One writer's tale on the meaning of home, contending with past violence and fighting for a place among family.

By Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi

Listen, every time I open the door to the apartment where I live with my family in the deserted backstreets of Tehrangeles I see her. The carpet weaver. The ghost. She sits facing the wall, rudely showing me that hunched back of hers, that sad bulging mass of flesh that makes her look like she’s been punched concave, an old flower print headscarf pulled over her hair. She rocks into the loom as she ties row after row of knots. I can see the wooly carpet rising over her head, the kind of carpet that tells a story, that celebrates life by featuring a fertile pomegranate tree surrounded by well-fed birds and deer grazing the field in the middle distance surrounded by poppies.

The thing is, she never completes the pattern. She unties the knots before she arrives at the final row. Night after night, I watch the elements begin to disappear. Soon the tree looks like someone took a bite out of it, the deer are decapitated, a fallen pomegranate hovers on the ground in between the roots before it vanishes. I suspect she is trying to tell me something about the American dream I was brought here to chase against my will. Something mundane and dispiriting, like, “Don’t bother, you’ll never make it,” or “You’ll always be beginning again.” How should I know? I’m shooting in the dark here because there’s no one to compare notes with.

No one else in my family sees her. Or they pretend not to see her as a kind of strategy to drive me crazy while they sit on the cold bare living room floor with their legs crossed under them eating peeled cucumbers with salt off plastic plates. They spend their days drinking watered-down tea from the samovar that wheezes in the kitchen, steaming the walls. In each of their cups, a lone cardamom circles the drain until they finally swallow it before crawling to their separate corners and going to bed. I am the only one who leaves the house, the only one who works. All they do is sit on their asses and boss me around. They don’t know what it’s like out there.

If I try to protest, my grandmother, who is the ring leader, says: “Shut up and scram! We survived a war to get you here, now it’s your turn to pull our weight.”

I have to earn back my life, that much is clear.

Sometimes, when she is in a good mood she gives me three dollars from her social security check (arranged by me, thank you very much) and tells me to go to CVS to buy her lipstick. “The bright red kind that movie stars wear,” she says.

My mother barely speaks, she is thin as a rail.

My aunt drinks a liter of Carlo Rossi chianti a day. It’s my job to provide it. I’m on strict orders to buy two four-liter bottles from CVS a week.

Then there’s my brother, who is afraid of everything, even his own shadow. One time, I came home to find him barbequing his childhood pictures. He was standing next to the dead lemon tree on our concrete four-by-four terrace that’s enclosed by a dilapidated wooden fence. I could only see his silhouette. He was enveloped in the smoke produced by his burning image. He burnt the photographs down to a char while my mother wept wordlessly in her corner. I hated him then. I felt like someone was wrapping their hand around my heart and choking it. We’d heard the same bombs, the same sirens, the same screams growing up and here he was indulging in his pain with no consideration for me, taking advantage of his position as the only son, the mighty male who deserves to be coddled while I, the girl, the burden child, the leftovers, go out into the city so we can break bread, buy a home someday, get a set of wheels to roll around in. He doesn’t care that I have to walk through fire to get to and from work every day.

Listen, this apartment we live in with the carpet weaver has thin walls, dry pipes (there isn’t a lick of water running through its arteries), and boarded windows to keep out the smoke. Here, in California, the fire is always raging, its flames lap hungrily at the sky. A permanent halo hems in this forsaken valley.

“Soon she’ll levitate to the heavens, say your goodbyes to the city of angels,” the baklava vendor with the stubby tree-branch fingers says when I pop in for my daily dose of sugar. He is from Iraq. Our people massacred one another back in the homeland for nearly a decade, they were willing to kill themselves in order to annihilate the other, the whole border was littered with explosives, and here we are making small talk on the other side of the world and actually liking each other.

I nod and say, “Yeah, a classy exit,” and watch a smile break across his face.

When I’m done eating my baklava I walk back out through the boarded doors of his shop. I make my way down the concrete boulevard, past high rises wrapped in glazed glass windows that reflect an ashen orange sky. The color of the sky is most unusual, the fire has ravished the clouds. I cut across a park with patchy straw-colored grass and broken benches to the diner where I spend my evenings serving burgers to men who look like cardboard cutouts of Olympic athletes. Trunks for legs, pomaded hair, gorgeously defined arms. I marry ketchup bottles at the end of the night. I dump the soft serve ice cream we didn’t serve because the kids don’t come around anymore, the air is too toxic.

The men who look like Olympian gods tip me well. They tell me I’d make a great mother. I prefer their banter to the cooks’. One cook in particular, the one who walked across the desert to get here and who is hungry for life and who wants me to be hungry with him, tells me, “Use your flower before it wilts, or at least let me use it for you,” every time I ask for a basket of fries. He maintains a supplicant look in his eyes no matter how belligerently I stare back at him. When I’m done cleaning my station, I go into the bathroom and change out of the little red and white striped dress I’m forced to wear, out of my soiled apron and clear nylon leggings that make me want to scratch my calves raw. I slide back into my jeans. I pull a loose T-shirt over my head. The uglier I look, the safer I feel walking home in the owl hours.

I’m always walking through doors without getting anywhere. That’s the story of my life. Every night I retrace my footsteps until I arrive at my apartment where I live with people I feel I don’t belong to. Do you know what I’m talking about? Are you trapped with people you don’t belong to, who don’t belong to you?

I’ve learned to take comfort in the presence of the ghost. In the carpet weaver. When I see the tree grow, that tree of life with its red globular fruit, I feel hope bloom in my chest. I imagine a life without these people to whom it seems I have come to owe a considerable debt. I see the American dream. I feel I might even catch it. I almost begin to believe in it, but then I remember that all of the things that made our reality brutal back in the homeland exist here too. That’s when I anticipate seeing the tree come down again and my hope, fragile, scurries away like a frightened animal. I feel most desperate when I am walking the aisles at CVS after my shift, squinting under the neon lights that buzz so loudly I begin to hear an echo of the sirens that rang out in that far off place I’ll never get back to. But echoes don’t matter and word on the street around here is that memories don’t either, they only weigh you down. You have to dump them to chase the dream, you’ve got to be light on your feet, unburdened.

Detail of "Invented from the Chaos Given to Interpret" woven carpet by Asif Mian.

So, I move on. I pick up the red lipstick she’ll have me return in a day or two, and the four-liter bottle of Carlo Rossi I pay for, and the cigarettes for my mother, the cigarettes she sucks on so that she won’t speak a word, not a sound except that old weeping, her daily purge. Then I make my way back up the concrete corridor to that sickle cell of a home.

As soon as I walk through the door, I see the carpet weaver untying the knots. The wooly threads of the carpet stretch on the loom like bars. Word on the street also says that I should practice gratitude to up my chances of catching the dream. I think to myself, I am thankful for this prison because it is ampler than the one back home, even though the wardens of this nation, America, spied on us when we were way out there, and spy on us now.

Everyone is asleep. It’s just me and the carpet weaver and we don’t say a word. I put away the wine. I stack the cigarettes on the kitchen counter. I put the lipstick on the ringleader’s pillow. I collapse in my corner.

But I’m no fool. I keep one eye on the ghost and with the other, I conduct my research. What do I read? You ask. The notes they kept on us, the ones they redacted and filed away, the declassified papers full of sentences like, “information from the field is thin and ambiguous,” so that I can begin to understand how this story of being driven out of the homeland to be stomped on here got woven, how I might exit its twists and turns.

I can’t tell yet if reading makes things better or worse. I read into the wee hours on the cheap phone I saved up to buy with my tips from the diner. I can’t be sure, but I think my heart is getting stronger, hard as the heart of the Olympians I serve in this land that is going up in smoke, lifting off into the heavens plume by plume. I read because I am starved for words. Because these people who claim I belong to them never taught me to call things by their proper name. Because the wardens of America would prefer it if I didn’t learn to speak their language. And where would that leave me? I read. I read. I read. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, a thought I’d never imagined having before appears: I think, maybe the carpet weaver has never shown me her face because she is trying to tell me to turn my back on these people who say they are my people while they destroy me; maybe she is telling me to turn on my heels and walk away, the way the cook walked across the desert, lonely as a whistle in the night, with no one to lean on, but with eyes wide open for a good stranger’s hand, and go far, far away from here, elsewhere, to a place where I might just catch enough oxygen and a ride. To a place where I might just feel hungry, especially when I feel a pair of eyes trained on my back.

Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi is the author of the novel Call Me Zebra (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018) which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the John Gardner Award, was long listed for the PEN Open Book Award, was an Amazon Best Book of the Year, A Publisher’s Weekly Bestseller and named a Best Book by over twenty publications. Her latest novel is Savage Tongues. She is Iranian-American and has lived in Catalonia, Italy, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. She currently lives in Chicago.