June 24, 2019

I’ve seen this woman before

Gina Nahai

The boys had dominion over the yard, using it for soccer games at every recess and lunch break and after school during pickup time, so the girls were confined to the periphery of the asphalt field and to the hallways and stairs.

We sat in groups outside and talked while we watched the games, or we walked around the borders of the yard, our shoulders grazing the wall or the fence. The headmaster, a princess of the Qajar dynasty, strode around in stilettos and pencil skirts, impeccably made up and pleasantly fragrant and forever brandishing a bullwhip. She was one of the more beautiful women of her era, independently wealthy and French educated, indignant of religion, superstition and a great many social conventions. While she kept most of us on a tight leash, she seemed to favor three of the older girls — two seniors, one junior — who stood out because of their good looks, their audacity with the teachers, their defiance of societal protocol.

Tall, lean, long legs and dark, undulating hair that fell, unrestrained, down their backs. That terrifying confidence of young, beautiful women who do not know, or believe, that they will, one day, be neither beautiful nor young. They mixed mostly with one another, wore their grey uniform skirts perilously short, pranced in Doc Martins purchased on monthslong summer trips to the United States. We knew, though we had never seen evidence of it, that they smoked cigarettes, met boys alone in trendy cafes on Pahlavi Avenue, and had the means or the temerity not to bother with what was deemed appropriate for the rest of the girls their age.

We knew, because that’s what our headmaster modeled, that they had a thousand khastegars — suitors — each, all of them descended from or belonging to royalty; that they, like our headmaster, would be too strong to be someone’s wife, too interested in changing the world to sit at home and raise children. We knew, because the alternative was inconceivable, that they would look dashing, wear their hair long and loose, and defy authority till the end of time.

The end of time arrived a few weeks ago, in the produce aisle of Glatt Mart in Pico-Robertson, on a busy, noisy, teeming-with-shoppers-anxious-to-get-home-in-time Friday morning. I don’t keep kosher and don’t observe Shabbat. I shop at this market because the customers and staff tend to be, on the whole, much less combative than at other Persian markets near me. They also tend to be mostly Orthodox, of various nationalities and usually surrounded by a few small children each.

So I didn’t think twice that day about the woman a few feet away, modestly dressed, in a short, copper-colored wig, who spoke English with her children in what sounded like a Hebrew accent. Probably French, I thought, or Russian. A little besieged, like all mothers of young children, by the demands of domestic life. Truly observant, since there was no trace of vanity in her appearance or mannerisms. I moved on until she called out.

“Gina!” she almost yelled. “You don’t remember me? Shame on you.”

You know where this story is going.

I looked and looked and looked at her. I tried to take a wild guess. The woman was handsome, genial, exceedingly likable, charmingly humble. Her children were cereal box gorgeous. I would have remembered her if we’d ever met.

To say that I was stunned, totally stupefied when she told me her name is an understatement. For a very long minute, I just glared at the two of them — the girl in the Tehran schoolyard and the woman in this Los Angeles store — and tried to find a similarity. Finally, stupidly, I heard myself say, “What happened?”

Asinine, I know. And possibly insulting, though it wasn’t meant that way. Thank God she realized this. She shrugged and let out a delightful laugh.

“You were the most …” What was the word? Glamorous? Bold? Not observant?

We didn’t have yearbooks in Iran, but if we had, she and her two friends would have been voted “least likely to be domesticated.”

She laughed again.

“Remember that?” she said.

What’s “happy”? Relative to what? Or, as the old folks wisely said in Iran, usually in relation to duty, obligation and responsibility, “Happiness has nothing to do with it.”

Her children were pulling at her skirt and sleeve. She tried to explain to them I was someone she had once gone to school with, but they wouldn’t have it. They wanted kosher cereal and kosher sushi.

“So …” I couldn’t let go. “What did happen?”

She paused for a moment.

“I changed,” she said.

No kidding. But that wasn’t enough of an explanation. She could see I was waiting.

Things changed.”

Still not enough.

I honestly can’t believe I had the chutzpah to ask this next question.

“Are you happy?”

Now, she looked stumped.

I know. I know. What’s “happy”? Relative to what? Or, as the old folks wisely said in Iran, usually in relation to duty, obligation and responsibility, “Happiness has nothing to do with it.”

Or, as our teachers reminded us almost daily, “Who says you have to be happy, anyway?”

Still, it makes you wonder — when the warriors lay down their arms, the rebels bow. 

“My children are my whole world now,” she said.

I could see this.

And what of it — becoming Orthodox — anyway? So what if that boldness, that sense of invincibility my friends and I probably projected onto that girl was replaced by this woman’s tamer, perhaps more rewarding connection to motherhood and religion? What if that wide-open, endless road I had imagined ahead of that girl — what if it had led here?

“I realize this is emet,” she said, using the Hebrew word for truth. Which explained everything, and nothing.

Are we here to change the world, or to make a safe and joyful nest within it?

Does the gained wisdom of age make us realize what’s truly significant, or does it claw away at our ambition and strength?

GINA NAHAI’s most recent novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”