Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Fiction #68: Nilofar Shidmehr

Yellow Light

I have come to see Arman’s girlfriend, Aazeen. I am half an hour early. She and Arman finish their work at five. I have heard from her former boyfriend, Mehrdaad, that Aazeen has recently found Arman a job at her office. Mehrdaad has given me the address. I await them in an alley.

It is one of Tehran’s windy nights. The shadows would have played havoc with my camera’s exposure. I have disguised myself in the same black chador that I used to wear when, for ten years, I would visit Arman in prison. This morning I had to rummage in my storage closet to find it, crumpled, in a plastic bag under an old shoe box containing my childhood photographs. I am wearing my green headscarf underneath so that the dirty chador will not touch my hair. 

People pass by as I shuffle along a brick wall, awaiting Arman and Aazeen. Most of them seem to be in rush to get back home and have dinner with their family. I am in no hurry. My family used to be Arman who now walks past me, making me move and chase him down the sidewalk. As I have expected, he is with Aazeen—the woman whose name means bundle of lights—a bundle of lights used for celebrating, for showcasing, for illuminating something else. That something else is Arman, whom Aazeen highlights with her youthfulness and naivetĂ©. Otherwise, she has nothing special about her. Mehrdaad, who used to be Aazeen’s boyfriend and Arman’s best friend, thinks that I am special. He has told me to come and find this out for myself.

I follow Arman’s every step like a camera boom following an actor. He strides along, pulling the woman with him, the woman he started dating when he was still living with me, the woman with whom he was on the phone on and on, the woman whose name he did not reveal to me and I had to learn from Mehrdaad—Aazeen, a bundle of lights who adorns Arman’s life.

A couple and their children suddenly turn onto the sidewalk in front of me and joins a lineup by a bus stop. I wait until they pass, still keeping an eye on Arman as he moves further away, listening to my racing heart thump in my ears. Gripping the strap of my bag on my shoulder with one shaking hand and holding the chador under my chin with the other, I quickly cut between the crowd and run up the street.

“Idiot,” someone shouts after me.

I arrive at the intersection almost out of breath. A crowd is waiting for the traffic light to change. Searching for Arman, I stand on tiptoe and finally spot him by his bald scalp. They are standing at the front of the pack. I push myself into the crowd and shorten the gap separating me from him. Now I am close enough to keep his profile in my view but not too close to be noticed.  As soon as I start marveling at Arman’s new goatee, he lowers his head towards his girl. This makes me venture closer to them and think of ripping my chador from my body, pushing Aazeen aside, and taking her place. But I stop beside a tall man with a peaked cap and hide myself behind him. From there I can safely watch Arman without having to see that woman. He looks different, even behaves differently, like a typecast actor finding himself in a new role alongside a star.

The red reflection of the traffic light shines on Arman’s face. I remember how I’d fallen in love with him when I first saw him on the stage, bathed in a red light. I made up my mind that night to play the role of his beloved in his real life. That night, wearing the green dress he found alluring, I stood face to face with him, watching his lips move. Now his lips are whispering something in the ear of that other woman leaning on his shoulder.

I peek over the shoulder of the man beside me to see Aazeen’s face but am prevented by their closeness. My fists curl on their own. They want to punch Arman in the face, but not the real me. I still desire him, I still hope to be able to gather my strength, shove the girl aside, draw my husband to me, and inhale his breath instead of this cold wind gusting in my face.

He is right there, not behind bars. Only a few steps away. Alive. The day he left me I had promised myself that the next time I’d see him, I’d raise my hand and slap him right across his face. Mehrdaad, however, says that Arman did not walk out on me, that I was the one who threw him out. He is right: I told Arman to leave. But I did not mean it and he knew that very well.

Mehrdaad says that I should have put up with Arman longer and given him more time. Strange thing to say to a woman who is called a patient stone by her family. Mehrdaad also thinks that my suspicion that Arman and Aazeen had an affair put the idea of romance in Arman’s head. “You made Arman fall in love with the idea of loving Aazeen,” he says.

I disagree because I know how old and unattractive I have become because of all I have gone through during the years Arman was in prison. Unlike me, Azeen is young. She is a bundle of lights, after all. Every time I say this, Mehrdaad laughs, “Even if she were, those lights are cheap; they will burn fast.” 

Mehrdaad tells me that Arman is a fool, a coward. I deserve someone better, one who does not take me for granted, one who sees me as the real deal. “Arman cannot see,” Mehrdaad says, “that you are the real light, the real delight, not Aazeen.”

Aazeen is hidden from my view now and all I can see is Arman. He has gained weight and his clean-shaven face seems fuller. The red light reflects on his long forehead, recalling once again my memory of him years ago at Tehran’s City Theatre. The memory makes me want getting closer to him and  catch his gaze. And then what?

Thinking of an answer, my fingers gather again, the way they have done every night with a stress-ball for more than a year. It was Mehrdaad who suggested to me to practice with the stress-ball, after I told him that my boss, one of the Channel Two TV directors, had warned me that he won’t tolerate any more blurred rushes. Nevertheless, the camera continued to shake in my unsteady fingers and my heart raced every time I remembered the day Arman left.

The same thing is happening to me now: like a love-bird whose mate has just died in the cage, my heart throws itself fiercely against the wall of my chest. The sound echoes in my head. I hide behind the tall man with the hat and try to calm down, as I continue watching the couple from the back.  Azeen is still holding onto Arman’s arm, but then lets it go and starts rummaging in her bag. At the same time, the light turns green and I start to move along with the crowd. Looking back, I notice that Arman and Aazeen are standing still. I also try to stop moving, to resist the flow of people pushing against me and driving me to the right. I am nevertheless pushed along by the tide and end up some distance from the couple I am interested in. Holding my chador tightly around me, I shut my eyes and listen to the rustling of clothes and the stamping of feet. It is as if I am standing in an ancient battlefield, refusing to take action while listening to the clash of swords and shields around me. Trying to stand straight, I open and close my fist every time somebody bumps into me. Then I let my hands go slack. I remove my imaginary armor, and bare my breast to be stabbed. Dying on that battlefield in my mind, my life plays out before me.

You, Arman, were on the phone with the woman whose name you would not reveal. Yes, on and on, on the phone with her. For many months. Early every morning when I left for work, you were in a deep sleep, too tired from being on the phone. All day at work I could think of nothing else but you and the woman on the other end of the line. When I could not bear it any longer, I started call sick and stayed at home only to watch you on the phone, giving advice to the woman I never saw, Mehrdaad’s girlfriend.

“She needs my help,” you said. From your words, I knew that her relationship with your best friend was on the verge of a breakup.

“But this is not your business,” I said.

“Yes, it is,” you answered. “The suffering of people has always been my business. This is nothing new. You know well that I stood up and fought for what I thought was right. Can’t you remember who you are married to?”

How couldn’t I remember? I was the one who every day prayed for you to survive, the one who waited for ten years until you were out of prison, waited for the man you’d changed into. During the first two years of your imprisonment when you were held in Evin prison, every time I came to visit you, I expected to hear that you had been executed. We women waited in the cold in a long line along the prison’s wall.

One time a woman received the news of a death and began crying loudly. We begged her to cry under her chador, not to be heard. They would cancel visits if we didn’t keep order in the line. When she did not stop, a few women circled tightly around her, holding onto her hands while she clawed her face. They fixed her chador on her disheveled hair, and covered her face with their black chadors. Then they took her under their arms so she would not collapse. After seeing she could not stand for long, they took her and her children out of the line.

I had taken many women away from that high cement wall of the prison with barbed wire on the top, thinking that soon a day would arrive when the women would take me out of the line, and, if I tried to bang my head against the wall, would fix my hijab and tell me that I should go home. I knew that you wouldn’t get a proper burial, and that they’d force me to keep quiet about your death. You see what I had to endure: not only the fear of your death but also not knowing where you would be buried?

Night after night, I feared the day when they would cover my mouth with their hands, eyes emerging from chinks in their tightly wound chadors and remind me that my wails would only make the situation worse, that I would be forbidden to receive your belongings: your clothes, toothbrush, watch, wedding ring, or any small thing you’d left behind. Throughout the years, the years that they moved you from one notorious prison to the other, first from Evin to Ghezel-Hesar and later from Ghezel-Hesar to Gohardasht in Karaj, further and further from Tehran, I stayed up at nights before the visit and prayed to God to keep you alive. I never told you about my prayers. I knew you would scold me for trying to believe in God. You said God was the product of the imagination of the oppressed—those desperate ones who rely on supernatural powers to save them.

“You and I depend only on ourselves for our liberation. Remember?”  You would look me straight in the eye and I would nod my head.

One day when you still were in Evin, a man from the prison called me unexpectedly and told me to go behind the Luna Park, Tehran’s great amusement park. Of all places! I thought they wanted to give me your belongings. That’s it, I told myself, as I hung up. My prayers were all useless. God does not exist: my Arman is gone, shot dead, like the others. But no, it was just a new place for visits, a place nobody would suspect, a part of the amusement park where they set up a base.  The park was closed for the winter anyway. I arrived at the gate by noon, as where a revolutionary guard asked my name and checked in a book. My hands started trembling, thinking of your belongings I would receive in a sealed package. I looked down at my wedding ring.

The place was empty except for a few large booths at the back. I felt dizzy, gazing at the empty green, yellow and red seats of a rollercoaster in the distance. The colors blurred into one another and my head started spinning. To prevent myself from falling, I squatted down on the ground. I had ridden on those seats as a child. My father used to take us to Luna Park every summer when we came to Tehran for holidays. I always chose a green seat, my brothers red seats, and my sisters the yellow seats. I continued crouching down until I saw military boots walk towards me. So I stood up, still feeling dizzy, hearing in my head the joyful children screaming.

It was crazy thinking how much I wanted to have a child of my own exactly at that moment. It was crazy because I was already old and you were most probably dead. I started laughing out loud. The armed guard who accompanied me towards the queue scolded me. He thought I was crazy. I did not care; I was crazy, waiting there without knowing how much more I would wait until they threw the news of your death in my face, along with the package with your wedding ring. But I didn’t want belongings, I wanted a child. I laughed so loud that my stomach churned.

The waiting finally ended that day. They called me inside the booth and there you were, reborn.

This is the child I need, I thought.  Right in front of me, just a few short steps away, you were sitting on a chair, blindfolded. The guard took off your blindfold and the joyful children in my head screamed with excitement, as when a rollercoaster pauses at the summit and suddenly begins to plunge toward the earth. I saw a girl on a green seat, eyes aglow.

From then on, I visited you every month at the base behind the Luna Park. My parents asked me to go back to Shiraz and stay with them. But I refused. I stayed alone in Tehran where the prison was, where the amusement park was, where you were and where I came to visit you.    

I became thinner each time I saw you until I was nothing but skin and bone. Just like you. I bit my lips to keep from crying. You were silent most of the time. You and I sat face to face, while a bulky man armed with a Kalashnikov stood guard over us, behind him a picture of the severe-looking Khomeini. Your body became diminished, your long forehead longer every time, like a man hanging on a cross. Your bones shook as you tried to say a word and the guard told you to shut up. Sweat oozed from your full-grown beard and shone on your long brow under the dim lights. Your skin was jaundiced.  I cowered, closing my mouth with my shaking fingers to prevent the screams echoing in my head from pouring out. You clenched your teeth and grabbed your knees, rocking your body back and forth.

Later on, in August 1988, they suddenly cancelled all appointments for more than a month. It was around the time the war with Iraq ended. People in the streets were happy because their worries finally came to an end. I, however, grew more worried every day. Why no appointment? I took the bus and went to Karaj to Gohardasht prison, where they had moved you six months ago. They told me to go back home and not to worry. “We are doing renovations in the prison. Soon after they are over, you will get an appointment.” I did not trust them. I came home and searched for the phone number of Ahmad’s wife. I knew Ahmad was also an inmate in Gohardasht. She horrified me with the news about what was happening inside the prisons. The news had already spread among the families. I was the only one who did not have a clue. I was the only one who was out the loop for a long time.

Ahmad’s wife told me that, since the war with Iraq was over, they wanted to clean the prisons of their remaining opponents before starting fresh—a new era. She started crying when she went to details: they took the prisoners and asked them if they believed in God and the prophet Mohammad—if they still had faith in Islam. If a prisoner said no, he was finished. Even if he was serving a previous sentence. Her words were interrupted by a constant sobbing: “For a month now, the meat trucks are brought to carry the dead bodies to Khavaraan.” It was the first time I heard the name Khavaraan, a deserted place several kilometers outside Tehran where they dumped dozens of hanged prisoners into mass graves.

After I hung up, I went straight to the closet to pull out a prayer rug I’d brought with me from Shiraz when I went for my father’s funeral. Shuddering under my white chador, I prayed all night that you would not be as stubborn as those who continued denying God’s existence—that you had faith in something bigger than yourself or your ideas, something that would keep you alive. Maybe even something like my love. Maybe you wouldn’t mock the goddess of love the same way you mocked God. 

Eventually, when you started having long conversations with Mehrdaad’s girlfriend on the phone, with the woman whose name you would not reveal, I lost faith in the goddess too. I lost faith in my power to make you love me.

“Why do you do this?” I asked you. “Your giving advice to Mehrdaad’s girlfriend makes me feel like a stranger.”

“I promised to keep everything confidential.”

“But I am your wife,” I objected.

“Confidential—not even you,” you said with a straight face.

While you were still incarcerated, I avoided everybody’s calls. Even those from my own parents. I cut ties with my brothers and sisters. I could not answer their questions, could not tell them what was happening to you. Then came the news of my father’s death and I had to reconnect. I saw my siblings at the funeral in Shiraz. They gazed at me as if it were my fault that our father died so soon and unexpectedly. They were waiting for me to apologize to them for marrying you. Only divorcing you could count as a proper apology. When I remained silent, they gazed at me as if it were I, not father, who was dead. Recently I heard from auntie Maheen that they told everyone I had behaved boldly at dad’s funeral, wearing a green headscarf, as if I were at a wedding. I did not say that father had asked me, years ago, to wear green at his funeral. He had told me that green was my color. Remember that you shared his opinion!  My siblings had also talked behind my back that I was the only one who had not shed tears. I could not remember if this were true.

I came back home lonelier than ever. But still I did not lose faith. I had hopes that you’d last for me, showing, after all, that God exists. I wanted you and I wanted a child with you. I believed that Allah would save you. And He did. Not you, but that man they turned you into. Your body shrunk in half; I could easily have lifted you up in my arms. But I was forbidden to even touch you. I had to wait until you came back home.

The first few weeks after your release from prison, you wanted to sleep alone. You had no strength to hold me, so I held you, silently. Your face, with that long forehead I used to adore, had also shrunk to no larger than a baby’s face—the baby I desired to have with you. You escaped my embrace. You said that your body hurt everywhere. You could not sleep.

Soon I gave up the thought of having a child with you. Instead, I decided to film you, to have all of you on camera, the same as I had my whole family, my parents and five siblings. Then I could look at you even when they’d arrest you again, could have what was left of you all for myself: All of the Arman you’d become, taut skin hanging on the bone, rolling over in our bed.

It could have been a perfect movie, my artistic masterpiece, but then you saw the camera’s shadow while you moved out of one of your nightmares towards me. You took the camera for a gun aimed at you and shouted. You took me for one of them and shouted again, louder than I’ve ever heard someone scream, even those women lining along the Evin prison wall.

You yelled so hard with all your bones that I was afraid they would shatter into splinters on the bed. You thought they’d come to take you back to ‘the coffin’—to one of those boxes in which they made prisoners at Ghezel-Hesar sit for months, crouched—to one of those boxes that smelled of urine, blood, and rotting flesh. In one of those boxes from which most prisoners were sent straight to the psychiatric ward at Amin-Abaad. During those long stretches in the coffin, you lost track of everything, even your name.

Between the walls of my room, I lost track of life, too. I was suspended between heaven and earth, hanging on to anything, even a thin rope of faith, which could give way at any moment. I had also forgotten who I was until one day when I came back from visiting you, clad in black from head to toe, opened the door to our apartment and accidentally caught a glimpse of myself in our wedding mirror. Only then did I know that I was a widow, an old wretched widow, one who has never given life to a child.

After that incident, when you almost destroyed my camera, you did not come back to our bed. You slept one time on the roof, another time on the balcony, even once in a hole in our yard, burying yourself in the ground, the way you saw them bury your friends alive. I slept on your side among the cold sheets, feeling like an orphan and shivering.

One night, a few weeks later, you unexpectedly slipped back into my embrace. I kissed your body when you were sleeping. Was it because you started having faith in the power of my love that your health and appetite improved? You started going out, doing errands and shopping. I left extra money on the table so you could buy yourself whatever you liked.

I had saved that money for this day: for the day when you will live with me under one roof. I wanted to save this day for myself forever. That is why I filmed you again. Yet this time I was the hero of the story. I set the camera on a tripod by the bedroom door and fixed it to take your close-up, and slept beside you in new satin lingerie, with closed eyes, watching myself in my mind, in your embrace. I was a child on a carousel, holding the bar with one hand, while clutching in the other a banana-flavored ice cream. My eyes were glowing with excitement, my mouth open,  when you started shouting and startled me out of that sweet sensation. I also started screaming.

I was falling off the carousel, both my hands grabbing on to your arm. You pushed me back and began smashing my camera against the wall. Its light continued flashing until it hit the floor. For weeks, I cried for my camera, for myself, and for you: the man I had married.

Later, however, I cried for the man I was losing.

“Stop interfering with Mehrdaad’s affair!” I implored you on and on.

But you didn’t care. “I must save her,” you said. “She is oppressed.”

“Forget her, I want you to save our love,” I cried.

“What do you want from us?”

“Us? Us? Who is us?”

“She and I,” you said, composed.

I jumped up and started beating you with my fist until it hurt. “I want you to save our love!” 

You pushed me back, “I don’t love you.”

I stared.

“Do you hear me? I don’t love you anymore. It’s over.”

A scream came from deep inside me. “I hate you. I wish you hadn’t survived!”

You should know I did not mean what I said. I didn’t mean any of the things I did to you next, either. I asked the telephone company to disconnect the phone; I stopped giving you money; I ate my food at work, hoping you were tortured at the sight of an empty fridge. I also called Mehrdaad and told him you were involved with his girlfriend. Then came my last blow. When you came home late again, I stood in the doorway and yelled out, “Go back to where you were!” You took one step forward but stopped when I said, “Tell her to provide for you from now on.”

You looked into the room behind me, pointing at our wedding mirror on the wall by the entrance.

“Look at yourself. Jealousy has gotten the better of you.”

I kept gazing at you.

“You look like a monster.” 

“Save me from the monster, Arman. Kill the beast and save the beauty.” I laughed out loud like a crazy  woman to keep myself from falling on my knees in humiliation.

“How?”

The words poured from my mouth on their own. “Make love to me before leaving. I want a child with you.”

You turned your glance from the mirror towards me. “You are beyond saving.” This time you laughed out loud.

. . .

Arman laughs and this time his laughter brings me to the present. I am on Faatemy Street. Six months ago, he turned his back on me and walked out of my life. Six months ago, I went inside and smashed our wedding mirror. And here we are today, among other passersby, waiting for the light to turn green.

Not much has changed except the new crowd of people pushing me closer to Arman. He stands there, the red light illuminating his long brow. It dawns on me that the imaginary war inside me has ended. All those clashes within have ceased and the children inside my head have stopped their screaming.

Even Mehrdaad’s voice in my head begins to fade, the voice that insisted I should go and see with my own eyes that Aazeen is nothing special: “Arman is a fool. He does not deserve you. You need a real man who knows your worth, a man who knows you are a rare diamond.” Not only Mehrdaad’s beguiling voice but also my own brooding voice, trying to convince myself to give in to Mehrdaad’s talk and invite him home for the night, go silent.

My heart slows, my fist opens. I can no longer summon up the image of my fingerprints on Arman’s face after slapping him on the cheek in front of Azeen, something I’d planned to do for months and decided to accomplish today. Neither can I recall the sweet satisfaction it gave me last night. I close my eyes, trying to imagine what I should do now.

When I open my eyes again, the tears are about to well up. At the same time the light turns green. Yet I have no reason to cross the street along with the crowd that moves steadily forward. I feel like someone just released from prison after a long time, but no one has come to take me home. Does a life of loneliness await me or a new beginning?

I remove my black chador from my head and drop it at my feet on the asphalt. Nobody around me notices what I’ve done, because I still have on my green scarf and my long grey coat and do not look so different from the other women around me. I stamp on the chador when the wind tries to lift it up and drag it in the direction the crowd is moving. In a blink, like everybody else, Arman, too, is gone. This time, however, I don’t follow him with my eyes. I am about to turn around when I register Azeen whose face I had come to see for the first time. Her back is now towards me, walking further and further away, and as the yellow light comes on for five brief seconds, her figure instantly fades as if it were an image in an undeveloped film left out in the sun.


*


Nilofar Shidmehr, PhD, MFA, is a ‎British Columbia-Book-Prize nominated poet. She is author of four books of poetry and the Farsi translator of Toni Morrison's The ‎Bluest Eye. Dr. Shidmehr is an instructor in the Continuing Education Program at Simon Fraser University. She was the 2015-2016 Writer-in-Residence at Regina Public Library. She just finished her appointment at the end of May and is going back to Vancouver. She lives with her husband in Yaletown. Website: http://nilofarshidmehr.weebly.com/ 

Photo credit: Laura Sawchuk

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