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Staying home
Short story

August 27, 2003
The Iranian

"It'll be a good trip," she said. "We'll take either my car or Louis' car."

"All right," Iraj said.

"I'm looking forward to it. I haven't been to San Francisco in a long time."

"Yes," he said. "Me neither."

Maybe San Francisco is the thing, he thought. Maybe it will take another city in another state. It will be a new place and maybe that will be the thing to make them come together in the way that he had hoped they would from the time he had first met her. It was a sad hope because they had been through it enough times by now for him to know that she was not going in that direction with him, and one of the things that he liked very much about her was that she meant what she said. And there had been enough times that he had said that he was willing to be friends, which he had meant at the time of saying it too, up until the next time he saw her or spoke to her over the phone.

After he had finished speaking with her, Iraj went to the kitchen and he told his mother and grandmother that he would be going to San Francisco with Mariel and her friend.

"Do you want to get married?" his grandmother said.

His mother laughed and Iraj laughed too even though he felt very happy to think of marrying her.

"Mother," his mother said, "here in America young men and women go on trips together all the time. It is not the Islamic Republic. Think of the time of the Shah when everybody would go up to the North together."

"Yes," his grandmother said. "Now the beaches there are separate for men and women. That is what they tell me. I have not been there myself."

Iraj picked up his basketball. "I'm going outside," he said.

Iraj went to the backyard and shot baskets from close in. He guessed that in a few days he would be driving to San Francisco in a car with the girl he liked more than anything and with her friend who was gay. He guessed that the whole thing could be either wonderful or lousy, although it seemed weighed towards lousy, judging by how he felt. He felt old and tired when he thought of her and when he thought of what more he could do to make her feel the way he did.

It was not so bad to feel old and tired about a girl. The lousiness was in feeling that way without having had the experience itself. He did not mind broken-heartedness: It made things clear and he liked what it did to songs. But he would have preferred the kind of broken-heartedness that came after the experience of a girl. That seemed like the real broken-heartedness, and he felt like he could do it pretty well if he were ever in it.

He had already had a kind of preparation for it: He had felt disappointed about many things since beginning college. It wasn't so much trouble to add a girl to that list, but at least with those other things, with the people and places, he had known something about what they were. He did not know all that much about her outside of his own longing, which was still a lot, because it took in every part of her, everything she said and every time she smiled at him. He did not even know if what he had qualified as a broken heart. Perhaps it was better that he not know the real thing, if it felt this bad without anything even happening.

He practiced dribbling and he shot a few layups lazily. It might still be a good trip, he thought. It was summer, and down in San Francisco he imagined it being warm but with the coolness of the ocean right there. All of that had to count for something. If they drove all the way through the heat and finally came to her friend's house in San Francisco by the beach, that had to count for something, and it would be so much better if it could count for something for them together instead of apart. It would make the whole trip effortless, every inch of it on the road and every second that they were there. It seemed like the trick was to be detached about it, to act as though it was nothing to be her friend. The problem with that was that she might believe him, and then he would be back at where he had started.

Iraj was still shooting when his father came outside. His father watered the flowers. He watered the herb garden, and then walked over to Iraj.

"Your mother says that you are going to San Francisco with Mariel."

"Yes," Iraj said.

"This is the same girl that you like?"


"Is she she your girlfriend?"

"No," Iraj said. "We are going as friends."

His father looked at him. "When I was young and I was at the university in Beirut," his father said. "I would have interactions with the girls who were also students there. There were even some American girls there, and we would do things such as go to parties together and things like that. I remember that it was a bad feeling physically to think that the night would have a certain result with a woman and then to see that it would not have that result. It is a bad feeling physically for a man."

"Yes," Iraj said. He did not like to hear his father talking that way. It was a kind of talk that seemed very far away from how he felt about her. It seemed very far away from summer and San Francisco and how she looked when she smiled at him.

"You might think about that, as it relates to going on this trip with her," his father said.

Iraj nodded. His father went back to working in the yard. He pulled up some weeds growing among the flowers and then rolled up the hose and went inside.

Iraj knew what his father meant, but it was an awfully hard way to look at things. It seemed like it didn't allow much room for the kinds of feelings that could get him anywhere near that result in the first place. And he did not like to think that the time with her would be worthless if it didn't end that way with her at night. In college he had heard the fellows who spoke that way, and speaking that way was fine for them, but not for him, not for him regarding her.

The whole thing was so much easier for Americans, Iraj thought. They did not have to do things like speak of the bad feeling physically for a man when the night did not have a certain result. They did not have anybody in their family asking them if they were getting married before anything had even happened.

They had figured out how to make the whole thing loose and casual and easy, and they had figured it out a long time ago, back when it was all kids calling each other boyfriend and girlfriend. Even then he would just listen to them and dream. And as for the physicality itself, they had already figured that out a long time ago too, so that by the time they were his age or even younger, they had figured out how to bring all the different parts of it together, truthfully and sincerely but also lightly, which seemed like the most difficult thing of all.

He did not know how they did it. It seemed like the different parts of it were miles and miles apart for Iranians, that there was either dreaming or there was a night having the correct result. But there was a whole wonderful world where everything got mixed together, and both things like summer as well as a good feeling at night could be taken into account. He knew it was there. He knew it from listening to Americans talking.

But he knew it from more than just listening to Americans talking. He knew it from himself too. He did not have any evidence to refer to, but he had felt it, how the whole thing did not have to be as hard and serious as he felt it all the time. It was supposed to be fun, after all. He knew that it was supposed to be fun, but somehow he could not bring himself around to it when he was with her. Even when he imagined the real thing with her, he imagined it as something more sorrowful rather than happy.

And it had to do with more than just Americans and Iranians. Even though sometimes it could look like the whole thing could be effortless for him too if he were American, that he would by now be among those who also spoke of relationships and past girlfriends and such, he knew it wasn't true. There was something else.

There was something else and he did not understand it yet, but it seemed to make sense that until he did, he should not put himself in a situation where he was trying to do half of one thing and half of another. It was hard enough to try to do just the one thing with her. There might be some Americans who could do even something like a car trip to San Francisco with the right kind of looseness and casualness and ease, but he was not among them. They were farther along than he was.

Iraj went inside and called her on the phone.

"Hello Iraj," she said.

He said that he would not be going with them to San Francisco.

"I can try to be friends," he said. "But I think a trip like that is too much."

"All right," she said.

"Have a good time," he said.

"Thank you."

That evening, after he had told his family that he would not be going, Iraj went back outside to the yard. It was still warm as he began shooting again. He would have some time to play in the evenings now that he wasn't going anywhere. That didn't seem like much compared to the adventure of San Francisco, but he guessed that that was all right.

He still wondered if there would have been a chance for it, but he knew that whatever it was that was in the way, it would take more than a new city to get through. It was something that would be with him wherever he went.

He heard the back door open and his father come outside. He walked over to Iraj, looking over the herbs.

"It is for the best to not go," his father said. "It is good to avoid that kind of pain."

Iraj nodded and did not say anything.

"It is not anything bad," his father said. "It is just nature."

"Yes," Iraj said. He thought for a moment that the way he felt about her was also nature, but standing there with his father, with the setting sun and the smell of the pine needles, it didn't seem like nature as much. If he had really called her up and told her that he wouldn't be coming, then it seemed like it wasn't nature as much.

His father studied the herbs and picked up a few leaves scattered among them.

"The cilantro is doing very well," his father said. "I will ask your mother if she would like some for her cooking."

Iraj liked the seriousness his mother and father felt about the herb garden. It all made sense when they ate dinner and tasted it.

He stayed outside shooting balls, as his father walked away. He thought of Mariel and of how the trip would be for her, and he still felt old and tired when he did. But now he felt as though he deserved to, as though something he had done had caught up to his heart. It didn't look like much, since he was by himself the same as before. It certainly didn't look like boyfriends and girlfriends holding hands like what he had seen at college. But it was good to deserve it if he was going to feel that way about a girl. It was good enough that he told himself that he had to make five shots in a row from the outside before he could go in, which he did.

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