I have never been fond of Mehrabad Airport. Coming or going, it fills me with anxiety because unlike any other place I know, it marks new chapters in my life.
In October 1991, I was preparing to retake the entrance exams for university. Getting accepted as an English major the first time around was not significant enough; I needed something more grounded and viable--at least a pharmacy or dental major. But right around that time, my father was contemplating a trip to the States, and for some reason he wanted to take me along. The timing couldn't be more strange, considering how disruptive it would be to my studies and there was no real cause for me to go with him--he preferred traveling alone (or with his friends) where he was free to do as he wished and not be responsible for wife and child. Despite my mom and my protests, he kept insisting I could use the break. By November, I was ready to travel with so many fears and thoughts in my head, I could neither sleep nor rest. I was moving through days of preparation, good-byes and well wishes for what was to be a month long 'vacation'. I was to go to Arizona and visit my beloved uncle and come home refreshed mere weeks before my exams. I was packing text books, prep books, notes and gifts for my aunt and uncle. And I prepared one more thing for my trip: a notarized official copy of my high school transcripts.
One early morning in November, my family took my father and I to Mehrabad Airport bidding us farewell and reminding me to give their love and regards. I looked at them all through a haze of tears, because I knew something they didn't: I was not going back. They teased me in those final moments for never being able to hold back my tears, at my innocence that would cause such fear for a trip chaperoned by my father. My mom held me closest, because for the first time in my 18 years on earth, she was letting me go away from her for more than one night. She reminded me to be a good girl and not to impose. She promised to call me everyday, she whispered that I shouldn't cry when my dad lost his temper and not to let him get to me. And she tucked a small folded prayer into the pocket of the raincoat she had lent me. Her last words to me were, "When you come back, you'll be a grown up girl. I love you."
And I, a little disingenuously whispered back, "I'll be back soon. I love you, too."
There were no formal plans for the trip. It was just another one of my dad's unplanned, semi-spontaneous trips. No one had breathed a word about my staying away from Iran longer than a month, and no one even considered the idea of my staying in the US alone to study. My father did not believe in women getting higher educations, even if he humored me and got me tutors. My mother who spent every waking hour trying to get me into university, never dreamed of my being away from her in a country full of temptation and sin.
It was only meant to be a month long trip.
Yet I knew, the same way I know things that have not happened and no one else predicts, that I would not be going back. The tears I shed were premature tears from the pain I would soon be inflicting on myself. I would rip myself away from the only life I knew and go after something that was beyond my capabilities. The good girl was going to rebel soon; quietly and fearfully.
When we arrived in Chicago, I was so light-headed and apprehensive that I fainted soon after we landed. The city lived up to its windy reputation as the sliding glass doors parted and whipped my already trembling body. Discovery would start the next morning with something as simple the fact that I had naturally curly hair. Very unruly, curly hair. As I sat on the rim of the bathtub crying about my uncontrollable hair and my uncertain future, I knew this was no longer a trip--it was a journey.