The Symbolic Use of the Door for Me
“The Symbolic Use of the Door” is a short story by Fariba Vafi about a door through which someone is about to enter, someone who left four days ago. It is also the story of four days and nights of anguish and waiting of a woman whose eyes are glued to the door, for it to open, for a man to come in and never leave. A woman who just before these four nights wished for the door to be closed behind that man forever. Now she cannot let her eyes off the hinges and keyhole, waiting for the man’s return. The morning after the fourth night, this maddening wait comes to an end. The familiar sound of the man’s footsteps fills the stairway before his silhouette appears at the door.
“The Symbolic Use of the Door” for me, however, bears the image of a different woman. The door is still the same, closed yet tied to waiting and anticipation. One of the many doors…
The woman of my story is a middle-aged woman of color who has her eyes peeled to all the closed doors, for eight years in loneliness and ghorbat – the longing for a homeland. A woman waiting for what is to come and fearing what is not. A woman who lived ‘the symbolic use of the door’ over days and nights of waiting for years before migrating. A woman who left her country behind hoping the closed door will open one day.
Doors closed yet tied to waiting… the woman of my story wanted a man to leave through that door and never return. The man never left and other men came in. Other men who entered the home, thoroughly searched every inch of its smallness, and in revenge of what they didn’t find, sent the essence of freedom to prison cells with hands tied.
Doors closed yet tied to waiting… a door that opened three times a day for the prison guard to throw the daily ration of food on the little plastic spread. A door that turned on the hinge unannounced in the small hours of the night for the guard to come in and take the woman out for interrogation. A door that, from time to time, depending on the interrogator’s charitable mood, opened with the shadow of the guard cast on it, saying ,’come, you have a visitor!’
In “The Symbolic Use of the Door,” the woman of the story is wishing for a door to open, for a man to arrive and stay forever. The woman of my story is wishing for a door to open, for no man to enter, but for her to escape through that door, to escape the world of closed doors forever. The doors closed yet tied to endless waits.
dr. Mansoureh Shojaee
Faculty of Social Sciences (VU) / Scholar at Risk / Women’s Right’s Activist and Writer
The Symbolic Use of the Door (2017)
I heard his footsteps on the stairway early in the morning. The walls of our home are so thin you can hear the footsteps of all the men, women, and children in the building. When Mr. Mousavi is on his way to his apartment, it’s almost like he’s walking right into ours. In the beginning, I’d run to the door at hearing every footstep. A few times, I even opened the door to him and then awkwardly closed it to his totally baffled face. But over time, I became so adept in recognizing sounds that I inadvertently walked at the same pace as Mr. Mousavi did and stopped two steps away from our unit, at the exact point where he would to turn the key in the lock of his apartment. Mr. Mokhtari, wearer of the best shoes, walked slowly and deliberately. He paused on the landing briefly and then continued up the stairs in the same rhythm. Over the years, my margin of error in recognizing all variations of footsteps decreased to almost zero.
But I never mistook his. I would bet my life on it that it was him. I woke up to the sound of his footsteps in the quiet of early morning. I was half-asleep. He didn’t buzz the main entrance but he was in the building and climbing the stairs. I was lying on the sofa against the wall and like a seismogram registered every single tremor and movement behind the wall. Four nights ago, he slammed the door shut behind him, and said he was leaving and never coming back. He said every hellhole was better than this place. “Hell is you,” I screamed before the raging door cut my voice into two pieces. “You go and take it with you.” No one would be waiting for him here, I said.
From the second night on, I slept on the sofa instead of the bed. I talked myself into thinking that it was warmer over there. Refusing to believe that I was sleeping there only to keep watch like a guard. I confined myself to the couch for three nights and thought for the equivalent of three years but didn’t get anywhere. I couldn’t convince myself to sleep on the bed like a normal person would and start living life as a single woman the following day. All those lessons on freedom and independence passed on to me by my therapist, my friends and the books were suddenly of no use. I said to myself, the distance between co-dependence and independence must be these very few steps between the bed and the sofa. I should have quit this useless game of keeping watch. I should have quit this precise and gruelling wait and gone back to sleep on the bed. This was the first move to let go of the past and how strange that I couldn’t take this very simple step. I couldn’t cross the distance between the sofa and the bed. My eyes wouldn’t let me because they were glued to the door. I was dangling in the air, with my feet way above the ground. My head hanging from the ceiling, my body unsteady.
In principle, I should have started a new life in my little apartment and not looked at the door as a gate through which a man must enter. The door had now only one function: to open, to let someone leave and let them back in. Its other function, that involved opening and letting in someone who gave meaning and color to one’s life, who freed one from doubts and darkness, had long expired. My relationship to the door was changing. The way my relationship to him was changing. All I could think of was leaving. Staying didn’t mean anything. Had no merit. Was a passive behaviour. Funny how I was the one thinking about all this, and he was the one who acted. As always, he acted faster and left. I should have been thrilled. Didn’t I want exactly that?
On the second night, I couldn’t fall asleep on the couch. I got up and sat. I had listened to the sound of the stairway so closely that by now I knew one neighbour always wore high heels, and another always wore running shoes. There was someone who always slowed down at the foot of the stairs, probably reading the notes on the bulletin board, and then walked on. The tenant upstairs was a young woman who walked slowly. As if she was pregnant but she wasn’t. Ms. Shabestari, the resident in apartment 4, always complained of the mean lousy neighbours who wouldn’t get their act together to have an elevator installed.
On the third night, after the noises settled, I looked at the door long and hard. It was a solid old door, with a few small islands of stains around the knob. I got a cloth and rubbed it spotlessly clean. I was so focused I would notice an ant passing by its frame. The uncertain sounds of the night and the cold winter draft came in through its cracks. It was past midnight and someone was tiptoeing his way up the stairs, a rustling plastic bag keeping him company. He was the last one going home. I don’t know how long I listened to the silence of the stairway. I then wrapped the blanket around me and almost choked myself underneath.
“‘Will you miss him if he won’t be home for a long time?” my therapist asked the last time I saw her.
And the next question. “Do you love him, or are you just used to him?”
I wasn’t sure. I started explaining. I looked at her with respect. She was the expert and was supposed to know the difference between the two. I couldn’t figure it out on my own.
“How about when you’re away on a trip and he’s home?”
I didn’t know the answer to some of the questions. I hadn’t thought about them until that day. She asked about my reaction to his quick temper. I often cried but I remembered a few times I laughed. One night, I laughed at everything he said. Neither of us would budge. He kept putting me down. He wanted to make me cry and then feel sorry for me in good conscience. I said to my therapist that my reactions aren’t always the same. I somehow wanted to give her a precise image of my moods. She didn’t pay much attention. She repeated the previous questions. She was looking at the fine notes in her notebook at the same time and then as if to review the story, she said, on my behalf, that I couldn’t think of any other man than him. My gaze was fixed but the pupils were galloping in the eye socket. Anything said with such certainty would push me down an obsessive slope. I would get anxious about all the other options I was missing out on, and at such maddening speed. Doubt would start creeping in on my soul. Certainty always made me feel that way.
“Is that right?” said the therapist.
“Yes,” I said.
When is she going to stop reviewing her notes, I thought, I wanted to ask how I should cope with this inner turmoil, this life crisis. If I had lost all love and desire for my husband, as I thought I had, why couldn’t I decide? From where I sat, the dimly lit kitchen looked like a small hidden café where the customers were gone with all their belongings left behind. The therapist said we had to work a few sessions to bring to the surface what was hidden in the deep crevices of my mind. That I should give her and myself time to know what was going on inside me. I stared at the carpet and the furniture inside the room, and they stared back at me like mute monsters in the dark, waiting for my command. But I had no commands to give.
On the third night, I don’t know what went through my head in the middle of sleep to make me want to get up and sleep in bed but early in the morning, I woke up to my own voice saying out loud, “it’s so cold.” I realized I was seeing the outside instead of the inside of my own home. The stairway was more important than the kitchen. The stairs and hallway carried more worth than the furniture inside the apartment. My eyes were outside the door. My ears too. My heart was beating out there not in here. I was just a pair of hands and legs outside of myself on the sofa. My therapist said I must do practical exercises. That this is a process and nothing will change overnight. That I should take distance and get used to being alone. I was probably afraid of being alone. It’s okay, be afraid, she said, but practice.
On the fourth night, I dragged the sofa and put it against the wall across from the door, and put two armchairs in its place. I turned up the TV volume to cancel the noise outside and started doing chores but soon I got tired of moving around this chair and that table. It just seemed ridiculous. One must get to the root of the problem. Where did that come from?! What root? I talked like I used to. Before, I wanted to get to the root of everything and now I was happy with even a small change. A couple of hours later, I put the sofa back where it was. I lay down on it and felt better. The sofa was my waiting place. Without beating myself up for it, I was waiting for him to come back and feared that he never would. But then, his return meant farewell to any and all change. I wanted to change but didn’t know where to start. What if this is the starting point? Changing by his side was hard. Good thing he wasn’t around. I said that to push away fear. I remembered what my therapist said. That I should live with my fear. I caressed my fear and slept.
In the morning I heard his footsteps. I doubted first but it was him. I sat up. Since midnight, I considered Operation Waiting almost completed. Even if he showed up, it was no use. But now that he was a mere step away, I asked myself in a fraction of a second if I really wanted him back. For a moment, I thought I had gotten used to waiting. What happens if he comes back? Do I go to the room or do I stay here? I grabbed my blanket to go to the bedroom but I changed my mind. I couldn’t muster the will to do anything. It was like being in an eternal limbo. I lay down and pretended I was asleep.
The sound stopped. My heart was racing. What if all this was a delusion. I had had this delusion a few times in the past days. Half an hour after he left the first night, I thought he came back but it wasn’t him. If he had come back then, I was ready to embrace him and not allow things to be worse than they already were. I wouldn’t go to a therapist. I wouldn’t complain. I wouldn’t get mad. I still saw the strength in me to change the course of my life and do not feel so wronged, so failed. Now after four nights that lasted like four hundred nights, I wasn’t too sure. It was like I had spent a great deal on suffering and didn’t want all that to go to waste.
I closed my eyes and held my breath. In that moment, the key and its turn in the lock was the most important event. The click of the door opening. I heaved a sigh of relief. The war was over. The war with myself. The wait was over. With the opening of the door, came in a drift of cold air and the smell of his jacket. I hid my face under my arm so the quivering of my eyelids won’t tell on me. He turned on the light. I heard the click. He stood by the heater and audibly rubbed his hands against each other. I couldn’t tell if he was facing the heater or me. I heard the swish of his jacket but he still had it on. Maybe he had just stopped by to say something and leave again. Or maybe he was here to stay. I was afraid of his staying. I asked myself if I want him to stay or leave. I remembered my therapist’s recommendation. See your emotions. Know them. But how can you see emotions? All I could think of was him who wasn’t moving. I didn’t know if he was looking at me or the wall or the cup on the kitchen table. I was breathing more slowly and enduring the agonizingly slow rhythm of time. I heard him say hello. The voice came directly to me. So he was facing me. He said only one word but I read everything in it. That he was here to stay, that he knew I was awake and only pretending to be asleep, that he was happy to be back, that he knew I was happy he was back home.
translation by Lida Nosrati
Copyright © Fariba Vafi 2017
Published by agreement with Fariba Vafi
Fariba Vafi (Iran, 1963) is an Iranian author whose work has been translated to English, German, French, Italian, Norwegian, Swedish, German, Turkish, Russian, Japanese and Arabic. For her novel The Dream of Tibet Vafi received the Hooshang Golshiri Literary Award for “best novel”. Vafi has written on the position of women in Iranian society, a theme that is reflected well in “The Symbolic Use of the Door” (2017), which was translated to English for this special issue of Expanded Field.