Last November some Iranian.com writers began a collaborative project to write an experimental story. The premise was that someone would write the first paragraph of a story and then the next writer had to add his or her part and so on until the last person who had to write the ending. Order of the writers was determined randomly, except for the first writer. We had a lot of fun working together, but when it was finished we had to hold on to the story for a while in view of the sad events in Iran. We would like to share the finished story with you at this time in the hopes that you might enjoy reading it as much as we did writing it. If you wish to participate in similar projects, leave us a comment below and we will contact you for the next one. Art work by Omid Hast.
The bus from Nowshahr stopped outside a roadside restaurant and the passengers sat for a couple of minutes in the sudden silence that ensued after the driver killed the engine. Everybody shifted in their seats, some reaching for their bags, others impatient to get out, stretch, and use the restrooms.
The restaurant was moderately clean, but there was no escaping the flies, which were circling the tables and threatening to pollute the food. “do ta chaee,” said Kaveh, knowing without asking, that his travel companion wasn’t interested in the roadside food, either. They looked at each other and talked without words for the thousandth time that day. The pending separation made their current union all the more precious and significant. Their knees were brushing against each other under the small table, on top of which they had rested their hands, very close to each other’s, avoiding the longed intimacy of hand holding, lest they would attract attention to themselves. After all, the two of them lacked the youthful faces of newlyweds and people would notice if two people in their forties were publicly affectionate. Leili’s eyes were fixed on Kaveh’s face and eyes, taking in every look, every expression, and every animation. She could smell him on herself, remnants of the once sweet and urgent lovemaking that had taken place moments before their departure for Tehran . She bravely pushed the tears that threatened to engulf her face and her world at the thought of the upcoming farewell.
How had this happened? What had she done to deserve this pain? Equally important, what had she done to deserve this joy? She thought to herself for the umpteenth time, how had she become entangled in this bonfire of love and ecstasy? She tried hard to brush away the simple and complicated word that kept echoing in her head, which frightened, crippled, and saddened her to no end, zena, adultery, punishable by infamy and disownment long before trials, lashes, or the unthinkable.
“do ta chaee,” said the tea server, confirming the order as he placed two steaming amber glasses on the table. Leili noticed before Kaveh that the glasses didn’t match. One had a waist, and the other didn’t. The waiter knows, Leili thought, looking to see if other tables in the restaurant had mismatched tea glasses. For God’s sake Leili, don’t give us away like that, Kaveh thought.
“Anything else you would like to order?” the waiter asked, imposingly. “There’s a new batch of premium cheese, which we can wrap to go with bread and greens, in case you get hungry on the way.”
Let’s just buy it and go, Leili thought to Kaveh. But Kaveh told the waiter they would have to try the cheese sample first.
While the waiter was getting the cheese sample, Leili wanted to plead with Kaveh to put away his craziness. A slight shake of his head told her he wanted her to stay out of this. The waiter returned with the cheese sample and offered it on a knife to Kaveh. Breaking the cheese slice in half, Kaveh made Leili try it. She was petrified as she chewed. Kaveh turned to the waiter and said,
”I don’t mind it, but I can tell that my wife thinks it tastes too yeasty.”
As they walked out of the restaurant, Leili was still spitting out bits of cheese in suppressed laughter.
She rarely laughed. That’s why she remembered the first time they met and how he had made her laugh out loud, even if it was during Ashura and everyone around them was crying.
”If we’re caught, they’ll stone us,” he had told her. “But if they don’t, I’ll show you the real pleasure.” And Leili, staring at his charming smile, had told him, “I don’t care about stoning, we only live once.”
They climbed the bus and Kaveh turned his head away as if she wasn’t there, as if he had already moved away and she remembered the first time he looked into her eyes – like looking for the meaning of life. How easily he had taken her from the coffee shop to his apartment and how much she had loved to be invaded by his imposing presence.
“It’s not really my place,” he had told her before grabbing her shoulders.
The bus rumbled and their neighbours began a fight. Leili closed her eyes, going back in time. She shrugged and smiled the same way she had smiled that day, glancing around his apartment, trying to remember his name.
At first it was his accelerated breathing and then his biting. Being ticklish, she should have laughed. Or she should have been grossed out by his shape, and his moves, and this absurd lust in the way he wanted to own her. But she didn’t, already numb with curiosity and his sweat. And she turned and tried to set herself free, but he didn’t let her. His weight moved back and forward, right and left, left and right. It pushed her down and pulled her up. It scratched her and held her and took her breath away. Leili couldn’t focus on things she wanted to remember, like him being married, or how his wife looked. Yet she knew she was going to fall for him. She was going to grasp his shadow and to let him inside her, so he could keep loving himself, and loving and hurting her at the same time. But hadn’t she always longed for the love’s ache?
“My wife hates to eat any kind of cheese,” Kaveh said. “She’s insane. But not as insane as you last night.”
She closed her eyes again and remembered last night when they made love in the waters of Caspian Sea , in the hottest night of the summer. Kaveh’s boss, Mr. Nouri, a well-to-do baazari, had a private villa in a remote beach in Nowshahr, as he also owned the apartment in Tehran where Leili and Kaveh had made love the first time. As a dedicated employee and a close confidant of Mr. Nouri, Kaveh usually traveled to Nowshahr to check on the villa and the housekeeper, which he had dismissed that night before Leili came inside. By the time they settled down it was well past midnight . “I’m burning up!” Kaveh said.
“We escaped from Tehran for this! It’s past midnight for God’s sake!”
“Why don’t you take a shower?”
“Do they have ice-cold running water?”
“I don’t think so. Do you dare to go for a swim?”
“There is nobody around for kilometers.”
“What are you talking about! There are people all over this place. Do you want to kill us?”
“Look outside. Do you see any lights on? Beside, this is a private beach.”
Leili looked out the window. Most of the lights from the other villas were turned off.
“What about the night guards!”
“They don’t come this far. The private one who checks on this property; I told the housekeeper to give him a tip and tell him to give us some privacy.”
The water was cool and calm. They walked a distance in the water and then they began to take off their clothes. He then ran towards the shore and left their clothes at the beach. Leili marveled at how much he had shaped up since the first time she had seen his nude body, and that excited her. When he came back to her again, she wrapped her arms around him and leaned back, both of them sinking in. When they came back up again they burst into an uninhibited laughter. His right hand caressed her waist line, while holding her afloat with her left arm. He moved his hand up and fondled her breasts, now stiff from the cool water. They kissed; the pleasure was intoxicating, as he had promised her. He picked up her legs one at a time and wrapped them around his back, then lowered her into him. With each passing ripple of waves they bounced up and down, and soon they learned to match the rhythm of their bodies with that of the sea.
The bus made another sharp turn in the mountainous road. She opened her eyes, wondering whether anyone had been watching her.
All the passengers were dozing. The bus slowed down behind a line of vehicles and the opening of the Kandovan Tunnel appeared to view. She thought of her nasty neighbour Reza who, on the morning of her departure for Nowshahr with Kaveh, had taken her aside, telling her he knew all about her “illegal relationship” with Kaveh, and he would denounce her to the Islamic Morality Police if she did not stop seeing his sister’s husband for good. She had until the end of that weekend when he would return from his weekend pilgrimage to Mashad. She tried to overcome her disgust at the blackmail.
Soon the tunnel opened for them and all the vehicles moved inside the black mouth of the mountain. More than half way inside the tunnel, Leili noticed thick fog hugging the bus’s windows. Nothing was visible in front of the bus, yet the driver continued down the tunnel. She locked fingers with Kaveh discreetly and frowned in puzzlement. After a while, the fog disappeared in a puff of energy. And when a bright light appeared at the end of the tunnel, she sighed as if they had survived some uncanny situation. However, as Leili turned back casually and glanced at the other passengers, she heard herself let out a scream that split the air, silencing everyone in one brief moment. Kaveh looked back to see what had frightened her, only to get up from his seat impulsively, lifting his hands in the air.
“What?” he shouted. “No, no, it’s impossible!” He then fell back on his seat and fainted. Leili, white as a sheet, was unable to speak. Behind them, men and women were in T-shirts and summer shorts, lovers were kissing without fear, some adults were reading the Playgirl Magazine, and some girls and boys were playing together on computer gadgets.
An hour later, when the bus approached the suburban town of Karaj , Leili and Kaveh had already spoken to the passengers, calmed down and come to terms with the new environment on the bus to Tehran . While their bus had been passing through the Kandovan Tunnel, the two of them had entered a parallel universe through a portal that had accidentally opened where they were sitting. In this parallel universe, no 1979 Revolution had ever happened.
There had been, instead, the Purple Revolution of 1976 initiated by the late Shah, following a major transformation in his personality. During a horseback-riding exercise, His Majesty had fallen off the horse and injured himself in the head to the point of remaining in a coma for three days. He had woken with a new outlook that made him change the Iranian Constitution in accordance with the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and dissolve the monarchy in favour of a democratic republic.
“I wonder if you’re married in this universe,” said Leili with a wishful smile.
Leili and Kaveh parted ways at the Tehran bus station for fear of being seen together on their home turf, promising to meet again in a few days. Leili had arranged for her younger sister Nazanin – her sole confidante in the matter of Kaveh – to pick her up from the station. Nazanin was waiting with her back to the passenger area, but Leili recognized her sister’s hair and called out to her. Nazanin turned around and smiled. Her face looked older.
Nazanin drove Leili to her own home, knowing that Leili would need time to decompress after a weekend away with Kaveh. It was from there, later that afternoon, that Leili began to explore her new surroundings.
At first, Leili couldn’t get enough of the new Tehran . She marveled at the women in mini-skirts, the men drinking alcohol in sidewalk cafes, the young couples holding hands in the park with no fear of the morality police. Leili strolled down Tehran ‘s main thoroughfare, Ronald Reagan Boulevard , and peered into stores and restaurants with foreign names. Nieman Marcus. Coach. Starbucks. Further down, she discovered Tehran ‘s newest addition, a structure that occupied an entire city block – a 24-hour Wal-Mart. She loved the stores, the freedom, the exposed skin, the flowing hair. She loved it all. The city was new and distinctly different, yet still recognizably hers.
At dusk, she returned to her sister’s home. “Where have you been?” Nazanin asked with noted urgency. “I need to get you home.” They got in the car and Nazanin sped through the city, stopping finally outside the gates of a palatial home. Leili didn’t recognize it.
A uniformed man opened Leili’s door. “Welcome back, khanoom,” he said. Leili didn’t understand, but Nazanin nudged her out of the car, so she stepped out and through the gates.
Over the next few hours and days, Leili would learn that the new, modern Iran wasn’t all that it seemed at first blush. Though the country was democratic and free, in this parallel universe, Leili’s parents and only brother had died in a car crash several years earlier. Nazanin was single and alone, having never met Arash, who was their brother’s co-worker. And though Leili’s wish that Kaveh be single came true, Leili herself was married and had married well – perhaps too well.
One day, on the way out of Nazanin’s place, Leili felt something peculiar. Kaveh was standing by the car and she was seeing a man with whom she had made love without feeling any guilt or remorse. It was very hard for her to accept the idea that she was cheating on her husband. The thought of having surrendered her body to Kaveh gave her goosebumps. She no more doubted loving Kaveh and she no more wanted to have sex with her husband. It was raining quietly and Kaveh was watching Leili under the rain and how enthusiastically she was walking towards him. From behind the window, Nazanin could see how her sister had become agile and was in a good mood. She could not believe that this happy woman was the same depressed Leili who had lived an entire ten years with someone who wanted nothing but her body every Friday night. No, it was unbelievable. Or maybe it was the miracle of love that had brought these two together.
Kaveh started his car and Leili waved at her sister. Nazanin pulled the curtains and walked to the kettle on the stove to prepare herself fresh tea, praying under her breath that nothing bad would happen to Leili. The rain was pounding on the car’s roof and windows and the cassette was playing a song by Shadmehr. Kaveh placed his right hand on Leili’s thigh, advancing it further up each time he changed gears, sensing her getting aroused. All this touching made both of them full of lust and restless for jumping into bed together. However, they knew full well that they should be much more prudent as Leili had not yet filed for divorce.
Back from the “parallel universe” with a jolt, the bus came to a sudden stop in Tehran’s west terminal, and Leili woke up with a headache. Before she could fully compose herself, everyone hurriedly scrambled to fetch their bags and rush for the exit. Kaveh shook his head and in a low voice murmured, “Sorry, but I’ve to run now – it’s my daughter’s birthday. See you next week?” The separation came sudden and cold, as she shuddered of loneliness.
The fume-filled air of the bus terminal made her dried throat scratch in pain. Leili searched frantically, but couldn’t find the water bottle. She had to muster all her strength to faintly shout, “Can I have some water please?” The bus boy stared indignantly and shouted back, “Wake up madam – this is Tehroon; water is 1,000 toman!”
There was a huge line up for the express buses to Enghelaab. Leili thought, “Why didn’t Kaveh take the car – so afraid to be caught with me in the autobahn? If he is that afraid, why doesn’t he stick to his own wife; instead of stealing another chump’s woman?” The taxi station was not as busy, but much less orderly and a lot more chaotic. Men would run back and forth, to catch any available car, but Leili (with her maanto and chaarghad) could not keep pace. Finally, a private Paykan stopped. She tried to open the back door, but it was locked. The bearded driver rudely grinned and explained, “It’s broken!”
She tried not to make eye contact or say anything, but the driver was persistent. “Are you from Rasht? Ladies from Shomal are so much whiter! Do you need a place to stay tonight?” Leili felt so betrayed so abandoned, by her husband, by her lover, by her own feelings and vulnerabilities. Used, reused and abused, time and again – for someone else’s pleasure, because of someone else’s insecurities, in the name of someone else’s values and religion.
As they approached the Enghelaab square, traffic became more and more congested. Suddenly, the driver screamed, “Oh my God – get off the car madam! I can’t go any further. Get off!” In the street, there were a number of armed policemen and militia, running away from an approaching crowd. The driver just opened the door and almost shoved Leili into the crowd of young men and women. One of them held her from falling to the ground. They were frantically moving and shouting, “Down with the dictator … down with the dictator.” Leili too was overwhelmed with raw anger and emotion. She went to chant, “Down with dictators … down with dictators!”
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