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Short story

July 2, 2001
The Iranian

- "Hi, it's Rick."

- "Hey, Rick. What's up?"

- "I'm in your neck of the woods and Jim says you should take me out to dinner."

- "Who is this?"

- "Rick."

- "Rick who?"

- "Rick... "

- "Oh, I know. You're Rick..."

- "Isn't that what I said?"

- "Yes. But I thought you're our own Rick. I'm sorry. How are you?"

- "Good. How about yourself?"

- "Not bad. How's the project coming along?"

- "Jim seems happy with it."

- "Good, good. I'm not sure if Jim's told you or not but I've moved to another group and am not really working on your project any more."

- "Yes, I've heard. That's good news."

- "It is?"

- "Absolutely."

- "I see."

- "Now you can take me out for no reason other than seeking the pleasure of my company."

This is how it all started. My long distance relationship with the American-Indian with strong hands and distinguished cheek bones. As I sat there listening to him talk on that cold November evening sugar cubes were melting in my heart, as Iranians would say. The saying could be translated as sugar cubes melting in my stomach but that's not quite as romantic, you see. The word for heart and stomach is the same in Persian, dell, like the computer. As in stomachache which is Dell-Dard. Dard being pain.

We don't really have a word for heartache in Persian, now that I think of it. When it comes to love, it's the liver that responds. We would say my liver burnt for him or her. Or he grilled my liver. In fact, nothing would be sexier than whispering in your lover's ear "I want to eat your liver." These things fascinate me. Why the liver? Why the heart for that matter? The liver cleanses the blood and the heart pumps it. How does that relate to love? I'm not sure but by the time I actually took Rick to a family dinner he knew the difference between dell (heart) and jigar (liver). And I knew that the blood rushing in his veins was too tempestuous for both my heart and liver.

Cross-cultural relationships are difficult. This perhaps is an obvious understatement. I believe in improving the gene pool. I believe people of mixed heritage and race tend to be more well rounded. Of course being of mixed heritage myself, I may have some bias. Regardless, evolution would support my assertion. This is interesting since capitalism is supposedly based on the theories of evolution (survival of the fittest) yet most capitalists tend to be conservatives who preach purifying the races. These things fascinate me too. At any rate, although there is a certain level of comfort when one hangs out with a lover of the similar heritage, there are a lot of assumptions too.

By the time Rick and I met that muggy afternoon in Buffalo to deal with some job-related technical issues, a couple of months before he called me with his dinner order, I was ready to feed outside of my own manger, to put it crudely. Let's just say that Iranian men carry quite a lot of baggage, as do most people. However it is their reluctance to deal with their baggage, check it in perhaps, or have it searched by authorities. Yes, it is their reluctance to deal with their baggage that keeps them at a disadvantage when it comes to relationships, specifically with an Iranian woman. I am no social psychologist, of course, my assertion is based purely on personal experience which is by definition both limited and subjective. But I believe many women out there would agree with me on this. And so will many men. Let's move on, which is exactly how I felt right about when I met Rick.

Rick comes from a complicated mix of bloodlines: Cherokee, Inca, Norwegian and Basque; those he has written proof of. The African, Jewish and Vietnamese lines are alleged but not confirmed. I found the global distribution of his cultural heritage impressive. My own although similar in numeric variety is geographically limited to Northwestern Iran and the Caucuses. We shared a love for mountain ranges and eagles. Taos became our meeting spot. I would fly from San Francisco and he from Buffalo. All was well until he expressed an interest in spending Thanksgiving in San Francisco. "But there's such great skiing in Taos this time of the year." I tried to divert his focus. "No. I want to meet your family. You can't hide them from me for ever." Perceptive and direct. That's why I like him. But as the song says (or one should), so much can change between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Today is the fateful day. Stuff-your-belly-day. Rick is taking a shower and I'm busy listing all the reasons why a car accident would be preferable to dinner at my grandmother's house. It's not that our family is unfriendly or cold. On the contrary, it is their over-friendliness that will intimidate the new comer, the way they go out of their way to ensure that you have been thoroughly fed and are being fully entertained at all times, the constant questioning: "More tea?... Another slice of melon?... Are you having a good time?... Would you like anything else?..." Oh, how those broad smiles mislead you into believing you are loved. They are addictive. After a few family gatherings you find yourself condescending other gatherings for their shortages either in quality or abundance of food, or in sheer lack of entertainment value. And so it goes, the ritual of breaking bread together. The challenge, for all families I believe, remains the same: how to break bread without breaking any heads or hearts. Gastronomically speaking, we are well cared for under the auspices of my grandmother. I can't think of a boyfriend who disliked my family. But then again, they didn't always know how my family really felt about them.

The water is no longer running. Now, I can clearly hear Rick singing. It concerns me that he knows the entire Barbara Striesand songbook. The door is propped open and he sticks his head out "ready?" A simple enough question one would think but amazingly it throws me into a whirlpool of anxiety and restlessness. This would be the first time I take a "foreign" boyfriend to a family dinner. Foreign-ness is an interesting concept all by itself. One would think that the fact that we were born in a country other than the one we reside in makes us foreigners. But no. In reality, anyone who does not speak our language, figuratively and metaphorically speaking, is considered to be a foreigner by my family. For example, most Americans are foreigners. But my Jordanian friend is not a foreigner and I often find my grandmother speaking to her in Persian fully expecting a response, in Persian. Don't try to inflict your logical paradigms on family behavior or the psyche of the displaced. Families are like enigmatic organisms that can only be observed, never fully understood. And the displacedsimply cope the best way they can with whatever life throws their way.

"People... people who need people... all the luckiest people... in the world." I look at him wondering how we have come to meet the people we meet. How is it that this lovely statuesque bronze figure is standing here teasing me with a gentle flexing of his glutial muscles? I've been too nervous to fully delight in his presence thus far. Sensing my continued reticence, Rick takes my face into his hands kneeling in front of me. His dark blue eyes excavate my soul. I am unable to look away. The wetness makes his dark blond hair look black. I seek shelter in his breath whispering, "We don't have to go." To this he responds with a broad smile, "And miss all the entertainment?" I hate it when the facts are so clearly laid out. There is no mystery, no need for guesswork, no excitement. He laughs. I am not amused. Why am I so concerned? Oh, the expectations, the need to continuously translate, explain every comment, food ingredient, family history... in short, why can't we just be alone together? Why does he feel compelled to meet my family? Why turn a very convenient, delightful long-distance romance into a complicated mesh of failed expectations and misunderstandings that will only sieve bitterness? Am I being too negative?

I feel him sitting behind me on the bed his legs framing me. He massages my shoulders intent on squeezing the tension out of them. The relaxation is affecting him more than me. I can feel him getting hard behind me but I'm absolutely not in the mood. God, I never thought I would say this. Not in the mood? What's wrong with me? Who's ever heard of a Libra not be in the mood? I get up frustrated and lock myself in the bathroom. I don't have to do this, I keep telling myself. If it's this painful, if it's killing every morsel of affection I feel for this guy, I don't have to do it. I don't want to take another shower but I don't want to get dressed either. But how long can I stay in the bathroom? Hey, it's my house. I can stay in my own bathroom for as long as I want. "How long are you going to stay in there?" Mr. Rick asks. "I'll be out in a second." I respond automatically and immediately regret it. No, I'll need more than a second.

I remember how much everyone loved my ex. How impressed they were with him. He had it all, or so we thought. They were very disappointed when we broke up. Okay, when I left him. They advised me to reconsider. At my age and all... I was only in my mid thirties but apparently the end is approaching more rapidly than I expect. Am I afraid that they won't like Rick? But that won't really affect my feelings for him. And I know he will like them. They might shock him but he will like them, the way Mendel liked his peas. Suddenly it comes to me. I should recognize this fear. It's the same one I felt when Lateef suggested he move here from Paris. It's the same one I felt when Nader gave me a silver ring for my birthday. I felt it from the moment Rick revealed his Thanksgiving weekend itinerary. What if everything works out well? What if they all like each other? He loves me, I love him, and the family approvesyes, the fear of the next "logical" step. God, I hate being an adult. I hate being expected to marry. I hate these games, courting, surveying, evaluating. I thought with Rick I would have a better chance of walking the path less traveled. But I guess the desire to tie the knot is more universal than I thought. I do long for a partner but I just can't say until-death-do-us-apart. It just seems such a cruel thing to do to someone. To me specially.

There is a knock. "Darling," I lift up my head to find two windows to the world's vast oceans. "We don't have to go if you don't want to." See? Some people can read your mind. "Do you mean it?" I ask sheepishly. He kisses my hair, mumbling yes. "I'll cook us the best turkey you've ever had." I exclaim running to the kitchen. This is the only promise I can commit to at this moment. But I have none of the required ingredients and all the stores would be closed now. Plus I feel ashamed. He came all this way to meet my family and I'm denying him the experience. He shouldn't be punished for my insecurities. I decide to act grown up for once.

- "Rick?"

- "Yes."

- "Why is it important to you to meet my family?"

- "To see what kind of in-laws I'll have to deal with in the future."

He laughs mischievously as he approaches my freezer. I know this routine well. A bottle of vodka, two shot glasses, one lime. He pours. I watch from the hallway. He looks at me philosophically as he offers me one of the glasses. I take it, suspicion coloring my smile. "I know nothing and guarantee nothing." Is how he begins what I expect is a short yet profound statement. "I feel close to you. I am curious to learn more. It is neither the beginning nor the end of anything. The only way I know to live life is by fully experiencing what it throws my way. I know when I hide I lose. Here is to staring fear in the eye." His glass touches mine. The dryness on my tongue tells me that my mouth has been open for some time. I remember to breathe and swallow the juices gathered inside my cheeks. The glass touches my lips and the contents find their way down my throat. Somehow I have kept my eyes on Rick's this entire time and I see him come closer. Eyes locked, lips come together and for the first time since he has been here I relax in his arms. This is all it takes to get me to do something. Pretty easy, hmm?

Thanksgiving is one of the more purely American traditions. Canadians and Americans are the only people I know who celebrate it. Yet my family has successfully appropriated this holiday to such extent that those Americans who have had the opportunity to be served Thanksgiving dinner at our house will never again be satisfied with a menu that does not include zereshk-polo and borani. As expected, Rick is absolutely dazzled by the exotic colors and smells around him. He has responded dutifully to all offers of second helpings followed by tea and Turkish coffee. Presently, he is absolutely enchanted by the taste of the honey-dripping bamieh that accompanied his fourth glass of tea. He looks at me his eyes drunk with pleasure. The family response to Rick has been quite positive, I must say. They were quite impressed to find that he is well versed in the art of Rummy. The highlight of the evening was when Rick proudly declared "Jigareto bokhoram" to my mother in appreciation for a key card she had passed on to him. In response my mother offered him the Turkey's liver and said "Na azizam, eat this guy's liver instead." Everyone laughed and continued the game merrily.

For some time now I have been ready to depart except that we are awaiting Rick's turn in the long line of coffee cups to be read. My mother is looking at Rick's cup. In recent years, she has become progressively selective in publicly sharing her fortune telling talents. I make sure Rick is very aware of the honor that is being bestowed upon him. Finally, my mother takes a deep sigh and begins, still holding the cup and turning it ever so slightly to the left and now to the right "Rick jan, what to tell you. I see a fish that is just beginning to grow legs and crawl out of the water. You are going through a big change. You will completely change where you live, how you live, all of it. This is good change for you."

Can you imagine how I feel at this moment? Here's to staring fear in the eye. "Go on, mom." I say fully engaged. Rick is visibly proud of me. I am visibly proud of me. She continues "You are building a huge castle. You know like the one in Disney cartoon, big beautiful. You are putting everything into this castle. But this castle is made of sand." My heart sinks. I look at him. He is still smiling apparently untouched by the connotations of this last remark. "Okay, make a wish and put your finger to the bottom of the cup. Yes, like this." She demonstrates. Rick follows as instructed. "Nice very good. Whatever you wish for will be very good. A young woman with wavy hair will do this with you." I consider myself young. I have wavy hair. Neither of these qualities is unique to me but somehow I am convinced that my mother's portent is referring to me. Okay then, it's time to go. The goodbye ritual takes less than thirty minutes, possibly a record for my family, and Rick and I drive away with the packaged leftovers obediently tucked in on the back seats.

Thank you, Rick says. For what? I ask without saying anything. "For letting me be a part of your family for one day." I keep my eyes on the road and smile. I feel exhausted. Can't wait to get home and relax in Rick's arms. I look at him to see if he too looks tired. To my surprise I see tears rolling down his eyes, in complete silence he is weeping. I ask him what's wrong, he waves his hand at me dismissing the profound pain he must be feeling. What could have happened in the five minutes since we have been on the road? Rick, what is the matter? I beg to know. All of a sudden he breaks into sobs. He is wailing, wailing the way women do in Greek tragedies, a Trojan man pouring his guts out. Speak to me, I press not sure whether it is safe for me to keep driving. I speed up. I need to get this man home as soon as possible. Keeping one eye on him and one on the speedometer, the car is basically on its own as far how it wants to reach the destination, I reach out to Rick. He pushes away my hand. I'm at a loss as to how to calm him down; maybe I shouldn't try at all. Maybe I should just let him weep, sob and wail to his heart's content. And so it continues until we're home. He slips out of the car like a ghost depleted of his physical existence empty yet radiating. I embrace him as soon as we are inside he continues to whimper.

No words, I keep caressing his hair and kissing his forehead, his wet cheeks and wiping away the tears. He begins to kiss me back first gently, almost timidly, then more intentionally as if to reclaim me. Standing at the doorway of my apartment Rick begins to undress me with an immediacy I find startling. He seems more like a tiger devouring his prey than a broken man looking for comfort. Our mouths salty from his tears engage in an unending journey across face and body. His hands are pulling at my skin mixing pain and pleasure as he consumes me, searching for my most inner essence he is digging deeper and deeper. I feel benumbed in his arms, fluid-like, transparent. He is peeling away my layers one at a time, skin, tissue, pulling out organs with veins hanging from them, I am bleeding on the floor my guts spread out, he continues to feed on me no end to his voracity, no end to my bewildered existence. We have formed a continuum in space swimming together through a black hole. I hear my own voice calling out from a distance. His voice joins in. We are engulfed in the echoes of our own howling, our sound reverberating from the mountain we have created together, skin against skin, tissue beating, no more tears and no more sorrows, only the crystal clear sobriety of physical existence, heightened reality, awakened senses, pure pleasure.

Maybe the turkey was too dry or Rick felt he couldn't live in the absence of yams and apple pie on his Thanksgiving dinner table. Or maybe the closeness we shared that weekend scared him. Or, he just stopped liking me. I don't know. All and all, I was quite happy with our stuff-your-belly weekend together. But Rick never called me after he left. He did not return my calls or respond to my emails. The Christmas card I sent him was returned with no forwarding address. I stared fear in the eye, I followed through, I didn't hide. Rick disappeared. He referred his project with Jimmy to another associate. As to his project with me, it apparently fell through the cracks.

I miss his eyes, his body, his appetite. And I can't help wondering who that young woman with wavy hair might be the one predicted to make the move with him. Suddenly, being in my late thirties does feel threatening. There is a very real possibility that I may live the rest of my life alone.

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