Alireza Iranmehr: “Buenos Aires of Her Eyes”

15 June, 2022,
Shi­va Ahma­di, “Red Light,” acrylic on can­vas, 56 x 72 in. 2020 (cour­tesy Shi­va Ahma­di).

 

Alireza Iranmehr 

 

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. 

Shi­va Ahma­di The Knot Water­col­or on Paper 40 x 60 in. 2017 (cour­tesy Shi­va Ahma­di).

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.

 

ArmenianIranianShirazTehran

Alireza Iranmehr was born in Mashhad, Iran. He has written extensively as a critic and scriptwriter, and his novels and short story collections have won several of Iran's major literary awards. His works include, The Pink Cloud, All the Men of Tehran are Named Alireza, and Summer Snow. Presently he lives and works in the Gilan province near the Caspian shore.

Salar Abdoh is an Iranian novelist and essayist who divides much of his time between New York and Tehran. He is the author of the novels Poet Game (2000), Opium (2004), Tehran At Twilight (2014), and Out of Mesopotamia (2020) and the editor and translator of the anthology Tehran Noir (2014). He also teaches in the graduate program in Creative Writing at the City College of New York at the City University of New York. Abdoh seeks to help Iran re-engage with the Arab world and convey more of Iranian culture to the west. He is a TMR contributing editor. Salar Abdoh at Goodreads.