At nine years old I decided to start an environmental group inspired by a book I’d checked out of the library. I called the group, “the florescent fire-flies” because I was kind of ghetto amazing. I found other kids my age, and more-or-less told them that they had to be part of my group, otherwise they would burst into flames when the ozone finally deteriorated which could be any moment.
When the kids were on my side, from either fear or my offering of Kool-Aid parties, I moved on to harassing city and government officials. My mother was too pre-occupied with the daycare center that she ran in our living room to really pay much attention to the whole thing. Though, she voiced some minor irritation for the post-it notes I’d left all over the house instructing everyone on how many squares of toilet paper they were allowed to use after going to the bathroom, and how long they were allowed to run the water in the kitchen every day. My step-dad at the time, Jack, was pretty supportive. He would drive me to the city council meetings, where I’d stand in front of the seated members and ask the council to increase fines and jail time for littering. “I demand littering fines to increase to five-thousand dollars and at least one month in jail!” The council members and city mayor were kind enough to hear me out without discouraging me too much. “Well, five-thousand-dollars seems a little high but we’ll discuss it amongst ourselves and see what we can do.” They’d say. I’d nod, gather by graphs and charts and exit the premises. I did this every time there was a council meeting, at least once per month.
On one particular day after I gave one of my usual speeches to the town council I was interviewed by a local newspaper. The reporter, a young woman, was completely convinced that the seeds of world-change had been planted by my democrat, tree-hugging parents. Little did she know. “My mother doesn’t like to read”, I told the reporter, “she likes cartoons”. The reporter dug deeper, “Maybe you got it from your father?” she asked. I shrugged. “I don’t really know him. I met him once when I was five. Haven’t seen him since.” The story of a ten year old activist ran in the newspaper a few days later. My mother, though uninterested in the environmental thing, was still proud that the newspaper had interviewed her fourth-grader. She called the entire family and cut the article out for my baby album. I was less interested in the newspaper article than I was in trying to understand why the reporter didn’t believe that I could think for myself.
Later in the week, as though summoned fourth by the reporter’s questions, my father resurfaced. My mother mentioned it in passing, the way someone might say, “brush your teeth,” or “don’t forget to make your bed tomorrow.” She was walking around the house one evening picking up a little when she paused and said, by the way, your father is coming to get you this weekend so you should get some stuff together. He’ll be here Friday after school. I’d spent my whole life as her daughter so I was pretty good at adapting to things in one way or another. You had to be good at adapting because she still believed in that old world of thought that children were basically expensive plants and there was no need to explain, consult, or ask them about feelings or anything else for that matter. I took most things in stride with little or no visible reaction.
However, I didn’t want anything to do with my father. I had no interest in knowing him and frankly the idea of being alone with some man that I didn’t know for a weekend scared the crap out of me. The next day I moved out of my mother’s house and moved into the small wood shed in our backyard while she was out. I didn’t think anyone would mind since I’d put all of the stuff from the shed under a big plastic tarp to keep everything dry. I built a fireplace in the shed with cinderblocks and Indian clay that I dug from our own backyard which left a massive crater in the center of the lawn which I subsequently filled with water and tadpoles. I even cut the chimney hole in the shed wall with power tools. Surprisingly, the chimney mostly worked though it was a little smoky. I dusted off my hands and moved my stuff in. I threw a mattress on the floor, a rocking chair in the corner that I’d borrowed from my mom’s living room, and I propped a flashlight up in the corner. Then I stocked up on canned stew, cute little pasta in alphabet shapes, and powdered sugar, all from the grocery store just up the street. I “accidentally” dropped most of the cans to get them for half price because I needed to save money now that I was on my own. I believed I could live off canned food entirely because I clearly knew little about nutrition or scurvy.
I put my groceries away on a shelf that used to hold the gas cans, and laid on my mattress staring at the cobwebs that decorated the ceiling feeling proud of my new home. I lived alone. This was MY house and nobody could make me do anything that I didn’t want to do. Unfortunately, I was not aware that property ownership meant more than “finder’s keepers” and my independence lasted less than 24 hours. After she came home she made me move back into the house and put the lawnmower, gas cans, and all of the other shed things back into the shed. I was told that I would be going with my father for the weekend in two days time.
Meeting ones father is a strange concept for most people. One doesn’t meet ones father, one just knows him, don’t they? My father was introduced like a creepy neighbor. I was forced, uninterested and slightly weary. Thanks to my mom I knew that a kind face could easily mask a fervor for homicide, an obsession with quilting and scrapbooking could easily hide a whole world of sin as you quickly learn growing up in Utah. The night before my father was coming to pick me up my mom made me watch a film to “prepare me” and obviously scare me to death. She popped a tape into our VCR and told me to sit down. The film was “Not Without My Daughter,” a film supposedly based on a true story about an Iranian man who takes his American family to “visit” Iran and then essentially kidnaps them and holds them hostage after turning into a total lunatic. After the film was over I sat wide-eyed staring at the credits and wondering why I was being forced to see this man. While I sat on the carpet of the living room with PTSD, my mom casually walked in, “Oh, it’s over all-ready? Anyways, your dad is a really nice person but this is your father’s people, so, you know, just like don’t get on a plane with him or whatever, okay? ”
Since the movie was the only recent “interaction” I’d had with an Iranian person, I assumed that they were all short, ugly men with bi-polor disorder, and a peculiar abhorrence for women’s hair which they kept out of sight for reasons I couldn’t understand. I didn’t want to see him before I’d watched the film, and after watching the film I was willing to do almost anything to avoid it. I was convinced that he would cover my hair with a cloth and kidnap me, then take me back to his country of origin and marry me off to one of my hairy teenage cousins.
The next day, Friday, I paced the length of the living room waiting for my father to arrive. My mother asked, “Why are you so nervous!?” I heard a car and peaked through the blinds to see a man behind the wheel of a black BMW. There was an intense panic percolating in my stomach that dissolved and disappeared as I went numb. The man stepped out of his car, and stood up straight and tall. He was a large man, tall, with broad shoulders and a muscular build. I vaguely recognized his dark olive skin and jet black hair as the man I’d met four years prior for one weekend. As he made his way to our front door his unibrow and chest hair came into view. He looked like a mix between an attractive count Dracula and a Silverback Gorilla. When he stepped inside the house after accepting my mother’s invitation it was difficult for me to greet him. His accent was strong and I couldn’t understand anything he said. At that time, I had a difficult time understanding anyone who didn’t speak Utah ghetto slang.
He hugged me and kissed my cheeks, as his culture and affectionate personality required. I didn’t like being touched by him, it felt invasive, and his stubble agitated my soft facial skin. The fact that I had his DNA meant nothing to me; he was just a strange man, from a strange place, who was overzealously attacking my cheeks with his big mauve lips. I scrunched up my face and glared at him. He barely talked with my mother and said less than five words to me before I was led outside to his luxury car and probably to my death. “Vee air going to meet-a vith your sister Chan-ayelle now. Is dat ok?” He asked. I stared at him wide eyed, straining to understand him but he kept substituting consonants for the wrong consonants and adding vowels where they didn’t belong. Was he speaking English? Something about a sister? Ah, that’s right! I had forgotten that I had sisters. I’d met them once before but I was too young to remember what they looked like or their names. As he turned on the car he seemed jolly and in good spirits. I guess for him he had been reunited with his long lost child, I, however, felt like I’d been sold out by my mother and carted off by some random, excessively hair man.
I sat in the front seat and tried to send SOS messages telepathically to my mom: please come outside and get me, please, which was completely useless because she was probably already downing her third margarita to celebrate her new freedom. I stared at the house as we backed out of the driveway. My nervousness was interrupted a moment later when my father began stadium level screaming in tongues into his brick size cell phone. Whatever he was speaking didn’t even seem real. He was possessed by demons or maybe he was in the mafia and this was the code language he used when trafficking herioin. “Det vas yair grandma back home in Iran.” He said when he hung up the phone. Back home? What am I going to do in Iran? Where is Iran? I have a grandma? How am I going to be a wildlife ranger in Iran? I was a hillbilly kid who had just found out that she was half immigrant and half ethnic which is probably as shocking as finding out that you were adopted, only slightly better because I could now qualify for “minority” loans. My entire world started to change.
For a long forty minute drive south my “dad” rambled on speaking in tongues, while I watched the scenery. Frankly, it was easier than it should have been to tune him out. My mom never left the teeny tiny town where we lived and I was glued to the window amazed by all of the landscape I’d been missing. Everything was beautiful and new and we were passing real cities like the ones I’d seen on T.V. I felt a sudden elation of belonging. I’d never felt comfortable around T.V. dinners, Lazy Boy reclining chairs, living in a bubble, or life being “good enough.” I’ve always wanted more and it seemed that “more” was presenting itself to me in the forms of genetics and legal obligations.
We pulled up to a house after driving for a while and a little girl of about five years old ran out of the house like a bullet and bounced into the back seat. “Hi daddy!” she said enthusiastically. “Hello baby. How’s my gill?” he asked. “I’m good!” she smiled, and then started eyeing me. “Who’s that? She asked. “Chanayle baby, dis is yair sister Misty, say hello to hair”. Her eyes grew huge, “I have another sister?!” she beamed. “COOL! Hi misty! I’m your sister Chanelle” she said. I smiled. It was weird but she kind of looked like me. I thought of how weird it would have been to have seen her in a mall one day and have someone point out that she looked like me, unknowing that I was related to her. Strange. My father’s interaction with her were natural, he was nice with her and clearly he hadn’t stolen her and fled to Iran so maybe he wasn’t so bad.
Another young girl, about my age with blue eyes and pale skin slowly walked out of the same house and quietly sat in the seat next to Chanelle. She closed the door, “Hi dad,” then to me “I’m Ericka”. I smiled, “I’m Misty” I replied. “I know who you are.” She said accusingly. I was confused why this sister didn’t look like me. She was pale, pale white with light hair and big light eyes. Then she answered my question, “Dad adopted me. I’m Chanelle’s blood sister, not yours”. I nodded then I remembered meeting her once and I remembered that her mother hated me. The car lurched forward and we were off. We sped along the freeway while Chanelle and Ericka argued in the back in true sisterly fashion. I watched the window, and my dad talked on his phone this time in broken English.
When we arrived to my father’s apartment my sisters took great interest in getting to know me, firing question upon question, while my father watched us over his cup of tea. “You look so-a Persian, just-a like your Ent” he said to me in his thick accent. Persian? What is Persian? Isn’t that a huge cat that looks like it ran it’s face into the side of a truck? I was something and I didn’t even know what it was. Apparently I was half cat. “You want to learn Farsi girl, I teach you da Farsi geyl” My father tried to explain all things Persian to me, that it was a huge empire, that stupid people messed up the country. That night my father cooked some “Persian stew” called Geymeh that smelled delicious but was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen. I’d never eaten anything ethnic other than Chinese and Mexican so I was a little slow to try it. While I pushed the brown food around in my bowl my new little sister, Chanelle, was scooping heaping spoons of it with greek yogurt into her mouth and smiling in between bites. Having them there, having “normal” people there, lubricated the transition, I felt more at ease. That night I had to grasp this massive concept that I didn’t have to just adapt to having a father and sisters, I also had to adapt to being someone else.
After dinner we watched movies together on the couch for the rest of the night, my father put his arms around us and kissed us on the cheeks every thirty minutes or so which kind of freaked me out. My mother is not the touchy affectionate type nor is she the “quality time” type. Suddenly on the couch it occurred to me that my life with my mother was the exact opposite of what life would be like with my father. I was a “free spirit” at home, I spent most of my time alone either collecting animals or coming up with some kind of get rich quick scheme. For the first time I felt different, strange, like I had been missing something. I remember sitting snuggled against my father, who I barely knew, while my little sister twirled my hair in her fingers, and my other sister whispered jokes to me under her breathe. I’d always felt loved by my mother but I didn’t necessarily feel close to her. She’d always been a great friend, I checked in with her, she gave me advice and told me I should probably do things but she wasn’t the type of mom I’d seen on T.V. She wasn’t the kind of person to take you to the movies or sit in the backyard with you examining insects, or to harp on you about your homework or brushing your teeth. Is this what things with my mother were supposed to be like?
The next day my father took us to breakfast before he dropped us off at the mall with his credit card. We were allowed to spend as much as we wanted, on whatever we wanted. I couldn’t grasp it. My mother was poor and we could only afford to go clothes shopping once per year right before the school year started,and even then there was a serious limit to what we could buy. But now, I could buy whatever I wanted. I kept thinking of that little girl Annie who went to live with that bald rich dude. The way I saw the situation was greatly exaggerated by the fact that I was a kid: I was a browner version of Annie, poor me, swept up from the white ghetto, from my broke mom, to this metropolitan apartment with my own brown version of daddy Warbucks. But this was genetic! It was so natural for Chanelle and Erika, who walked from store to store trying things on and trying to decide what to buy. I bought a pair of shoes. I couldn’t get myself to grab more than that, it seemed so incredibly wrong to be able to have stuff on a non-holiday. When my dad came back he said, “That’s all you got gerl?”
When I arrived back to my mom’s house after the weekend I walked inside and headed to my bedroom with my new shoes. My mother came into my room immediately, “He took you shopping?” She asked. I nodded. “Well, good, if he refuses to pay child support the least he can do is clothe you. Did you have fun?” I wasn’t sure how to respond. I didn’t want to admit that I enjoyed myself because I didn’t want to make her feel bad. My life had been completely flipped upside down. For the first time I was learning the other half of who I was which was both confusing and exciting but more than anything I was terrified. My mother, too impatient for my response, turned and walked away yelling behind her, “put your stuff away and come into the kitchen. I need to talk with you about Jack. We’re getting divorced.”
My step-father was gone almost immediately after and I hardly noticed. I was seeing my real dad on the occasional weekend and as it were my mind could only handle one father-figure at a time. It was enough to grasp a new identity, a new family, and the many trials and tribulations that came with it. There were new expectations, new places, broader horizons, and new standards and ways of conducting oneself. In a sense I wasn’t adapting necessarily, I was still the same me that I ever was when I was with my mother though I was developing a different self in response to my father. I was becoming two halves from two clashing worlds .