The summer I was seventeen, my mother’s obsession with marrying me off to a rich suitor reached a fever pitch. I wanted to get out of her house too, believe me, but I fantasized about being like those independent heroines in Western novels who are optimistic but alone. “Tomorrow is another day,” I would tell my mother, after sifting through all of Scarlett O’Hara’s lines from the Persian translation of Gone With the Wind we kept around the house. “Akh akh,” my mother would say. “Disgusting. You want all those dead husbands and divorces, don’t you?”
But she backed off — for a while, at least, until she found out about some run-ins with the morals police I’d recently had. Then, she decided I was putting myself in danger by remaining unmarried. One night, after I had washed the dishes and gone up to my room to read another long, torturous novel about a woman who fled Russia and her abusive husband, my mother stormed into my room.
“I figured it out,” she said, talking rapidly in broken sentences. “Inside the family is the way.” “Family doesn’t care about your problems.” And then, in a confident voice, as though she had just found the ideal turn of phrase, “Family will accept you just the way you are.”
“Why, is something wrong with me?” I asked.
“Well, your aunt knows about how you sabotage all your meetings with suitors. She’s not even worried that you get possessed sometimes,” my mother said. “But she thinks you will give her beautiful grandchildren. Atash, this is the best option for you.”
“Why are you still stuck on that idea, Mommy?” I said. “Let it go. I’m not marrying my cousin.”
Since we moved to Ramsar, a small town on the Caspian Sea, I’d noticed many people marrying their cousins, but I had never considered the possibility that I’d be one of them. Back in Tehran, those arrangements were considered extremely low class. My mother herself used to mock families that did that.
“No one else will want you, honey,” she said, trying to look sympathetic. “This is the best solution. Besides, Shahrokh is a nice man and has always loved you.”
“Mommy! I don’t want to marry anyone.”
“Please think about it.”
“Fine,” I said. “Now please let me finish my book.” I had no intention of giving her proposal another thought.
“This world of fantasy will bring you nothing but disappointment,” my mother cautioned me. She switched off the light as she went out.
“Mommy!” I yelled. “The lights!” She came back in, flipped on the switch, and sat down next to me on the bed. She started to cry.
“Don’t,” I said. “I promised you I’d think about it.”
“What is it you really want, honey?” my mother asked me in a sweet voice. I could tell she was about to use her good-cop-bad-cop routine.
“I have no idea,” I said, exasperated. “How could I know that?”
“Well, you must have an idea or a dream of some sort.”
“Okay,” I said. “I want to go to America, learn English, get educated, find a job, rent my own apartment, have new friends from all over the world …” Now I couldn’t stop talking. I went on describing what my apartment would look like, where all my friends would be from, but then I saw my mother’s face changing color. I didn’t know if she was about to scream, laugh, or cry.
“What’s wrong, Mommy?” I said.
“Give me the book,” she demanded. “This garbage is polluting your mind. When are you going to grow up?”
I was furious. “Take it!” I screamed. “I don’t need it at all. My life will be better than this book one day, you’ll see!”
The school year seemed to take forever to end, but as I got closer to graduation, I became hopeful. Soon I would spend the summer in Tehran again, away from all the confusion of small-town life in Ramsar. In Tehran, I thought, I can start over.
My final exams didn’t exactly go smoothly. I dissociated during all of them. In my History exam I found myself coming into consciousness after the test had come and gone. I don’t remember much about my Math exam, except for the end when the teacher started yelling, “My God! Look at Atash’s face! She’s all blue!” Apparently, I wasn’t breathing for a while.
That semester, I failed most of my subjects. My mother was very upset about the possibility of my not graduating at all.
“How can I give you away to a husband without a diploma?” she cried.
I convinced her to let me go to Tehran to live with my father. He would get me a few tutors, I told her. “In August, I’ll retake and pass every one of my exams.”
In late June, I left Ramsar for Tehran. This time, my father had me stay with his mother, Maman M where there was more room. I didn’t object. In fact, I was looking forward to living under Maman’s roof because she didn’t place so many restrictions on me. I had unlimited access to her phone, and unlike my stepfather, she had no interest in eavesdropping on my phone conversations
My mother called me at Maman’s house frequently to talk. Our conversations were short. She was keen on making sure that nothing interfered with her plans for my wedding. She insisted I keep these a secret from my father and Maman.
“That woman will ruin your marriage the way she ruined mine,” my mother warned me.
Despite her fear of my grandmother’s influence, my mother was happy that I was in Tehran and had an opportunity to see Shahrokh. I think she thought that if I were near him we’d somehow fall in love. Shahrokh’s mother, whom I called simply “Khaleh” — “Aunt” — lived near my grandmother’s house. Khaleh was pleased that I was in town. She wanted us to go shopping together for the remainder of the wedding supplies. She had already started to call me dokhtaram, “my daughter” in Persian. Having two sons, she’d always wanted a daughter, and I think she felt that I should have been hers from the start. I loved her too and didn’t want to disappoint her.
Shortly after I settled into my grandmother’s place, Khaleh and I met to go look at wedding gowns. At one shop, a saleswoman who looked as though she could have been my age greeted us. Unlike me, she was energetic about our search for the perfect dress.
“I’m going to help you try on every dress we have here,” she informed me.
“Exactly how many dresses are you talking about?” I asked. She made it sound as though we were about to scale the tallest peak in the Alborz Mountains.
“At least three hundred,” she told me.
Even my poor aunt seemed disturbed by this number. The girl didn’t give us time to think, however, and led us directly to the section where she kept her favorite dresses.
“I’ll help you put them on,” she told me. Then she whispered in my ear, “Or do you want your mother to help you?”
“She’s not my mother,” I whispered back. “She’s the mother of the groom.”
The girl looked at my aunt and smiled suspiciously. Then she pointed to a couch and asked Khaleh to sit down. “You can wait for the bride from here,” she said. “She’ll be appearing from those doors over there.”
As soon as the girl and I entered the dressing room her smile dissolved. “Take your clothes off and put on this one first,” she barked, thrusting at my face a long, poofy dress with lots of frills all over the sides.
I held the dress in front of me, waiting for her to leave, but she didn’t. Unsure of what to do, I started to disrobe. The girl kept standing there, with her head turned to one side, watching my reflection in the mirror.
“I see all your bones,” she said, staring at my ribs. I looked down. It was true. I was very skinny in those days.
“How old are you?” the salesgirl asked.
“Almost eighteen,” I said.
“You look fourteen,” she said. “If you’re eighteen, why aren’t you enthusiastic about your wedding?”
I didn’t realize I looked so lifeless. It occurred to me that this girl was anxious about not making a sale. I said nothing, but I proceeded to put on the stupid dress.
“I’m twenty-four,” the girl said as she zipped me up. “I can’t wait to get married so I can get out of my father’s house.”
I looked at myself in the mirror. The gown was radiant and I couldn’t believe how beautiful it looked on me. I started to cry. This is it, I thought. I’m getting dressed for Hell.
The girl studied my tears, unsure whether they were from joy or sorrow. Finally, she said, “Are you going to buy it or not?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’ll take this one.”
On the way back to Maman’s house, I thought about my poor aunt. I knew I was going to disappoint her. The date was getting closer; the invitations were going out. I had no idea how to stop this chain of events from unfolding, so I did nothing.
Then I remembered my mother’s words: “Don’t say anything to Maman — she will ruin your wedding.”
I arrived at Maman’s place that afternoon. I found her in the kitchen, frying eggplants for the khoresht-e bademjoon she was preparing for dinner. This dish was my father’s favorite and she was preparing it because he was coming to visit. I stood in the doorway and, without even saying hello, blurted out, “I’m getting married in less than a month.”
“Married?” Maman kept careful watch over her eggplants. “To whom?” she asked blandly, as though I’d been reciting the plot of a boring movie to her.
“How come I didn’t hear about this?” Maman said, still showing no sign of any emotion.
“Because you’re not invited,” I said, watching her eyes roam over the pot in front of her. Maman flipped the eggplants from the fried side to the other. Then she said, simply, “Why wasn’t I?”
“Maman-joon,” I cried impatiently. “That’s not the point!” I couldn’t believe she had nothing else to say. “I’m getting married!”
“Your mother won’t invite me to my granddaughter’s wedding?” Maman’s top lip curled over the bottom one in annoyance.
“I guess so,” I said. “But the wedding is in a month and my jewelry and dress are picked. It’s real.”
Maman stopped her frying and looked me in the eye carefully. Then she took my hands in hers and walked me to the living room. “We have to tell you father tonight,” she said. “Tell me first, do you want to marry him?”
“I don’t know. It’s just … ” I was sobbing by this point and couldn’t finish my sentence.
“I see,” Maman said. “Say no more. I’ll take care of it.”
Then her face changed. “My eggplants!” she shrieked, and rushed to the kitchen. From the other room I heard her yell, “You aren’t even done with high school. What’s the rush?”
I felt better having told Maman. Now it was out of my hands. I was anxious, though, about my father finding out.
Maman evidently had thought of this, because she sent me down to the neighbor’s house to wait there while she talked to my father. After what seemed an eternity, she rang and told me to come back up to her apartment. My father opened the front door.
“Well, well,” he said, “Look at my flower.” He had a smile on his face, but I knew he only used that sort of pet name when something was bothering him. His wife came to the door and kissed me hello. My brother and my little half-sisters, nine and six years old now, were all there too. I greeted everyone. Maman’s husband, whom we called Baba T, was sitting in an armchair near the door. I studied him with particular attention, because he was famous for not being able to keep a secret. People used to say when they played cards with him, “Just look at his face and you can see his whole hand.” Two shot glasses of vodka balanced on the arm of the chair next to him, and it wasn’t even dinner time yet. I tried to keep cool and walked into the kitchen.
“Can I help you with anything Maman-joon?” I asked.
“Yes, set these plates on the table,” she said without looking at me.
Dinner passed with an awkward silence that pervaded what was usually a noisy affair. After the food had been cleared away, I got up to use the bathroom. I realized, however, that my legs felt strangely numb. With difficulty, I walked to the bathroom and sat down to pee. As I was pulling up my jeans, I had the sensation that my legs didn’t belong to me.
My feet gave way, and I fell down on the bathroom floor. I was confused, but I pulled myself up again and walked into the living room holding onto the walls. Now my hands started to feel numb too. The only part of me that seemed to work was my torso. I made it halfway into the living room and fell down again. My stepmother yelled, “Atash! What’s wrong?”
“I can’t walk,” I said.
My dad and my brother rushed over and pulled me up to stand. As soon as they loosened their hold, I dropped to the floor again. Once more they pulled me up. I felt like a baby fawn learning to walk.
“Okay,” my father said. “You’re okay.” But I wasn’t. He let go and I fell again.
“She’s having a nervous breakdown.” Baba T screamed. “We need an ambulance.”
I could hear my brother telling them, “Strange things have been happening to her lately. She keeps collapsing.”
Just when I was getting used to lying down on the floor a new sensation hit me. I felt something pull from within my spine and I thought my neck was going to break from all the pain. It was as though something or someone was pulling my head backward to touch my back. I’m possessed, I thought. Just like those horror movies on TV. I tried to straighten my body, but I couldn’t. I was having a hard enough time just getting air into my lungs. I could hear my father’s voice yelling, “What’s wrong with her?” and I could feel my grandmother’s hands holding my face. Then I felt my body lift into the air.
When I came back to consciousness, I was in the backseat of my father’s Renault. My whole family was piled in there too. My stepmother kept asking my brother, “What do you mean this keeps happening to her? For how long?” I couldn’t see clearly, but I gathered we were on our way to the hospital. When we got to the hospital and entered the triage room, I remember doctors coming at me with needles. I kept yelling, “My neck is coming off!” I could hear the doctors saying they’d never seen anything like this. The shots kept coming and I eventually relaxed, but my neck still seemed disjointed from my spine. After a while, though, I fell asleep.
I woke up in my father’s house. I was in my sisters’ room, in their bed, and it was night. Light from an outside streetlamp shone on the stuffed bears and dogs my uncle had made for them. He had made some for me too. Through a crack at the bottom of the bedroom door, I could see people walking back and forth. They must be so worried about me, I thought. Here I was, in this happy little room filled with toys and books and all sorts of lovely children’s things. I was totally out of place. That was the first time it occurred to me that I didn’t want to be there anymore. Not just in my father’s house, but anywhere at all.
I sat up on my hands and realized how little energy I had. The streetlamp was throwing different patterns on the curtain of the window and I crawled over to it and looked out. I was hoping to catch sight of some people passing by, coming home from their parties or dinners, but there was no one, just a lot of concrete. I could almost feel how hard the concrete was waiting there down below. My head was pounding, and I felt as though the only thing that could make it go away was a collision with the ground. Think about how many people you won’t be able to disappoint once you’re gone, I thought. I pictured my mother, father, Khaleh, Shahrokh, and everyone else carrying little framed pictures of me. “She was such a good girl,” they were all saying, pointing at the face in the photo.
I opened the window. There was a breeze blowing on my face and on the curtain. I felt a surge of energy. I felt like the wind. I looked down at the concrete three floors down and leaned toward its embrace.
But I didn’t fall. A strong, rough hand held my foot, and then a great force jerked me back into the room. My father stood there, the skin on his face stretched tight as a drum. His wide eyes were fixed on me, pure fire. I was sure he was going to kill me, so I instinctively pushed my thumbs into my eyeballs as I’d done when I was little, hoping I’d disappear.
But I didn’t disappear. Instead, I started to wail long, loud wails. My breath started getting shorter and shorter, till I was using my whole body just to find the tiniest bit of oxygen. Then there was a crashing sound as my whole family came into the room, shouting and asking questions.
Maman stayed with me at my father’s house for three days and nursed me back to health. One day, my father came into my room with my grandmother. He sat down on the edge of my bed, gave me a glass of water, and said, “I need to know what’s going on with this marriage of yours.”
“My mother will be disappointed if I don’t marry Shahrokh,” I told him.
“Do you want to?” he asked.
I was afraid to say the word. Whenever I tried to form it on my lips, I pictured my mother crying. This is the man who betrayed my mother, I thought. Now I’m about to help him do it again.
“Atash-joon, this can’t happen,” my father said sternly. “You’re much too young to get married.” I stared at him. I felt my throat starting to loosen.
“Listen,” he said, rubbing his hands together nervously. “This is what we’re going to do. I’m going to invite your aunt and Shahrokh here so they’ll have to ask me in person for your hand in marriage. After all, I’m your father; they can’t skip that step.”
I didn’t say anything. I was happy that my father was on my side, but he didn’t understand the situation at all. Even if I get away from this marriage, I thought, how will I get away from my mother?
Two days later, when I was feeling better, my aunt, her husband, and Shahrokh came to visit. Maman made me dress up, and my stepmother saw to it that I had a bit of lipstick on. Then the two of them sent me into the living room. My father was sitting next to Maman; Shahrokh sat on the couch to the left of them; my aunt and her husband sat on their right. As soon as they saw me walk in, everybody got up to greet me.
“The most beautiful bride!” my aunt called out as I arrived at my seat.
My face turned red. Then it occurred to me that, strangely, everyone in the room seemed to be having a good time. They were talking about food — always a favorite topic in my family’s house. My grandmother offered the guests fresh fruits, nuts, and sweets. My stepmother seemed especially attentive to my situation: she helped me bring out the tea and offer it to everyone. Shahrokh sat across from me, smiling kindly. He had a gentle presence.
“We are so happy to have you involved with the wedding,” my aunt said to my father.
“I’m glad to be part of it,” my father said diplomatically, “but usually there is no wedding until the father agrees.” He smiled at my aunt. “Isn’t that right?”
Khaleh tried to change the subject. “Didn’t Atash-joon tell you about the dress we bought for her?” She looked at me as if to say: this is a done deal.
“No, she hasn’t,” my father said severely. “I thought you had all come here today to talk with me about the marriage. I have no objections, but I must say I am disappointed to hear this talk of dresses before being consulted.”
“We’re sorry, Nader-khan,” Khaleh said. Adding khan (“Sir”) to my father’s name showed she was losing ground. “We hope we have your blessings.”
“I’m an old lady,” Maman chimed in. “But if I may, I have a question, too.”
The whole room fell silent.
“Who could be better than Shahrokh to marry my granddaughter?” she began. My aunt looked happy, but it was clear that Maman hadn’t actually asked her question yet. The whole room held its breath.
“I’m wondering where Atash is going to live after the wedding,” Maman went on. “Does Shahrokh have enough money to pay for an apartment, rent, and bills?”
Shahrokh’s parents winced, but he replied confidently, “I’m a student right now, Maman, but when I finish my studies, I intend to get a well-paying job and buy my own place.”
“When will you graduate?” my father asked. It was clear to me now what was happening.
“In two yea – …” Shahrokh started to say, but his mother interrupted.
“Nader-khan?” she said, her voice rising slightly in pitch. “What did you have when you married my sister?” She looked around, but it was clear no one was going to answer her question. “Nothing,” she said to herself.
And then she crossed a line.
“We gave you our little sister,” she continued, her voice rising again. “And see what you did to her. You left her with two kids.” I started to shake. Something awful had been unleashed in the room, like a poisonous gas. I watched as it slowly started to distort everyone’s faces. Khaleh felt its effects too and started to cry.
But my father, surprisingly, looked as though he’d been waiting all night for those exact words. Without blinking, he said, “You’re absolutely right. I made the biggest mistake of my life when I married her. That’s exactly my point.”
Khaleh was flustered. “The point is,” she said. “The point is that these two kids love each other, and we adults have to give them support.” She looked around the room, as if searching for the support she was talking about.
Maman, calculating the exact midpoint between Khaleh’s position and my father’s, said, “I think the point is that rushing into marriage will bring problems for everyone.” Now my aunt’s husband spoke. “This will be different,” he said, “because the couple will live with us for two years and we’ll take care of them until they are ready to be on their own.”
This was all news to me. My father looked at me like a lawyer skillfully cross-examining his own witness. “Did you know, Atash-joon,” he said, “that when you get married, you won’t have your own home but will have to live with your aunt?”
I shook my head no. So this is what they meant by “taking care of it,” I thought. I was impressed but alarmed too.
“Atash-joon, tell your father you want to marry my son,” my aunt said. Tears were streaming down her face. Seeing her cry made me feel awful. I started to cry too.
“It’s okay, Mom,” Shahrokh jumped in. “I can wait for Atash till I — ” Shahrokh’s father cut him off with a hissing sound and then stood up to leave. “This is a total mess,” he said, looking at my father. “I can’t believe I agreed to come here in the first place. For one thing, I can see why Atash’s mother didn’t want to take you back.”
“Don’t say that!” my aunt shrieked at her husband. “Please, let’s go home.” She took his arm and dragged him out of our house.
“I’m sorry Khaleh-joon,” I said, running after them.
My aunt turned to look at me. She smiled at me strangely, as if despite the scene that had taken place, she was still proud of me. Then she left.
The last to leave was Shahrokh himself. “I meant what I said,” he said. “I’ll wait as long as you need.”
I studied his face. I saw the kind, caring little boy I used to play with at the beach.
“Merci,” I said, and closed the door gently.