I am standing in my room, which is not my room, looking at our street, which is not our street, through the French windows. A breeze flutters the curtains, which are not my curtains. I hear screeching car turning into the street. I see a hearse going on two wheels passing the windows. It spats a black lacquered coffin out of its back doors into my room as it screeches around the corner and disappears. The coffin zooms pass my cheeks and suspends in the midair sideway. I see the face of death peering through a round window on the side of the coffin staring down at me. Before I panic in fear, a warm hand ceases my hand. The touch takes away my fear in an instant. And a male soothing voice starts reciting the most beautiful verses of poetry in a language I have never heard before.
“But what about the dead in the coffin?” I ask.
“Don’t worry about it. But from now on,” the voice said, “you’ll write about death.”
That was a dream I had before I got the news that my sister’s family decided to grant her wishes and let her die in peace.
My wicked-funny, rebel sister, Sima, died on July 7, 2020, sometime around 7:30 pm. And today I am telling the mystery man in my dream, “From now on I’m going to write about life.
The following pages are about my childhood life, and the Spacetime I shared with my beloved Sima and my two other dearest siblings, Bahram, who lives not too far from me, and Nina, who’s been estranged from her family for a quite a while. A tribute to a life lived in dreams, with all its trimmings—evil and good.
Life is like striking a match under rain drops.
From Enayatollah Mashhoud handwritten notes
Author’s translation and adaptation
Summers don’t mean much to me. In any given season, Los Angeles can turn four seasons in one day. I dress in layers when I start my long walks early in the morning. By the time I get home, most of the layers are wrapped around my hip. Today is not different. At seven in the morning, the temperature is fifty-two-degrees Fahrenheit. I step out of my home. I pull my beany down to my forehead, put my sunglasses on, push the earphones into my ears, start my ancient iPod, zip my windbreaker all the way up to my chin and start my walk.
I remember how much I hated Tehran’s springs, especially its first month, just because of my hay fever and constant sneezing and runny nose. As a child I hated autumn too. I wasn’t fond of cold weather and the school, and autumns gave me both, and more than often bone piercing winds. Besides Persian New Year, Nowruz, and the week leading to it, and the Gregorian calendar’s New Year Eve, summertime was the time I appreciated life the most when I was a kid, and it was never long enough, scorching enough or brute enough to get tired of it. And I came to appreciate life in the summer of 1964 the most.
It was a cold night. We were in the dining room after dinner. Maman was behind her sewing machine. A couple of Papa’s trousers were laid next to the machine ready to be altered. She wore a light blue fleece winter robe at the table. Her chair was against the wall that separated the dining room from our only bedroom, and she’d placed the sewing machine on the table so she could watch me and my sister and brother on the dining room floor, doing homework, and in case of my brother playing with his toy cars.
Papa sat at the head of the table with his back to the balcony’s door. Comfortable in his navy- blue flannel pajama, he sipped tea and flipped a match box up and down, trying to land it on its narrow sides next to his pack of cigarettes. A large, round crystal ashtray, and his glasses sat on a folded newspaper. He pulled an orange from the bowl and started to peel it.
Our nanny, who’d served Papa’s family and had raised him and his younger brother, sat on a small rug between the dining room and living room. She wore a charcoal grey cardigan over loose black pants and tunic. She’d set her long pipe, a full match box and an ashtray next to her. Her legs were stretched out, and from time to time she bent and scratched the top of her bare feet and when she did that, part of her loose braids spilled out from under her gray headscarf.
My five-and-half years old brother played on the floor with his toy cars and trucks next to Nanny and pushed them into every direction, on the rug and on the gray mosaic where there was better acceleration.
My sister and I lay on the floor belly down on a Persian rug, close to our black and white RCA television doing our homework. Maman had turned it off after the children’s program was over. The sound of Maman’s sewing machine, my brother’s engine noises and screeches, the rattling sound of matches Papa made playing with the match box, and the way Nanny made on her spot kept repositioning her body was distracting me. Even the turned off TV was a distraction.
My eight-year-old lanky body was sprawled over my notebooks. I pulled my sweater’s sleeves up. I dug my left elbow deep into my open math notebook and propped up my head with my hand and with the other hand I dragged my pencil on the lined page of my spelling book repeating and practicing words of the day, and there were too many of them. I used the cool and smooth surface of my math notebook to anchor my elbow to avoid the roughness of the wool rug. As I was mulling over the words, my elbow slid and ripped the page it was digging into. I looked down at my notebook to assess the damage. I had finished my last math’s problem on one side of the open notebook and the other side was blank. Without changing my position, I eyed the ripped page. I was relieved. It was the blank page. “Oops, close call,” I said and repositioned my elbow on the damaged page and glanced at my older sister who like me was sprawling her ten-and-half years old tall body over her homework. She looked every bit as bored as I was. She was going to be in sixth grade and according to her she couldn’t wait to start the middle school. But she had one more year to go. Before I went back to my scribbling, my brother, who hadn’t started school yet ran his toy car through our spread of books and notebooks. “Vroom. Vroom,” he said as he accelerated the toy by rolling it back and forth on its wheels before he released it toward us.
“Stop it!” my sister and I screamed at him and sat up. “Leave them alone.” Maman released the machine’s foot paddle, stretched her neck, and looked down at my brother. She stretched her neck more deeply and looked at me and my sister. She sighed, “It’s almost nine. Stop dilly dallying and finish your work. How many times should I tell you to do your homework right away when you get home from school.”
“But he’s been bothering us all night.” My sister frowned her eyebrows behind her glasses. I waited to see how far she could go. I hoped she might wear down my parents’ patience and they would forget about our homework. But this time Maman didn’t let her go further.
“Stop making excuses.” The brown kerosene heater grumbled and burped in the living room. It burned on high and radiated its warmth into the dining room all night. A big kettle full of water, sat on top of another kerosene heater in the hallway. It hissed and moistened the air with a hint of eucalyptus. Ever since my brother came down with diphtheria a few years back, Maman used the kettle in the wintertime.
I waited for my sister’s counter, but she drooped her shoulders and dropped her head.
“It’s such a boring night,” she muttered.
“Finish before there’s a black out,” Maman said.
The dining room’s Bohemian crystal chandelier light bulbs flickered, and I stopped for a few moments. “No black out.” The lights flickered for the second time and I waited.
“I’m finished,” My sister dropped her pencil on her notebook and straightened her upper body at the third flickering. Nanny didn’t wait for the next one. She got up and went to the kitchen and came back with a kerosene lamp. One of three, which we had handy for more than occasional rolling black outs, and Nanny made sure that all three were always filled with fuel. She set the lamp on the table next to Papa’s cigarettes and matches. She removed its bulb, lit, and adjusted its wick to prevent smoking, put the long glass bulb back and left it burning on low, just in case.
“What do you think Baji Fatemeh, you think we’re going to have a black out?” Papa looked at Nanny with a twinkle in his eyes.
“How should I know?” Nanny sassed in her thick Hamadanian accent. “I’m not the head of the department of power.”
My sister and I got up and went to the table.
Papa cocked his head towards Maman. He exaggerated a laugh and mimicked her Hamadanian accent, “As soon as Sarah Khanoum speaks it, it’ll happen. Otherwise you wouldn’t light the lamp. Right?”
“I don’t know what you mean Habib Khan. And I’m not in a humorous mood,” Nanny said. And I thought to myself, “She is never in a humorous mood.” She was more serious than Maman who could sometimes be as funny as she was serious, if she wanted to.
“Didn’t you hear her minutes ago? She said there might be a black out.” Papa said, “Didn’t you see the lights started to flicker as soon as she said that?” Nanny shrugged her shoulders and went back to the floor where she’d set her dark blue velvet tobacco pouch and her smoking paraphernalia.
Maman gazed at the chandelier. And as if she was sure there would not be any more flickering, she dropped her head and started to thread the sewing machine. “Are you guys finished,” she said in a low voice as she threaded.
“Yes,” we said.
“Did you collect your stuff off the floor?” She picked her head up and pierced us with her eyes. She didn’t have to say anything else. My sister and I went back to our spread and started to collect our school gear. Nanny started to fill her pipe’s clay bowl.
“You can jump in and back me up anytime when I scold the kids, but you never do,” Maman said in a much lower voice, but I could hear her, despite the engine sound my brother was making next to my ears on the floor.
“Shush, you’re making too much noise. Sohaila and I are going to trash your cars if you don’t stop.” My sister hissed at him. But my brother upped his volume and this time he made a crashing sound as he collided two of his cars. I shook my head and didn’t say anything. “You’re a traitor,” my sister said to me. I gathered my books and school supplies against my chest and knee-walked toward the wall and my brown leather briefcase. I shoved my gear into the bag, fastened its straps, and leaned the bag against the wall. I stood up and went to the table, grabbed a chair, and sat across from Maman who was adjusting a zipper on a pair of Papa’s pants under the machine’s presser foot, making sure everything was straight and in its place.
“Are you done?” Maman asked without looking up.
“Yes. I’m done.” A loud crashing sound came from my siblings and Maman dropped the pants on the sewing machine and looked at Papa.
This time Papa grew serious and took charge of the battleground a few steps away. He hovered over them. Both stopped bickering. He stood there for a few moments without words, with his back towards me, legs apart, and hands on his hip. Not a sound came out of my brother and sister. “Put your stuff away and come to the table right away.” Papa broke the silence. “And stop torturing your mother. It goes for you too Bahram Khan.” Papa said in jest to my brother. “Now put your toys away.”
“It’s not Bahram’s fault.” Nanny stopped fiddling with her pipe. “Older sisters should be mindful of their little brothers.”
My sister threw a menacing look at Nanny, as if she were saying ‘I’ll show you older sisters and little brothers.’ But Nanny didn’t blink. Nanny loved my sister, Sima, but her love didn’t stop her from being her number one critic. To Nanny, she was the leading cause of mischief and disorder in our house which made her job harder, which was keeping us safe.
“I know, Baji Fatemeh. It’s always Sima’s fault, but little brothers need to listen to their older sisters from time to time. Don’t you think?” I couldn’t see Papa’s face when he said this, but I could imagine him winking. Nanny didn’t say anything.
Papa stood in the middle of the room and made sure my brother and sister took care of their belongings. “Now, come to the table. I have some news for you.” He walked back to the table.
Maman looked at Papa, crossed her arms, and leaned back in the chair. “See, how they listen to you. Now, tell me, what’s going on? And I hope it’s not one of your practical jokes.”
Twinkles came back to Papa’s eyes, but his voice kept a serious tone when he reassured Maman that his news was real. With the same tone he asked Nanny to join us at the table, because what he had to say concerned her as well.
Nanny stood behind an empty chair between me and my brother. Sima grabbed an orange and sat next to Maman. While she dug into the orange peel, Maman reached for a plate and placed it in front of her. The smell of ripped orange peel filled the room. I took one too and put it in a plate and started my own peeling.
Knowing she’d refuse, Papa asked Nanny to sit. Nanny didn’t like to receive news sitting down. I never knew why. And she never told us why. But there was an understanding between my parents and Nanny. She was a no-nonsense woman. Straight as an arrow. She meant what she said, and sometimes she didn’t have to give a reason. Papa didn’t insist she sit down. Maman narrowed her big gray eyes. Papa pulled a cigarette from a half full pack and put it in the corner of his mouth. He squinted his eyes and looked around the table at each of us. When he got to Maman his squints deepened. He struck a match and lit the cigarette. He kept squinting through the blue hued smoke.
“Boro Baba, inam maro gerefte. Nothing is serious with this guy.” She leaned forward and dove back into her sewing.
“What if I tell you we are going to Israel and Europe this summer,” Papa said, still squinting his eyes looking into an unknown.
“Stop it Habib. I don’t have time for your jokes.” She looked up and Papa gave her a sideway serious look. “Swear on my life?” Maman said as her face softened, and a faint smile quivered her lips and lifted the corners of her mouth.
“I swear on my life,” Papa said, and Maman said she didn’t believe him, and he should swear on her life, and Papa said that there was no need to swear on anybody’s life and she should believe him. And while they were going back and forth, I was dying to know about the trip and its specifics. Many questions came to my mind as soon as I saw Papa was serious. Was he taking the whole family, or would it be just him and Maman? In the last couple of years Papa and Maman were talking about taking a business trip to Europe and use Maman as translator, Maman knew enough English to pass as an interpreter. And if they went, when and for how long? And who would take care of us if they didn’t take us with them? Then I saw Nanny stood behind the chair next to me and there found my answers. “Of course, Nanny is going to take care of us. That’s why Papa asked her to join us around the table, but can she take care of three of us all by herself?” Papa’s voice broke my thoughts.
“I’m serious,” he said, and Maman’s gray eyes lit up. A sparkling golden hue surrounded her irises and warmed her look and encouraged Papa to go on. Then Papa leaned forward and put out his cigarette in the ash tray and pushed it aside. He stopped squinting his eyes. He scratched his forehead with his thumb nail. He put his forearms on the table and laced his fingers together. He was serious alright. I’d seen him like this many times. I’d seen him like this in his office when he was closing a deal. I’d seen him like this when making a point against the Shah regime, or religions, when he argued politics with his friends. I’d seen him serious like this when he was giving life advice to family members.
Papa looked at his hands and started to talk. Papa was serious alright. He told us about his cousin’s visit earlier that day and their tentative decision to take the trip. He said his cousin was taking his wife and one of his sons with him, and it would be a good idea for Maman and Papa to take Bahram with them. My brother jumped with joy in his chair.
“It’s going to be a long trip, may be two months. Can we count on you, Baji Fatemeh, to look after the girls?” Nanny nodded yes and my sister’s eyes went dark.
He said that he and his cousin decided each to buy a new car in Germany and drive through Europe and back to Iran. My sister’s eyes remained dark. He said that earlier that day, our family friend, Mr. K had shown interest during their phone conversation and might accompany them to Israel and UK.
Maman sat through all this talk without uttering a word. When Papa finished, she got up and left the room and a few short steps down the hallway and into the kitchen and came back with a tall glass of tea, holding its rim with one hand and its bottom with another. She set the tea on a plate on the table away from the sewing machine. She moved her chair toward the tea, and sat. She pulled the sleeves of her robe down and covered her palms and hugged the hot tall glass. There was not much talk or movement since Papa had stopped talking.
As we waited for Maman’s reaction, my sister’s eyes became the blackest black. She glared at me, and I saw the anger continued to well. And I thought to myself, “This is the worst trip plan ever.” Sima was going to raise hell. Maman didn’t always deal with Sima in a rational way and things could go south. I dug my nails into the orange skin.
Maman spoke at last “How definite the plan is?” She brought down her face close to the glass’s rim and sniffed the hot liquid’s rising steam. Next to her, my sister sat rigid in a dark aura. “Seventy-five, eighty percent.” Papa said. Maman pulled her left sleeve up and looked at her watch. Then she looked at my brother who was trying hard to keep up with the night
“Baji Fatemeh, would you please take Bahram to the bedroom and put him in my bed for now? After that go and retire for the night.”
“I’ll set the bedding for the kids on the floor then,” Nanny said.
“Just take care of yourself. Set your own bedding in the living room. I’ll make the kids’ in the dining room myself,” Maman said in a voice when she spoke to Nanny.
“Whatever you say, Sarah Khanoum.” She went to my brother, took his arm, and guided his limp and tired body out into the hallway and into our apartment’s only bedroom.
Maman blew at the tea and took a sip and said, “Why now, why not two years ago when we started talking about it?”
“Business is good now. We can splurge a bit.” Papa sat back and laced his fingers on top of his belly.
“Business was good two years ago, even three years ago.” Maman took a couple of sips of tea and said, “Since then, your brother bought parcels of land in Tehran, and his wife took a couple of European tours with her mother.”
“She took one European tour,” Papa said.
“Alright, one. Now they are talking about buying a new house.” Maman tried to keep her voice down, but the tone was not subtle at all. “And they don’t even want to subdivide the Fereshteh property.” Papa had let my uncle E, who was also his business partner, buy into half of our orchard in the coveted Fereshteh Avenue in Tehran’s north, which he won its price in a backgammon game.
“Is it about the trip, or is it about my brother?” Papa snickered.
“It’s just like you. You never take anything serious.” Maman raised her arms, and without looking at Papa, she said, “It’s neither about the trip, nor about your brother. It’s about you never listening to me. I wanted to go to Europe with all my children last year. Just us.”
“Why? Don’t you like my cousin? Or it’s Mr. K who you hate?” Papa bent sideway towards Maman. He stretched his arm and reached Maman’s upper arm and pinched her through the thick fabric of her robe. “That should defuse Maman,” I told myself, it always did. Then I wondered if her arm’s snow-white skin turned blue, it always did. I looked at my sister. Her dark eyes were set on my parents. I started nibbling at the sweet and sour fruit.
“Stop it.” Maman pulled away her arm and almost toppled the tea glass. “I don’t mind your cousin S. And I’m fond of his wife.” She softened her tone. “And Mr. K is like a brother to me. He is a gentleman. His wife and I are like sisters.” Maman was right. Mr. K and his family were old friends. I was only a year old when our families met each other on a trip to Gilan province by the Caspian Sea and became fast friends.
“Oh well,” Maman said. “Time to go to bed girls. Finish your oranges and help me to bring your beddings from the storage room.”
“I don’t want it anymore,” my sister said.
“I don’t care. You’re not to waste it,” Maman said, and Sima complied.
Before she led us into the inner hallway and out into outer hallway and up the staircase and into the storage room which opened onto the roof, she turned to Papa and said, “What date do you have in mind?”
“I was thinking the end of June,” Papa said.
“I think it’s a good time. We’ll make it happen. But don’t tell your brother yet. I especially don’t want his wife Mrs. H finds out. Not until the plan is a go. That goes for you two. Mums the word. You understand?” She pierced into my sister and my eyes. “Now go wash your hands before we go upstairs.”
From the first day after Papa’s announcement, my sister started to act up. She nagged more and became less patient. She complained about everything. She complained about her clothes. She complained about her hair. She even complained about her best friends, let alone about me and my brother. Everywhere our parents took us she showed dissatisfaction and made us leave early. She got on everyone’s nerve, but Nanny and I took the brunt of her wrath. She picked on me more often. And I fought back every step of the way, until we both were exhausted. There were more torn homework pages strewn around, more black and red inks spelt over, and more strands of hair were pulled off the scalps. And Nanny was in the middle of it all, since all these happened in the absence of my parents, especially on the nights they were out playing card or mingling with their friends. Sima’s tongue became sharper towards Nanny and her cuss words became more colorful. “It’s because of you my parents leaving us behind. Why don’t you go back to Hamadan?” She would say. Short of casting spell on poor Nanny she would pierce into her eyes trying to stare her down which sometimes scared the hell out of her.
My sister’s behavior and her constant bickering and instigations were taking a toll to a point that Nanny went to Papa and as I stood by her, she pleaded with him in my behest to take my sister on the trip with them. “Habib Khan, please take her with you. It would be good for her. It would be good for all of us.” She said but with no avail.
And as the plans for the trip became more definite, my sister became more restless, until one day Maman took us aside and had a heart to heart talk with us.
It was the last week of winter and Spring vacation was around the corner. My teachers had already given me stacks of homework and made me as glum as ever. At the home front, Maman and Nanny were working overtime to get ready for the spring festivities. There would be lots of visiting and parties, for Nowruz our new year holiday at the spring equinox, but, also for Easter and Passover, since we belonged to a multi -cultural Family.
“Are you ready for Charshanbeh -Soory on Tuesday night?” Maman asked my brother. It was almost five in the afternoon of the last Saturday of the year. My sister and I come back from school not long before and were already out of our uniforms. Our leather briefcases, bloated with Nowruz special packages of homework, were thrown on the inner hallway’s table.
“Oh, good. Both of you are here.” Maman was bent over the coffee table and was arranging a couple of large platters of six -inch tall wheat sprouts between dishes of homemade Persian sweets, dried fruits, almond brittles, a bowl of pomegranate, and a crystal bowl filled to the rim with Charshanbeh-Soory nuts, the Fire festival’s special blend.
“This year your brother wants to jump over the fire.” Maman said looking at him smiling. “Don’t you?”
“I’m not sure yet.” Bahram pouted. He sat on the couch eating rice cookies.
“What’s wrong with him?” Sima cocked her head.
“Nothing, he’s just bored. His playmate was a no show.” Maman stopped fussing over the sprouts and started wiping the table threading a small rag between the dishes and the decoration.
“Which one? The general’s next- door neighbors’ son?” I asked.
“Why do you ask? What is it to you?” My sister snapped.
Maman’s eyes pierced into my sister’s. And her glare even scared me.
“Nothing. I just wanted to say he is a good boy. That’s all.” I said and lowered my gaze and thought, “Shit she knows about my last year crush on his older brother.”
“Here, take this rag and give it to Nanny.” Maman handed the cloth to Bahram before he left the room. “Wash your hands after.” She shouted after him. Then she turned to us and asked us to sit down. “I want to talk to you both before your spring vacation starts.”
I sat on the couch and Maman sat on a wing chair facing me.
“Sima, don’t you want to sit?” Maman asked. My sister stood firm on the rug with her arms crossed over her chest. She looked taller today. “God, she doesn’t want to stop growing” I said to myself. She was not eleven yet and she was almost as tall as Maman. Our physician cousin who was practicing pediatric care predicted that her height might reach to 180 centimeter and that was above average Iranian height, male or female. Her unruly long bangs, dark and thick, covered her forehead. Her black eyes with thick and long lashes looked unforgiving behind her black rimmed glasses. Her black wool turtleneck above the knee dress, her black tights and her black patent shoes made her look slenderer than she was. And at that moment she was one dark, tall and challenging figure to deal with.
Every year, before Nowruz started, Maman lectured us how to behave when we visited our extensive family during the holidays. “Say hello when we arrive.” She’d say. “Don’t eat or drink without permission. Don’t pick a fight with your cousins. Be graceful and lady like when your uncles give you gifts. Be mindful of your aunts and thank them for their troubles. Because I don’t want to deal with people’s scrutiny, sarcasm, and gossips.”
Maman stared at my sister. At last, Sima succumbed to her glares and sat next to me and crossed her arms.
“You are big girls now,” Maman started, “I don’t have to tell you how to behave when we visit your father’s family during the next couple of weeks. You know the drill.” I let out a sigh and looked at Sima and then at Maman. “What I want to tell you is that we are going to take the trip this summer and you’re going to stay with Nanny under supervision of your uncle Enayat.”
Sima uncrossed her arms and moved forward and said, “So it’s definite?”
“Yes.” Maman said.
All of a sudden, my head felt heavy. I sank into the couch and hung my head and said,
“A definite yes then?”
Sima let out a sigh, and pressed her hands on the cushion ready to bolt in protest, but before she could do it, Maman leaned forward, clasped her hands, and with a low voice said, “Look, I know you call me and your dad cheapskates behind our backs for not taking you with us. But believe me we would take you if it was feasible.” Sima sat back and said nothing, instead she crossed her arms and pouted.
“If I take you girls with me, I can’t buy the things I want to buy for you. There would be no room.” Maman kept her voice low. “Would you rather come with us and not getting anything from Europe, or stay here with Nanny and let your uncle take you everywhere with him?” Maman paused for a moment then said, “I really wished I could take you with me. Your father too. He’s as heartbroken as I am.”
I looked at my sister. She was still pouting, but her eyes were softened. And Maman saw that too. My mood changed for the better and the heavy feeling left me. Maman let out a sigh and looked at her watch.
Sima uncrossed her arms and loosened her shoulders and said, “Fine then, I’m going to make a list of the things I want.”
Maman smiled and said, “You do that. But for now, you and your sister are going to help me to make more almond brittles. I don’t think I made enough.” With that she got up and headed towards the hallway.
“I also want to shave my legs.” Sima said as we followed Maman.
“Don’t push it.” Maman said as she walked on, “You’re still playing with dolls my dear.” And Sima didn’t push it that day.
In the next few days Sima and I verbalized the list of things we wanted Maman to bring from abroad including a doll for each of us. And a list of things we wanted before the trip, ranging from visiting our friends more often and for longer periods of times, to accompany Maman and Papa wherever they went.
By the time Nowruz arrived the excitement of coming parties and reuniting with our numerous cousins took over the pre- separation anxiety I’ve been getting since the talk. I was more than excited to wear my new Chanelle design skirt suits made by famous Madam Sedik, and -brand new unworn- black patent low heel shoes, on the first day of the new year to Dada’s -my grandmother- house. Sima was even more psyched than I, because Maman let her to wear Nylons for the first time.
Dada lived with uncle Enayat who was the youngest of her seven sons and was divorced, and her fifth son, uncle Nusrat and his large family of six. Her two -story house was in the middle of the long and narrow Shaybani avenue. The street was named after a famous doctor whose family been residing there for a couple of generations. There was a Zoroastrian temple a few doors up the street. The smell of incents like wild rue and frankincense were ever present. I couldn’t imagine the street without that distinct scent, and it was the only street I knew which smelled like a temple. Most of the time the temple’s door was shut. Only on Zoroastrian major holydays, like Nowruz and first day of the first month of a new season, the custodians kept the temple’s door open. And every first day of Nowruz when we came to Dada’s house to celebrate the new year, I got to get a peek inside the temple. The temple was not well lit, but I still could see its ever- burning giant brazier in the middle of a smoke- filled square hall. The year before, I even saw a couple of Moobads in the long white robes and cylindrical hats chanting around the brazier. But since I always saw the whole thing in the passing everything was kind of a blur in my mind. But what was not blurred in my mind was Setareh movie theatre on the corner of Pahlavi and Shaybani Avenue, which us children would go to in the siesta time accompanied with a cousin or two, whenever we visited Dada and my uncles.
Every year, on the first day of Nowruz, our entire extended family and close family friends, paid their respect to Dada. From nine o’clock in the morning to nine at night her house was opened to the visitors. Year after year our family gathered around Haft Seen table and observed the exact time of Spring Equinox before we went to Dada. Unless the equinox happened in the evening and late night hours.
The Nowruz of 1964 started on March 20th at almost 6:15 in the evening. We all sat around the dining room table, waiting for the new year transition.
“The year of 1343 has begun.” The TV anchor announced the transition of the new year and before he finished his last word the jovial pastoral sound of sorna and dohol burst out of the television and resonated through my body and filled my heart with life. A familiar excitement replaced the anxieties of the past few days.
“I can’t wait ‘til tomorrow to go to Dada’s.” I said, after we kissed and wished each other a happy new year.
“If you go to bed early tonight you wouldn’t feel the wait.” Maman said as she got up to get the dinner. Nanny followed suite and got up. The aroma of steaming herb rice and deep fried Caspian Sea white fish filled the whole complex and overwhelmed the subtle sweet scent of lintel rice layered with fried saffron date and currents. Two traditional new year dishes.
“Maman is right,” Sima said, “we should go to bed early.”
“I bet you can’t wait to wear the Nylons.” A fresh pack of Nylons was set by her skirt suite on the living room couch laid next to mine. Bahram’s new suite and shoes were in Maman’s wardrobe in the bedroom.
“I am. Sort of.” She shrugged, “I just wish I could shave my legs. Nylons look better on the shaved legs you know?”
“You’re lucky your mother let you wear the Nylons.” Papa laughed as he lit a cigarette. Then he turned and started watching TV.
The new year special was interrupted with everyone’s favorite commercial. The jovial Baba Nowruz was walking and singing while carrying a large knapsack filled with gifts. He was dressed in something in between peasant attire and Santa Claus, advertising a brand of hydrogenated plant based cooking oil.
“Ghoo Shortening tastes like Ghee.” Baba Nowruz claimed as he handed a can of Swan brand shortening to an excited housewife.
“Go turn up the volume.” Papa nudged Bahram who was sitting next to him waiting for dinner. At the same time Nanny came in the room with the fried fish platter.
“Baji Fatemeh, your favorite commercial is on.” Papa teased.
“Yes, I know.” Nanny said without looking up as she set the platter on the table, “He’s a snake oil salesman.”
“Millions of people are using it.” Papa challenged Nanny.
“He’s an expert.” Nanny said as she turned to leave the room. But Papa didn’t let her off easy.
“But it’s much cheaper than Ghee.”
“I don’t trust cheap.” Nanny said, “Cheap always costs more.”
“Habib leave Nanny alone.” Maman said as she entered the room with the herbed rice platter. “Baji Fatemeh please go get the lintel rice.”
“If only half of the nation were as smart as you, Baji Fatemeh.” Papa said as Nanny was leaving the room.
Nanny was smart. One of her jobs serving my grandfather many years ago was supervising his tragacanthin cleaning and packing assembly line. According to Papa nothing could pass Nanny’s eyes. She kept the workers productive and honest by keeping tally on how many sacks of the medicinal gum -and how fast- was processed and cleaned by each worker. And as story had it, they all were in awe of her authority if not outright scared of her. And Papa loved to tease this witty and sassy loyal servant of the family.
Nanny brought in the last platter, set it on the table and left the dining room for the bathroom to cleanse herself for the evening prayer. As soon as the bathroom door was closed, the call for the prayer coming from the nearby mosque loudspeakers filled the air. Nothing is more Iranian than the beautiful voice of Moazen reciting the Shia version of verses of Quran in Arabic on the first hour of celebration of pre-Islamic Nowruz.
Nanny came back in the dining room right after we finished dinner. We all helped her to clear the table and bring in the tea and after dinner sweets. After the desert Papa went to the bedroom and retired for the night. But us kids stayed up in the dining room and watched TV to its end of programming at twelve o’clock. Well, not all of us. Bahram fell asleep on the floor not far from where Sima and I were sitting.
“So much for getting to bed early.”
Maman who was helping Nanny to clean the kitchen and set our beddings in the living room and getting her wardrobe ready for tomorrow’s festivities, came in and turned off the TV.
“Come on, get up.” Maman bent down and pulled on Bahram’s limp arms. “You too girls. Get up and go to bed. We have a big day tomorrow.” She said as she dragged my brother to bed.
“Are you sleep?” Sima asked as we laid next to each other in our beddings on the living room floor.
“No.” I turned on my side and faced my sister.
The hallway light was on and its anemic beams were casting shadows in the living room through its half open door. The petroleum furnace was on high and kept the room warm and cozy. Nanny was tending to her last indulgence of the day in the silence of the night, smoking her pipe in the kitchen. Something she did every night after everyone was gone to their beds.
“I hope tomorrow is not as cold as today.” Sima whispered, “I don’t want to wear overcoat.”
“Me too.” I said, “but Maman is going to make us.”
“At least yours matches your suit.” Sima said, “brown goes with blue.”
“Not with my pastel blue suit.” I said.
“You’re still up?” Nanny came in. She left the living room’s door half open to let the hallway light stream in and sat on her side of bedding next to Bahram.
“Do you think it’s going to snow?” Sima turned to Nanny.
“It’s sure cloudy and cold tonight,” Nanny said as she unbraid her thin hair and started to comb it with her wooden comb, and with each stroke her gold bangles chimed and jingled.
“But I don’t smell snow.” Nanny knew her snow.
“Do you think the Sarma Pireh Zan has passed?” I anchored my elbow on the soft mattress and held my head in palm of my hand to see Nanny. Her face looked gaunter in the half lit room and her silver strands shimmered as the comb’s teeth went through them.
“The Old Woman Weather happens in month of Bahman, silly.” Sima sat up and said, “right Nanny?”
“Yes. It’s the Sarma Koochikeh, the Little winter that sometimes surprises us at the last week of Esfand. Lasting way into the second week of spring.” Nanny said, “but Tehran’s winter is a child play in compare with Hamadan’s. Now go under your blankets and try to sleep. Tomorrow is a big day.”
“Are you going to stay at Dada’s for a few days?” Sima asked, not heeding her command.
“I am.” Nanny stopped combing her hair and slid under her comforter. “My nephew and his family are going to visit me there on Sunday.”
“The same nephew who ran away when he was twelve years old, and wasn’t found until he was a grown married man?” I asked, still propping up myself with my elbow.
“Yes. The very same.” Nanny said, “but he was only ten.”
“Can you tell us the story again?” I said.
“Not tonight.” Nanny said. “it’s too late. Get some sleep.”
“But I can’t fall sleep.” I said.
“Try. Your mother wants you to get up early.” Nanny said, “I promise, I’ll tell you the story after I come back in a few days.”
This time Sima and I abided Nanny, and both slid deep into our beddings. I laid on my back wide eyed, remembering the day Sima and I decided to run away a few years ago. That day Maman was super mad at us for running around the apartment and being loud. Sima and I went as far as two blocks when we decided to go back.
“I’m glad we didn’t run away.” I whispered.
“What?” Sima asked.
“Nothing.” I said and closed my eyes and turned to my side. The heater grumbled and lullabied me into a dreamless sleep.
I’ve been walking for forty minutes now, approaching the Balboa Park golf course, a few steps away from the cross section of Burbank Blvd. A homeless man in a worn-out green camouflage fatigue pants and jacket, and military boots, is standing in the mid- section holding a cardboard sign. Been seeing him for a year now. A slender, gaunt, and grey man. Standing in the same place, in the same fatigue, holding the same sign reading, ‘I’m a veteran. I’m homeless. I’m hungry.’
I reach into my windbreaker pocket and draw a couple of singles as I wait for the light go green. As I pass the veteran, I hand him the singles without stopping. He blesses me. I wave my hand thinking I’m already blessed. As I reach the other side to enter the golf course trail a group of cadets from the nearby Army Reserve Center, in their hunter green T shirts and sweat -pants jog towards me and pass me in a flash. I turn my head and look at the old veteran in the middle of the boulevard. A gaunt and spent man who lives a colorless life in the midst of the Spring.
I stop to change the tune on my iPod. I find Vivaldi’s four seasons. I push play and Spring, jumps out of the tiny earphones. In no time I forget the homeless man and the everyday ironies. Not long ago was the Persian New Year, and in Nowruz no one wears hunter green fatigue.
I unzip my windbreaker and speed up my pace to the Vivaldi’s Spring tempo and march towards seasons past.
At last, the Eid-e-Nowruz started for real. It was a little past 5 when I woke up. I turned on my back and looked at the ceiling waiting to fall back to sleep. But before I knew it, all the plans I had for the coming hours rushed into my brain and overrode my regular sleeping pattern. After a futile battle, my sleep loving self, surrendered to my excited self. I anchored my forearms on the mattress and prop myself up in my bedding. My sister and brother were asleep, but Nanny’s bed was empty. I pulled myself out of my comforter and reached for my wool cardigan. I started towards the living room window which opened into the narrow and short cul-de-sac.
The dim light coming from the hallway was enough for me to find my way to the window without bumping into the coffee table. I climbed up the couch, pressed my knees on the cushions, pushed the curtain aside and looked into the dark. A single lamp post shed a low voltage yellow hue on the otherwise pitch-black cul-de-sac. A few rooms were lit, here and there, in the four stories building across our apartment. I looked up at the sky. It was cloudy. I pushed myself up and stuck my nose to the cold window. I sniffed the outside air through the glass and took a couple of deep breaths and steamed the pane. It didn’t smell like snow. I’ve heard Nanny’s cough, followed with the sound of a match strike. I climbed down the couch and went to the kitchen and joined her in the smoke-filled room.
“What are you doing up so early?” Nanny whispered as soon as I walked in.
“I couldn’t go back to sleep,” I said.
“I know why,” Nanny poured tea in a small glass with one hand while holding her long pipe with the other and said, “it’s because today is not a school day.” And Nanny was right. Waking up early on school days seemed more difficult than other days.
“Now, let’s go and have some breakfast.” Nanny filled a second glass with tea and set it in a saucer. She took the last drag from the pipe and emptied the burnt tobacco into the sink and ran water over it. Then she picked both glasses up and ushered me out of our tiny kitchen and into the hallway. She set the tea on the table. She poured sugar in mine and after stirring left the teaspoon in the glass to temper down the tea. She grabbed a slice of lavash and smeared butter and sheep cheese on it before rolling it into a flute and handed to me.
“I can’t,” I said.
“Yes, you can.” Nanny brought the wrap to my nose. I grabbed it from her and started staring at it.
A rooster cuckoo doodled. The call for the morning prayer tore into the twilight from the nearby mosque loudspeakers. Three stories down, the building’s door opened and shut. Somebody was going to buy fresh hot out of the oven bread. The bedroom opened and Maman walked into the hallway, leaving the door open.
“Good morning Baji Fatemeh.” Maman hugged herself and squinted. “Why are you up so early?” she said as she walked towards the bathroom. She touched my shoulder as she passed. A minute later, the radio went on in the bedroom. The sound of flushing the toilet and rattling water pipe interrupted the warm voice of the news anchor. Maman went back to the bedroom and shut the door behind her. The radio’s volume went up. Stream of muffled chatters sipped through the door for a quite a while. I tried to listen to what Maman, and Papa were saying.
“Eat,” Nanny said as she sipped her tea from the saucer holding a lump of sugar between her front teeth.
Bahram emerged from the living room. He went straight to the bedroom without looking at Nanny and me. I was facing the bedroom door where I sat in the hallway. The chatter stopped as Bahram swung the door open. Pouran’s velvety voice was singing her famous Spring song; “Gol omad bahar omad miram be sahra.” Maman was laying in the bed on her side, facing the door. Papa was holding his shaving kit and walked out of the room as Bahram ran to Maman. She welcomed him into her bed. She looked at me as she tucked my brother under the comforter. All of a sudden, I longed for her embrace.
“Scoot a little and let your sister join us.” Maman drew my brother closer to herself. I hesitated.
“Come-on, you’re not too old to cuddle with your maman,” she said. I ran to her bed. She lifted the comforter. I slid in and spooned my brother. Maman stretched her arm and pulled both of us to her. I looked at Maman as the warmth of her and my brother sipped into me. She smiled at me, but her eyes were sad. I looked out the window at the grey sky and sank deeper.
We stayed that way until Papa came back from the bathroom, bringing with him a subtle scent of his after shave.
“Alright kids, let’s get ready.” Maman sat up and released us from her tight embrace. Her eyes weren’t sad anymore.
“Couldn’t you wait ‘til we had the tickets in our hands?” I walked in Maman and Papa in their bedroom, dressed up in the Eid attire, holding my jacket to my chest. Maman was in her white satin slip sitting on the edge of the bed putting her nylons on her lily white legs. Papa was standing in front of the armoire’s mirror, buttoning his white dress shirt. They both paused as soon as they saw me.
“Why aren’t you ready?” Maman asked as she pulled up her nylon and snapped it secure to her garter belt hooks.
“My jacket’s button fell off.” I opened my palm.
“Ok, give them to me.” She extended her arm. I handed my jacket and the button over.
“It was a good timing,” I heard Papa said as I left the room, “they’ve closed the escrow.”
I joined the rest in the living room. Everyone was in their fresh outfits from head to toe, waiting for our parents to get ready. Nanny’s espresso chador sprinkled with tiny white clover prints, was draped over a snow-white scarf and her new navy cabled cardigan, tunic and pants. She was holding Bahram on her lap.
Sima had pulled her skirt up and was smoothing her stockings and adjusting her garters on her thighs.
“I think somethings up,” Sima said as she pulled her skirt down.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I think the word is out.”
“What word?” But before my sister could answer, Maman came in the room holding my jacket.
“Let’s go.” Maman gave me my jacket and ushered us out. I put it on and ran towards the outer hallway to join Papa.
“No running. Mind our neighbors.” Maman warned, though our neighbors on the first and second floor were already up and buzzing. Moments later we were all in our blue Opel heading towards Dada’s house.
Despite the clouds, the day looked happy. People were filling the sidewalks as we drove south on Pahlavi street. Everyone was dressed in their finest and the newest. Fathers in dark suites and shiny shoes walked fast and erect on the sidewalks, followed by their wives and children in their multi-color attires trying to keep up with their leaders’ pace. Families packed in new and old cars were heading to pay homage to their elders. And some smaller families rode on motor bikes in their Eid suites and chadors. Thousands of sparrows chirped on budding branches of old sycamore trees along the street and hundreds of cars honked their horns through the slow traffic as if honking could untangle the gridlock.
“It seems warmer today,” I said, after driving in silence for at least 10 minutes. Only a few words were exchanged between Maman and Papa since we left. That was unusual. Unless they were having fights. And even that, Papa always made jokes to defuse the situation. But it didn’t look that they had a fight. They were just quieter than usual. Much quieter. Sima was right, something was off.
“It’s the clouds,” Nanny said, “they are like heavy blankets, they keep the air warm.”
“I’ve heard Mrs. H have found out about the trip.” Sima blurted out.
Maman and Papa didn’t say anything.
“Then it is true,” Sima said, “I knew it. Didn’t I tell you, Sohaila.”
“It’s true,” Maman broke the silence, “but, please don’t make a big deal out of it.”
“When did she find out?” Sima asked, “Who told her?”
“Your uncle told her yesterday,” Maman said, “but I’m sure everything is going to be fine.”
“Why shouldn’t things be fine?” I asked.
“You don’t understand.” Sima started, but before she could continue, Maman cut her off and told her not to butt into the grownups affair.
“I’ll tell you later,” Sima whispered.
“It’s enough Sima,” Nanny scolded. Sima sat back in her seat next to me and wore a satisfied look.
“Plague be upon you,” Papa looked at us through the rear-view mirror and laughed.
“Don’t encourage,” Maman said as she straightened Bahram’s hair who was sitting between her and Papa.
“You worry too much,” Papa laughed, “beside, as I said to you, they just closed the escrow. Her mind is preoccupied. And in a good way.”
“What are they talking about?” I whispered to Sima.
“I tell you later.”
“Enough,” Maman said. We both shut our mouths and Papa let out another laugh.
“You are never serious?” Maman said.
“And you worry too much.” Papa said.
“Humph, you are not the one who has to deal with the sarcasms,” Maman said.
“Just don’t let it get into you.” Papa said. Maman didn’t say anything.
“Here we go,” I thought, “they are talking in codes again.” I decided I couldn’t figure out the grownups. I sat back and looked out the window. I tried to daydream, but there was no time. We were almost there.
We were first to arrive at Dada’s, and were greeted by my Uncle N, his wife Mrs. R., and their children.
“Congratulation, you’re taking the trip to Europe I’ve heard.” That was the first sentence Mrs. R said to Maman after the hugging and kissing and saying, “Happy New Year.”
“Yes, we are.” Maman smiled.
“Hora,” Cousin N, Mrs. R. elder daughter screamed, “I’m so happy for you. How do you feel?”
“I don’t know yet,” Maman kept smiling, “it hasn’t sunk in yet.” And all of a sudden, her face broadened and glowed.
“Well, congratulation,” Cousin N. said laughing, “and we are going to make a list of things we want from Europe.”
“It’s enough,” Mrs. R said to her daughter, then turned to Maman and said, “You know she’s joking.”
“She might be joking, but I’m not.” Maman laughed and said to Mrs. R’s three older daughters, “you make your lists. I mean it.” At this, Uncle Enayat who was in his room up until then he joined us in the hallway.
“So, I hear the news is out,” Uncle Enayat said, as he ushered everyone into the family room. “Well, it was about time.” Papa nodded his head and Uncle N congratulated him one more time.
Now that the New Year greetings were out of the way, and the latest rumor of my parent’s European trip was confirmed, everyone paired with their own clique. Maman and Nanny went to the receiving room on the second floor to pay respect to Dada, before they joined Mrs. R and Kokab, Dada’s help, in the outdoor kitchen. They had to prepare lunch before the visitors arrived. Papa, Uncle N, and Uncle Enayat stayed in the family room and talked business. Sima, Bahram, and I led by our cousins—four girls and a boy ages from toddler to early twenties—went upstairs to join Dada in the receiving room.
“Come on guys, let’s go upstairs,” Uncle N. oldest daughter holding her toddler sister’s hand said. And we all followed in a file climbing up the narrow stairwell.
“Where is Cousin F?” I asked as we climbed. Cousin F was Uncle Enayat’s son.
“Uncle Enayat is going to pick him up from his mother’s soon,” Sima said.
Thick red and blue Persian carpet welcomed the soles of my shoes as I stepped into the receiving room. The curtains were drawn open and two large windowpanes which opened to the backyard invited the day in despite the clouds. There was no sign of the sun yet. Chairs were set around the room and next to each other, with little gaps between them. Little side tables were set for every six chairs in front of them, filled with small bowls of pistachios, dates, and sweets. A display of large silver fruit bowls, heaped with oversize tangerines, apples, oranges, and slim and long cucumbers, was exhibited on a large square coffee table, side by side with sweet platters. Dada was sitting in her armchair, like a regal, ready to receive her family, extending as far as four generations. A wide and long mantel adorned with antique, multi-color glassware, and framed pictures from generations past, was mounted on the main wall where Dada’s chair was set up against. As soon as we stepped into the receiving room, Dada smiled and opened her arms.
Dada was a petite and a round woman. Round face, round body, even round plump fingers. Except her eyes, which were narrow, but her round black rim thick glasses magnified her eyes and compensated for it. Her hair was always parted in the middle, in the Qajar period fashion in the shape of a festoon, which peek a booed under a large white scarf which was secured tight with a pin under her double chin. Her other outerwear was also standard late 19 and early 20 centuries as well. Buttoned up collar-less shirt, a paisley vest, a long skirt, a pair of wool stockings, a pair of soft leather slippers, and of course always a chador covered all those trimmings whenever she left the house. A combination of western and traditional Persian clothes. She was a traditional grandmother through and through. I remember Nanny told us that when Reza Shah prohibited wearing hijab and chador, and his police started harassing women wearing them, Dada didn’t leave the house for months, and neither did Nanny.
“Come here, Babam.” Dada beckoned me when my turn came to pay my respect. I walked up to her and kissed her forehead like everyone else. She planted a kiss on each cheek and handed me a crisp 10 Toman note. I took the money and as I turned around to join the rest of the kids, I held the brand-new note to my nose and took a long whiff. “Ah,” I almost uttered, “how I love the smell of the fresh money.” And the money smelled even better that year, because Dada had doubled my gift and that meant all my uncles would double it too.
By ten o’clock, before the visitors start pouring in to pay homage to Dada, Mrs. R, Maman, and Nanny had finished preparing lunch and joined Dada upstairs. Big polished and tinned copper pots of herbed lamb stew, stuffed chickens, plain and herbed rice were steaming on the mediaeval coal burning stove top, getting ready to feed at least twenty-five guests.
“Are you finished, my dears?” Dada smiled.
“Lunch will be ready by 12:00,” Nanny announced.
Maman and Mrs. R sat next to Dada and from there Nanny took over. She sent Kokab to get tea for everyone and Uncle N., two older daughters went downstairs to greet the visitors, while me and my siblings congregated with their younger sisters and brother in an alcove adjacent to the receiving room waiting for our other cousins our age arrive and join us.
From ten o’clock to 12:00 o’clock all my uncles, aunts, and cousins—young and old, unmarried and married with children—showed up except Uncle E and his family. One by one the guests walked into the room and after paying their respect to Dada, found their places with their peers and gathered together in almost same spot they did every year.
My three older uncles, Uncle Y, Uncle K and Uncle A, dressed in brand new three piece suites and polished shoes and silk ties, sat next to each other. Wrapping and un-wrapping their agate tasbih around their fingers, counting the beads with their thumbs in unison, and screamed their stories on top of their lungs because all three of them were hard of hearing.
The younger uncles, Uncle N and Uncle Enayat—both funny and entertaining—and Papa were joined by my older cousins who were almost their age in the downstairs family room, and every now and then their laughter echoed through the house and muffled the cooing calls of Uncle N’s prized pigeons in the basement. And the younger cousins and second cousins ran up and down the stairs, and in and out of the backyard and front door, as female cousins around Sima and I age sat in the alcove and went on with our own socializing.
Nanny, Kokab, and Uncle N’s older daughters kept the guests plates and tea glasses full at all times. In one point the whole house smelled of tea, citrus fruit, apple, peeled cucumbers, roasted nuts and Mrs. R’s famous Ghormeh Sabzi—the herbed lamb stew—and Gilan’s rice.
And as the smell of the rice was finding its way from the outdoor kitchen and into the house, those guests who were supposed to leave said their goodbyes, who included my older uncles and aunts, and more distant cousins.
Maman and Mrs. R stayed with Dada in the receiving room until the last morning guests left, and the ones who were supposed to stay gathered in the family room. Then they all went downstairs. Dada and Mrs. R went to the kitchen and Maman helped my cousins set the dining table which was pulled into the middle by my older male cousins who stayed for the lunch.
The lunch was served under Dada’s supervision. She portioned each plate by herself and passed them around. One ladle of chicken broth for each china bowl with red roses prints and only for adults. Her glistened hands tore into the fat, stuffed chickens, limb by limb giving her guests their favorite parts with a tablespoonful of rice stuffing spiced with cumin and dried rose petals. Not to miss a full serving spoonful of white rice and stew. After she was sure everybody got their fair share, she made a small plate for herself and sat in her armchair, where she could see her loved ones enjoying their togetherness. That day Dada fed 20 people including the servants.
After lunch grownups including my older cousins went upstairs in the family room to relax. Pajamas, pillows, and light blankets were offered to men if they wanted to siesta. Ornate wooden backgammons were pulled out from the closets and a tournament started in no time. Maman, Mrs. R, and her three older daughters took their shoes off and sat together away from the tournament, which was getting louder by the minute. And Dada stayed in her armchair in the family room for a sitting nap, with Nanny sitting not far from her on the floor next to the window cleaning her pipe.
Uncle Enayat gave his car keys to his son, Cousin F. and he, Bahram, and Uncle N’s son ran towards the door to play in my uncle’s car which was parked as close as it was possible to the curb in the narrow avenue. And I started to follow.
“Where are you going?” Sima pulled on the tale of my jacket before I could follow the boys outside.
“I’m going to play in the car.” I said, “don’t you want to come?”
“No, I’m going upstairs,” Sima said, “they are talking about the trip. I want to be there.”
“Oh, yah?” I turned to Cousin F and said, “I’m not coming.” Sima and I ran upstairs and joined the women’s circle.
“You girls didn’t want to play outside?” Maman said as soon as me and Sima stepped in the room.
“Come sit with us,” Cousin N said, as she slid on her chair and made room. Sima sat next to her and I sat next to Maman.
“A trip to Israel is a good idea,” Cousin N said as she pulled Sima to her chest.
“My friends rave about it,” Maman said.
“You are lucky, Sarah Khanum,” Mrs. R said, “I wish I could go and visit the holy shrines of Hazrat Baha’u’llah and Hazrat Abdul Baha in Haifa and Acre.”
“You will,” Maman touched Mrs. R’s shoulder. Mrs. R was a devout Baha’i and visiting the shrines of the Prophets was dream come through.
“Are you going to visit Dada’s nieces and nephews there?” Mrs. R changed the subject.
“For sure,” Maman said, “Habib can’t wait to see them. It’s been a long time.”
“I really want to have my kidneys checked out.” Papa chimed in from other side of the room waiting his turn to play back gammon. “I’ve heard Hadassah Hospital rivals its counterparts in Europe and America.”
“Indeed, they do.” Uncle N said as he threw the dice, “I’m glad at last you listened to our cousins. They’ve been telling you forever.”
Papa was having reddish sandy discharges through his urine for a while and been seeing specialist for it. His doctor believed the discharges were due to calcium deposits. And when Papa asked him what would cause the calcification, he told him that that’s the way his body is, and Papa didn’t like the answer. He needed a second opinion, and when he brought up the subject to his Jewish cousins, whom some of them were physicians, they encouraged him to go to Israel for the second opinion.
‘First of, it’s a beautiful country,’ Papa’s cousins had told him, ‘a miracle manifested not by god but by the hard work and ingenuities of the people. Second, you’ll be getting a thorough medical exam by the best in the Middle East. Third, our cousins there, love to see you and will be of help to you. You know how much they love you and Sarah.’ It was true. My Jewish side of family loved Maman. And it was the same with my Baha’i side. Before Papa was born, his father converted from Judaism to the Baha’i Faith, and four of my uncle’s took their father’s faith. And Maman who was an immigrant from Soviet Union and the only child and survivor of a Muslim father and a Russian Orthodox mother, trusted and loved them. And now, Maman was sitting amongst her in laws and feeling at home, sharing her excitement for the upcoming trip.
“I wonder how Mrs. H took the news?” Mom chuckled.
“When did she get it, and who told her?” Cousin N. asked.
“Uncle E. told her last night.” Maman took a sip from her tea glass, “after they closed the escrow.”
“So, they bought the house?” Mrs. R said.
“Yes, and I’m so happy for them,” Maman said, “and moreover, this puts her in a good mood.”
“And we all want Mrs. H in a good mood, don’t we?” Mrs. R said chuckling, and they all laughed except me.
“Well, we’ll find out this afternoon,” Cousin N. said.
And for sure, came the afternoon and Uncle E and Mrs. H and their children from my age up to early twenties were the first visitors after the siesta time. And for sure Mrs. H was in the best of the moods. And for sure Maman’s face was relaxed and her eyes gladdened.
“You would love Paris,” Mrs. H said as soon as she sat on the chair next to Maman. “You have to go to the Eiffel Tower.”
And that was it. Though not fully understand it, I felt somehow, a disaster was averted. Unlike a couple of years ago when Mrs. H called me and my sibling Goy, in front of everyone, in a family party at my cousin’s house which caused Maman to explode. The same night, me and my siblings ended up in a hotel room with Maman and a small brown leather suitcase in the Takht Jamshid district. But that is the subject of another story.
“No pain, no gain,” I tell myself as I enter the looped trail around the golf course, west of the Sepulveda basin. The basin is a designated sanctuary to the migratory birds and the area is teaming with life this time of the year. I’ve been treading its trails for many years now. Pounding its paths under my feet, smelling its vegetation, basking in its light on sunny days, cooling off in its shades, and hearing its melodies, sometimes with a light heart and more often with a heavy one. No one else but me is on the trail, the last jogger passed and disappeared into the horizon. As I give myself to the brief beauty of this fine spring day, I happen upon the intact corpse of a jack rabbit right in the middle of the trail. I slow my pace and pause for a moment over the tiny, gray body. Its long ears are still up and erect, as if they still hear the danger. Its eyes are still open, as if there’s still some hope. Its fur has a shine to it, as if there’s still some warmth to it. I turn off my iPod. One must honor the dead. “No more pain, no more gain.” I eulogize. A single tear drop streaks down my cheek and takes me by surprise. I look at the blue sky. There is a hawk gliding in the distance. As I walk away from the corpse, I choose a song from the list on my device, Camille Saint-Saens’s Violin Concerto # 3. I hold my head up and let the breeze dry the tear. I want its salty residue to remind me of the childhood pains for a while. Not the ones that were bestowed on me, but the ones I bestowed on my own children.
The sad music of the French composer comes to an end. I’m halfway through the looped path. I chase down the ghosts of guilt and resentment into the pit of my gut, where they belong. Let them feast on undischarged feces, I tell myself, since they refuse to leave my ego alone. I choose an upbeat song and hasten my pace. “No pain, no gain.” I say to myself and delve into my memories.
For the next couple of months, my sister behaved and was most pleasant. She even didn’t pick fights with my brother and me. She got almost everything she wanted. Went to her friends and brought them over on weekends. Maman and Papa took us places Sima chose for us. Maman catered to her left and right and always kept her placated, but still didn’t let her shave her legs. I guess Maman kept that as a leverage, and my sister knew she shouldn’t push for that. At least not just yet. At the same time, Maman was becoming more excited about their upcoming trip. There was not one day that Maman and Papa didn’t speculate about it.
As the weeks passed by, and the trip’s plans became more definite, so did Maman’s advice to me and my sister—how to behave toward Nanny, our aunts, uncles, and cousins—and their visits became more frequent. Listen to Nanny. Be safe. Be kind. Be polite. Be grateful. Don’t boast. Don’t gossip. Don’t fight. And only listen to Nanny or Uncle Enayat. They are the ones in charge and no one else. And at the end of each talk, she’d looked into our eyes and would say, “Can I trust you?” And each time I knew she didn’t. But as worried as she was about leaving us, the lure of the European trip outweighed her apprehension, and sparkles in her eyes got brighter as we got closer to the projected trip’s date. And when they got the flight tickets, the sparkles turned into fireworks.
It was the late evening of the last Friday of May, when Papa told us kids about the tickets. My sister and I were cramming our weekend homework, a task that we should’ve finished on Thursday afternoon, right after we came home from school. We went to school six days a week from eight to four, except Thursdays, the last day of the week, which were open ‘til noon. A day to look forward to. Not only did we have our easiest classes on Thursdays, our teachers were in a good mood as well and the day went by fast. It was Thank God it’s Thursday all day for everyone. I’d never slowed such momentum by doing homework, and I’d procrastinated until the last hours of every Friday, which were the most hated hours of the weekend during school time. We called those hours Friday Night Gloom.
Our notebooks and books were spread all over the hallway table. It was getting close to bedtime, we had to finish our homework but I kept losing my eraser under the pile of papers and pencil’s shavings, thinking I’d never finish. The door to the outer hallway was open and the night breeze cooled my bare thighs. The days were getting hotter as the summer approached, but the nights were still cool. The refrigerator in the outer hallway was humming and shaking in intervals. And the ceiling light was not bright enough to take away The Friday Gloom. The bump on my right hand’s ink stained middle finger was throbbing and begged me to stop writing.
“Are you guys almost done?” Maman hovered over us. I looked up, fearing to find her deepened vertical frown line and pursed lips. Instead, I find a broadened face and smiling eyes.
“Almost,” my sister said, without raising her head.
“How about you, Sohaila?” Maman said in a soft voice.
“I’m stuck on my math problems,” I said.
“How many?” Papa appeared from the dining room.
“Too many,” I whined.
“It’s alright, I’ll help you with that.” He stepped closer to where I was sitting and said, “But for now, Maman and I have something to tell you.” As soon as Papa said those words, Nanny, and my brother joined us. My sister and I gave all our attention to him. I knew what was coming, so did my sister. Papa was on the phone all day, talking to my uncle, his cousin, and our friend. And since the day before, almost anytime my sister and I barged into a room when Maman and Nanny were together, they would change their conversation from Farsi to Turkish. But some words were mutual, like ticket, trip, and airplane.
And as always, it was my sister’s radar which picked on all those talks and activities. “I’m not sure, but I think they’ve got the tickets.” She told me earlier that day when Maman sent us to the corner street’s grosser to buy milk, and she sounded content, and when my sister was content, I was content.
“I’m excited?” I said, “I can’t wait to spend time with Amouni.”
We called our Uncle Enayat, Amouni, which was a short version of Uncle Enayat in Farsi—a name coined by my older cousins—a term of endearment for an endearing uncle. Five-foot-five inches tall, Amouni was a sharp dresser. He sleeked back his thick straight black hair with Brilliantine’s pomade, didn’t leave a strand out of place. He dressed in the latest fashion three-piece suits, white shirts, and exquisite silk ties. His latest fashion shoes were polished every day, and he wore the latest fashion eyeglasses. Amouni’s attributes didn’t stop there. He was a chess and backgammon champion and practiced fencing, and above all, he was a poet and funny as hell. In short, he was our coolest uncle.
“Yesterday the flight tickets came.” Papa announced. My sister and I looked at each other. And I saw anger welling up in Sima’s eyes. Her body went rigid, and her thick hair puffed up an inch higher—familiar signs of a brewing rage, which none of us could ignore. “We are leaving for Israel on June 30th, he said.”
Maman stood over my sister. “I wanted to tell you guys yesterday, but I didn’t want to ruin your Thursday.” She said the last part in a softer tone, hinting that she was expecting the reaction.
Sima threw her pencil on the cluttered table and started to get up. My heart started to pound. She was violating a long-held promise, I thought. As if she forgot all about those bribes she’d received since the day Maman had the talk with us before Nowruz, and those bribes she was supposed to be receiving for years to come. Maman held Sima’s shoulders tight and changed her soft tone into a threatening one, and before my sister could utter any words, Maman said, “I don’t want to hear a peep out of you about the trip. We had a deal and you’ve already cashed in parts of it. If you start with me, there would be no more gifts, friends, and trips ever. Instead there will be a good belting.”
At the start of that exchange, Nanny took my brother’s hand and went into the living room. Papa shook his head and stood by my chair and let Maman to take care of my sister’s outburst. I braced myself for a scene. A scene which I’ve witnessed a few times in the past. A scene in which my sister got the belt from Maman—and on a couple of occasions from Papa—when she was defiant. I lowered my head and glanced at my sister. She was still rigid, but I could see her shoulders were softening.
“But why Bahram gets to go not me? I’m the oldest.” My sister sounded less defiant stating the old and tired complaint.
“We’ve discussed this before and that’s the way things are, you hear me.” Maman didn’t lose her steam, but she released my sister’s shoulders.
“All right then, and remember you promised me to bring me a kilt from England.” My sister pouted and surrendered with condition, and that was good news. And this time, Maman relaxed her own shoulder with a sigh.
A disaster was averted, “But for how long?” I thought. The other day on the way to the grocer, my sister fooled me by her calm demeanor. She was in her best behavior for the last couple of months. And whenever she was in her best behavior, I would behave my best, too. After all, Maman gave me a bunch of perks, too, and promised to deliver more without me asking for them. I didn’t have to threaten. Maman was fair in rewarding and punishing us—except when it came to the physical punishments, which were never fair. Not even to my infuriating, unruly sister, because they hurt our hearts forever.
The June 30th came too soon. My sister and I sat in silence in the hallway awaiting Amouni’s arrival to take us to the airport in Papa’s 1952 blue Opel. Papa and my brother were downstairs putting the luggage in the car, and Maman was in the bedroom getting dressed.
“What wonderful parents leaving their children behind?” my sister said. I rolled my eyes and thought, “She has to break the silence with sarcasm.”
“Did you say something?” Maman yelled from the bedroom.
“I still don’t see why we couldn’t come with you guys.”
“And I still don’t have patience for your naggings.” She walked into the hallway in her beige, light gabardine skirt suit. “If you keep at it, I won’t let you come to the airport.”
“Please shut your mouth. Please, please, please.” I prayed my sister stopped talking and I added some cuss words to my prayers.
Maman’s threat worked, and my sister shut her mouth, but I still didn’t trust my sister’s temperament. Sometimes she did crazy things to defy my parents. Like the day she laid on the ground, spread eagle in front of the car to prevent my parents leaving for a short trip with their friends. She was eight years old.
I looked at Maman. Her green blouse’s collar peeking out of her jacket, gave her big gray eyes a faint tint of green and I saw no anger in them. Just warm, twinkling orbs, despite her pre-trip anxiety, and that was a good sign. Her rouged lips weren’t pursed either, they were smiling and that was a good sign, too. I looked at my sister and saw her frown had softened, even a better sign.
The apartment’s door opened, and Papa’s footsteps echoed in the outer hallway. “Enayat just arrived.” Papa peeked his head inside while picking up a small suitcase from the outer hallway floor—the last item remaining to be hulled down to the car.
“Are you guys ready to go to the airport?” Maman opened her white purse and checked its content for the last time and snapped it closed. “Where is Bahram? Is he downstairs?”
“Yes,” my sister pouted.
We all followed Papa downstairs. Amouni got out of his red Thunderbird convertible, which he’d parked at the end of our cul-de-sac, greeted us and took the suitcase from Papa’s hand, put it in the trunk, and got behind the wheel. Papa sat in the front and the rest of us crammed in the back seat. Before Maman got in she turned to Nanny and gave her the last instructions.
“In case of emergency, go to Colonel downstairs. He and Mrs. Alp will take care of you ‘til Mr. Enayat gets here. Also, I left my phone book next to the phone. Kids will dial the numbers for you if you want to reach anybody,” Maman said.
“Don’t you worry, Sara khanoum. The kids are going to be fine,” Nanny reassured.
Maman turned her torso towards the car but then again turned to Nanny. “Joon-e-tou Joon-e- bacheha, kids’ lives are your life now.” A well-used phrase by Maman any time she left us in her charge. As if she didn’t say it something horrible could happen. As modern as Maman was, she still believed in some superstitious. I think it’s human being’s nature. Because even Papa sometimes entertained some of those beliefs despite being an atheist.
“Just go and enjoy. God be with you.” Nanny started back to the building’s entrance where she left a pitcher of water on its step. She picked it up and waited for Maman to get into the car. She threw the water behind the car for safe return as Amouni rolled us into the main street. Another superstitious thought and action.
At last, Maman sat back and tried not to be tense. When we got close enough to the airport, she sighed and relaxed her body and filled in the little space was between us.
When we arrived at the airport, my uncle dropped us and the luggage at the main entrance and drove away to park the car. A porter approached to help us with the luggage. Maman was holding tight to my brother’s hand and rushed towards KLM, the Dutch airline counter. We all followed her.
“Where is everybody?” Maman turned around looking for her co-travelers.
“Don’t worry, they’ll be here soon, remember we are early.” Papa said.
Papa was right. As always, we succumbed to Maman’s pre-trip anxiety, and we got to the airport one hour early.
“But don’t worry, you’re not the only worry worm,” he pointed to the entrance, and we saw Mr. K and his family approaching the counter. Maman beamed and walked towards them while dragging my brother behind her.
While my parents and Mr. K were checking in, Papa’s cousin and their family arrived and this time, my sister and I beamed when we saw their only daughter and our best friend walking toward us. All three of us huddled and started bonding. My sister seemed happy now. We were so distracted that we didn’t hear PA announcing the boarding time, except Maman.
“Ok, time to walk to the terminal.” Maman’s stern voice got our attention and separation anxiety set in.
The fellow travelers started to line up behind the door leading to the tarmac, and Maman gave me and my sister the last instructions.
“I want you to listen to Nanny. What she says, it goes.” Maman said. “Just be good, especially you, Sima Khanoum.” She bore her eyes into my sister’s.
“They’ll be fine.” Amouni winked at us.
Maman took a deep breath and pulled both of us to her bosoms and kissed the top of our heads. I drowned myself into her tight embrace, wrapping my arm around her waist, feeling her warmth through the soft fabric of her suit. From corner of my eyes, I saw the sad face of our friend clinging to her mother. For a moment, the echo of crowd’s chatter, the sound of the clattering souls on the marble floor evaporated into the airport’s high ceiling, and I heard nothing but my own heart, beating against Maman’s softness. I wished we could stay that way forever.
“Let go my dear, they’ll be fine.” Papa ruffled my hair and Maman released us back into the crowd, too soon. We said our goodbyes and joined the family and friends gathering by the giant window opening to the tarmac. The door opened and the travelers stepped into the runway where their flight awaited them. We waved them goodbye through the window as they climbed up the Jumbo Jet’s front ladder and into the plane. We kept watching until the last passenger was in, the doors were closed, the ladders were pulled away, and the plane started its run. The sound of the jet engine rushing on the runway resonated through the glass window and shook my whole body—as if the iron bird were taking off from my gut instead of the blacktop. As the plane sped with a loud whirl, the travelers’ escorts started to move away from the window and dispersed in groups.
“Let’s go girls,” Amouni said.
We said our goodbyes to our friends and family and left the airport with my uncle. Despite Amouni’s cheery presence, my sister and I were quiet.
“You gals will be fine,” my uncle said at last. “We are going to have so much fun, you wouldn’t feel how time passes. Before you know it, your parents are back.”
But I still had a hard time believing him and couldn’t shed off the separation gloom. This wasn’t the first time I saw my parents off to a trip, but we were talking Israel. We were talking Europe. We were talking flying in the sky. We were talking more than two months of separation, and even an independent solitary fellow like me felt somber, let alone my sister who always wanted to be in every scene my parents were in.
As Amouni rolled the car into our cul-de-sac, he turned to my sister and I—we were sitting next to him—and recited Hafiz. “AAn safar kardeh…That traveler who’s accompanied by one hundred convoys full of hearts, pray god wherever she is, keep her safe.”
We both looked at him, and he gave us his smile. I smiled back, but my sister was still pouting. Nanny was sitting on the doorway’s step in the shade and as Amouni parked the car and walked us towards the building, she stood up to receive us.
“Your wards, Baji Fatemeh. Intact and unscratched. They just need to eat lunch.” He looked at his wristwatch, “Oh man, it’s past one already. Go girls, go and eat now.” Then he turned to Nanny, “I’ll pick them up at 8:00 tonight. Agreed?” Amouni looked at his watch again.
“Agreed. But please come up and have lunch with us.” Nanny said.
“Oh no I can’t, I have a business meeting in the afternoon, and I have to change.”
Amouni turned around and walked toward his own car. “See you all tonight.” He waved as he pulled out of the cul-de-sac.
“Business meeting my foot.” Nanny said under her breath, and my sister giggled.
“What, what?” I say, “Why are you laughing?”
“Stop it, Sima.” Nanny said as we climbed the three flights.
“Well, you started it,” my sister said.
“What, what?” I said.
“I think Amouni has a date with his new girlfriend again.”
“Oh. But why he didn’t say it out right?” I said.
“Because it’s none of your business.” Nanny opened the door and the apartment’s silence greeted us.
I felt hollowed as I walked into the emptiness. I went to my parents’ bedroom and dropped myself on the bed on Maman’s side. I smelled her scent. I inhaled and kept my breath in as long as I could. Then I rolled to Papa’s side and inhaled his scent. Now I had memory of both with me. The scents never lie, never forget, and never abandon.
“What do you want to wear for tonight?” My sister barged into the bedroom.
“I don’t know.” I rolled on my back and let go of Papa’s pillow. “What are you going to wear?”
“I don’t know either.” She went to the armoire where Maman hung our fancy clothes. “Let’s take a look.”
“Yes, let’s.” I sat up. The hollowness I felt in the pit of my stomach earlier was gone. My parents’ scents were with me, and I was looking forward for our outing with Amouni and his son, cousin F.
“Lunch is ready.” Nanny appeared on the threshold. It was only half- past one and I couldn’t wait for eight o’clock to come.
My sister and I left the room and sat at the hallway table with Nanny and ate our lunch, which consisted of Nanny’s famous steamed rice topped with chicken-eggplant stew made with homemade tomato paste, and a bowl of yogurt cucumber salad.
“I want you girls take a nap today,” Nanny said.
“I don’t want to take a nap,” my sister said.
“You need to. You’re going to be out late tonight.”
“What if I don’t?” My sister turned to me and said, “Do you want to take a nap?”
I looked at Nanny, then at her. I didn’t know what to say. In fact, I didn’t know if I wanted to take a nap or not. On one hand, taking a nap would make not feel the slow passage of time while waiting for that night outing. On the other hand, my sister and I could play our favorite games and pass the time that way.
“I think I’ll take a nap,” I decided. My sister threw a menacing look at me. I knew she thought I’ve betrayed her, but I’d rather sleep off the wait. “Fine, I just stay up and read,” she said.
“Suit yourself,” Nanny got up to clear the table, “but in case you change your mind, I’ve already made the bedding for three of us in the living room.”
My sister threw a defiant look at her, got up, went to the bedroom, and yelled, “I’ll take a nap on my parent’s bed.”
“That’s fine with me,” Nanny said.
I helped Nanny to clear the table, wash the dishes and put them away. After we were done, I followed her into our living room where she made the beds on the floor. A bed made for three as she said, with light mattresses and sheets. I went under the cover and laid next to Nanny. She started a story and in no time, I drifted away.
At last, eight o’clock came. My sister and I were dressed and ready for Amouni and cousin F. Nanny was sitting with us in the hallway. I heard the roar of his car’s engine. I rushed into the bathroom, pulled myself up on the windowsill, and saw my uncle parking his car down below.
“You’re going to ruin your dress,” Nanny yelled behind me.
“They are here.” I ran out of the bathroom and passed Nanny.
“I wish Amouni would take us in his Thunderbird,” my sister said.
I didn’t answer, because I knew that was not going to happen. The car was made for two people including the driver. Maybe if it was three of us. But our cousin was coming and there was no way we all could fit in.
The doorbell rang. Nanny went downstairs and opened the door for my uncle. My sister and I were already on top of the steps of our complex, ready to skip down the stairs to get to our uncle.
“Oh, there you are, I’ve got good news for you,” Amouni said as soon as he saw us appearing behind Nanny. “Your father called before I left the house. They are in Tel Aviv safe and sound.”
“Praised be god,” Nanny raised her head, rolled her eyes up, then she reverted her attention back to my uncle and said, “Please do come up.”
“I wish I could Baji Fatemeh, but we better get going. Why don’t you come with us?”
“Thanks, but no, tonight is “The Night’s Tales” last episode,” Nanny said.
“It’s up to you, you know Shemroon’s air will do you good.”
“I know, but I’ll be fine, you go ahead and have a good time.” Nanny turned to us, “And you gals, listen to your uncle.”
“Come on girls, let’s go.” And before we left, my uncle assured Nanny that he would bring us back safe and sound, right after her radio show, which made it after twelve o’clock.
When we got downstairs, we found our cousin waiting for us in his father’s convertible. He’s only a year older than me. He’s got his mother’s looks in the most part. His parents been divorced for quite sometimes, and he lives with his mother, but he hangs out with his father as much as my uncle’s bachelor life allowed. As soon as we stepped into the narrow cul-de-sac, my cousin got out of the convertible and greeted us. My sister and I were happy that he was accompanying us. In fact, we were always happy to be with any of our twenty-eight or so cousins—I always lose the count—despite of the difference of age.
Before we all got into Papa’s car, my uncle dropped the Thunderbird’s top down and locked its doors. My cousin got into the front seat of the Opel and my sister, and I settled ourselves in the back. I got an eerie feeling in the spacious back seat missing my brother sitting by me, and at the same time, enjoying the less crowded space. For a split second I felt guilty, then I remembered he was with my parents in Israel and having a swell time.
“Are you guys hungry?” Amouni said as he pulled the car out of Valiahd’s circle and into Pahlavi Street. Cars were swarming on both sides of the street, but the traffic on the north bond, which we were driving on, was heavier. It seemed everyone from south of Tehran was going up north to cool down.
“I’m not hungry,” my cousin said.
“How about you girls?” Amouni looked at us through rear view mirror.
“We’re not hungry either. We had snacks before you came,” my sister said, and I bobbed my head in agreement.
“Good, because traffic is heavy, and we have a long way to get to Yekta.”
Yekta was our favorite delicatessen in Elahieh district. It was located on the corner of Pahlavi Street and Fereshteh Avenue where our orchard was located. The very one we co owned with Uncle E. The one Maman was begging Papa to subdivide for quite sometimes to be able to build her dream house on one of its parcels. “That’ll be nice if we build our house there.” Maman would say to us, “But I know I’m going to take my dream to the grave. Your aunt knows how much I want to build a house there. That’s why she would never agree to subdivide, and your father will never push for it either.”
We had a long night ahead. Dining at Yekta would be our first event of the night. After that we would head further north to Pole-e-Tajrish, in Shemiranat district, where we would stroll and buy more delicacies from street’s vendors. But we were moving snail like. In fact, we were stopping more than moving. I looked out the roll-down window. It was still warm, but there was a breeze. The car’s cabin smelled of Papa’s cigarettes and Maman’s, Chanel No.5. I put my chin on the window’s rim and looked at the swarming crowd passing each other on the sidewalk. A group of four young men linked to each other by their pinkies were walking in pairs claiming the sidewalk. As soon as they saw a couple of teenage girls walking toward them arm in arm, they blocked their way and tried to force them to unlink, but all of a sudden, the girls’ parents and their older brother appeared behind them, the boys dispersed to the sides, and one of them was forced off the pavement. His shoulder hit a sycamore tree and he almost fell in the wide, uncovered canal. I giggled without taking my chin off the window’s rim.
“Why are you giggling?” my sister said.
“Nothing,” I said, and hoped for more exciting scene on the sidewalk. I had all the elements of a good show at my disposal. Pahlavi’s strip was lit by thousands of neon lights—red, blue, yellow, and green, with occasional purple and pink—emanating from the upscale shops, restaurants, and movie theatres. Cars were honking, and traffic was so slow that passengers of two cars driving next to each other could carry a conversation along the way. I paid no heed to the noise and the fume coming out of the exhaust pipes, and inch by inch, I lost myself in the festival of lights and welcomed the warm scent of the summer night on my face. A noisy Vespa carrying a young family of three passed my window and made me pull my head inside. I watched it snake its way between cars, but from time to time the passage would get too narrow and it would stop. Anytime the Vespa stopped and took off, it jolted its riders and with each jolt, the wife tightened her right arm around her husband’s waist and secured their son who was sitting in between them, while her left hand secured her chador under her chin. I watched them zigzagging through the idling cars until they disappeared into the traffic ahead. Somehow, I envied them. “They’re going to be at Pole-e-Tajrish way before us.” I put my chin back on the rim and this time I tried not to stick my head out of the window.
The traffic was moving forward, and we were getting close to Vanak Square. We stayed on the middle lane and moved along the swirls of cars, busses and motorcycles. I started to get nauseous. I stuck my neck out of the window to catch a breeze. There were four lanes of cars circling around the expansive square like awakened snakes. I turned to my left and watched the square’s dancing fountains for a second through my sister’s side window. I put my chin on the window’s rim again and the fountains’ water sprayed my face, with help of the breeze. I smelled their coolness and felt much better. A car backfired and ruined my brief enjoyment.
“Keep your head inside the car.” My sister pulled on my dress.
“Yes dearie, keep your head inside,” Amouni looked in the rear-view mirror.
I sat back in the seat and took a deep breath. To my left, the new Hilton Hotel stood tall and shinning on the hill. The streetlights, alongside the light of hundreds of cars circling around the square, were reflecting off the ponds’ ripples creating bands of short and long rays.
At last, we were released from Vanak Square’s traffic and were on our way to our favorite restaurant, continuing the Pahlavi Street, but the traffic was still heavy on the north bond’s two narrow lanes. Cars were parked bumper to bumper along the strip. Restaurants, and shops were packed, and it was only a weeknight. Next to us on the right lane, three cars ahead, an American made car tried to shove itself into a small parking space in front of Sorento Restaurant and halted the traffic in its uphill battle.
“There is no way he can park his Chevy in such a small space,” my cousin said.
“He’s going to burn the clutch. It’s too steep and too small,” Amouni said.
“He doesn’t want to give up. How many times he tried to fit in now? Four times?” my sister said.
Cars were honking, but the driver was ignoring the angry motorist. I didn’t mind the delay though. Sorento’s outdoor patio was filled with diners in fancy clothes and carefree aura, dining under hue of the soft yellow light emanating from fancy lampposts planted here and there. I imagined myself immersed in the restaurant’s soft light and felt the diners’ contentment.
“I told you, he’s not gonna fit,” my cousin said. I looked up the street and saw the Chevy gave up and pulled into the traffic. The driver of a small BMW, who was honking behind the Chevy up until then, attempted to park his car.
“Do you think he can fit?” Amouni turned to his son. I thought to myself, “Papa could fit the car.”
Honking started again, but BMW’s driver paid no heed and with two tries he parked his car in the tight space and freed the lane. We passed the BMW. Two stylish couples emerged from it and headed toward the restaurant.
“I bet they have reservation.” My sister pointed to them.
“You don’t need reservation, you just need eskenas-e bist-Tomany, if you know what I mean.” My uncle laughed. But I didn’t know what he meant. I looked at my sister with quizzing eyes.
“It means you can get a table by bribing the Maître d’ with a twenty Toman bill,” my sister said.
“I see.” I put my chin back on the rim thinking I would’ve bribed the host to sit under those soft yellow lights, serene, and oblivious to the peepers like me.
As we passed the last posh restaurant and drove towards the foothills of Alborz mountains in the north, the traffic became lighter and the temperature dropped. The cool air filled the car, and I didn’t stick my neck out of the window anymore. Driving on a never ending uphill and curvy road, we were passing the luxury private clubs, and large estates much faster and their lights played peek a boo through sycamore trees along the street teasing me to guess what was going on behind the exclusive clubs and mansions closed doors. I sat back and fixed my eyes on the uphill road and dreamt Maman’s dream of building a house in our garden on Fereshteh Avenue, joining Tehran’s most affluent residents. But the dream seemed farfetched. My Uncle E and his wife Mrs. H had no interest in subdividing the orchard any time soon. “Shame,” I murmured. “What?” my sister asked.
“Nothing.” I murmured and stuck my head out the window. The scent of jasmine and forsythia filled the cabin. The chilled air felt good on my face. A soft breeze combed through my short brown curls. We were almost there, right on the bend of the street on top of the hill Yekta’s neon sign made my stomach grumble.
After we had our dinner at Yekta, we headed north again towards Tajrish district where people of all ages and classes would come to cool off. As we got closer to our destination, the traffic became heavier. Cars were hunting for the parking space and halting the flow of traffic. At last after a good half an hour search, Amouni found a parking space in one of the off streets.
For two hours we strolled through narrow and historic sidewalks of Tajrish district. Sima, my cousin, and I walked together a few steps ahead of Amouni claiming our faux independence. And Amouni stopped more than twice at the trail of a flock of robust, ripe high school age girls. Erecting his 5 feet 5 inches body, sharp dressed, sharp witted, sharp eyed-despite wearing thick glasses—he recited the most romantic verses of Iraj Mirza’s Zohreh and Manouchehr to woe them over and get a giggle or two out of them. And in the contrast to our smooth-talker uncle, we kids did what kids do when the adult is absent. We terrorized lovers by sneaking behind the parked cars in the dark and ancient narrow streets adjacent to the main square and caught them necking and making up, of course under leadership of Sima, the great schemer. We giggled, screamed, and ran wild treading the crowd until Amouni got the hold of us and fed us more delicacies from the street food vendors lining the main street of the district.
The vendors sold assorted foods, like grilled corn on the cob, sometimes as milky as the seller claimed, or skewers of ground lamb Kebabs, side-by-side of skewers of lamb’s hearts, livers, kidneys, and testicles. And the vendors who sold fresh walnuts, softened, and in a way completed this macabre display of organ delicacies by presenting the little brain-shaped nuts in the big jars filled with brine, and let them float and collide in it, to tantalize and seduce hot and hungry mouths of the one-night stand migrants. And that night Amouni treated us to everything our hearts desired as if there was no tomorrow.
I almost fell asleep on the way back from our outing. The traffic was light, and we got home in less than half an hour. Before we rang our complex doorbell, Nanny opened the door and let us in.
“I’ll pick them up tomorrow same time.” Amouni said.
“They are staying home tomorrow night.” We looked at Nanny in protest not believing our ears. “They are going swimming in the morning. And we’re going to Mrs. P library in the afternoon.” My sister’s threatening glare didn’t deter her. “Your mother’s order.” Nanny glared back.
Mrs. P was an educator who belonged to Baha’i faith. She lived a short block away. She’d converted part of her house’s second floor into a children library as a service to the community. And visiting the library was on the weekly to do list no matter what.
“Very well then, but I’ll pick you all up on Thursday afternoon. You’re going to stay the weekend at Dada’s and that’s her order.” Amouni said.
“We’ll be ready Thursday,” Nanny promised my uncle.
“See you then.” Amouni headed downstairs. All of a sudden, I missed Papa and Maman.
“Come on, I made our bedding in the balcony.” We followed her into the apartment and into the balcony.
Cool fresh sheets were waiting for us. I was tired. I slid into the bedding, between Sima and Nanny.
“Did you have a good time with your uncle and cousin?” Nanny asked.
I lay on my back and looked at the night sky and said, “Yes. Very much so.”
I taste Yekta’s famous tongue sandwich with their secret sauce. I smell the heirloom tomato slices and feel the salty coolness of Persian dill pickles on my tongue. I hear the crunch of sourdough baguette’s crust under my teeth and my stomach grumbles.
I’ve covered two thirds of my walk on the golf course loop, and I’m getting hot. My mouth longs for Yekta’s vanilla ice cream topped with cubes of strawberry gelatin doused in yet another special sauce.
I stop, remove my windbreaker and wrap it around my hip. I shouldn’t walk on an empty stomach, I tell myself. The sun beams find their way through pine trees and spotlight a golf ball sitting on the green lawn of the golf course. The sound of a golf club hitting a ball, rang through the park. I looked toward the sound. Two men are walking away in the distance, dragging their clubs’ bags. I look at the sky. Blue as blue can be. The lone red tail hawk still hovers over the L.A river. Funny how fast I forgot the dead jack rabbit. I take in the scenery and continue with my walk. The trail is deserted and Shahram Nazeri is lamenting Hafiz in my ears accompanied by all traditional instrumentalist ensemble. I try to brush away the memory of the dead jack rabbit, and I find myself in the crowded summer night of Pol-e Tajrish, strolling side by side with my sister, Amouni, and his son. Oh, how much fun we kids had there on most summer weeknights with our parents, or on that night with our uncle and his son to stroll in the center of Shemiranat district buying delicious food from street vendors alongside thousands of over-heated citizens. Perfect, cool, nourishing refuge, which left us with the confetti of fine memories for years to come.
I remember the vendors hawking for their tomorrow’s livelihood, through the fume-induced haloes and hues of lights of tons of gas-lanterns, competing with the sounds of honking and roaring engines, and above the cheers and the laughter of hundreds and hundreds of citizens of the high desert, big and small, old and young, from all walks of life, getting high on the coveted cool air of the north-side of the city, escaping the great equalizer, Tehran’s heat. But the jack rabbit corpse reappears, fresh out of my memories, and surprises my fond memories.
“For god’s sake, you haven’t finished the loop yet. Of course, the memory of the corpse is still with you,” I tell myself.
But I can’t deal with morbid thoughts right now. I chase the thought of the dead rabbit away again and find myself in the safest place in the Universe, back in my youth.