Mother-in-Law: Pesare man? Hargez.
Lamoreaux Justice Center
She asks if I have a lawyer. “No” I say, “Do I need one?” “Not if you don’t want one. You can fill out the forms yourself.” I make my way to a corner of the room and find an unoccupied chair. Panic is the common denominator among the occupants - desperation smeared over the faces that have run for refuge that Package L1204 promises.
I fish for a pen in my purse and find one tucked in between a diaper, a pack of gum and bills. I leaf through the forms. The first few questions are easy – name, address, contact number. The next part has me staring into the abyss of the soul for what seems to be an eternity: “Name of person you want protection from.” “Did the person commit any acts of violence or threaten to commit any acts of violence against you? If yes, describe those acts or threats”.
The woman next to me sporting a blond frizz, a deep gash on her right cheek and a red blotchy nose, offers me the box of tissues. “Here - take one – wipe your face sweetheart – he ain’t worth it”. She hands me a mint.
Writer’s block – where do I start and how?
I sense anxiety gather momentum and rise to block my air passages - I am short of breath. The smell of fear in this room makes my stomach churn. For the third time this day I want to retch - the reflex to terror. Denial yanks me out of the chair, compelling me to dump the package in the trash can and with it the bitter truth.
I am an alien here. My ilk revolts against such public display. Don’t I know that as soon as I submit the forms, they become records of shame archived in this very building – a black mark on my family honor – failure with a big F? How can I possibly live with the disgrace? And what if I keep the secret – so much safety awaits me. Everyone will be happy – the families, the baby, and eventually, me – perhaps. Part and parcel of marriage, is it not, the ups and the downs? Who said it was a smooth ride? He is a good man – overtaken by a momentary lapse of reason – instant insanity. It won’t happen again I am sure. I can forgive him. I will be good. I will do what he says.
Oh God, please – this is not happening. He did not hit me – he is not the sort of man who hits, I am not the sort of woman who gets beaten. This is a charade, a fantasy, a lie. Wake me up and take me back to the life I once knew. But the voices in my head crescendo to an unbearable thud. “It did happen – gashes and bruises on your body, vicious words which pounded your soul to a pulp. Venom - vitriol - violence. There is no denying it and there is no going back.”
Like a nervous school girl approaching her teacher, I walk up to the receptionist who is half my age and ask her if I am allowed to go out. “Of course. You just need to submit your form by noon so the judge can review them. Hearings start at 1:30 p.m.” I thank her and take my leave, hurrying down five flights of stairs and bursting onto the courtyard to take a deep breath.
I head over to the snack bar where the jovial vendor is handing steaming cups of coffee to a line of desperadoes. I get mine. He offers me a muffin. “Here take this lady – eat something”. I look from the hand to the face and force a smile of thank you. His kind eyes smile back as if he knows my story. I settle at a table and watch the crowd stream in and out of the courthouse. After a few bites and a couple of sips, my body relaxes and my mind soon follows suit. The world around me and the one within gradually come into focus – allowing me to take stock of the incidents which have placed me here on this chilly November morning.
I walk into the arrival lounge at JFK - burgundy colored suit with matching tights and shoes, and a wool cloche in a similar hue. Lady Plum he calls out as he greets me with his irresistible smile. The crimson flowers he has brought are crushed in between us, releasing their fine perfume which only further sweetens our warm embrace. We leave the airport hand in hand, stealing glances of each other every chance we get.
We stop at the grocery store to buy supplies - having a good giggle as we slip briefly into Persian to share a private joke. Reverting to English, the easier language, he tries to emulate my accent, gently teasing me. I playfully pinch and punch his arm. The proposal is original and clever. “Bo-Bo - Will you bag groceries with me – if our lives ever came to that?” Delight - a man after my own heart – witty, shy, and quirky – and best of all, not a cliché. “Paper or plastic?” I respond in an exaggerated American drawl. “That’s a yes if I ever heard one, dahhhling!” Our eyes meet and dance; he reaches for my hand and gives it a firm squeeze. We smile. We kiss.
This marriage is off to a good start I think as I wake up to the downpour, for lucky is the bride whose wedding day is greeted with rain. The car snakes its way along the Long Island Expressway. “We need rings” I exclaim. “There. Look. A jewelry mart. Pull over.” Inside of 30 minutes we have our engraved matching bands - $100 for his, $80 for mine. And a little while later in front of the judge, we promise the rest of our lives to each other – lock, stock and barrel.
Two vagabonds from the lost generation find each other and finally - they belong. They set roots in one another. Manhattan with its anonymity, complexity and its familiarity, becomes the crucible for their identity – which once misplaced for decades, is now rediscovered in love’s arms. Connecting, relating, sensing - the sober as well as the absurd, the mundane and the exotic. Joys are multiplied and sorrows halved – their complex duality is not only understood but appreciated – moments are shared and history is made. We had it – of course – we had it all.
Baby has just started crawling. She gurgles as I tickle her belly – it is naked time. She and I have just gotten back from my business trip. This is heaven - a child, a home – family. We had decided to buy the house we’d seen. He is due home soon so we can go and sign the papers. I think of our recent tiffs, since the baby arrived and the families got involved in all the hoopla. I console myself that all marriages have bumps from time to time. It will smooth out I am certain. Now that the baby is here – of course it will. I lift the little darling up high, jiggle her on the way down and shower her with noisy kisses. She giggles with delight.
He arrives from work early, appearing nervous and dismissive. With no introduction he asks me to call his sister to wish her a happy birthday. The request comes as somewhat of a surprise. I look at him with a big question mark. He stares me down. I stare back and he knows it is a refusal – final. We get ready for our appointment. Once the car is on the road and the baby is blissfully asleep, I break the silence. I remind him of our pact to keep the families out of our lives for the time being. This was a good-will attempt to get the marriage back on its feet; his idea.
I don’t see the hand leave the steering wheel but I see it when it slams against the dashboard hard such that the car shakes. His yell is a frightening thunder. The baby jolts and immediately starts to cry. Inside of a few seconds, the driver of this vehicle starts his journey to a dangerous boiling point. This prompts the onset of panic within me. I taste that sick feeling at the pit of my stomach which harkens a disaster fast approaching. Something tells me this episode is different. He seems particularly irritable today. My immediate thought is that I don’t want to buy a house. I say as much. “Fine” he blurts out - as if on cue; as if this is some play for which he and I are coming in with the right lines from a predetermined script. He takes the next exit and heads back home. He retires to the bedroom as I attempt to soothe the baby.
As I rock our daughter back and forth pacing the living room, my inner thoughts are drawn to the recent events in my home. The pattern is unmistakably repetitious. After a period of calm, a grey cloud looms over us. Out of thin air my husband finds fault with a small matter. He then exaggerates the incident to a point where it finds monumental significance in our lives. He refuses to discuss and instead proceeds to denigrate my character in connection with the error. Noise and angry words follow. Baseless accusations and hurtful insults are hurled. I ride it out in silence and compliance, turning my anger inwards while maintaining an outwardly cool demeanor – thus avoiding a confrontation. After a while a semblance of peace returns to the household until the next episode. With each recurrence, the language has become a tad cruder, the words more cruel and the gestures more graphic. Slowly but surely he is pushing the boundaries, moving into my personal space, scheming a takeover of the mind and the soul. On this fateful Saturday he has ventured into new territory. I decide once and for all to address us – this – now.
I knock at the door; ask permission to enter my own bedroom. I drag the plastic chair towards the dresser which is parallel to the bed. I lift the front of my green cotton dress to put the baby to my breast, gently positioning myself in the chair for maximum comfort for her and for me. I drape the dress over us and watch her lean against me and start suckling. I ask the man on the bed to give me his attention. I tell him that I cannot go on like this with shards of glass in my stomach, wondering all the time when the ax is going to fall next. I ask if he would tell me, his wife, what is bothering him. “Is it work? Is it me? I thought this is what you wanted azizam - marriage, a baby, family, a home.” I look at him with a puzzled and hurt look, beseeching him for an answer.
One minute he is listening intently, and next minute he leaps from the bed and comes toward me. I think that perhaps he is overcome by the scene, mother and child wrapped around each other. My heart misses a beat, as I allow joy and relief to seep into my heart and replace the doubt I had been harboring about his commitment to me. How foolish I had been. Of course he loves us – the family.
I hear the thud of the punch before I feel it. He targets my back before yanking my pony tail. I wonder to myself in disbelief what could be happening. Then much to my horror I register that I am being attacked. All I can think of is the baby, who, oblivious to all of this, is merrily nursing. I curl myself over the bundle in my arms to protect her. My body feels no pain as the punches continue.
He is screaming obscenities.
“Koskesh-e- Kesafat. Pedareto dar miaram, Madar-Jendeh. You lousy fucking bitch.”
A tornado is stirring in the pit of my stomach; the baby’s sucking gets faster. He retreats momentarily. Here is my chance to escape. I place my pinkie in the corner of the baby’s mouth to break her lip-lock on my nipple. I get up and take my first step to leave the scene. As I turn the corner out of the bedroom to go to the nursery, he places his foot in my path - gently. Horror of horrors he is attempting to trip me, to create a disaster. Oh, the catastrophe that awaits us if I am to lose my balance and fall, for certainly I would crush the baby.
“Bacheh! Bacheh! Ahmagh - Cheekar daree mikoni?”
It all seems to me to be orchestrated – the rabid yelling, the violent accusations, the lurid language – the calm as he retreats and rallies for the next attack. He screams the malicious words:
“Tooleh-at ro bardar gom sho boro”.
I make it to the nursery, over his foot, balancing the baby in my arms, my dress in a ball under my arm. He follows behind. It takes an eternity for me to reach the crib where I deposit the child. She is safe now, despite her shrill cries.
I turn to face my perpetrator. I see the devil in the eyes; the flared nostrils, the purple flush – lips stretched thin across teeth that are jutting out – hostile - feral.
“What has gotten into you? Who are you? What the hell have you done to my husband? ”
His left fist leaves his side; the palm opens on the way up. Everything slows down - as in a tragic accident. In the brief moment before the strike, a ray of sun peeks through the window catching the glint of the gold band he wears. The hand which once had held me lovingly and that symbol of devotion, team together and become the weapon of assault – delivering the ultimate blow – a slap. I hear the hiss and feel the sting – of shame, humiliation and pain. He catches the left side of my face with a perfect back-hand, the knuckles digging into my cheekbone – leaving their mark of discipline. My glasses fly off my face like a bird fleeing its predator. I watch their trajectory onto the changing table and then they are lost somewhere behind the diapers and bottles. I am now as blind as a bat. Shocked, disoriented, desperate, stunned - I attempt to cover my face and crouch. “Stop” I yell. “Stop the madness. What are you doing to us?” Angry punches come in cascades, to my side, arms and back - he is relentless. Blinded with rage; he cannot and will not stop. By now my mind has escaped to another world where all that the body is experiencing is denied substance. Fantasy takes over, compelling me to see this as a show – make-believe play-acting; for to admit to its reality would surely make me collapse. My soul, oh my soul, is devastated and crumpled in some corner – wailing and trembling. And through it all the only sound I hear is that of my baby’s piercing howl.
He tires and disappears.
I gently lift myself from the floor and start looking around for my glasses. I grab a baby-wipe to clean my hands and face. There is a distraught woman staring back at me from the mirror above the changing table – an angry blood-stained cut adorns her right eye. I wipe my face quickly, blow my nose, swallow the tears and head over to the crib to pick up the child. She clings to me, crying uncontrollably. I sob inside for the nightmare she has had to witness.
He emerges from the bedroom hours later. He knows full well I would rather die than to admit to having been beaten by a bully. Maybe he thinks he can now play with my mind and have me deny, even to myself, that such an atrocity has taken place.
I call upon him with a shaky but determined voice.
“You need to vacate the premises.”
He laughs at me – ridiculing my words, mocking my accent.
“Ooh, look at Miss Manners issuing orders.”
And then at the top of his voice:
“I leave when I want to leave and I stay for as long as I want to stay. Got it? You stupid cunt.”
“It is over between us. You need to leave this house.”
“Fuck you. Fuck your prissy ass; Fuck your whole goddamn family and the fucking horse you all rode on.”
In the dim light of the autumn dusk I catch a glimpse of the caged animal – frightened and distraught - living its own hell – miserable and desperate – its only tools of survival – fists and words – sorry pleas for validation. I pity him.
The court clerk comes into the waiting area: “Mrs. Se... Se…” I raise my hand. He nods and motions me to follow her. “The judge will see you now.” The woman with the blonde frizz gives me a hopeful smile, reaches for my hand and gives it a gentle squeeze. I smile back and walk to plead my case in front of the Honorable Judge.
“I have read your account. Why didn’t you call the police?”
Hesitation - I bow my head momentarily to gather my thoughts before I offer a response. I lay down the burden of pride, swallow the lump in my throat and look up.
“Well, your Honor, I did not know that I could or whether I should. After all, he is my husband. I was embarrassed. My dignity wouldn’t allow it. Turning in a family member to the authorities? That’s sacrilege.
“Do you realize that by not calling the police straight away you placed your life as well as that of your daughter in grave danger?”
Big old tears struggle to get out but I rebuke them back. I look at the judge in remorse for having committed the ultimate foolishness – taking my safety and that of my child in my own hands.
“Your Honor everything happened fast, I barely had time to register. I simply didn’t want to believe it. Things like this, well, they don’t happen to people like us – at least they are not supposed to.”
“So, what made you report the incident to the police on Monday?”
I wring my hands; pinch my forearm hard to stop the jitters.
“I stopped off at a friend’s house on Monday morning. I was distraught – in shock. I told her what happened. She saw the wounds and bruises that I had not. She drove me to the police station to file a report. I didn’t want to go. I was mortified. What I felt was beyond words your Honor, especially when they asked me to take my shirt off so they could take pictures.”
“I see the photographs here.”
“I was assaulted, injured and utterly humiliated by the one who was supposed to protect. I had given this man my word. Something happened to him and he attacked. I will never understand why.”
This and That
At the tender age of 6 a child walks in on an argument between her parents. There is a sharp and shiny object wielded and a man is backed into a wall. His body touches the scorching wall heater; he yelps and leaps sideways. The child screams. The man and the woman turn to her in astonishment. An old woman appears, grabs the child and scurries away to a bedroom where she holds the child until the shivers stop.
There is a kettle that is thrown across a room, the spout of which catches the corner of the man’s right eye, slashing and bruising as the contents pour everywhere on its downward journey. Mayhem and terror - pillage of the soul. The child, now an adult, catches a rare glimpse of the sickness within – and wonders – “Still?”
Domestic abuse - the macabre dance deftly performed on the tightrope of trauma bonds - of fear, guilt and control. Two people meet – attach and take their place on the stage – and the show begins - the past is repeated in front of the innocent spectators - prisoners of circumstance. And for the show to go on, realities are denied, history is rewritten, and atrocities are justified and lauded – in the name of love. And at the end – what is there? A marriage whose shell may glisten with every manifestation of success but within is nothing but a sham, a farce – a melodramatic comedy. And nobody knows the truth - ever - but the dancers.
I remember the old woman now long gone - the warmth of her embrace, the soft kisses, the lullaby, the shivers and her words. She holds my hand momentarily as I walk out of the courthouse. The tears can wait – for now there is relief. The cycle is broken – the dance is no more. I take heart, look to the heavens and greet the next chapter of life - flying solo.
You might have told me love was not enough
You might have lied and told me that it was,
The gilded cage and the holy three
Don’t tell the truth as far as I can see*
Glossary of Persian Terms
Azizam My beloved
Cheekar daree mikoni? What are you doing?
Jendeh Prostitute, Slut
Kos-kesh Pimp (male or female)
Pedareto dar miaram I will do you in.
Pesare man? Hargez My son? Never.
Tooleh-at ro bardar gom sho boro: Take your runt and get lost.
* The refrain lyrics from “The Gilded Cage” by Jonatha Brooke.
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