The Half-Buttoned Effect

I want to reach out and slide the button back in the buttonhole.

She’s standing right in front of me, wearing a light green dress with buttons on the back. A row of buttons, like a dotted line drawn from her nape to a random point halfway down her spine. I count the buttons: one, two, three, four, and five. Number three is not fully buttoned. Half of it is peeping out through the buttonhole, the other half taking refuge under the green fabric. I wonder whether the fabric would feel warm to the touch. It has to, having spent the last hour or so sitting patiently on the warm, pink skin of a woman whose lover’s hand has been running up and down her buttoned back all throughout the poetry reading. How is it that my eyes see the half-buttoned button, but the lover’s hand doesn’t feel the incongruity? Am I imagining it? What if it’s the room’s dim lights creating the half-buttoned effect? Lights are tricky things, I’ve been told, and when they’re scarce, they can be trickier. There are rows of colorful, or perhaps colored, light bulbs, dimly lit, dimly lighting the room. Rows of bulbs glowing in harmony, with not even a single blind spot.

I want to reach out and slide the button back in the buttonhole.

I am not listening to the reader. I am wondering whether it’s perverse to think about sliding the button in the buttonhole. There is no sexual imagery here, but I suspect that if I turn to any of my new American friends in the room, point out the half-buttoned button, and express my desire to slide it in the buttonhole, they will most likely reconstruct me in their minds, perhaps questioning the sexual orientation of the new-in-America girl, or maybe her mental health. I’ve noticed the curiosity of my new American acquaintances about my sexuality. To figure me out, I suppose, they need to know whether I would kiss a girl more passionately than I would look down at a man’s tight pants cravingly. I imagine that in order to figure out the mystery of me, the other, the oriental-looking person with a female-looking body, they need to place me in a number of familiar frames before they can let me in, before they can let me slide in and out of their social spaces, their communities.

I want to reach out and slide the button back in the buttonhole.

I spot one of the people who’s been particularly curious about my sexual preferences. He’s leaning against a wall, eyes focused on the reader, perhaps listening diligently. He’s again wearing the red wool hat that I saw him wear earlier this week. Why does he take it off and put it back on every few minutes? I inquire my skin to find out if it’s cold. It’s not. Why’s he wearing the red wool hat then? I make up my mind: the hat has to go. Something should be done. Earlier, before the reading began, I saw strawberries, red like a wool hat. They were all over the room, in hands, in mouths, in eyes, in minds. Strawberries are red, and so are women’s lips, and wool hats. Strawberries are inviting, and so are the buttons. Strawberries were red, and yet they disappeared quickly. But the red wool hat doesn’t want to go. I wonder if the world always works that way, and whether misplacements are to be found everywhere. My mind begins nibbling at the word ‘misplacements.’ Something’s misplaced.

I want to reach out and slide the button back in the buttonhole.

No one sees the lizard. Only I do. I see her sauntering all the way from behind a purse left on the mosaic floor to a pair of white sneakers worn by an innocent-looking, hatless kid. The lizard’s running fast, as though running for her life, which nowadays seems to be equal to running from zombies and aliens. Nobody’s following the lizard, though. Not even anyone’s eyes. Only mine are. And they do so in the least threatening way. I’m not going to hurt her. She should be able to see that in my eyes. Maybe she’s afraid of my oriental looks. Maybe she thinks I look like someone who would bring terror to her peaceful life and disturb the familiar. I wish I knew lizard language so I could tell her I’m hurt and disappointed that you should prejudge me so. She doesn’t see the disappointment in my eyes, maybe because she’s not looking at me carefully enough. No one these days seems to. She’s sitting with her back to me. I can see her shoulders covered in green. I see her perimeter. Had I a paper and a pencil, I’d sketch her back when she had her back to me. I’d sketch how everyone’s backs looked like when they had their backs to me. I wonder if I should draw a lizard, too. She’s running toward the door, and my irises are running with her. Is she feeling lonely? Scared? Homesick? Is she leaving because she feels like a misfit? A misfit.

I want to reach out and slide the button back in the buttonhole.

I wonder who the man leaning on the door is. The big, wooden, brown, heavy, confining door. It was open earlier, but someone closed it. Noises? Yes, noises. They did. They closed the door. They came, they assaulted us in the room, they arrived with no warning, and blessed are we who have a big, heavy, thick door to close and to keep the noisy ones out. I see them everywhere: doors and doors and doors and doors. Inside and outside. Include and exclude. Within and without. Fitting in and fitting out. Belonging in and belonging out. Eyeing the half-buttoned button, I wonder whether she didn’t fully button it in the first place, or if the button was loosely buttoned and eventually slid out. That happens. If there’s not enough space to fit in, you will be forced to slide out.

I want to reach out and slide the button out of the buttonhole.

Born and raised in a small southern town in Iran, Saeide Mirzaei moved to Tehran in 2004 to join the MA program in English at University of Tehran. Although the move proved a bit of a culture shock for the provincial girl, she soon came to realize that her gender defined and restricted her existence, regardless of where she lived. A second culture shock, pronounced by her racial and ethnic otherness, occurred when, in hopes of becoming the voice of Iranian women, she moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama to join the MFA program in Creative Writing at UA only to learn that “once a woman, always a woman.” She’s now in a PhD program in English at University of Minnesota, where she’s also working on her book project, a cultural travelogue about her life in Alabama.

 

“The Half-Buttoned Effect” is a Best of the Net 2016 nonfiction finalist, selected by Kiese Laymon. Congratulations to Saeide Mirzaei!