I’ve lived three times, and I don’t prefer any of my lives over the other. Life has always been in progress in the circuit around which I’ve been traveling. The circuit doesn’t care if I’ve been on the right road. It doesn’t matter if I’m on the path of happiness or to misery. Being strong is all that matters.
I saw a cow alongside the road, a cow grazing near the graveyard. A few yards away was a narcotics anonymous center. I was thinking about this whimsical image of having weaned a cow off addiction and cutting off its head and burying it in the graveyard. I was too drowned in these thoughts to remember what happened next. A thudding sound. Pitch-black darkness and then a white light. And now you, about whose existence I have no explanation. I just know that you’re here right now. The lines of your face knit together every now and then. The image is fuzzy. I don’t know what exactly you look like, just that your lips force a smile. Now you tell me, where am I?
– Those lines are straightening. Don’t you want to come back? It’s your call, of course. Maybe you don’t want to come back at all. Maybe those lines will still go up and down, but you know they wouldn’t sustain you for more than a few months. You have to make a decision at the end of the day. Where are you coming from?
– Well, I don’t know. We wanted to give each other some breathing space. We thought maybe we need to give our relationship some time. We shouldn’t have let everything we’d worked so hard for all these years go up in…
– Listen! Can you hear the sound? They’re talking about you.
– It’s the sound of…that’s the one…how feeble…it’s as if…
Long silence. It took too long—I think a few days. I’m not sure if it was a man or a woman—the gender was vague—but it told me vaguely that only a few hours had come and gone, and that I’m gradually going off the circuit. I don’t know what that really meant. I’m not that familiar with the circuit. I never pursued a definitive and purposeful path in life. In my eyes, I’ve always been off the circuit. The only thing I ever stuck to was probably my homework assignments the first few years of school because I used to think those had to be done impeccably. Seeing those men and women who would go hitchhiking every morning and come back by the noon, resting near the graveyard, I wondered to myself what was going on up there. The kids accompanied them, too. They played with the cows. How brave! I could never wrap my head around this kind of life. I make a thirty-minute drive to work each morning and smoke a cigarette at every traffic light. I wouldn’t even buy anything from street kids. And when I returned from work in the afternoon, I was so exhausted that I would bitch all the time. I had a free ear in the house who listened to my litany of complaints. But that self-called “hapless man” sent me some paperwork one day which I skimmed over, whereby my eyes landed on the words “Divorce Request.”
The day I was lost in thought, watching the cow and the graveyard, I was on my way to the notary public to sign the papers, but…
– There comes the sound of crying.
– I can’t hear it. It must be my mom.
– No! It’s the baby…just born…it could have been yours.
– Mine? Don’t be silly. I’ve never wanted one.
– Have you had a pregnancy test? You need to test before the divorce.
– No, I haven’t.
– Are you scared?
Ladies and gentlemen, as I stand here today feeling honored by receiving this award, I just want to thank my mom. She was a strong, kind, and smart woman who helped me get where I am today…
When the ceremony was over, I returned home with my husband and told him I was so tired I couldn’t go to the wrap party. “I know,” he said, giving me a blank look. We saw each other less frequently for the next few years. I spent most of my time in an academic or scientific environment. A few times he’d mentioned something about wanting a child, and I’d paid him no mind. Science and academia had taken up all of my time. You could see my name in print in almost every university: Zoya Parvizi—researcher, scientist, a PhD holder in philosophy, and an Iran-born German orientalist. My mom would always take great joy in saying my name out loud wherever we went. She would spread the joy with the sparkle of her eyes and get so excited that she’d start speaking Persian in a high voice. I’d blush and ask her to keep her voice down because it would draw people’s attention to us. I knew some of those people regarded us with disgust. I knew those looks ever since going to school where my blond classmates used to pull on my black hair and poke fun at me.
My mom used to tell me all about the hardships of raising kids, especially because my dad had divorced her after I’d been born. According to my mom, my dad was keen on having children. I’d come to this world at his insistence, but he parted ways with my mom right after my birth. Whenever my mom reached this point in our conversation and I asked her about the reason, she would shake her head, staring at a corner. She worried that I would have to raise my kid all on my own like she had done.
“The baby is dead. You were pregnant,” said White-clad.
I said, “Don’t be silly. You mean I myself didn’t know that I was pregnant?”
“Yeah, sometimes women don’t realize they’re pregnant until the second or third month.”
I took in the room. Someone had written down my name on a small whiteboard above my bed: Roya Sharifi…and a few English words among which I could only understand one: coma. I whispered my name a few times. It was clear to me now that I was on a hospital bed, suspended in a coma that teetered between life and death. A bunch of sounds and images were creeping up on my neurons, switching on my brain. The memories that had nestled in every corner of my mind were dripping down on the screen of my spirit. White-clad embodied the ethos of my life’s circuit. I was dumbfounded. The lines of the face knitted together again. I meant to say something, but my mouth stayed agape. My hands burned. A cold fluid was traveling up my veins. I shivered. I saw White-clad with its straight line of lips bending down a little.
My cell phone rang at midnight. “Hello?” I said in a state between sleep and wakefulness. The tender voice of a girl came from the other end who mumbled indistinct words against the background of loud music. My husband’s name and the word “unconscious” were all I gathered. When I arrived at the bar whose address the girl had provided, my husband had been laid out on his car seat. The girl must have been the same girl I had heard over the phone—-lean and tall, with long black wavy hair. She had worn a see-through sparkling night gown. Her eyes were bulging, and she looked sideways whenever she talked. She fidgeted, shook her hands and…she had a graceful build and her face…her face had no flaws whatsoever; the only thing was that the lines of her face enmeshed together from time to time. I rubbed my eyes. I could hear the pulse in my head.
“Were you the one who’d called?” I asked.
“Aaaa, yeah,” she crooked her mouth. “I…I…your number was in his phone log. I thought I’d better call you. I’ve got to go now.”
“Drive us to the hospital,” I grabbed her by the arm.
She was staring at the road ahead and wouldn’t even check the side mirrors. I turned around and glanced at the backseat, watching my husband’s savaged face. The trace of something red was visible on his shirt.
– How old are you?
– My mom always says that men know nothing about kindness. Is she right?
– I don’t know. Maybe.
– What did you see in him?
– In who? What?
“Shut up,” I yelled. “Don’t play dumb with me, you fucking bitch. My husband is too old for you.”
For the first time, she looked around, her hands trembling.
“Pull over, and get the fuck out,” I shouted. “Quick.”
The screeching sound echoed in the night.
“How are you going to take him to the hospital then?” she asked as she was getting out of the car.
“He doesn’t need hospital,” I raised my voice. “He’s just drunk.” The bitch is still worried about him, I murmured before sitting at the wheel.
My husband was heavy. I asked the security to help me take him upstairs. I let him sleep on the bed with his shoes and clothes on, with the one-thousand-dollar three-piece suit that made him look like a corpse in a coffin. I wished for him to die.
– Have I got brain damage?
– You’ve got brain damage.
– Scary! What’s this?
– A mirror. Want to see yourself in it?
Everything about me was the same as before. I just placed a hand on my belly and asked if I was pregnant.
– You are pregnant.
– Don’t be a fool! Someone with brain damage can’t be pregnant.
– When will you be back?
– Do I have to come back?
– You need to make up your mind. Want to stay?
– What about the baby?
– They’ll put it inside someone else’s womb.
– Put? Who will put it? Inside whose womb?
– You ask too many questions. Who cares? Inside the womb of someone who hasn’t gone off the circuit.
– Have I gone off the circuit?
– Not that far out. You still can come back.
Time was lost. I think it took a long while, or maybe short. What difference did it make? I thought long and hard inside that white empty space. It was a wonderful place for thinking. Nothing to distract me. Every now and then a sound came in.
– I don’t want to come back.
– He’s been crying a lot.
– The hapless man.
– Yeah, that “hapless man.”
– Listen for yourself.
– Should I come back?
– I don’t know. It’s your call.
– I changed my mind. I’ll go back. How about the baby? Is it still in my womb?
White-clad faded further and further: “I don’t know…maybe.”
I still didn’t want to go back…wanted to…didn’t want to…
– You stupid bitch. At least you could have given me a ride to the subway. What am I going to do in the middle of the night? Oh, a taxi. “Taxi, taxi,” I shouted out.
“Where should I go, Miss?” asked the driver—a flabby bald-headed man—with a smirk on his face before giving me a once-over through the rear mirror.
“47th Western Street.”
The driver ogled me at every opportunity, smiling. I fidgeted in my seat and was glued to the door. When I got out of the car, I paid him the fare. But he refused to leave. I walked up the stairs and put the key in the lock before turning my head around. “If you’re alone for the night, you don’t have to be,” he stuck out his head and said. I took out my phone and took a photo of his license plate number before he drove off.
Like my childhood days, I took off my shoes before entering the house. Whenever I used to go to a friend’s house, I was wary of doing that because they would have looked at me like an alien. This was one of those habits that had migrated with me. The house was half-dark. The TV was on, the white noise filling the room. I scanned the kitchen. Cups with dregs of coffee in their bottom had scattered about the counter. The coffee maker was on. I pitter-pattered up the stairs. A dim ray of light was oozing out of my mom’s room. “Where have you been?” my mom whispered as soon as I was by my bedroom door.
“I was out,” I said, standing by the door.
My mom hurriedly opened the door. “Out? I know you’ve been out…where exactly is out?”
I walked to my room and she followed me in. “Who cares? Out is out.”
“You’re driving me crazy,” she yelled. “When are you going to see you’re going the wrong way?”
“Huh,” I scoffed. “Look who’s talking about right and wrong now?”
“Next time if you’re coming home this late, don’t come home at all,” she grabbed my arm before frowning. “Look at you! How do you go out on the street like this?”
“Stop it, mom,” I retorted. “This is not Iran. If you’re so unhappy, why didn’t you stay in Iran? Why did we come here? Yeah, I know. You don’t have to tell me. Because my so-and-so dad could have taken my full custody after turning seven.” I took a deep breath. “Oh, how I wish you’d let him take me.”
Her eyes welled up. Her nose reddened. She nodded her head and got chocked up. “I should have…I should have gone back. I wanted to…but it was late. I should have—”
I burst into tears. The tear drops were huge, so huge that they covered my cheeks in full, drenching my face, my neck, even my clothes.
I cried at the thought of her dying. I hated her so much at that moment that I wished for her to vanish. I stared at my drenched face through the toilet mirror which went blurry, then glanced at that “hapless man” who was lying in bed like a dead body with his bruised face that failed to pale the trace of red lipstick on his collar. Then I heaved a sigh of relief. I should have called my mom and thanked her. She was always right. It was as if she could look into the future. After I hung up, I made myself some coffee. “Fuck it,” I said when glancing at the pile of cups in the sink.
Then I walked up to the computer next to which sheaves of paper sat. I started typing. I checked my schedule: a conference on Monday, doctor’s appointment, family counselor. I deleted the last one and instead wrote down going out with my friends.
The sound of his snoring went up. I rose from the chair, closed the door, and continued with my typing.
The white fluorescent lamps on the ceiling were striking at my eyes. Faces loomed up one by one as I was blinking. All of them looked familiar except one, who wasn’t there. I placed a hand on my belly—it was completely flat. “White-clad,” I said under my breath, “I want to go back.”
Like always, I drove half an hour to my office and smoked at every traffic light. I wouldn’t buy anything from street kids, not even a chewing gum. It was a month since we had signed the papers, but my ex-husband was unhappy. The name was the first thing I read on the paper: Roya…Roya…how silly! My mom used to say what a beautiful name I had. My therapist said that unlike my name meaning “dream,” my life needed to be more realistic. My ex-husband believed that a child was going to turn our life into a dream. He’d call me every day, asking for us to go back together and start a new family by having children.
As my mom says, I’m one of those unemotional women whose motherly instinct doesn’t work. “How could a woman not want children?” she used to always say. The more I think about my mom, the less I understand her. I don’t know, maybe some women are like me, maybe not. But I put the baby in someone else’s womb on that very night, someone who hadn’t gone off the circuit yet. Maybe this person was going to go on a definitive and purposeful path—a path didn’t have a cow, nor a narcotics anonymous center, nor a graveyard…maybe it’s better to entrust kids to those people.
In such instances, my mom would say: “You’re talking nonsense again. What’s all this? Just have a child and the rest will take care of itself. How do you think I raised you and your brother and sister in this small village? Your dad and I used to work in the A&A center and in the graveyard. Labor. Drudgery. Trust me when I say we used to see meat only once in a blue moon.” My mom spoke these same words and arguments on a perennial loop.
My cell phone kept ringing. My ex-husband wouldn’t give up. The traffic wouldn’t abate, either. Sitting behind the wheel, I cussed at everyone and anyone, while continuing to smoke more and more cigarettes. “Damn,” I shouted. “Goddamn White-clad.”
SARA SAADLOU is an Iranian writer, blogger, and literary scholar. Her short stories and poems have appeared in several Iranian magazines, including Cafe Dastaan and Chelcheragh. She has a degree in Persian literature from the University of Tehran and currently lives in Shiraz with her husband and two children.
SIAVASH SAADLOU is a writer and translator whose works of fiction, creative nonfiction, and criticism have appeared in Plenitude Magazine, The Margins, WGBH Boston, and Asymptote. His poems have been anthologized in Essential Voices: Poetry of Iran and Its Diaspora (Green Linden Press). In addition, his translations of contemporary Persian poetry and fiction can be found in Denver Quarterly, Scoundrel Time, and Los Angeles Review, among many other journals. Saadlou holds an MFA in creative writing from Saint Mary’s College of California.