by Kareem Tayyar
What he knows of his grandmother would fit on the back of a baseball card, the kind he keeps stored in plastic cases to keep from bending, or getting smudged.
Her vital statistics:
Date of Birth—Unknown.
After all, her country of origin often neglected to issue birth certificates to infant girls throughout the first half of the 20th Century, which means that no one in his family knows if she was born in 1921, or 1924, or 1926.
Which means, also, that his father doesn’t know whether his mother was twelve years old when she gave birth to him, or fifteen, or seventeen.
Religious Affiliation: Muslim.
Although this tells him little about her relationship to her faith, other than being a reminder that, in the summer of 1986 when this story takes place, she is required to wear a chador anytime she goes out in public, and that, should even a strand of stray hair be visible, she is at risk of being thrown to the ground and having a gun put to her temple by a zealous policeman, which is exactly what happened to Anya, his grandmother’s next-door neighbor, two days into Ramadan the previous spring.
Number of Children: 4.
Three of whom Patrick has never met, even on the occasional long-distance telephone calls his father makes where, if his father has the rare good luck to get connected to an operator, he is instructed to be home at a particular time several hours from then when, God’s grace be willing, he will receive a call back from the person he would like to speak to.
Not that Patrick much minds that he has never spoken to any of his father’s siblings. They seem as unreal to him as E.T.’s fellow countrymen and women do to him whenever he catches the film on television, even though it is clear from E.T.’s enduring, unshakable loneliness that he longs for them the way the sultan who rides through the desert on horseback for seventy-seven days straight in his favorite parable longs for a cup of fresh water.
Number of Miscarriages: 2.
The first being the twin of Patrick’s father, who never made it to the second trimester, a term Patrick only understands within the context of school. Therefore, whenever he thinks about the brother his father never had, Patrick imagines him as the youngest elementary school dropout in human history.
The second being when his father’s father repeatedly kicked his wife while she was six months pregnant on a summer night much like this one, after Patrick’s grandfather, a man he has also never spoken to, and will never speak to, and hates with every fiber of his being, decided his wife was not being properly attentive to her household duties.
When she arrives at Los Angeles International Airport she is smaller than he had imagined she would be, and dressed in a bright-colored blouse and a dark, ankle-length skirt. Her hair, as short as his own, is a light brown, and he is both surprised and relieved to see that she is not wearing a hijab.
It is his first visit to the airport, and it feels like something out of another of his favorite science fiction films, the one where Harrison Ford polices Los Angeles in a flying car that does not seem to need gasoline to operate.
He wonders if his grandmother has seen this movie, or if she has ever heard of Harrison Ford, but he decides these are questions that do not need to be asked at this particular moment.
Not that there would have been time for such questions anyway. Once she has cleared customs, and she and her own son have exchanged hugs, she turns to Patrick and wraps him in a hug so tight that he will still remember what it felt like thirty-seven years later. In fact, he will never again be hugged as tightly, or for as long, as she hugs him in the International Terminal after having flown from Tehran to London, and then from London to Los Angeles.
A few weeks later, while sharing the steak kabobs his grandmother has fixed them for lunch, she will, with the help of the twenty or twenty-five English words she knows, explain to Patrick that when the plane took off it felt like it was going much too fast for it to ever slow down, and that she therefore expected them all to shoot into outer space.
A great idea for a movie, Patrick thinks to himself. He imagines Burt Reynolds in the lead role, a rugged pilot keeping the rest of the crew—and all of the passengers—calm as the plane speeds through the Milky Way at a few thousand miles an hour.
Maybe, in fact, the planet that Burt’s plane finally lands on happens to be E.T.’s home planet, and this time E.T. could be the one helping the humans return safely to Earth.
That night, sleeping beside his grandmother on the living room floor of the small apartment, he listens to her breathing and knows that he is more likely to travel into space than his father is to ever safely board a plane and return to Iran. After all, as far Patrick knows, there are no fatwas in space, no death lists, no secret police force intent on capturing enemies of the state.
The following week, after he and his grandmother have settled into a comfortable routine of early breakfasts, big lunches, and long walks through the neighborhood, Patrick, in the twenty or twenty-five Farsi words he knows, asks her if she would like to see the ocean. “The American one,” he clarifies, unsure if Iran has a sea of its own, and if it does, what it might be called. His father, always worried that his son not seem too Middle Eastern, has told him little about his own country, other than that it is governed by madmen in long beards who wish God were a soldier and believe laughter is something for heretics and infidels.
His grandmother nods enthusiastically, and, after disappearing into another room for a few minutes, the two of them walk the few blocks to the nearest bus stop and, fifteen minutes later, disembark on Main Street in Huntington Beach, the pier extending out from the shoreline like the skeleton of an ancient dinosaur.
As they approach the boardwalk women in bikinis of various colors walk, bike, and roller-skate past them, and shirtless men in often shoulder-length hair and sporting tattoos that sometimes cover entire portions of their arms and chests smoke cigarettes and wax surfboards and spike volleyballs and throw footballs.
His grandmother, squeezing his hand, displays the type of smile usually reserved for someone who has just won a large and unexpected sum of money at the horse track.
Unsure of whether or not she knows how to swim, Patrick figures the two of them will simply dip their toes into the water, but a few moments later she removes her blouse and her skirt to reveal the one-piece bathing suit she is wearing beneath. Quickly she dunks her entire body into the water, and when she emerges she begins to beckon him into the water as well.
They spend the next hour swimming, treading water, watching the seagulls, and marveling at the surfers. The sky is mostly blue, but also features a few touches of lavender. Men stand at the pier and cast their fishing lines out past the rails, while the coastline, full of so many people that it looks like a living quilt, stretches so far in both directions that he wonders how far a boy and an old woman would be able to swim before there was no more ocean left for them to swim in.
That wouldn’t work as a movie, he thinks to himself, as he turns back to look at his grandmother’s smiling, shining face. But it’s alright, he knows. Some things don’t have to.
*Title Photo by Jaime Campbell
Kareem Tayyar’s most recent collection, Keats in San Francisco & Other Poems, was published in 2022 by Lily Poetry Review Books.