Cognac for two
June 12, 2003
The main door of the house opened and then closed.
The sound of her light footsteps echoed through the foyer. She
was home a lot sooner than
expected. Something was wrong, but he wasn't going to pry.
At least not yet.
"Shiva, is that you?"
"Yeah dad." She was trying hard to keep
her voice steady, but she didn't fool him.
"Have you had dinner?"
"I'm not really hungry."
"How was the party?"
She hesitated for a
few seconds and then replied in as casual a tone as she could muster "fine."
"Get in here. I can hardly hear you."
was lying. He could hear everything; from the sound of her muffled
sniffles from beneath her Kleenex to the shallow clearing of her
throat before she walked into the study.
"What are you reading?" A fake smile lingered
on her lips as she sat before him on the brown leather ottoman.
"Nothing important," he said, taking off
his reading glasses and putting the volume aside.
me about this party. It couldn't have been that great or you wouldn't
be home so soon."
"The party was OK."
Taking a deep breath she got up
from her seat and started to pace the room.
"Jimmy and I broke up. No. Actually, I got dumped
for a blonde with longer legs and bigger boobs." She stopped
in front of the window with her back towards him. "Please
don't tell me that he wasn't good enough for me and that I can
do a lot better. I know I shouldn't give a damn, but I do. And
it hurts like hell."
Even after so many years in the West,
it was still difficult for him to listen to his 16 year-old daughter
talk about her love life. But he had learned a long time ago that
having an open relationship with his children was better for everyone
involved. So he swallowed his pride, got up from his chair and
walked towards her. He was about to give her a hug when she turned
around with yet another fake smile.
"I'm really tired. I'm going to take a bath
and then I'm going to bed."
She placed a gentle kiss on his
cheek and started to make her way out of the study.
"Go take your bath. But then I want you to come
back down here and have a drink with your old man."
"I don't really feel like a drink."
"I'll be waiting."
Recognizing the resolution
in her father's tone, she dropped her shoulders in defeat and left
He listened to her walk up the stairs and then slowly
made his way to a nearby table where an elegant bottle
of Hennessey sat among a few crystal glasses. He uncorked the bottle,
smelled the harsh woody fragrance, and then poured the spirit into
two snifters. As he stared into the golden drink he found himself
remembering his first encounter with cognac.
On special occasions his mother would sleek his
hair to one side using a fine toothed comb and a pinch of hair
pomade. He hated it, but he never complained. It was all part of
a well thought out plan to make him appear docile. Nothing could
be further from the truth.
He was known as the loud troublemaker
of the neighborhood, with a quick and foul tongue that had earned
him the respect of most of the kids in the alley. He used his devilish
wit on his opponents without mercy, infuriating them to the point
where they felt the scorching touch of fury on the back of their
ears, foamed at the mouth, and charged at him with ram-like passion.
a handful of mothers had gone so far as to prevent their children
from hanging out with him altogether, most of them opted for a
less severe approach that didn't involve complete alienation.
He was a straight A student with a gusto for knowledge
that rubbed off on those closest to him. This was his saving grace.
enjoyed mathematics above all other subjects and had an ease with
numbers that shook even more senior students with envy. But
his prodigious nature didn't stop there; it extended
well into the sciences and the arts making him the number one student
in geography, calligraphy, and literature. It was this nerdy performance
at school that compelled him to create a drastically different
For young boys, life in the tough alleys of Tehran
was survival of the wittiest. Those who could come
up with clever comments that were imaginative, venomous, and preferably
involved the opponent's mother or
sister or both were at the top of the food chain.
Those who weren't
consistently piquant but had rare moments of ingenuity
were next in the chain. This was the group that was
preyed upon the most for those who were below them were deemed
too insignificant to be challenged. Occasionally, someone from
the middle would jump to the top, but only after an extended
Duels of the tongue almost always ended in physical
fights. This happened when one of the participants
recognized his own inevitable defeat in the battle of the wits
and felt the need to maintain his position by demonstrating physical
Ironically, losing a hand-to-hand combat didn't necessarily
jeopardize one's respect. Rather, broken bones and
stitches were proof of a kid's undisputed place at the top of the
food chain. This is how Pedram had managed to substitute his geekiness
for notoriety. Two broken bones, a few fractured ribs and countless
bruises had given him a reputation he was quick to protect. Unfortunately
for him, special occasions were a serious threat to
his hard-earned infamy.
The problem was far greater than a silly
hairdo. During these special occasions he was required to wear
formal outfits that betrayed his mother's questionable sense of
fashion. For that particular outing, his mother had selected a
puke-green and beige checkered suit that she had purchased for
him on her last trip to London.
He studied his reflection in the
full length mirror and found himself praying. "Please God.
Don't let anyone from the neighborhood see me like this." Thankfully
for him, it must have been a slow day in heaven because he scurried
from the doorway to the car without being detected.
The rides to
the nursing home were about twenty minutes long. He often spent
most of that time in a state of profound anxiety; anticipating
and dreading his upcoming visit with his great aunt Ammeh
For as long as he could remember, he'd been
both fascinated and frightened by her. She was a difficult woman
with a brisk and demanding attitude that
made her the undisputed head of the family even though
her older brother was
She was known for throwing spectacular temper tantrums,
but Pedram had never
been victim of her fury. As a matter of fact, he
was her favorite member of
the family which made him feel both uncomfortable
There was a shadow of intrigue and mystery surrounding
Ammeh Joon's past,
and he knew that there were things about her life
that no one ever talked
about. Her marriage to Amoo Jamshid was one of those
They had met in the army when she was in her mid
twenties. She had been the head nurse of a unit based
in the south of Iran, and he had been her
nineteen-year-old chauffer. They had fallen in love
precipitously. The rest of their story was truly
enigmatic. For one thing,
they hadn't lived together for the last fifteen years,
even though they were
still married and they still showed up to family
A few years back Pedram had tried
to ask his mother about the bizarre
relationship between his great aunt and her husband,
but his mother had told
him to mind his own business and to never talk about
Amoo Jamshid in front
of Ammeh Joon. And so he had been left with nothing
but his own imagination
to explain their puzzling marriage.
Watching Ammeh Joon wither away
in a nursing home disturbed him at an
abysmal level. After all, to him, she was the paragon
of strength and power
who didn't deserve to share a house with a bunch
of dying weaklings.
Frankly, she didn't even belong there. She wasn't
suffering from a mental illness or a heart condition
or diabetes or anything like that. She had
weak knees and a bladder problem and needed assistance
to make it to the
bathroom. But since her wicked temper had forced
five private nurses into
quitting in less than two months, Amoo Jamshid had
decided to teach her a
lesson. So there she was, living in an environment
so somber it weighed
down even the most chipper of souls.
Aside from the foul smell of
peroxide and urine that hovered through the
hallways, there was a superficial cheerfulness in
the atmosphere that
succeeded in making the place truly morbid. Vases
with colorful flowers,
pale walls with happy posters, callous nurses with
empty smiles, and lonely
patients with eager stares all contributed to the
melancholic mood of the
ambiance. Even at the tender age of 13, Pedram recognized
death's bleak presence in those halls, waiting, with
nonchalant patience, for a chance to waltz with his next victim.
building was surrounded by a serene garden of weeping willows and
tulips that enhanced the already funereal appearance.
Since no cars were
allowed beyond the green iron gates at the entrance,
all visitors had to
walk through the cobblestone paths of the garden
to get to the nursing home.
He remembered his first trip to this place six months
ago, when his
curiosity had encouraged him to stare at a senile
woman sitting on a bench
under one of the weeping willows. She had been engaged in a serious
conversation with herself when she had spotted him looking at her.
than three quick strides she had reached him and engulfed him in
amazingly strong embrace as she'd started to weep. "Ahmady.
boy. Where have you been? Why have you stayed away so long? I've
you so much. Ahmady. Don't leave me alone. Please. Don't leave
It had taken two nurses and his mother to pry the
woman away from him. He'd been so shook up from that encounter
that it had taken him a good month before he could muster up the
courage to walk through those green gates again.
Ammeh Joon's room was on the second floor where
most of the private rooms were located. It was small, but clean,
with a decent size window and a garden view. She never complained
about her current accommodations. As a
matter of fact, she pretended she wasn't even there. She didn't
the nurses or the other patients or even her visitors. Instead,
most of her
conversations were about the future. The home she was going to
Geesha, the trip she was going to take to Ramsar, the shoes she
was going to
buy from the Bazaar. But on that day, there was a dreary look on
her face as Pedram and his mother walked into her room.
"Hi Maryam jAn. How are you?"
"Fine thank you. How are you?"
"I want you to leave Pedram with me for a while.
"Yes. I want to be alone with him."
Clearly caught off guard, his mother looked at Ammeh
Joon with surprise.
Then, with hesitation in her tone, she said:
OK. I'll go pick up some stuff for dinner. I'll come back in
Ammeh Joon waited for her niece
to leave the room before she snapped her fingers at Pedram.
"Close the door."
Not knowing what to expect,
but recognizing the urgency in her voice, he hurried to do as he
"Do you see that dresser over there? In the
bottom drawer there is an old black bag. Bring it to me."
scurried towards the dresser, almost tripping over his own curiosity.
He opened the last drawer and took out an old-fashioned lady's
handbag. It must have been at least forty years old, with delicate
floral embroidery on the front, a rusty chain as its
handle and a bronze clasp. He studied it carefully before handing
it to her.
"In the bathroom, by the sink, there are two
small glasses. Get them."
Again, he did as he was told, now
completely overwhelmed with anticipation. He placed the glasses
on the nightstand by the bed and waited, for what
seemed like an eternity, to see what would happen next.
With the handbag on her lap, Ammeh Joon turned her
head towards the window and stared into space.
"I don't like this place. It makes me old."
didn't know what to say to that. If only he could talk someone
into letting her out of there, or fight a few bullies to get her
released. But there was nothing he could do. This was one battle
he couldn't fight, and he felt truly helpless about it.
"I'm sorry Ammeh Joon. Maybe I can... "
"Oh, don't you pity me, boy," she said
waiving him into silence. "You're not like the rest of them.
That's why I've chosen you to be here, alone, with me. Do you understand?"
nodded, more out of reflex than anything else.
"Did you bring the glasses? Good." She
unfastened the bag and took out a round silver liquor flask with
a Pegasus emblem in
the middle. She opened it and poured the golden liquid
into one of the glasses and handed it to him.
"Have you ever had cognac before?"
his head in denial.
"Well then, brace yourself. You're about to
have your soul jump-started."
She poured the remainder of the
flask's content into the other glass and held it up to him.
"To journeys. The ones behind me and the ones
before you." She took
a sip, played with it in her mouth for a while, and
then swallowed it with a triumphant smirk.
With his drink still
untouched, Pedram stared at her wide-eyed.
"Drink," she said raising an eyebrow.
took a deep breath and then a hefty gulp. The cognac clawed its
way down his throat, scorching and scratching his insides. The
unexpected force of the drink made his eyes water as he fought
to keep it down.
"Great, isn't it?"
He struggled through
a few minor coughs before he could reply.
"Bite your tongue. That drink has more character
than most people you'll meet in your life."
"I don't want anymore."
"I don't care what you want. This is probably
the last time I'm going
to have any cognac in my life, and I've chosen
you as my drinking buddy. So shut up and drink. It's good for you
He looked at his glass and shuddered at the thought
of having to finish its contents.
"Go on. Don't gulp. Just sip. This time it won't
be as bad. I promise."
He lifted the cup to his mouth and pretended
to take a sip. She narrowed her eyes and watched him slyly.
"You know, I'm not going anywhere, so you take your time."
"Can I drink the whole thing at once?"
"But I don't like it."
"You're not supposed to."
"So why do you drink it?"
"Because it takes away my bitterness! It reminds
me that I'm still alive, that I have bested the worst of them
and have lived to drink to their demise.
It cleanses my insides and warms me from within, like a young
lover in the heat of passion."
uncomfortable silence took over the
room. He looked at her with shock and
fear. Finally, she smiled and took the cup away from him.
"You don't have to drink it if you don't want
to. Maybe it's too soon for you to understand. You haven't had
your heart broken. Yet. But you will.
It's inevitable. It's part of growing up."
"Have you had your heart broken?"
Joon let out a sarcastic laugh. "Honey, my heart has been
broken for so long I don't even remember what
it felt like whole."
Her eyes drifted away to
a remote place and her voice dropped to a mere whisper. "He
came into my life with his beautiful hazel eyes and took away my
"Yeah," again her sarcastic laugh echoed through the room. "Amoo
"How did he break your heart?"
snapped back to reality, turning her eyes towards him.
"He married me and when I couldn't give him
the son he wanted, he decided
to marry someone else."
"But you're still married, aren't you?"
"I don't understand. Amoo Jamshid has two wives?"
"Well, one and a half, I'm almost out the door, if you know what I
"So that's why Amoo Jamshid doesn't live with
you; because he lives
with his other wife."
"Yeah, plus he knew that I would tear her eyes
out if he brought her to my home, so he rented an
apartment for her in
"Did he still come and visit you?"
"So why didn't you tear his eyes out?"
She looked at him with surprise and then let out
a roaring laughter that startled him into taking a few steps back.
"That's why I like you Pedram," she said
as she wiped away tears of laughter. "You're a no nonsense
kind of kid. I don't
know why I didn't tear his eyes out.
I really don't know."
her grin turned into
a grimace. She
eyes and dropped
her head, as if she
was ashamed of something.
for a while, making
Pedram wonder whether she had fallen
lifted her head with
a burst of energy and
her eye. "I
told you the best part
of the story yet. His
gave him three
daughters and no sons.
Hah! Here's to God's
wonderful sense of
She lifted her glass to
her lips and drank
"Are you sure you don't want a drink? You sure
deserve one, after all my ranting."
Pedram shook his head,
but this time with
"Come on. It's not going to kill you."
handed him the glass.
"Now, remember. Don't gulp. Just sip. And be
ready for its force. You have to conquer it,
like an enemy. And
reaches your gut,
surrender to its warmth."
drank the cognac, as
he was told, and
didn't enjoy it, by
the end of his visit, he had started
it. Her body was found
the following morning.
said she had
died peacefully in
her sleep, probably from a blood clot.
Her black handbag
by her side with the
silver flask and a note inside. "To
Pedram, my final and
most charming companion."
The ruffle of Shiva's
bath gown as she walked
brought Pedram back
to the present. She had puffy eyes.
Clearly she had
He pretended not to
notice as he handed her one
"Have you ever had cognac before?"
"Well then, brace yourself. You're about to have your soul jump-started."
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