For years, whenever Tessa heard the mention of Iran or anything Iranian, whether in the context of a name, a new restaurant, or the situation in the Middle East, she remembered a time when she went to school across from Gracie Mansion, when a man with no nose frequented the bus stops of 86th Street, and when a gang headed by a pair of redhead twins roamed the Upper East Side. Mostly, she remembered the three months she lived alone with her father over the winter of her fifteenth year. Tessa hated her father then, so she spent as much time as possible out of the apartment, clambering over the banks of dirty snow around the curbs in the grungier downtown neighborhoods, listening to the Psychedelic Furs on her Walkman on the subway, eating vegetable soup in Greek coffee shops with her friends on cold winter afternoons.
Her parents were getting a divorce and her mother had gone off to a place in Massachusetts—Tessa couldn’t figure out whether it was a psychiatric hospital or a spa—to recover from divorce-induced depression. Tessa’s mother had left a pile of clean laundry on the guest room bed, the freezer stocked with frozen dinners. Every night at six-thirty, Tessa’s father took something out of the freezer and put it in the toaster oven, and then he and Tessa sat across from each other at the kitchen table, which rocked because the floor was sloped a little where it stood.
A month into her mother’s absence, during a dinner of defrosted meatloaf, Tessa and her father got into an argument about communism. She was for it and he was against it.
“My teacher says that in a Marxist society, everything is equal,” she said. She took a bite of the meatloaf, which was still a little frozen at the center.
“Nothing is ever equal,” her father said. “Some people have their health, some don’t. Some people are more attractive than others.”
Tessa frowned, sensing ridicule. She dropped her fork and put her elbows on the table. Her father’s wine jiggled in the glass. “It’s just not fair,” she said, “that we should have so much without even having to really work for it.”
“I work,” her father said. He put a chaotic forkful of salad into his mouth. The sound of his chewing dominated the small kitchen.
Tessa fixed his bowed forehead with a hostile stare. She recalled the night before her mother’s departure; her mother had taken her out to dinner at the pizza place around the corner, one of the many original Ray’s. The redhead twins and their gang were eating at a booth in the back, but because she was with her mother, Tessa felt safe. Her mother pressed a white napkin into the grease of her own and Tessa’s slice. “But why do you have to get a divorce?” Tessa asked. “I don’t understand why you can’t just stay together.” The truth was, the thought of her parents together—sleeping together, talking together in their room—was uncomfortable. But she’d gone to some lengths to accept the notion. To have the situation altered now was maddening, as if some tacit agreement among the three of them had been violated.
Her mother sighed and shook red pepper onto her slice. “Your father is impossible to live with,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well.” Her mother folded the slice in half. “For one thing, I’ve asked him a thousand times to use a newspaper when he cuts his toenails, but lo and behold, there they are every few weeks on the side of the sink.” Tessa had seen them herself; yellow half moons on the prissy white porcelain lip. “He never lifts a finger to help with the dishes. And do you want to know something else? When you were a baby, he never once changed your diaper. I know he’s squeamish about that sort of thing, but still. Not once.”
This had not surprised Tessa. She had never been close to her father, at least not physically close, though they had connected when she was younger over certain things: the Oz books, their mutual love of holidays, a game in which he would pretend to eat her elbows and knees. When she was a little girl of five or six, Tessa would put on a flowing purple skirt with a ruffle at the bottom and dance to a record of Indian flute music. Her father would clap and yell, “Brava!” But her mother had inhabited the undeniable space between Tessa and her father; a space, Tessa felt, where her physical self should have been. Always, when she was tired, sick, hungry or constipated, she went silently to her mother, as if shielding her father from the secret of her body, something that clearly frightened him. Tessa used to enjoy using her parents’ bathroom because it was bigger and warmer than hers. It had a deep, curved bathtub with clawed feet. But a few years ago, she’d overheard her father asking her mother to ask her to use her own bathroom. “She’s getting too old for ours,” he’d said.
And now he was cutting the frozen meatloaf away from the thawed part with vigorous concentration, as if the fact that he’d driven Tessa’s mother away did not bother him at all. “But other people have to work so much harder for less money,” Tessa said. She moved her elbows so that the table shook a little more. “Everyone should be paid the same. Everyone should live in the same kind of apartment.” Her chest tightened. She reached for her inhaler.
“But if everyone was paid the same for every job, there would be no need for people to improve themselves. Most people wouldn’t bother to read or get an education. Not without some sort of incentive.” He put a steadying hand on the table and sipped his wine.
The argument ended with her leaving the table in tears. She went to her room and closed the door, and he stood outside and knocked and she shrieked, “Go away! Go away!” She banged her head against the wall. She bit down with all her strength on the wooden bedpost.
She stopped speaking to him except when absolutely necessary. The mornings were awkward; they moved around each other as they got ready for school and work, Tessa pouring milk into cereal, her father pouring black coffee into a cracked ceramic cup. They took the elevator down in silence and parted ways under the building’s green awning. It was easier to avoid him on the weekends. Tessa and her friends shopped during the days then went to a dance or the movies. They’d find a flight of brownstone steps and gather there and drink liquor out of spice bottles, huddled up in their mannish thrift store overcoats. The combination of youth and hard liquor and extreme cold was irresistibly joyous; sometimes they spun with their arms out on the salted sidewalk and fell in heaps to the pavement, and older people walking by had to step over them and around them. Wherever they were going they always ran, whether they were in a hurry or not.
Tessa’s father ran out of things to defrost and started ordering in. She picked at her food, listening to her father chew and thinking of her mother in the country somewhere, wandering sedated through deep snow.
Then one night, after her father had finished his lo mein and laid down his fork and knife, he looked at Tessa with a terrible red color in his face and said, “You don’t know how lucky you are.”
That afternoon he’d gotten some news regarding a friend of a friend of his. The friend’s friend worked with the American embassy in Iran and lived, with his wife and his daughter, who was exactly Tessa’s age, in one of the embassy houses. Attached to the house was an indoor pool where the daughter liked to swim after school. The other day the Iranian police had passed the house and seen her through the glass. They arrested her for wearing a bathing suit; they brought her down to police headquarters and sentenced her to forty lashes with an iron whip.
Before her father could intervene, the sentence was initiated. She died on the thirteenth lash.
Tessa’s father stared at her, his eyes bulging from his head. She looked back down at her plate. Blood rushed to her cheeks; she felt as if she should apologize, although she’d done nothing wrong. The story had nothing to do with her; yet clearly he meant something by it, something personal. She shook her head. “Why did her father have to take her there?” she asked. “Why couldn’t they just have stayed here in America?”
“Sometimes people have to do things,” her father said. “That’s the way the world works.”
Years later, Tessa would read in a fashion magazine that because it was illegal in Iran to execute a virgin, young girls sentenced to death were systematically raped. She would spend isolated hours—while waiting for a train, spacing out before the television—reviewing the situation in her head; had they meant the lashes as a death sentence, or had the girl’s death been an accident? Would she have been raped anyway, just in case? Or maybe she hadn’t been a virgin. Some girls that age weren’t. But if not, she wouldn’t have known to tell that to the Iranian authorities. She wouldn’t have known about that particular policy, and if she had she might have known she could get killed for sexual activity alone. And she probably didn’t know—hopefully not—that she was going to die. She probably had no idea how much trouble she was in until it was actually happening.
Tessa’s father was called to Boston for meetings and Tessa arranged to sleep at a friend’s. He dropped her off at school on his way to the airport. He handed her a piece of paper with his numbers on it, which she crumpled and tossed into the nearest garbage can as soon as the cab pulled away.
At three o clock, Tessa and Shaw ran home to Shaw’s building on East 78th Street, jumping up to touch the awnings with their fingers and palms. Tessa’s chest felt tight and a headache had started behind her eyes. More than once she had to stop and use her inhaler. Her asthma had developed several years ago but since she’d started smoking it had gotten a lot worse. Now she carried the inhaler with her all the time. At Shaw’s, she took aspirin and made herself some tea and then the two of them went into Shaw’s bedroom and looked at music magazines. On the cover of one was a picture of Billy Idol in a tight black leather jockstrap. She and Shaw kissed the area between his legs, and then they drummed their legs up and down on Shaw’s bed and shrieked, “Balls! Balls! Balls!” They heard Mrs. Howard come home and they pulled each other off of the bed onto the floor where they lay giggling, poking and grabbing each other, almost hoping Mrs. Howard had heard them. But when she poked her head into the room she gave no indication that she had. “I picked up a movie for you girls,” she said.
At seven o’ clock they sat at the dining room table with Mr. and Mrs. Howard, who seemed youthful and fun-loving in a way that Tessa’s parents weren’t. Mr. Howard had a slightly effeminate Boston drawl and he teased Tessa and Shaw constantly about boys. Mrs. Howard was dark haired and always smelled of jasmine. Sometimes Tessa would see Mrs. Howard sitting on Mr. Howard’s lap, or slow-dancing with him to Tina Turner as they had cocktails in the living room and waited for her and Shaw to go out. Mr. Howard would always tell Shaw how lovely she looked—this was the word he used—and kiss her on the top of her head. It made Shaw seem innocent in a way that Tessa didn’t feel, although not because of anything she’d done. The fact that Shaw’s physical feminine self could be talked about, commented on positively even by her father, made this physical self about something besides sex; it was about that too, but mainly it was about her being lovable.
They ate hamburgers with chopped onion on toasted slices of Pepperidge Farm white bread. They ate salad with olives and tomatoes and chopped hard-boiled eggs. Tessa had an acute sensation of missing her mother. She thought of her father in a conference room at a huge table surrounded by men in identical suits. After dinner Mrs. Howard gave them bowls of ice cream and they watched a Marilyn Monroe movie. The ice cream soothed the heated sensation at the back of Tessa’s throat. They changed into pajamas and brushed their teeth and got into bed and looked through some more magazines, and at ten Mrs. Howard came in and said, “Lights out in twenty minutes.” They heard her walk back into the living room.
“There’s a party,” Shaw said. “Some Marymount girl.”
At midnight they rose from their beds and turned on one light and dressed silently. They sprayed their hair and applied makeup, not daring to wash their hands after for fear the sound of water running would wake the Howard’s. On their tiptoes they ran to the elevator and pushed each other in. The night doorman let them out, carefully averting his eyes from theirs.
The streetlights were on and the delis and coffee shops were open, but the regular stores and most of the restaurants were closed. The ordinary industrious people in their suits and sneakers were at home in bed, and the faces she glanced into as they walked north looked younger and fiercer. A man with a narrow face and a sharp blue Mohawk; she’d seen them downtown when she went with her friends to the thrift stores, but in the dark it looked like a weapon. A girl with white blond hair and chewed and bloody lips. A group of heavy metal guys made up in eyeliner and lipstick, their hair long and puffy, their pants tight at the crotch.
When they saw the bright cheery lights of Baskin Robbins they started to run. Their friends were waiting inside, sharing a small sundae. The Marymount party had been cancelled, Thea said, so the girls wandered down 86th Street, passing around a spice bottle of gin. They went into a coffee shop and ordered coffee and smoked. Tessa smoked too, although her lungs felt asthmatic and tight. They asked for the check when the noseless man came in and sat in the booth across from them. They wandered again, looking into windows. Tessa saw a woman cross a room holding a baby, a shirtless man peering into a refrigerator, a couple huddled on a couch, their television a faint shifting light.
In one of the basement apartments a party was taking place. The girls looked at each other.
“We could crash,” Mimi said.
They stared in through the grimy window. The small room was very crowded. A bar was set up on a card table. A skinny girl in leather pants laughed so that all her teeth showed. A guy with big hair and acne sat with his legs apart and rolled a joint on one knee.
Thea said, “There’s this place my brother used to go.”
The wooden sign above the door said McSorley’s, in Celtic lettering. As they walked in they arranged their faces in ways they hoped made them appear older, but no one seemed to notice them anyway. They found a table at the back. Shaw and Thea went to the bar and returned with whiskey sours (what Mr. Howard drank), each girl holding two. They drew their chairs in closely and drank their drinks and waited for something to happen. The room smelled of beer and urine and nicotine. Tiny colored lights wreathed the ceiling and the jukebox played “When Doves Cry.” It was two o’ clock in the morning. Tessa had the feeling that she had stepped into a vivid, communal dream.
Thea said, “Isn’t this song from like, two years ago?”
The door opened and two college-age guys walked into the bar, letting in a rush of cold air. They bought drinks and a pack of cigarettes. They sat at a table near where the girls were sitting and when they saw the girls looking they looked back, and the girls turned to each other, ducking their heads and beginning to giggle.
The guys pulled their chairs over to the girls’ table. They asked the girls their names and their ages, which they lied about. They bought another round of whiskey sours. They told the girls their names but Tessa wasn’t listening; she was studying their hair—short and spiked up with gel—and their clothes—black pants, combat boots, plaid flannel shirts. The skin on their faces seemed dirty and prickly and rash-ridden but they wore the same thrift-store overcoats the girls did and Tessa recognized the name of the high school they said they’d gone to. One of them seemed to have a British accent. He was slight and wore a row of rings up his left ear.
He turned to her and asked, “What kind of music do you like?”
She listed the names of her five favorite bands. He nodded, and added a couple of names.
“Do you want to go to a party?” he asked her.
The accent was fake, she decided. She glanced at his friend. “Is he going too?”
“I guess so.”
“Can my friends come?”
“Sure. They can come.”
“Where is it?”
“Across town. Near where I live. Near Columbia.”
“Do you go to school there?”
“I transferred this year from Michigan. I wanted to be closer to my mom. She’s sick.” He looked away.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“It’s not your fault.” He looked right at her, then down at her hands on the table. “You have cute little hands,” he said. He picked one of them up and held it in both of his.
He hailed a cab outside the bar. They got out on Columbus and walked up a side street. “This is my block,” he said. “I need my I.D. for the party.” She looked up at him; he had beautiful, long eyelashes. They climbed a short flight of steps and he unlocked the door to a building, which was squeezed in between two other newer-looking buildings. The lobby floor consisted of small, discolored tiles pieced together at haphazard angles, but the space smelled good, like someone in one of the apartments was cooking something. They walked up two flights of stairs and down a couple of hallways, turning and turning between two pressed-together walls. The walls were painted a brownish orange and the paint was peeling like a scab.
They turned the last corner. He opened a door and flipped the light switch. The room was clean and neat. There was a window seat with the radiator underneath like in her room at home. A white paper shade was raised halfway. “I’ve gotta piss.” He raised his hand in a gesture of hospitality. “Be right back. Make yourself comfortable.”
She walked around the room looking at his things. A neat stack of Rolling Stone by his bed held an ashtray and a half-full cup of coffee. Loose papers and pencils with the erasers chewed off lay about his desk. Above the desk a bulletin board displayed course schedules, phone numbers, ticket stubs, and photographs: a pretty brown-haired girl smiling, the Clash. She picked up a book, On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, and flipped through it. She went to the window. It overlooked a space between that building and several others. At the bottom of the space was a rectangular pool surrounded by a sort of metal gate, lit from within by a greenish, luminescent light. She recalled the indoor pool at her parents’ tennis club on East 52nd Street, and how she always used to have her birthday parties there, how her mother would make her a cake in the shape of a castle with upside down ice cream cones for the turrets and a moat of silver dragees. Then she thought of the girl in Iran, swimming in the afternoon, and she turned quickly away from the window.
Her eyes watered. Her chest made a small rattling sound. She used her inhaler; her lungs twitched weakly under the intake of mist. The door opened, and the guy re-entered the room.
“What is this?” She tapped on the window.
He stood beside her and looked through the glass. She felt the warmth of his body through his flannel shirt. “Beats me.”
“Let’s find out.”
“What, go down there?”
She stepped away from him. “Come on,” she said.
They took the stairs to the basement and went out the back of the building where the trash was kept, up a low cement ramp, across a small open lot. The packed snow creaked under their shoes. The pool glowed green behind the iron gate. The guy boosted Tessa up, making a step with his hands, and she dropped to the other side and waited while he pulled himself over. Cracked islands of pale ice floated on the surface of the water. The lights came from inside the pool, narrow beams shining up from underneath; at the surface, illuminated cloudy tunnels of water merged into a phosphorescent nucleus. She knelt and leaned over. She could see her reflection in the dark water at the edge, her face blurred and beautiful. She stuck her hand in and swirled it around. The cold between her fingers made her head hurt.
“You’re going to get frostbite or something.”
“It’s so cold,” she said. “It feels good. When I was little I used to dump cold water over my head in the bathtub. I had this orange bucket and I’d fill it with freezing cold water and just dump it over my head. It felt amazing.” The cold crept up her arm. “The water in our building gets all hot and cold at the wrong times. Once when my mother was taking a shower the water changed and she got scalded. She had second-degree burns. She had to go to the hospital and everything.”
“That’s nothing,” he said. “My mother has cancer.” He crouched beside Tessa. They looked at each other in the water. She stared until her eyes began to cross. He drew his finger through her reflected face, breaking it up, making ripples across her mouth and nose. She sat back on her knees, feeling dizzy. She used her inhaler. The protective cap had come off and she inhaled bits of tobacco and candy and lint along with the dose.
“You okay?” he said, and she nodded, though she wasn’t sure. He put his hand on her cheek. She stood, moving away from it. She held her nose and jumped.
The water punched her right in the chest and she stopped breathing. She kicked and grasped at a chunk of ice. He leaned over and put his arms under her shoulders and hauled her out.
He plugged in the space heater and gave her the Army blanket. She took off her wet things and wrapped herself up. He sat next to her on the bed and rubbed her bare shoulders underneath the blanket. He tapped her nose and opened his mouth over hers. He said her name—she was surprised that he remembered it. He pushed her down and lay on top of her. She watched the shadow of his eyelashes against his cheek. The space heater whirred. In the next room, someone whistled and dragged a piece of furniture across the floor. His mouth sucked at a patch of skin on her neck and she jerked away—she didn’t want a hickey.
“We should go,” she said. “My friends.”
He opened his eyes. They seemed heavy and drugged. “What?”
There wasn’t any party, she suddenly knew.
“I’m hot,” she said. She tried to sit up but he pressed her down with his body. He rummaged under the blanket and found her crotch. She shoved at his shoulders with both hands. “I need to use my inhaler.” She stood, clutching the blanket around her body, and looked for the inhaler in the pocket of her coat. She looked in the other pocket, then in her wet pile of clothes.
“You don’t sound good,” he said. He lay on his back on the bed, his arms crossed behind his neck.
“I can’t find my inhaler.”
“Do you want some tea or something?”
She shook her head no.
“I have a hot pot right here in the room.”
“No. No thank you.”
“Think you dropped it?” He got up. “I’ll go look.” He left the room. Tessa knelt beside the bed and touched her forehead against the edge and coughed, her chest muscles aching. He was back in minutes. “Nope. Sorry.”
“I want to go back to the bar.”
“It’s after four.”
“Take me home, then.” She sucked in a thin slice of air, let it out, and worked for another one. “I need to go home.”
He held his arm lightly around her shoulders as he hailed a cab on Columbus Avenue. There were the faintest traces of light in the sky as the cab pulled up in front of her building. She felt grateful, almost like she loved him, but the panic in her body wouldn’t let her look at him as she got out of the cab.
She dropped her overcoat on the hallway floor and searched the counter for her father’s numbers. Then she remembered the garbage can on East End Avenue. She made some coffee and drank it black. She took a hot shower and tried to breathe in the steam, then put on a nightgown and lay across her bed.
She heard the busy noises of a key in the front door. The creak as the door swung open, then footsteps, the footsteps pausing; her father’s voice, “Tessa?”
They took a cab to Lenox Hospital on East 77th Street. Her father seemed to know not to ask any questions; that talking would only make the breathless, panicky feeling worse. They went quickly through the emergency waiting area and into a room with an examining table and a machine that, when the nurse turned it on, began to spew a thick, white, dreamlike mist. A mouthpiece connecting to the machine was put over Tessa’s face, and she breathed the mist into her lungs. The doctor, a youngish woman with tortoise shell glasses and painted fingernails, asked Tessa some questions. The doctor mentioned pneumonia and Tessa’s father nodded. He still wore his business suit; he stood at the end of the examining table, looking back and forth from Tessa to the doctor as if following a tennis match. Tessa was brought to a different room and given a shot of something, and she fell into a black sudden sleep.
When she woke the room was dark, the blinds drawn so that she couldn’t see if it were day or night. She sat up. Her stomach dropped. She ran to the small bathroom and grabbed the metal rail around the toilet. She fell to her knees and vomited. Her bowels loosened and before she could get up she’d soiled herself, the watery filth rushing past her inconsequential underwear. Her legs trembled. She wiped them with a towel and stepped out of the mess. She slept again, the same knockout black sleep. She woke and heard her father. He was talking to one of the nurses in a low, concerned voice.
“Not my problem,” said the nurse. “She’s your kid. Clean it up yourself.”
Tessa lay still until she became aware of soft movement in the room, a light somewhere. She opened her eyes and turned in the direction of the light. She saw the bathroom door open, her father kneeling with his back to her. His jacket off, his sleeves rolled up. The fluorescent bulb reflecting off the scalp at the center of his thinning hair. A bucket by his side. He was mopping, his right arm out, and his back made gentle circular movements—which, along with the soft swishing of water, caused her after a short while to drift back to sleep.
Three days later, Tessa waited outside the hospital doors as her father stood at the curb, looking for a cab. It was balmier than it had been in months; sun glinted off oily little puddles of melting snow, dogs pulled happily at their leashes, people had taken off their jackets and wrapped them around their waists. A man selling hot pretzels from a cart waved at her, and she realized she was starving. She walked up to the cart and bought a pretzel from the man with change from her overcoat pocket and ate it as she waited for the cab.
The driver, a swarthy man with a Middle Eastern name, beamed at her as she climbed across the slick vinyl seat. He pulled out from the curb and headed west. Tessa’s father turned to look behind them. He said suddenly, “Did you know you were born in that hospital?”
“No.” She shook her head. It had never occurred to her to wonder where she’d been born.
“We took you home in a cab, just like this. You were all bundled up, and your mother held you on her lap and we pointed out all the things on the street that were your firsts; your first dog, your first bicycle, your first bus. And so on.” He looked away from her and fell into abrupt silence.
They turned onto Madison and headed uptown with jubilant swiftness. Their wheels made a springy sound on the wet pavement. The Korean delis had moved their flowers and produce out to the sidewalk. Ice water dripped brilliantly from air conditioners and awnings. The cab paused at a light. A small girl and her mother crossed the street wearing matching Burberry coats. The girl stomped her feet in the slush and the mother picked her up. Tessa leaned her head against the window. She tried to imagine being a baby, seeing everything for the first time, tiny and surrounded by her young, hopeful parents. She could, almost. Hot tears ran down her face—for herself, for her parents and their failed love, and finally for that girl, the ambassador’s daughter. Her shoulders shuddered under a sudden weight of gratitude. Her father was right. She was lucky. Lights went green all up the avenue and they sped by sunflowers, a skinny boy on a skateboard, an old woman with an angry face under a huge fur hat.

Open City, #25

One Response to “The Ambassador’s Daughter”

  1. Cheap Second Hand Awnings For Caravans Says:

    Wonderful overcom! I would like to novice at the same time when you fix your web site, how could possibly i actually signed up for a blog website? Your bank account forced me to be a new acceptable package. I have already been a small amount comfortable in this a person’s over the air supplied sparkly apparent notion

Leave a Reply