The night of the dance I wore
an ankle-length caftan, hiding
my body beneath its airy flow, flat
shoes not to be too tall,
and my roommate’s lipstick,
brighter than orange juice.
He was a prince who could have picked
any of the boarding school girls—
Suzie with one eye blue, the other
green, full moon-breasted Victoria,
or the girl from India with a waist
slender as a drumstick tree.
But the sixteen-year-old Saudi royal
asked me for the first dance, then the second,
then for the rest of the night, as boys and girls
disappeared into dark corners while
chaperones dozed off in the hall, or chatted,
nipping Hennessy from tiny silver flasks.
My prince was shy, but not too shy
to slowly drop his hand and squeeze
as he pressed his lips on mine, the knife
in his pocket on my groin.
On the bus back the girls taunted me,
Camel driver’s virgin, imitated my accent, singing
Don’t touch the merchandise, mocked me
for pushing away the fetching prince so hard
he fell on his ass and twisted his wrist.
“What did he do? Stick his finger up your…?”
That night, I packed my bag, slipped out
just as the sun exhaled its first breath into night,
took the first Eastbourne rail to London.
I hid beneath a beat-up hat, collar pulled up,
and by the time the headmaster was informed,
called the police and my anxious parents overseas,
I was at my clueless cousin’s boarding house nibbling
baklava, drinking hot tea from a chipped cup.
For a week I shivered beside a coin-operated heater,
ate fish ‘n’ chips on yesterday’s newspaper,
and read Neruda, Farrokhzad, Tolstoy, and Austen.
Quietly I thanked my father for giving me time
to strengthen the sinew that held my heart.
It rained and I didn’t go out, avoided my big-boned
cousin with her roto-rooter tongue and the nose
of our grandmother who could smell anything
rotting inside the heart.
I turned the cracked mirror in my room
towards the wall. Someone had scribbled
“HELP” on the back. The rose-splattered wallpaper
looked scrubbed with day-old coffee.
The lone sofa sagged with the weight
of absent occupants the way my lips still felt
the heaviness of that first kiss.
In the end what mattered, I learned,
were the smallest blessings:
the milk-sweetened tea or the miracle
of scalding water from the ancient bathtub faucet.
What counted were my widowed cousin
holding her own in a foreign land,
and the grit to say no
to what is hurled—words, glances, bullets, all.
Sholeh Wolpé was born in Iran and has lived in England, Trinidad and the United States. She is the author of Rooftops of Tehran, The Scar Saloon, and Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad—for which she was awarded the Lois Roth Translation Prize. Sholeh is a regional editor of Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East and the editor of The Forbidden: Poems from Iran and its Exiles (Michigan State University Press, 2012).
Homepage photograph via Flickr by Shandi-lee