by Leilee Ghassemi
Anita Farahani was simultaneously married to and divorced from him.
Married back home, but divorced where she lived, which was maybe more important. She did not belong to him anymore, legally. She did not have to share anything that was hers. She was single, legally, but tethered by their daughter.
When Dina was born, Anita cried. Not because she was emotional, or because he hadn’t bothered to show up to the hospital, or because she was in pain. She cried because Dina was living proof of her imprisonment. Dina, whom she had loved and cared for for nine months, was finally in her arms, but all she could think about was how easier life would be without her. Dina was a part of him, which meant Anita was too.
“I wish you were dead.”
Dina’s voice was loud, but words, after a lot of repetition, lose their meaning. Anita tried to focus on the document she was reading, but angered by her lack of attention, Dina marched up to her. Her knuckles whitened around her phone, in sharp contrast to the crimson case.
“I hope everyone you love falls dead,” Dina said. The malice in her voice might have surprised others, but Anita recognized it from him. She had lived with it for years.
“I’m going over these documents, Dina, I need to focus,” Anita levelled. She reminded herself that Dina was only fifteen, reminded herself that this was her father talking, mixed with hormones. She thought of the therapy session scheduled for the next day and took a deep breath.
“For custody?” Dina snatched one of the papers from Anita’s grip. “For fucking custody? How many times do I have to tell you that I want to live with dad?” There it was.
“Dina, you can’t live with him, he wouldn’t be able to take care of you, you know he’s fighting this, trying to get custody, just because he wants to piss me off.”
Dina laughed. “Yeah, I know that. I don’t fucking care. I want to live with him to get away from you.”
Anita could almost smell the hatred. It lingered in the air, it spewed off her daughter, it had contaminated their home. It smelled like him. Without thinking, Anita stood up. She felt red in the face. “For money? Because he lets you go wherever the hell you like? What is it?”
“I just hate you,” Dina said, calmer now, which made the hair on the back of Anita’s neck rise. “Why is that so hard for you to fucking understand?”
Anita did understand. She understood all of it. She wished she was dead, too.
Anita met him when they were both seventeen. It was possible that she was initially drawn to him because he was her parents’ worst nightmare. He didn’t want to go to college, he hated his family, he wore baggy pants and tight-fitting tees and never took off his shoes when he walked into a house—didn’t even ask if he should. He had a huge inheritance, but he blew it all on a fancy house and other things that he did not need and the rest on gambling and drugs. He spoke no English at the time, a fact that Anita’s parents believed made him beneath them in every way possible because they were American citizens and they had travelled the world and everyone who was anyone in Tehran knew English. He had a cold stare and a long beard that he almost never trimmed, but he loved Anita. He loved her more than Anita loved him. He read her Persian poetry and played her traditional music on his setar. The night they got married, he told her he loved her more than she could possibly ever love herself and that he would always know what was best for her. Anita regretted not running then and there for the rest of her life.
Her parents realized quickly that unless they helped the couple, their daughter would end up pregnant out on the streets. So, Anita’s dad, an extremely wealthy bank owner, signed over one of his accounts to him. Told him it was to take care of his daughter; it was for them to start a family together. In their first years together, he was too stubborn to touch that money, even though he didn’t work, and Anita loved him more because of it.
It was years before the version of him that Anita had created for herself started to crack. He did nothing around the house. If he ever did pick up a dish to clean, he would break it. If Anita called from work and asked him to make some rice until she got home, she would walk into a smoky apartment and to an unusable pot. But it wasn’t until she became pregnant with Dina and recognized the permanence of what she had done that she started to hate him. And that was when he turned on her, too.
If Anita had left Tehran sooner, she could have gotten an abortion, like how she managed to get her divorce in the States once he followed them there. So perhaps it was fitting that she was still married to him in the country where she had her daughter. The two seemed to go together, no matter what.
From the moment Anita ran away from their house in Tehran to the moment she stepped out of the LAX airport, it took a total of twenty-four hours. During those twenty-four hours, she crossed continents and oceans and put him as far away from herself as possible, but she still felt like she couldn’t breathe. Her throat felt tight and swollen, her lungs would not expand and contract. She hugged Dina and breathed in her scent in the back of the cab they took to Yasmin’s, her old colleague who had moved to LA years back. The plane and airports hadn’t destroyed the stench of sweat and cigarettes off of Dina. Anita wondered if the smell would ever go away; wondered if her daughter would reek of him forever.
Dina was then only six years old and Anita, unable to think of anything that wouldn’t worsen the condition of her breathing, started to tell her daughter everything that she could recall about their life. She told her which hospital she was born in, told her about her grandparents’ beautiful home with the maple trees in the yard, told her about the street her kindergarten was on with the willow trees that arched over the cars, reaching each other from opposite sides of the street. Dina was dosing in and out of sleep, but eventually her dark eyes found Anita’s and she asked what was going on.
“Remember the orange and black cat that had kittens behind your auntie’s place? Remember how cute they were? Do you remember that trip we took, when dad was away, and went by the sea?”
Eventually, Dina started crying. Probably out of exhaustion, but in the moment Anita felt like she had upset her by talking about all the things she could never see again. Of course, Dina didn’t know that. Anita soothed her and kissed her head.
“I just want you to remember,” she said. But what she really wanted was to choose what Dina would later remember because she needed her to forget the rest.
Dina told Anita that she barely remembered the house she lived in for six years. She remembered little about the city, and almost nothing of the country as a whole. She had one memory of being around four or five years old, sitting on the cold marble floor and looking up when she heard a loud scream. She saw the white kitchen countertops littered with what looked like black dust, she saw the sparkling chandelier and finally saw the toppled over statue of the bearded man. She remembered wondering why his beard was suddenly red. She asked him once about the statue and he said it was of Hafez, the poet, and that it was a birthday gift for Anita when they first started dating.
Dina recounted this memory, leaving out the blood, on their way back from therapy. Therapy was supposed to be helping her remember. It was the only reason they went back, since Anita had long given up hope of the sessions helping them reconcile.
“You don’t remember me in the corner?” Anita asked.
“You don’t remember him?”
“He wasn’t there.”
Anita drew in a breath. She wanted Dina to remember more than anything. She knew it was the trauma that was making her forget, she knew it was her brain’s way of protecting her, but if Dina was to have any future, she needed to remember. “He threw me against the statue.”
Dina rolled her eyes. “Not even a bulldozer could throw you against anything.”
Anita felt a sharp pain across her skull, starting from under her left ear, where the scar was. She felt the scream that threatened to escape her throat, but she swallowed hard and pulled over instead. She couldn’t drive safely with the pain and the last thing she needed was to give him and his team of lawyers a valid reason to take Dina away.
“He—” Anita croaked, “He destroyed our lives. I don’t know what to do to make you believe that.”
“I believe you.” Dina turned towards her. “But that was how he was towards you. He destroyed your life, he actually lets me live mine, unlike you.”
That was something Anita had heard a thousand times before. It had started with minor things. He would tell Dina that if she stayed with him he would let her have her older friends over the ones who never said hello to Anita and hung out with Dina because her father provided alcohol. Then he started to catch up with Dina after court to tell her things he claimed he’d heard from Anita’s lawyers: “Mom is thinking of sending you to boarding school,” or “Mom’s gotten a court order to bug my house,” or “Mom’s bought software to check your phone and she can track your location.” They were never ending.
Anita watched her daughter. Dina had bags under her eyes. She’d lost nearly fifty pounds over the past year. There were strands of her brown hair on her light blue jacket, so many of them that Anita could see them without looking too closely. Dina didn’t break eye contact. She stared at her mother’s green eyes, at her reddened cheeks, at her scar, and at her clenched jaw.
Anita wanted to reach out and hug her. Just for once, to reach out and pull her daughter into her arms without thinking of him. Of how much Dina hated her because of him. She wanted to smell her hair, even if it smelled like him, and kiss her forehead and take her somewhere far away. Somewhere she wouldn’t be able to run away from, somewhere they could stay and wait and talk and work through all his lies and emotional manipulation. Instead, she remembered the time she packed their bags, lied about taking Dina to his place and instead drove to Yasmin’s cabin out in Big Bear. That was when Anita was hopeful, when Dina, then twelve years old, would still sometimes come sleep in her bed. Sometimes she would talk about school, or even about how tired she was of the custody battle, without being prompted. The trip, however, made everything worse. Dina almost got herself killed hitchhiking back to Los Angeles. She left her phone in the cabin, not wanting Anita to track her. After the incident, Anita’s friends told her that Dina was too far gone, that Anita was better off letting her live with her dad. “There isn’t anything you can do anymore,” they said, “You’re just making her hate you more, making it harder for yourself, and you’ll never have a life of your own.”
“I want to throw a birthday party,” Dina said, without looking up from her phone.
Anita blinked. “What?”
Dina rolled her eyes. “Nevermind. I’ll just ask Dad.”
Anita thought back to the last time that happened. When Dina turned fourteen, Anita, in an attempt to mend their relationship after the trip, let him throw her the birthday party that she wanted. He called Anita at four in the morning, panicked because Dina had passed out, and she went over to be met with a trashed home and at least a dozen wasted underage kids. Anita remembered walking into the room where he had laid Dina down in, only to be met with a curly-haired boy in neon green swim shorts pulling on her unconscious daughter’s shirt.
Anita didn’t know what to do. She tried to think of something to say before this Dina, her Dina, was gone again. She said, “When do we do it? Do you want it to be on the day of your birthday or the weekend or—”
“The weekend of the 24th.”
Anita frowned. “Next week? But your birthday is almost a month away.”
“Alright fine, I’ll just ask Dad then.”
Anita rolled her eyes. As she started the car, she took a deep breath. “The 24th it is.”
There were more preparations than Anita was anticipating. Dina didn’t want anything specific, except for the whole ordeal to appear “casual.” By this she meant that no dinner should be served because that would be too awkward. There were to be appetizers, “cool” things people could just pick up and walk around eating. There was to be no cake. The lights were to be dimmed. Anita was to stay upstairs.
Anita agreed wholeheartedly. Dina didn’t ask for alcohol, didn’t even try to steal the keys to the pantry where it was stashed. But, most importantly, the minute Anita told him that she was throwing the party, he stopped calling. Dina said she hadn’t received a call either.
“Maman,” Dina called from her bedroom, while Anita mixed stew.
She almost dropped the wooden spoon into the pot. Dina hadn’t called her “maman” in years. She tried to recall the last time and remembered that it was the day he arrived at LA, when Dina was ten years old. Anita got the call from Yasmin, who knew one of his cousins. Anita repeated how over and over, knowing that there was no way he could have afforded a trip to the United States, even if he had somehow gotten a visa, until Yasmin said, “He used the money from your dad’s bank account in Iran. The one he had access to.” Anita didn’t remember collapsing on the floor, but she woke up to Dina’s pleading voice: maman, maman, maman.
Anita looked at Dina. She turned off the stove and laid the spoon over the pot. Dina sniffed the food and made a face, “See, this is why I didn’t want you cooking for my birthday.”
“Ghorme sabzi used to be your favorite.”
Dina didn’t say anything.
“Did you need something?” Anita asked. She found it difficult not to comment on Dina’s use of “maman,” but knew that she would hate it if she did.
“I need to go shopping.”
Anita nodded and started walking towards her purse. “How much?”
“Can we go together?” Dina didn’t look up from her phone as she spoke and her fingers flew across her screen. Anita stared at her. She felt a pit in her stomach where she should have felt a spark of happiness. Dina’s behavior was so out of character that Anita couldn’t help but run through all the worst possibilities in her mind: Was she drunk? High? Shouldn’t Anita be able to tell? Had her dad put her up to this?
Dina glanced at her quickly and then put her phone away. “Or you can just give me two hundred bucks.”
“We can go together, if you actually want us to.”
Dina shrugged. “Dad can just give me money, if you won’t.”
“We’ll go together,” Anita gulped.
Dina turned the corner of her lips in a way that, if Anita hadn’t known better, she would have thought almost resembled a smile.
After their shopping spree, Anita and Dina drove over to Yasmin’s. Even though Dina didn’t particularly like Yasmin, or anyone close to her mom, she made no objections when Anita made the suggestion. Yasmin and Anita sat down for tea while Dina went into the other room.
“So, how was it?” Yasmin asked, taking out the chamomile tea leaves that she reserved for Anita. She put up her grey hair into a bun before filling up the kettle with water.
Anita dragged her hands down her face. “I don’t know what is going on.”
Yasmin watched her. She could see the exhaustion in her friend’s face and could see the fear that clouded her eyes. Anita started to talk about their day; how Dina had actually been tolerable, how they had taken turns trying on new things and how Dina hadn’t pushed her when she set a limit of a hundred dollars. Dina used the money to buy an outfit for her party, then spent the rest on beanies, scarves, and oversized sweatshirts that were apparently the new trend.
“He hasn’t called ever since Dina started acting this way. I’m starting to worry. What if he did something or said something to her?”
“Would that be a bad thing? It would mean she’s turned to you.”
Anita gave her a look. “I need to know what he could’ve done, Yas. You know what he’s capable of.”
Yasmin shook her head. “He wouldn’t hurt her.”
Anita didn’t say anything. Her phone buzzed with a message. She groaned. “My lawyer says Reynolds, his lawyer, is still threatening to take full custody. They also say I should stop fighting it because Dina is old enough to make her own decision, and that they seem confident that she’ll choose him.”
Anita thought of all the times she got Dina back only because the law was on her side. Every time she took Dina away from him, she was screaming and threatening violence, and Anita grew more terrified. She knew that after every incident and every threat that he had received from her and her lawyers, Dina hated her a little more. The situation became more helpless the more Anita fought. She was tired of going to court and tired of having to make friends and family fly in from Iran to testify against him, tired of having to fight to be a mother. She felt humiliated; the situation was a constant reminder of her mistakes and she just wanted to forget he ever existed.
Anita looked away from Yasmin. Tears burned her eyes, but she glanced up at the roof of the kitchen to stop them from spilling, then over at the refrigerator door. There were pictures of Yasmin’s family and Anita’s chest tightened at the thought of her own family.
“None of this would have happened,” she whispered, “If he didn’t have the money.”
Yasmin took her hand. “You can’t change that.”
“If I hadn’t scared my parents into thinking I would run away with him, my dad would have never given him access to our money. He could have never fucking followed us here.”
“Anita, this is why I keep saying you need to go back. You need to take legal action there as well. End this once and for—”
“It’s not possible.” Anita shook her head. “I would never win and you know that. It’s a miracle I won here, considering all the tricks he pulled. And I would only ever put myself through that for Dina and she— she might just willingly go to him.”
For a moment, Anita considered the day they’d had, and started to entertain the possibility of Dina wanting to stay. What if she was right and he had done something that made Dina hate him? What if he finally told her directly that he didn’t even want her?
“I think things might be changing.” Yasmin smiled. The kettle whistled. Yasmin poured three cups of tea, then disappeared into the living room to take one to Dina. Anita texted her lawyer the usual response: They’ll have to go back to court to take her.
A few seconds later, Dina walked back with Yasmin. Dina pulled up a stool to the counter and sat next to Anita. Her phone buzzed, but she didn’t turn it around. “Did you tell aunt Yasmin about my party?”
“She did,” Yasmin said. “I hope you have a lot of fun.”
“I will,” Dina shrugged. “Mom kinda made it all happen the way I wanted it.”
Anita and Yasmin stared at her for a moment until Yasmin awkwardly chuckled and nudged Anita. “I’m really happy you feel that way,” she said.
Dina nodded and looked down at her lap. She reached out her arm and gave Anita a quick side hug, then walked back to the living room.
Anita was happy to stay in her room during Dina’s party. She paced the room, smiling whenever she could make out Dina’s loud laughter through the music, and frowning every time she thought of him. It was unlike him to go so many days without calling Dina or Anita. He would never leave them alone. Anita took a deep breath; she thought back to what Yasmin said right before they said goodbye: “For the first time in a while, Dina is being your daughter. You need to enjoy that.” And she was. Anita felt genuinely happy. She felt lighter and lighter every day that she would come home to a Dina who wasn’t screaming or yelling or trying to run away. She would even occasionally get a half smile. She sat down on the bed, smiling to herself. Maybe Yasmin was right.
The music changed to a rap song with too many words that Anita was uncomfortable with. Normally, she would go down there and ask them to change it, but it wasn’t worth possibly losing whatever it was Dina and she were building together. She would be more ok with a million things if it meant Dina would stay with her; safely and happily. The mental image of the two of them living together peacefully almost made her laugh out loud. What would he say to that? She could almost see it; his eyes would glaze over the way they did when he was seeing blood. He would probably try to charge at her, forcefully take Dina, yell that he would not stop until he got back at her for running away from him. But Anita would have the law on her side, and most importantly, Dina herself. They would go away again, without telling anyone this time, and he would never find them.
She pulled out her phone and called Yasmin. As it rang, she walked towards the blinking printer in the corner of her room and absentmindedly turned it off. She spotted a piece of paper in the trash can that she didn’t remember throwing out. It looked like whatever had been on it had only printed halfway, but Dina’s name at the top caught her eye. She pulled it out.
“Hey! I was just about to call you. How’s the party going?” Yasmin’s voice filled her ears.
“It’s a ticket,” Anita said.
“He’s bought her a ticket to Toronto. He— is that where he is? Is that why we haven’t heard from him?”
Yasmin could hear Anita’s breath quicken. Before she could say anything, Anita said, “The date—”
She hung up. She clutched the paper, threw the door open and ran down the stairs. The air was stuffy with the smell of sweat, there were boys and girls left and right, dancing, sitting on the floor, making out against the kitchen counter. Anita pushed past them, asking over and over if anyone had seen Dina. Someone yelled out that she was smoking out back. Someone else said they saw her leave with someone. Anita checked the backyard, checked the bathrooms and the pantry and finally went to the living room. Something bright red caught her eye on the table. It was Dina’s phone. She grabbed it, and to her surprise, it was left unlocked. Instead of floods of group messages and flirty texts, Anita found only two chats: one with him and one with Reynolds, the lawyer. She opened the one with Reynolds first. He’d asked her what she’d be willing to do for him to get custody.
Anything, was her first text. I’ll say she beats me if I have to. She’s psycho. She’s never gonna let me live. Anita could barely read with the way her hands were shaking. She opened the conversation with him and scrolled up.
I just landed. Are we still good? His text read.
Yea, she’s so stupid, she actually thinks I want her to throw me a party or something.
He hadn’t responded. She’d said, Yeah, I told her I wanna go shopping with her and she bought it. I can’t wait to just live with you. He’d responded with a smiley face.
Thinking about the warm clothes Dina had bought and how she had insisted on throwing the party on the 24th, Anita scrolled down, past all the texts she’d sent him that had mostly gone unanswered, and arrived at the last one: Leaving now. She still doesn’t know. I’m gonna leave my phone cause I know she can track me. I’ll buy one at the airport to call you. She was truly her father’s daughter.
Anita could hear her heart pounding against her chest. She started considering her options. She could call the police, or airport security, which would be faster, tell them that she has full custody, that would stop her— she wasn’t allowed to travel without permission from both parents— she could even drive there herself, to avoid scaring her with the police, or she could just call him and tell him that he needs to tell her to go home because maybe Dina would listen to him and—
Anita drew in a breath. Her head was spinning, but her thoughts slowed. She sat down. She could hear the music and the cheers and screams, but everything felt oddly quiet and still to her. She steadied her hands. She could hear the voice of her friends echoing in her mind: she was never going to be able to live like this. Dina was the knife he held up to her throat; she was the chain he had around her neck. An odd calmness overcame her as she thought of her with him, faraway in Toronto.
She turned off Dina’s phone, then her own, then stood up on the table. A few people immediately started staring at her, but it was difficult to get everyone’s attention.
“I’m calling the fucking cops,” she screamed, her voice carried through the house. Someone lowered the music. “Unless every single one of you leave right this second.”
A few people waved her off, some grabbed their coats and walked towards the door. Some kid gave her the finger. Watching them, Anita thought about what would happen to Dina. She had always thought of the worst case scenarios: addiction, crime, or worse. She wondered if Dina would realize the truth and come back before all of that, but couldn’t bring herself to imagine it, her apologetic Dina, without running to her. And she knew she couldn’t— not anymore.
“I’m calling the cops.” Something about her voice startled them this time; they looked at her as if she was crazy, some yelling out fuck you’s, but all eventually cleared out.
Once the last couple of them left, Anita stepped off the table and spotted a vodka shot. She downed it without thinking, sinking into the couch. She had never taken a shot before. She almost started to laugh at the thought, but the breath she took was released in sobs instead.
Leilee Ghassemi is a Senior at USD majoring in English with a Creative Writing emphasis and minor in Philosophy. She is pre-law and hopes to go to law school after graduation.
This piece was originally published in the Spring 2019 Issue (4.2).