The No Return Policy

Qualified Entry: Non-Fiction Category

By: Annie Boreson

In the summer of 1979, I took a flight to Norway via Copenhagen to visit my fiancé. I had no idea what to expect and had only met his parents briefly when they came to visit their son while at the University of Washington. Since their visit we had become engaged, and I was anxious to get to know my new family.

On the flight I met a young American woman who was going to marry an Iranian man. The two had met in college on the East Coast and before he returned to his Middle Eastern hometown, he asked her to marry him.

As the ten hour and forty minute flight inched to an exhausting end, I observed the young woman sitting beside me lift a bright blue bag out of her carry-on. It held a mirror, and an array of makeup bottles, tubes, and sprays, which she carefully arranged systematically on her tray table. I watched as she painted on this and that, but was careful not to cover her entire face, as only a small portion of her beautiful features would be seen by the outside world again. She splashed her eyelids liberally with a night-club neon-blue, and brushed her cheeks with a soft peach foundation.

I learned that she was soon to meet her future husband in Copenhagen, where they would continue on to Tehran for an elaborate wedding ceremony. I was surprised to hear that her family would not be attending the wedding, but her fiancé made it clear that it would be more comfortable if they did not make the trip. I asked the reason behind this, but all she could tell me was the culture dictated all her future decisions. If her mother refused to cover herself, or her father “expressed” himself inappropriately, they could surely find themselves in danger.

“It’s not worth the risk,” she said, “Besides, my parents are Yale graduates. Let’s just say they are full of opinions and aren’t afraid to share them. It will be much better if they wait until after the wedding…then visit.”

What I remember most was her excitement. As half-baked and riddled with flaws as I saw her plan, she did her best to convince me that her love would defy all foreseeable barriers. There was no indication that she was doing this against her will, although she did admit that there would be a few obstacles and adjustments upon her arrival…a language to learn, a new city to navigate, and a role as wife and hopefully soon-to-be-mother. She was not completely naïve, but looking back, that is exactly what she was…and so was I.

We were the same age…twenty-two, and I felt like we were both challenging the status quo by moving away from the safety and security of what we knew. Much like myself, she could not communicate in the language of the country, nor did she know her mate more than a year in college…but this did not prevent us both from following these guys around the world to recite lofty “Until Death Do Us Part” vows.

I have thought many times about this woman who most certainly is in her 50’s, and I pray that she is doing well. I remember her telling me that she would not be allowed to leave the house unless there was a bodyguard accompanying her. I had the distinct impression as she voiced these words that she found the prospect of protection invigorating, actually somewhat of a luxury. A character trait found only in husbands who love their spouses. She described the house that her fiancé and his family had built for the new couple as modest.. which she assumed most Iranian homes were. Wealth, being something that neighbors were never to see… reserved only for the wedded occupants. The exception to modesty was the boudoir, a place free of restraint, over-the-top, and the more lavish…the better. I can still hear her giggle at this vision, as if a motor had been turned on and left idling.

I will not bore you with the next seven years of my marriage and life in Norway. After all, that has been filed away in a category of sadness, but one in which I have been able to move beyond and find peace. It suffices to say that the marriage ended, and I eventually returned home to Seattle with two small children, who were one and three at the time.

Once the divorce was final, we had to abide by the contract. I would have custody of the girls, but he would be allowed six weeks of summer vacation graduating to eight in Norway, and alternating holiday time. When I walked into the Seattle courthouse to listen to the judge declare our union dissolved, the cloaked man asked if this was truly what I wanted. I shook my head slowly, and the gavel went down. I couldn’t bear to think of being away from my children for so many weeks, but that afternoon in the courthouse I told myself to take one baby step at a time. Besides, summer felt like a long way away.

Eventually it approached, and I told the kids that they would be going on a trip to see their father. “What does he look like?” the smallest said. “Will he recognize us?” the four-year-old wondered. Then the oldest, the one who stood no higher than a small bedside table, asked me how long they would be gone. I told her that it would be for a little while. She was persistent. “Show me,” she said, leading me to the calendar on the kitchen wall. I pointed to the first day of their trip and my finger slowly moved through the week, and then I realized that this was going to look like we were staring into the face of eternity. My fingers picked up speed, racing over the month of June as if the weeks might pass as quickly. I looked at her face… and her eyes grew large and the tears began to fall. I didn’t have the heart to lift the page and continue into July. All I wanted to do was scoop both of them into my arms and tell them that we would all be going…that I would never leave them if there wasn’t a court order. But I couldn’t do that. I had to hold it inside.

On the way to the airport the kids were silent in their car seats. I remember giving them last minute instructions…be polite…no fighting…and mind their father. My voice was soft, though upbeat so they would not feel my growing anxiety. We pulled up to a short-term parking stall at the airport with about an hour and a half before their departure. When the incoming SAS plane arrived at the gate and unloaded the passengers, a young woman stepped off the tarmac and came toward us. She had been sent from Norway to escort the girls back. I can still see the girl’s faces as they started to realize that something big was about to happen. Sensing their distress, I bent down, meeting them at face level. The escort took this as her cue to engage them in conversation. Her accent was thick and the kids initially looked at me for reassurance. How soon they forgot the sound of their birthplace! How quickly they adapted to America and tossed all memories of another land behind.

Over the loud speaker, the flight attendant asked that all people accompanying minors board the plane. I gave the kids a travel bag full of things to preoccupy them onboard. As they rifled through the bag, I spoke to the nice young woman who would fly my children far away. After we got through the formalities, she turned to my children and said, “Well, shall we go?” Immediately, they ran to me and threw their arms around my legs, holding tight. I wrapped myself around them, and held fast with the same intensity. We stood like crumbling statues until I realized that they were never going to loosen their grip. The escort tried to pry their arms free and they cried… A cry I never want to hear again.

“Come on girls, your mummy has to say goodbye. Let’s get on the plane so we don’t lose our seats!”

I knew it was time. I let my hands drop to my sides, and with every ounce of determination I had, I attempted to smile. All the while my mouth kept moving for fear of what would happen if it stopped. “You guys are going to have so much fun! And you know what? I’m going to call you the minute you land so I can hear all about the flight, okay? Take lots of pictures! You know how mommy loves photos….”

The escort, about as convincing as Mary Poppins, relayed the news that she had a few surprises of her own, but they would have to get on the plane to see them. With forlorn stoicism, the oldest grabbed her little sister’s hand, and walked with their chaperon. While boarding passes were scanned, the girls kept their eyes focused on me.

“Okay, we’re off!” said the escort, but before disappearing from sight, they turned one last time to wave.

“I’ll be standing right here “with bells on” when you get home!” I said. I don’t remember how the words traveled out of me, although in hindsight it must have sounded like they crawled from a vast canyon of despair, and died just short of the finish line. I continued to smile, wave, and flail my arms…well aware my lips were quivering as if I was suffering from hypothermia.

I will never know for sure what kind of actress I turned out to be that day, but I can tell you the minute they trudged down the tarmac and were out of sight, I fell apart. I raced from the terminal to the car. In my mind, the best had long since past. Sadness enveloped me with such force that I had to pull over on the freeway to try and release that alienating feeling of loss and despair… only a mother can feel.

Years later, a woman walked up to me in the grocery store. I could see that she had been scrutinizing my appearance for a while, but I didn’t recognize her, so I went about my shopping. She finally had the nerve to approach me.

“Excuse me,” she said, “I know this might sound odd, but by any chance did you put your kids on a flight to Scandinavia the summer of ’87?”

There was an uncomfortable silent pause as I processed the question, and calculated the years gone by. I reached the conclusion that I had indeed put them on that plane, explaining that it was the first of many transcontinental trips my kids took to visit their dad each summer.

“I hope this is alright to say, but my husband and I were at the airport that day. We watched the whole thing. After you left, we hugged each other and the two of us cried. My husband bawled…which is not like him. I think that was one of the saddest things I’ve ever witnessed,” she said.

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2 thoughts on “The No Return Policy

  1. I can relate, having been there, though mine didn’t have so far to travel. Well done. Made me cry. Funny,… the boys got through those times with very few scars, while mine are still fresh to this day.

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