Translated from the Persian by Salar Abdoh.
Until he was eighty years old and doctors were seriously considering amputating his left leg, my father had never been unfaithful. His mother had saved for a lifetime so that at twenty-three he could walk away with a degree in Philosophy from Leipzig. He was a slender young man back then with a pencil thin moustache, who could probably go on about Kantian epistemology a lot more easily than exchanging a couple of words with the German girls he saw at the university. And not just any Germans, but one, or ones whose eyes were apparently the color of dawn over Buenos Aires. He’d admitted as much to my mother, even though he had barely spent more than a week of his life in Buenos Aires, and only because he was working for a Swiss bank at the time and was on an assignment to South America.
That had been fifteen years before I was born.
Often, I’ve wondered what it was that made my father connect the sky over Buenos Aires to a pair of eyes back in Europe? What was it that he’d left behind in Leipzig? I never asked. Or else, maybe those memories came from Geneva or Paris, cities where he’d also studied mathematics and management and lived in and worked later on.
“Your father fell in love only twice,” my mother would say many years later.
I think it’s debatable if it was actually twice or three times. The first time it was at an Armenian pastry shop up in Tajrish where his-soon-to-be wife, my mother, happened to be eating a peach melba dessert. My father was just back from Germany with his philosophy degree; a month later they were married. Seventeen years afterwards he was sent on a project by the treasury department — this time to the city of Shiraz. I was only two years old then and from what my mother tells us, he was slotted to stay down south for forty-five days. But he’d come running back to Tehran after only two weeks and wouldn’t leave his room. After the third day he came into the kitchen and held my mother’s hands.
“I’ve never been unfaithful to you,” he declared to her in a trembling voice.
Then he confessed that he’d seen a young woman in Shiraz who had made him feel like he was being thrown off a cliff. She was not more than twenty-one years old and her fingers were blue from the ink of the typewriter ribbon. She was the secretary to that office where my father was supposed to have worked at for a full forty-five days. He could not last more than two weeks. The storm inside him was too much. He had to leave everything and come back to Tehran.
On a gloomy and rather humid day in Geneva, I realized it was time to bring my parents back home for a visit after their twenty-seven years sojourn in Switzerland. The window to the hospital room where my father lay looked over at the shimmering surface of the lake and the doctor was telling us it was not impossible that they’d have to amputate eventually. Mother sat beside him on the bed gazing at her husband’s hands. Six years earlier she’d had a stroke and would try to talk when only absolutely necessary. I asked the doctor what was the best thing I could do for my father. His was a body riddled by illness now. Diabetes just happened to be the more pressing issue. But then he began to get better without the doctors having to take extreme measures just yet, and so I put my parents on a plane and brought them back home.
My father hated being confined to our large living room couch. The entire twenty-one days that they stayed in Tehran, his seat of choice was a Polish chair by the dining table. From nine in the morning till two in the afternoon he’d drink his unsweetened tea and accept visitors on that chair — mostly former students of his and senior managers who had once been trained by him. On a late afternoon as he bent over trying to clip his toenails, I finally decided I needed to do something “real” for this man, something he had never been guilty of but also had never stopped thinking about since that decisive week of his life in the city of Buenos Aires. And I had to do this before the diabetes or some other disease finally staked a claim on him and left him in darkness.
He had always said, “Each person lives in their own special universe. A place no one else can know and yet is not impossible to imagine.” I was imagining an alternate life for him. Or, at least, a holiday from the only life he’d known.
That life had been one of austerity, marrying my mother quickly after returning from Germany and never once veering from the straight path except for the one time when tears welled in his eyes for a girl from Shiraz with blue ink on her fingertips. His entire world was summed up in his devotion to his kids and his wife. Never had he allowed himself to gaze deeply into another pair of eyes, a luxury he always refused to accept as a possibility for a responsible man.
I’d been divorced for a couple of years and was living with Fariba. It was Fariba who turned my unusual idea into reality. She had someone in my mind who would write love letters to my father.
She had soft eyes, honey-colored eyes and all she had to do was pretend she preferred the friendship of an older man like my father.
“Her name’s Sonia. She and I used to go to high school together. Back then she probably wrote hundreds of love letters for all the girls in our school.”
“And?” I asked.
And Fariba’s old classmate turned out to have a pair of eyes there was no escaping from. Fariba noted that of all the love letters Sonia had composed, several ended in marriages. One turned into a suicide. And three eventually ran away with their lovers.
Two days before my parents were set to return to Geneva, I put together a small goodbye party and invited Sonia. I asked her to meet me at my office the day before. She certainly had soft eyes, honey-colored, and she was working as a secretary in a music school. I offered her three times what she was making and told her there was no need to quit her regular job. All she had to do was pretend she preferred the friendship of an older man like my father. “Stare into his eyes. And once they return to Geneva, write him a letter once in a while.”
At the goodbye party my father was naturally mesmerized by Sonia. I too could hardly believe that this woman who’d been so business-like the day before could as quickly turn into a seasoned actress. She took my father’s hands in her own and led him into the kitchen where she carefully sliced a pear and set it on his plate. Here was an image of happiness I hadn’t seen in my father in years, perhaps ever. The old man was leaning against the kitchen counter, eating the pear slices, telling jokes and laughing. I left them there and went upstairs where my mother was quietly packing their suitcases. I embraced her and kissed her on the forehead. Her head still had that scent of the medicinal plants of my childhood. I had not asked myself if she would ever be curious about the letters my father was going to be receiving and, naturally, hiding from her. She would be very curious, of course. But she would never ask. That was not her way. And what did that make me for even instigating all of what happened next?
In the following months, the news from Geneva was ideal. Every time my older brother called, he’d say that some kind of a miracle had happened. Our father was eating only healthy food, for once in his life. No sweets, no pastry. He was taking care of himself and was neither unhappy nor irritable. “He goes to the lake every day for walks, with mother. It’s as if he is another person.”
My generous monthly checks to Sonia did not stop. A year passed that way and then one day I caught sight of her sitting behind the wheel of a silver BMW, at the light before the Jahan-Koodak intersection. It should have been a revelatory moment; I should have realized right there and then that even the best of intentions and realized fantasies can slip, fish-like, out of one’s hands.
I wanted to call Sonia to ask about my father but kept putting it off. Two weeks after having seen her in that car my brother called again. His voice was shaking. “The old man left a note saying he is running off to Hawaii!” According to my brother, our dad was not unlike an elephant who feels death upon itself and goes off to die somewhere far off from the herd. “Two days straight I’ve been calling every hotel in Hawaii. Not a sight of him anywhere.”
Son, why should a young woman with eyes like hers fall in love with me, of all people?
Of course, our father was not in Hawaii because three days later I found him in Tehran’s Grand Hotel. One of my colleagues had called and said he’d spotted the old man in the lobby of the place. I refused to believe it until I was actually sitting across from him in that same lobby and he was confessing to me. His hands trembled and his eyes were bloodshot from crying and lack of sleep. He could barely bring the coffee cup to his lips without spilling it.
The first thing he said to me was, “Son, I’ve come to find out the truth.” The chair I sat on felt like it was on fire. I watched my dad staring at the huge chandeliers above his head, dreamy and confused. “I mean, why should a young woman with eyes like hers fall in love with me, of all people?”
It turned out that two months earlier he’d invited Sonia to leave Iran and come to Geneva, where he had reserved a suite for her. He wanted to tell her about Nietzsche’s love for Salomé and talk about his own feelings for her. But after a week together, where he’d leave the house in the morning and not return till late at night, he was even less sure of anything. Here was a man who had never lied in his life and now he was lying all the time. So he’d upped and come to Tehran to figure out if he was truly loved or not.
The two of them seemed to have had a good time together these past few days. She’d taken him all over the city, even on the mountain cable lifts to the “Roof of Tehran.” At first the old man had imagined that all this attention might be for the sake of money. But, he wanted to find out, could money be the only reality there was? Could it be the cause of all these sensations? Time and again he asked me if it was possible that a feeling could be so overpowering as to make one daydream around the clock. He insisted that unrequited love could not possibly exist. Our poets were liars, he kept saying. Love carried responsibility, but all that our classical poets had wanted to do was shun the obligation that loving entailed by complaining about the lover’s fickleness.
“You know son, one should never ascribe one’s own disappointments on another’s lack of devotion. It makes me sick when people do that.”
He had become a philosopher again. I took him north of the city where I knew a restaurant that served a menu without oil and salt and sugar but its food was still, almost, edible. As I watched him put a slice of fish into his mouth, suddenly I saw him as he had been forty years earlier — a time when he had been a god for me, and faultless.
He met my eyes with the fatigue of eighty years and said, “Sonia says she doesn’t want to get too close to me. Says she’s afraid she might hurt me. But there’s something off in this logic, son. I might not be good for her. That, I can understand. But she cannot be bad for me. Think about it: if she didn’t really care for me, would she even be worried about hurting me?”
The logic he’d learned in Germany sounded plausible, but it wasn’t helping us here. I tried to convince him not to be hasty. I told him that maybe his initial hunch that she only wanted him for his money was right after all.
“What does that even matter? Do you know of anyone on this earth who doesn’t think about money? I’ve already given this girl everything she can dream of. She could have run off by now and done whatever she wants. Instead, she still likes to talk to me every day.”
I thought about confessing everything to the old man, how the whole thing had started and who had started it — me! But then I noticed with what zest he was talking and eating what looked to me like a perfectly tasteless lettuce leaf and I backed out.
He said, “The other day when we were sitting on that lift going up the mountainside, I noticed she was gazing at me as if she were laughing inside. My heart sank. Was she laughing at us? Maybe she was laughing at our situation, because what’s there not to laugh about, really! But then I saw in her eyes a sense of satisfaction too. I can’t really explain it. I honestly don’t know what she thinks about me. But I’m convinced there’s nothing in life that one can’t fathom; all you have to do is think hard enough.”
The old man meant to stay in Tehran for two weeks and I hadn’t a clue how I was going bring relief to my mother and brother over in Geneva, not to mention my other brothers in Tehran, without giving away his whereabouts. It took several phone calls and asking favors of friends of friends until I found somebody who actually lived in Hawaii and agreed to send a message to Geneva, telling them the old man was doing fine and just needed to be by himself for a while.
The much harder part to all of this was to convince my father not to take the girl’s so called love for him too seriously.
His reply when I broached the subject was, “Can you appreciate how it feels to suddenly have everything you ever dreamed of but could never mention to anyone?”
That did it. I would have to pay Sonia a visit.
“I never asked anything of your father.”
“You take me for stupid?”
“I never asked for money.”
“I don’t care if you did or didn’t. Our deal is done. Finished. You can speak to my dad while he’s in Tehran. After that, you’re forbidden to stay in touch with him.”
She didn’t argue. Soon my father returned to Geneva. But it took no more than twenty-three days before I had another desperate call from my brother; the poor man could barely talk. “Our father lost his mind in Hawaii! He’s no longer himself. Won’t recognize anyone. Mutters all the time. Won’t sleep at nights. Sits in front of the window staring at the water and crying nonstop.”
Back to Sonia.
This time I offered to pay her twice what I’d paid her before, if she only restarted her love letters. I had no guarantee that things wouldn’t go wrong again. They did, of course. In late autumn when I answered the phone, my brother blurted, “Father has a lover!”
The old man’s half dozen maladies, including the possibility of an amputation, had returned with a vengeance. Now he was reconsidering his final will and testament for the substantial assets he owned. Until now I had kept my brothers in Tehran in the dark. But our father’s new will, with the name of another woman besides our mother’s in it, finally was going to let the secret out. I had made a mess of it all.
No one had the courage to ask our father for an explanation about the new clause in that will. Only our mother could do that. But telling her about the situation needed another kind of courage that none of us had. The lot finally fell on the brother in Geneva. We had expected every kind of response from our matriarch except boredom. In the end she took a piece of paper and wrote on it: I had guessed something like this since a year ago. Why do all of you want to make your father’s life more difficult? If you really want to do something, find me a picture of this woman so I can see what her eyes look like.
The collective decision now was to find “the woman” and threaten her with the force of an entire family of means. This was on me; I was the real culprit. I had started this thing, and I had to put an end to it, right away.
I asked the family to give me a little more time and sent a message to Sonia to meet me.
As soon as she appeared in my office, I forgot everything I’d prepared to throw at her. She didn’t give me a chance. She reached into her handbag, fished out an official document that she’d signed and had stamped at a notary, and pushed it toward me on my desk. The piece of paper witnessed that she wanted no part of my father’s inheritance and forfeited any claim to it in perpetuity. I sat there stunned. Was this document real? Could she go back on her word? I didn’t know. What I knew was that I had to take her with me to the best photography studio in town and have them take a picture of her that was for the ages — a photo of someone whom my mother could accept as worthy competition for her husband’s love.
Thirty-seven days later the old man was back in Tehran. This time he didn’t have to hide anything. He had decided to take Sonia to every one of his old haunts of some half a century ago. She was happy to humor him. But his stay in Tehran came to a sudden end; seventeen days after his arrival, on a sunny winter day when he’d had Sonia take him back to the mountains, my father died. Sonia mentioned that despite the clear day, a crisp wind was blowing in those heights. He’d wanted to walk to the edge of a cliff to get a better glimpse of the city below them. He never made it.
And I never found out if the old man ever truly realized the answers he was looking for. Just three days before his death, we were at a restaurant downtown when he admitted, “There’s nothing more awful than love. It is like being Alice in Wonderland. You are bewildered every moment. I have a feeling this girl lies to me sometimes. Though I can’t call it lies. More like, she doesn’t reveal certain things.”
He had made her promise to get on with her life, if and when she found someone. So, she’d let on she might marry her boss’s brother. This exchange had taken place exactly one week before he died. He was fuming and regretful that night. He kept pacing around my house and repeating the same refrain: “It’s impossible. She can’t have just met this guy. This was her plan all along. It’s all lies. She has been lying to me.”
“You really think so?” I asked.
“No. I think I’m just trying to make myself feel better. You know, whenever I’ve done something really nice for her, something big, she just looks at me and smiles and says ‘thank you.’ Other times she’ll cry over the smallest of my kindnesses. How can this be? Do you think if she didn’t love me, she’d go out of her way to lie to me so much?”
After the funeral, I only spoke to Sonia one more time. She sent the last photograph she had of the two of them together and then she called me. She was about to get married in a month, she said.
“I can send you some money if you like,” I offered.
“No need. He gave me enough money to buy a house. He was upset, but he still insisted on giving me the money when I said I might get married. I’d been thinking about marriage for a year, but couldn’t make up my mind until your father was alive.” Her voice shook as she talked. I could tell none of this was easy for her and I wasn’t sure why it wasn’t easy. She said she felt guilty about having told my father she was getting married. “Listen, I’m no longer sure if I told him the truth because I had a hunch he would want to buy me something, like a house, once he knew. Or if I told him because I was being loyal and took his words seriously when he said I should get on with my life. Maybe if I hadn’t said anything, he’d …”
She’d asked a passerby to take that last photo of them. Just a few seconds earlier he’d been telling her about Buenos Aires, she said. About dawn in that city. His dream was to take her there so that they could look out the window of a hotel room together as the sky changed and matched the color of her eyes.
There’s a background of snow in this photo. It’s another dawn, or perhaps dusk, in Tehran. The old man and Sonia are sitting on a park bench and one can see a tinge of red on their noses from the cold. Yet my father holds a chocolate ice cream cone in his hand — enough sugar to kill him a few times over. He looks like he’s just woken up from a dream, laughing, and maybe trying to recall what the dream was about. The young woman is holding his free hand in her own and my father leans ever so slightly toward her.