Issue 2, Spring 2007


by Nahid Rachlin

Mina reread Tom’s letter, pausing on parts that had particularly upset her.

... Columbus is a lonely place for me without you. You must be having a great time in Tehran, you keep postponing coming back. And when is the phone there is going to get fixed? I want to hear your voice. Maybe you don’t want to accept how much I miss you... I’ve been looking for real work, but nothing yet. Meanwhile I have lined up house painting jobs.

She abandoned the letter on the mantle. It landed next to the photograph of her as an adolescent, still there after fifteen years. In fact the room was in many ways intact, the same blue carpet with intricately designed patterns, the same embroidered bedspread. She liked being there among her old belongings even though she hadn’t felt that way when she was young and yearning to leave home. But reading Tom’s letter had shattered her serenity as if the words leapt out of the page and tainted the room.

Tom’s ambition to be a film maker, at which he had not yet succeeded, forced him to take on only odds-and-ends jobs to make money. He worked as a house painter, a handyman, a cashier in a bookstore; the rest of the time he sat in front of the TV at home, dreaming, hoping. At the beginning, soon after he got his degree in Cinema, he had a producing job on a local TV station. That earned him some money and they were able to put a down payment on a house. But then practically nothing else came up for him.

Her own degree in communications hadn’t been very practical either and she too took on whatever work she could get. Her latest job was as a hair dresser in a salon in Columbus not far from their house. A year ago she had started going to school part time, studying health management. She had thought that might be a more practical degree and also it was offered tuition free at Columbus Community College.

But now she had abandoned everything and come to Iran because one of her relatives wrote to tell her that her mother was losing her memory and needed someone to put her affairs together.

When she arrived, the house was in disarray. Some of the relatives had been coming in daily to attend to her mother’s needs but she could see her mother really needed full time help. She was living with Zizi, Mina’s mentally retarded sister, on the top floor of this three-story house that she owned. Zizi was no help-- she needed care herself. At the age of twenty-two her mental state was fixated at the age of eight.

Mina had gotten a lot done since she came here three months ago. The lower two floors, converted to apartments, had been vacant. She gave the first floor apartment to Fatemeh and her seven year old son, rent-free in return for help with cleaning and cooking.

Having taken care of the household affairs, Mina was now working hard to set straight her mother’s jumbled finances.

“Mina, Mina,” her mother was calling. Mina opened her eyes. She had lain down on her bed and fallen asleep. She liked hearing her mother, who went in and out of memory, saying her name so clearly. She went into the living room and found her mother and Zizi, sitting up on their cots, that served both as beds and sofas, across from each other in the L part.

“Fatemeh went to get tea,” her mother informed Mina in a flat staccato tone.

Zizi stared at them while pulling at her own hair, chewing on a strand of it.

Mina sat on a chair and tried to talk to her mother but it was hard to get her to communicate. She had also shrunk in size. It was painful to see her in this frail, forgetful state. Once she had been energetic, never sitting still, running a household, gardening, embroidering. One of her embroideries, of two ducks by a pond, was hanging on the wall behind her.

Fatemeh came in from the kitchen, accompanied by her son, Ali. They were carrying the samovar, the tea pot, the cups and saucers, sugar and cookies. She was a tall heavy set woman with large breasts and strong arms. Everything seemed feather light in her hands. She had a confident manner that Mina had liked when she hired her.

Mina helped Fatemeh and Ali to arrange everything on the small table in the corner, which held a bowl of rock sugar and a geranium pot.

“Stay and have tea with us,” Mina said to them.

“Thank you but we have a lot to do,” Fatemeh said. “What do you want me to make for supper?”

“Today is the vegetarian day. Make kuku and cucumber and yogurt salad.”

They left and Mina began to pour tea into cups from the pot on the top of the samovar, then added water from the samovar’s faucet. Her mother put rock sugars from the bowl into her cup and stirred the tea with a spoon and did the same for Zizi.

“Ali stole my little clock,” Zizi said suddenly as they started having tea.

“The one I brought for you with the shiny hands?”

Zizi nodded.

Mina wasn’t sure if she could believe Zizi who had such limited understanding. She had a habit of collecting things in a large plastic bag that she kept under her bed. She took the bag out sometimes, pulled everything out of it, and looked at them. It was likely she had put the clock there and forgotten about it.

“Are you sure it isn’t in the plastic bag? Why don’t you look?”

“Give me money I want to buy ice cream,” Zizi said instead.

“You promise you won’t make any phone calls to Hossein with that money?”

Zizi nodded. She had been married to Hossein for two years. He was a simple village boy who hadn’t been quite aware of Zizi’s retardation when the marriage had been arranged by the two mothers. Once they moved in together, in an apartment he had set up, it didn’t take long for him to find that out and eventually he left her. Poor Zizi was obsessed with him. It was a year ago when the marriage broke up and he was remarried, but she still called him at his work. A few days ago Hossein had called to complain about Zizi’s calls to him. He had said to Mina, “Can you stop Zizi from bothering me. She disrupts my work.” That was why there was no working phone in the apartment. Mina had been forced to disconnect it so that it would be harder for Zizi to call Hossein.

She gave some money to Zizi, who left without finishing her tea.

“Would you like to watch a program on TV?” Mina asked her mother.

“There’s nothing good on TV,” her mother said. “All government propaganda.”

“We have to get satellite TV,” Mina said. That was the only way to get foreign programs. Though satellites were illegal, most people had them, hidden in attics or roofs.

“ For years and years I didn’t see you.” her mother asked, sinking into a melancholy mood.

“I’m here now,” Mina said. She looked at the framed photograph of the whole family hanging on the wall. It was taken years ago. Her mother and father sat on a chair, Mina and herself stood on either side, and her brother Sohrab, two years older than her, in the back. He was a tall, good looking boy and projected vitality. Alas he had died in the Iran-Iraq war, which had taken many lives. Her father had died soon after losing his beloved son and her mother had never been the same. At that time they were living in Ahvaz where her father practiced law. In the picture her mother had all her dark wavy hair, now a fuzz of gray. Zizi’s retardation wasn’t quite apparent yet and she had a robust, happy face. She herself looked dreamy, reflecting her yearning to leave her home for a wider world. She loved her mother but she had never looked to her as a role model-- to marry and be content with a domestic life, with no aspirations beyond being a good mother and wife. Now she felt wistfulness for those days when they had all been together, unaware of the harshnesses that life would bring.

When she approached the last year of high school, her mind became filled with dreams of going to America. At the time many Americans were employed in the oil business and she had seen how much more freedom American parents gave their daughters. They could ride a bicycle, stay over at friends’ houses, walk around, holding hand with their boy friends. She begged her parents to send her there to study. She had argued and argued until her parents had finally agreed to let her go. How little they suspected that she would marry an American man and stay in America, that visits would become nearly impossible once Iran and America broke their relationship over the hostages crisis.

“I’ll take you to the porch,” she said to her mother after she was finished drinking her tea. She helped her get up and took her to the porch that extended out from the living room. Her mother walked on a cane because of the knee arthritis she had developed. She liked to sit on the rocking chair there and watch the activities outside -- people coming and going from the mosque whose large blue dome dominated the small street, children playing on the sidewalks.

Soon after settling her mother on the porch, Mina left the apartment to go to the courthouse. She wanted to check on the progress of the law suits her mother had set in motion and now was unable to manage. Her mother had lent money to a rug merchant who refused to pay her back. Tenants of a second house her mother owned on the other side of the city hadn’t paid their rent for months.

As she entered the second floor’s hallway, Massoumeh, the tenant of that apartment opened her door and said to her, “Can I talk to you for a few moments? Please come in.”

Mina went in and Massoumeh offered her fruit from a bowl.

“I’ve had too much to eat already, thank you,” Mina said and sat down on a chair that Massoumeh pulled out for her from behind a table. A pile of army uniforms lay on the floor next to a sewing box. Massoumeh sewed buttons on the jackets to supplement her income. Her husband was a retired doctor and had enough money but he had two wives, Massoumeh being the second. It was expensive for him to run two households. He spent every other night with the other wife who had been the first one and still had more of a hold on him. Massoumeh having no children and her husband being away a lot, often came up and talked to Mina.

“Fatemeh has an eye on my husband,” she said now. “She comes in when he’s home and flirts with him. He’s taken by her, loves the flattery. I’ve seen a lot of men coming and going from her apartment. Who knows what kind of people they are.” With her slender figure and pale skin, Massoumeh was as delicate in her looks as Fatemeh was coarse.

“You’re so much more attractive than Fatemeh,” Mina said, by way of consolation.

“Her little boy is in trouble,” Massoumeh said, following her own thoughts. “Who wouldn’t be with that kind of mother. He skips school and wanders the streets.”

Maybe Zizi’s accusation that Ali had stolen her money was true after all.

“Fatemeh sells her body,” Massoumeh added in a whisper as if afraid someone was listening just outside of the door. “I don’t know if you can trust her with your mother when you leave the country. I’d look for someone else.”

“It isn’t easy. It doesn’t seem to be like the old days. No one is willing to be a servant,” Mina said.

“You should get someone from the villages.”

“I’ll have a talk with Fatemeh,” Mina said, though she wasn’t sure what she would say exactly. She had no real evidence of Ali stealing or Fatemeh entertaining men or even flirting with Massoumeh’s husband. Anyway Fatemeh’s relationships with men were not her business, they were private matters. But still now she was no longer sure that Fatemeh was the best person to leave her mother’s care to.

“I didn’t know my husband had another wife when I married him,” Massoumeh said. “And now I’m trapped.”

Mina stopped herself from talking about her own problems. She wanted to keep herself in the position of authority, to minimize tension inherent in the household’s situation.

“I should be going now before offices close,” Mina said, getting up.

She walked to Valiasr Avenue and waited for a taxi. No taxis were stopping. She pulled up her scarf that kept slipping off her hair. It was terrible to be forced by the government to cover up, dress a certain way, she thought. But then in Columbus she had been forced into doing so many things she didn’t like.

It was a pleasant autumn day with a breeze blowing. Persimmons hung on the leafless tree branches like ornaments. The air was vibrant with the voices of people roaming around, music coming out of car radios, vendors hawking their merchandise. But she felt a heaviness in her heart from the conversation she had with Massoumeh, not only because she had heightened her concern for her mother, but also because it had reminded her of her own problems. She had gone all the way to the other side of the world to find freedom, yet she felt just as trapped as Massoumeh.

Her mind went back to that afternoon when she had come home from work, earlier than Tom had expected, and found a young woman in the house with him. Their clothes, hair, were rumpled-- it seemed they had just gotten out of bed. He introduced the woman to her in an awkward way, then the woman left in a hurry. He told Mina he was helping the woman with a script that they were hoping to sell to a TV channel.

“Come on Tom!”

He turned on the TV and started watching it.

“I want an honest explanation,” she said, turning off the TV. “Don’t try to brush this aside like everything else.”

“She means nothing to me. We’re just friends,” he said in a nonchalant way that was only making her more furious.

“Then why didn’t I ever hear her name mentioned before? I’ve had enough! I’m leaving!” She had gone into the bedroom, opened a suitcase, and started to pack. She thought she would go and stay in the bed-and-breakfast near the hair salon and then decide what to do. In a moment Tom came into the room. “It’s really nothing. I won’t have anything to do with her any more,” he said. “I don’t like the script anyway.” He suddenly started to cry. “It’s been so frustrating, with no decent jobs.”

When she had met Tom in Madison where they were both going to the university, they had been drawn to each other mainly because they came from such different worlds. They didn’t remind each other of painful aspects of their own pasts. He had been raised with a violent, alcoholic father; she had felt herself to be the victim of a culture that allowed women no voice, little choice. They had been carefree together then, laughed a lot. When he had asked her out for the second time in one week, she knew they would spend the night together. She went to a department store and bought a black gown with lace trim and matching underpants, a shimmering pink satin bathrobe, pink satin slippers. She wanted to look sexy when she woke in his apartment the next morning.

“You look like a model,” he said. “Aren’t young women in your country forbidden to have sex?”

“Yes, except with their husbands.”

“Well, let’s get married then,” he said as if her remark was a hint.

They both laughed but then the serious marriage proposal came quickly, after they had gone out for only a few weeks. They were married by a justice of the peace and had a small reception in a friend’s apartment. Neither of their family members were there. She hadn’t even told her parents about the marriage then. They, particularly her father, wouldn’t have approved of her marrying someone without their permission, someone they hadn’t arranged for her. Her father surely would have made a scene. His parents were too absorbed in their own problems to come to Madison all the way from Florida, where they had moved.

“Just as well,” Tom had said.

Mina had agreed. But then, gradually, as they started having problems, it was hard for them to see things in similar ways, make decisions agreeable to both. Sometimes he used the tension between their countries as an excuse to attack her. His remarks were hurtful.

“There is so much intrigue and secrecy there in Iran,” he said once after Bush put Iran on the Axis of Evil. This was during the period when she was pressuring him to aim to have a baby and he resisted it.

Finally a taxi stopped and she got in. The driver was a woman. She was completely covered, with only her eyes showing. Mina gave her the courthouse’s address.

“I take someone there every day,” the driver said. “In this city everyone has problems.”

“People have problems everywhere,” Mina said.

“Where do you come from, you have an accent?”

Mina told her she had been living in America for nearly ten years.

“What brings you here if you have America?” The driver said. Then she reconsidered, “But home is where our hearts are.”

A policeman stopped the driver and asked her to show him her license.

“Move on,” the policeman said rudely after she showed it to him.

“They can’t bear to see a woman driving or doing anything other than sitting home,” she said to Mina.

Then they were at the courthouse. Mina gave the driver a good tip, got out, and went into the courthouse. The marble-covered walls and floor and a gold-rimmed chandelier hanging from the ceiling in the waiting room pointed to a once richer and more glorious Iran.

She took her number from the clerk and sat on a bench next to several other women who were talking among themselves. It was so crowded as if everyone in the city had problems. One woman was complaining bitterly to another about her husband beating her up regularly. She was there to file for divorce. The other woman said she was trying to gain custody of her child who had automatically gone to her husband when they got divorced. Mina thought again how she had gone all the way to the other side of the world and hadn’t been able to escape problems.

It was already four o’clock and the courthouse closed at five. The numbers were going very slowly and there were at least ten ahead of her.

“I’m really sorry for the inconvenience,” an official said, coming to the middle of the room. “It’s five o’clock. You’ll have to return tomorrow.”

She got up and left.

When she reached home Fatemeh was in the courtyard rinsing some clothes under the little pool’s faucet and Ali and another boy were sitting on a rug spread on the ground, playing a card game.

“Your uncle Mohammad is here. He’s come all the way from Kashan,” Fatemeh told Mina.

Mina dashed to the stairway and climbed up rapidly, eager to see her uncle to whom she had been very attached as a child.

He was sitting on one of the chairs by the dining table with a suitcase next to him. Her mother was asleep and Zizi was still out. He smiled at seeing Mina and got up to embrace her. She had the same startled reaction to her uncle as she had to her mother when she just arrived and to her aunt whom she had visited in a nursing home-- how frail and old they all had grown. His eyes were heavy-lidded and his hair half gray. One of his eyes that had been blind since he was a child now looked empty. When he had been a young boy he used to hunt pigeons with a bow and arrow and an arrow had hit that eye. “God punished me for shooting innocent animals,” she remembered him telling her. He had stopped hunting and then stopped eating meat.

As she sat with him now, they slowly filled each other with their lives. The expressions on his face and the nuances of his voice brought back the familiar uncle. He had been so attentive to her when he came to visit them. He took her to the amusement park, played card games with her. He told her jokes and made shadow pictures on the wall with his hands.

An hour or so later, when they were all eating dinner, he talked to her mother a lot and that brought her out of herself. Her mother engaged him in a conversation, mainly focused on past memories. “Do you remember when Father brought us those clay animals and dried cherries from his trips?” “Do you remember we used to shake the mulberry tree and the fruit came down in a white stream?” He was only one-and-a-half years older than this sister. They had been very close as children.

Mina saw how they each came out of their solitudes, and she felt good being a part of their transformation.

After a few days it became clear to Mina that her uncle hoped to stay on there. He had lost his wife to cancer a few years ago and he had no children because he had married late and his wife had been even older than he was, past child bearing age. So he was lonely. He also had little money to live comfortably. He had worked as a clerk in the city hall in Kashan and his whole income now that he was retired was a small pension and what he got from his house which he had rented before he left. His wife, before she died, brought in some money by baking bread in a deep stone oven they had in their basement and selling it to the neighborhood people. But then that income was cut off. He had other problems, the most serious, he told Mina, was that he had hepatitis which had done irreparable damage to his liver.

Moving in with his sister was the best option, Mina thought.

She cleared the corner of the large walk-in closet for him to put his clothes. She took out one of the folding cots from the closet and put it in a corner of the living room for him to sleep on. As she rummaged through the closet for a blanket and pillows she came across a box full of toys-- the rag dolls that had been hers, a lacy pink dress with a white collar she recalled she loved to wear. How happy and carefree those childhood days were, she thought.

“I wish Maryam was here with us rather than in the nursing home, “ her uncle said to her one morning.

Maryam, eighty-five, was the oldest sibling. Relatives had put her in the nursing home after she had fallen and broken her hip and then her mind had begun to go. Like Uncle Mohammad she didn’t have any children. Her husband had been very old and died soon after they got married. Some female relatives had hoped to take her into their own homes, but then their husbands had objected on the grounds that they themselves had other dependants they wanted to take in. Mina’s mother had already started to lose her memory and her uncle had been developing the illness that was incapacitating him.

As soon as her uncle suggested it, it seemed like a good idea to take her aunt out of the home and let her live here with her sister and brother. Her aunt too used to lavish attention on her-- making her rag dolls, telling her stories of ancient kings and princesses. She was a kind, patient woman and Mina was happy when she came home from school to have her as well as her mother there. She sat close to them, in the radiance of their love for each other and for herself, and did her homework. Her mother used to love having her sister there too, for companionship and help with her children.

She would have to pay Fatemeh more but she was sure she would be happy to stay on. And if she didn’t maybe she would take Massoumeh’s suggestion and hire someone from the villages.

She cleared out another closet and set up another cot in the corner of the L shaped room. Then she took Fatemeh with her to the nursing home and they brought Aunt Maryam home. As soon as her aunt was in the living room Mina knew in her heart that it was the right thing to have done. Though her aunt was frail and still had a hard time walking because of fractured bones, her face had become alert and radiant now that she was there, in her sister’s home.

Daily Mina was aware of magical moments of closeness between the three siblings, something that she immensely enjoyed. They prayed together three times a day, ate together, sat on the porch and talked. They even liked sleeping in the same room in close proximity to each other.

She put some of what she had learned in health management courses into use taking care of them. She had a balanced menu for them. She made sure her uncle went out for a walk every day and she took her mother and aunt into the courtyard so that they could enjoy the flowers and sunlight that poured in and then helped them walk around. She helped everyone to take showers.

Days were going by and she wasn’t making any plans to go back to Columbus. She wasn’t sure when or if she would ever go back. Finally she wrote to Tom:

... I can’t come back just yet. My mother’s financial affairs aren’t settled. Also I want to make sure that the woman taking care of some tasks here is working out well before I leave. The household has expanded to include my aunt and uncle, who also need care.

She went on to describe the daily routine she had established for them, though she wasn’t sure if Tom would be interested in any of the details.