by Kafah Bachari Manna
After the wedding is cancelled, I go back to work immediately. No one notices that I am back too soon. I have so many patients to see, and their creeping illnesses and diseases, the steady decay of their bodies, won’t wait. I am relieved for the distractions. My mother calls to complain about her swollen feet on my drive into work. She doesn’t ask how I am feeling or if I was able to sleep last night.
When Carole didn’t show up at the Aghd Ceremony last week, my mother dismissed it with the flick of her hand. “She not good enough for a doctor, Arash joon. I told you it was a bad match.” As if getting dumped at the altar, in front of everyone I care about, is a good way to illustrate her point. “We find you dokhtar Irooni, don’t worry.”
I arrive at the hospital early. The coffee pot smolders on the hot plate in the break room and the bitterness of burnt coffee hangs limp in the air. Sometimes the coffee is too strong. But it is just as well because I need its strength, not its taste, to sustain me. It is not enough—it is never enough.
My first patient is a woman my mother’s age. Touba Khanoum’s skin is translucent and papery and she smells like jasmine flowers. She recognizes my name and speaks to me in Persian. Her robe is tastefully wrapped around her body and even the knot is carefully and lovingly tied. I tell her that it is much easier for me to speak in English. She frowns momentarily but then perks up and launches into a monologue about her life. I am all business about my work, my patients. I am not much for small talk; I don’t want to be a friendly doctor. I don’t want to be anyone’s friend. I try to maintain my detached and professional demeanor. She is very ill. She is dying. What is the point of getting too close? What is the point of listening to her drone on about some long dead brother and sour cherries, the likes of which I will never taste?
“You married, Agha Doktor?” She looks at my hand and then back up at my face. My throat is tight but I answer “no” politely. She tells me it’s a shame, that a woman’s love is good for a young man. At this point I am sure she’ll start listing all the Parisas and Fereshtehs she knows that I should meet. But she just sits quietly, obediently following my requests to breathe in or breathe out as I move the stethoscope from her concave breastbone to her curved back. When I mark notes in her chart she says quietly, “It takes time, pesar joon. You’ll find someone if you don’t have a sweetheart already.”
Her eyes twinkle and I notice the kindness in her face, the softness of her features. It’s the first time I need to sit down all week and I tell her about Carole with my head in my hands. I sink down into the chair feeling like I can let go of my façade. She listens as I go on about the details, the wedding plans, the honeymoon, the talk about children and vacations. She listens as I tell her about Carole’s hair and the way I was transfixed by its yellowness and how my mother took this as a rejection of everything that was Persian rather than taking it for just what it was—love.
Before long I stop myself, realizing that my other patients are waiting. I help adjust her pillows and increase her pain medication. I work long into the night, ignoring my mother’s calls and falling into a fitful sleep on the canvas cot in the break room. I dream about jasmine flowers that smell like burnt coffee.
The blinking light on my answering machine at home momentarily electrifies me until I realize it is just my mother calling to complain about her creaking elbows. I consider calling Carole but she hasn’t answered any of my other calls. I look out into the back yard. The neglected grass is almost yellow and the roses Carole planted last year are already frail and dying. I never had time to water our garden. Carole complained that I wasn’t invested in our shared life, that I never did anything other than work or diagnose my mother’s bogus ailments—that I never really took the time to appreciate anything.
At the hospital the next morning I walk into Touba Khanoum’s room. The bed is made, the window curtains drawn and she is gone. My heart races but my mind is too practiced in this sorrow to hope she might be alive. I know she is gone.
The next day my mother comes over to my house. She lets herself in and comes out to the yard where I am knee deep in dirt and mulch.
“What you doing, Arash joon?” She limps across the yard.
“I’m planting a sour cherry tree, Mama.”
She kneels down next to me, taking a small tool from a pile of new tools I’ve just purchased, and works alongside me for a while.
“You think this will grow here?” she asks.
“I think it has a pretty good chance,” I tell her.
She squints her eyes. I see there is already dirt smudged on her face, but she seems satisfied.
Kafah Bachari Manna was born in Iran and raised in Texas. Currently, she is at work on a novel about people of the Baha’i faith in Iran as well as a collection of short stories. She lives in Houston with her husband and two children.