Forces of attraction
December 5, 2005
From "Veils", published by City Lights, 2003.
Jill studied herself in the mirror. I could lose a pound or two and maybe the haircut I got is a little too short. Stop being so uptight, such a perfectionist, she admonished herself. She was not sure if she really was up to going out on a blind date, particularly with someone as exotic sounding as Hamid, a doctor from Iran.
Anyway for so long the word Iran had been conjuring up images of "hostages," before her eyes, helpless Americans bound in captivity, something that she had to push aside. She went over the facts her friend Francine had told her about him: "He's thirty, just finished his residency, specializing in internal medicine, attractive, a bit short but masculine looking. Fred has known him since they were in medical school together."
How many times had Francine fixed her up since she and Frank broke up and it never worked out? One had bragged about how much money he made and then kept correcting her grammar, though she had majored in English in college and had done well. Another one, half-way through the evening, had suddenly reached to his head and removed his pile of hair and said, "You may as well know right away what I really look like." Then he had laughed and laughed as if at the funniest joke.
Hamid, though, fitted in with some of what she thought she liked about a man: he was five years older, a little more mature than some of the men she had gone out with; he had a profession of his own and she hoped he would understand her drive to do well; and according to Francine he was attractive. Anyway she had to try to get herself involved with someone or else how was she going to get over Frank?
The buzzer sounded. Right on time. Exactly seven o'clock. And he had offered to come to her side of the city and pick her up. A good start. She went to the button and pushed it. Then she brushed her hair once again, applied a bit more pink lipstick, which matched her pink button-down cotton sweater. The doorbell rang and she opened it. Before her stood a man of stocky build, with dark eyes and dark hair, a nose with a slight hook.
"Hello Jill," he said. "I'm Hamid."
"Nice to meet you," she said. "Come in."
He came inside and stood in the middle of the room, looking a little lost. "This is a nice apartment."
"I could use more space, but it's rent stabilized and near school. Do you want a glass of wine before we go?"
"I made the reservation at The Saloon for seven fifteen."
"We should go then."
Outside they walked along Columbus Avenue, which was crowded with many people, mostly young, wandering in and out of shops and restaurants, and with street vendors who had spread out their merchandise-- bright costume jewelry, imitation Cartier watches, handbags, sunglasses.
"The vendors remind me of Iran,” he said.
"They say New York has become like the Third World." She noticed a visible tightening in the muscles of his face.
"That's how you see Iran, a Third World country?"
"I'm sorry, I meant..."
"You don't need to apologize. I'm used to it." He held her arm and squeezed it, as if to reassure her he was not offended. "The truth is Iran has been sinking, becoming a poor and desperate country, it wasn't always like that."
"I see," Jill said, still a little embarrassed. In a few moments they reached The Saloon. They went inside and he said to the host, "I made reservation for two by the window. Matini."
The host looked at the large notebook set on a table. "Matini. Yes, come with me."
They followed him to the table. The huge room was already practically filled. Candles flickered on each table. There was excitement in the air and Jill was aware of an inner excitement as well, being with this man from another culture.
A young, pretty waitress, whom Jill assumed to be a struggling actress or a model, came to their table and put a menu in front of each of them. "Would you like to start with a drink?" Hamid looked at Jill.
"A glass of wine, red."
"Do you want to share a carafe?"
"I shouldn't drink more than one glass. Tomorrow is a school day."
"I'll drink more than one, I need it after a hard day of work."
"You order, since you'll be drinking most of it." He quickly glanced at the wine list. "A carafe of Cabernet Sauvignon."
The waitress nodded and then walked away.
"What hospital do you work at?" Jill asked to just make conversation-- Francine had already told her.
"Mount Sinai. It isn't an easy time to be a doctor. All day long I see AIDS patients."
The waitress brought over the wine, poured a little in one glass for him.
He tasted it. "Fine."
She poured some in each glass. "Are you ready to order?"
Jill studied the menu for a moment and finally ordered a salad and the Moroccan grilled chicken and spinach and he ordered the same thing, smiling. "You made it easy for me,” he said.
He had a lovely smile, brightening his whole face as if a light had been turned on behind it.
"What kind of law do you plan to go into?" he asked.
"I don't know yet. I guess I should decide, this is my last year.
In college I did a lot of work with Amnesty International. We got a young man out of a Turkish jail-- we made so many phone calls, wrote so many letters."
He looked impressed. "That must have felt good."
"How long have you been here from Iran?"
"Eight years now. But it seems longer. There are people, places, I miss.”
After they finished eating and the waitress brought over the check, she reached into her wallet to offer to pay her share. But he quickly picked up the check.
"Thanks," she said, trying to overcome the inevitable awkwardness that came over her. It was so hard to know what was the right thing to do, let the man pay or insist on paying half. Sometimes if she insisted it seemed to indicate to her date that she was not romantically interested, sometimes it meant she wanted to have as much control over things as he did, sometimes it meant she was overly aggressive. But he was from another country, maybe the same rules did not apply to him. In a way she was relieved thinking that.
In a few moments they left. Outside he held her hand in his without self-consciousness and walked her to her apartment building. By the door, as they paused, the awkwardness returned to her again. Should I ask him up? I hardly know him.
Anyway I have to get up very early. She was already interviewing for jobs for the following year. She had one scheduled for 9:00 in the morning way over on Wall Street. Was he reading her hesitation when he said, "I have to be at the hospital at seven tomorrow morning." Then, abruptly, he pulled her to him and kissed her. They stood like that in an embrace, kissing for a moment. Then she disengaged herself.
"I'll call you," he said, as she turned the key in her door. The following day she told Francine on the phone, "I like him." Francine said, "He liked you too." here.”
As soon as she hung up the phone rang. It was Hamid. He asked her to go out on Thursday night. "I'll be on call at the hospital all weekend."
"Thursday is fine. I don't have classes on Friday morning," she said.
She found herself looking forward to the date. They went to see a movie and then went to eat at Yellow Fingers.
"I'd like to taste Iranian food," she said.
"I know of a good Persian restaurant, I'll take you to it next time we go out."
After they left Yellow Fingers he said, "Why don't we go to my apartment, it's around the corner."
His apartment, in a high rise building, was simply and sparsely decorated but there were several photographs in rather ornate silver frames in different spots, on a desk by the window, on the table next to the sofa. Through the large picture window above the desk she could see both Empire State Building and Chrysler Building, all lit up.
He picked up the photograph on the side table and said, "These are my parents and that one is me when I was seventeen.
This is the alley our house is on."
In the photograph he was thinner than now with a dreamy expression on his face. His mother was covered by a dark cloth wrapped around her, and his father was wearing a peasant-looking felt hat. The alley was dirt-covered, narrow and curving. Very different from Weschester where she grew up. And his parents looked very different from hers. It was all so interesting.
"I always thought I'd get my degree and go back but I stayed on. They need doctors there badly, most educated people have left." He looked wistful. “But I’m still here.”
"Veils" is available at amazon.com
Nahid Rachlin, born in Iran, came to the United States to attend college and stayed on. She has been writing and publishing novels and short stories, in English. Among her publications are three novels, FOREIGNER (W.W. Norton), MARRIED TO A STRANGER (E.P.Dutton), THE HEART'S DESIRE (City Lights), and a collection of short stories, VEILS (City Lights). She has another novel, JUMPING OVER FIRE, in press at City Lights. She also has a memoir, PERSIAN GIRLS, in press at Tarcher/Penguin.