Something in the room has changed. A new moisture perhaps? The room feels just like it does when I pull the cover over my head and lie breathing for a few minutes; that moist, hot feeling of reused oxygen.
My parents are having sex. In the dark room, on the floor. My brother’s single bed is directly across from mine. Both are pushed up against opposite walls in the narrow room. If I lie on my side I can see the shadowed lump of my parents. But I don’t. I woke up because I was thirsty but I can’t reach for my glass now and so lie listening with a dry mouth. I try to get back to sleep, hoping that I’m not swallowing too loudly as my mother’s breath catches.
I wake up and for a moment I have no memory of last night. Then the heavy breathing, the blankets moving and only my mother’s head visible on the pillow, the unusual midnight shower. I have a headache.
I glance discreetly at Baba out of the corner of my eye. I didn’t greet him this morning, and so felt a wave of satisfaction as I watched his lips purse together in anger. Neglecting to greet my father in the morning or when he arrives home in the evening irritates him so much that I know he will ignore me for the next twenty-four hours. I am pleased about this, and have no intention of speaking to him today anyway.
Every morning I smear caramelised condensed milk all over my barbari. Being allowed to do so is my favourite part of this trip to Iran. Today though, I am sullen as I spoon large globs of it over my bread. I know my mother won’t approve, and this gives me another flare of pleasure.
Just as she opens her mouth to disparage me for my lack of restraint, my grandmother encourages me, “Bohor, bohor!”
Mum closes her mouth.
Our trip to Iran coincides with a long pause in my relationship with Baba. We haven’t spoken, except when I greet him the way he likes, for about a year.
I wish I knew Baba’s favourite colour, or how he learnt to paint, and why he doesn’t paint anymore. All I know about Baba from what he tells me are the things my mother did to upset him twenty years ago, or the reason he hates her family, and the way his parents abused him.
Baba’s hugs are floppy. He once said that I have been cold and unaffectionate since infancy, but I think he hugs like a dead fish. When Baba hugs me, I think that he doesn’t love me.
I wish Baba asked me about school, and friends, and my favourite colour.
I was born in New Zealand, in the Auckland Women’s Hospital. While my mother was pregnant with me, Baba brought Morghe Torsh and Zereshk Polo home from his restaurant and they fought about my maternal grandmother.
My nana has pet sheep, and I like to feed them with digestive biscuits. One for me, and one for them. I want to go out and play, but Baba has strict rules about clothes. I’m not allowed to get the cold wind on my tummy or my freshly washed, curly hair. I walk with a pigeon toe and Baba follows me around worried that I will trip over my own foot. Baba pulls on my flowery tights and tucks my thermal singlet in. Then he pulls a cream coloured skivvy over my head and my head pushes through the impossibly small hole of the skivvy neck. He tops me off with a mustard cable knit sweater, woollen socks, and a beanie that I find to be both itchy and ugly.
As I sit on the bed, Baba ties my shoelaces and tells me that I am forbidden to take any layer of clothing off, no matter how hot I get.
“We will know. We will know if you take it off.”
“Not ‘Okay’. You e-say, ‘Yes, Baba’.”
“Don’t take your hat off, you’ll get e-sick.”
As we fly to Iran, I quietly weep on the plane. Thankfully my parents are sitting on the other side of the aisle and do not notice.
I am in that awkward teenage stage, where my breasts have not fully developed and so accentuate my stomach, and my feet look too big. I am pining for a boy. The night before I left, we performed together in the band for the school play. We hugged and I thought it was a very meaningful hug, and yet I don’t think he thought it was a very meaningful hug.
Tom plays guitar and I am convinced that he is Jimi Hendrix reborn. He is tall, skinny, and has that kind of unfortunate British sense of style. He wears big, white Adidas sneakers, baggy jeans and t-shirts. I think he is perfect. We held hands once.
So as I fly over a big ocean, I think about how much I admire him. I draw comparisons between the vast, deep ocean and my love. I replay our last hug in my mind to really analyse what his post-hug facial expression meant.
He tells me that this trip will be good for us. He says that while he is gone he will either think of me or her. Hearing this makes my chest cave in. I want to turn in on myself, and I think I can hear the hole in my chest start to make a loud sucking sound like a vacuum cleaner. I am choking. I don’t know whether I hate him or myself, but I am happy that I am choking.
Oliver is tall, thin, and wears black Converse. On our second date he called me his girlfriend but he looks ugly to me in this moment. He leaves me in Perth where it is dry and hot. He leaves for America. I am suffocating in heat, thinking of him thinking of her. The stifling heat reminds me of Tehran.
My grandmother takes us to the gold bazaar.
“No, no. Not bizarre. Bah-zuhr...BAH-zuhr,” my dad corrects.
“That’s what I said, Baba.”
The bazaar is loud, busy, and covered in Persian carpets. There are Persian carpets on the floors of all the stalls, on the concrete walkway, and strung-up from the ceiling.
The ceilings are so tall and ornate that I feel as if I have entered a mosque. In the places that the carpets are not covering, the floor is cracked and uneven from the passage of hundreds of years of feet.
As we enter the bazaar my mother’s headscarf slips for the third time this morning. Her hatred of this piece of material runs so deep that her body throws it from her head multiple times a day. People start to stare, and noticing this, Baba turns around and barks at her to cover herself. A few of the people we pass look angry at her immodesty, and others chuckle at the inept foreigner as she fumbles to fix her scarf.
My mother is fair, with freckles and kind green eyes. She looks a little out of place with a headscarf on, but whether this is because she is very obviously white or because she hates it so much, I am not sure.
I fit in with my black eyebrows and dark eyes, and as if it is completely natural, my headscarf never leaves my head of its own accord.
I start to drag my feet as we make our way through what must be the fifth corridor of wall-to-wall jewellery, dates, spices, and clothing. At about the third corridor, it all looks the same.
I start to pay less attention to the stalls and continually bump into people because I am staring at the ceiling while I walk.
The bazaar amplifies the heat. It is the middle of summer and I feel resentful towards the men that I see. In particular, the young men with their shorts so low that I can see their Calvin Klein underwear. I am wearing long pants, a knee-length white linen coat, and a headscarf. The sweat is beading above my top lip and across my forehead. As I try to find a path through the swarming crowds of people, I feel very claustrophobic.
I am waiting halfway up a stepped walkway as my parents go ahead to look at gold rings for my mother. My mother has always said that I have a problem with staring, and she has always been right. I am not staring at anything in particular, just watching the people move from a slightly elevated level.
I feel something touch my back and settle on my arse. I turn my head to see what I have brushed up against and see the sweet-looking face of a small man of about sixty.
“Bebakhshid,” I apologise and quickly move up two steps, I think that I have accidentally gotten in his way and feel a little silly.
I pretend to look at the jewellery on display, while actually thinking about how embarrassed I am that I backed into this poor old man. Then I feel it again, the same warm hand brush up against me. This time I don’t turn to look. I see him in my peripheral vision and just move up another two steps as if I am still looking at the displays.
When he starts to move towards me again, I walk further forward to stand next to my mother. I feel safe next to her and relax, and then his hand is on me again.
“Baba!” I half-shout, and the man is gone. He vanishes before Baba even has the chance to look up.
I wake up. Baba knocks at my door.
“Yassy, Yassy, Yassaman,” he croons.
I have never liked my name. I don’t like the sound that it makes on my tongue. I don’t like correcting every person that tries to say it. When my dad says my name, I forget that I don’t like it. It is lyrical and round, Yoh-sah-man.
My name sounds beautiful on his tongue but I am immediately suspicious. He tells me he wants to talk, come out to the dining room. My heart rate accelerates.
“I know who you have been emailing,” he doesn’t waste time.
“Wh - Um, what? What do you mean?” I falter. I can hear the pumping of blood in my ears. Baba’s lips purse hard together. When he talks, he snarls. I can see his yellowing smoker’s teeth and receding gums.
“Don’t play dumb. Your mother checked your email. We know about your friend Tom,” he pulls out the word ‘friend’ in a thick Persian accent, feh-rend.
My throat tightens and my mouth is so dry that when I move my tongue, it makes an audible sound.
“How dare you do this to us,” his voice is rising. “Did you think that we wouldn’t find out?”
“It’s nothing, Baba. We’re just friends,” I lie.
An hour and a half later, Baba has screamed himself hoarse. The tears have dried to my face so that it feels tight and dry. I go to my room and wet my face again with tears.
Baba says I am banned. Banned from band practice, from music lessons, from emailing, from using the phone, from seeing friends.
I slip into my parents’ bedroom. My mum lies on the bed staring into space, crying. She has already changed my email password.
I don’t want children. I never want children. I don’t want children. A mantra.
I spend much of my time as a pre-teen watching my mother counsel other mothers at monthly meetings for the Australian Breastfeeding Association, and I know the ins-and-outs of breastfeeding before I have breasts. As the eldest child in the room, I am designated the important role of babysitter.
I help little Lewis down the slide, set him on his feet, and decide that I do not under any circumstances want children. I go inside for a biscuit.
I practice scowling whenever I see an advert for nappies or baby food. I practice scrunching up my face whenever somebody coos at a baby in the street. By the next breastfeeding meeting, I am aloof.
“Do you want kids?”
“Yeah, I probably want kids,” he answers. I think for a minute as we drive down Kwinana Freeway. I thought boys prefer girls who don’t want kids. I secretly sneer at my girlfriends who declare that they can’t wait to be a mother.
“I just think that it’s too easy to fall into traditional gender roles when you have kids.” I don’t tell him that I’m worried I will be like Baba.
I get into the van. It smells like cigarette smoke and cologne. With Baba, conversation is always a little stilted. Two weeks ago when I tried to talk to him about school he asked me what year I was in.
“Year 10, Baba,” I answered curtly and didn’t continue my story.
Baba tells me a story about how much Mum makes him suffer. He opens with “I never wanted to get married. Your mother begged me to get married. After three days of crying, crying, crying, I esaid ‘okay!’”
I look straight ahead, nod, and wait for the rest of it to come.
“I never wanted kids. I was happy just to be alone. I was happy,” he pauses for effect, “After you, I never wanted another child. One is enough. But, as always, your mother wanted it, what I want doesn’t matter.”
“Okay, Baba,” I say without looking at him. As he continues, I think about what this means for my younger brother.
“I just don’t know how I define love,” Oliver tells me in a hotel room in Paris. We have been together exactly six months. I don’t cry when he says this, just receive it in silence. The tears only start when I ask why he has been telling me he loves me for the past two months. He doesn’t know.
After hours of trying to understand each other, we give up and fall asleep. I dream of a classroom, an old-fashioned one with three rows of wooden desks. I stand at the front of the classroom, there are lambs sitting on the desks and chairs. Oliver is seated in the front row, at the middle desk. He is holding a lamb in his arms and stares at me with wide eyes. The lambs bleat but nobody speaks.
When I wake, I recount my dream to Oliver. He is suddenly annoyed.
“What do you mean ‘I wonder what it’s about’? Obviously it’s about you and I and children. You want children.”
The house is filled with a piercing scream. I try to stop breathing for as long as I can, the way I do when I hear my parents fighting. I hear some bangs, and mum screams again.
“Yassy, help me!” she pleads and screams a third time.
“Mum!” I bolt to my parents’ bedroom at the other end of the house, mentally rehearsing how best to protect her.
I throw open the door and Mum is in silent fits of laughter in-between screams. Baba stands over her, laughing and relentlessly tickling her. I let out the breath that I had been holding in. Baba sees me and rushes over wiggling his hands in front of him. I run squealing to the other side of the bed and leap towards Mum for protection.
A week before Oliver returns from America, I sit down to dinner with his father, Harry. I am lonely, tired of being at home, and missing Oliver. Happily, Oliver is a spitting image of his father.
I make a pie, and while it cooks, we drink beer on the front veranda.
“I can’t see you and Oliver ever breaking up,” he says a little out of nowhere. I wonder, does he know? I decide to confide in him.
“Well, I’m not so sure about that,” I say. Harry shoots me a quizzical look as the sprinklers twitter in the background.
“You see he’s...Oliver has been thinking of someone else. Someone we met in Paris when we were there this year.” I am red and hot, ashamed to admit this to Oliver’s father of all people.
“Yass, anyone could see how much Oliver loves you. I wanted to marry a beautiful redhead once. Oliver’s mother knows that I have occasionally thought of her over the years, but it’s nothing. It’s normal.” he assures.
It’s normal? I have spent almost a year with Oliver and it has never occurred to me to think twice about anybody. Am I devoted because I am a woman, or is it just that I am the devoted type? Just as I convince myself that it is not my feminine conditioning that has left me dependent and vulnerable in the face of the man I love, the timer for the pie that I am cooking his father goes off, and I hurry off into the kitchen in my frilly apron to take it out of the oven.
We sit in the courtyard and eat, while the stone lion spurts water out of its perfectly round mouth and mosquitos bite our ankles.
“You know, you can forgive your father.”
“I said, you can forgive your father. It helped me.”
I sit quietly for a moment, watching a winged cockroach saunter through the open door.
“I didn’t know I needed to,” I say, and I wonder if he is right.
I say goodbye for the first of three times. It’s all very Persian. We kiss and hug, and then accidentally start another conversation. Oliver is already waiting for me at the front door, backpack on and book in hand. He is tired and eager to go home. We slowly walk to the door, continuing the fresh conversation, and stop once again to say our goodbyes. As I finish this round, and Oliver has his hand on the doorknob, I remember that I haven’t said goodbye to the animals.
Lou is first, and I give him a scratch as he nuzzles his head into my neck and then stand up to find one of the cats.
Seja, the little grey cat, is what my dad used to think I was - cold and unaffectionate. Like me, she has her moments. At night she jumps onto my chest and purrs like a motorboat.
I save Spice, the fat ginger cat, until last, and he starts purring before I have the chance to touch him. Satisfied, I head out the front door.
Oliver is chatting to my parents but looks exasperated as I walk out. I shrug a sorry at him and start my third goodbyes.
“What kind of hug is that? Harder! That was the worst hug ever!” I pull back and look at Baba and we both giggle. He does his usual hug, but I don’t let it go this time. We go in and try again, this time he hugs me tight.
“Dooset daram,” I say while we are still hugging.
“I love you, too,” he says and his eyes crinkle at the edges.
We say our last goodbye and the ritual is complete. Mum shakes her head and clicks her tongue.
“So Persian,” she smirks.
Much of my story is about linking the cultural values of my father with the cultural values of the place that I grew up in (Perth). Summer in Tehran, Iran and Perth, Australia are extremely similar. This element features as an important cultural link in my coming-of-age story. I have been influenced by feminist writers like Chris Kraus and Susan Maushart, and wish to challenge the status quo of masculine canonical literature, even if it is in some small stylistic way.