A winter’s night

It was a birthday party at my work. One of those parties where we just gather to have a piece of cake and a break. It was one of those cakes that look delicious but are so sweet that I can never have more than a couple of bites.

We sang the birthday song, cut the cake into generous pieces and luckily I had the camera with me to take photos. Taking the photos for me was the best part. I could send them to my mum and dad so that they could have a picture of my colleagues whom I talk about so often.

Birthday parties are never that eventful and people normally just come by out of the politeness to say happy birthday, and to eat a piece of cake. But the fact that it breaks the normal routine of my humping behind my computer cheers me up!

I was happily singing when I returned to my desk, jumped on my big chair and tried to resume my work but there was a mysterious force in the air. A force that made me go to my mailbox, despite the fact that I was behind with my work. I told myself “Hey dude, you sure do not want to miss your Italian class, do you? So, be a good girl and finish your work!? Yet the force was stronger than me and I opened my mailbox.

Surprisingly there was only one new email from an old friend of mine. We knew each other from back home, when I was a freshman and he was a junior in the same school. He was a brilliant, fun guy studying medicine and had a passion for literature. And it was this passion that became our starting point.

I met him on a trip with a bunch of mutual friends. One of those trips to the green, green north of Iran where you gather round the fire at night and have intellectual conversations. You talk about politics, the latest book that you have read and your favorite poet, and sing songs together around the fire which lights up the faces around it in red and orange colors. These are evenings where memories of the songs, voices, talks, and faces around the fire stay with you for life.

He was one of the people that I discovered round the fire. His solid voice in talking about Italo Calvino book, “If on a Winter's Night a Traveler”, drew my attention. We talked about life, our dreams and goals. Goals that seemed so vivid, tangible and attainable then, when we were not even in our twenties yet.

The memory of our time together stayed with me until years later when I saw him again in this foreign land with the same eyes and bright smile. Looking directly at me and asking that famous old question “Remember 'If on a Winter's Night a Traveler'?” I laughed and saw that face from so many years ago. It looked just the same but without the orange and red reflection from the fire.

He came to US two years ago. At the beginning we were in constant touch but as things started rolling for him, we were both so busy that although we were lucky enough to live in the same state, we hardly got the chance of talking to each other, let alone getting together and talking face to face. But then that's just life in US as we all know.

Anyway, with all these memories marching before my eyes, I opened the email and read it. For five minutes my mind was blank. My brain had stopped to function. As soon as I could move the muscles of my mouth, my first reaction was whispering loud: No, it is impossible. A few minutes later, the tears found their way and came down my cheeks although I was constantly repeating to myself: No, this can't be true. I read his email two, three times, with tears falling on my keyboard:

Dooste aziz,

Dar haftomin rooz e faraaghe maadare azizam, be taarikhe Shanbe, April… baraabar baa… Ordibehesht az saate 9-11 am Pacific time barabar ba 6-8 pm Europe time va 12-2 pm Eastern time va 8.30-10.30 pm Tehran time, man baraay e deidaar-e shomaa online khaaham bood.

As didane shomaa khoshaal khaaham shod.

My Yahoo ID: xx@yahoo.com

Motshakeram.

XXXX

(Dear Friend,

To commemorate the seventh day of the death of my mother, on Saturday, April…, I will be online from 9:00-11:00 am PST, which is 6-8 pm Europe time and 12-2 pm EST and 8:30-10:30 pm Tehran Time.

I will be honored by your participation [in this online ceremony]...)

I reached for the phone but could not even think of what to say. How was I to ask if it was true? I remembered his mother so clearly. Such a vivacious, sociable creature – always laughing and happy. And she was so young, may be in her early fifties. Maybe even younger.

I was weeping loudly in my own world, when my neighbor from the other cube brought me back to this world: “Kathy are you OK?” I just replied “Yes, I am okay.” What could I say? How could I transfer all that emotional memories and dreams in a sentence over the wall of my little cubacle? And he did not say anything. That is the rule in here – they've got to respect your privacy.

Gathering my thoughts, I tried to picture him during the past two years. He had come to the US on a visitor visa (B-1) and as he was a medical doctor following 21 years of study and work back home. He could not easily get any admission to change to a student status (F-1 visa). Yes, as an Iranian he had a long way to go to be able to get his US residency.

I remember his words in the early months. “Kathy, I was not born for this palce. I am suffering every day. Why should I start everything from scratch to just say that I studied in the US? As an Iranian, I can choose only limited fields to specialize in, and not even what I like! I can never even get into the field that I want. I just have to stick to internal medicine and thank the good Lord!”

I said “Hey, if it's really that bad — winking — why don't you go back home?”

He looked at me kind of upset and laughed: “Oh come on Kathy. You have been there, you know how that hurts. What can I do? After all these years in university with all those big plans, I should drive taxis round the city? Remember “If on a Winter's Night a Traveler”? Can I let go of all my wishes? A man is alive as long as he can dream! I can not.”

He lowered his head and I could see the tears in his eyes.

I looked at his big brown eyes and just kept quiet. What could I say? I knew at least in the US, he was able to realize his potential, if not today or tomorrow, in five or maybe 10 years. It would happen one day. He should stay and fight and I am the one who has to tell him; now that he is desperate; now that he needs a push.

Moments later I was telling him how he has to try hard; how his mother would be proud of him one day; that one day he can invite his parents as a celebrated specialist and be proud.

He looked at me and I could feel that I had got through to him! He loved his parents so much, especially his mother. He said in a firm voice, “Kathy you are right. No pain, no gain. It has been our destiny: pain, pain but when comes the gain, khodaa bozorgeh! (It's up to God's grace)” And then he giggled.

We both knew how true that was, not only for him and me, but also for our whole generation of young, educated Iranians after the revolution. We both laughed and I left him with a new ray of hope in that orange, red face that I had known for years.

He took the exams USMLE I and USMLE II. His scores were so high that even I was envious! He flew to DC and came back with good news. He was offered a job in Internal Residency. Things were turning even much better than what we had expected. Oh! God how I was happy for him, how he was happy.

I could hear him calling his mother and father, “I am changing my visa status. They will take care of my work visa as I will start working as a resident in Washington DC. Hey! Start planning. I will send you the invitations and in the summer, you should come to visit me. We will be together again.” Then he added in a lower voice, “and you don't need to send me any more money. Now, I'll be working – now you wait for my money coming your way.”

He laughed and was so happily that I told him to knock on wood so that evil could not hear him. He gave me one of those “you're so superstitious” looks. But when I left, I could hear the sound of his fingers knocking on the wooden door.

Suddenly I remembered. Last time he was talking of starting work four months after changing his visa status. And now? Has it been done? Does he have a different visa? Oh my God. Under new limits on US visas to Iranian travelers, he cannot leave America and come back. Knowing him, I knew he would think of going back home. I thought I should talk to him as soon as possible.

I called and a young woman answered. She told me that following his mother's death, he has locked himself away and does not want to talk to anybody. My heart was beating and tears did not let me talk. But I had to talk to him. I just insisted and asked the lady to mention my name. It worked. He was on the phone, his voice slow and bitter.

– “Kathy, can you believe…?”
– “No, never. I could never even imagine.”
– “Kathy she is gone. She is not there any more. Kathy! My mother has died. Do you hear me?”
– “Yes, I hear you with all my heart. Can I still talk about fighting for life, for goals?
– “Kathy. I'm leaving this damned country in two days.”

Now I come back to real life. I should do something, something to prevent him from leaving. He is leaving but he can never come back or at least not soon. My mind is filled up with that new visa bill. No more non-immigrant visas for Iranians. He has tried so hard in this land. He is thirtysomething-years old now. How can he start all over again? He must not go home. But how can I tell him?

-“No, don't leave. If you do., all you have done will be gone for good. You know that?”
– “I don't care. How can I not be with my dad? How can I not be there when he needs me so badly? How could I let my mother suffer all this time? I gave her all the pain of loneliness and separation. She cried every time we talked on the phone? How do you want me to stay here and live? What is the point of this life if I can not go and be there for her – for them – for the very last time?”

I hear him weeping and then a door closing. I had better shut up. Sometimes logic is nothing but mud to slide on. I hang up the phone, close my eyes and make a wish. I wish God would treat us differently.

Thank you for Leyla H. for editing this story.

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