Short story by Mohammad Tolouei
It happened in the middle of the ceremony. Although mom had made sure I went to the toilet just before leaving, I had to pee again. I knew the house well, but if I walked right to the toilet, I’d have made a scene, for then everybody would realize that Mojdeh and I had already been here together, and this would ruin the fiction – according to which I had accidentally met Mojdeh at the university, looked for her phone number, given it to my mother to call her mother and arrange for a marriage proposal (an absolutely traditional arrangement). Mojdeh had told me that her father would like me better this way, so I bent my head down like a modest stranger throughout the meeting. The new shirt’s brand label chafed my neck; I raised my head only in long intervals of silence and fruit servings; and then I had to pee.
I was going through one of those precocious pains of kidney stone expulsion when one struggles to sit still on the chair. I had taken three pills of Brufen 400mg to keep alert, yet Bruffen, no matter how solacing it might be, has no effect on bladder control especially when one is taking cup after cup of tea in a marriage proposal ceremony mingled with a blush of shame, excitement, and trembling hands (pure parade of manners). Nevertheless, when I refused to take sugar cubes with my tea, Mojdeh turned to her father and said, “Mr. Bridegroom is on diet; he never takes sugar cubes, Daaad!” It was inappropriately gaudy in juxtaposition with the strained silences, compliments, and prolonged ‘Yea’s.
I tried to hold it in, like I did in Reza Deldar-Nik’s birthday. Reza puffed up his cheeks and we lined up behind him as usual, ready to clap as he blew out for the photographer (his father, for sure). There were plain hemp curtains behind us, which hardly matched the embroidered cushions, crocheted cloth on the sofa or brocaded calicoes. I came out of the photo frame and went to Reza’s mother who was a vivacious, stone-faced woman. An aggregation of contradictions was manifest in her looks (she had a chubby face and a slender body). She was wearing a chintz dress embroidered with small violet flowers and yellow-green tendrils that circled under her breasts, and tapestry around sleeves. She held a lighted cigarette, sizing up the kids and wondering whether her cutlet snacks and donuts would serve everyone. She was a just woman, even to Reza, and she did not give him any more than one snack. Catching me fidgeting in front of her, she hid her cigarette behind her head and asked: “Won’t you take photos?”
I turned my head over and saw the children in the photo clapping for Reza. Reza’s mother put her cigarette on her lips and narrowed down her eyes so that the smoke would not get in, and began to clap with only two fingers as it was common in war times. I am not in that photo, nor in any other photos of Reza Deldar-Nik’s birthdays.
“Going to the toilet,” I replied.
Reza’s mother stood up and left the still-burning cigarette dabbed by the pink of her lipstick in the ashtray on the bookshelf and led me to the toilet. It was a Duplex house in a well-gardened complex. The outer walls of the houses were in fact short fences which were unified via the back-yard lawn. We climbed up the stairs and Reza’s mother opened up the door of a clean and shining bathroom. There was a laced pouch filled with dried flowers in front of the mirror, and all the faucets glittered (in a city like Rasht where every person rusts out of high humidity).
“Can you make it yourself?” asked Reza’s mother. I nodded, meaning yes.
“I’m waiting here behind the door. Let me know if you need any help,” said she.
Granddad had made my three-buttoned dark-blue coat during the economic recession when very few women could afford well-tailored dresses. Its waist was corset-tight as in women’s coats (Granddad wasn’t used to making male suits). There was a sign stitched on its pocket reminding one of famous British school uniforms, whereas I went to the first-grade class of Shahid Mustafa Karimi, an elementary state-school on my mother’s way to the high school she taught at so that she could conveniently drop me off on her way to work and pick me up on the way home. We used to have breakfast together in the morning and all the way to school she tried to properly clothe me with a jersey hat down to my eyes. I curled my fingers under the hat and set my ears free and when mother caught me, I would reason that the jersey hat was not tight enough.
The only child in a suit in that birthday was me. I don’t remember if the sign stitched on my pocket was a circle, a diamond, or a shield because I am absent from all of Reza’s birthday photos. All the other kids wore pullovers knitted by their mothers (residues of housekeeping skills taught at girls’ schools during the 70s). The coat was a big inconvenience if one needed to pee. I was about to make a stand-up pee when it crossed my mind that Reza’s Mother was behind the door and would hear the echo of pouring water on the blue sink.
Reza’s Mother was stern; one day she broke into our classroom and brushed Reza’s teeth in front of the others for he had forgotten to do so in the morning. She didn’t say a word; she didn’t even ask for the Teacher’s permission and came in with a patterned orange glass I had seen once on top of their mirror. She came into the classroom with a brush blobbed with a knuckle-sized amount of toothpaste and forced it into Reza’s mouth, brushing his teeth the way we had learnt in the kindergarten (first up and down and then left to right) and handed him the glass of water to wash his mouth. Reza spat in the glass, and then Reza’s Mother went out. Everyone pretended nothing had happened – all thirty-one students of 1B, as well as Miss Masoomzadegan. And it would be dissembled forever if only Reza’s Mother had not untied his fluffy shawl for easier brushing and left it on the bench of Arash Shafa’ati and me – it was the only proof that the incident was real.
I took off my coat and kept it in my hands, unzipped my pants, and sat down. All engrossed in my urination, suddenly I sensed the scent. The scent was there from the beginning but I had so much focus on the flow of urine that I had not felt it. I felt water leaving and the scent of the deodorizer coming. Something was going out and something was replacing it; that is how the world goes around. There is no nothingness. Nothing could only mean that what is absent should be somewhere else now. This may not be a good example but I was passing water and then I felt the scent of Trax deodorizer of Reza Deldar-Nik’s house and the scent of a Trax immediately resonated with the concept of wealth in my life. I have a vague memory of the rest of the birthday party, or I’d better say the rest of my memory meant nothing compared with my toilet epiphany. When I came out, Reza’s Mother was not there. She was a stern and just woman, but not that faithful to her promises. Reza held no birthday party the year after – or years after – and his mother did not come to school for brushing anymore and it was much later that we learnt about her divorce.
I could not stand it anymore so I signaled Mojdeh, pointing with my hand to my kidney but she didn’t get it. She sat cross-legged on the sofa, with a beige mini-dress and décolleté that was too short for such a traditional marriage proposal meeting. While obsessed with the pee, I thought she was playing with her mother as well as with me. I mean, after three years of being my girlfriend, she has now made me propose to her family and is presently scorning my first-day brags about never taking flowers, wearing ties and suits, and wooing her in front of her family with my mother and sister manicured-pedicured and in their best silk dresses by my side. Her mother was always hard on me. Then I realized that I was doing all the trifles I intended to refrain from, whereas Mojdeh – that had once bet she would wear a décolleté mini-dress during the proposal ceremony – was victoriously sitting cross-legged before me. I felt pain, it was not of the pains I usually felt when warding off kidney stones; it was a pain of feeling hoaxed. I stood up, cleared up my voice and addressed Mojdeh’s mother, “Excuse me, where is the bathroom?”
Mojdeh’s mother jumped up and kindly pointed to the toilet room: “There it is, my son,” accompanying me up to the toilet door; I do not remember whether she opened the door for me or not. “At last you carried out your design,” I whispered in her ears in such a low voice that no one would hear and put on a smile on my face as I closed the door – to let her know that I’d get my own back soon. My strong will to revenge vanished, however, as soon as I relieved myself and felt again the soothing scent of Trax; it was the scent that changed my mind. The scent always changes my bad mood into a jolly one, that is, if I have messed up my day I would feel better, and if I had woken up dogged, I would’ve turned soft-hearted by the scent. This has been happening ever since my epiphany at Reza’s birthday party.
“We are poor, Mom,” I said. I remember I did not weep, the truth about our poverty was as clear to me as sunshine. Mother took my coat off and peered at the cream spot Hamed Sanati had left on my back with his dirty fingers. “We are poor, Mom,” my tone was not interrogatory; I had just informed her of a fact. “Who says we are poor?” mother asked. I did, indeed. It was my own idea but you cannot persist on your ideas when you are only seven years old. “Reza’s yard is as big as the school yard.” Mother kept her finger under the cream spot on the coat, hugged the coat the way she hugged my little sister and went out of the room. I followed her saying, “And their toilet smells nice.”
Pointing to me with her finger still under the coat and pouring some bleach with the other hand in a melamine bowl, mother said: “Their house belongs to the government, my son. But we own our house. We are richer.” Perhaps I would have accepted the idea of being richer, but sometimes when you are seven years old you like to disagree with certain facts, or take them in your own way. Hence, the criterion of measuring wealth for me is neither a house of one’s own, nor monthly revenues or 64-inch-wide Home Theaters. For me, the most significant sign of wealth is Trax deodorizer. Therefore, my mother looked for Trax everywhere in Rasht markets of 1986 at a time when we were all distressed with war, ate Bulgarian cheese, Polish butter and Brazilian frozen meat, played American ATARI and wore Chinese sneakers. There was no Trax deodorizer in the market and I concluded that we were poor. “Besides, only one of them works, while both your dad and I work and make money,” she explained. But the number of working members of a family did not count when their bathroom had no Trax. So my dad went to Tehran to find Trax for me. My father looked for a Trax deodorizer all over the Tehran markets and health and beauty centers, right at the time of the bombardments – when everyone fled from Tehran to safer places. He went to buy wealth for me, to bring me a sense of wealth, but he did not find one, and I grew up with a constant sense of poverty. I always felt I was poor and no word and no one could change my mind. That is why I feel extreme joy whenever I smell a scent of Trax; the smell of nearby wealth. And as I was sitting there in the toilet passing water, the feeling came back to me. “Mr Jethro,” I was about to address Mojdeh’s father right before the second epiphany: “I have nothing in this world, but am willing to work as your shepherd instead.” I often teased Mojdeh with the analogy, fancying that her father would make me propose to her elder sister Mina – after I’d worked as his shepherd for seven years. And that I had to keep working as a poor shepherd for seven years more until it was Mojdeh’s turn to get married. It also crossed my mind to deride him: “you used to sit around a bin in your village swallowing a pomegranate whole with all its peels and kernels, how come you have it neatly peeled in a bowl?” I knew that he was hot-tempered and took pride in the family’s pomegranate serving manners; this would certainly ruin the ceremony – but then I changed my mind. I would rather go out, keep my head bent down throughout the ceremony only looking up once or twice, and soon I could be the honored groom of a family who kept Trax in their bathroom. I wanted to taste wealth somewhere in my life. So I fastened my belt again and filled my chest with the scent of Trax. Everyone was standing up and waiting for me when I came out of the loo. Mother gave me a dagger look as she went out and my sister and brother-in-law followed her. My father had a plate of grapes in his hands and ate them quickly as he moved towards the door until he realized that he had to leave it there on the phone table and went to put his shoes on at the doorway. Mojdeh’s mother looked at me with panic, Mojdeh was not there and her father had turned red with anger. “What’s happened?” I asked – silly question it was. Something had happened; something was taking place before my eyes. “Let’s go Mohammad Agha,” mom shouted to me in the staircase. There was no one in the staircase when I reached the doorway – neither mom nor dad nor my sister and her husband. Everybody had rushed to leave and consequently left me there. There was no one behind me as well when I turned back – neither Mojdeh nor her father or mother, nor her two other sisters. The door was being shut by no visible person. I was left all alone there, in the staircase of a house where I had once picked up my shoes and rushed to the roof with nothing but shorts on so that Mojdeh’s father – who had unexpectedly returned from his trip to Sirjan – would not see me. Then the automatic lights went off and I remained in total darkness of the staircase. Once again I picked up my shoes and climbed up to the roof. I sat there on the tarry roof with my grey pants on, leaving the shoes by my side and exhaling the remaining of Trax scent I had inhaled in the loo. I don’t know how many hours I sat there and stared at glittering lights of Tehran. It was less than an hour for sure; it had presumably lengthened only for me. Then mom, having presumably climbed up the stairs and found me, sat by my side with her dinner dress still on – corduroy trousers, silk scarf and her party topcoat. I liked it if all people in the proposal ceremony would appear one after another on the roof and would sit on the tarry floor to stare at Tehran lights in silence, instead of forcing the bride-and-groom-to-be to another room to speak about their common future. And whoever prolonged the silence game and did not move, would win the game: either they would win a considerable amount of bride token, or we’d receive a ponderous dowry from the bride’s family. But no one else appeared in reality. My mom sat there in silence long enough to let me speak first and lose the game.
“What happened in my absence?”
“Remember when you were an obstinate kid asking for Trax deodorizer?”
I remembered it well, had never forgotten it. All my twenty-three years of life had revolved around that moment but instead, I pretended I didn’t. There was an emotion with me that tempted me to revolt, to lie, to deny. It is more likely of a man sitting on the roof of a luxurious house in the 72nd Narmak Square not to remember his mother’s sacrifices.
No! I did not say it exactly, but just cast a vague glance at the lights emitted from the window of a house far away and then slid my glance down on her face. It could mean “no,” or anything else, leaving it to her to decide. Mom put her hand on my head and caressed me.
“Remember I brought you a half-Trax after your dad couldn’t find any in Tehran?”
“But the scent was gone.” By saying that I immediately realized that I could’ve pretended for a while longer, I should’ve recalled it from a lost memory. I shouldn’t have recalled it that fast. But I had already uttered that the half-Trax, which I didn’t know where my mother had found, had already lost its richly scent, and when I put it in our lavatory it gave me no pleasure compared with the one I had experienced in the house of Reza Deldar-Nik. I pulled my mother’s hand in rebel and asked,
“What was that thing you’d found for me?”
“When we couldn’t find one, I went to Reza’s mother and asked for one of the deodorizers they used at home. She was a hell of a snob, but they had really run out of it. They had only one that was already unpacked for use in the bathroom. I asked for the remaining. She gave it to me but charged me instead to lace-embroider all her curtains.”
“What’s lace-in-bray – ?”
“She didn’t tell me at first that they’d run out. You had seen their house, hadn’t you? She was snobby. There were needle-works everywhere on all furniture covers and cushions and knobs. She spent a lot of time on embroidery. Well, she had nothing else to do. She was a housewife, but I taught at school and meanwhile took care of you two. Remember our house on Maryam Street? It was an endless sea. The more we bought and furnished it, the emptier it looked. She had come to our house when you were born and had seen my lace-embroidered curtains in the hall and the living room. We made it by pulling out the warps and woofs of the cloth. Remember our cream-curtains in the hall? Brown curtains of the living room?”
I had a vague memory of all the curtains of my childhood. Velvet green curtains of the middle-room behind which we used to hide all the mess, along with my father’s books; pink curtains of the master bedroom, orange-and-yellow diamond-patterned curtains of the kitchen; plastic navy-blue curtains of the bathroom; pinkish curtains in Safoura’s room, our neighbor’s girl living opposite to our house. But I could not remember cream curtains of the hall, neither the brown curtains of the living room.
“It takes time. It’s the sort of job that reveals how womanly you are. I embroidered all my curtains myself. But your aunt, Shahla, spent 4000 tomans to have her curtains lace-embroidered. Reza’s mother had promised to give a deodorizer if I lace-embroidered her curtains. So I did them in a week. But she gave me a half. Well, she cheated. She swore that she had wrapped the remaining half in a plastic cover the moment she decided to give it to us so that it would keep the scent. But I had already done the job and there was only that half. So I took it for you.”
It was my duty then to drown her in kisses for the sacrifice she had made for me twenty-three years ago – to caress her, respect her and carry her downstairs with courtesy and love, but before that she had to tell me what happened in my absence that disarranged the ceremony.
So, I took extra effort to look tearful and asked with a sad hoarse voice in my throat: “So tell me, my good mother, what happened this evening?”
Mom stood up and patted on the back of her topcoat, saying “Snobs they were, and it would end like what Reza’s mother did to us.”
I stood up at last – I do not remember how long after – and began to forget all about Mojdeh. First of all, I got rid of all the clothes, and then all other things we had bought together: the handbag, black pins for holding my notes together, the brown mug, bathroom mat, and the electric toothbrush. I did not call her for the next three months, and she didn’t either. And neither did we meet by chance in Café Art or Enqelab Street. The places we used to hang out together were collapsing by themselves while I had no hand in their destruction. First of all, the Parth Restaurant where we dined every Wednesday evening, then Ettehad Drugstore of Pakistan Street from which I had bought an adhesive plaster once for Mojdeh’s foot scarred by her tight high-heels. I sat her by the canal and placed the plaster on her heel and then she bent and kissed my fingers. Then the ‘Delouze Photography Studio’ where we had taken 3 by 4 pictures for our MA entrance exams. And last of all, Shemshad Pastry. The places had really collapsed like the gap of a missed tooth in the row of healthy teeth.
Then I saw her. I was walking with Jaleh across the Central Library of the university and I was explaining to her how to illustrate one of my stories. I was actually trying to win her heart than explaining anything. In truth, I had not written a single word of the so-called story yet and as I elaborated on the images, I improvised a story. Then she turned up – furious – and turned her head away as if she had not seen us together. But she could not resist the temptation and got closer to us shouting “Mr Tolouei! Please come and take your wooing bouquet and go to hell with anyone you PLEASE.”
Then she turned back again and rushed to leave.
“Who was she?” asked Jaleh.
“It was Mojdeh. She was supposed to be my wife. But mom said she doesn’t deserve me.”
“So your mother’s word really counts for you!”
“A mother’s word may count once, not every time I pick one.”
Jaleh turned back and as she watched Mojdeh leaving, said: “She was nuts!”
“She would never know what lace-embroidery means.”
 Mojdeh’s surname is Shoaybi, an Arabic equivalent for the Biblical figure Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. The narrator apparently takes pleasure in finding similarities between himself and Prophet Moses, who is said to have worked as a shepherd for Jethro for forty years before returning to Egypt to lead the Hebrews to Canaan, the “promised land”.
About Mohammad Tolouei
Born in 1979 in Rasht, Mohammad Tolouei holds a BA in Cinema and an MA degree in Dramatic Literature from the University of Tehran. He published his debut novel Fair Wind’s Prey in 2007 (winner of Farda Awards for Best Technical Novel of the Year; nominee of 8th Shahid Ghanipour Awards) and his short story collection I’m Not Janette in 2011 (winner of 12th Golshiri Literary Awards). Tolouei belongs to the emerging New Generation of Iranian novelists and short story writers marked by their transitive style of writing that sets free of tradition and ventures novelty in narrative and form. An urban middle class voice with a good command of history and a peerless consciousness of space, Tolouei is often praised for his unique diction and lauded for dauntless treatment of far-off professions with peerless mastery over related jargon. His world of short stories is known for its diversity; he probes into the world of the invisible citizens and underground dwellers: the antiquarians, backgammon players, opera singers, communist partisans, addicts, and voluntary combatants. Tolouei has traversed a long way from his debut novel – an account of the inhabitants of Rasht in time of the Second World War, enforced emigration of Polish refugees through Iran, and the formation of the Communist Party in Iran – to his later stories with cunning use of mockumentary as dominant narrative technique. His works have appeared in The Guardian, The Columbia Journal, Asymptote Journal, and Internazionale among many others.