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Escape

She had still not taken off her right shoe when she saw it on the doormat. A long white thread. She ran the tip of her shoe over it a few times. The thread twisted and coiled like a scrawny worm and again stuck to the mat. She tried again. This time, like a boa that has devoured an elephant, it arched and hid among the bristles. She bent down to pick it up, but instead she picked up her shoes and put them on the shoe rack.

Her body felt clammy. All the office memos could stick to her skin with no need for push-pins. She imagined herself covered with sheets of paper. Without so much as glancing at her, the employees would stand there and read the notices and they would turn her like a rack in a clothing store and move along. Her handbag was still hanging from her shoulder and the umbrella was still in her hand as she scrutinized the apartment for any possible changes. The arms on the clock had moved close to each other on the four and five. Her husband Noori’s trousers lay folded on the sofa. Time and again, she had said, “Don’t you think it would be better if you hang them in your closet?” And every time Noori had replied, “Of course it would be better.” She turned and again looked at the white thread. It now looked like four identical hills with a dusting of snow. She went to the bedroom, undressed, turned on the air conditioner and stood in front of it. Her body absorbed the cool air, relishing it. She pulled herself away, took a towel, and went and hung it up in the bathroom.

She went to the kitchen and held a lighter to the burner under the kettle, but as her other hand moved toward the knob on the gas stove, she changed her mind. She put the lighter back in its place, gulped down a glass of cold water and walked out. The thread was still there. This time it looked like the jagged line of her EKG. She walked over to the doormat and picked it up with two fingers. She looked through the peephole in the front door. Quietly, she opened the door, held it ajar with one foot, placed her other foot out on the stone-tiled hallway and shook the doormat. She started to cough. This time she shook the mat more vigorously. But just like a leech, the thread had stuck its suckers to the mat and wouldn’t fall off. She leaned further out and beat the mat against the staircase railing several times. The doormat slipped from her fingers, fell on the floor, and suddenly, with a blast that sounded like an explosion, the door slammed shut behind her.

She looked at herself standing there outside the closed door with her legs spread wide and wearing nothing but her panties. A flood of scorching hot liquid coursed through her body. Nothing could be more ridiculous. She glanced up at the second-floor landing; the wide-open window looked like a petrified gaping mouth. She could hear her pulse pounding in her temples. Her gaze shifted several times between the window, herself, the doormat, and the closed door. She couldn’t believe it. She tried to cover herself with her hands. But every part of her nakedness they covered left another part exposed. She continued her pantomime for a while. Then helplessly she leaned back against the wall and the light switches, slid down, and squatted on the floor. The doormat was lying there in front of her; the white thread looked like smirking lips. Accepting the fact that she was sitting there naked in front of the door was no easier than having had to accept the fact that her father had had a heart attack. A few years ago she received a telephone call in the middle of the night, and driving all the way to Sadatabad she had almost rammed into the freeway guardrails and the parked cars along the streets a hundred times.

When she raised her head, there were two red circles on her knees. She felt as though all the blood in her body had surged up to her face. She fanned herself with her hands. No, it wasn’t a nightmare or a fantasy. She was one step away from her home and leagues away from the safety on the other side of the door. What sin was she paying penance for? She thought, But I’m always so . . . I’m always . . . and she desperately looked up at the reflection of the Van Yakad prayer on the glass panel on top of the door. She prayed no one would show up in the hallway. No, no one should see her in that state. She was the one who, before leaving the apartment, with her handbag slung over her shoulder and her umbrella in her hand, always looked through the peephole before opening the door. If she heard footsteps or saw someone, she would wait until the person had passed. Then she would quietly open the door and walk out. She would slide her sunglasses down from the crown of her head onto her nose and turn the key in the lock for the latch to slide back and for the door to close without a sound. She would hurry down the four steps that led to the foyer and when the building’s front door closed behind her, she would exhale with an audible whoof. If she was unlucky and came across anyone, with an “excuse me” that only she could hear, she would narrow her body like a cat, slip past the person, and quickly walk out of the building. With long strides and without opening her umbrella, she would walk to the intersection at the end of the road, and only when she was finally sitting in a taxi would she again release the air in her lungs with an even deeper whoof. She had never thought about these escapes, but she knew she enjoyed them. In a way it was like being trapped, experiencing fear, and then suddenly finding herself free and in a space that belonged only to her. That was it. There was no other explanation for it. Perhaps if she told someone . . . no, she shouldn’t.

Her husband often said, “You’re always beating an escape, fleeing. You should live in a cave.” Then he would purse his lips and squeeze them shut and when he opened them again he would say, “I feel sorry for the people who work for you.”

But it wasn’t like that. She was comfortable with her staff and had no problems with the clients. What’s more, even when people in other departments had difficulties or wanted to complain about life and work, they always found her door open. Hadn’t she helped the clerk in the archives department get a mortgage when his wife threatened to divorce him if he didn’t buy a house? Hadn’t it taken her only a day to arrange for the company driver’s supplementary insurance? And who was it who found the janitor’s crippled son a job at the telephone exchange? Of course, Noori could be right most times and about most things, but not about this. Still, every time she tried to defend herself, he would simply say, “That which is evident, need not be discussed.”

None of it mattered now. Whatever had passed before, she was now sitting half-naked in front of the door, running her fingers over the red lines and the fine grit stuck to her backside. It was as if those thin hairy legs with shapeless flabby muscles belonged to someone else. Blue and black veins, resembling little lumps of colored yarn, had clustered here and there on her thighs and on the sides of her knees. Why had she not noticed them before? She ran her hands over her stomach. It felt like a sack with thick yogurt sagging at its bottom. Instinctively, she folded one arm across her stomach and reached up with the other and took the hair clip out of her hair. Straight reddish-brown hair cascaded down over her breasts. Fortunately, she had not cut it short. It was like the odds and ends one stores in the basement for years and then one day they suddenly come in handy.

She got up and lifted the doormat. The damn thread had now bunched up and looked like the veins on her legs. She wrapped the mat around her and thought she must look like the woman in the advertisements for individual saunas, sitting inside what looks like a barrel, with her head and feet sticking out. Just then, the significance of what her husband had recently told her began to dawn on her. He had looked her up and down and said, “What were you and what have you become? Oh, it’s wonderful to see how some women tend to themselves and take care of their looks.”

She heard footsteps. Someone was walking down the stairs. The closer the sound grew, the more she cowered and shrunk into herself. She clutched the doormat tight as if it was her late mother’s dress and she squeezed all her fear and horror into it. She was becoming one with it. The sound of the footsteps stopped. The doormat’s bristles were sticking to her skin. Disgusted, she pulled it away from her.

Soon, she started hoping someone would actually come along. At first, the person would surely be shocked and would try not to look at her. She would ask for a bedsheet to cover herself and then she would explain everything that had happened. She did a rough calculation. There were seven apartments in the building; if an average of two people lived in each unit, that would total fourteen residents. On a summer evening, there would be approximately three people coming and going in the building every hour until at least eight or nine o’clock. She thought, Even the crows return to their nest at sunset. So, where was everyone? She remembered the words to an old popular song: At dusk when the lights go on . . . It was as if someone was humming it inside her head.

She took a deep breath and sighed. With all her being she wanted someone to open the building’s front door and to slam it shut behind them. Where the hell were all those inconsiderate people who on her days off ruined her afternoon naps by slamming the doors, with the clip-clop of their high heels, and the thump-thump of their heavy boots, which had become popular among the youth? She dropped the doormat, dug her nails into her thighs and again crouched down on the floor. Perhaps Noori was right to accuse her of being a nitpicker and a pessimist.

If only he would somehow have a premonition that he had to return home, then he could say whatever he wanted to her. He could call her stupid, thoughtless, absentminded, and obsessive. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that she needed the safety and security that existed on the other side of the door. Noori, a former chess champion, was going to retire in a year, but he was still chasing the dreams of his youth. He even claimed he had beaten Kasparov twice and had conceded the game to him three times . . . She thought, I won’t argue with him anymore, I won’t say that he never even met Kasparov, much less compete with him.

Every day when Noori returned home from work, summer or winter, he put his briefcase in front of the sofa and went to the park to play chess under the gazebo. Even if the sky fell to the earth, his routine wouldn’t change. In fact, to Noori everything was like a chessboard, black or white. And he believed all people were good until proven otherwise. Everyone was wonderful, but only as long as they paid their apartment’s monthly maintenance fees on time, didn’t take his parking space in the garage, and didn’t leave their garbage bags out in front of the building.

Again, she heard footsteps. The owner of the feet walked a few steps and stopped. She pressed herself against the wall and gripped the doormat. There was a thin black line on the wall facing her. The neighbor’s five-year-old daughter had placed the tip of her pencil on the wall and drawn a line all the way up the stairs. Six months ago when the family was moving in, Noori saw their cartons of books in the garage and elatedly announced that at last there was a worthwhile, respectable couple living in the building. They became Mr. and Mrs. Intellectual. And then one Friday Noori’s voice reverberated through the building, exclaiming, “Woe to the society that the likes of them are its intellectuals.” At times like these, he would deliver his famous line—“Life is a stage for defeat. If you lose, you lose; if you win, you still lose.” He always repeated this when he got into an argument with her or when one of life’s white chess pieces slipped into a black piece’s square. But no, with two children in university she didn’t want to think about which one of them was a win or a lose for the other one. She had given up thinking about these things a long time ago.

She looked at the doormat. The thread had bent into a V. She pursed her lips.

She saw the shadow of a man behind the stained-glass panels of the building’s front door and heard the jangle of keys. She suddenly felt hot. She didn’t know why or how she dashed down the four steps, turned right, and bolted down the six steps of the rear staircase, but within seconds she was huddled under the parking garage stairs, gasping for air. She never expected such fast action from herself. But why had she run? She should have stayed there and asked the man to fetch something for her to cover herself with. Then she could have explained how she got stuck in front of the door and asked him to call a locksmith. Would he have believed her? No, she thought, he would have probably supposed the building manager’s wife had rushed back from a rendezvous with someone in the building in such a frenzy that she had forgotten her clothes and her keys and he had caught her in the nick of time.

She thought how strangely the mind works; before any of these random thoughts occurred to her, her brain had ordered her legs to run and triggered her instinct to hide. It was good that her brain had not consulted with her. What would she say to Noori after he heard the rumor? This was different from everything else about her that he complained about. After all these years, Noori had not even come to accept the umbrella she carried every day and held over her head in snow, rain, and sun. He still groused, “Woman, you make me look conspicuous. An intelligent person doesn’t behave this way.” But she no longer felt the need to explain everything to him and knew better than to try to justify every little action the way she used to do.

There was total silence. It was as if the dust of death had been scattered over the damn building. What if she knocked on the door of the intellectual neighbors’ apartment? But no, the woman would probably jump to other conclusions. If Noori was right in believing that they were only acting like cultured people and were in fact even more backward than his old childhood nanny, it was not wise to ring their doorbell looking like that. The woman would probably look through the peephole and one of two thoughts would immediately occur to her; either that the building manager’s wife always went to their apartment half naked to seek out her husband when she was not home, or, at best, that the reclusive conceited woman had gone mad and would likely pounce on her, claw at her face, and beat her if she opened the door. But she didn’t know any of the other six families that lived in the building. She wasn’t even sure she would recognize them if she saw them. The only reason she had met the intellectual couple was because Noori invited them to their apartment one night so that under the pretense of discussing the building’s rules and regulations and maintenance fees he could size them up. She had brought them tea and sat with them for a few minutes and then, claiming she had to call her son, retreated to the bedroom.

She didn’t know how long she had been standing under the parking garage stairs. Why had she not thought of the janitor? She should ask him for a coat or a robe and send him to fetch a locksmith. The curtains with the large red flowers in the window of the janitor’s small cement room in the garage were drawn, but she could see the glow of a lamp inside. She shuddered. No, the deprived opium-addicted Afghan louse would probably get turned on seeing her like that and he would grab her and drag her inside. Hadn’t these people committed all sorts of crimes across that sprawling city? She had never trusted the man’s Moghul-looking eyes. But Noori had said the miserable man was from the Hezareh tribe, that they were Shia Muslims and harmless, and that they were always blamed for the misdeeds of the Taliban and the Pashtu. He had heard this from the Afghan himself and in merely half an hour he had even picked up the man’s accent . . . ugh!

With tiny hurried steps, she tiptoed back to her apartment. She could hear the telephone ringing inside. As though she had just remembered the predicament she was in, she glanced down at the doormat wrapped around her and her breathing became more rapid. She closed her eyes. It was probably Maria calling. She usually called early evenings and often without saying hello gasped, “Mom, I’m dying, I’m so depressed.” Otherwise, if she asked her daughter how she was, Maria would raise her shrill voice and say, “How can anyone be in this stinking far-flung province?” She knew what her daughter’s problem was; she wanted money, again. Unbeknownst to Noori, she would send her some. They all knew how to play her. The girl would say, “I have food poisoning and my friends had to take me to the hospital.” And although she knew this was just a ruse, she would involuntarily say, “Oh no! Again?” She always thought, Perhaps this time she really does have food poisoning! And if she ever said, “But I just sent you some money,” or something along these lines, she would have to immediately hold the receiver away from her ear for the girl to shriek, “It’s all because of you. You’re the one who insisted I come here. As a matter of fact, I will drop out of the university tomorrow and move back to Tehran.” The threat was always enough for her to give in and say, “Fine, fine my dear. Don’t upset yourself. I will deposit some money on your debit card tomorrow.” In a way, she was relieved that Maria wasn’t there just then. She took a deep breath and a smile spread on her lips.

The best moments were when she closed the door to her office, put her feet up on the glass desk, closed her eyes, and a memory from years ago emerged from somewhere deep in her mind . . . she was always enraptured on the afternoon’s when her son’s math tutor—a man with small piercing eyes—came to the house. She sighed and a wave of pain and pleasure rippled through her body. She looked at her bulging kneecaps and bit her lip. She folded her legs and hugged the doormat tight against her.

It had grown dark outside. She felt a little safer; nightfall was shielding her. Again she heard footsteps. She stood up against the wall and closed her eyes tight. She felt her tears retreating out of fear or perhaps desperation. Now her husband’s arrival had become her nightmare. Perhaps if she were in his place and found her half-naked in front of the door, she too would be horrified and shower her with whatever words spewed out of her mouth. She thought, At first Noori’s eyes will grow wide and then without uttering a word he will quickly look up and down the hallway, open the door, and shove her inside.

The air felt stale and stifling. She thought she heard the telephone ringing again. Cool air was wafting out from the narrow gap under the door. She sat down on the slightly raised door threshold and slumped back. Suddenly the door flew open and swallowed her. She was lying flat on her back. She looked down at her legs spread apart outside the door and at her torso lying inside. She got up, closed the door and turned on the light. The sofas with pleated blue covers, the white voile curtains flapping in the breeze from the air conditioner, the crystal vase with two stems of artificial flowers . . . everything looked strange and unfamiliar. It was as if she had never lived in that apartment. She threw the doormat down next to the door. The white thread was not there. She bent down and looked again. No, it was as if there never was a thread stuck to the doormat. 

“گریز” © Behnaz Alipour Gaskari. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Sara  Khalili. All rights reserved.