I found an unused cigarette two nights ago and I took it home. I keep it in sight, on my dishevelled desk, among papers and picture frames. Once in a while I take it out of its box, hold it between my fingers, look into a mirror. It scares me that I’m intrigued by a disgusting, dangerously addicting thing. It scares me that I like holding it. Holding it makes me happy. The illusion of smoking it pleases me. I play with it, sniff it and am at once disappointed. I’m curious to know the feeling of smoking despite my resentment toward it. I put it back inside the box. One day I will give in to my curiosity and I will light it.
Mahi says my inner child is dead. She says I can’t enjoy the silliness of life, the meaningless movies, the insignificant books that are not supposed to be educating. Perhaps I have involved myself with too many realities. Perhaps I have forgotten to watch a film that would simply make me laugh without any further reaction. Perhaps I have let literature consume me with all its metaphors, symbolisms, similes, oxymorons. I don’t tell Mahi that my only way of survival is my imagination. I don’t tell her that I have created a simpler, prettier world, a metaphor for happiness, a fiction that I can’t stop living in. I laugh and she amuses herself, jokingly saying that my heart is dead. I let her assume that my inner child is nonexistent. Perhaps she is right.
The couple eating next to us and their two children are Persian. The mother has the typical fake blond hair and a slightly rich accent as she announces her order to the waitress. I hear them arguing over what they should order for dinner. Should they get French fries as a side dish or pasta? Should they share a bottle of wine? Despite their varying tastes, they finally settle on French fries and instead of wine order soda. I stir my café au lait gently a couple of times. I don’t disregard its bitterness; I add sugar. But I’m still disappointed by its dullness and can no longer pretend that I like it. In my mind I imagine that I’m drinking a sweet, pleasantly tasty beverage. I imagine that I’m having the best moment of my life. I imagine that I’m not bothered by the heat and someone is ordering the food of my choice: roasted chicken with baked potatoes. I leave the last sip of the disappointing café au lait in its lonely cup and say goodbye to the owner of the restaurant. I wonder if the couple and their kids enjoyed their dinner. Or maybe the French fires were too cold.
In her book, Azar Nafisi asks readers to imagine her and her students reading Lolita in Tehran. I imagine them, listen to their stories, their pains, their lives, their chosen destinies by an authoritarian regime. I picture what Nafisi paints with her words, the color of her rug, the faces of her girls. Their Iran is different than what mine is. Theirs is colorless, stale, rigid, formidable. Mine is the memory of narrow kooches, the ones I freely hopped in, held my brother’s hands, walked in a loosely tied scarf, wore a fainted red lipstick. My Iran is the memory of women and the mass of hair they revealed from underneath their scarves. The memory of forgotten veils and pink scarves. But in the living room of Nafisi’s house, Iran is in a bad time period, trapped within a difficult, bitter array of rules, regulations. The girls expose the colors of their hair, their makeup and clothes inside this colorful living room, the only place where black and white don’t overrule the rest of the colors. They share their bitterness against the outside world, the world of forbidden fiction, forbidden tastes, forbidden colors. It is inside Nafisi’s living room that they enter the imagination of Nabokov, the fantasies of Humbert Humbert, the tragic life of little Lo, Lolita. What me and these girls share is quite simply the desperation to escape realities that trap us, the desperation to abandon the walls that keep us locked in a world of politics, officials, prison guards.
In an attempt to prolong a night that has already fallen, we rummage through M street, making our way to the Potomac River. Streets are now filled with drunken boys holding cigarettes that distract by passers. These beautiful boys are almost falling, barely keeping up with the rest of the sober crowd, the one that gave up a bottle of wine for other pleasures. I find a Marlboro pack on a bench we sit on. A single, untouched cigarette rests inside the green and white box; I decide to keep it. Once again, we find ourselves among people who seem to be in a world far from us, or maybe we are just too sober to realize that we all live in the same world. We are too sober to realize that our world is a shadow of theirs, wrapped in reality, in logic, in facts. We decide to drift away, walk away from them, let them enjoy their drinks, cigars, campaigns, their expensive boats. Let us forget about prince charming riding on a white horse. Let us forget perfect endings. Let us keep dreaming while we’re asleep; maybe then we can possess the night, the boys, the moon, the river.
I realize now, after four years of continuous posts, blogs, entries, that I have candidly shared my life with millions of strangers. It’s funny that I’m just thinking of this fact now, or maybe I just ignored it all along. I believe that becoming an open book was something I enjoyed and still enjoy. It is a way of getting attention, of being the spoiled kid I never really got to be, the one that got all the attention. I am also selfish. I have opened pieces of my life, fiction or non-fiction, fabricated or real, realistic or fictitious, for anyone to read. If that’s not a selfish act, then what is it? I feel a little powerful despite the sense of trepidation that I always portray. This sense of vulnerability has made me braver than I thought. Suddenly I have opened up in my own reality, my everyday life where I’m most often a closed book. All this writing has made me believe that being myself is not so bad, being imperfect is actually a good thing, that people pay attention when I act like myself. Just like I allowed myself to write a piece of fiction about a mother and her Lolita, two characters who were made-up simply from my imagination, I’ve allowed myself to say and not just write the things I want to say. Just as I allowed myself to reveal my deepest fears, like the fear of being a mother, a bride, a symbol of attachment, or of being alone in a city like New York, I’ve also allowed readers to see my most sacred imaginations. As most good readers know, all writers, even those who fabricate stories, have experienced or have thought about the things they write. By permitting my readers to see my imagination, I can no longer hide the real me, the one that only my faithful readers know.
In the bus, in between all the tired and bored faces of random strangers, I find Gogol, a little Indian boy, the main character of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. He sits with his mother who, unlike Gogol’s mother, is not wearing a sari. She too is pregnant. The little boy swings his legs, unaware that he is hitting his mother’s as well. I watch the two of them; they resemble a perfect picture, a perfect bond of nature, the quintessential mother and son. The mother sits with her bag of groceries between her laps, holding onto Gogol’s shoulder with one hand. This relationship that they have formed together as mother and son, a relationship so strong and secure, so intrinsic, will eventually fade once Gogol grows up. He will forget how close he was to her, how much he needed her by his side, how lost he felt without her. He will grow up, move to the city, he will find love, will learn to give things up. His mother will learn to give up the idea that Gogol and the rest of her children will be by her side forever. She will drive her own car, buy her own groceries, find her own pleasures. But that one perfect picture, the one with Gogol in her arms, will stay in a little picture frame, giving her the sense of motherhood she felt when he was still her unborn child. The sense she felt when he was hers and no one else’s.
I cried when I pictured our empty house in Tehran, the one that is now sold, the one that I revisited four years ago, unaware that it would be the last visit, the last good-bye. I cried as I pictured my aunt, sobbing, saying good-bye to my brother and his wife, the last settlers of the third floor. I cried as I remembered the summer days where we gathered together on the rooftop, eating cool watermelons, sipping tea, watching the sunset.
I picture my brother, locking the door that opened and closed a million times. He takes one last look at the empty apartment, the stain that never came off the wall, the mirror that reflected his distraught, broken face. He takes one last look at a house that he came to love, one last look at the thirty years he spent in every little corner of a house that now needs repair. One last look at the house that he became a son in, a man, a husband. He locks the door, disposing of the past that never left his memory, walks down the spotless stairs that my uncle cleans everyday, steps out in the heat of Tehran. He and Sara become renters of a new house, occupying another house, another life. The past is gone. He is free, free of every bitter memory, every sad good-bye, everything that deprived him of being a dreamer. He is free to write a book, tell the story of what happened, the story that he will now live. I hope he does.
A French diner, smoking a cigarette, flirting with the woman next to him. Casually speaking a language that makes me high, makes me forget where I am, makes me float. His words are incomprehensible to me, inexplicable, vague, blurred like a foggy window. But I find the foreignness of his tongue attractive, seductive, mysterious. I envy his power to speak so fluently, in rhythm, in balance, a perfect meld with the universe. I envy that he sits there, smoking negligently, speaking in beats, like a song that rhymes. I want to sit with him, smoke with him, listen to him speak, misunderstand, become the smoke that he puffs, evaporate. But we are far from the French man. It was a moment that passed, a moment I will never get back. He is still talking to the woman who understands him. He has dropped his cigarette, crushing it with the sole of his shoe.
Mother’s definition of happiness is the realistic kind, the simplest, the purest. We grew up learning to enjoy simple, authentic things. We learned to be thankful for the roof we slept under, the food we had, the beds we slept in each night. She lived, satisfying herself with what she had, with what was brought and given to her in the name of God. And that’s how she taught us. That life is good because we can walk and breathe and live in a world that is not necessarily kind, not necessarily giving. We admired mother’s ability to accept the good and the bad, the worst and the best, the right and the wrong. But we came to find the ideal happiness. The one that is never quite reachable, never quite achievable. We learned to want more, want the things we couldn’t have, the things we wished to have. We tell mother we are not happy but she doesn’t understand. She is still happy with the one pair of jeans she owns, the one gold ring she wears. We have grown up and America has opened our eyes to dreams, possibilities, an eternal bliss that we must somehow conquer.