As a child, I only ever cried on the phone.
Every Monday night, my father would call trans-continental to speak to us. I would scrub my face and put on my best clothes – as though he could see me and tell me what a good girl I was. Then I would sit patiently on the floor at my mother's feet, waiting for her to finish talking and hand the phone to me.
"Hello, my darling. Good morning." It was our own private joke that Baba would wish me good morning every time we spoke – it seemed like wherever he was, he was always living in the morning while I was stuck in the night.
I would regale him with stories of what I had done at school that week, of the mean girls who picked on me and called me names, and of the cute boy who sat next to me in math class. He warned me that no boy would ever be good enough for his darling, and I laughed. I thought everything he said was funny.
In the end, though, every conversation ended the same way. He would always gently remind me of the time. "I have to go, my darling."
I would feel tears begin to prick up in the backs of my eyelids. "A little bit longer, Baba."
It was a trick I had played many times – he was not fooled. "My darling, I have to go. And you must go to bed."
"When are you coming home, Baba?" I would sniffle, twirling and untwirling the cord around my fingers, trying not to let him know I was crying.
"Soon, my darling. Soon." I could hear the phone line crackling softly in the few moments when we were both silent. "I-" POP "-you." Then the line would disconnect.
Mama was always waiting, taking the receiver gently from my hands and placing it on the cradle. She would wipe my tears with the palms of her hands and then take me by the wrist. "Come along. You must get ready for bed."
Every night, Mama brushed my hair one hundred strokes. She said that it made it shinier and longer, but when I got older, I realized that she was actually jealous. Until I was thirteen, I thought that my mother had hair like anyone else. It wasn't until the day of my thirteenth birthday that I saw her without her wig.
My birthdays had always been treated like any other day. Sometimes, depending on where he was, Baba would call me to wish me a good day, but I had come to not expect anything of Baba. Mama was a quiet woman who didn't believe in celebrations, and so on the morning of my birthday, I waited for my car pool like any other day.
While I waited, flipping through the English essay that was to be turned in that day, I heard a faint voice from further inside the house. Empowered by the newly-teenaged blood running through my veins, I shrugged out of my backpack and stood up, wandering down the corridor to where I thought the sound was coming from.
I found the source at Mama's bathroom – she had the radio tuned to some foreign station and was singing along. I heard her before I saw her, and I was stricken by how beautiful her voice was. I had never heard my mother sing.
It was then that I saw her.
I actually saw her reflection in the full-sized mirror over the sink, but the effect was the same. Her head, normally full and thick with dark brown hair, was bald. More than that, it was red and scarred, with smooth burn marks crisscrossing across its entire surface.
As she sang, my mother scrubbed her hair – now detached from her head – in the white bowl of the sink. Her hands moved rhythmically through the lather, scrubbing in time to the foreign melody. The sight of my mother, bald and singing, made me want to cry.
I never told my mother that I knew her secret.
The next Monday when Baba called, I made sure that she was not around before asking him about it. "Baba, when did Mama lose her hair?"
The line was silent for a long time, only pops and crackles. When I was almost sure that we had gotten disconnected, he answered. "I think you should ask her, my darling."
The prospect of broaching the subject with Mama didn't appeal to me in the slightest. Still, I promised him that I would and we soon hung up as always. I was too old by then to cry, but I still asked when he was coming home.
"Soon, my darling. Soon. I love you."
The line disconnected and I followed Mama to let her brush my hair. I didn't say a word the entire time.
I saw my father a total of seven times in my lifetime.
Mama always said that seven was an unlucky number. All bad things, she said, came in sevens. Mama believed things like that, stories that said that sweeping your front porch three times every night would ward off evil spirits, that spitting into pots before you washed them would kill any malignant beings who planned to sicken and kill us.
I was a modern girl and I didn't believe in any of her superstitions, nor did I believe that stepping on a crack would break my mother's back. I stepped on cracks all the time and the only thing I broke was my mother's heart.
The first time that I saw my father was when I was three years old. I don't remember much – a bright tableau, fuzzy images of ice cream shops where he would buy me pistachio and himself butterscotch. He stayed for four days before leaving again.
The last time, I was seventeen. His flight landed early and I drove out to pick him up from the airport. I told myself I was happy to see him. Mama stayed home.
From the airport, we went to a greasy diner. I picked at a plate of French fries while he devoured a patty melt. His beard had grown out, not yet quite full but instead a grey-black scraggle along his chin. He got mustard and a tiny piece of tomato stuck in its tangle as he scarfed down the sandwich, asking me questions about school as he chewed. I answered unenthusiastically, dragging the greasy fries through a puddle of too-red ketchup.
We had grown apart – or perhaps we had never been together. Four day visits when I was seven years old were enough to satiate me, but now that I was seventeen and almost a woman, I had attitude and expectations and he was failing me. As I watched him eat, his yellow teeth tearing eagerly at the patty melt, I was unimpressed. The Baba who I had cried for on the phone was gone. The reality was a sad let down.
I dropped him off at a Motel 6 that night, promising to come see him again during his short stay. We got together once more, to feed the ducks at the park. He was treating me like I was seven years old again, and I resented him for it. When he hugged me good-bye, I stayed stiff as a board.
I let him catch a taxi to the airport.
Now that I am older, I go abroad to visit the crowded alleys where my father spent his time away from us. I carry a picture of us in the airport that last time, a blurred snapshot of him with his arm around my shoulder. We had a stranger snap it in baggage claim – my long hair is messy and falling into my face, and his duffel balances on his hip. Sometimes I show it to the locals of these far off countries, asking them in broken tongues if they knew him.
I don't really care if they knew him. It's not as though these strangers and I share some profound bond by having had him in our lives, for however briefly. Still, it is a comfort to stand where he has stood, to run my hands along the crumbling walls of the alleys where he walked. I try to understand why he loved these places more than us. I visit tiny cafes with phones that crackle when I call home to my mother, probably the same phones he used to call me all of those Monday nights.
I never asked my mother about her hair. Up until the day that I left the house, my mother brushed mine one hundred strokes a night. The day that I left, I cut it short for the first time in my life. My mother cried, though because of my hair or because I was leaving, I'll never know.
I don't cry on the phone anymore – I travel the world like my father, no roots; I brush my short hair one hundred strokes a night like my mother. I don't cry at all, my parents' child, a product of once-a-week phone calls and porcelain-sink-washed wigs. I am a nomad of my own making, not Baba or Mama, but me.