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Air and Water

ISSUE:  Winter 2009

The day care is run out of an old boxing gym where corrugated tin ceilings spread like sky and the glossed cement floors are always cold to the touch. Tucked into a northern corner of Long Beach, far past the beach and not so far past the oil refineries, the gym sits at the end of an L-shaped strip mall, an abandoned ghost town of leftover linoleum and lambent fluorescent lights floats in a sea of parking lot that spreads endlessly in every direction. Every night, after the last toddler and teacher leaves, the parking lot begins to reek of engine oil and burnt tires. Girls only a decade older than the children just gone home sneak back behind abandoned stores to pee and smoke and share sips of some sweat, masked, liquor—while boyfriends and brothers jostle clutches, pad gas pedals, spit and stare. They are without guardians in the night and their cars, no more than gigantic toys from their childhood, are etched with aggression still unnamed. La Raza from Anaheim gloss flatbeds to high-tone candy colors while skinheads from Huntington push their fathers’ wood-paneled wagons until speedometers quiver. The Dragons from Irvine ride cars sunk low to the ground and lit from beneath, and the Crips solder plastic skulls onto the tops of their stick shifts for good luck. But by the time Pareesa arrives each morning the parking lot is a playground once again, filled with children who scream and run and slap the pavement with bats and palms, their explosions of energy rampant and determined, as if borne of some dark confinement. They run to greet her with their glee infinitely replenished and she lets these happy children left behind by strangers to claim her as their own.

The morning after her boy calls to say that he has been arrested, is in jail, needs bail, paid now, curses and hangs up on her, Pareesa packs her lunch, picks out a blue coat for weather that will never change and walks through the fog, as if it were any other day. At the edge of the parking lot she pauses at the fence and cannot remember why it is she woke up, or walked to school, or came to stand at the far end of the parking lot with one arm hung languidly in the chain link, so she turns to begin the walk home. It is easier to walk back, back to bed, back to before the call, back to a time when her boy was no different than any child in the yard. A three-year-old, Ysenia, catches her arm. She wears the tulle of a ballerina crusted with a week’s worth of breakfasts and smiles up at Pareesa. Mrs. Pery! I had pancakes for dinner last night! Then they are all upon her. Mrs. Pery! Conner hit me! Mrs. Pery! My shoelace! Mrs. Pery! Mrs. Pery! She answers them all coldly. Pancakes? Good, good. Yes, very nice. Shoelace? Come here let me fix it. On the ground next to his outstretched foot there is a broken lipstick top and a flattened beer can. She ties the boy’s lace and picks up the garbage in one move. She bends again to reach for an empty cigarette carton and a small shard of glass. The children leave her and she collects the trash piece by piece until the oversize pockets of her skirt are full with it: broken tire gauges, bottle tops, hair ties. She places it all carefully, like treasure, in her green metal locker, presses firm the tape that keeps up pictures of her daughter and son, and locks the door before starting the work day.

As students at the University of Tehran, Pareesa and her sister Darya shared an apartment in a neighborhood of narrow, sloped streets, which climbed steadily up the base of the Albroz, the mountains that loomed, snowcapped and sharp, over the city. They lived on Abadaan Avenue, one of many streets with plain two- and three-story houses that lacked the elaborate latticework or decorated rooftops found in Tehran’s other northern neighborhoods. People from other parts of the city attributed the street’s run-down nature to the university at its eastern edge, saying that only men and women of questionable repute would let rooms to unknown students or singles. Others claimed that the coldest mountain winds swept down the alleys and avenues, and in winter a walk up the hill was worse than walking through pellets of glass. Perhaps, but the residents of Abadaan Avenue, a mix of young and old, knew well that their street lacked luster because the city’s only prison, Evin, was built into the mountain bedrock at the avenue’s dead end. The cells of the cave-jail were windowless and there was just one entrance. The only sounds that emerged were the grateful Khoda –eh Shorkreh’s from mouths of the released.

The two sisters studied and ate and painted each other’s face at a small table pushed up against the one window of their rented room. Their apartment looked down on the street and the girls often watched as buses, their windows half-blackened by spray paint, full of men and women, groaned up the hill on their way to the Abadaan’s infamous dead end. They talked easily about exams, boys, or particularly wanton girls, but never made mention of the sweaty faces that pressed against the blotchy bus windows, or the eyes of those faces that stared at them to wonder, or beg. Occasionally, late at night or early in the morning, when the sisters were asleep in the same bed, Pareesa would rise at the sound of a gentle knock at the door, hesitant but persistent. It was always a man, slack with weary-eyed exhaustion, who made an effort to smile through his thick beard as he implored her pardon over and over for disturbing her, waking her, harassing her, but could he please use the telephone? Pareesa and Darya took turns letting them in, each waiting silently in the landlady’s cold, dark kitchen for the call to finish, for the man to leave, to then lock the door firmly behind him. All the students who lived on Abadaan Avenue told similar stories: midnight knocks, unshaven bedraggled men with shaky hands and indomitable dignity who asked, Please, just for a moment, your telephone?

The night after her son’s arrest is a night like any other. She eats a small meal, food enough for one which she leaves unfinished, watches the blur and flash of the television, and goes to bed to dream of the apartment on Abadaan Avenue. Its details—the hammer ring of the doorbell, the cold tiles of the kitchen floor, the midnight smell of lavash from the baker firing the next morning’s bread—come back with an accuracy that makes Pareesa sweat in her sleep. There is only one event in the dream and it happens again and again. She and Darya stand barefoot in the doorway that separates the hall from the dark kitchen and wait as the bearded man finishes his call. The tiles are squares of ice and, in the dream, Pareesa has to shift from foot to foot in her bare feet to keep the sting of cold from causing her to cry out. His conversation is long, rhythmic, garbled, and sinister. He murmurs into the phone, and though half of the sound is lost under his mustached lip, if Pareesa stands still enough on her frozen feet she can hear the man whisper his hushed mantra again and again. Bail, Mom. I need bail.

The dream turns itself over and over in her head until dawn: the man never leaves, the man starts to cry, the man wears her boy’s fifth-grade graduation cap; the man is ashamed; the man holds a knife in one hand and a broken beer bottle in another; the man is the colonel who lived next door to her grandfather and was quickly executed by the new regime; the man is her mother in a tattered overcoat; the man is without a face and dances with Darya in the kitchen, breast to breast, until their feet melt the ice; the man is a baby, and then a young man, and then an old man; the man shrinks into himself right before her eyes.

At dawn Pareesa can no longer resist. She calls her daughter, the first child, who lives in a cold faraway city and visits irregularly and with spite. When a male voice answers the phone she hangs up immediately from her own shame and embarrassment and from the shame and embarrassment she has for her daughter, who allows naked-sounding men to pick up her phone. She calls again; it is their code. After the second ring her daughter answers, unamused. Yes, Mom. What is it? Yasmin, what is bail? Sheets and limbs rustle behind the pause. It’s the money you pay to get someone out of jail before they go on trial. You pay the court money to free them, and when they show up for their trial you get the money back. Her daughter has the tone of someone giving directions to a lost driver. Why? What has he done this time? Pareesa recoils at the question. I don’t know. He is in jail and he wants me to buy him a bail. Again, the sound of a body turning in bed. Pareesa imagines her daughter naked. She has not seen Yasmin’s body since they shared a dressing room in a department store when she was fifteen. They looked surreptitiously at each other in the angled mirror and the girl asked her if she would, one day, have such big breasts. Before Pareesa could answer, her daughter added, I hope not, they look uncomfortable.

Where is Baba? Yasmin asks, and Pareesa cannot take the salt in the wound and replies testily. Iraj is with Laura. They are on a cruise. I do not know, something—tell me something . . . Yasmin, what to do? In the faraway city her daughter yawns and moans, a male voice laughs. She has never met him, this man who makes her daughter moan, but Pareesa is certain he is some version of all the others: covered in permanent pictures of dragons or birds or waves, perhaps dark skinned, perhaps with metal rings and studs healed into his ears and lips and nose, and for all the marks, still lacking any indication of parents, family, or home. Time passes within and between mother and daughter. Yasmin laughs, then coughs, then clears her throat. Her new voice is annoyed. Listen, Mom, I don’t know what you should do. He’s your son and jail is as safe a place as any. Leave him there. A few days might do him some good.

After the phone call and after the dream it is still hours before Pareesa has to go to work. For the sake of movement and distraction, for the water and the noise, breakfast becomes an extraordinary affair. The usual, a slice of toast and jasmine tea, manifests into a feast that empties the refrigerator and covers the table. The cat sniffs at plates of feta and olives, at the eggplant stew and warmed lavash. Saffron rice, sauces of walnut and pomegranate, salads of mint, parsley, onion, and thyme sit untouched in small bowls. At the sight of so much food the house becomes quite obviously empty; it is disgraceful to be so alone, to eat and waste food like this, a shame and a disgrace, she thinks. Pareesa moves through the house and collects framed photographs of her family: pictures of vacations, graduations, and American holidays. She collects video games, empty perfume bottles, stuffed animals, ties, Valentine’s Day cards, and sports trophies. She assembles her family at the table around her, each seat a creation of photographs and trinkets. She smells them in the smell of her food and sees them about her, draping their arms on her shoulders with goofy grins, squeezing her hand, grabbing her by the waist and pulling her near and smiling, smiling, smiles through the steam of stews and tea.

She waits for her appetite to come and lifts a snapshot taken on his prom night from her son’s seat. He stands with Iraj, the two green-eyed Hamedi men, the older grinning more ferociously than the younger. Between them a blond-haired girl in a sequined dress smiles meekly. Pareesa can only remember a few things about that night. Iraj’s insistent compliments to the boy’s date, Such a nice girl, Kavon, a nice American girl, good job, Kavon, good job; her boy’s face, red with embarrassment; and the long car with dim windows that waited at the end of the driveway. They walked the couple to the limousine, and as the two took their places on the long, plush seats, Pareesa caught a glimpse of the world of crystal and glass and shining girls before the door shut and her own image gleamed back at her in the dark, perfect window: a cream-colored house with a begonia bush and a lemon tree, a round man waves thick fingers and a bony woman wraps her arms around herself, as if chilled. Everything in the picture is at a distance from everything else. The tree is far from the bush, the house far from the sky, the woman and man stand leagues apart. All of it spread out along the black, lacquered metal of the limousine that seems to stretch infinitely. There is no photograph of this scene on the table. The cat licks at the feta cheese and then at her paws, and then it leaves, overwhelmed by the easy feast.

On a warm day during her second year at the University of Tehran, Pareesa was standing among a group of girls, ensconced in the hive of lustrous hair and nonsense chatter when she was approached by a girl of ten or eleven with light eyes and serious brows who asked for her class schedule. It is for my brother, she explained. Pareesa followed the girl’s pointing finger to the opposite end of the courtyard to the figure of a boy in a blue Western shirt and tight jeans, whose emerald eyes shone clear and visible in the distance. In her best hand Pareesa wrote out her daily movements, chemistry, ten to eleven, French, one to two thirty, literature, three to four fifteen, and handed the paper to the indifferent girl. For three weeks his green eyes followed her. They sat in back of her seminar, next to her during lab, across from her on the bus, their presence casting a sultry shadow on her spring days. When he asked her father for her hand in marriage, Pareesa watched his green eyes, calm and flat like a lake, from the other room and wondered at the flavor of life with a man of such determined resolve.

They married just before the revolution, when the streets were full and the universities long empty. In a jubilant and distracted ceremony his six bright-eyed sisters wished her luck and warned her laughingly of their brother’s stubborn ways. Matriarchs sang their shrill songs and old men sipped slowly from tiny glasses of vodka, all against the continued blare of the radio and the flicker of the television screen. It was all the wedding party could do: men and women, young and old, took turns to toast the bride and groom and dance and drink and then listen to the somber declarations of their new country and watch the streets of their city burn and then dance again and drink and hold up the joined hands of the newlyweds in an unspoken clasp of victory; to remember joy and then forget and remember again. In their first married moments Iraj borrowed a car from his father and drove Pareesa away from the bitter celebration to the high edges of the Albroz where they sat on the hood in their white, Western wedding costumes and ate pistachios from a plastic bag and drank whiskey from his father’s flask. It was there, with a crisp view of the city of their births, but not their deaths, that he touched her for the first time. Afterward he pointed down at the smoldering streets and the low cloud of ash that fell on the city like an early snow. From here it doesn’t look so bad, does it?

They lived in her student apartment at first, in the one room where she cooked and cleaned and they discovered each other. In the evenings, after they lay together, Iraj would stand and smoke at the window overlooking Abadaan Avenue and muse about his cousins in Texas and Chicago and their great jobs at gas stations and restaurants and their stories of movie theaters and air-conditioning. We should move to America, he would say in the half dark. Pareesa always smiled obediently but never responded. Only as he began to make arrangements—plane tickets, visas, green cards—did she declare her feelings. I don’t want to go. She knew that was not enough for her mulish husband and so she added: I am pregnant. She wanted to walk to her mother’s house and drink tea and knit clothes for the baby, to picnic in Damavand Park in the summers, to teach her children the lullabies she learned as a girl. She explained all of this with tears in her eyes and he screamed at her anyway and dragged her by the neck to the window and pointed. You want to stay here? Here? Do you want to raise a child in this? Below them, the street was overrun with people but completely quiet. Lines of men and women flanked by guards with rifles crawled slowly up the hill. The busses had stopped running a long time ago, when they became too many and clogged the traffic on the street with their constant ascents and descents to and from the prison gates. Now there was only the walk; a kilometer and a half climb up the avenue past the shuttered houses and closed bakeries, along the stone gutters that flowed continuously with spent water, to Evin, the mountain that took everyone in. With his hand at her neck, Pareesa watched the parallel lines, men without belts and the women without purses, as they inched gently uphill. They walked in a daze. The journey, the street, the night, all verdicts unto themselves with none of the arrested pausing to defend themselves, to mourn, to look up at the young couple in the window, who stood making decisions about their own lives now and their lives to come.

For three nights now he has called asking for bail and for three nights Pareesa has listened to the hiss of frustration in the line and the bullets of anger in his voice. By now she knows that if, in the dark night, she listens through it, eventually an automated female voice will say: Your call from the Long Beach County Jail has been terminated by choice of the caller. Please hang up. And with that, she is granted permission to go back to sleep.

In contrast to these besieged nights, her days at the day care are a reward. She arrives every morning, glad for the work, for the monotony of tears, vomit, piss, and the children’s blatant demands and affections. Often, she finds herself giddy and delirious with love for these strangers’ children. Against day care regulations she kisses the tops of their heads, hold hands, and pulls the children into her lap every chance she gets. It is a barren hysteria though, and when Cole, a three-year-old with translucent blue eyes, falls from the jungle gym to land flat on his back, Pareesa does not run to pick him up. Instead she moves away and watches, from across the yard, as the other children make a small circle and stare at the heaving boy. For long a moment he neither shouts nor cries and seems to drown before them in the sunny afternoon air. Another teacher, a dark, lithe woman with her hair braided close to her scalp, breaks the circle and leans down to pick up the suffocating boy. Frozen and recessed in the corner of the playground, Pareesa follows the teacher’s movements hungrily with her eyes until she herself can feel Cole’s hot skin and the syncopated struggle of his caught heart. At the teacher’s lift and embrace the boy releases a long siren of a scream and cries violently for minute after minute and it is Pareesa’s ears that go numb.

At naptime many of the women spread blankets and pads in the corners of the room and sit among their children to sing Nicaraguan, Jamaican, or Thai lullabies. Pareesa does the same and whispers shab becha, shab bechay, berem shab bechay, over and over again until she has tethered her three-year-olds to the slow sinking rock of sleep. At the opposite end of the gym Cole lies with his thumb in his mouth, his face still flushed, while the teacher who picked him up listens attentively to the day care director. In the hushed gym all the teachers strain to hear the words between the two women. Now, Muna, you must understand, any sort of affectionate touch, by law and our regulations, is not allowed. The director reads from a piece of paper. It states clearly that by the laws of the state of California the employees of Tiny Tots Nursery are under no circumstances allowed to hold or embrace a child. If a child is injured you are allowed to lift them off the ground, lift them onto a stretcher or stationary bench, chair, table. All body contact between teacher and student is to be minimized. The woman stands stiff and still, the director continues. Picking a boy up and holding him is most certainly not allowed, Muna, now I understand maybe that is how things are done in your country, but in America we are a little more . . . careful. Muna stares back at the director without a nod or gesture. Thank you, ma’am. I understand.

In the beginning Pareesa accepted similar admonishment after she held a girl bloodied by an errant rock. She wrote about the strange rules of her American job in a letter to Darya, who like the rest of her family lived in Tehran. Weeks later her sister’s reply, accompanied by a box of Pareesa’s favorite nougat candy, read like a warning.

My dear sister, do you remember, jounam, the Thursdays of our youth? You and I and Maman and Baba and Faranak and Hassan would go to the baths on Nazimi Street? We would sit in a line on a bench, one after another, Baba in front, Maman washing his back, me washing her back, Hassan washing my back, you washing Hassan’s back and Faranak behind you with no one to wash her little back. Do you remember how the room smelled of eucalyptus? We would scrub each other’s neck and shoulders and wash one another’s head and hair and talk and Baba would sing and, if he felt good, call up Faranak to lean in front of him and have her back washed and then we would all go home clean and sleepy and eat the Thursday lentil stew and drink the salty yogurt and sit around while Baba and Maman smoked. I don’t think Amerikayee families are warm like us. Be careful you don’t get cold, too, hold Yasmin and Kavon, hold them close to you like we did here, there is already too much distance in the world.

After the last harried mother retrieves her child, the teachers, who have few common languages between them, gather silently at the lockers to pack their things and leave. From her collection of parking-lot leftovers, Pareesa chooses a smashed compact, the glass of its mirror shattered into the pink powder, and a snapped charm bracelet. She goes to Muna and places the objects in her hand and whispers to her: This is what happens when you don’t pick up your children and hold them close. The young teacher looks at the garbage in her palm and bites her lip. Yes. She closes her fist. I know.

When her boy calls again that night and asks for bail, Pareesa wants badly to tell him of Cole and the parking-lot pieces and what happens to American children when they aren’t touched. She wants to ask him if he is an American child, and did she do wrong to let him go, to let go? Mom, he says impatiently. Mo-om, what the hell are you talking about? Who is Cole? Now he is shouting at her. I need bail. Remember bail? She doesn’t respond. Her boy mutters, Fuck this, and the line goes dead. Pareesa tells the rest of her thoughts to the computerized female voice and goes back to sleep.

Six and a half months after the celebration of his birth, her boy stopped growing. The doctors dismissed it as the lull before a spurt. The night his breathing stopped and his body went limp in her arms they recognized it as something more. She stood weak-kneed in a dark room as one by one they pointed at an x-ray of his chest and showed her the small, nearly invisible hole in the right ventricle of his heart. For the months before and after his surgery, Pareesa slept on hospital chairs, ate Jell-O and pudding and whatever she didn’t have to chew, and forgot what little English she had learned in her three years in America. When it was over and the doctors sewed him up, Pareesa marveled at the scar that cut down the length of her boy’s tiny torso; from the collarbone to the soft skin just below his stomach, the raised red line divided him in half: his right from his left, his working lungs from his once-rotting, now-repaired, heart. Relieved, she walked the hospital halls and marveled at everything: the hum of the hospital machines, their steady, robotic life, certain in a place where flesh-and-blood life was tentative and in doubt. She admired the whiteness of the floors and the silent steps of the nameless, cold-handed nurses who sometimes smiled at her when they took her boy away. Of all the miracles, the small details responsible for her son’s life, she stared most unwaveringly at the hands of the tall American surgeon. From fingertip to wrist they ran as long as Kavon’s scar and spanned twice the width of her boy’s hollowed chest. With her eyes Pareesa followed the doctor’s large hands as he gestured to diagrams of hearts and valves to explain what was missing and what needed to be replaced, to show them growth charts and weight graphs, and she wondered how such tremendous hands worked with the miniature heart. Next to her Iraj feigns comprehension. Yes yes, of course, doctor, of course. He nods frequently and nervously. Pareesa simply smiles into the doctor’s face and asks him with her watery eyes, Tell me how you did it, how you got into my boy’s body to sew up the hole. But all she ever says to him, and this with her boy clutched to her chest and a radiant smile at her lips, is, Thank you, thank you, thank you very much. Very much.

On the street in front of the hospital, when her hands are free of Kavon because he is sleeping in his plastic-covered incubating crib, Pareesa reaches for Iraj’s hand, in joy and triumph and love. He snaps it from her and draws the back of it sharply across the side of her face. Do you open your eyes so big at every tall American doctor? Do you? Pareesa holds her hand to her face, to the budding bruise that will make the nurses smile at her all the time. Though it hurts, she has no tears left for this and shouts at her husband. Yes, yes I wink at any tall American doctor if he saves our son’s life. It’s more than you can do.

The bail bondsmen’s office is brightly lit. Pareesa and Iraj sit together as if still married, upright, attentive and concerned. Across the desk a middle-aged man with olive skin and rings on most of his fingers speaks slowly to Iraj. The walls are wood and decorated with a collection of guns and swords crossed in Xs, barrels and blades in brazen display. The office is clean; the desk that separates Iraj and Pareesa from the bejeweled bail bondsman is spacious and neat and holds two photographs: one of a girl with straight bangs and a gap-toothed grin against an anonymous blue background, the other of a woman sitting on a park bench with her legs crossed and her body tilted coyly to the side. Pareesa searches the office to understand this bail that has crippled her. She thinks the bondsman is Mexican and is eager to ask if bail has anything to do with not being American, but hesitates. Once, as she and another teacher prepared for their shift at the day care, Pareesa asked her if all Mexican women had such dark eyes? Because in Iran we have all colors of eyes . . . she began. The teacher took her by the hand to the tattered map taped onto the gym wall. This, she pointed at a small country south of the United States, is Guatemala. I am from Guatemala. This, she pointed to a larger country just above it, is Mexico. I am not from Mexico. The woman moved her index finger back and forth in front of Pareesa’s face, a gesture identical to the one the teachers were trained to use to show children disapproval. Nervous that the bail bondsmen had a similar gesture waiting in his ringed fingers, Pareesa answered her own questions with guesses. Bail is the jail’s bank and you pay the money to them and the prisoner of your choice is free. Or, it is the investment you make to secure one of the weapons on the wall for future use in case the person in jail has to defend himself. Bail is money and justice and weapons and girls smiling on park benches. It is an agreement you make to give everything you have to stop the phone calls in the night, to hold your boy, to soothe the angry spikes in his voice. Here, sign this. Iraj pushes a piece of paper and a pen over to her and she writes, carefully, her name. The two men rise and shake hands. The bail bondsman, who is taller than she expects, looks down at her and nods. Don’t worry. Mrs. Hamedi. Your son’s in some trouble, but we’ll get him out in two shakes of a rattlesnake’s tail.

Like a good sister and good daughter, like the only one who left, Pareesa dutifully sends back photos of her new American family. Yasmin in her kindergarten class, dressed as a tomato among a cast of other vegetables, Iraj poised in front of an American flag and proudly holding his certificate of citizenship, her healed boy in his high chair with whitish blond hair and deep, unavoidable green eyes. Her mother and sisters would call from Tehran to tease, where did you find this Amerikayee? They saw him, pale-faced and light-haired, and forgot to thank Pareesa for the packages of Ovaltine and Tylenol or tell her whose building was hit in the last Iraqi air raid and who was hurt or homeless. Instead they laughed and praised their American prince. Eh, Pareesa, the yellow hair? Those eyes? Where did that all come from? It must be the air and water. Of course, air and water change everything. He’d be a dark-haired prince if he were born here. She would look over to her baby boy, saved, scarred, and smiling back at her in his joyous, liquid way. It must be the air and water; mother and sisters who shared one receiver among three ears and mouths yelled and clapped and sang: Inshallah! Inshallah! Thank God, our Kavon is healthy and happy! Inshallah! In the background Pareesa can hear Darya, whose two sons are at war, soon to be injured and soon to be dead, smirk to herself. She should be careful; he looks so American he could disappear in the crowds at Mickey Mouse–land. God keep him safe. Inshallah.

They sit three in a row, Pareesa, her son’s girlfriend, Heather, and Iraj, on the hard, brightly colored plastic seats otherwise strewn around the waiting room of the county jail. The girlfriend, a brunette with generous lips consistently glossed and pink, taps her foot nervously and punctuates the silence with rapid rushes of talk. I can’t fucking believe this, Mr. H! Those cops are such assholes. Kavon is totally innocent. I mean, I just can’t believe this happened to him. We’ve been together for, like, a year almost, this is the longest we’ve spent apart. Her speech reaches an emotional pitch and she starts to cry into her hand, sobs and heaves Pareesa has been unable to produce. Iraj puts his arm around the girl, and she releases a torrent of tears onto his shoulder. It’s going to be all right. We paid the money. Minutes pass where the only sounds in the room are Iraj’s hushes, Heather’s gasps and sighs, and the jingle of the heavy ornamental keychain she holds to her chest as she cries. Pareesa is cold and tired and keeps to herself. The only other woman in the waiting room is old and black. She wears a postal-service uniform and her hair is evenly white. Impressed by her silent calm, Pareesa longs to go to her, to lay her head across the old woman’s lap and fall asleep.

When the gates slide open and her boy comes out she is shocked by his pallor. He moves stiffly and shifts his eyes back and forth in their sockets, not looking too long at the waiting room or his family. He seems, impossibly, both old and young. Pareesa is alive and awake now, and as her body fills with heat, with the anticipation of embrace, she gets up and moves toward him with everything in her eyes. Heather, with her key chain like the bells of a sleigh and a face streaked with black mascara, runs past Pareesa and to her boy’s limp arms. Oh Kavon, what happened? I was so scared, baby. Oh, I love you so much. I love you so much.

The welcome-home meal sits untouched on the dining-room table. It has been two days since his release and her boy has not returned home and Pareesa, missing work for the first time in years, has not left the house. The television plays an endless succession of sitcoms day and night: couples and their dogs, gay men and their friends, mafiosi, city people, dead people, and all manner of families—families reconciling, families in love, families happy and laughing. She watches sometimes with sound and sometimes without and heats herself from the inside with cup after cup of dark tea. The chill of the waiting room has not left her, and though the night fog is well offshore Pareesa feels it surround her with its cool, aqueous embrace. The pictures flash before her. Detergent; toothless children; embraces between men and women; graphics of weight loss; senior citizens on the deck of an enormous cruise ship, their arms wrapped around each other, delighted and ready to die. She bundles herself in bedspreads and watches without interest, plagued by one thought that plays over and over again like a child with news: How far have I come, how immeasurable the distance across oceans and continents, how long the time in minutes and months have I traveled from the instant of my own hot birth to arrive at this hollow frosted moment? She waits for a summary of some sort, an explanation to shrink the world and her life into a simple answer. Only the ocean fog, thick enough to stifle all sound and cover all views, replies, blanketing her with a muted night, dark and heavy, and Pareesa finally slips into a sleep so black, so silent, so deep, that even the loftiest dreams drop slowly and sink.


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