Farideh sat in the outdoor cafe, sipping her tea while her son, Bijan, stood by the pool in the center of the cafe, watching the fish tumbling in the water. They both needed rest. They had been going from shop to shop all afternoon for her to arrange some of the last minute details for her own wedding. Her mother was too old and sickly lately to accompany her on all that and her fiance was tied up with his gift shop. A cluster of maple and plane trees with their heads joined together at the top provided a wide shade around her. The ancient garden in which the cafe stood held the tomb of the 14th-century poet Hafez whose poetry was used as a source of wisdom for people. It was full of blossoming trees and potted flowers. All was serene, but Farideh felt far from relaxed. The closer it got to the date of her wedding to Cyrus, the more she missed Bill, the father of her child. How could she forget him, the stormy love between them that had come to an abrupt end when he had to leave Iran, practically escape, and go back to America? Their four-year-old son, looking so much like him, a son he had no idea about, was a constant reminder.
When the Revolution suddenly raged over the country, with the Shah overthrown and a new regime taking over, there was a wave of anti-American feeling that led to 65 Americans being taken hostage. Then the State Department had ordered all Americans residing in Iran to evacuate—special planes had been sent for them. So she did not have a chance to even say good-bye to Bill. Once he left, their communication had been cut off completely. She had no idea of his whereabouts. She realized that he did not have her exact address at home, only the name of her street. In her parents’ house, where she lived, there was no phone—the ancient neighborhood had no phone lines so he could not even call her. The factory where they had both been working had closed soon after the American employees were forced to leave; so if he wrote to her there, his letters would have been returned. She had tried to contact two of his Iranian colleagues who he had been friendly with but they were no longer at their old addresses. Being young, single men they probably had gone back to their hometowns.
She had kept hoping that things would change back and Bill would return. But everything got only worse. The hostages were kept much longer than expected, more than a year; the American embassy never opened; a war broke out between Iran and Iraq that everyone blamed America for creating.
At times a wild desire came over her to go to America and search for him and she had to remind herself that it was impossible. No visas were granted to Iranians to go there and even if she could go, how would she track him down in the vast country? She had no address for him, no idea even what city he was in.
Bill had been among a group of specialists who had been recruited by the Shah to come to Iran to help with various industrial projects. He was an industrial engineer and came to Shiraz to run a soap factory. She was working as a receptionist in the factory’s office and that was how they met. She had started working there after she graduated from high school because her parents thought going to college was futile for a girl.”What’s the point? You’ll be taking care of a house and children all your life,” her mother had said. She sensed no disapproval of that role for a woman in her mother’s tone; it was just an accepted state of things. None of her peers were going to college. In fact many of them were already engaged or married. She had had enough will-power to fight getting married right after high school, had turned away some suitors, but that was as far as she could go against her parents’ wishes.
Working at the factory gave her a little sense of freedom. She earned money, she was out of the house part of the day, and she was with a more liberated, cosmopolitan crowd, since many of the employees were from foreign countries—American, Dutch, German, English. The factory had a cheerful atmosphere with the walls painted in bright yellow, the furniture modern. The air was fragrant with the floral essence they used in the soap: jasmine, roses, gardenias. The soaps were in beautiful shapes, oval, round, and had a flower etched on them, the one whose fragrance they contained. The soaps that did not come out perfect were given to the employees and she always took hers home to share with her parents. Though it was a mindless job, she had the freedom to read as she sat at the desk and answered the phone.
One afternoon she was absorbed in reading Gone With The Windin English and a young man she knew was American stopped by her desk and started talking to her.”I’m taking an English course in an evening class,” she told him, “To learn the language. I see all the American movies they show at the Shirazi Cinema. I want to understand them in the original language.”
“Maybe we can go to one of the movies together,” he said.
She blushed and shook her head. He seemed to understand that she could not accept the invitation because males and females were forbidden to interact before they were married.
“Let’s go to dinner then. I know a good place outside of town where no one will recognize us.”
She agreed to do that. She liked him simply because he was an American—to her that represented freedom. In America, she imagined, young girls made their own decisions, did whatever they wished.
It became a pattern that she went out with him one evening a week instead of going to the English class. That way she did not have to explain to her parents why she came home late. After they had seen each other a few times, he started to take her to his house. So that no one could see her, they went in by the back door which was on an empty lane. They would sit on the terrace that overlooked a flower-filled courtyard and eat the food that he had ordered from the chelo kebabi restaurant nearby. He introduced her to wine. When he kissed her she thought of the way actors and actresses kissed in the movies. As they became more intimate, exploring each other’s bodies, again she thought she was doing what those figures on the screen, who represented freedom to her, did. They had been seeing each other for only a few weeks when he said, “Let’s get married.”
“My parents aren’t going to go along with it.”
“Then you have to choose between them and me.”
After a pause she said, “I choose you.”
They planned to get married in six months, just before his job at the factory would end. They would then leave together for America. Only when they were in the airport about to get on the plane would she call her parents and tell them what she was doing. It was sad that everything between her and Bill had to be kept a secret, she thought. Her parents lived in an old-fashioned section of the town where the Shah’s attempt at Westernization had not penetrated. Her mother wore the chador voluntarily. Her father who owned a rug shop in the bazaar had a long beard and constantly moved a rosary between his fingers. They prayed three times a day. They were upset enough that they had not been able to convince their daughter to adhere to religion, they would be devastated if she told them about Bill.
Soon after Bill was forced to leave she had begun to slap her periods. She went to a gynecologist far from her own neighborhood and was told she was pregnant. She tried to hide the pregnancy as long as she could but once she started showing she had to tell her parents about it. She told her mother. Her mother was shocked, upset, very angry, but she finally softened. The only alternative was to keep the child and raise it, her mother said. The other alternatives would have been either a risky illegal abortion or giving the child away to an orphanage. Even if abortion had been legal her mother would never approve, considered it to be murder, and the thought of giving her grandchild to an orphanage was out of the question. Her mother was the one who told her father about the pregnancy. He never confronted Farideh. In general he did not have the aggressive manner of most men who would have disowned their daughter. He seemed to quietly accept it, after the fact. Farideh had wanted to give the child an American name but her parents were adamantly against it.”That would make him stand out too much. He will already look different from other children.”
Her son wandered back from the pool. “Mommy, will you take me to the market and buy me fish like that?” He pointed to the pool.
“Yes, we can do that after we’re rested. Go back there now and watch the fish and see which one is your favorite.”
He went back to the pool. He had no idea about his American father. She had told him that his father had gone on a long journey and she did not know when he would return. She had not told him that he was an American, something that would make it more difficult for him with other children. This way others attributed his coloring, blue eyes and blond hair, to possibly his father having come from the North of Iran where there were intermarriages between Russians and Iranians. She would deal with the truth if Bill returned. But that had not happened anyway.
A young man came over to the table selling cards with pictures on one side and a poem by Hafez on the other side. She picked one with a busy picture of birds, trees and flowers. After she paid the man and he walked away, she read the poem:
“The murmuring Stream of Roknabad,
the breeze that blows out from Mosaalla’s fair pleasance,
Summons me back when I would seek heart’s ease traveling afar.”
See, the poem is telling me that I should stop thinking about Bill and be content with Cyrus, she thought, trying to let herself believe in the wisdom of Hafez.
After she did more shopping for the wedding and bought three gold fish for her son from the bazaar, the two of them walked home. It was cool as the sun was about to set. The mountains skirting the city had turned a lavender color. The air was fragrant with the roses that lined the sidewalks for miles. In spite of the beauty all around she was aware of sadness hanging in the air. Although the war was taking place far away from Shiraz, in the southwest corner of Iran, there were signs of it everywhere. Black flags were hung over the doorways to designate that a son had been killed in the war. At the mouths of some of the streets, glass cases holding photographs of young men who had been killed in the war were set up. The cases were lit inside by tiny bulbs. Young men were taken from their work or homes and sent directly to fight at the front. Their families were told that if their sons returned alive the government would pay for all their education. Those families who depended on their sons for their livelihood would be given a monthly salary. All the parents could do was pray and hope. Wait and wait. The atmosphere of sorrow, intensified her own, but at the same time she was grateful that peoples’ preoccupation with their own problems took away their focus on her, a single mother with a blond child. Of course she did not get away with it completely. Sometimes she was aware of eyes saying, “How did she get that blond child? Who is the father?” She felt closest to the few young women in her neighborhood who had rebelled like herself—one had married out of her religion, a Jewish man, another had refused to marry and was studying medicine. Her parents did not get away completely either. Their old friends stayed with them and tried to comfort them for having such a daughter, but some of their new friends had drifted away. Her father spent a great deal of time with two of his old friends who were more like him. They sat together in a tea house and exchanged lines of poetry or mere gossip and were forgiving of the human foibles they saw all around them.
Her fiancé lived in his aunt’s house, adjacent to that of her parents’. As she approached home, she could hear from his room the song that he played over and over again.
“Oh, my first love, my only love, Where have you gone?”
“Why are you so far away and yet right inside my heart, Out of reach and yet living in my blood, drinking it for sustenance?”
Before she had met Cyrus, hearing that song used to make her wonder if this man had a loss in love similar to hers. She wanted to meet him, talk to him. Then one afternoon as she was taking her son to his pediatrician she met him coming out of his house, walking on crutches. He started talking to her. He told her that he was discharged from the army after being seriously wounded. He had an artificial leg but still had to walk on crutches. He was very handsome with high cheekbones, a wide forehead, and eyes that projected depth and understanding.
After they met a few times on the street, he asked her if she would meet him one afternoon somewhere far from their neighborhood. They met in a restaurant in the countryside. When they were together, she was completely at ease with him. She asked him if he had lost someone he loved.
“No,” he said. “But I lost my own self, the old exuberant, optimistic self. War takes so much from you, beyond your bodily wounds.”
She told him the story of how she had her child. He had not been shocked or disapproving. He had said, “One positive thing I learned from the war is to put things in perspective, what is important and what is not.”
Later on, once when they checked into a hotel, he showed her scars all over his body, red, white, gray lines running through them, which he said had been afflicted on him during the war. She began to feel love for him—for his open-mindedness, sensitivity.
In a few moments, after she and Bijan arrived home, Cyrus came over to have dinner with her and her family, as he did almost every night since they got engaged. Her father talked to him in a totally approving tone, the same with her mother. She could see they were delighted that she was finally getting married and to a man of their own culture whom they could understand.
After supper Cyrus read to Bijan for a while and then put him to bed. She liked to see how well they got along. Bijan viewed Cyrus as a father already and in fact Cyrus was going to adopt him legally once they got married. Cyrus had told her he had no desire for a child of his own.”Why bring another child into this difficult world?” He added, “My parents are so happy that I came back alive from the war that they accept any decisions I make.” She knew what helped also was that like everyone else in Shiraz his family were too preoccupied by their own private sorrows. Although Cyrus had come back alive from the war, he had lost his leg, and it was sad for his parents to see their son walking on crutches when he had been such an active boy, good at sports—he did competitive running and played basketball in his high school and then college, which he attended for two years before he was drafted.
When her parents withdrew into bed, she and Cyrus sat in the living room, planning the life they would have together.
Once married, they moved into the first floor apartment of a two-story house that belonged to Cyrus’s father. Cyrus’s sister and her husband lived on the top floor. Her husband sometimes got violent and would beat her. Cyrus’s father had taken a second wife. He mostly lived with the first one, Cyrus’s mother, and spent a few nights a week with the younger one. He had never introduced his new wife to Cyrus. In fact, he had never admitted to it. Cyrus was disappointed in his father but there was nothing he could do about it.
Farideh tried to accept her life with all its limitations and the harshness she was exposed to. She developed an interest in painting and spent several hours a day at it, when Bijan was at school. Many of the paintings were portraits of young women looking at the world with bold eyes. Now Cyrus owned a store where he sold prints and art work by famous local artists or ancient ones. He displayed some of her paintings too and was happy that they were appreciated, sold well. His shop was inside a cave up a hill that 800 years ago had housed a poet-philosopher and now was a tourist spot. From the top of the hill a large expanse of the city was visible and at night the view became a myriad of blinking lights. Sometimes on late evenings Farideh took her son and went to meet Cyrus at the shop. After he closed up, they would eat in the restaurant on the hill and then return home. But there was a constant yearning in her for something larger that she could not quiet down. Sometimes she wondered what she would do if after all these years Bill returned and said to her, “I’m back, we can go to America now.”
The war finally came to an end. There was a jubilant mood in the air mixed with lingering sorrow. The squares and gardens were lit up at night by bulbs strung through tree branches. The climate helped—it was unusually mild for late summer with a cool breeze blowing from the mountains and the river. The town was lush with gardenias and roses that stood on sidewalks, in pots by houses, in gardens and parks. The parks were covered by families picnicking late into the night. Songs and dances sprang out in different corners. But the black flags and the glass cases holding dead men’s photographs still remained, kept by families who did not want to or could not forget.
Farideh was reading the Shiraz Daily News one morning when she noticed a small article about an international conference, on reconstruction in the aftermath of the war, that was going to take place in Iran in the fall. It said that some American and European specialists who had been working in Iran at one time were going to participate in the conference. Her heart gave a leap. Would Bill be a part of the conference? Would he come to Iran so that he could search for her or had he completely forgotten her? It was nine years now since they had parted. He could be married too for all she knew, have had other children. But now she could not get him out of her mind. In early evenings when Bijan was entertained by Cyrus and food was cooking in the kitchen she would sit by the living room window, the one that overlooked the street, and watch the activities outside. Juxtaposed to what went on in the street were images of the past, Bill, the intense and romantic period that had lifted her above the ordinary life she had been leading. She imagined him standing across the street and signaling to her to come down.
Cyrus said to her, “You aren’t yourself, is something wrong?”
“No, no,” she said.
One afternoon she went to the Armenian church where she and Bill were going to get married. It was located on an alley not far from where she lived. It had been built in the 17th century and had an interesting byzantine structure. The door was open and she went inside. Two women were sitting close to the altar, but otherwise the church was empty. The ceiling was decorated with floral patterns, and the floor was covered by five carpets having exactly the design of the ceiling. Bouquets of flowers were set on wooden side tables. How different her life would have been if she had been able to leave with Bill for the United States, a country that she thought of as vast and exciting, offering unlimited options. The fact that Bill had had a different perspective had never penetrated her. He had said to her, “Iran is so rich and interesting. By contrast America is sterile and dull.”
“You can find anything you want there.”
“I didn’t find anything that excited me.” He went on to tell her that his home life had been full of silences. His parents barely spoke and he and his only brother rarely communicated. Self-expression was taken by his parents as an assault on others’ privacy. They lived in a suburb of Cleveland in a ranch house on a street lined by other similar houses. There was little to do in the town. They had to go miles to find a restaurant or a movie. He had been forced to live at home through his college years because his parents could not afford to send him away.
“My brother is different. He blends right in with that life, never questions it.”
“You and I like to go our own way,” she had told him.
Bill had been in Iran for a week when he could take a break from the conference and come to Shiraz on his own. He, along with other conference participants, had been taken by bus and plane from place to place, mainly towns near the border of Iraq where bombs had been dropped, so that they could observe the damages of war. When he arrived in Shiraz, he was exhausted from all the traveling but he wanted to find Farideh as soon as possible, so after he checked into the hotel and took a shower, he left to see if he could track her down. He would go to the factory first.
As soon as he had seen the notice for the conference, he had decided to participate in it with the intention of spending a part of the time in Shiraz. The three years he had spent there stood out in his mind as a vivid and beautiful experience. He had liked his work at the factory. He had been helping with the design of the soaps as well as with their production. He showed the other employees how to avoid using hazardous chemicals, how to reduce the dangers of the machinery itself. He liked the factory building. Its heavy wooden gate was covered by grape vines and ivy. He liked the Iranians he worked with. They valued him, constantly invited him to their homes. He liked the house that the factory provided for him. It was set inside a courtyard planted so that there were flowers in bloom at every season. Wild parrots had made nests in the tree branches, and he woke to their singing in the mornings. He liked the ease and yet the unpredictability of his life. No two days were alike in Shiraz. Nothing was uniform, not the architecture of the houses, not the shape of the streets, not the way people dressed and expressed themselves. It was as if he were a sponge absorbing all the new and different experiences.
Ever since he noticed the ad for the conference and knew he could go to Iran, he had become haunted by Farideh. How strange that their communication had been so completely cut off. He had tried to call her at the factory, but the lines were disconnected or busy all the time. He tried for days and days at different times but did not succeed. She did not have a home phone. He wrote to her several times at the factory but all the letters came back. He did not have her home address.
They had been together only one evening a week and had spent much of it on his bed, their bodies hungry for each other. He recalled her casual humor, merry rather than ironic, a light-heartedness she managed in spite of the sensitivity of their situation. He remembered so much else that had for a long time receded from his memory. The precise feel of her skin, the way she pressed her breasts against his chest as her hand went gently up and down his back. It was as if there had been no other woman in between. Even Sue, his latest girl friend, with whom he had broken up just a few months ago, had faded.
He was 35-years-old now, but none of his relationships with women had led to anything permanent. Maybe he was still fixated on that lost love, in that engaging, interesting period of his life. His life now, working in an engineering firm in Athens, Ohio and living in an apartment building near his work, where many of the other employees lived, was flat by comparison. In Shiraz he had been a part of a growing, changing country, a culture that both fascinated and eluded him. His relationship with Farideh had embodied those very elements.
He could see as he walked that the city had not been affected in a major way by the war; bombs had never been dropped on it. He spotted the factory easily since it was next to the large and visible Pars Museum that was sometimes referred to as “European hat” because it had a hat-like top.
He went inside, almost hoping to see Farideh sitting at her desk as she used to. But instead he found a middle-aged woman wearing a black scarf and a long black garment sitting there. He first asked about his friends who had worked there, and she said all the previous employees were gone. The factory closed soon after the foreign employees were forced to leave. It had reopened just six months ago. He finally asked her if she knew Farideh who had once worked there. The woman said, “Farideh Nagari?”
He nodded faintly, trying to hide the excitement he felt that the woman knew who Farideh was.
“Yes,” she said, staring at him in a strange way, but she told him Farideh’s address and even drew a little map for him.
He thanked her and left. The address did not seem to be of Farideh’s parents’ house. She must have moved away, gotten married.
He passed a clinic which was inside of a house with a large courtyard, a shop with a curtain hanging over its doors and a sign above the door saying, “Hair Salon,” a fruit store with pomegranates, quinces, persimmons, and other fruit heaped on cartons set in front. Then he was on Orangina street. Orange trees, bearing fruit, lined the sidewalks and hung over the walls of houses. The street was tucked between the wide avenue he had been walking on and another equally wide one, with traffic streaming through them. He found the house in the middle of the street. It had two stories and its brick walls were painted white. He leaned against a tree and waited, hoping for Farideh to come out. He did not want to knock on the door. Who knew, maybe her husband or whoever she was living with, was there.
In a moment the door opened and a little boy came out. He stood on the sidewalk next to the door. The sight of the boy shook him. He was blond and blue-eyed. Could he be his child? He looked to be about nine or ten years old, equal to the years since he had parted from Farideh.
Through the door he could see a rocking horse and a small bicycle standing against the wall. They must belong to the boy. In the courtyard blue jays and sparrows were twittering in the branches of an orange tree. On a porch on the other side of the yard, a cat had curled up in a patch of sun. A woman came out onto the porch, put a bowl in front of the cat, and went back inside. Was that Farideh?
He thought of walking over to the boy and asking him questions. The mere sight of the boy made him weak with a desire to claim him, to simply take him into his arms and run off with him. His desire had no practical aspect to it, he knew. It would never work, it would be kidnaping. And how would he get him out of Iran?
The boy suddenly started calling, “Daddy, Daddy,” but he was looking in the opposite direction from Bill. Bill turned that way and saw a man on crutches approaching. He paused by the house and putting one crutch against the wall he leaned over and picked up the boy, holding him in one arm. The two of them kissed each other tenderly.
Then the woman Bill had seen on the porch came out and now he could see it definitely was Farideh. Although her hair and part of her face were covered by the mandatory scarf he easily recognized her—the same large amber eyes, full sensual lips. Her eyes focused on him for a split second and he saw that she visibly gave a start. But she turned away without acknowledging him. How could she really? He was an intruder. She had built a life with this man, so had the child.
She said to the man. “Cyrus, you’re finally here.”
“I’m sorry I’m late, I got held up at the shop,” the man said. He kissed Farideh quickly, while he still held the boy in his arm. Then the three of them began to go in.
Bill thought of running after Farideh and saying, “Come with me, we are still young, we can start all over again. Let’s take our son and go to America.” But then he thought: no. Not now. He turned around and walked away.