My entire family is from Iran, except for my grandmother. She was born in India, a secret my family keeps hidden in the dark corners of our history. Her father was a soap merchant, traveling throughout the Middle East. She was the youngest daughter, but when she tells the story her face lights up and I know that youth is synonymous with beauty. Colorful saris lined her dresser; her pockets were full of tamarind and ginger sweets. She met my grandfather when she was 12. They weren’t quite childhood sweethearts, but when it came time for him to choose his favorite daughter, she was the obvious selection. She lived in Bombay-says she was present at the explosion. Saw the smoke rise from the ash and destruction, cried with the others whose homes were destroyed. But like a phoenix, she rose and triumphed, leaving India behind in the embers.
My entire family is now based in New York. We live a dismembered version of the American dream. “Immigrants” is a word too poor, too degrading. We are exports, luxurious goods from a far away land. Caviar, carpets, kitties and the Hariri’s- the finest Persia had to offer. I see my grandparents every Sunday. They prepare Persian dishes and we sit around the table and gossip about distant relatives and sought out celebrities. My grandmother plays bridge every Friday on 89th and Park. On her way home, she stops by our apartment to say a quick hello to whoever is in. She comes clad in oversized fur, which engulfs her tiny frame like friendly flames. Her face hides behind huge spectacles and I can never quite put my finger on whether they’re Versace or vendor bought. She sits on my bed and watches me work, memorizing every strand of hair on my head. Now the eldest daughter, her shoulders sag with the weight of her past, all of her departures. But she holds up her head and I know that age is synonymous with beauty. She reaches into her pockets and offers me chocolate kisses or ginger sweets. I choose the chocolate, and she, the ginger. Then she leaves; the Manhattan skyscrapers seem to rise like embers behind her.
My mother was born 6 feet tall, with hair like a raven and bone structure as if she were sculpted by Michelangelo himself. She holds her head taller than the skyscrapers that she builds, an architect of success and recognition, as well as a self-seen starving artist. She is a work in progress and yielded entirely by passion in every aspect of her life. Feminism is her gospel and yet, she is a hopeless romantic. If her life were a painting, it would be a piece by Chuck Close- beautiful, refined from afar, but full of tiny, thought provoking fragments. I am one of those fragments.
When I was younger, I used to sneak into her closet when she had left for work every morning. I’d wait till I heard the door close and then tip toe across the hall. I had to stand on a tiny stepping ladder to touch the light switch and then suddenly, I was in paradise. Fabrics of all vibrant shades, furs and feathers. I could become any fixture of my imagination- a woman of the night, attending the Metropolitan Opera. Or perhaps, a Swedish schoolgirl, clad in plaid with a bit of bad behavior stitched into my loafers. I could imagine my mother, young again and just as beautiful, walking down the streets of Milan in her flouncy Celine skirt that my grandfather bought her when she was nineteen. I could picture her laughing, the corners of her eyes creasing into crescents, I would one day inherit. She had been a model right out of college-Imagine this: a 21 year old Persian export Ivy league architect, special enough to pose for middle aged men in metrosexual scarves. My mother always explained that she had quit after a year, when she had realized that photographers used young girls, took advantage of them. All I understand is that she was worth taking advantage of.
Oh, but my favorite was that pair of red high heels. Perfectly patent, they shined as if they had never touched the pavement. I pretended they were sculpted purely from cherries, which my mother had picked in the backyard of her house in Esfahan as a girl. They made a clicking sound whenever she walked and leant more than a hand to her already slender, long legs. I would put them on and pirouette in the mirror, tripping slightly and acting out scenes in which I played a mysterious, young Parisian sitting at a hotel bar in Paris. “Oh yes Sir, I’ll take another drink”, and all the men would laugh because I was ravishing. They loved me and they loved my shoes and that was that.
My mother is and will always be a vision. Today, she will only put on her red pumps on occasion, and suddenly I am a little girl again. She winks in my direction and all I can bare to think is that one-day she will grow old, like the walls of the lost city of Persepolis, beautiful but broken. And I will come visit the city, the tourist that I am in the presence of her sanctity, and she will hand me those high heels and whisper to me, “Take them. I don’t need them anymore.”
I once had a stuffed purple dog named Latasha.
I won her at a county fair.
She became the little sister I never had.
When she died, I buried her in the back yard.
When my sister eats a burger, she has to remove the bun. Then she gives the fries to me. In my family, we call this helping.
My sister was born an eternal ray of sunshine, impossibly upbeat and excruciatingly friendly. From the moment she arrived, I envied and resented her. She was everything I could never be. My nickname as a child was Madame “no”, because I was an unstoppable force of negativity and attitude. I came into my angst-driven teenage years, at the age of four. Meanwhile, my sister came out of the womb with wisdom of the old world; she was Gandhi. While I struggled with my awkward appearance, she had cheeks you could take in the palms of your hands and cherish forever. She was beautiful. And I couldn’t stand it.
My sister was also born with a layer of chub, as most babies are. But as other children grew up and went through the inevitable metamorphosis of shedding their extra skin, she remained, stuck in her cocoon. Since then, my mother has placed her, as well as the rest of our family, on a strict diet. She treats her as if she isn’t a caterpillar, but a vile, unfortunate worm. Every sport since little league has had my sister’s name on the sign up sheet. A little black book exists in our kitchen with the sole purpose of keeping track of nutritionists who have tried and failed. And we talk, oh, we love to talk. My entire family discusses her weight as if it were the coming apocalypse, right in front of her. I no longer know what normal table talk is. I no longer know what normal is.
Still, my sister is stronger than I’ve ever been, and could ever be. She’s taken the body that contains her and turned every bead of sweat that’s rolled down her forehead into muscle and brawn. Once when we were kids, playing at the park on 85th built to resemble the ancient civilizations of Egypt or Persia, I was approached by a girl twice my size. Smelling the fear radiate off my skin, the girl began to pick a fight with me over my turn to climb the pyramids. I passively backed away, but my sister, five years old at the time, came charging at her like Cyrus the Great, kicking her in the stomach and grabbing my hand to take me safely to my rightful place on line. I still look at her with the admiration I felt on that day on the playground. She was nobody’s victim, a true American hero.
A few months ago, my sister began attending parties. I took her aside and informed her that if she ever needed help, she should call me; our mother is debatably insane. She assured me my phone would never ring, until one night it did. Her voice was splintering with tears and I could hardly decipher her words. A boy had called her the one word we never mentioned. The f word, so to speak. So I came home and at one o’clock in the morning, we ordered burgers and fries. We didn’t speak of the night’s events, just ate in silence, savoring every last bit of bun.
My aunt Cheri comes twice a year. She’s only ten years younger than my mother, but she treats the difference as if her sister has early Alzheimer’s. Cheri was “cool” back in the day. When Khomeini took over our land and citizen became synonymous with prisoner, my grandparents fled, taking a teenage Cheri with them. They moved to London, which proved to be ten times more cosmopolitan than they were prepared for. Cheri became the Hariri’s James Dean, growing up in a culture centered on rebellion, yet molded in the conservative roots of our Iranian past. She quickly dissevered all ties with my grandparents and their morality clause. But independence came with a price. An old wise tail of my generation: Cheri’s first encounter with a tampon. After realizing that most of her peers took full advantage of this alternative to sanitary napkins, Cheri purchased her first tampon. After finding the wrapper in a trashcan, my grandmother was livid. She pronounced Cheri a whore. A harlot. She told all her friends from the club that her daughter had sadly lost her virginity to a cotton stick. Cheri, humiliated and angry, left home. Four years later, she returned with a husband.
Cheri will often come into my room and ask if I smoke; she won’t tell. I wish I did, just to make her proud.
My skin is a caramel colored slur of racial ambiguity. The kind that meant that in kindergarten I had trouble choosing which marker to use for my stick figures. My singular brow was always knit together in hope or confusion, one giving rise to the other. My skin bore no pimples nor shine, a clean slate, which I only wish applied to the rest of my life. I had slight side burns, strands of black hair that ran down the corners of my ear lobes, which were soft and delicate. My eyes were a pool of brown, hollow yet deep enough to get momentarily lost in. But people always found their way back. My lashes protected the shallow pits from harms way. Long, luxurious. Like the silk of my ancestors. They were beautiful and everyone agreed: it was a shame that a feature so beautiful was wasting away on a face like mine. My nose was small and symmetrical; feminine in contrast to what hung beneath it- small hairs. The mustache of a pubescent boy attempting to measure up to his father’s greatness. My lips were tiny cherries, small and red. I so often pursed them together, locking away the secrets which hid furrowed beneath my tongue. My shoulders hunched forward like a regular Quasimodo. I appeared to be no more than 5’3, 5’4, but in truth my height stretched past the clouds and towered over all those who made me feel small. My figure was neither fat nor slim. I identified with pudgy, distorted- melting fudge popsicles that were sweet but evidently disgusting. My skin was loose and tender, sagging in all the wrong places. It permitted room to grow, but my body was much like a prison cell. I was trapped, against my will. A wrongly accused, guilty verdict. I looked in the mirror and back stared a plainly hideous creature. And day after day, I returned to this space, using my fists to pound against the walls and the pavement, begging my mind to break me free.
But she doesn’t live here anymore.
Call me lady liberty, for every morning I rise as the sun does to greet thousands of passengers crying out from their starboards. I stand tall; a stricken smile slapped permanently upon my face, and welcome each individually. Their lips are wet with words of revolution, and through the fog of the Atlantic, they search for freedom. Their baggage is too heavy to carry on deck; it creates thick red indents on the palms of their hands and clouds the better judgment in their minds. I watch them squint, as they attempt to make out the road that leads to the ports of Manhattan, paved with gold mined by their ancestors in the far mountains of their motherlands. They’ve come to reach their arms up to the skyscrapers that seem to frame the corners of every cloud and yell “Take me with you!” They plan to sell their souls, wives, and belongings, all for the chance to say, with conviction “I am an American”
Every Sunday night, I find these friends at my dining room table. We feast on khoresht and kabob, while discussing everything from democracy to divorced celebrities. Their skin is tanned and their hair straight, and the seasick green that once lined the lids of their eyes has been replaced by the reflection of ever promising, yet ever resilient, green of hundred dollar bills. I ask them to give me their tired or their poor.
“Do I look poor to you?”
And we all fall asleep to the American Dream.