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Chapter 13

When we arrived at the Taheris?home the next evening--for lafz, the ceremony of "giving word?-I had to park the Ford across the street. Their driveway was already jammed with cars. I wore a navy blue suit I had bought the previous day, after I had brought Baba Home from _khastegari_. I checked my tie in the rearview mirror.

"You look khoshteep,?Baba said. Handsome.

"Thank you, Baba. Are you all right? Do you feel up to this??

"Up to this? It's the happiest day of my life, Amir,?he said, smiling tiredly.


I COULD HEAR CHATTER from the other side of the door, laughter, and Afghan music playing softly--it sounded like a classical ghazal by Ustad Sarahang. I rang the bell. A face peeked through the curtains of the foyer window and disappeared. "They're here!?I heard a woman's voice say. The chatter stopped. Someone turned off the music.

Khanum Taheri opened the door. "_Salaam alaykum_,?she said, beaming. She'd permed her hair, I saw, and wore an elegant, ankle-length black dress. When I stepped into the foyer, her eyes moistened. "You're barely in the house and I'm crying already, Amir jan,?she said. I planted a kiss on her hand, just as Baba had instructed me to do the night before.

She led us through a brightly lit hallway to the living room. On the wood-paneled walls, I saw pictures of the people who would become my new family: A young bouffant-haired Khanum Taheri and the general--Niagara Falls in the background; Khanum Taheri in a seamless dress, the general in a narrow-lapelled jacket and thin tie, his hair full and black; Soraya, about to board a wooden roller coaster, waving and smiling, the sun glinting off the silver wires in her teeth. A photo of the general, dashing in full military outfit, shaking hands with King Hussein of Jordan. A portrait of Zahir Shah.

The living room was packed with about two dozen guests seated on chairs placed along the walls. When Baba entered, everybody stood up. We went around the room, Baba leading slowly, me behind him, shaking hands and greeting the guests. The general--still in his gray suit--and Baba embraced, gently tapping each other on the back. They said their Salaams in respectful hushed tones.

The general held me at arm's length and smiled knowingly, as if saying, "Now, this is the right way--the Afghan way--to do it, _bachem_.?We kissed three times on the cheek.

We sat in the crowded room, Baba and I next to each other, across from the general and his wife. Baba's breathing had grown a little ragged, and he kept wiping sweat off his forehead and scalp with his handkerchief. He saw me looking at him and managed a strained grin. I'm all right,?he mouthed.

In keeping with tradition, Soraya was not present.

A few moments of small talk and idle chatter followed until the general cleared his throat. The room became quiet and everyone looked down at their hands in respect. The general nodded toward Baba.

Baba cleared his own throat. When he began, he couldn't speak in complete sentences without stopping to breathe. "General Sahib, Khanum Jamila jan... it's with great humility that my son and I... have come to your Home today. You are... honorable people... from distinguished and reputable families and... proud lineage. I come with nothing but the utmost ihtiram... and the highest regards for you, your family names, and the memory... of your ancestors.?He stopped. Caught his breath. Wiped his brow. "Amirjan is my only son... my only child, and he has been a good son to me. I hope he proves... worthy of your kindness. I ask that you honor Amir jan and me... and accept my son into your family.?

The general nodded politely.

"We are honored to welcome the son of a man such as yourself into our family,?he said. "Your reputation precedes you. I was your humble admirer in Kabul and remain so today. We are honored that your family and ours will be joined.

"Amirjan, as for you, I welcome you to my Home as a son, as the husband of my daughter who is the noor of my eye. Your pain will be our pain, your joy our joy. I hope that you will come to see your Khala Jamila and me as a second set of parents, and I pray for your and our lovely Soraya jan's Happiness. You both have our blessings.?

Everyone applauded, and with that signal, heads turned toward the hallway. The moment I'd waited for.

Soraya appeared at the end. Dressed in a stunning winecolored traditional Afghan dress with long sleeves and gold trimmings. Baba's hand took mine and tightened. Khanum Taheri burst into fresh tears. Slowly, Soraya caine to us, tailed by a procession of young female relatives.

She kissed my father's hands. Sat beside me at last, her eyes downcast.

The applause swelled.


ACCORDING TO TRADITION, Soraya's family would have thrown the engagement party the Shirini-khori---or "Eating of the Sweets?ceremony. Then an engagement period would have followed which would have lasted a few months. Then the wedding, which would be paid for by Baba.

We all agreed that Soraya and I would forgo the Shirini-khori. Everyone knew the reason, so no one had to actually say it: that Baba didn't have months to live.

Soraya and I never went out alone together while preparations for the wedding proceeded--since we weren't married yet, hadn't even had a Shirini-khori, it was considered improper. So I had to make do with going over to the Taheris with Baba for dinner. Sit across from Soraya at the dinner table. Imagine what it would be like to feel her head on my chest, smell her hair. Kiss her. Make love to her.

Baba spent $35,000, nearly the balance of his life savings, on the awroussi, the wedding ceremony. He rented a large Afghan banquet hail in Fremont--the man who owned it knew him from Kabul and gave him a substantial discount. Baba paid for the ??chi las, our matching wedding bands, and for the diamond ring I picked out. He bought my tuxedo, and my traditional green suit for the nika--the swearing ceremony. For all the frenzied preparations that went into the wedding night--most of it, blessedly, by Khanum Taheri and her friends-- I remember only a handful of moments from it.

I remember our nika. We were seated around a table, Soraya and I dressed in green--the color of Islam, but also the color of spring and new beginnings. I wore a suit, Soraya (the only woman at the table) a veiled long-sleeved dress. Baba, General Taheri (in a tuxedo this time), and several of Soraya's uncles were also present at the table. Soraya and I looked down, solemnly respectful, casting only sideway glances at each other. The mullah questioned the witnesses and read from the Koran. We said our oaths. Signed the certificates. One of Soraya's uncles from Virginia, Sharif jan, Khanum Taheri's brother, stood up and cleared his throat. Soraya had told me that he had lived in the U.S. for more than twenty years. He worked for the INS and had an American wife. He was also a poet. A small man with a birdlike face and fluffy hair, he read a lengthy poem dedicated to Soraya, jotted down on hotel stationery paper. "Wah wah, Sharifjan!?everyone exclaimed when he finished.

I remember walking toward the stage, now in my tuxedo, Soraya a veiled pan in white, our hands locked. Baba hobbled next to me, the general and his wife beside their daughter. A procession of uncles, aunts, and cousins followed as we made our way through the hail, parting a sea of applauding guests, blinking at flashing cameras. One of Soraya's cousins, Sharif jan's son, held a Koran over our heads as we inched along. The wedding song, ahesta boro, blared from the speakers, the same song the Russian soldier at the Mahipar checkpoint had sung the night Baba and I left Kabul:

Make morning into a key and throw it into the well,

Go slowly, my lovely moon, go slowly. Let the morning sun forget to rise in the east, Go slowly, my lovely moon, go slowly.

I remember sitting on the sofa, set on the stage like a throne, Soraya's hand in mine, as three hundred or so faces looked on. We did Ayena Masshaf, where they gave us a mirror and threw a veil over our heads, so we'd be alone to gaze at each other's reflection. Looking at Soraya's smiling face in that mirror, in the momentary privacy of the veil, I whispered to her for the first time that I loved her. A blush, red like henna, bloomed on her cheeks.

I picture colorful platters of chopan kabob, sholeh-goshti, and wild-orange rice. I see Baba between us on the sofa, smiling. I remember sweat-drenched men dancing the traditional attan in a circle, bouncing, spinning faster and faster with the feverish tempo of the tabla, until all but a few dropped out of the ring with exhaustion. I remember wishing Rahim Khan were there.

And I remember wondering if Hassan too had married. And if so, whose face he had seen in the mirror under the veil? Whose henna-painted hands had he held?


AROUND 2 A.M., the party moved from the banquet hall to Baba's apartment. Tea flowed once more and music played until the neighbors called the cops. Later that night, the sun less than an hour from rising and the guests finally gone, Soraya and I lay together for the first time. All my life, I'd been around men. That night, I discovered the tenderness of a woman.


IT WAS SORAYA who suggested that she move in with Baba and me.

"I thought you might want us to have our own place,?I said.

"With Kaka jan as sick as he is??she replied. Her eyes told me that was no way to start a marriage. I kissed her. "Thank you.?

Soraya dedicated herself to taking care of my father. She made his toast and tea in the morning, and helped him in and out of bed. She gave him his pain pills, washed his clothes, read him the international section of the newspaper every afternoon, She cooked his favorite dish, potato shorwa, though he could scarcely eat more than a few spoonfuls, and took him out every day for a brief walk around the block. And when he became bedridden, she turned him on his side every hour so he wouldn't get a bedsore.

One day, I came Home from the pharmacy with Baba's morphine pills. Just as I shut the door, I caught a glimpse of Soraya quickly sliding something under Baba's blanket. "Hey, I saw that! What were you two doing??I said.

"Nothing,?Soraya said, smiling.

"Liar.?I lifted Baba's blanket. "What's this??I said, though as soon as I picked up the leather-bound book, I knew. I traced my fingers along the gold-stitched borders. I remembered the fire works the night Rahim Khan had given it to me, the night of my thirteenth birthday, flares sizzling and exploding into bouquets of red, green, and yellow.

"I can't believe you can write like this,?Soraya said.

Baba dragged his head off the pillow. "I put her up to it. I hope you don't mind.?

I gave the notebook back to Soraya and left the room. Baba hated it when I cried.

A MONTH AFTER THE wedding, the Taheris, Sharif, his wife Suzy, and several of Soraya's aunts came over to our apartment for dinner. Soraya made sabzi challow--white rice with spinach and lamb. After dinner, we all had green tea and played cards in groups of four. Soraya and I played with Sharif and Suzy on the Coffee table, next to the couch where Baba lay under a wool blanket. He watched me joking with Sharif, watched Soraya and me lacing our fingers together, watched me push back a loose curl of her hair. I could see his internal smile, as wide as the skies of Kabul on nights when the poplars shivered and the sound of crickets swelled in the gardens.

Just before midnight, Baba asked us to help him into bed. Soraya and I placed his arms on our shoulders and wrapped ours around his back. When we lowered him, he had Soraya turn off the bedside lamp. He asked us to lean in, gave us each a kiss.

"I'll come back with your morphine and a glass of water, Kaka jan,?Soraya said.

"Not tonight,?he said. "There is no pain tonight.?

"Okay,?she said. She pulled up his blanket. We closed the door. Baba never woke up.


THEY FILLED THE PARKING SPOTS at the mosque in Hayward. On the balding grass field behind the building, cars and SUVs parked in crowded makeshift rows. People had to drive three or four blocks north of the mosque to find a spot.

The men's section of the mosque was a large square room, covered with Afghan rugs and thin mattresses placed in parallel lines. Men filed into the room, leaving their shoes at the entrance, and sat cross-legged on the mattresses. A mullah chanted surrahs from the Koran into a microphone. I sat by the door, the customary position for the family of the deceased. General Taheri was seated next to me.

Through the open door, I could see lines of cars pulling in, sunlight winking in their windshields. They dropped off passengers, men dressed in dark suits, women clad in black dresses, their heads covered with traditional white hijabs.

As words from the Koran reverberated through the room, I thought of the old story of Baba wrestling a black bear in Baluchistan. Baba had wrestled bears his whole life. Losing his young wife. Raising a son by himself. Leaving his beloved Homeland, his watan. Poverty. Indignity. In the end, a bear had come that he couldn't best. But even then, he had lost on his own terms.

After each round of prayers, groups of mourners lined up and greeted me on their way out. Dutifully, I shook their hands. Many of them I barely knew I smiled politely, thanked them for their wishes, listened to whatever they had to say about Baba.

??helped me build the house in Taimani...?bless him...

??no one else to turn to and he lent me...?

?..found me a job... barely knew me...?

?..like a brother to me...?

Listening to them, I realized how much of who I was, what I was, had been defined by Baba and the marks he had left on people's lives. My whole life, I had been "Baba's son.?Now he was gone. Baba couldn't show me the way anymore; I'd have to find it on my own.

The thought of it terrified me.

Earlier, at the gravesite in the small Muslim section of the cemetery, I had watched them lower Baba into the hole. The ??mul Iah and another man got into an argument over which was the correct ayat of the Koran to recite at the gravesite. It might have turned ugly had General Taheri not intervened. The mullah chose an ayat and recited it, casting the other fellow nasty glances. I watched them toss the first shovelful of dirt into the grave. Then I left. Walked to the other side of the cemetery. Sat in the shade of a red maple.

Now the last of the mourners had paid their respects and the mosque was empty, save for the mullah unplugging the microphone and wrapping his Koran in green cloth. The general and I stepped out into a late-afternoon sun. We walked down the steps, past men smoking in clusters. I heard snippets of their conversations, a soccer game in Union City next weekend, a new Afghan restaurant in Santa Clara. life moving on already, leaving Baba behind.

"How are you, bachem??General Taheri said.

I gritted my teeth. Bit back the tears that had threatened all day. "I'm going to find Soraya,?I said.

"Okay.?

I walked to the women's side of the mosque. Soraya was standing on the steps with her mother and a couple of ladies I recognized vaguely from the wedding. I motioned to Soraya. She said something to her mother and came to me.

"Can we walk??I said.

"Sure.?She took my hand.

We walked in silence down a winding gravel path lined by a row of low hedges. We sat on a bench and watched an elderly couple kneeling beside a grave a few rows away and placing a bouquet of daisies by the headstone. "Soraya??

"Yes??

"I'm going to miss him.?

She put her hand on my lap. Baba's chila glinted on her ring finger. Behind her, I could see Baba's mourners driving away on Mission Boulevard. Soon we'd leave too, and for the first time ever, Baba would be all alone.

Soraya pulled me to her and the tears finally came.


BECAUSE SORAYA AND I never had an engagement period, much of what I learned about the Taheris I learned after I married into their family. For example, I learned that, once a month, the general suffered from blinding migraines that lasted almost a week. When the headaches struck, the general went to his room, undressed, turned off the light, locked the door, and didn't come out until the pain subsided. No one was allowed to go in, no one was allowed to knock. Eventually, he would emerge, dressed in his gray suit once more, smelling of sleep and bedsheets, his eyes puffy and bloodshot. I learned from Soraya that he and Khanum Taheri had slept in separate rooms for as long as she could remember. I learned that he could be petty, such as when he'd take a bite of the _qurma_ his wife placed before him, sigh, and push it away. "I'll make you something else,?Khanum Taheri would say, but he'd ignore her, sulk, and eat bread and onion. This made Soraya angry and her mother cry. Soraya told me he took antide pressants. I learned that he had kept his family on welfare and had never held a job in the U.S., preferring to cash government-issued checks than degrading himself with work unsuitable for a man of his stature--he saw the flea market only as a hobby, a way to socialize with his fellow Afghans. The general believed that, sooner or later, Afghanistan would be freed, the monarchy restored, and his services would once again be called upon. So every day, he donned his gray suit, wound his pocket watch, and waited.

I learned that Khanum Taheri--whom I called Khala Jamila now--had once been famous in Kabul for her enchanting singing voice. Though she had never sung professionally, she had had the talent to--I learned she could sing folk songs, ghazals, even raga, which was usually a man's domain. But as much as the general appreciated listening to music--he owned, in fact, a considerable collection of classical ghazal tapes by Afghan and Hindi singers--he believed the performing of it best left to those with lesser reputations. That she never sing in public had been one of the general's conditions when they had married. Soraya told me that her mother had wanted to sing at our wedding, only one song, but the general gave her one of his looks and the matter was buried. Khala Jamila played the lotto once a week and watched Johnny Carson every night. She spent her days in the garden, tending to her roses, geraniums, potato vines, and orchids.

When I married Soraya, the flowers and Johnny Carson took a backseat. I was the new delight in Khala Jamila's life. Unlike the general's guarded and diplomatic manners--he didn't correct me when I continued to call him "General Sahib?-Khala Jamila made no secret of how much she adored me. For one thing, I listened to her impressive list of maladies, something the general had long turned a deaf ear to. Soraya told me that, ever since her mother's stroke, every flutter in her chest was a heart attack, every aching joint the onset of rheumatoid arthritis, and every twitch of the eye another stroke. I remember the first time Khala Jamila mentioned a lump in her neck to me. "I'll skip school tomorrow and take you to the doctor,?I said, to which the general smiled and said, "Then you might as well turn in your books for good, bachem. Your khala's medical charts are like the works of Rumi: They come in volumes.?

But it wasn't just that she'd found an audience for her monologues of illness. I firmly believed that if I had picked up a rifle and gone on a murdering rampage, I would have still had the benefit of her unblinking love. Because I had rid her heart of its gravest malady. I had relieved her of the greatest fear of every Afghan mother: that no honorable khastegar would ask for her daughter's hand. That her daughter would age alone, husbandless, childless. Every woman needed a husband. Even if he did silence the song in her.

And, from Soraya, I learned the details of what had happened in Virginia.

We were at a wedding. Soraya's uncle, Sharif, the one who worked for the INS, was marrying his son to an Afghan girl from Newark. The wedding was at the same hall where, six months prior, Soraya and I had had our awroussi. We were standing in a crowd of guests, watching the bride accept rings from the groom's family, when we overheard two middle-aged women talking, their backs to us.

"What a lovely bride,?one of them said, "Just look at her. So maghbool, like the moon.?

"Yes,?the other said. "And pure too. Virtuous. No boyfriends.?

"I know. I tell you that boy did well not to marry his cousin.?

Soraya broke down on the way Home. I pulled the Ford off to the curb, parked under a streetlight on Fremont Boulevard.

"It's all right,?I said, pushing back her hair. "Who cares??

"It's so fucking unfair,?she barked.

"Just forget it.?

"Their sons go out to nightclubs looking for meat and get their girlfriends pregnant, they have kids out of wedlock and no one says a goddamn thing. Oh, they're just men having fun! I make one mistake and suddenly everyone is talking nang and namoos, and I have to have my face rubbed in it for the rest of my life.?

I wiped a tear from her jawline, just above her birthmark, with the pad of my thumb.

"I didn't tell you,?Soraya said, dabbing at her eyes, "but my father showed up with a gun that night. He told... him... that he had two bullets in the chamber, one for him and one for himself if I didn't come Home. I was screaming, calling my father all kinds of names, saying he couldn't keep me locked up forever, that I wished he were dead.?Fresh tears squeezed out between her lids. "I actually said that to him, that I wished he were dead.

"When he brought me Home, my mother threw her arms around me and she was crying too. She was saying things but I couldn't understand any of it because she was slurring her words so badly. So my father took me up to my bedroom and sat me in front of the dresser mirror. He handed me a pair of scissors and calmly told me to cut off all my hair. He watched while I did it.

"I didn't step out of the house for weeks. And when I did, I heard whispers or imagined them everywhere I went. That was four years ago and three thousand miles away and I'm still hearing them.?

"Fuck ‘em,?I said.

She made a sound that was half sob, half laugh. "When I told you about this on the phone the night of khastegari, I was sure you'd change your mind.?

"No chance of that, Soraya.?

She smiled and took my hand. "I'm so lucky to have found you. You're so different from every Afghan guy I've met.?

"Let's never talk about this again, okay??

"Okay.?

I kissed her cheek and pulled away from the curb. As I drove, I wondered why I was different. Maybe it was because I had been raised by men; I hadn't grown up around women and had never been exposed firsthand to the double standard with which Afghan society sometimes treated them. Maybe it was because Baba had been such an unusual Afghan father, a liberal who had lived by his own rules, a maverick who had disregarded or embraced societal customs as he had seen fit.

But I think a big part of the reason I didn't care about Soraya's past was that I had one of my own. I knew all about regret.


SHORTLY AFTER BABA'S DEATH, Soraya and I moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Fremont, just a few blocks away from the general and Khala Jamila's house. Soraya's parents bought us a brown leather couch and a set of Mikasa dishes as housewarming presents. The general gave me an additional present, a brand new IBM typewriter. In the box, he had slipped a note written in Farsi:


Amir jan,

I hope you discover many tales on these keys.

General Iqbal Taheri


I sold Baba's VW bus and, to this day, I have not gone back to the flea market. I would drive to his gravesite every Friday, and, sometimes, I'd find a fresh bouquet of freesias by the headstone and know Soraya had been there too.

Soraya and I settled into the routines--and minor wonders-- of married life. We shared toothbrushes and socks, passed each other the morning paper. She slept on the right side of the bed, I preferred the left. She liked fluffy pillows, I liked the hard ones. She ate her cereal dry, like a snack, and chased it with milk.

I got my acceptance at San Jose State that summer and declared an English major. I took on a security job, swing shift at a furniture warehouse in Sunnyvale. The job was dreadfully boring, but its saving grace was a considerable one: When everyone left at 6 P.M. and shadows began to crawl between aisles of plastic-covered sofas piled to the ceiling, I took out my books and studied. It was in the Pine-Sol-scented office of that furniture warehouse that I began my first novel.

Soraya joined me at San Jose State the following year and enrolled, to her father's chagrin, in the teaching track.

"I don't know why you're wasting your talents like this,?the general said one night over dinner. "Did you know, Amir jan, that she earned nothing but A's in high school??He turned to her. "An intelligent girl like you could become a lawyer, a political scientist. And, _Inshallah_, when Afghanistan is free, you could help write the new constitution. There would be a need for young talented Afghans like you. They might even offer you a ministry position, given your family name.?

I could see Soraya holding back, her face tightening. "I'm not a girl, Padar. I'm a married woman. Besides, they'd need teachers too.?

"Anyone can teach.?

"Is there any more rice, Madar??Soraya said.

After the general excused himself to meet some friends in Hayward, Khala Jamila tried to console Soraya. "He means well,?she said. "He just wants you to be successful.?

"So he can boast about his attorney daughter to his friends. Another medal for the general,?Soraya said.

"Such nonsense you speak!?

"Successful,?Soraya hissed. "At least I'm not like him, sitting around while other people fight the Shorawi, waiting for when the dust settles so he can move in and reclaim his posh little government position. Teaching may not pay much, but it's what I want to do! It's what I love, and it's a whole lot better than collecting welfare, by the way.?

Khala Jamila bit her tongue. "If he ever hears you saying that, he will never speak to you again.?

"Don't worry,?Soraya snapped, tossing her napkin on the plate. "I won't bruise his precious ego.?


IN THE SUMMER of 1988, about six months before the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, I finished my first novel, a father-son story set in Kabul, written mostly with the typewriter the general had given me. I sent query letters to a dozen agencies and was stunned one August day when I opened our mailbox and found a request from a New York agency for the completed manuscript. I mailed it the next day. Soraya kissed the carefully wrapped manuscript and Khala Jamila insisted we pass it under the Koran. She told me that she was going to do nazr for me, a vow to have a sheep slaughtered and the meat given to the poor if my book was accepted.

"Please, no nazn, Khala jan,?I said, kissing her face. "Just do _zakat_, give the money to someone in need, okay? No sheep killing.?

Six weeks later, a man named Martin Greenwalt called from New York and offered to represent me. I only told Soraya about it. "But just because I have an agent doesn't mean I'll get published. If Martin sells the novel, then we'll celebrate.?

A month later, Martin called and informed me I was going to be a published novelist. When I told Soraya, she screamed.

We had a celebration dinner with Soraya's parents that night. Khala Jamila made kofta--meatballs and white rice--and white ferni. The general, a sheen of moisture in his eyes, said that he was proud of me. After General Taheri and his wife left, Soraya and I celebrated with an expensive bottle of Merlot I had bought on the way Home--the general did not approve of women drinking alcohol, and Soraya didn't drink in his presence.

"I am so proud of you,?she said, raising her glass to mine. "Kaka would have been proud too.?

"I know,?I said, thinking of Baba, wishing he could have seen me.

Later that night, after Soraya fell asleep--wine always made her sleepy--I stood on the balcony and breathed in the cool summer air. I thought of Rahim Khan and the little note of support he had written me after he'd read my first story. And I thought of Hassan. Some day, _Inshallah_, you will be a great writer, he had said once, and people all over the world will read your stories. There was so much goodness in my life. So much Happiness. I wondered whether I deserved any of it.

The novel was released in the summer of that following year, 1989, and the publisher sent me on a five-city book tour. I became a minor celebrity in the Afghan community. That was the year that the Shorawi completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan. It should have been a time of glory for Afghans. Instead, the war raged on, this time between Afghans, the Mujahedin, against the Soviet puppet government of Najibullah, and Afghan refugees kept flocking to Pakistan. That was the year that the cold war ended, the year the Berlin Wall came down. It was the year of Tiananmen Square. In the midst of it all, Afghanistan was forgotten. And General Taheri, whose hopes had stirred awake after the Soviets pulled out, went back to winding his pocket watch.

That was also the year that Soraya and I began trying to have a child.


THE IDEA OF FATHERHOOD unleashed a swirl of emotions in me. I found it frightening, invigorating, daunting, and exhilarating all at the same time. What sort of father would I make, I wondered. I wanted to be just like Baba and I wanted to be nothing like him.

But a year passed and nothing happened. With each cycle of blood, Soraya grew more frustrated, more impatient, more irritable. By then, Khala Jamila's initially subtle hints had become overt, as in "Kho dega!?So! "When am I going to sing alahoo for my little nawasa??The general, ever the Pashtun, never made any queries--doing so meant alluding to a sexual act between his daughter and a man, even if the man in question had been married to her for over four years. But his eyes perked up when Khala Jamila teased us about a baby.

"Sometimes, it takes a while,?I told Soraya one night.

"A year isn't a while, Amir!?she said, in a terse voice so unlike her. "Something's wrong, I know it.?

"Then let's see a doctor.?

DR. ROSEN, a round-bellied man with a plump face and small, even teeth, spoke with a faint Eastern European accent, some thing remotely Slavic. He had a passion for trains--his office was littered with books about the history of railroads, model locomotives, paintings of trains trundling on tracks through green hills and over bridges. A sign above his desk read, life IS A TRAIN. GET ON BOARD.

He laid out the plan for us. I'd get checked first. "Men are easy,?he said, fingers tapping on his mahogany desk. "A man's plumbing is like his mind: simple, very few surprises. You ladies, on the other hand... well, God put a lot of thought into making you.?I wondered if he fed that bit about the plumbing to all of his couples.

"Lucky us,?Soraya said.

Dr. Rosen laughed. It fell a few notches short of genuine. He gave me a lab slip and a plastic jar, handed Soraya a request for some routine blood tests. We shook hands. "Welcome aboard,?he said, as he showed us out.


I PASSED WITH FLYING COLORS.

The next few months were a blur of tests on Soraya: Basal body temperatures, blood tests for every conceivable hormone, urine tests, something called a "Cervical Mucus Test,?ultrasounds, more blood tests, and more urine tests. Soraya underwent a procedure called a hysteroscopy--Dr. Rosen inserted a telescope into Soraya's uterus and took a look around. He found nothing. "The plumbing's clear,?he announced, snapping off his latex gloves. I wished he'd stop calling it that--we weren't bathrooms. When the tests were over, he explained that he couldn't explain why we couldn't have kids. And, apparently, that wasn't so unusual. It was called "Unexplained Infertility.?

Then came the treatment phase. We tried a drug called Clomiphene, and hMG, a series of shots which Soraya gave to herself. When these failed, Dr. Rosen advised in vitro fertilization. We received a polite letter from our HMO, wishing us the best of luck, regretting they couldn't cover the cost.

We used the advance I had received for my novel to pay for it. IVF proved lengthy, meticulous, frustrating, and ultimately unsuccessful. After months of sitting in waiting rooms reading magazines like Good Housekeeping and Reader's Digest, after endless paper gowns and cold, sterile exam rooms lit by fluorescent lights, the repeated humiliation of discussing every detail of our sex life with a total stranger, the injections and probes and specimen collections, we went back to Dr. Rosen and his trains.

He sat across from us, tapped his desk with his fingers, and used the word "adoption?for the first time. Soraya cried all the way Home.

Soraya broke the news to her parents the weekend after our last visit with Dr. Rosen. We were sitting on picnic chairs in the Taheris?backyard, grilling trout and sipping yogurt dogh. It was an early evening in March 1991. Khala Jamila had watered the roses and her new honeysuckles, and their fragrance mixed with the smell of cooking fish. Twice already, she had reached across her chair to caress Soraya's hair and say, "God knows best, bachem. Maybe it wasn't meant to be.?

Soraya kept looking down at her hands. She was tired, I knew, tired of it all. "The doctor said we could adopt,?she murmured.

General Taheri's head snapped up at this. He closed the barbecue lid. "He did??

"He said it was an option,?Soraya said.

We'd talked at Home about adoption. Soraya was ambivalent at best. "I know it's silly and maybe vain,?she said to me on the way to her parents?house, "but I can't help it. I've always dreamed that I'd hold it in my arms and know my blood had fed it for nine months, that I'd look in its eyes one day and be startled to see you or me, that the baby would grow up and have your smile or mine. Without that... Is that wrong??

"No,?I had said.

"Am I being selfish??

"No, Soraya.?

"Because if you really want to do it...?

"No,?I said. "If we're going to do it, we shouldn't have any doubts at all about it, and we should both be in agreement. It wouldn't be fair to the baby otherwise.?

She rested her head on the window and said nothing else the rest of the way.

Now the general sat beside her. "Bachem, this adoption... thing, I'm not so sure it's for us Afghans.?Soraya looked at me tiredly and sighed.

"For one thing, they grow up and want to know who their natural parents are,?he said. "Nor can you blame them. Sometimes, they leave the Home in which you labored for years to provide for them so they can find the people who gave them life. Blood is a powerful thing, bachem, never forget that.?

"I don't want to talk about this anymore,?Soraya said.

"I'll say one more thing,?he said. I could tell he was getting revved up; we were about to get one of the general's little speeches. "Take Amir jan, here. We all knew his father, I know who his grandfather was in Kabul and his great-grandfather before him, I could sit here and trace generations of his ancestors for you if you asked. That's why when his father--God give him peace--came khastegari, I didn't hesitate. And believe me, his father wouldn't have agreed to ask for your hand if he didn't know whose descendant you were. Blood is a powerful thing, bachem, and when you adopt, you don't know whose blood you're bringing into your house.

"Now, if you were American, it wouldn't matter. People here marry for love, family name and ancestry never even come into the equation. They adopt that way too, as long as the baby is healthy, everyone is happy. But we are Afghans, bachem.?

"Is the fish almost ready??Soraya said. General Taheri's eyes lingered on her. He patted her knee. "Just be happy you have your health and a good husband.?

"What do you think, Amir jan??Khala Jamila said.

I put my glass on the ledge, where a row of her potted geraniums were dripping water. "I think I agree with General Sahib.?

Reassured, the general nodded and went back to the grill.

We all had our reasons for not adopting. Soraya had hers, the general his, and I had this: that perhaps something, someone, somewhere, had decided to deny me fatherhood for the things I had done. Maybe this was my punishment, and perhaps justly so. It wasn't meant to be, Khala Jamila had said. Or, maybe, it was meant not to be.


A FEW MONTHS LATER, we used the advance for my second novel and placed a down payment on a pretty, two-bedroom Victorian house in San Francisco's Bernal Heights. It had a peaked roof, hardwood floors, and a tiny backyard which ended in a sun deck and a fire pit. The general helped me refinish the deck and paint the walls. Khala Jamila bemoaned us moving almost an hour away, especially since she thought Soraya needed all the love and support she could get--oblivious to the fact that her well-intended but overbearing sympathy was precisely what was driving Soraya to move.


SOMETIMES, SORAYA SLEEPING NEXT TO ME, I lay in bed and listened to the screen door swinging open and shut with the breeze, to the crickets chirping in the yard. And I could almost feel the emptiness in Soraya's womb, like it was a living, breathing thing. It had seeped into our marriage, that emptiness, into our laughs, and our lovemaking. And late at night, in the darkness of our room, I'd feel it rising from Soraya and settling between us. Sleeping between us. Like a newborn child.



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