Last night, an unusually wistful Friday, I was at a nearby bookstore, reading Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. I sat on a high chair, moving my legs freely from time to time, my flip flops resting on the ground, turning my head toward the coffee stand, vacillating about getting a drink. I wore my white skirt with the small flowers and a pink tank top, exposing my bare arms, my imperfect tan from the Virginia sun. I was reading a few words at a time, carelessly, habitually, but not passionately. I was too busy creating my own fiction, the kind of fiction you only see in Hollywood, in stories that don’t have a single piece of reality, a single evidence of authenticity. I played a movie in my head, a little creation from my own imagination. But it was an unsuccessful attempt. I thought back to months ago, to Friday nights where I was tired from a long school day. Friday nights where I never had the time to escape from the facts and figures of the minutes and seconds of my life as a high school student. Friday nights that I only longed to sleep through. Last night, however, I lost track of what was real, what was right in front of me. I decided to take a chance, and I invited him to join me; I missed talking to the only teacher who ever listened when I barely said a word. I missed being his student. Maybe I have lost it completely. Maybe I no longer have a grasp of the inevitable fractions of my life that are as comprehensible and clear as Nafisi’s words.
I go through the mail, now filled with unwanted letters from various banks, store savings, sales. I used to be excited for the postman to arrive, dropping letter after letter into boxes that belonged to strangers. My father watched the clock and right about four in the afternoon he went to check the mail, taking the one gold key that opened our little mailbox. I looked forward to letters from Iran, from Sasha and my older siblings who were too far to be reached. But today, there are seldom any letters from home, seldom any letters that excite me. I throw away the unwanted, unopened envelopes, keep those with mom’s or dad’s names. None of them are addressed to me. The hour has reached 11 p.m. and the postman is far from the mail room, from the bag that contains foreign letters, meticulously written in black ink, sealed securely with tape, shielding secrets, stories, tears, smiles.
The afternoon sun comes out and we’re still asleep, disregarding breakfast, ignoring the phone that continuously rings, deliberately not paying attention to the clock that now reads 12. I am bored on this mundane Wednesday afternoon where mom and dad are enjoying a night in the streets of Belgium. I miss Belgian chocolates that never fail to bring a smile to my face. And I miss my brothers, their separate lives, the families they now have. I must do the laundry today because the laundry basket is too full, too heavy; someone has to empty it. She is off to the library and I’m here, in the living room, listening to Shania Twain, Nura’s favorite singer. I found the bottle of wine that she had hidden in one of the cabinets, among pots and pans. I might have a few sips. Or I might not.
Leila, R’s best friend, and Hooman leave their little Pennsylvania home where the Hershey chocolate factory runs, and drive to Virginia for the weekend. Leila talks of their little town that is made up of farms and cornfields and streets named Cocoa and Peanut that smell of chocolate. They share with us what they know about good wines, how much they hate going to work, and that they came to America tens years late. We show them Old town and Georgetown and they fall in love, suddenly speaking of houses they’d wish to have. We sit by the dark water, watching its vastness, stretching without end. Night has fallen and Leila and R speak of their 20s, when they were young, juvenile college students, carelessly letting time pass, doing things they now wish they could do again. Leila tells me I’m the luckiest girl, that I came here at the right age, that I can have so much, that I can be happy. She loves New York City as much as I do and tells me one day she’ll live there. She doesn’t realize that we both live the American dream, that we are both lucky, that despite age, we both can have New York.
Night ends. And we let time pass, unaware that we are a day older. Leila has the world at her fingertips. But in the midst of cornfields, farms, empty bars and cattle, she refuses to wake up and think that one day, she will have the possibility of picking a different path. She will have a million possibilities, and nothing, not even a cornfield, will get in her way.
Amid the traffic of the airport, the arrivals and departures, the yelling and screaming of children who despise long flights and trips they will never remember, I sit on a side, neither arriving nor departing, reading Lahiri’s The Namesake. A little Pakistani lady, who is guiding the travellers, asks them where they’re headed to. Brazil, Mexico, London, Hong Kong, Germany are among the list of destinations. I read from time to time in an effort to forget these foreign places, these beautiful luxuries. But I cannot forget that I’m once again a lonely watcher, one who waits impatiently for destinations of her own, for places to see, for people to meet, for planes to sit in, legs crossed, reading a book, taking short plane naps. At times I’m lost in the story of my book, intrigued by the characters and their dilemmas, by Gogol’s love affairs and his parents’ objections. I put the book aside and pointlessly, inattentively watch the rest of the passengers who wait in lines longer than our lunch lines, suddenly enjoying my little comfort zone where I’m lost in fiction, in a story that is not mine.
I look at all the different brand names and I see Budweiser, a familiar name I often see on commercials. “We should get this one; I’ve seen it on commercials.” We are ignorant of brands for such beverages, beverages that we are forbidden to talk about, forbidden to drink. The bottle of red wine that we pick is designed with flowers, too pretty for its content. Somehow the flowers and colors make this prohibited act okay. By night, the candles are lit and I propose a toast, “To a life in New York City.” I drink my first wine, sipping a frowned upon drink, an act of sin. I swallow and my throat feels hot; I suddenly feel a warmness I have never felt before. I don’t like its taste, its bitterness and I push my glass aside. But maybe I can ignore the details and simply say that it was poetic, romantic, exotic. A bottle of wine will always be a bottle of wine. It will be forbidden for some and celebrated by others. And I, I can say what I want. I can say that I look forward to exotic adventures and frivolous pleasures in the future. Maybe in New York. Maybe here. There are no rules as to where I will choose to stay; I can pick something I’ve only heard of, like picking a beer I’ve seen an ad for. I’ve chosen a forbiddent taste tonight, what will I choose tomorrow?
I ask her why she is tired. I ask her what worries her. She looks at me and I already know. She is tired of always being the grown up of the house, the one who watches out for Dad, the one who cooks, cleans, provides rides for her little sister. She has always played the role of the second mother. She tells me she never got to be a child, a child who could play without worrying about her little brother, a child who could play without wondering when mother would return.
She is eight and mother is gone. For the next five years, mother will be away. The little girl begins to feel responsible for what her brothers do, for what happens in the house. She begins to think that if something goes wrong it will be her responsibility to fix it. But she is only eight. She should be careless, free of guilt, free of blame. Suddenly she sees herself growing up. In her little mind, she is already a grown up who tries to fill the space of her absent mother. Someone forgets to tell her that she is a child and doesn’t need to worry. Someone forgets to remind her that she shouldn’t feel responsible. Someone forgets to tell her that all she has to do is play with her dolls, clean after herself, wash her teeth before bedtime and do her homework. No one ever does. And she grows up without ever having a childhood. Mother returns but her baby daughter is too grown up, too mature to yell at her for being gone for so long, too old to cry or whine or ask for a new pair of shoes.Taking care of others eventually becomes her job and she never forgets to reach out to others and give them her hand.
I cannot look into her broken eyes, eyes that have seen beyond their years, eyes that have been impaired beyond repair. Beneath her fragile figure is a strong woman, a woman of beauty, passion, and courage, a woman who I will always look up to.
I am standing on the mall’s roof, right next to the movie theater. I have just gotten out of work and I’m waiting for her to pick me up. The soles of my feet ache and I feel as though I’m sinking into the depths of the ground. My music plays in my ears and I’m watching couples enter the AMC. I have my arms stretched out, my back against the edge, like those who are about to smoke. But I’m a girl with no cigarette, no beer can. Beside my purse of personal belongings, I’m empty handed; I possess nothing. And I’m the loneliest stranger.
It’s a hot summer day in Tehran and mom is asleep in her room. I am eight and tired of playing with Barbie dolls. Outside I hear the namaki, a guy who sells nothing but salt and in return collects dry bread. He shouts, “namaki, namaki” so even those in the middle of their nap can hear him. I hear the wheels of his cart as he pushes it from kooche to kooche, street to street, under the burning afternoon sun. I open the window and look down below; the namaki man is passing by, the front of his cart filled with bags of salt, the back with dry bread. I am scared of him because he wears torn clothes and wanders the endless kooches, shouting in a loud tone. He is a stranger who may have a wife and child waiting for him somewhere. But he means nothing to me. I am just a child in need of a game to break myself away from boredom. The sound of his cart wheels diminishes until I no longer hear him. Mom wakes up and makes tea. I watch her drink it and go back to playing with a Barbie doll that is slim like a model, with beautiful blond hair. But unlike most little girls, I never secretly want to be her. She is just a doll, like the namaki man who is just a stranger selling salt.
But as I sit here today, my Barbie dolls crammed into a suitcase on a shelf, the namaki man miles away in another continent, I suddenly miss them. I miss hearing the namaki’s cart wheels. I miss our kooche and the view from the roof top. I miss the indefatigable construction workers who built block after block from dawn to dusk. I picture these images in my head, these small but priceless memories of the past.
I drink my tea and listen to James Blunt. Iran is too far away now and there is not a single sound that will trace back those summer days when I was a child listening to the namaki, the man who sold salt.
I pick a French baguette as I realize we’ve run out of bread and wish to pick a bottle of red wine as an addition to my short shopping list. A bottle of wine to add some flavor to a flavorless meal. But in a society of rules and regulations, I simply cannot. Back home where the curtains are shut and the lights are dimmed, my father meticulously cuts the baguette into smaller pieces. Though night has already fallen and another day has terminated, my unfinished story sits still on a table and uncompleted thoughts run through my head. I eat a neatly cut piece of the French baguette and watch the orange moon that is my only source of light. I wonder if that bottle of red wine would have made this night any different. I wonder if it would have pleased me enough so I could ignore the unsettling facts of the simple life I lead. I wonder, and the moon grows fainter, no longer lighting the room. The moon has betrayed me and I’m now trapped in darkness as night wraps itself around me, like a well-fitted coat that tightly holds you against your skin.