There is a house made of stone that I have been visiting since I was very young. Some people say it’s just a made-up place in my head, but the house has saved my life many times, and that makes it real to me. The House of Stone has many floors, doors, and windows that form a spiral within a mountain. The windows are tinted brilliant colors and let in a magic light in the afternoons. From outside, the windows look like part of the mountain, and those who haven’t gained permission to enter into the House of Stone can never find it. From inside, you can see out across the whole forest to the other side, where there’s a volcano. There are many people of all different ages who live there. They go by the names of colors: Red, Blue, Orange, Green, Black, and so on. No one in the House needs food to survive. If you want something, it comes down to you from above. You don’t need a mother, brother, or anyone else at all. The wonderful people who live in the House watch over each other collectively. But you pay a big price to gain admission there: Something really bad must have happened to you. Something awful, but nothing that was your fault. And one more thing: If you come to the House and then leave, you might find that you have forgotten who you were before you came. So you have to be careful. My younger life in Iran always seemed strange to me. I had little concept of time. One moment, I would find myself in school, and the next, I would be somewhere completely different, surrounded by different people and places: faces that I wouldn’t recognize, but that knew me - places that felt vaguely familiar. And then, I’d be in bed, wondering what had just happened. I suffered from insomnia and would often find myself, in the early hours of morning, consumed by the thought that I had no idea what I’d done for large parts of the day. I’d dig around my room, like a detective looking for clues. Sometimes, I would find notebooks filled with chicken-scratches about schoolmates or other people I knew or diagrams of places I had visited. These would all be in my own handwriting, yet I wouldn't remember having written them. At one point, I found in there a map of Turkey that I had bought a few months earlier to find a way out of Iran, and the on the bottom, saw my own handwriting again. I recoiled in horror as I read: “Staying here is the same as dying, but leaving without any money and protection of an adult is the same as suicide. Which will it be?” We had moved away from the busy city of Tehran to a deserted town on the Caspian Sea because my mother suffered from severe social anxiety and couldn’t handle noise. As a kid, I used to love being in that town and looked forward to our summer vacations, but as a teen, I also felt that my life there was small, isolated, and lonely. When I was seventeen, I one day woke up with a splitting headache. I was disoriented, and it was difficult for me to do the simplest of tasks, be that getting my clothes on or gathering my books. I heard my stepfather say that on that day I had to go to school to re-take all the exams that I had failed that semester. The idea of his taking me to school terrified me, and as soon as I heard him go into the bathroom, I slipped out the back door and walked as fast as I could to the bus stop. Everything seemed to be happening backwards. It was the end of summer, vacations were over and people were headed back to Tehran, to their busy lives. I saw empty houses, cars leaving town. My head was throbbing. The driver called out the name of my stop. I remember seeing the big front doors of my school. Then time stopped. I looked around and realized I wasn’t at school. There was sand all around me and I recognized the familiar beach in the secret place at which I used to rendezvous with a boy named Reza. Had I gone there to meet him? I couldn’t remember. I looked up and down the beach but couldn’t find him. There was a burning sensation in my belly and an awful taste in my mouth. I felt so ill. I looked at my watch and saw that it was eleven. Four hours had passed; I’d obviously missed my exam. I looked up and saw seagulls flying low in the sky, noisily fighting each other for scraps of leftover fish. I felt the fabric of my long, black chador around my body and pulled it tighter. For the first time in my life, I appreciated that piece of clothing. “Chador” means “tent” in Farsi, and I imagined myself like a camper in the wilderness, hiding from the dangers of the world. I looked down and noticed a plastic bag with a bottle in it at my feet. I took out the bottle and saw that it was half-filled with bleach. I held it to my nose and the smell confirmed for me that I had drunk it. The pungent smell matched the taste in my mouth perfectly. Without giving it another thought, I opened the lid, covered my nose, and drank some more. It rekindled the burning sensation in my stomach and I started to gag, becoming dizzier. I tried to stand up but couldn’t. My clothes felt so heavy. I’m wearing too much, I thought. I’m going to explode. The sea was calling to me. I needed to cool off. I kept crawling, crawling, like a small child, until the first wave hit my face. I kept crawling and felt the tide lift me up until I was floating. The waves loosened my clothes and my chador whirled down to the sea floor like a dead, sinking jellyfish. The cold of the water on my skin met the heat beneath it, and my core started to relax. I won’t drown, I thought. I know how to swim. Then I thought, I won’t drown because I don’t want to die. I wanted a new family, a new life. I wanted to live. But the sea had taken my clothes and was now clawing at my skin, dragging me under. The water embraced me, hugged me down into the deep. I awoke to the sound of familiar voices and arms holding me safely. I was in the House Of Stone. All the people who lived there were right by my side. But something was wrong. “You can’t die.” Red, the youngest of them said. She seemed scared. She was also sobbing. “If you die, we will all die. Do you understand?” “No.” I said. “If I die, I can finally join you and live in the House of Stone forever.” “No,” Green said. “Red is right. We need you to stay alive. We are your sisters. We won't let you die.” “I want to stay with you.” I cried. Then I saw Black coming closer, holding my face in her hands and gently kissing my forehead. “Open your eyes. Breathe. Let go.” When I opened my eyes, I found myself in a steamy room. Hot water seemed to be running on all over me. There were two beautiful women: one middle-aged, and the other young, like me. They were washing my body. We were in a big, room-sized shower. The two women were clothed but soaking wet, taking turns supporting and cleaning me. “She’s awake,” the younger one said. “Am I dead?” I asked. “You’re lucky,” the older one said. “The fisherman found you drowning,” the younger one said. “They brought you to the first house they saw on the beach.” “Can you hold yourself up?” the older one asked. “Were you trying to drown yourself?” the younger one asked. “Not now,” said the older one. “Later.” “Where are my clothes?” I asked. I realized I was in my underwear. “I am washing them,” the old lady said. “You threw up all over them. You can wear Negin’s for now,” pointing at the younger girl. I got up slowly. The stench of bleach was everywhere still. I saw that I had thrown up all over their shower-room, but the smell of bleach overpowered even that. Then I remembered drinking the bleach. So that’s why they were washing me. Slowly, I got ready, put on Negin’s clothes, and walked to the first mirror I found. The reflection in it seemed to me like that of an older lady: the eyes were sunken into the head and there were dark circles spreading into the cheeks. The skin was white and there was blue on the lips. Had years gone by? Had I woken up old? I saw what looked like a dining room off to one side and entered it. The older lady was sat at the table. “Salaam,” I said, and sat down with her. “My name is Mrs. Noory,” she said. “I’m Negin’s mother. What’s your name?” I couldn’t remember and that scared me. I said nothing. Negin came in. “What were you doing in the water?” she asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “Sweetie,” Mrs. Noory said. “We need to know who we can call to let them know you are here.” “There’s no one to call,” I said. It was the truth. I couldn’t imagine anyone in the world at that moment who would claim me. “You don’t remember anything?” Negin asked. “Okay, okay,” Mrs. Noory said. “Please eat something. You’re going to be okay.” “How long can I stay with you?” I asked. I was hoping she’d say forever. “As long as it takes for us to find your family.” A few days passed. I remembered a big library filled with books and getting lost in the stories I found there. It seemed possible to me that I’d never leave. But gradually, the pleasant atmosphere of the house began to wear off. Mrs. Noory’s face started to lose its smile and she no longer let me wander around the house, but rather, followed me with probing eyes. I thought of ways to make myself indispensable. One evening, I found a pile of dirty dishes in the kitchen sink and decided to help out by washing them. Mrs. Noory came into the kitchen along with Negin. They seemed upset. “What’s your name?” Ms. Noory asked. “I am not sure,” I answered. I had remembered my name by then, but I didn’t want them to call my family. “Your name is Atash, isn’t it?” Negin asked. They both looked at me intensely. “Why didn’t you want to tell us?” Mrs. Noory said. “Were you trying to kill yourself?” “No,” I said. “At least, I don’t think so.” I finished the dishes and sat down with them on the couch. Finally, I asked, “How did you know my name is Atash?” “I went through your backpack that was found on the beach and saw your school ID,” Negin said. She gave it back to me. “I contacted your school and got your mother’s phone number,” Mrs. Noory said. Then she looked down at me from over the rim of her glasses and asked, “Atash joon, is there anything you want to tell us before your parents get here?” “My parents?” The idea seemed impossible. I liked Mrs Noory and Negin and their house full of books. They were kind, and I felt at ease in their home. I had happily adopted my new family and had all but erased my old one. I could barely remember the faces of my parents. They were a distant, foggy memory. The house bell rang like a fire alarm. “That must be them,” Mrs. Noory said. “I called them not long ago.” A woman and two men came through the door. The woman was crying loudly. “I thought my daughter was dead,” she said. “How much can a mother take?” Mrs. Noory invited them to her living room where four small couches made a semi-circle. I was afraid to look up. Mrs. Noory sat next to me and stroked my back. “You can tell us what is wrong, and we’ll all put our heads together to help you,” she said. She looked at her guests for confirmation. “Isn’t that right?” “We don’t know what to do with Atash anymore,” the woman said, not answering Mrs. Noory’s question. “Every week it’s a new problem.” “Problem?” Mrs. Noory asked. “She acts strange at home and in school. Her friends don’t know her anymore and recently she got herself out of a perfect opportunity for a good marriage.” “The problem seems to be that she tried to kill herself,” Mrs. Noory said. Then she faced me and asked, “What do you think, Atash?” “She just wants to play around,” one of the men said. “We have a reputation in this town, you know. She is ruining it for us.” “Can we please wait to hear from Atash?” Mrs. Noory seemed impatient with her guests. All eyes were on me. I studied the three people: the crying woman, the angry man, and the third man who was sitting quietly on one end of the sofa. He in particular drew me in. I studied his face, then it hit me: Shoja! My brother’s friend Shoja, the one who works with animals! “Tell us what is happening to you and what it is that you want,” Mrs. Noory said as she rubbed my back. I started to say, “I don’t know what I want most of the time ... ” but the crying woman interrupted me. “Here are all the love letters she’s been writing to Shoja, we ripped them out of her journal,” she said. She handed Mrs. Noory a stack of pages. “She just got out of a perfect opportunity to marry her cousin and now we know why. She can never tell us directly what she wants.” “She writes letters like Rumi, but can’t pass any of her exams,” the angry man said. I looked at him and rubbed my eyes. I kept blinking and when my eyes opened I saw his face come into focus. My stepfather! Then I looked at the woman and realized that it had to be my mother. I blinked again. There she was. Mrs. Noory passed me the stack of letters. I read a few of them. They were in my handwriting, but I couldn’t remember writing any of them. I felt as though someone had published my personal information in a newspaper for all the world to see. “Atash joon,” my mother said. “Tell us what you want. Do you love Shoja?” Of course not, I thought. I was probably just killing time by writing to someone who gave me attention. But what was there to say? I had no idea what I’d written, and all those letters in my handwriting were lying there in the palm of my hand. I started to rock back and forth. My fingers reached up to my head and I started kneading at the flesh of my scalp. Slowly, I started to tug at my hair, pulling at it harder and harder. Mrs. Noory got up alarmed, she took me in her arms, and I started to weep uncontrollably. “See?” my mother said. “See? This is what she does.” With Mrs. Noory’s insistence, my family took me to the nearest hospital in Shahsavar to do X-rays of my esophagus and stomach. Mrs. Noory demanded that she ride along. I was very grateful for her presence. The X-rays came back okay: apparently I had thrown everything up before it could do any serious internal damage. But the doctors wouldn’t release me, despite the protests of my mother and my stepfather. One of them, a psychiatrist named Dr. Kazemi, an old skinny man with a long nose, glasses, and a bald head, insisted on taking me into a side room for some further questioning. He had a funny Rashti accent that made him sound as though he had marbles in his mouth when he talked. I had to force myself not to giggle when he asked me, “Dokhtar, bi khud chekardi?” “Girl, what've you done to yourself?” “Atash khanom,” Dr. Kazemi said to me when we were alone. “You’re very lucky to have met Mrs. Noory. She’s a social worker, you know.” “You know Mrs. Noory?” I asked. “Of course,” he said. “She works here at the hospital. She told me a little bit about your forgetfulness. I wanted to ask you a few questions about it, if that’s okay.” I nodded cautiously. “I want to make it clear to you, Atash, that I am not going to discuss what you say here with anyone else.” For some reason, I felt I could trust him. But I didn’t know where to begin, so I just said, “It didn’t start as forgetfulness. It just started as losing track of time. Sometimes I’d just be pretending I was flying or traveling to fun places. And then, somehow, I'd do those things for real.” Dr. Kazemi peered down his narrow nose at me. “You sound like a clever girl, Atash. Maybe you can tell me what was happening as you imagined yourself flying?” “Okay,” I said. “I remember doing that when my grandmother used to tie us to the bed so she could go out shopping and not have to worry about us.” “And how long did she tie you up for?” “A couple of hours, sometimes all day,” I said. “It was okay then. I think my forgetfulness got worse during the Revolution, though.” Dr. Kazemi seemed to understand. He nodded his head several times vigorously. But then there was silence between us, and he didn’t break it. “Dr. Kazemi,” I said after a few minutes. “Do you want me to tell you why I was trying to kill myself?” “Yes,” he said. “That’s the question I have in my mind.” “I’m not a virgin, Dr. Kazemi. I haven’t been since I was a little kid. My parents are trying to marry me off, and when they find out I’m not a virgin they’re going to stone me to death, anyway. So I’d rather kill myself first.” “I see,” Dr. Kazemi said. “I’m very sorry to hear that, Atash. How long has it been that you haven’t been a virgin?” “Since I was four,” I said. “Atash, that is not losing your virginity, that is child abuse.” I started to cry again. Dr. Kazemi didn’t say anything. He just let me cry. Then I saw him smile. “Why are you smiling?” I asked. “I like your sense of humor.” I studied his face for clues but didn’t understand what he meant. “Do you know what we were just talking about?” He asked. “How long do you think you have been in my office? I was shocked to learn that I had been with him for two hours. “Atash,” he said, finally. “Do you know why people forget things?” I shook my head. “People forget things in order to survive. If we remember every terrible thing that happened to us, we won't be able to bear it. So you see, your forgetting is very brave. It’s your mind protecting you, like a loyal soldier.” “No,” I said. “Like a house. There’s a house made of stone, and when I go there nothing can hurt me. I have many friends there.” “Yes,” he said. “Exactly. Atash, I would like to learn about your House and the friends who live there. I’m going to want to see you for therapy.” “Do you think I’m crazy?” “No. I’m saying you’re badly hurt. Atash, therapy is not for crazy people; it’s for wounded people. And I will tell you honestly, if you don’t get help you might try to kill yourself again.” “Do you know why I am the way I am?” “Yes. I understand your condition well.” “Okay,” I agreed. “I’ll come back.” I said goodbye to him and walked out into the waiting room, where my mother and stepfather were sitting. I never saw Dr. Kazemi again.