Fatima believed she was so beautiful that when people complimented her looks, they never referred to her age. One evening, she sat on the subway, watching the lights of an industrial park go by. Her daughter was next to her, legs crossed, notebook on her knee.
Fatima was a proud woman. She was wearing blue jeans, heels, and a tight top. The top was a deep purple, with a creamy magnolia print. Her daughter had told her it looked cheap. The tag, revealing the top as all-synthetic, had turned the back of Fatima’s neck a blotchy red.
The subway entered a tunnel. As Fatima talked to her daughter (who replied only in sideways glances), she admired herself in the window opposite. When she tilted her head up, the curved, greasy reflection straightened her nose.
Fatima’s husband had died. She carried a photo of him in her purse; each time she pulled open its bronze butterfly zipper, he grimaced at her from a mesh pocket. Whenever she spent his money, she ignored his white, furrowed brow. The photo was from an office party, but back home, Fatima’s husband had been an intellectual. During the revolution, he started a zine which circulated underground. Fatima, equal parts bored and starry-eyed, had written a poem for him. He didn’t publish it, putting her on circulation duty instead. Fatima spent the first few months of her 18th year on street corners, handing out flyers and running from the police. She was even shot at, once, and told everyone it had missed her by half a centimetre. She wasn’t lying, because she believed it herself. Hearing this, Fatima’s husband – 22 years her senior and ashamed – proposed. The two of them sought asylum.
Years later, Fatima’s husband told her he loved her because he was homesick. She took this to mean that, had things been different, he would have left her. After his death, Fatima told everyone it had been a happy marriage – given to her by half a centimetre.
Daniel grew up in the city. After learning about organic farming, he moved to the middle of nowhere. For five months, he shovelled fertiliser, and got the big dipper tattooed between his thumb and forefinger. He bought a guitar and, before learning a single chord, decided music was his calling. He promptly moved back to the city, sharing a flat with his great-aunt, Flo. There, he framed a poster of Ella Fitzgerald, and spent his afternoons waiting for Flo to die.
Daniel’s friends eventually stopped coming to his open-mic nights. After one such evening, he rode home alone on the subway. Guitar still in hand, he pulled up his hood and played quietly to himself. The guitar was expensive, with a dark neck and cream body. His mother had bought it for him, claiming it was from his father. Neither she nor Daniel believed this. When she told him not to carry the instrument out in the open, Daniel told her not to worry.
Even though it was warm underground, Daniel was wearing a suede coat with sheepskin lapels. His curls, twisted with almond oil, hung across his forehead. As the subway approached the next stop, Daniel saw two women on the platform. The doors opened, and they walked in – a mother and daughter. The daughter, spotting Daniel’s guitar, sat opposite him. She crossed her legs slowly. Daniel straightened his back and continued playing, this time a little louder. The mother sat next to her daughter, continuing whatever conversation they’d been having. He tried to guess where they were from.
As the three of them entered a tunnel, Daniel began to strum with more force. In turn, the mother talked more loudly. He felt the daughter’s eyes on him, could see her fidgeting with something in her lap. He closed his eyes and began to sing.
As a child, Jaleh hated her name, calling herself Jay instead. She liked its playfulness, its pronounceability. By the age of 10, she decided she was a writer – an intellectual, like her father had been. He had called her his protégée, and read her long verses of Rumi. He told her stories about mystics, lovers, God. Jay tolerated her father’s ramblings because her mother would not.
It took Jay years to accept her mother. In public, her father was quiet, perpetually ashamed. Her mother, on the other hand, was a bull-dozer. Now that she was older, Jay had learnt to tolerate her mother’s accent and bottle-black hair – obviously dyed, an over-exaggeration
Jay sat opposite a young man playing the guitar. She crossed her legs on the subway chair, top one hovering, careful not to press her thighs together. The man in front of her had sharp cheekbones, a wonky tattoo. He’d looked straight in her eyes at least twice. Because she wanted him to think her interesting, Jay fished a notebook out of her bag. She began to write down what she saw in him. While she did this, her mother continued to talk. Jay caught some words: bullet, police, black-out, rubble. All the usual stuff. Occasionally, she glanced at her mother – the subway lights had turned her top see-through, bra winking out from under cream magnolias.
As they entered a tunnel, Jay turned back to the young man. He had begun singing, but she couldn’t hear him anymore. She looked at her mother, who scratched her neck, lips moving soundlessly.
Jaleh closed her notebook. It didn’t much matter, anyway.
Nickie Shobeiry is an award-winning journalist and author, focusing on immigrant identities as expressed through art, culture and politics. As TV Host with Canada’s leading content creator, she explores the stories of women, youth and newcomer entrepreneurs. Today, Nickie continues to develop pioneering film and TV projects, and collaborates with community initiatives across the UK and North America.
Twitter & IG: @NickieShobeiry
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Art by Bahman Mohasses