Maryam woke to the buzzing of the alarm clock. She leaned over, turned it off, and lay back. “I must get up now,” she thought. “I will have to see Dr. Gibbons this morning.” But she kept lying there, tired—no, reluctant to face the day. She wondered if it all had to do with her pregnancy, or her suspicion of being pregnant. It had taken a lot of persistence by Paul for her to go ahead with the idea.
It was wonderful to have Sharon. So much of the meaning of her days, her daily routine, revolved around her—first a small, wrinkled thing, gurgling, fretting, clutching at her plastic animals or blocks, then changes coming over her, going from soft to hard food, teething, making exploratory sounds that only resembled words, and then long phrases that seemed to come from inside of a wound-up doll. On some days she would take Sharon into her own bed and hold her in her arms and tell her a story until she fell asleep and then she would put her back to her bed.
When she had work to do around the house, Sharon sat nearby with a puzzle or her doll house and played. But now she was looking forward to Sharon becoming more self-sufficient so that she could go back to school and build a career for herself. Not that it was impossible with a new child. It was just harder, would postpone things. But that was not all there was to her ambivalence. It was this apprehension that the world the three of them had built together was somehow fragile, that a sharp enough blow would destroy it. They had reached a balance finally, that rested upon tensions and disagreements smoothed out over the years, problems anticipated and taken care of.
They had argued over such things as: what kind of wedding they would have—they ended up getting married by a justice of the peace, avoiding both parents’ pressures, his wanting a Christian marriage, hers a Muslim one.
She couldn’t laugh at American jokes, couldn’t connect to Western movies he devoured. He couldn’t understand why she would not develop a taste for drinking with meals, even a glass of wine, or why she disapproved of people laughing loudly or dressing in ways that exposed too much of their bodies.
When she became pregnant for the first time they talked for hours about what kind of name to give the baby, American or Iranian. Sharon had been a compromise; an Iranian name, Shirin, was very similar to it. She had been full of guilt not having her family in any way present at the wedding or when she gave birth. Then there were some differences rooted in having been raised in two different cultures. She couldn’t laugh at American jokes, couldn’t connect to Western movies he devoured. He couldn’t understand why she would not develop a taste for drinking with meals, even a glass of wine, or why she disapproved of people laughing loudly or dressing in ways that exposed too much of their bodies.
Reflecting on all that, she was amazed that she was still embedded in her upbringing, considering how hard she had tried to get away from home. The house she grew up in, with its walled-in courtyard, windowless rooms, on gray streets in Ghanat Abad, with some of the houses and shops boarded up, some damaged during the Iran-Iraq war and never repaired, and women walking around in dark shroud-like chadors, had seemed like jail. She had nightmares about being trapped back there. In one nightmare she was walking on a street near their house in Tehran. A grotesque looking beggar leaped out of a doorway and held out his hand to her, asking for money. As she reached over to give him a coin, the man suddenly grabbed her hand and tried to drag her into the dark hallway of the house. She began to scream, and he finally let go.
She stared at the embroidered tapestry, on the wall across from the bed, sewn by her grandmother. It depicted a group of birds and flowers going around a circle. The birds seemed pulled against their will toward the center. She remembered how as a child she used to look at that tapestry, which hung on a wall in her room, and imagined fearfully that the birds would exhaust the energy of their wings and be swallowed by some mysterious gravity. She had a similar feeling now—that the balance in her life could at any moment be destroyed by something beyond her control.
She got out of the bed and went into Sharon’s room. She was asleep. Paul had left the night before for a business trip—consulting for a school using behavioral techniques with autistic children. He was a psychologist and taught at Stony Brook University. She went to the bathroom and turned on the shower. From her reflection in the mirror, she could see no signs of pregnancy yet. Her skin had a healthy glow, her waist and thighs were slender. Only, maybe her breasts seemed a bit enlarged. Perhaps she wasn’t pregnant. She still needed the test result from the doctor.
After the shower and breakfast with Sharon, she took her to her nursery school, only two blocks away and then came back and drove to the doctor’s office in Port Jefferson with the roof of her Volkswagen open. She still got a thrill driving her own car. When she was a teenager, she had seen her first American movie in a theater in north Tehran, a fancy neighborhood; in it the young actress drove her convertible everywhere. It had struck her as so exhilarating.
She passed houses with vast lawns, the fabric shop where she occasionally went to buy fabric and a pattern to sew something for Sharon, when she had some free time. She had worked as a paralegal, but when she became pregnant with Sharon, she quit. She planned to go to law school in the fall. But if she was pregnant, she might have to postpone that.
She passed the handicraft shop where she had recently bought a set of cranberry colored crystal glasses. The dogwoods lining the streets were all in bloom, their white blossoms creating the impression of snow. She was aware though of a confused, insecure feeling inside her. She thought of when she just met Paul in North Carolina, where they had both been students at Duke University, and how being with him used to make her feel secure and precarious at once. He was stocky and blue-eyed, she was thin, with long dark hair that came practically to her waist and dark eyes. After the class in history ended, she asked him some questions about the lecture. He had answered with a touch of amusement; most of what she asked was common knowledge.
Meeting his parents at his home in Charlottesville had been uncomfortable. His father talked constantly and told jokes, most of which she didn’t understand; his mother was stiff and had a perpetually critical expression on her face and asked her strange questions, such as, “Do they have houses in Iran or do most people live in tents?”
They had continued talking while eating together in the school cafeteria. He asked her out, and they started seeing each other regularly and were married within the year. It was the fact that she didn’t completely understand him, that he was a bit mysterious that had attracted her to him. But she had never been able to assess what qualities in her he had been drawn to. Perhaps that was the core of her feeling of insecurity and even a bit of fear of him. Meeting his parents at his home in Charlottesville had been uncomfortable. His father talked constantly and told jokes, most of which she didn’t understand; his mother was stiff and had a perpetually critical expression on her face and asked her strange questions, such as, “Do they have houses in Iran or do most people live in tents?” Then their visit to Iran had turned out badly with him constantly feeling nervous—getting a visa had been so difficult for him, and there was no American embassy there. Her parents and the rest of the family had treated him as if he were a creature from space.
She pulled her car into Dr. Gibbons’s driveway and got out. The reception room was crowded with women waiting their turns. A few of them were talking to each other about the side effects of their pregnancies—backaches, excessive sleepiness. Some looked listless, from the long wait maybe. One woman was very advanced, judging by her huge, protruding stomach; she put her head back and half closed her eyes. She mumbled, “My husband didn’t want another child.”
The remark stirred up Maryam—both she and Paul were ambivalent about having another child—so much so that she hadn’t even told Paul that she suspected she was pregnant. Another child would certainly complicate things. Paul had said, “We should quit while we’re ahead.” She thought, “If I test positive for pregnancy should I abort?” She kept moving around in her seat. She picked up a magazine and put it down again. She had a sudden, terrible memory of a woman she knew growing up, a poor woman living next to their house on Khaki Alley. She had overheard her telling her mother, through tears, that she had given up her baby for adoption because she and her husband could not afford to have another child. Then she overheard another neighbor telling her mother that the woman had not really put up the infant for adoption but put her, wrapped in a blanket, on the doorsteps of a mosque, hoping someone would take her. For days and months she had been haunted by that and other stories of misery that spread in the alley. Life had been wretched for so many people, full of diseases, poverty, ignorance. And then all the losses they had suffered during the war lingered. There was such a gloom in the air at times, thick as smoke.
Her own parents were well off enough since her father had a reasonably successful rug business in the bazaar, but they lamented being held back from their real goals. He had wanted to be a doctor, but after his father was killed by a missile during the war he had to support his two young sisters until they got married. Her mother had lost her job as a school principal during the Islamic Revolution—the school was shut down for not sufficiently following Islamic rules. Then she could not find another job. To avoid her parents’ constant complaints and bitterness Maryam used to spend most of her time in her room. She did very well in high school and got a scholarship to an American university. Her father had said, “Go, go away and do something with yourself.” Getting the scholarship and being able to leave for a university in America was such an incredible experience, giving her the feeling that she could do anything she wanted for herself.
“Your turn Mrs. Dawson, will you come in. . .” The nurse, a pretty, young woman with red hair, was calling to her. She got up and went inside. The nurse told her to leave a urine sample in the bathroom and then go into the examining room and put on the robe hanging on the hook. Maryam did all that and then the nurse came in. She weighed her, and as Maryam lay on the examining table, took her pulse, her blood pressure.
“What are your symptoms?”
“I’ve missed two periods. . . And nausea, tiredness, tenderness of breasts.”
The nurse wrote them down on her chart.
In a moment the doctor came in and the nurse left. He looked weary, his gray eyes were blood-shot, his hair tousled, but still he exuded competence. He looked at her file and said, “You’ve missed two periods… tenderness of. . .” He sounded oddly off-hand, even indifferent. She remembered when she had just come to the United States, she had that feeling about most people, that they were friendly in a general way, impersonal. It took getting used to.
He leaned over and began to examine her. “Does this hurt?” His hands moved from her breasts to her stomach. “Relax.”
A little later she sat on a chair across from him in his office.
“It seems like you’re in your third month,” he said abruptly.
I ought to tell him what I am going through but what for? Someone with his cold eyes.
He went on, “It’s pretty certain but still we have to see the result of the urine test. We’ll let you know tomorrow.”
On the way home, she stopped to buy fruit and vegetables. The touch of the surface of the fruit did not bring its usual pleasure, neither did the sunlight brushing against her skin, she was so engaged with her internal confusion and turmoil. She paid and started walking to her car.
“You left your bag,” the man behind the shop counter called after her.
“Oh!” She went back and took her bag. “Thank you.”
The street in front of the red brick school building was clogged with children. She spotted Sharon on the steps engrossed in a conversation with two other children, tapping her bag against her bare legs. It was so wonderful to see her happy, mingling freely with other children. She had had some difficult periods. For one thing she did not speak at all until she was two-and-a-half years old. Every doctor Maryam had taken her to had said things like, “That happens sometimes to bilingual children. They start slower. We’ve given her all the tests we can. There’s no physiological basis for it, and she shows no alarming symptoms. She’ll talk eventually.” Then at the age of two and seven months she had suddenly started to speak in full sentences.
She went over and picked her up, holding her against her chest. “I love you so much, my little girl, my Sharon. Do you know how much I love you?”
Sharon rubbed her head against her chest and then kissed her on the cheeks.
On the following day, Dr. Gibbons’ nurse called to tell her that the pregnancy result was positive. Paul came home from his trip at six o’clock, looking exhausted. He plopped himself on the sofa in the living room. “I had a bad visit,” he said. “Dennis Cross didn’t like my suggestions. He was trying to get me condone using medications. . .”
She went and sat on a soft chair across from him, curling up her legs under her, thinking, “I haven’t told him the news yet.” She had to force herself to say, “I’m pregnant.”
“Pregnant? You never mentioned anything.”
“I wanted to be sure.”
He was quiet, a little stunned. Then he said, “Why didn’t you call me and tell me immediately.”
“I just found out a few hours ago.”
“We didn’t even think of names yet. . .” He reached over and took her hand. “Your hand is cold.”
She studied his face to see if he was holding anything back but it was hard to tell; his blue eyes looked wary, veiled.
Sharon came down the stairs. “Will you play a game with me?” she asked her mother.
“You didn’t give me a kiss,” Paul said to Sharon.
Sharon went over and kissed her father quickly on the cheek and then ran back to her mother.
“Soon you’re going to have a baby sister or brother,” Maryam said picking her up and putting her on her lap. By telling her that she realized she was ruling out abortion. The sight of Sharon ruled out that option.
“When?” Sharon asked, looking confused.
“It’s coming in about six months.”
“What’s its name?”
“We don’t know yet. You’ll help me take care of her,” Maryam said.
Sharon started going up the stairs and then climbing down, jumping noisily from one step onto another.
“Quiet,” Paul said.
Sharon ignored that and began to make additional noises with her mouth. “Boom, boom.”
Maryam could see anger rising in Paul.
“Hickory, dickory, dock, the mouse ran up the clock,” Sharon chanted.
“Stop, will you. Your’e four years old now, not a baby. Why don’t you go to your room and play?”
But Sharon resumed running up and down the stairs, singing, “Hickory, dickory , dock…”
Paul jumped up and went over to her. He grabbed her flailing arms and held them down, pinning her in place for an instant before letting go. His face was flushed. “Don’t you ever listen to what I tell you?”
“Leave her alone,” Maryam said. A lonely fever had come into Sharon’s eyes. Maryam went to her and, lifting her up, she held her against her chest. She felt Sharon clinging to her firmly. She suddenly had a vivid horrible vision—the light in the room changed into the distant, menacing one of the past; the house, the well-tended, flower-filled yard around it, vanished and was replaced by that dark house of her childhood. Then Sharon and Paul disappeared also as if into a dream.
When she came back to herself, her heart was beating violently.
Then she heard Paul saying, apologetically, “I’m sorry my little sweet girl.” He took Sharon from her mother’s arms into his. He rocked her back and forth, rhythmically.
She looks so much like her father, Sharon thought.
“You’ll have someone to play with all the time,” Paul said to Sharon.
As Maryam watched Paul become loving with Sharon, the terrible feeling in her began to pass. Once again, deep inside her, the frightened self lay at peace.
“We should think of a name and which room should we set up for the baby” she said to Paul.
“The one next to Sharon’s. It’s just the right size.”
“But the baby will wake her up at night.”
“How about the one on the other side of ours.”
“I think so.”
“If it’s a boy, we could call him Cyrus. If a girl Roxana… What do you think?”
Nahid Rachlin was born in Iran. Her publications include a memoir, Persian Girls (Penguin), four novels, Jumping Over Fire (City Lights), Foreigner (W.W. Norton), Married to a Stranger (E.P. Dutton), The Heart’s Desire (City Lights), and a collection of short stories, Veils: Short Stories (City Lights). Her short stories have appeared in about fifty magazines, including The Virginia Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, Redbook, and Shenandoah. She has written reviews for New Times, Newsday, and The Los Angeles Times. She has received the Doubleday-Columbia fellowship and is a Wallace Stegner Fellow. Other grants and awards include, the Bennet Cerf Award, PEN Syndicated Fiction Project Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts grant. She can be reached at her website, nahidrachlin.com
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