A story by Aeen Norouzi
Two weeks ago, Robert Enke killed himself. He was the goalkeeper of both Hanover and the German national soccer team. Which one of the Iranian players would do something like that? Three years ago, Enke’s two year old daughter died of a cardiac disease. Apparently, he couldn’t deal with what had happened; drowned in depression he killed himself three years later. He parked his car near the train station, went out and threw himself under a train which was heading to Hamburg. A couple of months earlier, he and his wife had adopted an eight-month old girl. Not long after his death, his wife announced that he had written her a letter the night before his suicide, and apologized for hiding the depression he was fighting throughout all these months. And that was just to “rescue” her and their little daughter, as he had said. Probably, he was afraid of being regarded as unfit for child custody due to a major mental disorder.
They arranged a funeral for him at the stadium. Some forty thousand people went there and escorted the fairly royally designed, Mahogany coffin to the cemetery where Enke would be buried right next to his three-year-old daughter.
In the following days, I was constantly surfing the net, searching for every interview that was about him. Most of his fellow players would say a few sentences in German, shaking their heads in sorrow. The translations of the interviews were being published in Iranian sport newspapers and websites. “He was all happy, yet very calm. Nobody would have imagined that he might have had an unhappy life. Despite the entire trauma he had suffered after his daughter’s death, he made us believe that he was somehow coping with it.” They said.
There was this one magazine which claimed that Enke had had some awful faults in the last match he had played for which he was under a lot of criticism. Then the article related the suicide with the fact that Enke was unable to tolerate the pressure in his career. I got so furious. I wondered whether this had also been translated or it had simply been the reflection of a low-level journalist, sitting in one of these miserable old buildings in downtown of Tehran, trying to analyze the behaviors of the German national team’s goalkeeper. To tell the truth, the whole thing didn’t matter much to me. I’m not that into soccer, but my friend’s daughter was in a coma; on the exact same days after Hanover’s goalkeeper had killed himself.
Reza’s daughter was walking down the stairs of their home, in the suburbs of New Jersey, to ride the school-bus. After several days of being cancelled due to all the snow that had hit Jersey, schools had reopened on that day. Coming down, she slipped and hit her head on the edge of a step. A narrow streak of blood trickled on the stairs. That’s how it happens, I suppose. A couple of minutes later the bus driver, who should have called her parents, just left, assuming she wasn’t going to school. My friend and his thirty-five year-old wife were both asleep.
Reza opened the door at nine headed to work and there she was, one the snow, which had become fairly maroon in color. She was in fact right there, lying on her back on the cold and melting snow, for over an hour. Nobody knew whether she was conscious or not during those minutes. All that mattered then was for her to wake up and nobody cared about these questions. But something told me that she was able to comprehend. She probably sensed that the bus driver had gone right away or that her mother had gone back to bed, right after giving her some cereal for breakfast.
Twenty years ago, when we had just moved into our new house, I saw Reza. They lived right below us, on the second floor. We made best friends in no time. We smoked our very first cigarette together, lurking at the end of our blind alley, waiting for someone to throw their still lighted half-smoked cigarette on the ground.
Several years later, we would rove in front of a high school, waiting for girls to come out so that we could prank, or just peep at them as they tried to make themselves more beautiful by taking their hair slightly out of those scarves.
Reza was always into going abroad. “Abroad” was anywhere, on the other side of Iran’s borders, but definitely not somewhere like Afghanistan or Pakistan. Even Turkey wasn’t “Abroad”. What he actually meant was Europe and the U.S. He would talk to me, all excited, about those places, where girls wouldn’t have to wear something to hide their hair, where they would come to school in mini-skirts and sexy tops. And those girls were nothing like ours, as he said. They were all blonde, blue eyed, tall and in short, se-xy. Schools weren’t separated like the ones we had and lots of students would even have se-x in schools, as Reza described. He was talking about these things endlessly and every time he seemed even more into it. “We live in shit!” was what he always ended his stories with.
It had all started once he found a magazine in his uncle’s library. Apparently, it included everything he would desire from “Abroad”. Appealing girls, high-end boutiques, restaurants that would serve alcoholic drinks and pork, and soccer fields covered in such green grass that we had never seen. Thinking about those things had made his life miserable in Tehran. This could be why he dropped out of school. Several years went by and he just sat there at home, hoping to win the U.S visa lottery which didn’t happen, till he began to think about going abroad as a refugee. He found someone who had promised to land him in Australia, of course by sea. But right before letting that disaster happen, he won the lottery on his eighth or ninth attempt and went to the United States.
He survived. Despite all the assumptions that others and I had made about him being naïve, desperate and incapable of dealing with the immigration dilemma. But he stayed, found a job, married and seven years later this happened to his only child.
I was surfing through Facebook, when out of nowhere, I saw a picture and a written post in one of our mutual friends’ profile and found out that Reza’s daughter was in a coma. I went to the living room and sat on one of our dining chairs, covered with a real low-quality brown fabric; my cell was still in my hand.
My wife was watching some Turkish series on TV. I was sitting there for some time just trying to digest what I had seen and read. She didn’t notice my presence, probably because it was one of those fake dramatic scenes which happen every ten minutes in Turkish series.
It was dark, I suppose. Our home had become gloomier than it usually was, and the light coming from the TV was constantly changing the color of the furniture and the walls.
“Reza’s daughter has slipped on the stairs and had a concussion. She’s in a coma.” I said in a moderately masculine voice, which was probably a perfect match to the mystical music coming out of the television. She turned her head towards me, covering her mouth with both palms and in a muffled voice and two confounded eyes, she said: “Oh my god!”
She reacted exactly as I expected. For a second I wished I could have been like her, truly confused, breathless, helplessly covering my mouth with my hands. But deep in my thoughts, I was excited and I deserved to be cursed for it. Excitement was somewhere in me, mixing itself with all the tension that was present in our living room.
With complete certainty I knew that I wasn’t happy about what had happened to my best friend’s daughter. If I could, I would do anything for her not to be in that vegetative state; yet, I couldn’t deny that pinch of excitement in my mind, something that I think everyone experiences in life at least once, even my wife.
That evening I had to visit my father. It was snowing in Tehran too. The stairs on the entrance gate to the tiny apartment that I had rented for my dad were also wet and slippery. I couldn’t help thinking about how I would feel if I had had a little daughter, who had slipped on those steps and gone into a coma. How would I feel if I had a close friend, who had experienced a sense of excitation when he had heard about my daughter? The only thing that came to my mind was that we could never experience it the same way. The way Reza and his wife had hugged each other so as to not lose hope, the streets they had crossed to take their child to a hospital, the hospital they had admitted her into, the doctor who had talked to them, everything, every little and big thing, would be different.
I took the stairs to the fourth floor. The elevator was out of service. I rang at the door. Nobody answered. I used my keys and got in. The whole place was surrounded by an odd smell which I couldn’t identify. But it was the exact odor that I smell whenever I’m near an old person. I looked around and realized that his bedroom door was slightly open. I went in, knocking quietly. He was asleep. I stood by the bed and looked at him. After my mom’s death, he was becoming a dead duck. He woke up all rushed, as if he could guess what I was thinking. “When did you arrive?” He said, trying not to sound drowsy.
I told him everything about Reza and his daughter as I was making tea. My father remembered Reza clearly, probably imagining him to be that shy fat boy in puberty. “Poor thing! seems he’s never gonna be back on track.” He said. Well, he probably couldn’t remember that even back then, when Reza was younger, he was quite incapable of pulling himself together. He didn’t do much, except for the daily strolls that he took, mostly to avoid his mother; his mother with that voice of hers. It was creepy and annoying when she talked, especially when she tried to say something important. I’m not sure whether it was the anxiety or that she simply had the most screaming voice. His father would drive him crazy too. I could always feel the tension between him and his father, the middle-aged guy, weighing two hundred and fifty pounds. He would nag all the time. He would put his hand on his back, trying to demonstrate that it was being broken under the unbearable pressure of life. “Swear to god, I’m gonna die in a short time!” He would say that every time I saw him at their house. In fact, that was very rare, me going to Reza’s, as he clearly preferred escaping their place and coming to ours.
When Reza called to tell me that he had won the lottery, it had been more than a year since we had last hung out. He had gone on military service, which he was obliged to, and I had been busy as well. When I saw him some days later in a café to celebrate the lottery thing, I became sure that Reza was going to become an entirely different person. It was this pure childish excitement in his voice, it just wasn’t the voice I knew. He went, stayed, and became someone else. I tried the lottery, four or five years in a row, but didn’t win.
“Call me if you get any updates on her.” said my father, as I was leaving his apartment, which was still full of that smell. He seemed really worried. “Sure,” I said and closed the door. My father had never seen Reza’s daughter. Neither had I, except for those pictures, that Reza used to upload every now and then on his Facebook. She’s much like her mom, quite beautiful and nothing like Reza, although he had changed so much. He is now in his late thirties, has lost some weight and his style has improved. At least there is no sign of that one-and-only black leather jacket which he would always put on in those days.
Our relationship should have faded away over time since he left, but it did not. We chat and skype and even send each other E-mails every now and then. He mostly prefers sending emails, to which there are always a couple of photos attached, pictures of him, his wife, his daughter and the places that they have visited; pictures in which he looks quite satisfied with his life. He seems happy, also when we talk, not that he is still into clubs, pork or drinks. Once, he said he was always attracted to such things just because they were forbidden in Iran. “You come here and in no more than a couple of months, it all fades from your mind.” He said. “It becomes ordinary. Everything, basically.” He added in a fairly indifferent voice I suppose.
Instead, he always talks about the tax and some infrequent encounters he has had where people have called him dangerous and told him to get out of their homeland. But, despite all the frustrations he shows about America, I don’t believe him. I know him, deep and long enough, to be able to tell the peace and satisfaction he has now, out of his indifferent voice. Maybe that’s why I have been trying to show that I’m also happy with my life. For me, it has become some kind of an absurd competition, I suppose. I take photos or collect them from anywhere and send them to him just to remind him of the great things we have here, the ones he’s missing. From the old “Kebab” house in our neighborhood, to the never-ending labyrinths of “the Great Bazar” of Tehran with all the people moving about in it.
Once we went to Shiraz, my wife and I, and indeed had some fun. But deep down I was there just to take pictures of us and our happy sweet life. The pictures that I wanted to send Reza in an E-mail.
“Any news from her?” Asked my wife when I got home that night and fortunately, a short negative answer from me, killed the conversation.
His feed in Facebook was full of kind, sad comments of people trying to sympathize with him. They all looked, in a word, worried. But I couldn’t just write something pathetic like them. It would have looked insincere and unreal. I had to call him.
Three days later, when the whole thing had temporarily left of my mind, I found out that Reza’s eight-year-old daughter was dead.
“This morning, Sarah left us forever.” Reza’s sister had written as her Facebook status. I scrolled down Reza’s account, which was tagged by his sister, as if he wouldn’t already know the thing his sister had written. There were no portraits of him, only family pictures. They were standing right next to a statue of “Shrek”, in one of those pictures. Reza had his wife in one arm and his daughter in another, wearing a navy-blue polo-shirt, smiling into the camera, squinting, probably because of the light. He was still fat. His smile, his bald head and his body reminded me of “Shrek” itself. His daughter had a fluffy glove on one hand, but not in the other, in which she was holding a tiny doll. I zoomed-in, trying to find out what kind of doll it was, but couldn’t make it out.
I skipped most of his photos, but stared at that one for some time. I believed that if I stared long enough and looked for details, I could probably find the thing that was present in his life but not in mine. I picked up the phone. Suddenly all I wanted was to talk to him, but my mind was empty. I couldn’t think of anything to say that would make him better. I put the phone down on the table and looked at their picture once again. I was going to write him a long letter, deciding later whether to send it or not.
Image: Hanover downtown mural
Aeen Norouzi (born 1990, Tehran) is a published writer and the winner of the National Literary Olympiad in 2008, finalist of the 2013 Bushehr Literary Awards and Haft-Eqlim Award for the best short story collection of the year, and twice-winner of Tehran Story Award in 2014 and 2015. His debut novel, titled The Gastrointestinal System, was published by Cheshmeh in 2017, and his latest short story collection, Soft Soil, has just been released by the same publisher and received positive reviews. Some of Norouzi’s stories has been translated to English and appeared in magazines such as Transnational Literature (2018).