The Son-in-Law

By Nahid Rachlin

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.

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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.