It was around noon on a spring day in the month of May when Ms. Abedi appeared at the intersection of Shahrara and Sattar Khan Streets on the west side of Tehran. She was wearing a long, black manteaux and was carrying a big brown purse not incomparable to her own size. The rain had just stopped. The sunshine blended with the green leaves of the sycamore trees lining both sides of the street, and the smell of wet earth exhilarated Ms. Abedi. She made her way to Sattar Khan Street, stopped on the sidewalk and looked around. The street was full of people in cars or on foot, each going around the city, striving to survive, to love, and to be loved. It had been several years since Ms. Abedi, who was retired and had lost her husband many years ago in a car accident, considered herself within the realm of those relentless struggles.
Ms. Abedi looked at the passing cars, took a deep breath, and in a voice louder than the volume universally agreed upon by the rest of society, hailed, “Taxi for Sa’adat Abad!”
The few people standing nearby turned their heads and studied her curiously. Ms. Abedi attempted to ignore them. She was used to such gazes and considered them part of her life.
When Ms. Abedi was young, seeing the impressions she made on others profoundly dismayed her. In those years she tried very hard to understand and correct her idiosyncrasies. However, once she got married, comforted by the assurance that at least one person in the universe had not misunderstood her, she gave up those efforts and became somewhat reconciled to the reality of herself.
An old yellow car stopped in front of Ms. Abedi, who hurriedly entered it while repeating once more, “Sa’adat Abad!” These last few actions she took in haste, lest others get held up. Ms. Abedi considered holding people up worthy of the highest punishments, and at all her social and professional meetings was the most punctual, almost always the first to arrive.
Through his front mirror, the driver glanced at his passenger. Ms. Abedi had curly brown hair with some strands of white. Her face was wide and round, and as far as the driver could tell, had no trace of makeup. She appeared to be in her early fifties. While her attire seemed of good quality, in the driver’s view, one could not call her well-dressed.
“How are you doing today, mother?” the driver asked Ms. Abedi.
“I am not of age to be your mother, sir. But I feel fine. Very fine indeed,” replied Ms. Abedi in an unyielding and assertive tone.
Ms. Abedi studied the taxi’s interior. A string of lucid orange prayer beads was hanging behind the front mirror, swaying as the car moved. The ashtray on the front panel was stuffed with cigarette butts, preventing it from fully shutting. The back seat cover, once beige, was dusty, stained and torn in several spots, revealing the yellow spongy material underneath. The window by Ms. Abedi was partly lowered, exposing her to a pleasant breeze. The sun, now in the middle of the sky, warmed her face. In the blue sky, clouds with shimmering edges floated, as if colored by silver markers. Ms. Abedi looked amorously at the composure of the sun and the clouds, and smiled.
“You know, Mr. Driver, I feel so good today that I wish this feeling on all humankind, that they may experience the exhilaration I feel now. Take a look at the sky, Mr. Driver! Look at the sky after the rain, and the sun peeking through the clouds, brightening their edges like silver and gold! I wish for humankind to fill their hearts with this sublime sunshine and this friendly smell of rain; to rejoice that there are no war planes flying up above their heads, and that their streets are empty of tanks and soldiers’ boots; that even for an instant, their hearts can fly and mingle with the sun and the sky and the clouds. Is that too big a wish?” said Ms. Abedi.
The driver, who had not expected such a soliloquy in response to a simple prepackaged greeting, rummaged through his brain as intensely and rapidly as he could, hoping to find anything that might serve as a reply. Finding none, he replied feebly, “Great!” And as if to make up for the uneasiness he felt for his inadequate response, ran the fingers of his right hand through his thick, shiny black hair.
Ms. Abedi, who did not expect a single-word reply to her paragraph-length exclamation, asked the driver in a slightly disappointed tone, “What did you study, Mr. Driver? These days every cab I get into has a driver with a master’s degree. Do you have a master’s degree, too?”
“Yes, Madam,” replied the driver.
“Yes? In what field?”
“Epistemology? Is epistemology offered at the universities?”
“Yes, Madam. It is offered at the graduate level.”
“So how is the job market for epistemologists?”
“Wonderful, Madam. You finish your epistemology degree, and the doors to the cab driving profession are wide open, waiting for you. It is like a production line, really: epistemologist to cab driver, epistemologist to cab driver…”
Ms. Abedi studied the driver more carefully. He was a man most likely in his late thirties. He was broad-shouldered and round, with a relatively big belly. He was wearing a shirt with a beige-and-white checkered pattern that clashed with his sallow complexion. His hair was straight, black and shiny, and betrayed flakes of dandruff. His fingers were thick and hairy. His skin looked almost yellow. His whole being had a gloomy quality, as if he had not taken a deep breath for a very long time, or maybe he had deferred it to some awaited time in the future.
Hugging her big brown purse, Ms. Abedi looked at her fingers. She found them short, simple, unassuming, a bit chubby, a bit puffy, a bit too wide, unambitious, unaspiring, dreamless, and gentle, accepting, and humbly realistic, and … a bit too dry. For the dryness, she knew she had a remedy. She started looking for the small bottle of moisturizing cream inside her purse.
While doing so, she told the driver, “Mr. Driver, I wish you had become a computer engineer. Why didn’t you become a computer engineer?”
“You know, Madam, I dislike the fields that society deems useful. Had I not chosen epistemology, I would have perhaps become an astronomer.”
“An astronomer?! But why?”
“Because I detest technology, Madam. Except for advances in medicine, that is. I detest that it relentlessly advances and leaves me with more that I don’t know. I detest that it keeps people busy, giving them something to do in the time they have between birth and death. If I were thrown into a black hole or a time-warp in space, I would travel to the day before the computer was invented and would kill its inventor. No. I think I would kill whoever invented the wheel, and most certainly whoever invented gun powder. Believe me, I would be ready to be executed for those murders. It would be a worthy sacrifice.”
“So you mean you do not have a smart phone?” Ms. Abedi asked in surprise, still rummaging through her purse to find the moisturizer.
“No. I don’t. I don’t even have a dumb one.”
“So what do you do in your free time? I text with my friends all the time.” A gentle smile formed on Ms. Abedi’s face. She had found the moisturizer, and was applying it thoroughly on her hands.
Under the warm noon sun, in the back seat of an old yellow cab, surrounded by the sounds of car horns and the smoke of the chokingly polluted metropolis, Ms. Abedi’s smile died. With a voice as unaspiring, dreamless, and as gentle, accepting, and humbly realistic as her fingers, Ms. Abedi replied, “Yes, my friends. Why are you surprised?”
“Oh nothing. Never mind.”
The taxi entered a small narrow street for a shortcut, so narrow that it would have been one-way in an ideal world. The street was paved in cement, and appeared unexpectedly out of context and out of time, as if belonging to a different era. On one side stood a few meager sycamore trees, while on the other side a parched grapevine clung to life, not far from a modest weeping willow with sparse leaves that made its weeping less melancholy, its sorrow less glorious. They passed a middle-aged woman with a hardened face and a flat gaze standing in front of a small, old, ranch-style house with a faded dark-brown door. Her vacant eyes testified to a lifetime of struggles. She was watering a small flowerbed in front of the house with an orange water hose when she momentarily lifted her head, her unassuming, dreamless, and gentle, accepting, and humbly realistic gaze meeting Ms. Abedi’s lugubrious eyes as the taxi passed the house. Something squeezed Ms. Abedi’s heart, which had long ago swallowed the biggest question of her life.
“Please tell me, Mr. Driver. It matters to me. Why did you sound surprised?” Ms. Abedi pleaded.
“I don’t know. It was the way you said ‘friends,’ as if you have an army of them.”
“You are right. I don’t. The friends I text with are my classmates from elementary school. I have found them on Facebook after years. It has been a very long time since I last saw them.”
“I see! In response to your previous question, Madam, I do not have any free time. I start taking passengers here and there from seven o’clock in the morning to eight o’clock in the evening. I have no time to exchange text messages with anyone.”
“What about Fridays? Do you work on Fridays too?”
“Fridays? No… Sometimes I visit my mother on Fridays. That is not much fun either. Every time I see her, she insists that I should feel great, as if she wants to receive a certificate stating that I am doing fine and have no problems in life. She insists that all my problems stem from my point of view. I only visit her to make her happy. Other Fridays I go to the suburbs and drive passengers around free of charge, or for a very small fee.”
“How splendid! So you like charity work!”
“Yes. Taking low-income passengers around for free or very little charge is a kind of charity work.”
“No, Madam. I do not do it for charity.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that all I intend to do is to see people more wretched and desperate than myself. I feel comforted by that. That I am not the most unfortunate one on earth.”
“What are you saying? The most unfortunate? You should thank God that you are healthy. That you are young. That you don’t live in a time of war! Your parents and I did! You don’t know how it was.”
“I know all that, Madam. But that is not enough. For someone like me who has no money and no star in the seven skies, who makes just enough to eat, who is so poor he can’t even get married, what is there to feel thankful for? There is poverty, fatigue, weariness, despair, and the prospect of a life with no future. Do you know how I see the future? Like a dark abyss right under my feet. Whenever I look at it, my legs feel heavy and weak. My good days are those in which I don’t think about the future. This blue sky, this sublime sun and these silvery clouds that have gotten you all excited are only deceptions. This common ceiling we call the sky, which we all share, gives us nothing but false hope, a false sense of a shared destiny, an illusion of equality. There is nothing common amongst all people. Neither the beginning, nor the path, nor even the end.”
“The kinds of things they teach you at epistemology school!”
“These I have not…never mind…” The driver shifted his weight on his seat, stretched his arms and tried to give in to the crowded surrounding confusion of traffic, like a twig carried along by a wild current on the river.
Ms. Abedi looked at the driver’s profile. She noticed his long, lush, curled-up eyelashes. For a moment she pictured the driver’s mother. How hard it must be to make an innocent little boy with thick, long, curled-up eyelashes face a futureless world.
“Mr. Driver, can I ask you a question?”
“How did you guess that I must not have many friends?”
“I don’t know, Madam. I just blabbered something foolish.”
“But you didn’t. I just don’t know how you could tell.”
“Truth be told, I thought you seem a bit different.”
The driver moved his hand towards the radio knob, but thought better of it.
“Ah, different! Nobody has ever explained to me how I am different. Even my daughter thinks of me this way. Do you know what I read in her eyes? I wish you were like others. Mr. Driver, we will never see each other again. Please, now that blind chance has brought me to your car, please tell me. Tell me once and for all. How am I different? In return, I can respond to whatever question you have and cannot ask anyone.”
“Ah, lady, please do not put me in this position. Nobody likes to hear about their inadequacies.”
“But I do, Mr. Driver. I promise you I will not get upset at hearing them. You are a stranger to me. How could your criticism upset me?”
“Since you insist…you see, Madam, maybe it was not just one particular thing. It might have been many things. First, when you were calling out for my cab, you did so too loudly, even though my window was down and my car was right by your feet. Then, when you got in, in response to my greetings, you gave me a strange soliloquy. It was not that what you said was unreasonable at all. It was even nice. It is just that most people do not talk like that. I think maybe it is a thousand small peculiarities rather than one big thing. Should I say more?”
With a lump in her throat and in a faltering voice, Ms. Abedi responded, “No. That was enough.”
She fell silent for a few minutes. Her facial muscles felt heavy. Her lips quivered and their corners drooped. She remembered her first experience facing society, the first day of first grade, when she had mustered all the courage in her little heart and asked a girl named Camellia if she would be friends with her. She had never forgotten how sternly and unyieldingly Camellia turned her down. It was her first heartbreak.
“You know, one day when my daughter was eight years old, I went to her school to pick her up. On our way back home, she asked me a question that to this day still torments my heart and pierces my soul. Mom, why aren’t you like the other moms? That night I sobbed. I had read somewhere that the only unconditional love is the love of a mother for her child. I, too, love my daughter, despite her brutal judgments of me. But you know, when she was born I was sure that my daughter would love me too, that she would be my friend, that she would root for me.”
The driver and Ms. Abedi fell silent. Ms. Abedi leaned her face against the cool window by her side and gazed outside. Her heart was no longer filled with sunshine and silvery clouds.
At the next red light, they stopped. A little boy of nine or ten years was walking amongst the cars, selling drivers fresh pistachios in little paper cones. The driver bought two cones and gave the boy a big bill. “Keep the change for yourself, but hide it somewhere so nobody can find it,” he whispered to the boy. The little boy tilted his head, smiled, shrugged faintly and disappeared.
The driver offered one of the cones to Ms. Abedi, “Here you are, Madam. I hope you like fresh pistachios.” Ms. Abedi took the cone from him and smiled. There were tears in her eyes. She started eating the pistachios and stopped thinking. The driver ate a few pistachios and left the cone in the compartment under his stereo. The light turned green and he moved the car again. The motion threw Ms. Abedi slightly forward and out of the mental vacuum she was in. A few minutes later, she broke her silence.
“You know, Mr. Driver, I understand why you go to the suburbs. I understand how seeing others’ misery can make you feel better about your own situation. There was a time that I, too, decided to do voluntary social work. It was for similar reasons. But it proved very difficult for me. Wretched, destitute women in utter poverty would come talk about their problems, and I could not help but empathize with them; I even felt guilty for doing better than them, for my undeserved privileges. The more of these women I saw, the more my heart filled with despair and dejection. I eventually reached a point where my wellbeing depended on their wellbeing—basically impossible. In the end, I had to stop volunteering to maintain my sanity. For many years now, I exercise a method I devised myself to soothe my pains. I use self-inflicted sleep deprivation, you know. I watch TV till very late, until I stop feeling sleepy. Eventually I feel extreme fatigue. Only at this stage does my brain let go of my tormenting thoughts, and in a fight for survival, lets me fall asleep. I do this every night.”
The driver carefully listened to Ms. Abedi. His face looked more glum and depressed than a few minutes prior. He then said, “Sometimes I eat pomegranates.”
Confounded, Ms. Abedi asked, “Excuse me?”
“Yes, Madam. Pomegranates are good too. Each pomegranate takes so much time and effort to eat, that once I commit myself to eating one, I can be sure that for the next 45 minutes, I will not be able to think of anything but my pomegranate.”
“Ah yes. You are right. You know, sometimes I think that if I had been born in the old times, I could perhaps live through my life more easily. I imagine women of the old times, you know, those who would have to sit by the running water and scrub garments for hours, despite whatever misfortunes and troubles they had. Maybe like your pomegranate, scrubbing clothes could be soothing too. Couldn’t it?”
“Yes, I would think so, Madam.”
Ms. Abedi fell silent again. When they reached Kaaj Square in Sa’adat Abad, the driver asked Ms. Abedi, “Where in Sa’adat Abad do you wish to go, Madam?”
A very long pause later, Ms. Abedi replied, “You know where I wanted to go? To a group lunch in a chelow kabobi restaurant with my elementary school friends, whom I have not seen for years. They know me through our message exchanges on Facebook. But, it is useless. You see, I don’t really know them. They don’t really know me. But then, you see, it only takes people a few minutes to tell…to tell that I’m, I’m, like you say, different.” Ms. Abedi sighed a deep and heavy sigh and stared outside the window. It was cloudy now. It looked like it could rain any minute. Ms. Abedi looked at the driver again. She stared at the back of his neck. It seemed damp with perspiration. She studied the flakes of dandruff on his hair.
“Camellia, my first-grade classmate will be there too, you know. She was probably the first one who could tell. You know, I thought by this age, I should have overcome all that,” she confided in a weary tone. She settled back more deeply in her seat.
Then she leaned forward. “What do you think, Mr. Driver?” she asked expectantly, as if the driver must have all the answers.
The driver sighed too. Then he spoke in a scratchy voice, maybe due to his smoking habit. “You know, madam, when I think of all the time I once spent worrying about this friend or that, and when I ask myself where any of them is these days, when eating pomegranates is my only solace, I feel so ridiculous.”
A minute later, Ms. Abedi uttered suddenly, “You are right. You are very right. Oh, now that I think about it, this lunch sounds like a very stupid idea. Why should I put myself in this position again? I am fifty-three. I shouldn’t have to do this. Let’s turn around, Mr. Driver. Let’s turn around!”
Then, in a voice a bit louder than that agreed upon as appropriate by the rest of the world, she instructed the driver, “To Shahrara Street!”