Read an Excerpt
As I walk past the playground on my way to downtown Tucson, I overhear two girls teasing a third: Jake and Ella sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage!
Curious, I stop mid-stride and turn my attention to Ella, the redheaded girl getting teased. She looks forward to falling in love; I can see it by the coyness in the smile on her freckled nine-year-old face. I shake my head in wonder, in openmouthed awe. I think, as I so often do: This would never happen in Iran.
None of it. Nine-year-old girls in Iran do not shout gleefully on playgrounds, in public view of passersby. They do not draw attention to themselves; they do not go to school with boys. They do not swing their long red hair and expect with Ella’s certainty that romantic love is in their future. And they do not, not, not sing of sitting in trees with boys, kissing, and producing babies. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, there is nothing innocent about a moment such as this.
And so I quickly lift the Pentax K1000 that hangs from my neck and snap a series of pictures. This is what I hope to capture with my long-range lens: Front teeth only half grown in. Ponytails. Bony knees. Plaid skirts, short plaid skirts. That neon-pink Band-Aid on Ella’s bare arm. I blur out the boys in the background and keep my focus only on these girls and the way their white socks fold down to their ankles. The easiness of their smiles. They are so unburdened, these girls, so fortunate as to take their good fortune for granted.
Ella sees me taking pictures and nudges the others, so I lower my camera, wave to them, and give them my biggest, best pretty-lady smile, one I know from experience causes people to smile back. And sure enough, they do. I wave one last time and then I walk on. I am changed already, from just this little moment. These fearless girls have entranced me, and I know that when I study my photographs of these recess girls, I will look for clues as to what sort of women they will become.
I hope they find romantic love. And passionate kisses, and men who look at them with eyes that see all the way into their souls. Then I know they will be happy, and I know they will be whole.
First comes love, then comes marriage. A childhood chant, a cultural expectation. Americans believe in falling in love with every fiber of their being. They believe it is their birthright; certainly, that it is a prerequisite for marriage. This is not so where I was raised. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, marriages are often still negotiated between families with a somewhat businesslike quality. In most modern families, girls have some say in the matter. They can discourage suitors, or, as I did, delay marriage by seeking a university degree.
It isn’t that Iranian men necessarily make bad husbands. Like my dear father, many are kind and gentle and interested in their wives as people, not just bearers of their children. Then again, some are not. There are family teas, gift-givings, and dinners, but a woman often spends no time alone with her fiancé before her wedding. So it is, as one might say in America, a crapshoot. A woman goes into her husband’s family in a white gown and she leaves it only in a white shroud, in death.
That is our culture.
And that is our future, inescapable for most girls.
Inescapable, it had begun to seem, even for me.
On the occasion of my twenty-seventh birthday, my parents hosted a celebration dinner for me in their fine north Tehran apartment. We typically do not celebrate birthdays in a large fashion, but it had been a troublesome time for me and they hoped to bring me happiness. In only my fourth year of teaching, I’d recently resigned my position, against the advice of my parents. And this after I’d dreamed so long of being a teacher, a teacher of young girls. Increasingly since I’d begun, I suffered stabbing headaches, murderous stomachaches. My constitution simply wasn’t strong enough to bear the demands of being a teacher of young girls in a religious regime.
Once I resigned, my physical ailments diminished, but so did my world. I rarely left home; the streets were hostile and I had no destination, no dreams, to carry me forward. Not yet twenty-seven, I felt the weariness of someone who’d lived one hundred joyless years. I fell into a horrible depression.
My dear parents must have suspected my desperation, for they gathered together all the people I loved for a grand birthday celebration, all the people they knew could make me laugh. There were Minu and Leila, my dear friends from university with whom I’d giggled my way through, spending hours at Leila’s house dancing to bootleg videos of Siavesh concerts. There were Mehrshad and Roxanna, my father’s brother and his wife; and, most importantly, Ali and Homa Karmoni, whose friendship with my parents was unquestionably the stroke of grace that made their lives in Iran bearable. The roots of their friendship ran long and deep. Ali Agha hired my father as an engineer way back when not many would consider hiring him because of his Western ways, and Ali Agha had guarded my father’s job ever since. Besides that, we vacationed with them and celebrated holidays with them and treated them as if they were our own family.
They had one adored son, Reza, twelve years older than me. He’d been living in London for a long time, although Homa Khanoum kept me apprised of his doings.
“You know, Agha Reza returns from London next month,” she announced on this night as we gathered around a sofreh in our dining room and ate a celebration dinner of lamb kebab and saffron rice. “He has accepted a job at the Free University and is ready to settle down and be married. A professor, you know.”
I felt Minu and Leila’s eyes on me, but I averted my gaze from them and smiled politely at Homa Khanoum. I tried to hide my heavy heart, tried to suppress the instant realization that this, then, is how it would happen. I no longer had to wonder. I was cocooned in my father’s house with no job and no other marriage prospects. My parents loved Agha Reza as if he were their own son.
This, then, is how it would happen. I would go into their house in a white gown, as Reza’s wife, and I would leave it only in a white shroud. And in between, my world would remain so small.
So painfully, so suffocatingly . . . small.
Shortly before dawn, the party ended. The women rubbed off their makeup, cloaked their beautiful party clothes under their manteaux, and tucked their coiffed hair under their headscarves. My mother, my father, and I kissed each guest upon both cheeks. We warned them, Be careful, watch for the roadblocks, and remember, please please remember, if stopped by the bassidjis do not say where it was you drank the homemade beer. And do you think perhaps you should spend the night? But no, no. It was time to brave their way from the safeness of our home into the dark Tehran night, out onto the public streets, where bad things could happen and often did.
When finally they were out the door, my father pushed it closed with both hands and leaned his forehead against it for a long moment.
“Baba?” I asked. “Is something wrong?”
He instantly turned to me. “I remember when I turned twenty-seven,” he said with a half smile. “My world was filled with much happiness and hope for the future. Do you remember, Azar, the year we turned twenty-seven?”
“Of course,” my mother answered. She stood off to the side and shifted nervously. “Of course.”
This would have been when they lived in America, I knew. My father studied as a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1970s. In a decision he’s regretted for the rest of his days, he brought his family back to Iran for an extended visit during the tumultuous days immediately after the Shah was deposed and Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile. We got stuck during the clampdown that followed, and my father has never been able to secure for himself permission to leave the country. He, an educated man who’s seen a successful democracy in action, who believes deeply in the doctrine of separation between church and state, is destined to live out his years in a repressive religious regime. There are many men like my father in Iran. I lived in America from the time I was an infant until shortly after my second birthday. I remember none of it, of course. All I have are stories handed down by my parents and my sister, Maryam, who is eight years my elder.
“Your mother and I have a present for you, Tami Joon.” My father loves giving presents. It must have been hard for him to delay giving it to me until after the party. He would have been thinking of it all night long.
“What is it?” I returned his smile.
He nodded at my mother, and she disappeared into their bedroom to retrieve the gift. My father clapped his hands together and blew on them as if he were outdoors in front of our house on a chilly Tehran morning, scraping frost off the windshield and waiting for the engine to warm up so he could drive to his job as a transportation engineer for the city. But he was not outside. He was inside, and our home was toasty warm, and my stomach fluttered with the sudden suspicion that this would be no idle gift.
My mother returned a moment later with a plain white box of about twelve square inches. She handed it to my father and took her place next to him. She wringed her hands together and bit her bottom lip and looked at me in a way I shall never forget. It was a look of pride and excitement and fear all rolled into one.
“Here, open it.” My father thrust the box at me.
I stepped forward and accepted it with shaky hands. I lifted the lid and returned it to my mother’s outstretched hand. I looked warily at the top layer of tissue paper before peeling it out of the way.
“Is this my . . .?” I caught myself. Of course it could not be the same; that gift was tucked away in my bureau, underneath a stack of silk hejab. That gift had not been mentioned in years, and I had thought it was all but forgotten.
I lifted the blue porcelain perfume bottle from the box. I looked quizzically at my father. He nodded. Yes, Tamila. It’s what you think.
My eyes filled with tears as I set the box on the foyer table and twisted the lid off the perfume bottle so I could smell it again. So I could see it again. So I could remember the first time I had received this very same gift.
It had been on my fifth birthday. My father, so much younger then, pulled me into his lap and handed me this same rounded perfume bottle. It was my mother’s, the one that always sat upon the tray on her dressing table. I loved it. I especially loved squeezing the little spritzer on those special occasions when she allowed me to spray rosewater on the soft undersides of her wrists, which she would rub together and hold up for my little nose’s approval. I thought it was a fine gift. A wonderful, grown-up gift for a girl who adored her mother like I did mine.
But when I raised the perfume bottle to my nose and inhaled, I wrinkled my child’s nose in confusion and felt my smile leave my face. It was not like my father, my beloved Baba Joon, to make a mean joke, but after carefully twisting off the spritzer and discovering it contained only sand, I had to press my lips together and will myself not to show disrespect by letting tears spill from my eyes.
My father pulled me close and kissed my forehead. “My beautiful Tamila, this is not just any sand.” He took my hand and stroked the back of it with his thumb, his lullaby to me.
“This,” he said reverently, “is sand from America. I brought it back with my own hands to give to my beautiful Tamila Joon on her fifth birthday, so she can keep it safe and know that when she is older, she has a special job to do. She is to take this sand and return it to where it belongs. She is to return it to America.”
My mother’s gentle voice drew me out of my reverie. “Tami.”
I looked to her, met her gaze. “There’s more in the box,” she prompted me, and handed it back. She no longer bit her lip. She no longer wrung her hands. Instead, she looked at me with a steadiness I rarely see in her. I felt my hope rising, and this frightened me, for in Iran hope is seldom fulfilled and nearly always suffocated. It is a dangerous thing, for an Iranian girl to allow herself to hope.
My father was unable to contain his impatience. “Take it out,” he ordered, stepping closer as if to force me if I hesitated any longer.
I braced myself and peeled back the next layer of tissue paper. I gasped. Was it really, could it be, yes, it was! I gaped at my father. He broke into a broad, proud grin.
In the bottom of the box was a passport.
A passport for me! There was also a one-way airplane ticket out of Iran to Turkey, and from there I was to obtain a visa and ticket to the country of my parents’ dreams.
He’d done it.
My father was saving me.
He was sending me to America.
“How did you . . .?” I began to ask in wonder, but my father waved my question away. He’d done it. That’s all I needed to know.
“But what about . . .?” I looked searchingly into my father’s eyes. What about Agha Reza, I wanted to ask. What about him and the marriage proposal that seems to be coming? But I stopped myself. There was nothing of Agha Reza in his eyes.
“Thank you, Baba Joon. Oh, thank you so much!” I threw my arms around him.
“Shh, shh.” He quieted my sobs, rocked me back and forth. “This is your chance. You go to America and make us proud.”
I stepped back, nodded at him, made sure he saw the resolve in my eyes. I would. I would do everything in my power to make them proud of me. I turned then to my mother, and we pulled each other close.
“I’ll miss you so much, Maman Joon.”
“I love you, Tami Joon,” she whispered in my ear. “I love you so, so much. And know that it’s a beautiful, beautiful world out there.” She choked on her words and did not speak again until she had regained her steadiness. She pulled back from my embrace to grip my forearms, to capture my gaze. “Go and wake up your luck,” she commanded me. “Promise me you will.”
I looked back at her, and for a moment, this is what I saw: America. Her America. My mother, my mother’s younger self, firmly rooted in California’s rich soil.
Long ago, she gave me some pictures from our time in America. I consider them my most treasured possessions.
There is one of me eating French fries at McDonald’s, sitting on my father’s lap. There is one of me being pushed from behind on a baby swing by Maryam at the children’s playground at Golden Gate Park. There is one of me naked in the Pacific Ocean, running from the cold waves and squealing in delight.
There is another from that day at the ocean.
In this one, I am wearing a pink one-piece swimsuit with a big yellow daisy in the middle. My mother holds me. My legs are wrapped around her waist, and my head rests on her shoulder. A wave washes over her feet. She looks straight into the eye of the camera. My mother’s skin is tanned, her long hair windblown. She knows nothing yet of segregated beaches and confiscated passports and shrouding oneself from the sun’s warmth and men’s eyes. All she knows is the beauty of this day. She wears cutoff denim shorts and a pink bikini top. She wears big gold hoop earrings and bright red lipstick. Red nail polish, too. Remarkably beautiful, she looks so happy. So happy and so free.
This is not the mother I know. The mother I know has always worn hejab, has always covered herself in the regime’s mandated head covering. She has always ducked her head and averted her eyes when passing men in the street. I do not remember the carefree, unburdened mother in the picture at all, but I miss her every day of my life, even so. The mother I know has always been sad.
The sun. The waves. The sound of the ocean. The sexy confidence of a bikini top and cutoff shorts highlighting the strong-muscled legs of an able woman. Bare feet. The wind dancing through her hair. She remembers it all. And she wants it for me. I am her dream deferred.
“I promise, Maman Joon,” I whisper back. “I promise I will go and wake up my luck.”
And then I grasp her to me and I cling to her because I miss her so much already, my sad mother who smells of rosewater. I try to memorize this moment, this embrace. I will need to carry it in my heart forever. I will need to be brave, for her.
For I am not coming back.
• • •
Three weeks later, that little perfume bottle filled with sand from the shores of San Francisco Bay is packed safely in my luggage. I am on an airplane, leaving my homeland behind. When the pilot announces we have left Iranian airspace, a cheer breaks out. Women on the flight unbuckle their seat belts and stand. They look around. They yank off their headscarves and run their fingers through their hair. They have left Iran, and the future is theirs, to make of it what they will. I remain quietly in my seat and watch them. I think of my mother. My chest is so tight I cannot breathe.
I watch the flight attendants serve peanuts and offer drinks, now that we’ve left the boundary of our country, where alcohol is illegal. One approaches me. He smiles and asks if I would like a glass of wine. This startles me, the fact that he is looking at me as if there is nothing wrong with an unrelated man and woman looking each other in the eye and chatting casually. In public, no less. And, of course, there is nothing wrong with it. It just doesn’t happen where I am from.
And so I take a deep breath. I reach up and fiddle with the knot under my chin, and then I pull off my hejab. I press it into my lap, as far away from me as possible.
He nods at me in approval. In affirmation of what I have done. I look right in his friendly tea-brown eyes. Strange as it feels, I do not look away.
“Yes, please.” I nod back.
I want the peanuts. I want the wine. I want to look into the eyes of a man and feel no shame.
My name is Tamila Soroush.
And I want it all.
It is twenty-four hours since I left Iran, since I clutched my parents to me at Mehrabad Airport and we wept our good-byes. After three plane changes on three different continents, I am now ten minutes from Tucson, Arizona, where I am to depart the plane and meet Maryam.
And it is clear to me that the plane is going to crash.
It drops suddenly. Little bells ding politely but insistently, and the airplane attendants scurry to buckle themselves in. Their faces look nonchalant, but I know they are trained to put their faces this way in times of crisis. A man’s voice comes on over the loudspeaker. His English is fast and garbled, and although I have studied English all my years in school and my father spoke practically nothing but fast and garbled English to me for the past three weeks in preparation for my journey, the pilot’s words are too run together for me to make out what he’s saying. Perhaps he’s telling everyone to say their final prayers. I grip my hands on the armrests and begin a soft chant to myself: “Baad chanse ma, Baad chanse ma.”
“Excuse me,” the woman next to me says, slowly and with careful enunciation. She has joined this flight from Phoenix. “Is that Arabic you’re speaking?” She wears a black T-shirt that says Power Corrupts in bold silver letters. She would receive forty lashes on her back for wearing this shirt in Iran. Forty lashes at the very least.
I shake my head. “It’s Farsi.”
“I thought so. I lived with a Persian guy for a while. Was that a prayer you were saying?”
I give her a rueful smile. The plane is clearly not going to crash. We’d just hit an air pocket. “I was a little frightened from the . . . mmm . . . how do you say, turbulence. I was saying how my bad luck follows me all the way around the world.” I watch her to see if she is able to understand me or if I’ll need to repeat myself. I really don’t know how good my English is, and I feel myself blush. It could be just awful.
But perhaps not, because she gets an excited look in her eyes and turns more fully to me. “You’re just coming from Iran?”
“That’s awesome! Do you have family here?”
I nod again. “My sister lives here with her husband.”
Maryam has lived in the United States for almost fifteen years, ever since she married an orthopedic surgeon named Ardishir. On his yearly visits to Tehran to see his mother, he began courting my sister. My parents were proud he was a surgeon. That means a lot in my culture. But he was only a resident of the United States, not a citizen. That was not good enough. My parents would not permit the marriage until he obtained his U.S. citizenship, for then he could take my sister back with him to America and sponsor her for citizenship.
“How long are you staying?” Her smile is so friendly, I do not mind all the questions. Everyone in America smiles big and talks a lot. I have seen this in the movies.
“I am moving here.”
“Really? How did you manage that?”
My heart pounds. I feel myself blush. I tuck my hair behind my ears. I feel like I am lying. But it is true. I am moving here.
“I am getting married,” I say, as confidently as I can. I smile, knowing happiness is expected with such a statement.
“Congratulations! Did you meet him back in Iran, then?”
I shake my head, swallow hard. “I have not met him yet.”
“Oh,” my seatmate says. Her broad smile falters and her eyes darken. “An arranged marriage?”
“Yes,” I say. “In my culture, it is not so unusual.”
“How do you feel about that?”
How do I feel about that? What, I want to ask, does that have to do with anything? I am here on a three-month visa. The sole purpose of my trip is to find a way to stay, and that means I must find a husband who will sponsor my application for residency. The choice is marriage here or marriage there, and for me this is an easy choice. Being married is a small price to pay if it means I can stay in the Land of Opportunity and raise my children, my daughters, in the freedom that would be denied them in Iran.
“Americans only get married if they are in love,” I tell my seatmate. “But in my culture, we try to choose someone we can grow to love over time.”
“Wow, I can’t imagine that.” She shakes her head, but suddenly laughs. “But then again, I’ve been divorced twice already and I’m not even forty. Who’s to say yours isn’t the better way?”
My eyes get big. I cannot help it. Divorced, twice! She must be the black sheep of her family, to have behaved so badly that not one but two men divorced her. This is why she is so chatty. This is why she talks to strangers on airplanes. Everyone else probably shuns her.
She grins at my shock. “But I’ll tell you what. That Persian boyfriend I lived with for a while? He was better in bed than both my husbands put together. He was fan-tastic. Maybe that’s a cultural thing, too.” She shakes her head at the memory. “Mmmm-hmmm, the things he could do with his tongue.”
The plane jerks to the ground. The rough landing prevents me from having to respond. I am stunned and horribly embarrassed by what she has said. I make myself busy gathering my things as the airplane taxis to the gate.
“Can you find your way out okay?” she asks.
“Yes, yes,” I assure her, not wanting my sister to see me with such a badjen, a disreputable woman. “Thank you very much for your kindness.”
“Take care, then,” she says, unbuckling her seat belt and pulling herself up before the plane has even come to a full stop. She grabs her backpack and heads to the front of the plane. I watch her walk away. She is the first American woman that I’ve spoken to at any length. I know I will remember her forever. She was friendly, and she was crazy.
And I can’t even begin to imagine what her Persian boyfriend did with his tongue that made her so happy.
Although it has been fifteen years since I have last seen Maryam, my terror at seeing her again causes me to linger, so that I am the last one off the airplane. And when I do depart the plane, I hear her high, happy voice before I see her.
“Tami! Tami!” she shrieks. “Oh, oh! Over here, Tami Joon!”
I turn my head toward the voice, and my heart melts as a blur I understand to be Maryam grabs me and kisses me on both cheeks before enfolding me in her arms. Pressed against me, Maryam curls my hair around her fingers. I’d forgotten how she used to do that when we were children in the bedroom we shared for many years. That’s how she used to wake me up in the mornings, by weaving her fingers through my hair and singing to me. I laugh with relief and start to cry and hug her back very tightly.
“Shhh,” she says softly, smoothing my hair. “Don’t cry. We don’t want your eyes all puffy and red.”
When she steps back and takes my face within her hands, when she gives me another kiss upon both cheeks, I gasp. “You are so beautiful! How did this happen?!”
Her black eyes sparkle, delighted. “Everyone is beautiful in America, Tami Joon.”
It is all I can do not to gape at her. Maryam has always had appealing features, but she has a beauty I have not seen before. She has lost her baby fat and toned her muscles and grown her hair long. It falls halfway down her back in perfect, shiny waves. She wears gold, gold, and more gold— earrings, a necklace, two bracelets. In Iran, gold jewelry is how women show off, revealed at parties after coming inside and shedding the headscarf—hejab—and manteau we must wear when outdoors to keep the low-class bassidji goons from harassing us.
Here, Maryam openly wears her gold. Her face has laugh lines where before was only smoothness. She wears bright pink lipstick, gold eye shadow. Copied from a magazine model, most likely. That’s how she practiced back home. Most different is her chest—this is not the same chest she had when she left Iran.
“Oy, Maryam! What is this? Did you take some special vitamins to make yourself grow in all the right places?” She is my sister; I can ask her.
She laughs, delighted by my naïveté. “They’re not real, Tami. I enhanced them last year. They call it a boob job.” She giggles at the words. A boob job, this is unheard of where I am from. It would serve no purpose. Nose jobs, sure. They are all the rage, for noses are the one operable, changeable, fixable feature of ours that men actually see. The rest of us remains cloaked anytime we are in public.
I question whether Ardishir approved of Maryam’s boob job.
“Approved?” She laughs harder. “Who do you think paid for it?”
I realize now, while looking at her new boobs, that while I may have come halfway around the world, what I have truly done is enter a whole new universe.
“Did it hurt?”
“Not so much.” She shrugs. “It’s what women do here, especially if their husbands have some money. If they are married to doctors or rich men who own businesses, for instance.”
She puts her arm around my shoulder and turns me away from the gate. Toward the exit, toward my future. “Don’t worry, if we have a hard time finding you a husband, we’ll get you one, too. I’m sure Ardishir will pay for it.”
This idea horrifies me.
“I do not want Ardishir buying me new boobs!” This is not something my parents told me about, the need for new boobs.
“You’ll do whatever it takes, Tami,” she laughs. But when she sees that I am near tears, Maryam pulls me toward her and reassures me with a hug. Then she stands back and strokes my cheek. She adds, quietly, “I don’t ever want my sister to be so far away again. So we’ll do what it takes, right?”
I swallow and nod. “Right. You’re right, of course.”
Maryam holds up a bag from Macy’s. She is a manager there; my father tells this to everyone he knows. “I brought you some things to change into. There’s about thirty people waiting for us back at the house.”
“Here? You want me to change my clothes here, in a public toilet?” I think back to all the times I was forbidden from using the filthy ones back home.
She nods. “Just try not to touch anything.”
I have been traveling for one whole day and two whole nights, and I haven’t slept for more than three hours in a row. I do not want to enter a public toilet, on this, my first night in America. And I do not want a party. “Ay, Maryam,” I groan. “I am so tired. I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep my eyes open at this party.”
“I’m sorry,” she says. “But we expected you much earlier. I couldn’t call everyone and cancel. It would have been rude. Besides, there’s a dentist who will be there whose family we know. He lives in California and has to go back tomorrow. His mother says he is ready to be married.”
A pushy Persian, that’s my sister. She has always been this way, and I do not have the energy on this night to argue. She promised to my parents that she would find me a good Iranian husband with American citizenship, and she will keep this promise. Starting this very night.
I remind myself to be grateful. She is my sister, and her intentions are good. So I let her slip a form-fitting red dress with a deep V-neck over me. I let her put so much makeup on me that I barely recognize myself in the mirror. I let her spray something in my hair that she says will make it curlier and bouncier. I let her put my feet into open-toed sandals with three-inch heels. I let her polish my toenails. This alone makes me smile, to see my toes so colorful and happy. Everything else terrifies me. Excites me? Yes, I admit that. After a lifetime of living under a cloak, I am ready to dress up all fancy. Just on my own terms, not those of my sister.
And after a lifetime spent trying not to be noticed in the streets, it feels very dangerous to have strangers stare at me. And yet stare they do.
The staring begins as soon as we enter my sister’s house. Even before, if you count the janitor who smiles at Maryam and me as we emerge from the airport bathroom. My hejab—I suddenly want the invisibility it offered. But no. We are doing nothing wrong, only trying to look nice—special, unique—in a country where this is not against the law. No one will take me to jail here for only trying to look nice, and so I need not be afraid. Nonetheless, I tuck my arm into Maryam’s and pull her close. They can look at her, my glamour sister. She clearly enjoys the attention.
After we gather my luggage and step outside to the parking lot, I take my first fresh breath of air in what feels like forever. I look up at the sky in wonder. Even the stars are different here. They are brighter and in formations I do not recognize. I should have expected this, but I am startled to realize that even the heavens here are not the same. I have to take a slow, deep breath to adjust.
“It’s very different, isn’t it?” Maryam’s voice is gentle.
I nod, for my throat is too tight from homesickness to answer. I should have sketched the stars above our home in Tehran. I must ask my mother to draw me a picture, and in return I shall draw her one of my sky here. At least we will always look at the same moon, Maman Joon and me. This is how I soothe myself. I breathe in the cool desert air. It is good, all good. The air in Tehran is bad to breathe. It is thick with pollution and dust. Here, it is crisp, as if we were high in the Alborz Mountains.
“Wait until morning when it’s light out,” Maryam tells me. “Remember those old John Wayne westerns Baba Joon always watched when we were little?”
“Well, they were all filmed right here in this area, and it looks just like it does in the old westerns. You won’t find cactus like this anywhere else in the world. And the sky. You’ll never see a sky so blue. There are no clouds here, Tami.”
“You like it, then?” I murmur.
“I love it,” she tells me. “Iran is no place for women. America, it is for everyone.”
I look ahead of me into the darkness and try to imagine the daylight. “The land of the free,” I whisper, hearing in my words the echo of my father’s voice.
“And the home of the brave,” Maryam adds while she squeezes me to her. “You are my brave little sister, to come all this way alone.”
“You came all this way,” I remind her.
“Yes, but I had Ardishir.”
“And I have you.”
I know right away which car in the mostly empty parking lot is Maryam’s. In Iran, most people drive the same cars they had before the revolution and can only dream of driving a new shiny-gold Mercedes-Benz like Maryam’s. It is a pooldar car, a status symbol like none other.