In the backseat, the boys humor him and listen for a short while, or at least pretend to. Idris can sense their boredom. Then Zabi, who is eight, asks Nahil to start the movie. Lemar, who is two years older, tries to listen a little longer, but soon Idris hears the drone of a racing car from his Nintendo DS.
“What’s the matter with you boys?” Nahil scolds them. “Your father’s come back from Kabul. Aren’t you curious? Don’t you have questions for him?”
“It’s all right,” Idris says. “Let them.” But he is annoyed with their lack of interest, their blithe ignorance of the arbitrary genetic lottery that has granted them their privileged lives. He feels a sudden rift between himself and his family, even Nahil, most of whose questions about his trip revolve around restaurants and the lack of indoor plumbing. He looks at them accusingly now as the locals must have looked at him when he’d first arrived in Kabul.
“I’m famished,” he says.
“What do you feel like?” Nahil says. “Sushi, Italian? There’s a new deli over by Oakridge.”
“Let’s get Afghan food,” he says.
They go to Abe’s Kabob House over on the east side of San Jose near the old Berryessa Flea Market. The owner, Abdullah, is a gray-haired man in his early sixties, with a handlebar mustache and strong-looking hands. He is one of Idris’s patients, as is his wife. Abdullah waves from behind the register when Idris and his family enter the restaurant. Abe’s Kabob House is a small family business. There are only eight tables—sheathed by often sticky vinyl covers—laminated menus, posters of Afghanistan on the walls, an old soda machine, a “merchandiser,” in the corner. Abdullah greets the guests, runs the register, cleans. His wife, Sultana, is in the back; she is the one responsible for the magic. Idris can see her now in the kitchen, stooped over something, her hair stuffed up under a net cap, her eyes narrowed against the steam. She and Abdullah had married in Pakistan in the late 1970s, they have told Idris, after the communist takeover back home. They were granted asylum in the U.S. in 1982, the year their daughter, Pari, was born.
She is the one taking their orders now. Pari is friendly and courteous, has her mother’s fair skin, and the same shine of emotional sturdiness in her eyes. She also has a strangely disproportionate body, slim and dainty up top but weighed below the waist by wide hips, thick thighs, and big ankles. She is wearing now one of her customary loose skirts.
Idris and Nahil order lamb with brown rice and bolani. The boys settle for chapli kabobs, the closest thing to hamburger meat they can find on the menu. As they wait for their food, Zabi tells Idris that his soccer team has made the finals. He plays right wing. The match is on Sunday. Lemar says he has a guitar recital on Saturday.
“What are you playing?” Idris asks sluggishly, feeling jet lag kicking in.
“ ‘Paint It Black.’ ”
“Not sure you’ve practiced enough,” Nahil says with cautious reprimand.
Lemar drops the paper napkin he has been rolling. “Mom! Really? Do you see what I go through every day? I have so much to do!”
Midway through the meal, Abdullah comes over to them to say hello, wiping his hands on the apron tied around his waist. He asks if they like the food, whether he can get them anything.
Idris tells him that he and Timur have just returned from Kabul.
“What is Timur jan up to?” Abdullah asks.
“To no good as always.”
Abdullah grins. Idris knows how fond he is of Timur.
“And how is the kabob business?”
Abdullah sighs. “Dr. Bashiri, if I ever want to put a curse on someone I say, ‘May God give you a restaurant.’ ”
They share a brief laugh with Abdullah.
Later, as they are leaving the restaurant and climbing into the SUV, Lemar says, “Dad, does he give free food to everyone?”
“Of course not,” Idris says.
“Then why wouldn’t he take your money?”
“Because we’re Afghans, and because I’m his doctor,” Idris says, which is only partially true. The bigger reason, he suspects, is that he is Timur’s cousin, and it was Timur who had years earlier lent Abdullah the money to open the restaurant.
At the house, Idris is surprised at first to find the carpets ripped from the family room and foyer, nails and wooden boards on the stairs exposed. Then he remembers that they were remodeling, replacing carpets with hardwood—wide planks of cherry in a color the flooring contractor had called copper kettle. The cabinet doors in the kitchen have been sanded down, and there is a gaping hole where the old microwave used to sit. Nahil tells him she is working a half day on Monday so she can meet in the morning with the flooring people and Jason.
“Jason?” Then he remembers, Jason Speer, the home-theater guy.
“He’s coming in to take measurements. He’s already got us the subwoofer and the projector at a discount. He’s sending three guys to start work on Wednesday.”
Idris nods. The home theater had been his idea, something he had always wanted. But now it embarrasses him. He feels disconnected from all of it, Jason Speer, the new cabinets and copper-kettle floors, his kids’ $160 high-tops, the chenille bedspreads in his room, the energy with which he and Nahil have pursued these things. The fruits of his ambitions strike him as frivolous now. They remind him only of the brutal disparity between his life and what he’d found in Kabul.
“What’s the matter, honey?”
“Jet lag,” Idris says. “I need a nap.”
On Saturday he makes it through the guitar recital, on Sunday through most of Zabi’s soccer match. During the second half he has to steal away to the parking lot, sleep for a half hour. To his relief, Zabi doesn’t notice. Sunday night, a few of the neighbors come over for dinner. They pass around pictures of Idris’s trip and sit politely through the hour of video of Kabul that, against Idris’s wishes, Nahil insists on playing for them. Over dinner, they ask Idris about his trip, his views on the situation in Afghanistan. He sips his mojito and gives short answers.
“I can’t imagine what it’s like there,” Cynthia says. Cynthia is a Pilates instructor at the gym where Nahil works out.
“Kabul is …” Idris searches for the right words. “A thousand tragedies per square mile.”
“Must have been quite the culture shock, going there.”
“Yes it was.” Idris doesn’t say that the real culture shock has been in coming back.
Eventually, talk turns to a recent rash of mail theft that has hit the neighborhood.
Lying in bed that night, Idris says, “Do you think we have to have all this?”
“ ‘All this’?” Nahil says. He can see her in the mirror, brushing her teeth by the sink.
“All this. This stuff.”
“No we don’t need it, if that’s what you mean,” she says. She spits in the sink, gargles.
“You don’t think it’s too much, all of it?”
“We worked hard, Idris. Remember the MCATs, the LSATs, medical school, law school, the years of residency? No one gave us anything. We have nothing to apologize for.”
“For the price of that home theater we could have built a school in Afghanistan.”
She comes into the bedroom and sits on the bed to remove her contacts. She has the most beautiful profile. He loves the way her forehead hardly dips where her nose begins, her strong cheekbones, her slim neck.
“Then do both,” she says, turning to him, blinking back eyedrops. “I don’t see why you can’t.”
A few years ago, Idris had discovered that Nahil was supporting a Colombian kid named Miguel. She’d said nothing to him about it, and since she was in charge of the mail and their finances Idris had not known about it for years until he’d seen her one day reading a letter from Miguel. The letter had been translated from Spanish by a nun. There was a picture too, of a tall, wiry boy standing outside a straw hut, cradling a soccer ball, nothing behind him but gaunt-looking cows and green hills. Nahil had started supporting Miguel when she was in law school. For eleven years now Nahil’s checks had quietly crossed paths with Miguel’s pictures and his thankful, nun-translated letters.
She takes off her rings. “So what is this? You caught a case of survivor’s guilt over there?”
“I just see things a little differently now.”
“Good. Put that to use, then. But quit the navel-gazing.”
Jet lag robs him of sleep that night. He reads for a while, watches part of a West Wing rerun downstairs, ends up at the computer in the guest bedroom Nahil has turned into an office. He finds an e-mail from Amra. She hopes that his return home was safe and that his family is well. It has been raining “angrily” in Kabul, she writes, and the streets are packed with mud up to the ankles. The rain has caused flooding, and some two hundred families had to be evacuated by helicopter in Shomali, north of Kabul. Security has been tightening because of Kabul’s support of Bush’s war in Iraq and expected reprisals from al-Qaeda. Her last line reads You have talked with your boss yet?
Below Amra’s e-mail is pasted a short paragraph from Roshi, which Amra has transcribed. It reads:
Salaam, Kaka Idris,
Inshallah, you have arrived safely in America. I am sure that your family is very happy to see you. Every day I think about you. Every day I am watching the films you bought for me. I like them all. It makes me sad that you are not here to watch with me. I am feeling good and Amra jan is taking good care of me. Please say Salaam to your family for me. Inshallah, we will see each other soon in California.
With my respects,
He answers Amra, thanks her, writes that he is sorry to hear about the flooding. He hopes the rains will abate. He tells her that he will discuss Roshi with his chief this week. Below that he writes:
Salaam, Roshi jan:
Thank you for your kind message. It made me very happy to hear from you. I too think about you a lot. I have told my family all about you and they are very eager to meet you, especially my sons, Zabi jan and Lemar jan, who ask a lot of questions about you. We all look forward to your arrival. I send you my love,
He logs off and goes to bed.
On Monday, a pile of phone messages greets him when he enters his office. Prescription-refill requests spill from a basket, awaiting his approval. He has over one hundred and sixty e-mails to sift through, and his voice mail is full. He peruses his schedule on the computer and is dismayed to see overbooks—squeezes, as the doctors call them—inserted into his time slots all week. Worse, he will see the dreaded Mrs. Rasmussen that afternoon, a particularly unpleasant, confrontational woman with years of vague symptoms that respond to no treatment. The thought of facing her hostile neediness makes him break into a sweat. And last, one of the voice mails is from his chief, Joan Schaeffer, who tells him that a patient he had diagnosed with pneumonia just before his trip to Kabul turned out to have congestive heart failure instead. The case will be used next week for Peer Review, a monthly video conference watched by all the facilities during which mistakes by physicians, who remain anonymous, are used to illustrate learning points. The anonymity doesn’t go very far, Idris knows. At least half the people in the room will know the culprit.
He feels the onset of a headache.
He falls woefully behind schedule that morning. An asthma patient walks in without an appointment and needs respiratory treatments and close monitoring of his peak flows and oxygen saturation. A middle-aged executive, whom Idris last saw three years before, comes in with an evolving anterior myocardial infarction. Idris cannot start lunch until halfway through the noon hour. In the conference room where the doctors eat, he takes harried bites of a dry turkey sandwich as he tries to catch up with notes. He answers the same questions from his colleagues. Was Kabul safe? What do Afghans there think of the U.S. presence? He gives economical, clipped replies, his mind on Mrs. Rasmussen, on voice mails that need answering, refills he has yet to approve, the three squeezes in his schedule that afternoon, the upcoming Peer Review, the contractors sawing and drilling and banging nails back at the house. Talking about Afghanistan—and he is astonished at how quickly and imperceptibly this has happened—suddenly feels like discussing a recently watched, emotionally drenching film whose effects are beginning to wane.