A sample of a novel based on a true story about growing up in post revolutionary Iran.
I woke up to the murmur of the ocean and the gentle breeze that shook the fronds of the palm tree outside my bedroom window. It was another cool, perfect southern California morning. I yawned a luxurious yawn.
Then I heard it. The sound of the entry gate creaking shut. I threw a quick glance at my bedside clock. Five minutes past seven. Mike, my boyfriend, was still fast asleep in the middle of the bed where we had cuddled. His surfboard leaned against the bedroom wall.
I heard a key fumbling in the lock of the front entrance door of my craftsmen bungalow. I didn’t have time to think. I shoved Mike out of bed.
He woke up with a gasp. “What?”
“Get into the closet.”
I pulled up my pants. “My mom is here.”
He stood masculine and handsome, his blond hair in disarray. “So?”
This is when you remember that dating an Iranian man is easier. You don’t have to explain these things. “Oh, stop asking stupid questions. Get into the closet.”
I pulled open the closet door and recalled a little too late that in an attempt to tidy up my place before Mike came by, I’d thrown my dirty laundry into the closet. I kicked the clothes to the side.
“Sara?” Maman’s chirping voice reached me.
Why had I ever given her a key? Since I’d got my own place a few years back, Maman had insisted on getting a copy of my key. She said she needed it in case I forgot to water my plants (which, to be fair, happened quite often) or didn’t go grocery shopping (she was especially concerned when she saw a magnet on my refrigerator saying “if it walks out, let it go”). After arguing about this for months, I’d finally succumbed.
“Where are you?” Maman said.
“Sorry,” I whispered to Mike and slammed the door shut in his face.
“There you are.”
I spun around. Maman stood in the doorway with a bright smile, holding an empty laundry basket in her hands. She had combed her frizzy hair to one side and wore a colorful skirt that came below her knees. She seemed so happy to be here to help me with my chores that I couldn’t help feeling guilty that I didn’t want her here. Of course, another part of me wanted to wring her neck, my mother or not. I’d been with Mike for almost two years and managed to avoid such a scene. What would he think of me now?
But I was concerned for my parents. If Maman learned about Mike she and Baba would worry that I’d taint my reputation in the Iranian community. Though she and I had never talked about it, sex before marriage was a big no-no, which was ridiculous considering that most Iranian women living in the States had plenty of sex before marriage. The only thing that had remained from the old culture was the pretense that we were all virgins.
“I’m here to help you with your laundry, Honey,” Maman said.
“Isn’t it a little too early for that?”
She chose not to hear me. “Where are your dirty clothes?”
“I don’t have any. I just did laundry last night—“
“Aha!” She raised her finger and marched to my closet. Unfortunately, she was only too aware of my bad habits.
“No.” I sprang on the bed and jumped between her and the closet.
“Don’t be silly, Sara. Let me have a look.”
“No, Maman. Seriously—“
“But I’m here to help. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have come this early. I’m going to do lunch with your Uncle Amir. I need to be out of here by ten.” She pushed me aside. “Let me see. If it’s not a lot I can take them home with me and wash them with your father’s clothes.”
“I have a washer and dryer here, Maman.”
“I’ll wash them here then.” She pulled the handle of the closet door.
I slammed my entire body against it. Did I hear a squeal? Mike would definitely dump me after this. “Why don’t you come to the kitchen and have some coffee, Maman?”
“I don’t like coffee. I’ve told you.”
“Sorry, I forgot. Tea, then?”
She sighed. “If you don’t want me to do laundry, you should just say so.”
I thought I had but I didn’t correct her.
“You’re being very silly, Sara. I know you want to be independent but you’re still my daughter. I’m allowed to do these things for you.”
“That’s sweet, Maman. But it’s seven o’clock on a Saturday morning and I need caffeine. Let’s have tea first. Then we’ll worry about it.”
“I can make your bed too—“
“Come, Maman. Please.”
She took a deep breath, placed the empty basket on the bed and walked in front of me to the kitchen. My mind was on Mike. I had to find a way to get him out of here.
I opened the Dutch door to the yard. The scent of Jasmine filled the room and I breathed it in. At this time of year, the garden was full of orange butterflies. I could get a glimpse of the ocean between the tall cactus trees.
I pulled open a mahogany drawer and reached for a tea bag.
“You’re not giving me Lipton, are you?”
I glanced at her, the tea bag in my hand.
Maman shook her head. “I bought you a samovar.”
She had and I’d never used it. It was somewhere with my pots and pans under the sink. It took too long to brew tea that way. “This is easier.”
While the water boiled, Maman sat down. I made some coffee for myself.
“I have found a doctor for you,” she said.
I opened the refrigerator and poured myself a glass of orange juice. “I’m not sick.”
“You are not married, either.”
I almost spit out the juice. “You haven’t. Who is he?”
“You shouldn’t be so suspicious. I have good taste, you know. I married your father.”
“Who’s the guy, Maman?”
“The son of your Aunt Pari’s neighbor. He is an Iranian gentleman. He lives with his parents. He is about thirty-eight years old and he has his own practice. He just started biking so he likes sports too. I know how important this is to you.”
“Before you refuse, I want you to know that I’m doing this only for you. What life is this, Sara?” She waved her hand around. “You are lonely. You must marry.”
“I’m not lonely, Maman. I have my practice. I have friends. I have you and Baba. I have a pretty good life and I’m not sure marriage is for me. I mean—“
“I’ll move in with you.”
The problem with Iranian mothers (and I know I’m generalizing here, but I’ve seen very few examples to the contrary) is that they love you to death – literally. If you gave my mother half the chance she’d say she’d given up all her ambitions and dreams for her daughter’s happiness and success. In other words, she didn’t have a life, which meant now that I had one, she intended to live it out with me.
“We’ve discussed this before, Maman. I can’t live with you and Baba. I’m thirty two years old.” Though I had noticed my proposed husband was living with his parents at thirty-eight.
Maman shrugged. “Fine but I still think you’re lonely.”
I turned off the stove and poured hot water into a mug. The coffee had brewed now, but I felt bad having any while Mike was stuck in a closet. Suddenly, I heard a noise and caught my breath.
Maman looked up sharply. “What was that? Is it a burglar?”
“Of course not. It’s probably the neighbor’s dog. He gets in through the back gate. Let me check—“
“Dogs are filthy, Honey. Don’t touch it.”
“Yes, Maman. Here’s your tea. I’ll be right back.”
I rushed into the bedroom. Mike was standing barefoot in the middle of the room with his pants on and his shirt and shoes in his hands.
“Where are you going?” I said.
“I’m trying to get out of here—“
“Sara?” Maman cried.
I ran a hand through my unruly hair. “Jesus Christ.”
Mike grinned. “Does he help Muslims?”
“Where are your sugar cubes?” Maman cried.
I snuck a quick look out of the room. She was still in the kitchen. “I’ve got powder sugar. It’s in the cupboard next to the sink.” I turned to Mike. “If you leave now, she’ll see you. Give me a few minutes and I’ll take her into the backyard. Then you can get out.”
“Sara.” Maman’s chair scraped. She was on the move.
I rushed to the closet and opened the door. Mike sighed, stepped in, and sat down on the hardwood floor. “Why don’t you just tell her about us?”
“Because we’re not married.”
“Well, let’s get married then.”
I blinked. “What?”
“Let’s get married. We’ve talked about it.” He shrugged easily. “Let’s do it.”
“Are you proposing?”
He thought for a second and then nodded. “It seems I am.”
“Sara Moggadam, not only don’t you have sugar cubes which is the only proper type of sugar to have with your Persian tea—“
I slammed the door shut in Mike’s face. My heard pounding, I turned around.
“On top of it, this milk is five weeks old.” Maman frowned. Her eyes moved suspiciously from my face to the closet. “Are you all right?”
“Of course.” I forced a smile. “I want to show you something.”
“My shared balcony. You get a full view of the ocean from up there.”
“You showed it to me when you first got this place, Honey. I don’t—“
I snatched her hand and pulled her after me. “Yes, but we’ve never had tea up there. Tell you what. Let’s have breakfast together. I’ll make some eggs and we’ll set up a table.”
“Really?” She looked so pleased that I felt guilty. I really didn’t spend enough time with her.
We walked across the green lawn, past the giant cactus and the banana tree, up the wooden steps leading to the shared balcony. Right then, I heard Mike’s hybrid hum out of the driveway. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, a gentle breeze pushing back my hair from my face.
He had proposed and I had slammed the door in his face. Literally. He must be furious. I had to call Lilly or Roya. Or both.
Maman glanced at the Pacific Ocean. “California is so lovely. I’m so glad your father and I moved close to you.” She then frowned. “I didn’t see any eggs in your refrigerator or cheese or bread. How can we have breakfast here? What do you live on, Honey?”
This brought me back to reality. She was right. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gone grocery shopping. But then I shrugged. It didn’t matter. It was a lovely sunny day in Manhattan Beach and there was a café two blocks from my place. I placed a hand around her shoulders. Lilly and Roya would have to wait. So would Mike. “Let’s go out for breakfast. My treat. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while.”
And this was no lie.
“What are you going to do about Mike?”
Lilly lit another cigarette. She had smoked since we were twelve years old. Much as I loved her, after the smoke-free environment of California, I couldn’t stand it. I stepped back and waved her cigarette smoke away.
“Sorry.” She held the cigarette away from my face. “Don’t you ever want to get married?”
“I don’t know.” It was the day after Mike’s proposal, and Lilly, Roya and I were at a wedding. I threw a quick glance at the charming twenty-something groom who after five months of dating had proposed to Roya’s younger sister. Some people made marriage look so easy.
Others didn’t. Of the three of us, Roya was the only one of us openly dating, and that was not going well. I’d arrived late to the wedding to discover that Roya had kicked Ali, the boyfriend in question, in the groin right in front of the bathroom where she had caught him smooching with another girl. Unfortunately, a frizzy haired waitress who’d witnessed the scene passed that bit of juicy gossip to her boss, the head caterer. Her boss, a middle aged short man with a large belly who was busy unloading trays of Zulbia and Bamieh from the back of his Mercedes SUV, told her that it was none of her business, then happened to repeat the scene while talking about the beauty of the Iranian culture with an older gentleman who’d come to the kitchen for a glass of water. By the time I arrived, all the guests at the Ritz Carlton knew about Roya’s unladylike behavior.
“How’s Roya doing?” I asked.
“I don’t know, but she looks awful in that dress.”
I hated to admit it but it was true. All guests including Lilly and I were dressed in subdued beige and black. Roya’s red dress shone like a Christmas gift when she stood next to her younger sisters to take pictures. From the corner of my eyes, I noticed Ara and Azin, the chubby evil twin sisters, glance at Roya and giggle. I sighed. Despite myself I wished Roya had for once listened to Lilly and not wore that hideous dress.
Roya marched past two ladies and almost bumped into me. “There you are. Did you hear—“
“Yes,” I said.
She placed both hands on her cheeks. “I’m so embarrassed.”
I put my arm around her shoulders. Now I was in the middle, my arms around each of my childhood buddies. Roya was the tallest of us all and the strongest. And a little crazy but we still loved her.
“He deserved it,” I said.
“I know.” Roya leaned closer, her naturally straight hair rubbing against my cheek. “But I shouldn’t have done it. Not here, in front of everyone. And definitely not in front of my parents. Baba is horrified that people are going to talk about me.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that, since she was the eldest of all her married sisters and still single, chances were that they’d talk about her anyway.
“Can you believe what that asshole did?” Roya said. “After I kicked him in the—“
“Yes, we heard,” Lilly said.
“Well, he was in the kitchen crawling like the dog he is and then finally comes out and wants to see if I forgive him. That son of a…”
Lilly threw me a glance and I suppressed a smile. Deep in our hearts we couldn’t blame Ali for getting tired of Roya’s drama. Throughout the fifteen years that they’d been together, Roya must have broken up with him about thirty times. Lately, she’d been threatening to do it again. Why? Because she had the syndrome that infects most Iranians girls. We think we’re too good for anyone. If Prince Charming fell from the sky into our laps, we’d expect him to flatter and compliment us like the Persian Princesses we are, not only with words and affection but also his wallet. We’re a passionate lot and Roya the most passionate of us all. Also the most dangerous to her boyfriends since she’d gotten her Karate black belt. But we’d be damned if we said what we thought. Roya was our Porthos and she’d needed the extravagance to survive the madness of Iran.
“But enough of me,” Roya said. “Lilly told me what happened with Mike. You really slammed the closet door in his face?”
I cringed. “I didn’t mean to. Besides it’s a strange place to propose. He could’ve waited until we were somewhere more romantic.”
Lilly grinned. “Have you called him?”
I nodded, feeling miserable, then turned to Roya. “He’s gone to New York on a seminar. He flew out today. He won’t be back for a couple of days.”
“And he’s not picking up the phone,” Lilly said.
I nodded and cringed again.
“Do you think he’s breaking up with you?” The way Roya said that with her eyes guarded and her fingers curled up into a fist, it was as though getting dumped was the worst thing that could ever happen to you.
The truth was, I didn’t mind getting dumped. In the past it had prevented me from having to hurt someone else’s feelings. But the idea that Mike might dump me made me slightly dizzy. I placed a hand on the back of a wooden chair. “I’ve left him three messages and he hasn’t called me back.”
“Did any of your messages say you’d marry him?” Lilly asked.
I shook my head.
Roya frowned. “Don’t you love him?”
“Of course I love him.”
“He doesn’t make a lot of money.”
“Oh, geez,” Lilly said. She was our Aramis, the incurable romantic.
“I know.” I turned to her angrily. “But if I married an Iranian man tomorrow, chances are he’d be a doctor or a dentist or a lawyer. He could provide for a family.”
“Mike’s a lawyer.” Lilly blew out the smoke of her cigarette. The way she had carefully manicured and painted her fingernails brought back memories of my grandma. No matter what the situation, Grandma found time for fashion. Lilly was no different.
I smiled. “For non profit.”
“I know.” I raised my hand with a firmness that I knew would make her back off. “What he does for a living is admirable. I understand that. The problem is that if I marry him, he will do what he loves, and I, the dentist, will be the provider and you know how I feel about my job. I hate it. I don’t want to be stuck doing it for the rest of my life.” I was Athos, the practical one.
“But Sara, he has potential.” Roya threw Lilly an irritated glance. “You really ought to stop smoking. It’s a filthy habit.” Then turned back to me. “You guys will figure it out. I mean doesn’t he speak four languages and didn’t he go to Stanford?”
“He’s cute, he’s nice, he adores you. What else do you need?”
For a girl who had dumped her own boyfriend at least once a year, she was making a good case for mine.
“But what about my parents?” I said. “Baba says he wants me to marry an Iranian. ‘No one is like your own blood!’ Maman wants me to marry a doctor. Once a month she finds one to fix me up with. They say Iranian men are better family men.”
“Really?” Lilly said.
“Well…I mean, there are…”
“I know what you mean. The sane ones.”
“Besides,” I said quickly, “do intercultural marriages even work? The first and only time I visited his family in Portland, they sat around the table and stared at me as if I were a chimpanzee in a zoo.”
“You’re much prettier than a chimpanzee,” Lilly said.
“Thank you.” I chuckled. Then I frowned. “And then there’s Toronto.”
Lilly coughed up smoke. “What about Toronto?”
“Mike is a good guy. What will he think of me if he knows the truth?”
Roya stared at Lilly for a few seconds and then turned to me. “He won’t because you won’t tell him. We made an agreement, remember? What we did was to stay between the three of us.”
“But aren’t you supposed to start a marriage with honesty?”
“That’s only in self-help books, Honey,” Lilly said.
But then Lilly looked at me with a deep frown that looked more hurt than angry. “You can’t tell him, Sara.”
Roya crossed her arms. “We made a pact.”
I sighed. Suddenly a heavy silence fell between us and we couldn’t look each other in the eyes. What had happened? What events had led us to the crime we had committed on that bleak cold night in Toronto?
I flinched and before I knew it I was back in sixth grade in Soheil, a private Italian Catholic school in Tehran that after the revolution had been turned into an all girl public school. That was the year it had all begun.
I spun around. I had been walking up the steps leading to my classroom. “Yes, Mrs. Bahari?”
Lilly paused at the top of the staircase, out of Mrs. Bahari’s view, looking down with eyes wide open. Roya stood a few meters behind her, with her legs shoulder length apart, hands fisted, ready as usual for a fight.
Mrs. Bahari had a permanent smirk on her lips and though I’m still not certain what she did at Soheil, it was clear to me that the sole purpose of her job was to make our lives a living hell. “We want you to do the announcements for the exercises tomorrow morning.”
I felt a chill run up my spine and searched frantically for any kind of excuse. Early every morning before class started, the school administration would make us stand on the grounds in neat lines by grade. We faced a high gray balcony with a blue railing where the school principle, Mrs. Jafari, and a handful of instructors in Islam discussed the daily news. Somehow, the news mostly concerned the flaws of Western Imperialistic countries. They would finish by reading a few verses from the Koran. Finally, five students would come on the balcony. One would hold a microphone and the others would stand several meters apart so that we could see them from various angles. These students would then start exercising to chants of, “No East. No West. Only the Islamic Republic.” “Death to America.” “Death to England.” “Death to Israel.”
It seemed we were always damning something or someone. The first few times it was entertaining but it quickly became downright annoying. Most of us didn’t have a clue why we wanted all these people we’d never met dead! Considering those whom we had met, who deserved to be damned like the Pasdars or the Revolutionary Guards, it all seemed like such a waste of breath. But if we didn’t follow the orders we’d have a mark in the books against our behavior, which would ultimately affect our overall grades. So to the tune of these hateful slogans, we jumped up and down and only paused to pound our fists into the air with a fanatic fervor that must have played well on European and American evening news.
I never quite figured out how to exercise in our bag-like manteau, a long Islamic coat - in the dark colors mandated by our government - that reached below our knees. You couldn’t really move freely. So I mimicked the hand gestures and mouthed the slogans unless an Islamic teacher walked by. I didn’t like damning all sorts of strangers early in the morning. It put me in a bad mood for the entire day.
It was no surprise then that though Mrs. Bahari expected me to jump with joy at the opportunity to be the crazy girl with the microphone I was searching desperately for an excuse. “I’m not sure that I’m the right person—“
“Did I say you have a choice?”
She hadn’t. She seldom did. I tried another tactic. “But I’m afraid of presenting in front of a crowd. What if I make a fool out of myself?”
I wasn’t sure if she believed me but her thin lips pulled back into what seemed for the first time to be a genuine smile. “You’ll do just fine.” She shook her bony finger at me playfully. “Practice makes perfect.”
I called after her. “Who will be the girls doing the exercises?”
“That’s the fun part.” She winked at me as if offering me a lollipop. “You get to pick them.”
I looked up at Lilly. She was shaking her head, but I was not going to go at this alone. I ran after her up the stairs. “Yes, you will.”
For the rest of that day I felt nauseated whenever I thought about the next morning. I hardly knew any of the slogans or for that matter the exercises. I should’ve paid more attention. After all, they’d only repeated them every single morning for the past six years of my life.
The first thing to go the moment I stepped into our house was my headscarf. I yanked it off and threw it on the floor. I walked on, letting my manteau fall behind me, then went my pants and socks, leaving a trail of black clothes on the Tabrizi rug. I reached over for my favorite cut off Levi jeans, a little too short for Baba’s taste, that Grandma had brought for me from Los Angeles. I turned on the tape player and hummed to Bee Gees while I splashed water over my face.
Finally, I skipped down the carpeted steps to get lunch. I ran a hand through my hair that was plastered to my head from being under the scarf all day long, paused at the family room sliding patio door and looked out at our yard. Maman was standing with her back to me, speaking with our gardener, a bunch of fresh flowers in her right hand. She had yellow gloves on and had rolled up her pants. It was hot and I had sweated all day under my thick Islamic uniform. I glanced at the area where the pool used to be and sighed. I would’ve loved to jump in its cool water, but after the revolution, afraid that the neighbors might see us in our swimsuits and report us to the authorities, my parents had filled it with dirt.
“Sara Khanum,” Naneh, my nanny, cried from the kitchen. She had worked for Maman’s family since she was in her twenties and still cleaned our house and cooked for us. I couldn’t imagine a life without her constant fussing and loving care.
I walked passed an arched doorway into the library where the walls were covered with framed letters written to my ancestors by European Kings and shelves of dusty books. I threw a glance at our cold living room where we never spent enough time to turn the heat on. From here another door led to the kitchen.
Naneh turned to me. Her scarf was wrapped tightly around her dark fleshy face, her hair sticking out at the temples. With her single thick eyebrow and mustache, Naneh at times seemed like a ball of hair. She wiped her plump hands on her apron. “You must be hungry, Sara Khanum.”
Today, she had made ghormeh sabzi, a green herb stew that was one of my favorites. I pulled back the bar stool and sat down at the island. But after a few bites, my appetite was gone, and I pushed aside my plate.
Naneh frowned. “You don’t like my food?”
“Of course I do. You’re a great cook, Naneh.”
She blushed. Nothing pleased her more than to hear how she excelled at her work. She walked to the refrigerator and placed a bowl of yogurt in front of me. “It’ll help cool it down.”
I put a spoon in the yogurt. Then I imagined myself standing on the balcony and yelling odious slogans and I sighed.
“Are you all right?” Naneh frowned. “You look ill.”
Then it hit me. If I were sick and had to skip school tomorrow, Mrs. Bahari would have to find someone else to do the morning exercises. The problem was convincing Maman. She wouldn’t let me skip school unless I was deathly ill. Baba attributed her attitude to her upbringing in a British boarding school. “They made her bathe in cold water in that awful weather.” He would raise his hands. “What do you expect?”
I coughed. “I think I’m coming down with something. I feel terrible.”
“You’re exaggerating.” Naneh frowned but I could tell that she was concerned. “You’re feeling fine. Drink your tea.”
It always amazed me how Naneh and Maman thought that if they said I was fine, I’d be fine. It was probably because they didn’t want to have to worry about me. I shook my head. “I think I have a fever.”
I was worried that she’d put her hand on my forehead but instead she limped to the kitchen door. “Maryam Khanum! Maryam Khanum!”
I quickly placed my glass of hot tea against my forehead, dropping it to my mouth just as Maman walked into the kitchen. Without a word she put her soft hands, which unlike Naneh’s rough and cracked ones, hadn’t seen a day of harsh work, on my forehead. The sweet scent of Nivea, the only lotion she could find and afford in Tehran, hit my nostrils and I breathed her in, knowing I was safe and at home.
“She does feel hot.” Maman leaned over, her long black hair smelling of the sweet scent of strawberry shampoo, brushed against my cheek. “Are you all right, Honey?”
I shook my head. I was starting to believe it myself.
“Here.” She pulled out a glass thermometer filled with mercury from the dark wooden closet and shook it. She then inserted it under my tongue, stroked my hair for a few seconds, and walked out.
I glanced over my shoulder. She was talking with Naneh outside. I pulled the thermometer out of my mouth and stuck it in the hot tea. Then I pulled it out, made sure it hadn’t cracked, and put it back in my mouth.
Maman walked in and looked at her watch.
I placed my hand under my chin and leaned to one side. I was really starting to feel sick. All I had to do was think about standing on Soheil’s balcony, saying things I didn’t want to and I felt like I was about to pass out.
She pulled the thermometer out of my mouth. “This is high.”
“I told you I’m sick.”
Maman narrowed her eyes and walked to the sink. “Maybe it’s broken.”
“I don’t think so…”
She turned on the faucet and held it under cold water. “Let’s try this again.” She put it in my mouth. This time, she and Naneh stood across the bar, staring at me with arms folded. I closed my eyes and prayed to God that I would become sick this very minute, even if it meant I would die.
Maman pulled the thermometer out of my mouth. “You’re fine.”
She walked out of the kitchen.
I sighed and leaned back. Naneh looked at me sideways. “You put that into your tea, didn’t you?”
“Don’t lie to me, young lady.”
“Why don’t you want to go to school tomorrow?”
Naneh was not stupid. She was illiterate but spoke German fluently after working for a German family. But she was also religious and pro-Ayatollah Khomeini. What would she understand of my dilemma?
Naneh leaned over. “Sara, what are you hiding?”
“Nothing.” I pushed back my chair. “You’re not my mother. It’s none of your business.”
She grumbled something under her breath, clearly hurt. A part of me felt ashamed, but Naneh worked for my parents. I didn’t feel that she had the right to question my motives.
She picked up my half-empty plate and placed it on the counter, where she would finish it. I shrugged and marched out in search of Baba. He would understand. He always did. He would find a way to help me.
I looked in the yard, then went upstairs to my parents’ master bedroom where Baba sometimes took a nap in the afternoons when he came home early from work. But now his pillows were neatly stacked together and his sheets lay untouched. Since I’d become older, I’d begun to realize that Baba came home late from work the second Wednesday of every month. Now, for the first time, I wondered why?
Maman was tidying up their room. I stood in the doorway. She seemed to be having a hard time concentrating. She folded Baba’s shirt, unfolded it, then brought it to her nose and smelled it.
She spun around. Her eyes were red with tears.
“Are you all right?”
She wiped her tears away with the back of her hand. “I’m fine, Honey. Did you eat your lunch?”
“Are you feeling better?”
I suddenly felt ashamed for lying to her when she looked so distressed. I nodded.
“Good.” She smiled. “Do you have a lot of homework?”
I nodded again. I debated for a second whether I should beg her not to go to school but she looked so terribly sad that I didn’t want to bother her with my petty problems. “When will Baba be home?”
“I’m not sure, Honey.”
“He didn’t tell you?”
“He didn’t know. We don’t know that…” She sighed. “He’ll be home in a couple of hours. What is it?”
I shrugged. “Nothing.”
She seemed to sense something was wrong for she walked over and pushed back my curly hair from my face. “What’s wrong, Sara? You seem like you want to tell me something.”
I looked down at my hands. “Can I skip school tomorrow?”
She frowned. “Why?”
I told her. She listened as she always did, quiet and motionless as a rock unaffected by the river rushing over it. Except that she felt very deeply. I just didn’t know it at the time.
“I know you don’t like it, Honey,” she said when I was done. “I don’t either. But unfortunately this is our life. We have to make the best of it. You must learn to adjust. Just stand up there and say a few words and get it over with. How bad could it be?”
Bad enough, but I didn’t say anything. Maman wasn’t the sort of person who easily put herself in your shoes. She came from a long line of Qajar princesses, a dynasty that ruled Iran for several hundred years. She strode the earth demanding subordination with a pride that sometimes made my soul shudder.
I turned around. Maybe if I wrote down the slogans and repeated them, I could memorize them.
Back in my room, I opened my notebook, wrote a few slogans but soon realized that I didn’t know all of them. The only ones I knew were the simple ones that damned Israel or America. But whenever I said “death to this” or “death to that” I felt an immediate need to throw up. I had thought convincing Lilly and Roya and one of my other friends, Shiva, to do the exercises would’ve motivated me but nothing helped. No amount of memorization was enough. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t say the words.
At eight o’clock I woke up with a gasp. I had fallen asleep and now only had an hour or two to solve this problem. There was only one thing left to do. I jumped down from my bed, picked up the phone, and dialed Lilly’s number.
“Oh my God, Sara, I’ve been meaning to call you,” Lilly said before I’d even said hello. “But I thought I’d just wait and tell you tomorrow morning.”
I pressed my eyes with my forefinger and thumb. “What?”
“I saw this huge beautiful diamond ring. Maman said it’s the perfect sort of diamond because it sparkled blue. I can’t wait to get married.”
I sat cross-legged on my bed. Marriage wasn’t foremost on my mind right then.
“You know where I found it?” she asked.
I wasn’t interested but I waited. These things mattered to Lilly.
“At Shah Abbas Bazaar,” she said, “right by that store that has those yummy Toblerones.” She paused. “You know which ones I mean, right?”
I didn’t. I wasn’t good with remembering these things. Maybe because I didn’t really care. If something tasted good, I’d eat it. If I liked a person, I’d remember them, otherwise I didn’t. It didn’t matter to me whether a dress was made by Gucci or a tailor in downtown Tehran, as long as it looked nice I’d buy it. It was a sensibility I had inherited from Maman.
“No,” I said.
“I cannot believe you don’t know these things.” She sighed patiently. “It’s that brown chocolate we had last week, remember?” I could hear her swallow hungrily. “We had it at my grandma’s place in—“
“Oh yes, I remember.” I didn’t but I didn’t want her to go on. Before she could say more, I cut in. “I don’t think I can do it.”
There was a few seconds of silence on the phone as if it had just occurred to her that I had called to talk about something. “Do what?”
“The exercises tomorrow. The slogans. I don’t think I can say them.”
“I don’t like saying the words.”
“I’m serious. I feel sick whenever I try, like I’m about to throw up. I don’t know why.”
“You’re so funny.”
“The other problem is that I don’t know them all.”
“That I can help you with. I have them memorized—“
Suddenly, the line went dead. Another power outage. No, something more. The sirens and the sound of anti-aircraft fire filled the night. The Iraqis were bombing us again.
Maman rushed into my room, an oil lamp in her hand. Though she had a calm reassuring smile on her firm lips, they quietly quivered on the side, and her right nostril had widened, which meant that she was worried. “Let’s go to the basement.”
I hung up and ran after her.
We hurried down the tiled steps to the cold basement where Naneh, who didn’t believe in using a dryer, hung our clothes on a rope. The air was filled with the scent of the red wine my parents had made with grapes from the yard in what once used to be our sauna. We heard footsteps above our heads.
Maman squeezed my hand. “Is that your father?”
I shook my head. I didn’t know, but it was time for Baba to come home. Maman pecked me on the cheek and ran back up the stairs in the dark.
Naneh placed a shawl around my shoulders. “Hurry, Sara, come. Let’s hide under the staircase.”
I stared at the darkness under the cement stairs and dug in my heels.
She glared at me. “What?”
“There are no spiders there. Come on.” She sat down and pulled me by her. Then she placed her hand on my head and pushed it hard against her chest. I wasn’t able to see anything except the gray color of her blouse but I could hear perfectly well. First came the whistling sound, then an explosion, and finally screams that I couldn’t hear but was certain were there.
“Damn the Iraqis,” Naneh said between her prayers.
That one I might agree with, but I was angrier with my own government. I couldn’t really blame the Iraqis because I didn’t know their problems. From what I had gathered from stories I’d heard, they were just as much victims of this war as we were. But like any child, who reacts to the feelings of the adults around her, I sensed Naneh’s panic and was speechless in terror. I was certain we were going to die.
Then Baba walked down the stairs. He was looking, I assumed, for me but I was so petrified I couldn’t make a sound. He must’ve felt us behind him for he turned around. I could see the exhausted look in his eyes. His sleeves rolled up, a few buttons of his shirt open, he looked as if he might have just returned from a cocktail party. Except that he hadn’t. Not in the Islamic Republic of Iran where alcohol was forbidden.
He smiled tiredly. “What are you doing under the stairs, Sara?”
I stared at him as if he had lost his mind.
He raised an eyebrow. “Are you scared?”
I was too proud to admit that I was scared but I didn’t want to lie either. I’d already lied enough today. So I said nothing.
He held out his hand. “Come.”
Naneh pulled me back, tears rolling down her cheeks. “No, Darius Khan. Please. Let her stay. It’s dangerous.”
“Come with me.” Baba’s voice was firm and he wasn’t looking at Naneh. He was looking straight into my eyes, his hand still extended toward me.
Naneh released me with a deep sigh. I walked to Baba. He leaned down and wiped a few strands of hair from my face. Another bomb fell and this time the windows of our home shook.
“Ya Hazrat-e Ali,” Naneh cried out.
Baba took my hand in his big rugged one and placed the other on top of it. I realized that, unlike Naneh’s hands, Baba’s were warm. “Let’s go upstairs. I want to show you something.”
I could barely find my way because Baba hadn’t brought a lamp with him. The cries of Allah-o Akbar, God is Great, echoed through the night. Why did the followers of the Islamic revolution, the Hezbollahies, stand on rooftops shouting out God’s name? Maybe they believed that He could hear them better the higher they were. Either way, the sound of their cries frightened me more than the bombing did. Perhaps that was the effect they were looking for.
We reached the top floor and wandered across the corridor. Baba pushed open the glass door to the porch and stepped to the side.
I hesitated. Why were we going outside?
Maman stood at the edge of our large porch with a blue throw wrapped around her. She looked like an exotic bird that could take off any minute. Her black curly hair fell around her petite face and she smiled gently at me. For the first time today, she looked happy.
“Isn’t this dangerous?” I asked as I stepped out.
“Look how beautiful the sky is, Sara,” Baba said.
I glanced up at where Baba was pointing. Millions of stars shone back at me.
“You see all those stars, Sara? It’s because of the power outage. The city isn’t radiating any light. You see, without the power outage, you would miss how beautiful the sky is.”
The statement confused me. Suddenly, the sound of gunshots reached us and I grabbed on to Baba’s right leg.
He laughed soundlessly. “It’s just a game, Honey.”
I shook my head.
He kneeled down and wiped my tears away. “My father used to say that fear is the brother of death. It doesn’t do you any good to be afraid, Sara. Look. It looks like fireworks.”
“But…they’re killing each other. If we’re downstairs, Naneh says we’ll stay alive.”
He shook his head. “Wouldn’t you rather be up here than down there in that miserable cold basement. Think about all those spiders.”
The image of the dark area under the stairs and the imaginary spiders flashed before my eyes. I glanced slowly at Maman who was still standing at the edge of the patio, her throw swaying in the wind, like wings in the dark. She tilted her head gently toward me, summoning me to go to her.
Years later, I realized what Baba meant. Being in the basement wouldn’t really help if the house was bombed. The government wasn’t very efficient about saving civilians lives. They searched for a while, gave up, and flattened out the house with a bulldozer. If we stayed in the basement, chances were we’d suffer more. Up here, it would end much faster.
Baba led me to Maman and she pulled me to herself and wrapped her throw around me. I felt a warm glow rush over me from the closeness of her body. Maman was the sort of woman who others often found aloof and reserved, but once she allowed you into her arms, she would hold you forever. I hid in her embrace, forgetting my worries for the night. Mrs. Bahari and the morning exercises seemed like light years away.
Then I saw the anti-aircraft fire in the distance and smiled. Baba was right. It did look like fireworks.