Reading off the pain
Lesson 1: Ugly is just a useless adjective
The strong wind was blowing in my face as I walked towards her apartment and was reminded that November was here. I wasn’t really sure why I was heading to my former teacher, Sheyla’s apartment; was it because I loved her?; or maybe I felt sorry for Sheyla?; or this just seemed to be a very good reason to make some time to actually read books (I always find excuses to leave books on my shelf for months)..I can’t tell.
The last time I saw Sheyla was in summer 2012. That day I hardly stopped myself from bursting into tears. Several years before that my teacher had to go through a risky surgery that she has not been able to recover from since then. Although she seemed to be improving, her skinny physique, severe stuttering, and inability to walk without help were shockingly destructive to the woman I used to know who taught me life. And when I say that I really mean it.
On my way to Sheyla’s apartment I saw a teenage couple hiding and making out passionately in an underground passage. As soon as they saw me they stopped kissing and seemed to be embarrassed. I felt uncomfortable, too but was in my head trying to remember the gate code to enter Sheyla’s building. When I got to the building, I realized that I couldn’t recall the code, so I had to phone Sheyla to get in. She mumbled the number sixty. My dad is sixty years old. And it always terrifies me to realize that my parents are ageing so fast and what my life would be like without them.
As I got to Sheyla’s apartment door and rang the bell, I heard a Russian woman say, “Eee-dooo [Иду]” (in translation from Russian, ‘coming’], and was puzzled whether I was at the right door. I was sure that it had to be the right apartment but wondered whether certain things have changed since I last visited my teacher. As the door opened I saw an archetypal Russian woman with blue eyes and blonde hair in her 60's. ‘What is this lady doing here?’, I said to myself. She guided me to the living room where Sheyla was sitting on the couch waiting for me. Before she had a chance to explain who this Russian lady was I couldn’t mask my shock after seeing Sheyla’s badly bruised face. She warned me over the phone that she tripped in the bathroom and fell on her face on the ground and as a result, had a dark purple under-eye bag and a swollen cheek. But after seeing what had happened to her slender face, I suspected something more horrific than just an innocent fall. Sheyla assured me that it was just a fall:
“Abbas, I’m so sorry, it was my fault that I decided to go to the bathroom on my own and fell on the ground. I’m so sorry, I know I look very ugly right now.”
I held her hand and looked her in the eyes to express how much I loved her. The fall made her feel guilty for something that I didn’t quite understand. Sheyla felt beholden for inconveniencing others and her way of processing this burden was to further disparage herself. As I looked into her sorrowful eyes, I came to realize that ugly was just a useless adjective. I hugged my teacher and to change the topic, asked her about the mysterious Russian lady.
Sheyla introduced me to Olga, the Russian lady that her husband Boghraj hired to look after Sheyla while he was away. As I sat down next to my teacher, Olga offered me a cup of tea and candies. You can never say no to tea and sweets in Azerbaijan. Soon after that, Olga asked Sheyla whether she could leave early, since my teacher and I were getting ready to start reading for a few hours. I could see the excitement in Sheyla’s eyes as I took out the book from my bag that I had brought for our reading session.
We were going to read Julie & Julia by Julie Powell and watch the movie based on the book after finishing it. It was a light reading and perfect combination of food and love — two things that I knew would make Sheyla happy. As I started reading for Sheyla, Olga shut the door to the living room and said, “Duh zavtrah” [До завтра] (in translation from Russian, ‘see you tomorrow’), as she left the apartment. “As far as I know, the only evidence supporting the theory that Julia Child [..]” (Powell, 2005), I slowly read from the Day 1, Recipe 1 but Sheyla stopped me to ask:
“Abbas, can I pay you for our reading sessions? I don’t want you to waste time reading books with me for free.”
Sheyla thought of our reading sessions as classes. She believed that without the payment my spending time with her would count as misuse and she didn’t want to abuse my generosity in such a way. Sheyla also believed that by paying she would feel more responsible as a student and do the homework for our sessions.
As she demanded to pay, I remembered what this strong-willed woman used to be like. Her sheer stubbornness, principled nature, and obedience to truth came alive in front of me. Living with a condition that makes you half a person can be cruel. It makes others forget who you actually are. It turns you into a scary Halloween costume that is permanently on and no longer funny. As you become the costume, people around you forget the real you. As I realized that I had forgotten Sheyla’s true personality, I stepped back and got into my student mindset. When I used to be Sheyla’s student, she loved tricking us into doing more work than usual. For instance, she would guilt us into doing more readings, if we didn’t do well on the tests. So I used the same logic Sheyla had exercised on her students and said:
“You could only pay me if we finish the book and end up watching the movie together.”
Sheyla smiled and had no comeback to my offer. She agreed that this was a good deal. I continued reading the chapter from the book where Julie Powell muses about her attempts to reconstruct Julia Child’s Potage Parmentier. Sheyla stopped me every time she couldn’t remember a word or didn’t understand the context. There were numerous times I was clueless as to what was happening in the book. She felt embarrassed when the words didn’t make sense to her or she didn’t understand Julie’s references. But one thing was clear: as we read, the former Sheyla that I had known slowly started to come alive, piece by piece…