Today’s Sunday and we’re moving, again. Not everything fit in the moving truck, so our huge light blue Chevrolet Impala, or “land yacht,” as the used-car salesman called it, is filled to the brim with boxes, pillows, and kitchen appliances. The back window’s rolled down so the vacuum cleaner handle can stick out.
I am eleven years old, and this is my fourth move. I haven’t met anyone who has moved so many times before sixth grade. Normal families move once or twice because they find a house with a swimming pool or more closet space, in the same town. Every time we move, it’s to a new city or a new country.
I was born in Abadan, Iran. When I was in second grade, we moved to Compton, California. We stayed two years. For fourth grade, we moved back to Iran. Fifth grade, back to Compton. Now we’re moving to Newport Beach. The two cities are only an hour apart, but they might as well be in different galaxies. In Newport Beach, there’s no graffiti on the walls or overturned shopping carts on the sides of freeways. You don’t see any stores with broken windows. There are trees everywhere and the city looks like it has just come back from a visit to a beauty salon. Where are the rusty cars with missing tires? Not in Newport Beach. There are a lot of those in Compton, usually on people’s front lawns.
If our crazy nomadic life has taught us one thing, it’s this: Don’t buy stuff that breaks easily. Everything has to be packed sooner or later. Even our plants are made of plastic. Wherever we live, we have our fake red roses in the living room and the fake yellow daisies in our kitchen. They’re ugly and don’t look real at all; they look like those plants in horror movies that come to life and eat people. But they’re one of the few constants in my life. At least they’re always there.
The only time a kid came to my house after school in Compton, we were walking to my room when she suddenly stopped in front of the plants and asked what they were for. I thought that was a stupid question. I mean, how many possible uses could there be? They’re just plastic flowers. But later, I realized that they are so big and ugly that they look like they should do something, maybe catch flies or squirt air freshener.
As we pull up to our new home in Newport Beach, I cannot believe my eyes. Our house has two stories and is surrounded by a huge lawn made of real grass.
“Do we have to take care of the whole lawn, Baba?” I ask, trying to figure out where our part of the grass begins and ends. There is no chainlink fence between the houses, so it looks like everyone’s living in a huge park.
“No,” my dad says. “There are gardeners.”
I look at my mom to see how relieved she must be to hear this, but she’s busy using the mirror on the side of the car to reapply her pink lipstick.
Our house in Compton had a small patch of grass in the front and back. By the time we figured out how often we were supposed to water it, it was all dead. Some of our neighbors had fake lawns. From far away, they looked good—better than our real, dead lawn, anyway.
As we get out of the car, I see an older lady standing in the driveway, and she seems way overdressed for daytime. She reminds me of Mrs. Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island. My mother introduces herself as my dad tries to unload the vacuum cleaner, which by now is sticking so far out the window that it almost hit the tree next to the driveway when we pulled in.
“I am Nastaran Yousefzadeh,” she says, making the whole sentence sound like one word. “Dees eez Zomorod Yousefzadeh,” she adds, pointing to me.
I smile. I can tell the lady’s getting nervous. She has no idea what my mother just said. She has this strained expression, like she’s trying to smile but only half her face is cooperating. My father, holding the vacuum cleaner, joins us, and the lady finally says, “I’m Mrs. Mavis, your landlady. Hello, Mr. You—You—Yous . . .” Her voice trails off, which is fine, since we never expect anyone to get past the first syllable of our last name. Two points for trying, Lady Mavis.
Then she gives him a key and shouts, “DO NOT LOSE THIS POOL KEY!” She pauses, looks at each of us, and continues, “If you do, you must pay fifty dollars, that’s FIFTY DOLLARS, for a replacement.” Then, for reasons I cannot understand, she repeats herself, but this time, loudly and slowly, “DO. NOT. LOSE. THIS. POOL. KEY.”
I so badly want to ask her, “ARE. WE. ALLOWED. TO. LOSE. THIS. POOL. KEY?” but I don’t. My mom stands there smiling like a statue. My dad, still clutching the vacuum cleaner, keeps nodding his head and repeating, “Yes, yes.” He does that when he’s nervous, which is often. I just roll my eyes and walk through our new front door.
Our home is a “condo,” short for condominium. I figure this out when the landlady gives us a binder, Rules for Condominium Living, which we also have to return when we move out. Apparently there is no fine for losing the binder.
“Zomorod,” my dad says to me, “read this and tell your mom what it says.” My mom hasn’t learned much English. I always encourage her to try, but she says, “Az man gozasheh.”
It’s too late for me.
That’s the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard, and I tell her so. This always makes her mad. She says I should be a nicer daughter. But I am a nice daughter! I just don’t want to be her translator for the rest of my life.
The rulebook begins with a “Welcome to Condominium Living!” page that shows a happy, good-looking blond family standing with another happy, good-looking blond family next to a barbecue, the fathers holding trays of hamburgers and hot dogs. We do not look anything like the people in the picture, but for once it doesn’t matter. If there is one thing the Yousefzadehs love, it’s grilling. My dad calls himself the King of Kebabs. I can almost imagine having a party with our new neighbors, just like in the picture—except that one of the families will be standing apart, holding a tray of bright orange, almost glow-in-the-dark chicken that everyone looks at but no one tries. This is what happens when you use saffron marinade instead of barbecue sauce.