Every man in Roodsar, at some point in his life, was one of my father’s clients. As the sole public notary of the city’s only bank, he always walked with pride.
We lived at the end of a narrow alley, where at summertime the neighborhood boys played with a plastic ball in the dusty road, fought over their turn to ride the postman’s bicycle, and the silence of their absence was the sign of the approaching cold.
Mrs. Mostofi lived next door. Every time she made halva for mourning or celebration, her maid brought us a plate. “We’re not poor,” my mother used to mumble. If by bad luck, Mrs. Mostofi’s path had to cross ours, she always gave me old candies and pinched my full cheeks with her sharp red nails.
“She’s going to be your best student,” my father would tell her.
“Don’t worry,” Mrs. Mostofi would reply, smiling. “She’ll receive my special treatment.”
But strangely, on the first day of school, as I lined up with other girls and sang the national anthem and prayed to God, and as I entered her classroom and let her choose my seat, Mrs. Mostofi treated me like everyone else.
In the last hour of the class, minutes before the bell rang, she walked slowly between the rows, staring at her black notebook, and called one by one the names of the classmates who never became my friends. I waited impatiently, wondering if she would call my name too. She never did.
“This is our daily routine,” she said.
Leila Taghados was the last name called. I had seen her walking home, always cheerful. The whole neighborhood knew she wasn’t bright and had already failed the first grade twice. Leila stood at the end of the line and her face, and her silent restlessness became a still moment which I never forgot.
Once Mrs. Mostofi closed her notebook, she went back to her desk and grabbed a long wooden ruler from a drawer. She had the same look as my father in the moments following a mistake, mine or my mother’s. She raised the ruler in the air with one hand and called the first girl in line with the other hand. “Your palms,” she said.
The girl hid her hands behind her back.
“Mehri, are you deaf?” Mrs. Mostofi yelled. “I told you to show me your palms.”
The sound of Leila’s heavy breathings overshadowed my own.
Mehri — exposed, deceived, and defeated – gave up and stepped forward, crying. She raised her hands, while Leila howled like a wounded dog and we all followed her lead, in line or not.
Pleasing Mrs. Mostofi and hoping to be treated unlike the others, was the first lesson I learned. At home, I went over each detail of my homework, checked my spelling, wrote each word the exact way she expected, and rewrote the sentences of the first lesson: “My name is Sara. Father brings the bread. Mother cooks the dinner. I love my doll,” one hundred more times.
I knew I was going to be safe as long as my homework was perfect, as long as Mrs. Mostofi remained our family’s friend. As long as I didn’t object to her love, each time she noticed my being. As long as I accepted her generosity by shoving her bitter candies down my throat. As long as I hoped — and I prayed fiercely – that she would skip my name, that she would leave me alone on a bench, that she would give me the chance to become a witness, an accomplice.
From that day on, everyday, I hid my gratitude and my guilt, watching the line of dehumanized children, impatient for the echo of the school bell, wondering why they deserved to be punished. But still, as the line moved forward and as their turn arrived, they all raised their hands without any objection, so Mrs. Mostofi didn’t have to work hard or to scream or to break a nail in her daily routine, since she was a petite woman, just a skinny petite woman.
Two years later, we left Roodsar and moved to Tehran, where my father lost his reputation and authority, where for years he missed his golden times of being someone influential, where we all became unidentified, undistinguished and squeezed, just like Leila, just like Mehri, just like any other insignificant little man, waiting for the time of our punishment to arrive.
# # #
It wasn’t raining anymore.
The car stopped in front of an industrial structure separated from the rest of the airport by barbed wire fences. Its façade resembled a toy mansion made of foam and plastic. One of the guards pulled me out and we walked fast. A plane took off with a deafening uproar, as my guard pushed me inside. The blue floodlight in the hallway startled me with its brightness and I envied all the strangers, the voyagers on that plane sitting in their seats, hanging on to that moment of thrill and tension; the beginning of a trip, a vacation, or a return home.
I missed home. I missed my books, my room. I missed Mother’s kitchen, her warm silence and even the darkness of my hiding; my closet, and I damned Kareem.
In the round of new desks and new boxes to sign, the black folder of my felonies went hand to hand, and new forms — filled in by strangers – amplified its volume, like routine. Like something predictable. And I pleased them all, through my silence and my signatures, just to get along, just to follow the rules, just to be accepted, as if I had done it before, as if I no longer needed Kareem.
They made me stand in one spot and a bored photographer checked my face, touched my forehead, and pulled back my hair with his slimy hands. Don’t move, he told me with his gestures, before hiding behind his camera.
I stared back at the lens, not knowing to grin or to glare, since I had always smiled in all the pictures taken in my previous life. But I was too afraid to think, too tired to care.
The next stop was a gray door, resembling the others, with a small barred window. The guard, without saying a word, opened it and pushed me inside.
Another signature, I thought.
But this time, no new desk was on display, no new officer mocked my phony passport and no new form with an empty box waited for me. I turned back toward the guard, but he wasn’t there anymore and the door was closing. His key rubbed the metal, scratched the air, and pushed the rest of the world behind the locked gate.
My weight dragged me down, and I slid slowly to the floor, following the line of gravity. My back touched the door. It was cold. I was cold. I sat on the ground. I didn’t want to fight. I didn’t want to think. The sharp blue brightness of the room, or maybe my own hazy loneliness, hurt me. My arms, aching. My legs, heavy. My head, in pain.
The seven metal chairs, placed from wall to wall, could have belonged to an appalling doctor’s waiting room. Walls, dirty white and nothing hung on their offensive blankness. The door behind me with its small grill defined my new boundaries. The brown sink in the corner leaked. The light, derived from a mysterious source, seeped through the holes of the foam-covered ceiling.
No window. It had no window.
How could I ever tolerate a room without a window? But hadn’t I survived hiding in the closet? Wasn’t I a war survivor?
I looked at my watch. It had stopped. I had no idea of the time. All I could do was wait.
I knew how to wait.
Every few minutes, the sound of a plane taking off broke the silence. Every few minutes guards repeated their forceful rounds in the hallway and someone shouted in a foreign language. Every few minutes a door opened and seconds later, it got locked.
I didn’t want to throw a tantrum. I didn’t want to weep or to feel self-pity over my misfortune. I didn’t want to remember or to imagine. To regret or to hope. Stuck in time, emotionless, I accepted the moment and I took it as the first sign of my exposure to my freedom. My independence. My solitude. Everything that I had desired the most. Conscious of the existence of those other rooms, not far, holding other people, criminal or innocent, remorseful or hopeless, but all victims of their own unbearable feelings. I knew I could be one of them. Still, I wasn’t a victim, as long as I didn’t embrace defeat. As long as I survived. But why did freedom feel so lonely?
I stood up and placed two chairs face to face. I sat on one, laid my legs on the other, and followed the slow movement of a bug crossing the wall, disappearing in a hole on the ceiling.
I was hungry.
I waited long before falling unconscious beneath a dreamless sleep and a familiar nightmare.