The kite runner, p.17
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       The Kite Runner, p.17

           Khaled Hosseini
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  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.


  June 2001

  I lowered the phone into the cradle and stared at it for a long time. It wasn't until Aflatoon startled me with a bark that I realized how quiet the room had become. Soraya had muted the television.

  "You look pale, Amir," she said from the couch, the same one her parents had given us as a housewarming gift for our first apartment. She'd been lying on it with Aflatoon's head nestled on her chest, her legs buried under the worn pillows. She was half-watching a PBS special on the plight of wolves in Minnesota, half-correcting essays from her summer-school class--she'd been teaching at the same school now for six years. She sat up, and Aflatoon leapt down from the couch. It was the general who had given our cocker spaniel his name, Farsi for "Plato," because, he said, if you looked hard enough and long enough into the dog's filmy black eyes, you'd swear he was thinking wise thoughts.

  There was a sliver of fat, just a hint of it, beneath Soraya's chin now. The past ten years had padded the curves of her hips some, and combed into her coal black hair a few streaks of cinder gray. But she still had the face of a Grand Ball princess, with her bird-in-flight eyebrows and nose, elegantly curved like a letter from ancient Arabic writings.

  "You look pale," Soraya repeated, placing the stack of papers on the table.

  "I have to go to Pakistan."

  She stood up now. "Pakistan?"

  "Rahim Khan is very sick." A fist clenched inside me with those words.

  "Kaka's old business partner?" She'd never met Rahim Khan, but I had told her about him. I nodded.

  "Oh," she said. "I'm so sorry, Amir."

  "We used to be close," I said. "When I was a kid, he was the first grown-up I ever thought of as a friend." I pictured him and Baba drinking tea in Baba's study, then smoking near the window, a sweetbrier-scented breeze blowing from the garden and bending the twin columns of smoke.

  "I remember you telling me that," Soraya said. She paused. "How long will you be gone?"

  "I don't know. He wants to see me."

  "Is it . . ."

  "Yes, it's safe. I'll be all right, Soraya." It was the question she'd wanted to ask all along--fifteen years of marriage had turned us into mind readers. "I'm going to go for a walk."

  "Should I go with you?"

  "Nay, I'd rather be alone."

  I DROVE TO GOLDEN GATE PARK and walked along Spreckels Lake on the northern edge of the park. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon; the sun sparkled on the water where dozens of miniature boats sailed, propelled by a crisp San Francisco breeze. I sat on a park bench, watched a man toss a football to his son, telling him to not sidearm the ball, to throw over the shoulder. I glanced up and saw a pair of kites, red with long blue tails. They floated high above the trees on the west end of the park, over the windmills.

  I thought about a comment Rahim Khan had made just before we hung up. Made it in passing, almost as an afterthought. I closed my eyes and saw him at the other end of the scratchy long-distance line, saw him with his lips slightly parted, head tilted to one side. And again, something in his bottomless black eyes hinted at an unspoken secret between us. Except now I knew he knew. My suspicions had been right all those years. He knew about Assef, the kite, the money, the watch with the lightning bolt hands. He had always known.

  Come. There is a
way to be good again, Rahim Khan had said on the phone just before hanging up. Said it in passing, almost as an afterthought.

  A way to be good again.

  WHEN I CAME HOME, Soraya was on the phone with her mother. "Won't be long, Madar jan. A week, maybe two . . . Yes, you and Padar can stay with me . . ."

  Two years earlier, the general had broken his right hip. He'd had one of his migraines again, and emerging from his room, bleary-eyed and dazed, he had tripped on a loose carpet edge. His scream had brought Khala Jamila running from the kitchen. "It sounded like a jaroo, a broomstick, snapping in half," she was always fond of saying, though the doctor had said it was unlikely she'd heard anything of the sort. The general's shattered hip--and all of the ensuing complications, the pneumonia, blood poisoning, the protracted stay at the nursing home--ended Khala Jamila's long-running soliloquies about her own health. And started new ones about the general's. She'd tell anyone who would listen that the doctors had told them his kidneys were failing. "But then they had never seen Afghan kidneys, had they?" she'd say proudly. What I remember most about the general's hospital stay is how Khala Jamila would wait until he fell asleep, and then sing to him, songs I remembered from Kabul, playing on Baba's scratchy old transistor radio.

  The general's frailty--and time--had softened things between him and Soraya too. They took walks together, went to lunch on Saturdays, and, sometimes, the general sat in on some of her classes. He'd sit in the back of the room, dressed in his shiny old gray suit, wooden cane across his lap, smiling. Sometimes he even took notes.

  THAT NIGHT, Soraya and I lay in bed, her back pressed to my chest, my face buried in her hair. I remembered when we used to lay forehead to forehead, sharing afterglow kisses and whispering until our eyes drifted closed, whispering about tiny, curled toes, first smiles, first words, first steps. We still did sometimes, but the whispers were about school, my new book, a giggle over someone's ridiculous dress at a party. Our lovemaking was still good, at times better than good, but some nights all I'd feel was a relief to be done with it, to be free to drift away and forget, at least for a while, about the futility of what we'd just done. She never said so, but I knew sometimes Soraya felt it too. On those nights, we'd each roll to our side of the bed and let our own savior take us away. Soraya's was sleep. Mine, as always, was a book.

  I lay in the dark the night Rahim Khan called and traced with my eyes the parallel silver lines on the wall made by moonlight pouring through the blinds. At some point, maybe just before dawn, I drifted to sleep. And dreamed of Hassan running in the snow, the hem of his green chapan dragging behind him, snow crunching under his black rubber boots. He was yelling over his shoulder: For you, a thousand times over!

  A WEEK LATER, I sat on a window seat aboard a Pakistani International Airlines flight, watching a pair of uniformed airline workers remove the wheel chocks. The plane taxied out of the terminal and, soon, we were airborne, cutting through the clouds. I rested my head against the window. Waited, in vain, for sleep.


  Three hours after my flight landed in Peshawar, I was sitting on shredded upholstery in the backseat of a smoke-filled taxicab. My driver, a chain-smoking, sweaty little man who introduced himself as Gholam, drove nonchalantly and recklessly, averting collisions by the thinnest of margins, all without so much as a pause in the incessant stream of words spewing from his mouth:

  ". . . terrible what is happening in your country, yar. Afghani people and Pakistani people they are like brothers, I tell you. Muslims have to help Muslims so . . ."

  I tuned him out, switched to a polite nodding mode. I remembered Peshawar pretty well from the few months Baba and I had spent there in 1981. We were heading west now on Jamrud road, past the Cantonment and its lavish, high-walled homes. The bustle of the city blurring past me reminded me of a busier, more crowded version of the Kabul I knew, particularly of the Kocheh-Morgha, or Chicken Bazaar, where Hassan and I used to buy chutney-dipped potatoes and cherry water. The streets were clogged with bicycle riders, milling pedestrians, and rickshaws popping blue smoke, all weaving through a maze of narrow lanes and alleys. Bearded vendors draped in thin blankets sold animal-skin lampshades, carpets, embroidered shawls, and copper goods from rows of small, tightly jammed stalls. The city was bursting with sounds; the shouts of vendors rang in my ears mingled with the blare of Hindi music, the sputtering of rickshaws, and the jingling bells of horse-drawn carts. Rich scents, both pleasant and not so pleasant, drifted to me through the passenger window, the spicy aroma of pakora and the nihari Baba had loved so much blended with the sting of diesel fumes, the stench of rot, garbage, and feces.

  A little past the redbrick buildings of Peshawar University, we entered an area my garrulous driver referred to as "Afghan Town." I saw sweetshops and carpet vendors, kabob stalls, kids with dirt-caked hands selling cigarettes, tiny restaurants--maps of Afghanistan painted on their windows--all interlaced with backstreet aid agencies. "Many of your brothers in this area, yar. They are opening businesses, but most of them are very poor." He tsk'ed his tongue and sighed. "Anyway, we're getting close now."

  I thought about the last time I had seen Rahim Khan, in 1981. He had come to say good-bye the night Baba and I had fled Kabul. I remember Baba and him embracing in the foyer, crying softly. When Baba and I arrived in the U.S., he and Rahim Khan kept in touch. They would speak four or five times a year and, sometimes, Baba would pass me the receiver. The last time I had spoken to Rahim Khan had been shortly after Baba's death. The news had reached Kabul and he had called. We'd only spoken for a few minutes and lost the connection.

  The driver pulled up to a narrow building at a busy corner where two winding streets intersected. I paid the driver, took my lone suitcase, and walked up to the intricately carved door. The building had wooden balconies with open shutters--from many of them, laundry was hanging to dry in the sun. I walked up the creaky stairs to the second floor, down a dim hallway to the last door on the right. Checked the address on the piece of stationery paper in my palm. Knocked.

  Then, a thing made of skin and bones pretending to be Rahim Khan opened the door.

  A CREATIVE WRITING TEACHER at San Jose State used to say about cliches: "Avoid them like the plague." Then he'd laugh at his own joke. The class laughed along with him, but I always thought cliches got a bum rap. Because, often, they're dead-on. But the aptness of the cliched saying is overshadowed by the nature of the saying as a cliche. For example, the "elephant in the room" saying. Nothing could more correctly describe the initial moments of my reunion with Rahim Khan.

  We sat on a wispy mattress set along the wall, across the window overlooking the noisy street below. Sunlight slanted in and cast a triangular wedge of light onto the Afghan rug on the floor. Two folding chairs rested against one wall and a small copper samovar sat in the opposite corner. I poured us tea from it.

  "How did you find me?" I asked.

  "It's not difficult to find people in America. I bought a map of the U.S., and called up information for cities in Northern California," he said. "It's wonderfully strange to see you as a grown man."

  I smiled and dropped three sugar cubes in my tea. He liked his black and bitter, I remembered. "Baba didn't get the chance to tell you but I got married fifteen years ago." The truth was, by then, the cancer in Baba's brain had made him forgetful, negligent.

  "You are married? To whom?"

  "Her name is Soraya Taheri." I thought of her back home, worrying about me. I was glad she wasn't alone.

  "Taheri . . . whose daughter is she?"

  I told him. His eyes brightened. "Oh, yes, I remember now. Isn't General Taheri married to Sharif jan's sister? What was her name . . ."

  "Jamila jan."

  "Balay!" he said, smiling. "I knew Sharif jan in Kabul, long time ago, before he moved to America."

  "He's been working for the INS for years, handles a lot of Afghan cases."

  "Haiiii," he sighed. "Do you and Soraya jan have children?"

bsp; "Nay."

  "Oh." He slurped his tea and didn't ask more; Rahim Khan had always been one of the most instinctive people I'd ever met.

  I told him a lot about Baba, his job, the flea market, and how, at the end, he'd died happy. I told him about my schooling, my books--four published novels to my credit now. He smiled at this, said he had never had any doubt. I told him I had written short stories in the leather-bound notebook he'd given me, but he didn't remember the notebook.

  The conversation inevitably turned to the Taliban.

  "Is it as bad as I hear?" I said.

  "Nay, it's worse. Much worse," he said. "They don't let you be human." He pointed to a scar above his right eye cutting a crooked path through his bushy eyebrow. "I was at a soccer game in Ghazi Stadium in 1998. Kabul against Mazar-i-Sharif, I think, and by the way the players weren't allowed to wear shorts. Indecent exposure, I guess." He gave a tired laugh. "Anyway, Kabul scored a goal and the man next to me cheered loudly. Suddenly this young bearded fellow who was patrolling the aisles, eighteen years old at most by the look of him, he walked up to me and struck me on the forehead with the butt of his Kalashnikov. 'Do that again and I'll cut out your tongue, you old donkey!' he said." Rahim Khan rubbed the scar with a gnarled finger. "I was old enough to be his grandfather and I was sitting there, blood gushing down my face, apologizing to that son of a dog."

  I poured him more tea. Rahim Khan talked some more. Much of it I knew already, some not. He told me that, as arranged between Baba and him, he had lived in Baba's house since 1981--this I knew about. Baba had "sold" the house to Rahim Khan shortly before he and I fled Kabul. The way Baba had seen it those days, Afghanistan's troubles were only a temporary interruption of our way of life--the days of par ties at the Wazir Akbar Khan house and picnics in Paghman would surely return. So he'd given the house to Rahim Khan to keep watch over until that day.

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