The Pinch Dina Nayeri ( short story)

Started by NiveRoshni, Aug 06, 2020, 11:33 PM

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Parvin and Suraya rented a small but comfortable Niagara Falls cottage kissing the American border, just as their older sister Goli had instructed. Their father, Baba Ardeshir, had managed only a Canadian visa, so he wouldn't be able to cross over to see their homes in Pompano Beach and rural Georgia. Instead, he would stay in Toronto with Goli, self-appointed matriarch since that 1972 day when their mother vanished into Holland or Germany, leaving Baba Ardeshir alone with four teenagers in Tehran-this was years before the Revolution, so Maman's departure was no spectacle: no midnight Jeep ride into Turkey, no crossing borders under utility blankets. This was curled hair, the good suitcases, in-flight meal. (Just run-of-the-mill, ordinary abandonment, Suri said. Be kind, Pari begged her sister.)

"Maybe we can get a photo of all of us," Babak suggested. The last time all four had appeared in a photo with Baba Ardeshir had been as young children. In black and white, their parents looked hardly out of their twenties. Every detail was professionally arranged, all six smiling obediently, except one: in the left side of the photo, Goli's fingers on Suri's forearm, her fingers closing together in a secret pinch. Over the years, the photo had become Amirzadeh family legend. They had all seen it once or twice, but despite attic searches and calls to Iran, no one could find a copy.

Now their plan was this: Baba Ardeshir would spend a week in Canada with Goli, then he would relocate to the rented cottage for two days to visit with his son and other daughters, then return to Goli's house for his second week. Likely that's what their father wanted all along, to sit at his favorite daughter's table, to be a guest in her comfortable Iranian home. Who wants to trudge among lettuce leaves on Pari's organic farm or putter around in flip-flops with Suri's geriatric patients when you can drink cardamom tea all day in a respectable house that might as well be in Tehran or Karaj? Goli had kept every item in her home pretty much like the day she married. (Even the floor plan is the same, isn't it? Pari marveled. You'd think she'd airlifted it from Tehran and wedged it on whatever faculty street she thought was fanciest, Suri sniped. And whitest, she added, because Pari had begun to cringe.)

Goli worked at the University of Toronto, where she was, according to RateMyProfessor, the least-liked faculty member in the engineering department.

Shortly after arriving in the West in 1987, Goli started calling herself Flora. It meant "flower" and therefore, she informed her sisters in a tone that stamped out all argument, was an honest translation of her name and everyone must respect it. Nowadays she encouraged her students to use the name too, though she scoffed at the suggestion that maybe she had been looking at RateMyProfessor. "We had no time for this silliness when I was a post-doc." But the day her profile was anonymously updated to include a parenthetical (aka Prof. Flora), she spoke in curt monosyllables, then telephoned her brother Babak in New Jersey, who took her calls without fail, for his weekly berating on his future, their father's mayoral legacy, and the dignity of the Amirzadeh name, which (until now) had signified nothing less than quality and excellence. Knowing that Goli called Babak on Monday afternoons, Suri and Pari took turns keeping his phone line busy, to spare their guileless brother the weekly humiliation. But they had lives too, and Goli sometimes got through.

Once, almost twenty years ago, Suri, the more outspoken one and a doctor, had tried to explain to her sister about Babak's place on a spectrum of emotional understanding, a way of looking at the world that no one had bothered to consider when they were young. But Goli had interrupted her. "Oh these excuses," she'd said; "ADD, Asperger, dyslexia, what else? Stop selling mediocrity in the shape of a quirk. The Amirzadehs are sharp to the last tack." She was panting by this time. She'd swallowed hard, muttered, "We've had a few lazy ones, though," and hung up.

For four weeks Suri hadn't spoken to Goli. She saw her patients, swam her miles at the community pool, walked along the beach in Fort Lauderdale, and avoided her phone. On Monday afternoons, she'd made sure to keep Babak busy from the moment Goli's last class ended until dinnertime, so that her sister had no outlet for her anger. She deleted every voicemail from Canada after the first second. The last one was just a huff, followed by a nasal gasp "Incroyable!" then a hard click-when people disrespected her, Goli liked to remind them that she had studied French in her private Tehrani high school, a lifetime ago. Suri snorted at the dead line, then called Pari to play the message to her for a laugh.

For a while after that, Suri would call Pari and Babak's voicemails, leaving the Incroyable recording here and there like Easter eggs, until one day Pari decided the joke had gone on long enough. In the Amirzadeh family, people didn't apologize; they sent casual gifts or asked for favors, thus humbling themselves. So wise, peaceful Pari, the one who spent her days wading in dirt, yanking out turnips, squeezing tomatoes and olive oil onto artisanal breads, sent Goli a crate of winter vegetables on Suri's behalf. This way, Goli could pretend that Suri had apologized, and Suri could smile and go along, having saved face because absolutely everyone knew that Pari was the only Amirzadeh who had ever packed a crate of squash.

Over the years, it became easier and easier to set off Goli, to cause a break in sisterly relations. After her husband died, her silences swelled and grew heavier, dragging from weeks into months-she spared no one. Pari packed her trunk with vegetables and basmati, jumped into her car and drove to Toronto. She cooked barberry rice, saffron pudding, and herb lamb for Goli every day. She sat with her sister each morning, and put her to bed every evening, and they talked about pesticides and the benefits of lime for the skin. They looked up photos of lavender fields in Provence. Goli clung to her sister. "Nothing's in its place anymore, Pari joon."

When Pari returned home to Georgia, Goli felt betrayed, but she settled into her new life; somehow she fell into place. She was herself but her rages and kindnesses, like the lines below her cheeks, grew deeper. She was an eroded ravine, a sine curve with an increasing coefficient. She checked on Babak, sent him money. If he caught a cold, she drove to New Jersey. She made soup with sour grapes she had picked herself. She gave his son, Darius, who was showing signs of exceptional intelligence, long lectures about his duty, the Amirzadeh name-he was the only one of his generation who bore it, not even Kayvan, Goli's own son, had that. Between life lessons, she told him stories of his grandmother in Holland or Germany. ("You would love her, she's a ball of fire. She should never have left Baba Ardeshir, of course.") On one such visit, she found that Babak had hired a nanny, the eighty-year-old Iranian grandmother of a drycleaner in Metuchen he had found on some Iranian online community. That night she called Suri, who conferenced in Pari on her office phone, and the sisters laughed for hours. "Every night at 6 p.m., poor Babak has to rush home from work, feed the nanny, put the nanny to bed, and then do the same thing for Darius. And he pays her twelve dollars an hour." "You're lying!" Suri said, through giggles. "He needs a woman," said Pari, and they all howled with laughter.

During those years, the timid trudge into middle age, Goli tossed between gentleness and wrath. She poured her energy into teaching and research. There was a rumor of a final love affair that cemented her bitterness. In the sixties, Goli had been the most beautiful one-thick eyebrows, sharp cheekbones, eyes so black they made idiots of men and their mothers. One day, in a fit of nostalgia, Goli decided to send Baba Ardeshir a package. Every day she sent a message to her four siblings-an email conversation that went back to the dawn of the Internet ("Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: allooo, this is Suuuuuriiiii!")-describing another item she had found for the package. Or rather, she didn't describe the items but the process of finding them: a rainy walk through an outdoor market, scouring used books on a history of Iran under Mosadegh, a box of homemade fruit leather dried in her own yard, a petition to the mayor of Toronto to write a single respectful line on a notecard to Baba Ardeshir, who was, Goli insisted during her twenty or so visits to City Hall, a fellow mayor.

Suri pointed out (in a second, separate email chain that she shared with Babak and Pari, subject line: "NoFlo") that maybe the act of finding each item, of perfecting it, was part of Goli's present to their father. The others agreed. They let Goli carry on. When she asked for a current photo of her siblings, Pari drove to New Jersey and took one on the Princeton University campus with Babak and Darius, who was now a sophomore there and studying (against all advice) poetry. They stood in front of a sculpture called Oval with Points. Only Darius wore jeans ("Fuck that woman and her instructions. I'm missing a nacho Study Break for this," he said to Pari, who smacked his arm ever so gently). Suri sent a photo of herself in her clinic. She wore her lab coat, as Goli had instructed, to remind her father she was a doctor.

Days later, after receiving the photos, Goli reprimanded Pari for dyeing her hair peppercorn red. Pari, who had been the only one to drive out of state for this errand, ignored the message. Without asking for her sister's permission, Goli altered the photo, changing Pari's hair to a black so stark it made her sickly pale. Some weeks later, Baba Ardeshir called from Tehran, asking again and again after his youngest child. "Why is little Pari wearing a wig? Is it her hair? Is it something bad?" Finally Suri got on the phone to Iran and cursed Goli for an hour until Baba Ardeshir snapped. "Enough now! If not for my gifted Goli, we would all be lost."

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