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کتاب: عطر سنبل، عطر کاج / فصل 4

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Save Me, Mickey

When we first came to America in 1972, we knew we would be staying only for about two years. This gave us approximately 104 weekends to see everything there was to see in California. From Knott’s Berry Farm to Marine World, from the Date Festival to the Garlic Festival, we saw it all. Along the way, we tasted garlic ice cream, date shakes, and cherry slushies, and other foods that we no longer remember, although we do recall the ensuing scrambles to the drugstore for Rolaids.

Because we were new to this country, we were impressed not just by the big attractions but also by the little things—smiling employees, clean bathrooms, and clear signage. Our ability to be impressed by the large selection of key chains at the souvenir shops guaranteed that every place we saw delighted us.

There was, however, one attraction that stood apart, one whose sweatshirts we wore with pride, one that generated near religious devotion: Disneyland. My father believed that Walt Disney was a genius, a man whose vision allowed everyone, regardless of age, to relive the wonderment of childhood. Ask my father what he considers to be man’s greatest creation in the twentieth century and he won’t say computers, the Concorde, or knee replacement surgery. For him, “Pirates of the Caribbean” represents the pinnacle of man’s creative achievement. No matter how many times my father goes on that ride, he remains as impressed as a Disneyland virgin. “Did you see that pirate leg hanging over the bridge? Could somebody remind me that it wasn’t real? And the battle between the ships, geez, was I the only one ready to duck and cover? What kind of a man would think of creating something like this? A genius, that’s who.” I doubt that even Walt Disney’s mother felt as much pride in her son as my father did.

According to my father, any activity that is enjoyed by our family will be exponentially more enjoyable if shared with others. A crowded dinner at his sister’s house where only half the guests have chairs is preferred to a meal with four people and ample seating. His tribal nature may result from having grown up with eight siblings, but whatever the root cause, my father decided that if Disneyland was fun for our family, just think how much more fun it would be with twenty other people. That is how one weekend we found ourselves at Disneyland’s main entrance with six of my father’s Iranian colleagues and their families.

I had already been to Disneyland fifteen times and was, frankly, getting a little sick of the place. I knew every turn in every ride and all the punch lines to all the shows. But nonetheless, on yet another Saturday morning, I stood in front of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride with a large group of people, all oohing and aahing, as my father, the self-appointed ambassador to the Magic Kingdom, pointed out fascinating tidbits: “See how people just wait patiently in these long lines? In other countries, you’d have a fight! But not here, this is America.” We roamed through Disneyland like a herd of buffalo, stopping only at the rides deemed worthy by my father. At one point, we found ourselves near the telephones where one could talk to Mickey Mouse. As my father was busy explaining the wonders of the nearby Monsanto ride with the big eyeball that looks positively real, I decided to experiment with the phones, which I had somehow never tried before. I picked up the receiver and discovered that there was no conversation with Mickey Mouse on these so-called phones, just a taped message. Disgruntled, I hung up and looked around to find the rest of the herd. They were gone.

One of my father’s biggest fears in moving to America was child kidnappings. Our hometown, Abadan, was about as safe a place as one could hope for. We knew all the neighbors, everyone looked out for everyone else’s kids, and there was basically no crime other than petty theft. Whenever my relatives came to visit us in America, they would watch the evening news a few times, and then refuse to leave the house. “It’s too dangerous here,” they always said. “Why are there so many shootings?” In Iran, citizens do not have access to guns, so we do not have the types of crimes that so often lead to murders in America. My father was acutely aware of the dangers inherent in our new surroundings and lectured me regularly on the perils of strangers and how I should always go to the police if I ever needed help.

There were no police officers in Disneyland, so instead I opted for the young man in the powder blue jumpsuit wearing the hat that resembled an inverted origami boat. “I’m lost,” I told him. “Okay,” he said in a kind voice. “Can you tell me what your parents look like?” I told him. “Now can you tell me what your parents are wearing?” he asked. No seven-year-old, except maybe a young Giorgio Armani, could tell you what his parents were wearing on a given day.

After my failure to answer the clothing question, Mr. Polyester escorted me to a small building near the main entrance. This was the Lost and Found, a place that, not surprisingly, I had never noticed during my previous visits. Once I entered the room, I started to cry. Several women surrounded me and asked me my name, which I, in the midst of my mucus-choked sobs, had to repeat several times. “What kind of a name is that?” one of them asked. It was as if I was doomed to answer the same questions over and over again, for the rest of my life.

“I’m from Iran,” I sniffled.

“How nice,” she said. From the look on her face, I could tell she had no idea where that was. Another one complimented me on my English. Then they told me not to worry. I could just sit down here and color while I waited for my parents to come and get me. I continued to cry. The three women tried to comfort me, but by then I had decided to cry the whole time.

A few minutes later, the door opened and in came a screaming boy who looked to be a few years younger than I. As Team Comfort rushed to his side, it became apparent that this boy spoke no English. No matter what the women said to him, he just screamed. When asked his name, he shook his head and cried louder. In desperation, one of the employees turned around and started walking toward me with a big I-have-a-great-idea smile on her face. I knew what was coming. “Is that boy from your country?” she asked me. “Why, yes,” I wanted to tell her. “In my country, which I own, this is National Lose Your Child at Disneyland Day.” “No,” I told her. “He’s not from my country.” I had no idea where the screamer was from, but I knew he wasn’t Iranian. A gerbil would never mistake a hamster for a gerbil, and I would never mistake a non-Iranian for an Iranian. Despite the belief of most Westerners that all Middle Easterners look alike, we can pick each other out of a crowd as easily as my Japanese friends pick out their own from a crowd of Asians. It’s like we have a certain radio frequency that only other Iranian radars pick up.

After a few futile attempts to communicate with the boy, another one of the women came to me and asked me if I could please, in my language, ask that boy his name. I told her that I spoke Persian and I was certain that the boy did not. The woman then knelt down and got real close to my face, skills picked up during Coercion 101. Speaking very slowly, she told me that she needed me to do her a favor. I could tell she was trying to remember my name. She was thinking hard. “Sweetie,” she finally said, choosing to sidestep the name like a soldier avoiding a land mine, “could you just try to talk to him? Will you do it for Mickey?” I wanted to tell her that Mickey was the reason I was lost in the first place. Had I not been trying to talk to him on those so-called phones, I wouldn’t be sitting here. I didn’t owe that rodent anything.

I once again told her that I spoke Persian and I could just tell that the boy did not. “Could you just try?” she pleaded.

Just to get rid of her, I walked up to the boy, who, breaking all stamina records, was still crying, and said in Persian, “Are you Iranian?” The boy stopped crying for a moment, then let out the loudest scream heard since biblical times. Not only was he separated from his loved ones, he was now trapped in the Tower of Babel.

Although I was sorry for the little boy, I also felt vindicated. I went back to my coloring book, no longer feeling the urge to cry. I colored a few pages; then, lo and behold, in walked my father, looking completely panicked and breathless. He ran and hugged me and asked me whether I had cried. “Of course not,” I answered. He told me that I had gotten lost just when the group split in two, so an hour went by before anyone noticed I was missing. “I thought you had been kidnapped,” he told me, still out of breath. Timing is key, and I knew this was my moment. “Could we go to the gift shop?” I asked. “Anything you want,” he said, “anything at all.” We had to leave Disneyland early that day because my father was too weak in the knees to continue. Even the thought of “Pirates of the Caribbean” could not revive him.

We spent the usual half hour looking for our car in the parking lot. I clutched closely two helium balloons, items my father prior to this visit had always called a waste of money and never bought for me, a two-foot-long pencil with scenes from Disneyland, a complete set of miniature plastic Seven Dwarves with their own carrying case, and a Winnie-the-Pooh pencil holder. In the midst of my father’s newfound appreciation for me, I also asked him if he would take me to the Movieland Wax Museum the following week. “Sure,” he said. “Anything you want.” My father spent the drive home re-creating my actions in his absence.

“So how did you know for sure you were lost?” he asked.

“I couldn’t see you guys,” I answered.

“How did you know whom to go to?” he continued.

“I looked for someone who worked there.”

“How did you know he worked there and he wasn’t just standing around looking for lost kids?”

“He had the same outfit as the other six people around him and he had a name tag.”

“A name tag, huh? Very clever.”

I knew what he was thinking. Thanks to Mickey, I had been elevated from child-who-can’t-learn-to-swim to child genius.

The following weekend, standing in the Movieland Wax Museum gift shop, I was having a hard time deciding among the visor, the inflatable mini pool with the museum logo, and the deck of cards emblazoned with four different movie stars. Then I heard my father utter the magic phrase “Why don’t we just get all of them?” “Good idea,” I said, hoping his newly generous view of useless purchases was more than a passing phase.

We left the gift shop with my father holding firmly on to my hand, just as he had done the entire day. Clutching my purchases with my other hand, I basked in my new status as favorite child. Perhaps I did owe that rodent something.

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