A celebration of Persian voices and talent

Bring Your Fear! by Daniel Rafinejad

Essay

Bring Your Fear!

by Daniel Rafinejad
“Earlier that year, when I got pneumonia for the first time, I looked up pneumonia in the Time-Life book and then asked my mother what “fatal” meant. When she told me, I became frantic, sobbing into a throw pillow...The Persian word meaning seriously ill—not from a cold, but from cholera or smallpox or cancer—is bimār. My mother taught me that it literally means “fear-inducer,” or “fear-bringer.””

Bring Your Fear!
by Daniel Rafinejad

Sa’di and Hafez, the two Shirazi lions of Persian literature, adjure their readers to be open and kind towards all neighbors, even needy—or “smoky,” as Sa’di calls them—neighbors. But I’m not very open or kind to mine. My non-Shirazi, Iranian parents taught me to be polite and decorous but never too friendly or helpful. People take advantage of goodwill. Plus, you want them to have as little on you as possible.

I’m less afraid of being used than I am that my neighbors, especially if they’re white, will ask me to do things I don’t know how to do, like guiding a car into a parking space or babysitting hamsters. I worry that if I chat too much, if I’m too open, they’ll feel comfortable enough to stop by, at which point they’ll notice this morning’s cat vomit on the floor, yesterday’s scarf across the table, or, worst of all, my unmade bed. Then they’ll deem me the shit I really am.

Photograph of my school portrait from 1985. I appear obliging and cheerful, but absent somehow. My mother placed the picture in that frame.

I liked neighbors when I was eight, however.

Doris owned the house on the east side of ours in San Francisco, but I thought she pretended to be homeless, so people would feel sorry for her. She always wore muumuus and a misshapen straw hat trimmed with wooden cherries. I only ever saw hoary wisps floating under the hat’s brim, but I could tell she had once been a pretty redhead.

Doris paced up and down Judah Street with her collapsible shopping cart, talking to herself, sometimes with a trowel in her hand. She had a World War II victory garden adorned with a giant statue of the Blessed Virgin and little American flags. Doris grew bell peppers and cherry tomatoes. She also kept chickens in the back. When I was very little, my mother, who’s not a morning person, called the police about a rooster with a Stentorian crow. Doris never forgave my parents for it.

On the west side of our house was Alice’s. Alice was a year younger than I. Her parents were obese; her brother smoked and drove a Mustang. They weren’t homeless, but they were kasif Americans, and I wasn’t allowed to go onto their property or enter their house. Still, I liked Alice and her sweaty corn silk hair, like Jodie Foster’s in Freaky Friday, even if she was dirty and asked stupid questions. If she were bouncing a ball on the sidewalk, and I was tromping through the bushes looking for the stray cat I called Jerome, she would ask why I was wearing swimming goggles. The answer was obvious: cats don’t like eye contact, and wearing my father’s orange-tinted goggles was like having my eyes shut.

Alice accepted things easily. Once I explained the purpose of the goggles to her, she understood and even fetched her own blue-tinted goggles to help me search for Jerome. The cat was named for Saint Jerome, whom I had decided was my patron saint, after a nun gave me a card depicting him removing a thorn from a lion’s paw. Knowing that Alice went to a private Christian school, I thought she would be impressed by the name I had picked for my alley tom, but she was too distracted by pill bugs. She lost interest in the Jerome search when her goggles’ elastic bland, corroded by chlorine, snapped.

There were other neighbors. Down the road towards the ocean lived David, a little boy with burn scars on his arms. We seldom saw him. Across 9th Street to the right was Michael, who was rich and popular and looked as if he belonged in a Flintstones Vitamins commercial. Across from us in a sky-blue house lived a skinny old man with no family who repaired cars in his driveway and called my father Doc.

Summers, Marjan was my constant companion. She wasn’t a neighbor, but our mothers were best friends, and she knew all about Doris and Alice and the other characters on Judah Street. She was the only other Iranian student at Wychwood Elementary, but she was also a girl and a grade above me; in her eyes, I was a smelly little boy made of puppy-dogs’ tails. We had to pretend to be cousins at school, in case we ever shared a ride from one of our mothers or, worse, had to address each other’s existence in the school corridors. Always proudly displaying the trendiest book bag (one had a giant, working clock on it) and the hippest shoes (jellies), she would address me, a maladroit, near-sighted, new-to-multiplication second-grader, as a stern nurse might. I outwardly respected, even admired, her authority, but I would have barfed if anyone joked she was my girlfriend.

We never saw our school friends in the summertime; our working parents didn’t trust us with Americans outside the school grounds. So, Marjan and I were always together. I would go to her house, high Forest Hill, or she would come down to ours in the foggy flats of the Inner Sunset.

The summer of ’85 was a hot one in San Francisco. Marjan came up with the idea of the lemonade stand. It was an unplanned, unsupervised project, as all our projects were, but Marjan was entrepreneurial. With two shrunken lemons and a grapefruit, we prepared a sugary, watery concoction in a plastic pitcher. I found Darth Vader paper cups left over from a birthday party, as well as one of my mother’s “French country” vinyl tablecloths. In front of my family’s house, Marjan set up the old changing table that had once been in my nursery in Hawaii, but was abandoned to the garage after we returned to the mainland, and I lost my bedroom to a carousel of houseguests: family as well as political confederates of my father’s who were fleeing the Islamic Republic.

We dragged out two velvet-cushioned dining room chairs to sit on. I had the idea of using a silver candelabrum to keep the wind from blowing off the tablecloth. Marjan, whose cursive was better than mine, ripped off a flap from a cardboard box and wrote “Pisces Juice” on it with a roller ball pen too thin for the task. Marjan had taken up astrology that summer. She was shrewd enough to insist that we use her zodiac sign as the name of our business, because Cancer Juice, after mine, would have been unpalatable.

Within an hour of setting up Pisces Juice, and without having had a single customer, Marjan and I changed the sign to read “Pisces Juice & TREATS.” We brought out my grandmother’s crystal dish full of Brach’s caramel cubes. I added the words “Sidewalk Sale” beneath the name and suggested we reduce our lemonade price by a nickel. There wasn’t much foot traffic on Judah Street on a Tuesday afternoon, and motorists weren’t stopping. The Chinese lady who ran the Taste of Shandong restaurant near Flintstone Michael’s house waved to us, as she always did, but I knew she wouldn’t buy anything, because I had never seen her cross the street before..

The afternoon burned away. We had one or two customers, but Marjan and I drank most of the Pisces Juice and ate nearly all of the stale caramels. As the fog tumbled in, as it always does in the San Francisco summer, quickly and briskly, Doris came out of her house with her cart and trowel. It took Doris about half an hour to lock her door; she tucked little strips of paper, folded playing cards and cut-up takeout menus, between the door and its frame and twisted a straightened paper clip into the lock. It was a test for thieves. Even before the rooster incident, I’m sure she suspected my parents of thievery—after all, she called homeless people “street A-rabs”—but I didn’t speak with an accent, and I once got a wide, tusky smile after I told her that her hat was pretty. I assumed she would buy at least a caramel from us.

She made her way over. She wore enormous gray sunglasses. Without turning towards us or even acknowledging our business, she stopped in front of the lemonade stand and started rummaging through her pocketbook.

“I have extremely important papers,” she said to herself. She sounded like a cross between a puppet goose and the noise of tires on gravel, barely audible, but Marjan and I were sure she was feeling around for dimes to give to us. I liked to stare at the strawberry capillaries running up and down the creased flesh of her nose and cheeks.

“We have fresh lemonade and sweet pleasures to offer you,” Marjan said.

Panting, Doris shot a glance at Marjan.

“I have to go back,” Doris said.

“You seem thirsty,” I added.

“Children,” she said, still pawing through her pocketbook. “Why aren’t you wearing sunglasses? There’s radiation everywhere. It’s in the air.” She stopped looking for her dimes or papers or revolver, and pointed a finger up towards Sutro Tower, the tall, skinny radio and television tripod atop Twin Peaks.

“Radar and ultraviolet rays,” she said.

I thought about my Jerome-tracker goggles. She directed her finger at me.

“I hope your mother tells you to sit very far away from the television, young man.”

“Yes,” I said and lied: “I’m not allowed to watch TV in the daytime.”

Doris buckled her pocketbook and circled her collapsible shopping cart back in the direction of the house.

“Sweet Mother Machree,” she spit out between a sigh and a cough.

A few passersby noticed our table, took in Doris and veered past us. People were starting to come home from their workdays. Doris made her way back to her stoop, and, step by step, pulled her shopping cart to the door.

My mean second grade teacher Mrs. Wayne would say “Merciful Heavens” like Doris said “Sweet Mother Machree.” Mrs. Wayne was an “equestrian.” I wished Doris had a horse. Her life would have been easier with a horse.

“I know!” I whispered to Marjan. “Let’s have a contest. A word contest.”

“Like a spelling test?” Marjan asked, annoyed.

“No,” I said. “Not like playing School. I know a big word, and if someone guesses what it means, we can give them a free cup of lemonade and a candy.”

We heard Doris’s front door open, the cards and slips of paper fall, the creak of the shopping cart over the threshold, and then a jingly slam. Marjan looked out at the street. Her disapproving expression didn’t change.

“What word?” she asked, her gaze steady on the old man’s blue house. Marjan was the popular one, and I was the smart one, but I was challenging her business acumen.

Logorrhea,” I said.

She turned to me.

“Ew,” she said. “Is that—”

“No!” I answered. “It means talking too much. Mrs. Wayne said I have a problem with logorrhea. I’m afflicted. And I know how to spell it.”

In truth, logorrhea means pathologically incoherent, repetitious speech: a portmanteau from the words logos and, yes, diarrhea, which is why I remembered it.

I knew all about diarrhea and cholera and gastroenteritis. That summer I had taken to reading my mother’s three-volume Time-Life Complete Guide to Symptoms and Illnesses, mostly for the pictures of diseases my mother loved to describe (smallpox, leprosy, rickets), but also for the new words, like hypoglycemia and esophagus, which I found as impressive, but not as difficult, as logorrhea.

Earlier that year, when I got pneumonia for the first time, I looked up pneumonia in the Time-Life book and then asked my mother what “fatal” meant. When she told me, I became frantic, sobbing into a throw pillow, rocking back and forth on the sofa as she stood by the bookshelf and, with a tea towel, dusted the place on which the Time-Life book had rested. Our house guests knew not to get in the way.

When my father got home from work that evening and found me mourning for myself, I overheard him call me “the boy” for the first time: “Why do you say things like that to the boy?” he asked in Persian. Being “the boy” calmed me down.

The Persian word meaning seriously ill—not from a cold, but from cholera or smallpox or cancer—is bimār. My mother taught me that it literally means “fear-inducer,” or “fear-bringer.” It can also be read as an imperative: “Bring your fear!” Years later, I learnt it has nothing to do with fear, bim; it comes from the Middle Persian vemar, cognate to the English “vomit.”

But my mother had brought her fears with her from across the world. She talked about illness all the time. That summer, Rock Hudson, her favorite movie star, came forward with his AIDS diagnosis. AIDS was the cover story that week of the issue of Time magazine on the coffee table: “The Growing Threat; What’s Being Done.”

“It’s in the Qur’an,” she’d say to a houseguest. “One day, there will come a that wipes out all of humanity. That’s AIDS.”

But only gay men and junkies were getting it, and when I asked her why, she again forgot I was “the boy” and told me that in Africa, gay men put their penises inside the rear ends of monkeys; rectal blood then gets inside the penile meatus, and the men become ill.

Marjan and I once took a bus ride down Polk Street to count all the homosexuals. They didn’t seem like bestiarists at all, just naughty in a friendly way.

Rock Hudson on the cover of Setāre Sinamā (“Movie Star”) magazine, mid-1960s. My paternal aunt collected this magazine. I inherited some of this collection, along with her English-language coffee table book, Life Goes to the Movies.

Marjan looked back out at the blue house. I drank more lemonade and scraped the wax off the paper cup with my teeth until I ripped my cup and got lemonade on my shorts.

“Ok,” she relented. “We can have a word contest. But I’ll make the sign.”

“I can draw a turkey.”

Within minutes, Pisces Juice & TREATS was advertising as part of its Sidewalk Sale a free Brach’s caramel cube for anyone who could define the Word of the Day. Marjan wrote LOGORRHEA with a different colored pen, and, using my palm as a template, as all American children are taught to do, I drew a turkey named “Mr. Logorrhea” who said in a cartoon bubble, as a clue: “I don’t gobble; I talk!”

Two moustachioed men came by with shopping bags in their hands. I jumped up and went to their side of the table.

“We’re having a contest!” I shouted. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Alice’s mother’s brown van pulling into their driveway and Alice jumping out. “If you guess the meaning of the really hard word on the sign, you win candy.”

One piece of candy,” Marjan corrected. “And you only get one try. We’re also selling delicious, refreshing lemonade.”

The men looked at each other. I realized the lemonade stain on the front of my shorts looked like pee, and I cowered. The men weren’t dressed like fathers, and they were skinny, but they seemed healthy. The shorter one with red hair wore a white belt and brightly colored boat shoes.

My mother would have called them avazi, “amiss,” her euphemism for gay, which was nicer than the usual Persian word bachchehbāz, pedophile.

My heart tapped quickly, and I searched their faces for mutual recognition, but they seemed more interested in our sign and in Marjan. The older one, with snowy hair, read the sign and then squinted up at our house.

“Voluble,” he said.

I noticed Alice approaching and turned my back to her. The younger, red-headed man gave me a half smile.

My bare legs and wet crotch felt cold.

“It doesn’t mean loud,” I replied. “It’s not volume.”

“No,” the snowy-haired man said. “Talkative. Logorrhea means talking too much.”

Marjan scowled at me as if to say: It’s not a hard word. It’s just a fourth-grade word. I’ll know it in thirty-two days. Marjan hated summer vacation and would count the days until school started again, and she could reign over kids other than me.

“That is correct,” I told the man. “You win. And it is a hard word.” Unlike Marjan, I hated school, and right then I felt as I did on Sunday nights during the school year, when my stomach would screw downward into a tight frog. “You can have a candy.”

“That’s all right,” the snowy-haired man said, as he stepped away. “Keep your candy.”

“Are you sure?” I said. “It’s free.”

“Bye-bye,” said the other man, and they both went off in the direction of Alice’s house. I wanted them to come back, but I saw Alice, all unbrushed hair and elbows, standing on her strip of easement, chewing one of her fingernails.

I knew she was about to ask dumb questions. Marjan would make fun of me for that and call Alice my girlfriend. Marjan never said it directly, but I knew from the way she exhibited her parents’ waterbed and antiques (the silver tea service, the Persian blue glass decanters) that she relished her family’s wealth and more respectable neighbors.

“Don’t you know any bigger words?” Marjan asked.

“I’ll go get my dad’s dictionary,” I suggested. “And my mom also has a big doctor’s book with scary pictures.” I turned around to go inside, but I was too late. Alice had approached.

“What are you doing?” asked Alice.

“What does it look like we’re doing? Can’t you read?” I said. “We have a business.”

I heard a creak and a jingle from the right: Doris was on her way down again. It was gray and cold then. It felt like Thanksgiving. Alice would never know the word-of-the day, but Doris might.

“The contest is over,” Marjan said. “Someone won. It’s twenty cents for a cup of lemonade, and five cents for a caramel.”

“What’s in the lemonade?” asked Alice.

“What do you think?” I replied. I noticed dead gnats floating in the filled lemonade cups.

“It looks weird,” Alice said. She considered the candelabrum, the crystal candy dish, the shredded cardboard sign. Then she dipped a dirty finger into a cup of lemonade and stuck that finger in her mouth.

“What are you doing? You can’t have tastes! You have to buy that now!” I shouted.

“It looked weird,” she said.

“You have to buy it; it’s dirty now! It’s infected. How do we know you don’t have AIDS?”

Marjan pushed the contaminated cup towards Alice from its bottom. It shook and splashed a bit.

“That’s twenty cents,” said Marjan.

“You have to buy it right now!” I shouted.

I wanted to go inside, into the smoke-filled rooms, and find whoever was staying with us—Ziba, who liked Tom Hanks, or my rank cousin, or that nine-fingered man from my father’s Berkeley days. I wanted to watch TV, play cards, do anything with one of them and not speak English.

“You have AIDS!” I exclaimed.

“What’s that?” Alice asked, her finger still in her mouth.

“You don’t know what AIDS is? Are you retarded?”

I looked over at Marjan, who returned to her decorous but remonstrative stare at the sky-blue house across the street.

“It’s a disease,” I continued. “Everyone knows what it is. It’s in the Bible. You die, and it’s highly contagious. You get chicken pox, but they’re bigger and uglier than normal chicken pox, and then you turn very thin and very gray, and your skin starts to fall off. And then you die. It’s disgusting. Take the cup!”

“What are you children hollering on about?” Doris shouted out towards us.

Now a grown-up was involved. Now a crazy authority figure who hated us was involved. Now everything was going to collapse.

“He said I’m going to die,” said Alice in that shaky sound I knew well, a sound that would certainly be followed by a long drop of drool, a gasp, and then tears.

“Oh, sweetie, he’s a boy. Don’t listen to him.”

Alice hugged Doris’s waist and started to yowl, tears and sweat and dirt her

face.

“Don’t listen to him,” Doris repeated.

All the Americans on Judah Street knew each other, and they didn’t get into fights over roosters or lemonade or AIDS. Alice was even friends with bulgy, slip-clogged Doris.

“But you told us we were going to die from radiation!” I said to Doris.

“Now, young man, don’t be fresh. You’ve done enough. You and your friend go on inside. It’s getting dark. Where are your people?”

Marjan stood up and started putting things away with the automatic polish of a sales rep.

“He said I’m going to die,” Alice repeated, between hyperventilations.

“You’re not going to die, sweetie. Let’s take you home.”

Sixth birthday party in the Judah Street house, 1983. My father, Alice, and me. The silver candelabrum from Iran stood at the center of that table. Alice died in a drunk driving accident in the summer of 1992.

Marjan bicycled home after we returned everything to its proper place. One of the candles in the candelabrum fell and broke in half as I brought it in. I smiled faintly at Ziba, who watched it happen, and she said “no big deal” in Persian.

The phone rang. Ziba and I stared at each other a moment. Kneeling on the dining table, trying to perch the broken part of the candle back on its base, I tilted my head towards the kitchen to indicate to Ziba that she should pick it up. Her English was good enough to take a message.

Minutes later I was on top of the dryer in the laundry room, trying to put the paper Star Wars cups back in the cupboard above, when my mother appeared.

She had gotten home from work and spoken with Alice’s mother.

My mother wore a sweater with a bow around the collar, and she spoke fast, in her aluminum angry voice.

Something about normal boys and Americans and what they think of us. They—women, fathers, girls—look at me as if I’m strange and despicable. Amiss. I wanted to say they don’t, but she was going on about my voice and the way I walk, about danger and those animals. Louder and louder, again about the things I say and how disobediently I behave in public. Her eyes squinted tighter and tighter until they looked like slit skin and she said, in English: “I’ll smash your mouth.”

You close your eyes. All you can do is hum. Your whole being curls around a word, phrase, song refrain—don’t let him down just give him love don’t let his dreams turn into dust—and your body goes limp, like a beagle, or like a runaway hiding under tarp in a boxcar. You hum to yourself.

I slid down from the dryer and tried to squeeze my body in the space between the machine and the wall.

I looked up at her. Her huge head was all pain, so I closed my eyes not to let the pain get to me. She struck me hard with the back of her left hand. Her rings against my teeth made my body judder. Again. And again. Quicker than I expected, I tasted blood from my lip.

“Say something,” she said in Persian. “Why are you talking about AIDS to Americans?”

She pointed outside.

“Do you tell them everything?”

No. Sometimes I tell them we’re Armenian, like you told me to. I tell them we believe in every religion, and we celebrate Christmas. And I never tell them you’re nicer to me when they are watching us.

She pushed my shoulder down hard. Now my head was on the floor. She threw something at me, not too heavy but sharp and astringent: an open box of Tide detergent. It hit my upper arm. The powder was everywhere, stinging my closed eyes, settling on my bloody drool—bitter, stinging and hot. I retreated to the back of my skull, to the chorus of the Barbra Streisand song I had recorded off of the TV: Don’t let him down just give him love don’t let his dreams—

“Danny!” she called.

I didn’t answer.

“This is shit, man,” she said in English. “Shit.” She kicked my curled knees with her work pumps and walked out, saying in half-Persian, half-English: “vāqe’an shit.” Really shit.

I am real shit. Kasif. From radiation and lemonade and AIDS and blood. Don’t let him down just give him love don’t let his dreams turn into dust.

It was warm now on the floor. Humming, listening to my beagle heartbeat and the steady rumble of the boxcar train, I fell asleep.

“A Persian’s heaven is easily made,” wrote Thomas Moore. “’Tis but black eyes and lemonade.”

Moore is right about the lemonade: the cardinal flavor of Iranian cuisine is sour.

If Marjan and I, with our ink-black eyes, had opened Pisces Juice & TREATS in Iran, we would have been successful. The candelabrum, the sickly-sweet candy, the anxiety over hygiene—kids in Iran would have understood. They would have understood my “affliction.” They would have known that I’m not really shit.

That was my great comfort from the moment I held my Iranian passport at age five. The Iranian kids would help me, and I would help them. We would commiserate with one another over our common lots.

But I never got to meet those kids in Iran.

And I’ve not renewed my Iranian passport since 2009. It’s always been too dangerous to go: war, conscription, crackdowns.

My Iranian peers who completed high school or college there and then came abroad are not Iranian like me. My Persian—my parents’ 1960s-era, radio television Persian—sounds out-of-date and off-tempo compared to the pitched, rat-tat-tat speak of post-Revolution Tehrani youth. I can’t find myself in the eyes of the women, with their ultra-tweezed eyebrows, or in those of the men, with their macho, suspicious gazes. They see me as American, while I see myself as Iranian.

The lemonade I offer them is false and bleached. The offer itself is condescending.

And we’re not playing make-believe anymore.

I’ve spent forty-five years mourning them.

They’re not my neighbors. I can’t go to them, and they can’t hear me. If I could and if they could, they’d probably want to smash my mouth just as my mother did, because I don’t know what it’s really like, and I never will.

But I can’t let their dreams turn to dust. So, I hashtag “woman life freedom,” even though that watchcry seems clunky to me, like a Third World translation.

I speak to friends and relatives in Iran on the phone, and they are too frightened to say anything: “they” might be listening. I can’t put a poster in the window that says “Freedom in Iran,” because “they”—not the morality police in this case, but well-intentioned, misinformed white people, people like Doris and Alice and those gay men, though every one of them, Alice included, is now dead—may think I mean a return to ’79, when women wore miniskirts, as “they” love to tell me. But when there was still no freedom and only 40% of the country was literate. “They” think ’79 was a coup.

I’m so tired of explaining both Iran and myself.

So what do I do?

I write these wobbly, trusting stories, as if to say, “I’m abused, too. I know your fear; my mother brought it with her. I have black eyes, too. Have some lemonade.”

I avoid mentioning Iran to “them,” because I don’t want the self-satisfied interjections and the quizzical glares.

I sit with my Hafez and my Sa’di and my Thomas Moore, my fantasy of a neighborly Persia and my souring privilege. And I hum.

All l can do is hum till I fall asleep.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Daniel Rafinejad

Daniel Rafinejad taught Persian language and literature at Harvard University before devoting himself to full-time writing and translating. His work has appeared in Evergreen Review, Nowruz Journal, Longreads, The Huffington Post, and Encyclopaedia Iranica, as well as in the anthologies My Shadow is My Skin: Writings from the Iranian Diaspora and Pearls of Persia: The Philosophical Poetry of Nasir Khusraw. He is working on a collection of essays/memoir, tentatively titled In the Liquorice House. Follow him on Twitter @dannoway and on Instagram @ifmorningevercomes.

All captions and photos with the text courtesy of the author. FEATURED IMAGE by Mali Desha via Unsplash.

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