The Gulf

James_37.2_stringsA story by Tania James in The Boston Review:

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.