Parvin and Suraya rented a small but comfortable Niagara Falls cottage kissing the American border, just as their older sister Goli had instructed. Their father, Baba Ardeshir, had managed only a Canadian visa, so he wouldn’t be able to cross over to see their homes in Pompano Beach and rural Georgia. Instead, he would stay in Toronto with Goli, self-appointed matriarch since that 1972 day when their mother vanished into Holland or Germany, leaving Baba Ardeshir alone with four teenagers in Tehran–this was years before the Revolution, so Maman’s departure was no spectacle: no midnight Jeep ride into Turkey, no crossing borders under utility blankets. This was curled hair, the good suitcases, in-flight meal. (Just run-of-the-mill, ordinary abandonment, Suri said. Be kind, Pari begged her sister.)
“Maybe we can get a photo of all of us,” Babak suggested. The last time all four had appeared in a photo with Baba Ardeshir had been as young children. In black and white, their parents looked hardly out of their twenties. Every detail was professionally arranged, all six smiling obediently, except one: in the left side of the photo, Goli’s fingers on Suri’s forearm, her fingers closing together in a secret pinch. Over the years, the photo had become Amirzadeh family legend. They had all seen it once or twice, but despite attic searches and calls to Iran, no one could find a copy.
Now their plan was this: Baba Ardeshir would spend a week in Canada with Goli, then he would relocate to the rented cottage for two days to visit with his son and other daughters, then return to Goli’s house for his second week. Likely that’s what their father wanted all along, to sit at his favorite daughter’s table, to be a guest in her comfortable Iranian home. Who wants to trudge among lettuce leaves on Pari’s organic farm or putter around in flip-flops with Suri’s geriatric patients when you can drink cardamom tea all day in a respectable house that might as well be in Tehran or Karaj? Goli had kept every item in her home pretty much like the day she married. (Even the floor plan is the same, isn’t it? Pari marveled. You’d think she’d airlifted it from Tehran and wedged it on whatever faculty street she thought was fanciest, Suri sniped. And whitest, she added, because Pari had begun to cringe.)
Goli worked at the University of Toronto, where she was, according to RateMyProfessor, the least-liked faculty member in the engineering department.
Shortly after arriving in the West in 1987, Goli started calling herself Flora. It meant “flower” and therefore, she informed her sisters in a tone that stamped out all argument, was an honest translation of her name and everyone must respect it. Nowadays she encouraged her students to use the name too, though she scoffed at the suggestion that maybe she had been looking at RateMyProfessor. “We had no time for this silliness when I was a post-doc.” But the day her profile was anonymously updated to include a parenthetical (aka Prof. Flora), she spoke in curt monosyllables, then telephoned her brother Babak in New Jersey, who took her calls without fail, for his weekly berating on his future, their father’s mayoral legacy, and the dignity of the Amirzadeh name, which (until now) had signified nothing less than quality and excellence. Knowing that Goli called Babak on Monday afternoons, Suri and Pari took turns keeping his phone line busy, to spare their guileless brother the weekly humiliation. But they had lives too, and Goli sometimes got through.
Once, almost twenty years ago, Suri, the more outspoken one and a doctor, had tried to explain to her sister about Babak’s place on a spectrum of emotional understanding, a way of looking at the world that no one had bothered to consider when they were young. But Goli had interrupted her. “Oh these excuses,” she’d said; “ADD, Asperger, dyslexia, what else? Stop selling mediocrity in the shape of a quirk. The Amirzadehs are sharp to the last tack.” She was panting by this time. She’d swallowed hard, muttered, “We’ve had a few lazy ones, though,” and hung up.
For four weeks Suri hadn’t spoken to Goli. She saw her patients, swam her miles at the community pool, walked along the beach in Fort Lauderdale, and avoided her phone. On Monday afternoons, she’d made sure to keep Babak busy from the moment Goli’s last class ended until dinnertime, so that her sister had no outlet for her anger. She deleted every voicemail from Canada after the first second. The last one was just a huff, followed by a nasal gasp “Incroyable!” then a hard click–when people disrespected her, Goli liked to remind them that she had studied French in her private Tehrani high school, a lifetime ago. Suri snorted at the dead line, then called Pari to play the message to her for a laugh.
For a while after that, Suri would call Pari and Babak’s voicemails, leaving the Incroyable recording here and there like Easter eggs, until one day Pari decided the joke had gone on long enough. In the Amirzadeh family, people didn’t apologize; they sent casual gifts or asked for favors, thus humbling themselves. So wise, peaceful Pari, the one who spent her days wading in dirt, yanking out turnips, squeezing tomatoes and olive oil onto artisanal breads, sent Goli a crate of winter vegetables on Suri’s behalf. This way, Goli could pretend that Suri had apologized, and Suri could smile and go along, having saved face because absolutely everyone knew that Pari was the only Amirzadeh who had ever packed a crate of squash.
Over the years, it became easier and easier to set off Goli, to cause a break in sisterly relations. After her husband died, her silences swelled and grew heavier, dragging from weeks into months–she spared no one. Pari packed her trunk with vegetables and basmati, jumped into her car and drove to Toronto. She cooked barberry rice, saffron pudding, and herb lamb for Goli every day. She sat with her sister each morning, and put her to bed every evening, and they talked about pesticides and the benefits of lime for the skin. They looked up photos of lavender fields in Provence. Goli clung to her sister. “Nothing’s in its place anymore, Pari joon.”
When Pari returned home to Georgia, Goli felt betrayed, but she settled into her new life; somehow she fell into place. She was herself but her rages and kindnesses, like the lines below her cheeks, grew deeper. She was an eroded ravine, a sine curve with an increasing coefficient. She checked on Babak, sent him money. If he caught a cold, she drove to New Jersey. She made soup with sour grapes she had picked herself. She gave his son, Darius, who was showing signs of exceptional intelligence, long lectures about his duty, the Amirzadeh name–he was the only one of his generation who bore it, not even Kayvan, Goli’s own son, had that. Between life lessons, she told him stories of his grandmother in Holland or Germany. (“You would love her, she’s a ball of fire. She should never have left Baba Ardeshir, of course.”) On one such visit, she found that Babak had hired a nanny, the eighty-year-old Iranian grandmother of a drycleaner in Metuchen he had found on some Iranian online community. That night she called Suri, who conferenced in Pari on her office phone, and the sisters laughed for hours. “Every night at 6 p.m., poor Babak has to rush home from work, feed the nanny, put the nanny to bed, and then do the same thing for Darius. And he pays her twelve dollars an hour.” “You’re lying!” Suri said, through giggles. “He needs a woman,” said Pari, and they all howled with laughter.
During those years, the timid trudge into middle age, Goli tossed between gentleness and wrath. She poured her energy into teaching and research. There was a rumor of a final love affair that cemented her bitterness. In the sixties, Goli had been the most beautiful one–thick eyebrows, sharp cheekbones, eyes so black they made idiots of men and their mothers. One day, in a fit of nostalgia, Goli decided to send Baba Ardeshir a package. Every day she sent a message to her four siblings–an email conversation that went back to the dawn of the Internet (“Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: allooo, this is Suuuuuriiiii!”)–describing another item she had found for the package. Or rather, she didn’t describe the items but the process of finding them: a rainy walk through an outdoor market, scouring used books on a history of Iran under Mosadegh, a box of homemade fruit leather dried in her own yard, a petition to the mayor of Toronto to write a single respectful line on a notecard to Baba Ardeshir, who was, Goli insisted during her twenty or so visits to City Hall, a fellow mayor.
Suri pointed out (in a second, separate email chain that she shared with Babak and Pari, subject line: “NoFlo”) that maybe the act of finding each item, of perfecting it, was part of Goli’s present to their father. The others agreed. They let Goli carry on. When she asked for a current photo of her siblings, Pari drove to New Jersey and took one on the Princeton University campus with Babak and Darius, who was now a sophomore there and studying (against all advice) poetry. They stood in front of a sculpture called Oval with Points. Only Darius wore jeans (“Fuck that woman and her instructions. I’m missing a nacho Study Break for this,” he said to Pari, who smacked his arm ever so gently). Suri sent a photo of herself in her clinic. She wore her lab coat, as Goli had instructed, to remind her father she was a doctor.
Days later, after receiving the photos, Goli reprimanded Pari for dyeing her hair peppercorn red. Pari, who had been the only one to drive out of state for this errand, ignored the message. Without asking for her sister’s permission, Goli altered the photo, changing Pari’s hair to a black so stark it made her sickly pale. Some weeks later, Baba Ardeshir called from Tehran, asking again and again after his youngest child. “Why is little Pari wearing a wig? Is it her hair? Is it something bad?” Finally Suri got on the phone to Iran and cursed Goli for an hour until Baba Ardeshir snapped. “Enough now! If not for my gifted Goli, we would all be lost.”
The silence after that fight lasted for five months. Then a tacit agreement to rub yogurt on the whole episode–they moved on. More years passed. Goli was granted tenure. Suri’s private practice grew and she bought a small boat. Her arms glistened a dark caramel in her many pale-blue designer knit tanks and she ate salmon and drank martinis on the terraces of her fancy American friends. Pari sank into her life as a farmer, and her arms took on a different sort of tan. They were splotched and muscular, elbows peeling, shoulders flushed. She was adored by local children; she taught them to swim. Babak grew thin and alone. His son Darius was gone–Darius had grown up witty and striking. He hadn’t seen his mother for two decades, and at eighteen, almost overnight, he had given himself over to a gnawing hunger, and to a waking curiosity about his own charm and brilliance. There weren’t enough women, drugs, or adventures in New Jersey to calm him.
Goli’s son, Kayvan, an investment banker in New York, married. Everyone gathered in new clothes. The wedding was the most extravagant Amirzadeh celebration since the old days in Iran, and Goli beamed from the head table, waving at her siblings over her shoulder. She wore raw silk in two shades of rose. Her son married under a canopy of lilacs and tulips on a lawn so lush it hid a hundred lost croquet balls. At dusk Goli invited her brother and sisters to kick off their shoes, take their teacups, and go hunting for the balls. Their laughter could be heard from the old Tudor house where their children were drinking, dancing, flirting in candlelight. The photographer followed the laughter and captured the foursome sitting on the grass, leaning against each other, Pari’s eyes closed, Suri smiling at Babak as he examined a blue croquet ball, the sunlight dying behind their ears.
They packed the centerpieces, and time started up again. They carried on with their work, their homes, their American friends. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, but in fact after decades of struggle that Goli had hushed up, Kayvan cut ties with his mother. Goli took to her bed. She lived on rice milk. The Amirzadehs declared a state of emergency, and were close to a decision to confront Kayvan about this outrageous American behavior. In Iran, a parent is forever, no matter what. You think you’re important, but you didn’t just drop out of an elephant’s nose.
Goli grew weaker, more desperate. Finally, on the phone to Suri, she confessed in barely audible whines that she had made a bundle of accusations against Kayvan’s wife, a proud, passive-aggressive young thing who had (let’s face it) probably married Kayvan to piss off her racist Connecticut family. She blamed the girl for keeping her son from her, for organizing all their holidays around her own family’s plans. In a fit of rage, Goli had jumped in her car and gone to his office in Midtown, made a scene of some kind. She said to Suri, “That woman. Last time I stayed there, she was talking on the phone to a man. In that way … the way you talk to men … who knows how many other men she has.”
“Oh Goli joon. Oh no, no, you didn’t say that to Kayvan, did you?” said Suri.
“Of course I did! Why shouldn’t I? He’s my son,” Goli huffed and hung up.
There was another argument. The siblings tried to reach Kayvan. They asked Darius to talk to him. They speak the same language, these kids, said Babak, and his sisters agreed. But all Darius did was get his cousin drunk for a night. He dragged Kayvan downtown to some poetry reading on Avenue B, where a dozen dirty hipsters flattered and manipulated him into buying all their drinks. Darius must have delivered the message, though, because the next day, Kayvan traitorously, shrewdly, cruelly, renewed a telephone correspondence with his aunt Suri.
Suri and Kayvan grew closer. He forbid her to share any information about his life with his mother–this was the deal if she wanted to be his confidante. She did want that. She was growing sick of her fancy Florida friends who had money and degrees but no real education. Kayvan was the only relative who could afford to fly to see her, to accompany her to Michelin-star restaurants without causing some kind of embarrassment. Even Darius, who was Princeton educated, would behave badly–though in his own unique way. While her siblings would fight to pay the bill that none could afford, then freeze her out for a month for being insensitive and extravagant, Darius would lean back and let her pay the whole thing. He’d fold his arms, maybe order a digestif. But Kayvan was civilized. They planned a secret sailing trip. Pari knew of their plans but said nothing–a mistake. That Goli eventually found out (a photo marked “public” on Facebook) was chalked up to accident, though both Suri and Kayvan radiated a touch of pleasure at the outcome.
By the time Baba Ardeshir announced his plan to visit Canada to see all four of his children, Goli had spoken to neither Suri nor Pari for three years. Not even an “Incroyable!” on the answering machine. And so it was Babak’s name that appeared in their inboxes (“Re: Fwd: Re: Re: Re: NoFlo”), Babak who extended the invitation and passed on Goli’s curt, heavily bulleted list of instructions for the reunion.
Darius pounded on his father’s door twice and waited. The old man had been emailing the two lesser gorgons about the trip to Niagara Falls for a month, but no one had bothered to copy Darius, or, rather, he had been purposely left off and knew it. So the night before his younger aunts arrived to pick up Babak, Darius showed up at his father’s house wearing dirty gray jeans, hair grown to a stringy mess of dreded curls, and said, “I’m ready to meet grandpa, you motherfucker.”
Though his father had always cowered from confrontation, meek and mewling with a gaze that fell on everything but your face, somehow he had grown worse in the months since Darius had seen him. He was thinner, grayer, more afraid. Darius was already tired of him, his undiagnosed Aspy ways. Certainly the realization of this long-hoped-for reunion hadn’t been his doing–Darius could grant him that much–but he had taken part in the planning: the rented house on the border, the gross nadid-badid touristy plans, probably a burlap sack of his particular brand of basmati hiding in his luggage, wrapped in his short-sleeved button shirts.
Babak muttered, looking pained, his already squinty features pinching at the cruel way his son addressed him–in Iran, Darius knew, sons fawn. They salaam and smile and oil paths until death. For parents, they use the formal “you.” Babak’s voice struggled up his throat and died like a puff of wind just beyond his lips. He leaned on one wiry leg, pressing a hand into his lower back, taking fucking ages. Darius pushed on, “He’s here to meet his grandkids, right? Guess my invite got lost in the mail.”
“Oh no, Darius joon. This won’t be the right time to make a point.” Babak’s voice was hoarse. He coughed into his hand and shifted onto the other leg, glancing down the road as if his sisters might show up at just this moment. “I thought you never wanted to come to these things. Why does it matter?”
Darius pushed his way into the dark, musty maisonette, clasping his father on the shoulder. He dropped his overnight bag just behind the door. It was true, the family bored him. But at this particular moment, he was itching for drama, and, man, were they good for that. Plus, he was writing a novel. He needed material. And as a matter of fact, he had arranged to see his grandmother in Amsterdam–he had tracked her down, discovered the outlines of her life, and her version of things, he was now certain, was damn good. Babak shut the door, offered coffee.
“Is Kayvan coming to this shindig?” He glanced around his father’s house, hoping for signs of a woman, but nothing. Nothing for a decade. He should have stopped hoping a long while ago. The air was cigarette smoke and old sumac.
“But remember, though, the boy fell out with Aunt Flora. So please … it would be best if you don’t mention him.” Fucking ages. Just to say shut up about Kayvan. It was just as well. Hanging out with Kayvan alone was one thing, but having him around at family functions … no fucking way. That guy wanted every good thing for himself, and he was always taking things from Darius, who had to be constantly on guard. If Darius mentioned a new band, the next week Kayvan had front-row tickets. If he mentioned a gelato shop he liked, two days later Kayvan posted a photo of himself, slurping up that shit with his strawberry-blond wife. Last time Darius was in town (doing his aunts’ dirty work), Kayvan had stayed out with Darius’s friends, way past his welcome, talking about books he had no business knowing. (Since when does a banker have time to read In Search of Lost Time? How is that possible? It’s not. It’s a lie.) There had been a brutal moment when Darius had felt Kayvan’s greedy gaze fall onto his best thing. His only thing. Was it possible? Could Kayvan be interested in writing? No … definitely no. Writing was his–ever since that first short-story class when he sat silently, wonderstruck at the givenness of his place in the world, grateful for every glinting shard of glass and plump little madeleine and big dim doily and grease-impregnated wickerwork he found on the page. Back when Kayvan was doing problem sets and making phony day trades in the computer lab at Fordham–Fordham, hah! Darius had to hurry now and finish this damn book, his legacy, his family and all its beautiful crazy. He had no time, because Kayvan stole.
“Who’s Flora?” he teased, regretting it almost right away. Why did he abuse and pester his poor baba? He loved the old guy. Darius had eyes and ears; he saw what Baba had to work with and how much he had managed to get done.
“That’s your aunt,” Babak said, eyes bewildered as he held out a mug to him. Then something clicked and he said, “Darius, please.”
“Fine,” Darius tried again in playful Finglish, “but from now on I’m Dave.”
“Oh, you mean you want to … ?” said Babak, lips parting, chewing the inside of his cheek as he tried to make sense of it. “That’s too bad. I like your name.”
Darius sighed, touched his father’s arm and sipped the weak coffee. “No I was just teasing.” Babak’s gaze dropped. His mouth closed and he nodded at the kitchen counter. Darius added, “just joshing with you, Baba joon,” because Babak had loved that old phrase since Darius was ten. Babak laughed, forgetting or putting aside or quashing (no one ever knew) his initial hurt.
Later, over lunch (sliced tomatoes and zucchini strips fanned out on a plate and splattered with a very exact amount of mustard sauce), Babak muttered about the plans. “I’m not sure if there’s room. And Baba is sick, nearing the end I think.”
“So you don’t want me to come?” asked Darius, holding his father’s gaze. He felt ashamed at using this old trick to throw Baba off balance, but he had been exploiting his father’s disability–and, yes, clearly he had one whatever Aunt Goli wanted to believe–since he was twelve, and habits are habits. Besides, Darius wanted to meet Baba Ardeshir, the invisible patriarch of his lonely childhood. He wanted to meet him and tell him off for what he had done to his wife, Darius’s grandmother. He wanted to blow the lid off the whole thing right there in front of his clueless kids. At seventy-eight the old man was probably making his last trip to the West. And wasn’t he demanding to see everyone–all of his children and grandchildren? Didn’t Darius deserve a little sense of his history? What had his father’s generation given him? No mother, though every girlfriend told him that she must be beautiful and smart. A gaggle of aunts, each one crazier than the next, their faulty memories hurled at each other with so much righteous vehemence, their pride, their worried fingers. And Babak. Darius had grown up watching his father abuse the workers’ comp system as he slowly retreated into hermitage. As a child he had longed to move in with diligent, wistful Pari on her farm full of succulent yellows and leafy greens, or even with Suri, chatty gynecologist, who made a habit of befriending her menopausal patients. He never wished to live with Goli, because he had seen Kayvan’s miserable childhood, all those years of being forced to do extra math and science. Who knew, maybe Kayvan could have been creative. But he didn’t get to try. And in the end, he didn’t even get into Princeton. At least Darius’s father left him to find his own gift.
“I think we should follow Goli’s plan and see how it goes,” said Babak. Yes, yes, he nodded to himself, probably congratulating himself on his vagueness.
Darius rolled a zucchini strip around his fork. “I wouldn’t worry too much about Baba Ardeshir,” he said, then added, turning to his plate though he kept one eye on his father. “I found Azizjoon.”
At first Babak seemed confused. To which grandmother was Darius referring? “My azizjoon?” he asked. “Both are dead.”
“No,” Darius shook his head. “My azizjoon. Your mother. Do you know how old she is?” He was almost whispering, leaning over the table toward his father. “Baba, I should not have a grandmother that age.”
Babak began rearranging his last two zucchini strips. “Have respect.”
“For what?” Darius was shouting, “For child rape? Fuck that!”
“Darius, stop!” Babak’s voice faltered, he so seldom raised it. He dropped his fork and retreated to the kitchen.
Darius muttered after him, “Yeah, run away … It’s really pretty fucking ugly over there in Europe, for the glorious Amirzadeh name.”
A few moments later, Babak returned with the French press, his complexion white and clammy. “Why do you want to make people suffer?” he asked. “Digging into these places, using bad language. Who can tell a woman’s age these days?”
“That’s your answer?” Darius’s voice stretched taut and snapped, little bits of spittle landing on his father’s table. “I’m coming to Niagara.” He wiped his mouth and avoided his baba’s gaze. He took two porcelain espresso cups off the mantle behind his seat and set them with one hand in front of Babak. “I deserve to ask the old man a few questions.”
Babak poured the coffees. Instead of drinking his, he squeezed half a lemon into his water. “And it’s my job as your baba to save you from getting what you deserve.” His eyes, once almond shaped, were turning downward in middle age, lending him a wizened kind of innocence. “Stop agonizing and write something else.”
It wasn’t that Darius was threatened by Kayvan’s sudden literary cravings. It would be cool if his cousin got a break from his heretofore soul-killing life. Now and then when drunk and wistful, Kayvan had mused about having time to write a book, and if that were to happen, Darius feared not on his own behalf but on behalf of the family story itself–it could only be told once, and Kayvan would kill it, then he would tart up its corpse, leaving it none of its natural beauty. Kayvan’s book would be a hagiographic journey of a grand old family, all posed and perfect like one of his mother’s family photos. It would be “From ESL to Wall Street Star” or “An Iranian Family’s Harrowing Journey.” Kayvan hadn’t come to a family event in years; hell, he had boycotted his own mother, as if having a mother was nothing. Though Darius knew the family had branded him an asshole and a mooch, at least he loved them for their crazy. He spent half his life peering at their brushstrokes. The chunk of actual charcoal Goli used to draw on feline eyes, the collection of vaginal expanders Suri openly displayed in her medical office, Pari’s secret “nice up” drawer full of cheap shiny necklaces and blouses (decades-old pieces with underarms slowly yellowing because she had worn them once, folded them up, and never looked at them again).
“I have to come along,” said Darius, softening his tone too. He took Babak’s lemon rind and began peeling it into little strips. “Someone has to take pictures.”
His baba laughed. Babak’s interests often lasted for years. Darius, on the other hand, sampled everything, rarely committing. His teachers called him well-rounded. When Darius was thirteen, father and son had experienced an eclipse, a sole crossing in the arcs of their various passions. Before then, they had tolerated each other’s fixations: Babak smiled as Darius rambled on about Richard III. Darius rolled his eyes at meals as Babak tried to hammer home the finer points of game theory. One Saturday afternoon, they tripped into a shared obsession with photography. They lost four months of weekends to it, driving through horse country, hunting for images together. At night they read from Camera Lucida and Babak explained things to Darius. He talked about beauty in ugliness, stray details like an unexpected pistachio in your saffron pudding, the way they startle your teeth. He talked about tricks of the eye and the ways memory can fail. The wound inside a photo. Then, four months later, because he was quicker at it, Darius moved on to something else.
Goli didn’t even pack a bag this time. Her heart throbbed; she thought it might burst out of her chest. She needed to drive, to go to New York and find him, to make him understand. Three years is too long to freeze out your mother, the woman who struggled over your birth for twenty-five hours, fed and held you, sucked the mucus from your nose as you tossed with fever. But last week, in her routine online searches for him, she had seen this thing online: a speech open to the public. Kayvan was talking about the financial crisis and its effects on some sector or region or market–she hadn’t read that far. He was an expert. In front of all those people, he would have to be on his best behavior. If she showed up dressed well, smiling politely, if she introduced herself to his colleagues as his mother, if she was charming and said something clever to make him proud … It could work. She would take his favorite cakes, wrapped in fresh sheets of tinfoil. She would have her hair blown out. He wouldn’t find a stitch out of place, no lipstick on her teeth, no scuffs on her shoes, nothing to embarrass him. She’d arrive in New York just in time for the evening talk and then, afterward, maybe they would have coffee. Maybe the two of them would take a photo together and she could send it to that Judas, Suri. Maybe her son would invite her to sleep in his big apartment. Maybe she would be gone.
But then, as she baked under the dryer at the hairdresser, she remembered their last conversation. She had gone to New York to confront him after he ignored her emails for two months. Only two months. How impatient she had been. Now, she didn’t even know what he looked like. Suri, that traitor, refused to share any information. Had he lost weight? Did he still like suits from Paul Smith? Did he wear pink shirts or was that no longer the fashion? Was his hair longer, shorter, thinning?
Last time she had appeared in the city, Kayvan had dragged her from his office to a Starbucks. She had been disappointed, but soon she forgot the venue. Kayvan’s body shook as he spoke, the words pushed through clenched teeth, spraying her–his own mother!–like he was expelling a bitter seed. “I said don’t call. I said don’t follow my family. Don’t fuck with my livelihood. This is stalking.”
But now he had had time to cool off, to miss her. She drove most of the day, stopping to eat lunch in a diner along the way. Since she was sixteen she had eaten the same way, starting from the front of her plate and moving to the back, leaving two bites on the plate, never touching her fork or knife to her lips, only her spoon. She still recalled learning these Iranian rules of politeness as a girl–how many of them were about signaling a life of plenty, a dispassionate attitude toward food. You could trace every good manner to this intention. Starting from the front of the plate means you don’t hover over your food. Leaving two bites on a plate means you’ve eaten enough. If you forget or discuss food too passionately, they say you’re nadid-badid, someone who has seen nothing, done nothing. Goli had seen and done things.
She crossed her feet over her purse and commended herself for choosing a work event, which he would attend without his neck in a leash.
In the slow crawl at the mouth of Holland Tunnel another memory assaults her. Kayvan’s last day of college. She had come a few days early for graduation, thinking she would get to know Fordham and the city. He wasn’t happy to see her. He said, “But Maman, I have my last class today.” She’d insisted on going with him. Back then, when she was paying his expenses and his tuition, she was more forceful with her wishes. There was no thought then that he might have a weapon of his own. She came to the class and instead of sitting in the back insisted on sitting beside him. Then she made the first of a decade of mistakes that drove him into the arms of a controlling, racist, conniving wife who leached off him and made him thank her for it. Halfway through the class, she raised her hand and asked a question. It was a good clarifying question, one that caused two students to put their hands down, presumably because they were going to ask the same thing. But Kayvan’s face went red and he didn’t look at her again. Later, he yelled and yelled. “You ruined my last college lecture! This was a big deal for me!”
“Why?” she asked, genuinely bewildered. “It’s just one lecture. You’ll have others in grad school.”
“What grad school?” he said, and stopped, as if to shake off the many distracting tentacles of her logic. “That’s not the point. This is college, it’s special.”
“Why?” she asked again. “It’s just a step in a long life. It’s not like we have family legacy at Fordham. And it’s not Princeton, which you wanted since you were six.” When she saw the hurt in his eyes, she tried to explain that she didn’t mean it that way. Fordham was a wonderful school, and she was proud. What she meant was that it wasn’t as if he attached any extra sentiment to the school because of a lifetime of pining for it, or because of a long history. But of course, the words had already slipped away from her and they would lodge themselves in Kayvan’s memory in a way befitting his intentions, not hers.
In Midtown, she circled the block where the event would be held. In a Starbucks bathroom she checked her hair, her jacket, her breath. She returned to the venue, an event room in a charmless corporate restaurant decorated with forgettable modern art (cut up shapes or a bicycle behind a door or a single olive), large factory vases full of oranges, and the same square leather chairs that you see in every steakhouse chain in North America. She could imagine just how they would serve their salmon, seared too much on a bed of some vegetable with three cherry tomato halves nestling beside a carrot curl. True creativity is a rare and powerful gift, Goli knew, and it was possible to gleefully produce, even sell, your “art” while still being embarrassing. She hadn’t been such an awful mother, had she? She hadn’t forbidden Kayvan to pursue his passions. She had forbidden him to chase their sad, phony cousins–not art, but this. Better that he be the banker, a respected speaker in this restaurant, than the poor hack who designed it.
At 6:45, the room was still empty. She sat in one of the chairs near the center and waited. She imagined what Kayvan would say, how he would say it. He would speak of recent events in financial markets, show charts, guide the listeners through each trend and forecast. Beaming with knowledge and confidence, he would answer questions, and at some point he would spot Goli. He would forget why they had fought, just like he used to do as a child, and he would finish his speech renewed, secure in his mother’s love and devotion.
She crossed her feet over her purse and commended herself for choosing a work event, which he would attend without his neck in a leash. Goli’s problems with Kayvan’s new wife had begun on Facebook, a marketplace for images, a place to take a glimpse and move on, Goli’s favorite place. Suri and Pari had heard the story from Goli herself, before the rupture. Despite Goli’s love of the site, her patience was low, and she couldn’t be bothered to learn the rules. A week after they married, Goli’s new daughter-in-law posted a photo of a dish she had made, Persian saffron pudding, in honor of her new husband. She had learned the recipe from a famous cookbook. Goli rushed to comment, to congratulate her new daughter. She said that she had made the dish for Kayvan hundreds of times. Two minutes later, she had a notification that her daughter-in-law had liked her comment. Gratified, she moved to turn off her computer. But then, another notification. Two people had commented after her: a man in New York (whom Goli ignored) and her daughter-in-law, who said, No, our version is made of rice, not wheat.
Since childhood, Goli’s rages had been quick and crushing. Now she felt sick with it. How could her daughter-in-law disrespect her so? How many people had seen? She deleted her own comment and began to write the girl privately. One message after another:
How can you say that our version is wheat?
I served you that dish a hundred times.
Do you speak to your mother this way?
To say my dish is wheat is a lie.
I’m shocked. Is it really so important to present the dish as your own? You learned it from me!
She never received a reply. Instead, her phone began to ring. Kayvan, having inherited her temper, barely stopped to breathe. “She wasn’t talking to you! Did you even bother to read the comment between yours and hers?” Apparently the stranger from New York had written, just after Goli, Delicious! I tasted something like this in Morocco, with sugar and wheat.
Kayvan demanded that Goli apologize to his wife. Goli refused. And that was incident zero, the starting point to dozens of small humiliations inflicted on each other, some more obvious than others.
At seven, still no one had showed up, and she began to notice that there was no microphone set up, no podium or nameplate prepared. A waitress wandered by the event room, smiled at her, and walked on. Then changing her mind, she returned. “Ma’am, are you waiting for someone?” Goli straightened herself. The waitress explained that the event had been cancelled.
She charged her phone at the bar. She wouldn’t call him from her own line, of course, because he never answered. She asked to use the restaurant phone and got voicemail. She left two voice messages, stopping short of begging him to call back.
For the rest of the evening, she wandered around Midtown, then Murray Hill, Gramercy, East Village. Her shiny black Ferragamos tore into the back of her heels. She walked back north, checking her phone every few minutes. When she reached the lot where she had parked, she sent him an email and another voicemail to his mobile. She had wasted so much time, so much money, to be here. Why couldn’t he have a coffee? She told him that she was waiting near the parking lot. She sat on a stool that the attendant brought out for her.
Half an hour later, Kayvan’s secretary, a tiny twenty-something Chinese girl with an enormous smile and sky blue fingernails, came striding toward her. She was holding a steaming cup of coffee, one that she had clearly just bought. Was it part of her job to read his emails? Was she here for Goli? Goli was about to ask when the girl began to wave her arms as if they had run into each other–accidentally. She lifted her coffee and said that she was on her break. “Ms. Amirzadeh? What an awesome coincidence!” then, too abruptly, “Have you eaten? Let’s grab a bite.”
Strange. Since when does a young lady invite her boss’s mother to dinner?
“Don’t you have to go back to work?” Goli asked. “Is Kayvan in? I’m just in town to visit a colleague and I thought–”
“He’s swamped today, but he won’t mind if I take you out,” said the girl, and took Goli’s arm–another presumptuous gesture. “He’s the best boss, your son. I bet we could expense some sushi or there’s a fancy new fish place just there.”
Goli paused, staring. Her feet ached. Her cheeks chafed from crying–thank god she had reapplied makeup in a bathroom a few blocks south. The secretary plowed forward, “I’ve never eaten there. I’d get to try it.” She added, though it wasn’t at all the natural thing to say, “I can only expense dinner if I’m with a client or someone important to the firm.”
This last thing was a lie–every employee at Kayvan’s firm got a meal after eight o’clock. Goli smiled. Whether or not this rescue was Kayvan’s idea or the girl’s didn’t matter; either now or in the past, Kayvan had explained to her the rules of being a Persian, of a certain age, an Amirzadeh.
Goli nodded and they began to walk, the girl chattering. “How are your sisters,” she asked. Obviously she hadn’t been briefed on everything. “I love your sister Suri. She’s so feisty.” So Suri had visited during this girl’s short tenure. A fire sparked up in Goli’s chest. She remembered Baba Ardeshir’s trip in just a few weeks’ time, all that she had to do. She would need a new camera, new sheets for the beds. Before leaving this city she should stop at Kalustyan’s for dried limes, fenugreek, barberries, and rosewater. Suri wouldn’t hijack Baba’s visit, at least, because of the four, only Goli still practiced, or even valued, Baba’s ways. “I haven’t spoken to Suraya in a long time,” said Goli, her voice growing tired and hoarse.
“Aw, I’m sorry,” said the girl.
Goli shrugged. The beat of silence that followed drew her thoughts to a blossoming hunger–she had been wandering all night. This dinner companion wasn’t her son, but Goli liked clever young people. At home, she spent hours talking with her students, especially the ambitious girls, the ones who reminded her of herself from a time. It wouldn’t hurt to try some nice New York food before heading back, especially if her son was inviting–it made her proud. When Kayvan’s assistant asked where they should eat, Goli collected herself, lifted her gaze to the glimmering field of lit windows overhead, and said, “You choose, dear, it’s your night.”
In the car, Suri and Pari whispered in Farsi as Babak stared out of the backseat window, taking a photo now and then, and beside him Darius pretended to sleep–Suri and Pari knew he was pretending; they hoped he would hear and understand, that they wouldn’t have to actually tell him that he was getting in the way. (Where will he sleep? There are only three rooms, said Suri. There’s the attic room, said Pari; we can put him there. But that means he walks through the other bedrooms for the toilet, said Suri; what about nights? He can share with Babak, said Pari. They’d fight, said Suri. Bizarre, said Pari, as if she was new to everything.)
Darius played along for a while, but after fifteen minutes, eyes still closed, he said, “I understand Farsi, you two. Just simmer. We sleep where we sleep.”
They dropped their bags just inside the front door of the cottage and glanced around, scouting for faults, for tricks of the photos they had seen online. Finding none, they settled in and put on coffee, unpacked Pari’s Tupperware, and began to microwave it all. They moved their suitcases to their bedrooms, the siblings in the upstairs room they had already assigned (Suri can’t sleep in a twin or full. Babak needs a window that opens. Pari takes the other one), Darius in the attic.
“So when is the old man coming?” asked Darius, pouring himself coffee.
“You behave!” shot Pari, scolding-finger aloft. “Baba Ardeshir is the reason we’re all here … in Canada and also everywhere.”
“Thanks to institutionalized child abuse,” said Darius, then muttered, “Fine.”
None of them enjoyed arguing with Pari, whose distracted whimsy often made her seem silly. Actually, she was just too deep inside her own world to know what was obvious to others and what was worth making explicit. (A selection from her Facebook page: I hope those trapped miners don’t die!/ Who used the first chopping board, do you think?/ I think Cézanne was so creative!)
“He’s coming tonight. For dinner,” said Babak, the only one in contact with Goli, whose agenda they followed to the last detail. Babak had forwarded each of Goli’s requests by email, not bothering to hide the places where he had deleted paragraphs. They would travel to Toronto. No, Niagara is nicer, I’ll drive him to you. For three days. No, a weekend, that’s enough time away from his more intimate relations. One by one they had acquiesced to Goli’s every demand. (She’s suffering over Kayvan, said Pari; we could be nicer. Don’t even start on that, snapped Suri.)
Babak toyed with his flip-phone all day, then at sunset informed them that the plans had changed. Baba Ardeshir’s weekend with them would not begin tonight, but tomorrow morning. Maybe they could take this chance to eat out once, since Baba Ardeshir was used to Persian food and would want his meals at home.
“She can’t do that!” said Suri. “This is our time with our baba. It’s outrageous.”
Pari sighed and placed an arm around Suri’s shoulder. Suri shook it off.
“Do you see what she’s doing?” Suri said. “Babak, do you see? She’s trying to hijack things because of me.”
“Relax, you guys,” said Darius, pulling out his smartphone. “Trust me, two days is enough time with an old person you barely know. My second day in Amsterdam I was already–” He retreated into his phone. “I’ll find a restaurant.”
“What Amsterdam?” Suri scowled at Pari. “What’s he talking about child abuse and Amsterdam and all this nonsense?”
Pari shrugged. She was chopping cucumber slices as Suri paced around the kitchen island. “Nobody is sabotaging you,” said Pari, “Stop making everything about that. If you want to talk about it, talk about it.”
Suri gave her sister a wounded look. “You watch what happens tomorrow,” she said. “You just watch.”
“Okay,” said Pari, and tried to move on.
“I found one,” said Darius, showing his phone to Babak. “How about Thai?”
“I’m not hungry,” said Suri, and tried to stomp off.
“Oh stop the drama!” shouted Pari after her. “All this fussing like you’ve been wronged. You caused it, Suri joon. Stop shoving that shit in everyone’s face.”
Now Suri was bounding back from the hallway, “I knew it!” she said. “I knew it. I knew it. You’ve been talking to her!”
“I haven’t,” said Pari, chopping more furiously now. “I just happen to believe that a person’s relationship with their child is sacred–more so than a nephew.”
“Oh no,” muttered Babak, averting his gaze from Suri’s glare.
Unable to hide his elation, Darius put away his phone and pulled a stool to the kitchen island. Yes, they all knew that Goli hated Suri for refusing to provide the smallest detail of Kayvan’s life. And yes, of course, Suri was enjoying her taste of power over her sister. She should have said reassuring things like Kayvan is happy; Kayvan is making real money now; Kayvan works so hard and is respected and you should be proud. She never said anything of the sort. Only my conversations with my nephew are private. So it was no surprise that Goli had axed Suri from her life. And when Pari had rushed to Suri’s defense, Goli had done the same to her and so on down the line. Still, none of them had discussed it this openly.
“It’s weird though,” Darius said, speaking slowly, his sudden friendly tone giving away his eagerness. He reached for a cucumber slice. “She stalks Kayvan online. She went to New York a bunch of times. It’s not normal.” Suri and Pari glanced at each other, neither wanting to confirm for poor Darius that, yes, most mothers are deranged with love; most mothers would chase after their lost son.
“Don’t stir the pot,” Babak whispered to his son; “what’s wrong with you?”
“Online, you can’t call it stalking,” said Pari, as she snapped on the tops of her Tupperware containers and put them in the fridge. “Goli just has trouble with the language. She gets into trouble.”
“But what happened there exactly?” said Darius, salting his cucumber as if it required all his focus. “I mean, I can tell you what Kayvan’s been saying, but, ah …”
“Shut up, Darius,” said Babak, and smacked the top of his head.
At the restaurant, they ordered Pad Thai and Pad See Ewe. Darius drank three cocktails. They shared mango slices with coconut milk and complained about the existence of sticky rice. When Suri failed to pass things, because she was too busy moaning about the injustices in the family, Darius raised his voice so that the next table shushed them. “auntsuri auntsuri auntsuri! pass the pad thai!” When Darius picked a scab inside his ear at the table, Suri smacked his arm away from his head. When Darius began to caress Pari, his fingers dragging up and down her forearm, she laughed, and said, “Don’t even try. I know what you’re doing.”
“I’m just showing you some love, Auntie joon,” he said with a big innocent grin, loosened by drink.
“You’re not,” she laughed and pulled at his earlobe. “You’re scouting!” then she yelped, “OUCH!” when he scratched away one of her many farmwork scabs.
Babak chuckled and kept his eyes on his food. “I know what you’re remembering,” said Suri, and nudged her brother’s shoulder. Neither said more.
When the bill came, Darius didn’t even reach into his pocket. He averted his gaze as the others fought over it. In the ladies’ room with Pari, Suri fumed. (Isn’t he old enough to offer? said Suri. He’s a child; it’s ugly to mention it, said Pari. I think he’s raised badly, said Suri. Obviously; he has no mother, said Pari.)
Suri wanted to drop it. She truly did. Back at the cottage, she set up her laptop to project a movie for them, a Persian-French film called The Past. But as she was preparing snacks, she overheard Babak and Darius whispering in the kitchen, Darius clapping his father’s shoulder, Babak putting his wallet away as a stack of bills disappeared in Darius’s back pocket.
Darius bounded up the stairs to his attic room, taking the steps two at a time. When she was sure he was out of earshot, she stood in Babak’s path, arms crossed, her angry eyes refusing to let his gaze drop. “You’re giving him money?”
Babak took a long, tired breath. “He’s my son.”
“He doesn’t work!” said Suri. “He’s not in school anymore. He should work!”
“Yes, he does,” said Babak, trying to move past her. “He’s writing a book.”
Though she had promised herself she would never mention it again, the half a glass of wine, and the hours of driving, and Goli’s games added up to one thing too many. She spat, almost involuntarily, “But it’s my money you’re giving away.”
Babak went white, and right away Suri regretted her loose tongue. He had only borrowed money from her three times–when Darius was a toddler and his mother left, when he got into Princeton, and then a few weeks earlier, when Babak’s benefits threatened to run out. Now her brother was reaching into his pocket and pulling out his wallet, a thin fraying thing that saddened Suri. “Here, take it back,” he said, unfolding her un-cashed check. “It was my mistake to ask.”
“Oh no, no,” said Suri. “I’m sorry. I just want to be involved with Darius.”
She looked back toward the hall, and someone darted behind a wall. Was Pari listening? Her cheeks wet and covered in black mascara, she retreated to the bathroom, where Darius had left the toilet a filthy streaky mess. As penance, she sprayed and brushed it, then washed her face and slipped out into the hallway.
Darius blocked her path. He held out a hundred-dollar bill. “Baba says this is yours. Here.” Suri batted his hand away. When would he outgrow this aggression?
“You know what your problem is?” said Suri. “You’re lazy and you’re angry at the world for not gaping at your cleverness anymore.” His blooming smirk angered her. She raised her voice and nudged his chest with a blue-tipped fingernail. “You think the world owes you more than people who work hard? Why, because you have more talent? Maybe that’s why Kayvan finished his book and you’re not even close.”
There was a breath of silence, then Darius: “What are you talking about?”
“I don’t know,” said Suri, waving a hand at Darius, who had missed her point. “A family history like we’ve all talked about. He did real research. Sent for books from Iran. Interviewed Baba Ardeshir by phone. The point is he has follow-through.”
Babak and Pari, who until now had been fiddling with the sound system, came rushing into the hall just in time to hear Darius lose his shit. “Fuck you, Suri,” he said. “And fuck him if he wrote a book. From day one he’s been drooling over my plate. Let him have it. That’s not even writing, it’s leeching. All he does is leech. That asshole can’t even write an original sentence. I had to send him Strunk and White.”
“So maybe he’ll thank you in the back,” said Suri, with a hint of glee.
If the fight had ended there, maybe the night could have been saved. Maybe they would have watched The Past and talked about Iranian filmmaking and mourned the great artists together, and Baba Ardeshir would have arrived the next day and they would have reminisced with him too and pulled out old photos to show him. But that’s not what happened. What happened was that Darius fixed his aunt with a vile little glare and said, “It really gets you off, doesn’t it, all the secret talks? If only he weren’t your nephew, right?”
At that, Babak flung himself at his son. And Pari cried out. Suri was clutching her chest as if to keep her organs from tumbling out onto the floor. What sickness had come over her family, a family that had once been a portrait of dignity and wealth, a great family of Tehran and of Iran? And now look at them, nothing was in its place. They were like a sitting room full of upholstered junk, like a charity shop rack, nothing but faded oddities from the past. In the struggle, Babak’s phone fell out of his pocket. It took a full three minutes for anyone to notice that it had auto-dialed Goli, that their older sister was screaming at them from the foot of the couch, where the phone had landed. A fucking cartoon, a shitshow, Darius would say later.
Baba Ardeshir’s arrival was delayed for another day, to Saturday evening. “We can’t do it until you collect yourselves!” The sisters heard Goli’s muffled voice blaring out of Babak’s phone the next morning. “What’s wrong with you people? The man is old and sick! My poor, poor Baba. It’s lucky he won’t remember.”
The next day, Goli called Babak, feigning concern. Should Baba Ardeshir be exposed to such stress? Is too little time left to pack an overnight bag? Maybe he’s more comfortable where he is. Maybe they could come visit one at a time, provided the traitor Suri stays away. Babak pleaded with her in whispers, but Suri, tired of eavesdropping from beyond her half-shut door, stomped out and yelled into his room so Goli could hear, “Tell Flora Khanom that if she doesn’t bring my baba here tonight so I can see him as I planned, I’ll come to her house and sit on the curb until he comes out. Or I can invoice her for the four days it took to drive from Florida.”
Babak palmed the receiver, “Please, Suri, I’m trying to fix things here.”
“Tell her she can’t afford my hourly rate,” shouted Suri, craning her neck.
“Oh God, Suri … just … no more posing.” Babak’s neck was a tangle of knots and jutting nerves. “We know you make money. It’s wonderful.”
Suri let out an indignant huff. “Who’s posing?” she muttered, and turned to go.
Babak whispered to Goli that there was no question of keeping the old man away–Suri would follow through with her threat to show up at Goli’s door. But Babak agreed that maybe it was unwise to uproot him for the night. “Bring him in the morning,” he said; “we’ll show him around and you take him back after dinner.”
But on Sunday Goli didn’t check in all morning. Suri and Pari stormed about, having sat up since eight o’clock, wearing their best clothes, drinking tea, staring at a congealing egg-tomato scramble, Baba’s favorite breakfast. Darius kept brewing tea, never apologizing for his words. At eleven, Pari made them midmorning snacks. Suri and Pari began gossiping, telling each other old stories of Goli. When Babak heard, he walked out, then returned a minute later. “Stop talking about her,” he said.
They stared at him, Pari shelling peanuts with her teeth.
Babak wiped his face with one large hand. “Remember when the break with Kayvan happened?” he said, dropping into a chair, “I went up to Toronto around then a few days before Canadian Thanksgiving.” He paused, as if trying to decide whether to tell them. “She didn’t know I knew yet … about Kayvan and how she’d be alone on Thanksgiving. I told her I couldn’t stay, and she acted offended. Then she dragged me to the grocery store. She said she couldn’t stop her life just because I had showed up and she needed to get ready for Thanksgiving so I had to come along. She bought a turkey and three baskets of vegetables and pie. She did a huge shop for a big pretend family event that was never happening … Do you understand?”
“Oh, god,” said Pari. She had put down the peanuts. Suri was silent. She stared into her teacup. Babak got up and left the table again.
“Fuck,” Darius marveled into his tea.
A little after noon Babak marched back into the kitchen triumphant. “We have a meeting place–a restaurant! Get your stuff, let’s go.”
“He’s coming to lunch?” said Suri, her hand flying to her chest.
“Yes!” said Babak. “Let’s go.”
“Baba is actually getting in a car and coming to us?” said Pari, “Today? Oh my gosh, I’m nervous.” Suri took her sister’s hand and squeezed it. Pari threw her other arm awkwardly around Suri’s shoulder. They scrambled for their purses and jackets. Darius stood, watching, playing with his phone until the women were ready.
Pari drove. From the front seat, Babak navigated, texting Goli now and then.
“What’s she saying?” Suri asked every few minutes, leaning over his shoulder from the back. “Let me see! I want to see!”
“It’s just directions. Jesus, Suri, leave me alone.”
“You’re mouthy lately,” said Suri in scornful Farsi.
Darius plugged his phone into the battery charger, and out came some kind of Buddhist zen music. No one complained. They sat in silence for most of the way.
“What was the name of the restaurant again?” Suri broke the silence.
“Just let him handle it,” said Darius, though no one failed to notice his gentler tone. All day he had refrained from nosy questions or shit-stirring asides.
Babak’s phone vibrated twice. He cleared his throat. “So … ,” he began.
“Don’t even say it,” said Suri, squeezing herself into the space between Pari and Babak. “What is it now? Stuck in traffic? She jumped into the falls? What?”
“Relax, Suri joon,” said Babak. “They’re coming. But he’s getting carsick and they’re just thinking maybe a whole day isn’t wise. And I think maybe that’s right.”
Suri flung herself against her seat. She mumbled under her breath, wiped away a tear and fixed her gaze outside. Pari said, “We all miss him, Suri joon.”
Darius muttered some garbage about his right to answers.
They sat in a handicapped spot in front of the restaurant for a long time, examining every old man and overdressed woman who passed. What color is her hair now? asked Suri. Not red, obviously, she’s too classy for that, said Pari, still bitter about a long-ago photograph.
The sisters sat in silence, phones tucked under chins, staring at their final minutes with their father.
For an hour they waited. They opened the doors, turned on music on low. Babak walked, checked the wheels, dangled an unlit cigarette in his mouth. Darius wrote in his notebook. Suri got out twice to freshen her makeup in the side mirror. Even Pari fumbled with her shawl now and then, applying cream to her cheeks. They waited so long that Suri was no longer satisfied letting Babak control the communication. She fought for his phone, but when she finally got it, he wouldn’t give her the passcode. She tossed it back at him. When Goli called, Babak jumped out of the car and took the call while pacing back and forth on the pavement, looking into shop windows, reading the restaurant menu, lighting up the cigarette, then putting it out in a plant just outside the door.
“Let’s go,” said Babak, as he pulled on his seatbelt.
“Where?” said Suri. “Babak, I’ve had it with this goose chase.”
“Left here, Pari joon,” said Babak.
“I’m with Aunt Suri on this.” Darius patted her arm. She slung off his hand.
They drove another ten minutes, taking local avenues lined with gas stations and tire shops, and a few smaller streets with shops and cafés, until they reached an open parking lot. Babak asked Pari to pull in. When they had parked, he took a deep breath. He started, then stopped, then started again. Finally, he said, his voice calm and unhappy, “I don’t ask you for a lot, right?” he said. Suri was about to demand what the hell was going on, but he raised his hand. “Goli will be here in two minutes. We’re going to take a photo of Baba joon with all of his children. Darius, you’ll take the photo with Goli’s camera. Can we all please be civil?”
“In a parking lot?” said Darius, wrapping his ear buds around his phone.
“And then we take Baba to lunch?” said Pari. “Will Goli just not come? Won’t Baba know we’re fighting?”
But then Goli’s red Honda pulled up beside them, still wet from a car wash, the windows and mirrors gleaming. She got out and opened the back door, began fumbling with Baba’s cane, snapping the three pieces into place. The siblings and Darius were openly peering into Goli’s car, trying to see the old man.
“He knows who I am, right?” said Darius to no one.
“Don’t be silly,” said Suri. “He’s your grandfather.”
“Bastard,” said Darius. “Nobody did all this shit for grandma.” No one responded. In the backseat, their father’s wasted frame shifted toward the door.
Baba Ardeshir was a pile of bones in loose white pants, the few gray hairs left combed neatly to one side. He leaned on Goli’s arm as she led him toward them. Suri touched a finger to her eyelid, but she had no mirror. Pari tried to remember young Baba Ardeshir, how had he looked? But then he smiled that same playful smile and they forgot these concerns. Suri and Pari scrambled out, rushing toward their baba. Afraid to hug him, they kissed his cheeks, and he seemed pleased, the smile, though true to their memories, drawn on his face, almost doll-like. He held Pari’s hand for a long while, then Suri’s, then forgot and asked for Pari’s hand again. He hadn’t forgotten their names, though, not even Darius’s, who flinched and looked away, the defiance gone from his eyes at the sight of the frail, kindly face, its Amirzadeh lines.
Goli stood apart. Babak and Darius kissed her hello, but she didn’t acknowledge her sisters. When Babak suggested that they now take the photo, she said flatly, “This isn’t the right spot. We need two more good cars.”
“Cars?” said Suri. “What cars?”
Goli didn’t answer. When Babak asked, she addressed only her brother and his son. “Your car will do,” she said, glancing at Suri’s royal-blue Toyota. “But that’s only two good cars, and Baba has four children. We need four respectable cars to stand with. He’s taking the photo to Iran. His new family will be curious.”
At that Suri burst into quiet laughter. She shook her head, chuckling into her hand. “I remember now. In Iran Toyotas and Hondas belong to doctors and lawyers. What craziness, Goli, just take the damn photo. No posing.”
Goli just waited. She took Baba Ardeshir’s arm again. In the quiet that followed, Baba Ardeshir coughed twice, and Goli wiped something from his cheek with her thumb, a tenderness that caught Suri in the belly. Baba Ardeshir leaned his face just slightly toward his eldest daughter, the way a sleeping person might, and Suri saw in Goli’s indulgent expression that he wouldn’t remember this lie. He wouldn’t recall whether they were fighting, or if the cars were borrowed, what they had worn, what they had eaten, or even what they did for jobs. This photo wasn’t for him, but for his second wife, his curious other children. He would never think to say, “We walked around looking for cars in a Niagara Falls parking lot,” because by the time he returned home, he would believe them to be his children’s, the better Amirzadehs, the golden offspring of his most excellent days, now wealthy Americans.
Suri and Pari looked at each other, as if understanding this, accepting it, at once. Pari said, “Should Baba rest in the car while we look around?”
“Baba likes walks,” said Goli coldly. Then to Baba, “Baba joon, we’re thinking of taking a walk before the photo to stretch our legs, let the creases fall out. Would you like that?” The old man nodded, and it was agreed.
They spent the next half hour walking through the parking lot, examining other people’s cars, rejecting every possibility with a nod or a nudge. As they walked, the Amirzadeh children chatted with their father. He was retired now, living in Karaj. He had a new wife. He had weekly visits with his doctor. He had planted fruit trees and bought a small piece of land to farm. He avoided politics. Once or twice, they found two clean, new cars, and they stopped. But there was always an unacceptable detail: a baby-on-board sticker, a college plate. The trouble was that they needed two cars and two empty spaces, all in a row, where they could park their own cars. In the nearly full lot, that configuration was nowhere in sight.
Then there was the question of where to take the photo–this they discussed openly, asking the old man’s opinion. Facing the back of the lot, the sun was too bright and there was a sign that displeased Babak. In the far end, they had good light, but Pari spotted a Denny’s in the backdrop. Dumpsters loomed over the other end.
Darius sighed and dragged his feet, often defiantly acknowledging the search aloud, within Baba Ardeshir’s earshot. He suggested they just choose a line of four suitable cars in a suitable place and pose there–no need to look for empty spaces. But Goli insisted that their own cars be included, because, after all, they had to be honest. Then Darius suggested that they wait till someone left, or better yet, compel someone to leave by setting off their alarm. Goli and Suri cut him short, both at once. Goli asked Baba Ardeshir about his fruit trees. Did he have sour cherry?
Darius shrugged, but he continued to offer suggestions, jogging all the way across the lot each time he thought he had found something. Once he was gone for five minutes, and when he returned, he was digging in his pocket. “I know what we can do,” he said. He pulled out his father’s hundred-dollar bills. “Be right back.”
Darius ran toward the valet station behind a short brick wall separating two halves of the lot. He had noticed it coming in. All through the ride, he had struggled to turn off his mind, to watch and let the landscape soothe him. And yet it was impossible not to stick a toe in their roiling bog of drama. Each time an image struck him, he made a note in his phone. He noticed a pair of lace panties stuck to a fence. A man in a suit hastily sweeping his front steps. A perfectly formed dog turd atop a traffic bollard. (How did it get up there? Did someone move it there? Were the dog’s legs taller than the bollard?)
Darius often cringed at the possibility that such details would run out or that he would grow blind to them. He knew that others had seen stranger things, that exile had given them the slant vision he so badly needed, and sometimes they were stingy. And so he pushed them, said uncomfortable things. He craved to get things started (for the fun and the material). He assured himself that drama is life and that nothing is sacred but good writing. Even faced with Kayvan and his hackwork, Darius trusted this belief. And he felt sure that they’d all see it real soon.
But for now, he had a photo to stage, and he hadn’t done that in a decade. Back then, he and Baba would drive out into the countryside and try to insert strangeness into the scene without introducing items that didn’t belong. They would find a broken bike wheel on the roadside and balance it against a fence, or wrap a discarded sweater around a tree trunk. Then they’d wait for a horse to wander by.
From a few yards back, he waved at the valet station, then put his hand down; what a fuckwit thing to do. The two men inside hardly moved. When he stuck his head past the half-open door, a skinny black kid around Darius’s age looked past him for a car while the other, a much older Arab man with a cleft palate and a huge belly, rotated some counting beads and leaned his stool back against the wall.
Darius decided just to get it all out at once. The younger one was starting to look skeptical. “Hey man, can you help me out with a situation?” he said.
“Yeah, what’s up?” said the kid. “Where’s your car?”
“Over on the other side,” said Darius. “Look, so my whole family is over there trying to take a photo for my grandpa who’s probably gonna die like any second.” The kid frowned and so he finished the rest in one breath. “We need two good cars, nice cars, for ten minutes. You can drive it. We’ll take the photo, and I’ll give you fifty bucks.” He pulled out a fifty he had separated from his wad–Aunt Suri’s wad, he bitterly recalled, then he marveled at how simple this craziness had been to explain.
The front legs of the older man’s stool clopped back to the ground. He leaned forward, his belly over his forearms, a little smile blooming on his misshapen lips, revealing a row of teeth so crooked they faced the inside of his cheek; and yet they were gleaming white and his smile was pleasant. “Where you are from?” he said.
“New Jersey,” said Darius. Over the decades he had grown used to answering that question with varying levels of hostility. Now he tried to tone it down. “You?”
“Beirut,” said the older man, his smirk more pointed now. “You?”
“My family’s from Tehran,” said Darius, then surprised himself by adding, “A lot of people drove a long way to make the old man happy. Can you help or not?”
The older valet started to chuckle. He was nodding as he pulled himself to his feet. “In Beirut, we have the same thing,” he said, scanning the keys on the wall. The younger one watched them, bored. “We do this for two hundred.”
“Oh, come on, man,” said Darius. “I’m not asking for Benzes here. Just two clean sedans. Maybe with American plates. A hundred. That’s ten bucks a minute.”
“One-fifty.” The valet patted his belly and burped almost daintily into his hand. He glanced at his friend. “Each. Theo has to drive one. We have to close shop.”
“I have two hundred American,” said Darius. He turned out his other pocket, the one holding the rest of the money. “That’s it. You want it or not?”
Darius hung his head out of the back window of the second sedan as Theo and Akil (there had been introductions) drove into the lot. Seeing his family clustered together on a curb–Pari’s chin in her hand, Goli picking lint off the old man’s jacket, Babak bent forward, his meek gaze on his father’s face–Darius felt a sudden regret; they knew nothing about what was ugly and what was worth keeping, always staging things to death. If he had the camera with him, he would take their picture now, from his vantage point in the car. But then they saw him and his aunts jumped up and whooped, dusting the seats of their pants and pulling Baba Ardeshir to his feet. So much trouble for one senile, child raping bastard. What the fuck was up with the world? And why was Darius getting involved in their crazy? The sedans, one white, one deep maroon, slowed beside Babak, who smiled gently as he peered into Akil’s window. “Hello there,” he said. “Thank you, sir.”
“Yeah, it wasn’t free.” Darius jumped out. “Guys, we have ten minutes.”
Suri and Goli rushed to the other side of the lot, their keys jangling in their hands. They parked the four cars in a shady spot under some trees, arranged themselves in front of the camera, Baba Ardeshir at the center, Goli and Pari holding his hands. Darius turned over Goli’s fancy camera, lining up the shot, adjusting settings. “Wait,” he said, glancing at the borrowed cars. Akil had stayed in the driver’s seat of the white car and Theo was sitting beside him now, his hand dangling out of the window. “Hey man,” he yelled to Theo, “pull in your hand.”
Theo’s hand disappeared. When every crease was straightened, every shoulder pulled back and every smile radiated from the eyes, he snapped a few shots, then stopped and said in Farsi, “I can see Akil’s face in the rearview.” He didn’t want to say more, though the sight of Akil’s catlike mouth unsettled him.
“What?” said Goli, shading her eyes and squinting at him.
“Take the picture, for god’s sake,” said Pari.
“I’m just saying Akil and Theo … ,” Darius began, then stopped. “Never mind.”
What the fuck did he care? It was all fake, anyway, and ugly and messy and broken. Not just this shot or this day, but the old man and his kids and life.
When the photo was taken and the valets gone, Goli led Baba Ardeshir back to her own car. No one suggested lunch. Darius didn’t insist on grilling the old man. Baba Ardeshir said good-bye to his children, kissing them one by one on the cheeks and forehead. Darius followed Suri’s glance to Babak, who stood with hands in pockets, staring at his shoes. It was clear now that he had known all along. Imagine that–Baba had tricked him and the lesser gorgons. There was never a weekend planned. Baba Ardeshir didn’t have an overnight bag waiting at Goli’s–he could hardly stand. They had rented a cabin that barely fit them, let alone a geriatric with devices and medicines and shit. The sisters had probably imagined a younger version of him, a father they had known when they were Darius’s age; maybe that younger Baba Ardeshir would have shared a room with Babak, or stayed up all night with his children, drinking wine, telling stories. Darius hung back. He repacked Goli’s camera piece by piece, leaving them to say good-bye to their father alone.
Later, back in their homes, from their kitchen telephones, Suri and Pari spoke often about that bizarre day in the parking lot. They talked about Goli’s stubbornness, how everything had to go her way. They remembered how hard they had worked, getting the details just right, and how Goli had never thanked them. By the time Darius had disappeared to get the valet, they had grown tired, and Baba Ardeshir’s smile was beginning to fade, his eyes fluttering a little. He had leaned on his cane, and on Goli, shifting back and forth between them.
They had eased their baba onto the curb, then sat beside him, two on each side, Babak holding his cane. They had talked of Iran in the fifties, the sixties, the seventies, about the fine clothes Baba’s tailor used to make, the cream puffs at the local bakery, the exciting music. But Goli was silent. Babak had talked more than usual. Suri had offered Goli a drink of her water. Goli had cleared her throat. “No thanks,” she had said. (I bet they planned the whole thing on one of their Monday talks, said Pari. Maybe Miss Flora took a breath between floggings to actually talk to him, said Suri. But would we have gone if they’d told us … all that way for a photo? said Pari. Of course we would have! said Suri; Baba wanted it.)
Weeks later, Goli mailed them prints. A canopy of rounded leaves framed the top, giving the rest of the photo an illusion of privacy. Just below, the Amirzadeh children in their best clothes, their cars in reds and blues suggesting freedom and hard work and good upbringing. The image was crisp, taken on the highest-quality camera and printed on thick paper. It showed the fine stitching on Suri’s rose jacket, the healthy bronze of Pari’s cheeks, the distinguished laugh lines around Babak’s mouth, the many shades of black and brown in their hair. Baba Ardeshir looked proud, content, holding his folded cane in one hand like the handle of a briefcase. If you squinted, you could almost read the license plates from tranquil places–Florida, Toronto, Montreal, Vermont. You could almost smell the leather upholstery. It wouldn’t be so hard to imagine the places these cars had carried their owners. And look, two of them had tinted windows, and if you looked closely in the rearview, it seemed one of them even had a driver. It was an image to admire, to frame and display on a wall: a venerable and dignified family of Tehran, removed from their country but, as if by habit, ensconced in small beauties. Except for one detail.
Five minutes after she tore past the envelope, Pari dialed Suri’s number, fingers trembling. Now that she had spotted it, it dominated the photo and she saw nothing else.
“Did you see it?” Pari whispered.
“How could I not?” said Suri. “I’m looking at it right now.”
The sisters sat in silence, phones tucked under chins, staring at their final minutes with their father. In the tangle of linked arms and graceful elbows all covered in fine fabric, Goli’s hand rested on Suri’s forearm, her fingers closing together in a secret pinch.
It was a perfect photo, without blemishes, everything in its place.
Dina Nayeri is the winner of an O. Henry Prize and an NEA literature grant. Her work has recently appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal, and has been translated into fourteen languages.
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