Mother Love

By Nahid Rachlin

Bijan woke to the voice of the muezzin call­ing peo­ple to prayers, fell asleep again, and then woke to his mother’s qui­et voice in the liv­ing room. So often he had heard her in his dreams. But this was real. He was in Tehran, in his mother’s house, with her just a room away. It had tak­en so many years and so much search­ing to track down his moth­er whom he had not seen since he was eight years old.

He pushed off the mul­ti­col­ored patch­work quilt and got out of bed. Out of the win­dow he could see the Alborz Moun­tains at a dis­tance and the fruit trees in the court­yard. On the man­tle stood a pho­to­graph of his moth­er hold­ing him. He must have been about six or sev­en years old, not long before his par­ents were divorced. She was look­ing at him with an expres­sion of long­ing as if antic­i­pat­ing that she might be los­ing him. His father, tak­ing advan­tage of unfair fam­i­ly laws and cor­rup­tion in the legal pro­fes­sion, had gained full cus­tody of him. He made sure Bijan nev­er spent time with his moth­er. Mov­ing his mos­qui­to repel­lent com­pa­ny to Tabriz, far away from Tehran, made it eas­i­er to keep them sep­a­rat­ed. Then, when Bijan was four­teen years old, he sent him to board­ing school in Amer­i­ca. He had remar­ried, but Bijan nev­er warmed up to his step­moth­er. Bijan knew that his moth­er had mar­ried too, but he had no knowl­edge of her new last name or her where­abouts. Final­ly, the moth­er of an Iran­ian friend he’d met in Palo Alto led him to his own mother.

He dressed and went into the liv­ing room. His moth­er took him into her arms and kissed him, and they exchanged the same words they had so many times already since he’d arrived the day before.

“Bijan, I’ve been so deprived of you.”

“Moth­er, it’s a mir­a­cle that I’m with you.”

She served them breakfastt—tea, san­gak bread, cheese, sarshir, jam, fruit. Ahmad, her hus­band, had left ear­ly for his work and would not return until the evening. Bijan was hap­py to have this time alone with her.

“You’ve grown up, all on your own, apart from me,” she said as they began to eat.

“Oh, Moth­er, you were always in my heart.”

“I had a peri­od of hap­pi­ness with your father when you were born,” she said. “Our mutu­al love for you brought us close. But that didn’t last.”

From a dark recess a scene came for­ward in Bijan’s mind. Her moth­er had bruis­es on her arms and one on the side of her face. Mom­my, you’re bleed­ing. What fol­lowed was wiped out from his memory.

“I nev­er believed that your father would be able to total­ly cut me off from you,” she said, bring­ing him back to the present.

As Bijan lis­tened to the details of his mother’s feel­ings of loss, her efforts to get him back, and her hopes that she would one day be unit­ed with him, he thought how sim­i­lar his own state of mind had been to hers. He told her about how frag­ment­ed his exis­tence had become because of being cut off from her, how even­tu­al­ly he began to see his father for who he real­ly was—selfish, volatile, cru­el. “Do you still dream of act­ing?” he asked.

“That desire was beat­en out of me. I teach at an ele­men­tary school. Ahmad has a car­pet shop. He goes to vil­lages and buys them and resells them. We’re dif­fer­ent. But he’s kind to me.”

Bijan’s mind kept drift­ing to the past. When he was in first grade, before his father took him to Tabriz, his moth­er had approached him in the school’s court­yard dur­ing one recess. She’d picked him up and held him in her arms. He had stiff­ened. His father had told him many times, Your moth­er may one day come to your school. Don’t ever talk to her or go any­where with her. She’s a bad woman. Do you under­stand? Bijan had strug­gled to break away from her. She had put him down and start­ed to cry. He’d just walked away from her, though he could feel pain in his heart. His father was not a big man. He was thin and short. Still he gave the impres­sion of being very strong; he fright­ened and silenced him, forced him into obedience.

Once when he was vis­it­ing from board­ing school, his father took him to Tehran for two days to attend to some busi­ness mat­ters. On a walk togeth­er, his father point­ed to a pho­to of an actress on a cin­e­ma bill­board and said, Your moth­er want­ed to be an actress… a whore. They entered Laleh Zar, once a red light dis­trict and then dis­man­tled by the new regime. Still a few broth­els remained, oper­at­ing ille­gal­ly. Bijan was shak­en by the atmos­phere of the place. It was lined by peel­ing, grim build­ings and hous­es. Women in gar­ish clothes and heavy make-up lurked in door­ways or hung their heads out of win­dows, none of them wear­ing the manda­to­ry cov­er. A few of them beck­oned to him and his father. In one spot a group of men had gath­ered around a woman who was lying on the ground, her body jump­ing up and down with spasms, her eyes sunken. An epilep­tic fit, his father said. From a vene­re­al dis­ease, the des­tiny of pros­ti­tutes. I saved your moth­er from that des­tiny. His father seemed very com­pli­cat­ed, men­ac­ing. On that vis­it his father often came home long after mid­night, drunk, and told his new wife, Mani­jeh, that she was no longer attrac­tive, that he was bet­ter off with a whore than with her. This was said behind the shut doors of their bed­room, but Bijan could hear them.

“Bijan, my dear, you’re qui­et,” his moth­er said, again bring­ing him back to the present.

“I’m sor­ry, moth­er. I was just think­ing of my father. I haven’t told him I’m vis­it­ing you. I don’t want to see him.”

“Do what’s best for you.”

After they fin­ished break­fast, his moth­er had to go to her school, which would be in ses­sion until the end of June. He decid­ed to go out and explore the city that he had not seen for years. It was unusu­al­ly cool for ear­ly June in Tehran, and he could walk com­fort­ably every­where. Soon he was enveloped in the hec­tic, con­tra­dic­to­ry ener­gy of the city, with cars, motor scoot­ers, and bicy­cles rac­ing by in an unruly way, with peo­ple push­ing and shov­ing, argu­ing, on near­ly every street cor­ner. East and West min­gled every­where. Women, going against the rule of hejab, wear­ing their scarves halfway over their heads, walked side by side with oth­ers cov­ered up thor­ough­ly in chadors. Stores car­ried mer­chan­dise ille­gal­ly import­ed from west­ern coun­tries along­side tra­di­tion­al Iran­ian goods. West­ern music, though banned, still flowed out of some shops, inter­min­gling with the melod­ic tra­di­tion­al Per­sian music that poured out of oth­er shops. It was amaz­ing how peo­ple kept up their spir­its in spite of years of tragedy: rev­o­lu­tion, war, gov­ern­ment oppres­sion, eco­nom­ic turmoil.

After walk­ing for a while, he took a taxi to his old neigh­bor­hood where he had lived with his par­ents before they sep­a­rat­ed. He still remem­bered the name of the street, Mar­tyr Abad, and that it was near a park. At the park’s entrance, a magician—an old gray­ing man—was clos­ing his hands over a bird and then open­ing them to reveal it was no longer there. Instead it chirped in a box sev­er­al feet away from him. Chil­dren gath­ered around him and hurled excla­ma­tions of amazement.

As he walked along the street, he remem­bered a child­hood friend, Noushin. The two of them had played togeth­er freely on the streets; she was not yet nine years old, so she didn’t have to cov­er up and could play with a boy. He won­dered if Noushin still lived on this street. Her fam­i­ly house had been adja­cent to his. Both hous­es had wood­en doors and lion-head knock­ers. He found the hous­es but a pang of pain at the sight of a house where once he had lived with his par­ents and all the tur­moil and sad­ness fill­ing it then, made him walk away speedily.

He left the street and did more explor­ing, stop­ping at some art gal­leries. Then he bought a deli meat sand­wich and a yogurt soda and sat to eat them on a bench on the side­walk. A few teenagers in blue jeans were stand­ing in the shade of a tree and singing in a jest­ing tone, “We have no Lycra! We have no Cola! Death to Amrika!”

When he returned his moth­er was back too. They sat on a rug she spread by the pool in the court­yard, and they talked. Fish tum­bled in the water, spar­rows chirped in the trees.

“Remem­ber Noushin Par­tovi? I used to play with her when we were chil­dren. Do you have any idea where she is, what she’s doing?”

“Noushin. Yes, she’s mar­ried, has two chil­dren. They don’t live in Tehran any­more. Do you have a girl­friend in America?”

“Sort of. Her name is Jill.” He didn’t elab­o­rate, con­fused as he was about the rela­tion­ship, which was full of ups and downs, break­ing up and get­ting back together.

His moth­er was lis­ten­ing intent­ly, seem­ing eager to hear more, but sounds of foot­steps in the hall­way inter­rupt­ed them.

Ahmad came in, hold­ing a loaf of bread and a net shop­ping bag with yogurt and fruit in it. He put it down on the kitchen counter that extend­ed into the liv­ing room. A few moments lat­er, they sat around the din­ing table to eat. His moth­er put food on everyone’s plates. The air became filled with the scents of pome­gran­ate-dressed chick­en stew and saf­fron rice.

“Even peo­ple in the bazaar now wish we would rec­on­cile with Amer­i­ca. The sanc­tions against us are hurt­ing,” Ahmad said, address­ing him direct­ly. It seemed he had got­ten used to his presence.

“Yes, I hope things will improve between the two coun­tries.” He had lived in Amer­i­ca and Iran each for four­teen years, half and half.

Ahmad’s face became thought­ful and then a smile came into it. “But we shouldn’t talk about sad things. Talat and I have been count­ing the days for your vis­it.” He put his hand on hers. “It’s won­der­ful to have Bijan with us, isn’t it Talat joon?”

His moth­er nod­ded, held back tears glis­ten­ing in her eyes.

After din­ner they watched a pro­gram on TV about Joseph, revered in Islam as a prophet, along with Jesus. Then they with­drew into their bed­rooms. Bijan fell asleep only after he was able to shed the rec­ol­lec­tion of his child­hood anx­i­ety when his moth­er had gone into the bed­room with his father.

A few days lat­er, Bijan stood by a crowd of peo­ple protest­ing the arrest of an out­spo­ken pro­fes­sor at Tehran Uni­ver­si­ty. Spon­ta­neous­ly he com­bined his voice with theirs, shout­ing, “Free Meh­di Arjo­mana­di.” The Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards were not in sight yet. He noticed a young woman wear­ing a col­or­ful scarf, only cov­er­ing her hair halfway. His heart­beat accelerated—her large hazel eyes and curly brown hair remind­ed him of Noushin. He turned to the woman and asked, while aware of the absur­di­ty of it, “I’m sor­ry to both­er you, but is your name Noushin?”

The woman smiled. “No, Farideh.”

He intro­duced him­self and added, “I’m vis­it­ing from Amer­i­ca. I had a child­hood friend, Noushin. Inter­est­ing coin­ci­dence, she had a sis­ter, Farideh. Her last name is Partovi.”

Farideh smiled. “No, I don’t have any sis­ters and my last name is Kargaris.”

Sirens sound­ed and then Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards hold­ing water hoses and rifles appeared on the scene. The crowd began to dis­perse, every­one run­ning away fran­ti­cal­ly. Bijan did the same and soon lost sight of Farideh.

When he returned home he told his moth­er about Farideh resem­bling Noushin. “I wish I could get to know her.”

“I’ll try to track her down for you. There aren’t that many Kar­garis in Tehran. But you know, if you meet her, it means you’re com­mit­ting your­self to marriage.”

“She didn’t seem very traditional.”

“Still it’s a risk for her. And her fam­i­ly, no mat­ter how open-mind­ed, will want to pro­tect her and their name.”

Bijan sank into him­self, think­ing how in the hotel in Istan­bul, where he had stopped overnight on the way to Tehran, a wed­ding was tak­ing place in the suite next to his room. On the way down­stairs to the lob­by, he had paused and looked inside the suite. The bride and the groom stood in the mid­dle of the room, look­ing into each other’s eyes with lov­ing expres­sions. He had felt wist­ful for a real rela­tion­ship. It struck him, as it did with fre­quen­cy, that there was some­thing miss­ing between him and Jill, a real inti­ma­cy. She seemed to view him as a for­eign­er with some cues to his char­ac­ter miss­ing, as he felt about her.

“If I talk to her, get to know her even a lit­tle, I could con­sid­er a seri­ous rela­tion­ship.”    “I guess you and Jill are break­ing up,” his moth­er said in a qui­et voice, as if talk­ing to herself.

“We were on and off. I think she sees oth­er men too. We aren’t that open with each oth­er; that’s one of our prob­lems, lack of intimacy.”

“I’ll do my best to find Farideh.”

It was amaz­ing to Bijan, but his moth­er tracked down Farideh’s fam­i­ly in a week, in a city of twelve mil­lion peo­ple. She said she had asked all her friends, and one of them knew a cou­ple by that last name who had only one daugh­ter, and her name was Farideh. “Every­thing is lined up to make it easy,” she said, in an upbeat manner.

She arranged with Farideh’s fam­i­ly that she and Bijan would go to their house and they would talk.

On that day, she put on a head scarf and rupush, and he his blue and beige striped shirt and beige pants. He part­ed his hair in the mid­dle, which he thought was flat­ter­ing. In the mir­ror he could see the strong resem­blance between him­self and his moth­er. He had her oval face, large brown eyes, and high cheek­bones. They were both thin. He liked the resem­blance; it made him feel like an exten­sion of her. On the way they stopped at a florist and bought a bou­quet of asters. It was like when he was a child and she took him places. His heart beat wild­ly with happiness.

They soon arrived at a house with a lat­ticed wood­en door, in the mid­dle of a cob­ble-stoned street with water gur­gling in its nar­row joob. She knocked and a woman opened the door with an expec­tant smile. “This is my son, Bijan. And this, Bijan, is Tooran-khanoom.”

“Come in, come in,” Tooran said.

They fol­lowed her through a court­yard, with four flowerbeds and a pool, to the liv­ing room. Farideh, now wear­ing her head scarf ful­ly to cov­er all her hair and a dark­er rupush, was wait­ing there. Bijan’s moth­er gave the flow­ers to Tooran. Tooran and Farideh left and came back in a moment with Farideh car­ry­ing the flow­ers in a vase and her moth­er hold­ing a tray with tea, pas­tries, and fruit on it. Farideh put the vase on a man­tle, Tooran arranged the food on the table, and they all sat on chairs around it, Farideh next to Bijan and the moth­ers across from them. As the moth­ers talked main­ly about friends they had in com­mon, he and Farideh engaged each oth­er in a con­ver­sa­tion, first a lit­tle hes­i­tant­ly and then open­ing up.

“Do you like liv­ing in Amer­i­ca?” she asked him.

“Yes, except for miss­ing home.”

“I want to talk my father into send­ing me to grad­u­ate school there. I’ve been work­ing at the air­port since I grad­u­at­ed from col­lege a year ago and I know Eng­lish. I have a trav­el thirst; that’s why I took that job.” She smiled. Her smile was dreamy, like his mother’s years ago when she talked about her aspi­ra­tion to become an actress.

At one point, the two moth­ers got up, went into the court­yard and sat on a rug spread by the pool, leav­ing Bijan and Farideh alone in the room. Tooran had shut the door. Farideh took off her head scarf and rupush. Her hair, thick and wavy, the same col­or as her eyes, tum­bled over her shoul­ders. She was wear­ing a yel­low blouse and a brown skirt, flat­ter­ing on her. Her fig­ure was full and soft—like a Bot­ti­cel­li paint­ing, he thought. She had an inno­cent air, and yet was bold in the way she looked into his eyes, with an expres­sion that said she had a wild spir­it in spite of her cir­cum­scribed life. There was an enchant­i­ng scent of rose water about her.

He yearned to pull her to him and kiss her but restrained him­self. No mat­ter how wild her spir­it, she might take offence.

“You must have had many girl­friends. Amer­i­ca is so free,” she said. He con­tem­plat­ed on ‘Amer­i­ca is so free.’ Was that an invi­ta­tion to a kiss or ward­ing off a kiss? Farideh was as hard for him to read as was Jill, but in a more allur­ing way, mak­ing her all the more attrac­tive.      “Yes, but noth­ing seri­ous,” he said.

Foot­steps sound­ed, and their moth­ers came back into the room. They all lin­gered there; the moth­ers, sud­den­ly qui­et while Bijan and Farideh kept what had occurred to them­selves. After a few moments Bijan and his moth­er left. Out­side his moth­er said, “Tooran doesn’t feel it’s right for you to see Farideh alone again unless you get engaged. She her­self wouldn’t mind it, but her hus­band is very strict.”

He was qui­et, think­ing how strange to com­mit to some­one he just met. Yet he felt a yearn­ing for her already.

That night in bed he tossed and turned. If I pro­pose to Farideh, I will need to stay on in Iran much longer than a month to arrange things for mar­riage and get a visa for her to take her to Amer­i­ca as my wife. But then, what is the urgency in going back? He could take time off from dri­ving his taxi for a while. In spite of his ten­den­cy to squan­der mon­ey on impromp­tu trips plus his taste for the expensive—designer clothes, fan­cy restaurants—he had saved some mon­ey. Maybe if he were mar­ried he would change his pro­fes­sion again when a job became avail­able. After he had got­ten a degree in petro­le­um engi­neer­ing, he had a hard time find­ing a job. As his friend Has­san said, “All good jobs go to WASPs around here. Even Jews and His­pan­ics have a hard time. But Ira­ni­ans are at the bot­tom. They have to be des­per­ate to hire us.” After a year of work­ing at some engi­neer­ing-relat­ed jobs, Bijan, Has­san, and two oth­er Iran­ian friends—all hold­ing degrees in one field or another—had start­ed a taxi com­pa­ny. Times were tough and, instead of hir­ing dri­vers, they drove the taxis them­selves. Dri­ving a taxi didn’t make him immune to prej­u­dices. Some pas­sen­gers asked him dis­turb­ing ques­tions like, Do you know how far Iran is from mak­ing a nuclear bomb? or Why do you call your­self Per­sian?

He fell asleep with­out reach­ing a solution.

In the morn­ing Farideh’s moth­er called and talked to his mother.

“They liked you,” his moth­er told him, “as I expected.”

A lit­tle lat­er Farideh her­self called, and his moth­er hand­ed the phone over to him. “I’m not sup­posed to be call­ing you,” Farideh said to him.

“I’m so glad you did.”

”I’m not used to call­ing like this, but my moth­er told me I could this time. She liked you.”

“This all makes me happy.”

The rest of the con­ver­sa­tion was brief and dis­joint­ed, but he was moved that she had called him.

As the day wore on, he craved to see her again. He was los­ing his hes­i­ta­tion about propos­ing to her.

Farideh’s father, Ali, invit­ed Bijan to a kebab restau­rant. The restau­rant in the cen­ter of Tehran was live­ly and crowd­ed, main­ly with fam­i­lies. Posters of his­toric gar­dens and palaces hung on walls. The two of them sat in a cor­ner and talked, with Ali ask­ing Bijan many questions.

Music came on from a radio. Gol­par, a female singer, sang a song Bijan remem­bered from a long time ago: Oh my dear, we have to make up for lost time! We have only one life! Let us make up for lost time! Days rush by and before we know it is the end!

After lunch, Ali pat­ted Bijan on the back and said, “You’re a nice man. I think you’ll treat my daugh­ter well. We have to let the moth­ers cement out the details.”

With­in days, Bijan’s moth­er sat with him in the liv­ing room, and they talked about the details of the engage­ment and wed­ding, which she had already dis­cussed with Farideh’s moth­er. They agreed that Bijan would guar­an­tee a $40,000 mehrieh—mon­ey that the groom would agree to pay the bride in case he divorced her. In turn, Farideh’s father, the wealthy own­er of a chain of hard­ware stores, would buy them an apart­ment in Tehran as the dowry; they could live in it any time they vis­it­ed from the Unit­ed States. His moth­er had made them agree that Bijan would pay the mehrieh in install­ments, as he did not have that much mon­ey yet. They were sur­prised that a man who had lived in Amer­i­ca for years was not wealthy. There would be an engage­ment par­ty at a gar­den that his moth­er and Farideh’s moth­er had agreed on, and his moth­er would be tak­ing on that expense. “I’m proud to do that,” she told Bijan who want­ed to pay for it. They would get legal­ly engaged while they were prepar­ing for the wed­ding, and that was when Bijan would make the first pay­ment, amount­ing to $5,000.

As Bijan was going through the steps, Jill kept com­ing to his mind. He won­dered if he should call her and break up with her for­mal­ly. But that would be so hurt­ful to her, long dis­tance. Wouldn’t it be even worse to mar­ry Farideh with­out even hav­ing a dis­cus­sion with Jill? He kept chang­ing his mind in one direc­tion or the oth­er. Caught in a par­a­lyz­ing state of inde­ci­sion, he did nothing.

Soon after all the details between his and Farideh’s fam­i­ly were set­tled, they had an engage­ment cer­e­mo­ny in Farideh’s par­ents’ house, as was the cus­tom. After the aghound—who had per­formed the ceremony—left, her par­ents allowed Bijan to be alone with her but only for a short time. Her father had whis­pered to him, “I know you’ve lived in Amer­i­ca for many years, but you must be aware of how con­ser­v­a­tive our soci­ety is. We’ll be dis­graced if we give her too much free­dom.” Bijan had nod­ded, not hav­ing any desire to argue with Ali, a man he felt dis­tant from, as he did from his own father.

As soon as he and his moth­er returned home the phone rang. His moth­er picked it up, and uttered few con­fused ques­tions. Then she turned to him and said, “It’s for you. It’s from America.”

It must be Jill, he thought, the only per­son to whom he had giv­en his mother’s phone num­ber. “I got your post­card. Why are you stay­ing there so long?” she asked.

“It’s hard to explain on the phone.”

The insin­cer­i­ty must have reg­is­tered in his voice. “Is some­thing wrong?” she asked.

“No. I’m just disoriented.”

After exchang­ing a few more awk­ward sen­tences they hung up. Just her voice remind­ed him again of his prob­lems in the U.S. Still, in spite of that, hear­ing Jill’s voice had thrown him into a state of pan­ic about mar­ry­ing Farideh, a girl he bare­ly knew.

In the mid­dle of the night he woke with his heart beat­ing rapid­ly. He would have to get out of mar­ry­ing Farideh, he thought in the dark­ness. He rose from the bed and went to the win­dow. The moun­tains were clear­ly vis­i­ble. A breeze was blow­ing, mak­ing the tree leaves rus­tle. After a while he calmed down enough to go back to sleep. But as soon as he woke in the morn­ing, the doubts were back again.

Alone with his moth­er, after Ahmad left, he said, “I’m sor­ry but I can’t go through with it. I’m not ready for mar­riage, to anyone.”

“Bijan, you’re already engaged, legally.”

“I know.”

“Do you want to think about it?”

“No. I’ve thought about it enough.”

“Then I have to let the fam­i­ly know imme­di­ate­ly, if you’re sure.”

He nod­ded.

“I’ll go there in per­son to tell them,” his moth­er said, look­ing dis­tressed, but try­ing to sound calm, he could tell. He hat­ed putting her through this, but his own sense of pan­ic was so strong, it made it hard for him to offer at least some kind of solace, or a bet­ter expla­na­tion to her. He was mis­er­able to be dis­ap­point­ing his moth­er and hurt­ing Farideh, but he could not bring him­self now to go along with the mar­riage that had seemed so desir­able just the day before.

When his moth­er returned she told him, “Farideh wasn’t there her­self, so I spoke to her moth­er. Farideh will have oth­er suit­ors, she’s very desir­able. You know that you’ll lose the $5,000.”

“I guess that’s a price I have to pay for my inde­ci­sive­ness. But I must talk to Farideh, I can’t just break off like this.” Farideh had told him, It’s always bet­ter if I call you. My father might answer if you call here. He asked his moth­er to call first and then he would speak to Farideh.

“Salaam,” Farideh said to him in a friend­ly tone when she came on.

“I’m so sor­ry,” he said. “But my life is so unsettled.”

Farideh imme­di­ate­ly under­stood the mean­ing of this call. “Don’t wor­ry. You’re used to the Amer­i­can way of life. I don’t hold any­thing against you.”

Bijan could strong­ly sense that Farideh was cov­er­ing up her dis­ap­point­ment and hurt feel­ings. “I’ll miss you,” he said to con­sole her but mean­ing it too. Through­out the day he was struck with a bar­rage of emotions—a sense of loss, guilt, relief.

That evening Ahmad seemed upset as they sat down in the court­yard to have dinner.

“Ali came to see me at my shop,” he said, address­ing Bijan. “He was furi­ous. He said the least you could do is to give Farideh the whole $40,000 mehrieh.”

“I’ll send them the mon­ey when I return to the U.S,” he said, think­ing that’s the least I can do, after what I put Farideh and her fam­i­ly through. He knew his father would bail him out of this if he told him what had happened—if only to win him back. But he had not even told his father he was in Iran. For a long time now they had been alien­at­ed. Nei­ther Ahmad nor his moth­er had much savings.

“Ali threat­ened to go to court and demand that you be put on the black­list so that you can’t leave Iran until you’ve paid the mehrieh. He’s going to say you lived in Amer­i­ca, and now you came and taint­ed his daughter’s name. You know we don’t have an Amer­i­can Embassy here to help you.”

They all sank into silence. Gold­fish tum­bling in the pool, and a stray cat mew­ing on the street filled the silence. Wisps of clouds raced across the sky, pass­ing over the full moon.

“Are you sure you don’t want to mar­ry Farideh?” Ahmad asked.

“I’m sor­ry. I’m just not ready for marriage.”

“I want my son to be hap­py,” his moth­er said.

Sud­den­ly Ahmad came up with a solu­tion. “There are ways of escap­ing Iran. It’s fair­ly com­mon in fact to leave ille­gal­ly. I can arrange that for you. You have to pay some­one who makes all the arrange­ments but it isn’t $40,000. I can help you out with that. You can pay me back later.”

Bijan, com­ply­ing with the idea of escape, took the plane from Tehran to Kish, a free port on the Per­sian Gulf. He paced the wharf as he wait­ed for Abdol­lah who would take him to the oth­er side of the Gulf and hand him over to anoth­er man who would take him across the Dubai bor­der into a city there. He could eas­i­ly go to Amer­i­ca from Dubai. “The worst that can hap­pen is they’ll return you to Iran,” Abdol­lah had said. Of course Abdol­lah would try to min­i­mize the risk. He had a lot to gain—$6,000, a great deal when trans­ferred into toomans. He had already received a quar­ter of that and the rest would be giv­en to him when Bijan was safe­ly across the border.

Then his heart gave a painful beat, think­ing of the tear­ful part­ing he had with his moth­er. How dis­ap­point­ing all this must be to her. She had not said any­thing to make him feel guilty, but that was prob­a­bly because years of sep­a­ra­tion made her ide­al­ize him, accept any­thing he did. Or maybe she was afraid she would push him away, lose him if she crit­i­cized him in any way. He had felt so close to her, and now he was leav­ing her in this ter­ri­ble way.

He won­dered if he should turn around and go back, but he was caught in a ter­ri­ble state of inde­ci­sive­ness. He looked at his watch again. He had tak­en an ear­ly plane from Tehran to make sure he would not be late, but now Abdol­lah was late. He sat on a bench fac­ing the Gulf. Before him was end­less motion in the water: waves bub­bling up and reced­ing and all sorts of boats going by—freighters, oil tankers, and pas­sen­ger ships.

Anoth­er fif­teen min­utes passed, but there was no sign of Abdol­lah. Rest­less­ly he got up and began to walk. He passed clus­ters of palm trees, redo­lent with dates and coconuts, and then a rose gar­den as he entered the main square. It was hec­tic with peo­ple swarm­ing around carts and shops. His uncer­tain­ty about escap­ing the mar­riage was increas­ing. It wasn’t just his moth­er now he was wor­ried about. It was Farideh too. Did he real­ly want to hurt the love­ly Farideh?

A ther­a­pist had told him, You’re inde­ci­sive because of what you went through as a child, los­ing your moth­er. Yes, he was weak, inde­ci­sive, and irre­spon­si­ble. The ther­a­pist had added, Your father made you feel you were aban­doned by your moth­er. That belief that she aban­doned you has made you inse­cure, afraid to com­mit. She was right, he thought, absolute­ly right.

After his par­ents were divorced, for days he had thought his moth­er was hid­ing in a room in the new house his father had moved him into. He woke in the mid­dle of the night some­times and went from room to room look­ing for her, turn­ing on the lights. Grad­u­al­ly a dark hole, a vac­u­um opened inside him, which became filled with his father’s con­demn­ing words about her. She doesn’t love you, his father had said over and over again.

As he walked in the crowd­ed square, he could not sep­a­rate his thoughts about his moth­er from those about Farideh. He was harm­ing the vul­ner­a­ble girl as his father had wronged his mother.

A moment lat­er he thought, no, this isn’t a moral choice, it is a mat­ter of what I am begin­ning to sort out in my heart. He had looked into the abyss inside him­self and was fright­ened of the prim­i­tive forces that lurked there, he thought. He could not allow them to live inside him. The spark of attrac­tion I feel for Farideh can grow into a steady flame, he was sure now. And the union had the extra ben­e­fit of pleas­ing his moth­er and bring­ing him clos­er to her. As he cir­cled towards the bank, he saw a tall, beard­ed man approach­ing the bench where he was sup­posed to meet Abdol­lah. Bijan quick­ly turned around and went in a dif­fer­ent direc­tion to avoid being seen by him. He smiled, think­ing his Amer­i­can friends in Palo Alto would nev­er under­stand why he mar­ried in this hur­ried way. It would only con­firm their view of him, that he was a man from anoth­er planet.

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Nahid Rach­lin received her MFA at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty. Her pub­li­ca­tions include a mem­oir, Per­sian Girls, four nov­els, Jump­ing Over Fire, For­eign­er, Mar­ried to a Stranger, and The Heart’s Desire as well as a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, Veils.