Cataracts, root canals, young women and aging men

Short story


Cataracts, root canals, young women and aging men
by Ben Tanosborn

“Ben, I must talk to you; in person; right away.” That was the voice message I had just retrieved. Commanding action, yet the words sounded distant and languid; a nine-one-one from Zak which had nothing to do with his business but one of those person-in-anguish calls that only mental or spiritual health healers get. But I’m neither of them.

Only other time I have sensed Zak this upset, his business was barely a hundred yards and a holler from going under. That was ten years ago, when I was introduced to him as a sort of lifeguard. He was drowning, being pulled by that “past-fifty” riptide while trying to hold on to a company he had nurtured for years, then facing impending bankruptcy.

Zakaria, a personable not-by-choice Iranian immigrant, had been introduced to me by another client, Ron, a general contractor who often utilized his services in the flooring trades; and who had always praised his tile work as artistry not to be found anywhere else in the United States. And it was during the first few months in the righting of his listing ship that Zak and I began to develop a friendship extending beyond the confines of business counsel. Now running a large successful business, my effort for his firm doesn’t extend beyond counsel provided at board meetings or occasional assignments. But our get-togethers as friends continue to be frequent and enjoyable.

Curiosity was getting the best of me. What could be bothering him all of a sudden? Could it have something to do with his health, one of those cancer-slaps one gets when least expected as the years heavily mount our mortality saddle?

There was no preview of coming attractions on my return call. Zak sounded solemn, secretive and laconic… all tied together in an enigmatic bundle. He said he would explain while at lunch tomorrow, just before we both show up for his endodontic appointment. We! Both! I know some people fear root canal work, but never did I think of myself as particularly qualified to act as a soothing escort for someone my own age!


When Ron introduced me to Zak a decade earlier, I recall my greeting him taking the form of a question. “I understand that you are Persian?” I believe to have said. To which I felt embarrassingly corrected when he answered, “I am Iranian, Ben… from Khorosan.” Obviously there was the nuance in interchangeability between Iran and Persia I failed to observe. Undaunted I went on with yet another question, “Mashhad, perhaps?” His answer was a slow nod of his head accompanied by a change in expression from surprise to pleasantness. I knew I had been forgiven.

I am guessing that it was my knowledge of the region’s geography, and also a laudatory mention of his hometown’s celebrated Malek o-So ara (King of Poets) – Bahar, who was coincidentally related to him – that made us instant friends-to-be. That I was able to turn his business around… well, that was just the cherry-topping to our friendship.

A colorful character, this Zak! Within days after meeting him, he had opened his soul to me without reservations. Not only was his business failing, but his marriage of fifteen years was sinking as well, as if both had been irremediably yoked. But as I was helping him save his business, he couldn’t do the same with a marriage destined to fail. His Lebanese-American spouse, having been surrounded from birth by entrepreneurial success from parents and siblings just couldn’t cope with Zak’s fledgling business ways. So he accepted his failure at conjugal happiness and granted childless Fatina a divorce, shifting all his efforts to absorb every bit of mentoring on the business I could give him.

That Zak came to the United States at about the time the Shah left Iran was probably no coincidence, but it’s something I’ve never discussed with him; nor have I asked him if he had been a member of the SAVAK, which has been nothing but an intuitive guess in my part. I probably never wanted to know, for Zak is too scholarly and gentle to have caused harm to anyone. As incredible as it may seem, I never gave much thought, nor cared, whether he identified politically with the next pretender to Cyrus’ throne, or was a follower of the mullahs and the Iranian Revolution. He had the sensibilities and culture that went beyond any and all expectations one might have for the camaraderie of a fishing trip or the beer-sipping chatter at Monday Night Football.

Even the weird politics Zak exhibits at times has never bothered me. Like in 2004 when he campaigned for the election to Congress of Goli Ameri, solely because she was Iranian-American! Never mind that she was affiliated with a party whose leader had made Iran a charter Axis of Evil member, and a nation probably targeted as the next Iraq. Fortunately, the 5,000-plus local Iranian-Americans went to defeat in what most reasonable people felt had been a masochistic ethnic vote.

In time, Zak and I became not just friends but postulants in the “adib order.” It was our mutual acknowledgement that we were aspiring scholars, men who respected learning and letters: “adib Zak” and “adib Ben”… at the very least, adib-wannabes.


So here I am, on Root Canal Day, a day of penance which I assume is to be preceded by Zak’s confession. I am to be the father confessor, and my confessional, of all places, will be nothing less than Dari’s.

An opportunity to eat at Dari’s is a treat in and of itself. An opportunity to eat at Dari’s from a Persian addendum to the menu is an experience from yet another time, another place, opening and closing with exclamation points to the most demanding palates. Zak always calls the owner the day before to arrange the meals; and whether the request is for lunch or for dinner, for two or for ten, you know that you’ll be in for a true gastro-fest. So as I am walking towards the entrance of this small but distinctive restaurant, my mouth starts to water as if in front of a just-sliced lemon on a hot summer day. A “fine European dining” is the marketing mask to a hidden Persian kitchen and its chef-in-residence that Firdausi might have paid homage with an ode, a lesser Shah-nameh.

“Ben, I am madly in love but in a very sane way,” was the greeting I got from Zak before I had even taken a seat at the table. Then, staring at me, he went on to take a long sip of tea passing through a sugar cube, fidgeting as if uncomfortable sitting on a chair instead of at ground level over a soft cushion.

“I expected something serious, but this infirm romantic thing sounds as if it might need to stay for a while at an ICU,” I replied laughingly after allowing for his greeting to echo within me so as to become validated, not misinterpreted, and I had affixed myself to a chair. “Tell me about that paradox… madly in a very sane way, and don’t be afraid to pamper me with details,” I went on, getting myself groomed as a receptor tuned in to his wavelength.

“Lalíe, that’s her name, and she happens to be my endodontist. My regular dentist sent me to her six months ago to see if two lower premolars could be saved and crowned,” was Zak’s introduction to a story that he was anxious to tell, and I indifferent to hear.

“Ok, so you fell in love the minute this amazing dental pulp roto-rooter gal began applying the local anesthesia… that happens all the time, but then the dormant area wakes up and starts feeling some pain; was Lalíe there for you ready to hold your hand? I bet the pain didn’t start until you got home,” I said trying to instill a little humor in what I felt might turn out to be an awkward situation for two men now past sixty. “Sorry that I interrupted, please go on,” I had to quickly add, for my comment had not been on target to draw even the slightest movement towards a smile.

“You know me well, Ben. I’ve been divorced nine years and I haven’t had even one relationship since then. Just three visits in six months and I am at a loss as to what to do, and that’s where you, my dear friend, come in. I will have the courage to follow my feelings and talk to Lalíe once you’ve advised me that I’m doing the right thing. That, of course, after you meet her today,” Zak gives me as the reason for being here now as a prelude to some action he would take if only I would give the go-ahead. I remained silent while he went on a sentimental journey with no apparent end only occasionally interrupted by the efforts of his polite hand’s fingers performing surgery on the cooked lamb before taking a just-right portion to his mouth. I’ve always admired the techniques in meat-crumbling dating back to my first business trip to Morocco after grad school.

While I savored a very special preparation of chelo koresh, Zak went into a soliloquy revealing not only his feelings for Lalíe but describing all the virtues he had sculpted on her, from the most daring physical attributes traveling from her small dainty feet to the long raven hair, and all points in between, to sweeping statements on her intelligence, sweetness and feminine demeanor. Unquestionably, this Lalíe must be a houri landed from Koranic paradise, or perhaps a muse-goddess with dental school training and deep dark eyes. Leave it to an adib to do justice to a woman when he’s in love with her.

Zak didn’t eat much while I feasted on two meals; the one prepared by the culinary virtuoso in the kitchen, and the beautiful vehement love declaration of my adib-friend. We put an end to our lunch with a toast of cognac preceded by some munching from the ajeel mix.

It was a short trip to the dental clinic from Dari’s, and that was a good thing for me. I wasn’t quite ready for any more add-on superlatives for this heavenly creature with what seemed to me as a French name, Lalíe. Boy was I in for a surprise!

As it turned out, Zak’s appointment this time around was for an evaluation of the teeth’s integrity after the root canal work previously done, and the go/no-go decision to crown them. It was probably no more than twenty minutes before Zak was back at the reception room with this china doll by his side: fragile, petite, a sweet smiling face and so, so very young! I now can understand why Zak feels as he does. I, too, felt like Ramin watching Vis’ litter go by and taking a first glance at her face after a brisk spring wind had lifted the litter’s curtain, immediately being swooned and thrown off his horse. I would have been immensely happy to accept a one-way ticket to tenth century Persia to become Ramin.

Zak excused himself for a few minutes leaving us alone, but neither one of us had much to say, and I really had a true sense of departure when as we left, she addressed me as Mr. Tanosborn. Of course, she used the same exit salutation with Zak, but he, unlike this wounded “old man,” didn’t seem to care. He hadn’t even given it a thought until I mentioned it later.

It was an easy verdict for me to reach. We were barely out of the parking lot when I said to Zak: “So you love her… I would consider you a fool if you didn’t. But the issue before us is not love but wisdom, wisdom that percolates through age and is filtered by reason. And the adib in you must allow room for a twin, the wise practical man. You are more than twice her age, and she’ll be grinding away on dental pulp long after you and I are both dead.” Zak was quiet, also upset, and appeared very intent in getting me back to my car as fast as he could, even if he had to break some rules of the road.


After a month of discreet silence between us, we finally got a chance to resume our discussion on the non-affaire, non-French Lalíe. It was after Zak’s corporate quarterly board meeting, and he was thanking me effusively for steering him away from Lalíe before, as he put it, he would make a fool of himself.

“You are a renaissance man when it comes to providing advice, Ben. It doesn’t matter if it concerns business, politics or romance, you always have the right answer, even if unpopular,” flattered out Zak as if adding to our adib-relationship. And he also told me something else which would have floored me had I been standing. Not even a week after getting my verdict on Lalíe that he had met Vickie, a twenty-two-year-old nymphet graduate student at Portland State, and they were now living together. Zak, who had not had a relationship since his divorce almost a decade ago, and who had remained quasi-celibate as far as I knew! He seemed happy, totally happy… not a frown on his face. And he let me know that he had reason to be. He was now feeling less mortal.

“Ben, the ultimate search is not one where you reach for that soul mate, that perfect woman that gives you love measured in orgasmic micro-time; the ultimate search has got to be for immortality; and immortality can come from an imperfect woman so long as she is one or two generations down your age,” concluded Zak with the joyful expression of one being in peace with oneself, one in possession of true wisdom.


I still think of Lalíe… often. She remains a vision, traveling in that litter with destination unknown. And, somehow, I wish that my dentist would see his way to recommend some root canal work; that is, as long as I can choose my endodontist: Lalíe, of course.

Not my luck, however. Instead, my Kaiser optometrist has advised me to make an appointment with the clinic’s ophthalmologist. He feels that the cataracts in my left eye are probably ready to be removed. So I’ve made the appointment… with a lady doctor.

It wasn’t my choice; it’s just the way managed healthcare works… randomly. I’ve been tempted to visit the clinic to see the picture of the doctor posted on the wall, but I have refrained from it. I can’t see very clearly with my left eye, and I am afraid that I might see Lalíe’s picture superimposed over that of the ophthalmologist’s with my right eye. I can wait; my appointment is after all just a month away.

Why is it that a man can only be perfected by a woman, even though a woman is complete by her own nature, her power to nurture and procreate. I think of Zak and our many discussions about the metamorphosis of the formidable classical Persian woman into the full Iranian woman of today – body, mind and soul. Perhaps the ultimate truth, the immortality man seeks, is about the return to the womb through women who provide healthcare via painless root canals, cataracts’ removal, and cures to other ailments that he faces as he enters the declining years of his life without someone by his side that really cares.

Zak and I have discussed at length the role of women, each of us tainted by the cultural bias in which each grew up. Although in softer tones, Zak accepts the traditional views held by men of his native land, including that of the late Reza Pahlavi, “that women are important in a man’s life only if they’re beautiful and charming and keep their femininity.”

In a way, I feel that Zak had a tamely secure image of the raven-haired beauty, Lalíe, someone who would spend all her moments at his beck and call. After almost three decades in America, Zak still remains afraid of the suddenly real Iranian woman.

And that’s what Lalíe, a muse of the night and worshipper of fire, is. I bet my mortality on it. Comment

© 2007 Ben Tanosborn, Vancouver, Washington July 23, 2007 .