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A Lifetime of Food

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October 15, 2013

“He wouldn’t let me get a driver’s license. Did I ever tell you that? … I went down to the department and there was a soldier there who said, ‘I’m sorry but your husband has given us orders to turn you away.’”

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Image from Flickr via Vinoth Chandar

Maryam gets up and puts on the samovar, looks outside to see if the squirrels and the birds—mostly crows—have taken the salvaged food she leaves for them at night. They have. They always do. There is a joke that one of the grandchildren made. She remembers it now: A grandmother who has turned herbivores into carnivores. The grandmother who always feeds. Relentlessly.

Which grandchild said it? She can’t remember. There are other jokes and other grandchildren and years between her thoughts and memories.

When the water boils, she puts three tea bags into the kettle and drowns them. She places the kettle on top of the samovar. For most of her life she was appalled by tea bags and wouldn’t drink anything but loose-leaf tea. Now she realizes the ridiculousness of that work. Of that monitoring. This tastes almost the same. It’s almost good.

His is a mess of sheets and quilts, of fighting nightmares and coughs. Gently she places one hand underneath his back and another on his arm. Gently she helps pull him up.

She turns down the heat and makes her way to the bathroom to clean up.

He calls for her and she waddles to him, like a toddler at the start. Her waddle accompanies pain—no use saying back or neck or feet or hips anymore, it’s everywhere. Her bed, next to his—they have always slept with distance between them, although there was a time when he pushed the beds together: when was that?—is made and somber. His is a mess of sheets and quilts, of fighting nightmares and coughs. Gently she places one hand underneath his back and another on his arm. Gently she helps pull him up. Helps lift him out of the twin bed and together they walk. Together, they take a lap around the room until his body begins to soften. Together, they go to the bathroom where she empties urine from a bag and reattaches it to his waist. From there, he can still do the rest on his own.

Some mornings they walk around the neighborhood before breakfast. But today it is too cold—more winter than spring. Even though she would go in this weather, even though she wants to go, she knows he will not come. He is afraid of catching sickness. Coming down with pneumonia twice this year has made him weary. All the windows remain sealed shut through winter and he rarely leaves the house.

She sets out the breakfast things. Most of what they will have. Since moving to Maine from Tehran ten years ago, they’ve begun eating high fiber cereal, but she still puts out the traditional Iranian cheese and herbs and flat bread and sometimes they make a sandwich of that, as well. She doesn’t pour the tea. That’s his job. The kids say that he’s changed with age. Softened. She presumes that it’s the act of pouring the tea, something he’s only done for ten years, that gains their favor.

Finally he comes to the kitchen and says, “It’s cold today.”

He pours their tea and puts the glasses on a tray. He sets dates and sugar cubes on a small plate. Cautiously, slowly, he carries the tray to the table.

“It’ll warm up,” she says.

“No, it won’t,” he says. “This is Maine. It’ll be cold. In Tehran, there are flowers blooming by now. Here, I can’t even go for a walk.”

“McCain will free Iran from those disgusting, despicable bastards,” Nafici said. “He’s not afraid to invade.”

She knows why he’s angry this morning. Last night their son and his family came to visit. To cheer up these prisoners, the visits are an act of petitioning forgiveness, perhaps. He and their grandson Cyrus, a bold nineteen-year-old with muscles his grandfather never had, argued about Iran and McCain. Why, Cyrus wanted to know, did his grandfather tell everyone to vote for McCain?

“Look at how awful Bush has been,” Cyrus said in Farsi. “He’ll follow this legacy. Look at the war. McCain is more Bush than even Bush.”

When she and Nafici, her husband whom she has always called by his surname (first because she was so young and she had to be respectful, and then out of habit) came here, Cyrus barely spoke a word of Farsi and now he was practically fluent. The other grandchildren weren’t as argumentative or as interested, so their Farsi is mediocre at best.

“McCain will free Iran from those disgusting, despicable bastards,” Nafici said. “He’s not afraid to invade.”

“Like the Bush administration ‘freed’ Iraq?” Cyrus said.

“Iranians are warriors,” Nafici said. “We’re intelligent. We’re not Arabs. Once the U.S. ousts the Mullahs all of us will go back and rebuild.”

Cyrus began to protest but Nafici silenced him, “It won’t be long.”

“No, it won’t,” Cyrus said. “Things will just get worse.”

“Worse than what?” Nafici shouted. “How bad has it been for you?”

“I know things are bad!”

There was a time when no one argued with Nafici. No one. And certainly no one dared to shout at him.

“Are you Iranian or American?” he asked his grandson.

“All this talk of politics,” Maryam interjected, “dinner is nearly ready. Let’s just enjoy it.”

“Quiet!” Nafici said.

“Would anyone like more tea?” Maryam persisted.

“Well, which are you?” Nafici said.

“Both,” Cyrus said, boldly. “I have to make sure I vote for the candidate that will represent my ideas. Certainly not one that will start another war. And I don’t plan on moving to Iran anytime soon. I don’t think I’ll ever want to live there.”

When she suggests going to California, he says, “I don’t want to be too far away.” She wonders, too far away from what? Here, they live in an elders’ community.

Nafici shot up. Too fast. Lost his balance. He gripped the edge of the table and sat back down.

This morning, Nafici is silent through breakfast. He skips his crossword puzzle from Javanan Magazine, which another one of their grandsons always sends from Texas, and turns on the TV. Maryam thinks about how much she would like to go to Texas, to Dallas where her grandson lives. It is always warm and sunny there, she thinks. But more importantly, there is an Iranian community. There are Iranian stores and the last time she visited she heard Farsi on stranger’s lips. But Nafici is tied to his routine. There’s a time and a place for everything. For the sixty-four years that they have been married, Nafici has always woken up at the same time. Same time for breakfast, same time for tea, same time for a beer every afternoon, same time for his nap, same time for dinner—even if they are guests and everyone else is hungry and ready to eat—and same time for sleep.

All day Nafici watches Iranian News via satellite on their theater-sized TV at the highest volume.

When she suggests going to California, he says, “I don’t want to be too far away.” She wonders, too far away from what? Here, they live in an elders’ community. They own their home and live independently but are provided with group activities, neighbors of the same age and three on-premise ambulances. All this isn’t worth a thing since neither of them speaks English. Maryam is friendly with the neighbors. She always says hi and always leaves chocolates outside their door on Christmas Eve. But that’s the extent of their relationship. She dreams often about California and sometimes still, about Tehran.

All day Nafici watches Iranian News via satellite on their theater-sized TV at the highest volume. He is nearly deaf in both ears, but he refuses to wear a hearing aid or even the headphones their son brought for him. But Maryam’s hearing is still perfect.

Maryam picks up their breakfast dishes and goes into the kitchen. She no longer washes things. She rinses them and lets them dry. After that, she prepares the ingredients for the meals she is to cook for lunch, for dinner. Every day she cooks, even though they already have two freezers stocked full of food. Over the last several years Maryam has cooked and frozen two to three extra meals a week. She knows that Nafici will only eat her cooking and worries about him not eating if something were to happen to her.

After two hours in the kitchen, she comes out and asks Nafici what is going on in the world. Of course, she has already heard everything he’s heard, but she asks to relieve herself, for a moment, from the TV’s sound.

He turns down the volume and says, “I think something is about to happen. The way the news is being told, I think we’re about to have a revolution. Mark my words, Maryam, I give these bastards less than a year and then we can all go home, Insha’Allah.” God willing. The only words of Arabic he ever mutters. Too ingrained in him to erase.

“Less than a year,” he repeats.

He’s been giving them less than a year for five years.

“Anything else?” she says.

“They’re not letting women wear boots anymore,” he says. “Too provocative. Those idiots.”

She goes back into the kitchen and he turns up the volume again.

She makes phone calls.

She begins with acquaintances. Most don’t answer and those who do are cordial but impatient to get off the phone. There isn’t any interesting gossip. No new illnesses to speak of, no deaths, no misfortunes. She moves on to her grandchildren. Most of them don’t answer the phone either, but today she reaches her oldest granddaughter, Sara. She lives in New York, but never visits. Too busy, unless she needs money, in which case she makes time for the 200 dollars they fold into her hand on her way back home.

Sara is engaged to her boyfriend of five years and anxious to tell whoever will listen about the wedding plans, about her ring and her dress and of course about her fiancé. He’s American and though Maryam has met him several times, she cannot remember his name because she can’t pronounce it. Nafici never tries. When speaking to Sara he referred to him as “your friend,” and when things got serious as “your gentleman friend.”

“At least he’s not an Arab or a Jew,” Nafici said when he heard the news.

“Or black,” she said.

“Of course not.”

“I thought she’d marry an Iranian,” Maryam said. “She speaks Farsi better than the other kids. She was born there.”

“You hoped she would,” Nafici said. “Hoping is for fools. She’s too American. No Iranian man would be able to put up with her.”

Since her engagement, Sara has been curious about Maryam and Nafici’s courtship. Maryam likes to talk about it like it’s a war wound. She says, “You’re lucky you weren’t born when I was. For me there was no courtship. There was no choice.

“His parents told my parents that they liked me and that was that. I was fourteen.”

She was actually seventeen, but with each telling of the story, the misfortunate heroine grows younger, until there is no story.

“I can’t believe that,” Sara says. “Brandon and I have been together forever and this is still a little scary. I can’t imagine being thrown into it.”

“It didn’t turn out so bad,” she says. “It could have been worse.”

After a pause, she says, “He wouldn’t let me get a driver’s license. Did I ever tell you that?”

“Why not?” Sara says.

“I don’t know. I went down to the department and there was a soldier there who said, ‘I’m sorry but your husband has given us orders to turn you away,’” she said. “He was very powerful back then, your grandfather. The military had given us a driver and a maid and a houseboy. He didn’t think women should drive.”

What she doesn’t say is that he must have been afraid she’d drive away.

After hanging up the phone she sits in the kitchen and considers love. All these thoughts in her head are pests but she can’t help it. What is love, she wonders. She can’t imagine a future without Nafici, but they’ve been together so long that she can’t remember a past without him either.

“Are you listening to this?” Nafici says from the other room. He turns up the volume.

From the other room he calls for her.

“What?” she yells back.

“Maryam!” he shouts.

“What?” she yells, again.

He mutes the TV

“Maryam, are you there?” he says, panicked.

She doesn’t say anything back. Lets him worry for a moment. Then she slowly walks to the living room.

“It’s past time for my eye drops,” he says. “You forgot.”

“It’s fine. I’ll give them to you now,” she says.

“How could you forget?” he says.

After the eye drops he turns the TV back up and then lowers it for a moment.
“Did you hear this?” he says. “There is a man who is going to go to Iran and fight. He’s a millionaire from Washington.”

“Do you want to play backgammon?” she says.

“This is important, Maryam.”

She smells the rice. She’s forgotten to turn down the heat and it’s burning. She rushes back into the kitchen. It’s too late. The rice is ruined.

“Are you listening to this?” Nafici says from the other room. He turns up the volume.

She looks at the rice on one burner and at the stew on the other. Who needs all this food, she thinks.

She tries to carry both pots at the same time, but they’re too heavy. She sets the stew back and takes the rice first. She opens the sliding glass door and fresh air rushes at her. She pulls back the screen and walks out without a jacket and in house slippers. She sets the rice, still in its pot, underneath the tree in the complex’s communal backyard. It’s where she always puts food for the squirrels and the birds. Then she comes back for the stew. She leaves the door open between trips and hears Nafici grumbling about the cold, wondering where it’s coming from. She knows he won’t get up to investigate.

She opens the refrigerator and one by one takes out everything inside it. Then she moves to empty one freezer and then the other. As she does this, taking one or two Tupperware of food to the tree, the neighbors begin to look out their windows and then to gather outside.

There is a lifetime of food beneath the tree.

More animals descend upon it. They are violent towards one another and hoard as much as possible. Their noises are savage.

The neighbors say, “What are you doing?” “Why are you doing this?” “Who are you?”

She doesn’t understand them. She says hi, like always, and watches, too.

G

Author Image

Naz Riahi is a Los Angeles-based writer who is finishing a collection of short stories. She has two dogs, Thurston and Hugo, and spends most of her days at an advertising agency, thinking about technology, design, and innovation while daydreaming about writing and reading. She is a graduate of the New School’s MFA program and this is her first published work of fiction. She can be found on Twitter.

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5 comments for A Lifetime of Food

  1. Comment by mehrak on October 15, 2013 at 12:17 pm

    LOVED It!

  2. Comment by Gol on October 15, 2013 at 10:47 pm

    Lovely-this story is a capsule-refreshing homage of a gentle but complex culture…written beautifully without judgment- I enjoyed reading it.

  3. Comment by Gol on October 15, 2013 at 10:58 pm

    Lovely-this story is a capsule and homage to a gentle but complex culture-refreshingly written without judgment and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Well done, it was beautiful.

  4. Comment by Jane Goette on October 18, 2013 at 2:27 pm

    Lovely story. The characters are authentic–more human than admirable. I love the generational juxtapositions, the quiet insertions of a distant past, the voices of each member of the family, the muted conflicts–and the loud t.v. in the background.

    This is the first thing I’ve read by Naz Riahi, but I have a feeling I’ll be seeing more of her work in the future. I look forward to reading it.

  5. Comment by Jsin on October 20, 2013 at 10:13 pm

    I’m going to have to start following Naz on Instagram again. Heart-felt piece…

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