I hadn’t thought about my brother much since I’d left Iran. I assumed he’d found his own way. But one day, when I was on the phone with my folks back home, I asked to speak with him.
“Your brother isn’t talking,” my father said.
“To anyone,” he said. “He refuses to see a neurologist or even a family doctor. It’s been like this ever since he was released.”
I knew that my brother had spent some time in prison after being framed as a political enemy of the Islamic Republic, and that he had been strangely released, all of a sudden, with a big apology from the government. I didn’t understand these things. But I had received word that he had gone to stay at my grandmother’s house for a while, where it was quieter.
Hearing that he had stopped speaking completely, however, I felt waves of guilt flood back into my mind. I remembered him as a mute boy. He didn’t speak until he was five and I had to translate his mumbles. I remembered the promise we made to each other as children: that whoever was the first to escape Iran would help bring the other one out too. Since he was the older child, I assumed he would be the one to help me, but it didn’t work out that way. From the day I arrived in America, I had to face so many challenges all on my own: learning a new language, getting a stable job, setting my immigration papers right, paying for college. I wanted to help my brother very much, but I didn’t know how to reach him now that he wasn’t speaking.
Then, about eight months later, I received a call from him, much to my surprise.
“Atash,” he said over the phone. “Komak mikham. I need your help.”
“You’re talking again,” I said. I was very happy to hear his voice. “Salaam! Chee shodee? Bego chee mikhai? What’s going on? What do you need?”
“I can’t live like this anymore,” he said. I knew exactly what he was thinking.
“How will you do it?” I asked him.
“There are guns,” he said. “There are high buildings too.” He paused. “But I had to say goodbye to you first.”
“Wait,” I said. “Listen to me. What if I could get you out?”
“How?” he said gloomily. “It isn’t possible.”
“You’re right,” I said. “If you’re dead, it’s not possible. I can help you to get out, but I need you to be strong. We have to put our heads together.”
There was a long silence. Finally, he said, “Atash, do you remember Roxanne, my ex, who used to rent one of Baba’s apartments in Tehran? The one who is from California.”
I remembered Roxanne: she grew up in San Francisco without any real understanding of what Iran was like. It was only when she was in her early twenties and had developed an impressive array of addictions — to LSD, speed, and methamphetamines — that her parents suggested she return to Iran “to explore her roots.” She got on a plane to Tehran, where she rented one of my father’s apartments in the same building where my brother inhabited a place on the top floor. My father sent him to collect rent from Roxanne every month, and the two of them fell in love. Roxanne spent most of her time with him and with my family. This wasn’t exactly good for her family’s plan to have her kick drugs, since my brother knew where to get anything in Tehran. The two of them were like oil and fire together, and I think my brother probably developed some new habits over the course of the year they spent together.
Roxanne’s parents discovered that not only was Tehran not helping her clean up her “American habits,” but also, it was offering her a nearly endless supply of opium and hashish. She was, in fact, exploring her Iranian roots, just not the ones her parents had in mind. They flew her back to San Francisco and enrolled her in an expensive rehab center.
My family had clearly made an impression on Roxanne, because within a few days of being at the rehab center, she escaped from the facility, got on a plane to the east coast, and turned up on my doorstep late one night. I hadn’t met Roxanne yet, but my brother had spoken well of her, so I let her stay with me and my roommate Ivy. Roxanne was beautiful. She was petite, had jet-black hair and dark chocolate colored eyes. She was enamored with the “Western” life I was leading in New Jersey. Her family kept repeating what a “good girl” I was, how I was working to put myself through college, how girls from the Islamic Republic didn’t take their fathers’ money like Iranian-American girls did, etc. — and so she could hardly believe the reality of what she saw. In the daytime, I would take her with me to college, where she would read in the cafeteria till my classes were finished. Then, at night, she would either come to visit me at the bar I worked at where she could drink as much as she wanted. Or, on my days off, we would get dolled up and cruise the bars and clubs in Atlantic City. “Atash,” she’d say, “I feel so close to you. When I look at you I see your brother, but I also think I like you more.” Then Ivy would say, “Whatever you two are smoking, I want some.”
Eventually, Roxanne’s mother’s frequent calls started to get to her. Roxanne was having fun, but she was living someone else’s life. One night she told me, “Atash, you have a future. You do all this bartending to pay for college. You’re going somewhere. Not me. I just work to pay for drugs. My mother’s right: I need to go back to California to sober up.” And that was that. She got on a plane for San Francisco, and when I didn’t hear from her for months. I assumed I’d never see her again. The last thing she said to me before she left, though, was, “Maybe we’ll meet again, Atash. We can open up a business together. With your business degree and my money, we could start the best coffee shop in all of San Francisco. And your brother and me, who knows? We could all be together someday.” She laughed, and we said goodbye.
Bang, a plan was starting to form in my mind. Suppose I called her and asked her if she’d still like to live with my brother and me? We could all live together happily in one house. Somehow the offer seemed natural. Why not? I wouldn’t mind going to California if it would save my brother’s life. Roxanne and he could continue their romance and maybe I could find a better job out west. We could even open up that coffee shop she’d talked about. So I called her. She was so happy to hear from me, and when I told her about my idea, she was completely delighted. “I’m still in love with your brother,” she said shyly. Within half an hour, we had nailed down the details of our plan.
I bought us both round-trip tickets to Turkey because there was no American embassy in Iran, since the revolution, and Turkey was the easiest place to do all the necessary paperwork for an international marriage. My father knew an Iranian man who let us use his apartment in Ankara for a few weeks. Roxanne and I arrived in Ankara on different days. When she arrived at the apartment she jumped into my arms as soon as I opened the door. “You crazy bitch,” she laughed. “We’re really going to do this, huh?”
In the light of the kitchen, though, I saw that she wasn’t doing well. Her lips were almost the same color as the rest of her skin, and there were dark circles under her eyes.
“Can I lie down for a while?” she asked me.
“Of course,” I said. “Take whichever bed you like.”
As soon as she was asleep, the buzzer rang again. I cried as soon as I saw my brother standing in the doorway.
“Is she here?” he asked. I noticed he seemed impatient. He barely made eye contact with me and walked into the apartment looking for Roxanne. That made me sad. It had been six years since we’d seen each other.
“She’s sleeping,” I said, and gestured to him to tiptoe with me into the bedroom to catch a glimpse of his sleeping bride. “You have to kiss her to wake her up from her trance,” I told him.
He frowned. “This isn’t a cartoon,” he said.
I remember that my mother always told me, “You have to take care of your brother. He’s the most important thing in the world to me.” I watched him enter the bedroom and lean over Roxanne.
“Atash,” he said. “I don’t think she’s breathing.”
We both examined her. She seemed lifeless. Her grey complexion and sunken cheeks told us all we needed to know.
“What the fuck are we going to do?” my brother said in a raised voice.
Then Roxanne groaned “I’m not feeling well, I think I’m gonna throw up.”
“Oh, thank God!” I said
“I need stuff. I couldn’t bring it because I was scared of getting arrested, but I need it soon,” she said. I didn’t know what “stuff” was, but my brother held her in his arms and told her he knew exactly what to do. I thought they looked like Layla and Majnun, the boyfriend and girlfriend from my comic books. Only this Layla looked like she might die. I didn’t remember that part of the story. Roxanne was aggressively scratching herself. First her arms, then her head. Soon she was tearing at her flesh begging us to help her. My brother told me that he could handle the situation. I left the bedroom and he locked the door behind me.
The next morning, I woke up to the smell of coffee. Roxanne was looking calmer and was sitting at the kitchen table next to my brother.
“Thank you for planning this, Roxanne,” my brother kept saying, even though I was the one who had planned and paid for everything. Roxanne didn’t seem to hear my brother and was still scratching her skin and shaking large flakes of dandruff from her scalp, though less frantically than the night before. “We’re like the Three Musketeers,” she said, trying to make a joke, but it didn’t really make any sense.
The three of us decided we’d explore Ankara together. Before noon, Roxanne had already started talking about where we could get drugs. We walked around the markets and the side streets for a few hours. It was early afternoon when we returned to the apartment.
A block away from home, we saw a small group of men gathered in a triangular park. “Let’s ask them where we can buy something,” Roxanne said. Before my brother and I had time to stop her, she had left our side and was talking with the men. As we followed her over to the park, one of the men reached into his pocket and pulled something out. At first I thought it would be hashish, but it was a laminated ID card.
I saw his gun and realized he was a cop. All I could think about was that movie, Midnight Express. “Fuck!” I yelled to my brother. “We need to grab her.” We ran towards the man with the gun. “Yavash! Yavash!” we started yelling in Persian. “She’s mentally handicapped!” The cops seemed to understand, and I realized, to my great relief, that the word for “slow” is the same in Turkish as it is Persian, so I started speaking more Persian to the cop.
“I speak English,” he said flatly.
“Okay, sorry,” I said, in English. “Thank you so much for finding her.” Roxanne started making idiot noises, apparently trying to play along.
I don’t know if the cop actually believed us, but he let us go. My brother, who didn’t know any English yet, was in awe.
“We need help,” I said to him when we reached home. “You need to call our father and get him to come here.”
My brother went to make the call while I sat Roxanne down. “This is crazy. You’re going to kick whatever it is you’ve been doing,” I said to her. “Right now. Right here in this house.”
“Okay,” she said finally. I think she also had seen Midnight Express, and the fear was working on her.
When my dad arrived at the arrivals hall at Ankara airport, he was wearing a blazer and chic sunglasses, just as I knew he would. I noticed his hair was thinning on top. “Baba!” I cried, and ran to hug him. He hugged me back fiercely. “Atash,” he said, “Look at you! You’ve become a real woman.”
It was easy to be with my father, but I noticed tension growing under the surface. He asked if we could stop somewhere to eat and grab a beer before going back to our apartment. That was fine by me: I wasn’t eager for my father see Roxanne in the state she was in. We found a bar on our street and I called my brother. He joined us half an hour later, but I realized as soon as I saw him with my father that the two weren’t on speaking terms. They sat on either side of me at the bar, facing forward and talking into the air without turning their heads.
“It’s nice to see him talking,” my father said, still facing forward.
“I’m glad our father could join us,” my brother said, also facing forward.
We ordered beers. We kept drinking and facing forward that way for a while. Then for some reason, we all started laughing about something. Then we ordered more beers. Then we laughed some more. It was very odd. The disconnect between us was being dissolved by the beer and our blood bond, our emotional history. As hard as my dad and my brother tried to ignore each other, the fact that they were sitting adjacent to each other, in a foriegn country, drinking beer was too much for their stubborn defenses to hold. At some point in the evening we remembered that Roxanne was waiting for us in the apartment.
We stumbled home eventually. I fumbled in my purse for the door key. My brother and dad laughed at me as I aimed the key for the hole and missed several times. “Let us do it, Atash,” they said. My father managed to get the lock open, and we all fell into the apartment.
The next day, Roxanne still looked unwell, and the clothes she had been sleeping in made her look even more skinny. “What happened to her?” my father asked. “She looks horrible.”
“She’s been having diarrhea,” I told him. “We ate some bad food. Besides, Baba, we don’t look so great ourselves. Anyway, we have to get to the marriage center to sign the license before it closes. Let’s go.”
I put extra makeup on Roxanne’s face and we were on our way.
“We are going to be sisters.” I said cheerfully trying to take her mind off her pain.
At the center, my father’s mood was bright and purposeful. He navigated Turkish bureaucracy with complete ease, even though he didn’t speak the language — or even any English for that matter. I was impressed. “It’s just like Iran,” he said. “It’s who you know, not who you are.”
The marriage bureau was located in a beautiful Ottoman building right next to a mosque. The man who married my brother and Roxanne had a fat mustache and kept taking drags of a cigarette between reading lines from his official book. Once the procedure was finished, we all looked around and realized we hadn’t brought any wedding presents or sweets, but Roxanne had a pack of cigarettes, so we all smoked together, even my father smoked with us.
After being in Turkey a few weeks, Roxanne seemed to get better, and we actually started to have fun. She and my brother seemed like a couple again, holding hands and kissing in the streets, something you couldn’t do in Iran.
Roxanne and my dad went to the American embassy, presented the marriage certification and fill out the application for green card. Three days! His green card application was accepted and he was going to fly to California to be with his wife. I couldn’t believe he was going to enter the USA with papers when it took me almost seven years to get documentation.
I fulfilled my promise to get him out of Iran, but now I was nervous about what was to come when he arrived in America. Luckily, I had the excuse that I still had one more semester of college to put off joining them. My semester went by quickly, and more and more, I found I could imagine moving to California and starting my business career there. My brother called me to tell me he’d arrived in California sooner than he expected and was very happy with Roxanne. He proceeded to call me every few weeks to give me an update. He didn’t say much about the details of his life there, but he always assured me everything was fine.
Then one evening, he called. “Atash, you have to help me,” he said. “I’m going crazy.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked him.
“Roxanne’s friend. They put LSD in my drinking water. I don’t think they like me. I’ve been tripping for four days without knowing what’s wrong with me. I thought I was dying.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “That’s sort of funny, don’t you think?”
“Atash!” He was really upset. “I hope this never happens to you. I heard every single one of Roxanne’s neighbors to the left and right of us. They were all talking in my head at once. It’s not funny!”
“Okay, okay. I understand. It isn’t funny. I’m coming to California in a few months. I’m going to get my tickets right after graduation and leave New Jersey once and for all. Maybe you could help me to start over in California.”
“You don’t need to come here, Atash. I’ve already bought a plane ticket. I’m coming to stay with you.”
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.