Misery

I wished I too had worn a pink shirt and pants for my wife

Still from Taste of Cherry

I don’t know when exactly my fantasies and my opium habit converged. All I know is that one day I was on the Turkish border with a truck that had rolled over on its side while my pockets were empty. Everything I’d worked for to become an Iranian king of the road had fed the addiction. This included my wife’s jewelry. Now I sold the carcass of my eighteen-wheeler too, crawled back to Tehran and tripled my habit.

From then on I was like a ball every passerby kicked for the hell of it. My wife saw it all and it destroyed her. Not long afterwards she took a pair of scissors and stabbed our landlord. We’d been living in the sick son of a bitch’s basement.

Fariba had always been the dream of the neighborhood, tan skin and long dark curls. Eyes like diamonds and legs like the stems of an orchid. Men loved her and so they hated me. I’d scored with her in a big way, hanging around long enough until she finally discarded her useless husband and married me.

Our honeymoon lasted a couple of years. But soon after the twins were born I began my free fall. One day I opened my eyes and saw that there was a man in her life. Then another. And another. They gave her cash, jewels, anything for a full night with Fariba. The habit had made me as useless as her first husband. Opium won’t kill you. Instead it it wraps you inside the spiderweb of your own misery until you drown. I had to do something. I went to an herbalist who helped me cut down. Hope was still not a total stranger. I still had something to prove.

All this time I’d been selling on the side to support the fix. Now I started pimping too. But not for Fariba. I wasn’t going to be my own wife’s go-between. I did it for others and told Fariba I was out all day working at some real estate office. I had a deal with several brokers who provided the space while I provided the goods. You might call this a version of turning over a new leaf. My plan was to get a down payment for another truck and get on the road again. Sometimes this meant not paying our rent on time, which the landlord used as an excuse to lean on Fariba. She didn’t have an issue with selling her body, but it had to be on her terms. She wasn’t going to be bullied by some haji. So the last time Haji came at her, he met with the wrong side of Fariba’s scissors. The thing went clean through that vile skull of his.

Haji went to hell and my wife went to jail.

As for me, I went to pieces a second time. I had to leave the twins at my mother-in-law’s house so I could crawl back deep into the shell of my old habit. I was sinking hard and was too scared to even visit Fariba. By the time I mustered the courage to go see her, I couldn’t hold back the frustration: “Why kill that motherfucker? Couldn’t you see I was getting my act together? Why ruin it for us?”

“After all these weeks you’re here to tell me I ruined everything?”

She was angry and beautiful and strong, like always. She could break me with a look. She had done her nails and looked as if she was on a holiday and she’d be set free the following day. She talked about her dreams and about being let go. She wanted to go to Turkey, she said, and maybe from there to Europe. Apparently in the women’s jail Norway was considered a choice destination.

“You can do it, Shahram. You know the border like the back of your hands. You can get me and the twins across to the other side, can’t you?”

In her mind, I was still the guy who could fix things. She didn’t know Haji’s sons had connections—not that they needed them—and that the verdict for her to be executed would soon come through.

I did everything I could short of crawling on my hands and knees in front of Haji’s sons so they’d let Fariba off the hook. I knew for a fact they didn’t give a damn about their stingy dead father. They’d all gone and bought brand-new cars as soon as old Scrooge was history. But they still wouldn’t budge. They refused to recommend mercy at this eye-for-an-eye charade of a court system we’ve got. The eldest even brayed something about, “If we forgive her, she’ll corrupt more people.” I didn’t say to him that I’d seen his “I dream about your body” messages to Fariba just a couple of months earlier. I was too embarrassed. Or maybe I still had some hope.

The superior court did not change the verdict either. I was finished. All I cared to do now was to remain inside my own fog. Opium was no longer enough. I took whatever came my way and I stopped visiting my wife. The self-loathing was complete.

Then she called me, out of nowhere. There was a lot of noise in the background and she was shouting, “Shahram, can you hear me?”

“Fariba!”

I tried not to get mushy but it was impossible. I started weeping.

“Man! Stop that.”

“You’re my wife. They want to kill you.”

“Won’t happen. Listen to me, the judge said he won’t allow us a second private visit.”

“Private visit?” My knees were shaking. I could hardly breathe.

“We have one shot. Saturday morning. The 11th. It’s my exact time of the month. Get it? Two days from now. TWO DAYS! Don’t smoke till then. Don’t do anything. When you come Saturday, come prepared to make me pregnant. Don’t let them hang the mother of your children.”

I was dumbfounded. “Then what happens?”

“If I get pregnant, they’ll stay my execution two full years. Shahram,” she paused, “I was always yours. All the rest of them, they all knew I was only yours.”

I wanted to kick myself. “My love, when do I have to be there on Saturday?”

“Nine to eleven. They’ve allowed us a two-hour visit.”

“I’ll be there. I won’t disappoint you.”

“Kiss our children for me.”

An instant after the phone call, I began thinking through the logistics. How long had it been since I felt anything down there? Sex seemed about as distant as my one-time dream of being the king of trucking. I had just two days to reboot my engine. God, was I tired! I needed some cash. I paid the flophouse I stayed at from time to time a visit. It was really just an opium den called The Red-Eyed Roundtable. They gave me a hole-in-the-wall to sleep in and in return I still supplied them from my fast-dwindling flock. The manager, whom everyone called Claws, and his menial, Charlie Gholam, pretty much spent the whole day everyday lost in smoke and self-pity.

It was midday. Claws sat in a puddle of water in the yard with nothing on but his underwear. I waved at him.

“Brother Shahram!” he called with a voice so thinned from opium you could barely hear it.

I knew what he wanted. “You sure you can handle a woman in this state?”

“Money is not a problem,” the thin voice said.

“Done,” I said.

Back on the pavements it felt like I had a decade’s worth of purpose again. I texted a girl I still knew, Sara, and told her to pay Claws a visit. Then I headed for Fayazi Street to see Hasan Sabeti, the herbalist.

Fayazi Street was alive with all kind of stalls—Pirozhkis, chestnuts, fried potatoes. Couples were out and about. I’d been so removed from regular life I felt like I was a visitor from another planet. After a while I was standing in front of Sabeti’s closed-up shop, feeling miffed. Closed due to my dear cousin’s passing, he’d written in that awful handwriting of his—and in red ink at that. I called his cell phone. No answer. He lived three blocks away; I didn’t hesitate. The hell with his dead cousin! It was probably the hundredth time he’d closed down because of some dead someone.

He didn’t tell me to get lost when I announced myself on the buzzer. I waited for him under the stairway of the rundown apartment building. The walls smelled of mildew, an ancient bicycle lay sadly on its side, and the smell of celery stew was everywhere.

Sabeti came down wearing a pink T-shirt and an even more pink pair of pants that came to just above his knees. The black shoes he’d slipped on looked like they’d seen their best days twenty years earlier.

“You look like a bad version of yourself! What is this stuff you’re wearing?”

“Nice to see you too.”

He managed to fish a couple of broken-down chairs from somewhere beyond the rickety bike and offered me one.

“What’s the damage this time?”

“My wife.”

“Your wife is my distant relative. You’ve forgotten? I’m truly sorry for what happened.”

“Listen, they’ve permitted a private visit to her for this Saturday. A man-and-wife visit—know what I mean? I have to knock her up. I get this one shot. If I’m successful, they’ll postpone her execution.”

Sabeti seemed to give the whole thing a lot of deep thought. Then he said, “Pull your eyelids back, let me take a look.”

I did what he asked. He gave me a thorough checkup, as if he were some kind of brain doctor, then offered his diagnosis, “Your spinal column is a disaster and your liver is a mess.”

“I don’t give a shit about those. It’s my dick I need you to start up.”

“Ah! So that’s the issue.”

“What did you think the issue was? I have to be able to do my own wife. Her life’s on the line. You get it?”

“Stay right here then. I’ll be back.”

My eyes remained fixed on the moldy walls until he returned. To think that my dead penis had turned into our last best hope in this world. How ridiculous life turn out to be sometimes!

Sabeti stood over me holding a small contact lens container. There were two pills in it.

“You’ll take one about an hour before you have to go into action. It works like a charm. Timing is everything.” He held up his hands like a boxer as he said this.

“I’ve got heart troubles man. The pills won’t kill me, will they?”

“Just take one and you’ll be all right. I gave you the second pill in case things go into overtime.” An idea seemed to click in his head. “And you have to eat ‘hot’ foods for the next two days.”

“Hot?”

“You know, ginger, alfalfa extract, bananas . . .”

Another idea appeared to come to him and he started running up the stairs again in that ridiculous pink outfit. I knew he liked to play kinky with his wife. More power to them. In that moment I wished I too had worn a pink shirt and pants for my wife.

Sabeti came barreling down with a plastic water bottle that he shook in my face triumphantly.

“You’re to take this tonight and tomorrow night. Slowly. Till it’s finished.”

“What’s in it?”

“Alfalfa extract, distilled ginger, and concentrated horse sperm.”

“All this and the pills? What if I get a heart attack?”

“Are you worried about yourself or your wife?”

He had me there. I said nothing.

I think he felt sorry for me. “You need some money?” he asked. I shook my head while looking suspiciously at those lozenge-shaped pills. He stuffed a few bills in my hand anyway. “Take good care of your wife. Buy her some flowers.”

Fayazi Street was even more crowded than earlier. I headed back toward the flophouse, feeling hopeful and scared, remorseful and yet weirdly ambitious.

The place was quiet. I scrambled into my crawlspace and lay my head on my ragged pillow. Every bone in my body ached, but at least there was a glimmer of hope now. I took a sip of the potion Sabeti had given me and closed my eyes. Gradually my thoughts wandered off and I managed to fall asleep.

When I woke up I saw that Sara was sitting in the corner watching me.

“They pay you?” I asked.

She nodded.

I was drenched in a cold sweat but felt for this woman, sitting waiting like that with her heavy makeup and her fading dress. Maybe she thought I was still the same old rough, tough Shahram. Not that she’d ever even known my better days.

“Claws and his sidekick, were they even able to do anything?”

“Nothing.” She thought about it and added, “Thank God!”

“Can you stay with me tonight?”

She nodded again.

In the bathroom I took one of the pills Sabeti had given me, took a deep breath and dropped it in my mouth. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try one of them before my big day. Back in the crawlspace I offered Sara the money Sabeti had given me. She wouldn’t take it at first but I insisted. Then out of nowhere she blurted, “Night before last my customer raped me.”

“What do you mean raped you?”

Her eyes were glued to the shabby rug and she kept digging at it with her fingernails. She looked up at last and said, “I don’t know. I think I’ve been raped. Not just last night. But always. All the time. My whole life one big rape.”

My head hurt, but I had to ask, “All right then, explain to me this general rape you’re talking about.”

She sighed, “I don’t know.”

“You do take money from them, you know.”

“That’s not the issue.”

It was like I was seeing her and myself for the first time. We soon got to talking about other subjects. Women and men. Injustice. Love. Before long another half hour had passed and suddenly I felt a surge under my skin. As if some other body had entered me. I reached over for the light and turned it off. Then I locked the door.

We were at it all night long. I made sure to stay quiet. Nobody could find out I was enjoying my life even a little bit. Nobody could know that in this crawlspace with the scant light reaching from outside, old Shahram was still able to give life a go. Because if they did, there would be a price to pay. There always was. The years had taught me nothing was for free, even the rare moments of pleasure. While the city slept I could go about my business, but without a sound.

In the morning I woke up with a mountain of guilt and with Sara gone. Now I only had one pill left and no money for the cab ride to the jail. Getting my cash from Claws for providing Sara would not be an easy matter either. I’d have to catch him when he was not half-dead, which didn’t happen often. I tried to wrap my mind around the situation. First of all, my body needed taking care of and I had to conserve energy. The whole thing was bizarre, yes. But it was our bizarre, mine and my wife’s. So we had to make it work. I had the one pill and the rest of the potion from the herbalist. Last night had also shown me I still had it in me. I was doing this for Fariba, my one and only wife. The thought made me feel heroic—as much as a hardcore opium fiend can still feel heroic at all. I tried staying positive and calm.

The day dragged on, mostly spent trying to get that money off Claws. Finally I threatened to tell the whole neighborhood how Charles Gholam, his skeletal sidekick, had beaten the crap out of him a few months ago. That seemed to do it; the old junkie’s pride kicked in and he parted with some of the money. But in the late afternoon my resolve weakened again. I spent some of the dough on a heroin high and checked out until four-thirty the next morning. I woke up imagining I was on a bridge with no foundation.

I had tried washing my underwear and shirt earlier, but by the time I hit the street they were still soggy. I shivered all the way to the main road.  Some bald guy with a huge stomach lay face down on the drenched asphalt rubbing his fat belly back and forth on the ground, his shirt tucked to the side. He looked at me as if I had interrupted his prayers. I hurried by. At the newspaper kiosk I took a few day-old papers and crossed the street toward Ali-the-Stoned.

Ali-the-Stoned was our local all-night man. You wanted tea or a cigarette at this ungodly hour, it was Ali you went to. I asked him to call me a cab on his cell phone and while we waited I took the pill and washed it down with the horse-sperm brew. Ali offered some tea, which I took gladly. He wouldn’t take money for it. This town was full of kind failures.

It was an hour’s ride to the prison. The driver was another gentle old guy who instinctively seemed to understand why I was going where I was going. Seeing my condition, he told me to stretch out in the back and sleep. I spread the day-old papers beneath my damp clothes and drifted off.  When I woke up, the horse sperm and the pill were making a stir but I was still a sack of broken bones. I thanked the good Samaritan driver, paid him and rolled out of the car with my crumpled wet papers.

The sun had come out. What did I feel? Nothing but dreariness and lack of hope. There was no future for any of us—me, my wife, our twins. How was I going to face Fariba? She needed me to serve her today, yet I could barely put one foot in front of the other right now.

I asked the guard at the gate what time it was. Seven. Still a bit early. It looked like the end of the world here and I was empty-handed as always. I dropped down next to a dying tree and waited until other men slowly began to show up. Unlike me, they’d all come bearing gifts for their women. I took a good long look at my stale clothes and torn-up hand-me-down shoes. What had Sara said last night? She felt like the world had raped her. Well, I felt exactly the same. And I felt it as a man. Buggered and used. Still, the sun and the gentle breeze did not feel half bad. I forced myself up and approached a group of men who were waiting by the gate.

The oldest among them actually smiled at me. It gave me courage and I said, “Gentlemen, I hope none of you ever feel small in front of your wives and children. I too have come here like you to visit my own. But I’m poor. And . . . I wondered if any of you could help me with a little something so I won’t meet my wife with empty hands.”

One of the men sent a salawat for the Prophet and the family of the Prophet and we all pitched in. It was a special moment. We were there for the same reason; it was as if we were brothers all in that very moment. Before I knew it, I was holding a plastic bag filled with pastry and fruit and little cans of juice. In my other hand was a brand-new red shawl wrapped in a tasteful yellow gift wrap.

The one who had smiled at me now placed a couple of bills in my pocket, “Make sure she gets it. We’re on the outside and they’re in there; we’re all they got.”

“I don’t know how to thank you gentlemen.”

One of them who spoke Persian with an Azeri accent said, “Can you speak Turkish?”

We all laughed. “Not enough,” I admitted.

Saghul. That’s what you say.”

We all laughed again and I said loudly, “Chokh, chokh saghul!”

I had to stay there another two hours before I could see Fariba. I waited around, impatient and scared, with my plastic bag of goodies and the wrapped shawl. Now three young women showed up. They seemed full of life and had charity written all over their faces. They said they were working on their college thesis and wanted to ask me some questions. I humored them and their youth; it was the least I could do after all the compassion people had been showing me all morning. They asked Fariba’s name and offered to have a new toothbrush and towel and sandals sent to her.

“I don’t have the words to thank you ladies,” I said with tears in my eyes. Genuine tears! It felt as if the same universe that had spit me out had me wrapped in a warm blanket all of a sudden. This was, however, just a momentary feeling until I entered the visiting room and recalled that I was here for my wife, who was to be executed because she’d refused her flesh to Haji, the landlord.

Fariba sat on a bed where a thick military-issue blanket had been laid out. At first we greeted each other like a pair of strangers, two humiliated refugees meeting on some deserted road. They’d cut her hair short and I could see she had recently colored it with henna. I worked hard not to burst into tears again, breathing deeply in that airless room where only the waft of stale smoke came through the broken vent in the ceiling.

I set down the bag of pastries and juice in front of her and held up the shawl. “For you, my love.”

She pulled me close. “How are the twins?”

“They miss their mother,” I lied. I hadn’t seen them ever since I left them with their grandmother. “And you? How are you?”

“What can I say. It’s jail. But you’ll help me get out.”

“Out?”

“First I’ll get pregnant.”

“Let’s start with some of this food I brought.”

It had been two days since I had eaten anything solid. I needed fuel. My brain and bones were melting into each other. Two sad little fish was what we were in that visiting room in that prison, giving it our last shot to plant the seed of survival. Who would have thought sex could be so bitter? I could tell she was trying to act happy, though I couldn’t remember the last time she felt any kind of attraction for me. And why should she?

In reality, this felt like another occasion of me acting the part of the pimp. But this time for my own wife, so that she would not be sent to the noose just yet. I had been a bona fide pimp all these years because I wanted to prove to myself it wasn’t just my wife who sold her body. Everyone did it. Women and men.

So we got around to it. We did it. We consummated the act I’d been summoned for. God knows how, though; the details escape me. We planted a seed in that stinking prison room. It was nothing short of a miracle coming from me. Yet you would think there was something more to it, a ray of meaning. But there never was. Postponing an execution goes only so far. And besides, in the end, Fariba aborted our seed. Yes, that is what she did.

They say it happened during a prison fight. But I know better. Fariba wanted that seed aborted all along. I understood as soon as I found out she never chose a name for it. “I hate myself and the thing growing inside me,” she had apparently told one of her cellmates who later got out. True or not, exaggeration or not, Fariba lost the fetus because it was me she hated. Me.

Five months later Fariba was executed.

They killed her because she didn’t want to be bullied over a couple of late rents. Nowhere in that lease was it stipulated that you could stick your filth inside your tenant’s wife because they were poor. Even if Fariba had gone and complained about it, no one would have said a word to Haji and his sons. Instead, they’d run us out of the neighborhood and then laugh all the way to the bank. Because this is the way of the world. In the end, the scissors inside Haji’s skull was the least poor option Fariba and I ever had to begin with.

—Translated from the Farsi by Salar Abdoh

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