[Trigger warning: sexual abuse, violence to children]
The box-like room was freezing-cold. It had no windows or decorations, aside from an old IBM computer on the desk in front of me. The space around me seemed to be closing in on me. Despite the icy temperature, I felt sweat dripping down my back. I felt as though I were gasping for air that wasn’t there.
I pounded the buzzer by the door. “I need to come out,” I yelled. “Just for a bit.”
The test monitor, a petite, nervous woman, who was quickly losing patience, opened the door. “Ms. Yagaaaaman, you can’t keep coming and going,” she said. “You know the deal.”
She was right. This was my third time sitting for the social-work licensing exam. I had failed it each time before precisely because of episodes like this one. I didn’t understand it, as I was scoring 90s at home when I took any practice test.
Focus, focus, go back in, it will be okay.
I went back in and sat down at the computer. I felt enormous, as though my shoulders were pressing up against the walls and ceiling. I realized I shouldn’t have asked for a private room. But the clicking of other people’s fingers on keyboards in the main hall was too much: the sounds grew louder and louder, till the clicks felt like sharp beaks pecking at my eardrums.
I noticed a clock above me. Its hands were moving in opposite directions. That was strange, I thought. Then I looked more closely and saw things start to wriggle and come out of the inside of the clock.
They ran in opposite directions, scurrying around the numbers on the clock and down the wall. I covered my eyes with my hands. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t take tests.
And then my mother was standing in front of me.
“We are going to Qom,” she said. “I want to pray to the saints so they can bring good luck to my new marriage.”
I looked around. I was in my mother’s living room, wearing a school uniform and petting my cat Malos with my tiny fingers.
“I don’t want to go to Qom, Mommy joon,” I said. I hated Qom, the sun was always hot there, the tap water salty, and the hordes of faceless women in black chadors scared me. But my mother wouldn’t listen.
In Qom, we stayed at the house of a very well respected religious teacher. My mother said it was important to be nice to him. We took his invitation as a blessing.
The house was full of children and people carrying plates of rich food: duck, pomegranate stews, eggplant dishes. I enjoyed playing with the kids, but I didn’t like it when the adults would leave to visit the holy sites, because then we all had to stay in the basement with the old man who watched over us. He had a hairy nose, fat belly, walleye, and strange tongue that he flicked like a lizard. My mother said, “When he dies, he will become a saint too.” I wondered why all the saints were so ugly, and whether they became beautiful in heaven.
The old man set us up with arts and crafts and loose paper for drawing. The basement opened onto a large garden, but the children were scared to go there. There were demons in the garden, they said. One day, while I was drawing a tree, the old man came and took a little restless boy by the hand. The boy didn’t want to go, but the old man told the boy to look into his eyes, after which the boy put his head down and followed the old man out into the garden of demons.
The old man came back a little later without the boy. I asked what happened to him. “Don’t be nosy,” the old man said.
A few hours later, the little boy returned, but he wasn’t restless anymore. He didn’t talk to anyone and sat staring at the wall. I tried to get him to color with me, but he just turned away. I wondered if the demons had hurt him.
The next day, the old man came for me. I heard a voice inside. Scream. Run. But the old man held my shoulders and said, “You don’t want to fight me.” He led me into the garden. Birds were singing. For a moment, I thought: This isn’t so bad.
At the edge of the garden, there were some outdoor rooms and outhouses. The old man opened the door of a shed and pushed me inside. “I’ll be back soon,” he said, while locking the door. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness of the windowless room, I noticed the walls were moving. Then I realized that they were completely covered with cockroaches. I shook the handle of the door, but that just made the roaches fly around the room, onto my clothes and into my hair. I started to scream.
The old man’s voice came from behind the door. “Shush. Be a good girl. If you move too much the roaches will get you.” I told him I’d be good.
“Please, please,” I sobbed, “Don’t leave me.”
I don’t know how long I was in that shed, but when the old man returned, I was lying on the floor with roaches crawling on top of me. He told me that a lot of my sins had departed. “This room purifies,” he said. “But there is one more thing that has to be done.” Without fighting, I took his hand and followed him, relieved to get out of the shed, checking as I walked to see if any roaches were still in my shirt and pants.
He took me to another small room. This one had a light and no roaches. It smelt of cigarettes. He put me on a table, face down, then took off my pants and told me I was good. He spit on my back and I felt something enter my spine, something that seemed to make it snap. I couldn’t move. The pain was enormous and I thought I was going to die. Then it seemed as if the wall in front of me opened up.
Through a crack, a beautiful woman with long, black hair and a flowing black dress held her hand out to me. Behind her was a beautiful, misty forest filled with trees that had smiling, human-like faces and branches that waved like magic wands. I saw happy kids playing by flowing streams. I let the woman’s hand pull me through the wall.
The next thing I knew, I was back in the basement with the other children. My spine hurt so much I could hardly walk. I looked up and saw that the old man was fixing a lamp. He caught me staring and said, “If you tell anyone what happened today, your mother and grandmother will burn in hell forever.” He smiled and told me again that I was a good girl.
He brought us watermelon and made the kids sit down to eat it, but all the ones who had been to the garden of demons wouldn’t participate. One boy kept aggressively brushing his arms, as if there were something crawling on them. Another girl was terrified by the black watermelon seeds and started crying about roaches. I was so happy to be out of the garden, though, that I ate heartily, as if it were my last meal. I also scooped up as many watermelon seeds as I could to save for later.
The old man’s wife came down and told us our parents had returned. My mother and grandmother were happy to see me and asked how my day was, but I couldn’t speak. “What do you have in your hand?” my mother asked. I showed her the watermelon seeds and she told me to put them into the trash, but as I walked away, I decided to put them in my nose instead. I’m not sure why I did that. I think I wanted to stuff myself up so that nothing else could get inside me. Some of the seeds fell out, but I could feel some of them find a home in my head. Maybe I’ll grow a garden, I thought. That way, the woman with black hair will know where to find me again.
But a few days later, a bad smell started to come from my nose. Everyone who tried to pick me up to give me a hug smelled the rotten stench and put me down right away.
No one could figure out where the smell came from. My mother made me change my clothes and brush my teeth, over and over. Nothing helped.
One day, my brother decided to drink a bottle of iodine he had found lying around in one of the bathrooms. I’m not sure why he did that. Since we came to Qom, he seemed as sad as me. We had to rush him to the hospital to have his stomach pumped. There, a nurse noticed I had watermelon seeds rotting in my nose.
“Not rotting,” I told her. “Growing.” But they told me they were going to have to perform surgery. They took me into a different room and put me out.
They released my brother and me the next day. My mother was distraught. “I don’t understand,” she wailed. “Why is everything going wrong in the most holy place on earth?”
That night, I saw two water bugs running around on the floor. My brother was sound asleep across from me. I scooped up the water bugs and put one in the front and one in the back of his shirt. He didn’t do anything for a few moments, but then he started to pat himself in his sleep. Gradually, he built up to strong slapping. Then, finally, he woke up screaming.
To this day, I’m not sure why I did that, but I’m really, really sorry.
“Ms. Yaghmaaaan, your time is up.” The woman was standing behind me. “Please step away from the computer. Did you finish this time?”
“I don’t know,” I said, but when I looked at the computer it was clear I was still at the beginning.
A few months later, on my fourth try, I finally passed my exam. I still panicked at times, but each time the nausea started spreading through my body, I told myself, “I am more important than this test. I am safe.” That made the roaches disappear and the walls step back.
The test monitor handed me the printout of my passing grade as I walked out. “Was the room okay?” she asked me.
“The room was always okay,” I said.
I'm a licensed clinical social worker with two decades of experience working in New York City public schools and providing social and emotional support for urban youth, immigrants, and their families. I'm Director of Wellness and founding member of Harvest Collegiate, a progressive public high school in Manhattan, where I also train social workers. In my private practice, I treat adults through a mixture of psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, and Reiki. In my spare time I write literary nonfiction.