She leaped past Keyvan onto the stool and hurried to open the telephone box. He grabbed her wrist in his hand, pressing her bangles hard into her forearm, and her skin molded as if to swallow them.
“Don’t,” he said with a voice outside himself. “I swear. I swear I’m going to leave and never come back.”
And for a moment she stopped and turned to him, her sewing scissors open and gleaming by her cheek. “Where would you go?” she said, as if the question had never entered her mind. “To her? You are so gullible. See.” She glanced at the arm still in his grip. “See what she makes you do.”
“You don’t know,” he said. “If only you left home and worried about things other than meals. Times have changed. We have changed. This is how things are done now.” He had heard Farhad say these same exact words to her. But he was not Farhad; his words did not have the same capacity to stir their mother.
“It’s not like it means anything,” he said. “It’s just conversation. And fun. It has no meaning.”
“Yet look at you. Your hand’s shaking.” She laughed. He dropped his stare then looked at the telephone wires behind her.
“Cut the line if you want.” He let go of her arm. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll repair it. Cut it. See if it changes anything. I’ll call her from outside. I’ll call her from Youssef’s.”
“Well, if it doesn’t matter,” she said. She turned, spread the blades, and with a snip, like it was no more than one of her sewing threads, cut through their phone line twice and pocketed the loose wire into her housedress. His heart sank; there was no way he could fix it before tonight.
“Now that harlot can go ruin some other boy’s life,” she said. “Not mine.”
He missed her call. That is, if she had tried to call him in the first place, but he had no reason to think otherwise. She had always been on time. Every night after dinner, after the BBC Iran news, their phone rang, her voice on the other end warm and playful, “Salaam.” It made him so happy he’d forget all the things he had prepared to tell her. And stumbling onto his words he’d tell her, “I feel like I’ve always had your voice in my ear.” They had been talking for three weeks. They talked for hours every night. They talked about their classes, their days, their parents … They compared their lists of friends but found no one in common.
She made him play his tombak. He played her pieces he had prepared, pieces written by others. Straight backed, shoulders leveled, he hit the notes onto the drumhead, always surprised by the sound. Because the sound was different when he played for her. It grew, fell apart, and grew again, only to stop as if interrupted.
“Nice,” she said in a tone that left him wanting more, and proving to him once again that he wasn’t ready for the music yet, for the pieces he was playing.
He bit his lower lip, remembering that for tonight he had prepared a piece by Eftetah. She will not hear it. He didn’t have her number or her name. She called herself Mariam. Same as his sister. He had asked her to change it. Could she choose another one? Any other one? But she said “no” and laughed. “I don’t mind making you a little uneasy,” she said.
He took her calls upstairs in his room. And at first his mother had not minded. She didn’t know what they were about. Probably thought it was Youssef or one of the other boys. But one night when he went downstairs to get a glass of water, his mouth so dry, he saw her shadow stiff on her futon, her arm on her forehead. She said, “Your voice changes when you talk to her.”
Keyvan laughed and said, “To who?” She didn’t answer.
The next day after school his brother, Farhad, sat in their living room, drinking tea in the good china with their mother. She wore a red poppy dress that Farhad had given her and — despite herself — could not stop smiling. She saw her eldest son so seldomly.
Since his wedding six months ago, Farhad had visited only a handful of times and always under duress, his mind half here, half somewhere else. Probably in that little apartment of his, warm under the sheets, resting on his wife’s chest. Still Keyvan liked his brother’s wife; she was a nice girl with bright eyes that forced him to avert his own.
At the wedding when Keyvan had come around the couple’s throne to give her his wedding gift — a pair of gold earrings — Shivah leaned in towards him, spread a shiny pink smile and whispered that now he was her brother, too. Farhad took her hand and flashed him a look that said, See I told you she is worth it.
Today Farhad was not smiling. He looked tired, his eyes bloodshot.
“Come sit down,” he said. “Have some tea. Tell me how school is going.” Keyvan sat with his legs folded under him. He took the tea his mother handed him and set it down. He did not look at her and noticed Farhad had not taken off his coat.
“Why are you here?” Keyvan said.
“It’s his home,” Maman said proudly. But then she cleared her throat and began straightening her dress, moving the poppies over her lap. Keyvan thought soon he would leave too, just like the rest of them, far. Farther.
“Listen. I came because Maman’s worried.”
“Worried about what?”
“The calls. The girl. Who she is?” Farhad said and blushed.
“Does it matter?”
“Do we know her?”
“Have you met her?”
“Then how does she have your number?” Maman said. She was getting impatient.
“She just does.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” But Farhad put his hand on her knee, and she calmed down. She then put her own hand on top of his, but Farhad pulled away.
“What do you care anyway?” Keyvan said.
“Watch it,” Farhad said. “All I care is that you study. Get into a good university. Do something with yourself.” He dropped his head, staring into his lap, but soon shook it off as if to bring himself back. “I have to go,” he said. He lifted himself off the ground and made his way to the door.
Their mother jogged after him. “What should we do?”
“It’s not a problem,” Farhad said. “They all do it these days. Exchange numbers in the street. Their way of letting out all that pent-up energy.”
“Isn’t it dangerous?” she said, a little out of breath.
Farhad didn’t answer; instead he said out loud, “Just remember I’m not Majid’s father. I’m not going to buy your draft with all our savings. Only university will get you out of it.”
Still every night his mother pestered him. She’d pick up the phone in the middle of their conversation and say things like, “Does your mother know you talk to boys like that?”
Mariam remained cool. “I am so sorry to have bothered you with my late call,” she said. “I hope you are doing well, that Keyvan is taking care of you like a good son should do for his mother.” Keyvan didn’t know what to make of that last comment, but it worked on their mother. Maman hung up after that without any words. And they both burst out laughing.
He loved Mariam’s laughter. So powerful, so joyous. It made him want to touch her, run his hand down the back of her neck, spread his fingers into her hair.
So he’d say, “When can I see you?”
“See me? What for?” she’d say. “You’ve already seen me.”
“Yes,” he’d say, not remembering. “But for real, when can I see you?” He had slipped his number to so many girls, dropped his number into so many manteau pockets. Never enough time to do more than that. She could be anyone of hundreds, maybe thousands of girls. She said he had given her his number on Valiasr, but he didn’t remember giving any numbers on that street. With Youssef and Majid, they stayed mostly in their own neighborhood, loitering around Haft Hoz square, close to his house and more in their budget.
“We’ll see,” she’d say before excusing herself, telling him it was late, and she needed to get her beauty sleep or something like that.
“Go, go, go,” he’d say. “I don’t want to look at some ugly face when the time comes.”
But the time never came, and now she couldn’t even call him.
At Youssef’s house, when Majid saw the long face on Keyvan, he said, “Who died?” and laughed. Youssef shook his head at Majid and continued cleaning the keys of his keyboard.
“Aah,” Majid yelled, throwing an arm along with an old Rolling Stone magazine into the air. “Always so serious, you two. Cheer up. I got you a gig.”
“I don’t want a gig,” Keyvan said.
“Don’t be stupid,” Majid said. “Don’t let some stupid girl tie you down in this hole.” He walked to Keyvan and put his arm around his shoulder. “There is a future for us out there. For you out there.” He meant America. “They want you, Keyvan,” he said, his hungry breath lingering on Keyvan’s face. “I don’t know how you play that tombak of yours, but they want you. Again and again they ask me, ‘You know that kid that plays the tombak like he was born attached to it?’” He rounds his arm to his side, pretending a tombak has grown out of him. “‘We want him,’ they say. ‘We want him.’ It’s you they want.”
“Why?” Keyvan said.
Majid smiled. “I stayed and watched you play the other night. And those people dancing to your beat. Twisting and twirling.” He began to dance in the middle of the room, Youssef’s eyes on him. “They went faster and faster. They were trying to catch up to you.” He stopped and grabbed one of Keyvan’s hands, opening the palm as if he was going to find something in it. “These hands of yours. These fingers and hands.” But Youssef’s eyes had become too large now, and Keyvan pulled away.
Finally, one afternoon Farhad brought a repairman to fix the phone line. When Maman saw the man behind Farhad, she walked back to the kitchen and slammed the door behind her. Farhad apologized to the repairman and followed her to the kitchen, giving Keyvan, who was reading in the living room, a complicit smile.
“But Maman,” Farhad said, opening the kitchen door. “You can’t live without a phone. What if something happens to you? Then what? Huh?” Keyvan watched one of her shoulders shrug. From his position he had a view into the kitchen and the hall. “Don’t you think you’re overreacting about this girl? It’s his age. They all do it. Ask the repairman. Go on, ask him. He says he has a teenager. Seventeen, like Keyvan. He says he does the same thing. He laughed when I told him you cut the line.”
She pushed the onions frying in the pan, spattering oil on the stovetop. “Don’t tell our business to strangers,” she said. Keyvan could see the repairman, a short, middle-aged man with red ears, had stopped his work to listen. “You think I don’t know how to raise my own kid?”
“Don’t be like that,” Farhad said. “He needs it. These kids need to have something.” He stepped farther into the kitchen. “Look at me now with Shiva. She has given me life again.”
“That I had taken, of course.”
He ignored her. “She has given me a reason. The store, our store, is starting to return again. As long as he studies. As long as he gets into university.” He was getting animated now, the back of his coat going up and down with his arm. “A hundred girls can call him for all I care. I’d rather he spends his free time on girls than on that stump he calls an instrument. No more childishness. He is becoming a man, and you should treat him like one.”
“Just as you have?” she said.
“I have done nothing wrong.” He lowered his voice. “What did I do wrong? Huh? I have only given and given. And he takes and takes. You know I had no choice. Whoever has heard of a master tombak player?” He chuckled. “And anyway, you agreed with me.”
Wooden spoon in hand, she turned around to face Farhad. “I did no such thing,” she said. “You made it perfectly clear when you went off to marry Shiva that you were the one making the money. Not me.”
At that the repairman quickly began working again. They have no shame, Keyvan thought, bringing all this old business up again for another person to hear. His mother wasn’t doing this for him. It was only advantageous to her to have brought it up again. It had been months since his last lesson with Master. Now he was reminded again of all that shame he had felt then. The way his brother had handled the whole affair, canceling the checks without warning anyone. Since that last lesson, Keyvan hadn’t even dared contact his master again. And the thought that he may accidentally run into him made his stomach turn. Regardless, he thought he had continued to improve. He felt it in the sound when he played. How it continued to become more organic; how the music outside was becoming one with the one in his mind. At least she didn’t tell Farhad that he played for gigs now.
Farhad left the kitchen and stood by the repairman in the front hall for the remainder of the time, and as soon as the line was repaired, they left. The door slammed while the repairman was still shouting, “Khodafez hajkhanoom.” Keyvan closed his book and sat there for a while staring at the cover, remembering his master’s words.
Mariam called again one night in the middle of practice. “I thought you were dead,” she said. There was accusation in her voice, and for a reason Keyvan could not understand, that suited him just fine.
“No,” he said. “No such luck.” The phone went silent, and Keyvan worried she had left.
“My mother asked why I wasn’t talking to my tombak player anymore,” she said. Her voice was thin and small, and already he regretted his coldness.
“The line was broken.”
“Ah,” she said. He knew he needed to offer more to break this mood, but anything that came to his mind didn’t seem right. So he allowed himself to ask, “What do you get out of this?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what do you get out of talking to me? Every night like this on the phone never seeing me, never knowing me. You see. I wanted to call you but couldn’t. I wanted to come to your place but didn’t know your address. Your name. Your face.” He bit his lip, realizing his heart was racing.
The phone was silent again.
She said, “That’s not how I do things.”
“How you do things,” he said, aware of his tone, “is not working for me anymore. I want to see you. I want to touch you.”
“But you have seen me.”
“When? When was that, please? Because I don’t even remember ever giving my number away in Valiasr.”
“Not my fault you can’t remember,” she said.
“That’s true. Maybe you are just not memorable. Maybe you were just born with one of those forgettable, bland faces.”
“Maybe,” she said, her voice strained, and hung up the phone.
For the next few nights, practice was excruciating: he caught himself checking the time and the phone incessantly, and on the fourth night after dinner, he stayed downstairs to watch the news with his mother. When she realized he was staying, she peeled and cut fruit and placed it between them, like before the phone calls had begun. The program ended; she turned off the television, humming.
The next day, along with her humming, she swayed her hips side to side to the rhythm; she twirled. That afternoon, she served him tea with sweets she’d bought at the shop and told him cheerfully that soon they’d be eating the celebratory sweets of Shiva’s pregnancy, because twice now Farhad had turned down her dinner invitations. “Shiva isn’t feeling well,” she said with a smile. Never once did his mother mention Mariam’s phone calls, or, rather, their absence.
For the first time he turned down a gig. He told Youssef and Majid he didn’t like the sound that came out of his tombak.
“These people can’t tell the difference,” Majid said. “And as long as they pay, I don’t care.” But Keyvan was not hearing anything about it, so Majid called him a dick and stormed out.
Keyvan didn’t feel like going to Youssef’s much after that, and he couldn’t stand being home either, so he began spending more and more of his free time loitering at Haft Hoz.
Even in the dead of winter with the fountains shut off, the crowd swelled and slithered at the small square. They shopped and haggled, held on tight to their children’s hands in fear they’d wander off. And when the sun finally set and the street lamps came on, Keyvan watched them become bolder.
Their scarves pulled farther back, their lips redder, they hollered back at boys hollering at them. They slipped small pieces of paper to one another and pushed them into their pockets. Too busy posing, they failed to notice the Comité, the guardians of morality.
Sister, pull that scarf forward, the Comité said. Wipe that face. Let me see your hands, Sister.
The Comité to a boy: What did you give her?
Nothing, the boy said. Just walking with my friends.
I saw you talk to her.
To her. He pointed to a girl stopped by another, a woman in black. She scratched her scalp under her chador with her fingernails.
I don’t know her; why would I talk to her?
Why? I wasn’t talking to no one.
I saw you talk to her. I saw you hand her your number.
It was a mistake. I thought she was a friend of my sister’s.
Come on, take him. And her. And them. Take them.
Their mothers and fathers will come for them. With their heads bowed, they will come and take them home to kiss their hands and their feet. Others in their families will hush their stories. They will bite their lips so they do not laugh, but sometimes the laughter bursts out as they tremble, resonating against the walls. The walls have ears, they will say. Some will ask, What do you think they did to them, while they were away, while they were at the mercy of the Comité? And they will imagine. Tell stories they have heard. Stories of lashes.
I hear they use cockroaches.
They fill tubs with them and force women to sit in them.
I don’t believe you.
God is my witness. But first they are made to take their clothes off.
That’s terrible. They laugh and tremble. I’d die from a heart attack.
I hear they have. And when they hand the bodies over to the parents, their bellies are filled with the roaches, eating at them from the inside.
At home Keyvan slipped the tombak between his legs and rubbed his hands on the skin. When the skin was warm and ready to play, he tapped his hands on the instrument. A hollow sound beat at his temples; it made him cringe and press his nails around the edge, under the tombak’s skin.
Every day he dug a little deeper; every day a little more of the glue gathered under his fingernails. Soon he had a good grip, and the skin peeled off without much of a fight.
He threw it across the room.
His mother picked it up. “What did you do that for?” she said. “To your perfectly fine tombak.” She sat by him, the loose skin now over her lap. It was the color of her hands. The skin her loose skin.
She put her hand on his cheek. “That beautiful tombak you love. Remember how you loved it?”
“I did love it,” he said. “But you didn’t let me. You stopped me.”
“How did I stop you? It wasn’t me. It wasn’t my choice.”
“I could have become better, bigger. I could have toured in Europe, America.”
“Since when do you want to go to America?” she said, her voice changing, tightening. She brought her hand to his face again, but he turned. He didn’t want to see her anymore; he didn’t want to feel her anymore. That softness in her hands.
“What’s with you these days?” she said, getting up. “You act like someone’s died.” She laid the limp skin on the open mouth of the broken instrument. She turned to the window, the street dark and quiet. “You spend too much time outside. You should come home. Study.” She walked to the door. “Farhad wouldn’t be happy if you failed your exams.”
Majid said, “I don’t care that she’s not going to call you anymore. I need you to play.”
“I can’t play.”
“You have to play,” he said.
“I told her she was ugly.”
“They’ve already paid me.”
“Pay them back.”
“If he doesn’t want to play,” Youssef said, “he doesn’t have to play.”
“He has to play,” Majid said. He fixed his eyes on Keyvan and shook with rage. “I can’t pay them back.”
“What did you do with the money, man?” Youssef asked. “You haven’t even paid me for the last three gigs.”
“You’re both still kids,” he said and walked to Youssef’s desk where he had thrown his coat. “You don’t understand how this all works. You’re never leaving. You’re gonna stay here. Rot here.” He seized his coat like he couldn’t stand being with them any longer and left.
“Shouldn’t we be angry with him?” Youssef said. “What’s he doing with our money?”
“I don’t know, man,” Keyvan said. “I know nothing.”
On the night of the gig, someone pounded at Keyvan’s door; he was sure it was Majid. He told his mother not to open. “Why?” she said. She had just come in from the yard, smelling of cold and gasoline. Yesterday she had asked him to fill the heater, but he had not done it. “Who is it?” she asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “It’s no one.”
Later Youssef told him the wedding was a disaster and that no one had danced. Pissed, the groom’s brothers had grabbed them by their collars, pushed them outside and thrown his synthesizer into the street.
“And when they found out Majid didn’t have the money, they punched him in the ribs. You should’ve seen his face; he looked petrified. I’d never seen him scared like that. He couldn’t stop coughing. He sat on the ground. Told them he’ll have their money next week.” Keyvan wiped his palms on his pants and reminded himself he had never agreed to play in the first place. “Then he drives me back to my house and has the balls to tell me music isn’t for me. It’s Keyvan’s thing, he says. Keyvan’s.”
Keyvan wiped his hands again and said, “What does he know?”
“Nothing,” Youssef said. “I don’t want to see his face anymore.”
The next week Majid was gone. He had left one morning, his parents not noticing his missing belongings and their empty bank account until the next day. Rumor had it he had crossed into Turkey, where he’d bought a fake passport and flown to Italy and then Canada. “He took all our money,” his father repeated to curious visitors. “All our money. That ungrateful son of a bitch.”
His mother swore that Majid had told her he was leaving, that she was going to visit him as soon as he was settled. Their neighbors said they heard her sobs through their walls every night and the father’s pleas to stop crying for that ungrateful son of a bitch. She wasn’t seen much outside after that.
Keyvan’s mother asked, “How could he not mention anything to you?” But he hadn’t. “He must have been preparing for a while. No? Isn’t it hard to get one of those passports?” She waited for Keyvan to answer, but Keyvan only shrugged; he had no answers to offer her. Majid’s leaving bewildered her, making her turn those questions around in her head without success.
A few days later, she said to Keyvan, “If you want to repair your tombak, I’ll pay?”
He shrugged. “Maybe later.” And she let it go, not mentioning it again.
She sat by the radiator and cleaned her beans with her fingers sweeping over the tray, picking at pebbles. Sometimes she would lean back from her work and let out a, “Huh,” like she suddenly understood something. Like something had revealed itself to her. But if it had, she didn’t share it with him, and for weeks they lived in that silence.
It was during those weeks that Mariam called again, finally agreeing to meet with him.
“Why now? Why suddenly?” he asked, even though he knew immediately he was going.
“I didn’t like hearing you plead like that,” she said. “All desperate and wanting. So I’ve come up with a plan.”
The whole affair was to be done on a bus that traveled up Valiasr. She would wear a veil with a blue bird print and a beige manteau. He was to bring his tombak. The same one that was now pushed under his bed with its skin detached, gathering dust, useless. He had no desire to touch it, let alone fix it. It would have to be a new tombak on the bus, on his lap for her to see. “I will stay on for one stop,” she warned. “So don’t miss it.”
In bed that night, Keyvan imagined a bus so full that no one noticed them touching. They held hands. Her face still a blur, he found her lips and kissed them. Cool and soft, like her voice. He brought up his hand to touch her breast, but somehow the picture fragmented, and instead he saw the tombak under him, skinless. His intestines twisted.
On the day they were to meet, he wore a pair of black slacks with crisp lines running down each leg and the white button-down shirt he saved for performances. He bowed in front of his mirror in his room to gel and comb his wet hair. He patted the sides of his head with the tips of his fingers as a final gesture, something his brother did when he was still living here, before leaving for work and more intensely before courting.
“I didn’t know you were playing tonight,” his mother said when he came downstairs.
“I’m not,” he said, zipping up his jacket because it was still cold outside, even though all morning there had been nothing but sun shining through his window.
She looked at him with cheeks full of protest but turned away and said, “I talked to Farhad yesterday. He swears Shiva’s not pregnant.” He could tell she was disappointed and, to his surprise, he was disappointed, too. “My son needs a baby,” she said. “He needs his own child.”
“Maybe next time,” he said, a little dreamily. He passed his hands one more time over his hair that had hardened now and headed towards the hall.
Under the staircase, he picked up the new tombak he had left there the night before. Still in its sleeve, he had not touched it; in the store when the merchant handed it to him to try out the sound, he had turned him down. “It’s not for playing,” he said.
In the taxi, he began to wish he had dressed more casually. He felt the pants crawl on his thighs and the collar tight around his neck. How did he manage to play in this, he wondered? And even though he had plenty of time to go back home and change, he carried on and arrived at the bus stop early.
He let a bus go, and, with his heart racing, he got onto the second one, the one she had told him to take; the three fifteen. He entered from the front door, the men’s entrance, slipped his ticket into the case and chose a seat closest to the back, to the women’s section. There only sat two schoolgirls a couple of years younger than him in green uniforms and an older woman in a light pink chador and red plastic flip flops, holding between her legs a plastic basket full of sabzi and onions. As the bus started, the smell of onions pushed past him.
After a few minutes, he turned and looked at the women in the back again, making sure no bird-print scarf had materialized. And as if she knew what was going on, the older woman smiled at him. Caught, he smiled back.
He repositioned himself in his seat, grabbed the instrument off the ground and laid it by his side.
The girls laughed loudly behind him.
He felt watched. He looked up and caught the conductor, a thin middle-aged man with a straight back and a bony nervous jaw, eyeing him.
The next stop — where Keyvan had assumed Mariam would get on — was a busy part of uptown with offices, businesses, and after-school tutoring centers that were as expensive as the kids’ school tuition. He turned towards the back door and thought his mom would be much more understanding if Mariam were one of those kids.
The doors slammed open, bouncing unsure against the sides before the women stepped in. All he could see was civil servants and schoolgirls in black maghnaeh, and black chadors pushing up. No bird print. He looked back again. He needed to see the women’s faces because there was a chance he had misheard her. He suddenly felt he should be able to recognize her. All those nights, all those conversations. Did he not know her? He tried to conjure up an image of her face again. And as he shut his eyes, reminding himself of her words, her voice, her tone, his fingers moved over the brown leather sleeve and began fluttering mutely.
“Why don’t you play us a beat?” said a voice across from him.
Keyvan opened his eyes, disoriented, to a middle-aged man in a pair of grey cotton pants splattered with cement and a thin jacket with a broken zipper that was zipped only at the middle. “Khoda vakili,” the coolie said. “You’d make my day.”
In the mirror, the driver glared with swollen temples, his jaw tight.
Keyvan pushed his hand in his pocket.
The next stops came and went but no signs of Mariam or whatever her real name was. He had turned all the way around, wanting to call out for her, see if anyone looked his way.
“Hey,” the driver said. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Nothing,” Keyvan said. Two rows ahead a soldier turned around. “Waiting for my sister.”
The driver’s jaw swelled again and between his teeth he said, “Your sister?”
“The boy’s waiting for his sister.” The coolie winked at Keyvan. “He’s not doing anything wrong.” The soldier turned to the driver, his face pale, acne ridden, waiting. He could not have been much older than Keyvan, but the gap between them was already too wide.
The bus turned into the next stop. Keyvan tried to steal glances towards the back doors. Their meeting time had passed. She wasn’t coming; she had never intended to come.
He slipped deeper in his seat, unaware that his fingers were on the instrument again. They were tapping, making muted rhythmic sounds with the engine, the street, people’s whispers. A girl laughed. He turned. The bus swerved. He gripped the metal rod as the instrument rolled away.
The doors opened. “Get off,” the driver said into the mirror.
“He’s just being a boy,” said the old woman with the basket. “He just wants to look. He’s doing no harm.”
“No,” the conductor said, getting up from his seat. The soldier stood up behind him. “I don’t trust him. Come on. Get out.” Keyvan didn’t care; he wanted off, too. But the old woman had gotten up and was walking towards them, her flip flops smacking against the floor.
Through her wrinkled face she smiled at Keyvan. “Sit down, my boy,” she said calmly. “Sit down. I will fix this.” And again Keyvan smiled back at her like he was caught. She passed him, the corners of her pink chador tucked under her arms, and positioned herself in front of the conductor.
“Hajkhanoom, go back to your seat. You shouldn’t even be here,” the conductor said with the eyes of a man who feared the touch of women and the judgment of God. He looked away. She did not move. Her hair spilled out white but long and thick like a young girl’s.
“What’s happened to us?” someone said. “Isn’t it enough that the world is after us? Do we have to go after each other like this, too?”
The soldier winced. He looked lost like a child forced to choose a team when he didn’t want to play in the first place.
The driver shouted, “Get off!” His jaw twisted; his face darkened. Outside, a black SUV was pulling in front of the bus. A schoolgirl let out a cry.
“Oh, they’re going to take care of you,” the driver said.
This time Keyvan did not hesitate; he pushed past the coolie and said “sorry” as he stumbled down the steps. He ran as fast as his legs would let him, leaving behind, inside the bus, between two rows of seats, the new tombak he only momentarily regretted losing.
He ran farther from the bus, turning into side streets, making sure he wasn’t followed, the fear beginning to subside. Evaporating. Sweating it out and leaving room for something else to rise.
He remembered his mother’s words. She was right. Farhad needed his own child. Someone, anyone other than Keyvan, to put his dreams into.
He ran faster; he felt weightless. He knew he could make it all the way home like this. The kilometers ahead didn’t thwart him; they were freeing. He pushed against the ground, one foot, then another, then another. Each time closer to that place he’d never been.about the author