In the Country

 

A flutter of anxiety shook Mina as she heard her husband, Majid, and their son-in-law, Donald, in the backyard, talking in not quite agreeable tones. Majid, who rarely raised his voice, shouted, "Stop, stop, she can fall and hurt herself."

She went to the window and looked out. Donald was throwing Leila, her three-year-old grandchild, into the air and catching her. She was squealing with laughter, her face all red. Donald continued to play, throwing her into the air and catching her. He was a hefty, broad-shouldered man, with long blond hair, and a strong, square face. Just the way he looked drove Majid to distraction sometimes. Is this going to develop into something more volatile? she wondered. She turned away from the window and went into the kitchen to begin to prepare dinner.           

In a few moments she heard soft classical Persian music coming out of their bedroom, what Majid liked to play.  

The baby had brought their daughter closer to her and Majid, after years of rebellion against them. During her high school and college years, in her attempt to fit in with the American way of life, Setareh had tried to separate herself from her parents. She had been twelve years old when they emigrated to America, and in many ways she had adopted her peers' free attitudes. It was when Setareh got pregnant that Mina and Majid decided to buy this country house together so that they could all spend a lot of time with the baby. Setareh had resisted the idea at the beginning, concerned about how they would all get along, thrown together like that. But then she had come around and managed to convince Donald that this family closeness was good for the baby.

Mina had fallen in love with this house from the beginning. She liked its symmetrical layout, four rooms upstairs and four downstairs, four windows in each room. From any spot of the house you could see mountains. The air blowing in through the windows was fragrant with the scent of grass and wild flowers. The house, the mountains surrounding it, reminded her of her childhood summer house in the Damavand Mountains. She and her siblings and many cousins had spent idyllic summers there with their parents.

She took a bowl down from a shelf and, as her mother used to do, started to mix flour, honey and milk for a cake. She poured the mixture into a pan and put it in the oven to bake. After it was done, she put the baked cake on a platter, trying to stop herself from eating some. A bad habit, she thought, that she hoped to quit since it made her gain so much weight.

Donald came to the door and said he was going to do grocery shopping. Setareh had put the baby down for a nap. Mina gave a start seeing Donald in his creased tee-shirt and banged up blue jeans, torn at the knees. Why couldn't he dress properly? He was a husband and a father after all.

Through the window Mina watched him getting into his car, which had a sticker on the bumper saying, DON'T LIKE MY DRIVING? THEN GET OFF THE SIDEWALK, one of his attempts at humor among many that she and her husband just didn't appreciate. The car screeched loudly as Donald pulled out of the driveway and hit the curb, then bounced back to the asphalt. It's amazing, she thought, that he hasn't gotten killed the way he drives.

He was so wound up all the time.

Before Setareh met Donald, Majid—and she too—had wanted her to accept a proposal from Karim, the son of one of their friends. Karim was a well-mannered boy and was also going to university, as Setareh was at the time, though in a different city. Of course she and Majid couldn't force their daughter into marriage, not in a country where young girls made their own judgments; still, they had tried to make her understand their way of thinking, that parents had better judgment because they were more experienced. Aware of her parents' disapproving attitude about dating, Setareh had kept her relationship with Donald to herself.           

When Donald returned from the grocery, he carried several overloaded bags. Americans, she had noticed, always overshop. Setareh came in and the two of them began to load food into the refrigerator—milk, eggs, jars of baby food, his usual treats, popcorn kernels, Hershey bars. In addition to the food, Donald had bought three straw hats, in different colors: purple, pink and green. The green one was as small as a dessert plate.

"I found them at the flea market by the road, for the three girls here in the household," he said buoyantly.           

He put the purple hat on Setareh's head. "You look good in it," he told her. He kissed her hard on the lips. She smiled. Tall, big-boned, Setareh still seemed delicate next to him. He took the hat off her head and put it on his own and tried to imitate her posture by pushing his hip to the side. She snatched the hat off his head, put it back on her own again, then ran giddily into another room. He began to chase her from room to room.

Mina heard them doing something—wrestling—then their bedroom door closing loudly. This was something she had not anticipated when they began to share the house, watching her daughter play with her husband.

Later, still wearing his torn-up clothes, Donald went into the yard to mow the grass and Majid—still brooding over this morning's disagreement—went into the living room to read the bilingual Farsi-English magazine he subscribed to.

Setareh padded back into the kitchen and began to make a salad with yogurt and cucumber and mint, a Persian specialty she had learned from Mina. Working beside her, Mina sprinkled turmeric, dill and lime juice on fish the way they did in Iran, and put it under the broiler. Mina thought how for a long time Setareh had avoided Iranian food. As a teenager, she used to go out and buy fast food with her allowance rather than eat the food her mother made. Now that Donald actually liked the Iranian cuisine, Setareh had started appreciating it too.

Setareh said, "Mom, can you taste the salad to see if I put enough mint in?"

Mina took a spoon and tasted the salad. "Perfect. You've become good at it."

Mina knew that Setareh, aware of her mother's critical attitude towards her husband, was happy with any compliment from her.

Donald came in from the yard, picked up Leila from her crib and carried her into the living room. Mina couldn't help noticing that grass was clinging to his tee-shirt; she worried about it getting on the baby. He sat on the carpet and started blowing up small balloons. She was about to tell him to change his dirty clothes, but then she heard Leila make excited noises, then laugh again and again. To her granddaughter, each balloon was magic.  

After the food was ready, Mina and Setarh set the table on the deck and they all sat down to eat. Mina served everyone, including the baby with her special food.  Majid was silent, eyes half closed. Was he falling into the realm of memories? Mina wondered.

He opened his eyes and stared at the fish on his plate. "Poor fish," he said. "They must have been swimming happily in the brook before they were caught."

"Look at the wild flowers, so bright in this light," Setareh said in turn, trying to look cheerful

Donald started telling her about what had happened to him in the city yesterday.

"I looked out of my office window and there was this guy—standing on the other side of the glass—washing it. First it seemed like he was dangling down but then I saw that he was just standing on the ledge there. You know those belts? He was hooked to the window. It was a nice day, so I thought I'd get out on the ledge and have my lunch there. You should have seen this guy's face."

"You didn't, did you really?" Setareh said, sounding amused.

"You have a child now to take care of," Mina said to him.

"It wasn't that dangerous," he said. "My office is on the second floor." He raised his hand as if to illustrate the height.

"You know Mother worries a lot," Setareh said, caressing his naked arm.

He smiled at his wife and seemed to shrug, though he did not shrug.

The sunlight was fading and birds were hopping around the tree branches, singing. Mina, who had fallen into a melancholy state like her husband, admonished herself. Why this sadness? We should be singing with the beauty of nature and all that we have, a daughter who has come around to accepting us, a son-in-law who never tries to alienate her against us, a healthy, pretty grandchild, inheriting her father's big blue eyes and her mother's curly dark hair, a striking combination.

After they finished eating they all helped clear the table. A full moon was out and Setareh and Donald left the baby with her and Majid and went for a walk. She had a glimpse of them on the narrow, hilly road that ran by their house and ended two miles up the hill at a dairy farm.           

"It's a young country and people remain young too," she said to her husband. But that fuzzy, distracted look was still on his face.

***

In bed that night Mina had a nightmare that a group of people were holding hands and dancing around a fire, then as if by some gravity they were all pulled into it and started screaming with pain. She could see in the bright light of the moon that their eyes were glaring with fear and blood was streaking out of their faces, arms, chests.  She woke in a cold sweat and put her arm around Majid. Majid was deep in sleep. A good thing; he had been so tense all day.

Unable to sleep, she felt herself falling into her own long-ago memories.

She thought of the years before she got married. She and Majid lived in the same neighborhood in Tehran and she kept running into him in different places—the Bandari Cinema, the Mellat Park cafe. Once, when she and one of her girlfriends were sitting in the cafe, he had come to their table and introduced himself for the first time. Then he sent his parents over to her house to ask her parents for her hand in marriage. He had been full of life and ideas, then.

She kept going through corridors of the such memories until she was in a room where she and Majid were alone together for the first time after they got engaged. She was wearing a green dress and tortoise-shell comb held her hair back. He had on a maroon shirt, flattering on him, bringing out the brown of his eyes and hair, a few shades darker than hers. He had just kissed her for the first time two weeks after they were engaged, properly holding himself back. When they were on their honeymoon in Babolsar by the Caspian Sea, they went on a tour: the guide would whistle a tune and masses of tiny, yellow butterflies would swarm in the air, creating a cloud of color around them.

As a lawyer, Majid had opposed human rights violations in Iran: Revolutionary Guards had stormed his office and confiscated his files. After that, he had gone into hiding until they found a way to escape Iran with their daughter. Life in the United States had turned out hard to adjust to. Their English was inadequate and their expertise, hers in Iranian history and his in criminal law, didn't transfer to the new job market. They worked at unchallenging jobs, she as a hairdresser and he for a mail order plant and garden equipment company. In Brooklyn they had made some Iranian friends, but most of them had to work at several jobs and had little time for socializing. The Americans they met seemed frivolous, oblivious to their kinds of problems.

She managed to fall back to sleep only to awaken to someone banging on the door. Revolutionary Guards—the thought rushed sharply through her mind. Then she saw a tree was rapping against the window. It was five in the morning, the luminous clock beside the bed showed. It was eight hours later in Tehran. All the shops and offices would be opening after the long daily siesta and streets would be teeming with the bustle of life, people rushing to work, traffic racing, vendors hawking their merchandise. She and Majid could never have gone back.

Knowing that, she wondered, Why is it that Majid and I cling to the past?

***

After breakfast, Majid did some work, using one of the rooms in the house as his office. And Donald vanished into his tool shed where he liked to paint. Some of his oil paintings in bright colors, of children holding hands or birds flying, hung on the living room walls. Mina actually liked those cheerful paintings. They reminded her of the patterns she used as a teenager to make little tapestries. Late in the afternoon, Mina and Setareh took out the baby in her stroller, each of them wearing one of the hats that Donald had bought. Mina felt a little silly wearing the hat, but then she liked the way it connected her to her daughter. Sunlight glittered on the tree leaves, which were turning already in September and looked gem-like in their brightness.

They walked on the narrow, asphalt road in front of the house, pausing now and then to look at an interesting sight—an old, abandoned barn, the fish darting in creeks, a brook with children quietly riding on it in inner tubes. A field filled with white-yellow chamomile stretched on the other side. Flat-faced cows grazed in another field.

After a spell of silence, Setareh said: "Mom, you and Dad get worked up over everything Donald does."           

Mina did not reply, but she was thinking, Wasn't it better that her daughter married Donald, a playful, happy man, rather than Karim, who had become a very serious, somber man with a critical attitude towards everything?

They passed a house with several children playing in the front yard. One was swinging on a swing; two others were chasing each other, laughing. A little girl came out of the house and began to run down the road, her skirt billowing around her, her hair jumping on the back of her blouse. Then she disappeared into another house farther along.

When Mina and Setareh reached that house, they found that a girl and a small boy had set up some apples and squashes on a wooden table in the yard. "Ten cents each," the girl said as they approached her.

Mina and Setareh paused to buy some.

"The apples are from our own yard and the squash is from my aunt Jennie's yard," the girl said in a bubbling way. Her cheeks were flushed from having run, her hair wind-blown.

"I'll buy all the apples," Mina said, surprising herself. The girl smiled up at her.

Leila who had fallen asleep woke up and reached out to take one of the apples from her grandmother's hand as she received them from the girl.

As they wheeled away, Mina carried the apples in a large plastic bag. She saw that someone in the distance was walking in their direction. It was Donald. He was waving at them, calling, "Setareh, Mina, where are you, time for lunch." He wore faded blue jeans and white sneakers and an iridescent shirt with pink and blue wave-like designs on it and was kicking something, a can or a piece of gravel into the stream running along the road. He reminded her of a big child.

Setareh ran to him. Wearing the purple straw hat that he had given to her, with her hair flowing out from under it, she had a carefree air about her. Donald was beaming as if he had just seen his wife after a long separation.

Mina stopped in the road and set down her heavy bag of apples. She looked at her daughter running, and felt a tremor of joy and thought how nice it would be to run like that, a child in a world of wonders.

 

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