Trip to Qom
Short story

May 15, 2003
The Iranian

Asal closed her book. She felt uneasy. This was the second time she had read “Stranger” by Camus and it had left her with an eerie feeling. Perhaps it was because of autumn. She had hated autumns since she was a little girl. The beautiful and sunny days would change to gloomy gray and it would start to rain soon. Now she felt even worse.

It was the fall of 1975 and she was a sophomore in college. In a few weeks it would start to snow and the road would become too dangerous to drive so she would have to give up her car and take it back to Khorramshar until springtime.

The first year she had tried to keep her car and even went so far as buying expensive Belgian tires which had nails in them, but the night she came back from the movies and dropped her friends off, her car slipped and by some miraculous intervention stopped at the edge of a huge canal. That scared her and the next day she called her father and told him about the incident.

She pondered, “ How boring it would be to be stuck and just go to the local gatherings.”
She found most of the people of the town very backward and old fashioned. The girls hated her because she was one of the handfuls who drove her own car and smiled at them as though to tell them “go ahead and hate me because I don’t care.”

They envied her freedom and her ability to live her life the way she wanted because she was the only college girl living by herself. Sometimes they would spit on her car or make nasty remarks when they passed by her in a shop or in the streets.

She looked through the window of the cafeteria and saw some birds but even they did not sing.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a voice behind her that said “you need to pull that mass of brown hair back or you would be hanged by the hair on judgment day.” She turned around. It was Shahrzad, her girlfriend from Abadan whom everyone called Sherry.

Asal turned around and said laughingly, “Is that right? Says who?”

Sherry pulled a strand of her hair and said,“The bearded boy over there near the door. He made sure that I heard him as I walked by. He said on judgment day, women who tempt men by pouring their hair around their shoulders would hang by the strands of their hair.”

Asal laughed and said, “You mean the fat ass cow with the tacky sweater?”

Sherry laughed and said, “Okay never mind all that; I need your help and I think you will have fun helping me. We need to find Jaleh a husband.”

Asal interrupted, “I thought she has a boyfriend and he is so damn good looking except that he looks permanently constipated. Why wouldn’t he marry her? Doesn’t he love her? You know I always wondered why someone that good looking was with a crossed eyed, flat chested, big nosed, bucktooth girl.”

Sherry looked at her seriously and said, “For someone so intelligent you sometimes act really silly. There are reasons besides love whenn two people would have a relationship.”

“You mean 'darmaaly'?”

Sherry looked horrified and said, “What did you just say?”

Asal burst into laughter and said, “As in: boy takes his clothes off, girl takes her clothes off and they rub their body parts against each other so they can get sexual release without the actual intercourse.”

Sherry was dumbfounded. “Who told you about that?”

Asal smiled and said, “Farah, the Plastic Ass Mime told me.”

“Wait a minute; you are talking too fast, Asal. Farah hates you because of what you call her. When and why did she talk to you?”

“At Susan’s room while I was visiting her at the dorm.”

Sherry sat down. “You are talking too fast as usual, and I cannot keep up. Tell me slowly what were you doing in Susan’s room?”

“Well, I told you Susan and I were neighbors until 9th grade and then they left and bought a house in a different part of town,” Asal said. “She is in love with Parviz the Turk.”

“Wait a minute you are not making any sense. Parviz, the one with the blue eyes that writes the love letters you read to us for fun and make fun of him? He's the one Susan is in love with?”

“Yes and she knows about the letters. She thinks Parviz is in love with me because he has a thing for Southern girls because they are free spirited and smart. Susan is very funny and smart. Okay she is not pretty. She thinks if she is given a chance with Parviz she can win his heart.”

Sherry shook her head.“I got it, and you are crazy enough to try and talk Parviz into giving her that chance right?”

“Absolutely,” said Asal. “The girl is crazy about him and would make him happy. I cannot stand him and if his father finds out he is in love with that same girl that drove him crazy last year while he was checking everyone’s ticket on the train, he would have a heart attack.”

Sherry started to laugh.“Oh god, I thought the poor man was really going to have a heart attack! You were so mean.”

“I was not,” Asal objected. “The man was an idiot. We could not understand a word he was saying so I imitated his Turkish accent while laughing and he went berserk and started to cry.”

Sherry became serious again and said, “Okay, how did this topic about sex come up?”

“Well, Plastic Ass Mime's boring friends were there and they started to talk about various subjects. Then the issue of virginity came up. I said that virginity for me was about saving your soul and wanting to share it with someone special and the thought of it being about some veins and a few drops of blood was an insult to my intelligence. Plastic Ass Mime laughed and said, ‘Dear Asal, one could have fun and be a virgin too.’ She took pleasure in explaining the procedure to see my reaction. I thought it was pretty comical picturing the act.

“Come on Sherry, is that what you do when you are with Yousef?”

“Oh my God, of course not!” said Sherry with a terror in her eyes. “Yousef is from Tabriz. He would never marry me. That reminds me, I have not told him about what we do in Abadan on our breaks from school. He asked me and I said we go to clubs with my father .”

Asal protested. “We go with our friends too but we don’t do anything bad.”

Sherry ignored her as she continued. “I know my friend but he is from a different part of Iran. They did not grow up having friendship with girls. Do not tell him about the parties we go to.”

Asal was surprised. “We go to parties of people who have been our friends for a long time so what is the big deal?”

Sherry put her hand on Asal’s arm and gently said, "Listen, Yousef was so shocked at your behavior on our double date with Mehrdad .”

Asal interrupted her.“No my dear. Correcttion: I was not on a date. You and Yousef asked me to go to dinner with you because I had my car and he took it upon himself to bring the boring and snobbish Mehrdad who thought he was God’s gift to women. I was pretty honest and told him he was actually pretty boring.”

Then Asal chuckled.“How about when I was reading his palm, and telling him about meeting the girl of his dreams in less than 6 months? Was that strange?”

Sherry laughed too and said, “Yes he is married to Pari who was visiting from London. She is very pretty and shallow just like Mehrdad .” They both laughed.

Sherry looked at her watch and said, “Okay now let’s be serious. I need you to drive Jaleh and me to Qom.”

Asal’s mouth opened wide as she shook her head in disbelief.

“Are you talking about going to Qom University? Stupid rich boys galore! Oh my God all the spoiled rich boys with their BMWs and Iran-Chevrolets go to school there.”

“Come on now, you have to behave. You are going to do a good deed and there will be no mischief on your part. Morteza, the son of Abadan’s most senior ayatollah, is our host and you better behave, Asal. I mean it.”

Asal smiled and said, “What color turban does he wear?”

“Come on Asal, no jokes. He does not wear a turban and as a matter of fact he is very handsome with hazel green eyes and he is very sweet, so no making fun of him! ll right, when do we have to go? I like to go tomorrow if you don’t have any classes and we will come back Friday."

“I will pick you and Jaleh up and I am going to bring Minoo along too because maybe we can find a husband for her too. Farhad broke up with her and she is devastated. I tried using my influence but it did not work. He said I did not understand why he thought she was boring and he wanted someone more independent and confident. I told him she loves him and he said, ‘Sometimes for a man being loved is not enough.’ Well I cannot force him to love her. So this trip might cheer her up. She is on our way. I pick you and Jaleh up at 9 and if you are one minute late I will leave by myself."

As they walked by the table where the bearded guy was sitting, Asal looked at him directly and said in a loud voice, “I just heard that on judgment day they will hang bearded fat men upside down and whip their fat asses for making beautiful people nauseous.”

The guy just looked at her and quickly dropped his head.

Sherry just chuckled. She lived at the dorm, which was a few hundred feet away. Asal drove home and when she arrived Fati Khanum, her maid, was there. She said hello and was surprised because Fati Khanum normally came to her place on Thursdays. She looked at Asal and said, “I am going to the countryside to visit my relatives tomorrow so I hope it is okay that I came in today.”

Before Asal could answer, Fati Khanum said, “That hot pink sweater is too bright and too fitting. On judgment day you will be subject to punishment for looking so tempting.”

Asal loved her maid. She was so simple, so kind and really God-fearing. So Asal always told her shocking things to frighten her. She looked at Fati Khanum and said mischievously, “Well, I will just let the keeper of heaven peek in my sweater and see my boobs.”

Fati Khanum let out a cry and said “God forbid!” and started to recite a verse from the the Koran for keeping evil away.

Asal simply laughed because she had gotten used to people reciting “I seek refuge in the almighty from the influence of Satan” around her since she was a child.

She decided to really shock her maid so she said, “Fati Khanum guess what? I am going to Qom tomorrow.”

Fati Khanum looked at Asal innocently.“Are you going to make a pilgrimage to Her Holiness's mausoleum to repent for your bad behavior?”

Asal laughed and said, “But I have not done anything to repent yet. If I had had the affair with that Hojatoleslam then may be I would go and repent.”

Fati Khanum looked at Asal and said in a serious tone, “You better ask God forgiveness for saying things like that.”

“I am not saying anything, I ran into this gorgeous man last week that happened to be a clergy last week.”

Fati Kanum looked horrified; in a trembling voice she said, “What Hojatoleslam?”

Asal knew she had her maid’s attention.“Well, last week I went to buy a book on spells and talismans. I went without any make up and just wore my jeans and a t-shirt. I went to the bazaar at the little store at the end. I was talking to the old bookstore owner and asking him about the book. Then I heard this very sexy and deep voice behind me telling me about another book to buy. I turned around and there was a tall man with a very clean black turban, white crisply starched shirt, and perfect black cloak. He had blazing black eyes, beautiful trimmed beard and beautiful white teeth. His strands of hair was salt and pepper. I looked at his hand and they were beautiful. I am telling you Fati Khanum he was so yummy.”

Fati Khanum recited the protection verse again and said, “What did he tell you?”

“Well he told me he has studied Theology at Al Azhar University and psychology in America (she explained what that meant). I am telling you Fati Khanum the man was so sexy I could not take my eyes off him.”

Fati Khaum slapped her hand and said, “God forgive you!”

Asal could see that her maid was really curious so she went on to shock her even more.

“Well, he went and talked to the mayor and his wife about me and the mayor’s wife called me and invited me over. They told me the Hojaatoleslam had really liked me and the fact that I was smart. I told them I would date the man and would go out with him but marriage stuff was not for me. The mayor and his wife chided me and said he could not ‘date me.’

“Well, Fati Khanum, that is too bad because I bet it would have been really fun to see what he looked like without that big cape and turban and no clothes on. I bet he would be a really pleasant sght.”

Fati Khanum covered her ears.“Enough! I am going to burn in hell for even listening to this blasphemous talk.”

Asal felt compassion towards her maid and said, “Okay no more talks about the sexy man. I am going to Qom to find a husband!”

Fati Khanum looked exasperated and said, “There are plenty of nice boys right here and you do not want to marry any of them; why would you want to go to Qom for that?”

Asal burst into laughter and said, “God, not for me. We are going to go there to find one for Jaleh. You know her: the skinny girl with the big nose and crossed eyes.”

Fati Khanum's eyes became tender and said, “Oh how sweet of you! God’s blessing on your golden heart. That poor girl needs a lot of help.” Then she changed her tone. “Okay, what are you going to wear? You cannot wear your normal clothes in Qom because those religious people will shred you to pieces.”

Asal smiled and said, “Oh you mean by those people who pretend to be really religious because they force women to be completely covered? Listen Fati Khanum, I was there with Hossein and Zari after they were married. The men made so many obscene gestures and you should see how they drooled when we sat down to eat. Besides the school is outside the town so we do not have to cover ourselves but I will wear pants and a sweater.” She pulled the ones she wanted out of her closet.

Fati khanum suddenly asked, “Where are you going to stay?”

Asal grabbed the opportunity to tease her maid again. “Well, Sherry’s family is friends with Morteza, who is the son of Aabadan’s ayatollah.”

Fati Khanum's jaw dropped and then she composed herself and asked, “You and the girls are staying with Morteza?”

Asal asked mockingly, “So it is true even you know him?”

Fati Khanum said, “No I do not know him, but know who he is.”

Asal came within a few inches of her maid’s face and said in a whisper, “I hear he is very good looking with beautiful green eyes and trimmed beard. He is a great cook too!”

Fati Khanum slapped her hands and said, “God please overlook this bad mannered child. She does not mean these sinful things she talks about.”

Asal laughed again and said, “Come on Fati Khanum. God created him beautiful so why can’t he be happy that people notice it? Besides, I am telling you so your mind will be at ease. He won’t do anything unless of course I want him to!”

Fati Khanum covered her ears again as she recited the protection Sura. Then she said in a commanding voice “Okay, lady,enough! I will pack your stuff. Aren’t you going anywhere now?”

Asal jumped. “Oh yes, I totally forgot. I have to go to Kasra’s house because he has an exhibition of his portraits opening in one week and as usual he wants me to give him my opinion so he can do changes if he has to.”

Fati Khanum said with a motherly tone, “Are his parents there?”

Asal laughed. “Come on, Kasra and I are friends and I saved his grace the last time because one of his drawings was a 5 feet female and the look on her face was so unnatural. He was not very pleased at my comment about his masterpiece and being the lucky boy I always think he is, that night one of his father’s friends who is a great and respected artist stopped by. He saw the portrait and told him the same thing. Since then Kasra values my opinion.”

Fati Khanum did not seem convinced and said, “But that young man who is like my son is very handsome and it is morally wrong for you to be alone in a room with him.”

Asal chuckled again.“Fati Khanum I swear to God you have nothing to worry about. Kasra is not my type. He is spoiled and used to being served. Ask Rokhi, she will tell you that we had breakfast with him a few weeks ago. Everyone was fussing around him and I ended up yelling at him for being so lazy. I just like his talent and he needs my encouragement. Besides, you know I have never liked the boys I know. I like strangers because they are a mystery to me!”

She then looked at her watch and said, “I need to call Minoo, and then I better go because I have to come back and call my parents tonight.”

She drove to Kasra’s house. It's beautiful architecture was from so long ago. Asal hated modern buildings modeled after the cookie cutter. Western developments. There were “shahrak” communities being constructed everywhere. The blue prints and small sample showed all the houses that were identical. Asal loved the unique architecture of Iranian homes. They were so different. One never got tired of looking at them.

This house had a beautifully carved wooden door and the walkway was paved with bricks that had the worn look Asal loved. The walnut and the pomegranate trees now had changed colors and some of the bushes had no leaves. The beautiful garden and the flowing streams that were heavenly sights in the spring and summer now had a somber appearance. There were still some wild flowers on the edge of the streams as she walked towards the main house. She walked into Kasra’s big room. The various paintings were resting against the wall. He put down his brushes and came towards her.

He kissed her cheek and looked at her for a few seconds./ “You are up to something not good, I can see it in your eyes.”

Asal burst into laughter. “Okay Mr. Picasso, now you are venturing into the field of psychology too.”

Kasra’s handsome face lit up. “Are you going to tell me about the plot?”

Asal gently squeezed his arm.“Listen, you have a big exhibit coming up in less than a week, just think about all those beautiful girls that will be coming up to you and trying to impress you.”

He started to laugh and said, “Oh yes, the brain-dead ones that know nothing about my art but will try to use their charms.”

“Come on Kasra, be sensible. It is not everyday that a tall and very handsome prince with brown eyes can paint like you.”

He gently grabbed her arm and said, “Then why do you always make fun of me and call me a spoiled brat?”

“Because, you are a spoiled brat but you are sweet and gentle too. Besides you are one of my best friends.”

Kasra’s eyes seemed sad now as he said, “You know I always wonder why all the other girls go out of their way to try and reach me yet I am so close to you but you act as though I do not exist.”

“Come on Kasra, you are being silly. I think the world of you - besides the fact that I think you are spoiled. I think you are courageous for giving so much of the proceeds to the poor, you are funny, and I have a blast when we are together and I love you as my great pal.”

Kasra seemed defiant and said, “If I am all those things then why can’t you think of me in a different way?”

Asal was mad now. “Okay, so this is about your ego, huh? How dare little me ignore the Mighty Prin,ce right? You want to destroy a great friendship for a little selfish conquest don’t you Kasra? You will keep your head up and say ‘nobody can resist my charm’, right?”

Kasra felt embarrassed and reached for her hand. “God, I am sorry. I really am. I have no idea what came over me. You are so precious and I think the world of you. Please accept my apologies. I’m only human and sometimes I become angry because you are so close to me yet so unreachable.”

“Kasra, please be reasonable and think. If we had a relationship like others what would happen? I will tell you. We will have a few weeks of endless discussion about love and what we mean to each other. We would perhaps kiss and touch and then in a little while the reality settles in and we no longer feel the same. Look at our relationship as friends. No jealousy, no demands. Totally honest and open. This can last a lifetime. What you want may last a very short time.”

He smiled and said, “I know you enough that nobody can influence your mind. I have to admit I love having you as my friend. I can always count on you. Perhaps as we grow and when you finish school your attitude may change.”

Asal looked at her watch and said, “Come on Kasra, we do not have much time. I need to look at all these paintings and I have to rush home tonight to call my parents.”

Kasra looked disappointed as he said, “You are welcome to call them from here, besides I have asked our cook to make your favorite food for you. God, I don’t know how you eat at restaurants all the time when you can come here and have lunch with me.”

“Kasra, please listen. I like eating at the restaurants by myself. I enjoy watching people’s reaction at seeing a young girl eating by herself and the poor old cook takes so much pleasure in seeing me eat there because unlike all the snobs I actually go back and talk to him. Okay, grab your notebook as I tell you my opinion about your paintings.”

She started by picking up the painting of a little girl with wavy brown hair and dimples. She turned around and Kasra lowered his gaze. “This is me, right Kasra?”

He sounded embarrassed. “I saw this picture at your cousin’s house and asked him to lend it to me. You are only two or three years old in that picture but your eyes have the same expressions and the dimples although not as deep still there.”

Asal smiled and said, “You did not capture the ring that is attached to the bracelet I am wearing in that picture.”

There were other pictures of nature, of people from different walks of life and some objects. Asal gave her opinion about every one and Kasra took notes.

His nanny who was now in her fifties walked in and asked whether he was hungry. Asal answered for him, “Yes he is and so am I.” They went in the living room. Kasra’s father was reading a book and as he heard the two come in. He stood up. He recited the very beautiful Persian expression “the breeze came and brought the fragrance of flowers.”

Asal shook his hand and they chatted about his book. It was from one of Asal’s favorite classical poets and she often talked to Kasra’s father when she visited their house.

He smiled and said, “You know I pray to have a daughter-in-law like you so we can have endless talks about Persian literature.”

She smiled at him and said, “Honestly, I would want to have a father-in-law like you too so I can enjoy talking about politics, music and literature with him.”

Kasra seized the opportunity and said, “Well, there is a simple solution; you can marry me then you and father can talk all the time.”

Asal burst into laughter and said, “Oh, such a simple solution!” She then talked about some of her professors that Kasra's father knew. It was almost 9 when she finally got up to leave. She promised Kasra to be at his exhibit and teased him to hire several bodyguards so those diehard fans would not harm her.

He laughed and said, “You will never need bodyguards.”

She got home shortly after and called her parents. She never hid anything from her father so she told them that she was going to Qom. Her father had started to laugh and said, “God help those spoiled rich boys! You are going to ruin their day, aren’t you beautiful lady?”

“Maybe a little.”

She read for a while and it was nearly midnight when she went to bed.

She got up early to get ready. It was actually a sunny fall day. She went downstairs to have breakfast with her landlord. She asked Asal where she was going with that bright orchid color sweater. Asal said nonchalantly, “I am going to Qom to visit with some students there.” She tried to keep a straight face.

Her landlord was very sweet and treated her like her own daughter. “Please be careful. That city is filled with Mullahs and if you misbehave they can have you arrested for misconduct.”

Asal teased her and said, “That would be before they propose short-term marriage or after?”

“Be quiet! They do that to women not to girls.”

“Don’t worry, khanum, we are not going into town.” She did not mention spending the night there. She would come up with a story later.

She drove to the dorm and honked her horn. Sherry and Jaleh were in her car a few minutes later. Jaleh had too much make up on her eyes and it made her eyes look even more crossed. Sherry had on very conservative and loose fitting tunic and pants in brown with brown lipstick. Asal looked at her and said, “You had to wear brown knowing how much I hate that color?”

“I am sorry Asal. I honestly was not thinking and this is fall so I thought I was being fashionable in fall colors.”

Jaleh said, “That fuchsia sweater is kind of springy isn’t it?”

“I don’t give a damn,” said Asal. “I had to look all over for this yarn and went through so much trouble to have the lady on the other side of town knit it for me. By the way, this is orchid, not fuchsia.”

In less than ten minutes they arrived at Minoo’s house. She was standing at the door with her brother beside her. She got in the backseat next to Jaleh. She actually complimented Asal on her sweater and said that she thought it was such a pretty color.

Asal drove leisurely and they listened to a new Joan Baez tape. A few times cars driving by and passing them would slow down and the men would whistle. It was not every day that people saw a group of girls on the road by themselves without chaperones. Even in Tehran, which was the capital, many women and girls had cars, but they did not drive distances alone and the car was really a luxury item and not a necessity as it was for Asal.

The nearly two-hour trip went by without any incident. They talked about some of the newcomers and reminisced about some of the seniors who had graduated and gone about their lives. Finally the gold dome of the shrine of Her Holiness Masoume appeared in the distance. The sun reflecting on the huge mass of gold was quite a sight to see.

When the dome came into full view, Asal pulled to the side of the road and turned off the car. She pointed her hand towards the city and said "Oh, Qom, the forbidden city, the ultimate city of sin.”

She then turned around and addressed the other three. “Do you know that my ultimate fantasy is? To come to Qom with a man I love and sneak into one of these hotels and risk being caught and punished because of not having a marriage certificate.”

Minoo interrupted her. “Don’t listen to her crazy talk! She just says these things to see your reactions.”

“God please don’t anybody challenge her," Sherry added. "I know her better than anyone. She is crazy and will get us all in trouble. Last year poor Farhad Jesus nearly died over a stupid bet because someone challenged Asal.”

Jaleh leaned forward and pressed Asal’s arm. “Are you the girl he was all upset about? There were rumors but nobody was certain it was you. Please tell us what happened. I have been dying to know. That man is so gorgeous. ‘Jesus’ suits him so well, he looks so much like him.”

Asal said mischievously, “Yes and he is just as holy as Jesus too! It is really a very boring story.”

Jaleh was persistent.“Please, we have over an hour to kill, please tell us the story. I would have done anything to be noticed by him and yet you broke his heart.”

“I did not break his heart. There was no heart to break. I wish everyone would get it,” Asal blurted. “There was nothing to it. One day I was running out of the building to get to my car because I had to be somewhere. I slammed hard into someone and knocked him down. I rushed to apologize and for a second I though he was an apparition because his face was identical to that of Jesus Christ we have seen in pictures. But then I remembered that Jesus did not wear corduroy jacket and did not speak Farsi as the boy said, ‘Where did that force come from?’ I lent him my hand and he just said, ‘You are that freshman that calls everyone stupid.’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, that is because they are stupid!’ Then I asked, ‘Are you all right?’ He said, ‘I am fine.’ I thought he was so cute with those beautiful honey-color eyes and the light brown hair sweeping his shoulders. I said good-bye and ran.

“The next day I was sitting with Rokhi and two of her classmates and this Jesus guy came in and those two girls were so in awe of him they looked pathetic. I pointed him to Rokhi and said, ‘I knocked him down really hard yesterday.’ The two girls looked at me and said, ‘He is Farhad Jesus, every girl’s dream boy.’

“I said, excuse yourself and do not include all the girls. He is not my dream boy. He is actually pretty boring looking to me. There is no fire in his eyes. One of them said, ‘Do you know that two girls attempted suicide over him?’ I looked at the girl and said, 'For that? I bet he is so easy to capture.’ ‘Is that so?’ the girl with the short hair said with a sarcasm that irked me. I said, ‘All right, you want me to break his heart? Let’s bet.’ ‘You are on’ the two girls said. Rokhi waved her hand and said, ‘I am not betting because I know Asal and she will win.’

“What are we betting on? I asked. The girl with the short hair said, ‘You have to get him to admit his love and ask you to marry him. If you do win then I will give you that antique charm you have offered money so many times as a gift.’ ‘What if I lose?’ ‘You have to stand up in front of everyone at lunchtime in the cafeteria and say that you lost the bet and tell everyone what the bet was about.’ I said ok, that is fine with me and we shook hands in front of Rokhi and the other classmate of theirs.

“Well, he would not look at me and many times I would stand right behind him in the line to get food and he would just turn around and look in my eyes and show no reaction. I came up with a plan. It had started to snow and it was the perfect time for a warm and cozy party. So I paid Behrooz and Shahla to arrange for a party in their apartment outside town. I gave them a list of the people I wanted them to invite and Frahad Jesus was among the list since he was Behrooz’s classmate.

“On the day of the party I wore a pretty dress with long sleeves and boots. I arrived purposely late so I would be noticed. I walked and shook everyone’s hands. I lingered when I introduced myself to him and he said 'we have met, you knocked me nearly unconscious a few weeks ago.' ‘Oh, I remember now, I hope you have forgiven me.’ He smiled and I asked him to sit down.

“We just talked some general stuff and he seemed to have warmed up to me because he said, ‘You are actually very sweet and friendly.’ I asked him what did he mean and he told me that some of the boys had complained that I was sarcastic and very unfriendly. I spoke to him and also danced and told jokes because I did not want him to suspect that he was the subject of a bet. I also thought he was very sweet but did not seem to have much ambition or enthusiasm in general.

“The next few days he would call me if he could find me and simply compliment me about my clothes or how I looked and a few times he sat next to me in the cafeteria, he would just look at my face and let me do the talking. I wanted him to say something but he did not seem interested in any subject matter. I had no idea where he stood on politics. What subjects did he read? Really nothing. I was invited to two parties that I took him. The Tehrani Farhad who is my close friend threw the parties.”

Asal looked at Minoo and saw her teary eyes because she was the girl dumped by that Farhad.

“Well, at the party we all danced, told jokes but Jesus just sat and looked at me with admiration in his eyes. When my face was covered in perspiration he took his handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped them off my face. In less than two weeks he was telling me that he loved me and wanted me to be in his life and stupid lines like that.”

Minoo interrupted.“What is stupid about loving and wanting to spend your life with someone?”

“There is nothing stupid about loving someone as long as that love stems from really knowing the beloved and wanting her or him unconditionally. I even gave him a chance and he blew it.”

Jaleh said anxiously, “What kind of a chance?”

“Well, I asked if I could stop by the apartment he and his roommate shared. I knew his roommate did not like me but a person’s place and what he or she surrounds himself with says a lot about their personality, in my opinion.

"Well, I skipped class one afternoon and knew the streets were practically empty. So I knocked and went in. The house is on that dead-end road which is lined with willow trees now completely snow-covered, which I thought were actually very pretty. His room, however, had bare walls. There were no books, no music tapes anywhere. I was horrified. No wonder he was so boring! He had no interest in life! Just the same he just stared at me and out of curiosity I kissed him on the lips.”

“Oh no! You did not!” They all interrupted Asal.

“Oh yes, I did and his kissing me back was so devoid of any passion.”

Jaleh said sarcastically, “And how would you know about a passionate kiss or true love?”
Asal smiled at her. “I do and as a matter of fact I experienced it two months ago!”

Sherry said, “Oh I should have guessed, the Berkeley prince whom you call the 'Ghost' because his skin is too white and his hands are cold as ice!”

Minoo said with a hint of annoyance, “And he is too old for you anyway.”

Jaleh seemed confused and said, “Please be quiet I want to know about this person who has shown her true love and passion.”

Asal said, “Okay I am just going to tell you this much,” as she gestured with her hands.

“A few weeks ago he called me and wanted to see me so he was brought to town by his driver. That night I had plans to have dinner with Z so I suggested meeting that night at the garden in his mansion. He had made plans to have dinner with the mayor and few friends at the hotel.

“Z and I finished dinner about 8 and all of a sudden I decide to pull a prank on our ghost. I asked Z to come with me and hide at the little place I had discovered by the entrance to the garden. A wall separated it a few feet from the entrance and a walnut tree hides the entryway. It must have been a beautiful gazebo a long time ago but now is neglected and I figured we would hide and when the Ghost comes in he would only be no more than 4 feet way. I would sneak out and scream so I could give him the scare of his life.

“Well, things did not go according to my plan. His maid had not told me about the dogs they had bought to ease her fear of being alone in that big mansion with only a few people at a time; especially they never locked the gate because the Ghost’s brothers are dropped off drunk at all hours of the morning and nobody would hear them since there is no bell to ring.

“As Z and I went and hide behind the wall, I heard dogs barking at the very far end of the garden that was the servant’s quarters.

“Z started to laugh uncontrollably. She has been like that since I met her in 4th grade. She starts laughing hysterically when she gets nervous. I covered her mouth and the barking dogs began to sound closer. Then I heard people’s voices shouting ‘Who's there? Show yourself.’ My heart began to pound so fast I thought it would jump out of my body.

“Just before I could react, the headlights of a car flooded the walk path and I heard the Ghost screaming ‘Stop, stop!’ I looked through the little opening on the wall and saw a yellow BMW and saw him jump out of the car and scream again. I could see now. There were two men, his maid, and two huge dogs on leashes. I recognized one of the men who were very tall and big. He was his maid’s oldest child who worked as the gardner. His name is Musa.

“Musa said, ‘Master there is an intruder in the garden and he may be dangerous.’ The Ghost said in an angry voice, ‘There is no intruder. That is a crazy person that God has sent my way to punish me. Go back to the house. He then said to his maid, ‘Soghra, take your son and cousin back because the intruder is the lady”,’ as he always referred to me.

“Well, at this time Z had stopped laughing and my breathing had become normal because I was saved and out of danger. I motioned to Z to slowly duck and get out because the Ghost’s back was toward us and he could not figure out where we were.

“Then he started kicking the tires and punching the top of his car and yelling to somebody: ‘Why, why her? I had the life in Berkeley everyone envied. Money, women, and fun. Why did I come here to see my family and get stuck? I can have any woman I want that would treat me like the prince I am, why have you brought this crazy girl who treats me like nobody and thinks tempting death is fun. Why?’

“I waited a few minutes and then stepped out from behind the wall and said, ‘What is all this noise and talk about?’ He turned around and saw me then he ran even though I was only a few feet away.

“I saw the tears in his eyes as he held my face in his hands, looked into my eyes and kept saying ‘God, if anything happens to you I will die. Why are you so crazy? Why aren’t you like all normal girls?’

“I said, ‘You know, you have been with too many wimpy women in America. Nothing would have happened to me because once the dogs and your gardeners had gotten close enough I would have come out of hiding and screamed that it was me. Your maid and her son would have recognized me. He has given me pomegranate blossoms in the spring a few times when I had parked my car by the ice cream shop.’

“The Ghost shook his head, took my hand, and with the other hand opened the trunk of his car. He pulled out a little Kilim and a towel. He closed the trunk and then put one arm around my back and walked me to one of the streams that run through his garden. There are 4 of them and you should be there in the summer and early fall and hear the sound of those streams at night in the moonlight and the air is filled with fragrance of flowers. He placed the Kilim on the ground.

“I sat down, rolled up my pants, and placed my feet in the cool water. A few times I bent my head to see my reflection in the water and every time my hair fell and was about to get wet, he would gently pull it behind my back. When I would bring my head up, he would touch my hair like one pats a child’s hair. I looked at him and there was this look in his eyes that is hard to describe. It was as though I was the most precious thing in the world and he was so afraid of losing it that there was pain in his eyes.

“He said, ‘Why can’t you always be like this? Calm and gentle? I would never get bored looking at you.’ He then placed his hand under my chin and turned it towards him and said, ‘Marry me. I will move back here. The only reason I am working at Ekbatan as an engineer is because you said you did not want a rich bum. I do not need that job. If you marry me, I will wake up every day, make you breakfast and carry your books while I walk you to school. I will come back at noon you can walk back home with me. We can have lunch in the garden when the weather is mild and by the fireplace when it snows. You can study while I do translating and you have always liked that about me. With your command of Farsi you can help me. Of course if you find the time and let me be your husband sometimes, I will kiss you from head to toe and show how much I love you.’

“I just looked at him and smiled. Everything sounded very inviting except the part that I had to sign a paper.

“I said mischievously, ‘You should marry that tall blonde with the eerie blue eyes, the one I call White-Ass Ladder. She adores you!’ I could not stop laughing at the shock on his face when he said, ‘How do you know she adores me?’

“‘I have my sources. I happen to know that she is the trader that called you and told you I had taken my clothes off and danced with sheets wrapped around me one night at the dorm and she is the one who reported me for having poured red wine instead of tea in the teapot. She had even told you that it baffled her why you loved a “roach.”’

“He shook his head in disbelief and said again ‘how do you know these things?’ ‘Never mind,’ I said. I placed my fingers on his lips and said, ‘Oh by the way, I saw her at the bookstore staring at me so I walked up to her and with a smile told her “you know if those boring blue eyes and the white ass of yours were not so desperately available perhaps I could convince the prince to give it to you one night.”’

“He grabbed my finger and said, ‘Asal please tell me you did not say that.’ ‘Oh yes I did and she deserved it because nobody calls me a roach.’

“He squeezed my hand and asked what did the poor girl do? ‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘She just looked at me with hatred and stormed out.’ Sia the storeowner laughed and said ‘Good for you for putting her where she belongs.’

“He then said, ‘Come on, you are going to catch a cold.’ He took my feet and placed them in the towel and dried them. It was getting late so I said I had to go home. He walked me to the gate while holding on to me and occasionally kissing my hair. As I reached the gate he held me really tight, looked in my eyes and said, ‘I will always love you. Do you know that I always made fun of people in love? In the 60s I lived with four girls at a time. Now, I can not even look at somebody else. Have you placed a curse on me? Those books about rituals and demonology you read must have some sort of ritual you have performed right?’

“I just smiled and said no there are no rituals. ‘You just love me because you cannot have me.’

“He held my face in his hands and kissed me in a way that set my body on fire. My lips felt like they were melting. I felt light as air. There was this intoxicating feeling that nothing else mattered. My heart was beating so fast. I knew I had experienced love and passion at its best. I was so tempted to just let go, and in that perfect surrounding, let go of my strength and let my soul become one with his. My head felt light. I was drunk with passion. Every vein in my body was throbbing. I forgot everything until he started to kiss my neck and shoulder.

“I then pushed him and said ‘No. Please stop.’ He stopped and held my hands only. I was embarrassed and did not know what to say. He brought my hands to his lips and kissed them. He laughed and said ‘Well at least I know there is as much fire in you when you love as there is when you fight.’ I smiled and nodded my head. He pulled me once more and just held me tight for a few second. Then he said ‘You will be in my arms all night long’ and then let go of me.

“I walked out still feeling the fire that had engulfed my body. I could not sleep that night. I kept thinking about the time I had been with him. I loved the way he had looked at everything he had said he would do except the 'marry me' part. Why should everything come with a price tag?”

Minoo objected again. “What is wrong with being married?” she asked.

“I did not say anything is wrong but I do not want to sign a piece of paper promising someone I would love him. That is absurd.”

Sherry slapped her on the hand and said, “You know, if you marry Behzad and become my sister in-law, how am I suppose to act? You should not be telling me these things.”

Asal laughed and said, “Don’t worry! I would not marry your brother. He is a moron and we better go because the stupid rich boys are waiting.”

Jaleh said, “I want to know this Berkeley prince who is handsome, educated and rich. I swear Asal you are crazy for not grabbing him.”

Asal started the car and as she got on the road said, “Look around you, so many handsome princes and so hard to just choose one.”

Sherry pulled her hair and said, “You better behave and not say anything that crazy in front of those boys. Remember you promised to behave.”

When they reached the college, the parking lot was quite an interesting sight. Luxury cars were all over. Only a few Peykans were parked. Asal shouted, “These must belong to the poor teachers.” A few boys in the parking lot turned around and just looked at her.

They walked up to the cafeteria and all the heads turned. They were strangers and Asal’s orchid-color sweater was very visible amidst the dark and dreary grays and browns. A neatly dressed boy in his mid-20s with a trimmed beard and dark hair walked up to Sherry and said hello. Sherry introduced him as Morteza to the group and when Asal extended her hand and looked at him, she realized he had very beautiful deep green eyes with kindness in them. His eyes lingered for a few seconds and then he just smiled. She felt there were hidden messages in that smile as though he knew her.

He led them to a table where his friends were sitting. A very tall, handsome boy was the first one introduced to the group as Majid, the “professor”. Asal grabbed the opportunity and said, “Actually, you look like a poet to me.”

He chuckled and said, “I must ask you why later.”

They sat down and somebody brought a tray of tea. Sherry took one cup and filled it to the rim and placed it in front of Asal. Everyone looked at her questioningly and Sherry said, “She hates it and will start screaming if her cup is not filled to the rim!”

The poet said, “You lose your temper over such trivial things?”

Asal peered at him and said, “It is not trivial to me.”

Morteza interjected by asking them about their ride and the road condition. Then a boy with rolled up sleeves which displayed his Cartier watch, dressed in an Italian suit, looking totally out of place walked up to the table. Asal could not resist taking a shot at him so she said, “Let me guess, your father must be one of the big thieves with the black Cadillacs.” Everyone burst into laughter.

Annoyed, the boy said, "Let me guess, you're a Communist.”

Unfazed, Asal looked him in the eye and raised her voice. “Now that was such a cheap and ignorant remark. But I am a fair and liberated lady. Come and sit down and let’s discuss why the Communism doctrine will never work in our society despite the romantic notion of so many of my friends who constantly idolize Karl Marx and Lenin.”

The poet said, “Are you for real? You do not look like a literature major and you definitely don’t look like someone interested in politics.”

Asal became serious and her voice hinted real annoyance as she said, “That is another ignorant assumption. For your information, I was a brilliant student in math and chemistry but loved literature so I chose that in ninth grade. I wanted to change the perception that literature majors are these loony, self-absorbed and unfashionable people who are anti-social. I wanted to prove that there are many who are sociable, attractive, and personable. I have been learning about politics since I was 4-years old. My uncle had served in the army and spoke about Mossadegh and Razm-Ara and Ghavam and many other figures and I was fascinated as a child.”

The poets smiled and said, “Tell us why you think Communism will not work in Iran.”

Asal looked at him with a sarcastic look in her eye. “Well, very simple. Thanks to Crown Cannibal the literacy rate is about 35% in our beloved country. You have 65% who are illiterate, deeply ignorant, and religious in a fanatical way. The concept of Godlessness to them is eternal damnation. They will rather die than live without their religion. Have you not noticed that even the King of Kings sits on the chair in the mosque and pretends to be mourning?”

Morteza, aware of the spies in all the campuses, said, “Could we discuss something else because we do not want any trouble. We can discuss things at my house at dinner.” Then he looked at his watch and said “Well, it is time for lunch. Would you like to eat here or do you want to go in town?”

Asal laughed and said, “I would love to go and see those Mullahs' reactions!”

Morteza smiled. "We will eat here."

They had lunch at the cafeteria and surprisingly their food was so much better than Asal’s school and it was obvious that the parents of these boys had made sure their spoiled brats got good food. The thought made Asal angry.

Morteza excused himself and said that he had to go and prepare for dinner. Asal said, “Could we come and stay with you rather than here?”

He smiled and said, “Of course. You can.”

They said goodbye to the people at the table but the poet said “I am invited” and followed them.

Morteza’s house was a little charming place with big wooden doors and a beautifully carved archway. The living room was filled with exquisite Persian rugs. Asal was so tempted to say, “Well, maybe I should marry an Ayatollah’s son” but when she occasionally caught Morteza’s very kind eyes she refrained at taking shots at him. Then she saw the big boom box and many cassette tapes so she said, “Could I play some music?”

Everyone turned to her direction. She said, “How about some Joan Baez?”
The poet said, “You like Joan Baez? I love Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and Sherry likes Joan Baez too. We swap tapes sometimes. I have her latest tape fresh from America!”

Morteza said, “I like Joan Baez too. Did someone send it to you?”

Asal chuckled and said, “Yes a real moron sent it, bless his heart.”

They all looked puzzled. Sherry interjected. “She is referring to my brother Behzad who lives in Utah. He has seen her in our pictures and also some of our home movies we send him. A few times we called she was at our house and he asked to talk to her. He has asked my father to convince her to marry him and go to Utah.”

The poet said sarcastically, “So he is a moron because he loves you?”

Asal peered at him and said, “You are even a bigger moron for asking such a stupid question and insulting your own intelligence, not to mention mine.” She did not let the poet object as she said, “The boy knows nothing about who I am and what I want from life. He has seen my pictures and talked to me for a few minutes. How could he possibly love me? He is infatuated and that is what is wrong with our society. A boy sees a girl somewhere and likes what she looks like and if he's lucky then he gets to talk to her a few times. Of course everyone is at his or her best and most agreeable behavior. Before you know it all the arrangements for the 'happily ever after' is made and then the reality of who these two really are settles in.”

Morteza looked at her seriously and said, “I agree with Asal because our society does not provide the opportunity for people to get to know each other before getting married. That is why the majority of our marriages are just matter of convenience and lack love and passion.”

Asal was really surprised, and before she could say anything, he looked at her and said, “I know what you are thinking, but just for your information my father and my mother insist that I marry someone I love and they do not care whether she is conservative or religious at all.”

He then excused himself to go and get dinner ready for them to eat. He said he did not need any help because he preferred to work by himself. He went to the kitchen, which was not in the view.

Asal placed the tape in the cassette player and ignored the poet’s stares and looked through the tapes and records neatly lined. She made comments as she found some of the ones she normally listened too.

It was not long before Morteza’s voice interrupted her thought as he said, “Dinner is ready” and lead them to another room.

Asal’s jaw dropped in surprise. A long tablecloth was spread on the floor and the presentation of various foods seemed very pleasing to the eye.

She sat down and asked the others to sit as well. He had made plain rice, baked chicken, her favorite lima beans and rice, as well as ghormeh sabzi stew. Asal just realized that all the talking had made her really hungry.

As usual she ate very fast and the poet made a remark about it. Asal ignored his remark and noticed that Morteza’s eyes were on her. She found a fully cooked chicken’s heart floating in her chicken broth. She joked as always “Someone will fall in love with me!”
Then she looked at Morteza and said, “Lucky girl who marries you.”

He smiled.“Well let’s hope she marries me for my cooking only.”

When they finished eating he asked everyone to just leave things for him to take care of.
In the other room Sherry winked at Asal and said, “He likes you a lot.” Before Asal could respond the door opened and Morteza came in with tray with tea glasses and a little jar of sugar cubes. He went to Asal first and ignored the poet’s sarcastic remark about everyone spoiling Asal.

She took a sip of her tea and was really impressed and touched by Morteza’s kindness and hospitality. Everyone complimented him on the quality of tea and the poet looked at Asal and said, “Can you cook or even make tea?”

Asal laughed and said, “We have enough women that are good at that, but I am not domesticated and have no desire to be. My plans for the future do not include cooking or making tea.”

“Are you going to starve then?” he asked.

“Now, that was a really stupid remark and an insult to your intelligence. There are places called restaurants in case you did not know. I know quite a few and their cooks take pride in cooking for me as their regular customer. They are older men and I usually go as one of the last customers so they can sit with me and tell me tales of their youth, which I find quite interesting.”

They spent the rest of the evening discussing world politics and how they viewed Iran. It was about 11:30 when Morteza announced that he was going to spend the night at the poet’s place so the girls could be comfortable. They said good night and he looked at Asal and said, “Sweet dreams.”

She smiled and said “The same to you.”

The boys left.

Jaleh was really annoyed and did not care to hide it as she said, “It was a bad idea to come with Asal because he likes her and did not even notice me.”

Asal was furious at her ignorance. “What do you mean it was a bad idea? Do you think if I were not here he would have liked you? Give the man credit. You are not his type and I bet 200 tomans that if you asked him he would tell you he does not like baby dolls that are overly made up without any intellectual or cultural aspirations.”

Shahrzad interjected, “Honestly, in this instance, I agree with Asal and I should know because I have been in many places with her and boys usually notice her unusual way pf projecting her ‘I don’t care what you think’ attitude. But Morteza seemed genuinely impressed with her views about life and politics. He is very good looking and he could have any attractive girl he wants but in this case he was interested in her as a person.”

Minoo said he seemed like a spiritual person without being a show off and Asal’s opinion of spirituality seemed to really interest him.

“There you have it, Jaleh. But if you still doubt everyone, then approach the boy tomorrow morning. Now, let’s get some sleep.”

Asal and Minoo got up to perform their morning prayers and after they were finished Minoo volunteered to make tea.

Asal walked to the window and noticed the gray sky but the golden dome was like sunshine in the cloud.

She remarked that Qom was really depressing during the day but it was exciting at night. Minoo asked, “How do you know about its nights?”

“Last year when Hossein and Zari got married we drove through and met up with one of Hussein’s childhood friends who took us to dinner. It turned out later that he owned some businesses there and had seen me at the wedding and liked me. Of course Zari had not wasted any time singing false praises of me in hopes of having me close by.

“The guy gave us chadors and took us around. Zari did a good job in looking like a pious person but they must have realized that I was not good at covering up because everyone was turning to look at me.

“I loved all the lights and the gold dome added to the mystery. The stifling restriction had made the boys really naughty in a sense that all their thoughts were reflected in their eyes.

“They looked at us with such longing I decided that my ultimate fantasy would be to come there someday with the man I love and get a room in a hotel and just have a wild time thinking that the holy place forbids even those types of thoughts!”

Minoo said, “Okay, no crazy talks please.” They heard a knock on the door and then the key turned and Morteza showed up.

He had brought fresh bread and fresh cream and cheese. He spread the tablecloth and set everything down. Then he poured tea and brought the tray in. Once he sat down he said, “Hope you were comfortable.”

Jaleh said sarcastically, “Nobody but Asal likes fresh cream.”

He said gently, “I know and that's why I brought it.”

Asal thought, That serves her right, snotty idiot. It was about 10 when Asal announced that they had burdened him enough and should leave because she had a class to attend at 2. They all shook Morteza’s hand except for Sherry, who kissed him on the cheek, which meant she was close friend of his.

He cleared his voice and said, “If you do not mind, I would like to speak to Asal for a few minutes alone.”

Sherry answered, “Of course. We will wait outside.”

Asal’s heart started to beat fast. She always avoided these type of scenes as they made her feel like she was trapped. She knew the questions and she also knew that her answers always caused disappointment and heartache.

He came close to her and said, “I know you think I may be backward and restrictive because my father is an important Ayatollah.

“My father is very progressive and believes God created people the way he sees fit and one should not have a set of rigid standards to judge by.

“I am not a moron so you know. This is not the first time I have seen you. I saw you when you were in high school and came for a friendly game of volleyball. I liked your defiant and unusual entry onnto the court because unlike the other girls you held your hands up and when the crowd cheered you smiled and bowed. You were laughing and joking freely as though nobody else was around. You also had your eyes on the very handsome, tall and well-built captain of Abadan’s boys' team. He was the side referee when your team played and I noticed you looking back at him a few times and smiling at him.

“I knew that he went to the movies and to eat with you accompanied by his coach but then he was really heartbroken and would not tell anyone what had happened. I did not need to know but guessed that you had realized as sweet and simple as he was you would have problems in the future.”

Asal was impressed so she said, “Actually, at the movie there was a scene where the girl was dancing in a night club so I asked him if he knew his wife went dancing what would he do and he said ‘I would drag her out of there.’ I did not bother to tell him that I loved to dance and often go out with my brother and friends to dance parties and we had some of our own with the parents present. He thought I broke up because his father was a simple civil servant. He was wrong, because I never care about one’s family tree.”

Morteza shook his head in agreement. He said, “I know a lot about you and that is why I want you to consider my proposal.

“I will graduate this year and am going to Paris to continue my studies. If you agree to marry me then I will come to visit when off from school and you can spend the summers and holiday with me. Once you graduate you can come to Paris and continue your studies because I want you to use your intelligence to help other women and education is the key.”

Asal felt ashamed but she took a deep breath and said, “I am really sorry but I am not marriage material. The thought of belonging has always scared me. I do not enjoy any of the things my girlfriends talk about, which is taking care of a man, cooking for him and serving him. Those thoughts nauseate me.”

He smiled and said, “Well to begin with, I am a pretty good cook even by your admission. You don’t have to serve me because I love your dedication to the causes that matter to you, especially your political aspiration. I know about your involvement with the oppositions and am quite impressed that you are very serious despite your very fashionable appearance. You can dance all you want as I think that is a talent and you never have to cover your head and you would not belong to me. The way I would view you would be as my life partner not my belonging. Think about my offer and I will call Sherry and pay her that visit I have promised for so long.”

Asal was relieved and said, “I do not have to think about this. My answer is no even though I consider you a great partner for anyone and sincerely think any girl who ends up with you will be one lucky person. You deserve someone like you because I am not the right person. I am loud, short tempered, inconsiderate, and scream a lot.”

He smiled and said, “Circumstance and ignorance make you react, I happen to know you are very compassionate and kind but very few are let in on that secret so do not try to dissuade me because it won’t work.”

She said good-bye and sat behind the wheel. They waved and she took off.

Asal knew her friends would grill her so she simply said, “He is interested in marrying me and I said no.”

Jaleh shouted in horror. “You said no to him? You make me sick! I don’t know what these boys see in you other than your looks, which is bound to fade before you know it.”

Asal was not in the mood to argue so she turned up her music and said to Sherry, “Remember to never bring cranky, jealous and homely girls where I am, okay? The brainless skinny lady sleeps with rollers on and everything revolves around cosmetics with her, yet, she thinks I am the one that has an issue with looks.”

Sherry changed the subject to the boys at the college they had met and how spoiled and really shallow they were. Asal said mischievously, “Maybe we should go to work and get some of those boys to meet some of the airhead gold diggers in our school, you know quite a few right?”

Sherry laughed and said, “Yes I do, but these boys want it all. Looks, attitude and family history!”

The rest of the trip they talked about the upcoming months and how depressing it would be with the snow and being trapped inside because Sherry lived at the dorm and did not have the same amount of freedom Asal had because she had her own apartment thanks to her father who thought she better live alone so nobody would annoy her!

The week went by quickly and then one night Sherry called from the dorm and said, “Meet us tomorrow night at Shahrdari Hotel for dinner at 7 please.”

Asal ate there often, because this was a fancy place with beautiful big oak trees. Its restaurant served the town’s elite as well as the rich out of towners. She used to chuckle as the strangers would look at her with curiosity because she was the only young girl eating by herself.

“Who is coming?” Asal asked.

“There are about 20 of our friends that are invited.”

“Invited by whom and for what?”

“Asal, please just come and don’t ask too many questions. I have to go now.”

The phone calls from the dorm were limited and Asal knew that.

The next day Asal was too busy to track down Sherry and find out what was going on but her intuition told her this was related to Morteza and their trip to Qom.

Asal finished her last class at 4:30 and spent another half an hour talking to Amir, the aspiring artist who had written a small script and wanted Asal to play the lead role, whose shooting would be out in the open to capture the beautiful scenery and nature, as he put it. He had a small camera and wanted to shoot this short movie as an 8-millimeter movie to submit to the Film Festival. Asal had read the script and found it quite boring and the female character nothing like herself. She had insisted that Amir find someone else for the role but he refused every time. She looked at her watch and said, “I have to go.”

When she got home she stopped by at her landlord’s place downstairs and chatted for a few minutes and simply told her she was having dinner with sherry and some friends. Her landlord as usual said, “Behave and please no loud laughing!”

Asal went upstairs to her apartment and pulled out a pair of ivory pants and a light blue blouse. She got dressed and refreshed her make up and sprayed a hint of perfume and dashed out.

As she drove she tried to imagine who were the people waiting at the restaurant. When she arrived the waiter Assad, who was in his late 40s and very good-natured, greeted her and tried to avoid Asal’s eyes as he said, “Good omen I hope?”

She was baffled but quickly realized as she looked at the long table and saw a pair of green eyes staring at her. She greeted everyone and took a while; she then extended her hand across the table to shake Morteza’s hand which she felt he kept a bit too long.

They had purposely saved a chair opposite him for Asal and began to joke about how they all longed to see Asal’s wedding. Asal grabbed the opportunity to get back at them for putting her on the spot this mercilessly. She turned to Mehri on her right to avoid Morteza’s gaze and said very calmly, “Haven’t I told you that the man of my dream is Arash, who is tall, gentle, very brave and courageous with gray hair and he writes poetry? He would come in the spring and would cast a spell on me.”

Noushin tried to change the subject as she asked, “What do you consider brave and courageous?”

Asal answered with an air of confidence “a man who takes chances in life and is willing to gamble and not settle. A man who takes matters in his hand and does not blame destiny for his cowardice.”

Morteza asked what percentage of Iranian men of our generation do you consider courageous and brave? Asal looked directly in his eyes and answered, “About 5% and I am being generous.”

Framaarz, the playboy of the group, protested as he said, “I am brave and take chances.”

Asal answered in a mocking tone, “Listen sweetie, getting drunk and placing your brainless head in every lap that is offered is not taking chances and certainly not being brave. Don’t flatter yourself.”

Morteza addressed her and said, “Would you please explain to us why such a small percentage?”

Asal looked at him and said , “Very simple. 95% of the boys will do what their parents and the society expect them to do. They will marry the girl their mothers would choose for them and will follow the society’s guidelines in what is a suitable wife. A subservient, obedient girl who is a good cook, does not waste her husband’s money and listens to him.

“Once these boys marry and encounter the differences then they start producing kids so their lives will be more meaningful. They will hang out with their buddies and bitch about their lives but will never have the courage to stop producing babies or end the misery and of course they would claim it is for the kid’s sake and would never admit that they are cowards who do not have the courage to start fresh and make their own decisions. They even insult God by saying ‘it is destiny’.”

“Well, destiny my foot. The imbecile cowards do not have the guts to venture out and blame it on God and everyone else.”

“I agree on some of the points with you and that is why I have always told my parents I will choose my mate and will accept the outcome,” Mortezza said.

Farzaad had to butt in as he asked, “What about the girls in Iran?”

Asal answered very curtly, “Well, only 1% of Iranian girls have the courage to be independent and make decisions on their own and face the consequences.”

Farzaad said, “Well, you are the queen of the brave then.”

“You better believe it and remember the fact that I put you in your place the first time you made a pass at me and nearly gave you a heart attack, Farzaad. Shall I recall the moment or shall I have mercy and spare you and your fragile playboy image from embarrassment?”

Farzaad became quiet. The food arrived and they began to eat. They talked about the upcoming exams and some of the local gossip. At about 9:30 most people at her table started to leave and Asal noticed that nobody was offering to pay for his or her tab.
She immediately realized what was going on. Morteza had invited everyone in hopes of gathering allies. That infuriated Asal because she had also realized he was staying at the hotel upstairs as the guest. This whole charade had been planned and she was kept uniformed.

She looked at Morteza and said, “You invited all these friends of mine didn’t you? Didn’t Sherry tell you that even God could not influence me?”

His face seemed pale and colorless as he said very uncomfortably, “I thought you would be surrounded by your friends and you can see that I am very progressive and like you as you are and with your choices.”

Asal tried to suppress her anger as she said, “Listen I am not interested in anything that makes sense and that is marrying someone kind, handsome and understanding as you are because you don’t know me. I wear clothes with vivid colors and some of them are missing sleeves, backs or even fronts. I like to drink when I feel like it, dance and wear really bright bloody red lipstick, the kind the society thinks bad women wear. Also, you are too young. I consider men even 5 years older than me babies and boys.”

Morteza pulled his chair closer as he said, “I would change my birth certificate to the age you want. I will buy bright color clothes and the most vivid red lipsticks in the market. I pour wine for you and you can dance the night away.”

Asal said sarcastically, “And this would be all right by the Ayatollah? What about the scandal of having an unruly daughter-in-law who breaks the rules she does not like?”

Morteza said very calmly, “My father actually likes you and thinks you are very decent like many other women who do not consider being covered up or quiet a symbol of being good. You are marrying me, not my father and he preaches to his listeners to judge people with their deeds not on their appearance and also to allow their children to choose the life and education subject they want.”

It was nearly 11 and Asal knew her landlord would get anxious if she did not get home before midnight so she picked up her purse and said, “Listen I am truly sorry you paid for all these vultures for my sake.”

He smiled and said, “I love your uninhibited expressions and thoughts. I actually had a good time and was amused. They genuinely like you and admire you.”

She tried to lighten up the situation by saying “they are afraid of me and say good things to avoid my wrath.”

Morteza’s green eyes seemed very sad as he said “You go out of your way to portray yourself as a big monster but that is all an act and intelligent people can see the real you easily.”

Asal was lost for words and felt very uncomfortable as she said, “I have to go and hope we won’t have this scene repeated. I hope you did not think I joked when I said I would meet Arash someday in spring. I have believed since I was a child that the man of my dream looks a certain way and when he appears I would be spellbound and I would not have to explain anything to him. Everything would feel right. I know that sounds childish and too idealistic but I am pretty convinced and am willing to wait for however long it takes for him to come to my life.”

She extended her hand to Morteza and took her leave.

She felt drained as she got home. She opened the door and tiptoed upstairs. She felt rotten but in a way relieved.

She brushed her teeth changed her clothes and went to sleep without reading any pages of her book.

The next morning she went downstairs to have breakfast with her landlord, her husband and the kids. To Asal they were her family. She told them about Morteza and the event of the night before. Her landlord shook her head and said, “God, you are going to end up an old lady without a man to love you!”

Asal loved to tease her so she said, “You know, obnoxious people would never get old or lonely. They have their attitudes to keep them company!”

Everyone laughed. She said good-bye and left for her morning classes.

She ran into Sherry at lunch in the cafeteria. Sherry did not give her a chance to talk first as she said, “Asal I know you are mad but I honestly think Morteza is perfect for you. He is sweet, well read and most importantly has no problem with your strange ideas and several times has said that he would not change a thing about you. Come on be honest, how many Iranian men would say that? They all want to change some aspects of your personality or behavior and you know it.”

Asal threw her hands in the air and said, “I do not give a damn what the boys think and what they do not like about me or my behavior. I would not change for the hell of it. Now, let’s have lunch and forget the whole incident because it is over and done with.”

The year went by and the following winter break Asal had managed to get first class cabin seats for herself, Sherry and Gholam who was like a big brother to them and often went too far in trying to protect them. He usually sat in a way to act as a wall if there were boys traveling for spring break. Asal had teased him often and said, “Gholam did it occur to you that I may like to sit next to one of these boys?”

He would just shake his head and say, “Those are strangers and should not be sitting too close.”

There were two other boys and one girl in the cabin. They introduced themselves and then they talked about various subjects on everyone’s mind. One in particular was the fact that many people were taking their money out of Iran and that included some of their classmates who were changing everything to dollars and sending them abroad. A feeling of uneasiness had gripped the country. Everyone had their own take but Asal said, “I bet the Jewish Federation of America has tipped off the Jews in Iran that something is up because the Shah has defied the Americans and is becoming too arrogant for them. Some of these Jews are letting their friends know and that is why they are removing their money.”

The three strangers looked at her as though she was from another planet.

One of the boys kept looking at Asal as though trying to remember something. He finally said, “Are you the girl who broke Morteza’s heart in our college in Qom?”

Asal looked at him and said sarcastically, “I would not be that dramatic to say I broke his heart but I said no to his marriage proposal.”

The boy shook his head and said, “I can not believe it is you because I thought you must be so beautiful and to die for.”

Asal chuckled and said, “You are one of those boys with below average intelligence, and your father must have paid a hefty sum to put you there!”

“That was a really asinine and ignorant remark and an insult to Morteza’s intelligence and the rest of us intelligent people.”

The boy looked puzzled and Asal took pleasure in insulting him further. “Well, Mr. Einstein, the Ayatollah’s son with his beautiful green eyes and gentle manners had brains too and wanted someone who matched and shared his goals and aspirations in life. If he wanted a pretty doll he would have gone to one of the villages near your school and got himself one of those peasant girls. You know what I am talking about! Some of those girls once cleaned and made up a bit could look like a movie star as long as they don’t talk!”

Everyone burst into laughter and Gholam said, “Oh yes, like our friend Abbas who is married to a beautiful tall blonde with blue eyes, the one who always begs Asal to make sure she does not say more than a few words at gatherings!”

Sherry started to laugh uncontrollably as she said, “That is right, I just remembered a few months ago you went shopping for a dress for her and at that party in the club Abbas kept coming to you kissing your hand and saying in a whisper ‘make sure she does not talk’.”

Asal said, “Oh yes and he ended up paying for our lunch the next day. I need more stupid friends like him who are happy to have a pretty doll to show off!”

It was nearly midnight and Asal decided to go in the hall and pull down the window and feel the cool breeze on her face as the train hummed its way through the mountains. As she tried to pull the window down Gholam came up and stood next to her.

“Do you want me to beat him up?” he asked.

Asal touched his elbow and said with affection, “You can't go around beating people up because they disagree with me. They beat us up enough for expressing our contrasting point of views in this country anyway. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion and I respect that. Now go and rest because I want to enjoy some solitude now.”

Asal had always felt a deep sadness when riding in a train or on a bus as she watched the vast open sky and the scenery. She felt sad for the trees, the pebbles and the flowers because she thought it must be so hard to be all alone and stagnant.

She thought, I wonder if I am going to end up all-alone like the trees and the mountains and the flowers? Then she smiled and thought, never! As long as there is injustice towards people and there are causes to take on and lessons to be learned, I would never grow old or lonely. That is where the cowards end up. I am a brave fighter and there will always be wars for me to fight. I am just like this train; I will keep going until my engine stops.

She closed her eyes as she felt the light breeze on her face. She thanked the universe for having given her courage and the will to be different.

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