Not Even a Chapter

If books were wishes, I could write volumes on my father. But they are memories, and so the most I could do is fill a few pages that wouldn’t add up to a chapter. I lived the first half of my life seeking out my father on television, in newspapers, at gallery openings to which I didn’t have my mother’s permission to go. I spent a lot of time with him in daydreams, in which we would eat together at the kitchen table, or he would ask me to help him decide how to best display paintings at one of his art galleries, or we would sit in front of the television enjoying one of Parajanov’s films, and talking. We were always talking in the daydreams, and he always called me “Maryam jan.”

I also saw him in wakefulness, often in experiences so brutal as to jolt my child self into a shock that has proven to be permanent. The gentlest of these involved the times when I would take the walk of shame through whispering crowds to say hello to my father, who would turn away as if I were a pestering fly that had just feasted on a pile of horse dunk. I was never sure, in retelling the stories of these encounters to Alma, whether it was his back or his wife’s sneer that so tore me apart. My grandmother would cry and want to know why I still tried, knowing he would cause me such pain. Because he is my father, I would tell her.

Once, I watched him take to the podium at a hearing of the Supreme Soviet Council, where he represented Armenia. He addressed Gorbachev, beginning with an expression of sincere empathy for the ways in which the leader had been betrayed by many, and ending with a poignant, unprecedented public assault on Gorbachev on the grounds of hypocrisy and lack of integrity, specifically toward our people. The speech ended just as my father used an Armenian proverb to draw an analogy between Gorbachev and a whore. At least, that’s where the broadcast ended. Everyone was talking about him. More than two decades later, people are posting videos of the speech on social media.

Sometimes, my grandmother and I would sit at the dining table, rummaging through the shoe box in which she had been collecting newspaper clippings of my father’s appearances in politics and the arts during all the years I had spent not knowing who my father was, not even knowing that I didn’t have a father. (But this is a story for another time, and one that could make a book. For, there are many memories of my mother.) My grandmother spoke of my father with pride, while my mother never said a word about him, and lit a silent cigarette each time I mustered the courage to ask a question. It was as though Alma had loved him, as though she had wished, perhaps always, that things had been different.

On an afternoon when I should have been in geography class, I stood in what later came to be known as Freedom Square and listened to my father’s call to unity. He stood tall with his fist raised for our people’s independence, the two of us separated by hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children hungry for the freedom to choose. He was electric, perhaps because we were in a moment in time when all things were about to collide and crash, and every word could be the one to bring it all about.

I saw my father in the pages of his many books, each one a chapter of our people’s life, told in works of art born from our nation’s legends, as well as young artists for whom my father had created an aesthetic center, where I took carpet weaving classes despite my mother’s many ways of attempting to convince me to stay away from the man she must have once thought would make a decent father. I quit after three months, on the day my father came to make the rounds, and stopped at every loom except mine. I was never there to learn to weave carpets, although I did enjoy the patterns, and the way my fingers danced as if they had always known how to guide a shuttle through warp strings.

Too often, I saw my father through the eyes of my mother’s friends, who mocked the idea that I should want anything to do with this disgrace of a man. My mother’s eyes were as silent as her voice, although sometimes she rolled them at the sound of his name, and there was thunder.

I saw him a lot in these ways.

But I was with him only on a few occasions, four in Armenia, and two in New York, always briefly. There was the time we first met, when I was sixteen, he was drunk, and we were in the dark (for lack of electricity, which our people had surrendered to Russia in favor of independence). This was a conversation that saw off my childhood and ushered in this woman I have become. There was the hour we spent arguing in front of two Gauguin paintings at MoMA, each of us insisting that the composition of one was much more striking than that of the other, he speaking from undeniable experience, and I from an unrelenting need to stand firm, especially in his daunting presence. There was the time we sat at the Upper West Side coffee shop where I waited tables at the time. We were an unlikely trio, my mother more wry than usual, my father elated at her every eye roll and scathing remark. He had loved her. If my mother had loved him, it had been a love that had burned so fiercely as to have left not even ashes behind.

Most times, we met before the age of digital documentation, but I do have a few photographs that make my father come alive the way my mind can’t conjure him for the simple lack of the kind of consistency that fosters familiarity. Five of these photographs tell the story of a twelve-hour lunch we shared when I was in Yerevan on a five-day election monitoring mission, which meant long hours in the office and at polling stations, and barely any time to pay visits and respects to the people and city of my childhood. I was crouched over a computer with a colleague, preparing our final report on the fiasco our mission had observed in polling stations across the country. I heard the receptionist’s voice greeting my father in the most formal imaginable Armenian. I heard him ask to speak with the director, who said that, yes, of course, the team could spare me for a lunch with my father. Only then, did he make his way to me, and ask me to join him for some shish kebab.

For the first hour, we were alone, being served like royalty at a banquet. We drank a bottle of vodka, taking turns to say toasts. My father introduced me to everyone who came up to greet him, and promised that we would join each table for a drink, just as soon as we had finished talking about matters of great significance (which included all the things we had not talked about since I had learned to speak twenty-five years before). We laughed. We cried. He asked for forgiveness. I demanded his presence. He asked me again to take over his work at the galleries, and again, he pleaded with me to stop smoking. I laughed at both suggestions, as if they were an attempt to mock everything I was. He professed his love for my mother through toasts, then asked a server to set up a microphone and speakers. Standing before an audience eager for a morsel of this legendary love, of which there had been years of whispers, he tried to explain how much he had loved my mother. But he never made it too far past “Oh, Marina…” And then, he sang. It was a Russian song about Tbilisi, where my father was born. He said my mother had loved it. When the applause died down, and my eyes dried up, we danced. We danced for hours, drinking more vodka, seeing off the lunch crowd, and greeting the dinner guests. When a server ruefully informed us that it was time to close the doors for the night, this most magical lunch finally came to an end.

My father walked me to the hotel, his hand on my shoulder. He kissed me goodnight. As always at parting, he asked for my forgiveness. As always, I told him there was nothing to forgive. And yet another time, I walked away feeling like I was at once full to the brim and painfully empty. This was the last time I saw my father. In wakefulness.

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