1- She doesn’t remember the exact date, only that it was a weeknight, early spring, 1983; it was dark outside. She closed the door and locked it. Turned around, and quickly checked the windows across the street. Walked a block carrying her baby and a small valise. Hailed a cab.
For two straight weeks she had burned evidence in the Godin and on the stove, delivered the ash to the toilet, and flushed it down. The house was clean of evidence, but the reek of smoke was telling enough.
This smell is the only reminiscence of her home when she tries to remember home in later years. There will be times that she wishes her home was licked by a magnificent fire, a fire that wrapped round the whole thing, crumpled walls in a mad waltz of flames, transformed the people inside into the same magnificent fire. Half-burned hastily by the timid flames of a gas burner, drowned in a toilet bowl shouldn’t be anyone’s fate. But she rarely ever remembers.
2- A spacious, elegantly furnished room in The Sheraton Hotel, called The Hotel Revolution, after the 1979 revolution in Iran. Her first room since she left her home.
3- Before that, she hadn’t a room of her own for five dreadful months. Before that she had a home. The home smelled of smoke, and wet ashes when she left it.
Even though her house was still standing, she didn’t consider it home anymore. It wasn’t safe as a home should be. She couldn’t go home, wouldn’t ever be able to sort out her stuff, pick what to keep, what to donate, what to sell.
She stayed in her room, in the hotel. Sat on a chair by the window. Listened to the footsteps outside her door.
Footsteps didn’t register on the carpets in the corridor, she had to listen for voices. She heard them talking before she heard them pass by her door. Every time a boss-boy knocked on a door, for one precious moment she thought, there they are, there they are, they’ve found us.
But that was nothing compared to the rush of fear she had during the months staying with aunts and uncles, in that other town.
Everyone asked why are you here, dear?
But, all the while, they knew.
Because—-in those early years in the 80s, in Iran, everyone knew why someone would be running away, or in hiding – the guards of the revolution hunted for the activists of every group; the activists of every group hunted for the activists of every other group.
Her hosts wore menacing smiles. They had resentment in their voices. They demanded an answer to their “Why are you here, dear? their “What will happen to us if they find you with us?”
It was common practice to put a secret code, a little marking with spray-paint, beside the front-door of the houses where activists would be in hiding. Her hosts didn’t have to go to the guards, they could just put a mark beside their front door.
It was exhausting to hide from the informants outside and, also, the ones inside the house. She was in the company of others, all the time, under the gaze of her hosts.
4-The best thing about hotels was that she was left alone. And that there was a way out, the window. Or the balcony.
If anything happened, she could grab the baby and jump. She could drop the baby out of the window and wait for the guards to enter the room. That was her plan. She would not allow the guards to touch her baby to make her talk. That was her plan.
5- Two weeks later, another hotel. A more modest one, by an Italian bakery. Delicious smells filled the air morning and afternoon. This room had no balcony, only a small window looking over the busy street.
6- At the end of the week, they left, and went to another hotel. Her room was on the second floor. She said she didn’t want a second-floor room. Her husband said: “You can’t choose where you stay.”
She needed to stay on a higher floor for safety reasons. “Many husbands,” he said, “would report their wives.”
What kind of a husband would do that? She didn’t ask.
“Imagine you’re caught, and put in a jail-cell,” her husband said. “Instead of lunch, you’d be thinking of the floggings.” She was in no condition to tell him he wasn’t needed. That she didn’t want him with her when she escaped.
The next day, or the day after, he walked in and started packing up her stuff.
This time, they went to the terminal and got on a bus. For safety reasons, she wasn’t told about the details of her escape. All she knew was that her husband was going with her.
7- Next time she was in a room, she was in Turkey, in a village across the border of Iran, with a family of Kurds.
She sized up the room. Her hostess was careful with her. Didn’t let her do much around the room. Kept her busy in the yard. Took her to visit other huts in the village. Only women who own a home and a family, are sharp to spot the hunger for the ownership in another woman. Her hunger was for the room, and its little corners.
8- She became aware of the passion here: seven months after she locked up her home, and went into hiding, two months after she arrived in Turkey, hiding with the
Kurds in the village, the smugglers sent word that it was safe for her family to report to the Turks and claim refugee status.
They left the village and checked into a hotel in a town nearby and headed for the police station, as if they had just arrived.
Everything, from the ink on the pad of her forefinger – meaning she was stamped stateless – to the husband who felt an urge to enter, as if she were his home, bothered her. But she had no time to pay attention. She had a room now, in the hotel in a small town in Turkey. The room was too small.
There, she remembered everything she had learned about housekeeping. Cleaned the walls with a cloth soaked in soapy water. Cleaned the windowpane with watered-down vinegar. Washed the table, the top and the legs, and the two chairs. Washed the sheets, aired the blanket. Arranged plates, cups, cutlery on the windowsill. Arranged the storybooks, and the doll on the windowsill beside the plates.
Of course, she wanted her daughter to have a shelf for her storybooks. And she would get one, soon. There were two beds, singles, in the room. In one the husband slept. And in the other she slept with her daughter. During the day, one of the beds was for the baby to play on. On the other one she lied on her side and watched the baby. They had a burner. And two pots. It meant they could eat anytime. Food, of all the things, had become an issue wherever they went. There was never enough of it.
9- They left that hotel three months later. With a bunch of other Iranian refugees, they were admitted to Istanbul, but once there, they didn’t stay with the others. They got a room in a very good hotel with a stunning view of the sea. They chose expensive hotels because they could hide better among the rich. But, among the rich she couldn’t hide, she looked wretched.
10- They had a slow-cooker, inherited from a couple who’d gotten visas and left for Sweden. They were not allowed to have the cooker in their room, but, oh well. How could anyone afford eating every meal in a restaurant, even in a cheap restaurant?
This room was spacious, elegantly furnished. She divided the room into different sections. The living room, bedroom, baby’s room, kitchen.
There were two chairs of dark, green plush and a table by the window, the living room. The bedroom area was where the beds were. Baby’s room was on the big blanket on the ground, with pillows spread around to give her more comfort as she played. At the left side of the window, she had her cooking area – close to the faucets in the bathroom, and also close to the living room. She hid it in the morning before the cleaning-lady knocked.
Then there was the bathroom. She wanted to use the bathroom. It couldn’t possibly be used as a play-area. The girl could hurt her head on those faucets. Still, she could sit there herself, for a change, sometimes.
At times when her husband was sleeping, she took the baby in to the bathroom, closed the door, and let her play in the empty tub. A couple of cushions, and a blanket made it a perfect little spot. They sat opposite each other, legs splayed, and she read for her till the girl dosed off. Then she took her own book. The only thing was that she knew it by heart, now. It was the only book she had. She couldn’t read anything but Farsi.
11- Day eight: They checked out of the hotel and went to a cottage. It belonged to a Turkish businessman, an acquaintance of the husband. They used to do business together. The businessman was nice to them, although it was clear that once outside Iran, stripped of privileges useful to the man, they looked too young, too vulnerable to be called his acquaintances. His family was nice to them, too, but only for a couple of days. Nothing could be done, though. They had to stay there for two months, or until it was arranged for them to settle in Istanbul and wait for their visa. No one could guess how long it’d take. Some refugees just kept waiting.
She didn’t care. She was tired. She was experimenting with life while others, back home, were dying. That was amazing, not happy, but amazing. For the first time, she was building bit by bit the sense of wishing for things. When everyone else went to the beach and the cottage was empty, she stayed in and pretended the upstairs balcony was hers. With her daughter, she drank tea, and ate “bread and butter” cookies.
Sex was omitted from her chores. Sometimes, when asked, she answered questions. Speaking to him was slowly falling off the list, too. They didn’t need to talk. He made decisions; she had no desire other than to leave Turkey. She wanted to go to the west where she could be protected.
12- Two weeks before school started, their hosts went back to the city. They went back, too, and checked into a hotel, a cheap one, in Aksaray, Istanbul. She stayed up the first night. Cleaned the room. Rearranged the furniture. When it looked good and comfortable, the living room closer to the bedroom, and the baby’s stuff arranged on the windowsill, she lit a cigarette.
Her husband walked in, late one night. “How would you like to be a guest again?” he said and paced the room to the window. “Mehmet Bey, the lawyer, said we could stay with his family. We should go.” And paced back to the bed. “We’re running out of money.” Back to the window. “I called home today,” he said, “I talked with everyone, but when my sister got on the phone, we both cried.” “We should take his offer.” And he went to bed. She envied him his talk with his sister.
In the morning, she asked: “How much does it cost?”
He said: “While you pack, I’ll call a cab.”
At Mehmet Bey’s, they didn’t have a room to themselves. Every night, two mattresses were spread for them on the living-room floor, which they piled up neatly in a corner, before breakfast.
Mehmet Bey wanted them to stay. Asman Abla, his wife, didn’t want them to stay. No particular reason, only that it was hard, really hard, to cook for seven people with a budget that hardly fed her own family. Asman Abla began to have headaches. She yelled at her kids, and they all cried. At the end of the third week, her husband said when in bed, “We should try Ankara.” And she said to Asman Abla in the morning: “We’re going to try Ankara.”
“Yes, honey, you should. Your fellow will stray otherwise,” Abla replied.
13- In Ankara they stayed with an Iranian under-grad. They drank sweet tea in the morning. Picked the inside of the bread loaf and threw it to the birds. They missed the flat bread so perfect with every Persian dish. They speculated about Iran. They drank beer and ate salted pistachios until the late hours of the night.
The apartment was heavily occupied by the two males, her husband and their host. She just sat there, drinking beer and playing with the baby. Together they had created a game. She pretended to be a swing, or a slide, her daughter climbed on her, and slid down. Or she swung her as if on a swing. Her arms hurt. It was impossible to do anything with that apartment. The guy liked it the way it was. Didn’t want her to move the chairs around. Or change the décor a little.
14- It took a few months, but her husband found an apartment, signed the lease. They went together and bought all the furniture they needed from Eskey Pazar, where everyday, some sold their stuff, and some bought. She saw the inside of their new apartment after they bought the furniture. A big, beautiful two-bedroom on the third floor in a neighborhood where everyone greeted her – Hello Madam Iranian.
All she needed now was to know the date of their departure. She thought about Sweden. Or Belgium. The Netherlands was an option. Canada was the best. Canada was the best. That’s what she heard from the ones already there. And she found herself vulnerable in the apartment, alone, with the husband. She needed visa badly.
Alone with him she had to make sure she wasn’t insulted, in any way. That meant she had to be vigilant, all the time, to keep her distance from him. It was a dance she would perfect during the next four years. It was safer in hotel rooms, maybe, but she hardly ever remembers anything now. Although she could tell you about the soups she learned to make while in Turkey.
She walked around in that apartment in Ankara and adored the apartment she’d have in Canada. She heard that in the winter, in Toronto, they didn’t need to walk in the snow. The streets in the Market Place had roofs and customers, getting in and out of the stores, walked in warm, heated roads. Now if the government of a country was so considerate, that government wouldn’t hurt her.
Besides, once there, she’d buy things to keep. In Turkey, when she bought stuff, she knew she’d be leaving it, when they left. She wanted to buy things to keep. To have, and then to pass on … like life in a normal time, when you pass things to your children. Anyway, she was going to buy a piano, in Canada. Now, she knew she’d have to switch from piano to guitar, but she would wait till the girl really insisted on it.
Her husband had no respect for home, only for jobs. He was yearning for one. Sitting up all night, he searched possibilities to create a career for himself. She kept her distance. She had seen it on other women, the scars of beatings. She barred the beatings, but she couldn’t protect herself from other things. As a woman, she attracted his senses; as a person she irritated him. After years of waiting for visas, when finally they left Ankara, she was a broken wind-up doll – talking and walking at the wrong intervals.
Toronto She arrives in Toronto on a cold, winter night, not surprised at all to find it warm everywhere, inside the buildings.
Look, she is about to shake hands with everyone in the airport. Come on, they don’t know you’ve just arrived. It’s alright. We all know it’s common with newcomers to imagine themselves welcomed by the random, smiling passersby.
But she is sober enough to remember, first thing in the morning, that she’s got to get a new passport for herself, with her children’s name included. It’s home here now. Her two little daughters are hers, only.
HighPark She loves the intersection of Bloor and High Park. The four of them spend the first two months as guests of a young couple, in a junior one-bedroom, in the grey, squat building. The tiny apartment is so crowded she can do nothing to get a corner out of it. She takes the elevator to the lobby, while her children sleep, and smokes.
Dundas West They rent a junior one-bedroom in the high-rise on the corner of Bloor and Dundas W. Their first home in the city which is theirs to keep. Still, she has her doubts. It is a cute, little apartment. They have a queen- size bed in the living room, their bed. A yellow and blue tent, IKEA stuff, is erected in the bedroom for one of the girls, a fat mattress on the ground for the other one. There is enough room to go around. Still she finds it strange to feel at home. For safety reasons she sleeps in her children’s room. Her body needs more space to feel safe enough when she gives in to sleep. By the time she finishes work in the coffee shop, collects the kids after school, takes them home on the bus, feeds them, bathes them, tucks them in, tidies up, makes sandwiches, does laundry or shops for grocery, and is ready for bed, she is so sleepy can’t even touch and talk to the house she has dreamed of for so long. But still, it’s exhilarating to think that right at this moment she is in Canada, here, nowhere else.
At times she reminds herself that there will be enough time to kiss and caress the walls and corners of her home, to give it a good scrub, and to have at least one vase of cut-flowers in the kitchen.
Victoria Park Three months later, her family moves to a two-bedroom apartment at Victoria Park and Lawrence. Bigger, cheaper. She gets a real chance to paint, furnish, and decorate. She tries all the corners for the best spot for the dining-table. She stops trying. It’s a perfect home. It isn’t her home. She doesn’t feel safe in the bedroom.
Still, she leaves home at dawn, goes to bed a couple of hours before dawn. She works as a cashier at the Baker’s Dozen, then as an office clerk for a small accounting office. When she gets a job as an instructor, she begins to have nightmares. You see how pale she looks?
Every time she holds the little hands of the kids in the Day Care in her hand and helps them climb the cots for their afternoon nap, she feels a rush of guilt. Her children have it hard at school. Isn’t it awful to think that this people who have given her shelter in their country, can hurt her children? It is not easy to feel at home.
It is here, in Victoria Park that she manages finally to separate from her husband.
And here, in Victoria Park her husband gets himself a job he loves. Still, she is looking for a home.
Eglinton and Don Mills She thinks it’s a good idea to have a fresh start. She moves with her children to a two-bedroom across the road from the Science Centre. If you stand by the window in the kitchen, you can see the lights glowing round the Centre.
It’s good for the kids to go there often. Very educational. The problem is they hear crying and shouting all night long. She never meets her neighbors, but she kind of witnesses their fights. She knows they are not called fights. These are women and children who are crying. Tenants seem to be in a grave mood most of the time.
Nobody looks carefree, and happy. Parents here in the building don’t let their children play outside, unattended. Here, in this apartment she begins to wonder where she got this idea that home is supposed to taste sweet.
Finch and Leslie When the apartment in Eglinton and Don Mills becomes too depressing, she takes her children to a Bungalow at Finch and Leslie. Her kids walk across the road to school. This is their dog taking up the whole sofa; they’ve adopted her the week before. A plum tree, a rosebush, and the overgrown grass make the backyard an unheard-of heaven. It’s here in the yard where she hears of the suicide.
Her friend jumps off the balcony, and falls flat, dead on the pavement. Well, some can’t make it. It’s here that she discovers windows of her house suck her out into the dark if she gets close to the panes. If it weren’t for her ex, her friends would help her.
He’s asked them not to, so she is encouraged to save her broken marriage. There, half-way to the front yard, she yells at him. He yells back. He gets in his car and leaves without visiting the kids. She mows the lawn. Her daughter takes snapshots from the bay window.
Kingston Rd. In this house she does all the fighting she can afford. Her daughters are mad at her. She promised them back in Ankara, that they’d have everything, plus a home, in Canada. Now, on the porch, as evening settles down, they tell her, as if she is blind, that they don’t have a home, that they only move from one to the next.
They don’t have much of anything, and besides, they no longer have a father. She tells the older one, “Don’t take so many pictures. We already have rolls of film.”
Then she thinks, I’ll take them to Blacks next cheque.
It is in this house that the three of them freak out with fear. Walking back from school, before the gate in the Livingston Road. two teenagers approach her children and press a gun to her daughter’s chest.
She thinks, “I’d better walk them to school. I should pick them up. I know they’re old for that. You think I should let them go on their own? So, what about the skinhead? It’s so hard to feel at home.” The social workers are Not. That is not proper English. What she means to say is that the social workers Can Not. Well, fine.
It is also here in Guildwood Village that she discovers her children are not talking.
They talk but not with her. She speaks Farsi, with bits of English. They speak English with bits of Farsi. It is as if they live in another world, if not another home.
Yong and Sheppard. Back streets. Who would guess it wasn’t a good neighborhood? And what is a good neighborhood anyway? See, there to the left, the lights of the Sheppard Centre, Galaxy theater, the library. Isn’t it nice? A big three-bedroom, two bathrooms, a balcony overlooking the treetops in the courtyard. Green leaves, blue sky, and a waft of weed un-winding towards her windows everyday.
Are we staying? She no longer paints the walls of every new place. Are you thinking of moving out? There is no use. Before another coat of paint is needed, we will move out.
“Stop looking for apartments Mom. Mom?”
Her daughter cupped her mother’s face in her hands, said, “I have my own apartment, mom. My sister has her own family. Mom?”
The short story appeared in Diaspora Dialogues’ Book 1, TOK in 2006
Editor Helen Walsh, Zephyr Press