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Fiction

Cognac for two
Short story

By Golareh Safarian
June 12, 2003
The Iranian

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."

He 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.

"So, tell me about this party. It couldn't have been that great or you wouldn't be home so soon."

"The party was OK."

"But...?"

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 the study.

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.

Although 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.

He 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 street persona.

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 trial period.

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 superiority.

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 Joon.

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 still alive.

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 and proud.

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 things.

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 and married 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 gatherings together.

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.

The building was surrounded by a serene garden of weeping willows and white 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. In less than three quick strides she had reached him and engulfed him in an amazingly strong embrace as she'd started to weep. "Ahmady. Ahmady, my boy. Where have you been? Why have you stayed away so long? I've missed you so much. Ahmady. Don't leave me alone. Please. Don't leave me here."

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 talk about 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 buy in 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.

"Today?"

"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:

"Umm. OK. I'll go pick up some stuff for dinner. I'll come back in an hour?"

"Great."

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 was told.

"Do you see that dresser over there? In the bottom drawer there is an old black bag. Bring it to me."

He 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."

He 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?"

Pedram 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?"

He shook 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.

He 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.

"It's disgusting!"

"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 anyway."

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?"

"No."

"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."

An 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?"

Ammeh 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."

"What happened?"

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 reason."

"Who?"

"Jamshid."

"Amoo Jamshid?"

"Yeah," again her sarcastic laugh echoed through the room. "Amoo Jamshid."

"How did he break your heart?"

Ammeh Joon 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 guess."

"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 mean."

"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 Mirdamad."

"Did he still come and visit you?"

"Yeah. Occasionally."

"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."

Slowly her grin turned into a grimace. She closed her eyes and dropped her head, as if she was ashamed of something. She stayed like that for a while, making Pedram wonder whether she had fallen asleep. Then, suddenly, she lifted her head with a burst of energy and a twinkle in her eye. "I haven't told you the best part of the story yet. His second wife gave him three daughters and no sons. Hah! Here's to God's wonderful sense of humor."

She lifted her glass to her lips and drank the remainder of her cognac.

"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 less uncertainty.

"Come on. It's not going to kill you."

She 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 when it reaches your gut, surrender to its warmth."

He drank the cognac, as he was told, and even though he still didn't enjoy it, by the end of his visit, he had started to appreciate it. Her body was found the following morning. They said she had died peacefully in her sleep, probably from a blood clot. Her black handbag was found 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 into the study brought Pedram back to the present. She had puffy eyes. Clearly she had been crying. He pretended not to notice as he handed her one of the crystal snifters.

"Have you ever had cognac before?"

"No."

"Well then, brace yourself. You're about to have your soul jump-started."

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