In celebration of Scoundrel Time’s first anniversary, our editorial team is excited to announce the winners of our first annual Editors’ Choice Awards. Maria Saba’s story “My First Friend” is the award-winner in Fiction.
Here is what Fiction Editor Karen Bender says about “My First Friend”:
“My First Friend” is the story of Manisa, a young girl living in Tehran. Manisa is visited by a stranger when her parents leave her alone in their apartment for the first time. Their conversation seems ordinary, but the subtext reveals otherwise. The story is a devastating look at the emotional toll of an authoritarian government, and the way innocence and violence sit side by side. The power in the story resides not only in the accurate portrayal of a child’s point of view, and Manisa’s poignant connection with the stranger, but the reader’s understanding of what will come next.
MY FIRST FRIEND
Drowned. That’s how I liked to think of my parents. Ironic, as they were competitive swimmers. But this was how I imagined it.
I am four years old. We are vacationing by the Caspian Sea. My grandparents are relaxing in their reclining chairs, their faces covered by two large bamboo hats. My parents are in their swimsuits, drinking lemonade while I play in the sand beside them. There is only one other family around. Huddled down the beach are three women wrapped in black chadors that cover all but their protruding noses, beside them two men in swim trunks or maybe underwear.
My parents decide to go for a swim. My mother puts on her bright red bathing cap. As she tucks in her brown curls, the other family heads toward the sea. The three women’s chadors rise in the water and spread about them in circles. Grandpa removes the hat from his face and adjusts his chair to keep an eye on me. I follow my parents’ shadows, stretched behind them on the sand, until they merge with the water. The sea is up to my parents’ knees, then their waists, and then all I see are two heads in the distance. Soon there is nothing but my mother’s swimming cap, which floats like a red rose on the surface of the glittering sea. Grandpa bends and picks me up with one arm. I am at eye level with my grandparents, who hold hands and look away from me. I look away from them too.
For years, I thought of my parents as drowned, disappeared in water. It was better than thinking them shot, hanged, or anything else that had to do with the truth.
It was an early morning in May when my parents walked through the door and left me behind. For the first time, I was alone in our apartment. I ran to the window and stared at my mother’s blue figure moving away. There was a peculiar sadness about the growing distance between us. I opened the window to call out to them, but I didn’t want to appear childish. “You are a big girl,” my father had said as he embraced me before they left. Besides, they would be back soon.
I slunk down in my father’s old, brown armchair. The children’s program on the radio had ended and now a reporter was commenting on the significance of President Nixon’s first official visit to Tehran. I turned the radio off. In my parents’ absence everything seemed different. The half-open door of the living room: hadn’t Mom closed it before leaving? Maybe Dad had opened it again. I sank deeper into the armchair. The ripped seam of the chair: what if there was a bug in it, what if it crept out while growing larger and larger, and bit my nose like that monster in my storybook? If it grew large enough, it would devour me altogether. I jumped up, and the long, dark crack that ran along the left wall caught my eye. What could be creeping along there? I paced up and down the hall and listened to the tap dripping in the kitchen. One. One. One more. I rushed to the sink, turned the faucet this way and that, and managed to stop it for a few seconds before a tiny stream poured out, followed by single drops.
Looking out of the kitchen window, I wondered why I had felt insulted earlier in the morning when my mother kept calling one person and then another to stay with me. I am not a baby, I had thought. Now with all sorts of hideous creatures ready to pounce on me, with the steady pings from the kitchen sink, I wished they had found someone, anyone, to come over.
On the table, right beside my notebook, lay the breakfast tray Mom had left for me—a plate of cheese with thin, flat, white bread, and a glass of tea. She had forgotten to put out a knife or a teaspoon. I opened the cutlery drawer and stared at the rows of knives, spoons, and forks. I closed it without picking anything, slid away the tray, and busied myself with drawing.
There was a knock on the apartment door. The rusty clock above the stove said 8:30. Could Mom and Dad be back so soon? I thought I heard whispering voices. I tiptoed into the hall and pressed my ear to the door.
“Hello,” a man said, from the other side.
I held my breath and said nothing.
“Hello,” the voice repeated.
“Hello,” I responded.
“Can I come in? I am a friend of your parents.”
“They’re not in. They’ll be back soon.”
“Yes, of course. They asked me to come and stay with you.”
So my parents had found someone; what a relief! But who?
“They called Vahid. Are you Vahid?”
“No. Vahid wasn’t available. So they asked me to come instead.”
I opened the door a crack and looked up. A man with a goatee, taller than my father, stood there. A bright smile spread over his face.
“Hello again.” He held out his hand. “I am Mr. Ahmadi. And you must be—”
“Manisa,” I interrupted him, and still standing in the doorway, extended my hand.
Unlike other adults, who mimicked a handshake with a child, he shook my hand firmly.
“Is someone with you?” I asked.
He swiveled his neck around, raised his eyebrows, and shook his head in a comical way.
“No, I don’t see anyone. Do you?”
I peeked and looked to his left and right in the dark hallway, but I couldn’t see anyone and drew back. He entered the hall and took a quick glance around before shutting the door behind him. Something caught his attention, but I couldn’t tell what. There were only two old armchairs and a telephone stand resting against the barred window opening onto the park. He took off his jacket and hung it on the hook by the door, where my father’s coat normally hung. My eyes followed his steps toward my father’s armchair. He had wide shoulders and a straight back, like my father, but surely was older than him.
“May I?” he asked with another radiant smile.
I nodded and sat down. He sat straight and rested his elbows on the arms of the chair. I was certain I had not seen him before.
“It must be hard to be all by yourself,” he said. Before I had a chance to contradict him, he added, “My daughter is so afraid of being alone.”
“I’m not afraid,” I said, sitting up straight.
“Of course you are not.” He said this as if he meant it. “But my daughter is. She is very clever and sweet. Almost the same age as you. Maybe as pretty as you. But not brave. She is afraid of so many things: of the dark, of dogs, of beetles—you name it.”
Embarrassed and pleased, I looked down. So he thought I was pretty. I wanted to ask him how old his daughter was, but another question came out.
“Did my parents call you?”
“No. I saw them on their way.”
“In the park?”
“No, outside the park.”
He leaned forward and poked my arm.
“Can I bother you for a glass of water?”
“Of course. There is tea, too.”
“Why not? Let’s have tea.”
He followed me into the kitchen. His eyes roamed as he seated himself. Something caught his eyes again. There was nothing but an old wooden table, four chairs, a few cabinets, and a stove. Maybe the clock? A gift from my grandparents, an antique.
“So, tell me, what grade you are in?”
I paused before answering. “I finished grade one.”
“I didn’t see any schools around here. Where do you go to school?”
I shifted my weight to one foot and drew circles with the other, my pointed toe sweeping the floor. “I haven’t been to school yet. My parents taught me at home, and then I took the exams at the district board.” I stopped the circles and concentrated on how I might compensate for my embarrassing situation. “Grandpa taught me the English alphabet and some words. I read newspapers and magazines all the time. Better than other kids, Dad says.”
“I’m sure you do.” Mr. Ahmadi nodded. “Your father told me all about you. How mature you are. Very smart too.”
I turned on the electric kettle and sat across the table. The sun was blocked by a large cloud, which cast stripes of shadow through the barred window along the table and onto the kitchen floor.
He pointed to my sketchbook. “Is this yours?”
“Yes. I was drawing when you came.”
“How interesting!” He stretched his legs under the table, raised his arms and clasped his fingers behind his head while gazing out the window. “What are you drawing?”
“I would love to see your drawings.” When he smiled, there was a little dimple on his right cheek. My father had two, one on each side.
I showed him a sketch.
“Goodness. You drew this?”
“Yes, it’s my mother’s mother…no…the mother of my mother’s mother. In Shiraz.”
He raised his thick eyebrows and blinked twice, as if he couldn’t believe his eyes.
It had taken me endless hours of drawing and erasing before I got Great Grandma’s sagging cheeks, her deep laugh lines, and the pores between her brows to show what I remembered about her.
“Well … I haven’t seen her, but this is really something,” he said. Staring at the paper, he tugged his beard. “So you were in Shiraz recently?”
“No. Last year. Before we moved to Rasht.”
“Yes, of course. You must have friends in so many places,” he said.
“No. I don’t have any.”
I wanted to tell him I couldn’t make any friends because we moved all the time, and my parents warned me about talking to strangers. What about him? Was he a stranger?
“You remind me so much of my daughter,” he said and patted my hand twice. “The way you suddenly drift away, like just now, you were miles away. She does exactly the same thing.”
Not a stranger. He knew where we lived. He knew my parents were out. Obviously not a stranger. He had a tender look in his eyes. My fear gave way to an urge to confide in him about how lonely I was, how I wished I could go to school…
“Perhaps you will stay in Tehran and make friends here. What am I saying? You already have, right? I mean, may I be your friend? That is, if you’ll have an old man like me for a friend.”
Of course I would. Yes, he would be my first friend. Why couldn’t he be? My parents had asked him to come here. That he was already a friend of my parents reassured and unsettled me at the same time. I would have preferred to have a friend of my own, just for myself. What about his daughter? Should I ask him to bring her along soon?
I continued to confide in my friend. “My biggest wish is that we never move again. I want to stay here, go to school, and visit Grandpa and Grandma all the time. They have a very nice place. There is a big pool in the garden. Mom and Dad swim there a lot.”
“Do you swim?” he asked.
“I know how to swim, but my parents were champions. At the university.”
“Yes, of course. I remember your father from the university days. He was excellent in everything he did. Your mom, too. Both so attractive.”
“Grandpa always says the same. Does your daughter swim?”
“Oh, no,” he said, withdrawing with a mild laughter. “Guess what else she’s afraid of?”
“Water!” We both said it at the same time and burst into laughter. “That’s right,” he said, as he slapped his hand on the table. His face had opened up; his hair glittered under the sunlight that had spread all over us. I imagined myself floating on the sun rays, enveloped by warmth and happiness.
“One day I should bring her by. Maybe you can teach her how to swim. Will you do that?”
“Of course, but you need to bring her to my grandparents’ place.”
“Sure, I will.” He nodded and glanced at my notebook. “Have you drawn anybody else?”
“I have lots.” I leafed through the pages, slowing as I neared my latest drawing.
“I have a surprise for my parents.”
“What is it?”
“They don’t know about it.” I flipped to the drawing; then covered it with my hand. “Will you promise not to tell?”
He closed his eyes, bent his head in reverence, and placed his palm on his chest. “I promise with all my heart.”
“It’s of one of the rehearsals.”
He stared at me blankly.
“For the theatre company. You know, for their job. They do rehearsals with actors.”
He raised his eyebrows and said, in a delayed voice. “Of course. The rehearsals.” Then he leaned forward. “When do they have them?”
“Dad changes it all the time. Last week he said Monday at eight o’clock sharp. So tomorrow they’ll have one here. He is very strict about timing.”
“So they don’t always meet here,” he said.
“No.” I handed him the notebook. He was startled by something at first. Then he held it close and examined it.
“This is amazing! Really great,” he muttered under his breath.
There was a sparkle in his eyes, like Grandpa’s, whenever he looked at my drawings. I took this as a sign of something more than interest; perhaps he was proud of me. I felt a tingling in my spine. Should I draw him just as he sat right there?
“Are you an actor?”
“Me?” he asked. “No, no, I’m no actor, my dear. Though I longed to be when I was your age. But I didn’t have the talent. Actors must be talented, like your father. He is very clever.”
He said these last words as if he meant them, and something else as well. He had not yet taken his eyes off the paper. His interest flattered me.
“So what is this play about?” he asked.
“Some men in the forests. In Cuba and Boliv or something like that. The names are hard.”
He finally lifted his head. “I should get tickets for this show. I love theater as much as you love drawing.”
This was a new experience for me: being in the presence of an adult, who shared his interest with me.
“Where is the photo?”
“The one you drew this from. I’d like to compare your drawing with the photo.” He paused; then added with a wink, “I bet yours is better.”
“There is no photo. I watched through the keyhole. Some are missing. See?” I pointed to the corner of the paper, where the frame was cut.
“Why through the keyhole?”
“I couldn’t go in. Mom says actors get confused when someone else is around.”
“Of course, she is right.”
The kettle rattled. He rose and turned it off before I could get to it.
“It’s too hot and heavy,” he said as he poured hot water into the teapot.
“But the tea is old.” I attempted to get up.
He pressed his hand gently on my shoulder.
He poured tea into two glasses and placed one in front of me. I pushed the saucer back and forth on the table. He held his glass in one hand and glanced in the direction of the notebook.
“So, this is going to be a surprise, you said?”
“Yes, for Dad’s birthday next week,” I said and tried to conceal my excitement.
Some obscure emotion flitted over his face; his eyes turned away from me. “You are such a thoughtful daughter.”
“Does your daughter draw for you?”
“Huh? No. No. She is no artist.” His eyes were still averted. After a long pause, he took up the drawing.
“Who signed this? This isn’t your name.”
“My nickname.” My cheeks burned as I uttered the next words. “My artistic name.”
“And what name is that?” he asked.
I leaned back and, trying not to sound boastful but not without pride, recounted the story of my artistic name. “The first time Dad saw one of my drawings, he called out to Mom that there was going to be another Leonardo da Vinci, which I heard as Lenovichi. Mom suggested I should sign my drawings like that instead of my own name.”
“Very becoming, your artistic name. I can’t think of a better one.” He pointed to the man in the checkered shirt. “Let’s see. Him, what was his name again? I can imagine him sitting right here, just like you drew.”
“No, he was sitting on the living room floor. He is Comrade Kaveh in the play. They call one another those names because Dad says actors should stay in their roles at all times.”
“Yes, of course.” He put his glass down and rose. He gazed out the window before moving toward me. Kneeling, he lifted my chin.
“You know, I think you will be a great artist. But will you remember me and this day?” His smile was sad, his voice remote.
“Why wouldn’t I remember today?”
As he patted my chin, a spasm distorted his solid features. My feet began shuffling under the chair. He took both my hands in his and opened his mouth, but didn’t say anything. I could hear and feel his breathing. As if remembering something he preferred he hadn’t, he reluctantly stood and checked his watch.
“What time did you say your parents were coming back?”
“Before noon, they said. What did they tell you?”
“Me?” Now he was the one who had drifted miles away. “Oh, the same. Why don’t we wait for them there?” He pointed to the hall.
With my notebook under the crook of my arm, I followed him into the hall and perched up on the windowsill to keep a lookout for my parents. Mr. Ahmadi’s strong, warm hand pressed on my shoulder.
“Why don’t you sit on this chair and tell me more about your drawings?”
He drew the curtain and turned me around. I put my notebook on the telephone stand, sat down, and began humming a song. He shook his head. “Don’t tell me you sing too?” he asked in a low voice.
I stared at him. He had a calm, patient smile. His eyes were fixed on the door. I had a vague sense something was wrong. Why were we sitting in the hall, with our tea getting cold in the kitchen? Before I could say anything, sounds came in from the stairway. I got up to run to the door, but he took my arm and gently drew me back.
“You sit here. I’ll go and see what’s happening,” he said, in a firm voice.
I thought I heard a scuffle and a half scream and tried to get up again. He held me in the chair and squatted in front of me. I didn’t scream. I didn’t try to squirm out of his grasp. I sat there frozen.
“Is that my mother?” I whispered in disbelief.
He put his hands on my arms and looked into my eyes apologetically. “We don’t know what’s happening out there. It could be dangerous. Just wait here until I get back. Promise?”
I nodded. He let go of me, grabbed my notebook and his jacket, and paused by the door.
“Be back in a minute. Don’t move. Please Manisa. Just stay here,” he said, and took out the keys from the door before leaving. As the key turned in the lock, I suspected my friend was not coming back. I didn’t move. I sat there listening to the tap dripping in the kitchen.
Photograph taken by Maria Saba