Azadeh Fazli, age ten, youngest child of the Fazli family, announced at dinner one night that she was going to start saying ‘I love you’ as part of saying goodbye to members of her family.
“That’s what they do at Janie’s house,” she said. “It’s nice.”
Her mother frowned and her father roared. Her oldest brother, Pedram, who loved her and always defended her, stood up and walked around the room.
“What do you think we have been saying?” her mother said.
“I don’t know,” Azadeh said.
Her mother was about to respond when she saw Pedram looking at his sister with tears in his eyes.
“You don’t know?” he said. “You really don’t know? What about when we used to take you with us to Marymoor Park?”
“That was fun.”
“Let me tell you,” her father said, “Americans say this to each other from doubt. That’s all it is. Don’t worry yourself about it.”
“I’m not worried,” she said. “I’m just going to start saying it.”
Now her two other brothers, Houman and Peymon, also felt they could not sit and joined their brother in walking around the room.
“We used to take you with us to the park every time!” Peymon said.
“I know,” Azadeh said calmly.
Houman looked at his sister. A part of him understood her position but he felt loyal to his brothers and walked around the room with them.
To give words to a thing like that, her family thought. To give regular, ordinary words to it as part of an everyday routine. It was ridiculous. Didn’t she want one thing to be mystical? Didn’t she want one thing to be ever-present and invisible at once, to move through their house in the quiet undetectable way that the seasons changed until one day you looked outside and said, “Summer is gone. Now it is fall,” and you felt strong enough to hold both?
It was America that was telling her that this thing could be brought down to the level of human language, the same language that was employed when purchasing aspirin at the drug store or responding to a survey over the telephone. It was one thing if they were a family of poets. Maybe that would make some sense. But they were a mother and father who owned and operated a laundromat together, and they were three boys in school, in eleventh grade and ninth grade and seventh grade respectively, and they were each moving through a world of which love was certainly a part, but to throw it out to each other like that nakedly, carelessly, the way a young woman tossed out her laughter when she believed that she will always be young…why not say the whole thing then in the course of saying goodbye? Why not say, ‘I love you and I hate death and I miss our country and I am bitter toward some aspects of life while still being young and new to others?’ Why not like that? If the point was to turn the saying of goodbye into a poem, why not turn it into a real poem, encompassing all the joy and hardship of life, encompassing the unencompassable. Well, they knew why not. Because ultimately a person had to say goodbye and go to wherever they were going next. They couldn’t take the time for that whenever they left for the store. Anyway, ‘I love you’ was more fitting as a hello than as a goodbye. It was almost cowardly to say it and run. You were opening up a discussion—what am I? What are you? What is love?—and you were leaving the listener to carry the weight of that conversation on their own. They knew that according to the American formula, there was a simple solution, which was the listener saying, ‘I love you too.’ As if that answered anything. As if that didn’t open up more questions itself. Somehow these words were supposed to float out into the air between them and that was supposed to be the end of the story, and nobody had to dig into the meaning of the whole thing, or make even the slightest effort towards the realm of the poets, which they as mortals could at least try to touch.
“We should have discussed this sooner,” her father said morosely.
“We didn’t know,” her mother said.
One by one the boys stopped walking around the room and sat down and returned to their dinner, though without any appetite.
It dawned on each of them that whoever was the first family member that Azadeh said I love you to as part of her goodbye was going to be in a position to either confirm the new practice or not. It was a heavy responsibility. Somebody was going to be in a position to say yes, words spoken aloud could indeed explain and resolve this thing that was moving in and through and between and amongst them, as a regular practice, as a practice that said: I know this thing. It is not a surprise to me. I know it well enough to look down on it and use words to name it, just as well as I can look up at it with wonder and awe.
Azadeh sat eating her dinner contentedly.
Who would it be? They looked at each other in subtle glances, wondering who it would be and how they would approach it. It was already assumed that whoever it was, it would come out awkwardly. They had all been a witness to the casualness of I love you in American speech, which they looked upon now with a combination of envy and distaste. There was no question too that it would have to be spoken in English. ‘I love you’ did not move that way in Farsi. It did not lend itself to being easily shortened into a goodbye the way that Americans could drop the ‘I’ and sing a carefree ‘Love you’ to one another. It was either declared, seriously, with whole-hearted intent, or not.
Who would they become if they went down this road? Where did the limits lie? Would they all float off into some airy space where love was a happy little thing to say goodbye to people with? Azadeh’s mother and father thought of their parents in the old country, and apologized to them. This is how it is here, they said, love is something in the air, not in the dirt and roots underground.
Suddenly, Houman got up from the table. He looked at his family. “I’m going for a walk,” he said.
His family looked at him with shock and concern, except for Azadeh.
“Okay,” she said. “See you later. Love you.”
Something historical happened in the life of the family just then, and a people who had always believed that life could not withstand easy assertions of love, who had held silence as reverence, at least in this regard, saw one of their members look around and respond, “Love you too,” and, to their amazement, they saw that life had survived. They wiggled their fingers and toes to make sure. It was true: The unspeakable could be made spoken, and it could happen in motion, along the way of eating dinner or leaving to go for a walk, and yet none of them could argue with the fact that, as far as they could tell, each of them was still alive, still young to the world and old to it at once. They looked at each other and asked: Is this who we are now? Is love really ours to guard and keep in this way, and are we prepared for that role? How are we to understand our house now if the idea is that the people name their love as part of goodbye within this house but not without? Is there a line? Is there a line between ourselves and the world that was not there before?
There was a universe of questions, but along with that there was a joy and a surprise at seeing what the two youngest members of the Fazli family could do. It was a bit like when they had guests at their house and they asked Azadeh and Houman to play the piano and violin together for them. Nobody worried then if they would become concert musicians. They listened and felt glad for the music. Maybe it was like that, they thought. They couldn’t listen to a song and already be thinking of how it was going to end. They had to give themselves over to it.
Azadeh’s father looked at his daughter and laughed.
“They do this at Janie’s house?”
“Everybody says it to each other?”
He laughed. His laughter spread around the table.
“Love?” he said.
“It is funny,” he said. “It is funny to put it into words and to believe in putting it into words like this.”
Azadeh knew her father meant that it was funny in a way that he was willing to try.
“I may need some practice,” he said. “I have never said it while I have been doing something else. I have only ever said it while I have been saying it.”
“It’s the same thing,” Azadeh said.
“What if I am in another room? Do I have to come out of that room to say it?”
“No. You can yell it from the room you’re in.”
“What if I am in the bathroom?” her mother said.
“From the bathroom?”
“I would like to see this at Janie’s house myself,” her father said.
“I’m already telling you,” Azadeh said.
“They really yell it from the bathroom?”
“They say it from any room.”
“I would rather nobody say it to me from the bathroom,” her mother said. “I can try to do it too, but I don’t want anybody to say it to me from there.”
“That seems fair,” her father said. “If your mother is leaving the house while one of us is in the bathroom, that person can assume that she loves you.”
“That’s right,” her mother said.
Having seen that constructive negotiations were taking place as to the implementation of the practice initiated by his little sister, Houman remembered that he did not need to go for a walk just now and sat down at the table. Meanwhile the family continued talking, asking Azadeh about it, trying to figure out the details of the practice, which was either the death of love or the life of it or some combination of the two.
© Siamak Vossoughi
[This piece was selected by John Haggerty. Read Siamak’s interview]