Radio was stitched across her blankets. Crackling from pillow's end to ear, it calmed her like a warm body or a glass of scotch. Laila let it slip voices into her dreams and mask the crickets noisily greeting the moon.
Sleep proved a wench. Months passed without a full night's rest. The doctor gave her pills and bandied around fancy terms like 'anxiety disorder.' When she took the medication, she slept for twelve hours and woke feeling like a decade had passed her by.
Today, Laila could not afford to let the morning escape her. Her grandson, a junior in college, and his parents were due in the early evening. Other guests, eager to reminisce with old friends, would burst in at eight and depart in the wee hours of the morning. There were errands to run and an apartment in need of cleaning. Exhausted after a restless night, she found renewed strength thinking of company.
Tasks complete, Laila watched the late autumn sun drizzle yellow across the field next to her apartment. The grass was truly greener in Wheeland. Thirty minutes outside of Boston, Laila's suburban town was home to well-fertilized parks built for Frisbees and picnics.
I did not understand shit about my grandmother. I did not understand why she hand-washed the dishes after we put them in the dishwasher or why she would comment on my burgeoning waste-line and then give me more chocolate or why she wanted me to tell more jokes.
Every summer my parents, my sister, and I spent a month or two with her. I don't remember most of the fights. I really didn't want to remember. There were lots of them, between my mother and my grandmother, my grandmother and my sister. Who knows what tripped the wires. Some boundary crossed or pet peeve pricked. To the best of my knowledge, no one ever apologized. The apartment would be tense for a few hours, then dinner would roll around and boom: problem gone. Five people, two beds, and one bathroom. Sometimes love is stressful. Love stretched across that crammed apartment.
My father and I tried to stay out of it. My mother trained us to be well-behaved men, so we kept to our books. I liked Garfield comics and fantasy novels. Soon, convinced that I was an intellectual, I devoured histories of the Middle East and the World Wars and God. I fused fact to argument and formed opinions. Lots of them. Those opinions rolled around in my little head like spilled marbles.
When I was in my teens, my grandmother started complaining about stomach problems. The doctors prescribed every antacid they could. Eventually, they sent her to a shrink.
Laila babysat her son's children during the afternoons. Nine and six years old, the boys burst out of school faces red and smeared with chocolate. Aches and pains disappeared when she saw them. Placing fat kisses on their ample cheeks, Laila showered the children with questions and shuttled them to her apartment. Cyrus, the elder of the two, answered with facts and important details. Herbie let his tongue roam and gleefully watched his nose grow.
Happily spellbound, Laila watched her grandchildren fall into routine. Cyrus sat with a pencil and math worksheets while Herbie, a story-telling monk, fueled his fantasies with television shows and computer games. Mouth agape, he was transfixed by Ghostfinders and anything with four wheels. Annoyed by Herbie's too-cool-for-school attitude, Cyrus shook his weary head and went back to his papers. Laila, buzzing with responsibility, fished chocolate from a drawer and cantaloupe from her fridge. For Cyrus, a plate and a fork would be adequate. Herbie, whose mind rarely wandered towards food, required force-feeding. Like a tailor stitching sleeve to shoulder, Laila hemmed her affection to their eccentricities.
As the wind's near-silent mumbles grew to a whisper, the sun whisked itself away and let dark blue drape across hours. When her daughter-in-law returned from work to scoop up Cyrus and Herbie, Laila felt a familiar sinking sensation settle in her gut.
Listening to the radio, she let minutes dwindle away. Laila gazed out her bedroom window and past the tranquil town. An hour passed with few interruptions. Finally, spotting her daughter's family pull into the parking lot, Laila turned off the radio in anticipation of conversation, tea, and sweets.
When I was a freshman, I took a course entitled "Literature of Immigrant Women In America." We read Jhumpa Lahiri and Maxine Hong Kingston and a ton of others. For the first time - ever - I realized that my mom was an immigrant. My grandmother, too.
Their pre-America lives existed in fog. A black and white photograph occasionally reached through years and reminded me that they spoke Farsi because they lived in Iran. But, then again, I also spoke Farsi. So, I mused, there couldn't be much of a difference.
The characters in the novels fought dirty. I expected tame literature with the slightest whiff of rebelliousness. Instead, I got second-generation women throwing elbows at their moms, sexing dudes to liberate themselves from tradition, and bouncing to NYC or wherever coke came cheap. My professor waxed poetic about asserting independence and disrupting gendered narratives and what it means to be an American.
Eighteen year-old hormone-drenched me fixated on the chapters with sex and thought, Shit. Feminist America isn't so bad.
Laila's laugh was a newly forged bell. It announced itself boldly before echoing into silent, gleeful vibrations. She clutched her belly when particularly amused, her five-foot frame rocking back and forth. Happy tears pressed through squinting eyes to find her cheeks.
Age melted off her shoulders at the sight of her daughter's family. Arriving with hugs and memories, old friends supplied her with an extra shot of energy. Hellos and how-are-yous and you-look-greats were tossed around the apartment. Soon caffeine sloshed through veins, a dozen mouths ran abuzz, and stories ached for the telling.
Center-stage awaited Laila. Her friends melted into a willing audience and leaned towards her. Tongue dancing and hands swirling, Laila began with a self-deprecating anecdote about a dying goldfish and attempted CPR. Next came the happy news of a distant cousin's engagement, followed by a description of a forty-year old cousin's unmarried loneliness. Musings on back pain and hospitals emerged after Laila announced her desire to see great-grandchildren. Recalling her deceased brother's kindness, she concluded her monologue with tears.
I was twenty-one before I asked my grandmother to tell me about her escape from Iran. We sat at her dining room table, just the two of us, for hours.
My grandfather died of a heart attack in the early '70s. When my mom was twenty, she got a scholarship to Boston University. Eventually, my uncle was sent to study in Massachusetts as well. That left my grandmother alone in an oil-town bordering Iraq just as the Iranian revolution was kicking off.
Yellowing pictures show a dark-haired beauty, deep red lipstick, and eyes gazing steadily into the camera. She was a radio broadcaster. One of the best. Her producer, a skeezy dude who part-timed as a Mullah, asked her to marry him for "her protection." My grandmother told him to screw off. He promptly went on air, fired her, and cussed her out like he was using a thesaurus. A week later the town was hit by an Iraqi bombing raid and Mr. Sleaze was the only person killed. The police started staking out her house. Apparently, the town thought that she had magicked his death.
Clearly, my grandmother's unruly temperament would not be welcome under the incoming regime. Her brother used shady political connections to grab her the last seat on the last British Airways flight to Teheran. Then, she used shadier personal connections to snag a seat on a bus full of liberals fleeing to Turkey.
At the border, she narrowly escaped a patrolman's rape attempt with a timely kick to the nuts and a mad dash back to her bus. Once his testicles had the chance to recover, the patrolman went looking for his target. Sitting across from her were two young men who had taken to calling her mom. They put themselves between her and the would-be rapist. Understanding his predicament, the patrolman settled for a healthy bribe.
The next three months were spent trekking across Europe, penniless and starving. My grandmother skipped over the details of this part. Call it a strategic block.
Finally safe with cousins, she called my mother from Luxembourg. No one knew if she was dead or alive. I'm not entirely sure if my grandmother knew. She told me that she has been nervous ever since.
Margaret knocked a little after midnight. She lived three doors down and found late-night noise incredibly rude. Massachusetts born-and-bred, Margaret knew how to file a protest. She breathed fire during the sixties, had her fair share of bra-burning acquaintances, and worked her whole life through. No one would walk over her.
White-haired and wrinkled as a prune, Margaret held no age-related illusions. She rose with the sun and ate early-bird specials. She read Pride and Prejudice once a month and fervently believed Audrey Hepburn was the greatest actor of the twentieth century. She still crushed on Sinatra.
Wheeland was a place rich with history and tradition. There were certain ways things were done there - inviolable and unwritten rules that Wheelanders understood. If you did not like it, well, you should not have moved to Wheeland.
We were speaking a combination of English and Farsi. My sly American father understood more than he let on, but friends and family made sure to use English when he was listening. Without my grandmother, the room had split into conversational groups. As the only person under forty, I was content eavesdropping on others and letting my mind roam.
I daydreamed about girls. Well, really just the one girl I always daydreamed about. She was from a neighboring suburb. Every time I drove through it, I thought about her. The smartest and most beautiful girl I ever met. We dated for a few months, got way too serious, and then tried long distance. It was a train-wreck.
She used to say that suburbia sucked. That there were a lot of good people, but also a lot of people who were pretending. Pretending what, I asked. Pretending that they wouldn't toss you the fuck out if they had the chance.
In the hallway outside, Margaret made it absolutely clear that there were parking spaces conveniently marked with large, white signs that said "VISITOR." Visitors were not supposed to occupy the spaces reserved for tenants. Everyone has a place. Margaret's voice snapped out syllables like a branch whipping the wind.
Laila insisted that none of her guests had parked in tenant spots. Margaret threw her a disbelieving look and bristled like a peacock. Arms were crossed. They hopped in the elevator and walked outside. Light from the surrounding apartment buildings tumbled out onto the parking lot. Laila knew her guests' cars. They were all in the visitors' section.
Margaret fortified herself with an indignant huff and defensive glare. Before stalking away, she told Laila to keep the regulations in mind in the future.
She came back in trembling. None of us knew what had happened. We were sipping our teas and trading gossip while my grandmother was outside chatting with a neighbor.
Her fists were clenched and blood was rushing to her face. We could barely understand anything she said. Spit was flung with each outraged word. She kept repeating the same sentence over and over and over again:
I am an American, too.