Khaaleh (Aunt) Mojdeh came running through the door, all excited.
— “I saw Reza today!” She exclaimed, in response to my mom's inquiring look.
We were sitting in the kitchen, sipping hot tea with sugar cubes. My mom poured another glass for her, and invited her to sit down but Khaaleh Mojdeh couldn't keep still. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes glowed, like she had discovered Uranium or something.
— “Did you hear me? I said I SAW REZA TODAY! After 20 years? Actually saw him…talked to him… Oh my god, I think I'm gonna faint.”
— “Mojdeh jaan beshin, yek chaayee bokhor, rangeh sooratet parideh.” (Dear Mojdeh, sit down, have some tea, you look as if you've seen a ghost).
Finally, after a couple of sips of tea, Khaaleh Mojdeh managed to calm down long enough to tell the story. She had to start at the beginning for me, because I had no idea who this Reza was.
— “I was very young. Maybe 15, maybe less. This was in Iran. (I loved the way she pronounced it Ee-run.) Everyday I would walk home from school and well, we had this neighbor…”
I started giggling. It seemed like all love stories in Iran started with a neighbor.
— “Well, anyway, the neighbor had a son, an only son. He was eighteen at the time, I think. His parents were well off, they could afford to give him violin lessons. They had bought him this beautiful violin and every day, when I came home from school, I would run to my bedroom and listen to him practice. His window was exactly across my bedroom window, and our houses were so close together, I could have practically reached over and poked him on the shoulder.”
My mom shook her head.
— “Ey sheytoon! (Naughty girl!) And we all thought you ran head first to your room because you were so diligent about your homework. Nemidoonam chand dafeh Khanoom Joon gooshaaye mano meegereft, migoft az khaaharet yaad begeer!” (I don't know how many times Dear Mother used to pinch my ear and tell me to be more like my sister!)
But Khaaleh Mojdeh was lost in her own world, twenty years ago.
— “Well, I used to spy on him from behind the curtains. I could watch him at ease from there. He was SO handsome, and so intense. He used to close his eyes while playing. And he played beautifully, this haunting, melancholy melody. The music was enchanting. And little by little, I got bolder. Every day I would take one step away from my hiding place, closer to him.”
— “Mojdeh jaan!” My mom was rolling her eyes, “Daari daastaan tareef mikoni yaa ketaab minevissi?” (Are you telling a story or writing a novel?)
— “Maamaan! Let her tell it the way she wants. This is juicy. Go on Khaaleh joon.”
— “Well… to make a long story short, one day I was so mesmerized by his playing, I forgot to hide completely and just sat there, in full view, my elbows resting on the window sill, my chin in my hands, my eyes closed. I didn't even realize at first that the playing had stopped. When I finally snapped out of my trance and opened my eyes, I realized to my horror that the object of my affection had seen me sitting there. He was staring at me.”
— “Ha! What happened next, who jumped into whose bedroom first?”
— “Niki! Zabooneto gaaz begeer! Een harfhaa chieh? (Niki, bite your tongue! What kind of talk is that?) Those were different times, more pure, more innocent.”
Khaaleh Mojdeh replied testily:
— “Well… Madonna never came to Tehran in those days. anyway! Are you gonna let me tell my story?”
My mom was getting impatient too. She must have heard this story a hundred times.
— “Aye, baabaa, dottaayeetoon mano koshteen? Deh begoo digeh Mojdeh jaan. (You two are killing me, just spit it out Mojdeh jaan.)
Khaaleh Mojdeh took a few other sips of her tea, leaving me in suspense (I guess as a punishment). But fortunately, she went on:
— “For the next week, I didn't dare show my face at the window again. My sweet violinist kept playing and playing, with even more vivacity than before. But I left the curtains closed. I was too ashamed of having been discovered spying on him. Finally, on the seventh day, he didn't play at all. The next afternoon, as I was walking home from school, I saw a figure in the distance, hovering around the entrance to our house. To my horror, I realized it was him! My legs started trembling so hard I thought I would fall. I looked for a way to avoid the situation but there was no way to escape. He was standing right in front of our house! Where could I go? My face felt so hot, I was sure I had turned red as a lobster, which was no mean feat given my dark complexion! The last steps that separated me from him were torture. What would he do? What would he say?” Well, I guess he was as nervous as me, because when I finally got to him, he couldn't lift his eyes from the ground.”
— “So he didn't say anything?”
— “Cheraa. He did speak up at last. He asked me whether I liked Beethoven! Apparently, this was what he had been playing all those afternoons. We introduced ourselves and he said that if I liked to listen, he would be practicing that very day. So of course I ran to my bedroom and opened the curtains for the first time since Reza had uncovered my secret.”
Khaaleh Mojdeh giggled. She looked so girlish at that moment. I was beaming, waiting anxiously for the resolution of the story.
— “Well, let's just say for the next couple of months, Reza's practicing got a bit negligent. We spent our afternoons chatting, getting to know each other from across our windows. At first, we were both really shy. But gradually, the ice was broken. We laughed together, flirted with each other. We told each other about our families, our friends. We were falling in love. But one day, the jig was up. Reza's mom had a mehmooni (party) and decided to show off her son's violin skills in front of all the guests. Poor Reza! He hadn't practiced for so long! He kept making mistakes, which totally embarrassed his parents in front of everyone. After the guests left, there was a big row, and they finally got him to confess as to what, or rather who, had been distracting him! Now it was his turn to keep his curtains closed. I later found out his mom had forbidden him from seeing me again and was forcing him to stay downstairs in the living room, where she could keep an eye on him.?
— “And you never saw him again?”
— “Waaiiiit!!! No, the story is not nearly over. Niki, you don't understand the strength of first love. It can move mountains! Reza stood up to his parents. First of all, he refused to practice his violin. He quit altogether, even though he had a true passion for it. He would sit around the house, sulking, refusing to eat. His schoolwork suffered, and his health was beginning to deteriorate. I was heartbroken too, but I couldn't talk about it at home either. We surreptitiously wrote each other these steamy love letters, which we would throw across from our windows in the middle of the night, when everybody was sleeping. This went on for a while until finally, one day, his mom found my stack of letters under his mattress.?
— “Ouch! Was it World War III?”
— “You bet! I could hear them screaming all the way from under my bedcovers, where I had taken refuge, shaking and sobbing. I didn't hear from him again for days until finally, one afternoon, Khaanoom and Aghaa joon summoned your uncles, your mom and me to the living room for a family meeting.”
My mom exclaimed:
— “Aakh, aakh, I remember that day. Aghaa joon en ghad akhmaash too ham bood! (Father was so grim-faced.) I was shaking with fear, thinking I had gotten in some kind of trouble. But of course it was all your fault, sheytoon!”
Khaaleh Mojdeh laughed. I was on the edge of my seat:
— “Soooo… What happened?”
— “Well? It seemed that Reza's family had contacted my parents. They had asked to come over for…”
— “Nooo… way? Don't say it!”
— “Yup! They were coming for khaastegaari!? (To ask my hand in marriage for their son)
— “But you were only fifteen! And he was a baby too!”
— “I know! Not to mention I was the youngest child of the household and none of my siblings had married. Hence the scowl on my father's face. He didn't want to go through with it, but Khaanoom Joon convinced him that it would be dishonoring Reza's parents, and that we had to show respect for our neighbors”
— “What a stupid reason!”
— “Well, my dear Westernized Niki, your grandmother came from a different generation, when those things were the norm.”
My mom agreed.
— “Yes Niki, don't be so judgmental. You know your grandparents met on the day of their wedding. And Khanoom Joon was probably a very young bride.”
— “All right, all right, I get it. So, go on. What happened?”
— “The date was set for the following week. I was so nervous and felt nauseous the whole time leading up to that fateful day. As you know, it was my duty, as the prospective bride, to serve everyone tea and shirnee (pastries). All these nightmarish thoughts followed me around, like I would trip at the crucial moment and spill the hot steaming tea down my future mother-in-law's shirt or something! It was nerve-wracking. And I hadn't seen Reza in so long! I thought maybe I looked different, maybe he wouldn't like me anymore once he took a look at me.”
My mom burst out laughing:
— “Ha! Puh-leeze! You were the personification of that saying, 'love is blind'.”
— “Maamaan!,” I exclaimed, blushing, “Khaaleh Mojdeh is beautiful. Reza kheili delesh bekhaad.” (Aunt Mojdeh is beautiful. Reza should be so lucky).
— “Awww that's very sweet to come to my defense Niki joon, but your mom is right. I was, shall we say, going through an awkward stage. I was very skinny, too skinny. All bones. And tiny. My complexion was much darker than it is now, being under the hot Tehran sun all day. And to top it all off, Khaanoom Joon was adamant about keeping my hair short like a boy because she was so terrified of those stories going around Tehran at the time about girls being stopped in the street for having their hair show from under the veil and taken to jail where god knows what would happen to them. Those days were… you know…”
— “Yeah, you told me, 'innocent and pure'?”
— “anyway, D-Day came and Reza showed up with his family. He had his mom, his dad, his two older sisters, his uncle…”
— “Wow, didn't they think to invite the baghaal-eh sar-eh koocheh ?” (…the grocer from around the corner).
— “Niki, you wanna hear the story or not?”
— “Yeeeessss, Khaaleh joon?”
— “I could hear them in the living room and my heart was beating so fast. I was in the kitchen, pouring the tea, getting my tray ready. I had practiced carrying that damn tray for the past few days with as much intensity as Reza had put into his Beethoven!”
— “Yeah, and I kept sneaking up behind you and shouting BOO to make you drop it!” My mom laughed.
— “Yeah I remember you little pest!” Khaaleh Mojdeh continued, casting a “left-left” glance at her sister. “So the moment had come. I gathered all my courage, took a deep breath, and carried the tray gracefully to the living-room. I don't remember any of those faces sitting around the coffee table that day. Not even Reza's. Though I could feel his eyes glued to me, and it was all I could do to retain my composure. But I succeeded! Didn't trip or anything. After it was done, I went out of the room but left the door slightly ajar. I wanted to hear their reaction.”
— “Hamisheh jaassousse!” (Always the spy!), interrupted my mom with a chuckle.
— “Yeah well you would have done the same if you were me. Anyway, at first, all I could hear was the sound of those jaws masticating on the various fruit and aajeel and pastries. Then, after a few moments, Reza's mom asked my mom: 'Khob, Khaanoom, Arousse Khaanoomo pass key bebinim?' (So, Madam, when are we gonna get to see the bride-to-be?) I could sense my mother's hesitation at this odd question. But she finally replied: 'Arousse khaanoomo ke dideen, hamin allaan oomad chaayee o shirnee ro taarof kard.' (You have already seen the bride-to-be, she just served the tea and pastries.) There was a slight pause after this exchange and I strained my ear to hear what would happen next. Well, I didn't need to strain anything. The next words out of my future mother-in-law's mouth were uttered in a loud and distinct voice: 'Arousse khaanoom ki bood? Oon sousskeh siaa-soukhteh?” (Who did you say the bride-to-be was? That black cockroach?)
I nearly fell off my chair:
— “Oh my god, Khaaleh joon, you are lying! That old witch didn't dare… Did she?”
Khaaleh joon sighed while my mom was poofing behind her hand.
— “What seemed like an eternal pause followed that exclamation. The jaws had stopped masticating. It was complete, dead silence. Then the explosion. Reza's mom and Khaanoom Joon exchanged a few choice words and before I knew it, they had all gotten up and left.”
— “And that was the end of the story?”
— “No? A few days after that disaster, Reza was standing at my school's entrance, waiting for me to be let out, I guess. He looked terrible. He had lost weight and his eyes were blood red like he had been crying for a long time. I must have looked about the same. He told me that he loved me and that he had told his parents he would kill himself if they didn't let him marry me. Even though it was a big risk at that time, he walked me home. I was so scared, not so much from getting caught by the police, but at the thought of Agha Joon catching sight of us perchance. When Reza left me at my gate, he made me promise I would speak to my parents and threaten the same thing to them so they would give in too, and we could be together.”
— “Did you?”
— “Oh Niki, I was a fifteen-year-old girl. I was in love. But I could never tell such a horrible thing to my parents. I would never have dared. I did try, however, to get Khaanoom Joon on my side. I lied to her and told her how Reza's mom had repented and was deeply ashamed at her actions, and she was asking at a chance for forgiveness, for the sake of our happiness. Khaanoom Joon at this point hated her neighbour with a vengeance. God rest her soul, she watched over her children like a tigress and could not heed anyone daring to badmouth them. But she also had a soft side when it came to love stories. So she agreed to talk to my dad. Unfortunately, Aghaa Joon, who had been against this whole mess from day one, exploded. I was so scared. Never before had I seen him so much as raising his voice at my mom. And this time, he was shouting, even cursing. It was a lost cause. Oh Niki… For so many days, Reza waited and waited for my response, for a hint. He had even taken up playing the violin again, hoping to lure me to my window. But I was terrified and kept my curtains shut, even though my heart was breaking. Finally one day, the violin stopped.”
— “Oh my god, did he? Did he kill himself?”
Khaaleh joon bit her hand.
— “Niki, zaboonetto gaaz begeer, in harfhaa chieh? (You nitwit, of course not!) Didn't I tell you when I came in the door that I had just seen Reza after 20 years?”
— “Oh yeah, sorry I forgot how this story even got started.”
— “The violin stopped because the violinist left the house. I found out later that his parents had offered to send him abroad to study, and he accepted. I never saw him again until today.”
— “Where DID you see him?”
— “Hehehe, the most unromantic of places to finish off the biggest romance of my life. I saw him in the supermarket just now, in the breakfast cereal aisle.”
All three of us started laughing.
— “Shookhi mikoni? (You're kidding?) What the heck was he doing there?”
— “What can I tell you Niki, it's a small world. Turns out we started as neighbours, and we will probably finish as neighbours. He moved to our town about six months ago. With his family. He was holding a little four-year-old boy by the hand when I bumped into him.”
— “Wow? Was it awkward?”
— “I don't know, somewhat I guess. But we decided to go for a coffee. I showed him my wallet pictures of your uncle Mehran, and your cousins Mina and Mehdi. He showed me his family photos. His wife is beautiful, an American. They met in college, soon after he left Iran, and they married after graduation.”
— “Do you think you'll see him again?”
— “Well of course we exchanged numbers and emails. And we did the usual taarof about inviting both
families for dinner sometime in the future. But I think we both know deep down that neither of us will ever take that step. It's just… You can't relive the past, you know?”
— “I understand. It's a shame.”
— “You know the last thing Reza said to me Niki?”
— “No, what?”
— “I asked him if he still played the violin as beautifully. He smiled. A bittersweet smile. 'Na Mojdeh Joon,' he said softly, 'I gave it up. Long time ago.' Then he turned around and walked away, hand in hand with his little boy. I soon lost sight of them in the crowd.”