A brittle ray of sunlight is shining on the wall across from me. I want to say, “Cold, I’m cold,” but no words come out. Jamshid’s voice, “Don’t be afraid, you can tell them what you want,” comes back to me. I still can’t bring out the words but my mind is quite lucid and I remember being driven here, my hands, my whole body held down by two men in white uniforms. Why is this psychiatric clinic called, “Eye Clinic?” Is it an attempt to make the place not sound frightening? Or maybe what Nurse Maliheh told me is true, that it was once an eye clinic and they haven’t bothered to change the name.
Through the small, barred window across from my bed I see naked trees and a row of brown birds, their heads practically hidden in their feathers, and beyond them the neon sign above a store, saying, Tehran Cola. A patient in gray uniform is sitting on the bench in the courtyard and begging loudly, “Get me out of here, let me go, I’m not crazy.” No one comes to her help.
I must try to find comfort in the routine, its predictability. You get up in the morning, groggy from the sedatives they fed you the night before. They give you more pills. You have your breakfast, then there is the shower and a series of tests. After lunch you may go back to sleep or wander around the corridor and talk to whoever is there, listen to their complaints, watch them cry or dance. You go to the courtyard to get fresh air and then they bring you back inside after an hour, keeping track of you. You make numerous phone calls when you have rials and a phone is available. You take more pills. Visitors come to see you for a brief time. Your aunts, uncles, cousins, even your sister all the way from Kashan, come in together or separately. They bring you flowers, fruit, pastries. It is routine too that you watch with envy someone being discharged and wonder when, if, your turn is going to come.
First thing today, breakfast. But then I remember I already had breakfast and came back to my room and slept again. I put on my hospital bathrobe and slippers and leave the room to call Jamshid from the phone in the corridor. The phone booth is occupied by Soheila making a call. She is gesticulating as she talks. I stand there, waiting.
“You did this to me,” I hear her say. Soheila has told me how she was beaten up repeatedly by her husband and how her parents still didn’t approve of her getting a divorce. She is twenty-one years old and already has two children; her husband has custody of both. She has said to me, “What do you know about pain?” She thinks she’s worse off than me, even though I lost my baby growing inside when a policeman hit me while I was participating in a demonstration to free the journalist, Hamid Bagari.
Impatient, I knock on the booth’s door but Soheila ignores me. The other phone on the floor has been out of order for the last few days. I dig my nails into the palms of my hands. Jamshid’s voice echoes in my head again, “Your problem is you can’t let go of yourself and cry.” He has cried many times openly since that Thursday when I miscarried. We had talked about boy and girl names. His was a boy’s, Ramin. Jamshid’s parents were so eager for a boy, a grandson. Eager is too mild a word, they are desperate, they demand it as if I could create a boy by my own will. If I weren’t able to give them a grandson to carry their name into the future, then their son should take on another wife, I have heard them say. I’m not sure how sincere or how strong Jamshid is in standing up for me and for his own principles. During the pregnancy his parents began to lavish attention on me, bought me presents, paid for everything having to do with the baby—setting up a room, clothes, all sorts of toys.
Soheila is still talking on the phone. I give up and go back to my room, take off my robe and lie in bed. I wish I knew what I look like now but there are no mirrors anywhere in this ward. I must look thin. My dark eyes and hair must have lost their color. My skin must be pallid.
Nurse Maliheh comes in, holding a tray with two paper cups, a few pills in each, and a glass of water on it. “Here, take these.” She is tall, high-strung, exudes efficiency, still I try to resist her. The orange pills are Paxil, anti-depressants, the white ones are Atavan, anti-anxiety drugs. “I don’t want any, I don’t need them,” I say. I resist drugs because they make me feel like someone has tied my hands and legs tightly with wire ropes and I can’t move.
“Don’t make me force you.” Then as if to make them appealing she says, “They are imported from America. They’re good stuff.”
I know if I don’t take them they’ll inject drugs into my arm. I pick up the pills and put them in my mouth. I hold them under my tongue while I drink the water, thinking I will spit them out later.
“Open your mouth…No, all the way. You didn’t swallow them. It’s for your own good. Here is more water…go ahead…That’s a good girl.”
I finally swallow the pills. I have been reduced to being a child. What if I stay in this state permanently, unable to ever be who I was before? The old self dead forever? “When am I going to get out of here?” I ask.
“As soon as you’re well. We don’t keep anyone longer than we have to.”
“I’ve been here for so long.”
“Only a month.”
“Can I go out on a pass this afternoon?”
“You can’t do that for a week, remember? You shouldn’t have tried to escape.”
That is also why for a week I am not allowed to put on my own clothes. I have to stay in my hospital robe so that I’ll be easily caught if I try to escape again. Three days ago I walked out with some visitors and went all the way home. Jamshid brought me back. “You’re a danger to yourself,” he said.
“You have many privileges here. You can use the music room to listen to tapes, watch TV. We have good food, the rooms are comfortable,” Simin says, trying to cheer me up.
“I’m so cold.”
“Really? It’s warm here. Last night a woman tried to commit herself to this clinic, faking being suicidal. Just having food and a warm bed can be a luxury for some people.”
“She can take my place,” I say.
We are both silent as we hear Mrs. Sedarati, the old woman whose room is next to mine, screaming, “I want to die, I want to die. Please let me die.” She lost two sons in the Iran-Iraq war years ago and the trauma has pushed her into lunacy.
Fereshteh, a patient about my age, comes into the hall and stands in front of my room. Then she begins to circle around in an out-of-control way and screams, “Why am I here, why am I here?”
“Oh, she’s carrying on again,” Maliheh says and rushes out of the room and shuts the door behind her.
Hussein, the tall, hefty medical technician comes in. “Time for a physical. They have to monitor your blood, and you need a new set of x-rays.”
“Again?” He gave me a CAT scan yesterday, made me lie down on a cot and turned on a machine, x-raying my head from every angle.
“They want to make sure.”
I put on my bathrobe and we leave the room together. In the clinic we don’t have to cover up in front of men as we do in the outside world. That is one free choice we have here, but then they see us as children.
Some patients are playing cards at the table in the kitchen, an area off the Day Room. The young woman who always wears her own red bathrobe is pacing back and forth in the corridor. “We can wear red here,” she says cheerfully. It isn’t as if she’s here for depression.
“It’s still jail,” I say, tugging at the plastic bracelet on my wrist, labeled Room 211, MK, to identify me.
I enter the examining room with a bright blue light glowing above its door. “Lie down on that table,” Hussein says. As soon as I lie down, he puts a heavy vest across my chest and slides my head into a hole in the machine. “Please lie still, don’t breathe for a moment, don’t tense up, it will be only a minute.” He presses a button. A vibrating noise fills the room. He repeats pushing the button a few times, sliding me back and forth. “That’s it. It wasn’t so bad, was it? We have the best equipment, imported from America. They’re old but still good.” He is very talkative today. “We shouldn’t have driven the Americans away. Now we can’t buy anything from them.”
“Will you help me leave this hell hole?” I ask.
“Why do you want to be out there so badly? You were miserable.”
I fall into silence, thinking if I get released will I be put in jail for having participated in the demonstration, what I was spared because of the miscarriage? Then I remember Jamshid saying, “You, along with a few others, were pardoned on the birthday of Imam Ali.”
“Finished,” Hussein says, taking off the vest.
Out in the corridor someone shouts, “I’ll report you.” Then shuffling footsteps, back and forth, back and forth, sounds of running water, something shattering, someone saying, “bastard.”
I go to the kitchen-dining room to get lunch. Soheila, Fereshteh and Homa are eating their lunches at the card table. I know them a little better than the rest of the patients. Fereshteh is thin, almost anorexic. She mumbles so quietly that I can barely understand her. I do know that before she was brought into the Depression Ward she had been in the Food Disorder Ward. Homa was in jail before she was brought here. She tried to kill herself in jail, where she was serving six years for distributing pamphlets expressing anti-government sentiments. From the cart in the kitchen I get rice, stew, yoghurt and cucumber salad. I put the plate and plastic utensils and a napkin on a tray and go to the large table where several new patients are sitting. They are all totally silent. I don’t say anything either, unable to bring out the words clogging my throat.
Maybe words will come out if I call Jamshid and try to talk to him. I go to the phone, take out a ten rial from my bathrobe’s pocket, and put it in the slot. I dial his number at the high school where he teaches, the one for boys adjacent to the one for girls, where I went before we were married. There is no answer.
I try the principal’s number. I recognize his voice from just the hello.
“This is Zari.”
“Zari, you know, Jamshid Khorasani’s wife.”
“He’s in class.”
“I’ll call back.” I hang up and wander around the corridor. I come back in a few moments and put another ten rial into the slot and dial one number and then another, but neither answer this time. I slam down the receiver. I have no more rials to try the numbers again.
Why is it so cold and dark around me? Why do I feel I am disintegrating? If only I could reach Jamshid. The door to the courtyard is open and I walk to the guard sitting on a stool next to the outside door. He is big and tall like the technician and can be friendly if he’s in the mood.
“Do you have any change? I’ll pay you back,” I say.
“How much do you need?”
“A few rials.”
“Sure.” He reaches into his pocket, takes out a handful of rials, and puts them into my hand that I’ve stretched before him.
I walk back to the phone. Again no answer. Why do I want to talk to Jamshid so urgently? It is that lingering, unresolved anger that he’s so timid with his parents, the fear that he will give in to them?
“It’s understandable that you’re depressed, you lost your son…” Dr. Mohammadi says as he sits on a chair while I lie on my bed, my body covered by the sheet, but my hair flowing uncovered on the pillow.
“My husband’s parents only make things worse…they blame me.”
“You didn’t do it on purpose. You shouldn’t accept the guilt.”
“I try not to.”
“You’ve a hole inside you, an easy target for depression. You have never gotten over your parents dying and that makes you vulnerable.”
They died in jail. In mysterious circumstances. They died along with other journalists their own age. It was five years ago but it’s so fresh.
“It must be hard to lose parents.”
“I was happy as a child. I loved my parents…My sister and I played so well.”
“How about your marriage?”
“I don’t know.” I am tired of his asking the same questions over and over again. I want instant recovery, a potion for happiness from him, even though I’m aware of the impossibility of such a magical remedy. “When are you letting me out of here?”
“As soon as you’re well.” Then he repeats more or less what Hussein said. “Why do you want to leave when you were so miserable out there?”
“This is another kind of jail. I’m treated like a child, no, worse, cattle.”
“A depressed person sees everything in a dark light, feels to be in a windowless box.”
“No, a depressed person sees things more clearly.” My voice is rising.
“Calm down now.”
“I can’t!” I scream.
“We’ll have to increase the Atavan,” he says urgently and gets up. “You’re sinking back further into the dark hole.”
“Isn’t it ironic that you put a depressed person in a depressing place?”
“Your husband says you haven’t let yourself cry. You need to let the grief, guilt, out.” He goes towards the door. “We’ll talk again tomorrow.” He goes out and shuts the door softly.
“Zari, your husband is on the phone.” It’s Maliheh’s voice. I open my eyes. She’s standing by my bed. “How are you feeling?” I don’t answer. “Let’s go.”
I follow her to the booth. My voice is shaking as I say, “Hello Jamshid.”
“How are you feeling? I’ll make sure to be there at five today.”
“When are you taking me out, please get me out of here.”
“I will, when the time comes, when you’re well again.”
“What did I do wrong?”
“What did you do wrong? You tried to jump out of the window. You cut your hair off with scissors. For Allah’s sake Zari, I don’t want to lose you too.”
Why is he saying for Allah’s sake? He doesn’t believe in religion any more than I do—another source of tension between me and his parents, who blame me for their son having given up religion.
“I have to go now. I’ll be seeing you very soon.”
“Jamshid.” We are cut off. I reach into my pocket for a ten rial to call him. I ring his number at work but there’s no answer. Maybe he’s there but isn’t answering. Maybe he was calling from home. I dial our home number. It rings for a long time but no answer. I have a vivid picture of our house on the tree-lined Tavalodi Avenue. The blue room with a little bed, toys, clothes, waiting for the child to be brought to it. Our bedroom with striped blue and peach wallpaper, a king size bed with a handmade quilt on it. The living room with the silk Persian rug I inherited from my parents, the handmade cushions strewn around to lean against, a sofa and some chairs for those who prefer not to sit on the floor. I feel a stab of pain as I see Jamshid’s mother leaning against a cushion in our living room and whispering to me, “You lost my grandchild. You’re a selfish woman.” Was I selfish to demonstrate while pregnant? But when is the exact right time for things? It was certain Hamid Bagari would die of starvation, any day, any moment, having been on hunger strike for a long time. It wasn’t certain that I would be hit by a police’s baton and lose my baby. I feel nausea rising in me from all the turmoil. I hold my head down and throw up.
I sit close to Jamshid on the sofa across from the TV, my dinner on a tray on my lap. A nature program is on, showing the lush green area around the Caspian Sea, with deer and sheep grazing on vast pastures. The bucolic scene seems artificial, unreal. I look away from the screen.
“Remember that day we went for a ride to Meigoon,” Jamshid says. “We had lunch there to celebrate our engagement privately.” He is full of a strange energy that upsets me.
“How can I forget?”
He puts his hand around my waist. But nothing feels right. How peculiar everything he says and does is. I wish so much I could penetrate that screen that has fallen between us. Did it happen since the accident or was it there before and I didn’t notice it? I clench my fist and hit him on his arm.
“Ouch, that really hurt.” Then he smiles, a forced smile. “I forgive you.”
Fereshteh runs across the corridor and Soheila follows, both giggling. Maliheh comes out of a room and calls, “Fereshteh, Soheila, stop that.”
Mrs. Sedarati’s voice rushes out of her room. “I want to die, please let me die.”
“She’s still carrying on like that,” Jamshid says. He scrutinizes my face as if trying to assess my state of mind.
I stare at his face too. New gray strewn through his curly dark hair, his bloodshot eyes, his having lost weight, make me feel he is suffering. “Let’s go to my room.” I put down the tray on the table and get up. We walk towards my room together. The door to Mrs. Sedarati’s room is shut but I hear muffled sounds of conversation from the inside.
As soon as we enter my room I put my head on Jamshid’s chest. “Please take me out of here.”
“Try to get well. Our little boy is gone and there’s nothing to be done about that. But we must go on. We’ll make changes in the house when you come out. Paint our bedroom lime green, the living room peach. Would you like that? We keep the baby’s room intact for our next baby.”
“But your mother…and father, what about them, wanting…”
“You know I don’t think like them.” He puts his arms around me and kisses me on my lips, neck. There is a knock on the door. An orderly says, “Visiting hours are over.” Jamshid pulls away from me. “I must leave now.” He walks away and I lie down on the bed, waiting, I’m not sure for what.
It’s eight o’clock. The visitors have all left, the doctors and nurses are in their offices, taking notes, whispering among themselves. It’s a particularly aimless, idle time of the day when there are no planned activities or interruptions. Fereshteh, Homa, and I are sitting with Soheila in her room. A photograph of her children, a boy and a girl, lies on the side table. They are both neatly dressed, their hair tidy, and they are smiling. Soheila has been, for the last ten minutes, lamenting her separation from her children.
“At least they’re alive,” I say.
She looks at me with sympathy. With her long hair hanging loose over her shoulders, her face round and soft, she gives the impression of being quite calm, very different from an hour ago when I saw her in the hall pulling her hair and wailing.
“Will you sing for us?” Homa asks her.
Soheila sits straight, locks her hands together on her lap, and looking into space, she begins to sing.
I don’t want your love, I don’t want your love to break me down…
We listen to her in silence, then one by one we join in, repeating over and over, like a scratched record, I don’t want your love to break me down.
Suddenly tears collect in my eyes and roll down my cheeks. My first tears since I lost my son.
Such a beautiful, haunting story. This deserves the Pushcart Prize.
A story that will linger with me a long time. How many prisons life brings to us with so much suffering and inhumanity. How important our tears are.
This is a wonderful, painful story, the writing pared down and sharpened until nothing’s left but the truth.
Something very haunting about this piece. All these women suffering from loss or love or from breaking a silence of some sort. And all protesting in their own ways. Fragile and edgy. Very nice.