Flesh and Blood
Jasmine Fahroodi dropped out of college and is living with her parents in small-town Georgia. Her inscrutable Iranian father and cheerleaderish American mother are determined to get her life back on track-by arranging a marriage for her. Jasmine resents their efforts and spends her days watching cyclists in the park or reading in the library, under the watchful eye of librarians Turtle Lady and the fearsomely chatty Martha. Jasmine's father never talks about his family or his former life in Iran, so Jasmine invents her own version of her father's past, elaborating on the few details she knows in order to plumb the mysteries of familial and romantic love.
My mother’s sneezing from the night before has escalated into a full-blown cold, and she’s taken a sick day. The only way to account for my father’s presence in the kitchen is that he’s running late. Which is totally out of character for him. Tardiness is not something my father usually tolerates—in himself or others.
“Watch. Hold still, Margaret. I make this for you.” My father stirs some hot water in a pan with lemon. Some ancient Iranian cure for the common cold.
“You really think this will work?” Though I can’t see her, her back to me, I can tell my mother has furrowed her eyebrows, that she doubts the process. She’s a mess and keeps wiping her nose with a wad of tissues.
“Next, I put in...”—he pauses for dramatic effect—“…an olive. See?”
My mother stares at the concoction like a child who has found a bug in her drink. She looks strange in her fuzzy bathrobe, terribly vulnerable somehow. And here is my father actually taking care of her. I can’t believe he’s willing to get so close to her when she’s sick.
He dumps in a tablespoon of black pepper.
“I can’t eat that! It’ll burn my tongue off.”
He looks wounded, but only for a second, and then she touches his shoulder, her finger an olive branch. For a moment, unless it’s just the fogginess of my brain, I can almost see what they were like, together, in the beginning.
“Is nothing,” my father says. “I once ate camel eyes.” He pours his potion in a mug for her, and then abruptly leaves for work, as if camel eyes require no explanation.
My mother turns to look at me and shrugs. “Down the hatch,” she says, pinching her nose closed and swallowing his wretched concoction in one big gulp.
Because the idea of sitting in the house all day listening to my mother cough and sneeze on stacks of bridal magazines isn’t terribly appealing, I ride my bike down to Central Circuit and watch Pierre LaRoche, the skydiver, on television until I get looks from the customers and staff. I’m beginning to fancy this skydiver, this French daredevil. Anyway, it’s a good way to kill time.
Later, in the afternoon, I head out for the library. Turtle Lady shyly smiles at me when I come in. As usual, the library’s mostly populated by old people. No pink-scarf lady in sight, but there’s an old man sitting down on the footstool between the shelves of poetry. He’s withered and frail and doesn’t move for over an hour. I wonder if he looks anything like my father’s father.
Remembering this morning, I search the stacks for books on camels. I take out Camels of the Desert, a giant book of photography, and scribble down something about the merits of my father’s childhood diet:
There was nothing wrong with my father’s appetite. Indeed, as he told my mother, he once ate camel eyes. As a boy, he stood back at the mela and watched Mohammed Panah, the healer, cure camels. One of the camels, though not sick, had fallen over and died of stress and old age, leaving a heavy pile of fur and skin.
These are good for you. Healthy for the body, Mohammed Panah said to my father. He carved out the eyes with his dull knife, cutting them into tiny pieces like seeds. When he showed my father how to eat them, he placed them on the tip of his tongue. If you think you might gag, he said, you can place them under your tongue and swallow.
But my father knew he would not gag, and he took them on his tongue. The camel eyes tasted bitter at first, like olives. He imagined a soft pair of camel eyes looking around inside him.
Most nights, though, my father ate less exotic fare. His mother placed a large bowl of hot rice and potatoes in the center of the table. Everyone ate from the same bowl. Each person fought for a mouthful. My father grabbed his sisters by their thick, black hair and pulled their heads out of the way while they clawed at his arms. He positioned himself, strong and immobile, between his brothers and the bowl.
One night, my father went for the fattest potato, yellow and buttery. He pushed his father square in his bony chest, and the aging man fell back on his pillow. For a moment, everyone was silent, motionless. Only my father proceeded, hooking the fat potato with his finger. They all watched my father stuff it into his mouth, so big that it bulged out of his cheeks and lips.
Suddenly, my father became aware of everyone looking at him.
His father was so angry that several veins around his eyes throbbed out through the skin, and his eyes seemed to protrude from his skull, so much so that his daughters considered putting out their hands to catch them should they fall out. He stared at my father, and even though his wife believed a beating was justly deserved, he did not lay a hand on him. Still, he got up from his cushion and did not eat or say another thing that night.
Like the wall, the push was not deliberate, but then, in a way, it was. I believe my father harbored no ill will. He simply moved his father out of the way. He was hungry. Consumed by his need to eat and grow, he never noticed how thin his father was and how fast he had gotten that way; he saw his father every day and so did not notice his body’s little subtractions.
“What are you doing?” Martha demands, standing behind me.
I nearly jump out of my skin, and I instinctively snap the book closed. This woman is scary when she’s pissed. Like Catholic-nun scary. She has little pencil earrings hanging angrily down next to her cheeks.
“Nothing.” I offer up my best innocent doe-eyes.
“You were writing in a library book. I saw you, young lady.” Before I can deny it, she grabs the book and begins flipping through the pages. “Here, see? You’ve written: ‘There was nothing wrong—’”
“Okay.” My face tightens and blooms. “You’re right. I did it.”
“‘…with my father’s appetite, ’” she continues with exaggerated enunciation, as if reading to a bunch of kindergarteners. The sound of her voice reading my words is pure torture.
“I admit it, just shut the hell up, okay?”
Martha gasps and pulls Camels of the Desert close to her chest like a baby. Evidently no one-- not even her snake-killing husband—has ever told her to shut up. She’s so angry, her lips tremble.
“Well, you’re just going to sit here while I call your parents. Or the police if you prefer.” She stalks off toward the circulation desk, and Turtle Lady meets her with a purposeful stride. Damn, I think to myself, not Turtle Lady. Now she’ll never like me. And I so enjoyed our mutually silent library relationship.
While I’m trying to figure out if writing in library books can possibly be a crime, Martha dials my parent’s number. She talks to someone and then hangs up and calls another number.
Looking down, appropriately humbled, I noticed a carved word on the edge of the table. It’s my own writing, tiny, from third grade, back when they taught us how to use the obsolete card catalog because the library couldn’t afford yet to upgrade to computers. “Jasmine.” On the far side of the table, someone has carved “Paul is an A-Hole” and Ginny White Loves Mason C. 4-Ever.” Near my name, though, someone has carved a question mark. Jasmine? Great. How perfect.
Fifteen minutes later, my father arrives, storming in, almost hitting a patron with the swinging door. Martha tries to meet him halfway.
“Thank you for coming in. Your daughter—”
“What? What she do?” He walks over to me at the table, and I guiltily place my hand over my name.
“She’s been defacing books—I think she may even have been doing this for weeks now. Look what she did to this beautiful book of photography.” Martha offers the camel book to him, and he grabs it out of her hand. She tries to show him where, but he pushes the pages insistently with his bulldozer fingers.
“There are others, as I’ve been informed by my colleague. Now, we can’t have someone coming in and ruining the books for other people, so we need to decide on some course of action.”
Sounds sensible enough. A course of action. I need one of those too.
“Course of action is that this is cheap library with shitty books. And you are uneducated person telling my daughter what to do.”
I almost fall out of my chair. He knows the word shitty?
“But nothing. If she write in book, she improve book. She write with pen I give her.”
Martha’s face is apoplectically purple. “Well, that’s not…”
“You do not yell at Jasmine. I yell at Jasmine when someone needs to yell at her. I tell you, I buy and sell you and this library ten times over,” he says. “Get up,” he mutters down at me.
“If you feel that way, I must ask that neither you nor your daughter ever return,” Martha says, trying to regain her professional demeanor. Her pencil earrings are eerily motionless.
“Don’t worry about him. He never comes here—he only reads medical journals,” I mumble.
“Shut up!” my father barks.
Turtle Lady comes over shaking her head sadly and asks, in the softest of voices, for my library card, but my father half drags me out the door.
As he silently drives me back home, I sit there wondering with mild alarm where I’ll go during the day and how I’ll possibly get books. I guess I can go to the park to watch the circumnavigation of Don for the rest of my summer afternoons. Or else admire Pierre LaRoche on the store televisions until they throw me out for not buying anything.
When we get home, I wait for a few seconds before getting out of the car. My father leaves immediately and slams the door. Inside, my mother’s feeling better, her cold having abated. Evidently, my father, among other things, has discovered the cure for the common cold.
“Honey, what the hell happened? That woman from the library said you were defacing books?”
“Mom, please. It was a misunderstanding. Anyway, I don’t want to talk about it right now.”
“All right, but you’re gonna talk about it sooner or later,” she says with muffled irritation.
Luckily, she leaves me alone, and I sit in my room staring at my dove pen. Record, record. Today I was banished from the Arrowhead Public Library. I try half-heartedly to sketch Martha and Turtle Lady in my journal since it doesn’t look like I’ll be seeing them any time in the future. I figure since I don’t know enough to write about them, I can at least have some physical image for my records. But it’s futile; I can’t draw. They end up looking like bloated harp seals wearing eyeglasses.
Finally, after a while, I find my father in the living room where he’s eating his dinner and watching the Food Network.
“Dad?” Silence. “Thanks for what you said.”
A man on television pulls out a large silver bowl.
“Look, I’m sorry about the haircut. And the other night, you know, with Omar Nazrami. If you think I offended him, I’ll call and apologize.” He grunts in a way that defies interpretation.
On the television, a Chinese chef cuts green peppers into tiny specks and sprinkles them into the large silver bowl.
I’ve always believed that my father secretly wants to be a chef. He watches cooking shows on television with focused eyes, but he never tries to imitate another chef’s recipes. He watches the ways in which they measure and chop and discard food, never eating what they cook. He talks about how dangerous the food is, the fat content, the excessive butter. “It looks good,” he sometimes says, “but I would never eat it.” Maybe he remembers his nights in Iran at the dinner table when he watches these chefs, these people with food who have never had to fight for it. He remembers when he would eat anything.
“Omar Nazrami marrying someone else. Dr. Nazrami call to tell me today,” he says with a sigh.
“What? Who is he marrying?”
“Doesn’t matter. Hassan says she is pure Iranian. That’s why he prefer.”
“Oh-h,” I stutter, my heart leaping. “Sorry.” I stare at the Chinese chef, trying to think of the right thing to say. The chef throws a slice of lemon into the air and catches it in the top of his hat. “You did your best, though.”
“Is okay. I find someone else.” He stuffs his mouth.
“Well, you know. No rush or anything. Would you like a napkin?” Sauce dribbles down his chin. He has a collection of crumbs on his chest.
“Wha?” He cannot talk. He’s put so much food into his mouth, it’s impossible to say a word.
He’s careful about what he eats now, but once he has made a suitable meal, he stuffs it into his mouth as fast as he can. He eats so fast and so desperately that I know he feels no comfort in the fact that he will never again have to fight for his food. He eats as if he is an animal, as if he is afraid the food is going to be taken from him. Sometimes if you walk by him and he is eating, he will jump a little and pull his plate to his chest.