The entire week I worried about the tasks I planned to do on my day off, Friday. Chores I’d postponed for months. The gutter was falling off the wall, letting rain to seep under the foundation. The worse were our lack luster antique dining chairs. I’d already bought sandpaper, a paintbrush, thinner and varnish to tackle them.
And Friday was the assigned day. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do anything. I debated which was more urgent, the gutter or the chairs? A broken gutter could cost us dearly as the rainy season was approaching.
I even tried to clear my head by doing a crossword puzzle but the name of Napoleon’s lover crashed my hope all together. The entire morning wasted! All I had done was smoke and monitor the time.
A weird feeling was bothering me, an old anxiety, an erratic heartbeat. Whatever it was, it stopped me from doing anything productive. Later in the afternoon, I put my coat and hat on and left the house and walked for a while until I realized I had left my favorite plaid scarf at home. Any other day I would’ve gone back for it as the doctor advised me not to expose my chest to cold. It triggered my asthma.
But today, I kept walking until I entered a park. It seemed more crowded than usual; the main paths filled with people. Groups sat lazily on the grass as if they’d been sentenced to waste their Friday afternoon there. A few played cards; some played backgammon, others gobbled sunflower seeds as if competing for a prize. And every group had a samovar boiling and teapot on top ready to pour hot tea.
On the fence, a group of ravens were arguing. One chirped and three responded, chirping in disagreement. Suddenly they all chirped frantically.
In one quiet corner, I finally discovered an empty bench, just the right spot for me. The sun settled right in front of me, in an hour or so it would’ve to go home too. I pulled my hat down a little to shield my eyes from its daring gaze.
I don’t know how long it took until I sensed the presence of someone next to me. Politely I shifted aside to get a better look and when I recognized the stranger, a feeling of serenity filled my soul. Calmness replaced the anxiety I’d felt all day. It was Ali Reza, surely it was him sitting right next to me, indifferent to my presence. He was my next-door neighbor. We went to school together and when we grew up, exchanged books and passionately debated issues.
But how could that be? How could he be sitting shoulder to shoulder with me after more than 40 years? He looked exactly the same, long nose, bony chin and sunken eyes staring into the sun like we used to when we were kids. We’d bet who could stare into the sun longer without blinking.
He must have not recognized me. Unlike him, I had changed a lot; I’d gained 20 Kilos, lost hair and now wore glasses.
“Is that you?” I asked perplexed.
He nodded apathetically, but didn’t say a word. He kept staring at the sun, gazing far from the park and much farther than the ravens on the fence. He was looking into sky, much higher than mountains and beyond the horizon.
I prodded, “Don’t you recognize me?”
His affectionate eyes turned to my face for the first time just like the way he looked at me in childhood. But the passage of years had paled that look; something was keeping him from me.
“This is strange; I had a hunch something good would happen today. I came here for no apparent reason. I was anxious the entire day for this without knowing it. I can’t believe after all these years we meet again. God knows how many sweet memories we had together. Believe me my friend; nothing replaces sweet memories, nothing.” I kept talking without letting him respond, “Do you remember we paid three Rials each and walked a long way to buy a half of bologna sandwich? Do you remember the sandwich shop called the Golden Rooster on the corner of Pahlavi Avenue? I could never duplicate that taste. Do you remember we could only afford to buy one movie ticket and watched the film in one seat twice in a row? They don’t make movies like that any more, do they my friend?”
He coldly responded, “Does everyone change when they get old?”
I shrugged, “It’s life. After youth, everything is different, you change so much you can’t recognize yourself and you’ll never be you again.”
“What happened to our old friends?” he asked.
“Do you remember Farzan? He went to Europe and became a doctor. How about the one we called the psychologist? He always said if we had a sexual revolution, class struggles would be resolved? He abandoned his dreams when he inherited a rug store. He’s making tons of money—doing what he always hated, following his father’s footsteps. And the rest of the gang, I have no idea what happened to them. Why didn’t you look me up all these years? Do you call this friendship?”
His mind was somewhere else as if ravens overhead snatched his attention like they snatch bars of soap from unattended wash buckets. I wished I could repeat the past, all of it, the bad and the good. I wished we could drink so much water after playing football in the summer heat of south. I wanted to relive the taste of hot baked beets from street vendor in the bitter cold of winter. I wanted to ask him how he studied that made him a better student than me? I had lots of things to say but his existence was melting before my eyes and I was losing his presence.
He showed no interest in the past; he was relentlessly staring into the sun. Just as in our childhood, I traced his look across the park fence, to the city limits. I emerged from the smoke that filled the city and ascended higher than the snow-capped mountain. The air became clean. I was a bird flying in the infinite sky, to eternity and approaching the sun. Just like him, just like our childhood, I was getting closer and closer to the fountain of immense light and entering into the house of sun. I took a deep breath and exhaled freely to purify myself and now I was able to stand against the world and stop typhoons. Crystals of light filled my body and rays of fire flowed through my veins. The sun exploded and its rays filled the galaxy and I was standing in the center of it all absorbing every piece of light with all my being. I opened my arms to embrace the world.
And suddenly, I thought of my upcoming retirement and pension paychecks and my coin collection. What if the gutter had fallen off the wall? Our dining room chairs were waiting patiently for me to refinish them.
My eyes burned. My weak body could not tolerate the massive flow of light. I desperately covered my weak chest with both hands to prevent it from crushing. I closed my eyes. Darkness and vacuum crept inside me and purged every piece of shattered light from my being.
I shivered and buttoned my coat and cautiously opened my eyes. They adjusted to the darkness. The sun had set and I was sitting on the bench alone.