“Good news. You’re accepting?”
“I just decided to accept, to be with you longer,” he says. “I made a reservation at Ramsar for Saturday night. To celebrate the renewal.”
“I don’t know if we should go out.”
“You can wear your green contact lenses and hold your chador tightly around you. Anyway the restaurant is far out of town.”
“Is Sophia going to stay on in Moscow?”
“She wants to. The children are in the middle of school, her mother is sick.”3He seems tense. I shouldn’t have brought up his wife. He takes out a cigar and a lighter from his jacket pocket and begins to smoke. The smoke curls upward, travels towards the window, and goes out into the air. His blue eyes, ruddy face, are cloudy behind the haze of smoke, making him seem even more mysterious than usual.
“My children think their mother is perfect,” he says. “What do they know at that age?” After a pause, he adds, “I can’t say I don’t love Sophia, but by now we’re more like brother and sister.”4Raw, confused emotions shoot up through me. “You could find a woman of your own….” I’m not sure how to put it. I want to say “class” because of his polished way of dressing and acting but I say, “Your own education.”
“You know a lot about life,” he says.
After we’re finished eating he takes my hand and leads me to the bed on the other side of the room. I remove the hand-woven bedspread, an item from my previous life, we take our clothes off and get under the sheet.
He is in a rush. After quick sex he gets up and begins to put his clothes back on. “I have to do more work tonight,” he says. “See you Saturday.”5After he leaves, the scent of his cologne lingers in the room, clings to my clothes, filling me with self-loathing. I wasn’t brought up to have sex with a man outside of wedlock, much less for money. I wasn’t raised to even enjoy sex. I go to the bathroom, take a warm shower, my mind focused on how to rescue myself from this life. I must look for a job again. Have to try. 6I wake in the middle of the night to loud noises—conversation, footsteps—in the corridor, the guests coming to their rooms from outside. From my spot, through the window, I can see the sky, powdery with innumerable stars, and recall a walk with Ali under a similar sky. That was at the beginning when things were good between us. I told him I liked the sky because it brings you light if you wait long enough. Even when it’s covered by ominous dark clouds, you can expect light to break out at some point. My mind fills with memories of those good early days of my marriage, when Ali and I were in love, before everything became ugly. I wanted so much to share my life with him, the thin, tall, handsome boy in our neighborhood in Karaj. He was a few years older than me and was going to engineering school. He put letters in my hand on the street as I was walking home from high school. How did all the trouble begin, I can’t stop asking myself. Was he doomed by his upbringing? Of course some of it had to do with the hardship we were facing, having gone against our parents’ wills marrying each other, rather than spouses they would choose for us. We didn’t have the moral or financial support that we needed. Ali was forced to drop out of school and work—as a chef, a taxi driver. I had to leave high school and take on lowly jobs, mainly cleaning houses and then sewing at a factory. 7At the factory, every day I sat in a grimy, stifling, windowless upstairs loft, straining my eyes sewing, the only source of light being the naked bulbs hanging from the ceiling. I commiserated with Farzaneh, a girl as young as myself, as we sewed endless buttonholes on shirts. She had lost her husband in war and was practically destitute. But sometimes arguments broke out between the women sitting around us, just out of frustration. “This is mine.” “You took it on purpose.” “I’m going to report you.” “Go right ahead.” If Hassan, the owner-manager, walked in, a sudden hush fell over the room; no one actually complained to him about another co-worker. As women we were still closer to each other than to him, tried to protect each other. 8How many times did Ali say, “So this is what our life has come to, this ugly apartment, these meaningless jobs.” Then he started pressuring me to have children. Lying in bed next to me, night after night, he whispered, “Honey, let’s make a baby.” Every time he said that, I thought of my mother always pregnant, uncomfortable and sweating, walking around our outlandish, half-dilapidated house, followed by children. Wiggling, whimpering, sticky-faced children, each wanting something from her. Whenever she said to Father, “We need to take care of the chipping stairway,” or “We need a new roof,” he said, “We have all these children to feed.” He said that in a scolding tone as if Mother were the one responsible for having the children. They couldn’t even drum up enough love for all of us. So I always said to Ali, “We have to wait, we can’t bring a child into this world when our own lives are so hard.” 9Gradually nothing was left of the man who had gone against tradition for my sake. In fact, he reverted to the way he had been raised—dictatorial, demanding. He started going out with his friends in the evening, leaving me at home. He was upset when he caught me going out. “You don’t want children so that you can run around doing who knows what,” he accused me. Once coming home after work he looked at the pillows on our bed and said, “Who slept on those since this morning?” He suddenly slapped me. I ran out of the room and locked myself in the bathroom. I stayed there until the storm passed and he came to the door and apologized. But he had more outbursts. When I asked for a divorce, he shouted, “It’s up to me to give you a divorce if I want to.” Then he locked me up in a room with no food for two days. 10I felt an urgency to be anyone but this person trapped with Ali. I imagined myself in a different body with a different heart. Finally I just left Ali. When he was at work, I packed a few of my belongings, got onto a bus and came to Tehran. I stayed in a cheap hotel by the station, using the money from my last paycheck, and looked for a job. But in this city filled with men coming from all over the country, willing to take anything, I was totally out of luck. Who wanted to give a job to a woman when there were all those men who were willing to take it? 11As I kept looking in newspapers I came across a little write-up about the Home for Runaway Girls. I went there asking for shelter.
All the girls staying there were like me, under nineteen, escaping from bad situations. There were fifteen of us crammed into an ornate house, trapped in all the collective pain, fear, anxiety, longing. During the day we had various tasks: cleaning, cooking, baking. The Head Mother made us pray four times a day. She sat in front of us in a room while we repeated Surehs after her.
Nothing on the earth is hidden from Allah.
Those who disobey Him will be doomed to
heavy punishment. He is forgiving of those who repent.
She forced us to confess our sins to her in private sessions and then repent by spending many days alone in the damp basement. Once I confessed to having held hands with Ali, letting him kiss me, before marriage. She banished me to the basement for a week.12At night we rolled out mattresses, several in each room, to sleep on. I slept next to Khadijeh, the girl I felt most connected with. She had run away because her brother beat her up regularly after he had caught her going out with a boy. I had nightmares every night, which I forgot when I woke but left me with an ashen taste in my mouth, a terrible headache. I often found Khadijeh awake also. As nocturnal insects carried on, and the paralyzed girl living with her family in the house across the street sang a melancholy tune, Khadijeh and I whispered our problems to each other. Our complaints went beyond our own individual wretchedness. We recounted all the other misery that went on around us: wives killed by their husbands, sisters by their brothers, husbands taking on second, third wives.
Then there came that morning when I left to go out for a walk alone, something that was forbidden to us. I dared to leave because the Head Mother was ill and sleeping and no one else was there to watch us as closely as she did.13Outside, the city was waking up—traffic raced by, muezzins were calling people to prayers, the sweepers were cleaning the ground. Shop keepers were opening up; some threw buckets of water on the sidewalks in front of their stores. Sparrows chirped in tree branches. Two cats with pretty, motley fur played in an alley, chased each other. The sky was a spotless, pale blue, not darkened yet by the pollution that settles on the city from the middle of the day on. I said to myself, the world can be beautiful, but that thought only pushed me into deeper despair. My own life was so devoid of beauty. When I reached Melat Park, I sat on a bench to rest. Several girls about my age or a little older, all covered up in chadors or roupushes, were sitting on another bench along with boys. Then they suddenly got up and dispersed. They must have seen the moral police peeking into the park, on the lookout for girls doing something “sinful,” indulging in a “vice.” I thought to myself then, there is a force fighting against anything beautiful and pleasurable. I started crying. 14I heard someone ask, in broken Farsi, “Is something wrong?” I looked up. A foreign-looking man with blond hair and pale blue eyes, dressed in a suit, was standing in front of me. His being foreign made it easy for me to tell him what was weighing on my heart.
“Oh, poor girl,” he said and sat next to me. “I have my problems too. For one thing I can’t face going to work today.” He asked me my name and, for his, said, “Just call me Moscow.”15A gypsy woman stopped by us, hawking flowers. He bought me a bouquet. After the woman left, he said, “You’re a pretty girl, and thoughtful too, you deserve better.” Then one thing led to another. 16When I wake up again, the morning light is pouring into the room. I get dressed, have a quick breakfast, and leave for the Bahar Employment Agency. I insert the green contact lenses in my eyes and put on my dark chador. I take the usually empty back alleys to the agency. Walking on these intricate, narrow, curving alleys I have the feeling that my life is like that, a maze. One wrong turn will lengthen my journey or make me utterly lost. When I reach Ferdowsi Square, which I was hoping to bypass quickly, my way is blocked by a crowd of demonstrators, all men. They are shouting, “Death to America, the great Satan.” What they gain by hating America is beyond me. 17I come onto the wide avenue where the agency is located. The air here, at the foothills of the Alburz Mountains, is fresher, less polluted. Clear water flows in the wide joob.
Inside of the agency I find many men and women sitting on chairs and a sofa, waiting. I fill out some forms and give them to a clerk sitting behind a desk in one of the cubicles. After about an hour he calls me over. “I don’t see any openings. Come back in a few days.”18I go to another agency, and another. They are repetitions of the first, like images from a nightmare. Finally, exhausted, I decide to take the bus back even though I am afraid that being in a public facility would make it easier for Ali or someone related to him to identify me. True, Karaj is two hours away, but I know Ali has many acquaintances in Tehran and he himself may still be coming to Tehran to search for me. 19Walking towards the bus stop, I see a shadow following me. Then someone is beside me. I furtively look and see only a beggar woman, in a long garment and a tattered kerchief.
“Please spare me some change, my children are hungry,” she says in a high, plaintive voice.
I put a few coins on the palm of her hand.
“Dear lady, are you from Karaj? Once I had a home there… I think I saw you around.”
I give her a few more coins and hop on the bus that stops just then, feeling uneasy about the encounter. She looked familiar. She said she had lived in Karaj, said she had seen me there. As I take a seat all the way in the back, the space allotted to women, my bitterness springs up.20I get out of the bus a block from the hotel’s narrow street. The lobby, as I enter, is bustling with people coming and going, many of them foreign, some there for a night or two, others like me staying for longer periods. In my room I read poems from a book I keep by the side of my bed. One I read over and over:
What are you saying?
How can there be nectar in the juice
These are tears,
tears of the old, suffering maid…
Where is the nectar? This is blood
the blood of the old, suffering maid.
I don’t even want to be with Moscow for much longer and yet I dread being on my own, with the limited options I have.22At Ramsar, Moscow and I sit at a table in a dark corner all the way in the back. I ask him about the city, Moscow, where he grew up. But as usual he doesn’t give me any more details than I already know. “Yes, there are skyscrapers, highways like in America,” he says. “But with none of the money and wastefulness of America.” He has a straightforward, transparent manner tonight and I think maybe I can finally see through him—how does he really feel about me, or about his wife. But the more I look the less I see. 23The waiter comes over and we order fish. Moscow asks him if they serve wine. The waiter whispers, “Yes.” Moscow orders a bottle and the waiter leaves. Then he whispers to me, “They must be paying the police to look away.”
The wine quickly goes to my head, not being used to it. I ask Moscow, “How do you explain me to yourself?”
“Oh, Miss Moral Police!” is all he says. He takes quick gulps from his glass. In a moment he leans over and says, “I want you to open up to me more tonight… I mean, you know…”
“Oh, stop,” I say.
“Didn’t you tell me Allah left Tehran to avoid the mullahs!” he says in a jesting tone. “Even Allah doesn’t like them.”24Soon after dessert, he pays and we leave. He drives us back speedily, crazily. He parks his car at the beginning of the small street of the hotel and we begin to walk, with him separate from me (an agreement we have, so that no one sees we are together). As I come close to the hotel, in the blinking light of the star-shaped neon sign above its canopy, I make out a man standing by the door, looking up and down the street. My heart sinks, recognizing Ali.
I turn around and say to Moscow, who is steps behind me, “Let’s go back to the car, Ali’s standing by the hotel’s door.”25But just then Ali walks rapidly toward us, his face flushed, his eyes glaring with fury. “Who is this man?” he asks me, grabbing my arm.
“Get away from me,” I say, freeing myself from his grasp.
“Leave her alone,” Moscow says.
Ali punches Moscow’s face.
Moscow clenches his fist and hits Ali hard on his chest.
“I’ll kill you if I ever catch you with her again,” Ali threatens and punches Moscow again. “I can get you thrown into jail.”
I grab Ali’s arm and try to pull him away from Moscow. But Ali breaks away from me and he and Moscow keep punching each other. Ali’s nose is all bloody. Moscow has scratch marks on his face. They are doing that silently, as if they have no words to convey what they are feeling. I keep shouting, stop, stop, but they continue to punch each other.26Two men passing by stop by us and try to pull them apart. One holds Ali and the other Moscow.
“You’re killing each other,” one of them says.
“Never fight over a woman,” the other says, looking at me with derision.
Ali shouts at Moscow, “Go away now, scum.” Turning to me he says, “Get inside and start packing, I’m taking you back. If I report you to the authorities, you know what that means for you…”
“Please leave now,” I say to Moscow.
“Are you safe with him?” Moscow asks.
“I can handle him,” I say.27Moscow looks more remote than ever as if standing behind a translucent screen. Suddenly I see him as a pathetic middle-aged man in a suit that, though expensive, hangs on him in an unflattering way. His aura of self-confidence has collapsed and he looks timid. His offer to help seems insincere.
“Let me go,” he says to the man who is still holding his arm tightly. The man loosens his grip. As Moscow walks towards his car, dragging his hulking body, I know it is all over between us, even if he tries to get me back.
The two men who had intervened walk away too.
“I have the right to kill you,” Ali says to me but his voice is cracking with a weakness underneath, and I can hear the part of him that I had liked at the beginning.
“I’m not going back to that life. How did you find me anyway?”
“I have ways… My cousin saw you going to the bus stop.”
“I thought that beggar looked familiar,” I said, hearing a tremor in my own voice.28He grabs my arm. “Come back to me, we’ll do things differently. I already started something I like. Haydar and I are running a fruit store, he puts in the capital and I do most of the work… .” He looks at me longingly.
At this moment he has that sensitive look he used to have when I just met him. But can I trust him again? I know deep in my heart that I can’t, that the violent side of him will take over. He will lock me up, maybe for a longer time… I pull away from Ali, run inside the hotel and up the stairs to my room. Before I shut the door I hear Ali shouting, “I’m going to take you back, by force if I have to.”29I lock the door and even the window and sit, stiff with fear, on a chair. In a moment he is knocking on the door. I ignore him and call the lobby. “Someone I don’t know is trying to get into my room,” I tell the clerk.
“I’ll send the porters up.”
The porters are there quickly. Ali is saying, in a pent-up voice, “She’s my wife, I have a right to take her back.”
“We’ll call the police if you don’t cooperate,” one of the porters says. I hear Ali repeating “She’s my wife,” as they take him away. Then there is silence, emptiness.30To make my story short, I have found a way out of the darkness of my existence. I have become a boy. I’ve cut my hair very short and every day, before I leave this rented room at the outskirts of Tehran, I draw a faint mustache on my face with a fine dark pen. I wear baggy shirts and trousers and put on a cap. I have a job, as an apprentice to a carpenter. As a boy I have opportunities and a freedom I have never experienced before.
Special Copyright Notice
“I Became A Boy” was printed with permission by the author, Nahid Rachlin. Copyright © 2018 by Nahid Rachlin.
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