Mona catches Roya off guard by calling before the coffee has even finished brewing. ‘You’re truly heaven sent,’ she says. ‘Inshallah, one day I will return your every kindness.’ Roya’s husband looks up from his Boston Globe, thin eyebrows raising steeples. Roya mouths Mona’s name. He returns to his paper without so much as a nod. On his breakfast plate, the yolk of a hardboiled egg is tinged green and lolls among the shards of its former shell.
‘Dawood never asks for time off,’ Mona continues, an oft-repeated complaint against her husband. ‘And my manager asked me to work double. I would say no, but he’s desperate and . . . well, you understand.’ Roya does. Now that they’re both working over-the-table – Mona as a retail sales associate at Macy’s, her husband as a prep cook at some neon all-you-can-eat chain restaurant – they oblige management’s every request to prove they’re team players. They can’t afford to be let go. They have a life to rebuild, a son to support, family back home that still need their help. Roya has heard all of this before. ‘But then I remembered you telling me not to hesitate to call,’ Mona says, and then hesitates. Roya prepares for the inevitable ask. ‘The problem is Mahdi has football practice, and maybe he can skip – but it’s helping Roya-jahn. I swear to God it is. I sleep better at night knowing.’
Roya puts the call on speaker in order to pull up her calendar. ‘What time?’ she asks. Her husband gives her the stink eye, so she leaves the kitchen table and walks across the span of wide-plank mahogany and into the den, sitting on the lip of the white leather sofa as Mona finally settles on half past four at Playstead Park. Through skylights in the cathedral ceiling, sunlight beams into the room, sublime and still clinging to late summer. Three sets of French doors frame their property: a landscaped lawn that peters into woods that veil Roya from her neighbors. What a luxury it would be to step out onto the porch and linger in this crisp early October morning. She closes her eyes and leans back into the sofa. The sunlight blankets her body.
‘. . . Allô?’ Mona’s voice buzzes, still on speaker. Roya opens her eyes and notices dust motes twirling in a shaft of sunlight, a ballet of particles illuminated.
‘I’m just checking my calendar,’ Roya says.
‘Of course.’ But not four beats of silence before Mona is on again about how ever since joining the football team, Mahdi is now raising his hand in class, sitting in the cafeteria instead of hiding in the library at lunch, giving her – what Roya’s kids would call – TMI. Roya doesn’t catch all of it. Partly because she’s only half listening, but also because prior to meeting Mona, she hadn’t used her Farsi in more years than she could remember. She only met Mona through her philanthropic work, a quid pro quo with Charlotte, whose husband heads oncology at Brigham & Women’s, and who routinely purchases a table for the Lupus Gala that Roya chairs every May. The Alipours, Charlotte explained, were refugees from Iran, and so naturally she thought of Roya, who unwittingly became their sponsor or advocate or – actually, the title the charity prefers is ‘native friend’. Upon first meeting, Roya overcompensated for her surprise at seeing Mona in hijab with a greeting that was, in retrospect, too effusive, giving an impression of intimacy she did not intend.
Roya scrolls through her calendar as Mona chatters on. True, she isn’t technically employed, but Roya does sit on the board of three nonprofits and manages a social calendar that might as well be a full-time job. Scheduled for this morning: three longish conference calls before a few quick updates from vendors, followed by a salon appointment at noon booked six weeks prior. At 8pm, a stem cell fundraiser downtown. Technically she’s free, but the idea of driving ninety minutes out of her way so close to rush hour is a burden she’d rather avoid. Normally she’d be quick with an excuse, but today she agrees. ‘I can make four thirty work,’ she says, looking at her split ends. But Mona, who is still accustomed to the taroof-speak of Iran, hesitates on the line, likely debating whether to offer her a chance to back out, as polite custom requires, without actually risking Roya taking it. To save time and headache, Roya insists that it’s no imposition. She’s happy to collect Mahdi. Really. He’s so polite and quiet as a mouse, unlike her own son who trembles the china in the credenza when he tromps past the dining room. ‘Rest assured,’ Roya says in order to end the conversation. ‘I’ll bring him home safe.’
‘What does she want this time,’ her husband calls out from the breakfast table. ‘A kidney perhaps?’
‘You’re terrible,’ Roya smirks, rising to go into the kitchen, finally, for coffee. Her husband holds up his travel mug. She turns from the counter back to the kitchen table with coffee pot in hand and that short distance is made long by smell-memory because she’s suddenly guarding the register of her family’s convenience store on Eagle Rock Boulevard in Glendale, California, the smell of burnt coffee and overripe bananas in the air, the dull aluminum scrapings from scratch tickets scattered across the floor, the freeway close by with its incessant exhaust fumes and noise, and she’s reading a novel with an omniscient narrator whose authority carries her across time and place so that she’s sure-footed in someone else’s life, even if not in her own, and then her mother, eyebrows thick as pupating caterpillars, headscarf knotted tight below her chin, face bent with historic anger that Roya never did understand, is yelling at her to pay attention when customers come into the store because people steal and you think I’m a-stupid? You think you can a-fool me with that book? You are a-lazy-bottom girl! You know what happens to lazy-bottom girls?
‘I said, you should never answer the phone uncaffeinated.’ Her husband’s fleshy face again, twenty-five years from the jawline that once made her stir, eyes bugging through oversized lenses, crumbs in his walrus mustache, a nasal breathing loud as the Glendale Freeway itself. ‘So what did she want?’
‘A ride. For her son. Home.’
‘And?’ He waves his travel mug and Roya realizes that she’s still holding the pot. She fills his mug before her own cup and sits down.
‘And nothing . . . I should be happy to help.’ The coffee is dark and rich; nothing like that burnt and bitter brew her parents sold for 50 cents a styrofoam cup.
‘Why don’t you pass her off on one of the other wives?’ He folds the paper and slurps from his mug.
‘You’re going to be late,’ Roya says, holding up her phone to remind him of the time.
He stands, takes his blazer from the back of the chair, and then bends for his briefcase. ‘My first patient isn’t until ten, so I’ll drive the kids to school.’ He walks down the hall to call for them upstairs. Roya is looking at their shared calendar when he comes back through the kitchen.
‘Should we take separate cars tonight or will you come home first?’ she asks.
He turns back, quizzical. ‘Remind me again?’
‘Stem cells . . . at the Omni Parker House. You should know. This is one of yours.’
‘Right. I’ll see you there,’ he says and walks through the mudroom and into the garage. Soon as it rumbles open, the kids come pounding down the stairs.
‘Later,’ Mohammed-Kevin says without even looking at her. Product has made a skyscraper of his hair.
‘Don’t forget I have a meeting after school,’ Naghmeh-Kimberley adds as she grabs a banana from the fruit bowl, again with the baggy sweater and loose-fitting jeans. Her curly hair pulled back this morning, as every morning, with one of a rotating collection of multicolored scrunchies. Today it’s mint green – neon almost. Roya has to bite her tongue. If people can’t look past the superficial, her daughter believes, then that’s their problem. Her naivety distresses Roya because she feels powerless to correct it, to make Nagmeh-Kimberley understand that the world doesn’t work that way. People are cruel and judgmental. She should know.
‘Earth to Mother,’ Naghmeh-Kimberley says.
‘Jeez Louise! I said, pick me up forty-five minutes later than usual. Because of my meeting.’
‘Yes,’ Roya says and watches her daughter walk away, shaking her head, pitched forward by the weight of her backpack. No one would notice her in a crowd; her beauty is subtle in the way of a daisy’s white petals and not its bright yellow pistil. Only after the garage door rumbles back shut does Roya think to ask, what meeting?
She exhales and rolls the tension from her shoulders, then looks down at her phone, at Mona’s name first under her list of recent calls, and sips more coffee. She isn’t doing Mona any favors by prolonging the inevitable. At this rate, if she doesn’t end things soon, the Alipours will end up around her Thanksgiving table. She’s already done more than she expected. Like arranging for Mona’s job at Macy’s by calling in a favor to a friend. Not only did Roya prep and drive Mona to the interview herself, but she also selected her outfit, since in Iran, Mona never scrutinized her work clothes; under the obligatory workplace hijab, no employer had ever glimpsed her dress. Roya settled on a simple turquoise polyester blouse and a pair of gray dress pants, but when Mona pulled out a silk headscarf to cover her head, Roya advised her to forgo it – if she wanted the job. To be successful here, you can’t think the same, she said, and because Mona didn’t seem convinced, added, True hijab should be worn over your heart. She couldn’t recall where she’d encountered that expression, but it felt like the right thing to say. Mona considered this for several moments before returning the headscarf to the dresser. Two days later she was offered the job and on her first day, she sent Roya a selfie wearing a headscarf print of the American flag. A forelock teased out from beneath. She’d painted her lips in a matching shade of red. Was she trying to be clever? Somehow, it seemed a personal challenge or rebuke of some kind (Roya couldn’t decide). From the Macy! she’d typed beneath her selfie. And because she had to respond, Roya sent a thumbs-up emoji; Mona replied with the dancing woman.
But had Mona asked her opinion, Roya would have told her she was making a mistake donning the headscarf. If she pressed for a reason, then Roya would have told her about being seven in suburban Los Angeles with parents who couldn’t string together two sentences in English and so relied on her, the eldest of three and the only one in school, to translate the nightly news coverage of the Iran hostage crisis and the reprisal attacks in LA. One night, a young engineering student was shot in broad daylight outside his apartment in Culver City. On another, a brawl outside a bar in Brentwood left one man in a coma and the second with broken ribs and internal bleeding. Her mother instructed Roya to say Armenian if anyone at school asked where she was from, but she continued to wear the headscarf in public. At home, she forced Quran study on them, and Roya’s disinterest became annoyance became resistance became resentment, so that by the time she was in high school and her parents finally opened their convenience store, she couldn’t converse with her mother without escalation. Still, Roya tried to reason with her over the store’s proposed name: Super Extra Convenience. Just pick one modifier she’d argued. Why, her mother wanted to know. Because super extra doesn’t mean what you think it means. Oh excuse me Dr Professor, so what is it meaning? It means too much, more than necessary, over the top. And what’s wrong with this, her mother wanted to know? America peoples like too much extra things. Roya never said it out loud, to anyone, ever, but she was vindicated, glad even, to see her mother scrubbing at the store’s walls that first time it was vandalized with spray paint, hateful racial slurs that her mother tried, but failed, to bleach away.
By the time Roya leaves the salon – hair bleached ash blonde and trimmed shoulder length – it’s a quarter past three. Muscle memory steers her to Milton Academy. Only when Nagmeh-Kimberley isn’t waiting at their usual spot does she remember the meeting. Ignoring the no standing signs, Roya flashes on the Land Rover’s hazards and rushes inside, spotting the son of an acquaintance who points her in the right direction. She’s breathing fast when she arrives at the classroom. She peaks inside, but doesn’t see Nagmeh-Kimberly and so turns to go, but something compels her to look again. This time she sees her daughter in the circle, talking animatedly with her hands, wearing a robin blue headscarf that makes her already round face appear more so. When she stands to go the whiteboard, Roya ducks back to the car, confused by her own impulse to flee.
Maybe it’s a mock UN? The clock blinks 3:45 p.m. She feels nauseous. She needs to leave now if she’s going to make it in time to pick up Mahdi. Naghmeh-Kimberley can arrange a ride with her brother, who is carpooling with a teammate after tennis practice and team spaghetti dinner. Just as Roya unlocks her phone to text her, Naghmeh-Kimberley opens the passenger door and leans inside, no longer wearing the scarf, and for a moment Roya thinks that she imagined it.
‘What are you doing here, Mother? I told you I had a meeting.’
‘I never put it into my phone.’ She holds up her phone as if it proves this fact.
‘Were you just inside?’ Nagmeh-Kimberley asks.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Just now, one of my friends thought she saw you.’
‘Saw me where?’
Seriously, Mother, Nagmeh-Kimberley’s expression says.
‘I was right here about to text you. Now get in or we’ll be late.’
‘You never listen to me. I’m in a meeting.’ Frustration makes a used tissue of her face. She pulls back, but still holds open the car door, her body hesitating in the gap. ‘Late for what?’
‘I promised to pick up Mahdi from soccer practice. Now get in or close the door and find your own way home.’ Nagmeh-Kimberley scowls and the shape of her eyebrows are startlingly her mother’s. ‘Well?’
‘Hold on. I have to get my backpack.’ She runs inside and is back a minute later. ‘I told them we have a family emergency.’ She buckles her seatbelt. Roya pulls an illegal U-turn and the tires screech. People turn their heads. ‘Jeez, Mother! Careful. Everyone’s staring.’
‘Then it’s a good thing you don’t care what people think.’
Nagmeh-Kimberley turns sharply to look at her, but she doesn’t take the bait.
They are silent for some moments. In her peripheral vision, Roya notices Nagmeh-Kimberley taking in her hairstyle. ‘It looks nice,’ she finally says. ‘Why don’t you ever just go full blonde?’
Roya runs her fingers through her hair. ‘I just might,’ she says and waits for her daughter to say something more. But Nagmeh-Kimberley is now looking at her phone. ‘What was your meeting about?’ Roya asks once she merges onto the highway.
‘Well, we weren’t planning a gala or anything.’
‘Is that supposed to be funny?’
‘I think it’s a little funny,’ Nagmeh-Kimberley smiles and it’s so much her father’s smile.
Roya shakes her head and exhales audibly.
‘Jeeze Louise, Mother. Lighten up. Anyway, it’s nothing you’d care about.’
‘How do you know what I care about?’
Nagmeh-Kimberley’s stare is long and unflinching. But Roya can’t help it. What else is her daughter keeping from her? This avoidance is starting to feel like a punishment. And it’s not like Roya criticizes Nagmeh-Kimberley like her mother did her. She’s given her daughter every advantage and the space to find herself while continuing to offer her opportunities to better herself. Her husband says that it’s a phase, like teething, but Roya suspects it’s something bigger. Now that she’s seen what she’s seen, she regrets not having trusted her instincts.
Traffic comes to a sudden halt and Roya brakes too quickly so that their seatbelts tighten against their chests. Ahead, a wash of taillights flicker, stretching as far as she can see. The sky is the color her daughter has dubbed roarange, and bruised by lakes of deep purple. The GPS adds another eighteen minutes to their arrival time.
‘Goddamnit,’ Roya throttles the steering wheel.
‘Mother! It’ll be fine. I’ll just text to say we’re running late. What’s his number?’
‘Who? Mahdi? He doesn’t have a cell phone. He’s ten.’
‘He’s twelve, Mother. Same age as your son?’
As if at their age two years makes any difference. They have yet to feel the sudden shift of time tilting out of favor. How suddenly then the years amass, straining the way of coniferous trees heavy with snow or rain.
‘Do you at least have the coach’s cell?’ Nagmeh-Kimberley asks.
She doesn’t. In fact, she has no information that her daughter can use to find a contact number online. She would remember had Mona given it to her.
‘Really, Mother,’ Naghmeh-Kimberley says. ‘This is basic stuff.’ She taps at her phone like a bird billing the bars of its own cage. Who, or what, is she writing? ‘Can you at least call Mona and ask for it?’
Roya knows, even before she makes the call, that it will go straight to voicemail; Mona’s manager doesn’t permit phones on the sales floor, it was part of the orientation materials she helped her read. They inch forward. Roya feels a heat rising in her chest. She exhales and looks to her left, at a row of triple-decker homes disquietly close to the highway barrier, their rear porches facing the highway. She focuses on a porch cluttered with entirely too large patio furniture. What misguided aspiration! Couldn’t they understand it only emphasized the bleakness of this place? Who would want to sit out there anyway? What was there to see except highway and neighbors close enough to spit at.
‘Ridiculous!’ Roya says and her daughter thinks she means the traffic.
‘The coach won’t just leave him,’ Naghmeh-Kimberley says. ‘I’m sure Mahdi is okay.’
‘Of course he is,’ Roya says. But then she recalls her father-in-law saying that it’s only a matter of time before the world as they know it comes to an end. All it’ll take is the press of a few buttons, the turn of a few keys, and then, kaboom! On Fox & Friends, he heard about a company in South Dakota that builds state-of-the-art fallout shelters and has invested in a hundred acres of land out there. Now he’s trying to convince his son to do the same.
It’s already ten past five when they descend into the O’Neil tunnel. At this pace, she won’t reach Mahdi till close to six. Her jaw aches. She’s grinding her teeth again. A headache is coming on. Her knuckles are white from squeezing the steering wheel, her every nerve on fire.
‘Don’t have an aneurism,’ Nagmeh-Kimberley says.
‘I can literally see the vein in your temple pulsing.’
‘Maybe you’re the one who’s nervous,’ Roya snaps, hearing the obtuseness of her words without even having to look at her daughter.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘I don’t know. You tell me.’
For a moment, Nagmeh-Kimberley looks confused the way she did as a baby when Roya would flick her with beads of water, tickled by the way her daughter startled at the sensation, shuffling in her seat, opening and closing her mouth like a fish. Since her freshman year at Milton, she’s planned on Harvard through to her JD. But top grades and extracurriculars just aren’t enough anymore. The rules have changed. Her daughter might accuse her of being superficial or elitist or (her favorite), a Republican, but the truth is that Roya is whomever she needs to be in order to secure the best life for her children. Coming from where she did, it wasn’t easy to curry favor with Boston’s elite, to climb her way into their social circles. Money performs miracles, yes, but also whom you know and what is owed in the reciprocity trade, accounted for in invisible ink, collected on through the art of subtext. What does she imagine wearing the hijab even means in this country? Does she think it modest? Is it modest to invite the gaze and attention of strangers? If her daughter doesn’t understand or value her opinion, if she has so little faith as to keep such a secret from her, then let her find out for herself what this world actually is.
‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ Nagmeh-Kimberley finally says, narrowing her eyes to her phone and just like that the expression is gone. It’s almost visible, Roya thinks – her daughter’s hardening. If Roya closes her eyes and breathes deeply, she can still feel her daughter’s tiny hands wrapped around her index fingers and how she took her first hesitant steps under the steeples of her legs, until she didn’t need Roya for balance anymore and charged ahead, blissfully blind of falls and sharp edges that she anticipated, following mere steps behind, worrying for every possible hurt because the world is so full of it.
And then it’s her own mother’s voice saying, May one day Allah repay you with a daughter who treats you as you’ve treated me. And it’s the summer before Roya flies east for college to study Literature at Tufts. Just in from a run and thinking no one is home and because she’s wearing a sports bra, she peels off her drenched T-shirt, forgetting all about the necklace so that it gets tangled in her hair and catches. She yelps, stuck in that awkward position with T-shirt half-off and bent over so that she doesn’t see her mother until she’s untangling the chain from her hair, ignoring Roya when she says she can do it herself. When she straightens, it’s too late. Her mother is holding up the fake gold chain so that the cross sways like a pendulum. She looks from it to Roya and for once in her life, she’s silent; her eyes do all the talking. Roya tries to explain. It doesn’t mean anything. She just wears it at school so no one will harass her. It’s not like she actually believes. Her mother takes Roya’s left hand and slowly lets the chain curl in her palm, then closes her fingers over it. That is too much worse, she says, and then leaves the front hall, and even from two rooms away, Roya can hear her pleading for God’s mercy and forgiveness. Both her parents are now buried on the opposite coast and Roya doesn’t see her siblings because when she left her parents, she deserted them too.
When they finally exit the tunnel, the sky is dark. The Zakim Bridge is all lit up, white as bleached coral. Mahdi must be wondering whether he’s been forgotten, whether anyone is even looking for him. How could she be so reckless? What will she tell Mona if something happened to him? Roya can’t recall the last time she prayed, or even how to begin. But her mother’s voice still echoes in her head and she’s saying that an innocent child is at stake you lazy-bottom girl and have you forgotten that before you begin anything, you begin in His name . . . and just in case her mother was right, in case it makes any difference, in case there is a God, Roya takes a deep breath and exhales: Bismillahirrahmanirrahim.
She wasn’t the one to proclaim. Rachel Baskin misheard something she said in class about the Israel-Palestine conflict, and approached her after to say Respect, and that Naghmeh-Kimberley should be proud of her Muslim heritage just as Rachel was of her Jewish one. ‘We actually have more in common than not,’ Rachel said and Nagmeh-Kimberley braced herself. ‘But people love to confuse the issue.’ A Milton Academy lifer, Rachel had spoken all of three sentences to Nagmeh-Kimberley in as many years, so of course by we, she didn’t mean the two of them, but their respective histories, assuming that like her, Nagmeh-Kimberly was also raised in a Faith. Because Rachel’s sudden attention was as disorienting as a spotlight, she didn’t correct her. ‘I didn’t know you were Jewish,’ Nagmeh-Kimberley said. ‘No one ever does,’ Rachel answered, then continued with her point. ‘We have a sick fascination with the fighting over there, like it’s an episode of Jerry Springer or something.’ This time by we, she meant Americans. It felt like an olive branch, so Nagmeh-Kimberley agreed, although she wouldn’t have thought to make that comparison, and what she said next wasn’t for attention, although people might say that it was. ‘I’m thinking of wearing the hijab.’ Hearing herself elaborate felt like its own kind of truth. A once vague notion took form. Why couldn’t she try to be? The longer she spoke, the more assured her conviction grew. ‘With Islamophobia spreading all over the world, I think it’s important to be visible.’ ‘Totally,’ Rachel agreed. ‘You should totally go for it.’
Word spread. Students and teachers offered their encouragement; their attention became a look of anticipation stamped across their faces every time they looked at her, as if by continuing to come to school without hijab, Nagmeh-Kimberley was accusing them of something. The student paper interviewed her for a story about the issue of hijab in public spaces. ‘When you have momentum going, play the momentum,’ her father often quoted some business tycoon, and surprisingly, it was this phrase that gave Nagmeh-Kimberley the idea to leverage the attention into administrative support to establish the Student Interfaith Alliance, and herself as its President. Only a handful of her cheerleaders actually came to the inaugural meeting that afternoon (Rachel was not one of them) and there, Nagmeh-Kimberley donned the headscarf for the first time. And while it wasn’t her primary motivation, she knows it will look good on her college applications. If she were to actually proclaim and write about the experience in her college essay (here she’d mention her mother’s parents) then her odds would improve further. She’d write about how her mother guarded nothing of her parents’ customs or beliefs, preserved nothing of their faith, and so could teach her nothing when Nagmeh-Kimberley asked. And because her grandparents died before she was old enough to know them for herself, because her mother never wanted to talk about them or her past, Nagmeh-Kimberley would write about searching for answers on her own.
No matter how many times she denies it, Nagmeh-Kimberley knows that it was her mother outside the classroom. But obviously, she doesn’t want to talk about it. Fine. Nagmeh-Kimberley won’t be the one to begin. Why should she?
And now her mother is mumbling something she can’t understand. Nagmeh-Kimberley bends to look for a bottle of hand sanitizer in her backpack and finds the headscarf bunched on top of her books; she pushes it aside and finds the sanitizer in another pocket. She squeezes a dollop into her left palm and rubs until the liquid evaporates. The sensation of its vanishing is strange; she expects to feel the residue but does not, like recognizing a face but not recalling their name. Eventually, traffic thins out and by the time they reach Playstead Park, it’s five after six.
‘Do you see him?’ her mother asks as they drive by the field. But Nagmeh-Kimberley’s heart sinks because even in the dark she can see the field is empty. They park on Century St. Ext. and get out. ‘Mahdi,’ her mother calls out as she rushes onto the field. Nagmeh-Kimberley follows, shouldering her backpack with her. She doesn’t know why she brings it. There is a chill in the air. The wind picks up. How suddenly the weather changed! They reach the middle of the field and her mother calls his name again, circling like a goldfish to look where she’s already looked before. ‘Mahdi!’ She shouts as if he’s hiding somewhere in the dark, playing some kind of game.
‘Mother! Why are you shouting? He’s obviously not here.’
Her mother stops turning afield and looks at her; the wind gusts, messing up her new hairstyle, revealing the darker roots. Every muscle in her face seems to be straining with some invisible effort. ‘So where is he?’
How should I know, Nagmeh-Kimberley would say if not for the look on her mother’s face. She looks at her phone. Ten after six. ‘Maybe he started walking? Let’s drive around and look for him.’ It seems the logical thing to do: to search their environs. Back in the car, they head down Century St. Ext., towards the train tracks just beyond the trees and loop back around the neighborhood. Besides an old couple walking their golden retriever, people are tucked inside their Cape Cod homes, humble windows alight.
‘Bismillahirrahmanirrahim,’ her mother says and this time Nagmeh-Kimberley hears her clearly. She tries to think whether she’s ever heard her mother speak those words before, but she can’t recall. It sounds so strange to her ears. And her mother’s voice, all watery with fear, compounds the effect. ‘How will I ever face her?’ she says.
Nagmeh-Kimberley knows the question is rhetorical, but she still answers. ‘We don’t know anything yet. Keep it together, Mother! We need to be logical.’
‘What logical? He isn’t here, Nagmeh! He isn’t here.’ Her eyes dart between opposite sides of the road, searching for him.
Nagmeh-Kimberley doesn’t know, can’t name what exactly, but inside her chest a foreboding sense grows that they’re already too late. A car behind them hits the horn hard and they both jump.
‘The light’s green,’ Nagmeh-Kimberley says, and the Land Rover lurches forward.
‘I don’t know where I’m going,’ her mother says. ‘I think we’re lost.’ She checks her rearview mirror, then looks for a place to pull over, but there’s no shoulder on this road.
‘Maybe the coach drove him home. What’s their address?’ Nagmeh-Kimberley takes her mother’s phone and copies the address from her contacts. ‘It’s only ten miles away,’ she says. ‘He’s probably there.’ She can no longer tell whom she’s trying to convince. The GPS calculates the directions and Siri’s voice prompts them to turn left in a quarter of a mile.
‘But what if he’s not?’ her mother asks.
‘Then you’ll have to call the police before you call Mona.’
‘I should have told her I was busy.’
Nagmeh-Kimberley bites her tongue.
‘Allahu akbar. Nazrmekonam!’
‘What are you saying?’
‘Nazrmekonam,’ her mother repeats. ‘Two sheep. Only he be safe.’
‘What are you even talking about?’
‘Two sheep. Beh-Khodah. I swear it.’
The tenor of her mother’s voice makes Nagmeh-Kimberly anxious. She fidgets with the zipper of her backpack, pulling it open and closed. Her mother repeats herself, Nazrmekonam, until Nagmeh-Kimberly can’t stand it anymore.
‘Mother, stop it! You’re scaring me.’
Roya turns to her. Her face falls. ‘I am scaring you?’
‘Yes,’ Nagmeh-Kimberley says.
‘Why am I scaring you? I am only praying.’
‘Well, it doesn’t sound like it.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I don’t know,’ Nagmeh-Kimberley feels her heart racing; it might jump from her chest into her throat and choke her. She doesn’t know how to articulate the feeling and this increases her panic. The sound of those unfamiliar words makes her skin creep. Is this what a panic attack feels like? ‘It just doesn’t sound like praying,’ she says again.
‘And what does praying sound like, Nagmeh?’
‘Not like that.’ Then she turns to look out her window because she doesn’t want to talk about it. The Mystic River snakes to her right, past still more parks and fields. The wind blows louder through the treetops, shaking them of their leaves, swooshing like waves coming to, and pulling away from the shore. She can hear it even with her window rolled up.
‘You always criticize,’ her mother says and the shift in her tone is immediate. ‘You think you know better? Is that it Nagmeh?’
She sounds like herself again and it’s a relief. As long as her mother is angry, then she’s not falling apart. Anger can be useful that way. It shrinks the world down to a point and ignores the rest. Sometimes, Nagmeh-Kimberley believes that religion is an excuse for war, for one nation to subjugate another, because how else to explain the inequities and atrocities, why some people only know devastation and others prosperity, why those who lie and cheat reap the biggest rewards. But then at other times, she looks at the stars and wonders about the questions that continue to baffle humanity. Can evolution explain this impulse to continually seek the unfathomable? Is it coded in our DNA? How different are we really from salmon that journey for thousands of miles against the current to reach the place they were born only to die? Isn’t everything alive just struggling for home?
Siri says they’re thirteen minutes from their destination. Clouds veil the moonlight, so it feels especially dark, the only light from streetlamps and passing cars. But still Nagmeh-Kimberley can see them floating past her window when they slow to a stop at the next traffic light. Hundreds of dandelions, or rather, their white umbrella seeds almost like snow suddenly descend, spinning on the wind and across their field of vision. When she was a child, they grew abundant in the fields near her house, and she would pull them up, close her eyes, make a wish and blow, one after the next, as if wishes were infinite and her every hope certain to be answered, and it’s this memory that alights the disquiet she feels now at hearing her mother pray, because Roya isn’t a religious woman, certainly not a Muslim, an identity she disavowed before Nagmeh-Kimberly was even old enough to wonder. You’re bargaining, she thinks to say, with a God you’ve forsaken, so what does it even mean? But she keeps silent. Her mother would never admit it; she’d invent some rationale to explain. So Nagmeh-Kimberly says her own prayer. Please let Mahdi be home. Please make him be okay…but then she hesitates about something less ludicrous to promise in order to make it true. Because two sheep? Really? What century did her mother think this was?
Holy cow! It’s three raisins stuck together! And they’re carrying it between them like two men would a couch. He’s never seen ants working together like this before. They’re so close to home. But then they drop the super-raisin and struggle to pick it back up. He wonders whether they have their own secret language, deaf to human ears, and that’s how they synchronize. He crouches to see them better. Come on little guys. You’re almost there. But maybe it doesn’t feel that way to them. Maybe for them, it’s a very long journey. Do they even know what’s happening when the ground shakes? Do they know it’s not an earthquake, but just the footfalls of his team running past? Maybe they think they’re under attack. Quick, before the giants return and we’re crushed to smithereens!
‘Maddy! Maddy!’ He only realizes Coach is shouting at him because the rest of his team is all the way at the other end of the field and they’ve stopped the scrimmage to watch. Coach blows the whistle and beckons Mahdi to him. ‘What the hell are you doing? I’ve been shouting your name.’ Mahdi hustles towards Coach. ‘Where is your head?’ Mahdi thinks how to explain about the ants but Coach doesn’t want an answer because he asks, ‘Do you even want to be here?’ Mahdi looks at the ground because he can’t look Coach in the face. Coach turns to the team and shouts, ‘If one of us isn’t playing to win, then we’re all losers.’ Then he makes the whole team run laps.
‘Way to go Maddy,’ Alex says, shouldering past him, knocking him off balance.
‘What are you, some kind of retard,’ Jason snickers as he laps him next.
‘Loser,’ adds the one whose name he can’t remember, bringing up the rear the offensive line.
Mahdi slows to let them run past.
Coach places the last of the gear inside the truck before coming back to the edge of the field where Mahdi waits. Everyone has gone home. Mahdi is afraid to speak. He’s never been alone with Coach before and it makes him nervous because he thinks Coach is still angry. He’s unsure how to say, you don’t have to wait with me, without sounding like he’s telling Coach what to do, which he would never dream of doing. Coach pulls out his phone and checks the time. ‘You sure someone’s coming?’
‘Yes Coach,’ Mahdi says, straining to look up Playstead Road for Roya Khanoom’s white Land Rover. If she doesn’t come, he could walk home, although he’s unsure how long it would take and he isn’t exactly clear of the way.
Coach cross his arms. Even at rest they appear to strain. Through his arm hair and muscle, Mahdi can see his veins fat with blood. His teammates say Coach can bench 300 pounds, 350 on a good day. They pride his strength almost as if it’s their own. Coach rocks on his heels and looks up and down the street.
‘Listen, Maddy,’ Coach says, turning to face him, his tone is softer now that they are alone. ‘You have to be the one to make inroads here. You’re the new guy. That’s just how it goes.’
Mahdi nods like he understands.
‘Start with Alex,’ Coach says. ‘He’s the leader. Every team has one. Get him on your side, and the rest of them will fall in line. Take it from me, kid. People are like sheep. They all just follow the flock.’
‘Yes Coach,’ Mahdi says even though he doesn’t know how to make Alex be his friend. That’s why Mah-Mahn and Baba signed him up for football in the first place, even though he never asked them to. They say it’s not healthy to play alone all the time. To be always daydreaming. That he needs real friends in the real world. Even if they never said so, Mahdi knows they’re disappointed that he couldn’t find a way to make Mohammed-Kevin be his friend.
‘You need to concentrate on your game,’ Coach continues. ‘If you play better than everyone, prove to them you’re essential, then they’ll be lifting you on their shoulders. Do you understand?’
‘Before you know it, you’ll be one of them. Trust me, Maddy. It’s just how the game is played.’
Coach nods and looks pleased. Mahdi looks back up Playstead Road, following the curve of the street. In the late afternoon light, it’s brighter in places and darker in others. The trees just beginning to turn color heighten the contrast.
‘Where do you live again?’ Coach asks, studying his phone.
Mahdi gives him his address.
‘That’s on the other side of town. By the Fellsway? Near that shopping plaza off Salem?’ Mahdi nods even though he’s unsure whether all that is true. ‘Do you have a house key?’
‘Alright then, let’s go,’ Coach says, walking to his truck. ‘I’ll drive you myself.’
Mahdi hesitates, looks back up the street for Roya Khanoom. He should wait because Roya Khanoom’s family is important people. Otherwise Mah-Mahn will be angry. But then Coach opens the driver-side door. ‘What are you waiting for?’ he hollers.
Mahdi picks up his backpack and climbs into the truck. As they drive down Playstead Road, the setting sun shines through the windshield. Coach flips down his visor, but Mahdi closes his eyes and feels the last of the sun’s warmth on his face, brushing its golden light across his closed eyelids so that even with eyes shut, Mahdi can see the light.
‘You need a nickname,’ Coach says as they drive over the train tracks and bear left. He drums the steering wheel. ‘Something people can pronounce.’ Mahdi waits for him to continue. ‘How about Max? Sounds tough, right?’ Coach looks over at him.
‘It’s close enough to Maddy,’ he says. ‘Maddy-Max,’ and then his face lights up. He slaps the steering wheel so hard that the horn sounds. Mahdi flinches. ‘Ha! There we go. Mad Max. Do you know him?’
Mahdi nods his head yes even though he does not, and for a moment, it looks like Coach is going to reach across the car and clasp his shoulder or ruffle his hair, but the moment passes and Coach doesn’t touch him at all.
‘Maddy-Max it is. That’s what we’ll call you. Mad Maddy-Max. Or triple M for short.’
‘What do you mean she didn’t come?’ Mah-Mahn asks, dropping the shopping bags on the kitchen floor and turning to look at him. ‘How did you get home then?’ She unknots her headscarf and slides it off. Underneath, her hair is flat and limp. She runs her hands through to wake it up.
‘Coach drove me.’
‘How long did you wait for Roya Khanoom?’
Mahdi shrugs, which upsets her.
‘Where is my purse?’ Mahdi knows to retrieve it for her. ‘Why didn’t you call me soon as you came home?’ She rummages inside, but before she can find her phone, the doorbell rings and they both freeze and look at one another. Only when it rings again do they break their gaze. Mah-Mahn pulls on her headscarf and hurries to answer. Mahdi follows.
He doesn’t recognize Roya Khanoom at first, but then he sees Nagmeh-Kimberley standing behind looking like she’s going to buckle under the weight of her backpack. ‘You’re here,’ Roya Khanoom says, looking past Mah-Mahn and straight at him. ‘We couldn’t find you. You weren’t there,’ she says, like he played a terrible trick on her. ‘We thought you were lost. Or taken.’ Mahdi doesn’t know how to answer. Roya Khanoom turns to his mother. ‘I didn’t know how I’d ever face you again. Nazrkardam, Mona. Two sheep. I was that scared.’ She places her right hand across her heart.
Mah-Mahn steps onto the porch to take her arm. ‘Please, come in. I only just got home myself. Have a glass of tea to catch your breath.’
‘I’m already late.’ Roya Khanoom pulls away, and then bursts into tears, then stops crying just as abruptly. ‘I have a fundraiser.’
‘Just ten minutes,’ Mah-Mahn insists. ‘You’ve come all this way.’
‘I was so worried. It really is too much,’ she says and is crying again.
Behind her, Mahdi notices Nagmeh-Kimberley drop her backpack and fall back onto the wicker loveseat Mah-Mahn bought even after Baba said they didn’t have space for it. Mahdi steps around their mothers and goes to her.
‘You don’t know what it did to me when I arrived and he wasn’t there,’ Roya Khanoom is saying.
‘I’m so sorry. It must have been terrible. Please, come inside. Just five minutes.’
‘What does it mean?” Nagmeh-Kimberley asks Mahdi and at first he doesn’t understand until she pronounces it: Nazr-me-ko-nam, in an accent as stiff as his English.
‘It’s my own fault,’ Roya Khanoom says. ‘I take on too much.’
‘You help so many,’ Mah-Mahn says. ‘Please come in. Just five minutes to catch your breath.’
‘Is it like bargaining?’ Nagmeh-Kimberly asks.
Mahdi thinks about how to explain. The day his parents learned their asylum applications were approved, they were in East Anglia, at the home of one of his mother’s friends who was also a lawyer. They video called his grandparents in Tehran with the news. His grandmother promised to sacrifice a sheep the very next day, because God had answered their prayers.
‘I need to start putting myself first,’ Roya Khanoom is saying now. ‘What good am I to anyone from a hospital bed?’
‘God forbid!’ Mah-Mahn says. ‘Don’t even think such terrible things.’
‘Or is it like a trade? Like a quid pro quo?’ Nagmeh-Kimberly asks.
‘But it’s possible, Mona. The way I’m going . . .’ Roya Khanoom says, trailing off. ‘People are expecting me,’ she startles and turns to go, but then turns back. ‘I can write you a check,’ she says, unzipping her purse. ‘You’ll have to tell me how much and make the arrangements yourself.’ She rummages inside. ‘I wouldn’t even know where to begin.’ She pulls out her checkbook.
‘I don’t understand what you’re saying,’ Mona says.
Mahdi recognizes the shift in his mother’s tone. She’s hurt. And confused. And in disbelief. It’s how she sounded the day he told her that he didn’t even like football and all he could see when he closed his eyes that night was the look of pain on her face so that the next morning he woke and said he’d made a mistake.
‘For the sheep,’ Roya Khanoom says, uncapping her pen. ‘I don’t know anyone in Iran. Is three hundred enough? Five? A thousand?’
His mother stares from Roya Khanoom to the checkbook and back. ‘But that’s not how it’s done,’ she says. ‘That’s not how it works.’
Nagmeh-Kimberly pulls on his shirtsleeve so that Mahdi turns back. She’s still waiting for him to explain. Her irises quiver, her pupils large and dark so that she looks like she might really cry. Mahdi sits down next to her. “Do you even know?” she asks.
‘It’s like a promise, but also bigger than a promise,’ Mahdi says. He doesn’t know how else to explain it. Not all words translate and not everyone says what they mean and sometimes people carve up big words into little ones hoping, as his mother explains, to make new meaning.
‘Bigger than a promise?’ Nagmeh-Kimberly asks.
‘Because you have to believe in it with your whole heart,’ Mahdi says and Nagmeh-Kimberly nods and looks down at her hands.
Roya Khanoom recaps her pen and drops her checkbook back into her purse. ‘I’ll mail it to you then,’ she says. ‘I’m already so late.’ She turns around. ‘Let’s go,’ she says and descends the porch without looking at them on the couch. It’s only as she steps onto the asphalt that Mahdi realizes her hair is a different color.
‘You poor girl,’ Mah-Mahn says coming closer because Nagmeh-Kimberley is now crying. ‘Everything will to be okay. She’s just upset. Let me get you a glass of water.” Mah-Mahn disappears inside.
Nagmeh-Kimberley doesn’t look at him even when he reaches for her hand. Her nose runs, a ball of snot bubbles from her right nostril. She pulls her hand from his and points a shaky finger to her backpack. Mahdi gets up to retrieve it. She unzips it and pulls out a blue scarf with which she wipes her nose, her cheeks, her eyes. Mahdi watches her, hoping Mah-Mahn would hurry back. But then Roya Khanoom honks the car horn twice so that they both jump up. Nagmeh-Kimberley grabs her backpack and shoulders it down the stairs into the Land Rover without a word. By the time Mah-Mahn returns with water and tissues, they are gone.
‘What happened?’ Mah-Mahn asks and Mahdi doesn’t know what she’s asking exactly. Just now or all of it? Mah-Mahn doesn’t wait for an answer. She steps to the lip of the porch and tosses the water out. It slaps the pavement, darkening a patch. Mah-Mahn turns and goes back inside, leaving Mahdi alone on the porch, watching the empty street, the houses so close together it’s almost like they’re holding hands. Mahdi looks up at the sky. At all of the lamps God set there so that even in darkness, there is still light. Mah-Mahn calls his name and even though Mahdi doesn’t want to go, he turns back, noticing Nagmeh-Kimberley’s scarf bunched against the loveseat’s armrest. He picks it up. It’s wet. Mah-Mahn calls him again, louder this time.
‘I’m coming,’ Mahdi says, and places the scarf back in case Nagmeh-Kimberley returns looking.
Image © Prayitno