They have postponed going to Afghanistan. The truth is, Pari no longer feels the piercing urge to search for answers and roots. Because of Eric and his steadying, comforting companionship. And because of Isabelle, who has solidified the ground beneath Pari’s feet—pocked as it still may be with gaps and blind spots, all the unanswered questions, all the things Maman would not relinquish. They are still there. Pari just doesn’t hunger for the answers like she used to.
And the old feeling she has always had—that there is an absence in her life of something or someone vital—has dulled. It still comes now and then, sometimes with power that catches her unawares, but less frequently than it used to. Pari has never been this content, has never felt this happily moored.
In 1981, when Isabelle is three, Pari, a few months pregnant with Alain, has to go to Munich for a conference. She will present a paper she has coauthored on the use of modular forms outside of number theory, specifically in topology and theoretical physics. The presentation is received well, and afterward Pari and a few other academics go out to a noisy bar for beer and pretzels and Weisswurst. She returns to the hotel room before midnight and goes to bed without changing or washing her face. The phone wakes her at 2:30 A.M. Eric, calling from Paris.
“It’s Isabelle,” he says. She has a fever. Her gums have suddenly swollen and turned red. They bleed profusely at the lightest touch. “I can hardly see her teeth. Pari. I don’t know what to do. I read somewhere that it could be …”
She wants him to stop. She wants to tell him to shut up, that she cannot bear to hear it, but she’s too late. She hears the words childhood leukemia, or maybe he says lymphoma, and what’s the difference anyway? Pari sits on the edge of the bed, sits there like a stone, head throbbing, skin drenched with sweat. She is furious with Eric for planting a thing as horrible as this in her mind in the middle of the night when she’s seven hundred kilometers away and helpless. She is furious with herself for her own stupidity. Opening herself up like this, voluntarily, to a lifetime of worry and anguish. It was madness. Sheer lunacy. A spectacularly foolish and baseless faith, against enormous odds, that a world you do not control will not take from you the one thing you cannot bear to lose. Faith that the world will not destroy you. I don’t have the heart for this. She actually says this under her breath. I don’t have the heart for this. At that moment, she cannot think of a more reckless, irrational thing than choosing to become a parent.
And part of her—God help me, she thinks, God forgive me for it—part of her is furious with Isabelle for doing this to her, for making her suffer like this.
“Eric. Eric! Ecoute moi. I’m going to call you back. I need to hang up now.”
She empties her purse on the bed, finds the small maroon notebook where she keeps phone numbers. She places a call to Lyon. Collette lives in Lyon now with her husband, Didier, where she has started a small travel agency. Didier is studying to be a doctor. It’s Didier who answers the phone.
“You do know I’m studying psychiatry, Pari, don’t you?” he says.
“I know. I know. I just thought …”
He asks some questions. Has Isabelle had any weight loss? Night sweats, unusual bruises, fatigue, chronic fevers?
In the end, he says Eric should take her to a doctor in the morning. But, if he recalls correctly from his general training back in medical school, it sounds to him like acute gingivostomatitis.
Pari clutches the receiver so hard, her wrist aches. “Please,” she says patiently, “Didier.”
“Ah, sorry. What I mean is, it sounds like the first manifestation of a cold sore.”
“A cold sore.”
Then he adds the happiest words Pari has ever heard in her life. “I think she’s going to be fine.”
Pari has met Didier only twice, once before and once after his wedding to Collette. But at that instant, she loves him truly. She tells him so, weeping into the phone. She tells him she loves him—several times—and he laughs and wishes her a good night. Pari calls Eric, who will take Isabelle in the morning to see Dr. Perrin. Afterward, her ears ringing, Pari lies in bed, looking at the streetlight streaming in through the dull-green wooden shutters. She thinks of the time she had to be hospitalized with pneumonia, when she was eight, Maman refusing to go home, insisting on sleeping in the chair next to her bed, and she feels a new, unexpected, belated kinship with her mother. She has missed her many times over the last few years. At her wedding, of course. At Isabelle’s birth. And at myriad random moments. But never more so than on this terrible and wondrous night in this hotel room in Munich.
Back in Paris the next day, she tells Eric they shouldn’t have any more children after Alain is born. It only raises the odds of heartbreak.
In 1985, when Isabelle is seven, Alain four, and little Thierry two, Pari accepts an offer to teach at a prominent university in Paris. She becomes subject, for a time, to the expected academic jostling and pettiness—not surprising, given that, at thirty-six, she is the youngest professor in the department and one of only two women. She weathers it in a way that she imagines Maman never could or would have. She does not flatter or butter up. She refrains from locking horns or filing complaints. She will always have her skeptics. But by the time the Berlin Wall comes down, so have the walls in her academic life, and she has slowly won over most of her colleagues with her sensible demeanor and disarming sociability. She makes friends in her department—and in others too—attends university events, fund-raisers, the occasional cocktail hour and dinner party. Eric goes with her to these soirees. As an ongoing private joke, he insists on wearing the same wool tie and corduroy blazer with elbow patches. He wanders around the crowded room, tasting hors d’oeuvres, sipping wine, looking jovially bewildered, and occasionally Pari has to swoop in and steal him away from a group of mathematicians before he opines on 3-manifolds and Diophantine approximations.
Inevitably, someone at these parties will ask Pari her views on the developments in Afghanistan. One evening, a slightly tipsy visiting professor named Chatelard asks Pari what she thinks will happen to Afghanistan when the Soviets leave. “Will your people find peace, Madame Professeur?”
“I wouldn’t know,” she says. “Practically speaking, I’m Afghan only in name.”
“Non mais, quande-même,” he says. “But, still, you must have some insight.”
She smiles, trying to keep at bay the inadequacy that always creeps in with these queries. “Just what I read in Le Monde. Like you.”
“But you grew up there, non?”
“I left when I was very little. Have you seen my husband? He’s the one with the elbow patches.”
What she says is true. She does follow the news, reads in the papers about the war, the West arming the Mujahideen, but Afghanistan has receded in her mind. She has plenty to keep her busy at home, which is now a pretty four-bedroom house in Guyancourt, about twenty kilometers from the center of Paris. They live on a small hill near a park with walking trails and ponds. Eric is writing plays now in addition to teaching. One of his plays, a lighthearted political farce, is going to be produced in the fall at a small theater near Hôtel de Ville in Paris, and he has already been commissioned to write another.
Isabelle has grown into a quiet but bright and thoughtful adolescent. She keeps a diary and reads a novel a week. She likes Sinéad O’Connor. She has long, beautiful fingers and takes cello lessons. In a few weeks, she will perform Tchaikovsky’s Chanson Triste at a recital. She was resistant at first to taking up the cello, and Pari had taken a few lessons with her as a show of solidarity. It proved both unnecessary and unfeasible. Unnecessary because Isabelle quickly latched onto the instrument of her own accord and unfeasible because the cello made Pari’s hands ache. For a year now, Pari has been waking in the morning with stiffness in her hands and wrists that won’t loosen up for half an hour, sometimes an hour. Eric has quit pressuring her to see a doctor and is now insisting. “You’re only forty-three, Pari,” he says. “This is not normal.” Pari has set up an appointment.
Alain, their middle child, has a sly roguish charm. He is obsessed with martial arts. He was born prematurely and is still small for a boy of eleven, but what he lacks in stature he more than makes up for with desire and gumption. His opponents are always fooled by his wispy frame and slim legs. They underestimate him. Pari and Eric have often lain in bed at night and marveled at his enormous will and ferocious energy. Pari worries about neither Isabelle nor Alain.
It is Thierry who concerns her. Thierry, who perhaps on some dark primordial level, senses that he was unexpected, unintended, uninvited. Thierry is prone to wounding silences and narrow looks, to fussing and fiddling whenever Pari asks something of him. He defies her for no other reason, it seems to Pari, than defiance itself. Some days, a cloud gathers over him. Pari can tell. She can almost see it. It gathers and swells until at last it splits open, spilling a torrent of cheek-quivering, foot-stomping rage that frightens Pari and leaves Eric to blink and smile miserably. Pari knows instinctively that Thierry will be for her, like the ache in her joints, a lifelong worry.
She wonders often what sort of grandmother Maman would have made. Especially with Thierry. Intuitively, Pari thinks Maman would have proved helpful with him. She might have seen something of herself in him—though not biologically, of course, Pari has been certain of that for some time. The children know of Maman. Isabelle, in particular, is curious. She has read many of her poems.
“I wish I’d met her,” she says.
“She sounds glamorous,” she says.
“I think we would have made good friends, she and I. Do you think? We would have read the same books. I would have played cello for her.”
“Well, she would have loved that,” Pari says. “That much I am sure of.”
Pari has not told the children about the suicide. They may learn one day, probably will. But they wouldn’t learn it from her. She will not plant the seed in their mind, that a parent is capable of abandoning her children, of saying to them You are not enough. For Pari, the children and Eric have always been enough. They always will be.
In the summer of 1994, Pari and Eric take the children to Majorca. It’s Collette who, through her now thriving travel agency, organizes the holiday for them. Collette and Didier meet up with them in Majorca, and they all stay together for two weeks in a beachfront rental house. Collette and Didier don’t have children, not by some biological misfortune but because they don’t want any. For Pari, the timing is good. Her rheumatoid is well controlled at the time. She takes a weekly dose of methotrexate, which she is tolerating well. Fortunately, she has not had to take any steroids of late and suffer the accompanying insomnia.
“Not to speak of the weight gain,” she tells Collette. “Knowing I’d have to get into a bathing suit in Spain?” She laughs. “Ah, vanity.”
They spend the days touring the island, driving up the northwest coast by the Serra de Tramuntana Mountains, stopping to stroll by the olive groves and into the pine forest. They eat porcella, and a wonderful sea bass dish called lubina, and an eggplant and zucchini stew called tumbet. Thierry refuses to eat any of it, and at every restaurant Pari has to ask the chef to make him a plate of spaghetti with plain tomato sauce, no meat, no cheese. At Isabelle’s request—she has recently discovered opera—one night they attend a production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca. To survive the ordeal, Collette and Pari surreptitiously pass each other a silver flask of cheap vodka. By the middle of act two, they are sloshed, and can’t help giggling like schoolgirls at the histrionics of the actor playing Scarpia.
One day, Pari, Collette, Isabelle, and Thierry pack a lunch and go to the beach; Didier, Alain, and Eric had left in the morning for a hike along Sóller Bay. On the way to the beach, they visit a shop to buy Isabelle a bathing suit that has caught her eye. As they walk into the shop, Pari catches a glimpse of her reflection in the plate glass. Normally, especially of late, when she steps in front of a mirror an automatic mental process kicks into gear that prepares her to greet her older self. It buffers her, dulls the shock. But in the shopwindow, she has caught herself off guard, vulnerable to reality undistorted by self-delusion. She sees a middle-aged woman in a drab floppy blouse and a beach skirt that doesn’t conceal quite enough of the saggy folds of skin over her kneecaps. The sun picks out the gray in her hair. And despite the eyeliner, and the lipstick that defines her lips, she has a face now that a passerby’s gaze will engage and then bounce from, as it would a street sign or a mailbox number. The moment is brief, barely enough for a flutter of the pulse but long enough for her illusory self to catch up with the reality of the woman gazing back from the shopwindow. It is a little devastating. This is what aging is, she thinks as she follows Isabelle into the store, these random unkind moments that catch you when you least expect them.