Lady in waiting

Excerpt from the book Caspian Rain.

By GINA NAHAI
October 10, 2007 12:24
Lady in waiting

caspian rain 224.88. (photo credit: Courtesy)

The real tailor is an Armenian woman named Alice who has a two-month waiting list for new clients, and who has never been known to deliver a dress on time. She's sharp-tongued and dour, imperious with the rich, indignant with the less wealthy. She acts as if she were doing them all a favor - taking their money and making them wait three months for a dress - and her clients have bought into this wholeheartedly. They sit in her parlor from midday till evening, sipping Turkish coffee - made by a fourteen-year-old peasant girl Alice has bought from the girl's parents for the price of a bed and three square meals a day - exchanging diet recipes and the details of the latest scandal in town while they peek at each other's fabrics and devise ways to outdo everyone else in good taste and beauty. They measure their own and each other's social standing by the length of time Alice makes them wait before they are admitted into the atelier, and they'll talk about it that evening at the parties they will go to, create or ruin reputations by reporting on how a client was received by the Armenian. Alice will make Bahar wait all day. She knows who Bahar is because Mrs. Arbab has called to make the appointment for her - my son is marrying well below us but we need the dress to be up to standards, and I wouldn't dream of having it made by anyone but you, but really, I can't go there with her, I know it's customary, everyone does it, but spare me this agony, would you please, just let her come alone, or with one of her weird relatives. Bahar arrives early, her wedding lace folded neatly in a bag, her smile so bright and confident it puts Alice on alert that she's a person who needs to be reminded of her true station in life. She leaves Bahar in the waiting room - have a seat, I'll see if I can make time, you're the first to arrive, but I'm expecting other customers, they have priority - and disappears into the atelier. Other women arrive in groups of two and three. They've all heard about Omid's engagement, and so they sit across from Bahar, examine her openly and without pretense, even talk about her out loud with one another. They ask her pointed questions: Are you here alone? Didn't anyone want to come with you for your first fitting? Doesn't Mrs. Arbab ever take you anywhere? Bahar answers politely but with too much enthusiasm - indicating that she's glad to be here even if she has been slighted by her future mother-in-law, that she's prone and vulnerable because she doesn't know yet how to arm herself against the scrutiny and judgment of the society she intends to be a part of. Her weakness makes the women dislike her even more, gives Alice permission to keep her waiting all day. Every hour or so, Alice opens the door of her atelier and looks into the waiting room, exchanges greetings with new arrivals, then motions for one of the women to come inside for a fitting. She knows Bahar is a bride-to-be, and should therefore be given preferential treatment, but she ignores her anyway, closes the door on her and her sad little plastic bag without even bothering to indicate how much longer Bahar will have to wait. The other women see this but do not interfere. Some of them even feel sorry for Bahar, wish Alice would accord her more respect, but they're neither brave enough, nor caring enough, to risk alienating Alice by rising to the girl's defense. So they smoke More cigarettes, leaf through year-old issues of Vogue and talk about the incompetence of their maids, the cheekiness of their cooks, the habitual lateness of their chauffeurs. They watch Bahar from the corner of their eye and ask themselves how much longer she's going to sit there, pretending she doesn't know what's going on, she must be hungry, for God's sake, it's four o'clock in the afternoon and she hasn't had lunch, just tea that Alice's maid brings around on a tray every half hour or so and that Bahar drinks with too much sugar and too many dates - the stuff is fattening but she probably has no idea. They watch her and shake their heads. What is it about being poor, they wonder, that diminishes a person so entirely? That attracts tragedy? Invites loss? At five o'clock, one of the women finally takes Alice aside and tells her this isn't right, this poor girl has been patient enough, you may not owe her any respect, but you can't insult the person who sent her to you. Then Alice calls Bahar into her workshop. She has closed the door for every other one of her customers - to give them privacy as they undress - but with Bahar, she leaves it halfway open. "Take your clothes off," she says. "I need to see what I'm dealing with." Bahar puts her bag down on a table and looks at the open door. "Let's go," Alice urges. "I'm tired. I want to call it a day." Tentatively, Bahar takes off her skirt, then stands in place and looks at the door again. The women in the waiting room pretend they're busy talking to one another, but Bahar knows that they'll all look at her the minute she turns away. She asks Alice if she can close the door. Alice takes Bahar's arm and leads her to the mirror. "You think no one's seen a naked girl before?" she asks. Bahar takes off her shirt and climbs, in only her underwear, onto a platform in front of the full-length mirror. She stands there as Alice takes her measurements, and tries not to look in the mirror where she knows she will see the other women looking back at her. Alice's hands are cold and angry. They push and poke at Bahar, and if she reacts by pulling away, they come at her more aggressively. The women are watching. When she's done with the measurements, Alice takes the lace out of the bag and spreads it on a table. "Not bad," she says. "What do you want to do with it?" She picks it up and wraps it around Bahar's body, starts to pin it here and there so as to devise a style. One of the pins pricks Bahar's skin. She pulls away instinctively. "That hurts." Alice doesn't stop what she's doing. "Hold still!" she commands, but suddenly, Bahar is defiant. She steps off the platform so she's at eye level with Alice. "You're poking too hard," she says, "and you should close the door." Alice puts down her pincushion and stares at Bahar. She hasn't expected the girl to challenge her, certainly not before an audience of other customers, and so she can't let this go without setting the balance in her own favor again. "Get back on the platform," she says in a measured voice, but Bahar won't move. Her eyes are red and her lips have turned white with anger and she just stands there, looking afraid of Alice, and even more afraid of what she, herself, may do. "Get on the platform," Alice says again, "or go home." They glare at each other. Alice clutches the wedding lace in her fists. She wants to give Bahar time to contemplate the consequences of alienating her - of throwing a fit here, in front of all those women who will bear witness, that very evening in all the parties around Tehran, to the fact that Omid's new bride-to-be is a shrew with a temper. Slowly, she takes Bahar's arm and, digging her nails into her skin, shoves her back up on the platform. "Now hold still," she commands. "A girl like you should be grateful just to have been allowed in." In the mirror before her, Bahar sees a young woman, erect on a box in an airless room bathed in the sinking afternoon light. Around her, half-made gowns and naked mannequins lie on the backs of wooden chairs, on the arms of a blue velvet sofa, on the surface of an etched glass coffee table. Beyond them in the waiting room, a dozen women watch silently as she stands in surrender, arms stiff at her sides, face inundated by tears of humiliation and rage. Excerpt from Caspian Rain by Gina B. Nahai. Copyright © 2007. Permission granted by MacAdam/Cage Publishing.


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