By Jasmin Darznik
When Father drove you to the airport that day he'd said, "Leily, you lost your mother a long time ago and now, when you are in America, you will have to be a father to yourself, too." There were deep circles under his eyes from nights spent worrying about every last detail of your departure. You had smiled and lifted your hand to caress his stubbly cheek. You were about to say, "Yes, Baba joon," when he squeezed your shoulder tightly, not enough to really hurt but enough to take the smile off your face. He said, "You know what I am talking about, yes? You must not give yourself to anyone."
You knew. You had always known. It might take the rest of your life to forget.
For those first several months in America you go straight from classes to the library to your dorm room. You quicken your steps and mince your words, and you only look at people when you think they won't catch you. Other students, suspecting you are new there and also a foreign student, extend well-meaning invitations to the local bars, discotheques, and fraternity parties. But the word you know best in English and also in your own language, the one that has always come most readily to your lips, is "No," and each time they ask, you smile what you think is a confident, self-possessing smile and tell them, "No."
Alone in your dorm room your hand curves eagerly into your familiar Persian handwriting, which is so much more beautiful than the stocky, clumsy English letters you carried here straight from your old classrooms in Iran. You tell your father about your professors, your courses, and, without fail, about missing him and your Aunt Katayoon and everyone else back home. "I don't know if I should have come," you write in your first letter to him and in many others after that one.
You unfurl the small Persian carpet you brought with you in a suitcase, and sit cross-legged in the center of it, sobbing for what seem like hours each night. The loneliness might break you, or lead you back home--you cannot know which yet.
You imagine your father back in Iran, living alone now in the rooms the two of you had shared. You picture him shuffling to the kitchen in his weathered leather slippers to make his own breakfast. Every morning since your mother's death you had made him his tea and set it out for him with bread and cheese. When guests came to visit, your father would tousle your hair and joke that he could not wish for a better wife than his daughter had grown up to be. Now he's keeping your room for when you finish your studies and return to him.
What happens next was not supposed to happen to you. An Iranian maybe, a nice Iranian boy from a "good" family, but not this American, Mark, with his carefree smile and casual manner. He's several years older than you, a graduate student at the same university, but standing side by side it is you, the nineteen year-old, who appear serious and severe. Maybe you fall in love with his playfulness. Or maybe you fall in love with the way he looks at you. When he takes you in with his eyes, you think what he searches for is also what you hope to find in yourself: courage, desire, joy. You think he will force to the surface what you hide even from yourself.
And so slowly, timidly you give yourself to someone who you think cannot possibly fathom your culture and your past, nor the enormity of the gesture for a girl like you.
"God, is this how all the girls are in Iran?" he will ask, exasperated by the limits that you for weeks and months impose on his desires and your own. "It must be hard work keeping beautiful girls this innocent."
"I'm not all the girls in Iran. I'm not innocent."
You are innocent, but you're also increasingly eager to rid yourself of the status. You cringe when he talks this way about Iranian girls or when he teasingly calls you his very own Persian princess. But not all of these American men would be so patient, you think to yourself. Really, you should be grateful.
With time, he starts spending the night--just a few days of the week at first, but eventually most all nights. You are enraptured by the novelty and strangeness of the situation and find yourself more than a little thrilled by your own daring. With him you will shed your shy self and learn to laugh with the same youthful abandon as the American girls who surround you. Or so you believe. You follow him everywhere. You make no other friends. You mistake the anticipation of love for love itself. Your double-life begins.
You call your father every Saturday morning after your boyfriend leaves to go for a run. Sometimes, though, he will sleep in and you'll have to stretch the telephone chord all the way to the bathroom, lock the door, run the water full blast, and call home from there.
"Yes, everything's fine. . .I'm fine. . ."
Your father says, "You must not shame me, Leily. You are not like the American girls. I did not raise you that way."
You keep the phone calls a secret from your boyfriend, and you keep your boyfriend a secret from your father. After these furtive exchanges you step under a stream of water so hot it nearly scalds your skin. You wish you could deafen your ears to your father's voice and then, maybe then, strip your body clean of its shame and even the memory of shame.
You think of your mother, married at seventeen and a mother at eighteen. You remember her selfless preoccupations and devotions, the slight sadness that always hung about her but that never, so far as you knew, edged into resentment. What would she say to you now, you with your American boyfriend and your equal parts defiance and trepidation?
One day, when you are lying side by side, your boyfriend traces his fingers down the length of your forearm. His fingers rest on the raised scar on your skin. You jerk away instinctively, startling him with your own surprise.
"What's this from?" he asks.
"Oh, that. It was an accident."
"What kind of accident?" You prepare yourself to lie, but the look in his eyes makes you want to tell the truth this time. The story spills out: A boyfriend in high school, yes, back in Iran, a diary you'd laid out carelessly and that your father had picked up and read, your father's blind rage at discovering the secrets you kept from him. Curious that the scar had never healed. But he hadn't really meant to hurt you, it was just that he was so angry. He'd only wanted to protect you.
"I still love my father," you say wearily, looking away.
"But how could you love someone who did this to you?"
You sigh. "It's not that simple."
"It should be."
You choose not to answer. You cling to your despair and have little interest in truth or your boyfriend's simple answers. Every day you pull more of yourself away. You hear him less and less when he speaks to you. You wrestle yourself free from his embraces. The nightmares start coming, and you refuse to let him touch you, not even to hold you. You hardly eat anymore. You can barely concentrate on your studies. For weeks, you brush aside his concerns and tell him over and over that he cannot understand.
"It's me," you tell him one night, breaking your silence and holding your voice steady for maybe the first time in your life. "I need something that I can't ask you to give me." You look at him then and you also say, "It's not your fault."
He starts towards you. "Don't you love me? Or is that not allowed in your country either?"
If it were so, if you did love him, you like to think you would spring up and take his face in both your hands and tell him a breathless yes, and the devil may care about what's allowed and what's not. But you do not love him. You know. For this reason you won't let your legs to carry you those three or four steps it would take to collapse into his arms.
He's standing over you, glaring, and you are tracing the patterns on your small Persian carpet with your eyes.
"So you can't even answer me? Is that right?"
The tone of his voice tells you that if he were your father, or a man like your father, he would strike you across the face at this moment. But he is not.
He picks up his jacket, slowly and without another word, and you watch as he lets himself out.
Alone now, your head is splitting with pain and you yearn to curl into yourself and sleep yourself into oblivion.
But instead you rise to walk the length of your carpet. Back and forth, back and forth. Your only place on this earth might be this one tiny room, and this carpet may be the only field you ever let yourself roam.
But then, just as suddenly as you stood, you are kneeling down, tears streaming down your face, and you are rolling that carpet into a tight, thick roll as if you'd known all along you must do so. You drag it to the furthest corner of your closet and slam the door shut. In time you will put a different kind of distance between yourself and your past. But for now you race down the stairwell, slip out into the empty street, and breathe in through your tears.
Tonight you begin by choosing the open air.
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