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The One

Leslie Lisbona 

We chant as we march, “Women, life, freedom!” The protests started on Broadway and snaked onto 42nd. People around us are chanting in Farsi, too. I want to join them; I want to know what they are saying. I walk between my two sons, my hair tucked into my hat, their hair peeking out from the hoods of their jackets. They tower over me protectively. Their dad, my husband, Val, is in New Jersey caring for his father. He will join me later in the city for dinner.


I met Val in 1992 when he was a pharmacy student at St. John’s in Queens. We were at a party hosted  by my friend, who was his classmate. I almost didn’t go to this party. I had tickets to a concert but the hostess insisted I stop by. From across the room, he looked foreign to me, perhaps French or Italian, with his well-fitting clothing and his dark silky hair, slightly longer than most of the other men.


He came over to talk to me and my best friend, Claudia. I was mistaken: He sounded and acted all American. Despite this, Claudia thought he was my type, and she knew me better than anyone.


The next day, Val got my number from the hostess and asked me out. I said that I was kind of

dating someone long distance. Val was Muslim, I was Jewish. It would be too complicated. Besides, he was two-and-a-half years younger than me. So we became friends. Every now and then he would ask why I wouldn’t be his girlfriend. He didn’t check any of my boxes, even though I liked his hair, his olive skin and full lips, his porcelain features, his body. He liked to show off his muscles in tank tops under his leather motorcycle jacket even when it was 20 degrees outside.


He reminded me of Joey from Friends. He made me laugh, sometimes using the wrong word.


Val is from Tehran. He came to the United States via a three-year layover in Paris and arrived in New Jersey when he was 18, a senior in high school. Back then he was Vahid until someone called him Val by accident and he legally changed his name.


We had a beach trip planned. The friend who was the hostess at the party never showed up at the airport.  Val and I boarded the plane without her, hoping there wouldn’t be any awkwardness. At this point we had known each other for four years. One night at the beach, he took my hand and asked me why we couldn’t be together. I had no answer. He kissed me. It was electric and warm and soft, so I kissed him back. Six months later he proposed. Within the year we were married at the Puck Building in Soho.  At the wedding, I hated my updo. In the privacy of a hallway, he helped me take it down, dislodging hidden bobby pins. I shook out my hair, feeling like me again, and he gathered it up in his hands and kissed me.


The first two years of marriage were an extension of our honeymoon. We got an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, wandered along 9th Avenue hand-in-hand every night after work and marveled at how this part of New York was still gritty and ungentrified. When Aaron was born, there was a shift: Our backgrounds and religions became more important, and we started ever so slightly to take positions. 


By the time our second child, Oliver, was five months old, we were polarized, not speaking. We could no longer stand each other. At that time we were living in Queens, on the 20th floor of a tall building. We agreed that he should leave until we could figure out what to do. I watched him pack a suitcase and walk out the door of our apartment. I couldn’t afford the place on my own, and money quickly became an issue. We got lawyers, went into debt, filed for divorce.


I saw him for pick-ups and drop-offs and the occasional day in divorce or family court. In this way, four more years passed and we became settled in our separate lives. But when Aaron lost his first tooth, I wanted to call him. And when Oliver said something funny, again I wanted to reach for the phone.


One day when Val dropped the boys off at my doorstep, Oliver asked him to help build a toy that was a track for electric trains and a twirling helicopter. Val squatted in the doorway and looked at the instructions. I opened the box and spilled the contents at his feet. It took us some time, but both of us assembled it in that doorway as Oliver climbed around our legs. Aaron joined us, making the pieces fit until it was finished. We put in the batteries and switched it on. Then we watched the boys gaze at this incredible toy. Val smiled at me and kissed them goodnight. I tried not to stare. I watched him walk all the way to the elevator and finally closed my apartment door.


Once our divorce was signed and official, we no longer had anything to fight about. We were just Val and Leslie, once great friends with children we were both crazy about. I found myself putting on lip gloss, nice earrings and a splash of perfume before I ran down to the lobby to deliver or collect the kids. He had them every other weekend and every Wednesday night for dinner. One Wednesday evening, as I brought the kids to his car, he asked me to come along. 


After that I joined my family every week. I saved up all the stories about the boys for those dinners. We laughed a lot, and we couldn’t take our eyes off each other. The ink was hardly dry on our divorce papers. My longing embarrassed me. 


A few weeks later, when Oliver turned four, I invited Val inside the apartment for cake. We sang happy birthday, and I couldn’t help but steal glances at him. I was happy he was there. I was more than happy. Soon he said he had to leave if he was going to get home in time to catch the season premiere of The Sopranos. It was a show we had watched and loved when we were together. I suggested that he stay and watch it with me. I put the boys to bed. Val and I sat on the brown couch we had bought at Crate and Barrel when we were in love, and I knew I wanted him back. He knew, too.


After two months, he moved back to our apartment. It wasn’t long before we bought a house together in Westchester and remarried on a Sunday morning in our living room. Our boys, then ages six and nine, were our only witnesses. Oliver snapped pictures with my digital camera.


Still walking on 42nd, keeping stride with the throng, Aaron shows me the video of Mahsa Amini, the woman who was arrested in Iran by the morality police for not covering her hair. In the video, she collapses and dies. I put my hand to my mouth and slow my pace. My boys lead me along so we won’t lose our spot. Oliver slips an AirPod into my ear so I can listen to Baraye, the song that galvanized the women's movement in Iran after Mahsa’s death. I Google the lyrics in English to find their meaning, wishing I could sing along in Farsi. Baraye means “for,” a simple word followed by all the ills of the people of Iran. It ends with “For women, life, freedom. For freedom.”


Val has never returned to Iran. I read a book that took place in Isfahan and fantasized about wandering the streets of that city. But every time Val brings up going to Iran, I say I don’t want to cover my hair, or if I’m being mean, I say I don’t want to wear a burka. 


Val and I went to Paris last September. It was just the two of us feeling like us again. The Louvre was packed. We saw the Mona Lisa and were unimpressed, too bothered by the crowds. Val said he wanted to go to the Middle Eastern wing. I looked at the map for room 302. My feet were killing me, and all I wanted was to sit down. After many wrong turns, directions from guards, quiet corridors that led to other corridors and at least 20 minutes of walking, we found it.


The room put us in the city of Shushan, where Queen Esther had saved the Jews from annihilation. Tall carved stones of five-legged winged Assyrian bulls with human heads guarded a palace that I had to use my imagination to see. There were columns and friezes of archers and lions from the palace of Darius, the emperor of Iran. And the black stone pillar with the Code of Hammurabi, which was the law of the land, famous for an-eye-for-an-eye justice. Among the 282 laws listed, I noticed that the punishment for a woman committing adultery was death. There were no other people there, our own private viewing. A room I never would have found without Val.


Now, at the march, Aaron and Oliver continue to flank me as we make a left up Madison Avenue. I say, “I want to learn Farsi,” and both boys say they want that, too. We Facetime with Val and his parents; we want them to see where we are. They are jubilant, even though my father-in-law has cancer that will kill him in two months.


It’s freezing for November. We take a picture with my phone and break off from the crowd. Aaron and Oliver have plans with their friends, and I head downtown to meet Val at Ravagh for some Persian food. It is a long walk, and my eyes tear from the wind. I zigzag my way across avenues, duck into stores to warm up a little and kill some time till he makes his way across the tunnel. When I get there, he is waiting for me at the entrance. He holds me close and smiles. In his arms I am finally warm. I take off my hat and let my hair fall to my shoulders. “Let’s eat,” he says. 

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