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Short story

By Azin Arefi
August 12, 2002
The Iranian

I came home from my honeymoon with new pictures in the album of my memory. Pictures of history, art, and the appreciation of the labor that turns that history into that art. And I walked into my mother's house after the drive from my honeymoon, my clothes still in the suitcase absorbing the smell of it to retain, as a married woman. It was as if I was stepping into our front room for the first time, as a newcomer. I was now married, had finally joined the secret world of couples.

My grandmother struggled to rise from her usual place in the corner when I walked in. I rushed to her and held her close to my chest.

"How wonderful it is to have you back safe, thanks to God," she said. She peeled me away from herself, her old, warm hands clutching my arms. She stared at me through her thick glasses that hugged her wrinkled cheeks as if she had not seen me in years and was not expecting to see me ever again.

Massoud was still greeting my father when my mother walked in with the tea. I unwrapped the box of noughuts that I had brought back as a present. They all wanted to hear about Isfahan, if Siosepol really did have thirty-three arches as the name implied, if we had visited Chehel Sotoon Palace, with its splendid reflecting pool as its constant companion. I had wondered then if the twenty columns would know how beautiful they really were if they did not have the calm waters of the pool as their mirror.

Now, back in my mother's house, all I wanted was to see my wedding pictures. I wanted to see those pictures, to see if those real photographs matched my memory of that night. The wedding was two weeks ago -- although it seemed much further in the past, and yet I remembered every single minute of it. I remembered the feel of my heavy dress, the weight of my fake eyelashes, the thump thumping of the music that matched the one in my chest. But what about years and years later, when the night was part of history, when it would be a shy memory? I needed the pictures then. So I wanted the pictures now.

When my mother came back into the room with the pastry dish refilled with the round almond biscuits I turned to my husband (I had a husband!) and said, "Massoud, let's go pick up our wedding pictures."

What's the rush, he wanted to know. We had just gotten home. "The tea your mother poured is still warm in my throat. Sit." He turned back to my father and resumed his conversation.

I could see that he was not replaying the smiles, the people, all dressed up, all posing for that click, waiting for that flash, which promised to hold that moment and preserve it. He was in no rush to match his memory with the magic of the camera.

I took another almond biscuit and let it dissolve on my tongue. I don't know why -- I hated that bittersweet taste. Then I thought maybe Massoud found it rude to leave my mother's house when we had only arrived. Was he going to always stay this polite and so considerate, even now that he was like a son? I rolled my tongue over my teeth to loosen the almond paste. Was that why I had married him, because somehow I knew that he was going to always be polite and considerate, even now that he was no longer on display? I reached out and tucked his slightly long hair behind his ear. He glanced at me and smiled, then turned back, all without skipping a word in his conversation. That too was part of his politeness, for I knew I had sent a shiver through his body with the touch of my fingertips.

When the fourth pastry melted in my mouth I told my mother I wanted to go get our pictures.

"Why so soon?" she asked. "Are you not tired from the drive?"

"Have mercy on your husband," my father said. "He just drove all the way from Isfahan."

"Yes, let us look at you longer, my child," my grandmother said. "Let us look at you while we can."
While we can.

I said to my grandmother, "You should come with us, Abba joon! You will enjoy the drive."

"Azizam, you have such high expectations from this old woman," she said. "It has been so long since I have been out of the house, much less driven somewhere."

"What do you mean? It has not been that long," my father said. "It was only a few weeks ago that we drove to Shomal."

"All the more reasons to come out for a drive, Abba joon," I said.

"And how is the orchard?" Massoud asked. "How are the oranges this year?"

The citrus orchard was my father's favorite topic and he never shied away from discussing it. That, and telling stories of historic people.

"She never wants to go anywhere," my mother said. "In the evenings I tell her let's go walk to the park and she says no. She won't even come with me to Omid Agha's store up the street to buy yogurt."

"You should get out more often," Massoud said to my grandmother. "It is good for you to walk."

My grandmother shook her head. "You do not have my bones, any of you. When you are my age they feel different." She looked down at her hands, rubbing her right fingers with her left hand, as if trying to wake them up from their stubborn slumber. As I watched I could feel her frail hands in my own, bone rubbing against fragile bone, and I saw my grandmother's bones -- just bones, no flesh-- disappearing. And I saw, like a snapshot, the corner of our room empty.

I shook the image out of my head and went and squatted down by my grandmother. I scooped her into my arms. She smiled at me from behind her thick glasses and said, "But for my Minoo joon, why not, I'll go."

My grandmother sat in the back as Massoud drove us towards Cheshmak Photography. The bittersweet taste of the almond biscuits tickled my tongue. Once again I was visualizing the pictures -- which one should be enlarged for the Khatam frame I had just bought at Isfahan Bazaar from a man with brown hands. I had wrapped it carefully in yesterday's newspaper. It sat in our suitcase now, taking on the smell of it, like my clothes were doing. Our suitcase, I thought. Massoud's clothes were also in there, their scent mingling with mine. I would smell him on them when I unpacked, like I could smell him in the sheets. I smiled at him. He cocked his eyebrows, as if asking, What is that for? and smiled back.

Cheshmak Photography was located on Seemetry, between a dentist office and a bakery. The red neon sign that displayed the name was on a white background, and next to it were a pair of eyes, one closed, one open. A wink. Cheshmak.

As we turned the corner I saw a building with its roof gone, as if it had gone up in smoke. And it must have, because what was left of the structure was black, charred.

"Oh dear God, look," I pointed. "I think the bakery caught fire."

"Where?" Massoud asked, looking out of the passenger window.

"God have mercy," my grandmother whispered.

We approached the traffic light. It was not the bakery with its roof missing, with its walls of bricks turned to soot and charcoal; it was not the bakery that stood black, in ruins; it was Cheshmak Photography. The neon sign had melted for the most part, but one could still make out the name. It was spared as if to let everyone know exactly what had been and what was no more. The open eye had burned completely but the closed one remained, no longer winking in joy, but turned away in sorrow.

My organs felt too large for my frame and my ears started to ring. I thought I whispered "Oh my God," but I cannot be sure. My pictures, I thought. My wedding pictures. It was not really a thought, made of language, but an image, a scene, of all my pictures in flames, curling brown and black at the edges, and then smoke. Poof. Like a flash.

I could not take my eyes off the rubble. And behind the ringing in my ears I heard honking, at first faint and then louder. Massoud had stopped at the red light, but now it had turned green. Move, they honked at us. Move.

Massoud started driving again. He did not say anything. His face was contorted as if he was concentrating on a convoluted speech. My head was spinning and I felt like vomiting.
"My pictures," I said finally. "Our wedding pictures are all burnt." The tears were waiting for the sound of my voice.

From the backseat my grandmother's hand reached out and landed on my shoulder. I turned and faced her. "My pictures," I said over and over again.

"My child, don't cry. What have you seen of the world yet? Nothing."

Nothing of the world yet.

The pictures of my wedding had gone up in flames and this was nothing yet? I felt kicked in the chest. Massoud took my hand in his. Had he heard my grandmother? Had he heard that this was nothing yet compared to what Life had planned for us? The thought was frightening. It was like a promise of doom. I had finally been admitted to the world of the married, let in on their secret. I knew I was missing something before, knew that I had not figured it all out. I had not realized it the night I got married, nor on my honeymoon, not even when I walked into my parents' house as a married woman.

But I understood it now. I squeezed Massoud's hand. This world, this world of marriage and couples, it was a world where you had a husband whom you loved, and knew exactly why you loved him, which made you know that you would always love him, but that was not all that was to it. It was also a world where your wedding pictures went up in flames and you never got to look at them; and that was nothing compared to what was coming. And it was a world where you had to struggle with yourself not to think that your grandmother -- and dear God, your parents too -- would one day go up, up too and you would not be able to look at them either. There would be so much more to this married life, Abba had promised me that much.

Massoud drove us back home very slowly and I did not stop crying for a long, long time.

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By Azin Arefi

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