You ask why I enjoy riding the bus. I’m going to tell you why. Inside a bus one can find all types of individuals: the poor, the rich, the middle class, the cultured, the uncultured, the loner, the book reader, the music lover, the demure, the outrageous, the rebel, the alcoholic, the dreamer, the loyal, the disloyal, the brave, the weak. Today I encounter a young man with an odd, impermanent tattoo on his left arm. He looks angry or maybe his natural features falsely depict anger on his face. He might even just be naturally careless and indifferent to what goes on around him; he is almost an older version of Holden Caulfield in Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Both as an observer and a writer, I have the power to classify these people into groups. I can categorize them in anyway I like. I can judge them based on physical appearance, give them names, or make up and change their stories. Like the woman who is sitting in front of me looks sad. Her daughter called her this morning, informing her of another miscarriage. The woman is therefore sad and feels sorry for the grandchild she has lost. Or the girl standing next to me with the white shirt is going to work. She doesn’t care too much about looking glam and fabulous, but she does have a knack for keeping her nails meticulously polished, painted and edged. Sadia used to tell me she makes up stories for people who ride the bus. She says that is her favorite thing to do. I don’t exactly follow her path, but I look for inspiration, something to write about later on. I look for people who look interesting, amusing, different and entertaining. I don’t always meet them but on a crowded bus of workers and those with no lives, one should never underestimate another’s potential for a possibly remarkable life story.
There is one picture in my mind that I can never forget. I took it during my visit to Iran four years ago. We were at the national cemetery, the biggest one where almost everyone gets buried. I visited the grave of my grandfather and his beloved children who were killed during the revolution. I looked at the cold tombstones, those lonely, sad tombs that were drenched in dust. My grandmother watered them, placed flowers on each stone, then touched them with her wrinkled hands and mourned inside. Moments later my brother took me to the other side of the graveyard where the sinners and counterrevolutionaries were buried, their tombs destroyed and abandoned, almost unidentifiable. A woman in a black chador that signified not Islam but power was among the tombs, hidden in between the tall, yellow grasses. She was still, kneeling down, silently grieving. We shot a picture of her. The day was peaceful, quiet, yet fogged with a heavy air, like a dusty cover of a book that has been neglected by its owner. Was she crying? For whom was she mourning? How many had she lost? And what had been their crimes or did that even matter? In a country of contradictions where rules never make it into books, nothing has to be defined. Not even the reason of your death. We left the scene as quietly and inconspicuously as we had arrived. My mind was still on her. She had been betrayed by the land that promised her protection against Satan and the forces of evil, but not against inhumanity or the depravation of her individuality. With that veil and the silent tears, had she become the ideal woman and could she cover her injuries, her wounded heart as perfectly as she covered her body with the veil?
I remember my school teachers vividly in the Islamic Republic of Iran; their faces have yet to leave my mind. Mrs. Haghighat used to read to us passages of the Holy Quran every morning before we started class. It was a routine we did everyday, like bell work or warm up. She wanted us to hear and listen to the magical words of the book. She wanted to help us be good Muslim girls, proper, mannered, obedient. And I tried to be more or less that girl, the shy, respectful, good child. I prayed five times a day dutifully but not because mother told me to. In fact no one in the house forced me to what the outside world was telling its people. I covered my hair as I entered the fourth grade because I was being reprimanded by others. When I told mother of my decision, she neither applauded nor criticized my action. So I assumed I was doing the right thing. I remember Mrs. Mojarad who told us about the burning fires of hell and the birds and gardens of paradise. She taught and we learned and did what we were told to do. I was left to believe what I was told. I accepted the heaven and hell that was so distinctly described, like an irrevocable answer to a complicated equation. I accepted that if I showed a strand of hair I would go to hell and all of my hair would be cut off.
That was then, when my world was made up of women veiled from head to toe who believed in an idealistic paradise that none of them had actually seen. That was then when we would gather in a small room as a class of fourth graders, listening to stories of prophets and their sacrifices while our teachers encouraged us to mourn and cry.
And now…I’m a sinner I suppose. I write of forbidden realities don’t I? I write of my personal affinities and dreams don’t I? I am an independent thinker, am I not? According to rules of that other world, am I not then a sinner, a betrayer? In that world, isn’t thinking a crime? Isn’t defining your own rules of life a crime? Had I been in that world, I would have been jailed. Perhaps executed. Like so many others, like so many writers who lived on writing and died for it with a single bullet that came like an abrupt period at the end of a sentence.
I’m walking up a flight of stairs into the open sun. The sun rays hit my eyes and I am forced to shut them for a brief moment. In this moment I embrace the vastness of where I am and the emancipation that comes with it. Suddenly and desperately I want to melt with the sun. Melt and become nothing. I want to be light, weightless. My body is suddenly unbearable and heavy and I think I might fall.
In the few moments I have left before I enter the mall where I work, I contemplate about who I’ve become. Again and again I’m struck by the image I had six years ago and the one I hold now. I feel liberated from a world I wasn’t exactly a prisoner of, but one that would have become a prison had I stayed.
But the past is the past. Now, on an early morning hour of a cool Friday, the sky is so limitless, so vast that I can’t help but feel powerful. There is no one else here but me. I have a bag on my shoulder, walking to the beat of the music that is faithfully playing in my ears. The day is beautiful and I feel free. I’m loving it. It being all that defines the dream, the pure, tangible American dream.
The watermelon skin has added more weight to the normally light-weighed trash bag, making it unusually heavy. I throw the trash down the dark trash chute. Empty handed I walk back to the apartment, throw the keys aside and go straight to the kitchen where the tea pot awaits my arrival. It’s that time of the day where I must have my afternoon tea. My only relaxation of this lazy, unproductive day depends on a cup of hot Earl grey tea. But on this ridiculously boring, pathetic summer afternoon, I want to indulge myself with a piece of Leonidas Belgian chocolate, a single, authentic taste of heaven right here where I sit and think of all the things I want.
If I close my book and look ahead, I will see a man in a white t-shirt and dark blue jeans. To my far left I will see a young, unkempt boy of 19 or 20 in baggy jeans, a baggy shirt, messy hair, chewing an unlit cigarette. Behind the man in the white t-shirt I will see trees, houses and pretty streets that give shape to what I’m picturing in my imagination. I go back inside the book where Nafisi tells me of Iran and its tragic past, the past I never lived. I go back inside her world and forget the comfort of my own utopia, where I listen to my music, wear what I want, say what I want, read any book. In my utopia there are no forbidden desires, no walls except the ones I create for myself. There are no veiled women who reprimand me for my bare legs and arms. “They” no longer take charge of my life. But if I close this book, will I take the freedom I’ve been given for granted? Will I forget how much I’ve been given? Will I be the insatiable child that I’ve always been?
After a month of waiting at bus stops, getting on and off the 28A and B, I have formed an indirect relationship with drivers and other passengers. Some faces have become familiar and although the closest I’ve come to knowing them has been through my imagination, I feel as though I can now call them acquaintances. Acquaintances that I may never see again or may one day get to know. I will remember these faces that spoke to me through their eyes. Pairs of eyes that said so much yet revealed very little. Eyes of sadness and painful pasts, eyes that wandered dutifully but with no purpose, eyes that sparked in the sweltering sun, eyes of bewilderment and eyes of discontent. I will remember the women who carried big purses and grocery bags, the men who sat, legs apart, leaving no space for those around them, the cigarette lady who I only saw twice. I remember some of their bus stops, where they get off, murmuring thank you to the bus driver. I’m beginning to look at life the way the bus drivers do. They look at life as a series of stops, of arrivals and departures. Life is a like a moving bus, taking us through rough bumps, sharp turns, persistent stops. And the cycle never stops, in rain or in the sun, this bus keeps moving toward destinations that only its passengers recognize.
There are a few things that inspire me to write: wine, cigarettes, people, books, other writers. Writers like Nafisi, Lahiri, Nabokov, Atwood, my dear friend Sheri, my cousin Sasha, my sister. I write when I’m motivated, when I’m inspired, when I have a strong feeling about something. And if nothing comes to my head, I seek for something. I search like a madwoman who’s going through her big purse of makeup, tools, wallet, phone, other women necessities. I’m doing such a search tonight and I’m afraid there is nothing in my big purse. I have been devoured by so many imaginations and fantasies that I’ve lost track of what’s real. Once again, I write realities, although fiction is much more fun… Let me just go to bed. I’ll be inspired tomorrow.
I need reminders of that life sometimes. That life I left six years ago rather abruptly, with not a single warning or sign. N’s mother reminds me of Iran, of Persia, of home, of the grandeur that Tehran represents in my eyes. I see her natural beauty, her soft features, her kind, genuine smile, her natural light brown hair and I feel close to home. Her Iranian elegance and style reminds me that not everyone here in America, the forbidden country, the worst enemy, has turned his back on Iran. That some still remember to say salam when they learn you were born in the same land they were born in. That some don’t turn into blonds or suddenly forget how to speak their mother tongue. N’s mom, who I have no close relations with and have only met twice, is the kind of lady I admire. Simply her hello, the way she pronounces my name, adding khanoom to respectfully call me “miss”, are enough to make me proud that I am, and will always be an Iranian lady.