The baby would be fine, Saeed’s wife said. As the family gathered around the dinner table for his special dessert, a beet cake with yogurt icing, and his home-brewed beer, Saeed agreed to watch the kids on Thursday so that his wife could have a day to herself. They were his grandchildren, too, after all. Although it was only his fifth day in the new country, he had already gotten over his jet lag, touched and kissed his family multiple times, and been given a tour of the neighborhood. He had also bought a road bike and signed up for a spot at the community garden. Now it was time to get acquainted with the grandkids.
His wife, Goli, handed out plates, while his son buckled the baby in her reclined feeding chair. The baby had a fuzzy and soft-textured mole that stretched behind her ear. It was harmless, but despite himself, Saeed found the look of it nauseating. He made sure to sit across from the baby, blocking the brown lump from his view.
“What about the little one?” Saeed’s son, Cyrus, looked at his mother as she helped the baby put on a bib. The baby began chewing on the plastic sleeve, which her grandmother rolled up.
Goli had been especially enlisted from Iran months before Saeed’s arrival. She had visited nearly every year since Cyrus was a graduate student at Princeton, and so, six months ago, Goli was put on a fourteen-hour flight in order to take care of the new baby, making large batches of rice pudding on the weekends and feeding her at the crack of dawn and strolling with her at the beach until their daughter-in-law, Kelly, and the rest of her family, arrived home. Goli was there to help with this little surprise of a life that threatened Kelly’s long-overdue return to the workforce, disrupting precious family routines that had taken years to establish.
Saeed had told Goli not to go. “What business do you have going over there?” He told her, “If you want to cook and scrub and clean after someone, do it all here.” Do it for me, he had wanted to add, but he didn’t.
“At least the little one entertains me,” she had said. Nazanin Magnolia was her name, long and utterly unpronounceable. “The little one” was what they all called her.
Although Saeed had no particular service to offer, when Goli was summoned he had been graced with an obligatory invitation too, which he had declined persistently not only for the past six months but for more than fifteen years. And yet, after all those years of unfaltering resistance, here he was, in the land of guns and hot dogs.
Kelly and twelve-year-old Ariana finally retired from their UNO cards to join the rest. The two focused on their plates as the others conversed in Persian. Cyrus explained the plan to them in English.
“You think you can feed her?” Kelly asked, watching Goli as she shoved a spoonful of yogurt into the baby’s mouth. She had started teething recently, so she gripped the rubber spoon with her itchy incisors and spat out the food. Goli scraped the white mush off her little chin and slid it back into her mouth. This time the baby swallowed.
“She doesn’t come with instructions?” Saeed said, but Goli was the only one who laughed. “Don’t worry,” he added. “I used to feed Curosh all the time.” He pointed at Cyrus. The baby was playing with her ear mole, so he reached over and released her clammy little fingers from her ear, but they immediately bounced back to the mole.
“Not enough, though,” Goli said, and gently punched Saeed on the shoulder. For her age, she had impressively strong muscles, and a body so in shape it had amassed fat only in the right places around her hips and glossy cheeks. Her skin was so smooth that she looked a few decades younger. People often mistook her for the baby’s mother, assuming her silver hair had been dyed or had grayed prematurely.
“In Germany,” Ariana said, “they pickle beets.” When she was a toddler, Cyrus won a postdoctoral fellowship in Göttingen, so they had lived there briefly before moving back to the States. There was no way the girl remembered anything from those few years, but she acted as though she were an old, homesick expat. This repulsed Saeed.
“It’s called sauerkraut,” she said, her lips bruised with beets.
Ariana never had the courtesy or maturity to slow down and enunciate for him. But on the bright side, his English listening skills were already improving. Now he could strike up a conversation outside the Persian supermarket in Hackensack, or chat with neighbors about harvesting okras at the River Road community garden.
“Well, you should learn the many things they do to beets in your country too,” Saeed said.
He used to tell Goli, “This is all I know,” meaning his friends at the bike shop. He was content with the plastic stool they had designated for him in the corner, where he would sit and gossip all day about so-and-so’s cheating wife and wayward son. Even though he had sold the shop to a few younger bike enthusiasts, they never moved his Saeed’s Bikes sign. They would let him linger at the shop, entertaining customers and sometimes sharing a hookah with them. He had a hunch it was a gimmick, but he didn’t mind. Those were his folks. When he told them his wife was visiting their son in America, they encouraged him to go too. “You’re missing out,” they would say. But nothing had convinced him, until one day there was a black banner hanging outside the auto repair shop across from them, and he was told that the poor man’s son had died in a Beirut explosion. He had never thought about death, not in a way that felt personal. Such was the privilege of having a healthy wife and a rigorous cycling routine. Except for occasional knee pain, he had never had any of the blood sugar or weight problems his peers did. He had thought his family immortal. But he couldn’t get the banner out of his head, or out of his sight for that matter. Couldn’t stop thinking about the young man dying alone, far away from anyone he had ever loved. So, two weeks before his seventieth birthday, he had called Cyrus and asked him to book a flight, schedule a visa interview in Dubai, send him all the bank statements and supporting letters, do all they make him do to simply hold his children in his arms. When he finally embraced Cyrus, Saeed cried at the sight of his child’s receding hairline. As for the grandkids, he hugged them once. But Ariana would never stay in one spot for more than a few seconds. The kid was restless like a jack-in-the-box, and the little one was somehow always oozing, too wet to hold.
Something he hadn’t shared with anyone yet: he was pleasantly surprised. Except for the lack of a good Persian bakery and the machine-made Barbari bread he had to put up with, it wasn’t really that different, after all. He could see himself staying past the three months his generous tourist visa and return ticket allowed him. The small town had so many Iranians that he would hear Persian left and right. At Tehran Super, sometimes he would forget he wasn’t home. Americans were friendly, and he liked biking to his community garden, where he could practice his Spanish and learn that it wasn’t actually good. What he was still trying to get used to, really, was his own family.
“Why don’t you visit your grandchildren?” Goli would ask on the phone. “Aren’t you curious to touch them, hold their hands?”
“I held the big one in Germany,” he would answer. “The little one will visit me here.”
“Is that really how you want to live?”
“What business do I have leaving my country? Everything I know is here,” he would say. “If you’re worried about me looking after myself, I can cook.”
“Don’t worry,” Goli would say. “I’ve met men far worse than you in America.”
“So in your country they make this cake with beets?” Ariana said as she took an animated, loud bite.
“Stop it,” Kelly said.
“No, it’s my own recipe,” Saeed said. Those were beets he had grown at home months ago, frozen, and carried with him on the flight to make his special cake. Cyrus popped the bottle cap and poured beer into everyone’s glasses. Saeed produced an espresso cup from the cabinet and put it next to Ariana’s plate. Kelly shook her head, but she didn’t say anything.
Saeed was rather pleased with this one. He had hand-picked and sun-dried the limes himself and poured two batches down the drain to finally get to this perfect sour. Then he had wrapped two bottles inside his wool coat and buried them in his luggage. If they caught him, he thought, he would act old and distracted and say he had been tricked into buying those bottles as mint syrup. He wore his best wine-red suit and the multicolored beanie Goli had knitted for him, and he walked through the metal detector with the false confidence only a man in his seventies could muster. The security guards didn’t even search his suitcase. Cyrus opened the first bottle the night Saeed arrived. Goli scolded him for taking such a risk, and his son kissed him on both cheeks in gratitude. Unlike his wife, Cyrus always showed appreciation for Saeed’s craft.
“Honestly, older men are always worse,” Ariana said. He had lost track of the English conversation, but at the sound of “old men,” his ears perked up.
Everyone was laughing.
Goli explained, “Oh, old men can be unbearable. Believe me, I know!”
“They stare us down when I’m with Emmy,” Ariana said. “And they have this creepy smile and pressure you to smile back.” She spoke so quickly he had to quit chewing to listen to her.
How banal, he thought, the wisdom of a twelve-year-old mind. But it also made him sad to think he might always need an interpreter to speak with his own flesh and blood.
“Honestly, I kind of like it,” she said, clumsily spinning a straw with her middle and index fingers. “Sometimes people look so lonely I like waving at them.”
“That’s thoughtful of you,” Kelly said. She kept rubbing her tongue against her beet-stained teeth.
“So, tomorrow,” Cyrus said, “maybe Babajoon can pick you up from school and take you both to Kustard Kones.”
“What are you doing with your special day, Goli?” Kelly asked.
“I suppose I could use a full day to myself,” Goli said. “I have some errands to run. Maybe Pilates in the morning.” She was always healthy like that. The kind of woman who had a strict self-care routine. Every day at seven in the morning, she would feed the little one with lukewarm milk, rock her to sleep, and go on her brisk solo walk. She would wear neon-colored shirts and patchwork pants she had sewn herself. In exactly half an hour, she would arrive back, storm into the shower, and come out minutes before the baby woke up. Then she would repeat the whole drill again at three in the afternoon.
She was known for her eccentric outfits, her neatly organized drawer of identical shirts she had drawn faces on and the dresses in plain bright colors. Despite her age, or perhaps because of it, her whimsical style was eye-catching, unforgettable. And he loved it. He loved that a woman he called his could attract so much attention. He loved the pleasure she took in a simple, colorful outfit; how she would dance uninhibitedly every time she heard music in public. But what he loved most about her was how she had never worn, let alone owned, high heels in her entire sixty-eight years of life. He loved the way she prioritized her health and comfort in an obsessive yet pleasant manner. In her thirties, she went through a phase when she would walk into every shoe store and look for the perfect heels. “Just one pair, so I know how it feels to be so feminine.” But she never found anything that met her standards, and now she had notched a personal record she loved to brag about. For her forty-third birthday, he found her “podiatrist-recommended heels,” but she kept them untouched in her closet for over a decade until she found a distant cousin to donate them to. As much as he loved all this about her, it worried him too. To know that the moment he was no longer a comforting or pretty accessory, she could dispose of him too, like an unused pair of shoes.
“What errands do you have?” Saeed asked.
“Just personal admin,” she said, wiping the baby’s mouth.
“Personal admin!” Cyrus whistled.
“Can I go to Emmy’s house tomorrow?” Ariana asked. She wore a pink feather scarf, which she chewed on between bites.
“Stop eating your scarf,” Saeed said, but the girl didn’t even look at him.
“Spend a day with your Babajoon,” Cyrus said.
“Let her do what she likes,” Saeed said. “No one wants to be stuck with a boring old man, huh?” he said.
Ariana giggled. “Can I have some plain yogurt?”
“I made more in the Instant Pot, but it needs to cool,” he said. “Can you get up and stir it for Babajoon?”
“Why do you say it like that?” She didn’t move. “Like steer? It’s stir, like her.”
“Go and do what your grandpa told you to do,” Cyrus said.
“That’s just Grandpa’s accent,” Kelly added.
Cyrus pulled the feather scarf out of Ariana’s hand. “You don’t point out people’s accents like that.”
“Everybody has an accent,” Goli said. “Just like everybody poops. You do too.” She was a smart one, his Goli.
“Steer, stir. Steer, stir,” Ariana repeated, but the adults ignored her.
When he imagined grandkids years ago, he pictured saffron-flavored candies and bedtime stories, braided black hair and Goli’s handmade clothes. Never this, this blue-eyed and impudent babbling machine.
It had never crossed his mind that it was possible to feel the same way about his own offspring as one feels about a stranger. He cared for her, yes, but it was just abstract care, not the altruistic kind, not the I’ll-die-for-you and I’ll-adore-every-word-you-say kind of care.
He knew it was a primitive instinct, one of those he would never dare share with anyone, not even with his wife. But what a failure of a life, he thought: his genes so weak they couldn’t even make his own grandchild look like him. Her hair was thin and silky, her nose sharp like a pin. He had felt the weight of her friends’ look when he and Goli picked her up from school, when she told his light-skinned, youthful wife, “My friends wouldn’t believe he’s your husband.”
He stood up and stacked the empty plates. “So, what’s your errand?” he asked.
“Nothing special. Just a day to myself.” Goli kissed him. “Sometimes I get bored with routines too.”
They were both retired teachers. When he was a kid, he learned some Spanish from an American neighbor who left their house overnight after the Coup. But his love of Spanish and Cervantes lived on. For over thirty years, he taught at a private institution to rich adults with perfect English, or to college students who would often quit his course after one semester. Goli, on the other hand, had always known she wanted to teach children. She had been accepted to the Teachers’ College in his city and moved there from Mashad, took one of his Spanish classes, and supported the family with her semi-stable government salary when his language school went out of business. He spent several unemployed months biking across the city until he decided his true passion was, after all, greasing chains and fixing punctured tubes.
“What if we walk to Emmy’s together?” Ariana said, sipping on her beer. “That way I get to spend time with both of you.” She looked at her father. “Please, please, please?”
“That’s fine,” Saeed said. He and Cyrus cleaned the table while the girls watched TV. He folded the unused napkins, washed the dishes, and wiped the thick layer of grime off the stove. By the time he was done, everyone had retired into their rooms. He turned off the lights and the TV, locked the backyard door, and joined a snoring Goli in bed.
When he woke up at eight in the morning, Goli was already in her pistachio-green yoga set. She was holding the baby.
“What are you doing?” he asked. “You should have woken me!”
“It’s fine,” she said. “I put some extra socks and pants on the changing table for you. Make sure to use the rash cream every time you change her.”
“Are you leaving now?” he said. “It’s so early.”
“Well, it’s Goli day, isn’t it?” She placed the baby on the bed next to him. The baby’s arms were covered with fine, unpigmented hair, her skin red and patchy.
Goli dabbed her lips with her cosmetic crayon and spread it with her fingers. The baby bent her legs and held her feet in her hands, her eyes still closed.
“Don’t let Ariana get to you,” Goli said, looking into her hand mirror. “You can’t compete with friends. It’s all they want to do at this age. Friends, friends, friends.”
“I’m not offended,” he said.
“I would be,” she said. “A little.”
She changed into a pair of checkered, tangerine jeans and matched it with a backless top.
“A bit flashy, no?” he said.
“Seriously?” she said. “I’m too old to care.”
“Come here.” Saeed patted the bed. She sat next to him.
“So, what’s your secret errand?”
“Why are you so fixated?” she said. “It’s just something I said! There’s no secret.”
She kissed him, put on an oversized cardigan, and left him alone with the baby. “Two-thirty for Ariana! Go a little early!” Saeed heard her run down the stairs.
There was a story his friends at the bike shop liked to tell: On her way back from a solo trip to Istanbul, Mamad the Fixer’s wife finds herself at the wrong gate. By the time she treks across the giant airport, the plane has taken off. So she sits there begging and arguing with the airline staff over a replacement ticket. A Portuguese man, at least ten years her junior, hears and approaches her from the crowd. Charming and tanned and flirtatious, he offers to fix her problem if she gets a coffee with him. They hit it off immediately. She leaves for Europe overnight and never comes back. Or at least that’s the story they like to tell. Five months after the incident, she sends Mamad a one-page letter that starts with, “I thought it was only a coffee.”
Saeed put the baby in her crib and brewed some black tea. There was a Spanish vocabulary game on his tablet that Kelly had downloaded for him. Once he played it with Ariana, though he never admitted that her vocabulary was already better than his. Today, he scored ten out of ten.
The little one was an easy baby. She was smiling as she wriggled and tugged the crib ornaments. Her foot was stuck inside a hoop, but she held her leg with her hand and seamlessly untangled herself. Gran for “great” and bebé for “baby.” Those were the easy words. The little one tugged off the hanging ornament, and the crib tottered. He took the geometric shapes off the hook, but before he could sit back at his chair, the baby started crying. He laid her on his arm, belly-down, her small face resting on his palm, her legs dangling. Kelly wasn’t a fan of this, but he had raised his son doing it, and he turned out to be fine.
“My little bag of potatoes.” He flexed his arm. The baby’s moist lips sucked on his hand like a pacifier. He laughed. “Bag of potatoes for sale!” he said. This used to make Goli laugh. But the little one didn’t seem to care. She was more interested in the salty flavor of his skin. She was a good one, he thought. If he and Goli were around long enough, maybe she would learn some Persian too. Goli already sang her Persian nursery rhymes, which she had done for Ariana too. But Ariana protested them once she hit five. Maybe, if they never gave up on this one, she would grow up better.
He fed the baby beet and potato puree. He hated the idea of enwrapping his child in plastic, so he didn’t use the bib, and her white onesie got stained with purple clouds. “Goli would like this,” he said. He burped the baby on his shoulder, changed her diaper, massaged and rubbed oil on her hyperpigmented back. He sang her Persian pop songs, blew raspberries on her belly, and rocked her on his legs until she fell asleep.
Time passed slowly, and it began to concern him that Goli found this little one, with her vomit-burps and yellow feces, more entertaining than him. While the baby slept, he turned on the noise monitor and busied himself with his bike. In the garage, he uncovered a red bike trailer that seemed to be in perfect condition. He pumped up the tires and screwed it to his brand-new road bike. “Now that’s a date,” he said.
The ride was easier than he had thought. He bundled up the baby and laid her on a soft throne of three folded blankets. It was easier to stay on the sidewalk. When he approached pedestrians, he would motion with his hand and yell, “Please! Baby! I have a baby.” And they would step on the street to make way.
At the community garden, he picked a bunch of okras to make Goli’s favorite stew. The baby was sound asleep in the shade of the trailer. Once in a while, people would pass and say, “Cute baby,” or offer other compliments he couldn’t fully decipher. He smiled at everyone nonetheless. Half a kilogram of okras cost him about thirty dollars, which caused a tightening in his chest. But the woman in overalls was sweet and gave him a large squash for free. “This would make a good puree for the baby,” she said.
He sat on a bench by the goldfish pond, the baby propped against his chest, sucking God-knows-what out of the plastic tube Kelly had prescribed for outdoor feeding.
“We ask that you don’t feed the goldfish, please,” someone said from behind. His accent was choppy but calculated. He didn’t pause to remember words the way Saeed had to.
“I’m not,” Saeed said.
“Wait, is that Kelly’s little Magnolia?” A dark-skinned man emerged in front of him. He wore a floral shirt that he had unbuttoned enough to reveal an evil-eye necklace resting atop his chest curls. His ears were pierced with diamond studs, and his giant frizzy bun looked like a second head.
“It’s Nazanin Magnolia,” Saeed said.
The man squeezed himself on the bench. “I’m Mo,” he said. “Kelly’s friend.” He held out his hand, and Saeed shook it reluctantly. “You must be Cyrus’s dad.”
“Yes, Darious.” He chose it on the spot. That would be his American name. “Mo, like Mohammad?”
“I guess.” He smiled. “My parents were Paki.”
“From Pakistan,” Mo said.
“I told Cyrus, by the way, but if you feel lonely, my father doesn’t live far from you. He’s already met your wife. Maybe we can all get dinner sometime.”
“Who told you I’m lonely? Kelly?”
“No, that’s not what I meant. I just think it’s neat for POC to get to know each other.” He lowered his voice. “Honestly, this town is so white. It’s nice to see my dad finding a friend in Goli.”
“I see a lot of Iranians,” he said.
The baby dropped her tube on the ground. Saeed picked it up, licked it clean and handed it back to her. “The reason Americans have so many allergies,” he said, “is because they’re not exposed to different foods and bacteria at an early age.”
“Yes!” Mo laughed and snapped his fingers. “I always say IBS is less common among POC.”
“What do you mean, peosi?” Saeed didn’t know the other word either, but he didn’t want to sound too stupid.
“Oh, like, ‘people of color.’ It’s not meant to be disrespectful, though.”
The truth was, Saeed had already recognized this Mo. Kelly had suggested almost every day that they all have dinner with her Pakistani friends, and he hated the way she had immediately categorized him into a group he had no interest in being a part of. What he hated more was the fact that no one, not even Goli herself, had told him his wife was buddy-buddy with some PAKI-MAN.
“Like, brown people.”
He had never thought of himself as someone who had color. His skin was as neutral as the desert sand itself. The people in Tintin books had color. Goli’s clothes had color. His grandkids’ eyes had color. He might not have his wife’s honey-toned hair, but “brown” was a stretch.
“I see,” he said. “So our countries are neighbors, and we’re neighbors here.”
“Actually, my grandparents moved to Lahore from Herat,” Mo said. “If you ask me, it’s all Greater Khorasan. So we’re kind of like compatriots.”
Who was this kid, lecturing him on his own history? “Ever heard of Hindustan?” Saeed asked, his voice ringing with vengefulness he did not care to hide. “I only know Hindustan. Now, to me, your entire country is a myth.”
Luckily the little one cried and he didn’t have to listen to the young man for much longer. He put her back in the trailer and walked away while Mo was distracted chatting with the nice overalls lady. What a mess, he thought, the way young people simplified the past. His Tajik friend at the bike shop used to say, “We’re all from Greater Iran,” and that was history. Would his own grandkids be as confused as Mo if he didn’t teach them soon enough? His grandfather had been a Pahlavi sergeant, and Saeed carried that legacy with pride. He had made sure to picnic in Persepolis with his kids every spring and drive them down to Behistun every summer. But his son lived here, pouring cranberry sauce on his pork and mispronouncing his own daughter’s name.
Saeed couldn’t stop ruminating. By the time he arrived at Ariana’s school, his heart was racing. He wondered what his wife was up to on her mystery Goli day. Seeing her Paki friends? Conspiring, reinventing borders? Bonding over a Greater Khorasan that they were all from and he wasn’t?
Ariana was thrilled to see the little one “riding a bike.” She threw her heavy backpack next to the baby and rode her pink scooter ahead, while Saeed trailed behind. For their obligatory quality time, they stopped by Sephora. The baby was asleep, so he gave Ariana twenty dollars and told her to take her time. When she came back outside, she had a full face of makeup on, with two holographic star decals at the corners of her eyes.
“I’m not going to wash my face tonight, so I can go to school with it tomorrow.” She had painted her long nails with glitter too. “Emmy’s going to love this,” she said, curling her hand under her chin.
“They let you wear that stuff at school?” he asked. Now they were walking toward Emmy’s house.
She shrugged. “Everyone does it.”
“You know, when I was your age,” he said, “they forced all the boys to get buzzcuts and checked the girls’ nails every morning.”
“For good hygiene. It’s just how things were.”
“Were they really strict where you’re from?”
“You’re from there too.”
“I’ve never been,” she said. “I’ve only been to Germany.” She paused. “And New York, L.A., and New Jersey, but those don’t count.”
“You can be from somewhere even if you’re not there,” he said. “Now, remember this: where you’re from is called Greater Iran, all the way from Transcaucasia, where your Mamanjoon’s from, to the last tip of the Persian Gulf. You got that?”
“I don’t know what any of that means,” she said. “Grandma’s not Iranian?”
“She is. She was born there.”
“And I was born in New Jersey.”
“She’s from Greater Iran. Now you say it.”
“That’s where you’re from, you and your Mamanjoon.”
“A great empire,” Saeed said, fighting hard to contain his agitation. “Iran, meaning ‘Land of Aryans.’ Tell people that. That’s what your name means: Ariana—‘of the Aryans.’”
“Whoa, like the Nazis?” She was balancing herself on the curb, while Saeed carried her scooter.
“No, not like the Nazis,” he said, raising his pinched fingers. “God save you kids!”
Emmy’s Dutch Colonial home had cedar shingles and tall windows flanking the front door. There were three cars parked in its maze of a driveway. Saeed didn’t like Emmy. She wanted to visit Ariana every day. She was fourteen and tall and could already pass as an adult, which she seemed to love. She wore tight crop tops and low-rise, flare pants like those he wore in his youth. He didn’t want his granddaughter to act older than her age. Once he had caught a glimpse of them giggling at an obscene video on her phone, but he was too embarrassed to tell anyone. He had only told Kelly, “I think this Emmy is a bad influence,” and later overheard her telling Cyrus, “Your father’s being controlling already.”
“Now tell me this before you go.” He handed Ariana her scooter. “Your grandma has a lot of friends here?”
“Just the yoga ladies, I guess.” She unzipped the trailer, kissed the little one, and picked up her backpack. “It’s so hot in there.”
“Then leave it open.”
“Oh, and there is Mr. Khan too,” she added before buzzing Emmy’s intercom. “He’s, like, ancient. He always falls asleep on the porch.”
Saeed wandered around the block, passed an artificial pond with a lawn so well-kept that it looked like plastic, and he admired the gabled roofs. To him, they looked like fairy-tale houses, or the summer villa he used to rent in the North. Just before leaving the neighborhood, he stood by the curb and, with exaggerated arm gestures, helped a teenager parallel-park her SUV. When she was done, she said, “Dude, stop. I know how to drive.”
There wasn’t much to do in this town, after all. His sense of direction was deteriorating, so he was too afraid to venture far. On Thursdays like this, the men at the bike shop went on a little hiking trip. Sometimes they camped overnight. He would marinate a few kilograms of steak tips in saffron and lime juice and roast them outdoors on blazing charcoal. There would be black tea too, lots of it, the hot water infused with campfire smoke. It tasted like some East Asian tea Goli had once made him. The men would tell stories, about a car crash that cost someone they knew millions of tomans, or about the rich acquaintance who could buy everything he ever wanted, yet his daughter was bedridden. “God gives and God takes,” Mamad, the one whose wife left him, would say.
Saeed considered going back to the garden, but he didn’t want to run into Mo again. He sat on a moldy bench by the Hackensack River and fed his baby. It made him chuckle to think about how much he had let Mo bother him. He felt better now, his baby in his arms, a pacifier in her mouth. Muawch, muawch, muawching. He had forgotten this rhythm, the softness of a baby’s bald head against his chest, how he had been scared to touch baby Cyrus’s. “You’re paranoid,” Goli had told him, and she placed Cyrus’s chin on Saeed’s shoulder and patted his back until he spat out curdled milk. Saeed didn’t mind. He told Goli, “Funny how it doesn’t bother you when it’s your own child,” and “I never knew I was capable of so much love.” She had untucked her breast and put it in little Cyrus’s mouth. “Another foodie in this family,” she had said.
The scent of boiled eggs and blue cheese in the air. His cue to go home: the baby had pooped. He swaddled her in the blankets like a pupa, then strapped her inside the trailer. He left the zipper open so as not to overheat her. In the downtown area, sidewalks were now busy. Window-shoppers and tense office employees and overworked nannies crowded the pavement so much that he had to walk the bike. Passing by a small boutique, he caught a glimpse of Goli’s back through the cursive Felicia’s Vintage on the window. She was chatting with a young man behind the counter. Her orange pants accentuated her youthful thighs, and the hole in the back of her shirt revealed the curve of her spine, her unblemished skin. He couldn’t help thinking about her evasive tone, how she teased his obsessive curiosity, never told him about her new Paki friend. It all felt like a conspiracy again. He knew there was no logic to his fears, but he had no control over them. He felt left out. He pictured her on the porch with the Paki man, dancing, her skin glowing with almond oil. Ariana had once told her, “You could be an Instagram model, Grandma,” and he had said, “I think she’s too sophisticated for that kind of lifestyle.”
The young man was helping Goli try on a blazer, adjusting her silver hair on the back and tucking it behind her ear. Saeed propped the bike against a lamppost and watched. Goli strutted in front of the mirror, twirling. It embarrassed him, sometimes, to see her act so childlike.
The wind chimes announced his presence when he walked into the store.
“Saeed?” Goli said. “What are you doing here?” She spoke in Persian. The young man was helping another woman choose the right shade of blue from a stack of jeans.
“I just saw you by chance. I wanted to say hi.” He kissed her on the cheek.
She flinched. “Why do you sound upset?”
“No, I don’t. In fact, I had a fabulous day with the little one.”
“Where is she?” Goli asked.
“Right outside.” He turned to point at the bike, but it wasn’t there.
“The little one!” He stormed out of the shop. Goli dashed after him, and then the young man followed, and then the woman. A boy was riding Saeed’s precious bike down the middle of the street. “My baby!” he yelled, racing after the bike, working his cycle-toned thighs. His breathing grew jerky, his temples burning. He felt the sweat drops forming behind his ears and gliding down his nape. Funny how all he could focus on were the sensations in his body, how the asphalt hurt the soles of his feet, how his knees burned with pressure, and not Goli screaming “Help!” outside the shop, not the fear of her possible wrath, not even the little one. He knew he would have her. He couldn’t imagine otherwise. “My baby,” he pointed at the bike. The boy wouldn’t stop. So Saeed ran like he had never run before, ran more than he would ever run for his own life. Pedestrians paused to watch. More people emerged out of the shops. The traffic light turned yellow, and drivers slowed down. “My child,” he yelled. A man dropped his leather bag on a bench and ran with him. Suddenly more people realized what was happening, and a town chorus rang in his ear: “A child. A child.” Just as the light turned red, the bike swerved at the intersection, and the trailer toppled. The boy fell off the bike, and without pausing to pick up his phone from the street, he ran away, the leather-bag man after him.
Saeed knelt at the trailer, looked at the thick pile of blankets, untouched, perfectly buckled inside. He didn’t pick her up yet. He wiped the sweat off his forehead and rubbed his ankle. God takes and God gives, he thought. People surrounded him, instructing, murmuring. He didn’t care. He held her to his chest. If he could, he would squeeze her so hard she would spill into his body, stay sheltered inside him. She was crying, tugging her pacifier chain. He put it back in her mouth. She grew calm. He rubbed his cheek against her forehead. Warm, soft, like milk powder. He kissed her nose, her hands, her belly, the damp mole behind her ear. He held her little face to his lips. “You’ll be fine, baby,” he said. “You’ll be fine.”
Nayereh Doosti is an Iranian writer and translator based in Berkeley, California. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Epiphany Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, and Nowruz Journal, among others. She holds an MFA from Boston University.