CHAINS and SNOW and SEX–F. Scott Hess
Snow whipped the highway, viciously, so thick against the windshield anything more than three meters away appeared suddenly, like a terrifying apparition. The wipers swished, barely able to keep up with the constant melting load. Tara’s cousin Kamran leaned forward over the steering wheel, thinking being closer to the glass might help navigate the icy soup of the Amol Road, help get us up and over the Alborz Mountains. Kamran’s 76 Chevy Caprice, a cream-colored behemoth that dwarfed Iran’s newer homegrown Peykans, plunged forward into the increasing blizzard. Red tail-lights flashed on the shoulders where vehicles parked, or had slid into ditches, their weaving tracks already obliterated under a fresh coat of shimmering slush.
“Kamran, we should pull over,” my wife said. “This isn’t safe.” I looked back at her as she gripped the back of my seat, knuckles popping, fingers clenched. Tara’s wide eyes, pinched in the vice of her lids, focused like lasers on the white ahead of us. Next to her, Asal, our two-year-old, alarmed by the tension, gazed worriedly at her mother’s face. Behind Kamran sat Roya Farmani, a friend from Tara’s past who’d become a famous Iranian actress. There was a stiffness to her posture, but her face relayed barely an ounce of fear. Her over-rouged cheeks might have camouflaged it completely, but for the firm set of her bright red lips. The amount of make-up she wore surprised me, as wearing it could get a woman arrested by the religious police, but that didn’t faze Roya. The scent of her perfume infused the car, a cross between a muskrat and jasmine, some fancy French perfume Tara had identified the first time we met. My wife’s olfactory exactitude was infallible.
“Tara, aziz,” answered Kamran, not taking his eyes off the road. “If I stop here, I might get stuck. But there’s a gas station just a little way ahead. We’ll stop there.”
Leaving Tehran, it had been raining, but this snow caught us unexpectedly. This late in November it shouldn’t have. Our trip was a spur of the moment outing, an invitation to the Caspian where Roya had her rarely used vacation home. “It’s just standing empty. If you can find someone to drive us,” Roya had said, “we can go up for a few days.” We were all looking forward to the break; Tara and me from life in her parents’ house in north Tehran, Asal for any change of scenery, Kamran from the arguments with his wife, and Roya from the press of fame upon her privacy.
Ahead of us I saw a steep slope, glimpsed momentarily through swirling sheets of snow. Some cars slid down it backwards, careening at dangerous angles. Kamran slowed, then turned the car into an entrance.
“Here’s the gas station,” he laughed. “It appeared just at the right time!”
A man in a heavy green coat and cap stood behind a crude wooden box on which a pile of metal sat. A crude sign in Farsi adorned the front; Chains.
“Maybe I’ve got chains in the trunk.” Kamran got out, went to the back of his car. I heard the trunk squeak open, a moment later slam shut. Tara’s cousin clambered back inside, snow already melting on the salt-and-pepper hair shaped around his head like a helmet. “No chains. But I’ve got this.” He held up a screw-top oil can.
“We need oil?” I said.
“We need something stronger than oil.” He flipped the can upside down and unscrewed the wide metal bottom. “Secret compartment. Kommitteh hasn’t figured it out yet.” He filled a little paper cup and passed it back to Roya. “Khanum, befarmaid.” He poured another. “The ladies have to share, and so do we.” He passed the cup to me. The arak burned going down, but it felt so good. Kamran took the cup, drained it. “Okay. I’ll get some chains.”
He shuffled his way over to the fellow selling tire chains. I could see him through the wet snow slipping down the windshield, rubbing his hands, haggling, face-red, the chain seller just nodding and chuckling.
Kamran made his way back to the car. “He’s a damn bandit,” he shook his head. “Ten times what chains cost in Tehran!” He grinned, glancing back at Roya and Tara, “But I bought them anyway.” He started the engine and pulled forward, the chain seller directing him with exaggerated hand signals, until the Caprice sat over a shallow pit. I was afraid I’d have to get out and help put the chains on, imagining the feel of frozen steel without gloves, but Kamran stayed put. “He’ll do it. Have another shot of arak.” He poured another for Roya, who pushed her cup into the front. Kamran turned to toast her. “Khanum Roya, salute!”
The drive to the peak of the road remained harrowing, even with chains for a better grip on the slick asphalt. A couple of Imamzadehs welcomed us through the pass, small shrines that many thankful travelers must have prayed at over the years. This road was greatly improved over earlier decades, but the curves and drops kept one’s stomach close to the mouth. The downhill side was longer, a more relaxed descent, but the blizzard let up, presenting vistas of snow-covered peaks and valleys.
A car and minibus had collided a few kilometers beyond the pass. The drivers stood between the vehicles yelling obscenities at each other, vehement as angry mutts. No passengers were hurt, but the loneliness of the situation depressed me. Snow restricted traffic. Help was hours away, a long time to argue away their respective complaints.
We passed mud and stone villages, snow packed on roofs, silver trees waving above them, poplars coated from the storm. As we came closer to the Caspian, below the snow-line, the splendor of autumn spread below us, foliage of red, orange, yellow, and further up, the slopes from which we’d come, everything dusted a sugary white.
On the flat plain near Amol a driving rain beat down on the car, while the rice paddies surrounding each village flooded. Dikes spilled over, soil washed away. At the Caspian the waves angrily ate at the shore. The sea’s surface level was already higher than previous years, and now some beach properties had water licking at their doors. Under the Shah this had been a popular, wealthy district. Now desolate, the area felt abandoned, gardens untended, windows smashed in, their protective bars pried away. Kamran pointed out holes smashed through some masonry walls. “Thieves. Very active here. They imagine great treasures are inside.”
At Roya’s house in Noor there was no electricity. No grand palace, it had but three rooms, a one-story home that reminded me of a trip Tara and I had taken to Baja, Mexico, when Asal was six-months-old. Our Los Angeles neighbors offered us their tiny place, in a trailer park on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. The ocean was gorgeous, but the park was mostly empty, owned by Gringos who rarely came. Roya’s neighbors hadn’t bothered with their properties in years. Neither had she. In the grey drizzle it didn’t feel like a welcoming vacation heaven, but a hopeless purgatory.
“I’ve got candles and a lantern here somewhere,” Roya said, displaying no confidence that she knew where anything was, but Tara quickly found some. It was freezing, inside and out. I worked on getting a blaze going in the fireplace, while Kamran tried to figure out how to turn on the electricity. With that soon restored we had lighting, and an old tape deck on which to play an assortment of melancholy Persian tunes. Roya, Kamran, and Tara took turns reading poetry out of several books, sitting wrapped in blankets on the couch, the fire blazing away before them. Asal napped in the other room.
Kamran and Roya were paying each other special attention. This surprised me, as Tara’s cousin, sweet though he was, sat somewhere in his mid-fifties, carried a sizable middle-age paunch, and his sad eyes bulged a bit like a frog’s. In no one’s book would he be considered handsome, yet one of Iran’s contemporary beauties, with a face known throughout the land, clearly had some interest in Kamran. In her mid-thirties, my artist eye could see a hint of aging in Roya’s skin, but she knew how to cover it perfectly. A beauty she remained. Kamran, reading a few lines of a poem, shifted his focus back and forth from her to the text. She gazed intently at his face as he spoke.
“What’s the poem about?” I asked Tara, who still listened but was increasingly outside the action. “I’m picking up almost nothing.”
“It’s a Sa’di love poem…” She paused, thinking out the translation. “Nobody comes between us tonight, I swear by dust not even a particle can. Stop your coquetry, your pride, take off your head-dress, Open your fancy belt and let out the cypress…”
“Wow!” I laughed. “That’s direct.” The mention of a head-dress kept me chuckling. Though she’d taken it off once we were in the house, Roya’s silk scarf had covered a mountain of hair, almost as extreme as those beehive hairdos of the 1950s. By Islamic law she had to cover it in public, but now her hair rose above her head like a swirling cotton-candy confection.
In feeding the fire I’d used up the small batch of firewood left in the house. With the wind still blowing outside, howling down the chimney, the smoke reversed and came into the rooms. We had to crack open doors and windows to clear the air. Kamran and Roya huddled under one blanket while Tara made sandwiches from goods brought from Tehran. Asal, up and hungry, devoured slices of mortadella straight off the paper.
Glancing at her cousin and Roya, Tara whispered to me, “I think we should walk down to the sea. The wind has stopped.” Outside, bundled in our coats, we saw the storm had indeed passed. A million stars had bloomed and the air smelled fresh as an infant’s breath. The road, elevated to the shoreline, took us past the watery front yards of beachfront homes, their houses now sitting in their own shallow lake, and down to the waves still breaking over the protective wall.
The three of us slept on carpets on the living room floor that night, while the Sa’di poetry lovers let out the cypress in the lone bedroom. Tara and Asal fell asleep quickly, their breathing rhythmic, but not loud enough to cover the sighs and grunts emanating from the other room, eating into my weary consciousness like woodworms boring into an antique cabinet. My sex life, strained under the stresses of parenting, marriage, a year of living with in-laws in Tehran, and having a two-year-old daughter sleeping in our bed, wasn’t enough to push out lust or pangs of jealousy. Kamran was an average man, un-extraordinary in all ways, a moderately successful businessman on the cusp of old age, energetically banging a movie star in the next room. It stretched the bounds of the plausible.
I finally fell into fitful sleep, dreaming of sliding down icy mountain roads lined with horrendous accidents, the moans and cries of disembodied victims rising from overturned cars, piled upon one another like a herd of copulating goats.
The day dawned sunny, bright and crisp. Tara boiled water for tea, while I wrapped sheep cheese in day-old lavash for Asal. Eventually Kamran rambled out of the bedroom, his hair shooting up in two directions, grey stubble lining his chin, but his bleary-eyes shining like he’d just discovered the Oxus treasure. “I feel reborn,” he laughed, a little embarrassed. “It’s this Caspian air.”
“I’m sure that’s it,” I said.
“Roya’s still asleep. I think she was still awake at three AM. Nerves.”
I suppressed a smirk. Their little affair breached family morality, him being married, but was also literally illegal in the Islamic Republic. In villages people got stoned to death for less. In Shiraz, illicit couples had been hung from lampposts after the Revolution. The clergy wanted complete control over personal lives, and didn’t take kindly to breaking those chains. In Iran, in 1992, sexual liberation was a potential blood sport. Roya had reason for her nervous thoughts. She was famous. She was watched.
Before Roya awoke, we went with Kamran, in his Caprice, to look for a telephone. After a call to reassure Tara’s mother, we walked along the boulevard, and into side streets, exploring the ramshackle walls and horrendous architecture of the town. Noor was not a big place, nor in the least attractive. But it had the Caspian.
In an empty lot by the sea a gaggle of geese waddled towards us, a phalanx of long necks, rigid, perched over oval bodies and webbed feet, running madly, honking. The noisy assault terrified Asal, who hid behind my legs, but the geese soon divined we were no food source, and Asal commenced to chase them around the grassy yard, the geese scattering to avoid her, displaying an unexpected agility that frustrated our daughter.
In an alleyway we found a fish salesman, obviously an illegal operation. He was busy descaling and filleting a fish on top of a wooden box. Tara wanted a whole fish for lunch. The fisherman, a young man with three days stubble and a wool cap, pulled a silvery-grey one, a white fish, from his battered cooler. The eyes looked clear. It seemed expensive, but we took it, wrapped in pages of newspaper.
At the house, Roya was up and about. Her hair, almost back in place, teetered towards her left side. Though her eyes were a little puffy under heavy mascara, her make-up was again perfect. There was something sad about her, something I’d noticed the first time I met her. Tara noticed a difference in her friend, too. “Roya’s depressed,” she’d said. “We should take her out.” Though she might be smiling or laughing, a distance was visible in Roya’s eyes, a longing to be elsewhere, as if she wanted to be in a different body, a different life, a different time. Her fling with Kamran only increased my sense of this. She seemed a desperate, lonely woman, known and loved by millions, disconnected from every single one of them.
In the steel sink Kamran started to clean the fish, stripping the scales off, cutting into its gut to remove the innards. Making the rice, Tara turned, sniffing loudly. “Eww. I think it’s bad.”
“It’s fine,” Kamran said, voice hopeful. “Just the scales smell.” He inspected it, bringing it a little closer to his nose. He held it up to me. “What do you think?”
I wanted fish for lunch. Good fresh fish was hard to come by in Tehran, and the constant fare of select Persian foods, good but with scant variety, had worn thin over my months with the in-laws. Something different would be a welcome break. I sniffed the fish.
I wobbled my head, uncertain. “It does smell fishy,” I finally said. “I think Tara is right. Gotta trust her nose.”
Roya insisted we throw the fish out, never even glancing at its slick descaled form.
In the afternoon Tara, Asal, and I wandered down to the sea, leaving the reborns to their devices. We’d be leaving early in the morning, all of us returning to our Tehran routines. They had a lot to explore, and not much time.
The local park had puddles of water, and muddy tracks, footprints of eager oblivious children. The few areas of grass felt marshy, springy under my shoes. We placed Asal on the swing set. “Push me, Daddy.”
She hadn’t quite gotten the hang of the body movements required to swing herself. She could do it, but got a lot higher with my help.
“Okay, that’s high enough,” Tara said.
“No!” Asal yelled, “Go higher.” I stopped pushing, and her arc reduced, like a pendulum winding down. “More, Daddy, more!” She jerked her legs forward, back, forward, then flopped off the swing face first into a puddle.
“Look what you’ve done,” Tara angrily snapped at me, jumping to lift Asal up.
I put my hands out, palms up. What had I done, I wondered, but knew enough to shut up.
We walked a couple of blocks further, down to the sea. The shoreline was gone, gentle waves worked at eroding a bank of orange trees, their roots already exposed to the elements. I threw a rock into the water. Asal imitated me, her stone traveling about five feet. I plucked a small orange from a tree, handed it to her. She inspected it a moment, sniffed the citrus odor, then threw it in the sea. “More, Daddy.” Soon twenty oranges floated on the surface, like survivors of a shipwreck, orange life vests bobbing on the Caspian waves.
F. Scott Hess is a painter, a conceptual artist, and a writer from Los Angeles. In 1992-93 he spent a year in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the first American male to enter the country after the Revolution and subsequent Hostage Crisis at the American Embassy. His work is included in the collections of the LA County Museum of Art, Orange County Museum of Art, Long Beach Museum of Art, San Jose Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian Institute, among many others. He has received a Theodor Koerner Award, Western States Art Federation award, a J. Paul Getty Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. A one-hour documentary by Shirin Bazleh, F. Scott Hess: A Reluctant Realist, was released in 2018. Hess is represented by Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica, and is currently working on a collection of short stories about his year in Iran.