Sultan of Hearts
The funeral of a family friend brings a musical legend from a bygone Iran back to town.
October 11, 2019
Oct 11, 2019
39 Min read time
The funeral of a family friend brings a musical legend from a bygone Iran back to town.
As a young woman, my mother dated two men before my father. Like my father, both men practiced medicine, served on the faculty of research universities, published regularly in peer-reviewed journals, and, in the late ’70s, wore their jet-black hair in thick waves down to their ears. Most importantly, my mother once told me, smiling with still-evident girlish conceit, both men wanted to marry her. One unexpectedly proposed with a ring (my mother said no, quickly, and that was that), and the other, when she sensed he would soon follow suit, left in the middle of the night (my mother told him to leave, quickly—there was no use rehashing an old plot). In the end, she explained, describing these young men in detail for fear I had begun to develop their attitude toward women, which along with thick eyebrows she claimed I had inherited from her—in the end they bore too much resemblance to her own father and brothers, whom she had eagerly left behind in Iran. These were needy men in need of attention, which often meant the attention of other women, not their wives. Shortly after her second suitor departed in the night, his unrequited love in tow, my mother met my father at a party, and, as she likes to say, history was the rest.
In the end, my mother explained, these men bore too much resemblance to her own father and brothers, whom she had eagerly left behind in Iran.
The first man, the one who made the unwanted proposal, I never met. His biography and accompanying picture appear on the website of a nonprofit for which he serves as chairman of the board. His jet-black hair has grayed and thinned, though he did eventually marry another Persian woman, a doctor like my mother. My mother has only mentioned him in passing, never revealing more than necessary as if to protect his privacy. The second man I knew well. Although he had left in the middle of the night, Javad Jamshidi had married my mother’s best friend the following June, my mother and father seated in the audience, clapping. As much as I searched for it over the years, “it” being any vestige of their youth’s torrid love affair, Dr. Jamshidi and my mother remained strictly friends after their relationship’s abrupt conclusion: he willing himself to forget his rejection, she graciously allowing him to do so. For a man who strayed more than what my mother called a forgivable once or twice, Dr. Jamshidi later observed the boundaries erected between the two of them, recognizing who my mother had become for my father, never mistaking her for who she had once been to him. This despite my mother’s everlasting attractiveness, a half smile, by turns secretive and inviting, enough to disarm men of any age; this on account of my father’s leery gaze, indisputably fearsome, indisputably Italian.
My mother practiced pulmonology, my father pain management, Dr. Jamshidi anesthesiology, the man who first proposed, cardiology. “Any way you write it,” my mother would say, “you would have ended up in a house of doctors.” My brother and I chose different career paths than our parents, though we’ve managed to raise our children as comfortably as we ourselves were raised—he across the country, I not too far from where we grew up.
Despite the warning cries from our family friends, we have no regrets forgoing medicine. In fact, as I’ve grown older, I find myself grateful for my mother’s decision-making as a young woman. At his funeral, I saw all three of Dr. Jamshidi’s children for the first time in several years. Despite their professional success—three doctors, three anesthesiologists—they did not exude the self-satisfaction I usually associate with doctors, a pride that stems at once from an ability to help others and from others’ inability to help themselves. No, all three of them looked deeply unhappy. And I don’t mean the natural unhappiness that shadows the death of a parent (when my own father died, even sleep felt punishing), I mean the chronic unhappiness that bares itself with dimmed eyes and chalky skin, a pervasive gloom that throws the lives of others into relief. As Dr. Jamshidi’s casket was lowered into the earth, the beveled rectangular box settling into the perfectly rectangular grave, I held my mother’s hand, my thumb smoothing over her wrinkly veins, and silently thanked her for marrying my father. Because though he had died two years prior, eerily, like Dr. Jamshidi, of pancreatic cancer, my father had not directed his two sons toward his own profession, lucrative and prestigious though it was. Instead, he had practiced a self-formulated Americanism, one that he said permitted individuality but demanded excellence: it didn’t matter what you were, it mattered how good you were. He grew up wanting to be a professional singer. When he realized he could not accomplish this dream despite formidable talents, he attended medical school and graduated top of his class. I knew him as a father of two, then a grandfather of four, and in all this time I only heard him sing when he was unaware of others, in the shower or in the attic, unencumbered by the thought that someone might be listening. Of his voice, those who knew him as a young man always spoke nostalgically, as though having lost a favorite record irretrievably.
My mother cried as they lowered Javad’s casket, not from a broken heart but from the pain of losing a lifelong friend, one who had served as living proof of her youth and adulthood. Maybe she was thinking about my father or of what would become of Mehrshad, her best friend. Mehrshad wept as flowers, white roses, were thrown into the grave, their long stems seeming to vanish as they fell upon the emerald-green casket. She wept with a vigor and constancy that clarified for the first time in my life the difference between crying and weeping, a distinction I had never stopped to consider. Her body shook as tears fell down her face, her eyes a tired pink of prolonged irritation, while she called out, between gasps for breath, Azizam, azizam, aziz-e-man, my dear, my dear, my dear. It was too much for my mother. She refused a rose and turned, recommending that we drive to Mehrshad’s house in anticipation of the crowd.
Of my father’s voice, those who knew him as a young man always spoke nostalgically, as though having lost a favorite record irretrievably.
Though she remained silent in the car, my mother’s meditation was palpable. Two important men in her life had died uncomfortably young, before their sixty-fifth birthdays. I didn’t know whether this fact would renew considerations of her own mortality, encourage her to take further precautions beyond those—such as early retirement, which she had already taken—or if, as I once read in a book, death would become as close a thing as winter: expected, and nonetheless unsettling. Regardless of its consequences, I understood Javad’s departure as a simple matter of numbers: they once were four, now they were two.
There had been birthdays, countless cruises and trips overseas, countless more birthdays; petty arguments that lasted too long for want of humility; deaths of family members; graduations. All celebrated, endured, or mourned in tandem, as though my mother, my father, Javad, and Mehrshad had agreed that this was how life was meant to play out, side by side by side by side, arms linked at the elbows. My father, ever wary of Javad, had adored Mehrshad, and it was she who visited him most at our home in the final days of his life. She taught him to pass time with backgammon and how to write my mother a poem in Farsi for their final wedding anniversary.
This was how it was, at least for the Persian families I knew well. The spouse of a dear friend or relative was like a brother or sister, irrespective of the most divisive particulars. At my mother’s urging, my father did his part and cared for Javad, Javad for my father. Like siblings, they were not without their friction, but there was love, until only the women were left.
• • •
The Jamshidi home struck me as very Persian when I reentered it for the first time in several years. The door opened upon an entryway and hall with five tall mirrors mounted to the walls, at the feet of which sat variegated silk rugs transported from the Old World. I grew up on these rugs and now had several in my possession, gifts from my mother when my wife and I first purchased our house and then when each of our children was born. Besides the rugs, the Jamshidis displayed turquoise ceramics on nearly every viable surface. Decorative white-copper hookahs and tea makers lined their windowsills. A baby grand stood in the corner, an intricate gold-trimmed cloth draped over its crook.
I had not stepped into the Jamshidi home since their last Persian New Year’s celebration. For many years this was tradition among our households: my parents hosted an American New Year’s party on December 31, the Jamshidis a Nowruz party on March 20 or 21. In December, we drank champagne and danced; in March we jumped over a fire pit to ward off evil spirits. As a child, I went over the fire again and again, each time frightened of the rising flames, each time exhilarated that I remained unscathed. When my father became sick, both parties ceased abruptly.
Like its inhabitants, the house was American on the outside and Persian on the inside.
My mother chatted in Farsi with the caterers, the Forouhars who always provided food at these gatherings. She exchanged kisses on each cheek and shook her head as the three of them reminisced. The Forouhars’ role here was unique: like the rest of the community, they too mourned Dr. Jamshidi’s passing, though their day would end with empty trays and a signed check. As a child, I wondered who would cater their funerals when the time came to lay them to rest, as no one else in our area cooked Persian food on such a scale.
The Jamshidi children greeted guests as they entered the home. Mehrshad sat in the living room with my mother, holding both my mother’s hands in hers, trying to subdue her tremors. Her heaving breaths had mellowed, though her eyes looked worse than before, bloodshot and in need of rest. I felt sorry for Mehrshad and belatedly admired my mother’s composure during her own husband’s passing. I wondered if there were any low-dose medication in the house to calm Mehrshad down. How ironic that the four, now three, most important people in Mehrshad’s life excelled at putting bodies to sleep and keeping them still. I thought of Javad and how he would have hated to see her like this. A man who strayed, who caused suffering, but would have traded places with his wife in an instant.
I remembered my last conversation with Dr. Jamshidi, the last real conversation beyond a perfunctory hello-how-are-you, that occurred shortly before his daughter Leila’s wedding. Finishing a glass of Coke (Coke, not wine, was his drink of choice), he informed me that several years earlier, before I had met Maria, he and my parents had argued over setting me up with Leila.
“I always knew it was a bad idea,” he said, turning the glass onto its side and moving it back and forth like a rolling pin. “Your mother and I agreed. But your father and Mehrshad thought you would be a good match.” As he spoke, I decided in that moment that he was handsomer than my father and that were my mother to have married on looks alone, he would have won. He was a man who had aged very early in life and then maintained that same appearance for as long as I knew him. His forehead wrinkles were so fixed in place, perpetually raised like scrunched curtains, that even in sleep he must have looked angry or inquisitive or surprised.
Beyond that drink he never explained why he thought Leila and I were unfit for one another, and I never asked. The truth is that I was not attracted to Leila, which perhaps as a man he could tell. The reasoning was probably simpler for my mother. She knew that I did not date Persian women and that, for reasons I was never quite able to articulate, I would do my best not to marry one. Leila had large eyes, a standard shade of brown like her mother’s and father’s, but very reflective, like freshly minted pennies. Her skin was white in the desirable American way, and her face, after rhinoplasty removed the distraction of her nose, had turned to something striking, her high cheekbones underpinning her eyes like plinths. She was a beautiful woman, often the most beautiful woman at these gatherings, though as was true of her brothers, she now presented with an all-consuming fatigue that had aged her skin, the luster of her hair, the cut of her figure. She looked frumpy and battered, worse for wear despite her pricey heels and black dress; she looked in that regrettable way that makes us wonder what happened to attractive women and men, that makes us speak of their attractiveness in its past tense. Maybe my mother knew what would become of Leila all along.
She knew that I did not date Persian women and that I would do my best not to marry one.
I excused myself from conversation and inspected the house, granting myself the chance to linger over bookshelves and pieces of furniture as though visiting the preserved home of a historical figure. The juxtaposition of the American and Persian was puzzling even to me, someone who had straddled this divide for four decades. I found several versions of the Qur’an, their covers adorned with gold leaf, stacked next to VHS tapes of Speed and Die Hard. A pocket-sized U.S. Constitution was wedged between a world atlas and the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.
In the unoccupied study, built-in bookshelves surrounded an antique bureau, its surface inlaid with black leather. On the shelves sat hundreds and hundreds of old journals and medical textbooks: JAMA, Anesthesiology, the Physicians’ Desk Reference. Dr. Jamshidi’s degrees hung from the wall behind the desk. I looked closely at one of them: Pahlavi Medical School, 1978. My mother had an identical diploma.
If you substituted Pahlavi with Duke University, Anesthesiology with Pain Medicine, the office was similar to my father’s. If you went further and removed everything Persian, the Jamshidi home became a home like any other in their neighborhood: big, well lit, stuccoed. This distinction struck me as vaguely metaphorical. Like its inhabitants, the house was American on the outside and Persian on the inside. But the metaphor was imperfect. Because to complicate matters, for families like the Jamshidis, this contradiction often went the other way, too.
In the corner of the study stood a vertical wooden rack of cassette tapes, each nested into little slots a half inch apart. I ran my finger up the plastic frames, lightly lifting each case and allowing it to drop with a controlled click. These albums were of an entirely different era, imported from Azerbaijan after the Revolution, their titles listed in both English and Farsi. The collection was extensive, though not surprising—Dr. Jamshidi was known for his love of the music and musicians of his youth: Viguen, Googoosh, Bijan, Dariush.
My mother taught me these names in lessons that stretched as far back as kindergarten. Whenever she felt Afsheen and I were becoming too Italian (by which she really meant too American), she sat us down and spoke at length on whichever subject of Persian mores we were neglecting. Occasionally she would play music, press pause, and translate lyrics. “Are you listening, are you listening?” she would ask, demanding our full attention, a marriage of fear and anger in her voice. Her eagerness came from something beyond anyone’s control. There was always evidence to suggest her guilt for having chosen to start a family with an American man, as though she had willingly traded so much of herself, her past, for a New Age happiness that came at a cost. My father did his part and embraced the other half of our heritage, but Afsheen’s and my progressive ignorance, a slow erasure of ancient language and music and tradition, constituted something insidious for my mother. We now had carpets in our homes, artifacts of empire, but these did not make me feel more Persian. Because given the choice, what American would not have displayed such beautiful rugs? They were like prized oil paintings. If someone offered me a Monet, a Picasso, would I not display it in my home with equal pride? With the carpets, we were beneficiaries of circumstance. I knew as much about silks from Tabriz as I did waterlilies from Giverny.
From the rack I removed Love Ballads by Bijan. The cover art was ornate and overstated, an image of Bijan in a tuxedo, a red rose on his lapel, red roses dancing about him. His polished hair fell below his ears though his face was whisker-free. It was jarring to see such a mane without accompanying mustache. There was a bit of Elvis to him, older Elvis before he died, and I imagined that this was a deliberate choice. Bijan stared directly into the camera, one eyebrow raised, his naked, thin lips curling to a grin. He looked as though someone had asked him a question, and instead of answering, he had slyly dismissed it.
I closed the study door to find Maria in the foyer, comforting Javad’s brother. She laid her hand on his arm and delicately pursed her lips as he spoke. Maria excelled at this sort of femininity and decorum, and it was my father who first taught me to appreciate this. Maria was so unflappable, so intact, that her energy was better spent putting others back together. I wanted nothing more than to retreat to the car and drive home, she to clasp someone’s palm in her hand and help him or her to grieve. As with food and literature and company, ours was an attraction of opposites, because some of us need consolation, and some of us need to console.
I kissed her on the cheek and together we greeted Dr. Jamshidi’s old friends: the Bastanis, the Hatamis, the Shahidis; the Ashgarzadehs, the Hamidpours, the Shajarians; couple after couple until we came upon people I recognized only from a distance, for whom conversation had never penetrated beyond those hello-how-are-yous. At a certain point I merely nodded along and allowed Maria to do the talking. She knew everyone by name. I, who had spent years with these people, smiling nervously and untangling their Farsi, knew them only by face.
• • •
As I migrated toward the kitchen, I recognized a face, a famous one. I felt like I had discovered something before everyone else and wanted to call for help.
I offered to refill our empty wine glasses. When the line for the bar was long, I decided to go to the kitchen. Having spent so much time in this house, as a child and teenager, I felt that normal rules didn’t apply, that like a graduate I had returned to campus and could venture to the teachers’ lounge. If someone dropped a plate, I could find a dustpan. If someone needed a glass, I could point to the correct cabinet. Familiarity granted immunity: if I wanted more wine, I could take it.
As I migrated toward the kitchen, I recognized a face, a famous one. I didn’t know whether I should pretend not to have noticed him. Alone in the hallway, I felt like I had discovered something before everyone else and wanted to call for help. I transferred both empty glasses to one hand and crossed their stems together. I held my breath and counted to thirty, my heart growing impatient. This anxiousness was familiar, an unease that never failed to recur upon each subsequent encounter. I watched Bijan stand in front of a mirror, adjusting his bowtie, the head of a cordless microphone protruding from his satin-striped pants.
All morning I had doubted his arrival. He lived in Los Angeles, and I could not remember the last time I had seen him. A young Bijan had attended grade school with Javad Jamshidi in Isfahan, but while his classmate pursued a career in medicine, Bijan (like Cher or Madonna, I never learned his last name) sought stardom, a recording career to bring international recognition. When the Revolution upturned the old order of things, endangering Bijan’s life and success, he had reached out to his childhood friend, an accomplished anesthesiologist who practiced in the United States. He had not sold millions of records or pursued passionate love affairs with foreign celebrities, but Javad knew the right diplomats to contact, the best way for a pop star to win safe passage to the New World. After this, he had reconnected Bijan to Persian emigrants living on the East Coast. He organized private concerts and set up mini-tours, all the while forgoing the fees of an agent.
Mehrshad complained to my mother that this friendship was no friendship at all, rather a lesson in the egoism brought about by fame. My father and I speculated whether there was more than met the eye: an unseemly and, in Persian culture, unspeakable romance. My mother laughed at us. We learned that Javad had offered such support to other lesser-known musicians and even some visual artists. In the end, everything was a matter of preservation. Like my mother, there were many professionals who would have left Iran even without the Revolution. Dr. Jamshidi was not among them.
In the mirror, Bijan saw me and smiled, turning quickly to deliver a hug with several slaps on the back. No kiss on either cheek, no cheek cupped in either palm, but a hug. A resolutely American gesture; he could have been wearing a letterman jacket. As I asked him about his flight from Los Angeles, we were interrupted by a woman who rushed to him and greeted him first in Farsi, then thanked him for coming all this way. I excused myself and returned to Maria with more wine.
Leila summoned everyone into the large living room to introduce her father’s dear friend who would perform a musical tribute, singing some of her father’s favorite songs. There was quiet applause. Bijan stepped forward, gripping the base of the microphone, his hairy, gray knuckles exposed, his black shoes reflecting off the buffed marble floor. A pianist now sat behind the baby grand in the corner, his eyes flitting back and forth between sheet music and performer. Occasionally his hand jumped from the keys to flip rapidly from one page of music to the next. The rest of the room stood still, never shifting its focus, before a single note was sung.
When the Revolution upturned the old order of things, Bijan reached out to his childhood friend. Javad knew the right diplomats to contact, the best way for a pop star to win safe passage to the New World.
Bijan raised the microphone to his lips. Without parting them, he made a circular motion with his hand, instructing the pianist to repeat the opening measures. His nostrils flared, and a deep breath registered through the sound system, displacing the static whir whose presence I only noticed upon its interruption. Then he raised his hand and closed his eyes, the piano slowing to a halt. A chord lingered in the air. Following another deep breath, a first note reverberated through the speakers in haunting tremor. Bijan sang without accompaniment, bending the lyric and dragging his vowels before closing to an m, which he sustained until once more the room filled with static. After another rotation of his hand, the piano picked up again. His eyes remained closed for the entirety of the first verse. When finally they opened, the heads of audience members rose simultaneously, as though their own mobility had depended upon his sight. My mother breathed in deeply and raised her chin.
Close to seventy, Bijan still possessed an extraordinary voice, one that had matured gracefully and could warble perfect grace notes, those arrhythmic, Middle Eastern lilts, like the practiced hand of a dealer flipping a set of cards. “Imagine that he is Frank Sinatra,” my mother used to explain. “Imagine you grew up with me, American, and you are at a private concert with Frank Sinatra.” Despite my mother’s efforts to reduce her accent, my father always teased this particular pronunciation: Feh-rank See-nah-te-rah. “Let me be feh-rank with you, Kaveh,” he would say. “Feh-rank-ly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
I wanted to admire Bijan’s artistry as much as my mother, but he sang almost exclusively in Farsi, a language I barely understood. Hearing music in a foreign language, even a familiar one, created an impassable distance in me. Each time I strained my ears to catch a word or two, I heard the performance, beautiful-seeming, from too far away. Just as I cobbled together a translation of one phrase, the next phrase escaped me, and then the next, and then the next. I was left with a piecemeal understanding of each song, finding my seat in the theater only for the stage to retreat farther away. As women cried and men closed their eyes and let their heads drift side to side, I could only guess at the artistic expression. Was it love, love and loss, old friendships? Or was it simpler? Was it just Bijan himself, his five-o’clock shadow and nostalgia factor, the sound of a college dormitory, a wedding dance, a forgotten road trip from Shiraz to Tehran?
Despite the resonance of his voice, Bijan had aged physically, his cummerbund straining around his stomach and waist, his wisps of hair barely concealing his scalp; he no longer looked like Elvis. Even his gestures seemed slower, more ponderous, his free hand rising and grasping at the air with unconvincing assertiveness. But—and I looked to others to confirm this—his charm was ever-present. My mother was transfixed, enraptured, as if watching fireworks flash in the distance; Mehrshad looked as though it were Javad himself singing to her, crooning about their life together, apologizing for leaving so soon; even Maria had closed her eyes to listen, and I wondered whether her understanding of the lyrics somehow exceeded my own.
The only person who seemed disinterested, bored even, was the woman who had introduced Bijan to the crowd. Leila stood against the doorframe to the living room, her arms crossed tightly over her chest. Sheer stockings covered her legs, disappearing under the pleated hem of her dress, while her manicured fingers poked out from beneath her sleeves, her cream-colored nails neatly blending with her skin. Everything but her own body looked put together and deliberate, as though clothes and jewelry and makeup had been draped over an unwilling mannequin. I noticed a twitch in her right foot, which like her arm she had crossed over her left. If she had been a child, I would have thought she needed to use the bathroom. As I followed the curvature of her legs and upper body, I caught her looking at me. We averted our eyes. When I looked back moments later, a young boy was pulling on her dress. Leila placed a finger on her lips and gave a worried look, then tousled his hair and pushed him back into the hall. As she turned to the room, recrossing her arms and legs, our eyes met again. This time there was no looking away, until the music gave way to further applause.
‘Sultan—no, king!—of my heart, you are here, you are here. Are you listening?’
Bijan paused his set to take a sip of water and excuse himself from the room. This was the first time I had seen him take a break mid-performance. He stepped proudly among the seated mourners, each offering a word of reverence as he passed, like young students acknowledging a favorite headmaster. How long before he returned? Unlike the funeral, there was no schedule of events for the afternoon, no indication of how long Bijan would sing nor how long we were expected to stay. I envied Afsheen all the way across the country, his only sacrifice a minute’s call to the local florist to pass along condolences via courier. I knew that either Maria or I had to return home to relieve the babysitter, and it would likely be Maria, because I had to stay with my mother, who had to stay with Mehrshad. From across the room, Maria looked at me and gave a discreet glance to her wrist. I shrugged my shoulders and motioned to my mother, who rose from the chair without noticing and quickly exited the room. Leila saw me watching and raised her eyebrows.
Maria and I agreed that she would go home and I would stay with my mother. She asked if I would be alright. I nodded slowly, wanting her sympathy. She raised the back of her hand to my face and caressed my cheek. She exited through the front door.
My mother reentered the room with a fresh glass of wine. Bijan followed her, dabbing his forehead with a silk handkerchief. He looked around the room, beaming. He raised the microphone to his mouth.
“I knew Javad very young. He was one of my oldest friends,” he began. “Javad wanted to be a doctor from childhood. He had a heart for giving. I remember there was a boy, Ali Ashghari, who we made fun because of his height. He was short for our age and big. In those times, we were walking home for lunch every day. One day on the road back to school, someone in our class ran to Ali and threw water from the joobe-ob. His shirt became very dirty and wet. Our teacher was Mr. Merzadeh and he was very strict and would send you to the principal if you misbehaved. Ali lived too far from school to return to home a second time for new clothes. He cried and said he would be late and asked if we thought it was better for him to be late or to be dirty. Javad told him to wait. He ran home and brought a new shirt for Ali. Ali changed, and we arrived on time. In class, Javad whispered to me that Ali was very lucky to know somebody like him. I agreed. But then Javad said, ‘He is lucky I have an older brother. Otherwise my shirt would not have fit him!’”
The audience laughed. Javad’s brother pointed to his shirt and said something in Farsi that made the rest of the room, with the exception of Mehrshad, laugh even harder. It was nice that Bijan had inserted this bit of warmth into the afternoon. The room seemed lighter, leavened. I wondered what he had been like as a performer in the early ’70s. I couldn’t see him gyrating, shaking his hips and dancing with Persian go-go girls. He must have been the kind of performer who sings, stops to make a joke or two, perhaps at the expense of a concertgoer, and sings some more. His appeal was his suaveness: combed hair, waxed shoes, vocal agility, manners to take home to your mother.
In the next musical set, I recognized several songs and even joined audience members in humming along. At the conclusion of a particularly well-received ballad, someone stood and whispered in Bijan’s ear. Bijan smiled and patted the man on the back, as though reminded of an old joke. He turned his back to the audience and reached behind the soundboard. From a black case he removed a violin. Two women in the audience clutched their chests. They knew what came next.
“Soltane Ghalbha” was one of the few ballads for which I knew all the Persian lyrics. In Iran, it was a standard, the Iranian equivalent of something in the songbooks of Rodgers and Hart, like “Blue Moon.” The song featured in a classic Iranian film that goes by the same name. It also happens to be the song that made Bijan famous. His 1970 cover was the version my mother played most often.
“Soltane ghalbham, toh hast-i, toh hast-i. What’s the translation?” she had asked, pausing the track. Afsheen and I shrugged our shoulders, in our youth not realizing the challenge was for herself; she wanted to get it exactly right. “Sultan—no, king!—of my heart, you are here, you are here. Are you listening?” my mother asked. “Pay attention to the rhyme later in the song.” She pressed play and continued to hum along. She paused in the middle of the second chorus, repeating the refrain: “Soltane ghalbham, kohjah-i, kohjah-i? King of my heart, where are you, where are you? Afsheen, do you hear the rhyme? Kaveh, do you?” Afsheen attempted the Farsi and followed my mother’s pronunciation as best he could. Instead of focusing on the lyrics, the rhythm and rhyme, I wanted to know what had happened. “How do you mean, ‘what happened’?” my mother asked. “The king is there, then he isn’t,” I replied. “So what happened?”
I looked into the mirror, not the way you look when shaving or brushing your teeth, but when deliberately searching for something in your appearance to please or disappoint you.
I looked at my mother, hoping to trade this shared memory. Instead she stood from her chair and drank, allowing her body to sway side to side, her eyes opening and closing as though the light itself had grown heavy. To my surprise, when I followed her gaze, I saw that Bijan watched her with equal intensity. I remembered a rule of performance from middle school, that in order to gain confidence it was best to find a friendly face in the audience, the way a tightrope walker focuses on an object in the distance for balance. For this song, a crowd favorite, Bijan had chosen my mother. I knew it would delight her when later she asked me if I had noticed and I would reply yes.
I imagined my father across the room listening to the serenade and violin. He and I would have laughed about it later, his fat cheeks widening, his clenched fist slamming against the dinner table with enough force to rattle the silverware. We would have reinterpreted this moment between my mother and Bijan, this moment of ostensible intimacy, as coverup for the true nature of the musical tribute: further proof of a passionate love affair, the tortured artist pining after his deceased lover. “Javad,” I would have said in my parents’ kitchen, a look of concern on my face, “where are you, where are you?” I would have repeated this, exaggerating the panic each time, encouraging my father to laugh at the childish humor, beneath what we believed as people but within the realm of what we found funny. Afsheen would have shamed us for the insensitivity, my mother for the insinuation. In the Jamshidi living room, I smirked and caught myself laughing, covering my mouth with my hand. Then, as if to punish myself for the laughter, I let myself wander somewhere darker, toward injury. Suddenly my face was wet. A woman to my right placed her hand on my arm.
• • •
In the upstairs bathroom I dried my eyes with my fists. I looked into the mirror, not the way you look when shaving or brushing your teeth, but when deliberately searching for something in your appearance to please or disappoint you. I looked good. My tie was well knotted, my hair had retained its shape. But my eyes were red. I had fallen prey to the day’s melancholy, and while I would miss Dr. Jamshidi, I didn’t like that he held this power over me. The power to summon sad memories. The power to make me cry.
I descended the stairs at the back of the house. Mr. and Mrs. Forouhar silently assembled platters in the kitchen. Through a window to the patio I saw Leila sneak out of view. There was a nook between the stucco walls of the house, a shaded area with a broken birdbath. This was where we used to hide as kids, until Mehrshad discovered us digging toward China. I followed Leila outside.
“You know,” I said, “I read in a medical journal recently that smoking is apparently not good for you.”
She looked up at me. “Sure it wasn’t Men’s Health?” We laughed at this.
“Do you even smoke?”
“I smoke, I quit, I smoke, I quit. You figure on a day like today there are no rules.”
She inhaled deeply, then offered the cigarette. I refused, failing to hide my distaste. She smiled again, her lips puckering to accommodate both smoke and laughter. You got the sense that she had done this many times, escaped from family gatherings to smoke and offer drags to unwitting partygoers. I remembered that I was nearly four years her senior, that my children were older than her children, though nothing about her actions suggested misplaced rebellion. Her father had died, she wanted a cigarette.
‘It’s not that surprising. Immigrants like to keep secrets.’
We heard applause from inside, a few loud whistles. A line of ants marched around my shoe.
“He’s still got it,” I said.
“He could stroke out like Dick Clark and they’d still cheer.”
“I’m sorry about everything.” It felt necessary to say this at least once.
We spoke about the service, the prayers that Dr. Jamshidi had specifically requested prior to his death. They had hired someone to sing Muslim hymns, those atonal runs that are almost as hard to bear as they are to sing. Leila laughed as I said this.
“You forget they grew up so religious,” she remarked. “He really believed it, too. That’s what’s amazing.”
“Did he ever try to—”
“Of course! All the time, like a Mormon. Our indifference drove him crazy. He made us take Arabic lessons just so that we could read the Qur’an. What a waste of money.”
We stood outside for the duration of several songs. Leila lit another cigarette. She didn’t mention her husband Saeed nor did I mention Maria. There was something to say for us spending so much time alone together, mere feet removed from an event for which our absence, or, at the very least, Leila’s absence, would be noticed. The air was humid, charged with ambiguity. Without the acknowledgment of our spouses, we had both committed to something.
“How’s your mom taking things?” I asked. The answer was obvious—I regretted the question.
“She’s struggling, but I keep telling her that it was time. I wanted it to happen sooner, for his sake. It gets awful near the end. Your body completely betrays you. I’m sure you remember.” She spoke of the body not as victim but as perpetrator. What would she tell herself in thirty to forty years, reading her own labs and scans? I inspected the cigarette in her hand: red lipstick stained the filter, like blood on a used Band-Aid. I plucked it from her hand and inhaled. A warm tingle sat in my throat. Leila raised her eyebrows.
“Maria had to leave to pay the babysitter,” I said. I hoped this would leave things at a fulcrum, ready to tip in either direction. I had no expectations, but the thought, a thought I knew she shared, would be enticing nonetheless. Maybe now, maybe later, maybe someday. Funerals are ungoverned by rules. Our knuckles touched as she reclaimed the cigarette. I leaned against the house beside her.
“What about your mom?” Leila asked after a pause.
“I always wondered how she did events like these. Sometimes it was your dad, and my dad, and Bijan, all in the same room!” She laughed. “It was like a telenovela irooni.” I waited for her to continue. She turned to watch me, stoically, her eyes narrowing as though deciding whether she could trust me. When she stopped speaking and her lips settled in place, the wrinkles around her mouth relaxed and receded, though their white outlines remained, like folded paper smoothed over by a heavy book.
“Mehrshad told me,” she said. This was a peculiarity of hers, the habit of calling her mother—never her father—by her first name. “Your mom never told you?” Her voice was suddenly loud.
“No.” I didn’t press for details. She wanted me to challenge her coyness. Had the conversation occurred ten years ago, I might have.
She said, “You know my dad was going to propose to your mom?” It had never occurred to me that Leila or her brothers would know this. Had she considered, as I had, that in another life my mother might have been her mother, or her father my father?
“Yes . . . ”
“Did you know that Bijan proposed to her?”
“Earlier that same year. But she said no, because he was unfaithful.”
“Bijan?” I turned toward the music.
“Yes, Bijan. I don’t know the details. But he and your mom were on again, off again for a little while. My dad never knew. And then he was going to propose. And she told him—”
Leila spoke so bluntly that I grew defensive. We were taught not to speak this way about our parents. She didn’t seem to care, as though death had freed her from all convention. I couldn’t tell whether it was confidence or apathy. She flicked the end of her cigarette and a mound of ash fell to the ground. She really looked the part.
“I didn’t even know they were an item. I didn’t even know she knew him.”
“It’s not that surprising. I have an Argentinian friend who only just learned that her mom was once married to a man who died of a heart attack in his sleep.” She took a long drag from her cigarette. “Immigrants like to keep secrets.”
The line of ants had circled back to my shoe. I took a deep breath, tasting the moisture in the air. The news should have felt more seismic than it did, much like reading about theft in your former neighborhood or discovering the illness of someone only vaguely familiar to you. Still, why had she told me this, when there was nothing to do about it now and only decades more to ruminate on its implications? The revelation wasn’t sufficient to shake me, but it was enough to make me question whether my father had known, whether he had treated Javad with greater contempt than the losing man deserved. For years I had mocked Javad’s relationship with Bijan, the way it looked or might have looked, the way it emasculated him, this man, not my father. I didn’t want to believe it. The proud look in Leila’s eyes, the tone of her voice, made me wonder whether she had made the whole thing up inside her head.
“We should get back,” she said.
“Please thank Maria for coming. We should all have dinner, the four of us, sometime soon.”
People had gathered into a circle in the living room, near the medallion of the large Persian rug that covered the marble tile. Someone had most likely spilled a drink. I awaited a frenzy—women falling to their hands and knees as though looking for lost earrings, blotting the fabric with paper towels and distributing salt and club soda to absorb the stain. On cue, Mrs. Forouhar passed my side with a saltshaker in hand, an apron tied to her waist. The crowd made way for her, and it was then that I saw my mother on the ground, her legs crossed inelegantly to the side of her body, her arms hanging like withered branches. Her shoulders slouched forward, her head sagged unnaturally. Her bangs dangled in front of her. A tear in her black pantyhose ran up her knee and under her dress. Mehrshad crouched to her side and ran her palm in circles around my mother’s back. Mrs. Forouhar picked up an empty glass and rubbed salt into the rug. Guests whispered to one another, glancing at me and then my mother, looking worried, as though we had not been invited and they had only just noticed. Bijan joined Mehrshad on the ground, unbuttoning his tuxedo jacket, but Mehrshad shook her head and assured him that all was well. She encouraged him and the rest of the crowd to go about their business, waving her hand as though swatting a fly. The gesture, so rude and dismissive, was one of the kindest things I had ever seen Mehrshad do. She called over to Leila, who interrupted Mrs. Forouhar and asked her to offer food to the guests, while she, now on her hands and knees, began to scrub the red wine out of the carpet. She smelled faintly of cigarettes.
My mother raised her head and met Mehrshad’s eyes. She apologized, again and again, tripping on her words. How had this happened? How had this happened in the middle of the afternoon? My mother looked at me as I thought this and softened her eyes. I wanted to pick her up off the ground. I crouched beside her and nodded at Mehrshad. Together we lifted from under my mother’s shoulders, as though removing her from a bathtub. We took her outside and laid her into the passenger’s seat of my car, where she closed her eyes and massaged her eyelids with her fingertips. Mehrshad told her to sleep, to stop worrying, that the stain would come right out and that nobody would even remember this tomorrow. She said Javad would have made fun of her for not holding her liquor. My mother opened her eyes and smiled.
We now had carpets in our homes, artifacts of empire, but these did not make me feel more Persian. Because given the choice, what American would not have displayed such beautiful rugs?
I gave Mehrshad a hug, squeezing her in such a way as to convey my thanks.
“Cheh pesar-e gholi. Such a good boy.” Mascara had dried below her eyes. She smiled at me, the first time she had smiled today, and, I thought, the only time she would smile for days to come.
My mother said she felt dizzy. I asked if she wanted me to stop and pull over. Whenever she embarrassed herself like this—a number of times I could count on only one hand—I reminded myself that she was a doctor, that she could always make things right again.
“No, just keep driving,” she said.
She took several deep breaths. Her hair was tucked behind her ear, exposing a tiny fold, a line where her face greeted her ear. I had never noticed it before. She probably styled her hair so as to hide it.
“He was a great singer,” she said, the words falling out of her one at a time. “Your dad was a great singer.”
“Not like that,” I replied.
“No, not like that.” She closed her eyes, and I wondered what would happen if she never opened them again. “Not like that,” she repeated, her face in her palm.
“Even better?” I asked.
But she had already fallen asleep.
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October 11, 2019
39 Min read time