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The Kite Runner


The Kite Runner: Page 31


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. Balay... You're
so kind. General Sahib, I'm calling to ask if I may pay you and Khanum Taheri a
visit tomorrow morning. It's an honorable matter... Yes... Eleven o'clock is just
fine. Until then. Khoda hafez."



He hung up. We looked at each other. I burst into giggles. Baba joined in.



BABA WET HIS HAIR and combed it back. I helped him into a clean white shirt
and knotted his tie for him, noting the two inches of empty space between the
collar button and Baba's neck.
I thought of all the empty spaces Baba would leave
behind when he was gone, and I made myself think of something else. He wasn't
gone. Not yet. And this was a day for good thoughts. The jacket of his brown suit,
the one he'd worn to my graduation, hung over him--too much of Baba had
melted away to fill it anymore. I had to roll up the sleeves. I stooped and tied his
shoelaces for him.



The Taheris lived in a flat, one-story house in one of the residential areas
in Fremont known for housing a large number of Afghans. It had bay windows, a
pitched roof, and an enclosed front porch on which I saw potted geraniums. The
general's gray van was parked in the driveway.



I helped Baba out of the Ford and slipped back behind the wheel. He
leaned in the passenger window. "Be home, I'll call you in an hour."



"Okay, Baba," I said. "Good luck."



He smiled.




I drove away. In the rearview mirror, Baba was hobbling up the Taheris'
driveway for one last fatherly duty.



1 PACED THE LIVING ROOM of our apartment waiting for Baba's call. Fifteen
paces long. Ten and a half paces wide. What if the general said no? What if he
hated me? I kept going to the kitchen, checking the oven clock.



The phone rang just before noon. It was Baba.



"Well?"

"The general accepted."

I let out a burst of air. Sat down. My hands were shaking. "He did?"

"Yes, but Soraya jan is upstairs in her room. She wants to talk to you first."
"Okay."

Baba said something to someone and there was a double click as he hung
up.

"Amir?" Soraya's voice. "Salaam."

"My father said yes."

"I know," I said. I switched hands. I was smiling. "I'm so happy I don't
know what to say."




"I'm happy too, Amir. I... can't believe this is happening.



I laughed. "I know."



"Listen," she said, "I want to tell you something. Something you have to
know before..."



"I don't care what it is."



"You need to know. I don't want us to start with secrets. And I'd rather
you hear it from me."



"If it will make you feel better, tell me. But it won't change anything."



There was a long pause at the other end. "When we lived in Virginia, I ran
away with an Afghan man. I was eighteen at the time... rebellious... stupid, and...
he was into drugs... We lived together for almost a month. All the Afghans in
Virginia were talking about it.



"Padar eventually found us. He showed up at the door and... made me
come home. I was hysterical. Yelling. Screaming. Saying I hated him...



"Anyway, I came home and--" She was crying. "Excuse me." I heard her
put the phone down. Blow her nose. "Sorry," she came back on, sounding hoarse.
"When I came home, I saw my mother had had a stroke, the right side of her face
was paralyzed and... I felt so guilty. She didn't deserve that.



"Padar moved us to California shortly after." A silence followed.



How are you and your father now?" 1 said.




"We've always had our differences, we still do, but I'm grateful he came
for me that day. I really believe he saved me." She paused. "So, does what I told
you bother you?"



"A little," I said. I owed her the truth on this one. I couldn't lie to her and
say that my pride, my iftikhar, wasn't stung at all that she had been with a man,
whereas I had never taken a woman to bed. It did bother me a bit, but I had
pondered this quite a lot in the weeks before 1 asked Baba to go khastegari. And
in the end the question that always came back to me was this: How could I, of all
people, chastise someone for their past? "Does it bother you enough to change
your mind?"



"No, Soraya. Not even close," I said. "Nothing you said changes anything. I
want us to marry."



She broke into fresh tears.



I envied her. Her secret was out. Spoken. Dealt with. I opened my mouth
and almost told her how I'd betrayed Hassan, lied, driven him out, and destroyed
a forty-year relationship between Baba and Ali. But I didn't. I suspected there
were many ways in which Soraya Taheri was a better person than me. Courage
was just one of them.



THIRTEEN



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. "Amir jan 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.



"Amir jan, 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.

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