MORAD MOAZAMI - FARAWAYERS
After years of typing out short stories both published and unpublishable, Morad Moazami is still terrified of devoting himself full-time to his zeal for writing fiction. Instead, he continues to dally in the dull world of academia, hoping (though it is a very disingenuous hope) that his knack for making people and places up might somehow soon be supplanted by the scholastic tradition of writing about real people and places so niche that they might as well never have existed. Sometimes though, to his own fear and delight, that writerly side manages to break free from its academic fetters, and a story will materialize.
Previous to the Scarlet Leaf Review, Morad’s short story “Valiollah’s 40th” was published by Storgy in 2015, and another one, “Sleepy,” was printed in the same year in “The Bones Behind Your Smile,” a Toronto short story compilation. He can be followed on Twitter at @aghamorad, and his sometimes-pompous reviews of movies and music can be read all over the Internet, specifically on Antiquiet,Unsung Films, Movie Mezzanine, PopOptiq, and Reverse Shot.
Her feet distracted him – each whiff of her cigarette followed by the flailing of her toes, her feet laid out and resting beside his knee on the wooden bench, clenching his attention with tenfold threshes. Painted green and blackened by the nightfall, the bench looked as though it was slumbering underneath her slim, chalky body. He felt as though he couldn’t control his urges, and definitely not his eyes. If only he could pounce atop her body then and there, if only their eyes and caresses meant more than the caress of distant friends. If only he had the courage to lose everything and start anew. If only she did too.
That prospect was long gone. Only regret boiled now, threatening the risk of overflowing, but never keeping with its promise, waning instead in the heat of his surrender.
"I shouldn't be doing this," she said after inhaling, wriggling her toes again, breathing out a waft both measured and slow burning.
There was no way she would leave her life, and it was unfeasible for him to leave his own. He had too little to offer, too little with which to even eke out his own existence.
He outstretched his hand toward the front of her face, accidentally but deliberately touching the crest of her largest toe with his palm in brisk motion. His fore and middle finger like locking blades, he grabbed the cigarette from between her thumbs and turned his head to the third of their three-piece crowd.
"I can’t smoke too much either," he exclaimed while looking at the one that wasn’t her. Scowling at the cigarette before taking his drag, he said with a voice boisterous and loud, "I never liked these things."
The third man looked on mutely, eying his friend with an unreceptive cool.
All three were fenced in a little courtyard that looked into a dimmed cafe. It was empty inside, but functioning.
Only a dark young girl with twisted hair was obliged to stay behind, leaning against the counter, and picture-perfect through the clear window that looked both inside and out. She was dallying with her phone, waiting for home and for her pay, leaving the band inside the speakers to play on with abandon, the hush its only spectator, relishing its cool jazz through coil and cone.
The third was peering inside, and the two across from him paid no notice. They were trapped inside their own charade.
"No, I don't like this garbage," the man exclaimed after a second drag, his face buckling with disgust before twining into a clownish grin. He was larger than the other two. Inevitably, his every expression was larger too, and his intentions more awkwardly manifest.
The woman smiled, and turned to take another cigarette from her purse.
"Parham," the large man then called out to the other, his voice still tinged with a trace of jest. "Why don't you just close up shop? We'll go to my place for a drink."
"You can drink here," the other rejoined.
"Put together something nice for me then, will you?"
A smile trickled from the speaker’s mouth, climbing along the sides of his mouth in accompaniment to his cigarette’s fumes.
"Something strong,” he added, fishing out a muffled “please” only after he had made his order.
The other man took no umbrage. He had already made out the desperation in his friend's tone of voice, a tone that concealed his vulnerability with vanity.
He peered from the outside into the window again, saw the girl and heard the jazz, and abided by his friend's order. When he reached the doorway, he turned and glimpsed the two across from him, toes perched beside a bloated belly.
"Catherine, do you want something too?" he asked the woman.
"I'm fine," she answered as frigidly as he.
Turning away, she let slip a grin, relishing her faultless imitation.
Passing through the doorway, he began to feel at home. The stretched out wooden bar, the marble countertop, the concrete floor that had withstood so many burdened shoes; they were his life, and reason for his contentment.
The familiar setting also prompted a familiar loathing inside him. Doomed to maintain it without any specific ending-point, he was reminded daily that he was trapped. That continuous daily vista, strained by its contained horizon, had held him back. His post obliged him to maintain the stillness of the too-still room. There wasn’t room for change, and the slight changes that were welcome were not changes, but ornamentations. They were for others to see, and for him to see through, pricking him with reminders that he was trapped, with his future and past held hostage.
Little by little, the bulbs hanging from the shop’s ceiling had begun to seem to him like corpses, swaying from the gallows to and fro, bereft of witnesses to unhang them and lay them down. Those bulbs were dimmed to impress upon passersby that this was a place for repose. This foreign land, though, knew no repose. It was a different world, and its quirks seemed more like strains to his weary eyes. And when he walked inside, his ears caught the echo of his shoes in the narrow, empty room.
Laying down her phone on the marble counter, the girl turned her back to him, and grabbing a rag from inside the sink, pretended to polish glasses that did not need polishing. It was evident to both persons that there was nothing left to do at that time of night, but to close up and to go back home.
The man veered to the back of the bar, willfully trying to ignore the girl. He forced his eyeballs to stay still within their trenches. Finally moving past the girl, he felt relief bordering on satisfaction, and rubbed his eyes and culled a bottle from its place. Pouring the drink into a large container, he shook it and drizzled it back into a tiny, hilted glass. He then hurried to the end of the bar, and with a sliced lime rocking in his palms, passed the girl again as she proceeded to soil washed dishes with a dirty rag, creating fruitless jobs to busy herself with. It was easier to disregard her the second time, he noticed.
Drink in hand, he hurled the paraphernalia into the sink for the girl to clean, and took his leave, proceeding to rub his eyes with his one free hand.
The two outside were carrying on in silent conversation, no longer speaking of cigarettes, but about youth.
He was telling her about his time in the theatre. The vocation had always fit Bahman’s figure, Parham thought. Portly and insecure, he might have made a marvelous Falstaff in his youth. But now, his roundness only seemed to suggest regret.
He placed the drink on the bench, by the side of Bahman’s thigh, the side safe from twitching toes.
"What small portions!" his friend cried out, holding the glass above his eyes and reciting his words as if they were written down. "But a magnificent color!"
Bahman pulled the glass down to his mouth, and took a sip. The sound of his modest sip briefly cleaved through the atmosphere. "And it tastes good too," he then approved. "Thank you, Parham jaan."
The jaan struck Parham, and his distaste mounted. The word only had two uses: one formal, and the other condescending.
Inwardly seething, he stood up and walked over to the woman's purse, and leaning down, rummaged through her bag with his bulky hands. The woman paid it no heed, giving Bahman all her attention instead.
"And did you stay in theatre?"
The big man’s face shriveled with a shamefaced smile. He bit his lip, took a sip of drink, and stared at the woman's shoulder, not daring to see her eyes.
"What do you think?"
"I don't know," she answered, anxious over the presence of the man foraging through her bag.
"Goddammit," she at last yelled at Parham, packing his wrist in her palm. "It’s right here. Just ask for it."
And placing the pack of cigarettes in his hands, she turned back to her friend.
"Go on," she continued, leaving her hand to rest on Parham’s wrist as she listened, as Bahman watched that hand gradually slide down into another man’s palms.
The confidence she exuded tormented him. It made him feel like vulnerability was a characteristic exclusive to his own breed and far-gone culture. He had never seen a woman as unthinkingly self-assured as her, having been accustomed throughout his life to women who were either too submissive or too delicate. From where he had come, women with fire were often hazed and pushed into chicken coops, unable to ever recover their spirit again. Her vitality captivated him, a product of a world that was still new and unfamiliar.
He peered again at her firm fist wrapped inside Parham's hand, and he trembled at what his friend had done. Perhaps noticing his stare, the woman withdrew her hand and cast it on her thigh instead. Before long, her idle hand grew restless. She curved her arm to her back, seeking Parham with her fingers, but she was only clutching at empty air. He had gone inside.
Embarrassed, she towed her dallied hand to feel her hair, and having recovered her poise, once more turned to Bahman. Their quiet looks were pitiful, but they looked on regardless.
"You can do something about it, you know," he suddenly heard her say.
His heart leapt. He could still not dare to look at her.
"I can't," he answered, just to have said something.
"You can just lean in and kiss me right now,” she said.
Bahman heaved his head upward to look at her, but she was looking far away; her eyes fixed on Parham’s movements, watching his stiff figure hastily scuttle back and forth behind the bar.
She plucked a cigarette, and lit it. Her head was still turned away, but her body was sprawled against his thighs and those toes were picking at his skin. He was frozen, and his mouth had dried. Finally, she turned her head and glared into his eyeballs, pulling the cigarette toward her lips.
“The consequences can come after,” she exhaled.
Bahman tried to speak, but instead belched out a few stammers.
He tried again, but his tongue would not go further than his teeth.
Tears bulged from behind his eyes, and his fingers turned to fists.
He tried again but only coughed, and when he pulled himself back up, he met her eyes, and beside them Parham’s towering frame.
The woman sat relaxed and resolute, still goggling into Bahman’s eyes, and flicking the embers of her cigarette.
"Nobody seems to want to explain this to me," she suddenly cried out, twisting her neck out toward Parham, and pointing at Bahman with her head.
Feeling overrun, Bahman let slip a startled gasp and held his breath, but no one seemed to notice.
"He’s not budging,” she confessed to Parham, as the other’s heart hammered against his chest. But the woman's words soon appeased him.
“He just won’t tell me why quit the stage?" she pronounced, allowing Bahman to breath again.
Suddenly and to his own surprise, her voice sounded hideous to his ear. How effortlessly she had detached herself from him. He no longer knew which side of her to give trust to. Her every word had begun to sound stained with insincerity. Why had she said those things, and why did she turn away so suddenly?
Cheerfully, she turned to Bahman with her mouth agape.
“Why don’t you tell me why you quit?” she asked again, playfully prodding his leg with kicks.
"Heroin," Parham retorted.
She gasped, and her gasp was beautiful, but Bahman didn't’ want it to be beautiful.
She then leaned over, grabbed his shoulder and peered at his hairless crown and face. Her round, open mouth, so close to his own face, lingered with a smile of surprise, and made him long for her again.
But when he dared to look back into her eyes, he saw that her stare was empty, with no one breathing behind their sea green tints. Without her vitality, she was scraps of a muffled personality. Nothing he longed for were inside those eyes.
An inkling of pity crept into the interior of his gaze. It made him feel much better.
Thus collecting himself, he rolled out his story for Catherine to hear.
"The heroin came after," Bahman pronounced. His words were directed at the breeze or at the nighttime hush. He took a sip of his drink, and turned to Parham.
Parham, having already been familiar with Bahman’s story, could easily shame his friend for the inevitable flourishes of his story. Bahman needed assurance that he wasn’t to be humiliated. After all, the man had reason to shame his friend into quietude, and he was capable.
A beard covered half his face, and his dropping lids screened his eyes. As if he had trapped his body inside an even greater shell, Parham refused his limbs and organs their freedom. They were protected, confined, ironclad.
Probing into Parham’s eyes, Bahman was powerless to find his answer. The man’s eyes were eternally void, hiding both his vulnerability and intent. His face was lifeless, but not unhealthy. Instead, it had been merely taught to conserve its energy.
Most of Parham’s exploits were carried out in ambiguities, Bahman called to mind. He only needed to switch his gaze to Catherine as proof.
Bahman had often questioned the two’s forbearing features, but however deeply he had foraged, he had been unable to discern a hint of their private lives.
Were they spent in the eternal quietude he had been witness to again and again? Had they learned control or had they inherited it? And if they had learned it, how?
He envied them. He was surrounded by those whose bodies were in their sway, guiding them like sailors would a vessel or Bedouins a four-legged animal, taking from the compliant only what they wished to take.
Unlike them, Bahman felt himself in shambles. Faults poured forth from him, heedless to his efforts to constrain them; his mass unceasingly defied his temperance; and above all, vulnerability had embedded itself in his persona, fusing with his personality so firmly that he was no longer able to distinguish the two. As a result, he had turned over his agency to the volatile chemicals that now had reign.
Perhaps that was why Catherine’s poise had possessed him: He yearned not for her body, but for her control, having seen in her the ability to curb her whims and transform from one creature into another.
His thoughts, however, had made him tired, and he resolved to speak instead.
"Catherine" he said while still speaking to the gust of wind. "It wasn't heroin.”
Taking a sip of his drink, he slipped a glance at Parham, and bit-by-bit, moved toward her gaze.
After letting out a stale chuckle, he continued.
“I quit because I was too fat to be any good."
Bahman screwed his eyes and scanned the two. Catherine genuinely watched on, but Parham’s shrouded eyeballs were mocking in their hush, bullying Bahman to keep to his rote and curb the flourishes.
Soundlessly, he complied.
"When you're as fat as I am in the theatre, you are guaranteed only two roles," he intimated, making sure to emphasize the word fat. “You either play the heavyset buffoon - you know, the one who stumbles on his way to stage to make you laugh,” he explained while spreading out his underarms and pantoming a tumbling motion with his hips and arms. “Or you are asked to play the wicked fatso - the one who strokes his gut as he sends good men to the gallows.”
He took another sip, and took a solemn pose, resting his elbows on his knees, and screwing up his brows. Softly shaking his head, he twirled the glass in his hand, raised it to his mouth, and guzzled down the drink.
"I asked for other roles, better roles, more dynamic roles, something that allowed me to show my range, something that proved how passionately I had toiled to be an actor.”
He paused and turned to Catherine.
“I wanted to be more than just a fool or a tyrant. But nobody took the risk of putting this potbellied curse on stage.”
He hid his gaze again, and moored his sight on the vacant street.
“Perhaps I didn't try as hard."
"Or maybe you weren't good," Parham scoffed, showing teeth before concealing them underneath his bristles.
"I’m not excusing myself," Bahman answered back, not yet turning to meet his scorn. "I didn't try as hard as I should have," he admitted, “but I tried.”
“I tried to lose weight, just so I could provide them with the figure of a could-be star,” he said while wryly glaring at the empty sky.
“But, as hard as I tried, this body ---" he clutched his stomach, "this fat just kept on spreading. It was as if it was mocking me, trying to get its message across that my dreams was on its clutches.”
His voice wavered, but recuperating quickly, he pressed on.
“As if ---"
But nothing came of it. He downed his empty drink again, and promptly realizing the absence of any liquid, he swallowed down his spit instead.
"Then I just stopped caring,” he confessed “I decided that I was condemned to this body, and I just caved. I gave this damn body exactly what it wanted. There was no future for me as an actor."
"Why didn’t you direct after?" Catherine retorted. "Why didn’t you write?"
The chill of her voice maddened him. Still and all, he wanted her.
"I lacked the patience to direct. I can’t work with others. It’s funny that I say that, since all I ever wanted to do was act, but it’s the truth. And after my failure as an actor, I loathed myself too much to sit down and write.”
“I just gave up, Catherine,” he professed, feelingly dallying into her abandoned eyes, having momentarily forgotten Parham and himself. "It was easy actually. I uncomplainingly began to play their fat roles for them, and accepted that I was to be forgotten. There was no Dublin or Stratford or London in my future. This was it. I would die a fat man on stage playing the roles every other forgotten fat man had played on stage.”
He paused, and briefly fastened his eyes.
“I speak like this now, but back then, I still couldn’t accept that this was to be my fate. I wasn’t religious then, nor am I now, but one night, I suddenly found myself praying to whatever god there was to rescue me. I prayed that somebody would find me, that somebody in the dark corner of the theatre would come up to me after a show and tell me that I had potential, assuring me that I was wasting away in these roles and that I was a better actor.”
“Hah!” he then snickered, trying to take the form of jester again, but failing. “You pray when you know you’re powerless.”
He reached over Catherine and snatched a cigarette. After failing to light it by himself several times, Catherine finally seized the lighter, and with a swift spark, set the cigarette alight.
Embarrassed, he carried on.
“But months later, a man did emerge from one of those dark corners. He wasn’t the man from my prayers though. He was from radio,” he laughed. “Telling me I had a good voice for radio, he assured me that there would be a job for me if I ever wished to jump ship.”
For a moment, Bahman looked puzzled, stroking his shaven face, and seeming to have been transported elsewhere.
“He had a beard just like yours,” he divulged to Parham suggestively.
“What did you do?” Catherine interrupted, carefully sundering their leers.
Relieved at the disruption, Bahman immediately beamed at Catherine.
“I quit, and went into radio.”
Her head was tilted and her neck exposed. He felt her feet beside his knees, but did not dare to look.
What was the worst that could come of it? he briefly considered, before switching his gaze to the street again and becoming wise to the repercussions. There was nothing that he could offer other than his helplessness.
To keep his mind sensible, he opted to carry on speaking, discerning that the faster his story ended, the quicker the night would too.
Just as he was on the cusp of fresher words, an unfamiliar figure approached their fray from the adjoining street. It was a boy much younger than they, hunched, clean-shaven, and high-spirited. Beside him was an older girl, and she too was unfamiliar.
"Can we come in?" the boy asked, looking over the three of them.
The two unbolted the gate and walked inside, moving at a distance from one another. The boy approached each one of them, and shook their hands.
“Mehran," he introduced himself.
The girl instead strolled on into the cafe without greeting either of her hosts. Bahman noticed tension in how the boy watched her walk inside.
After dallying between the three, the boy excused himself and timidly paced inside to join the girl. The other three watched them through the window as they ordered a drink.
“Do you know them?” Bahman asked Parham frowningly.
Parham shrugged and shook his head.
Bahman warped his neck and surveyed the boy and girl as they made their way back outside.
"So!" Bahman abruptly exclaimed when the two came past the doorway.
"Mehran khan!" he roared in a slow cadence. "What troubles have you two been causing so late at night?"
Though he teased them ceaselessly, Bahman recognized that their presence had eased the tension. He concealed his thankfulness, resolving to jest them instead.
"Not much," the boy rejoined, taking a brief glance at the girl before speaking again. "We were strolling in the area, and saw that the lights were on here. So we came in.”
He then turned to Parham. “Is that okay?"
"Sure," Parham nodded.
The girl accompanying the boy hadn’t said a word. She was perusing her phone. Its screen had illuminated the blackened night with a skin-deep blue.
"And what's your name?" Bahman asked sneeringly, outstretching his neck toward her, passing on his irritation.
She did not respond.
The boy nudged her awake.
"What's your name?" Bahman repeated.
"Lauren," she answered back, seizing her drink without delay and gulping it down.
"I have to go now," she then revealed to the boy and no one else.
Without haste, she stood, waved her hands, and walked away. The clinking of her heels was heard far past the café, and the boy's face collapsed in step with each dwindling clink.
In that instance, Bahman came to like the boy.
When the noise of footsteps receded, the boy tried to cloak his disappointment by appending a cigarette to his mouth. He asked for a lighter, and Catherine tossed hers, but the boy failed to catch it. The lighter fell to the ground. He bent to reach for it, but as he leaned over, his eyeballs seized on the woman’s feet, and his mouth faintly unlatched.
Uneasily, she withdrew her feet and planted them inside her shoes.
Relieved, Bahman shifted comfortably in his seat.
"Well, Mr. Mehran khan," Bahman proceeded with cheer. "You actually interrupted my story when you arrived. In truth,” he looked over to Parham, “it's my only story."
Parham smiled at him, but the implication of his smile was lost to everyone but himself.
Tossing the lighter back to Catherine, the boy apologized.
"What's your story?" he then asked.
“He’s telling us about the time he got hooked on heroin” Catherine immediately retorted with nonchalance.
To his disappointment, Bahman recognized that not even an added presence could help curb his hankering.
Struggling to keep his composure, Bahman resolved to carry on in a jesting tone. It was easier. He was convinced that he performed better away from the stage than on it, and he bemoaned his certainty.
"I was actually going to tell you about the time I went shark hunting," he turned to Catherine with a contrived beam.
Turning his head away, he looked past the gate at the empty street again, and tried to trounce his gloom with a simulated smile.
“The heroin came after,” he mumbled between his teeth.
"The radio was good to me, because no one could see me," he divulged in a slow whisper. He was unembarrassed by the boy’s presence. There was solace to be found in a stranger's ear. "All it required of me was my voice. The rest was like theatre. I only needed to know what words to accentuate, and the words were already written down for me."
He turned to Catherine again.
"It's not like it is here. There isn’t much room to improvise there, or to be yourself. I had to play a clear-cut role. It was uncomplicated, and believe it or not, it was even liberating sometimes."
His attention then veered toward the boy.
“Most of the time, it's actually harder to be yourself,” he shrugged melancholically.
By then, his voice had lost its animation, absorbed by memories that he was merely reciting.
“But the radio was also a political tool. It was state-run,” he told Catherine again, trying to familiarize her with another world. “They made me say things I didn’t want to say, things I wasn't proud of. When you’ve already given up on your ambitions though, you feel as if there’s no more dignity left for you to lose. So I swallowed my pride and did what I was asked to do. I often had to feign religiosity, mouthing prayers and opening the program with Bismillah-e-Rahman-e-Rahim. I had to praise a land that didn’t deserve praise, and I had to lie to people that they weren’t trapped. But the job offered me security, and so I complied.”
"Do you still have any recordings of those programs?" Catherine asked; her knees bent against her breasts and her feet hidden beneath her palms.
“Even if I did, I’d destroy them,” Bahman lamented. “This wasn't something I’m happy to have done,” he griped. “Some of the things I said, I shudder when I recall them coming out of my mouth. I wouldn't want to listen to them.”
He paused, and looked to the desolate street again. The soft wind was pulling up the debris and prodding it toward the gate, and into the cafe.
Parham stood up and closed the front door, impounding the girl inside.
"But there was one incident that really tore me to pieces," Bahman continued, eyeing Parham, as he moved back onto the bench. Changing course, he leveled his gaze at the boy.
"You're young, and you may not remember, but some decades ago, the capital became wrought with student protests. The regime had outlawed several of the country’s most broad-minded newspapers, and had given no reason for it. So a few hundred students, trying to fight for the fraction of a voice they had left, went out to protest the closure.
“These were peaceful demonstrations, organized by quiet university kids. They weren’t protesting just for the newspaper, but for the tiny ounce of freedom they were believed they had earned for having stayed quiet for so long.”
Bahman paused, and contemplated a cigarette. He saw the boy raise the smoke to his mouth, and exhale, and felt even more tempted.
“It's just a suffocating setting,” he continued, trying to control his drive. “Everything banned and outlawed, and lives tucked away underneath rooftops.
“These protests were fully justified, and it wasn’t as if those newspapers had really defied the law. No person with a typewriter or a computer could ever convince a populace to suddenly rise up and start a revolution. There are alternative reasons for revolts.
“But no matter. The government had felt threatened by a second-rate newspaper, and they had shut it down, and threatened again by these student protests, they made another drastic decision. One night, they let out the state police, like dogs, to raid the university dorm rooms and intimidate these kids. But it ended up being more than just intimidation. What they did was sickening. They threw them down their balconies, impounded them in Evin or god-knows-where, blackened their reputations, and disappeared dozens of these kids. It was hell. It broke the city's heart. It ruined our pipe dream for a better future - as if it hadn't been ruined already."
After dropping his head and letting out a drawn out sigh, he stretched his arm out toward a boy.
"Give me one," he pled, his voice quivering.
The boy reached into his pocket for his pack, but before he boy could manage to pull one out, Catherine had already handed Bahman a cigarette. She lit it for him, and he took a drag and coughed.
"The day after the raid, two of my supervisors walked into the studio and set a single sheet of paper on my desk. I can't remember their faces anymore. I just remember being seated when they marched inside, and from where I sat, they seemed bigger than I was. I had to read from that sheet for the afternoon news show. And this thing, it was almost like a decree. It was full of lies. It accused the boys that were killed as traitors, claiming that safety was the nation’s first priority, and they had kept their promise to protect their citizens. According to that piece of paper, those poor engineers and art students were armed with weapons. It said that they had attacked the university security guards, and that’s how the slaughter was instigated. You see--" he took a drag and laughed. "I couldn't read the damn thing. It’s not like I could tell my listeners that this was a statement pushed on me. I had to read it as if they were my own words, as if I truly believed in all this. It was ugly. You didn’t have to have any dignity to see how wrong it was. It was the last straw for me.
“Still in shock, I went downstairs to the cafeteria just before I was supposed to go on air, and I just sat there and I took out my pack of cigarettes, and I smoked them one after another, wondering what the hell I was supposed to do."
As if transported, Bahman took a long drag of his cigarette.
"And I just walked downstairs, into my car, and I drove away.”
“Where?” Mehran interrupted.
“I had no clue. I decided that I’d be fine so long as I didn’t have to be near those people, as long as I didn't have to parrot those awful words. Since I just got up and drove away, nobody knew where I had gone. I thought I was done for. I thought that at some point they would come and find me. That they would disappear me like they had those students.”
“I was so scared, Catherine," he quavered, before turning to Parham. "I was terrified."
Set adrift in his recollections, the jest in Bahman’s tone vanished, and his whims were quelled. The role of storyteller gave him repose. Words were a fine escape.
"I drove past a toll booth, and realized then that I was driving through the countryside. It was world I had forgotten about after years confined inside that city. I wanted to see this world again. So from then on, I made sure to stop the car every once in a while, and walk around these towns.
“The people there were so detached from the goings-on of the capital. They lived their lives quietly, with families, friends, and work that they didn’t mind busying themselves with. Their voices were free of the malice of city; their skin was unwrinkled. They seemed to be living much better lives than us.
“You see,” he paused and peered at Mehran. “We claim to be cultured in the big city, we think that because we read and because we are so constantly informed, we are of the sophisticated kind.”
Then his gaze drifted toward Parham.
“But I tell you: we are nothing. We have forgotten life. We have forgotten how simple and unrefined life actually is.
“To be in nature - no I’m not going to say that. It’s not nature that I’m talking about. What I mean to talk about is the unrefined places these people live in, places without highways, apartment buildings, shopping malls, and cubicles called offices; these villages and towns. In places like that, you are encouraged to leave behind your so-called sophistication. Your mind, your bookishness – they aren’t welcome. there Unless it’s applicable, it’s snobbery, and that’s a good thing.”
“It’s a very good thing,” Bahman echoed under his breath, pausing to toss the half-lit cigarette into the street.
“You see,” he pressed on. “Over there, you are so caught up with real life and real living that your thoughts mean nothing in the big picture, and your anxieties only add up to specks of wheat. What is this anxiety we have over maintaining our legacies, or being remembered? We strive to immortalize ourselves so hysterically that we forget who we are. Everything we do becomes a performance, turns into playacting.
“They don’t care for any of this.”
A sigh poured from him, and he shook his head.
“I don’t mean to be naïve, and I don’t mean to say that they are better than us. They are probably just as susceptible to throw fits and hit their kin, or to steal from others like we do.”
At that point, his eyeballs defied him, awkwardly meandering in Parham’s direction.
“And doubtless they can be cruel. But, does it make me cruel to say that I don’t care about their stealing or abuse?
“They’re not better than us, but they live better lives than we do.
“And these people were the people I was supposed to lie to on the radio. How could I have dared cheat them of the truth? They knew more than I ever would.
“But I had rule over them, because I had the power to speak to them through a microphone in a little studio. Because I could easily fill their heads with fraud when reading from a mere piece of paper; assure them that their country was safe because a couple of engineers were thrown off their balconies.
“My job was to make them believe lies, and you know what? They did believe these things. But they didn’t believe it because they were dense or foolish; they believed it because they didn’t care for any of it. Politics to them was a waste. To them, standing in an open field, seeing the blue lining of the sky shine against the grass; that was life. The rest they just took for granted, and put in the back of their minds. But you know, even those little words lodged into the back of simple people’s minds mattered. I didn’t want to have a part in any of that. I wanted to let them live a life that was more than protesting or foul authority. I wanted them to have their simple lives of family, friends, and work. Let us cultured sophisticates consume ourselves with our made-up miseries. But let them live, I thought. Because they truly lived."
"Life is much simpler," he repeated aloud, looking at Catherine and suggesting nothing.
"And then came the heroin, Mehran khan" he grinned, his face transforming to a jester’s once more. “Then, came the heroin.”
"After passing through those towns and villages, I suddenly found myself in the south of the country. I always say that my car drove me there by itself, because I have no recollection of getting there. I don't know where I slept throughout this drive, or where I ate. I remember the days and nights surrounded by the townspeople, but the rest is a blur. Suddenly, one day, I found myself staring at the gulf, thinking about the sharks in the sea, and trying to figure out my own future."
He watched the concrete space between his bench and the one across from him as if it too was thick with sharks.
"But I do remember where I slept and ate when I reached the gulf.”
“See,” he pressed on, “There were these tea houses. Sailors would go there to rest, drink, and spent their off-hours playing cards and telling stories. Having already been there for a few days, I joined them. For some reason, by then I had begun to feel guilty for having run away from the city, and so I told them everything. It had been a traumatic experience for me, and I thought they could put me at ease and offer me some sympathy.”
“And did they?” Parham asked, already knowing the answer.
“They just shrugged it off. They told me I had no courage. Big words, but words befitting a sailor."
Still feeling the repercussion of those words, he grabbed another cigarette from the side of Catherine's knees. He was pleased that those toes no longer haunted him.
He tried lighting the cigarette, but for the second time, he was unable to. Catherine leaned over again and lit it, her palm wrapped around its neck.
Breathing the smoke out with relief, he suddenly caught Parham's glare. It was a poker-faced linger neither content nor melancholic, but left cold in the wake of their charade.
"I'm a stubborn person," he said, boldly staring back. “Though I knew that they were right to judge my lack of courage, I couldn’t accept these words coming from a bunch stranger. What did these boatmen know about my life or struggles? But I didn’t argue with them. I was afraid,” he sneered. “You should have seen these people.”
“They were much bigger than even I was," he remarked in jest. "Bred to be at sea, bred to hunt, and to fight, and die as hard-bodied men; and a part of me ---"
He paused, and let out a sigh confused with smoke.
"A part of me wanted to be like them. I hungered for their self-control, their vitality. That's the word, yes! Their vitality! That’s one quality that is un-inheritable and unlearnable. But desperately I hoped that it could also be transferable."
“See, you have that in you,” he told Parham. “You may not show it, but you’re full of it.”
He surveyed Mehran and Catherine as well, but resolved to keep quiet.
“So, confusing pigheadedness with courage, I told them that I’ll accompany them on their next journey to the sea. I didn’t even know what they did at sea, and I was obviously unprepared.”
"When does the heroin come into this?" Catherine snarled, perhaps having noticed the brief look he had cast on her and the boy.
"Well," he forced a laugh. "It came that night, and the day after, and every day until, well," he lowered his tone and sighed, "until Mahgol came along."
“That very day,” he went on, “when it was already dark and the shop had technically closed, the owner dimmed the lights and came to our tables with a tray full of this brownish powder. It's funny,” he chuckled. “It was piled up on this tray like a kid’s science project; this big mound of heroin, concealed all day under the shop owner's cash register. Then, he brings out a bag of syringes, and lays them out on our table. It was so comedic! To suddenly have your table, that was full with ghelyoon, tea and biscuits, stuffed with tar and syringes. Nobody offered any to me, you see, but I felt obliged because I was intent on proving myself to them.
These weren't bad people either. To them, this wasn't vice. It was just something they quietly did amongst themselves. They hadn’t pressured me to do this, but they had shrugged off my struggles as urbane and petty throughout the day, and it got to me. I felt like I had to prove my courage not only to them, but to myself. And so, I picked a syringe, and ---”
Swiftly whittling his arm with his palm, Bahman brushed his skin and tightened his muscles. Then, miming the likeness of a syringe with his hand, he thrust the nonexistent contraption to his forearm, and pushed.
"Click," he snapped between his teeth, the corner of his mouth clutching to his half-burnt cigarette.
Maintaining the pose, he turned his sight on Catherine.
“I just realized you never asked me about the heroin,” he admitted. "You asked me why I quit the theatre, I know, but the heroin was a part of it too. It helped me leave behind that fraction of an illusion I still had about going back and finding greatness. It quenched my thirst.”
He flashed a glance at Parham.
“Nothing mattered afterwards. Everything flew by quietly, without fuss.”
“You see,” he continued, “Shooting up on one random night doesn’t get you hooked. There was more to it. It had to do with the day after. It had to do with the sharks.”
His neck slithered toward the side-road again as he peered at a passing vagrant. Red lipstick smeared over her mouth, she was in the midst of recounting her own story, her words unintelligible, but words; her cherry mouth gaping and then stoppering, propelling jabber onto a hollow street. No one heard her, and no one could.
As he continued to peer on, Catherine snatched the cigarette from his hands, taking unruffled drags, and waiting.
“So Mehran khan" he aped, before breaking off again, looking off and sighing into the lonely road.
He took a breath and dropped his head, before lifting it again with a labored snicker.
"And off to sea I went the following day!”
“We were on this rickety boat with three of the sailors,” he continued. “And it seemed as if the prior night’s carousing had done nothing to affect them. They had vigor, you see, shouting from the top of their lungs, giving out orders to one another, or poking fun. These weren't just sailors, I realize now. These were men; warriors with hefty shoulders, callused hands, and voices as loud as that violent sea.”
“Then, there was me,” Bahman chuckled, “leaning against that shaky, wooden boat and heaving throughout the ride. They didn’t pay me any attention either. They had already marked me as a coward, and they knew that I wasn't meant for this. Sick at sea, I grasped how right they were, and how stubborn I had been to dare come on this trip with them. The opiates hadn’t done me any favors either.
“An hour into the trip though, I lifted my head and saw the sea for what it was, endless as it was, and I was overwhelmed! I made every effort to hoist myself up. This sea, these men, they were much greater than I. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if I didn’t at least try to prove my pluck. To them, I was a pot-bellied weakling who had run away. I needed to be more than that, for myself and for them. I had to regain at least a portion of the strength I had given up.
“Soon, my sickness was over. I was on my feet, looking at that great stretch of water, preparing myself alongside the sailors for something. I didn’t quite know what we were getting into, or why we were actually at sea.
“An instant later, the three of them began to holler at one another, but their dialect was unfamiliar to me. I couldn’t make a word of it. Then, one of them outstretched his hand, and pointed to a tiny stretch ahead.
“I still didn’t know what to make of all the commotion, but when I moved closer and squinted my eyes, I saw it.
“The third took out a spear, and before I knew it, they all had spears in their hands and so did I!" Bahman laughed heartily, shaking his head
"It was a thrill! I stood up, and began to shout out nonsense to sound like them. I think I just panicked and didn’t know what else to do. Straightening my shoulders, I pushed them back, and held onto the spear with both my hands. Feeling the dry ends of that stick, I still remember that, for a second, I felt an urge to wash my hands, but I held on to the spear by instinct and waited.
“My irrational fears, my spinelessness - they meant nothing in that moment. I wanted to be them. No, not just that. I wanted to become them. And I tried. My god, I tried!"
"When the shark came, everything blurred. I rushed toward it when I heard the three men yell, and without thought, I yanked the spear into the water."
First pausing to create suspense, little by little, Bahman let his mouth widen and his teeth show.
"All of a sudden, it seemed easy. I had achieved in a moment what they had given their entire lives to master. Not only had I proved myself, but I had killed this animal after having puked for an entire hour!
“I precisely remember how the sides of my mouth opened up with a hideous, self-loving grin. Spear in hand, I turned over to them to flash that grin, and just as I turned, the damn thing leapt from the sea and nearly flipped the boat!
“All I remember after that is scurrying to the safest corner on my hands and knees, shaking and squealing like a child. Then, their boots hurried past me, I heard some clamoring, and finally shrieking - virile shrieks.
“Soon after, everything suddenly came to a standstill, and just as it did, I fainted! Imagine that!" he guffawed. "I passed out!”
“And you know,” Bahman narrowed his eyes. “Those brutes never held it against me. They dragged my carcass to the teashop, brought me lunch, and laughed with me and took care of me all day.”
"What happened to the shark?" the boy asked.
“They killed it, brought it to shore, and sold it. It turned out that my spear hadn’t even grazed the damn thing.”
He picked out another cigarette, lit it by himself, and took a drag.
“This is how my stories always end, Mehran khan,” he sniggered self-effacingly. “Never with me as the hero."
“And what did you do after that?” the boy persisted.
"Nothing," Bahman groused, busy with his cigarette and his thoughts. "I drove back, shot up again, read the passage, and got my job back."
The snigger fell from his face.
"And then," he added impulsively, "I carried on shooting until Mahgol found me, cleaned me up, and brought me here."
Looking off again, Bahman sloped his head and suppressed a cough.
The rustle of garbage being jostled by a gust of wind broke the hush.
Giving off a loud grumble, Parham got up and ambled to the doorway.
“You can head home if you want” he suggested to the girl inside. “I'll close up.”
When he sunk back into his seat, the funereal stillness resumed.
"How long ago was this?" the boy leaned in and asked softly, pinching the skin on the back of his hand and not daring to punctuate the silence.
"Well," Bahman replied, visibly worn by his story. "To tell you the truth, I don't even know anymore."
"How long have you known me?” he passed the conversation on to Parham.
"Four years," Parham curtly answered. "Maybe five.”
“This happened five or six years ago then,” Bahman guessed. "This guy’s actually the first person I met when I came here," he then gestured to Parham. “Catherine, too" he added reluctantly, withholding any gesture.
"When did you come here?" Bahman asked the boy, thankful for his presence.
"Just a year ago actually," the boy replied, "and I really haven't found my footing here so far, to be honest with you."
The boy made sure to look at every single one of them as he spoke, making eye contact, and speaking civilly. Perhaps, he hoped that among those people, he could find the foothold he had not yet found. As he turned from eye to eye, he soon lost his bearings in Parham's dead gaze, laboring after not to look at the man again.
Squeezing his thumb and fingers with light pinches, he looked on at the other two, waiting to be asked questions.
"What brought you here?" Bahman asked soon enough.
The boy stuttered in retort, feeling the puff of Parham’s gaze against his neck.
"Come on, boy!” Bahman suddenly assailed him with a trace of playfulness. “You shouldn't make me interrogate you. Talk, ramble, shed tears, do something.”
“You see these friends of mine?" he continued, opening his arms wide and pointing to his two companions and the city confining them. "They say nothing at all. They move quietly and speak quietly, and they do nothing whatsoever to interest me.”
“I love them,” he ironically beamed at Parham, “and I love them to death, I do," not daring to look at Catherine after.
It seemed to the boy that Bahman was speaking without aim. For a moment, noticing the lethargy on Catherine and Parham’s faces, he felt embarrassment for him. But Mehran was enjoying it. Hearing words howled in the dark of night gave him relief. He had hardly a heard a sound during his time in the new city, and was thankful for the sparks of awkward thunder.
"My friends, you see," Bahman pushed on. “They don't like to speak. All they do is sit around while I play the role of emcee for their humdrum lives.”
He couldn’t have been drunk, Mehran considered. He had noticed an empty glass by Bahman’s side, but that must have been guzzled long ago. This was melancholy that was hollering out of him, not drink. It was a cry for company, and an act of defiance against dying hours and their need for sleep. This was a man’s refusal to go home after having intimated his life to an audience without sympathy, a man’s quiet demand to be recompensed for his grief.
“--- by spewing self-pity for them, and you know something?"
Having missed the first half of the man’s remark, Mehran peered on as Bahman leaned toward the boy’s direction.
"They need this," he grinned. "People here need someone to speak for them because they can't. They don't know how to express themselves. They've surely loved, and I’m certain that they’ve lost and regretted and made a fool of themselves as much as I have in life, but they have never learned to convey their loss with words. Because, you see, as much as they've lost and loved, they've never been misplaced.”
He flecked his brow with a frown, and set aside his farce for sober thought.
“You seem like you have been misplaced, boy. If you’ve yet to find your footing in this city like you say, then you can speak. You have nothing to lose after all. We’re not your friends yet. We’re strangers, bored out of our minds and waiting to hear something that could rouse us.”
“You know how many times I’ve repeated my own story to people?” Bahman reflected aloud. “More times than you can imagine! That’s why I can recount it word for word. It’s almost become a monologue for bored nights like this one. Each of us has one story, after all, throughout our lives, we have this one story that we can share time and time again.”
He turned his attention to the boy again.
“It is cruel if we refuse to share it, like these two are cruel,” gesturing with a nod at Parham and Catherine. “Don't patronize me by making me guide you, question by question, toward something you want to say. Speak for yourself."
Having finished his thought, Bahman immediately felt regret. What had he said, and how was it possible for him to simultaneously feel both relief and shame for having spoken? His body was beyond his control.
“Just shut up,” came a quiet murmur from Mehran’s side of the bench.
All three, except for the puzzled boy, laughed, though Bahman laughed more because he had to.
"Your life isn't a performance, and you're not misplaced either, for fuck’s sake,” Parham hissed. “You messed your life up just like everybody else. The only difference is that you like to pity yourself. That's there is to you. You talk about yourself so much that you've come to believe that you're some great Greek tragedy, when you're not. You're just another fuck-up who didn’t get what they wanted like all the rest of the fuck-ups of the world.”
Parham chuckled, but he was on his own.
“The only difference is that you just talk a lot more than we do,” he shook his head. “Not every single one of your thoughts is worth uttering, you know. You think because you’ve failed at something, your story is worthy of some legacy when really, it's just a matter of ---."
"They are worthy of a legacy," the boy interrupted to his own surprise. His heart sunk, and his head roared with a rush of blood.
With his eyes half-closed and his arms cradled into one another, Parham ignored the boy entirely and finished his thought.
“They’re just a matter of words,” he spelled out.
“But they’re not,” the boy argued again, as he felt his muscles limp with fear.
Across from him, he could also see the willowy veins protruding from Bahman’s hairless skull.
"To think that your life is worthy of some sort of narrative is vanity,” Parham retorted, refusing to even cast his eyes at the boy.
“So what if it’s vanity?” Bahman countered this time. “You’re saying you’re not vain, Parham? That you don’t hold your opinion, your author---”
Parham’s stare turned aflame, and Bahman immediately amended his remark.
“You mean to say,” he stuttered, “that you’re not vain?” A weaker claim.
“I am vain, but I don’t subjugate others to my bursts of self-pity,” Parham retorted coolly, already having collected himself.
“She asked me to!”
“No, you steered her toward curiosity. You made her ask you, because you wanted to talk, because you didn’t want to go home to Mahgol just yet.”
The accusation poured out like fluid smoke, unaccompanied by even a hint of hesitation. It left Bahman quivering.
To stop the ceaseless shakes, an exhausted Bahman ironed his arm against the bench, and clutched with each hand the other wrist, wishing to thaw his nerves.
"Stories aren't my concern,” Parham turned to the boy unscathed. “It’s trite.”
He then snared Bahman in his sight again, relishing his feverish arms, and offering him no solace.
“Right now, I’m thinking of how much sleep I'll get before I have to wake up and open this goddamned cafe tomorrow. I’m thinking of how many times I have to lock and unlock those doors until I find a way out.”
“And In the past few months,” he continued, leaning his head toward the boy without looking. “I’ve also had to endlessly consider what I’m going to do with the bar, how to make people come inside this place at nights, how to make it alluring to onlookers, and I have to do all of this while I’m still trying to find my way out.”
“Little stories – they’re fine,” he finally turned to the boy, his eyes still sunk, his voice no more than a mere mumble. “But they're fine when you have the convenience to listen to them. I don't have that convenience. Maybe I had it when I was younger, when I didn’t have a lot to do in life but wake up every day. Now it’s different.”
Though Parham hadn't been eyeing him at all, Bahman felt Parham's glare when he made that final remark. He knew it was about him, and he knew that it was true.
"I have to sleep too," Catherine spoke, rustling her body to intimate her intention to leave.
"Could you give me the keys?" she asked, glowering at Parham and refusing to utter his name.
Dropping his strained eyes and eyebrows, Parham produced a key from his coat pocket, and unchained one single key from the rattling throng. Just as he was about to toss the key, he paused. "Where's yours?"
“I’m either tired or drunk,” Catherine grumbled, trying to conceal the fact that she was neither, and only trapped.
Retrieving her set of keys, she dangled them in Parham’s line of sight with a palled on leer. Tied to the keychain was a white, miniature running shoe.
Spying at her hands, Bahman found the tiny shoe out of place. He did not consider why. Instead, he wrenched his eyes away so as to maintain his reclaimed composure, thumbing the wind’s icy vacuum instead.
"It's cold too," Catherine immediately added, to his surprise.
"I'll wait for her to close up, and I'll be home soon," Parham said, twitching his head in the direction of the cafe as he maintained his gawk at Catherine.
“Home,” Catherine wryly murmured to the wind.
“What’s wrong with you?” Parham suddenly leapt at her, but he didn’t let her answer. “We’ll talk about it after,” he said, veering his eyes toward the boy and feeling a bit embarrassed.
Having noticed his face buckle, Catherine shook her head and stood to leave.
In that moment, as a consequence of either his fear of loss or purely his fear of being left alone, Bahman’s arm abruptly vaulted over and his hand clutched at Catherine's wrist before falling inside her hand.
“Stay,” he said, peering up, his pupils dilated and his breath suspended.
As his hand clenched hers, he caught sight of Parham's bitter gaze, and then feeling the wind move swiftly past his palm, he noticed that he had let go of her.
But the black of his eyes had made her stay.
Sitting down, she produced a dispassionate smile and peered on at Parham, biting her teeth.
“What made you stay?” Parham then asked, scorning the two of them.
Again, she wasn’t meant to answer him. A diffident voice punctured the strained atmosphere before she could.
His heart no longer at ease with obedience, the boy had begun to speak.
In consequence of his own terror of being left alone, he too had lost control.
“You may like to think that these stories have no benefit to man as busy as you, but ---” the boy spewed out to Parham, trying to fill the burdened air with words.
Relieved, Bahman's tense muscles slackened and the vessels on his skin receded. He craved a cigarette, but saw that Catherine had put hers away. He then stood and squatted toward the boy, who was lost in a string words and inaudible memories, and pulled out a cigarette from his side. Sitting back on the bench, he realized that he did not have a lighter, and let the cigarette linger in his mouth instead. Irritably, he removed it and proceeded to rip it to pieces, playing with the tobacco tumbling between his fingers.
He hadn't heard anything that the boy was spouting, but when the cigarette was no more, he lifted his head and turned toward the two.
A peculiarity took hold of his attention as he viewed the hurried conversation. Those eyes that had been trained to be eternally vacant were loosening, and their keeper was leaning forward, spine protruding from his skin, transfixed by another man's story - a boy's.
Bahman resolved to affix his ear to the first word that the boy would say next, and to listen.
"--- and maybe they are menial, but they make up who we are. You may think that they’re not worth hearing about, that they have no direct benefit to you or," Mehran looked around, "to this cafe, but why should that matter? Stories aren’t told to uphold an end. We tell them because it’s in us. For some reason, we have an innate need to share and to express ourselves, and, and ---" the boy began to stutter, having lost his train of thought. "They make you who are you,” he struggled to recapture his words, “these stories, and they ---“ but the words were lost.
Struggling, he mustered a few more words. "They are meant to be shared,” he bobbed his head. “If we can’t share our moments, then ---” he hesitated and directly sought Parham’s eyes. “Then what's the point of living? What's the point of being anything at all?"
Though he spoke bravely, Mehran felt a strain pressing down behind his eyes. Looking around at the older adults, he was overcome by unease. Who was he to make them listen to his views?
The three of them were better off at home, it seemed. An end to their night was the only thing that could rejuvenate the taut air that even the boy had begun to breath among them. Despite being aware of the intensifying tension, Mehran resolved to carry on speaking. To him, a new day equaled a renewed struggle in an unfamiliar city, whereas for once on that one night, he was attended to by ears that would hear him and eyes that would see.
Mehran quickly peeked at Bahman to see if he too wished for another day. But Bahman was already peering back at him, fighting against time, and subtly nodding to the boy to carry on.
After seeing an older man so desperate, the mid-summer chill became more palpable and made him quiver. He didn’t know whether he was nervous or cold. He only wished to stay warm.
So he spoke, indulging without hesitation, fearing that he may never be given a chance to speak again.
"Even now," he continued, "just the fact that I walked inside this place and sat with you without knowing you, that’s something I wouldn't have done if it hadn’t been for what I went through. I wouldn't have dared to.”
“This is precisely what I’m talking about, you see,” he stressed, waving his hands in Parham’s direction. “The difference between me from two years ago and myself tonight is those menial stories."
"Why are you here?" Parham asked, unable to curb the speck of condescension in his voice.
Courage passed through Mehran veins, but it was fear again that made him speak.
He may never have another chance, he reminded himself before answering.
"Because I'm alone."
Upon saying it, Mehran grasped that his remark may have not been as juvenile as he had feared. The strain behind his eyes had also vanished.
Promptly recognizing that he needed a night of confession more than he did a coterie, he convinced himself that he wasn’t going to return to the café after this.
"I'm probably not as vulnerable as I am now when I’m not alone,” he noted. “I'm probably not very kind when I'm not alone either.”
“Get to the point,” Parham cut him off.
The boy obliged.
“I left my home, not because of something devastating like what happened to Bahman," Mehran admitted, feeling a pinprick of guilt for having said a stranger’s name so boldly. “I left, because one day I suddenly realized that I couldn’t survive in a place like that.”
“I was spoiled,” he sighed. “I've always been spoiled, being told time and time again by mother, father, aunts, and uncles that we, as a family, deserved more than the place we lived in, that we were better than its people, than its circumstances, its every bit. Being told such a thing from an early age makes you very vain when you get older.”
“Worse than that,” he paused. “It made me weak.”
“I went about life thinking I could do everything better than others could, that I already had everything I wanted from life, and I did. They would just give it to me. Life was simple for me. For me, opportunity seemed to have always been knocking, and happiness was unconditional.”
Clenching his fist and straightening his arms, he bit his lip and bore a mournful grin.
"This is what I’m talking about when I say that I haven’t found my footing in a place like this. The foothold, for me, was that complete unawareness of the world around me. It was something I had been born with.”
“When I lost it, everything around me started to collapse,” he sighed, unlatching his hand and letting it drop onto his knee.
“It happened long before I ever came here," he added, before reaching out for a cigarette.
The last, remaining cigarette was chipped at the neck. He stared at it and let out a chuckle, and then returned it to its pack.
"It's foolish and commonplace, I know, because all that happened was I lost someone I never had."
He expected Parham to deride him, but the man said nothing. In fact, no one spoke. Even Bahman’s attention seemed to have wavered. The boy surmised that they were heavy-eyed, but refused to comply with their tiredness.
"This person just disappeared one day," he proceeded. "Nowhere to be found."
Biting his lip again, he looked out onto the empty space between the benches, finding nothing there but shaded concrete.
"I didn’t know her very well either. I had met her a few months before she disappeared, at the side of the university.” He lifted his head, and glanced at Bahman for assurance. “You know, the fifty tooman entranceway.”
Bahman nodded absent-mindedly.
“A rally was happening and ---" Mehran paused.
"All these stories seem to have some sort of political backdrop to them,” he remarked while shaking his head. “They give the impression that over there everything that happens has to do with politics.”
Then turning his gaze to Catherine, he said: "But they don't have anything to do with it."
"I know," Catherine winked wearily.
Suckling at the inside of his lips, Mehran fastened his eyelids and sniffled.
"I just clutched her hand when it got dangerous,” he pronounced, his eyes still shut. “When the police force began shooting warning shots and threatened to beat us with their batons, that’s when I reached out for her,” he said to no one. “In that great sea of people, I had noticed only her.”
Remembering his promise to never return to the café, Mehran resolved to be more candid.
“I may have even wished for gunfire just so I could do exactly what I did: to take her with me, to rescue her."
He expected a reaction, but received none.
"Everybody screamed, and they carried on beating. Only meters ahead, I can't say I saw it, but afterwards, I had others tell me that a girl was shot right in the head.
“By then though, we were already running in a different direction, I was holding her hand and she held on to mine. She was afraid, like I was, but fear hadn't paralyzed me like it usually does. I had somebody to run with, somebody that, when things calmed down, I could look at and speak to, and recall this moment with. It was ideal."
Looking into the hollow concrete again, the boy beamed wistfully at the memory.
"Finally, just as we were making off with the rest of the crowd, an old woman, standing outside the door of an old-looking house ushered us inside. I remember clearly how she smoothed the girl’s scarf with her hand as she pushed her into the doorway.
“There was six or seven of us, and the lady let us all hide out in her home’s courtyard. We could hear black boots clink and clatter behind the wall, and I was almost certain that they would charge inside any moment to take us away. Fearing the worst, I finally began to feel paralyzed, but it lasted for only a second. The girl, so delicate even in her panting and trembling, pressed her face against my arm, and cradled it tightly in her hands. How could I fear anything with her beside me like that?"
"What was the protest for?" Catherine interrupted, sitting straight again, her eyes returning from their absent veers, one leg dangling atop the other.
"It doesn't matter," Mehran answered, secretly appalled by his brisk response.
To alleviate his own guilt, he immediately rectified his answer.
“It was for the elections, I'm sure you remember. The elections they stole from us. Like everybody else who protested that day, I had voted too, feeling cheated after the results came in. But truthfully, most of us got over it the moment we saw the results. I mean, what did we expect? That a government ruling with an iron first will decide to lay down its guns all of a sudden because people went to the ballots and asked them to? We kid ourselves. We like to hope, even when we know our hope is unmerited. Most people know this, and they knew it when they went to the streets that week.”
“We weren’t protesting because we felt robbed or offended,” Mehran snickered. “We went because everybody else was going. We followed the few people who were genuinely angry, genuinely idealistic; the few people who actually felt robbed by those scummy elections.
“I went because I also knew that, when it all came to blows, I would have a story to share, that I could tell people that I was a part of these protests. I needed a tale from the streets for myself, just like I knew they'd have theirs.”
“But,” he sighed. “I never told this tale.”
“It became too personal, too much of something I cherished, much more than I thought it would,” he added.
"Sorry for my rudeness," the boy bobbed at Catherine, feeling it necessary, needing the relief.
She nodded back with a mute stare.
"For what felt like an hour, we just sat and waited in the courtyard. Then, one by one, the old lady led us out by the door she had steered us through earlier.
“My friend and I – I mean the girl, we walked out together hand-in-hand. We were holding on to one another, you see. She was still afraid, and I just didn’t want to let go of her. Outside, the alleyway was littered with paper and plastic, flyers and dust, and we realized that we had evaded the incident entirely. We were safe.”
“By the time we said goodbye to our companions and walked away though,” the boy moaned. “She had let go of my hand. All I wished for after that was to win her back, but I just didn’t know how.”
A continuous hiss dragged off his tongue.
“I keep thinking that I know her name,” the boy explained. “I keep trying to sound it out in my head. Then I remember that she never told me her name. There never came the time to ask, or maybe I just didn’t ask her when I could have.”
"We got into a cab together. In the cab, we sat without speaking, and when the car arrived at her house – it was a nice-looking house - she just got out, walked to her door, waved, and left me in the car. I had even failed to ask her name,” he repeated. “And she wasn’t interested in mine.”
"I didn’t tell a soul about what had happened with her. I didn’t want my parents to worry, and since I hadn’t told them about the protests, I had to leave out the girl as well. To the few friends I told the story to, I left out the part about the girl, focusing instead on the person getting shot a couple of steps ahead of us – I told them I saw it - and lying low in that old lady’s house. A story about a girl whose hand I held for a few minutes would make them laugh, and show how desperate I was."
His three listeners were restive. The story had ended up being an echo of juvenility. It couldn’t keep their interest. They had experienced it themselves, told stories of it in their youth just as the boy was now. No story of youth was as interesting as the youth telling it thought it was, and this was no exception.
Noticing this, the boy discerned that he had slipped in his storytelling. Having never told his tale before, he did not know how to begin, where to pause, and what to emphasize. He was speaking from the heart, but a speech from the heart didn’t interest listeners. He lacked the gift of oration and so his words meant little. But he beat on, heedless to their impatience. This was his story to tell, and his relief to feel from it.
"Then I found her," he rebounded. "A day or two after the incident I went by her house. I remembered the address. I had made sure to remember it. As soon as my classes ended, I hurried to that address, and sat across the street from which she had waved goodbye to me. Every day I waited, hoping to see her again. I waited for two hours on the first day, and she never showed up at the door. The second day, and the third was the same. I knew that she was in my university, but I never saw her on campus. The only place I could find her was by her door. That’s why I would go.”
“And finally on the fourth day,” the boy lit up, “I remember it clearly, it was a Thursday, I had taken a cab up to her house after university and had stood there from one in the afternoon to two, when I saw her again, walking home alone, with her head down, dressed in a colorless manteau, not wearing any makeup, and devoid of her radiance. But she was beautiful, as alluring as she had been in my mind.”
“I don’t know how I didn’t make out the signs then,” the boy’s face buckled as he struggled to look for words. “I was at such a loss that I didn’t even look to see her trudging without any shoes on.”
“Speechless as I was, I approached her,” he soldiered. “There was terror in her eyes. At the time, I thought the terror was because she had seen me! Greedy as I was for her, her frightened look offended me. I surmised that she hadn’t anticipated seeing me again. ‘So you’re just going to pretend you don’t remember me?’ I asked her crossly. She made no reply, scanning only the asphalt beside her feet.”
“But it wasn't the asphalt she was trying to draw my attention to,” he reflected. “It was her feet, her bare feet.
“I didn’t look down. I only looked at her and bickered. ‘I saved you,’ I kept insisting, getting more furious every time she didn’t answer back. ‘You held my hand,’ I said, ‘and now I don’t exist?’
“Repeating those words again, I’m unsure whether I even said them or not. I wonder if I made that moment up in my head after the fact itself. But I don’t think I did. It’s so clear in my mind that it’s impossible for me to distrust it.
“‘You held my hand!’ I kept yelling at her, bawling like the spoiled child I was.
“Her face in that instant isn’t clear to me. I wish it were. If I had just looked at her, I may have understood a bit of what was going through her head, or at least what she had been through - or if I had just looked down at her feet.
“Frozen and so close to me, she gradually lifted her head, but refused to look at me. I kept on shouting, full with childish rage and an ungrounded feeling of having been betrayed.”
The sound of the boy swallowing his spit permeated the silence of the small courtyard. Humiliated, he dropped his head.
"Then, without warning, she took my wrist and clutched it. It wasn’t the same as it had been during the protest. Her hands were already warm this time, and she was hurting me. Scurrying past her door, she pulled me into a narrow, gravelly path by the side of her house. I remember the dusty yellow color of the alleyway, the two short buildings fencing it on each side, and ---”
A surge of stutters kept him from finishing his thought. The more he fought against the stammers, the sharper they grew. Parham watched coolly as the boy gasped for his words to be set free. Frustrated, Bahman’s neck steered toward the street. Only Catherine started toward the boy, but before she could stand, there was no more need for her. The boy had already recovered his clogged memory.
“There, there---” he struggled, before picking up again. “That lane was a place for thieves and vagrants. I was convinced of it. There were a few pine trees scattered around, but other than that, it was empty. At a different time of day, a schoolboy could have easily been robbed running from one side of it to the other. If I were alone, I wouldn’t have gone through it either. It was so quiet there, as if something wicked was just waiting to happen if we stayed there for too long.
“I didn’t know why she wanted me there. I didn’t understand. She hadn’t spoken a word to me, you see. Past that first moment of seeing terror in her eyes, she hadn’t even looked at me. It came across as though she was in her own world, panting quietly by herself and looking astray. I didn’t pay any attention to those details then. I only think of them now, still trying to comprehend her state of mind that day. On that day, all that had mattered to me was getting an answer out of her, or just a measly word. She wouldn’t speak though. Her hand was wrapped around my arm and her body was so close, but she still refused to say a word.”
He took a whiff of air into his nose and grimaced, washed adrift by self-pity.
"After every few steps, she paused to catch her breath. I took that time to take her scent in, or to goggle at her spine pushing out of her manteau. When we finally reached the center of the pathway, she pushed me under the shade of a pine tree, fell to her knees across from me, so close. Only then did she finally look at me, and to my ---”
Once more on the verge of stammers, Mehran pressed ahead and forced through the flinching words.
“She drove her face into mine and kissed my mouth, and before I could even collect myself to kiss her back, she was unbuckling my belt, glaring into my eyes, not letting me look away, and, and ---“
He soldiered on.
“She just stared at me as I, and she, and ---“
Looking down onto the concrete, he swallowed his spit again, too overwhelmed to worry about its echo.
“I couldn't understand any of it.”
“Putting it together now,” he added. “I realize that if I had veered from her eyes for just one instant, and followed the curve of her neck down her throat, I would have noticed one crucial detail: She was wearing nothing underneath her manteau, nothing but skin, beaten skin.”
“But I don’t know” he agonized. “I’m still not sure of it.”
Tearing at his lower lip with teeth, he continued. “She stood up, still gaping into my eyeballs, pulled up her trousers, and walked away, as quietly as she had come."
Finally looking away from the concrete, the boy lifted his head and turned to the two men, but refused to look at Catherine. The question in his gawk was lost.
"I went back the next day. It shames me now, but the main reason I went back was because I hoped for the same thing to happen again. It was so new to me, you see.
“I stood across her door for three, four hours that day, but she never came. The day after I did the same, and the same on the next, and for every day of that month. Not seeing her, I thought that maybe I was coming and going on the wrong hours, so I stayed longer each day, so long that sometimes, I would sit there until long past nightfall. I was obsessed.”
“She never showed,” the boy quavered after a moment’s pause.” And it drove me crazy."
Wrapped inside his arms and no longer willing to make eye contact with his companions, the boy spoke as if only to himself, his eyes fixed to an unknown spot in a different time.
"After that, I searched for her everywhere I went, just chasing this shadow. At cafes, I’d prick my ears when I heard others have conversations about people, listening in to every last detail of their gossip, hoping this girl whose I name I didn’t know would be a part of their conversations. How was I to find out whom they were talking about? I didn’t even know the color of her hair, had hardly heard her voice. The tiny details were the ones that I remembered: her calloused hands, boyish fingernails, the meandering bridge of her nose. These don’t sound very attractive, but they were. She was the opposite of the type of person I abhorred. She was herself, unsophisticated and plain.”
“But,” he paused, flashing a cursory glance at Catherine before dropping his eyes. “Who am to say that about her? She was a stranger to me, but she was all I sought.”
A snivel rang through their ears. More then accompanied the solitary sniff, leaving the three with no choice but to listen.
“Months went by, and finally, unable to keep her a secret for any longer, I told someone about her. I didn’t explain to them what had happened between us, or the protest or the time in the alleyway. You’re the first I’ve told that to,” he raised his head. “I only established the fact that she existed, that I had a liking for her and that she had dissolved without a trace.
“They didn't sneer at me, but they took it with a chuckle, as they should have. A boy feeling smitten wasn’t much to devote one’s time to. They were all smitten for someone, and they had all been rejected at some point in their lives. This was the first time I had been rejected. That’s why I was so shaken up, they told me, and in some instances, I believed them, before recalling everything else that had happened.
“I wasn’t devastated because I was rejected, no. I was devastated because she had vanished after ---” he faltered, but fought against it. “After having taken me like that.”
At a loss as to whether he was thankful for the boy or irked, Bahman turned away from the conversation and looked inside of the café, eying the girl inside. She must have been the same age as the boy telling them his story. By how she carried herself, though, she seemed more like an adult compared to the boy outside, who so openly had begun to flail around and wallow. Was this the consequence of different upbringings or different cultures? he wondered. One culture fashioned neurotics, while another assembled machines.
Sneaking a glance at Catherine, he saw in her the girl inside: the upright posture, the composure, confidence, and the graceful lack of interior unrest. In Parham, he saw those traits as well, but his were more wavering, a forced imitation of what the two women innately had. He was of a different world, after all; a different world full with Bahmans, Mehrans, and pretend-Parhams.
“--- why I told others as well.”
Bahman tried to close in on the words he’d missed.
“I began to describe her to others in conversation, wishing somebody would recognize her from the descriptions I was giving, and guide me closer to her. No one knew though. The details I was leaving out weren’t helping either. They didn’t take me seriously because they didn’t know the full story, and the full story was something I couldn’t tell them. It was suffocating - to be chasing for something that doesn't exist, that may have never been anything at all. But this was a person! A person I had seen with my own two eyes, a person whom I had ---"
He didn’t complete his sentence.
"In my frenzy, I even gave her a made-up name,” slipped from his tongue together with a sigh.
“After that, she fully became an icon devised by my imagination.”
Mumbling to himself, he heaved his head upward and at last heeded Catherine’s presence.
"Could I have a cigarette, please?" Mehran asked her.
Her attentive eyes took hold of him. The boy, however, was unable to understand that her empathetic eyes were not intended for him, but for the faceless girl.
Standing up to take it, he lit the cigarette as he stood, and returned to Parham’s side, taking his time with two, quiet drags.
"One day, maybe six months after the fact, as I was walking through the city, trying to shake my body out of its helplessness ---"
He paused to look at Catherine again, possessed by her attentive eyes, and once more misinterpreting their gaze.
"Before that, I never took walks like that. I never went anywhere but to class and then back home. I was a homegrown kid, living in my bubble, never thinking I would break from it.
“Reality,” he philosophized. “Well, it's too real, and it's unnecessary. I understand that now that I’m out of the bubble. If it hadn’t been for that girl, I wouldn’t have needed to go on walkabouts in the city. I’d still be safe, the bubble intact.”
“If it wasn’t that, it would be something else,” Bahman chimed in, his neck sloped, his fingernails between his teeth, his sight swinging from the café to the street.
“I wish it was something else then,” Mehran answered back.
“After her, after that bubble ruptured the way it did,” he weaved his head back toward Catherine. “I found myself at the center of reality, wandering through streets and alleyways, meeting with strangers and spending my days and nights with them, drinking, smoking, idling around.
“I didn’t know whether I was going on these adventures to find her or to lose myself. I still don’t know. Mostly, I just wanted to get away. I couldn't handle the so-called safety of home anymore.
“Anxiety, something I knew nothing of until then, had crept its way in me, and when that anxiety settles, you’re never safe. The love of a mother or a father isn’t enough anymore, and any sort of love that isn’t the love you want begins to feel more like a condemnation.
“I wanted more. I would look at my parents, fully grasp my love for them, and then find myself powerless to express that love, blaming them for it, blaming the bubble rupturings. I turned from a smiling child into this monster! And I robbed my family of their comfort, and my life of its time.
If I could find her, I told myself, I might become a kinder person again, I might gain back everything that had been taken away from me. But she had vanished, and with her, went any sense of selfhood that I had."
From his side, he heard a groan. As he turned toward the protestor, he also caught, in his periphery, sight of Bahman, drawn away by the sound of wind and only half-listening.
At that moment, he understood that he couldn't go on for much longer, but resolved to carry on. So far into his story and in the dark of night, his three spectators could no longer just decamp and let a boy fend off his nerves unaccompanied.
They could, but Mehran knew they wouldn’t.
"The story will end soon, I promise," he complied with their restiveness.
Hearing those words, a wild hack spouted from Bahman’s throat. He didn’t except a close to the boy’s blathering, and he didn’t want the night to end.
"One afternoon, idly wandering through the streets near the university and in the midst of the downtown clamor, I stopped at a kiosk by Enghelab Square to get a cigarette. These kiosks, they have their own lighters attached to them by this thin, dirty string, and just as I pulled the lighter toward the cigarette, I was overwhelmed with the scent of familiar perfume, and immediately, my heart stopped.
“I froze in my place, and my heart beat so fast that I nearly fell to the floor from exhaustion. Still leaping, and my hands shaking, I let go of the lighter and raced toward the scent, which by then had overwhelmed my senses so much that I couldn’t trace it anymore. So I just ran, foraging for it, hoping to come across the real thing again, just wishing that I could find her after so many grueling months, hours, and days of searching.”
Gawking at an imaginary point behind the crown of Bahman's head, Mehran soughed and let his shoulders fall.
"And there she was,” Mehran beamed with empty eyes. “The very face I had memorized and dreamt of and lost sleep over, just perched by the side of the street, letting an throng of people pass her by, her hands wrapped around her stomach, her eyes closed.”
“No, no,” he corrected himself, his face collapsing. “She wasn’t sitting at the side of the street. She was sitting by a gutter.”
Little by little, his left hand, fastened and stationed beside his knee, unlatched, meekly stretching out toward his memory.
"I hurried toward her direction. It was her. I was certain of it.”
“I became so impassioned that, again, I forgot to make out exactly what her posture meant, sitting by a gutter with her like that, with her head down and arms enveloping her body.
“As I dashed toward her, my only concern was figuring out exactly what I was going to say to her. Would I tell her of the many months I spent looking for her? Would I ask for her name point-black, and finally be able to replace the name I had made up for her with something real, something that would definitively drive me closer to the real person? Or would I just grab her wrist like she grabbed mine and run off with her?
“Just as I was pacing toward her and dreaming up things to tell her, I looked up and she was gone. There wasn’t a soul sitting by that gutter.
“My heart thumping, it took a second for me to convince myself that I hadn’t hallucinated her. She had been there. I had seen her with my own two eyes, but I had taken too long to reach her. I cursed myself for it, but I continued running toward the gutter, hoping that my eyes were deceiving me and that she would be there when I reached it.
“She wasn’t there. Of course, she wasn’t.”
The boy paused to catch his breath.
“Then I continued running through the crowd, thinking that, maybe if I were fast enough, I’d reach her no matter how far she’d gone. I pushed through the crowd and kept on running, cursing them for having swallowed her whole. I wanted to smash the faces of every single passerby, loathing them for having made my life difficult. They scoffed at me, they pushed me, they shouted at me as I shoved my way past them, but I couldn’t have cared less. All I wanted was her, and I was willing to do anything to get to her. How was it that in a city full with people, I couldn’t find the one person I wished so hard to find?”
Dropping his head, he breathed in a dragged out whiff of air.
“And then came her scent again,” his voice quivered. “Passing me by, accompanied by the sound of an engine. It was so momentary that I tried to take it in as much as I could, just so I could remember her scent.”
Taking another sniff, he shook his head.
“I can’t remember it,” he sulked. “Not a trace.”
“I turned my head to the street, and there she went, her arms wrapped around a man on a motorcycle, her head still down, her knees shaking with the engine, driving past me so quickly that I couldn’t follow her.
“Not knowing what else to do, I just ran to the middle of the street and stood there. Seeing that tiny, little dot of a motorcycle, I don’t know what went through my mind that I decided to chase after it, and for a minute or two I did, running between honking cars and a lot of angry people. But I had to give up. The world had given me no other choice.
“So I walked back to the gutter again. Maybe I hoped she had seen me and left me a note, or maybe I just went to ---”
He looked up and into Bahman’s eyes.
“I don’t know why I went. I just wanted to go there.”
“But I found something, you see,” he mumbled absent-mindedly, his eyes fixed on the black, empty sky.
Broadening the gap between his thumb and forefinger, he gave out a cynical smile and pressed his one finger against the other.
“A single drop of blood just where she had been sitting.”
“I fell on my knees and stared at it. At first I thought it might have been my blood, so I checked, but it hadn’t come from me.
“I took a step back, and saw another drop right under my feet, and another behind me, and another further down the street.”
“Each drop was thicker than the other,” he muttered, forcing the words out from between his teeth. “Thinking the worst and hoping that it wasn’t true, I followed the trail of blood, and recognized immediately that it followed the exact path of the motorcycle.
“The blood was like a river, continuing on down the street. It was the same path that I had ran through, chasing after her.
“These tiny drops of blood, one after another. The blood of that poor, poor girl.”
“I ran after every drop like a mad man, drop by drop, hoping that it would let me track her down,” he kept on without grasping for air.” I didn’t care if a car hit me on the way. I didn’t care about anything. If I didn’t find her, I might as well be dead, I thought. I didn’t care. I just wanted to find her.
“I ran and ran until the trail of blood came to end. Then I found myself in the middle of some crowded street, full of people and automobiles. Their honks were getting louder, and because I was standing in the middle of an intersection, they were swearing at me more and more.
“I’ve blocked it out. I remember them shouting, but their shouts were like noise, background noise to me realizing exactly what had happened to that girl, where she had gone, and why she was bleeding.”
“That poor girl,” he held back his tears. “Why, just why, would anybody do that to her? There was nothing I could have done. It wasn’t in my power. I was a spoiled boy in a bubble. I never could have stopped her from going to these protests. I never could have stopped them for doing what they did to her.”
Between whimpers, he carried on in fragments.
“Her bare feet, those scars, those few days when she had disappeared, her second disappearance after… How selfish could I have been to think that she had vanished because of me? She wasn’t even concerned with me!
“She hadn’t even seen me that day beside her house. My yelling and shouting had meant nothing. What she did with me after was just a scream for help. It could have been anybody else. It wouldn’t have mattered. She just wanted to scream.”
“I was nothing,” he repeated. “And she had been made into nothing with what they had done to her.”
Hands clutched onto his knees, the boy slanted his body toward Catherine in search of sympathy.
“She was condemned to this fate. Damned. Her whole life was damned. I just watched from my bubble as a girl was made into garbage, her life sucked away by vultures.”
“I’m sorry,” he all at once turned to Parham. “I’ll finish this up so you can go.”
Trying to restrain his grief, he carried on.
“There was no drop left for me to follow past that intersection. I remember just falling to my knees in the middle of the street and weeping, screaming and begging someone to kill me.
“Instead,” he gulped. “They drove me home.”
"That is why I came here," he confessed. "I couldn't handle living in that city anymore, nor could I bear the thought of seeing that girl, or even smelling her ever again. A country that was capable of such cruelty… I didn’t want to be a part of it.
“Who else, I kept thinking, and why not me? Why was I safe when so many weren’t? What made me deserve that safety?
“I couldn’t deal with my thoughts anymore. I knew that I had to go away and start anew. So my poor family let me go, and they sent me here, the safest place they could think of."
"And every day I wonder, even from a million miles away: Where is she now?" the boy remarked, looking at Catherine instead of the empty sky, sniveling but not fishing for a scent; sniveling for himself, his lower lip curled and his eyes obscured by droplets of his own.
The cool air spun through the terrace when he let the atmosphere fall back into silence. The wind made them quiver and cover themselves with their arms. Now that the boy had stopped, it seemed to them that the night was done.
But the boy made one last sound, to himself but for them to hear.
"What else could I have done?" he mumbled, raising his head and immediately dropping it down again.
A hand reached for his shoulder: Parham's.
Then slipped a drawn-out moan from Bahman’s mouth. Overtly scooping up his eyebrows, Bahman yawned and sauntered inside, whistling as he moved to the back of a bar, and then downstairs.
The dim lighting of the interior slid against Parham's eyes as they stalked Bahman. His hands lingering on the boy's shoulder, Parham switched his gaze to the girl inside, Catherine transmuting into a speck in his periphery. His eyes continued their stare, as he removed his hand and placed it back around his chest.
Little by little, Bahman's bald head appeared again, still whistling, his eyebrows still raised, dragging himself back toward them.
Parham’s gaze veered toward him once more, watching.
"I'm sorry," the boy abruptly broke his focus,
"My point was that we all have stories. I might have veered away from my point, and I apologize," the boy whimpered, rustling in his seat and standing up.
"That was mine," he turned to Parham with regret, detecting nothing but black and white in the man’s eyes.
In that instant, the boy knew that the time had come for him to leave, but having taken so much of their time, he did not know how.
He looked behind has shoulder, and saw Bahman's figure in the doorway, large and intimidating, arms drooping, his cheeks pulled between his teeth, and lips drawing air to puff. Why was that man's tragic story met with smiles and laughter, while his was met with hush?
"I shouldn't have said any of it," the boy confessed, peering into Bahman’s eyes and expecting sympathy, receiving nothing in return.
"Don't be," came a voice from behind him. "It was necessary," Parham stamped.
The boy glimpsed at the three of them again, and produced an outlandish bow.
“Th-th-thank you,” he stammered, and sidestepping backwards with hushed, shamefaced nods, he murmured "Goodbye" to them one last time, and disappeared into the city and the night.
As the wind continued to drag the litter into the courtyard, restlessness loomed once more. The boy's footsteps fading, the night's reserve reigned among the three again.
“The girl’s nearly done," Bahman interrupted the quiet, pulling his head back and motioning to the girl inside.
Neither Parham nor Catherine responded.
"That was a nice way to end the night," Bahman forced a guffaw, afraid of the hush,
A smirk emerged on his drenched face.
"Who was he anyway?" he asked, turning to Parham and inadvertently meeting his leer.
In his eyes, he saw his own figure, and trembled.
Addled by the stare, Bahman scowled thinking of the boy again. At some point in story, the boy's self-pity had begun to incense him.
"Weak," he mumbled.
His words caught Catherine's ear.
"What?" she asked, as afraid of the hush as he.
"Nothing," Bahman stumbled, looking at her knees. "That kid just pissed me off."
"He was lying, you know," he added, lazily shaking his head. "I could tell."
Neither person indulged him.
"Just another coddled boy thinking he has something to say," Bahman persisted.
Grasping that no one wished to hear him speak, he stopped and went inside.
Watching through the window, Parham saw the plump figure say something to the girl inside, a coy chortle following whatever comment had made.
Going behind the bar again, Bahman snatched his coat from the hanger. As he proceeded to put it on, Parham noticed the man’s unswerving stare, watching Catherine pensively, chomping down at his lowered lips, with longing leaping in his eyes.
Parham's own eyes then swerved toward the girl inside, counting his money, and unsuspecting of his gawk.
"Do you have to be here for her to close?" Catherine asked him sharply.
"No," Parham answered composedly, turning to her but briefly, and locking eyes on Bahman's figure once again.
"Let's go then," Catherine urged.
"You know, that boy ---" she tried to add, before being interrupted by Bahman’s approach. She suppressed a gasp, but raised her head to look at him, Parham noticing the faint quiver in her lips.
"Go with her," he abruptly commanded Bahman.
Bahman’s words clotted and he began to shake again. Catherine too made a jolt.
"Take her home," Parham repeated, eyes fastened on Bahman's frenzied blinking.
"You're not coming?" Catherine asked, pretending to have confused the proposition, her self-possession shedding with every one of her subdued stutters.
Parham never once looked at her, leaving his eyes’ cruel smile for Bahman and he alone.
"Take her," he said again.
In the white of Parham’s eyes, Catherine's figure had obscured, spouting words that to him seemed as though they were of a different world and language. He did not care to listen to her.
His eyes instead remained focused on Bahman, as he watched his body splinter before welding back together, his gut preventing light from leaving the entryway.
“Take her before I change my mind,” he ordered.
Then came a series of whimpers, and then he heard her heels clink away.
"Why don’t you?” he teased Bahman, cornering him with his eyes.
“Yours for the taking,” he scoffed.
All at once, the jester's mighty figure collapsed and ebbed from sight, vanishing with a rabid dash, letting the light escape.
Now, all that remained in Parham's sight was an open doorway, under-lit with dins of Spanish orange cascading to his feet.
From the far end of the street, came the clamor of runaway heels meeting Falstaff’s thirsting howl. Not a simper dared to leave his mug. Instead, he turned his head toward the closed window, and looked inside. His eyes beamed, his limbs stealthily twitched and quivered, and the rich deep red of his mouth swelled and swelled.
There, before his eyes, was his story - juvenile, splendid, erect on its own two feet.
There, confined between those walls, were his words.
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