October 22, 2018

Marriage: What’s in a promise?

The week after my parents’ wedding, at the swanky Officers’ Club in downtown Tehran, another Jewish couple were married in the same ballroom, by the same rabbi, and before many of the same invitees. Like my parents, both members of the other couple were children of a new but quickly rising upper class in 1950s Iran. Their families were modern and worldly and eager to embrace Western values. They threw lavish parties and drove late-model American cars and bought diamonds the size of yellow cherries for their women. Their sons pursued higher education and became professionals; their daughters skied and rode horseback and vacationed in Europe.  

My parents’ wedding, I’m told, was attended by no fewer than 1,000 guests, many of them dignitaries and members of the royal family. My mother’s gown was made of exquisitely fine French lace, with a trail so long it had to be carried by a half-dozen women as she climbed out of the car and up the front stairs of the Officers’ Club. Caviar was served by the bowl. Delkash, then a great diva, sang. Her fee was higher than that of any other entertainer in the city. Sometime near midnight, feeling slighted or not sufficiently appreciated, Delkash made a great show of walking off stage in indignation and had to be entreated and cajoled to return. 

The other wedding, also featuring Delkash, was just as lavish and well attended, but it was mired in rumors too dark and unnerving to voice. 

Not that one should commit lashon harah, mind you, but some weeks before, it seems, the groom was found in compromised circumstances with a younger man in the back room of the bookstore where he — the younger man — worked as a clerk. The groom, it seems, had a reading fetish. The clerk, it seems, had let him into the store after closing time. Past midnight, a neighbor saw a light in the back of the store and called the store’s owner. He called the police. 

I was reminded of this last week when the Supreme Court issued its same-sex marriage ruling: two weddings, so outwardly similar, so internally different. My parents found each other when my father, sitting in the back of a car, saw my mother cross the street on her way to school one morning. They’ve now been married for 56 years. Through thick and thin, three daughters and eight grandchildren, their commitment to each other and their family has not wavered or come into question. As for the other couple …

In very short order, the groom’s family found him a girl young and appealing enough to satisfy his cravings, from a place distant and out-of-the-loop enough to have remained untouched by the lashon harah. The newlyweds honeymooned in Europe; the bride was pregnant by the end of the trip. Back in Tehran, the groom’s parents bought him a house as far away from the old neighborhood as they could find, set him to work in the family business, encouraged his wife to see to his every need and to keep bearing children. The young man in the back of the bookstore got a good beating from his boss and was fired. He found work as an assistant bread maker on the other side of town. 

Years went by. The groom’s wife bore him four sons. His family became wealthier and more prominent. His wife blossomed from a pretty teenage girl into a beautiful mature woman. As far as anyone knew, he remained faithful to her in deed, if not in thought. There were no rumors of him seeing other women, or — lashon harah — men. He never went out alone at night, never took business trips or insisted that his wife and children spend the summer in Europe or at the Caspian. There was only this: Every morning and evening, even on Fridays, when the office was closed, he drove his car across town, parked a few blocks away from a certain bread oven, and walked past its doors as the young bookstore clerk was pulling hot slabs of flatbread out of the stone oven. 

If marriage is a promise, what is that promise? To love each other? To remain faithful to each other where love is there not? To feed and clothe and house each other in sickness and in health? 

For 20 years, the groom cared for and remained faithful to his wife and children, and walked past the bread maker’s twice a day. For 20 years, the clerk stood at the same doorway in the same shop. When the revolution came, the groom’s family — his wife and children, his siblings and elderly parents — escaped with their lives, but he stayed in Tehran. By now he was in his mid-60s and wider around the waist; his hair was growing silver at the temples; his voice had become scratchy from too many cigarettes. The clerk, too, had grown old and gray. Around them, the city burned and bullets were fired into crowds and people disappeared behind stone walls, never to be seen again. 

The groom stayed in Iran as other well-known Jews were imprisoned and executed, as his name appeared on the “wanted” list in the evening newspapers, as his holdings were expropriated. He stayed until he was picked up off the street by a posse of revolutionary guards and taken away. The day after he was released, he went back to the old street and past the bread maker’s door. The clerk wasn’t there anymore.

Accounts differ as to what became of the clerk during the time the groom was in prison and thereafter. In some versions, he was identified as homosexual and beaten to death by some mullah’s posse; in others, he simply gave up on the groom coming back alive from prison and left town. As for the groom, in some versions, he stayed in Iran for another decade after his stint in prison; in others, he left to rejoin his family very soon after he realized the clerk had vanished. What we do know is that the couple who were married at the Officers’ Club the week after my parents’ wedding kept a promise of sorts to each other, raised a family and took care of each other’s physical needs until they both died of old age in America. And that the couple who were caught and publicly shamed by the neighbor and the police, who most likely never exchanged another embrace or even another word, might also have kept a promise — to not forget? to not abandon entirely? to not stop caring? — albeit a promise unspoken, to the other. 

I thought of the old groom the day the Supreme Court released its decision.

Gina Nahai’s new novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”