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Xerxes
Short story

July 23, 2001
The Iranian

I'm staring into his eyes as he describes his ideal vacation spot. The images of ocean waves and sand dunes dance in front of my eyes but my mind is elsewhere. I think back to the past year, an entire year of reflection, solitude, and evaluation. Where I sat myself down and conducted lengthy interviews asking some very pointed questions. Last year this time I felt completely lost. My goals, values, my way of living, my way of loving all were under question. I was certain of nothing, absolutely nothing. So many of my relationships seemed unreal. The people around me, unimportant. None of them really knew me or cared for me. What was I doing with them? What was I doing at all? An entire year of searching inside every pair of eyes to answer one simple question: do I care if I never see this person again? Often times the answer would be no. Gone. Dropped. In one swift move the name came off the list. Now I am more alone than I've ever been in my life.

It used to be that I would jump into the next relationship as soon as one had ended. I felt compelled to maintain an air of desirability, even marketability. Now I couldn't care less. I would be happy if I never have another relationship. It's been a year of removing masks. Here I am, look! This is the real me, get out if you don't like it. I had to say this to myself first. It's amazing how dependent we are on other people's evaluation of us. It's not just external validation it's creating and maintaining a foreign persona. For what? From the time you're born your marketability is constantly scrutinized. Is she pretty enough, kind enough, friendly enough? Does she serve tea well enough? You're placed on a pedestal, praised and criticized to increase your market value. Years of education, an exciting job, house, stuff, success, all is considered of no value if you don't have a man beside you to prove your desirability.

And once there is a man, you must prove your fertility, show off what a wonderful mother you can be in addition to a fabulous wife and homemaker and career woman and artist and socially conscious citizen actively involved in improving her environment. All a man has to do is to have a good job and a decent income. He can be ugly as hell, zero personality, absent from bed and family table and he would still be revered as a successful man. But a woman has to be superwoman to even be allowed into the racetrack. Well, I say the hell with all of it. The hell with the run around games, the expectations, the fears. I salute life, my life. And I shall live it as I please. Man, no man, child, no child, as long as I'm doing something I enjoy, as long as I have myself and respect myself, nothing else matters.

It's amazing how different a relationship can be when you feel grounded, uninhibited, expressing yourself without reservation, without hesitation. In fact, Xerxes says it is this very directness that he finds irresistible in me. He doesn't know what it took for me to gain it. My mind returns to his words now. He would be embarrassed in briefs, only trunks for him. He likes the long, flowery ones. I keep chewing on the stick of sugar cane in my Caperinea. It's cold from sitting on ice, sweet and juicy. They bring the fried calamari, very lightly battered. It too is chewy.

The first time I slept with Xerxes his navy blue and white striped trunks made me laugh. He coyly danced out of them looking more like a geisha than the self-made millionaire that he is. I had a lot of reservations about dating a businessman. I just couldn't see myself with some one who wears a suit sixty hours a week, although I had no trouble seeing myself in his Porsche. But he was so enthusiastic about my theatre work so full of encouragement that I figured at a minimum I should give our business relationship a chance; who knows, maybe I can help him unload a few thousand as a tax deduction. In fact Xerxes turned out to be much more than I ever imagined. Behind his cut and dry surface and his fiscally-sound management style lies a dreamer with a taste for adventure and an excellent eye for opportunity. The synergy was obvious. I'm an idea person and he can make things happen. Our relationship, happened gradually.

We met at a Career Night at Stanford University. We both gave talks about our respective professions. He was witty and good looking, I was, well, just myself. Our exchange that night was minimal and formal. A week later he called me and asked me to the ballet. I had never seen the San Francisco Ballet so naturally I accepted. I didn't really think of it as a date. Of course as always I imagined all sorts of ways the evening could turn out, how we would gaze into each other's eyes and kiss and have sex and all that, but I didn't really think of it as a date. I thought of it as luck! He had an extra ticket, we had met a week before, he knew I was into art, he called me so his ticket won't go to waste. I knew he owns his own software company so it didn't really surprise me when his Porsche softly pulled in front of my house. I asked if he'd like to come in for a drink. He declined; he was afraid we might be late for our dinner reservation.

At the restaurant I noticed that we were both wearing black suede pants and white tops, mine a second hand pearl-beaded tank top, his an Armani silk shirt. We looked good together, I admitted to myself but the negative stereotypes still cluttered my mind. I expected him to be conservative and boring, narrow-minded and self-righteous. He turned out to be anything but. He obviously believed in and appreciated the opportunity to make his dreams come true but he believed in giving back to the community as well -- this I dually noted with regard to a potential contribution to one deserving theatre company. We commiserated about the results of the presidential election and wondered where we would run to after the long-overdue revolution has totally destabilized the U.S. I felt very comfortable with him. He was smart and charming but had none of the airs commonly taken on by smart and charming people.

That night at dinner something incredible happened. I was telling Xerxes about one of my all time favorite plays in the world, "Life Is A Dream" by Calderon, and how this Spanish play that explores universal themes such as memory and identity and their interplay with destiny and individual responsibility is particularly timely for an Iranian audience. He was in fact familiar with the play. I inhaled with satisfaction. He began to share his reasons for loving this play, as the first few words escaped his mouth, the moments turned into molasses, the space around us grew like a sponge and I found myself in a scene from "Waiting To Exhale". In slow motion my eyes looked past the man speaking across the table from me, there was nothing behind him, nothing behind me, only us, in complete emptiness, frozen in space and time yet moving, his lips were moving. I knew exactly what he was going to say as if we were speaking in unison, a man robbed of his own identity, like a nation without history, no past, no future, only the present defines your actions, and so you are lost.

I remembered how when I was growing up in Iran we learned nothing of Mossadegh, his struggles and contributions unlearned by a generation. Similarly, the Islamic Republic is very selective about the bits and pieces of history that is taught in schools today. The past censored to justify and support the present. The struggles and contributions of Black and Native Americans are treated the same way in our history books, minimally mentioned at best. Four years of high school in the U.S. and I learned nothing about Buffalo Soldiers or the Freedom Trail; no mention of the Harlem Renaissance or how Jazz has shaped the American identity. No past, no future, as if the present is taking place in a vacuum, as if every single moment must be justified on its own merits. A tree without any roots cannot reach for the sun. Xerxes came back into focus as he was concluding his thoughts: "The anger and frustration you feel is never justified when your past is denied, you are always in the wrong until you magically raise yourself above it all and say 'Life Is A Dream'." I felt it then, a mental orgasm. I leaned back on my chair feeling somewhat exhausted, grabbed my wineglass and said YES. Only then did I exhale.

At the ballet, Xerxes was respectfully warm. He did not hold my hand or put his arms around my shoulders but he did periodically whisper his critique of the performance in my left ear, his lips touching my ear lobe without hesitation. At the end he asked me the name of my perfume. I told him not to bother looking for it here, it is sold only in Europe. He just smiled and complemented me on it. Our first evening together ended very cordially, a gentle hug, a light kiss on the cheek succeeded by "I had a very good time, thank you." he said that, I just smiled and waved goodbye. Our dinner conversation had touched me more deeply than the ballet. I could fall in love with this man. The realization worried me. My review of the evening forced me to conclude that he was not interested in me. He is most likely fishing for a wife, I thought, a woman whose social stature and connections would complement or improve his. I'm more of a nomad in perpetual transition marveling at the longevity of change. I would not call him. I had waited a long time and I needed to be pursued. He did not seem interested in pursuing me. I decided to send him a thank you email. His response was concise: "You're welcome."

After I didn't hear from him for weeks, I reluctantly accepted the distinct possibility that the past was to be all I would have with Xerxes. I didn't even want to contact him as a potential donor. His money no longer interested me. I wanted more conversations. Like now, sitting across from him again at Suzanne's, a restaurant we have come to like, our place, where Suzanne offers us the usual table and suggests wines she is certain we would love. My favorite dish here is the penne with marinara sauce. Sometimes I go for the special. Tonight we're having pizza with eggplant, anchovies and extra garlic. Not very romantic you say? Garlic is not only an aphrodisiac it also enhances performance. We have good sex, infrequently. We see each other once every week or sometimes two weeks. Between my rehearsal schedule and his travels, this is the best we can do. We email, not too many phone calls. I'm not a phone person.

The night Xerxes called me for the second time I was on my way out the door to the video store when I heard the phone ring. I paused for a moment, can it be? I ran back up the stairs and picked up the phone making sure there was no hint of excitement in my hello. It was Hamid. He wanted to come over. He volunteered to bring the wine. No, I said disappointed, not in the mood. He didn't probe, it was a short conversation. Hamid has many numbers to dial, I was sure one of them would respond affirmatively. I slogged back down the stairs and actually stepped out the door before I heard the phone ring again. I was sure it was Hamid trying to sweet talk me into a rendezvous. I locked the door. Then I heard his voice. It was Xerxes! I unlocked the door and ran up unable to calm down my breathing and picked up just as he was about to say "later." I took him by surprise, he laughed affectionately as I made excuses for my heavy breathing. He had been traveling, out of town, out of the country. Nothing short of intergalactic journey would have justified the silence of the past month but I didn't mention this. He asked to see me again, if I had no plans, maybe next week? Maybe, I said, let me check, and yes, I happen to have an evening free.

This is a gift, I thought to myself, a gift for patience, for not succumbing to another pointless evening with Hamid. My heart was pounding. Xerxes asked me what I was doing that night. It was an easy choice between watching a video or seeing him. I did both. That was the first time we ate at Suzanne's. Two bottles of Zin later, Xerxes asked me if we couldn't continue with desert at his place. I was certain we could. Suzanne gave us the last of her famous Tiramisu as we bid her adieu. The short drive to Harrison and Speare was quiet. We were both considering the pros and cons of having sex on the second date. We hadn't even kissed yet I knew I would be spending the night at his place. I could take the next day off from work but what were his plans? I didn't know. I didn't want to ask. In my mind the evening had so far been perfect and I was being brave by risking an extension. Needless worry, that was all it was. Xerxes asked to kiss me on the way to the top floor and the next time I was inside that elevator was three days later and one bottle of perfume heavier.

He has asked me a question. He is waiting for a response. I wasn't listening. The tenderness I feel for this man surprises me. Why did we meet? I didn't even want to go to that Career Night event at Stanford. I believe in destiny. I believe in soul mates finding each other after years of fruitless searches, like the song says. Do I trust him because he understands me or because he is successful? I respect him. I want to learn from him. What do I have to teach him? Will he grow tired of me? He reaches across the table for my hand. There is a question in his eyes, a thousand in mine. Fear has taken over my body. Last week I gave myself a huge scare when I realized my period was ten days late. I couldn't have another abortion. It would kill me. Here is a man I love, he has never said that he loves me. He cares for me, deeply. He would be willing to invest in a theatre space, for me. Bermuda? That's where he wants to take me for my birthday. This is what he has been talking about all this time. I see Yes, Bermuda would be wonderful.

I want to ask him what he would do if I were pregnant. Would he still take me to Bermuda? If I were pregnant now the child would be due in November, a Scorpio or Sagitarian. But I'm already scheduled to give birth in November. I have a show opening, which means I'll be in rehearsals all October, which means I can't take off to Bermuda. This doesn't make Xerxes very happy. He seems a bit ticked off actually. In response to my inquiry he complains that I have been distant, that I have little time for him. This sounds so familiar it isn't even funny. What would you do if I were pregnant? The question just drops out of my mouth. I'm just as surprised to hear it as Xerxes is. He sits back and examines me through narrowed eyes. I sip on my wine. From the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of Suzanne watching us. I turn to look at her, she waves with a smile. I raise my wineglass to her. Is it mine? Xerxes asks with as much dignity as he can muster at this moment. I guess it doesn't really surprise me. How is a man ever to know, for sure, short of DNA analysis? I consider saying "I don't know" or "hard to tell," I mean who knows, with all the men I sleep with in between your trips and my rehearsals But I don't. It's painful territory, I don't want to go there. It was a hypothetical question, I explain. Hypothetical? He repeats. I nod yes. A hypothetical question, he weighs it in the air as he repeats it, again and again. Is there a man out there who handles such a situation any better? If so, I haven't met him. No matter how they feel about you, they always get defensive. As if you stole their sperm without their knowledge. This may come as a shock to some people but when a man and a woman have intercourse they run the risk of conception!

I really need to calm down. Let him freak out, if he so chooses, I refuse to get all bent out of shape. Suzanne appears at our table wondering if everything is all right. Before I can respond affirmatively Xerxes engages Suzanne in a discussion I fear I will find distasteful. Yes, she has two children, twelve and fourteen. No, divorced, oh, it's been almost five years now. She is certain our child would look beautiful, if we choose to have one. She smiles and begins to walk away. Xerxes grabs her hand, she turns toward him startled, he apologizes, she smiles and removes her hand from his. I watch him ask her something else, she seems uncomfortable. I hate Xerxes. At this moment he is acting like a stupid ass. Did I not say it was a hypothetical question? Why is he taking it so far? A simple "I don't know" or "I'm not sure" would have been sufficient. Let's go, I declare with unprecedented command. Suzanne returns my credit card with a sympathetic smile after I sign for the bill. All sounds blend into each other like the fibers in soft cotton balls stuffed into my ears. I can't make out anything anyone says, especially Xerxes.

We walk towards his car, he is talking, I know because his lips are moving. I look at this man. I want to hug him and say it's okay. But I don't. He wasn't there to hug me when I was waiting for the pregnancy test to turn color. He travels a lot and then complains that I don't have time for him. He has never said he loves me. Yet, I love him. The way his mind works turns me on. The way he talks to me, the way he touches me, the look in his eyes when I come. He is attentive, caring, well usually, when he has time. And now he is absent. I look around me. He is not here. Did we pass his car? I don't think so. There he is, I see him now, sitting on a park bench holding his head in his hands. I watch him from a distance trying to read his mind. It would have been so much easier if he would simply say what was on his mind. It would have been so much easier if I could hear. Don't run away from confrontation, I remind myself.

I want to rewind the evening, erase the latter part, go back to when the pizza hadn't arrived yet. In fact I want to rewind it all to the night I first went to Xerxes's flat. The view of the city from his terrace made me feel like I could fly. I want to fly to him now. I want him to fly to me. I want him to wake up from this bad dream and realize how much he loves me, that his life without me would be meaningless. He doesn't move. Head hanging down, hands pressing against temples. I consider taking a cab home. We can deal with this later, or not. We can decide never to see each other again, never speak, never laugh, never. I go to him. He lifts up his head and looks at me. His eyes are filled with tears. He is crying. What have I done? I drop next to him on the bench, embracing him, kissing his eyes, whispering I'm sorry, what for? I don't know but it's the only thing that comes to my mind. He snuggles in my arms folding to make himself smaller. I hold on to him, tight, caressing his hair like a mother to a baby. I don't want to be his mother. Where did my friend go, my lover, he is leaving me, I can feel it, he has left me.

This is how he begins his goodbye speech: "Actually, I'm glad this happened. It has helped put things in perspective for me. I could never stand in your way. I respect your work too much. I mean you are an artist. There is no room in your life for a child. There is barely room in it for me. And I understand it, don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. But what if you were pregnant? I mean, my God, what were we thinking? We weren't, that's what. You couldn't keep the child, right? It would be due when? November, December? You'd be in rehearsals, how could you do it?"

"I'm not pregnant," I say knowing it would make no difference. This isn't about me, my life or my choices. This is about Xerxes, his fears and his insecurities.

-- "I know you're not. But it can happen, right? I mean it's a natural consequence of sex between a man and a woman, right? No contraceptive is 100% effective. I don't want to put you in a position to choose. It would be deeply unfair."

-- "I choose you."

-- "It would never work. I know, you'd be eternally unhappy. I wouldn't recognize you. You'd be someone else. Who would you be? You deserve someone who will support you and the path you've chosen. I fully support your work, I wouldn't want you to compromise, I couldn't. I would never forgive myself. How could you live with someone who asked you to give up something you held so dearly?"

-- "Why does it have to be either-or?"

-- "I can't. I need some one who can be fully dedicated to me. I don't want to compete with your work."

-- "What about your work?"

-- "That's different. I have regular hours. It doesn't take up all my weekends. You understand, right? This is actually good. It would be better to separate now rather than later, when things have gone further. I mean, we made no commitments, right? Do you see what I'm saying? Please don't look at me like that. This is every bit as difficult for me as it is for you. Please don't make it any harder. Shall I give you a ride home? You can still stay with me tonight if you want. Or maybe it's not such a good idea."

-- "Aren't you interested in what I have to say, or how I feel about this?"

-- "Of course, yes. Please, I'm sorry. Go ahead please."

-- "I don't want us to separate. Not like this. I mean we are not even fighting."

-- "I agree. This is not really a fight. We have discovered an area of incompatibility. It's very simple. As you probably have guessed I am in fact interested in a long-term relationship, yes, maybe even marriage. I'm not afraid of the M-word, no. So certainly I would be interested in building a home, yes, with children. I would. You see, I have answered your question. The original one, earlier tonight. The question is what do you want?"

-- "I want us to be together."

-- "And how will you manage a home? Don't say the same way as me because it is not the same. My wife wouldn't have to work. I have made millions of dollars so that my wife can sit home and look after my kids. Are you this person? Well, are you? No, I didn't think so. Let's just end this fucking relationship right here and now. I'm sorry but it's just very disconcerting. Shall I call you a cab?"

Disconcerting. In the final analysis that's all I was to him. He will never call, or stop by, or even donate money. I have robbed the theatre company of a major benefactor. It's too soon to know how my heart will respond to this blow. It will not be pretty. I will want to talk, he won't return my calls, or email. An abrupt end to something that could be beautiful. We would have been only slightly out of the ordinary. But even this was more than Xerxes could handle. To his credit, he called it as he saw it. No beating around the bush. At the first sign of potential incompatibility he decided to cut his losses and get out. An excellent business decision. Me? I could have explained further, pushed my view, demanded a later audience when his mind has settled down. But you see I still need to be pursued. My insecurities surface in another form. Silence, acceptance. Walking away comes so much more naturally. In this way Xerxes and I are very similar.

The cab driver has offered me his box of Kleenex. Xerxes did not wait for the cab to arrive. He had already wasted too much of his valuable time. I turned out to be a bad investment. His impeccable reputation is now tarnished. As the cab crosses the Bay Bridge I begin to understand the bridge I have already crossed. Xerxes and I share the same fears. I asked myself the same questions he did. I had similar doubts. But he decided to stop. I will go on, not despite my fears but because of them. I recall my history, grab on to my identity and remind myself that from birth to death is only a moment. I choose to live my moment fully. I choose to be me to the best of my ability. Supple as the wind I float through life my heart open to its endless possibilities. I think somebody said this in a movie.

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