My Mother and the Stranger

My mother’s name is Martha Harris, while my name, on the other hand, as you already know from the byline, is Saïd Sayrafiezadeh. If we lived in a matriarchal society, my last name would also be Harris. I would be a Harris right now sitting down to write this story this evening about the evening a stranger forced his way into my mother’s home, if men did not—do not—view women as property. This going back thousands of years, a history I am unfamiliar with, have not researched with any authority, yet know it to be somehow true as I sit down to write, decidedly not a Harris.

It is twenty-nine years ago when this tale takes place. It is 1973. It is Fort Greene, Brooklyn. It is nighttime. I am five years old. My mother is forty. She gave birth to me when she was thirty-five, and by thirty-six she was separated from my father.

Shortly after the abrupt and unceremonious departure of my father, who also happened to be her husband of ten years, my mother abandoned the name Sayrafiezadeh and returned to her maiden name of Harris. “He gave me twenty-four hours notice,” my mother has told me dramatically more than once. And I imagine the scene unfolding in the perfunctory way it does when one is laid off, effective immediately, and escorted from the building. My mother’s return to Harris was a way to be away from Sayrafiezadeh, it was a way to divorce herself from my father who would not legally divorce himself from my mother for twenty more years, that is until he was ready to remarry again, and his legal status in the United States was no longer in jeopardy. But my mother’s return to Harris not only succeeded in divorcing herself from her ex-husband but also of divorcing herself from her present-son. Written on the mailbox in the lobby of our apartment building was “Harris/Sayrafiezadeh,” as if roommates resided there, or an unmarried couple, or a progressive married couple, a progressive married interracial couple at that.

“Supper is almost ready,” my mother calls to me twenty-nine years ago when this story begins. Together we are alone in our apartment. I am playing on the floor in the living room, while my mother is busying herself in the kitchen. I place this colored wooden block on top of that colored wooden block. Silence surrounds me, interrupted only by the faint clink-clank of my mother’s dishes in the sink. It is that time of night in New York City when everything seems to fall silent and still. And on the sixteenth floor of the apartment building we live in, everything is even more silent and more still, the sounds from the street falling short of us. And it is also at this time of night, for reasons unbeknownst to the scientists, that strangers choose to enter people’s homes unannounced and do evil things. It is during this pre-supper séance then that the stranger, who has decided against being detected in the elevator and has climbed sixteen flights, enters our apartment and silently, stealthily, creeps, quietly, whisperly behind my mother and waits. His presence my mother and I are unaware of.

I have lied to you, reader. My mother’s name is not Martha Harris. I have lied and I apologize for it. My mother’s name is, in fact, Martha Finklestein. I am sketchy on the details, because my mother is sketchy on the details, but sometime during World War II when my mother was about ten years old and living in Mount Vernon, New York, her father decided that his eldest son would have an easier go at finding a job if he was not so obviously Jewish. Thus in one swift pen stroke the family did away with Finklestein forever, replacing it with the generic and rather boring Harris that I first introduced my mother to you as. If we lived in a matriarchal society and if we lived in a society that did not have its own history of anti-Semitism, I would be writing this story tonight not as a Harris, but as a Finklestein. But since none of this is the case, I use the byline Sayrafiezadeh. The Jew in me has been completely supplanted by the Iranian.

My mother is in the kitchen. She has called out to me that supper is almost ready. And now she turns from the dishes, innocently, turns with whatever collection of inconsequential thoughts are running through her mind at that moment, and turns to see not the empty space she had imagined and wholeheartedly expected, but to see the space filled with the large form of the dastardly stranger, who has been waiting patiently, because he has known that she will see him eventually, turn toward him eventually, the way a spider knows that the fly will eventually have no choice but to fly into its web. And my mother screams. It breaks irreparably the silence of the evening as well as the world of my colored wooden blocks. And the dish my mother is holding in her hand drops and shatters on the floor, giving a nice exclamation to the drama at hand.

My mother is a Jewish woman, I’ve already said. You can tell this by the name she does not go by. You can also tell, I have always thought, by her physical features. Her prominent nose, for instance. Her tiny, five-foot-one frame, the hunched way she has about her, the old beyond-her-years attitude. She was a senior citizen by the time this story takes place, at age forty. Of course, none of these features may have anything to do with Jewishness, but rather with my own anti-Semitic associations, which I admit I am in great possession of. In ways that I am not quite clear about, but will defend as if they can be proven mathematically, I have always asserted that my mother’s Jewishness is why I have found her so ugly my entire life, and why as her offspring I have often found myself to be so ugly. It is certainly not helped by the fact that my mother does not have her hair done, does not wear makeup, does not paint her nails, does not wear perfume, does not dress in colorful, fitted outfits, does not date men ever, does not have sex with men ever, does not exhibit any sexuality, homosexual, asexual, or otherwise. The last man she had sex with was my father, which was when she was thirty-six years old. My mother, in effect, took a vow of celibacy after my father’s departure, and became a nun, a secular nun, a secular Jewish nun. When my mother walks down the street in what amounts to her habit, men are not compelled to look at her tits or ass. And the one time she wore a skirt I was confused and made vaguely uncomfortable by the sight of her calves and thighs in stockings, uncomfortable in the way one is when one watches a handicapped person attempting to dance, for instance. It is a painful attempt. All of these details I have somehow come to associate with the fact that she is Jewish, and I am happy to have that part of myself disguised, suppressed, repressed, hiding the mother in me away, happy to not be a Finklestein, happy to have been born into a patriarchal society.

And my mother turns, sees, screams, and the plate breaks, and my child’s play on the floor with colored blocks promptly comes to an end. I rise fearfully, and pad toward the kitchen, peeking cautiously around the corner, imagining the worst, imagining myself saving my mother and in turn being saved by her.

In the kitchen my mother stands erect, paralyzed, her back presses against the refrigerator, the stranger faces her menacingly from across the counter where he leans. His size is overwhelming, and made doubly so by the fact that there have been no adult men in our apartment since my father’s exit. The stranger is bulbous, and he casts a shadow that falls across the kitchen, across my mother and myself. We are infected by his shadow. My mother is motionless like a cadaver, rigid with fear. The stranger is motionless, too, but his posture is loose, relaxed, an athlete about to take off. Better to be relaxed when you are the assailant. My mother and the stranger watch each other, they wait, they plot, each wondering what the other’s first move will be.

A brief word about the missing patriarch. My father has gone off to work diligently attempting to overthrow this society of ours. He is a subversive. He is a communist. He is a Trostkyite. He has lived in exile. He has also spent time in jail. He writes long articles with phrases lifted directly from Marx and the Russian Revolution. Articles that the coal mining layman would have difficulty deciphering. He refers to his fellow party members as “comrades.” In my mother’s home there is a reverence for my father, he is a divinity and I am taught by my mother to be happy and proud and respectful of the work he is doing to better the world. This is all I am going to say about my father. He is a figure in the world, but a non-figure in our lives. Nor is he what I have sat down to write about tonight.

Tonight I am writing about how a stranger has managed to ingeniously infiltrate a double-locked door. And my mother speaks to me in a low, breathy whisper, as if knowing she will be granted one wish and one wish only. “Get me,” she says, “go get me a shoe.” And I do as I am told. I scamper into the closet for her weapon of choice, and return to her at once, where she clutches the shoe in her hand.

The stranger sees this weapon and does not like it. The balance of power has shifted, he knows this. There has been an unexpected sea change. He was attracted by the smells of dinner and he thought that his jaunt through the kitchen would be an easy one, that he would collect his three or four crumbs into his basket and be gone before anyone so much as noticed. He has done this many times before, this is how he has survived and made his living.

“You son of a bitch,” my mother is saying and the tone of her voice frightens me and frightens the stranger, and his antennae begin to move this way and that, trying to map out the best possible escape route. And he moves away from my mother abruptly, quickly, his six footsteps patting out a rhythm across the counter, over a plate, and up the side of the Maxwell House Coffee can where he stops to survey the lay of the land, catch his breath, and gather his bearings.

And where we can observe him more closely. He is, to put it mildly, a behemoth. The subject of legends, of folklore. He stands nearly six inches, with antennae which add another six inches. We notice a scar running along one of his legs, from the knee down. When he looks, we can see where he is looking. We can make out the consternation on his face. A single bead of sweat breaks on his forehead and falls, plunking into the Maxwell House Coffee can.

“Where did I enter from?” He says to himself, angry at himself for having lost the way. “Where did I enter from? I was sure it was from over here!”

From where she stands, my mother raises the shoe like a gunman taking aim. The insect has no choice but to move, caught in the crosshairs. My mother raises the shoe higher. The insect moves more quickly, scurrying further along the counter, and then down into the sink, and then up the sink where he hangs upside down from the faucet.

“If I don’t move, perhaps she won’t see me here.” The thought of a delusional man. A man whose options are slowly running out.

And now my mother, having summoned her courage, begins to move toward him.

Once very late at night, well past midnight, my mother carried me in her arms home from the Clinton-Washington subway station in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. It’s the G line. She walked along a completely empty Dekalb Avenue and from nowhere a man suddenly appeared and stood in our way. I remember his face clearly. I was in my mother’s arms so I was at eye level with him, an odd perspective for a child so used to looking up toward adults, and I made eye contact with him. We looked at each other briefly. My mother stepped to her left and the man stepped to his right, blocking her. My mother stepped to her right and the man stepped to his left, blocking her again.

Now my mother and I are running across the wall, knowing that if we can make it to the cabinet we will find safety. Safety among the plates and cups and bowls. He’ll never find us in there, my mother whispers to me. We will be safe in there. We will hide ourselves in the maze of the dishes and we will wait and wait until he has exhausted himself from hunting for us and gives up. If it takes hours, we will wait for hours. If it takes days, we will wait for days. And when he has finally exhausted himself, bored himself and turned the light off and left the kitchen we will emerge and return home and pick up where we left off.

Reader, I have lied to you twice. I promised I would not bring my father into this description. But how could I avoid the obvious? Couldn’t we, my mother and I, have used him now? A strong, large man to set the world in order. He, no doubt, would have reasoned with my mother and the cockroach. He would have shown them that their oppression is the same oppression. He would have shown how the ruling class exploits my mother in the same way it exploits the insect. “They tell you that there is only supply enough for one of you,” he would explain in his emphatic accented English. “And in this way they pit the two of you against one another in order to drive down your wages and increase their profit. This is a historical fact. Marx has written extensively about it.” Perhaps he would even have some literature to give out. And in this clear reasoning of my father, the bug would see this, and understand. And my mother would see this, and understand. A sweet reconciliation between them would ensue. And then my father would be off, to save and educate the other workers.

But as I have said, my father is not present. This bloody task is up to my mother and my mother alone. And the bug passes by the bowl of beans, pausing ever so briefly. “My, that would have made for a nice snack,” it thinks wistfully, using that far off calm inner voice that one uses for thinking thoughts during the most inappropriate moments. And in this pause within a pause my mother finally, swiftly, brings the shoe down, catching the insect on its shell, knocking it off the counter and onto the floor where it lands on its back.

The pain ricochets through its body. It has felt pain before, but never pain like this. It knows the situation is dire. “I’m OK,” it thinks in the way you think when you have dislocated your shoulder or broken your leg, and you are trying to convince and comfort yourself that you have not dislocated your shoulder or broken your leg and that all you really need is a good night’s sleep and you’ll be as good as new in the morning. The psychologists have discovered that in times of duress we will often lie to ourselves and evade the lie simultaneously. “Here I go, you see,” the bug says to himself, “right back on my feet, you see, and right around the corner of the counter, to the oven, as I planned from the start.” But as it races toward the oven, it is unaware that now it is moving at half the speed it was before. And my mother, mercilessly, strikes the bug again. The pain again. Ricocheting again. Commingling with the former pain. Suddenly feeling numb, drowsy, wouldn’t it be nice to just sleep right here in the corner, curl up in the corner. Just a short pre-supper nap. But no! Now is not the time for sleep! I must continue or all is lost! But wouldn’t it be nice?

And my mother again, like a matador. And again. The sport suddenly cheapened for the pleasure of the lower classes.

The cockroach is still now, quiet. Resting on its back. It’s antennae involuntarily waving this way and that, still trying to pick up the good news, though there is no good news it can pick up that will do it any good. So this is how it will end, it thinks. Here on this cold linoleum floor in these fools’ apartment. There’s still so much I wanted to do with my life. I would have wished for a better parting. In the arms of my lover. With my children gathered around. Will they know of my death? Who will inform them? They will wait up tonight, hoping for me to return with the goodies that I promised. They will wait the next day and the next. And they will always wonder after me.

And my mother is sobbing now, great sobs shaking her body, tears and snot running down her face, the exhaustion that comes after the execution, the exhaustion of the hangman who weeps after the trapdoor has been pulled, the prolonged involvement leading to the condemned’s death has left him susceptible to his most vulnerable emotions. And my mother suddenly scoops me into her arms and sits down in the kitchen chair clutching me tightly. Her fingers digging into my back. Her body heaves, waves of grief, and I go up and down in those waves. The ocean’s moan in my ear. Tears for a lost family, poverty, uncertainty, tears for a distant, nonexistent husband. We sit there together, the three of us, she in the kitchen chair, I in her lap, the cockroach on the floor, fading away, it’s life slowly ebbing from its pores. The moments. My mother’s moments, my moments, the insect’s moments, all together in one moment. The deathwatch filling the room. The bug feeling no pain now. The contradiction: in great pain, no pain. My mother rocking back and forth, clutching me, I her teddy bear. The three of us all witnessing the cascading moment that is coming, coming, comes. And then passes. The antennae still. And the cockroach gone. My mother and I alone again. We will be the only living witnesses to what transpired in that night.