touched my hand. She had promised to write me, and though years had passed and in all likelihood she had forgotten me, I cannot lie now and claim I did not still feel an upsurge of anticipation each time we received correspondence at the house.
One day, in Paghman, I was sitting on the grass, studying the chessboard. This was years later, in 1968, the year after Suleiman’s mother died, and also the year both Mr. Bashiri and his brother became fathers, boys they had named, respectively, Idris and Timur. I often spotted the little baby cousins in their strollers as their mothers took them for leisurely walks around the neighborhood. That day, Suleiman and I had started a chess game, before he had dozed off, and I was trying now to find a way to equalize my position after his aggressive opening gambit, when he said, “Tell me, how old are you, Nabi?”
“Well, I’m past forty,” I said. “I know that much.”
“I was thinking, you should marry,” he said. “Before you lose your looks. You’re already graying.”
We smiled at each other. I told him my sister Masooma used to say the same to me.
He asked if I remembered the day he had hired me, back in 1947, twenty-one years earlier.
Naturally, I did. I had been working, rather unhappily, as an assistant cook at a house a few blocks from the Wahdati residence. When I had heard that he needed a cook—his own had married and moved away—I had walked straight to his house one afternoon and rung the bell at the front gates.
“You were a spectacularly bad cook,” Suleiman said. “You work wonders now, Nabi, but that first meal? My God. And the first time you drove me in my car I thought I would have a stroke.” Here he paused, then chuckled, surprised at his own unintended joke.
This came as a complete surprise to me, Mr. Markos, a shock, really, for Suleiman had never submitted to me in all these years a single complaint about either my cooking or my driving. “Why did you hire me, then?” I asked.
He turned his face to me. “Because you walked in, and I thought to myself that I had never seen anyone as beautiful.”
I lowered my eyes to the chessboard.
“I knew when I met you that we weren’t the same, you and I, that it was an impossible thing what I wanted. Still, we had our morning walks, and our drives, and I won’t say that was enough for me but it was better than not being with you. I learned to make do with your proximity.” He paused, then said, “And I think you understand something of what I am describing, Nabi. I know you do.”
I could not lift my eyes to meet his.
“I need to tell you, if only this once, that I have loved you a long, long time, Nabi. Please don’t be angry.”
I shook my head no. For minutes, neither of us spoke a word. It breathed between us, what he had said, the pain of a life suppressed, of happiness never to be.
“And I am telling you this now,” he said, “so you understand why I want you to go. Go and find yourself a wife. Start your own family, Nabi, like everyone else. There is still time for you.”
“Well,” I said at last, aiming to ease the tension with flippancy, “one of these days I just might. And then you’ll be sorry. And so will the miserable bastard who has to wash your diapers.”
“You always joke.”
I watched a beetle crawl lightly across a green-gray leaf.
“Don’t stay for me. This is what I’m saying, Nabi. Don’t stay for me.”
“You flatter yourself.”
“Again the joking,” he said tiredly.
I said nothing even though he had it wrong. I was not joking that time. My staying was no longer for him. It had been at first. I had stayed initially because Suleiman needed me, because he was wholly dependent on me. I had run once before from someone who needed me, and the remorse I still feel I will take with me to the grave. I could not do it again. But slowly, imperceptibly, my reasons for staying changed. I cannot tell you when or how the change occurred, Mr. Markos, only that I was staying for me now. Suleiman said I should marry. But the fact is, I looked at my life and realized I already had what people sought in marriage. I had comfort, and companionship, and a home where I was always welcomed, loved, and needed. The physical urges I had as a man—and I still had them, of course, though less frequent and less pressing now that I was older—could still be managed, as I explained earlier. As for children, though I had always liked them I had never felt a tug of paternal impulse in myself.
“If you mean to be a mule and not marry,” Suleiman said, “then I have a request of you. But on the condition that you accept before I ask.”
I told him he could not demand that of me.
“And yet I am.”
I looked up at him.
“You can say no,” he said.
He knew me well. He smiled crookedly. I made my promise, and he made his request.
What shall I tell you, Mr. Markos, of the years that ensued? You know well the recent history of this beleaguered country. I need not rehash for you those dark days. I tire at the mere thought of writing it, and, besides, the suffering of this country has already been sufficiently chronicled, and by pens far more learned and eloquent than mine.
I can sum it up in one word: war. Or, rather, wars. Not one, not two, but many wars, both big and small, just and unjust, wars with shifting casts of supposed heroes and villains, each new hero making one increasingly nostalgic for the old villain. The names changed, as did the faces, and I spit on them equally for all the petty feuds, the snipers, the land mines, bombing raids, the rockets, the looting and raping and killing. Ah, enough! The task is both too great and too unpleasant. I lived those days already, and I intend to relive them on these pages as briefly as possible. The only good I took from that time was a measure of vindication about little Pari, who by now must have grown into a young woman. It eased my conscience that she was safe, far from all this killing.