SHORT STORY CONTEST
by Katy Motiey
Tehran, Iran — January 1979
In the evening, Vida turned the key to lock the door to her home, not knowing when, or if, she would return. She examined her oversized leather wallet, checking to make sure the maroon passports, green cards and traveler’s checks were all in the right places.
Roya, her ten-year-old daughter, sat in the backseat of the taxi bundled up in her purple winter coat, earmuffs and wool gloves. The night before, Vida had told her they would leave Iran for a short period of time to join her fourteen-year-old son who was going to boarding school in Germany. Roya had cried and said she would miss her school friends. Now, the little girl cradled the soft, mustard yellow Samsonite carry-on as if she were holding on to the Mrs. Beasley doll she had given away the year before. The bag had belonged to Vida’s late husband. Settling into the car, Vida scooped up the bottom of her camel-colored coat. Two pieces of luggage were already stashed in the trunk.
“Go ahead,” she told the driver.
He drove fast through the Tehran streets toward Kennedy Square to Maman’s house. Although Vida often left her children with her mother, she avoided spending time there—too many old wounds. But on this last night she had no choice. Her mother’s apartment was closest to the airport—easy access for an early morning flight.
The noise of the city was dying down as the sky darkened. The curfew was about to drape over the city like the black veil women wore at burials. People hurried back to their homes. When the night curfew began, the number of soldiers on the city streets would increase. They hunted down violators, but strangely, didn’t know what to do with them.
During the drive, Vida did not notice the soldiers on the road. She gazed out the window, staring at her reflection, wondering how long she would be out of the country. Would she leave both her children in boarding school and come back to her job in Iran? Roya was too young to be left there. Would she fly them to New York to stay with her friend? But New York was too far away. Would she just leave her entire life behind, the one she had built as a single mother over the last eight years, and not come back at all?
In November and December, civil unrest had metastasized throughout Tehran. Bomb threats became regular sport for anti-government protesters. There were anti-Shah demonstrations, anti-America demonstrations, and demonstrations just to demonstrate. Graffiti spread across walls like vines, words like “Death to the Shah…Down with Carter…Death to America.” Oil refineries went on strike to show discontent with government policies. The airport was shut down once, and Vida heard it could happen again. Local banks considered disallowing the transfer of funds to foreign banks. She worried that if all that happened she would be stuck in Iran with her son in Germany.
The taxi driver pulled up in front of Maman’s apartment. It was close to 8 p.m., and the curfew was about to begin. Maman ran out wrapped in a long, brown, cardigan sweater with a silk scarf around her neck. The older woman was petite like her granddaughter.
“You’re late,” she whispered to Vida, nervously glancing up and down the street. “We have to get out of the street. Come on, hurry up.” She grabbed at one of the suitcases the driver was unloading.
“Maman, calm down,” Vida barked. “They’re not after us.”
The older woman’s glare toward Vida lingered, her eyes shrinking. She turned to Roya. “What’s taking you so long? Come on. Get in the house.”
Vida clenched her fists but didn’t say anything. She didn’t like Maman yelling at her daughter, bossing her around. It reminded her of when she was little and Maman would reprimand her on those few weekend days she took Vida for a stroll in the marketplace. Maman had no right to parent Vida then. And what right did she have now to raise her voice at Roya? And yet, Vida knew better than to argue out in the street during a time like this.
The three hurried up to the second floor apartment, dragging the luggage behind them. Vida lined up the bags outside the front door.
“Just leave them there,” Maman said. “You’re taking off in a few hours.”
“I am leaving them,” Vida protested. “I want to make sure they’re out of the way.” She maneuvered each piece so that the corners of the luggage touched and were perfectly even.
The electricity went out just when Maman pulled open the sliding glass door to the apartment. The power had been going out every night when the curfew began, the government’s way of controlling the masses. Maman took a matchbox out of her cardigan pocket. She bunched up the loose part of her sweater in one hand to keep it out of the way, and then slowly walked around the house, lighting tens of candles.
When she was done the apartment resembled a shrine. There was such a glow Vida barely noticed the electricity had gone out. Why didn’t she think to use more candles in her own apartment during the recent blackouts?
Vida hung her coat in the hall closet, hurried to the wall-mounted phone in the kitchen to call her son one last time before departing the next morning. “Hi…yes…flight 928…leaves at 8 a.m.…okay…see you then.”
“Is everything alright?” Maman asked, placing plates and utensils on the round kitchen table for the early breakfast the next morning.
Vida did not respond.
Maman continued setting the table and glanced up at Vida. “How are his grades?”
“He’s fine,” Vida said in a loud, angry tone.
Maman had three glass mugs in her hand, and as she was setting them on the table one slipped and crashed onto the floor.
“Ey vay,” Vida said. Startled, she bent down and started to gather the pieces.
“Go out, out. I’ll clean it up.” Maman shooed Vida out of the kitchen.
“Maman. I can help.” Vida felt guilty for having raised her voice. She stood with a broken piece of glass between her fingers.
Maman gathered the straw brush and dustpan leaning on the side of the refrigerator to sweep up the smallest bits of shattered glass. “Just leave it,” she mumbled. “Last thing I need is for you to cut yourself.”
“Why are you always telling me what to do?” Vida yelled. She flung the piece of glass to the ground.
Maman took a deep breath, hurled the dustpan down and walked out of the kitchen.
Just then Roya walked in.
“Roya Joon, there’s broken glass,” said Vida. “Go to the other room please.”
“But Mom, I’m hungry,” the ten-year-old complained.
“You’ll have to wait.” Vida gritted her teeth. She swept until the fragments were all gone.
Maman marched back to the kitchen. She tried to make eye contact with her daughter, but Vida intentionally looked the other way. The tension between them was high like it was between the demonstrators and the military in the streets, like it had been after Maman divorced Vida’s father and left the house, and the young Vida was forced to lean on her stepmother—a time when Vida had been ashamed to call Maman a mother.
In the kitchen the three of them stood. Three generations of women. The two older ones filled with years of pent-up frustration, the youngest one, probably feeling the tension, not old enough to comprehend the complexities of a mother-daughter relationship.
Maman poured Roya a half glass of chocolate milk and filled the rest with white milk. The little girl inserted a straw into the glass and drank looking down, watching the milk disappear. Maman and Vida sat on the edges of their seats, leaning on their chins, watching the girl.
When Roya was done Maman took the glass, filled it with some tap water and placed it in the sink. She kissed her granddaughter on the cheek. “Go on, go to sleep. You have an early morning tomorrow.” She patted the little girl on the back.
Vida and Roya shuffled toward the guestroom, Maman behind them.
“I put two extra blankets in the corner in case it gets really cold,” Maman announced.
Vida stood in the doorway to the guestroom. “The driver will be back at 6:00 am. That should give us plenty of time to get to the airport for the flight.”
“Okay,” Maman said.
Vida was about to shut the bedroom door when Maman put her hand out to stop her. “Vida, come in the living room for a minute.”
“What is it?” Vida said, not wanting to come out of the bedroom.
“I need to talk to you.”
“Oh okay…just a minute. Roya, get in bed. I’ll be right back.”
Maman sat on the edge of the couch, her hands on her knees.
Vida stood looking down at her mother. “You have the keys to the apartment. And I gave you the phone numbers for the school in Munich and for New York.”
“Yes.” Maman nodded, bunching the cardigan between her fingers.
“And the plants, you’ll water them once a week?”
Gazing up at nothing in particular, Vida said, “And you have the bank account information?”
“Didn’t we discuss all of this over the phone last week?” Maman said impatiently.
“Then what is it?” Vida whispered settling onto the couch.
Maman looked down at her interlaced fingers. “I know you’re angry with me.”
Vida looked at her mother, not knowing what to say. She crossed her arms. “I am not.”
“I know you’ve been upset for a long time. I don’t blame you.”
They had never had this kind of conversation.
“I have a lot on my mind,” Vida said. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper earlier.” She crossed her arms. It wasn’t the right time to get into this; it never had been.
“I don’t mean now. I mean…” Maman was choking on her words. “I left you when I divorced your father. I was a lot younger then than you are now. Maybe it wasn’t the right thing for me to leave him. But I couldn’t live with him anymore—an old-fashioned man twenty-five years my senior. Iran was different then. A divorced mother had no legal rights to her children. You know that. If I could have I would have taken you with me.”
Vida continued staring at her mother, wondering why she was revealing all of this now. She felt a lump form in her throat.
“Look, we don’t have to get into this. I just wanted to say…Whatever you do, don’t leave the kids. If you have to stay with them do it. It’s just not worth coming back. They need you. Don’t make my mistake.” Maman bowed her head down.
Vida scanned the living room. Now she couldn’t make eye contact with her mother. She fixed her eyes on the ornate coffee table with the small antique dishes, one of them filled with pink and white candy-coated almonds. When Vida was little, after the divorce, her stepmother would push her tiny hands away from the candy dish in their living room, telling the little girl it was for the mehmoon, guests who could arrive unannounced. Now Vida reached for the candy dish and lifted one of the white ones. She rolled it between her thumb and her index finger. Then she placed the almond on the edge of the table, watching it wobble until it stopped moving. She nodded at her mother and headed toward the guestroom.
Vida turned around. She noticed a black and white photo of herself and Maman on the side table. She was wearing a furry winter coat and holding Maman’s hand. Her head reached her mother’s elbow.
“I’m sorry I didn’t stay with you,” Maman said, tearfully gazing into her daughter’s eyes.
“I understand,” Vida said, hesitating to end the conversation.
Vida couldn’t sleep that night. She kept running through her mental checklist—what she had packed, what she may have forgotten. She replayed the conversation with Maman in her head. All she really needed were the passports, the green cards in case they ended up in the US, and the traveler’s checks.
At 5:00 a.m. Maman knocked on the bedroom door and softly opened it. The scent of Darjeeling tea with a hint of cardamom snuck into the room. It had been hovering over the breakfast table above warm barbari bread, butter, bulgur cheese and homemade albaloo, sour cherry jam.
Vida nervously folded the pajamas, making the beds. She put her liquid eye makeup remover into a small plastic bag and tied the ends in a knot. Through the doorway she could see her mother and Roya. Her daughter methodically cut bread and smothered it with butter, topping it off with drops of Maman’s albaloo jam, the little girl’s favorite. Maman stared at the floor, sipping her tea with the traditional chunk of sugar cube in the corner of her mouth.
Few words were exchanged.
At 6:00 a.m. the driver arrived. He rushed upstairs and leaned into the entryway of the apartment to announce his arrival. Maman stood by the glass door.
“Hurry up,” she yelled into the apartment.
The driver took the luggage downstairs and the others followed. In front of the building Vida and Roya stood on the front doorsteps, bundled up in their coats. It was still dark, the air felt crisp and cool. The driver slammed the trunk. No turning back now, Vida thought.
Maman was right behind her. After an awkward second, and without looking her mother in the eyes, Vida reached for her and they hugged tightly. Tears streamed down their faces. At first, not a peep, but as they held each other tightly they both began to whimper into a crescendo. This wasn’t the kind of hug Vida gave her mother at the end of a relative’s dinner party, or after Roya blew out the candles on a birthday cake. This was the kind of hug that rose to the surface after years and years of built up emotion.
Vida whispered in her mother’s ear. “I’m not going to leave them. Don’t worry.”
Maman nodded and the two backed away as they wiped their tears.
The older woman reached for her granddaughter. “Take care of Mommy.” Her voice cracked as she cradled Roya’s face in her hands.
Vida and Roya got into the backseat of the taxi.
“Go ahead,” Vida told the driver.
Katy Motiey is a corporate attorney in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was born in Iran and immigrated to the U.S. with her mother and brother at the end of 1978. “Broken Glass” is a chapter in her true-life novel, Imperfect.