A Night in Winter of 1962
Sitting in front of Baba, I gripped the cold chrome handlebar of his bicycle tightly with my bare hands, which had already turned purple with cold. Winters were brutal here. My ears were trapping the frigid wind and allowing pain and cold to penetrate deep inside my head. I was too timid to let go of the handlebar and cover my ears with my hands. I wished I had a hat, the kind that came all the way down and over the ears. With my chapped lips squeezed tightly together, I was squinting and holding my breath for as long as I could at a time, in an attempt to keep the cold out. I was being taken back by my stepfather to a foster home I had just run away from. I missed my mother and my baby brother Mehdi already.
I loved Baba. He was my mother’s husband and the closest thing to a father figure I ever came to know. My mother called him Mansoor Aqa—Mr. Mansoor—but I preferred calling him Baba, Farsi for daddy. He was the first to introduce me to all the things that were wonderful in life back when I was little: cinema, Pepsi-Cola, and ice cream. In his early twenties, Baba was a relatively tall and handsome man with broad shoulders and a John Wayne attitude. Men with dishonorable intentions wouldn’t dare follow my mother home from the market anymore, or frighten her at odd hours of the night by serenading her from the alley next to our home—not after Baba came into our lives. He was fearless and strong and could take on more than one man without ruffling his perfect hair. I had seen him in action a few times. He spoke very softly but, if a situation arose, he was lethal with his fists. A tailor by trade, he had the appearance of the movie stars of the 1950s black-and-white films that he used to take me to see on Fridays.
Before Baba, the only men I knew were my mother’s brothers and father, who were from the countryside and dressed and spoke a certain way. They wore suits made from inexpensive fabrics that, after a few weeks of wear, began to sag and bulge around the elbows and the knees. The sleeves of their jackets never seemed to reach their wrists, and after a few washes the hems of their pants would no longer hang past their ankles. They did not believe in ironing clothes, thinking it would reduce the life of the fabric. Baba, on the other hand, always wore new clothes made from European fabric, perfectly pressed at all times. My mother used to say, “You can slice a melon with the creases on Mansoor Aqa’s trousers.” Besides my birth father, he was the only man I personally knew who wore a necktie and starched white shirts. Baba had a thin, perfectly trimmed mustache that was an indispensable part of his upper lip. His face was neatly shaved and splashed with European aftershaves, his hair greased and combed backward and to the side at all times.
I oftentimes overheard the other women in the house muttering while doing their laundry or washing dishes by the fountain; why, with so many eligible virgin girls in the world, would a handsome young bachelor like Mansoor Aqa travel from Orumiyeh clear across the country to Mashhad and marry a divorced woman with a child? My mother fervently believed that Baba showing up in her life was the direct result of her prayers being answered by Imam Reza. As for myself, I was just grateful for Baba being in our life—the “hows” and “whys” of him choosing my mother didn’t matter to me at all. He altered our uncertain and droning existence from the very first day that he set foot in our lives, introducing us to color when gray was all that my mother and I were accustomed to. He possessed all the attributes that a six-year-old boy like me wished for in a father; he was strong, fun, and loving.
On both sides of Naderi Avenue, under the dark ultramarine sky of early evening, strings of hanging lights and buzzing mantel lanterns lit up the sidewalks. Beneath them merchants laid out a masterful display of seasonal fruits and sweet-smelling baked and deep-fried goods. Pyramids of shimmering sweet lemons, oranges, persimmons, pomegranates, and large soft dates colored the sidewalks, enticing the taste buds of hungry pedestrians rushing home. The dense cold air, saturated with the delicious aromas of sugar, rosewater, and cardamom escaping trays of various native sweets, filled my lungs. Just seeing the mounds of syrupy fritters and baklavas on display at the storefronts and on top of wooden pushcarts hurt my jaws. I could swear all these treats were winking at me invitingly as Baba pedaled past them. I remember when he first married my mother, on Thursday evenings Baba always came home with a box or a bag of some treat under his arm—be it pastries, sweets, or fresh fruits.
I’d been very hungry earlier that day. My mother was so busy worrying how Baba was going to react when he came home and found me there that she couldn’t think of anything else, much less feeding me. A few hours before it was time for Baba to return from work, she became uneasy, walking around the little room, murmuring to herself, and praying. The last time I ran away from a foster home, Baba was not at all pleased. The frowning faces of my mother and Baba and the deafening silence around the next morning’s breakfast sofreh—a tablecloth-like sheet of plastic or fabric spread on the floor and used to serve food on—told me that they’d had another fight over me while I was asleep. Despite Baba’s insistence that my mother be firm with my birth father by sending me back to the foster home, my mother was reluctant. She just wanted her son to be with her and didn’t care much about the principle of things or teaching her ex-husband any lessons.
My heart fell when I heard the distinct sound of Baba’s footsteps coming from the adjacent narrow foyer. His face turned crimson when he walked in through the door and found me in his home again. He looked disappointed, mostly at my mother for her indecisiveness. My mother’s face shrunk into a look of anguish as she softly said hello to Baba.
After a brief pause and contemplation—without taking his shoes off and sitting down, as he often did when he returned home from work—he threw his hands into the air and said in his sweet Turkish-Tehranian accent, “I can’t do it, Soory joon (dear Soory). I am only a tailor, working like a donkey just to pay the rent for this little matchbox we live in—and to fill my wife and children’s bellies.” He refused to touch the cup of hot tea my mother had placed for him on a small chrome tray on the rug.
“You don’t seem to get it, Soory. Alireza’s father should be taking care of Alireza. He has the means; I don’t. Every time this boy runs away and comes here and you don’t object, you are indirectly telling your ex-husband that it is all right for him to be an irresponsible bastard.”
My mother stood like a sad little orphan, looking down at the patterns of the shabby red Persian rug covering the floor, and softly said, “He is just a child. God would not be pleased with me if I tell my own son he cannot come here. What can I do, Mansoor Aqa?”
“I have said a thousand times and I say it again, take him to his father’s home and leave him at his doorstep. The pimp would have no choice then but to take care of his own son. As God is my witness, Soory, I love Alireza like my own son, but it burns my ass knowing that man collects a good and easy salary from the military on the first of every month while I have to feed his flesh and blood. I, a perfect stranger from Orumiyeh who six days a week sits behind a sewing machine and earns his every rial needle by needle with his fingers. Do you think God is pleased with that?”
I was not the subject of a new discussion that evening. The two of them had been down this path many times before. In fact, my mother had been on the receiving end of similar remarks and advice from others besides Baba for a long time now, often right in front of me.
“Take Alireza to his father,” they would say to her. “Why should you sacrifice your marriage and youth for his kid while he’s enjoying life in the arms of his new wife?”
Standing submissively with her back against the damp wall of their small and dimly-lit room, her hands in front of her one over the other, my mother didn’t utter another word. Her head was hung downward, her lips puckered, and her eyebrows pulled together—a silent display of protest as well as a gesture of reluctant surrender—a gesture I knew all too well by now. Baba was the man and this was his home. That was how she saw it and that was how she had been taught by her parents to see it. She was a woman—and women had no voice where she came from. She was lucky to have found a young and handsome bachelor wanting to marry her, willing to take her and her son into his home, she always told me. This man who could have chosen a virgin with dowries that could fill two large rooms had chosen her instead, and for that she could not be ungrateful.
Through the entire discussion, I was curled up in the corner of the room, sitting on the floor next to the crib of my baby half brother Mehdi and hugging my knees. I gazed in envy at Mehdi’s chubby, rosy cheeks as he peacefully slept while my fate was once again being debated. Purposely, I tried to make myself appear less significant, hoping that would sway Baba’s heart and he would change his mind about taking me back to the foster home. But I knew it was too late for that. I wasn’t welcome here anymore. In fact, I knew that, as long as my birth father was alive, I was not welcome anywhere. For someone in my situation, having a father alive and well was a big liability.
My father’s professional and subsequent financial success after divorcing my mother was only the icing on the bitter cake of animosity that everyone on my mother’s side had baked for him. Divorcing my mother was the real catalyst of their anger, however, and in many ways the main source of my misfortune. In my parents’ village, everyone knew everyone else. It seemed that half of the people of the village were related to my mother and the other half to my father—in one form or another. And those who were not related to either side had ties to my father’s new wife, who was also from the same village.
Assad Banafsheh—Assad, son of Banafsheh—had divorced the daughter of Qolumali Qassob—Qolumali, the butcher. In a society where the motto for the bride was “Go to your husband’s home in a white dress and leave only in a white shroud,” divorce was the kiss of death for a woman, as it inevitably brought shame upon her family. A divorced young woman was often viewed as a rejected product and a liability to her parents and for that, my father was not forgiven. Emotions ran high, especially on my mother’s side, where my father was deeply despised. This was bad news for me. I looked like my father, grinned like my father, and was, without question, my father’s son—as I was reminded regularly by my mother’s relatives. And to my father and his side of the family, I was the son of Soory, a name that was not uttered kindly by my father and his mother in particular. My presence seemed to peel at the scabs of the wounds caused by the divorce, on both sides.
I wanted to promise Baba that night to eat very little from now on, to be a good boy and listen to my mother. I wanted to promise not to pee in my bed anymore. But it was too late for that. His mind had been made up for over a year now. Once again it was time for me to leave. Like a puppy that kept running away from the animal shelter and back to the only master it knew, I too kept coming back here to the only home I knew.
Baba signaled with his head that it was time to go as he walked firmly toward the door. In the dark and narrow foyer I put on my little black rubber shoes that my aunt Sarvar had gotten me from the gypsies in exchange for a small sack of dried mulberries and two rials. Feeling homesick and anxious already, I couldn’t bear the pain of separating from my mother again. I wanted to cry and beg her to let me stay, but didn’t. That would only have salted the wounds of her heart even more, and I could not stand seeing my mother suffer. A droopy goodbye look was all that I could muster for her as I walked out the door and followed Baba into the dark alley. Like my grandfather’s sheep when he took one of their lambs away for slaughter, my mother stood motionless outside the doorway and watched as Baba and I disappeared around the corner on his bicycle. Her eyes spoke of the same helplessness I used to see in the eyes of those sheep.
On my signal Baba turned into a narrow side street and then into an old alleyway where my latest foster family, chosen by my birth father, lived. Fearing potholes and the gutter that ran in the middle of the dark alley, Baba stopped the bicycle and we walked the rest of the way, which wasn’t but a few hundred meters.
“Are you sure you know where they live?” Baba asked. I nodded yes. Reluctantly, I took him to the house. Walking the bicycle up to the door, he grabbed the door knocker and gave it a few slams. Minutes later the sound of approaching footsteps could be heard from the other side of the heavy wooden door. The door’s left panel opened, its old hinges squealing under its weight. A man I knew all too well appeared in his pajama pants, with a military blanket folded in a triangle over his shoulders to keep him warm.
“Salam (Hello),” he said to Baba with a questioning look. Before Baba could introduce himself, the man noticed me half hidden in the dark, against the brick wall of his house, away from the door and Baba. I was staring at the man like a startled, featherless baby sparrow that had fallen out of its nest and was about to be touched by a human.
“It’s you!” he said somewhat unhappily, yet sounding relieved at the same time. “Where have you been, boy? My sons have looked for you everywhere!” Then he turned his attention back to Baba and asked, “And who are you, mister?”
“Salam, aqa.” I am his mother’s husband,” Baba replied as he extended his hand. “I understand his father has placed him in your care, so I brought him back.”
“Yes.” The man nodded unhappily as he shook Baba’s hand. “He ran away from work early this morning and we were worried what to tell his father if he never came back. It is not right, aqa. His father is a military man and could cause trouble for us if we lose his kid, you know.”
“I am sorry, it will not happen again. He’s only a child and doesn’t understand any better. Please forgive him,” Baba assured the man, while giving me a punishing look. “He has promised he will stay with you and be a good boy.”
“I hope so. Okay then. Thank you, mister, and thank God he is found. Come on, kid, let’s go inside, it’s freezing out here,” the man said as he shook Baba’s hand. Baba and I exchanged a brief glance as he lifted his bicycle and turned it around. Then he disappeared into the shadows of the night. The man immediately closed and latched the door behind us and began hurrying across the tiled courtyard.
I followed, longing hopelessly for my mother, Baba, and Mehdi.