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Forty-Eight Steps

I come home and I don’t let on that I’m late. I come home and like a good mother I prepare dinner, set the table, feed them, wash the dishes, put the children to bed, and sit on the sofa with the man who is my housemate. I look at him. He is my children’s father, with salt-and- pepper hair and a haggard face. I never got to know him, never figured out who he is. I look at his tired hands covered with cuts, at his lips that have turned dark from all the cigarettes he smokes, and at his weary eyes that remain fixed on the television screen.

I want to forget today; every moment of it. I close my eyes. I lean my head back against the wall. I know he is not looking at me. I know he doesn’t care what I am thinking about. We both know this indifference well. I have nothing to say to him. Our conversations have been reduced to hellos and good-byes; except some nights when I hear his whisper close to my ear and that too sounds unfamiliar. Without a word, I get up, pass by him and go to the bedroom. I lie down on the bed. I close my eyes. I want to forget today, but I can’t, not a single moment of it . . .

A fine snow is falling and the air is foggy. Like every weekday, I’ve come to the office, but I don’t have the energy to work. My hands ache. I need to rest. I have no patience for this desk and this workplace. I find an excuse to take the day off and go back home. But instead of home, I arrive at a faraway café. A café whose name I don’t even know. It’s old and empty. There is no one here except the old woman serving coffee. I sit at one of the tables next to the window. I’m cold. I shiver. I wring my hands and order a coffee. Waiting for it to be prepared, I think about how my children have grown. The scent of coffee wafts through the café. I massage my hands. The joints are so swollen! I can no longer take off my wedding ring. I’m getting old; I’m not the way I used to be. I hear the delicate clinking of a coffee cup against a saucer. I look outside. The snowflakes are hurling themselves to the ground more briskly. They seem happy that the earth is turning white. But I’m cold. I’m not wearing warm clothes. I’m dressed in an old worn-out cardigan that will quickly get wet in this snow. The old thickset woman comes toward me. There is no smile on her lips and her disheveled silver hair has escaped her pink headscarf. She puts the cup of coffee in front of me and returns to her place behind the counter. The steam rising from the cup warms me. It’s a pleasant feeling that—

The café door opens. A man walks in. From behind the counter, with a familiar smile, the old woman says hello in Armenian—“Barev.” The man nods. He walks past me and stops a few tables away. I can’t see his face in the dim light. He takes off his coat, shakes off the snow and puts it on the chair next to him. He sits down. Without asking, the old woman gets busy brewing. The scent of coffee wafts through the café. My hands ache. I massage them. The man lights a cigarette. It smells so familiar. I take a sip of coffee. My gaze turns to the street and then to the man who has faded away in cigarette smoke. I rest my forehead on the table. I want to end it all; the ache in my hands, the exhaustion, the loneliness. But there is no end to any of it. I raise my head. The man has finished his coffee. He looks at me. I don’t see his face, just the glint in his eyes. He puts money for the coffee on the table, takes his coat from the chair next to him and puts it on. He slowly walks past me. He opens the café door and steps onto the snow-covered ground. He stops. He turns back. He looks at me. Should I have gotten up? I get up. I put money for the coffee on the table. I don’t care about the old woman’s curious looks. I open the café door. I walk out onto the snowy street and toward the man. He sets off, a few steps ahead of me. I follow him. It’s an empty street with four alleys. He turns onto the second one, a dark narrow alley. He walks toward the building at the far end. He takes a key out of his pocket. The old door opens with a groan. He steps aside. I walk in first.

He says, “Top floor.”

What a strange voice, or perhaps what a familiar one. We climb up forty-eight steps. A door with faded paint that was once blue is in front of me. And now . . . he opens the door. The blue flames of the heater cast the only light in the room. He turns on a lamp. Books are the first things that catch my eyes. On the floor, on the table, even on the bentwood chairs there are stacks of books. There’s an ashtray full of cigarette butts, and a few sheets of ink-stained paper are scattered on the floor.

I look at him. He says nothing. His eyes quiver like a pair of black marbles. He walks over to the only other room in his home. I follow him. Other than a bed and a pink floor lamp, the room is crowded with books, papers, photographs, and magazines. I take off my faded cardigan. He looks at me. I look at him. Have I never seen him before? No, he is not a stranger. It seems he is my man who has come from distant years. He has black hair and a fresh young face, hands that are slender and full of vigor, red lips that tremble, and bright captivating eyes that gaze at my face. I must be young; intense passion, a scorching energy, ripples in me. I want all the ice inside me to melt. I want him to take me in his arms, he does, I grow warm, I no longer shiver . . .

It was past ten o’clock when I left that apartment and walked down those forty-eight steps. The darkness of night led me from that deserted narrow alley toward my home.

I come home and I don’t let on that I’m late. I close my eyes and I try to . . . I try to forget today.

"چهل و هشــت پلـــــــه" © Paxima Majavezi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Sara Khalili. All rights reserved.