It took us a long time to obtain a visa and go back to London. All those years, I thought I missed it, but now realize there’s nothing here for me. The charming architecture and surrealistic shades of green haven’t changed, but the city that once held my dream within its dark walls is now nothing but an old, smoky town whose humidity makes my joints ache.
A few of my old classmates decided to gather one more time before I would return to Tehran. My husband, Arman, and the other men had gone to enjoy one last Poker game before he would go back to the land that forbade such simple pleasures. I walked from the tube station and leaving the rain behind, rang the doorbell to Leila’s flat. She opened the door herself. “You made it,” she said and took my coat to be hung next to five others. “We weren’t sure if Mina’s directions could be trusted.”
“Not a problem,” I said.” I just let my nose follow the smell of your good cooking.”
Everyone laughed. We sat around the coffee table and gave our attention to the pile of pictures on it, the perfectionist in me longing to organize them.
Leila handed me a glass of wine. “I thought it would be fun to look at these. You should see some of yours.” She handed me a few photos. “Here.”
I had seen the first one before. Sitting on the sandy beach in Brighton, a much younger me looked up from her sketch pad and smiled. Looking back at that day made me feel young for an instant. Next was our group at a picnic in Hyde Park. “Look at our clothes,” I said laughing at my bright green pants and a checkered shirt tied in front. My eyes froze on a black and white photograph. Although only half of my face was visible in the background, a significant part of my life flashed before me. In it, Patrick, spreading his arms, blocks everyone behind him. Aviator glasses masking his mischievous brown eyes, he was grinning into the camera.
Slowly, the room and everyone in it began to fade around me. Floating in a cloud of memories, all I could hear of my friends’ conversation was a muffled hum.
It’s a cold weekend in Brighton. Patrick lifts me, laughs, and threatens to throw me into the waves. With my arms wrapped around his neck, I cling to him and laugh back. The waves wash away our voices. Hours later, in a dark corner of The Black Friar’s pub, I let his words erase my doubts.
“Come on, don’t look so damn sad,” Leila interrupted my thoughts and pushed another photograph into my hand. “He isn’t so hot now.”
A color photograph of a middle aged man showed him in a tweed jacket with deep lines around his eyes. I would have known those eyes anywhere, but now they were buried in a weathered face. A gray receding hairline reminded me how he used to fuss with his hair, even after I managed to talk him into a crew cut. There were deep grooves on each side of his mouth and tiny lines radiated from the corners of his eyes, but above all, the missing twinkle in those eyes spoke of decades gone by. The mischievous expression had left. Instead, I saw surrender. Yes, surrender. Or, was that indifference?
“Would you have recognized him if you saw him on the street?” someone asked.
I nodded without confidence.
“Come on, Raana. You look as if you’ve seen the dead,” Mina said and pushed her elbow into my side. “You didn’t do so bad catching Arman.”
I took a sip of wine and did my best to join their laughter.
Hard to believe that was my Patrick. No, not mine. Just Patrick. So much older and sadder. Everyone I knew had changed, but in my mind, Patrick had stayed the same. He had remained as unchanged as the sweet memories deep in my mind. If I aged, I didn’t notice it.
The day I left him, I was certain neither of us would ever love again. “Love is a curse,” Patrick said right before he stormed out of the room. “I shall never be so foolish to let my heart make me vulnerable again.” Anger would not let me care. Lover’s quarrel? Perhaps. We were both too proud and, Arman happened to be around.
The last time I saw Patrick was at our graduation dance. Arman said I looked great in my peach evening gown and he walked me over to the dance floor. That was when I saw Patrick leaving the ballroom. Alone.
I hate looking back. Life is a one-way street and there’s no rear view mirror. We can only see those who travel by our side. If I looked back, there would be disaster. But, that photograph had turned my head around. What I had known all along and never dared to think now hit me in its reality. Patrick had been with me all along. He had followed me everywhere, his love a part of me, the thoughts of him in my every breath.
“Can I keep this?” I asked.
Something in my voice startled them and they all stopped talking.
“Why, Raana, what’s come over you?” Leila asked.
“Nothing.” I tried to sound calm and shrugged. “I just want to have it.”
She nodded, and they all exchanged glances as I tucked it into my purse.
The gathering continued for hours. I called a taxi around midnight. On the ride home, I studied Patrick’s picture again. Now alone, I could read his expression. His face seemed younger in the dim lit cabin and for a second, it was as if his smile was asking me, “Do you remember us?”
Do I ever!
This is not a big deal. I’m only going to satisfy my curiosity. There aren’t any good magazines in the waiting room. It’s so quiet, I’m sure all his patients can hear me think. This isn’t right. We’ve gone our separate ways. I’m hiding behind my reading glasses, but no doubt he’ll know me in a glance. He loved me.
I lean into my memories.
It has been a long night, but I hide my watch, not to be tempted to leave.
“Stop staring!” I object across the table.
“I want to memorize all the details of you.”
I laugh. “Going somewhere?”
“No, but I want to see your face even when I close my eyes.”
How well did he memorize the details? I’ve gained weight. That’s natural after two children. But my hair is still thick and I have all my teeth. The lady at the makeup counter swore the new foundation makes my skin glow. Oh, he’ll know me.
“Good morning, doctor,” the receptionist’s voice rings out.
There stands my Patrick in the doorway, holding a briefcase. His back has a new curve and his shoulders slouch forward. He is much older than the photograph. His glance lingers in my direction, hesitating long enough to brush heat into my skin. But, there’s no change in his expression; it’s more of a curious look. Unsure what to do if his eyes find mine, I look away. Then I look back and force a smile. My dimples, oh, how he loved my dimples. He hesitates, then turns around, opens a door, and is gone.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” The receptionist is standing before me with a writing pad and a pen. “Are you a new patient?”
I gather up my coat and purse. “No, I’m sorry. I must have the wrong office.”
Out on the street, I see my reflection in a store window. There, among colorful objects, stands a pale, middle-aged woman. No one seems to know her, not even Patrick. I realize that even if he had recognized me, a U turn in our one-way life would only be catastrophic.
I look down. An old newspaper blows past my feet I watch it roll away and disappear down the busy sidewalk and under the shoes of pedestrians. I know I must let go of my youth and its fanciful memories. That too, is nothing but a crumpled piece of old news. No, I won’t cry. I didn’t cry back then and I’ll be damned if I do now.
“Pardon me, ma’am,” someone asks. “Did you lose something?”
I look up from the messy pavement at a young boy who is sweeping the sidewalk in front of the store.
“Yes, yes, I did,” I respond. “Did you just see a young girl go by?”
“A young girl, ma’am?” He looks puzzled.
No, of course not. No one saw her vanish, and if it weren’t for Patrick, she might have continued to live within me forever.
I shake my head. “Never mind.” And raise my hand for a taxi.
This short story was a finalist at the 2004 San Diego Book Awards' short story contest. Zohreh Khazai Ghahremani is a retired dentist and a freelance writer. She lives in San Diego, California. Her latest book is “Sharik-e Gham” (see excerpt). Visit her site ZoesWordGarden.com