In later years I will come to avoid him, but for now, I am eight years old, and the man everyone says is my father is sitting in the living room. I watch him, discreetly, from the doorway. He is wearing my mother’s baby-blue robe and matching slippers whose seams are pulling apart around his big toe. He arrived the week before with three Air India tags on his single suitcase, looking little like the man in the photograph my mother kept tucked against Psalm 23 of her Bible. In the photo, he was leaning against a coconut tree, an inch of ash on the end of his cigarette.
This was the father I thought we would collect from the airport a week ago. On the morning of his arrival, my mother slipped into her churchgoing heels and dusted her face with Chantilly instead of talcum powder. The Chantilly came in a round pink case as wide as my mother’s hand, and inside was a satin pillow that smelled like the type of lady I was almost sure I would someday become. She looked perfect all the way to the airport, until she parked the car and applied a rash of blush to each cheek. “Is it too much?” she asked me, and for the first time in my life, I pitied my mother enough to lie and say no.
“Don’t ask him about Dubai,” she said. She clapped her compact shut.
But what else would I ask him about? For the past four years my father had been working in the Gulf under a man we called The Sheikh. To me, The Sheikh was a villain robed in black who kept dragging out the work contract by withholding my father’s passport. I pictured my father pleading with The Sheikh for a brief vacation, just to spend a few days with my mother and me. I pictured The Sheikh, petting his beard, shaking his head no.
My mother and I were living in Trivandrum when my father left to find work in Dubai, before I could form a memory of him. My friends with fathers didn’t treat me differently until the school talent program or my holy communion, which all the fathers attended but mine, and suddenly I wasn’t myself anymore. I was his absence. Even in my new white veil and black patent shoes, I was the dented suitcase he had left behind, the one with no wheels.
As I grew older, my father remained ageless, preserved by prayers and photos handled only around the edges, and stories whispered by my cousins on rain-battered nights. They said it happened all the time; the men and women who left for the Gulf and never returned, their fates in the hands of cruel Arab employers, their portraits gathering dust on the wall, not even a headstone to hold their places in heaven.
While my father was trapped in the Gulf, my mother wrote on his behalf to consulates, embassies, connections of all kinds until, one day, she received a letter from him that she wouldn’t read aloud, not even to her sisters. They stayed up late with her in well-guarded talk, all of them in their mother’s enormous barge of a bed, which was actually two beds pushed together and draped with a quilt to hide the crack where I sometimes got wedged in the middle of the night. That night, I didn’t belong in the bed or anywhere near it. I could glean only this much: my father was not coming back. No one mentioned him for months. My mother grew hard in some buried way, gained weight. I never saw her eating, but sometimes she would come home with a sweet, sticky hunk of aluva wrapped in waxed paper, and not three days later, I would find the waxed paper in the trash.
By year’s end, my mother had received a visa to the States, to work as a nurse at a veterans hospital in Baltimore. We moved into a small apartment with rough orange carpeting that had likely seen legions of feet. I had my own room but slept in my mother’s bed.
During the days, she left me with the elderly lady down the hall, who insisted that I call her by her first name. We settled on Harriet Auntie. She stunned me with her generosity—a gold tin of chocolates, an Easter basket, a baby doll that drank water through one hole and made water through another. When I showed my mother the doll, she said that if I liked cleaning up pee so much, I could have her job.
Early in the following year, we received a phone call from my father. “He’s coming,” my mother said, carefully placing the phone in its cradle. I waited for her to weep or laugh or smile, but she kept her hand on the phone, staring at it as if it might spring to life. I knew better than to ask her for specifics, but I imagined a heroic and mysterious escape that included hot words of confrontation, a raised fist, a blackened eye, and a passport produced from the dark tunnel of The Sheikh’s sleeve.
• • •
The man we collected from the airport, the man sitting in the living room, is not the heroic type. He is thinner than in the photos, with coffee-glazed teeth and shoulders that slope like a worn wire hanger. His shirts are lined with a burnt odor that my mother can’t get out, no matter how many times she pulls the trigger of her OxiClean.
Aside from the first time he saw me and kissed the top of my head, he hasn’t once moved to hug me, as other fathers do. He almost seems afraid of touching my mother, who has stopped with the heels and the blush. Once, we all ate dinner while watching a white family eat dinner on television. Those white people had so much to talk about that the food never even arrived at their mouths. The mother said things like How was your day? and Want seconds? My father took seconds from a bottle of Jameson.
“You’re breathing on me,” he rasps. I stop breathing altogether.
But this evening, I have caught him alone in the living room, his slippered feet on the coffee table. His eyes are closed, furrows across his forehead, a glass of whiskey in his fist.
I go closer. His fingernails appear recently trimmed, maybe bitten away in that far-off country where he welded metals by day and worried by night. I can just make out the faint freckles across his nose, like a handful of birdseed, the same freckles that appear across my nose every summer.
His eyelashes all of a sudden flutter open. His lips part, releasing a gust of whiskey.
“You’re breathing on me,” he rasps. I stop breathing altogether.
His lips widen into a smile I’ve never seen from him. “I’m just playing, molay. Were you afraid?”
“You’re too uptight.” He extends his glass to me. “Here, have a little sip.”
I take the glass with one hand and drink from the opposite side of where his lips have left a mark.
The sip goes flaming down my throat, and my belly shudders and shrinks, offended by what I’ve poured into it.
He chuckles. “You want more?”
I shrug okay.
“No you don’t,” he says sharply. “Remember that.”
He tells me to turn on the radio. I lean over the stereo resting beside the television and nudge the tuner across fields of static. All I can find is classical, a whiny violin and no words to go with it. Sad as a book with no pictures.
My father sits up in his chair and puts the glass between his feet. “I used to play violin,” he says. “Did you know that?”
“You didn’t know that?” he says, as if I don’t know how to spell my own name. “In the Gulf, I knew a girl who played the violin so beautifully she would make you cry.”
My mother enters the room, her cheeks shiny with cold cream. On her way to the kitchen, she eyes me, my dad, his glass.
“She has school tomorrow,” my mother says.
He nods emphatically. “Yeah, yeah, we’re just talking.”
“Don’t talk too much.” She clangs the plates around in the sink.
He glares at her back, but the venom soon drains from his face, leaving behind a colorless resignation. He turns to me and shrugs. “She hates me.”
After my mother leaves, my father puts his elbows on his knees and leans forward, his eyes closed. I wonder if he is dozing off. The song on the radio softens and slows, at which point my father takes an imaginary violin in his left arm, pointing it downward, and tilts his chin against it. He draws his invisible bow along with the single, smooth note from the radio’s violin, his face perfectly still, as if listening for his own pulse. The slipper with the exposed toe begins to tap against the orange carpet. The melody gathers force, and he dives into his performance, elbowing the air, rocking back and forth as he inscribes the space between us with song. The music climbs inside his body, takes possession of him like a long charge of electricity. Trills of joy, half and whole notes, reckless crescendos. I am lost in a rapture of admiration.
When he has drawn the last note, I clap until my father stands and takes a wobbly bow. He puts both hands on my head, which he kisses as if in blessing. “You are the only one who gets me,” he says. “Now go to bed.”
• • •
The next morning, I wake up early enough for my mother to rake a brush through my tangled hair and plait it into a French braid. I whimper only once at the pain and sit patiently until she snaps the tail into a hair bobble with purple beads. On the school bus, I keep fingering the taut spine of the braid and sniffing the tail, fragrant with pomade.
All this effort is meant for Wes Lipkin, a boy in my class who double-blinks between every sentence, as if something is permanently stuck in his eye. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, Wes gets on the school bus with his lunch box in one hand and a violin-shaped briefcase in the other. He sits alone, toward the front of the bus, with his back to the revelry at the rear, where kids are shouting, kneeling on the seats, bracing themselves for the turns and hills leading to school.
I ask Wes if I can borrow his violin, just for a day, so my dad can play like he used to. He says no.
Usually I sit somewhere in the middle rows, but today I take the seat next to Wes. I say hello, but he doesn’t answer. Wes is bent over his notebook, drawing something on the back, a swollen face with huge, veiny eyes and a tiny line for a mouth. “Is that you?” I ask.
“No,” he says wearily, as if we’ve been through this before.
There is a placid quality to Wes Lipkin, the sorrow of a martyred saint, and a dorkiness that seems almost willful. His lunch box sits between us, the last of its kind in our grade.
Laying the end of my braid over my shoulder, purple beads in view, I ask Wes if he likes playing the violin. He glances at me as if this is a trick question. I say that my dad plays, and he’s very good. Wes erases something. I say that my dad had to leave his violin behind, in the Gulf, when he came to America.
“Then he’s probably not that good,” says Wes. “I’d never leave my violin just anywhere.”
I ask him if I can borrow his violin, just for a day, so my dad can play like he used to.
Wes bores into me with his big, blinking eyes. Then he says no, and goes back to drawing.
He doesn’t give a reason, just no, again and again. I begin to suspect that he enjoys saying no to me, that it feels like he’s saying no to everyone who has ever said no to him. All I can do is face forward, stuck with a view of a peeling pleather seat.
• • •
It is 6 p.m., and I am finished with my math homework. Sometimes my mother devises extra homework for no other reason than to keep me away from the television, but now that my father is here, she makes no comment when I tug a chair up next to his, just behind his line of sight. My feet don’t reach the coffee table, like his do.
We watch Lynne Russell on Headline News, sneezing every so often because my mother is frying chili-rubbed fish. I keep saying “Bless you” under my breath, until my father says, “Bleshyew, bleshyew— what does it mean?”
“Something about hell,” I fumble, embarrassed by the sudden beam of his attention. “So you won’t go to hell.”
I am relieved when he grunts and turns back to sensible Lynne Russell and her smooth, sculpted cheekbones. I look at the hair on the back of my father’s hand, a wild tuft above each knuckle, in the exact place where lately I have seen one or two hairs of my own. This is my dad, I think. Today I am going to call him Dad. After my mother goes to bed, I will show him what I obtained at great risk during recess, when I asked to use the bathroom and instead jimmied open Wes Lipkin’s locker. His violin case fit neatly into my drawstring gym bag.
The opportunity doesn’t seem to present itself. My father appears more haggard than he did yesterday evening. His eyes are bloodshot. Every so often he takes small sips of orange juice from a big plastic cup. When I ask for a sip, he says no so quickly that tears spring to my eyes. “I’m sick,” he adds, without looking at me.
During the weather report, my mother comes in holding the violin case in both hands. She demands to know where I got it.
I say that my friend Wes Lipkin let me borrow it.
“Then why did Mrs. Lipkin call just now and say you stole it?” she asks. For this, I have no answer. I assumed that Wes Lipkin would figure it out, but I never guessed that he would tattle. “Lying and stealing—this is what you learn at school?”
She takes two long strides and I brace for the blow, but my father’s outstretched legs are blocking her path. He has been sitting between us, looking back and forth like a spectator at a tennis match. “You’re her father,” my mother reminds him. “Yell at her!”
My father sits up with the cup in his hand, spilling a bit of juice on his knee before setting it under the coffee table. He turns to me, dropping his voice low. “Why did you do it?” My face goes hot and cold at once. I pinch my own thigh. “Huh?”
“Why did you steal that thing?”
“I wanted to hear you play.”
My mother and father stare at me.
“You’re her father,” my mother reminds him. “Yell at her!”
“So you can play like you did last night,” I say, a strange sense of panic filling my chest. “The way you used to play over there, in Dubai.”
My mother snorts. “Play what?”
My father listens to me, for the first time, without scorn, his face opening up with faint surprise. Then he glances up at my mother and waves me away. “What kind of nonsense. I don’t know what she’s saying.”
“Remember, with the radio?” I mimic his playing, but he won’t look at me anymore and my arms fall to my sides. I try to steady my voice. “Your friend, the girl who plays the violin?”
“Girl?” my mother says in a voice that is small and strained. It does sound strange when I say it aloud. His friend, a girl.
My mother turns to my father, and as his eyes search mine, I understand that he isn’t lying. He simply doesn’t remember. He doesn’t remember saying, You are the only one who gets me, the loveliest compliment of all my eight years.
Quietly, my mother tells me to go to my room and get dressed. She says that she will drive me to the Lipkins’s so I can apologize and return the violin.
Before I have closed the door to my room, the fight has begun. Their voices are subdued and tense, nearly unintelligible until they start shouting, and I learn certain truths at terrible speeds: there is a woman in the Gulf, a woman he left behind for my mother’s visa, a woman who may be watching the road and waiting for him as we once did. And though none of us will ever again call up her presence, the woman will take up space in our house, as ubiquitous as a vapor, a woman at my window with one hand on the sill, tapping on the glass with the bow of her violin.
My mother and father stop fighting only when the old man who lives below us bangs his broom against his ceiling. The old man usually delivers this complaint when I’m jumping rope indoors, and for once I am grateful for his intervention. My parents fall silent.
I hear the door to my mother’s bedroom slam shut. I am still sitting at the foot of my bed, gripping the bedpost, waiting to know what has changed and what will stay the same. Through the wall I hear the sound of soft, stifled weeping.
By the time I get up and pad quietly to my mother’s door, the weeping has stopped. I know how to comfort her, how to crawl into her bed and hang my leg over her hip the way we used to sleep when it was just the two of us. I slip into her unlit room, and as my eyes adjust to the darkness, I make out a hunched shape—my father. Alone, he is sitting on the edge of the bed, his back to me. When he wipes the corner of each eye with the heel of his hand, he seems no older than I am, and I will remember this gesture for years. I linger in the still pool of his sorrow. Quietly as I can, I slip back into the hall and close the door.