It had been a year since the separation, and she was still trying to get a divorce. Domestic violence. Or ‘family issues’, as they would say. Her husband admitted he’d made mistakes, but he’d do better. Be better. A better man. She didn’t want him to be a better man. Or anything else, in fact. Only to agree to the divorce. But the court needed evidence. Specific evidence of maltreatment or betrayal.
Shrinking into the corner of the waiting room sofa, almost hiding, she removed her scarf. She knew the lawyer, Ali. From years before. Ten years ago, he’d helped with her first divorce. She’d been quietly amazed by the unspoken power and strength he projected in negotiations, in the courtroom. When the paperwork was over, naturally, they’d ended up having an affair. It had felt good at the time, a liberation from the claustrophobia and jealousy of the past 2 years – years when she’d forgotten who she was. The release into another’s arms was intoxicating, after so many false accusations. She was drunk, and like most drunks, couldn’t stop herself. Six increasingly infatuated months later, she’d finally had to admit it was going nowhere. He was married. His personal and family lives were separate, he’d kept insisting. So were his other affairs, apparently. She left, forcing the separation into a real one, geographically and eventually, emotionally.
He’d said he still had feelings for her. It was the situation; it couldn’t be helped. He’d said he’d always be there for her, would do anything to help, if she was ever in trouble.
The receptionist, lipstick too heavy and not even close to the right shade, called her name. She wondered if he’d hired her for her secretarial skills, or her body. It wasn’t hard to guess. Old habits die hard.
“Are you feeling alright?”
“What do you think?”
“I’m sorry. Well, without his consent, certain options are removed from the table.”
“There’s nothing we can do?”
“I can do anything – I know the right people. It might take some time but trust me. It’ll be fine.” He leaned over with a practised, professional air of concern. I guess he was trying to show that he cared, but it felt detached, unreal. “You look pale. Are you sure you’re alright?”
“Yeah, it’s just the heat, I guess. And the noise.” “Don’t worry. Leave it to me. I’ll call you as soon as I have an update.”
Back on the street, she felt lost, disoriented, confusing right and left. She stopped. The road was disordered and hopeless. Cars trapped, unable to move forward or back. One wanted to reverse, but blocked another one in. She covered her ears. Car horns blared. Drivers were swearing. She was sweating. She felt the dampness under her clothes, drops trickling down, from her neck down her back. Was she shivering? She tried to focus. Looking down, she took a deep breath, put her hand to her forehead. It was wet, surprisingly cold. She didn’t want to go back. Moving forward was impossible. She froze, tried to focus on the cigarette butt on the pavement, taking deep breaths. She started counting. It seemed to help, until everything went black.
The nurse was a smiley young woman.
“How are you feeling?”, she asked, filling out some forms.
“Nothing serious. You just passed out. Low blood pressure.”
“Who brought me here?”
“Your husband, I think?”
“Oh… no… he’s not my…”
The nurse cut her off with a nod and a quick smile. “That’s fine. Don’t you worry. I think he’s waiting downstairs. I’ll tell him to come up.”
“OK… But what happened to me?”
“It’s nothing unusual. It’s quite common during the first two months.”
“First two months?”
The nurse stopped writing. She looked up, questioning.
“You didn’t know?”
Ali closes the door to her apartment and follows her to the kitchen.
She runs the tap and stands there, listening to the water. She thinks of cooling her hands and maybe washing the cups left in the sink, but she can’t. She can’t raise her arms. And even if she could, she doesn’t want to break the sound of the running water.
Ali’s standing at the kitchen door, baffled.
“Are you ok? Still feeling sick?”
“I’m fine. Just a bit tired. I should get some sleep.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“No, not really. You’ve done enough. And I don’t mean just today,” she says dismissively.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You’re not sure what you meant?”
She opens her clenched fist and let the crushed paper drop into the sink. She heads to the bathroom, moving slowly, not looking at Ali.
She turns on the tap and waits for it to run cold. She lets her hands linger in the flow, feels the cool blood crawling back up her veins, into her back. She’s feverish, perhaps. She doesn’t know how long she’s been standing there, refusing to face her reflection.
She’d always wanted to be part of a running-away story. She’d live off her savings to start at the beginning, learning something new. To become an expert, a professional in some important life-defining career. But that was long ago. When she was a young girl, and the idea of leaving an old love to wait for a new one, still romantic. It was before she realised that domestic violence was not just confined to the ‘lower classes’, and that she would rather be lonely herself than desired by a man lonely within his marriage. Before she woke up from a dream to a complicated legal case.
A married woman, separated for a year, and now pregnant. In the Islamic Republic. The mirror stares back at her, protectively. “I thought you’d never get pregnant. You have to keep it. It’s the only real thing in you, isn’t it?”
She doesn’t know what to say.
Ali knocks on the door.
“Mina, you ok? I need to talk to you.”
“Are you coming out, or what?”
Mina opens the door and looks into Ali’s eyes.
“Ali, I’m fine. Thanks for today. I’m just tired.”
“I’m not leaving until you tell me the truth.”
Mina stares at him. She opens her mouth to say something, but nothing comes out.
“I saw the report, Mina. In the sink. What’s going on?”
Mina gently pushes Ali aside and goes to the living room.
She sits on the sofa and leans back.
“I’m keeping it.”
“Since when you’ve been seeing someone?”
“That’s nothing to do with you.”
“Who is he?”
“Someone who doesn’t need to know. It’s not his business either.”
“I’m keeping this baby, Ali.”
“You’re not thinking straight. You can’t be pregnant before the divorce.”
“Then get my divorce.”
Ali looks down and takes a deep breath. He can hear her crying.
“Leave me alone. Please? Go. Please go.”
He leaves. It feels better without him.
As her mind starts skimming different options, her heart is racing, pounding. She has to leave the country. She might be able to get her husband’s permission for a short trip- a friend’s funeral a marriage or something. He wanted her back. Maybe he would do this one thing for her, so she could trust him again? She would then leave and never return. But he would never do that. It’s been a year that she’s been insisting on getting a divorce. What else could she do? She needs to talk to Ali again. Or maybe she could get back with her husband, make peace and get him to sign her exit permission. She guesses she’ll be able to sort out the visa stuff if she gets out. That means she needs to move in with him again. How long would it take before he really trusts her? Anything less than three months should be ok. It’ll not show by then.
Her chest feels heavy and she is struggling to take deep breaths. She remembers that she believed asking for a right to divorce would be a disrespect to the sacredness of marriage, of love. It would bring bad luck.
She looks out the window. The road is busy, and her car is parked out front. She grabs the keys and goes downstairs to move it inside. As soon as she sits in the car, the image appears again. Her friend’s father, suffocating in his parked car. Life draining away. She’s never met him. She met that friend, nineteen years after her father had committed suicide. She always wondered how someone would suffocate in a car, but she never looked for the answer. Carbon monoxide was the only thing she knew. She always wondered what he’d thought about, before deciding to do it, but who could know? She always wondered, why in his car? Did he feel safe in there? Was that the only private place he had to himself? What made him brave enough to take control over his own life? Helpless or fearless?
She starts the engine. The sound breaks the silence and she feels in the moment again. She is a fighter, everyone says. But nobody calls a real fighter a fighter. They only say it to those who they think need to hear it. She drives off. If nothing else, she knows some people living in villages in the mountains. She could come up with stories until the baby was born. They always welcomed visitors.
She knows she’s going to have to turn back at some point, but she is not certain. Fear will make her turn around. Fear of what? Of being caught? As a fugitive, or as an adulterer?
After two hours in traffic, finally the road empties out becoming calm and clear as it winds up into the hillss. Every time she passes a junction, she knows she’ll turn back at the next one. But she doesn’t. She wants to live her running-away story as long as she can, or at least as long as her self control lasts. It usually doesn’t take long.