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Short story

July 16, 2001
The Iranian

As I stood there watching the sweaty couples gyrate to the African rhythm my aunt was playing in her tiny apartment in the Upper East side, I noticed a cuddly guy observing me with a smirk. I questioned his analysis in the dirty look I shot his way. He laughed standing up as if it were a chore, took his time finding his drink, turned, and walked towards me with a Zelam look. Oh, now I have to explain what-who Zelam is. Okay, this has to be really quick. When my sister and I were kids -- some would argue we still are; let's not go there right this minute -- we developed certain fictional characters. One was Ms Yooyooyoo. Her distinguishing trait was that her manner of speaking involved much yooyooyooing, as in heyoo, howayoo, soy nyce tyoo meet yoo. She possessed the tall, thin and wobbly limbs to go with the speech. The other personality was Mr. Zelam. Salam in Persian means hello. Mr. Zelam was a suave character certain of his superior qualities who approached women with a winning yet subtle smile whispering to them Zelaaaam. The targeted women would of course drop to their knees in response to this and offer Mr. Zelam life-long servitude. Ms Yooyooyoo and Mr. Zelam were a couple. And so here was this man approaching me with a Zelam attitude etched on his round face. I was not in the mood for entertaining base intentions. Only a few hours before the party I had gone to a healer to have energy work done. And I still felt physically and emotionally dehydrated from the experience. The healing work was my aunt's idea. She was trying to help me to let go of the anger I was feeling after my last break up. This guy wasn't helping.

- "Hi."

- "Hello."

- "You're Armenian, aren't you?"

- "Yes, I am."

- "Then you must be the hostess's niece."

- "How clever of you."

- "She has told me all about you. I'm Armenian too."

- "And you feel an immediate connection to all Armenian women?"

- "Not all, only certain very attractive ones."

- "I'm flattered."

- "I wasn't referring to you."

- "Oh?"

Vartan had quite a sense of humor. And he was very proud of the fact that he shared his name with a French chanteuse. He went by Vartan Vartan, or V-squared as he often referred to himself. He was about 30 pounds overweight, which put him in exactly the same ballpark as me. After the entertaining introduction he extended his dimply hand for me to shake. I just looked at him unsure of what he was doing. He nodded with a smile as if that would explain the hand. Feeling rather tired of the confusion I expressed my need for a cold beer. He said it's not good to have alcohol after energy work. Obviously my aunt had told him quite a lot about me. Okay then, just a glass of cold water. That's better, he said joyfully and followed me to the tiny kitchen.

We had a very interesting conversation that night. Vartan told me about his own energy work. He went through it after the death of his father. They were very close and the loss was devastating, he said. Of course being the only son and the eldest child he was expected to be strong, i.e. no emotion, just cold thank you's and manly handshakes as the attendants offered their condolences. He said he gained fifty pounds in the two years following his father's death as if all the grief had welled up inside him. He had drowned himself in work and had lost all sense of time and place. He had given up music. Which must have been difficult for a self confessed music prodigy.

And after plunging way deep in his own sorrows my aunt who knew him for many years suggested he visit the same energy guy I had. He said in the beginning he would just go there, sit and not say a word and then one day he just burst open and blood filled the small office, the walls, the windows, and the poor energy guy were all covered in blood. Vartan didn't know what to do. He started screaming, running around looking for someone to help him but there was no one there. He took his shirt off and began to wipe away the blood from his own face because he couldn't see anything. Everything was red. He felt he was suffocating. He was coughing blood. Then he felt the energy guy's hand upon his own and he heard him say "It's okay." Hearing this Vartan broke down and cried for thirty-five days. He continued to visit the energy guy every week.

The Korean shop owner on the corner of Hudson and Fourteenth monitored Vartan's progress according to the number of bottles of water he bought after each visit. He lost almost seventy pounds in two months. Or so he claims. You have to understand, this is his story. This is what he told me exactly as I'm telling you. He said he still visits the energy guy, once every three or four months and is happy to report profound openness and contentment. I was pleased for him. And thankful for the fact that he talked the whole night. He took my number in San Francisco and promised to visit one of these days which turned out to be only two weeks after the night of the party.

Maybe it was Vartan's openness that drew me to him or his wacky sense of humor but we hit it off quite well and continued our exploration of the occult in his visits to San Francisco. He introduced me to a psychic in Sonoma who quite diplomatically suggested I focus on the present and not worry so much about the future. The psychic's house was not at all what I expected. In my imagination a psychic living in Sonoma would be sitting in an incense-filled room surrounded with burning candles. Perhaps jingly bead curtains would be separating the various rooms where anxious seekers would be patiently awaiting the master's attendance. In fact the house we walked into reminded me more of the pueblos in Taos. Or not even.

I know, it was just like the communal Darvish house I visited with my father when I was about eight or so. The house was outside of Tabriz in northern Iran. Light-brown mud walls encapsulated the barren compound. Tall men dressed in white cotton walked about in silence allowing one to hear the music to which their long black beards danced. I was small and so it is not surprising that they seemed so very large. Yet their manner was unimposing and the one who had been assigned my guardianship for the day observed me from a distance and spoke only when I directly asked him a question. I'm not sure exactly where my father spent that day. I assume he too was being inconspicuously watched and carefully encouraged to explore. When it came time to eat, the same large men turned into dainty hosts carrying large trays containing rice and stew with fresh herbs and yogurt. Moving very lightly on their feet they turned the empty room into a sumptuous feast. They formed circles on the floor around each tray of food, three or four men per tray.

I was squeezed in among one group and watched in wonderment when one man at our tray began to dig into the rice and stew with one hand, fingers held in the form of a cone, grabbed some herbs with the other and proceeded to empty the contents of each hand into his mouth one after the other. The other men followed suit. Another minute passed when I noticed a giant hand offering me a full load of rice and stew. The sheer size of the bite frightened me. How wide would I have to open my mouth to fit this massive compilation into it? Sensing my hesitation the man smiled and put some of the food back onto the tray and offered me a smaller bite. I grabbed it with my hand and put it in my mouth. It was delicious. Now, so many years later, whenever I think back to that time I still can taste the rice and stew in my mouth. A kind hand offering delicious food. Eyes smiling. I don't know much about the beliefs of those Darvishes but to me they are the incarnation of what life is all about. Breaking bread together. Second only to sex in its ability to bring people together; and proven to have longer lasting effect.

And so Vartan and I broke bread together quite often. We went wine tasting and helped each other gain another ten pounds that summer. I usually lose weight when I'm happy, not in this case. Maybe it was the wine or the sun, or the wind for that matter ,but I had to ask why he continued to visit me. In truth my real question was why he didn't want to sleep with me. So I just asked it outright then and there in the tiny bistro in Healdsburgh.

- "I just don't find you attractive."

- "So you don't find me attractive but still want to spend time with me."

- "Yes."

- "Are you into men?"

- "Are those the only two options, you or men?"

- "No."

- "Thank you."

- "Have you ever had sex with a man?"

- "Now you sound like the Red Cross."

- "Can you donate?"

- "No."

- "I see."

- "I prefer women but you are not my type."

One would wonder why we in fact did have sex after such a conversation. I am proud to report that we used a condom. It was one of those things that I still wonder about. Not why we used a condom, but why we had sex after six months of just chumming. Why is it that when someone rejects me I do everything in my power to make them change their mind? Unfortunately the opposite is true too. When someone accepts me, I do everything in my power to change their mind. The strategist would presume that it was Vartan's tactic to profess not desiring me only to get me into bed. But quite honestly, I'm very easy. Sex to me is one of the ways we enjoy life, like a good dinner or a bottle of wine. It doesn't have to be as complicated as some people make it. If two people are mutually attracted by all means hit the sac. I don't really see any reason not to. Let me rephrase, I see very few reasons not to. So if Vartan had expressed an interest, trust me I would have gone along and I think he knew that. But it was after he expressly indicated that I wasn't his type that he had had sex with men that we formed the beast with two backs, if I may borrow from Shakespeare's immortal words. Why? I can't speculate as to Vartan's reasons. All I know is that we didn't really spend much time together after that. We certainly didn't have sex again which technically makes our experiment a one-night stand. My one and only. I still believe that sex doesn't have to ruin a good friendship. But the fact is that I have no evidence to support this belief and all the evidence to its contrary.

Sometimes coming together breaks us apart. Sometimes we share more than the other can take. Sometimes we cross the invisible limit. And sometimes coming together is just an experiment. One that is bound to end no matter what the observations are. I sent Vartan a Christmas card. He replied in an email. The email was signed, "Love, Vartan". That must be worth something.

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