Our courtship started and ended with a problem of names.
For a long time in our house that imperious Persian word, khastegari, was invoked only when speaking about Iran and the past. When I turned nineteen it gained new currency. That year I managed to find the most unsuitable of suitors. Houman was thirty-one and lately separated from his wife. Suitors were not supposed to have ex-wives, because Iranians didn’t get divorced (though one of course heard rumors from time to time). Houman was both Iranian and divorced. If he was to exist, we would have to find a name for him.
The situation seemed hopeless. We were forbidden from seeing each other. I made impressive displays of my misery. Deliberations were resumed. In the end my parents’ disapproval was mitigated by two factors: Houman was a doctor and he could be called my suitor or khastegar.
In America, Iranian girls who were clever became doctors, while the merely pretty ones married doctors, and the very best did both. I had displayed no particular academic aptitude apart from a peculiar attachment to novels, and I was incredibly squeamish. So there was no chance I’d ever join the doctors. But despite my many faults and missteps up to that point, I was still in the running for marrying one.
After some hesitation, my parents agreed to accept Houman, but only so long as they could call him my suitor.
Yet the only title that seemed clear to me in this exchange was “wife.” This was an actual person, the woman to whom he had been married. Because he would not tell me her name, to me she remained his “wife.” In the two years of our courtship he spoke of her often, and I thought that I knew her in the ways that most mattered. Recalling her kindness, her modesty, her innocence, he would smile and shake his head fondly. They had been childhood friends raised in the same small circle of Iranian Americans and had married in their twenties. He told me that it was he who’d felt stifled and had chosen to leave her, and that in letters to him she wrote that she was still waiting for him and would join him within the day if he should want her back.
A good Iranian girl.
One day alone in his room I went searching for proof of her.
It would not have been difficult to find her letters. A room like that — bare but for a Persian carpet and a mattress pressed against one wall — had few hiding places. Minutes before he’d skipped down the stairs of his studio to bring us back something to eat. I slid the closet door open. When I found what I wanted, I simply twisted a sheet around my body, brushed back my hair, and emptied the contents of the large tattered envelope onto my lap.
I glanced quickly through the letters, noting the dates of the more recent ones, and then held up the photographs one by one. There were pictures of his wife from many years ago when they had first been married. In some her plump cheeks were streaked with a heavy red blush and she wore a black lace camisole. In spite of the pout that played on her lips, her eyes seemed not to beckon, but plead.
A good Iranian girl.
I listened quietly whenever he spoke of her, but I preferred him speak of another woman: the forty-year old Frenchwoman with whom he’d lived in a state of refined lassitude one summer when he was a young student visiting France. For my benefit Houman would chronicle the many delightful initiations he’d experienced under this woman’s tutelage. I hoarded the details for some as-yet indeterminate purpose: unmarried, long-limbed, witty, cultured, wise and insouciant. I had never known a woman like that and, while I never learned her name, I never tired of hearing about her.
For such entertainments I would scramble out of lecture halls each day and rush to his studio by the beach. I could never linger for long or leave without at least a mild panic jolting me back into reality. “I have to go,” I’d say, and he knew enough not ask me to stay. Only after ducking into the shower, combing my hair, and straightening my skirt would I race back home, in time, I prayed, to make my curfew — designated not by a specific hour, but the somehow superstitious marker of “sunset.”
According to the many rules of our courtship, Houman was allowed to take me out only one night of the week, so on Saturday nights he’d arrive dressed as I never saw him otherwise, in suit and tie and effecting a stiff manner that faded as soon as he eased into his car seat and turned to me with a conspiratorial smile. On the nights when I returned home later than I’d been told, my mother would always be waiting for me. Drawing her face closely to mine, she would take in the whole of my body with a single glance.
I would on no account have told H. about these late-night exchanges, and if he ever wondered what happened after I closed the door to my parents’ house, he never asked. And if on the next day he and his parents appeared at our door, my mother — now calm and sweet — would usher them into our living room and I would be called upon to serve everyone tea in tiny gilt-rimmed glasses.
This was the hour of the virgin. Not a single person in the room believed in my fitness for the part, but it was still necessary to all of us that I audition for it time and time again. I therefore dressed carefully, in pastel skirt suits and modest make-up, and crossed my legs at the ankles whenever I sat. His mother always eyed me suspiciously, but with some apparent satisfaction. I imagine she’d have preferred to get her old daughter-in-law back, but would have settled for me.
During these visits, Houman and I never sat next to each other and we were careful not to look too long in each other’s direction. Afterwards, we’d laugh it all off, mocking the ridiculous customs of our parents, and congratulate ourselves on another perfectly executed performance.
Except that after a time he must have sensed that I was coming to believe that this courtship really would end with our marriage. Then he began to travel more frequently and for longer periods. “Suitor” or not, I was not allowed to spend more than a sliver of each Saturday night with him, and traveling together was out of the question. I complained bitterly to him, but secretly I admired the casual air with which he would take off for Berlin or Hong Kong or Buenos Aires, and I coveted the financial independence and especially the attitude that made these decisions so natural for him.
Already I was measuring not only the distances between us, but between who I was and what I wanted, in these ways.
In the summer after graduation I drove myself up the coast to San Francisco. Whether it was out of an instinct for only his own interests or also mine, I still can’t say, but Houman had not, finally, asked me to marry him. After one trip he told me, in a matter-of-fact tone, that he’d slept with another woman. Our games had become tedious to him. I’d meanwhile been accepted to a law school up north and I had no means or excuse for staying in L.A. It was exceedingly hot the day I left and at some point the air conditioner broke down in my car so that I drove for much of that trip up the I-5 with all the windows down, crying for hours of the ride.
Then I began closing in on the distances that eluded me.
Five years later he could have found me tooling around Manhattan in a pair of black leather boots with soles flat and thick as a welder’s. For whole stretches of those days no one in the world knew where I was, a realization that never failed to please me and that still figures prominently in my definition of freedom. Still, I would have stopped for him. I would have accepted his offer of lunch and over an exquisite meal in a gorgeous setting we’d have spent the afternoon talking, each of us of course remembering things that we wouldn’t mention on that day or any other, and finally — of this I am sure– I would have kissed him gratefully on the cheek and went on my way.
As it happened, he found me seven years after we’d last seen each other, when I was again living in California. One night I picked up the telephone to hear him call me “Yassy,” his favorite name for me. He had stayed in Los Angeles and still lived alone. He sounded just the same, talked about the same things, and I can remember nothing from that conversation except that after I hung up the phone, I stood for a long time in the dark empty kitchen, wondering by what name he called me when he spoke of me to his lovers now.