Only about thirty people showed up. There was a rumor that Brigitte Bardot was going to make an appearance, but it turned out to be just that, only a rumor. Collette was disappointed at the turnout. She had an agitated argument with a thin, pale bespectacled young man named Eric, who, Pari gathered, had been in charge of organizing the march. Poor Eric. Pari pitied him. Still seething, Collette took the lead. Pari shuffled along toward the back, next to a flat-chested girl who shouted slogans with a kind of nervous exhilaration. Pari kept her eyes to the pavement and tried her best to not stand out.
At a street corner, a man tapped her on the shoulder.
“You look like you’re dying to be rescued.”
He was wearing a tweed jacket over a sweater, jeans, a wool scarf. His hair was longer, and he had aged some, but elegantly, in a way that some women his age might find unfair and even infuriating. Still lean and fit, a couple of crow’s-feet, some more graying at the temples, his face set with just a light touch of weariness.
“I am,” she said.
They kissed on the cheek, and when he asked if she would have a coffee with him, she said yes.
“Your friend looks angry. Homicidally angry.”
Pari glanced behind her, saw Collette standing with Eric, still chanting and pumping her fist but also, absurdly, glaring at the two of them. Pari swallowed back laughter—that would have wrought irreparable damage. She shrugged apologetically and ducked away.
They went to a small café and sat at a table by the window. He ordered them coffee and a custard mille-feuille each. Pari watched him speak to the waiter in the tone of genial authority that she recalled well and felt the same flutter in the gut that she had as a girl when he would come over to pick up Maman. She felt suddenly self-conscious, of her bitten fingernails, her unpowdered face, her hair hanging in limp curls—she wished now that she’d dried it after the shower, but she’d been late, and Collette had been pacing like a zoo animal.
“I hadn’t pegged you as the protesting type,” Julien said, lighting her cigarette for her.
“I’m not. That was more guilt than conviction.”
“Guilt? Over seal hunting?”
“Ah. Yes. You know I think I may be a little frightened of her.”
“We all are.”
They laughed. He reached across the table and touched her scarf. He dropped his hand. “It would be trite to say that you’re all grown up, so I won’t. But you do look ravishing, Pari.”
She pinched the lapel of her raincoat. “What, in this Clouseau outfit?” Collette had told her it was a stupid habit, this self-deprecating clowning around with which Pari tried to mask her nervousness around men she was attracted to. Especially when they complimented her. Not for the first time, and far from the last, she envied Maman her naturally self-assured disposition.
“Next you’ll say I’m living up to my name,” she said.
“Ah, non. Please. Too obvious. There is an art to complimenting a woman, you know.”
“No. But I’m certain you do.”
The waiter brought the pastries and coffee. Pari focused on the waiter’s hands as he arranged the cups and plates on the table, the palms of her own hands blooming with sweat. She had had only four lovers in her lifetime—a modest number, she knew, certainly compared to Maman at her age, even Collette. She was too watchful, too sensible, too compromising and adaptable, on the whole steadier and less exhausting than either Maman or Collette. But these were not qualities that drew men in droves. And she hadn’t loved any of them—though she had lied to one and said she did—but pinned beneath each of them she had thoughts of Julien, of him and his beautiful face, which seemed to come with its own private lighting.
As they ate, he talked about his work. He said he had quit teaching some time ago. He had worked on debt sustainability at the IMF for a few years. The best part of that had been the traveling, he said.
“Jordan, Iraq. Then I took a couple of years to write a book on informal economies.”
“Were you published?”
“That is the rumor.” He smiled. “I work for a private consulting firm now here in Paris.”
“I want to travel too,” Pari said. “Collette keeps saying we should go to Afghanistan.”
“I suspect I know why she would want to go.”
“Well, I’ve been thinking about it. Going back there, I mean. I don’t care about the hashish, but I do want to travel the country, see where I was born. Maybe find the old house where my parents and I lived.”
“I didn’t realize you had this compulsion.”
“I’m curious. I mean, I remember so little.”
“I think one time you said something about a family cook.”
Pari was inwardly flattered that he recalled something she had told him so many years before. He must have thought of her, then, in the intervening time. She must have been on his mind.
“Yes. His name was Nabi. He was the chauffeur too. He drove my father’s car, a big American car, blue with a tan top. I remember it had an eagle’s head on the hood.”
Later, he asked, and she told him, about her studies and her focus on complex variables. He listened in a way that Maman never did—Maman, who seemed bored by the subject and mystified by Pari’s passion for it. Maman couldn’t even feign interest. She made lighthearted jokes that, on the surface, appeared to poke fun at her own ignorance. Oh là là, she would say, grinning, my head! My head! Spinning like a totem! I’ll make you a deal, Pari. I’ll pour us some tea, and you return to the planet, d’accord? She would chuckle, and Pari would humor her, but she sensed an edge to these jokes, an oblique sort of chiding, a suggestion that her knowledge had been judged esoteric and her pursuit of it frivolous. Frivolous. Which was rich, Pari thought, coming from a poet, though she would never say so to her mother.
Julien asked what she saw in mathematics and she said she found it comforting.
“I might have chosen ‘daunting’ as a more fitting adjective,” he said.
“It is that too.”
She said there was comfort to be found in the permanence of mathematical truths, in the lack of arbitrariness and the absence of ambiguity. In knowing that the answers may be elusive, but they could be found. They were there, waiting, chalk scribbles away.
“Nothing like life, in other words,” he said. “There, it’s questions with either no answers or messy ones.”
“Am I that transparent?” She laughed and hid her face with a napkin. “I sound like an idiot.”
“Not at all,” he said. He plucked away the napkin. “Not at all.”
“Like one of your students. I must remind you of your students.”
He asked more questions, through which Pari saw that he had a working knowledge of analytic number theory and was, at least in passing, familiar with Carl Gauss and Bernhard Riemann. They spoke until the sky darkened. They drank coffee, and then beer, which led to wine. And then, when it could not be delayed any longer, Julien leaned in a bit and said in a polite, dutiful tone, “And, tell me, how is Nila?”
Pari puffed her cheeks and let the air out slowly.
Julien nodded knowingly.
“She may lose the bookstore,” Pari said.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Business has been declining for years. She may have to shut it down. She wouldn’t admit to it, but that would be a blow. It would hit her hard.”
“Is she writing?”
“She hasn’t been.”
He soon changed the subject. Pari was relieved. She didn’t want to talk about Maman and her drinking and the struggle to get her to keep taking her pills. Pari remembered all the awkward gazes, all the times when they were alone, she and Julien, Maman getting dressed in the next room, Julien looking at Pari and her trying to think of something to say. Maman must have sensed it. Could it be the reason she had ended it with Julien? If so, Pari had an inkling she’d done so more as a jealous lover than a protective mother.
A few weeks later, Julien asked Pari to move in with him. He lived in a small apartment on the Left Bank in the 7th arrondissement. Pari said yes. Collette’s prickly hostility made for an untenable atmosphere at the apartment now.
Pari remembers her first Sunday with Julien at his place. They were reclined on his couch, pressed against each other. Pari was pleasantly half awake, and Julien was drinking tea, his long legs resting on the coffee table. He was reading an opinion piece on the back page of the newspaper. Jacques Brel played on the turntable. Every now and then, Pari would shift her head on his chest, and Julien would lean down and place a small kiss on her eyelid, or her ear, or her nose.
“We have to tell Maman.”
She could feel him tightening. He folded the paper, removed his reading glasses and put them on the arm of the couch.
“She needs to know.”
“I suppose,” he said.
“No, of course. You’re right. You should call her. But be careful. Don’t ask for permission or blessing, you’ll get neither. Just tell her. And make sure she knows this is not a negotiation.”
“That’s easy for you to say.”
“Well, perhaps. Still, remember that Nila is a vindictive woman. I am sorry to say this, but this is why it ended with us. She is astonishingly vindictive. So I know. It won’t be easy for you.”
Pari sighed and closed her eyes. The thought of it made her stomach clench.
Julien stroked her back with his palm. “Don’t be squeamish.”
Pari called her the next day. Maman already knew.
“Who told you?”
Of course, Pari thought. “I was going to tell you.”
“I know you were. You are. It can’t be hidden, a thing like this.”
“Are you angry?”
“Does it matter?”
Pari was standing by the window. With her finger, she absently traced the blue rim of Julien’s old, battered ashtray. She shut her eyes. “No, Maman. No it doesn’t.”
“Well, I wish I could say that didn’t hurt.”
“I didn’t mean it to.”
“I think that’s highly debatable.”
“Why would I want to hurt you, Maman?”
Maman laughed. A hollow, ugly sound.
“I look at you sometimes and I don’t see me in you. Of course I don’t. I suppose that isn’t unexpected, after all. I don’t know what sort of person you are, Pari. I don’t know who you are, what you’re capable of, in your blood. You’re a stranger to me.”
“I don’t understand what that means,” Pari said.
But her mother had already hung up.
FROM “AFGHAN SONGBIRD,” AN INTERVIEW WITH
NILA WAHDATI BY ÉTIENNE BOUSTOULER,
Parallaxe 84 (Winter 1974), p. 38
EB: Did you learn your French here?
NW: My mother taught me in Kabul when I was little. She spoke only French to me. We had lessons every day. It was very hard on me when she left Kabul.
EB: For France?
NW: Yes. My parents divorced in 1939 when I was ten. I was my father’s only child. Letting me go with her was out of the question. So I stayed, and she left for Paris to live with her sister, Agnes. My father tried to mitigate the loss for me by occupying me with a private tutor and riding lessons and art lessons. But nothing replaces a mother.
EB: What happened to her?
NW: Oh, she died. When the Nazis came to Paris. They didn’t kill her. They killed Agnes. My mother, she died of pneumonia. My father didn’t tell me until the Allies had liberated Paris, but by then I already knew. I just knew.
EB: That must have been difficult.
NW: It was devastating. I loved my mother. I had planned on living with her in France after the war.