“You’re not leaving like that, are you?”
Roya Sanjabi had gotten as far as the doorknob when her husband Omar’s voice suddenly rose a little too loud from behind the couch.
It was an important day, a day of many firsts. They had arrived in Los Angeles only a month before and in that time period Roya had gotten a job, Omar had gotten a job, and the three children were all enrolled in the local public school — the younger girls in 5th grade, the older daughter in 8th. They were off to their first day of school and Roya was off to work. Only Omar was staying home — his first day of work wasn’t until the end of the week.
It happened to be the type of bright September day — obnoxious cloudless Southern California sunshine that bleached out the landscape — that heralded firsts like a bomb siren.
In any case, Omar, because he was seated by the unactivated television, with the plate of feta cheese and lavash bread and cup of overly sweetened tea that his wife had hastily shoved his way before getting dressed, had some time — and time specifically to take notice of what Roya was wearing. He had never seen it before. It was a different kind of ensemble: loud, flashy, tasteless, provocative, trashy. It was not his wife.
“What do you mean?” she snapped just as the three children filed in towards the door and then to a dead halt, at the very tone of their mother’s voice. It seemed to them that she had known to expect this — her level of exasperation indicated that. The hands on her hips indicated a rehearsed defensiveness. The clothes were new and intended for her work day inauguration and so she was insecure, Omar could also tell.
“Do you really think you’re going out like that?” Omar tried to chuckle in a way that was meant to make light of it at first — tactic #1 — but instead it sounded like the taunt of a movie villain, sinister, queer, a Where do you think you’re going, little lady- type non-question that went perfectly with his twitching smile.
He was making himself nervous and so he looked to the children, at their six wide eyes, and tried to smile, bigger, friendlier, daddier.
“Yes, I do,” Roya retorted, shooting back a smile, a bold, defiant smile that matched the get-up perfectly — the beam of a lioness with her bristly brass strut, a butterfly with her overly-celebrated heedless flutter. “We are going to be late, you know. I am dropping off the kids — 8:15 their school starts — first elementary, then junior, and then I have to go to work. I don’t have time for this, Omar. Get over it.”
Get over it. He breathed deeply. He did not want to alarm the children — he could imagine what a first day would be like for any kid, never mind his little Iranian immigrant kids, about to take the huge leap into a new culture, with their broken English, their interlaced fingers and those ever-wide eyes. He kept breathing like that. It was going to be okay. But one thing was for sure: She was not going out like that.
“Well, Roya,” he began, very quietly, their eyes, all four of the women in his life’s eyes, piercing his vision like sequins in the sunshine, “the thing is, nobody is going anywhere with you like that.”
She let go of the knob and let out a groan. “Then nobody is, because I don’t see anything wrong with this. How about that?”
Asal, the loudest of the bunch, immediately let out a whine: “Mother, Father, we can’t be late to our first day. Please.”
“Shut it, Asal,” Marmar, the oldest, snapped. Her modus operandi with the parents was always the same: Nobody but Marmar interferes.
Arezoo, the most fragile, just stood there as she always did, with her thumb in her mouth, mortified. To everyone’s disconcertment, she had given up hiding her little vice shortly after they left Iran, just as she had defeatedly stopped beating herself up over her other one: bedwetting.
“Darlings, your father is going to snap out of it,” she cooed, as she gave Asal a playful tousle of the hair. With a risky slow-motion prudence she reached again for the knob. “You are all ready, have everything? Arezoo, tie your shoes. Mar, help her…”
But before her painted nails could touch the brass, Omar stepped in between her and the door. Suddenly her palm was against his stiff torso. “Children, go to your rooms,” he ordered.
“Father, we are going to miss school,” Marmar spoke up, ignoring her little sister’s untied laces. “What do we do then? It’s our first day. First day of American school, Daddy!”
Lately she threw an English daddy into her Farsi on occasion, no doubt to irk him. It did. He found it defiant and a bit intimidating and yet somewhat to be expected, since Marmar had reached the dreaded teen-age at last. Still, Marmar was his prime ally, so he rarely chastised her about anything.
He ignored her. “Children, to your rooms! I will explain to your schools. Most kids would die not to go to school. Enjoy it. Go, I said, go! Now, Marmar, good girl, Arezoo! Asal, hurry! Your mother and I have to talk about something.”
“Marmar, I feel weird. . .” Arezoo was whispering as they all, head bowed down as if in a funeral march, stumbled into their one shared room.
With the kids gone, Omar double-locked and chained the door and stood in front of it. She would have to go completely primitive on him to claw her way out. But he knew what was the truth: she was going nowhere, her first day of Nothing.
“I am not changing, Omar,” she hissed, trying to keep her voice low. The children were no doubt listening at their door, she imagined. “You gave me money to buy clothes and I bought them — American clothes. What did you expect — chador? Roosari? Manteau?”
He looked deep into her eyes and just breathed. “Roya,” he bargained, doing his best to keep the peace, “Roya, you know better. Now make it easier for everyone on this very important day and please change. Now.”
She suddenly began laughing, a sharp, high, grating laugh, that the children would definitely be hearing. Let them hear, she thought. Let all of America hear. “I thought we left the Islamic Republic, Omar!” she snorted.
“I thought so too,” he murmured and stepped away from the door, just after she began walking, in those heels, with that bag, under all that junk, to their one couch and simply sat.
“Well?” she sighed, taking a leisurely sip of the sickly sweet tea and then staring at the stucco heavens, as if bored. The terms were of no surprise–they were used to this after years and years in that place, but coming from him and in front of all of them, it was more shocking than she let on. She decided the only way to deal with it was to resist letting on, and so she mustered a wobbly smile. “I have my whole life, dear…”
The children were of course listening, all three sets of right ears pressed against the door. “What are we going to do?” Asal demanded to know.
“Stay calm,” Marmar ordered, the general of the bunch, like she had heard movie generals of bunches command. “Just stay calm.”
“They are going to kick us out of America,” Arezoo whimpered.
“They are not!” Asal shouted. She bit her lip and paused. “They can’t, right, Marmar?”
“Well, no,” said Marmar. “They won’t. But children are supposed to go to school. I mean, one day can’t do that much. But still. They are being really stupid!”
“Daddy is a monster, Daddy is a monster, Daddy is a monster,” Arezoo, who had always harbored a fear of Omar, began repeating in loops until Asal gripped her shoulders with both hands, demanding, “Snap out of it — he’s actually a good man. Right, Marmar?”
She didn’t answer. She was too busy blocking their voices out. For her ultimately Asal and Arezoo were really two shades of the same person — Asal with a pinch more common sense, Arezoo with a pinch more hysteric melancholy. Asal with a slightly less intelligent sense of over-entitlement, Arezoo with a propensity towards rock-bottom existential humility. They were devil and angel, incomplete on their own, but as a unit just barely a person, each scrawny body and thin oily head of hair making just a regular grubby girl. So when they both began to cry in perfect unison — both for opposite reasons: Asal, for universal order giving way to some incalculable chaos; Arezoo for the sins of all mankind and impossibility of world peace — it was easy enough for Marmar to block them out, just one lengthy scale, soprano cacaphony, overlaid with the slightest hint of harmonization.
Asal and Arezoo were twins. Asal meant “honey” in Farsi (the condiment, not the term of endearment) and Arezoo meant “Desire.” Somehow the confection and caprice of both their names were aptly antagonized by the gravity of Marmar’s name: “marble.” Roya and Omar wanted to give them simple names, like theirs, that could be pronounced in the Western world, where they knew they were going to one day or another call home. At the very least they needed names that weren’t easily derisive or controversy-inducing, like Roya’s favorite Neggar (“sweetheart”) or Omar’s preferred Nazee (“cute.”) Omar, on the other hand, meant many things: “life,” “speaker,” “one who flourishes.” He wasn’t sure — all he knew was that he was named after Omar Sharif, the actor, who was in “Doctor Zhivago,” a movie that was very popular in Iran around the time of his birth in 1967. His mother Esmat (“pure”) and father Abbas (“frowning”) were crazy about Sharif (“noble” — a Farsi name as well, Arabic in root, also popular with Egyptians, like Omar Sharif). Roya’s mother Ghazal (“ode,” or “gazelle,” depending on pronounciation) and father Ghasem (“distributor”) had never seen a movie, or so she thought, and so to Roya it made sense that they named her “dream.”
Sanjabi meant “of the squirrels,” after the Sanjabi tribe in Kurdistan, who were in turn named after that particular variety of squirrel, Sciurus anomalus (Persian squirrel), one of the ten species of tree squirrel that was indigenous to their region.
Aside from the issue of their names, so far they had all decided they could fit into California, individually all taken that oath in their first month. They weren’t so different from the Mexicans — same dark hair, same big dark eyes, same bad English, same loud voices. They could relate to the Chinese’s conservative tastes and attention to etiquette and punctuality. The Black People’s righteous indignation, they had that in them somewhere too. Like the blonde Americans, they too had left an Old World for the New — they were like their ancestors. It wasn’t so hard. The pot had melted, any new ingredients would burn away in the boil too.
But that morning of September 9th, at 7:52 a.m., when Omar Sanjabi’s back made contact with the front door of their modest $900-a-month, two-bedroomed, single-bathed, East Side apartment, they all felt it. Suddenly they were like no one else. They were alone and alone in this together — like the double curse of the twins, Marmar thought, here was the quadruple curse of each family member’s ill-adjustment to life: Arezoo’s emotional underdevelopment, Asal’s two-dimensional thickness, Omar’s tendency towards illogical rages, and Roya’s iron-fisted tenacity misplaced that day on an issue of attire, whatever the hell that meant that was so important it deserved doing their undoing — no, Marmar couldn’t even take a moment to consider that it could all possibly be on her, the oldest sibling, the textbook scapegoat, the alleged problem-solver, the 13-year-old that was supposed to be the glue that bound 40-year-olds with 10-year-olds, no, Marmar, had seen it all but this — this – it was different. Something was very wrong with the picture.
In just a few hours, the day had taken the turn of, say, any other day in their previous “vacation” month in America — the way a Friday (but without the calls to prayer) would have looked back home. Roya got on the phone and ordered a pizza, since Omar insisted that he wouldn’t even let her out to drive to a McDonald’s. No way, you’re not going to pull that one on me. I was not born yesterday, old girl. So she shrugged and dialed Domino’s and called the girls, who were busy doing their usual summer vacation thing of getting through a boring board game, that Arezoo only floated in and out of, opting instead to focus on dumping orange juice down her doll’s mouth and watching it come out of her perfectly hole-punched crotch and onto her and Asal’s comforter.
With worried eyes, they took their seats for lunch. Marmar’s eyes had a mix of concern and fake consolation. Like a tic, genuine anxiety would come and go — this is really happening — extinguished by the lie of goodwill — pizza is a celebration food — a trade-off trick that she had already picked up from adults.
Their mother, to their surprise, looked fine. She was wearing the same thing and she even had a tight smile plastered on. Their father also seemed normal, for the most part. His face looked peaceful, like someone who was extremely exhausted from a day full of taxing errands.
It was 11:30 a.m.
“Will you talk to our teachers?” Marmar finally broke the silence, between chews of her fifth or sixth slice. She was nearing the end of growth-spurt season and the past year’s chubbiness was beginning to spread itself out. She was siding with her mother in this. So far. Sure, she looked different, but it did not warrant house-arrest.
“Oh, yeah,” her mother nodded, brandishing a bloody crust. “Don’t worry. We will say you got sick. It happens! We can’t quite get into your crazy dad and his crazy ways, can we?”
Marmar shook her head, eyeing Omar from the corner of her eye.
Calm, strangely calm.
“Marmar, remember not to eat just to eat, only as much as you need to feel fed,” Omar said, softly, very softly. “We may need to save some for later, you know.”
They did: four slices. It wasn’t enough for dinner — they were five, and there was Marmar’s appetite to make up for the fact that the twins could live with sharing a single slice. Roya decided to add some saltines to the mix and to make a small salad with whatever produce they still had: iceberg lettuce, rubbery carrots, one slightly bad tomato, two apples.
“Can we go to McDonald’s?” Marmar grumbled, picking the intruder-apples out of her salad, looking longingly at the half scrap of pizza that Arezoo was still nibbling at, mid-meal.
“No,” Omar said. “It has been decided that we are not going anywhere.”
Silence. Roya immersed herself in her salad. Marmar strangled a few saltines in her fisted hand. Arezoo made X’s in her cheese with tears in her eyes, until Asal, with a slam of her apple juice, seemed like she had had it.
“Dad, I have a question!” Asal announced, loudly.
“Why is this happening?” Asal asked it simply, simplified further with big batting good-girl eyes and her most saccharine smile. Asal, her father thought, was really growing up, maybe growing faster than all the rest of them.
“Asal-joon,” he began. (Joon = “dear” in Farsi, but it could also mean “body” or “life.”) “You are becoming a young lady, yes? Yes. Okay, look at your mother. Have you ever seen your mother like that? Have you ever seen any mother like that? Tell me honestly.”
Roya let out an audible sigh and shook her head slowly, as if conversing with a very old tiresome person in a dream, like shrugging off the rhetoric of a senile phantasm that didn’t warrant a peep or even a change of expression.
“Well,” Asal began, clearing her throat, the way she always did before saying something she found important, like a speech. But it wasn’t one, at all, just three words with enough power to silence them all the more: “I like it.”
Silence upon silence, like black on black.
“And you, Arezoo?” Omar finally asked, his voice hoarse and rocky.
Arezoo scanned her sisters’ eyes, all on her. She avoided her mother’s and her father’s. She unbit her lip and hesitantly, awfully hesitantly, nodded. “I like the shiny stuff. It looks … magical?”
Omar chuckled, bitterly. Luckily Arezoo had the position of being the one in the house whose commentary never really counted.
Marmar, however was a different story. With her stocky masculine frame, short helmet-head of black frizz, deep-set judgmental black eyes that had premature bags under them already, she looked serious, and usually thought seriously too. Marmar, after Roya, was naturally HouseFemale#2. After all this, she could well be inching up to No. 1.
“I’m siding with Mother on this, Father,” Marmar announced, with not a bit of reluctance. “She looks like, I dunno, moms on TV. American TV.”
And that was the biggest slap in the face yet. American TV. It had been a real problem in the last month, Roya having given in and purchasing a modest 12-inch for $40. It had mesmerized them and in the grim scorching-hot August, all the Sanjabi females were glued to it like zombies on a brain buffet. Roya reserved the early afternoon hours: “All My Children,” “Days of our Lives,” “The Young and the Restless,” “One Life to Live” — the “soaps” as they called them, which Omar found very funny, because clean they were not. Always some situation where some older woman was making out with some younger guy, who was fighting some other guy, who was married to a cult leader, whose daughter had died and become a ghost, who was involved with two other guys, who were possibly gay and in love. Very strange stuff. Then in the late afternoon, there were cartoons for the twins, but they quickly tired of them and looked for the shows with the “real people” that Marmar usually preferred. Re-runs of “Step by Step” — that vulgar Suzanne Somers, formerly of a show they knew in Iran as “Three’s Company” — with her big family from two different marriages and young daughters with too much makeup; re-runs of “Full House,” some indecipherable household with father figures who were called “Uncle” and three uncharismatic daughters and melodramatic jewelry box music whenever the girls cried; reruns of “Who’s The Boss?,” a strange comedy about a divorced businesswoman (always these divorced parents!! Omar agonized) who seemed to have a thing for her lower-class Italian male housekeeper; reruns of “Alf,” another bad half-hour revolving around a rather unattractive-looking family with their permanent anteater-ish alien guest who drank beer and ate cats. It was all awful. But it was true, most of the mothers in those shows always looked dangerously young, with bright heavily glossed smiles, baked skin, frosted hair, lacquered nails, short skirts, high heels, sleeveless tops. They bounced around like lovedrunk teenagers and laughed too loud and planted kisses on everyone and told dirty jokes even at times. To Omar, they seemed like the end of the world, and here it was in his own house, TV-Mother-Roya, the end of his world.
They finished their meal and when it became time for one of their favorite reruns — Roya gently calling out to the girls, even having the audacity to cry, Hurry, we want to go to bed early tonight, tomorrow is your first, well second, but actual first day of school! – Omar went over and stood in front of the screen.
“Daddy, what are you doing?!” Marmar cried, as the intro music began.
“I think this is one of the cases where they are right in what they say and the Father knows that which is best,” Daddy declared. “I don’t think any of you need to be watching these TV women, these American TV moms.”
He considered letting them watch a cartoon or a nature special but even he knew by then they would not be on. He did not move.
“Father, ‘That ’70s Show’ is on! Please!!” Asal shrieked. “Please!!”
He shook his head and did not move.
Arezoo began to cry into the stomach of the peeing doll she was cradling.
“Omar, for God’s sake, stop this!” Roya suddenly snapped, putting one arm over Arezoo, who was covering her eyes. “This is madness. Why can’t we all watch a show? You’ve made all of us stay here all day and we can’t even watch a show? What’s happened to you?”
“I think it is time I took control of what is happening here, that’s all, Roya,” he said, back in that same calm voice he kept speaking to her in. “You would not respect me if I didn’t. Now there are plenty of Persian books here–”
Suddenly Asal darted up to stand on the couch, so she could be closer to him in height, apparently. She pointed one shaking finger at his face and screamed, “Father, I hate you!!”
And that did it. At that moment, Omar Sanjabi cracked — a bit, his first crack. He plucked the peeing doll out of Arezoo’s arms — the younger-by-four-minutes twin always the undeserved victim — arms by its plastic legs and whipped it against the TV screen, as if giving the device a spanking. It did nothing. Luckily, Asal’s little red wagon was resting on the floor, so he grabbed it and with two crazed hurls he beat it against the still body of that blasphemous box and shattered the TV screen. A few flickers, a little smoke, a strange plastic smell, and then nothing, just a faceless fuming black plastic box garnished with shards of frosted grey glass.
For a second Roya looked like she was going to cry too, along with Arezoo who was hysterical by now — the only sound in the house her high-pitched wails. Roya quickly closed her eyes and opened them again — she was not dreaming — and led Asal and Arezoo by the hand to their room.
“Time for bed,” she said, quietly.
Marmar followed behind her, every once in a while turning to look back at Omar, who was still standing there, by all the glass, red wagon still in one hand, peeing doll in the other. He looked frozen, pale, even horrified himself.
That night, nobody slept. Asal and Arezoo got into a position they rarely ever got into in their twin-sized mattress that they shared — an embrace — and while it was too uncomfortable for sleep, it was the only way they could feel secure through that endless night. Marmar was across the room in the twin bed she got to herself, buried under two covers, even though the night was as it always seemed to be in California: too hot for life. She wanted to disappear, but her mind wouldn’t let her. She decided since the night span was eight hours long and since school too was eight hours, she would imagine each hour as a school hour, going from class to class, teacher to teacher, new group of friends to new group of friends, dreading P.E., loving art, and living for lunch. When it came time to imagine after-school, she imagined her mother picking her up and taking them to a new big house where Tony Danza was their dad.
After Roya tucked them in, she returned to the living room, all alone. Omar was in bed, waiting for her, waiting until it was day-time and she came in to make the bed, as he walked out of it. But all night, as far as Omar could tell, Roya had sat in the living room, staring at that fatally wounded TV set, without a second of sleep — he could see it in her eyes the next day, too-big wide-awake harried eyes with considerable tell-tale bags under them — and still in those clothes, those clothes, those clothes.
To Roya Milani – her maiden name, meaning “of Milan,” not the Italian city but the small village in the East Azerbaijan province, the name she put her mind back to whenever things went wrong with Omar Sanjabi, the man she had called husband for the last 15 years — there was nothing wrong with the way she was leaving. The clothes were within parameters, well within, of American decency. Iranian: that was another question. She was barely a pre-teen when the Islamic Revolution hit. All she’d ever known of clothes to leave a house in was Islamic Hejab dress code, either that despised old-lady-looking chador (a full-length semi-circle of fabric open down the front and worn thrown over the head with no hand openings or closures but held shut by the hands or by wrapping the ends around the waist, made to be an outer garment for Iranian women when they ventured out into public, generally in the color black as the Islamic government of Iran, in keeping with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s preferences, encouraged) or what Roya opted for usually, the more modern, less absurd manteau, a long overcoat which concealed the arms and legs, worn with a roosari, a rectangular headscarf to conceal the hair which in the later years in Iran had been less a hair-concealer than a mandatory adornment.
Of course, underneath any covering there could be anything and there often was — designer knocks-offs, clothes promised to be from abroad, hand-me-downs from pre-Revolution days. She had a Louis Vuitton sweater that was actually Luis Vuitton, Levi’s in a half-dozen styles and colors, her old Chanel suits in colors like quirky mint-green and flirty peach, but nobody seemed to mind it. Still she, unlike some of the Tehrani girls she knew, had always kept it simple — it seemed like such a waste to wear outrageous gowns, rebellious skimpy tube-tops and hotpants, the red-white-and-blue country-crooner gingham get-ups and cowboy boots that her crazy platinum-permed nose-jobbed cousin “Monica” (Monir was her real name) liked to wear. There was no point — out in the world, you blended in: all one black chadori crow-woman = only disembodied eyes, nose, and mouth in all that shadow. Headscarf, manteau, trousers, shoes = you were just another self-conscious middle-class girl, eyes downcast and jaw tight, speedwalking with a clenched fist or two through those paranoid streets.
Some girls got gutsy — headscarf loosely-tied all the way back to reveal a wildly dyed feathered fringe and drawn-in eyebrows and a whole airbrushed spectrum of candy colors that made the eyelids, cheeks and mouth. They’d let their shoes do the talking too — party-girl platforms with metallic heels and neon vinyl straps. They would get around things, made do with what restrictions they had, and they would live their lives. Usually it was fine. Once in a while — one out of 100? One out of 50? Sometimes it seemed more, sometimes less, you never knew — you’d hear about a girl who got caught, taken with a stern wave of baton by a policeman to a station then a jail, left there without food and instead a hundred lashes. The strangest part was you’d hear this and then you’d see the girl the next month, walking around town in those same gold stilettos with fake eyelashes and a fuschia mouth — like a slap across the face, those girls, they left everyone in disbelief and awe. No one ever knew for sure with them.
Luckily Roya was in America now. In the last month, since they had arrived, Roya had walked their malls, paced their big department stores, roamed their tiny discount boutiques, with the tightest fist around the little allowance that Omar had given her for work. She had done much research — American magazines, TV shows, other mall women — and then slowly began making purchases. Her purchases all had cheapness in common — no item ever more than $20. The were bought with the help of salesgirls (“Dang, ma, take a girl out of Iraq and see how she works it!” a fat Hispanic lady at Ragz-2-Richez had applauded her repeatedly as she tried on various outfits) and sometimes other shoppers. “That’s sooo Beyonce!” the chipper teenage blonde at the Macy’s dressing room, who had convinced her to try on the tops she rejected from the Juniors department, kept cooing. The word Beyonce was foreign to Roya at first, until she looked it up in her magazines and thought wow. Almost everything was on sale and in the end she had two tops, a vest, two skirts, two dresses, two pairs of shoes (heels, flats), a purse, a scarf, hose, and a light jacket. It was a start. All just barely under $170, Omar’s limit for her first allowance.
The best part was that shopping for work clothes had gotten her work. One day, after spending an hour nearly on one top, a saleslady had asked her if she wanted to apply for a job. Roya was shocked — with her mediocre English, her deep accent, her totally unknowledgeable ways, be a shopgirl? She found it a great compliment. After all, she was looking for a job and this — while not teacher or day-care help or something like that that Omar had envisioned for her — would still be one that he would approve of. It was, after all, proper for a lady. She asked the saleslady, a microscopic, heavily-made-up middle-aged Asian woman whose nametag read Vicki, why her. She replied, “Oh, the manager realized we have a lot of Arabian customers, and she thought that an Arabian girl might help. You know. We also have a lot of Koreans, which is why I’m here.” Roya didn’t bother to correct her. So after a quick interview the next day with the manager Loretta — also an incredibly small-boned and short black lady — she was in. Her first job in America was at the petites specialty boutique Dominique Adele Deville in the East Orange Fashion Park.
Roya fit the bill. She was barely five feet and, while not as thin as she used to be, she was tapered and taken in at all the right places, even at age 40. She had begun to practice her new look too. She would straighten her naturally corkscrew-curly-brown hair to a shining slightly sun-faded chestnut mane and put on minimal make-up in the style of fancy-free Californians as she had observed — but if you want to be forever purdy, make it at least SPF 30!!!, the magazines had warned this summer, along with never leave home without a hint of berry gloss if you’re complexion is olive-to-fair! Thanks to her small frame she still looked young — maybe 30 — and definitely un-intimidating. The only missing part of the puzzle were the clothes and Loretta had guaranteed her that once on payroll, she’d get a 30% discount, but that she was not required to wear “D.A.D.,” as Loretta and Vicki and the other employees — an ancient Italian woman named Albina and girl of ambiguous mixed-race origin named Faye — called it within the store. She bought that one top — the only sale item she could afford — and added some other pieces and she was set.
So it was not a good feeling when, in that first day of the altercation, she had picked up the phone and dialed D.A.D.
Loretta was not pleased. “Oh, Roya, it’s your first day. I am very surprised, Roya. I will have to call Albina, but she doesn’t like such short notice. Roya, what is going on?”
Roya closed her eyes and continue whispering, lest Omar be stalking around, “Yes, Loretta, I feel bad, very bad. But you see, I am sick. Very sick. Throw-up. There is throw-up everywhere. It is a mess…”
Loretta seemed to lighten up eventually. “All right, Roya, well you take care of yourself. Your shift tomorrow is the afternoon one, Roya, so hopefully you can get in there. Roya, we are all really proud to have you on the team, so please, Roya, get in there and show us what you got, ‘kay, Roya?”
“Absolutely, Miss Loretta, I am very honored to be a part of your place” — she still stumbled on the French syllables a bit and was too shy to do the “D.A.D.”- thing they all had the right to, by now — “I cannot wait to come in to your great store. The throw-up will stop, yes, I am sure. I will come and do my best. I cannot wait. Thank you so much, I am so sorry, thank you, good day.”
But she was a little less understanding on Day Two.
“Still sick, Roya? Wow. Well, Roya, you take care of yourself. I can’t possibly call Albina and Faye is double-shifted all week but it’s okay, I’ll call Vicki, Roya. Even though it’s her birthday, the one day she got off all year, except for Christmas and New Year’s, Roya. Poor Vicki. Oh, well, Roya. You keep us posted. Roya, what does the doctor say?”
“He says the throw-up will end, Miss Loretta. Soon. It has to. I feel … so bad. So bad! I cannot wait to come in and do my work at your most wonderful store. I will do my best to make the sickness go away by tomorrow, I give my word. Thank you so much and I am so very sorry — yes, have the best day too!”
Day Three she could barely even pick up the phone, when Loretta suddenly called her, a half hour before her shift, “just checking in.”
“Oh, yes, thank you, Miss Loretta. The thing is … there is still some. Yes, throw-up. Yes, it’s very bad. Still. I can come, of course, but what if I throw-around all over the clothes and the ladies who come to buy? That would be bad, yes. Oh, please, understand that I will come — oh, yes, I want to, I cannot wait to. My bad luck! I am so sick of this throw-up, Miss Loretta!”
When she hung up the phone, she had tears in her eyes. It had been days now. She hadn’t really slept, she was still in those clothes, the same ones from the day she should have had, Day One. She didn’t know what else to tell Loretta, when it would end, when her life could actually begin in this new world. She could hear extreme impatience in Loretta’s voice now whereas at first there had been concern only. She wished she could tell her the truth somehow but how could she? Whisper in the receiver — pray he was not lurking – Miss Loretta, my husband has not let me or my children leave the house for days. Help us!
She would think they were monsters, these strange foreigners, these backwards Iranians, always keeping their women in prisons in some way or another.
So she forced her eyes back into a dull dry state and did what she did every day for hours: straightened up her same clothes, patted down her same hair, and put on some more lipgloss and practiced saying Hello, welcome to Do-mean-EEK Uh-DELL Dee-VILL East Orange, how may I help you? with a huge smile in front of the mirror, over and over, as Loretta had taught her after her interview.
Just as she did her fourth or fifth round of that, Omar came in and stepped in front of her reflection, his eyes void of any emotion.
“Asal hasn’t stopped howling since sunrise, Roya. Will you go take care of that? She refuses to eat and Marmar just hit her a little too hard.”
On the fifth or sixth day — he had almost lost count, each day dissolving into the other, with Asal’s hysteria, Marmar’s increasing gruffness, Arezoo growing more and more invisible, compounded by Roya’s slowly diminishing air of stability, the stinking outfit, the shaky half-smile with the glazed eyes, pizza dinners turning into canned food and frozen food feasts, until really there was almost nothing left — the situation escalated.
There was an earthquake.
It woke them all up — all except Roya it seemed, who as far as he could tell, had not slept a wink since the first day, preferring to take vigil on the couch by the TV ashes and always greeting them with an increasingly frantic appearance the next day.
In Iran, they had experienced small ones, but for the girls it was their first.
He heard a chorus on conflicted “Father” and “Daddy” all at once and he ran into their room to find Arezoo and Asal in a desperate hug upright in their beds while Marmar, hands in comical karate chop, was standing on top of her bed as if ready for attack. He gathered them up, Arezoo and Asal under each armpit, and Marmar by the wrist and tucked them all under the dining room table, as the earth protested everything in rolls, hurdles, and heaves.
The only Sanjabi missing there was Roya.
She was looking back at them from the couch, smiling a bit wider and wilder than usual, as if she had conspired with God to do this to them.
They all stayed silent and watched each other, as the plants flung themselves off ledges, as picture frames cracked under the pressure, as vases and pots gave in to calamity.
When the earth stopped protesting, just the final rattles of a lagging window or two, Roya went over to her family under the table.
“Too bad there is no TV to know what is going on,” Roya actually dared to chuckle.
“We don’t have the radio?” Omar asked.
“No radio,” she murmured, complacently. “But don’t worry, girls, it’s just an earthquake.”
Asal immediately began to throw a tantrum, demanding everything be okay again as she had in recent days, while Arezoo grew paler and paler until she looked like the ghost of Asal. Marmar immediately turned to Omar and began discussing what she had learned about California seismology from the schoolbooks Omar had bought her — fault lines, the San Andreas, earthquake safety, and evacuation procedures.
“Evacuation?” Roya laughed. “Not us.”
Suddenly to the horror of the three girls, Omar was laughing too. There they were, Roya and Omar, both sitting Indian style with their daughters, throwing their heads back, red faces, tearing eyes, open mouths. They were just bigger kids, the little kids noticed. For a second, Marmar fantasized that it was all an elaborate joke — some kind of yellow theater put on for their sake and that they would suddenly be turning to all three of them, shouting in unison, “JUST KIDDING!!!”
But they didn’t. Instead the earth let out another grumble for a few seconds, like the post-pee trickles of Arezoo’s doll. When the world was still again, Omar was back in character: dead serious.
“Roya, we’re running out of food,” Omar stated, grimly. “I am going to have to go get something. We can’t order out every meal. I’m running out of money. I need you to stay here with the girls. I am going to have to go to work anyway tomorrow so I need to be able to trust you.”
“Leave and we’ll be gone too,” Roya snapped. “I would be delighted for such an opportunity.”
“Mom, then can we go to school?” Asal whined, as she did multiple times every day.
“The second your father leaves,” Roya said.
“There’s no school today. There was an earthquake,” Marmar stepped up to the Mom bat, scowling at Roya. “And besides, who cares about school? School is stupid. Like Daddy says, we’re the luckiest kids. Right, Arezoo?”
Arezoo nodded slowly, thumb in mouth. In her mind was only one thought: I feel SO weird.
There were another few rumbles and another rough exchange between Omar and Roya about the upkeep of the house when finally Asal began crying again and shrieked, “When is it going to stop, Mom?” as she tugged at her mother’s bangles.
Roya, unsure of whether she meant aftershocks or their fighting, left it unanswered.
Meanwhile, that morning, Asal motioned they have a meeting. In the closet. Marmar, too big to crouch with them, under all the cotton and wool and corduroy and polyester, listened to Asal through a crack in the door.
“We have to do something,” Asal was saying, “we can’t let this go on. We have to go to school! Maybe we can. . .”
Marmar suddenly yanked the closet door wide open, letting the bright mid-day sunshine hit their twin faces like a policeman’s flashlight.
In the world outside their room, they could hear the voices of their parents growing louder and louder, into their usual daily screaming match or two or three.
It fueled Marmar’s barely-teenage fire. “Listen, little girls, nobody is going anywhere!” Marmar shouted. “You understand me?! I call the shots here and we’re not pulling a thing. Get used to it.” Just for added emphasis she put her fingers around the neck of Arezoo’s peeing doll, her perpetually battered plastic double, and squeezed. It screamed through Arezoo’s vocal chords louder than she could have hoped for.
Marmar stormed off to her side of the room, not sure if the rattling was the earth or her bones. It was the first but certainly not the last time in her life when she thought, wow – a very depressed wow. She could not believe how much she sounded like her father.
Omar missed his first day of work. Unlike Roya he did not lie and unlike Roya was immediately fired. Omar was to be a security guard at First Dominion Bank of Southern California and when he called his boss, Gabe, who was probably half his age, Gabe was not understanding.
“Hey, bro, what the freak do you mean, just can’t show up? You sick, you dead? Too beat to just stand there for eight hours? On your first freakin’ day, homeboy?”
Omar sighed. “I cannot do my job today. I do not know about next week. Maybe not, maybe sure. I do not know. But today I know: I cannot.”
“Hey, a-hole, gotcha, over and out, loud and clear. What’s going on is what I’m asking you — I need some freakin’ explanato, as your freakin’ boss-man, comprende?”
“I cannot talk about it,” Omar insisted. “I just cannot. It will not do well explained.”
But Gabe, probably just to humiliate the Iranian, he assumed, insisted.
“All I can say is it is my wife. Wife troubles. You can understand?”
Gabe gave a hoot. “Listen, yo, either you are like in the ER or something or you’re just flat-out freakin’ fired. And I think that’s my final call. I got about two dozen guys lined up for this job, dude. And you failed. Thanks for nada, muchacho, have a freakin’ great life!”
And that was that.
Meanwhile, Loretta had been amazingly still hanging in there, somehow trying to work with Roya until one day, well past the one-week point, Roya could not take it anymore.
“The throw-up is now here to stay,” Roya croaked. “Oh, Miss Loretta, I am so sorry that I am sick now forever. It is very bad. Throw-up day, throw-up night, my whole life throw-up. Yes, yes, I will die. No, no, please do not worry. I just, I cannot keep calling. I must … rest. Yes, I think it is best too. I am so sorry. It was my dream to work, please know. Tell Vicki hi and bye, yes, thank you. Yes, make it your best day too, Miss Loretta, and best life, and sorry please!”
And that was that.
The daughters Marmar, Asal, and Arezoo now, mostly unbeknownst to them, were the children of unemployed parents. Only when their dinners dwindled down to what Omar enthusiastically dubbed sugar sandwiches after Roya stopped cooking altogether — not that there was anything to cook with anymore — just simple slices of toast with butter and sugar sprinkled on top, they somewhat understood that things had gone from a little crispy to deep-fried.
So it didn’t surprise Marmar when Omar came knocking one weekday afternoon and quietly in a low voice, asked his favorite daughter, the least difficult one at least, “Marmar, I need your help.”
She had smiled warmly and nodded.
“Yes, my dear Marmar-joon, we barely have any bread and no more milk and just a bit of water and one more can of beans. I can’t leave you guys but we have to order something, some water, maybe some Chinese food, some rice, you know.”
She kept nodding, not quite sure what he was getting at.
“And so, my angel Marmar, it is a terrible pain to ask this of you, but I think I must. Here it goes: May your mother and I borrow what is left in your piggy bank? Please? Because we will pay more than it all back, once this is all over, and I just go to a bank, you will get it all back and some more! You know how hard it is for me to ask, Mar…”
Without another word, she went right over to the large ceramic hot-pink pig they had bought her at the 99 cent store, their first week there, for her to put her stash of Persian New Year money and the few extra coins they would toss her way for household chores. She offered it soberly, understanding her duty.
Omar unplugged it. Out of the pig’s bowels came 96,222 rials and five hundred seventy-nine cents.
Omar stared at the Iranian money, woefully. “You keep that.”
He took the change and when the Chinese man came to the door, he convinced him to hand over the chow-mein and fried rice and water bottle, and forgive the extra few dollars and tip he was short. All the Chinese man had to do was glance beyond Omar at the figure of the woman crumpled in a ball on their couch, all dressed up with nowhere to go, hair in a ragged halo around her, eyes with almost drawn-in bags, makeup that was smudged like a post-rape victim, and with a certain overdone sparkle in her eyes that had to mean tears — all he had to do was take a one-second look at that destroyed female and know, this family needed whatever help he could give, if even in water and rice.
Two years before, around the same time of year — the end of a merciless, downright homicidal summer — they had elected their sixth and current president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Not they exactly; Roya and Omar had voted against him. He was something they did not understand, but apparently the masses did: an unshaven guy of average looks, frayed clothes, small modest apartment in the middle of the city, the son of a simple tradesman.
It was not horrific, they thought, until the clerics began acting up. More youth-hounding police on the Tehran streets: Miss, your headscarf is blinding me with those colors. Okay, you have our attention now, so we need to talk to you! or I see, some roosari or is that just a ribbon. Please, young lady, watch the hair! or Excuse me, calves, mother? Does that encourage family life, now? or Young girl, how can you even breathe in a manteau so tight — you’re coming with us, I am sorry to say…
Even Omar got pulled aside one day for his short sleeves: Our city streets are not your personal gymnasium, Mister.
They could feel the late-70s era coming again. It chilled them in their bones, and with a daughter that would soon be a young lady, and two more to come, how could they in good conscience endure it?
It was all Omar could think about when suddenly he began to feel that same achey familiarity in the newly authoritarian atmosphere of their apartment. Most devastating of all, at his hands. It was back suddenly, the eyes watching theirs: his eyes, their tears.
What had become of them?! What could he tell Roya’s parents when they called, just before the Sanjabi’s phone died on them, and the elders wondered, How are you all faring?
“I can’t lie and say it is easy to adjust, ” Omar admitted, “but I expect one day it will all come together.”
Fortunately, it was not like Ghasem Milani to probe. “Omar-joon, they say your new land is going to do Air Raid upon us!” he exclaimed, changing the subject, in his very broken English, which he claimed he liked to practice, but Omar suspected had more to do with his paranoia of the phone being tapped by militant fundamentalist operators.
“We hear it too. But, Mister Ghasem, don’t worry. Your president is Tough Guy. He might do Air Raid on us!”
Ghasem chuckled, softly. “I hope we both O.K. Same thing, all of time, history, fight, fight, fight! For me and you, we stand it, yes? But also we, Omar-joon, have ladies to protect!” For some reason, that tickled Ghasem into richer chuckles.
Omar did not laugh. He quickly made an excuse to go — the kitchen, the kettle boiling — and hung up, before Mr. Milani could ask to have his daughter put on.
The worst part for Roya was herself — living in that body, the horror of which was most specifically personified in her smell. It was weeks now, since any of them had seen the light of day. Omar and the girls had taken showers, changed, and all that, but she hadn’t altered herself even slightly since that first day. No shower, no face-wash, no clothing change, nothing, since Day One.
It had started to get to her just a few days into it and now she couldn’t take it anymore.
She began by brushing her teeth and washing her face, in secret, them reapplying all the makeup as if it was the first day.
Eventually she brushed her teeth and washed her face and just left it bare.
He noticed and took it as a good sign. But when she finally decided to abandon those clothes that she initially thought she could just leave with — just like that! — it was anything but good.
It took Omar a few hours to understand it all. First: the leather pumps, with the shiny bangles at their heels, in the doorway. Then: the snake-skin purse on the couch. Then: that silk scarf draped over a chair. Then it seemed like another day went by and he’d find the little vest on the cutting board in the kitchen, a single thigh-high on the washing machine, another one on the toilet seat. Soon enough, the blouse, the skirt, panties, bra, until she was gone.
When he couldn’t find her slouching on the couch staring at the ruins of television, and he couldn’t find her with the girls — who were playing some unnerving game that looked like it involved binding and beheading undressed Barbies — and when she wasn’t in the bathroom crying or cursing or cooking up whatever last scraps she could find in the kitchen, he panicked and never thought to look at the one place that had become his: The Bedroom.
He only went in when he contemplated calling the police, and there she was. His wife, on formerly-theirs and currently-his sheet, without a single stitch of clothing on. Roya Sanjabi’s eyes were as open as ever, looking at him earnestly like a marble nude regards its flesh-and-bone clothed audience, without any fear or shame, with pureness and dignity, as if any dirty thoughts the audience was entertaining was simply their problem, not at all related to the fact of the statue’s brazen indecency.
“Roya, what are you doing?” he cried, but the obscenity did not altogether displease him. It had occurred to him one night, as her pacing in the living room kept bringing him in and out of his sleep — his usual dirty dreams flashing in and out, like a single porn flick put on a program of strangely-rhythmed pause and play — that instead of this being their Longest Fight — anyone’s Longest Fight! — it could have been their Longest LS. LS was the name Roya and Omar had come up with one night watching an old movie on the old movie program on TV, and they had heard the blonde-haired black-and-white ingenue sing of “starry nights/ days so short/ kisses, hugs/ and love sports!” They immediately made “love sports” or LS their code for sex for increased discretion around the kids. They loved their code so much they began constantly calling it that. But in that time of the Fight, Omar thought of it sadly, a time not too long ago — in fact he could remember their first American love-making: in the Position of Dog, on a bare mattress they had bought second-hand — that they could not get their hands off each other, when the Longest LS would have been a dream instead of this nightmare.
Her body looked very pale and a bit sick even. When she spoke her voice was dry and weak like a stale sand sandwich. “Omar, I have to tell you, I am really not well. I cannot go on. As a last attempt to save us, all of us, I WILL call the police.”
And as if he had just walked in right in time for some dinner theater climax, that naked wife of his turned to her nightstand and reached for the phone.
He shrugged, with genuine despair.
It took a chain of “hellos,” one more frantic than the other, for her to stop and just drop the phone, shaking violently, eyes flashing with hate, the only upside being that her body gained some much-needed color from all the passion.
“You murderer! You did not! You did not, Omar, my God, you did, you did, you did!!!”
He shook his head. “Roya, it wasn’t me,” Omar said softly. “They cut off the phone. We didn’t pay the first bill. We were already late and then…”
“I don’t believe you!” she snapped, pulling the sheets over her. He wondered if it had all been a ploy, her naked body as an offering, until it was clear she would not get her way.
After a moment of silence, she suddenly sobbed, “Omar, the phone is really cut off already? My God, Omar, how many days has it been? How many? Can you tell me?”
He shook his head. He really couldn’t.
“What have we done, Omar?” Roya cried, her body trembling violently with hard sobs.
But all he could do was continue shaking his head, not out of confusion, but out of anguish. It was clear as night. The kingdom had fallen.
Marmar knew exactly how many days it had been when they finally made it there. The days would flip through her head vaguely, abstractly, like the fanning of a deck of cards, all familiar and yet an unknown mess in order, while she took on her daily self-imposed duty of walking her sisters to their school, a mile from the apartment. Now write down everything the teachers teach, say ‘please’ and ‘thanks,’ don’t stare too much, Arezoo — and for God’s sake, get that thumb out of your mouth, and all day! — and Asal, don’t talk too loud or over people and never leave Arezoo anywhere by herself, got it, girls? Always she ended with a stiff hug goodbye and then walked herself five more blocks to her own school.
At the local junior high, Marmar felt she was okay. The first day was the hardest, but even that went relatively smoothly. She was wearing the outfit her mother had set aside for her first day: a red t-shirt with yellow bananas all over it (which they had compromised on at Sears, Marmar arguing that all American kids wore t-shirts, her mother insisting that rude-looking cartoon graphics or I Heart HEARTS-ridden t-shirts were just too strange and attention-getting) and a blue corduroy skirt with tan sandals. Marmar Sanjabi looked the part, but only became a spectacle when she entered the classroom and they called roll and she’d had to have her name added. Some of the teachers had crossed off the student with the funny name who hadn’t showed up for nearly the first month of school.
“My whole family was very, very, very sick, ” Marmar explained, speaking slowly to erase as much accent as she could.
The teachers would look remotely concerned, keep her after to get her caught up with piles and piles of Xeroxed sheets and textbooks and visual aids. Sometimes they’d ask her where she was from and when she’d tell them, it would magically explain all things. Oh, Iran, I see, they would nod. Wow. Okay.
As for little logistical glitches, eventually, Marmar found ways to get by. With Omar just barely back to work — mall security guard, food court beat, just a few dozen lazy footsteps down from the incandescent arabesques of Dominique Adele Deville, at that same East Orange Fashion Park — and Roya indefinitely resigned to housewifedom — a frothy diet of soap operas and gardening and cookbooks when she didn’t shoot several hours down staring at all that nothing, the many ghosts of many ruins — Marmar couldn’t in good conscience ask her parents for a single thing — or even explain that their little needs, like school supplies or school meals even, were not going to be magically provided for back at the academic compound. So at lunch, for instance, she would trade homework answers for an undesirable portion of someone’s lunch — milk carton, bruised banana, granola, celery sticks, once even an entire Hot Pocket — and a few desperate times, to her own deep shame, she beat up someone smaller (and most everyone was smaller, since Marmar had had her growth spurt that summer already) — usually a nervous wisp of a girl who had the disposition of Arezoo. She would beat them and hard, like they did in the movies, for lunch money. She’d get in trouble, make enemies, get beat up herself sometimes, but she justified it was by thinking it was for her sisters as well — for their new core family of three, with its other two adjunct members in remote infinite orbit, rarely touching down.
They made do, the only real problems involving Asal’s routine residence in the principal’s office for talking back to teachers — particularly male teachers — (yet charming her way back out somehow), and Arezoo constantly being marked down for “poor class participation” and panic attacks whenever she had to speak — which made her only real recess buddy the elementary school counselor.
We never expected to fit in, Marmar always readily confessed, knowing immediately way back when at the time when their parents told them they couldn’t be in Iran any longer, what that meant for them in America.
But for the rest of her five-year scholastic history, she blamed a lot of it on those missing weeks — she had to blame it on something after all, the illogic that stung with relentless pricks, the injustice that burned, the embarrassment that scalded — she always felt like she had never made them up, that she was perpetually behind them all, never quite caught up to speed, always no matter what a little bit off.
It was Marmar’s only grievance. Otherwise she liked America, felt lucky to have school, felt at home with each day uniformly becoming the other, period after period, drone, lunch breaks, firedrills, dissonance, laughter, shrieks, tears and admonishments. She thought about those hoops they talked about jumping through in America and Just Did It, as they said in America. No mission was impossible. Every day all that was on her mind was making sure she made it to the elementary school by 3:15 to meet the two identical girls in matching quilted jumpsuits and limp braids, who were sulking at the base of the flag pole, hand in hand.They would jump up at her presence, mumble their polite greetings, and they’d walk the mile all together, mostly in silence — Marmar’s tough grip refusing to be inched off either of their boney shoulders even for a second, the still-small hands of an unlikely protector, mulish like a mother, formidable like a father — all the way to the place they had all compromised on calling home.