Nelson was an in demand heart surgeon, though he rarely missed family occasions and even managed to coach Lily's soccer team. Noor would have walked to cardiology when her shift ended, but being on the other end of the compound, it was easier to drive rather than carry the food over. Her eyes were focused on finding a parking space until they were drawn to a familiar shape near an unfamiliar car. Nelson, in pale blue scrubs, stood in the parking lot at arm's length of a nurse Noor met once at a staff Christmas party. He leaned forward to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear and she smiled up at him. Noor had just pulled in, and without needing to see or hear more she knew the affection in this small gesture revealed everything between them. One glance told her what was lost and could not be mended. A little gasp of surprise escaped her lips.
Without thinking, she drove straight home and unpacked the picnic as if it had simply rained and there was a change of plans. She threw away the olives and the peppers, dumped the tortilla in the garbage, and poured the champagne down the drain. As she washed the Tupperware, she slipped her wedding ring off her soap-slippery finger and left it by the kitchen sink. Then, seeing the school bus across the street, she ran outside and startled Lily with a hug.
The separation was swift and Nelson had not resisted, infidelity being a genetic cliché he couldn't deny. His parents had been happily married for over forty years, but "women found Papa irresistible," he yawned, "like velvet." There had been others, he confessed nonchalantly—an attitude that served him well when he removed a broken heart and fastened a new one in a patient's chest. Noor, somewhat anesthetized, didn't see the point of demonizing him, sparing him Lily's judgment, although Lily blamed her and she could've at least bought herself some sympathy. It was as if Noor believed the odds of having a good marriage like her parents were so little that it was no wonder hers had failed.
There were no battles, no court dates—she couldn't stomach it, and Nelson didn't press the custody issue, agreeing to weekends and alternate holidays. Over the years they had had more impassioned arguments over a referee's bad call in a soccer match. In the process of splitting up they cowered in the corners of their bedroom, speaking rationally and not raising their voices, even going so far as apologizing for letting each other down, the conversation so cordial it made Lily wonder if their love had ever been real. They led her to believe that their fairy tale marriage—Nelson's pursuit of Princess Noor's hand, their wedding on a boat, a seven-tiered rum cake, their honeymoon in a castle near Barcelona—was all a spectacular fable spun in bedtime stories.
Noor was angry, but she was also embarrassed that she didn't know. That she was not prepared. Was she the only one not to know? How stupid am I? She thought this was something that happened to other people—not her life, not her marriage. So she did what she had to. She took Lily and left Nelson. She rented an apartment but when she reached the door, her daughter beside her, she didn't go in; she stood outside and looked around for Nelson to help her carry their suitcases. Of course he wasn't there.
Her father, who was born within crying distance of his family's café in Tehran, rarely left home, yet he had sent Noor and her brother as far away as he could when she was just eighteen. For months Noor expected him to come for them, and she would stand outside and look for him. She wrote letters begging him to let her come back, but his reply was always the same: this is no country for a child, Noor. She gave up eventually, just as she'll give up looking for Nelson.
When she was small, her father told her again and again the story of how he and her mother had chosen her name. For weeks, almost every night, they sat talking about it, trying a variety of boy and girl names, always choosing one and changing it by morning. Then on the night Noor was born, the power was out at Café Leila until the moment they brought their new daughter home. When the lights came on, a name popped into Zod's head. He said she filled their world with light. For years Noor imagined the house dimming whenever she left. What vanity! she now thought. To live into your forties thinking it was you who brightened rooms, because nothing of what you had seen so far prepared you for the truth: how small and inconsequential your so-called luster, how easily extinguished and utterly dark.