Sunday, January 03, 2010

Fire proof

I like to think that, in the three years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve developed certain standards, and a particular tone that you, my readers have hopefully come to enjoy. Namely, aside from one or two forays into Canadian politics, the topics here have usually consisted of a) odd historical tidbits or b) me doing something stupid and hurting myself.

The latter are, understandably, much funnier than the former. What I don’t do, for the most part, is make fun of other people, except in the mildest and most affectionate of ways.

All of this is by way of a prelude to a post that is somewhat out of character for me, so I apologize in advance.

As most of you know, Amynah is an Ismaili Muslim. We agreed, long before she was a glimmer in her Daddy’s eye, that Sana would be as well (“informed indifferentism” not being a viable alternative). And so, once the bulk of Amynah’s immediate family had arrived in Los Angeles, we had her “Baiyat” – basically a baptism – in the library of the local Ismaili prayer hall.

I won’t go into the details of the ceremony, first because it was pretty much exactly like a Catholic baptism, and second because the relevant prayers were all in Gujurati so I didn’t fully understand what was happening. It was an emotionally moving moment though, and I was proud to be there.

After the ceremony, we had Amynah’s relatives and the few lab-mates that were in town over to help us dispose of the barrels of curry Amynah’s Mom had rustled up for the occasion.

Among the attendees was a girl I will call Azin. She was, technically, a former volunteer in Amynah’s lab. She was originally from Iran, where she apparently trained as a medical professional of some sort.

She had joined Amynah’s lab a few months before Amynah as a paid assistant, hired by Amynah’s generous boss, who hoped to help her in her planned application for grad school.

Sadly, it didn’t really work out: as Amynah explained it to me, Azin’s English comprehension made it impossible to keep up with her boss’s scattershot management style, and he grasp of the business of the lab meant she needed a lot of guidance: ”A lot” emphasized Amynah.

Amynah’s boss wasn’t willing to just kick the girl to the curb, and so he agreed to keep her on as a volunteer. Except that she still didn’t have anything to do, and no one in the lab wanted to be saddled with hammering through the language barrier to help her out. In the end, her presence was a hindrance to the business of the lab, and so, regretfully, her boss had to tell her she was no longer welcome. She was fired, as a volunteer.

Except, she came back. And she still comes back. Every week, wandering amongst the beakers and microscopes of the lab like a perfectly coiffed automaton, just waiting for someone to take pity on her and tell her to do something. No one ever does.

When Azin showed up at the party, I was delighted: I desperately wanted to meet the only person I’d ever heard of who’d been fired from volunteering – and somehow been impervious too it.

She was the strangest person I’d ever seen.

First, she was beautiful – there’s no arguing that. But speaking to her was deeply unsettling – her eyes, always somewhat glazed, were pointed just slightly to the side of your face, as if her home planet was instructing via a holograph over one’s shoulder. Her posture was ramrod straight, and she did not walk so much as glide. She was like a porcelain doll, and about as lively.

The most basic interactions escaped her. At one point, Amynah’s Mom approached her, and said “Please, have some food,” pointing at the groaning table and giving her a plate.

“Yes, thank you, I am having a lovely time,” replied Azin, uncomprehendingly, plate dangling uselessly from her hand.

Amynah’s Mom was flummoxed: “No… food! Eat!” she said, pushing her unresisting guest to the table. I didn’t watch the rest of the interaction, but I wouldn’t have been the least surprised if my mother-in-law had to then explain to our guest what Earthling food was for.

Later, seeing her conversationally stranded, I went over to speak to her, asking where in Iran she was from. Tehran, it turned out. Making polite small talk, I said I’d like to visit her country someday.

Her eyes snapped into focus: “Where?”

“Umm…” I said, flailing for some Iranian geography beyond Tehran, “Well… I hear the mountains are nice.” (I figured if Iran has a nuclear facility in a mountain, they probably have a few more peaks, and hey… mountains are nice everywhere).

“Yes! We have mountains. They are in the north and the west. We also have deserts. These are in the center. We also have beaches, both north and in the south, but the ones in the southwest are nicest,” she said, gazing into the middle distance, as if reciting from a cue card.

“Oh… that’s nice. So… ummm…” I was completely unnerved. Was she going to tell me Iran’s GDP next? But she had already moved on.

“Tell me. Why is there a pretzel on your tree? What does this mean?” she asked suddenly, pointing to an Alsatian novelty ornament on the tree.

Relieved, I replied “Oh, that’s from where Amynah and I used to live in France. It’s a common food there, so that was kind of a souvenir.”

Azin locked eyes with me, unblinkingly: “Yes, but what does it mean?”

“It’s… I don’t know… from Alsace… food… pretzel… friendship?” I stammered.

“Friendship?” she inquired, relentlessly.

“Yeah… you know, you have the two arms… linking together…..” I offered, making it up as I went along. “Like a handshake!” I finished lamely.

She nodded, as if I’d confirmed something for her, and then wandered off to peer at a section of our kitchen wall.

It turns out that I had been the last person at the party to try to speak to her, and everyone else had had similarly unsettling experiences. Soon after our interaction, Azin decided that she had observed enough of our planet’s customs and made to leave. One by one, ramrod straight, she glided over to Amynah, then Amynah’s Mom and Dad, then her Uncle, graciously and formally informing them that she had had a lovely time, thank you for inviting her, and congratulations on the beautiful new addition to your family.

However rote these formalities, so strange and otherworldly was her manner, a hush fell over the room, and every eye on her as if she was an albino tiger or equally exotic and unpredictable creature. Anyone else would have been self-conscious in the silence – but she was completely unruffled by the scrutiny. When she walked out the door, it was as if a spell had been broken. There was a titter of nervous laughter as the tension broke.

Bewildered, Amynah’s Uncle glared at me: “What the hell was wrong with her?”

I replied, looking at the door through which Azin had departed, yet somehow failed to close properly: “That, Habib, is a living legend. That was the girl who could not be fired.”


Brian Busby said...

No need for apologies. "Write what you know" may be good advice, but "write about what what leaves you dumfounded" often makes for a more interesting read. This young lady seems such an intriguing figure. Frankly, I hope you'll encounter her again... and that you'll share the experience.

One of my very favourite posts!

Travis said...

One word: Aspberger's.

I've encountered students like that in the interview stage but never been so desperate for entertainment that I actually recommended my boss take them on.

Where do they go?

Candace said...

That was funny. I want to go visit you so I can meet her .... sheer curiousity. There was a woman at the hosptial, she was hired through a temp agency then hired by the hospital. She was fired on a Friday but showed up to work on Monday. Security escorted her out. She went back to working at the temp agency. Quite a while later the temp agency sent her back to the hospital. At the time (and maybe still) being hired through a temp agency meant the hiring process from HR wasn't used. The department who hired her had no idea she had been fired from the hospital. A few days later the manager who fired her found out, called HR and once again security escorted her out of the building. This woman had her quirks but not like the lady you wrote about.

Travis said...

Excuse me: "Asperger's".