Mr. A’s Bittersweet Release

A mass, blue and gray, rushed to the center of the quad. It was a yard designed to keep them safe. Cartoon-painted walls, a corroded fence, and a yellow brick building towered above them all, watching, alongside those boys, the flailing hands of some feeble figure at war only with its own face.

Just as this figure’s left hand approached the skin of his pimpled left cheek, the right was already on the wing, rushing to pound, with a fist full of fear and wrath, his right temple. Each limb moved in sync, one after another.

It was almost a stunning sight: the human body running so fluidly, fist following fist, the skull pulsating to the left and then to the right in unwavering motions.

Except for the rhythm of the boy’s smacks, which struck only his own head and face, everything else was hushed. Then a wail was heard – a screech, exquisite, piercing the shock of that crowd of blue silhouettes. Heels fixed to the soles of their shoes fixed to the ground, they stood in awe of the boy’s writhing body.

When that shriek finally reached their ears, when they finally caught sight of the face that howled such cries for compassion, their open mouths morphed into gun-shy smiles. And then they laughed, bawling, beaming, dumbfounded.

And the boy’s self-destruction swelled in accompaniment to the out of tune laughter. As if rebelling against their howls, the boy’s hands reddened and bulged more and more, blighting his threadbare skin with swift, escalating thrashes.

He shrieked again, and once more, they answered back with even louder laughter.

All they could muster in such a situation was that nervous kind of laugh. They did not love him enough to stop him – the spoiled, pomaded child who gave nothing and took nothing. They did not know whether he was kind or unkind, hospitable or vain. They only knew that he was vulnerable, possessing a peculiar temper that peaked with him thrashing himself in defiance of the world that taunted him.

By then, they were just dallying around the boy so as to see what more could arise from his madness, past the flurry of slaps and bellows. They had also stayed because they felt it awkward to retire from a scene that they had invested in with such elation. Like spectators uncertain about the quality of an unwrapped performance, they waited for more. Too young to accept life as one without climax and culmination, they hoped that their boredom could soon be assuaged with more feverishness.
 

A voice clamored from above their heads, and all except for the boy turned and looked upwards. It coughed, swallowed back the scum lodged inside its throat, and resolved to recapture its graveness with an even heavier pitch.

“What is happening?” it roared, with the speaker’s lips audibly brushing itself against the grating of the microphone.

“Break it up! Break it up!” it commanded as its eyes scanned from behind a shielded window overhead.

The boys disbanded, leaving behind a solitary blue that knelt and shivered at the center of the ashen courtyard. His head was bent onto his fallen knees and his little palms were moist from tears and slime.

“Bring him up!” the voice ordered. An ailing cough then followed, only to be cloaked by the thwack of a paw prodding against the microphone.

“Bring him up!” it said again, this time in a pitch that was delicate and appropriate to its age, having given up its yearning for virility.

At the sound of that command, the boys turned kind, wordlessly gazing amongst themselves.

Two boys stepped forward to the center of that blue, sniveling, and empty space. Picking him up, they carried the boy from underneath his shoulders. The boy was too beaten to even protest, consoled by the warmth of human hands cradling his waste. After the war that he had set off against himself, he was just grateful for their touch.

He complied by moving his legs in sync with their slow attentive steps. The one to his left murmured something into his ears and the boy smiled a sugary, tear-eyed smile, but the tear did not leave his cheek, and all three stepped forward arm-in-arm. So precious was that moment that the boy’s muzzle briefly lifted, revealing the red palm-shaped imprints on his cheeks. Too ashamed to open his eyes fully, he peered through the path, detecting only the marble stairway that he was to ascend with the help of his temporary friends.

Cautiously, the two boys sat him in a dark room, seating themselves beside him on a row of wooden chairs.

“Ask him if he wants any water,” the boy to his left asked the one to his right, before recognizing his own ability to carry out the task.

“Do you want any water?” the left one finally asked.

An indistinct nod turned into a shake and then into a nod again.

“I’ll get it,” the one to his right exclaimed with resignation, his voice ringing through the empty room and the stony, vacant hall outside.

He withdrew his hand from the boy’s shoulder and raised himself from the wooden chair. His soundless sigh once again pricked the silence.

All of a sudden, an arched outline of a person stopped him at the doorway. The boy stepped aside, letting the new arrival, quite a diminutive figure, walk inside.

The new arrival’s disposition gave off the impression of one too spent and unwell to tend to a mangled boy. Even his heavy breathing strained the quiet of the shaded interior. And yet, he belonged there. His presence brought life to the room. It had already.

In a slight voice, the man drove the two boys away without praising their forced fraternity. Perhaps, so as to suffuse the room with some semblance of calm, he moved as though the boy who had been carried into his office did not exist. His arms slumped and quivering, he walked behind the desk, opened a drawer, and closed it again as if he had forgotten the purpose of his action halfway. He sat down on his chair, and then, almost immediately, the old man heaved himself out of the chair, walking past the boy to slink his neck out towards the hallway.

“Hassan agha?” he called out, unembarrassed by his wizened voice.

“Hassan agha?” he called again.

Another voice leapt in retort, also grizzled and past its prime.

“Yes?”

“Where did all the lights go?” the old man asked.

The response did not reach the room.

“What did you say?”

“They’re out,” a rustle spoke back.

“Since when?” he inquired again, his neck still bent out onto the dim hallway, half his body dissolved by the blackness of the unlit room.

Again, there was no intelligible answer.

“Hassan agha, I can’t hear you!” he hollered. “Don’t forget” – a cough – “I’m getting old!” the old man simpered.

With heavy footsteps, Hassan agha ambled towards him so that the two could quietly argue between themselves, though the argument was far from quiet. Even in conversation, the tiny man’s figure remained firm in its uncomfortable position, between an empty dark room and the dim, deserted hallway.

Their conversation ending with another half-hearted chortle and a friendly smack on the back, the old man’s frame soon slithered back into the room, the harmony in his temperament disrupted by the bow of his spine.

“It seems that we have no electricity,” he whispered good-naturedly, as if to himself, as if that humbled boy had faded into oblivion alongside his dried-up wounds in that dark corner of the room.

The old man paced the few steps back towards his desk and sat. His undersized weight could not have disrupted the hush of the room even if it had willed it.

Sounds of crumpled paper dinned as he smeared his palms against the worktable, in search of what seemed in that black room like the empty white of eyes. He then placed the unsteady, dancing whites on the bridge of his nose, and peered across the room.

“Look up,” he ordered, feebly.

The boy reacted only by amplifying the sound of his muffled bleats.

“My boy, look up,” he said again.

The boy looked up. Visible, even in the darkness, were the scarlet imprints on his face, moistened by wilting tears.

Exhausted eyes materialized from amidst his fingers and then trembled like restless beads. The sight of those two droplets strained the old man’s heart, and he felt his heart leap and plummet all in one instance.

He felt pity for the boy, but did not understand why any youth, so inexperienced and pure, could ever even think to pummel himself with such hatred.

Before he had entered the room, they had already told him of the incident. He had also heard the students bay about it with the elation of bystanders. The excitement of bystanders, however, was because they were separated from the objects of their elation; they would not have howled with astonished delight had it been their loved one who was stricken by an unwary truck or knifed in some unfortunate alley. These kids – they knew this boy: they had seen him laugh and cry, they had borrowed money from him, said hello to him during morning assemblies, they had laughed with him in class and had seen him off at the first ringing of the final bell. How could they hoot and howl with rapture about the pain of their little friend? Why weren’t they, instead, crying alongside the boy?

He tried to remember how he had been at their age, trying to recall any event resembling the one that had presented itself today, wondering how he would have reacted then. With a sigh, he recognized that he would have done the same. Youth was not exposed to the responsibilities imposed upon the mature; they did not know of forbearance and loyalty, and only dawdled to wherever they chose to dawdle to, to wherever appeared more interesting, more thrilling, and less strenuous and strange. Love, to them, was not at all the love grasped in older age. Duty and commitment meant nothing. They only strived for happiness. Happiness, to the old man, seemed like too egotistical a pursuit. There was more to life than happiness, he dwelled, but his thoughts did not take him any further.

He was so small and so frigid – the boy. He hadn’t moved since being carried into his room, his back crouched toward his knees, with his shoulders sitting straight as though they were detached from the rest of his body. The bland blue of his uniform was soiled with stains of sweat. They were almost like slight blemishes that revealed the imperfection of an entire soul.

By looking at his obscured face, the old man suddenly remembered the boy’s mother, knocking on the glass door of the building’s back entrance. With a little plastic bag in her hand, she would pound ceaselessly so that it could reach Hassan agha’s heavy ears. Hassan agha would finally walk down the short marble path, and he would open the door and take the bag from the woman.

“It’s my boy’s lunch,” she’d say, pointing to her son’s name written hastily onto a piece of lined paper and torn and placed inside the plastic bag. “Don’t give this to him in front of the rest of them. They’ll take it,” she would then instruct, fluttering her arms underneath her shawl to find her pockets and to extract a tip for the doorman. She would then turn away and walk up the steep stairway of the back courtyard, as her overcoat wafted nicely against the wind, taking her worried, confident steps back to the life of which they knew nothing.

Every day, she would arrive at exactly eleven-thirty to bring her son his food, and every day she would hand Hassan agha a hefty tip, and every day Hassan agha would forget to heed the mother’s instructions. At the first ringing of the bell, as the boys scampered downward from the marble stairs, carrying with them the whiff of unwashed bodies and the animated disharmony caused by their fleeting liberation, he would stand at the foot of the stairs, waving the tiny sandwich with an outstretched arm and shouting the boy’s name. Finally, the boy would appear, looking no different from the rest of the toneless boys, brandishing either a smile or frown, together with the brailed boils that peeked out despite his well-groomed face.

“Your mother brought you lunch,” Hassan agha would then shout into the boy’s face, not to deride him, but by dint of his own deaf ears. The boy’s face would redden each time. Laying hold of the bag, he’d feel an impulse to yell at the old man for his cruelty, but he would soon collect himself, and hiding the food underneath his shirt, he’d sneak outside, briefly pleased by the arrival of his sustenance. And then the vultures would circle around him, picking and pulling the expensive bread to pieces, leaving the boy with only his mother’s tinfoil.

Had this been a repercussion of such innocent events? wondered the old man, staring at the creature across from him, looking for the words to both soothe and reprimand. It couldn’t have been, he decided. Something else must have caused the boy to act out – something deeper, something harsher than the commonplace bully.

“What have you done to yourself?” he asked, drawing out his question and struggling to sustain the authority in his voice.

The whimpers that came as a response did not at all discourage the old man. The boy simply did not know how to break free from the twine of his own tears, and the old man understood this. After his spectacle of angst and self-mutilation, he was incapable of slipping out of one role in order to pass into another.

The old man also recognized that such outbreaks of fury and self-pity were often followed by debilitating guilt. In order to speak to him, the man knew that he first had to help the boy break away from the shame he felt. The old man also had to distract the boy from his intrinsic commitment to maintain a long-gone temperament of despondency.

He searched for words but could not find any that suited his intention. Instead, he played at rummaging through his table.

In darkness and in the blur of grizzled age, it proved difficult to fish around quietly and unsuspectingly. Bedlam soon relieved the unlit room of its quietude. Papers crinkling, pens falling and thrashing to the ground and metal drawers opening and shutting in confusion shocked the once soundless room, bringing with it both chaos and calm. Noise had cooled the tension, and the old man almost wanted to laugh at the mayhem he had stimulated. He did, but to no avail.

So swiftly had the boy consumed all the energy from that tiny room, without a sound and no longer even a whimper. His head perched coolly onto his knees and with what seemed like closed eyes, he only breathed in fluctuating intervals. The oxygen would enter his body and linger there for some long seconds before he released it again. It was as if he was punishing his own body by not allowing it its natural process, as though he was reflexively learning how to suffocate.

Their time was spent in a strained kind of quietude. The old man was weary and a little ashamed that he had not found a way to ease the boy’s frenzy, that he had not been the mentor that he was expected to be. He was merely playing the role of a perplexed friend: mutely sitting beside the victim and hoping that he would heal, afraid to even approach him. He looked at the clock to make sure that time was still in motion, but only ten minutes had passed. It had felt like at least an hour had been spent between the two, which would have meant that he would have been relieved of his unpleasant duty much sooner with the ringing of the last bell. Ten measly minutes was all that he had mustered. He looked at the clock again to make sure, trying to couple the clock’s slow pace with the absent electricity. He hoped that the clock had simply stopped working, and that an hour had actually passed.

But the clock was running on the batteries he had fed it only a day ago. It was a tedious-looking clock, not at all exuding any personality or charm. It functioned only as it was meant to. He had never personalized it, and had never even thought of it until now, until the moment that time had finally crept underneath his skin. He wondered how he could humanize that little mechanism. He wondered all there was to wonder, everything and anything, so long as he didn’t have to think about the invisible boy sitting in his room, lifeless and stationary.

He should replace the clock with a more personable one, he thought. Perhaps, time would gallop at a much quicker pace with a prettier clock.

Then suddenly, the lights turned on.

A brisk sizzle ushered in the light, and from far away, the old man heard clapping, whistling and hollering from the adjacent classrooms. He grinned at how predictable these children were and how well he had come to known them after all these years. He grinned at the spectacular gleam of light that suddenly burgeoned before his eyes. It had given him the fleeting impression that his room was more appealing than it actually was. He grinned at the mess he had made at his desk, with his papers mangled and maimed.

But it did not take long for his grin to turn gray at the sight of the boy he had forgotten. Now he could see the bruises on his face more clearly, he could see that the sweat on his body was not as translucent as he thought it was, but crimson, sad. There were claw marks on the boy’s cheeks. Continually trailing the marks downwards was a rivulet of red and sweat, waiting for the appropriate time to freeze and stiffen and scar.

What would the mother think if she saw him the way he was? She had sent her dear boy to be educated in the outside world, to learn of humanity the way one can’t learn when wrapped inside a bubble of warmth and contentment. Perhaps, the old man considered, some people should not at all leave that bubble. Only common belief claims that one must leave his home to learn of life, but why must he learn about life and living to begin with? What is there in the outside world that deserves such scrutiny and such merit? If one is happy, it is a crime to strip them of that happiness, no matter how artificial, how sheltered, how deluded it may be – to strip a boy of a love he’s known for all his life to merely teach him about a world that he never willfully picked to see.

But the old man understood that he was going too far. He couldn’t utter a word of these thoughts to the boy, not as counsel, not even as the friend he was pretending to be. For a few brief seconds he considered whether or not he should start saying his thoughts out loud until the boy reacted, but that would be too unkind and self-absorbed. Why teach cynicism, especially in a setting like this? He will learn mistrust by himself, by the life that he has been hurled into. There was no need to spell it out, especially not to a wounded child such as him. It wasn’t his function. He did not dare.

“What do you want, my boy?” he suddenly asked to silence.

“What do you want?” he asked again, allowing his voice to splinter, consciously communicating his own vulnerability to the boy.

He heard a mutter.

“What do you want?” he inquired another time, raising his voice, this time adding to his compassion a slight whisper of authority.

Another mumble dribbled from the boy’s covered mouth but did not reach the end of the room.

“Speak louder, my boy. Remember that I can’t hear as well as I used to,” he said with a fragile smile.

He pricked his ears so as to hear if the boy was to mumble again. Instead, the boy hollered, though his voice was unable to keep a steady pitch.

“I don’t want anything,” he bellowed, consuming a big breath of air as he fell back into loud, unrestrained cries.

The old man shuddered and rose from his chair to go and sit beside the boy. When he stood, however, he felt himself fixed to the floor, with his wrists leaning on the cluttered work surface.

He thought over his next move: how to make the boy speak, how to allow him the space to express himself, to wash himself of the mess of scars he had scorned upon himself. He then noticed the plastic box of sweets on the short-legged table in front of the weeping boy. A student had brought it to him only days before, as a bribe or as an apology for something he had done that the old man could no longer remember. He was so used to the disorderliness of these students that he had learned to forget them and their deeds and misdeeds with the passing of each day. They were children, after all, designed to scamper and fight and bully and steal and pay. With his eye fixed on that little box of sweets, he approached the boy, supporting his steps by letting his hands trace the outline of his desk.

Sitting down next to him, he took the box in his hands and opened the honed and narrow plastic lid.

At that moment, he felt his feet dampening, as if he had paced those few paces around the table inside a puddle. He gazed at the clock again and remembered that noon had already passed. He had forgotten his namaz. He tried to remember where he was when they had told him that the boy had hit himself. Yes, he had been washing his hands and feet downstairs at the basin, and his wizened paws were now soaking the shoes crushed underneath his heels. He writhed the toes inside his heavy socks and mouthed a quiet prayer. Deep down, he felt a quiet simmering distaste for the boy who had made him miss his prayer.

“Don’t pray for me,” the boy’s voice struck him.

“It’s not for you,” the old man said, pleased that the boy had spoken. He wanted to say “It is for me,” but decided against it. Suddenly, the thought of the boy becoming mute again scared him, and he let out what he had only moments ago resolved to keep from him.

“Why?” the boy asked, turning to him with a chilling scowl. His fury had charged him with a thirst to argue, and perhaps, with the little power he had, a yearning to mock anything that he could mock. It had also given way to a dulled sense of indifference. And so, he felt himself free to say whatever he wished to say, regardless of its unkindness or tactlessness. It was as if he knew that he could lose nothing more than what he had already lost with his actions, as if he were categorically absolved of punishment from then on. Nobody could punish one who willingly punished himself, after all.

Seeing through the boy’s absence of self-restraint, the old man indulged him.

“I don’t know,” he replied, feigning a smile that turned genuine midway. “It’s soothing.”

“And I’m supposed to do the same thing, aren’t I?” the boy then asked, shaking his head.

He was merely generating words, finding a foil for his sorrows, not really meaning what he was saying or asking, but saying it only to take his fury out on something tangible and within his reach.

At that moment, almost as though his words had stirred some deity’s wrath, the electricity quavered and failed again, dying with an ebbing wail.

From the distance, the old man heard the boys in the faraway classrooms awww with sham displeasure. Whatever sound they made, he knew, was just a means to expel some nervous energy, and to disrupt, in return, the triteness of the lessons that disrupted their every day.

Perhaps it was the sudden darkness that made him panic, or perhaps, however much the old man cared for the boy’s confusion, he, too, was frustrated by the child’s precariousness. He knew that he would be a useless figure if his task was to merely distract this boy through to the ringing of the final bell. He was imprisoned in this room. Time itself and the time that he felt pass contradicted each other. Its slow passage made it impossible for him to escape his responsibility.

“What do you want boy?” he asked, a tinge of resentment running through his voice.

He realized that he had asked that before, and that he himself did not know how he might have answered the very same question. After all, the boy did not want anything. He had already told him that.

The thought, “What do I want?” suddenly took center stage in the old man’s mind. To dispel it, he resolved to hassle the boy with a flurry of questions instead, like darts thrown into the dark: “What are you angry at? Who has wronged you?”

He was hoping one would stick. He wanted the boy to respond with an answer worth his while, something that would make time pass, something that would make him feel the approaching din of bells and children scampering home sooner.

“I don’t know,” the boy said again, his voice muffled through more unintelligible mumbling.

By then, the old man had already grown tired of the boy’s cries and outbreaks, but he knew that his anxiety had not been prompted so much by the child’s hot-bloodedness, but by whatever wicked deity that had made his day dark again.

“What is wrong, boy?” he asked again.

He had deliberately wanted his words to also lay bare his own anger and frustration toward the boy. Even still, he had inadvertently asked his question with a calm and caring tone of voice.

The boy, however, did not respond. And so, he asked again, but this time, making sure to emphasize in his tone his own annoyance.

“I don’t know! I told you!” the boy screamed back at him, at once gawking at him with his cracked and overwhelmed eyes, only to then pull his head away so that he could weep again.

But no matter how hard the boy tried to produce tears, nothing came. His well of tears had dried up, and the anger that he had once felt brimming inside of him was long gone. All that remained was strained, dry sobs sparked for the sake of sound like pathetic pleas for kindness.

And they worked, because they made the old man feel powerless, and suddenly, wholeheartedly sympathetic. He couldn’t hassle him anymore. He couldn’t dare add to the disquiet lurking inside the boy. He had to be kind, but he did not know how. He could not recall.

In his trembling hands, he felt the forgotten box of sweets rattle, and they reminded him of kindness. The glossy wrappers gleamed blue, brown, and yellow, and crackled with the curious graze of the man’s wizened thumb.

Cautiously, he pressed the plastic box through to the boy’s mewling arms.

“Boy,” he called to him. “Boy” – pushing the box into the child’s arm, so as to wake him from his simulated grief.

The forced cries subsided, and though one hand still veiled the boy’s bruised face, the other reached into the box of sweets, and clung to the rotund treat wrapped in yellow. The old man listened as the boy unwrapped the bundle. He heard the candy fall onto the boy’s thirsty tongue and beat against his teeth as it shifted back and forth, swishing to whichever way the boy wished to bob it to.

Anxiety surged inside the old man again: if he could hear every wisp of every moment then time was still not passing.

He turned his head towards the clock, and tried to tell the time from where he sat, but his eyes failed him in the dark. He saw nothing, and without warning, time vanished as swiftly as brightness had only a moment prior. He was alone now, no longer even separated from this needful boy by dint of his slight status of authority.

He could have just stood up and walked back behind his desk, where time and authority would have returned to him. But his legs did not comply. Something was fastening him in his seat. Maybe it was the bond he had forged with the boy through his offering of sweets, or perhaps it was prompted by a much greater need he had felt inside himself. This boy had been no different than all the other boys he had been forced to deal with throughout the years, and yet somehow, the situation seemed different today.

The boy continued to chomp at the one sweet he had nervously set down on his tongue. His chewing had melded with his sniveling, and the boy seemed stuck between two differing realities: one where he had to perform as some beaten, pitiful creature (though the sentiment was long gone and the anguish nicely suppressed) and another, more simplistic reality, comprised merely of enjoying the sweet, standing up, and leaving the room without a goodbye. He did not want to be there any longer. He was fine now, even regretful of the beating he had forced upon himself. All he wanted at this point was to be done with it all, to contain the pity that he had discharged in a moment of vulnerability and humanity.

But he could not merely stand and walk away, and so he sat, preferring to perform than to withdraw, continuing on and waiting, just as the old man was, for time to set him free.

“It’s this city,” the boy suddenly heard the old man say.

Because he was in the midst of his sniffing and sniveling performance, the boy did not look up, but stayed still in his seat so as to let the man know that he was listening. A wisp of guilt came through him. He could just stand up and walk away, but nothing ever worked like that. Conversations, sentiments, even thoughts had to have some sort of tangible ending point to be meaningful.

He also recognized that this kind old man, feeble and helpless by the side of a healed yet wounded creature, needed to tell himself that he had performed his function, that he was indeed the guide he so desperately wanted to be for him.

“No one is to blame here,” the old man continued, not even recognizing the boy’s silent compliance. He was speaking for himself, bringing out sentiments that he had never had the chance to voice until that very moment.

“Somehow, I don’t know how and I wish I did—” and then his words crumbled. Lines dilated his upper lips, and a scowl, as if he were suddenly struck by a distressing thought, came upon his face and refused to disappear. He pushed the box into the boy’s elbow again, and this time, the boy’s loosened hands picked a brown wrapper from among the mound. The sound of unwrapping and unhurried chewing gave the man a moment to collect himself, to settle on particular words, and to prepare his monologue.

“Are they any good?” the man asked in a cold and distracted tone. The boy nodded his head.

Then, the old man picked a candy too, choosing the blue wrapper that the boy had not yet sifted out. His hands shook not from nervousness but from old age, and he steadily took the two ends of the candy in between his two thumbs and fingers and pulled. After a sluggish spin, the candy rolled out on its side. Unlike the boy, the man took slow, timed bites of the piece of candy, not devouring it all at once, and buying time to speak. He looked at the clock again, only to make sure that there would be enough time for him to finish his not-yet instigated speech, but he forgot that he could not see in the dark and especially that far off. His eyes had failed him. Yet, he hoped that his words would be enough to both pass the time and to accomplish a much greater design.

After he bit the last bit of candy dangling from his shrinking thumbs, he was ready.

“It’s this city,” he said again, picking with his tongue the last bits of the soft, viscid candy from between his teeth.

“My boy, this city – it’s diseased,” he finally declared, turning his neck towards the boy, who did not watch, but stayed down to mimic his long-gone grief-stricken posture.

“I have asked myself many times while looking at you boys, howling up and down these stairs, into the classrooms and out – about how many of you will end up staying here, and how many of you will leave. And I beg to God that you will all find a way to leave.”

He thought of placing his hand on the boy’s knees as a grandfatherly gesture but decided against it. Instead, he placed it on his own.

“You’re the progeny of a different period in this country – all of you. I don’t mean to say that things were simpler in our times, not at all. They weren’t, but we had better ways to cope. We had been taught to have more vitality than you, and we were conditioned into thinking that we had more to lose back then. We were given so much more to be ashamed of, to feel guilty for, and it all gave us a firm ground to stand on.”

The boy let out a derisory snicker. The old man paid it no heed. He knew that he was speaking in old-world platitudes, and also recognized that these boys were unfortunately too insightful to heed his truisms, but he carried on no less.

“But you boys, your generation – you are offspring of a conflicted era in this country, full of strife, a place confused, a world without the sham principles we were brought up with. You fear nothing, and respect only what you wish to respect. You choose things as if choice is a God-given right, as if you know exactly what path to take and how. But you don’t know. At your age, they taught us that we knew nothing. They made us believe that our generation didn’t have a choice to live as it wished. There was too much to lose, and too many to disappoint.”

“And now,” he continued after letting out a sigh, “looking at you children, so lawless and free, I realize that they taught us well.”

The old man was veering from his argument, and uncertainty trembled in his last words, as if what he had said was only the product of desperate improvisation – which it was. Recognizing this, he resolved to trace his way back to his initial idea.

“You asked me why I pray just a few minutes ago,” he said. “And the answer is much simpler than you think: I was taught to.”

His last words fluctuated again, and a twinge of guilt settled on his already-guilty heart.

“I am glad I was too. Saying those mere words, whatever they are and whatever they are supposed to imply – the simple idea that I am speaking to something universal and good—” The boy snickered at the man’s words, mocking the old soul into picking his words more carefully.

Inwardly, the old man reviled those juvenile tendencies to ridicule everything for the sake of rebellion, but he said nothing of it. Instead, he glanced over the boy’s shaded features and grasped that the boy was not just rebelling against his god – whatever his god was supposed to be; but, for whatever reason, he had long been holding his god in contempt.

“Is that what bothers you?” the old man asked the boy, removing his palms from his own lap and onto the boy’s shoulder.

The boy did not respond.

“They have ruined it for all of us, my boy,” he then remarked, smiling in sympathy.

“Their god is an imitation,” he then said, producing his words carefully, knowing that the child would understand.

“And yours is real?” the boy abruptly shot back, his face screened by his heavy palms.

“It isn’t, but it’s a kinder god.”

Just then and without notice, another boy knocked on the office door. Both persons seated looked up, relieved that some outside force had interrupted their conversation.

“Mr. Alavi,” the other boy called out in a loud tremor, mechanically persisting with his knocks even though he already had the man’s attention.

“Did you get thrown out again, Shakib?” the old man asked.

The newly arrived boy became defensive. “I didn’t do anything. Mr.—”

“Just go downstairs and wait for the bell to ring,” the old man rejoined, waving the boy away. He may have questioned the guilty boy on a different occasion, but in that moment, he could not be bothered with it.

“You mean—” the boy tried to say.

“Just go downstairs,” the old man said, threatening to stand up and push the boy outside his door. The guilty boy ran off, and the rattling of his shoes against the steps echoed until it faded away.

Finally, after the sound of frantic footsteps wholly dissipated, the old man spoke again.

“Last week that boy smeared a melting ice cream cone on the back of Nazeri’s trousers,” he recalled audibly, clearly amused. “Do you know Nazeri?”

A nod dribbled down from the boy’s bruising face.

“Even he is sending his daughter away,” he said, thankful for the mention of Nazeri, because it allowed him to remember his speech again. “I think he is sending her to Sweden – if all goes well, of course.” He sighed and contemplated taking another candy from the box. He couldn’t unless the boy took another too. He faintly pushed the box into the boy’s elbow again, but the boy did not react. Disappointed, he carried on with his disjointed speech, having long forgotten the monologue he had rehearsed.

“The man has no money,” he continued. “He is locked up here like the rest of us. There is no work for us old geezers. We are not qualified for university jobs or any other job but this.” He gave out an odd, wistful smile, but the boy did not see it, still hiding underneath his sweaty palms.

“Cheezari,” he then recalled. “Do you know Cheezari? The sociology teacher. He doesn’t teach your class. You’re with Mr. Shirazian, if I’m correct.”

Then he doubted himself.

“You’re not with Cheezari, are you?”

The boy’s head swiveled upwards, pondered, and shook. The old man went on.

“Anyhow, Cheezari – don’t tell this to anybody please, but—” the old man was reluctant to reveal the teacher’s secret, but he had no choice. He felt like he had to risk the teacher’s repute to achieve his aim, to be the mentor that he wished to be for the boy. Or perhaps, he just needed to tell someone.

“He drives people around after work. He isn’t a chauffeur, but he takes his car, that rundown thing, and drives around in a circle somewhere in this city, far from this school, and makes the rest of his money from there. Imagine that: to have to drive people around when you’re already a teacher. His customers – they just expect a run-of-the-mill cab driver that drives them from one place to the next. They don’t know that this man spent all his twenties in some countryside university learning. They could never dare guess that he is a teacher at some far-flung school. To them, he is just a cabdriver, sweaty, tired and bored.”

He sighed and looked at the boy for a reaction.

Though the boy’s face was no longer hidden, it did not reveal even the slightest hint of sentiment. The tear-stained eyes were intent on staring at the wall across from them. But he was listening. The old man was sure of it.

“Once, he accidentally picked up a former student,” the old man went on. “Imagine the shame he felt; all the respect he lost in that very moment, the respect of a child he taught – a child more than half his age. Imagine the respect he lost for himself.”

Alavi paused, adrift in some wounding thought. He winced and then urgently squinted his eyes – as if he could transport himself into another man’s skin so long as he concentrated long enough.

“He has two kids,” he remarked again. “That’s why he’s doing all of this. He wants to make enough money to at least send one of them away – to what he hopes is a better place, and for what he hopes will be a better life.”

Another pensive respite interrupted the old man’s speech and made his forehead crease.

“But who knows?”

Muffled empty chatter escaped the closed doors of the desolate hallway. The old man immediately grasped what it implied: the joyful ringing of the final bell was approaching and the boys had grown restless and roused. It also meant that he was running out of time – the very time that he had lost to the darkness some impalpable moments prior, moments that had seemed relentlessly long and exhausting until he had begun to speak, moments that were now too short.

Every pitch and every timbre of every kind of voice in the school had a subtext of its own – meanings that Alavi had come to recognize almost intrinsically. Habit was what stimulated instinct, not nature, not hardwiring. Mankind was a predictable entity. Spend enough time with it and you will come to know its every flaw, its every impulse, its every word. That is what Alavi had learned from his years among boys of the same age and in the same environment. Their every noise, their every clamor, their every troublesome misdemeanor: they were all so dull and predictable, and all so sad. He tried to care for every single exploit, heartache, sorrow, or joy of these green, tiny children, but he had seen so much of it that his care was no longer genuine. Even a fitful boy who howled with rage and pummeled himself with fists and slaps and claws was not unknown to him. It was all so dull, and he was starved for more. Something inside him craved to retrace and recover the genuine empathy he had felt in his early days.

At his age, he only hankered to care again. It was that very hunt that had made him hang on to his cheerless office for so many years. He simply wanted to care again; and he truly did wish to understand the defective creature sitting beside him. Treating a wounded boy, however, was not his chief intent. He, too, felt wounded.

“I didn’t send mine away,” escaped from his throat.

It appeared as if he was on the brink of another bitter thought. His layered upper lip scrunched again and the cradle of his jaw trembled, but he refused his urge to speak of that matter further.

“But I understand why fathers and mothers are impelled to send their children away.” He tried to swallow the humid air and rubbed the tail of his palm against his forehead, and finally let out a hefty sough.

“There is this old notion of degeneration,” he then remarked, having successfully curbed his compulsion to share his private life. “Have you heard of it?” he asked, before saying, “Of course, you haven’t. You’re too young, and it’s a dated theory. Goes back a century, I think. But then again, out here, I can’t stop thinking about it.”

Deep down, he expected the boy to ask him about it. When he didn’t, Alavi went on.

“Degeneration,” he repeated, “that generations rot with time.”

He turned to the boy for emphasis, but the boy did not look back.

“They’ve dismissed it and they laugh at it,” he continued, “but I can’t just deny something I see so clearly. You are all the same, you kids, in your own ways and whims. Each and every one of you is smarter than the class before you. I know that. I see that. But degeneration is there, and each time a class gives way to another, I see that too. It’s not you boys that degenerate. It’s your circumstances. It’s this city. I don’t think that all people just so simply rot with time; I might be an old man, but I’m not so out of touch, my dear boy. But this place in particular, this city – I feel it wilting. I don’t know why, and I cannot dare put the blame on a single thing, but what I see in you, my boy, and what I see in my own child who is a few years older than you – all I see is fatigue. And anger, yes. Your generation possesses a particular kind of anger that was not as noticeable in the other kids I watched grow and leave this school on to boyhood and adulthood. And this anger can’t come from nowhere. It just can’t. It’s coming from the place you’re in, from where you live, from all the chaos that you encounter every day. It’s this city. I don’t know why, but I know it’s true. This city cannot stand beauty. It cannot tolerate innocence.”

By then, the man was no longer looking at the boy as he spoke, but had his eyes fixed upon the wall.

“But this isn’t why I speak of leaving. If you leave, you won’t find paradise. Out there may be just as foul as it is here, but it is more restrained – and self-possessed and unassuming. A boy cannot grow in disarray. Boys like you will be in shambles by the time their bubble bursts. You will grow to know much but you will want very little, regardless of the will to choose that you think you have. And you do not want to know a life of boredom and contentment. I promise you that you don’t. All this life adds up to is wanting. Some call it ambition, but it’s not so flowery a word or such grand an idea. It’s simple wanting. Here, in this place we’ve all somehow been condemned to, and this generation that you’ve been born into: it’s loud and it speaks and knows more than I myself have ever known, but when we speak of this very generation in this very city? There’s nothing to yean for here. Nothing to desire, no mobility. It’s a dead end, and we’re all standing around, generation after generation, not knowing what to do with ourselves.”

The old man felt tears stewing underneath his lids, and they made him warm.

Absorbed by the empty point on that darkened corner of the room, he felt his jaw lock with distaste and with profound remorse. He thought of the boy, and then himself, and his throat pulsated with bile.

“And all of this, my child – all it ever does is make you feel trapped inside your own skin. This city – how can I blame you? It does this to you. It’s already done it. This city did this to you – these claw marks on your face, this anger. It really does make you want to hit yourself, doesn’t it? To beat your fist against your own puss. It makes you hate yourself, and hate everything around you, and it makes you feel yourself to blame for your confusion, for the emptiness you feel around you, for all that lost potential and everything you could have done but didn’t, and everyone you could have pleased but didn’t, were too selfish to, were too lost in your own head to think of, and it’s all because of this, this goddamned ci—”

Just that moment, he felt a warm pain pulsating from his thighs. Looking down, he saw that though one hand had been gently nesting the box of sweets, the other had become a fist, burrowing its knuckles into his leg all this time. After unclenching, both his hands began to quiver. He took a breath, but the shaking only intensified, the sweets rattling atop his lap. To distract himself, he tugged his lower lip between his teeth, and pressed down.

“It makes you hate yourself,” he then repeated somberly, after he had calmed, this time in a whisper and only to himself, unsettled at himself for having let slip his fury to a child.

“And we,” he hesitated, in a voice on the verge of crumbling, “you don’t deserve to hate yourself.”

His hands were quivering again. To soothe them, he dipped both into the box of candy, as though plunging them in warm water, stroking with his fingers all the unopened wrappers like fish, and taking it upon himself to remind those trembling hands of life’s more innocent pleasures. With his hands wading through the box of colors, he finally picked one and squeezed it tightly in his palms, wondering if his prize would come in a brown, yellow, or blue wrapper when he removed it from the box.

His palm opened to a blue wrapper once again. The blue displeased him, and he didn’t know why. All he knew was that, in that one moment when he had pushed his fingers down and against so many wrappers in the box, he was hoping so desperately for yellow or for brown. But fate had dealt him blue again. He didn’t know why it mattered so much, but it did. Suddenly, he felt tears swelling behind his eyes, and understood, helplessly, that soon enough, they’d flow.

And just as his tears began running down to flood his cheeks, the room lit up, the brightness ruthlessly exposing his wet eyes and cloudburst face to the boy whom he had initially sought to help, the boy that had been watching him all this time, the boy whose eyes bared neither mockery nor empathy, the boy who stared with indifferent, juvenile eyes that merely watched, incapable of judging or understanding.

Alavi struggled to say something to the gawking boy, and just as he was about to produce some words, he felt the ground underneath his moist feet convulse with oncoming excitement.

The final bell had rung. In a rush, the classroom doors had opened, turquoise and gray pouring out into the hallways, filling it with a life it never had.

“Go home, boy,” he heard himself say.

When he turned to look, the boy had already gone away, already immersed in the monotony of blue and gray uniforms and pimpled faces, already oblivious to his daylong horror of self-harm, on his way back to his parents and to his video games and to tea and fruits and television show, back to an innocent place where he could leave behind his day.

It came as no surprise. Alavi had known that the boy’s pain wouldn’t have survived the ringing of the final bell, but for some reason, he wished that the boy had stayed, that the boy would have given him the courtesy of asking why he’d cried. And yet, after so many years among these kids, he found himself capable of anticipating their every move, and he knew that the boy wasn’t skilled in empathy just yet, couldn’t quite understand the tears of a familiar stranger, hadn’t yet been exposed to the fact that he had to care for others if he wished to escape loneliness. But Alavi also knew loneliness wasn’t a concern for that boy just yet. Youth didn’t yet need to bear that brunt.

Close as he felt to these boys, as able as he was to foresee their every boom, bellow, and holler, he also felt ambivalent to the sounds they’d made, the vitality that they felt in their young bodies. Watching them huddle down the hallway and hearing their screeches of freedom as they jolted down the steps, he was envious of those boyish feelings: their unfailing joy at something joyous, and their exaggerated but fleeting sadness that came with their every failure and every petty tragedy. Though he was undoubtedly aware of them, he found himself unable to recall what it truly felt like: to forget and to move on so effortlessly from a day’s aching feeling, and to wake up every morning expecting something new, even while confined within school walls, even without a future to look forward to.

Remembering the unopened blue wrapper of gluey sugar trapped between his thumb and forefinger, he clasped it tightly in his palms again, and he closed his eyes, hoping that they would open to another color. Why did it matter? he thought to himself, his eyes still shut. Would the yellow or the brown somehow bring him close to something he had lost long ago? Perhaps innocence, perhaps just pure joy? He didn’t quite know or understand. Whatever it was that he had lost, whatever it was that those colors could bring back for him, he just wanted another glimpse at them. And so, he squeezed his palm and squeezed his eyes, and tried to extract from both the candy and his imagination another color and another precious moment. But when he opened his eyes and his suddenly-syruped palm, all he found were the viscid residues of some fleeting dream.

He sat there until the classrooms and the hallway and the stairway emptied. It didn’t take long for him to miss the sound, the chaos, and the distraction that the noise offered him. Now, alone in the silence, he wished that he could just wrap himself in his palms and arms, and just forget how to remember, to leave behind the past, to let go of all responsibility. He was yearning for something otherworldly to sweep him off his feet, something to liberate him like those bells had freed the children.

Perhaps, he thought, there’d be a wayward boy somewhere in the classrooms that he could try to help. He ambled desperately to the doorway and through every unoccupied classroom. The only person that had stayed behind was Hassan agha, still seated in his friendless spot at the corner of the hallway, with his neck slanted, and with his eyes serenely surveying the empty space. His eyes saw everything but perceived nothing at all. Contentment had somehow shored up into his soul after years of quiet self-restraint. Hassan agha’s virtue was that he did not think. His life was only a collection of brief, passing images, beautiful and sad, rich and exhausted, and altogether dull. It soothed Alavi to see an old man so content and without anguish. It also angered him, but he tried to brush the thought away.

As there was nothing to pick or to put away, Alavi merely pretended to pack his bag, and then ambled through the hallway and down the steps. He said goodbye to Hassan agha with a nod and received a flicker of an eyelash in return.
 

Outside, a honk shocked him out of his unpleasant thoughts, and Alavi found himself amidst the herd of the colorless, colorful folk, who stood waiting for a car to pick them up and take them home. The freed, passing children bowed to the old man as they made their ways homeward. Some of their bows were genuine, some derisory; either way, both made him feel small and out-of-place.

Just as he was about to wonder why, another honk distracted him. He turned and saw his friend Cheezari. With a relieved smile, he approached the car and dallied by the unrolled window for a few seconds, waiting for a proper invitation inside. Eventually deciding that two honks were enough of an invitation, he walked round the vehicle, and permitted himself to sit beside his colleague.

Sitting in that car, as it drove the short distance to his home, he contemplated the number of strangers that had sat in that very seat – all the people that his friend had picked up, spoken to, and confided in while trying to leave behind his morning function. Cheezari had swallowed so much self-respect in the name of saving one of his two children. And what guilt he was to forever feel for having managed to only save one.

Alavi, too, felt guilty, but his guilt was for having let slip his friend’s secret. He watched as Cheezari drove on in silence, and the old man felt his remorse simmer and mount.

“How old is your boy?” he asked, trying to start a conversation so as to shut out his pangs of conscience, only to immediately reproach himself for starting the very conversation he had wanted to evade.

“Thirteen,” Cheezari answered with a tender, lighthearted smile escaping his exhalation. The poor man did not mention the other boy – the one condemned to pay for the younger’s liberation, the one sentenced to the city that no man hankered for, the city which felt hard to even breathe in, the city without ghosts but thick with corpses.

Alavi didn’t ask any more questions after discerning the weight behind Cheeari’s hopeful smile. The man needed to hang on to the buoyancy he was forced to force onto himself, hoping to bear that hopeful, smile for just a little longer. Even if liberation could be afforded to just one of his two kids, the thought at least gave him hope, and gave him reason to force a fake smile until he was convinced that it was real, to push back the guilt he was unable to wave aside, to have to face the other son later down in life; just not now; let me think of my one free son, his smile was telling Alavi, and the old man mutely obliged.

The vehicle moved, turned, and moved further into an out of sight gate until it finally stopped and found repose by the side of the old man’s home. Towering above them were two monochromic buildings, each with its crown slanting upwards, spurning those who lingered inside their shadows. The old man was restless, but he did not wish to leave the car and to take those routine steps into his apartment building. He dreaded the walk through that lobby, the confinement inside that elevator, and the further, asphyxiating confinement inside his own quarters. He hung on to his knees inside the car, hoping to never experience that dread again.

The driver noticed but said nothing at all. Cheezari only stared ahead at the long hours that awaited him and the chipped rug of asphalt that was to torment his wheels with unnecessary rattles.

“Come upstairs,” the old man offered, begging to any convenient deity he believed in that his offer would be refused. “Have some tea, and warm up,” he continued, knowing the man’s car was much warmer, and fully aware that Cheezari would not accept the offer, for the guilt of enjoying a cup of tea in his working hours when he was supposed to be laboring for his child’s future would be too large.

Mindful of the insincerity in Alavi’s invitation, Cheezari nonetheless paused to ponder the offer. The asphalt in his periphery dissolved away, and he stared at the old man’s nervous hands rubbing themselves against his willowy knees. He thought of a warm cup of tea in a house that wasn’t his, that must surely be bigger than his own four walls. It would be a place inside which he might find sanctuary for a mere half-hour. It would even permit him to see inside another home, one that was much different from his: a home not wrapped in the ugly grip of guilt, a home that was perhaps happy or unperturbed.

Then, peering at the old man’s frigid hands and up to his downcast cheeks, he realized that such a happy place did not exist, and he declined.

Taking in a gulp of air, the old man thanked Cheezari and marched out into the tall, smothering shadows that the buildings had cast down.

The car drove off before Alavi managed to turn and wave goodbye. With a turn of his downward-sloping neck, he saw that the world behind him was bare. All there was left was asphalt and an unpeopled garden.

Resigned, he veered his frame and walked inside. The lobby man, himself a pudgy, impish elder, stood up at the sight of him, and greeted Alavi in his falsetto voice.

There was mutual respect between the two elderly men, as if they had survived something great, as if they were forever bound to meet at this time of day to merely acknowledge the other’s fortitude for having lasted a little while longer than they were supposed to. It was a pleasant moment each time, though sometimes, even the trifling bow or the wordless greeting felt toilsome. He wished for them all to go away: his thoughts, his strangers, and the guilt that endlessly trailed behind his back.

At his age, he had long assumed, peace just had to be somewhere within his reach. Where was it then? What was it? He had already forgotten its shape and form. He did not dare feel his way through life again, to aimlessly search for it again like he had done in years past, and he was no longer bold enough to open his wounds to look inside. To risk his weary world splintering before his eyes could kill him, and he did not want to die. He only wanted the guilt to slip away.

In the elevator, a teenage boy continued to gawk at him, perhaps trying to make out his face and put a name to him. Neither he nor the boy remembered the other, but the boy’s gaze still amused the old man. This wasn’t the first time they stared at him with such uncertain gazes. Who did he remind them of? Or were they simply amused by his hairless crown, his mewling upper lip, his kind and dying eyes, or by that cane he used to tote around until their stares had made him feel old and made him have to hide it in his bedroom closet, unseen by him or by others, faded out for the sake of the illusion of peace, at least. But where was this peace? His back hurt without his walking stick, and the gazes had not subsided.

The elevator reached his floor, startling both the boy and the old man with a heavy ricochet before opening. A mirror across from the unfolding elevator doors exposed to Alavi the balding head of an old man staring tiredly at his own figure. It seemed as though, throughout the years since moving into this apartment, the mirror had cruelly watched him shrink. Turning his eyes away from his reflection, he meandered outside, somewhat annoyed that the goggling boy hadn’t said goodbye to him.

Did he not deserve any sort of acknowledgement or goodbye? Was he already a ghost to all but lobby men and cab drivers? When did they forget him? When did he forget himself?

For a moment, Alavi felt the need to turn back and stand in front of the mirror and speak to it, just to see if the mirror’s surface would moisten with his breaths of air, just to see if he was alive and listened to. But he did not dare. Instead, when he reached the mirror, he only used it to fix the few strands of hair left standing on his scalp, pushing them down alongside his crown to make them seem plenty. Every thread of hair had already begun to die on him, to whiten and then wither away. He refused to let them leave without some proper goodbye.

He then fixed his suit that smelled of fuel, flattened the creases on his collar and on his palms, and finally reached inside his coat pocket for his keys. As if in darkness again, he rummaged about with faulty fingers, but could not feel the touch of cold metal. Nor could he hear it rattle. He had left the keys on his desk at school, he realized, having forgotten to pack the one item there was to pack during his measly game of pretend.

He balled his sticky fists and knocked on the door, once, twice, and then a third time. Behind the door, he could hear unhurried footsteps plodding around the house, and even in their faint nature, he immediately recognized them as his wife’s, and knew that she was patiently ambling towards the door, knowing who was waiting behind it, and knowing that he could wait. Suddenly, he yearned that another man would open the door on him, would place his muscular arms against the doorway, and look down on Alavi, and with cocky eyes and a self-reliant jaw, would finally tell Alavi to go away, that his wife had found another and that he was no longer needed. But these things didn’t happen at their age, and he had long forgotten what heartbreak even felt like. It had been too long since he’d felt something beyond just the quiet simmer of guilt.

He closed his fists again, and then decided against another knock. It would be a waste of energy, and an insignificant effort.

Finally, the door unlatched with an uncomplaining rustle. Every going-on in that house steadily presented itself to him as the door ever so slightly opened: the smell of stew stinking the kitchen and the hallway, the closed doors of the rooms that didn’t breathe, the carpet that reeked of socks and sweat and stew, and even the bad breath of the wife who couldn’t help her decomposing tongue. It seemed to him as if he had to choose between two worlds, one the body odor of juveniles at school, and the other the smell of musty stew. He cursed his sense of smell. Why had it gotten stronger while his eyes had begun to fail him and his muscles had become so sentient as to disobey him?

Just as he predicted, there was no other man either. Just her.

And she smiled upon seeing him, and he recognized in her smile that she still loved him and didn’t see that he didn’t love himself. He felt secure. As long as he could fool even one person with his forbearance, he could carry on with his life quietly and in peace.

Perhaps, he could one day convince himself that this was peace. After all, maybe this was indeed the peace he was looking for: the loving gaze of his loving wife, a foolish little thing that had not seen outside the bubble that he had crafted her, that had not been granted the life of snickering boys and winged and liberated girls.

Looking into those unworldly eyes, he remembered that though she was not as wise as all the others were, or as shrewd or as cunning, she was kind – kinder than anyone he had met before. Long ago, so far back into the past that he couldn’t even remember, he had plucked her from her family when she’d been young and rescued her from the cruelty of the outside world. Never exposed to the cruel and daily toil that work and strangers and choice and even the thought of an ambivalent future could have on one person, she had the good fortune of being innocent and naive, of staying as she’d always been, and he’d loved her for it – dearly. Only the unworldly could ever endure as angels, and truly, this witless woman was the only angel he had ever known.

He handed her his bags instead of his lips or cheek, and walked inside, emptying his shoes and removing his wet socks while standing up.

“How was your day?” she asked him, sweetly and in a soothing voice, with a bent spine that perfectly matched his own.

“It was good,” he said with a whistling moan, still standing and peeling back his moist white socks from his heel.

She didn’t say anything more, and sweetly ambled to another room. He watched her steps and wondered if anyone else could love them more than he did, only to realize that he really didn’t like the way she walked at all.

When he had heard her voice and had looked between her eyebrows, confusing it for her eyes, he had grasped that this woman had never changed. Life had never assailed her spirit. She lived and loved only to live and love and nothing else. She was a good mother, a good wife, a good human being, and just a string of saintly adjectives. But no, he didn’t really love her. Whatever love was supposed to be, this wasn’t it. He only took pleasure in the safety that she provided, like one did from a faithful dog.

With his socks dangling in his hands, he peeped from the corner of the wall to find her. Her palm bearing the weight of her jaw, and her elbows leaning on the seat rest, she was comfortably seated on the sofa, watching the loud and ever-changing hues of the television screen. He thought of the floral dress she had worn when she had greeted him and smiled at the thought of her splendid taste, pushing down his distaste for the dress’s loud and vulgar colors, and those clichéd old-lady flower patterns that made her look older than she was. He watched her some more, as he felt his fingers dew from the day-old socks and forced himself to smile a Cheezari smile to no effect.

He looked at her again and tried, but it didn’t take long for him recoil at the phoniness of his own smile. And yet he continued on looking, trying to appreciate her handsome figure, and the scarlet flowers on her dress, and her titled neck, and her silver hair, and he smiled and smiled and loathed himself for his fake and mannered smiles. What a shame that she was merely an angel, and nothing more.

After discarding the socks in the laundry basket by the kitchen, he felt another pang of conscience, a particular kind of emptiness that came with guilt and ceaseless regret. It was as if he had left something undone, as if he could no longer reclaim it no matter how hard he was to try.

Suddenly, he felt his legs walk him toward the boiling stew. He blankly stared at the pot and then took a whiff of the steam that was coming out, finally letting out a nauseous grunt. He hated her, and her food.

And yet, despite the stench, the steam itself captivated him. All felt still as he watched it mount and dissolve away. As if lured by the sweltering vapor, he felt his hands steadily inch toward the pot. The steam began to pass through his fingers and burn his palm, but he did not recoil at the pain. Then suddenly, he found his face pushed against the open pot, feeling the steam rise and sizzle his sorry excuse for skin. A muffled screech was all he mustered when he pulled his face away, suddenly feeling free and punished and cleared of all his guilt.

But when the pain subsided, guilt crept its way back again, and the anguish pressed on.

To think of something else, he tried to think again of the sweet but vulgar flowers scattered on his angel’s dress. He wanted to take another look at them. Quietly and with his damp feet slouching along the floorboards, he moved back into the room, and saw his wife postured exactly as she was before.

He stood inside the doorway, damp and red from the vapor, and scrutinized his wife’s ugly dress, desperately and unsuccessfully searching for something beautiful to admire, to take pleasure in.

His failure gave way to a humiliating sense of idleness. He felt obliged to speak.

“Is he out?” he asked, striving at least for the self-possessed, hollow chatter of the eternally betrothed.

“You know where he is,” she replied coldly, refusing to turn her head, devoting her attention solely to the sea of colors and diversions on her television screen.

“With friends?” the old man asked, attempting to mask his guilt with guilelessness.

“What friends?” she retorted, twisting her neck toward him, and letting her eyes glare vengefully into his eyes.

The old man stood still, but sensed tremors mounting in the tips of his fingernails.

No, this was not at all the artless angel he had condescendingly painted in his mind just minutes prior. She was as earthly, physical, and as weary as all the rest. And she was human, as desperately human as he.

All at once, he felt his heart tumble and his spirit break.

Wrenching his eyes away from those green and seething eyes, he tried to find peace between her brows, but could not find in there anything but the regret of lost years.

“I’m sorry,” he wished to say. Such simple words, and it used to be so painless say them out loud. But his maw no longer obeyed him as it once did, and instead of those two simple words, he could only muster a pathetic cough.

Frantically, he withdrew from his wife and hurried toward the bedroom, hoping to find his peace in that familiar and empty space. All he craved was sleep. Even if it only was temporary relief, sleep would let him escape himself until the new day, when he would once again abandon himself to the tiny plights of adolescent boys. They could shriek and they could scurry, and he could lose himself in their pettiness, their youth, and in his own authority. At home, there was no such authority. There was only sorrow for those he was too egotistical to save.

When he perched his body against the clean, soft mattress of the bed, restlessness clambered onto his every limb. Sleep was far away, and impossible, because his body no longer yielded to his wishes so easily. Peering at the ceiling and at his god, he begged his body to sleep, but just as he had expected, he was not to be granted his only wish. He tried to breathe mindfully while he closed his eyes, but, again, it was to no avail. The clamor of the television from the neighboring room was all that he could hear, far and away from the world of dreams into which he wished to escape. He unfastened his eyes again and stared sideways at the plain white walls. He wondered why, after all those years, he hadn’t adorned them with even a single picture frame, but he knew why: It was guilt again, for the wife whose youth he had sipped away, and for the boy whose future he had refused.

He knew it all, but could not admit it, and so remorse began to fill him out. He could hear his heartbeats now; his eyeballs pushing against his aching head – so much pain amassing against that one point between his eyes. Pressing his teeth together, he fastened his eyes further and prayed for it all to go away. And he prayed and prayed, and only wished to be left alone. A few hours of sleep was all that his prayers sought.

Amidst his flurry of silent prayers, he realized that he had forgotten his namaz that day. He mostly had in those recent years, and he began to fear for what was to come next. Was he to be punished for forgetting, or was his guilt the ultimate punishment? As if shocked by this insight and unable to endure its sentence, his body suddenly surrendered and finally gave way to sleep.
 

The stench of stale tobacco wheezing out into the bedroom woke him. He heard his wife speaking nervously in the adjoining room. Her words were wavering with sorrow, and he could discern the tone of her voice even behind the closed door and the layers of walls separating them. Another distant voice then responded to her with cool and jaded mumbles, and then he heard her scream and squeal.

The screams made the old man want to stand up and say a word or two, but his body was intent on sleep. In his drowsiness, he soon felt her voice disintegrate, but the loud thump of a door closing and dins of his wife’s wailing woke him again. Desperately, he commanded his body to stand and speak, wanting to protect his wife and reprimand the voice that had broken her heart again. He pushed and pulled, scuttled in his station, rustled, swooshed and swayed and pressed and clutched and pleaded, but his body would not obey. Instead, intent on cruel rebellion, the body that was no longer his made his eyelids plummet and his closed eyes dream, letting him vanish into that dreamlike state, safe from trauma and safe from the family that he had failed.

A thwack fell upon the bed beside his feet, frantically repeating with a fading, teary voice, “I cannot do this, I cannot do this anymore, I cannot—”

But he was already too deep into his slumber, listening but oblivious, guilty but unrepentant. He was dreaming of finer things, of brown sweets, of yellow sweets, of sweet brown and yellow sweets.

Iranian by birth and Canadian by a stroke of luck, Morad Moazami has been living between Tehran, Oxford, and Toronto for the past eleven years. While disguised as an academic, studying for a PhD on Iran at Oxford University, he hopes for the day he can take off the disguise and live happily as an author of fiction. Three of his stories, “Valiollah’s 40th,” “Sleepy,” and “Farawayers,” have been already published respectively in STORGY, a Toronto journal titled The Bones Behind Your Smile, and Scarlet Leaf Review. A fourth, titled “Everness,” is set to be published in a forthcoming anthology of British-Iranian writing.

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