WHERE OUR HEARTS ARE (Complete Story)
WHERE OUR HEARTS ARE
Mina reread Tom’s letter.
With you all the way in Tehran, the apartment, Columbus, feel empty...
Phone connections had been difficult during the six weeks she had been in Iran. Either international lines rang busy or there was no connection. There was no internet connection in her mother’s house, in the whole neighborhood. She and Tom were communicating by letters. She put the letter on the mantle; it landed next to a prism she had used in a class presentation when she was in high school. In fact the room was in many ways the same-- the blue carpet with intricately designed patterns, the embroidered bedspread, the peach colored walls-- as it was twenty years ago when she lived there. The sounds from the Moghadessi Alley outside of the window were the same too-- children’s voices as they played soccer or marbles on the sidewalk, a cat mewing, the blacksmiths banging on metal in the nearby bazaar. She liked being there among the familiar sights and sounds, something she hadn’t felt during her adolescent years when she yearned to leave home.
She was back there now to attend to her mother’s affairs. She managed to get a visa, persisting in her attempts, after receiving a letter from a relative that her mother was losing her memory and needed help. Her mother, sixty-five, would be too young for that had it not been for a minor stroke. There were no siblings to share the responsibility with. Her father had died. Her mother’s younger brother, sixty three, lived far away in Kashan and her older sister, now seventy, was in a nursing home due to a physical disability.
Tom hadn’t come with her; it was impossible for an American citizen to get a visa. Just as well, she thought. He would have been bored and restless, not speaking Farsi. And she would be too busy with different tasks. This had turned out to be a good time for her to come. She was going to night school at a university in Columbus, getting a degree in health management and working part time at a bakery. But now in late May the semester was over and the bakery had closed for renovation. Added to her urgency to come was the fact that she hadn’t seen her father during the last days of his life. He had died of malaria, caught in Egypt when he traveled there for his caviar exporting business. It wasn’t diagnosed in time and it had killed him quickly, before she could even try to get a visa. She still missed her father; he was able to bring a smile to people’s faces even at times of tragedy.
She was pleased that in the few weeks she had been in Iran her mother’s spirits had lifted and she wasn’t as withdrawn or forgetful as when she just arrived. Her mother lived in a three- story house, with three independent apartments, connected by an outside stairway. She lived on the third floor and rented out the other two. But the tenants of the first floor had left and Mina found a woman, Fatemeh, and her seven year old son, Ali, to live there rent-free in return for taking care of some of her mother’s daily needs, cleaning and shopping and cooking. Mina had had repaired the chipping edges of the courtyard pool and had asked Fatemeh to plant flowers in the four beds around the pool. That settled, Mina now was trying to set straight her mother’s jumbled finances.
Fatemeh came to the door and said, “I’ll be serving tea. Your mother is up from her nap.” Mina went into the living room and found her mother sitting on the sofa. Her mother had made the ell of the spacious living room into her bedroom and kept Mina’s room intact, as if she expected her to return any day and live there. It was sad that her mother was so frail. Once she had been energetic, never sitting still, running the household, gardening, embroidering, entertaining relatives and friends. One of her embroideries, of two ducks by a pond, was hanging on the wall behind her. Fatemeh came in, accompanied by Ali. They were carrying a samovar, a tea pot, cups and saucers, and cookies. She was a tall heavy-set woman with strong arms. Mina liked that, thinking she could take good care of her mother. Fatemeh and her son arranged everything on the coffee table, alongside of a bowl of rock sugar and a geranium pot.
“Stay and have tea with us,” Mina said to them.
“Thank you but we have a lot to do,” Fatemeh said. “What do you want for supper?”
“Today is vegetarian day. Make kuku and cucumber and yogurt salad.”
They left and Mina poured the concentrated tea from the pot into cups, then she added water from the samovar’s faucet. Her mother managed to put rock sugars into her own cup and stir the tea with a spoon.
“Would you like to watch a program on TV?” Mina asked.
“There’s nothing good on TV,” her mother said. “All propaganda.”
“We have to get satellite TV,” Mina said. That was the only way to get foreign programs. Though satellite dishes were illegal, most people had them, hidden in attics or roofs.
“For years I didn’t see you.” her mother said, repeating what she had said several times.
”You know how hard it is to get visas,” Mina said again. Mina had been home only twice since she left. She looked at the framed family photograph hanging on a wall. Her mother and father sat on a chair, she their only child in front of them. In the picture her mother had all her dark wavy hair, now a fuzz of gray. Her father had a pile of curly brown hair, hazel eyes, and that winning smile she liked so much. She herself had her mother’s dark hair and eyes but a more dreamy expression. She loved her mother but had never looked to her as a role model-- subordinating herself to her husband, with no aspirations of her own beyond being a good mother and wife. When Mina approached her last year of high school, some of her classmates were striving to go to universities, particularly ones in Europe and America, where they thought they would be more encouraged as girls to be independent. Then her advisor in high school told her about scholarships available at Oberlin College in Ohio. She applied and got in and was granted a full scholarship, including tuition, room and board. Her parents had gone along with her leaving for college in America, believing that she would get over her restlessness and return home, they would arrange marriage for her with a suitable man and she would give them grandchildren. They had been unable to have more children; grandchildren would take care of some of that yearning. How little they knew then that she would marry an American man and stay in America, that visits would become nearly impossible for long stretches of time and that she would be childless. After a miscarriage she had been unable to get pregnant and now at the age of thirty-eight the chances were even more slim.
“I’ll take you to the porch,” she said to her mother after they were finished drinking their tea. She helped her get up and took her to the porch that extending out from the living room. Her mother walked with a cane because of the knee pain she had developed. She liked to sit on the rocking chair in the shade of the plum and apple trees and watch the activities on the street on the other side of the courtyard-- people coming and going from the mosque whose large blue dome dominated the view, vendors hawking their merchandise from trays balanced over their heads. I have the reddest tomatoes at the lowest prices, practically free.
Soon after settling her mother on the porch, Mina left the apartment to go to the courthouse. They would be open now after the long midday siesta. She wanted to check on the progress of the law suits her mother had set in motion and now was unable to manage. Her mother had lent money to a rug merchant who wasn’t returning it now that she needed it. Tenants of an apartment she owned on the other side of the city had not paid their rent for months.
As she entered the second floor hallway, Massoumeh, the tenant of that apartment opened her door and said to her, “Can I talk to you for a few moments? Please come in.”
Mina went in and Massoumeh offered her fruit from a bowl.
“I’ve had too much to eat already, thank you,” Mina said and sat down on the chair that Massoumeh pulled out for her from behind a table. A pile of army uniforms lay on the floor next to a sewing box. To supplement her income Massoumeh sewed buttons on the jackets. Her husband was a retired doctor but also he had two wives, Massoumeh being the second. It was expensive for him to run two households. He spent every other night with his first wife who had more of a hold on him. Massoumeh having no children and a husband who was away a lot, often came up and talked to Mina and her mother.
“Fatemeh has an eye on my husband,” she said now. “She comes to my apartment with one excuse or another when he’s home and flirts with him. He’s taken by her, loves the flattery. I’ve seen a lot of men coming and going from her apartment. Who knows what kind of people they are?” With her slender figure and regular features, Massoumeh was as delicate as Fatemeh was crude.
“You’re so much more attractive than Fatemeh,” Mina said, by way of consolation.
“Her son is in trouble,” Massoumeh said, following her own thoughts. “Who wouldn’t be with that kind of mother? He skips school and wanders the streets.” She added in a whisper, as if afraid someone was listening just outside of the door, “Fatemeh sells her body. I don’t know if you can trust her with your mother when you leave the country. I’d look for someone else.”
“It isn’t easy. It doesn’t seem to be like the old days. No one is willing to be a servant,” Mina said.
“You should get someone from the villages.”
“I’ll have a talk with Fatemeh,” Mina said, though she wasn’t sure what she would say exactly. She had no evidence that Fatemeh entertained men or flirted with Massoumeh’s husband. Anyway Fatemeh’s relationships with men were not her business. But still now she was no longer so sure that she could trust Fatemeh to care for her mother.
“I didn’t know my husband had another wife when I married him,” Massoumeh said. “And now I’m trapped.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Mina said, getting up. “I should be going now before offices close.”
She walked to Valiasr Avenue and waited for a taxi; a bus would take too long and taxis were very cheap in Iran. But none were stopping. It was a pleasant day with a breeze blowing, making it easier for her to bear the mandatory scarf and long sleeved, long skirted rupush, an alternative to a chador, a dress code the government imposed on women. Persimmons hung on tree branches like ornaments. The air was vibrant with the voices of people roaming around, music coming out of car radios. But she felt a heaviness in her heart from her conversation with Massoumeh, not only because of heightened concern, but also because it had reminded her of her own problems. She had gone all the way to the other side of the world to find a better life, yet she felt just as trapped as Massoumeh was. Her mind went back to that afternoon when she had come home from work, earlier than Tom had expected, and found a young woman in the house with him. Their clothes, hair, were rumpled-- it seemed they had just gotten out of bed. He introduced the woman to her in an awkward way, then the woman left in a hurry. He told Mina he was collaborating with her writing a script that they were hoping to sell to a TV channel.
“Come on Tom!”
He turned on the TV and started watching it.
“I want an honest explanation,” she said, going over the TV and turning it off with an angry motion. “Don’t try to brush this aside.”
“She means nothing to me. We’re just friends,” he said in a nonchalant way that was only making her more furious.
“Then why didn’t I ever hear her name mentioned before?” She had gone into the bedroom, opened a suitcase, and started to pack. She thought she would stay in the bed-and-breakfast near the bakery where she worked.
In a moment Tom came into the room. “It’s really nothing. I won’t have anything to do with her any more,” he said. He suddenly started to cry. “It’s been so frustrating, with no decent jobs.”
When she had met Tom, they had been attracted to each other mainly because they came from such different worlds. They had been carefree together then, laughed a lot. After they had been going out for a few months, they arranged for her to stay the night in his apartment. She went to a department store and bought a black nightgown with lace trim and matching underpants, a shimmering pink satin bathrobe, pink satin slippers. She wanted to look sexy when she woke in his apartment the next morning.
“You look like a model,” he said. “Aren’t young women in your country forbidden to have sex?”
“Yes, except with their husbands.”
“Well, let’s get married then, I’m in love with you, you know that.”
“I’m in love with you too,” she said, thinking how that phrase was more meaningful now that he had proposed.
They got married by a justice of the peace and had a small reception at a friend’s apartment. Her parents hadn’t been able to attend because of the visa situation. His parents were in Japan for his father’s business-- an engineer at Toyato. His two siblings, younger brothers, were living in Hawaii and he had never been close to them anyway. She and Tom had been relieved in some ways not to have their families there, as that could have led to frictions. But she had also felt intensely lonely and full of guilt that her parents weren’t a part of this important affair. Tom didn’t feel that way. He said, “Parents are sometimes glad not to be a part of their grown children’s lives. Less responsibility for them.”
Gradually tension began to build up between them. She mainly attributed the change in him to his sense of failure as a film maker and their financial problems. He had a good income at the beginning of their marriage working as a film editor for a TV serial. They had bought a two bedroom apartment just outside of Columbus and a second car. But after that initial success he only got occasional work. A lot of the trees on their block had been cut down to widen the street and that had made the neighborhood deteriorate and so they couldn’t sell the apartment except for much reduced price since they bought it. He used the differences between their cultures as a tool to attack her. His remarks were hurtful. “In Iran women are secondary to men, why are you so superior with me,” he said, after she had suggested that he should go back to school at night and get a more practical degree as she was doing-- her degree in communication had turned out to be as impractical as his in film.
Then there was the painful miscarriage. One day she had started bleeding heavily and fainted. He had taken her to the emergency room of the closest hospital. The baby had been a mere embryo. All the bleeding and the thought of having flushed away the embryo had been traumatizing and haunted her for days. During that period Tom went out to a bar in the evenings, drinking by himself or with people he causally met there. She wondered if the isolation she and Tom felt from each other and most people contributed to their problems. Having mainly part time jobs didn’t allow time to become friends with colleagues; having no children kept them apart from people in their neighborhood whose activities revolved around their children; they were far apart from their own families. They patched up things but clearly the wounds were there. Finally a taxi stopped and she got in. The driver was a woman. Mina gave her the courthouse’s address.
“I take someone there every day,” the driver said. “In this city everyone has problems.”
“People have problems everywhere,” Mina said.
“Where do you come from, you have an accent?”
“I live in America.”
“What brings you here if you have America?”
The driver reconsidered, “Home is where our hearts are.”
A policeman stopped the driver and asked her to show him her license.
“Move on,” the policeman said rudely after she showed it to him.
“They can’t bear to see a woman driving,” she said to Mina.
Then they were at the courthouse. Mina gave the driver a good tip, got out.
The marble-covered walls and floor and a gold-rimmed chandelier hanging from the ceiling in the courthouse’s waiting room pointed to a once richer and more glorious Iran.
She took a numbered card from the clerk and sat on a bench next to two women who were talking to each other. One of the women was there to file a request to increase compensation from the government for having lost a husband in the war with Iraq. “With so much inflation, I’m hoping for more,” she said. The young woman next to her wanted to file suit to gain custody of her son who had automatically gone to her husband when they got divorced.
It was already four o’clock and the courthouse closed at five. The numbers were going very slowly and there were at least ten ahead of her.
“I’m really sorry for the inconvenience,” an official said, coming to the middle of the room. “It’s five o’clock. You’ll have to return tomorrow. Hold on to your numbers.”
She got up and left.
In Moghadassi Alley people were coming and going from their houses. A young man passed on his bicycle, carrying a loaf of sangag bread. He smiled at her and she smiled back. He reminded her of a boy she had a crush on when she was in high school, and who seemed to have a crush on her too. But neither of them took the initiative to break the rigid rule against a relationship. She wondered if the boy was still living in the alley. She knew many of the young people had married and left and some of the older people had died but some remained. She hoped to find Farogh, who had attended the same elementary and high school with her. They did homework together and then sometimes Farogh stayed over in her house. On hot nights they would go on the flat roof and watch the neighborhood boys fly kites. When it was their sleeping time they withdrew under the mosquito net her mother set up for them on the roof and lay on mattresses side by side. They looked at the bright stars and talked about their future dreams. Farogh didn’t share her restlessness. She wanted to get married as soon as a suitable husband came along and settle down, have children. In fact she had gotten married in the last year of high school to a pharmacist’s assistant. When Mina was leaving for America and went to say good-bye to her, she said, “How can you bear to live so far away from your family and friends.” She wondered if Farogh was happy now. Or had she developed a different perspective?
When she entered the house, she saw Fatemeh was in the courtyard rinsing clothes under the pool’s faucet. Ali and another boy were sitting on a rug, playing a card game.
“Your uncle Mohammad is here from Kashan,” Fatemeh told Mina.
Mina dashed to the stairway and climbed up rapidly, eager to see her uncle to whom she had been very attached as a child. He was sitting on one of the chairs by the dining table with a suitcase next to him. Her mother was asleep. He smiled at seeing Mina and got up to embrace her. How frail and old they all had grown-- he and her mother and her aunt whom she had visited in the nursing home. His eyes were heavy-lidded and his hair all gray. One of his eyes that had been blind now looked empty. When he had been a young boy he used to hunt pigeons with a bow and arrow and an arrow had hit that eye. “God punished me for shooting innocent animals,” he said. He had stopped hunting and then stopped eating meat.
As she sat with him now, they slowly filled each other with their lives. The expressions on his face and the nuances of his voice brought back the familiar uncle. He had been so attentive to her when he came to visit them. He took her to the amusement park, played card games with her. He made shadow pictures on the wall with his hands.
An hour or so later, when they were all eating dinner, her uncle and mother talked about their childhood. “Do you remember when Father brought us those clay animals and dried cherries from his trips?” “Do you remember we used to shake the mulberry tree in the courtyard and the fruit came down in a white stream?” He was only one-and-a-half years younger than this sister and they had been very close as children.
Mina saw how they each came out of their solitudes, and she felt good being a part of their transformation.
It was clear to Mina that her uncle hoped to stay on. He had lost his wife to cancer and had no children because she had been past child-bearing age when they married. He was lonely. He also had little money left to live on independently. He had worked as a clerk in the city hall in Kashan and his whole income, now that he was retired was a small pension. His wife, before she died, brought in some money by baking bread in a deep stone oven they had in their basement and selling it to the neighborhood people. He had other problems, the most serious, he told Mina, was that he had hepatitis which had done irreparable damage to his liver.
Moving in with his sister was the best option, Mina thought.
She cleared a corner of the large walk-in closet. She took out one of the folding cots from the closet and put it in a corner of the living room for him to sleep on. As she rummaged through the closet for a blanket and pillows she came across a box full of toys-- the rag dolls that had been hers, a lacy pink dress with a white collar she recalled she loved to wear. How happy and carefree those childhood days were.
“I wish Maryam was here with us rather than in the nursing home,“ her uncle said to her one morning.
Maryam was the oldest sibling. Relatives had put her in the nursing home after she had fallen and broken her hip. Her husband had been very old and died years ago. Her two daughters had married and emigrated to other countries. Some female relatives had hoped to take her into their own homes, but then their husbands had objected on the grounds that they themselves had other dependants they wanted to take in. Mina’s mother had already started to lose her memory and her uncle had been developing the illness that was incapacitating him.
As soon as her uncle suggested it, it seemed like a good idea to take her aunt out of the nursing home and let her live here. Maryam too used to lavish attention on her-- making her rag dolls, telling her stories of ancient kings and princesses. Mina used to be happy when she came home from school to have her as well as her mother there. She sat close to them, in the radiance of their love for each other and for herself. Her mother used to love having her sister there too. She would have to give Fatemeh more than just a rent free apartment to take care of all the three but she was sure she would be happy to stay on. And if she didn’t maybe she would take Massoumeh’s suggestion and try her best to find someone from the villages. But Fatemeh agreed to stay. Mina cleared out another closet and set up another cot in the corner of the room for her aunt. Then she took Fatemeh with her to the nursing home and they brought Aunt Maryam home. As soon as her aunt was in the living room Mina knew that it was the right thing to have done. Though Maryam too was frail and still had a hard time walking, her face had become alert and radiant now that she was there with her siblings and Mina. “I always loved you as much as my own daughters,” she reminded Mina.
Daily Mina was aware of magical moments of closeness between the three siblings. They prayed together three times a day, ate together, sat on the porch and talked. They even liked sleeping in the same room in close proximity to each other.
She put some of what she had learned in health management courses into use taking care of them. She constructed balanced menus for them. She made sure her uncle went out for a walk every day and she took her mother and aunt into the courtyard so that they could enjoy the flowers and tumbling of goldfish in the pool. She helped the three to take showers.
Days were going by and she wasn’t making any plans to go back to Columbus.
She wrote to Tom:
... I can’t come back just yet. My mother’s financial affairs aren’t settled. Also I want to make sure, before I leave, that the woman taking care of some tasks here is working out well. The household has expanded to include my aunt and uncle, who also need care.
She went on to describe the daily routine she had established for them, though she wasn’t sure if Tom would be interested in any of the details. What she really wanted to say to him was how happy she was to have regained her connection with her childhood but then that wouldn’t be complete, without her telling him also that she liked this situation than her life with him.