10. Early Mornings
The 5:00 AM train that goes through the Sixth Street underpass whistles in the distance. Shuffling the pillows, I try to find a position that offers some relief from the pressure in the back of my neck. I live in an apartment near the University of Arizona campus. As an only child who has lived with her parents all of her life, it took me a while to adjust to being alone in a two-storey apartment, in a new city, in a new country. For the first few weeks, I left the radio on all night. Soon, the train whistle became a reliable companion. Before I saw the freight cars I imagined a passenger train with cozy compartments carrying lone travelers to the east.
At around 5:00 AM in Tehran my room is still dark except for a single ray of light peeking through the gap between the curtains, illuminating a strip of the burgundy silk bedcover. I took some medicine a few minutes ago and hope to go back to sleep. My admission to the Media Arts program at the University of Arizona coincided with the “Axis of Evil” speech. As a result, when I applied for a student visa the gold embossing on my Iranian passport carried an extraordinarily destructive weight—one that overshadowed my freshly-pressed grey suit, the fact that I had studied in one of the best art universities in the Middle East, and the impressive scholarship I had received. I spent days traveling from Tehran to Dubai, to Ankara, to Cyprus, and was rejected for a visa in the American consulate in each city twice. I dreaded the nights in the hotels, surrounded by the sounds of travelers’ laughter, and I found shelter in In Search of Lost Time. Suddenly, Proust’s sentence structure wasn’t too complex: it was consoling, and we became companions in airports and embassies.
A few weeks ago, with a renewed 2003 admission letter, I applied for the student visa again. The seventh time was the charm. I was elated about starting my studies in the United States, and when the morning pain first started pounding in my head, I didn’t care. My mom did, and she dragged me to the urgent care clinic. We came back home with medication for migraines and a recommendation to get a CT scan.
I listen to the silence of Tucson’s early morning streets outside of my window as the train leaves the city and the whistle fades in my thoughts. The blue bedcover feels cool beneath my palms. Its texture reminds me of my burgundy bedcover back home. The ceiling fan has been staring at me for a while. I sacrifice a few more minutes of sleep in favor of a hot shower.
As I wait for the water to get warm, I look at the blurry version of myself in the bathroom mirror with a fragment of Arizona sky repeating itself in the background from the window next to the bed. The image looks like a closeup of Monet’s “Woman with a Parasol,” minus the umbrella. I run my fingertips over the arch of my brows. The dots of the newly-grown hair feel rough to my touch. I try to use a tweezer to pluck them. The closer I get to the mirror, the harder it is to see the dots. Pinching the thin skin beneath the eyebrows a couple of times, I give up and sigh at the thought of needing glasses again after having my LASIK procedure only a few years prior.
The heat of the water seeps through the heavy numbness in my neck, and the pain retreats. During orientation week a couple of professors warned me about the temperature, the stress of graduate school, and how so many people here get migraines, especially during Tucson’s monsoon season. I lean my head on the tiles of the shower and let the water wash over me. Behind this wall, on the shelves of my desk, there is a small plant, and next to it, a picture from my last birthday at home.
9. 25th Birthday
Eyebrows freshly threaded and shaped. They trace a line in tune with my smile. Toward the end, there is a subtle arch bringing attention to my eyes. I have a bright red shirt on and sit on a loveseat whose cherry-colored cushions barely show behind my mom’s small frame. From the crimson paisleys of the rug beneath my feet to the red and gold motifs of the Termeh covering the table, everywhere in our house there are traces of my mom’s love for red. In the picture she is leaning in, holding my left hand. My dad is on my right, with a look that doesn’t entirely give into a smile. My cousin took lots of pictures that night. In some I am in skin-tight grey jeans, and in a few I have a pair of loose-fitting tan pants on. Early in the evening, excruciating headaches stopped me from celebrating.
In my room, I close my eyes and take deep breaths to calm my mind beyond the laughter of my dad and uncles as they help themselves to my mom’s famous Lubia-polo, one of my favorite Persian dishes. Above the round dining table, a small A/C unit turns on and off regularly to help the swamp-cooler keep our small apartment on the north side of Tehran cool. The aroma of saffron and cinnamon embedded within the crusty rice fills the room as my aunt comes in with a plate of food. She asks if the pain is any better from an hour ago and insists I change into looser pants, it would help me breathe easier. I change into a more comfortable pair. My mom pops in to say they have turned the thermostat to a lower setting, that the heat wasn’t helping. I close my eyes and the plate of Lubia-polo sits neglected next to my bed. I think about packing my running shoes and try to imagine my life in Arizona.
8. Melting Masks
It is monsoon season in Tucson and a deluge has just let up. The ground is wet, and the air is heavy. The steam rises off the pavement and dissolves into the background of grey buildings adorned with terracotta tiles. Students are mostly in shorts and flip flops. On the northeast corner of the UA Student Union, there is a small market called U-Mart that has some groceries and essentials. I step out of U-Mart with a grocery bag and a blue backpack loaded with Media Theory books that are weighing heavily on my mind and on my shoulder. It’s been a long day of not understanding half of the discussions during the back-to-back seminars. Across from the U-Mart there is the campus bookstore, and above it there are restaurants, galleries, and a few theaters. A person wearing a Wildcats t-shirt and a shimmering face covering that resembles a ‘sad’ theater mask walks out of the bookstore. I see a group of students lingering nearby; they all have the same unusual masks—perhaps there was an event on the second floor of the student union. I begin walking towards my apartment with the bag that holds my essentials: a couple of slices of chocolate bread, a few Granny Smith apples, and coffee creamer. Less than a block into my walk I feel surrounded by surreal faceless people. My pace quickens. The edges of their unnerving masks dissolve slowly into the misty warm air.
7. Persian Tea
I blink to focus my vision through the steam. At home, my mom adds some hot water to the small glass teapot before putting it back on top of the samovar to let the tea brew for a few minutes. I am on the phone with my dad’s car insurance when she answers the door. Arshan hugs my mom and nods hello in my direction. We have been friends for six years and our relationship doesn’t have a name. I had a crush on him and pursued him before we became friends without him knowing; a year later he told me he loved me. I wasn’t sure of how I felt, and we remained friends. He is the only guy who visits occasionally for a cup of tea or even lunch. My mom tells him I was in another car accident. Arshan raises an eyebrow. Ten days before moving to the U.S. I could have done without the hassle of insurance calls.
“It wasn’t really an accident. I got to the highway, the guy on the left just kept going…”
“…She didn’t see the other car…” My mom cuts me off as she pours tea into a few clear glass teacups. Arshan kisses me on the forehead and sits on one of the chairs around the red fiberglass table that is a bit oversized for the small open kitchen.
“You have too much going on, you shouldn’t drive” announces Arshan, reaching for the tea whose auburn notes are lightly reflected in his brown hair. I peer at the steam above his cup: the red of Persian tea overlaps with the red of the table. I blink to focus.
“I have so much to do, I need to drive.”
“I will drive you.”
6. Double Vision
“Are you sure?” I ask Stephanie.
“Yeah, I need to go to the MVD to get my Arizona license, you can come with to get your ID.”
Stephanie is one of my classmates in the Media Arts graduate program. I don’t know anyone in Tucson yet, so I appreciate she has offered to take me along with her to the MVD. I sit next to her in the car, sipping on the vanilla latte she recommended for fighting the heat and surviving the first semester of grad school. She tells me about her German boyfriend who sounds very nice and would be visiting her soon. Somewhere in her story, around the part where they met, I get distracted by two identical yellow Volkswagen Beetles a few feet ahead of us. I think how odd it is to see two of the exact same color and model of such an unusual car, until I realize when I move my head slightly, there is only one car on the road. I remind myself to take the medication prescribed by the urgent care doctor back home for my migraines. As I reluctantly step out of the car, a blast of hot air hits my face. Stephanie asks if I loved anyone back home. It is complicated.
“What do you mean you can’t see?” Kathleen asks as I stare at the monitor in front of me. She has a point; it doesn’t make sense now that I say it out loud. Kathleen goes to the other side of the table where Kristen is struggling with the new program we need to learn. They look quite stressed about this project. On the first floor of the UA library there are multiple tables with multiple Macs. Some students are working alone, a few are together working on group projects. I just got here after a long walk. The desert heat is starting to get to me. I should drink more water. The colors around me mimic the red and blue of the Wildcat bottle I carry often and neglect a lot. I look at the Flash program Kathleen left open in front of me. All the details are bleeding into each other. I don’t like Flash, even when the project is in focus. Narrowing my eyes, I conclude that squinting helps, or the water and the 24/7 A/C do. We decide on who does what for the next few days, and I gather my stuff to meet with my advisor.
I tell Dr. B something is wrong with my eyes and the campus health physician had offered the same diagnosis as the doctor back home: it is probably a migraine, but I should see an ophthalmologist.
“I tried to walk there yesterday. I kept going and going, but never made it…”
“You tried to walk from Second Street to Alvernon?!”
For the first time, I break down into tears. I don’t tell him I couldn’t see the names on the street signs as I walked beneath them, and it was odd how my vision seemed to have gotten worse so quickly, and I was scared. Dr. B holds a blue box of white tissues in front of me without saying anything. Eventually, when I stop crying, I explain that the campus health receptionist told me the ophthalmologist’s office was close, and maybe she didn’t realize I didn’t have a car, or I didn’t understand her. It didn’t really matter.
“I am going back there on Monday at 4:30… I’ll take a cab.”
He writes his cellphone number on one of his cards before handing it to me and tells me to keep him posted.
4. Reflections of the Light
Dr. Nichols has a kind voice. He asks casual questions like how long I have been here and what my major is, moving his light left and right and staring into the back of my eyes.
I nervously play with the crumpled tissue papers that have yellow stains from the eyedrops the nurse administered earlier. Eventually, he sits back on the stool in front of me.
“I think your surgeon in Iran did an excellent job of the LASIK.”
I am grateful his figure shelters me from the eye chart on the wall that failed me a few minutes ago. Some framed pictures and posters break up the intensity of the deep maroon wallpaper that has begun to overwhelm me. There is a cabinet on the right side of the patient chair that houses the medical supplies. A large round mirror above the cabinet reflects the lights of the room, and our words. My head hurts, and I can’t even remember when it began. I stare at my feet and think it was the right decision to wear running shoes today instead of my usual sandals. When I ask him what is wrong, if it is not my prior LASIK surgery, I already know the answer, and I think he knows I know. He tells me he will arrange for his colleague, the on-call neurologist at the ER, to see me as soon as I get there, and asks if I have any family he can call.
3. Chevrons on Pink
The fluorescent lights in the ER screech in my head. There are so many people here, so many lines are blurred: I am not sure who is sitting or standing, the English and Spanish sentences dissolve into one another and I can hardly distinguish words. I have always loved the shallow depth of field technique. In photography, the beautiful blurry background allows for selective focus. But nothing in the depth of my field is in focus, not even voices. I find my way to the front desk, and a woman in blue scrubs with a pattern I can’t recognize hands me a clipboard with a bunch of forms. I miss the pen she is holding on the board. It drops in slow motion, pulling the small chain with it, before making a rattling noise whose echo isolates me. Somewhere at the end or beginning of a row, next to a woman who tries to comfort a crying baby, I sit in a seat that feels like dark purple. I stare at the pink forms. No numbers, no letters, no words, only beautiful chevron patterns that dance behind the tears that wash my eyes. I have forgotten to water my plant this morning.
2. Through the Sliding Doors
I lay on the hard surface of the MRI platform with eyes shut as I slide into the tube of the machine. The panic button is pressed tight in my palm, making my hand sweat. This is my third MRI since I went to the ER four days ago. I have found a way to imagine a symphony of clicks, clacks, and buzzes, one whose length and rhythm need improvement. I am scheduled to have surgery today to remove the tumor, my tumor, which—judging by its size—has been with me most of my life. Meningioma is a slow-growing benign tumor, and one of the best kinds one could have, if you have to have a brain tumor that is. Mine occupies a fifth of my brain, about the size of my fist. According to my surgeon, Dr. Weinand, the operation will take between 10 and 11 hours to complete. My Aunt Shahnaz is with me at the hospital. She got an overnight flight from Baltimore and made it to the hospital on Tuesday morning right when they moved me from a bed in the ER corridor to a room. She is kind and knows how to control her reactions, which is extremely helpful when everyone else is drowning in waves of emotions and uncertainty. Last night the lady on the other bed said I looked as young as her granddaughter, and I thought if I die, and if there is something after that last moment, it would smell like white jasmines and my grandmother would be there.
I talked to my parents on the phone a few minutes before leaving my room for surgery. Dr. B stands next to Shahnaz near the door; he was here at 8:00 AM sharp. He tells me I will be missed in class that morning, and I think about my presentation last week that went well despite the complication of not being able to see my notes. When the nurses push my bed into the corridor I wave at Shahnaz and wish she didn’t have to go through 11 hours of waiting alone, updating my terrified parents over the phone. I stare at the fluorescent ceiling lights that lead me forward through the hallways, from one sliding door to the next.
- Counting Backward
The anesthesiologist reviews the steps for me, as he did yesterday. My best friend, Zahra, told me my mom had asked her mom to say a prayer for me. My mom is not religious. My cheeks are wet, and as I blink I see the features of Dr. Weinand clearer than I ever have before. I cry a lot. My dad does too. I told him yesterday the more I cry, the clearer I see. Dr. Weinand asks if I am OK. I’ve become fond of his serious, no B.S. persona from the moment he walked into my room with an entourage of interns. With him I trust it will be OK. The anesthesiologist asks me to count backward.
10, 9, 8 – I think about Arshan and the last night before I left, when he kissed me for the first time, and how the silk threads of my bedcover felt like a palpable luxury I was leaving behind.
7, 6 – I think about my dad, to whom my mom and aunts gave sleeping pills, in hopes he would sleep through my surgery, and how he would be on a flight to Dubai the next day to apply for a US visa.
- Early Mornings
The cold air of November feels crisp on my face and invigorating against my scalp. I have been leaving the window open now that monsoon season is over and the weather is finally cooler. I move around in bed thinking I should get ready for class. My closely shaved hair feels funny on the freshly laundered sheets. It still doesn’t cover the scar that begins above my right ear and goes around my head like a big question mark all the way to the nape of my neck. It has been almost a month since my surgery. Most of the tumor is gone, and although I have a blind spot on one side now, my overall vision has improved significantly, enough that I can read and continue my studies here. I pull the blue bedcover all the way to my chin and allow myself a few more minutes of just lying there. The 5:00 AM train that goes through the Sixth Street underpass whistles as if it is beneath my window.
Naz gives us the story behind the story:
Moving to a new country, missing home, inexplicable health issues, and the diagnosis came down like a deluge. I wanted this piece to mirror that experience—the emotions and the disarray. Writing in fragments allowed me to move back and forth in time and place, braiding scenes from Iran and the US together to shape the story. Numbering the sections from ten to one was an idea that came to me when revising the surgery scene. It added more urgency to the narrative and built momentum toward the resolution. As I experimented with form and negative space, I sometimes wondered if writing a personal essay with minimal reflection would work. In the end, I decided to trust the readers, that they would stay with me through it all.
Naz is an Iranian-American writer and filmmaker. She holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University and an MA in Media Arts from the University of Arizona. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Mayday magazine, (mac)ro(mic), and Lost Balloon. She lives and teaches in North Carolina. Find her on Twitter at @nazbk.
“First Monsoon” was originally published in Mayday Magazine.