Elizabeth Taylor is Frightened
By Nahid Keshavarz
Translator – Khashayar Mohammadi
She has dyed her sparse bangs black, obsessively combing them together. Her full, shapely lips-accentuated by the red lip & cheek rouge on her pale skin- makes her attractive in her seventies. Her plump body appears curvaceous under the loose, black robe. When she laughs two dimples appear on her cheeks and her eyes close. She laughs out loud from the bottom of her heart. I have known her for years. When she came for her paperwork twenty years ago, Her beauty showed. She was always energetic and full of life, as she entered her laughter-which she always had a reason to let out-filled the corridor. Whenever I saw her she reminded me of someone famous, someone I couldn’t quite place.
She was fluent in French but she adamantly tried to learn German as well; but since she didn’t have much time to learn the language, she began working right away. Her graciousness in customer service made her quite the celebrity. She conducted herself with a certain dignity and poise. She strictly followed hidden codes of conduct and appearance and always claimed that one should always be courteous. We’ve fallen off the horse, not off our heritage!* I had not heard of her for years, until she visited once again a few weeks ago.
“I don’t want to move houses, I can’t live in a smaller house, I’ll get depressed! Also what should I do with my belongings? They won’t all fit in a smaller house! Forget it if you think I’ll part with them! I’ve done it once in my life I won’t do it again!”
After her husband’s death last year she must relocate to a smaller house where the government will pay her rent. After a few hours of convincing her to move goes nowhere, we plan to meet at her house where I’ll help her look through her belongings and re-consider what she can keep. Its hard work to convince someone to part with what they love.
She lives on the ground floor of a 3 story building. She has a small garden where she has planted multicolored flowers and on a corner even some mint and basil, two white chairs with a round table covered with a colorful tablecloth and an ashtray on top. Next to it is a pack of cigarettes and a long cigarette stick.
Her two rooms are rather large and see much sunlight in warm, sunny April. The rooms are filled with furniture bought second-hand from antique stores, yet they all seem to go together well. She has tastefully arranged them next to each other. Her house appears quite French in style. Her tables are covered with embroidered lace and the paintings are mostly Parisienne landscapes. A colorful silk rug is centered in the room, around which the green silk chairs have paled throughout the years. The candlelight makes the house quite welcoming in daylight. The kind of house where one feels safe and sound, a place where no one’s in a hurry to leave.
“I must take this vase with me. I bought it from an antique shop on a trip to France, look at it!”
She grabs and caresses the vase. She closes the eyes as if to commit it to memory.
“I don’t want the glasses, I want the teacups and oh that chest must also stay, the drawers…”
She walks around the house pointing to her belongings. Her voice is full of conviction.
I say: “let’s sit. This way we won’t get anywhere”
I don’t know how to ask, but I want to know why its so hard for her to part with her belongings. Perhaps its out of spite, since I’ve volunteered to do something no one has asked me to do. Today the weather was so nice, I’d rather been outside walking around. Without thinking I blurt out:
“I know its hard to part with these belongings, but what bothers you most about doing so?”
She looks at me with tears filling her eyes and says:
“I’m frightened. I’m scared I’ll die after I get rid of them. I’m afraid of dying, very much so. I don’t believe in the afterlife or reincarnation. I wish I did. That way I wouldn’t believe I’ll be gone”
Suddenly she locks eyes with me and says: “aren’t you afraid?”
Her question stops me in my tracks. My stomach begins to churn. She doesn’t wait for an answer.
“I’m afraid to die in exile, that after death I won’t stay in anyone’s mind. I visited my husband’s grave after his death. Every single day for months. When I was there I wanted to leave and stay far away, to return to the world of the living. I’m not ready for death yet. I only went there out of a sense of duty but I know no one will visit me after my death. I don’t want my cadaver to return to Iran either. I’ve grown resentful towards Iran. I’ve spent the best years of my life far away from it, the best years of my youth when I wished to be there. Why should I return after death? I wanted to live there, not die there.”
I begin to think a new chapter has begun in the life of immigrants: the concept of death in exile. I extend my sleeves and make a fist under the cloth, an old habit from childhood. The thought of Death fills my mind.
“Most nights I have nightmares. I dream I’m dead but no one comes for me.”
She asked again: “aren’t you afraid of death?”
I don’t remember when she put a cigarette on her long cigarette stick, but she’s exhaling smoke in little rings, locking eyes with me, waiting for a response. I remember my own nightmares and say:
“of course, I think of death too. Everyone thinks about death sometimes. The fear of death follows one all life long. Each person finds their own way to cope”
She says quite authoritatively: “sure I know all that but aren’t you scared?”
I extend my sleeves further down and say: “yes I am also afraid.” But then continue to say, as if warding off fear:
“I believe death is similar in nature to the pre-natal state. One does not process it mentally, so there’s no reason to be afraid.”
She’s lounging on her antique furniture. Her head rests on a lace napkin ring crowning the top of the chair. She gets up all of a sudden, runs her hands through her hair, gives it a bit of structure, and snaps open an antique fan with a depiction of flamenco dancers. She fans herself and says:
“They say a human being can stare at neither the sun nor death. I believe its time to stare at it, death I mean, but I’m afraid. I always thought I’d live a thousand years, so I postponed everything I loved to do, postponed them all to don’t-know-when, didn’t take my sorrow seriously. My sorrows and more than anything my dreams. I covered them all. You know I read a lot. I love reading. One time I read this one book about an alcoholic woman; I don’t remember the name quite well, I must have read it forty years ago, but I remember a sentence that said ‘as a child whenever I fell down my mother said don’t cry now. Cry tomorrow’ I have also always postponed my tears to the next day, but the pain piled up in my heart. I’m afraid of dying, having never cried for them.”
I have a good feeling in her house. I feel a certain kinship, as if I’ve been here before. Not the space, but the feeling is familiar. Death lingers amidst the sense of intimacy. I ask:
“do you wish to continue living as you have for eternity?”
She asks: “Like this? Without any change?”
Before I answer, I think to myself if I’m ready, and as if I’m trying to cement it in my own mind I ask:
“like this. Without change.”
Her face changes, she grows distant. Her gaze lingers on the window across from us. We both remain silent for a while. She gets up and goes to the kitchen, and from the Samovar, she pours a single cup of tea which she places in front of me, but she is elsewhere. She repeats to herself “the same life? Without change?” then raises her voice, and without looking at me says:
“No I don’t. Of course I don’t. What kind of life was it till now that I want it to repeat itself. It was all dreams, gone with the wind. All withheld proclamations. All roleplaying, acting, forced laughter. No I don’t want to live like this. I haven’t lived, that’s why I’ve always wanted to live one day. To start living one given day. I have always been a traveler here. We’ve always claimed our roots were elsewhere. Our roots neither grew there nor here. I don’t know why death is so hard in exile. I always thought it was hard for a happy person to die, but it appears to be the opposite.”
I get up to close the window. Its raining hard outside. The candlelight is beginning to show. I find a reason to stay a while longer. I think I also don’t want to repeat the past.
I look towards her as she laughs out loud. Her eyes are sparkling. She gestures towards me and says: “ok its enough we talked a lot about death! I’ll think of something to do with this stuff, I still have time.”
She puts another cigarette on the cigarette stick and asks: “by the way, do you know Elizabeth Taylor?”
I finally realize how much she resembles Elizabeth Taylor.
Nahid Keshavarz is a graduate of journalism school in Tehran. She has been living in Koln, Germany for more than thirty years. For fourteen years she has been manager of Refugee and Immigrant affairs in city of Koln.
She has passed courses in psychoanalysis and works as a psychoanalyst part time. Nahid is an active writer and her articles have been published on various portals and websites. She has also published four novels, one of which has been translated into German. Her fifth book is a work in progress and is scheduled for publication soon.