Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Honorable Mention — Stalker of my brother’s dentist

By Jan Váňa

 Love can cross the borders between states and continents, but the price is sometimes too high. To which degree is our race and color of our skin the main feature which defines our place in the society? 

“I have become a stalker of my new dentist! This morning I had an appointment, expecting someone new in place of my previous dentist – and behold: suddenly it felt like I wasn’t at the dentist’s office any more but more as if I were at a high school prom. I felt like I was trying to invite the most beautiful dentist ever to dance with me! She graduated in 2016. I am sending you her photo so you can admire her looks.”
When I got this Facebook message from my brother, it was accompanied with the photograph of an unusually good-looking young woman. Apparently, it was downloaded from the information system of the University. Despite that the photo appeared to be made for an ID card, I had to admit that my brother’s enthusiasm was indeed justified. The dentistry graduate had a slightly negligent smile and her eyes were filled with distinct mixture of rascality and inaccessible hardness. And, of course, she was almost inhumanly beautiful. Luckily, as it appeared later, she became an inherent part of my online communication with my brother.
On desktop operation system, Facebook Messenger keeps the display of every downloaded picture in the column on the side of every conversation. Since my brother never sent me any other picture, every time I read his message or wrote a message to him, I saw the ID photograph of his insanely attractive dentist. Since I was in daily contact with my brother, I saw that lovely face almost every day. After some time, I was used to see my brother’s dentist in such a way, that I even visualized her face during other forms of communication with my brother. For example, every time I wrote him an email or a text message, her face automatically jumped into my mind. Even long after I forgot whose face was on the photograph, she remained part of my everyday routine.
Later that year, I had a bicycle accident. I hurried to a theater; according to my estimation the way  would take me 12 minutes, while there was only 9 till the beginning of the play. Yet, it happens often to me that I am short of time, so I pushed my limits and tried to defeat the laws of nature and traffic regulations once again.
Then, at a busy intersection, I saw a beautiful woman waiting at the red lights, of whom I was absolutely sure I knew her. But I couldn’t recollect where did I know her from. In that moment, the intrusive desire to reveal that young woman’s identity clashed with my effort to be at the theater in time. The result of that clash was that while avoiding a car, I hit the curb and flew over the handlebars of my bike. What happened after that seemed like an incredible dream to me. When I collected myself and opened my eyes, I saw that angel-like figure running towards me with the most startled and compassionate expression on her face. With her eyes wide open, she shouted to me. First in English, then followed by slightly broken Czech, asking if I was all right. Her voice was so strong and so tender. I remember very vividly how hazily I felt. I didn’t even feel any pain. It was a strange feeling between total lack of control and deep understanding of the seriousness of the moment.
Less than year after the accident, I married my brother’s dentist. But before that, a plenty of other things happened. Some of them not always nice.
“Wait, wait, let me guess… You are from Italy!”
“Then… Spain?”
“Still nothing.”
“Try to go more to the east.”
“Hmm… Turkey?!”
“No, but you are close. I come from Iran,” says Syeda and smiles indulgently. Obviously, she doesn’t particularly enjoy conversation with my drunk father. But she is well-behaved. If the person wasn’t my father, she would leave, that is for sure. I encourage her with a smile.
“Iran! Oh yeah, I should have guessed that!” shouts my father, like it was clear to him from the very beginning. “I should have guessed that, since for a European you are way too dark… no Italian!” he exclaims enthusiastically and points on his forehead on behalf of his supposed cunningness. Syeda suddenly turns into stone.
“Mister Kučera,” she says first in English, then in Czech. She utters the words between her teeth like she was about to say something horrible. “Thank you, thank you so much for reminding the color of my skin. I almost forgot that I was not white. Fortunately, here you are to save me from such an erroneous assumption. Thank you.”
I already noticed before, that Syeda switches into English when she enters a state of emotional imbalance. Suddenly, my mouth went dry and I found my face covered by cold sweat.
“Dad, you can’t talk like that. That’s rude,” I murmur towards my father. He tries to focus his eyes and stares in my way. He stops laughing. One can see his brain trying to make sense of the situation.
“Oh no, Pavel, it’s fine. There is nothing wrong about naming things by their true names. We won’t pretend to be politically correct, will we?” Syeda says indifferently. “After all, everyone can see that I am ‘dark’, can’t they?”
It is clear to me that she overarticulates certain words to turn the whole issue into cynicism. Yet, my father doesn’t get that. His brain gives up figuring out the situation and he comes to life again.
“Of course! You see, Pavel? You see? Sayda, I have been telling him on and on, that he should name things by their true names! Well, didn’t I say that?”
“Yes. And I am so grateful that you accepted me in your household despite my personal features, mister Kučera.”
I stand like a pillar of salt watching the apocalypse – holding a paper plate with appetizers – speechless.
“Haha, you know, Sayda,” says my father, wrongly uttering Syeda’s name, and leans towards her under the influence of alleged intimacy that appeared between them. “We are by no means racist here. If one is a decent and honest citizen, he can feel like at home – black or white – can’t he? And we’ll drink to that!”
“Dad, don’t act like a redneck in front of her…” I whisper to my father, but it is anyways too late to prevent the catastrophe. Father swiftly stretches his hand holding a beer and looks for another glass to toast. Yet, my wine glass rests on a garden table next to the campfire and Syeda doesn’t drink alcohol tonight.
“I hope you'll excuse me, mister Kučera, I have to go home, I have some work to do,” says Syeda incredibly fast and before we can realize it, she is already couple of steps away. Father wobbles and sips from his beer glass, regardless the toasting. In five minutes, I sit in my car on the way to Brno. Syeda drives. Surely, I couldn’t let her go alone by train…
“You don’t have to be ashamed for your parents. I understand. No one can choose their parents,” she says after few moments of silence, with suppressed regret in her voice. I stroke her thigh and smile bitterly.
“During socialism, many people in your country didn’t have a chance to get a proper education, and it is too late for them,” she continues. “There is simply no hope for older generations in the Czech Republic. They will stay…” she looks for the right word in Czech, then she says it in English: “narrow-minded…”
“narrow-minded, simple, bigoted,” I follow automatically in Czech, used to be Syeda’s live dictionary.
“…they will stay narrow-minded forever. And I don’t judge them for that. But I’m sorry for you, Pavel.”
“Wait a minute, my father is not a barbarian. He is an engineer. He is a normal, university-educated guy.”
“One can be an engineer, Pavel, and a racist at the same time,” says Syeda with admirable composure and concentration, as if she was announcing to a patient that her molar would be removed.
For a while, I wonder how to get out of this sensitive topic. It is delicate, I know that. But my father is not a racist and I’m gonna stand for that.
“But my father IS NOT a racist, sweetheart.”
“Hmm. Isn’t he? I see. And I almost thought that to point out different color of the skin is racism. I am such a silly person, am I not, ‘sweetheart’?” she says placidly, with a particular emphasis on last word. It is clear to me that I shouldn’t have tried it with the ‘sweetheart’ thing.
“Well, one thing is what my dad said, but another thing is what he meant by that. He didn’t intend to offend you by any means. It was obvious, wasn’t it? And he was also a bit drunk…”
“I see, I understand now. So he didn’t really say it, when he was drunk. I had to discuss with him what he meant by the things he actually said. Thank you for clarifying that. Next time, when someone offends me, I will interpret it as good day wishes.”
How only she manages to seem so calm. Although, I believe that she rages with anger inside. I must be very careful and not provoke her.
“Emm, not much has happened. You’re making a big problem out of nothing…”
“…out of NOTHING?...”
“You’re making it a bigger problem than it really is. A drunk old man tried to have a small talk with you. He wanted to get to know my girlfriend – the one I told him so much about. He wanted to get to know you…”
“Interesting that you never told him where I come from.”
“I mean… you have to admit that at first sight you look significantly different… that you actually ARE darker than, for example, me…”
Syeda stomps on the brakes so abruptly, that my body twitches forward and stretches the seatbelt. Before I can recover, she jumps out of the car and briskly walks onto the sidewalk.
While we were talking, we already managed to get into the city. By coincidence, Syeda stopped just near the train station, where the night buses stop. She sets off at a fast pace that direction. I undo the seatbelt and run after her.
“Wa-wait. Why can’t we just talk about it? We are almost at home. I don’t understand why it is such a sensitive topic for you…”
“There is no ‘home’,” she turns her head my way while keeping on to the train station. “I am going to MY place and you are going to YOUR place.”
How only she manages to stay so stark. Like she doesn’t have any emotions whatsoever. I am able to catch her up, but I don’t want to stop her by force. I keep the pace and trot beside her.
“Sayda, come on, don’t be absurd. Let’s go to my place and talk it through. I want to know more about you and about what troubles you. But you have to give me a chance…”

Then I realize she left the key in the unlocked car in the middle of the night on a dark street. I try to keep an eye on her as well as my car. When I think we are too far from the car, I pull Syeda’s hand and force her to stop.
“Off!” she shouts sharply and hits me painfully with her stringent look. I would like to release her hand, but now it is too late.
“I am really sorry if I upset you. I truly am. But you can’t just run away.”
“Well, I can. I have been doing it a lot my whole life,” she utters and rushes towards the train station again. I stand on the spot abashed, trying to reflect on what she just said and figure out what she meant by it.
Today, we celebrate Nowruz, the Iranian New Year. I sit in a rocking chair I got bought very cheaply in a cosy antique (store) in the city center. I ponder over Hafez’s writings. Divan will reveal me the hidden future. I forecast. I open a random page in Divan and read the verses from that page. I do it out of habit. I do it remembering my home.
I drink red wine. Shiraz is an Iranian wine named after the ancient city of poets, where the oldest wine in the world was made seven thousand years ago. In the Czech Republic, you can get it in every corner shop.
I chose the Czech Republic for my studies because of its communist past that resembles contemporary Iran. Morality police, State Security, the arrest of citizens for disobedience. The Islamic rules are vague and free to various interpretations. What matters is how you look at the police – or rather how they look at you. Often, the reason for arrest is invented ex post – for example when they need to seize specific number of people. It is like catching stray dogs. Once, I was arrested for wearing an “unsatisfactory” hijab. But I know it was for not looking weak and helpless.
The Czechs are like hobbits. They have their burrows. In the burrows they have their little pantries and larders with colorful marmalades and lovely tiny pickles. If you come to visit them from far away, they think you want to eat those up. In the Czech Republic, I don’t have to bow my head. At least not literally. Although, everyone is expected to bow their heads to some extent. You have to bow your head, if you want to enter the burrow.

The legend says freedom came to the Czech Republic in 1989, after forty years of communist oppression. It suddenly made everyone dizzy. However, the real freedom is not on paper. The true freedom rises from the living tissue of society. It is present when you go shopping and when you go to work.
Come, come little Pavel, don’t blame your daddy for keeping his freedom in his burrow. He is just a hobbit. They all are. I will read to you from Hafez now: “I hide my ills from false physicians. May my cure come from the invisible fold. Heartwarming tales of lovers in this world. Warm even the hearts that may be ice cold.”

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