“The Son-in-Law”

By Nahid Rachlin

Hat
Source: Thor

A flutter of anxiety shook Mina as she heard her husband Majid and their son-in-law Donald in the backyard, talking in not quite agreeable tones. “Stop, stop, she can fall and hurt herself,” Majid, who rarely raised his voice, shouted. Mina went to the window and looked into the backyard where Donald was throwing Leila, her three-year-old granddaughter, into the air and catching her. Leila was squealing with laughter, her face all red. Donald continued to play, throwing her into the air, catching her. Donald was a hefty, broad-shouldered man with long, blond hair and a strong, square face. Just the way he looked unsettled Mina. Was this going to develop into something more volatile? But to her relief, Donald stopped and, holding the baby in his arms, moved back inside the house.

Mina turned away from the window and went into the kitchen to begin to prepare dinner. A few moments later, she heard the soft classical Persian music Majid liked to play. In Iran, as a lawyer, Majid had opposed human rights violations: Revolutionary Guards had stormed his office and confiscated his files. After that, he had gone into hiding until they found a way to escape Iran with their daughter. Life in the United States had turned out hard to adjust to. Their English was inadequate and their expertise, hers in Iranian history and his in criminal law, didn’t transfer to the new job market. They worked at unchallenging jobs, she as a hairdresser and he for a mail order plant and garden equipment company. In Brooklyn, where they had settled, they had made some Iranian friends, but most of them had to work at several jobs and had little time for socializing. The Americans they met seemed frivolous, oblivious to their kinds of problems.

As she cut the string beans to serve along with fish, she thought how the baby had brought their daughter closer to her and Majid, after years of rebellion against them. During her high school and college years, Setareh, in her attempt to fit in with the American way of life, had tried to separate herself from her and Majid. Setareh had been twelve years old when they emigrated to America, and in many ways she had adopted her peers’ free attitudes. It was when Setareh got pregnant that Mina and Majid decided to buy this country house so that they could all spend a lot of time with the baby. Setareh had resisted the idea at the beginning, concerned about how they would all get along, thrown together like that. But then she had come around and managed to convince Donald that this family closeness was good for the baby.

Mina had fallen in love with this house from the beginning. She liked its symmetrical layout, four rooms upstairs and four downstairs, four windows in each room. From any spot in the house you could see mountains. The air blowing in through the windows was fragrant with the scent of grass and wild flowers. The house, the mountains, reminded her of her childhood summer house in Damavand. She and her siblings and many cousins had spent idyllic summers there with their parents.

Finished with cutting the green beans, she began to sauté them. Then she took a bowl down from a shelf and started to mix flour, honey, and milk for a cake. She poured the mixture into a pan and put it in the oven to bake. After it was done, she put the baked cake on a platter, trying to stop herself from eating some. A bad habit, she thought, that she hoped to quit since it made her gain so much weight.

Donald came to the door, said he was going grocery shopping and asked her if she needed anything. The baby was with Setareh, he said. She shook her head no. She wished he would change his creased T-shirt and banged-up blue jeans, torn at the knees, before he went out. Why couldn’t he dress properly? He was a husband and a father, after all.

Through the window, overlooking the street, she watched him getting into his car, which had a sticker on the bumper saying: DON’T LIKE MY DRIVING? THEN GET OFF THE SIDEWALK—one of his attempts at humor that she and her husband just didn’t appreciate. The car screeched as Donald pulled out of the driveway and hit the curb, then bounced back to the asphalt. It’s amazing, she thought, that he hasn’t gotten killed the way he drives. He was so wound up all the time.

Before Setareh met Donald, Majid—and Mina too—had wanted her to accept a proposal from Karim, the son of one of their friends. Karim was a well-mannered boy and was also going to university, as was Setareh at the time. Setareh had refused, and of course she and Majid couldn’t force her into it, not in a country where young girls made their own judgments. Still, they had tried to make her understand their way of thinking, that parents had better judgment because they were more experienced. Knowing her parents’ disapproval of dating, Setareh had kept her relationship with Donald a secret.

When Donald returned from shopping, he was carrying several overloaded grocery bags. Americans, she had noticed, always over-shopped. She helped him unload the groceries into the refrigerator and onto shelves—milk, eggs, jars of baby food, and his own usual treats, popcorn kernels, Hershey bars. In addition to the food, Donald had bought three straw hats, in purple, pink, and green. “I found them at the flea market by the road, for the three girls here in the household,” he said buoyantly. Just then Setareh came in. “The baby is sleeping,” she said.

He put the purple hat on her head. “You look good in it,” he said and kissed her on the lips. Setareh, tall and big-boned, still seemed delicate next to him. He took the hat off her head and put it on his own, trying to imitate her posture by pushing his hip to the side. Snatching the hat off his head, she put it back on her own again, then ran giddily into another room. He began to chase her from room to room.

Mina heard them wrestling, and then their bedroom door closing loudly. This was something she had not anticipated when they began to share the house, watching her daughter play with her husband.

Later, still wearing his torn-up clothes, Donald went into the yard to mow the grass while Majid, still brooding over this morning’s disagreement, went into the living room to read the bilingual Farsi-English magazine he subscribed to.

Setareh padded back into the kitchen and began to chop a cucumber to add to yogurt and mint, a Persian specialty she had learned from Mina. Mina thought how for a long time Setareh had avoided Iranian food. As a teenager, she used to go out and buy fast food with her allowance rather than eating the food her mother made. But since Donald actually liked Iranian cuisine, Setareh had started appreciating it too. “Mom,” Setareh said. “Can you taste this to see if I put enough mint in it?”

Mina took a spoon and tasted it. “Perfect. You’ve become good at it.”

Mina knew that Setareh, aware of her critical attitude toward her husband, was happy with any compliment from her.

Donald came in from the yard and went into the baby’s room and brought her into the living room. Mina noticed that grass clung to his T-shirt; she worried about it getting on the baby. He sat on the carpet and started blowing up small balloons. She was about to tell him to change his dirty clothes, but Leila made excited noises, then laughed again and again. Her laughter lifted Mina’s spirits.

Mina and Setareh set the table on the deck and they all sat down to eat. Mina served everyone and gave Leila her baby food. Majid was silent, eyes half closed. Was he sinking into memories? Mina wondered. He opened his eyes and stared at the fish on his plate. “Poor fish,” he said. “They must have been swimming happily in the brook before they were caught.”

“Look at the wild flowers, so bright in this light,” Setareh said, pointing to the yard, trying to cheer up her father.

Donald started to tell them about what had happened to him in the city yesterday.

“I looked out of my office window and there was this guy—standing on the other side of the glass—washing it. First it seemed like he was dangling down but then I saw that he was just standing on the ledge there. You know those belts? He was hooked to the window. It was a nice day, so I thought I’d get out on the ledge and have my lunch there. You should have seen this guy’s face.”

“Did you really?” Setareh said, sounding amused.

“You have a child now to take care of,” Mina said to him.

“It wasn’t that dangerous. My office is on the second floor.” He raised his hand as if to illustrate the height.

“You know Mother worries a lot.” Setareh caressed his naked arm.

He smiled at her and seemed to shrug.

The sunlight was fading and birds were hopping around the tree branches, singing. Mina, who had fallen into a melancholy state like her husband’s, admonished herself. Why this sadness? We should be singing with the beauty of nature and all that we have, a daughter who has come around to accepting us, a son-in-law who never tries to alienate her against us, a healthy, pretty grandchild who inherited her father’s big blue eyes and her mother’s curly dark hair.

They all helped clear the table. A full moon was out. Setareh and Donald left the baby with Mina and Majid and went for a walk. She had a glimpse of them on the narrow, hilly road that ran by their house and ended two miles up the hill at a dairy farm.

“It’s a young country and people remain young, too,” she said to her husband. He nodded but tension lingered on his face.

In bed that night Mina had a nightmare: a group of people were holding hands and dancing around a fire. Then, as if by gravity, they were all pulled into it and started screaming. In the bright light of the moon their eyes were glaring with fear. Blood streaked from their faces, arms, chests. She woke with her body shaking and put her arm around her husband. Majid was deep in sleep. A good thing; he had been so tense all day.

She thought of the years before they got married. She and Majid had lived in the same neighborhood in Tehran, and she kept running into him in different places—the Bandari Cinema, the Mellat Park café. Once, when she and one of her girlfriends were sitting in the café, he had come to their table and introduced himself. Soon after that he sent his parents over to her house to ask her parents for her hand in marriage. He had been full of life and ideas, then.

She kept going through corridors of memories until she was in a room where she and Majid were alone after they got engaged. She was wearing a green dress, and a tortoise-shell comb held her hair back. His maroon shirt, flattering on him, brought out the brown of his eyes and hair, a few shades darker than hers. He had kissed her two weeks after they were engaged, properly holding back. She had for the first time felt the thrill of passion. She managed to fall back to sleep only to awaken to someone banging on the door. Revolutionary Guards—the thought rushed sharply through her mind. Then she saw a tree was rapping against the window. It was five in the morning, the luminous clock beside the bed showed. It was eight hours later in Tehran. All the shops and offices would be opening after the long daily siesta and streets would be teeming with the bustle of life, people rushing to work, traffic racing, vendors hawking their merchandise. But beneath all that lurked danger, as she and Majid had experienced when he began to practice law. They could never go back.

Knowing that, she wondered, why is it that Majid and I cling to the past?

After breakfast Majid did some work, having made one of the rooms in the house into an office. Donald vanished into his tool shed where he liked to paint. Some of his oil paintings in bright colors, of children holding hands or birds flying, hung on the living room walls. They reminded Mina of the patterns she’d used as a teenager to make little tapestries.

Late in the afternoon, Mina and Setareh took the baby out in her stroller, wearing the hats Donald had bought. Mina felt a little silly, but then she liked the way it connected her to her daughter and grandchild. Sunlight glittered on the tree leaves, which were turning color already in September and looked gem-like in their brightness.

They walked on the asphalt road in front of the house, pausing now and then to look at an interesting sight—an old abandoned barn, the fish darting in a brook, children quietly riding in inner tubes. A field filled with white-yellow chamomile stretched on the other side. Flat-faced cows grazed in another field.

After a spell of silence, Setareh said: “Mom, you and Dad get worked up over everything Donald does.”

Mina didn’t reply but she was thinking perhaps it was better that her daughter had married Donald, a playful, happy man, rather than Karim, who was a somber man with a critical attitude towards everything.

They passed a house with several children playing in the front yard. One was on a swing; two others were chasing each other, laughing. A little girl came out of the house and began to run down the road, her skirt billowing around her, her hair jumping on the back of her blouse. Then she disappeared into another house farther along.

When Mina and Setareh reached that house, they found that the girl, along with a boy, had set up some apples and squash on a wooden table in the yard. “Ten cents each,” the girl said as they approached her.

Mina and Setareh paused to buy some.

“The apples are from our own yard, and the squash is from my Aunt Jennie’s yard,” the girl said in a bubbling way. Her cheeks were flushed from having run, her hair wind-blown.

“I’ll buy all the apples,” Mina said. The girl smiled at her.

Leila reached out to take one of the apples from her grandmother’s hand.

As they wheeled away, Mina—carrying the apples in a large plastic bag—saw that someone was walking in their direction. It was Donald. He was waving at them, calling, “Setareh, Mina, where are you? Time for lunch.” He was wearing faded blue jeans, white sneakers, and an iridescent shirt with pink and blue wave-like designs on it. He was kicking something, a can or a piece of gravel, into the stream running along the road. He reminded her of a big child.

Setareh ran to him. Wearing the purple straw hat, with her hair flowing out from under it, she had a carefree air about her. Donald was beaming as if he had just seen his wife after a long separation.

Mina stopped and set down her heavy bag of apples. She looked at her daughter running and felt a tremor of joy. She thought how nice it would be to run like that, a child in a world of wonders.

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.