Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Little Smiling Hooks

I didn’t know, when I first heard her valley girl giggle, that L’s face was rashed by acne from the stress of an impending arranged marriage. Or that sweet F, who hugged me fiercely the moment I met her and held my hand the way women do here, had stitches holding together the gash above her eye, earned three months ago when her husband introduced her face to the doorframe. These women, these laughing lovely girls who surround me; they’re all lying to me with their pretty smiles. There’s a tragedy dogging each.

Although many of them work at the office until quite late, and come in on weekends, S is always sent home promptly at 5:30 pm, lest she return yet another time with burns crawling up the fleshy soft her forearms. She is six months with a child, fathered by a man she hadn’t known. “I need Thursday off,” she sobbed one morning to her boss, last year. “Why is that?” “I have to get married.” He was a waiter in a local restaurant. She’d seen him once, dropping his parents off somewhere. At the wedding, the bride and groom stood in separate rooms and the mullah blessed them individually. Brought together after exchanging solo vows to an absent spouse, she was not to lift her head to look him in the eyes. Then the young girl and her groom are brought to a bedroom canopied by a sheet. The aunts and mother in law dance around the bed clapping and singing until the deed is done, this public rape consummated, and then, if she’s been quite a good girl, the blood-red banner of her bridal sheet will hang high with pride. Heaven help her if it glares white. She must be with child within a year.

One morning, N’s boss happened into the office Saturday morning to find her screaming wild with mad clumps of hair in her pulsing fists. Her husband, she hadn’t known him well, but he’d no sooner impregnated her than he ran off, like so many others, to find work in Moscow. For the last year and a half, she’d heard nothing. She’d grown large, delivered, mothered, while he found his new family in a new city. Finally he’d called, this Saturday, to let her know that he was done with her and the child he assumed she must have. They would divorce. She has not told her mother. The mothers beat worse than the husbands when a disgrace truly calls for it.

And the others, often the sole providers for an extended family, the only ones with the brains to land a western salary, they’re yanked from the job because these long hours are turning them into public unmarried disgraces.

It is worse for the women, but the men are not unscarred in this arrangement. S is gay, forced to take a bride and growling fiercely of how he will beat her, for the crime, one imagines, of his whole lot in life. Young, bright-eyed K thinks he will be allowed to choose his wife, but his brows crinkle with doubt.

Today is “Man’s Day,” as they call it, formerly Soviet Army Day. And so the girls all prepared a spread and stood back against the wall and smiled wide and thanked the men for protecting them. And even though I saw before me many good men, and young men too youthful to be the monsters haunting the private nightmares of these women, and men who are no happier for being on the top of this ugly totem, I found myself hating them all anyway. My heart’s tired of breaking today and it’s starting to spit an ugly snow.


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