71. Recognition

AFTER TWENTY-THREE YEARS, I have seen him twice in the past week. Last Thursday it was at the swimming pool. It was late in the afternoon, and as I stood at one end, stretching my shoulders, warming up for my occasional evening swim, he walked past me. He walked right past me, his big hairy belly billowing out in front of him, his skin a happy brown. I could almost count the silver hairs on his back, he was that close. Thankfully I was wearing goggles and a swimming cap. Unrecognizable. He held a small child by the hand – his child or grandchild, perhaps. Is this his first family that has migrated with him, or is it a new, second family with no connection to the past? Somehow, despite my astonishment, I kept on stretching my shoulders. He just dawdled past without seeing me, although I saw him, I saw rather more of him than I cared to – the cigarette burns on his back, the limp. After he had disappeared into the shower with the child, I found the nearest bench and started dry retching. That night, I had a dream about him, and then again every night since. He is always naked in my dreams – not in the body I saw at the pool, the happy, family flesh, but with the thin, shivering, naked body I remember so intimately from all those years ago. Today’s meeting was less fortunate. I was at the supermarket – at the deli counter, studying the olives and waiting to be served with the number sixty-two on a piece of paper in my fingers, when I heard his voice. I froze. Perhaps because I have been dreaming of him every night for a week, I recognized it right away, even though it was now speaking English. Still, the accent was unmistakable. The voice itself was the same voice, only 23 years older: gravelly, deep, smooth, self-assured. Of course, under sustained interrogation over a period of several weeks without sleep, even the smoothest, most self-assured voice loses its smoothness and self-assurance. But he had held out longer than most - he stands out in my mind as one of the hardier ones. And when he had talked he had given us only little names, effectively wasting our time. It's a wonder he survived. I was instantly frozen by dread: I didn’t want him to see me. Only this time there were no goggles or swimming cap to hide behind, and he was standing no more than two metres away. He ordered chorizo and feta. I kept still, pretending to continue studying the olives – I must have appeared hypnotised by the olives, but in fact I was looking for his reflection in the glass of the deli counter. It showed a big bellied man standing nearby, but the glass was convex, and his image was distorted, his belly bulging out cartoonishly... It was impossible to be sure, as my mother later said when I returned home, but I knew it was him. The server gave him his chorizo and cheese and asked if that would be all. I had a sense of him shifting his attention sideways and looking in my direction. He replied he also wanted some olives, and took a step in my direction, then another. The kalamatas, he added. A small tub. I could smell cigarette smoke on him. Although his back was pockmarked with the scars of entire packets of cigarettes stubbed out on his skin by me and Mastoureh and Choman and all the other so-called revolutionaries who'd tortured the regime's henchmen in the name of the people. And yet more than twenty years later here he was in the suburbs, with a new family, still smoking. Pitted or unpitted?, the server asked, holding a ladle that hovered expectantly over the olives. He passed so close to me I felt his shirt brush my arm as he passed and approached the counter. Pardon me, he said, turning to look at me. Yes, yes, I said, although my gaze did not waiver from the olives. From the corner of my eye I saw his face pause an instant on my own, before the server repeated the question, Sir, would you like the olives pitted or unpitted? Now the both of us were frozen, my gaze fixed on the olives, and his on me. Eventually, I can’t say how long it took - even now my memory is stretching the moment into infinity - he replied, Oh, pitted, I think. Yes, pitted. He snapped out of his dream, or his nightmare, if you prefer, and took the tub of olives from the server and limped away, leaving me in mine. In the convex glass I watched his reflection retreat. The server yelled out my number, but I was suddenly unable to move. I was frozen in that posture for some time, although I can’t say precisely how long. When I finally came to, I left my shopping there and, taking particular care to avoid him on my way out (no sign of him), I ran to my car and raced home, packed my bags, kissed mother goodbye and caught a cab to the airport.