Today's Reading

We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time. — T. S. Eliot, from "Little Gidding"

Tehran, April 2014

Zod marked time by the postman's arrival, usually by four p.m., quarter past at the latest, except on Fridays when he didn't come at all. Friday was the day of rest, when if anything, Zod grew more restless with every rigid minute ticking by. Waiting for the mail on Saturday, he spent the last hour watching the clock, and at half past three, he stood up to look out the window with his hands in his trouser pockets. A breeze sent flurries of wisteria into the courtyard. The trees had sprouted new leaves. You would never believe how lifeless they had been just a few weeks before, their splayed branches bare and brooding. Now it was April, true spring, each day warmer than the last, each bud becoming a frilly blossom. He observed a family of finches nesting in the eaves, touching down to pick up a suitable stick and then off again in busy bouncing flight.

Except for this pause in the afternoon, Zod didn't have much time to watch the world. Naneh Goli came in from hanging the wash to stand beside him, nudging in mock reproach for here he was again. "What on earth are you waiting for?" as if he didn't stand there every afternoon expecting the faint drone of the mail scooter and the puffs of dust from the alley. He pushed away from the ledge and crossed the hall to go outside, leaving his jacket on the peg and the old woman framed in the window.

Already he felt light-footed, less pain in his joints when he tested the first step with one shoe. He considered leaving his cane, but Naneh Goli was watching him and Zod didn't want to hear her fair warnings. Sometimes he deliberately prolonged the short walk to the garden gate, pausing to examine a chipped tile or tuck away the loose tendrils of jasmine curling forward from the brick wall. How far was the carrier from him now? Had he reached the traffic circle? It was best to approach the gate just when he arrived so as not to seem too anxious.

Letters from America took sometimes two to three weeks to arrive, and there had been no post at all the past month. Noor still wrote to her father and he kept her letters neatly bundled in his dresser drawer. Letters that lately spoke of nothing much at all except domestic matters, but it wasn't so much the content anymore as it was the thread that reassured him, that drew him into her life. A silence this long was unusual and he was afraid that something had happened. Children didn't even answer their telephones anymore and Zod couldn't stand speaking into the hollow space after hearing their recorded greetings. He still preferred a penned note. It must be today, please let it be today.

Yet whether a letter came or not, Zod greeted the postman with a warm smile. And today, when the carrier said, "I have something for you," Zod took the envelope from his hand and folded it into his pocket in a casual way and continued to exchange pleasantries, as if the man could be deceived into thinking that the envelope from America wasn't from Zod's daughter, as if it were a utility bill, as if his restless thumb wasn't twitching to part the glue. All in a moment, the waiting gave way to joy. The letter came alive in his grip, pulling him at once into two worlds: one on the threshold of Café Leila, where every day he listened for the sound of a motor drawing near, and another world in his pocket, with his children, where he had to curb a desire to run, to shout, to draw out the paper and wave it to and fro.

Chapter One

Noor stood at the sink with her sleeves rolled up peeling yellow potatoes and dropping them into a water bath. The long blade of her knife, sharpened without a scratch, gleamed on the chopping board. Her father believed that anything cut with a knife is tastier than mauling it in a food processor, so even in her modern San Francisco kitchen, she didn't own one and took special care of her knives. She liked to use her black cast-iron skillet to cook the onions with crumbled sage from the dried bouquets above her stove, cooking them in oil until they were quite tender before adding the sliced potatoes. Already the onions' sweetness wafted through the house, settling into the linens. She knew that her daughter would not like the pungent smell, so she closed her bedroom door and opened the tall windows to the cool morning air and the sound of a faraway lawn mower.

Most of her recipes came from her father, but Noor learned how to make the luscious potato cake from Nelson's mother. The recipe her mother-in-law had whispered into Noor's ear was the authentic one used by Nelson's great-grandmother. In its own unpresumptuous way, the Spanish Tortilla is an honest love omelet, and every bite must be suffused with fragrant olive oil—in this case, too much of a good thing is not a sin. Even when Noor was an amateur and the potatoes were sometimes raw, Nelson would say, "Oh my God! That was the best tortilla of my whole life!" Which of course wasn't true, but he was acknowledging the effort of peeling and slicing immense quantities of potatoes.

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