Eventually, brick by brick, living quarters were added, a porcelain pedestal sink and footed tub were installed, but Yanik and Nina continued to frequent the hamam and sneak into the café's storage room to grope and make quick love, finding comfort in their original nest, always cool and dim against the heat between them. It would not have surprised Zod to find out he was conceived on a bed of lentils. His parents once dreamed of a better life and Iran folded itself around them, offering sanctuary where they could raise their three sons and work and live with dignity.
In the old days when cities like Tehran and Kabul boasted cinemas and tennis clubs, Café Leila was home to intellectuals. The fifties and sixties seemed filled with possibility, and Yanik welcomed students from the university, writers, musicians, poets, and journalists, parties of guests who gathered here every afternoon and stayed long into the night. He envisioned the ambiance of the elegant cafés he'd seen in Budapest and Vienna and loved to sit in the glass-fronted cubbyhole that served as an office, watching his customers dig into his wife's baklava with a fork and knife. He bought copies of their books to display on the shelves and asked for their autographs, and if they liked a dish, he named it after them so it was no longer borscht, but Nima's soup or Forough's stuffed cabbage and Sohrab's cream puffs. Their regular visits sustained him—wanting more than just a restaurant, he created a cultural hub where his sons learned to play chess and backgammon with the patrons, to serve and sweep, to roll filo dough and fry blinis with rose petal jam under Nina's gaze.
Of the three, it was Zod, her middle child, who took to the alchemy his mother practiced in the kitchen. She was self-taught, relying on intuition to bring ingredients together and finding ways to honor them. Where Yanik insisted on his formal training, an acrobat expecting to be applauded for his skill, Nina improvised and laughed at her mistakes, which were often her triumphs. If she forgot to add mashed potatoes to the cutlet dish, the vegetables were folded into crepe batter for a thin potato cake she sprinkled with chives and fresh cream. Mostly, it was the way things were always new that kept Yanik and Nina open and purposeful—there was no end to their learning. They made a good life for their children in a country where they weren't raised and would never leave, but such a peaceful existence would not be a given for their grandchildren.
At last in his bedroom with the door closed, Zod sat by the window with Noor's letter in his lap, the sun sinking away behind the trees, an ice-cold hand seizing his heart. Somewhere, beyond the borders of the city, beyond the continent and an ocean, in a place his hands could not reach, his daughter sat in darkness with a broken heart. It used to worry him to think of his children as strangers in a strange land, but each time they asked to come home, he patiently explained his desire to give them a better future until they stopped asking.
Zod had always felt that when you first become a parent something happens that makes you see and hear as if you're a newborn, too. In the first year of his daughter's life, he found himself looking at the world through her eyes and living in it as if he didn't already know it, like they were both creatures with wide-open eyes and shaky limbs. Her every move was as new to him as it was to her, from the slow grasp of her rattle to her small sneeze. When she screamed, he screamed. When she hiccupped, he hiccupped, so that she would never be alone with her new sounds. How did he ever let her out of his sight?
Noor was glad to see Lily bring a friend home from school. They had been living in the rented apartment in Pacific Heights for six weeks. Lily's bedroom was much smaller than her one at the house and Noor had worried that she wouldn't be comfortable having anyone over. From Lily's room came the ripple of girls' laughter and Noor smiled to herself as she prepared a snack of fruit and pound cake and carried it to them on a tray.
Laura's bright, open face, and the way she eyed the tray so eagerly, encouraged Noor to linger a moment and she bent to kiss the crown on Lily's head. Lily looked quickly over her shoulder, her dark eyelashes fluttering in distress. Undeterred, Noor lingered behind her questioning Laura about school.
"Mom! Enough already!" Lily said, exasperated. Noor felt flattened. She smiled a tight smile, mumbled to Laura how nice it was to see her again, and retreated.
What seemed odd to Noor was how she thought in these few weeks they would become closer, not slip apart. Just the day before, Noor's best friend Nassim—practically Lily's godmother—was visiting from out of town and Lily barely acknowledged her. All of Noor's offers of mother-daughter outings and special treats were thrown back at her, and all week she watched Lily willfully dump the contents of her lunch sack into the trash.
"Don't make me lunch," she cried, "You try to make it too fancy...I hate those stupid little fruit cups, all brown and mushy. I'm not three years old!" Sparks of anger were understandable in a teenager, especially with her home turned inside out, and Noor was making every effort to maintain a sense of calm and security, to keep the channels open, but Lily's hostility was making it difficult.
When at last Laura went home, Noor asked Lily to come to the kitchen. "What was all that about? What's wrong with me asking Laura a few questions? I've missed her," she said, leaning into the counter to study Lily. "Because you're embarrassing me with all your questions!" Lily's hand flew up so abruptly that she knocked over a glass of cranberry juice and made no attempt to clean up the red pool gathering on the counter.
This excerpt ends on page 20 of the hardcover edition.