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Fiction

Serpent's dance
Short story

By Ali Sadri
August 6, 2003
The Iranian

I put on my designer prescription glasses to soften these sharp Middle Eastern features and in an instant transform into a studious scholar who now appeared amiable. The line divided in two; one led directly to the entrance, the other to an enclosed curtained area.

Surprisingly, the ploy worked and I was led to the entrance straightaway, bypassing the two men and their machine guns. I was greeted by smiling flight attendants and nervous pilots. Overdressed men and women threw sharp glances as I went through the first-class aisle. I eased through the haze of perfume and cologne and propped myself into my narrow seat. A fat woman with pancake makeup forced her body into the seat next to me. She had hardly noticed my presence. While occupying both armrests with her enormous elbows, she stared at the seat in front her.

I drew my book out of my bag, and with my arms flushed to my sides, I began to read. I read mechanically and failed to understand the words. My thoughts were fixed upon Arezou. I was anxious and excited for I did not know what to expect when I finally knocked on her door. I had not seen her for many years and wondered whether she was now fat and ugly or perhaps thin and beautiful. "It doesn't matter," I forced myself to believe.

Six weeks ago I moved to the west coast. The moving company unloaded the entire Mayflower truck into my new apartment. I began to unpack and soon crowded the tiny living room with mounds of unnecessary human stuff. In my desperation to separate the essential from the non-essential, my eyes fell upon an old familiar suitcase. I had not opened it for some years and had kept it for sentimental reasons. In it, I had saved ghosts, letters and photographs. I cleared space on the floor, sat down, and began to rummage through the suitcase.

I leafed through photographs, letters and old notes. Notes once stuck on my door by fellow students, friends and bums while living on campus dormitory.

When I came across a photograph of Arezou and I, taken 20 years ago in Santa Barbara, my heart raced and I was overcome with longing. We were sitting on a park bench, our heads touching, both wide-eyed and dreamy.

I read letters sent from various people; most of them have disappeared from my life. Then I caught sight of an envelope I immediately recognized. It was Arezou's last love note postdated September 4th, 1982, a letter to which I never responded. And when I received an uneventful Christmas card from her, I had decided it was too late. I became regretful, pondering whether my life would have taken a different path had I responded. "She could've been the love of my life," I thought. Suddenly an odd feeling came over me, imbued with a promise that I would find her again.

On September 11, 2001, I contacted Arezou by email.

Within the hour, I received a reply. She had confused me with another, a painter. I wrote back and included more details about myself. She insisted that she had not mistaken my identity, and furthermore I was indeed the one who drew her portrait nearly twenty years ago, the same picture, which until recently she had kept propped up on her wall. I repeated that I am the musician and not the painter. As a matter of fact, I am completely draw-incapable but did not argue further. I said I would phone her and ended the exchange wondering about the painter. When I called her some hours later, I waited through the four rings with anticipation but spoke into a machine.

"What would you like to drink?" asked the flight attendant signaling to the woman on my left.

"Do you have V8?" the fat lady asked.

"No I have tomato juice."

"Of course you do", I said to myself, thinking most passengers when trapped inside planes with no food, almost always ask for tomato juice with no ice. "Make that with no ice please," the fat lady said and returned to her movie.

"What do religious fanatics drink before cutting people's throats and flying into buildings?" crept a thought seemingly from nowhere. "What would I've done if I'd been among those passengers?" and my spine shivered along my entire back. Though, when not air traveling, and for mere selfish reasons, I often fantasize an accidental or a hero's death inside a commercial airplane. It seems much more attractive than dying alone in a nursing home; or, expiring in a crowded California freeway because someone steamrolled into my lane at 90 miles an hour, or from cracking my head open because I simply slipped in the bathtub.

It was on that autumnal day when I spoke to Arezou for the first time after 20 years. We were sent home early. Many round the nation were evacuated as a precautionary measure, especially if their place of work was greater or equal to a three-story building.

The sensationalist local news broadcasted images of the empty streets of L.A. The leftist radio station declared conspiracy projecting anti American sentiments. The president and his staff were flown to undisclosed locations; but more likely, they were hovering somewhere above 40,000 feet waiting for the all-clear-sign.

Again, I dialed Arezou's number. She was on the other line with her mother. Asked me to wait, and returned a moment later. Her voice was pleasant and familiar. She was being overly friendly, happy to hear from me. Perhaps longing to hear from someone like me. Her voice was mature and nurturing. Things seemed surreal as if I had been given a second chance, for not only had I survived an attack but also found comfort in an old companion in the middle of a war.

We talked for hours. We discussed politics, terrorism and the Middle East; and I yielded as she expressed authoritatively her strong opinions about the subject.

"I feel censored," she said hinting at the possibility of being wiretapped.

I imagined her as an important political pundit or perhaps, a professor at Colombia University.

"I am studying politics," she said, toppling my first impression of her "and before that I studied in Egypt."

When Arezou returned to the States, she brought back with her an Egyptian man who was 15 years her senior. He had the same name as me, but differed in pronunciation. Arezou demonstrated the precise Arabic sound of his name by stressing the "A" vowel harshly from the back of her throat.

We each gave brief summaries of our pasts. Asked each other questions, but limited our answers. Though she was less reserved than I and blurted out events from her history that ripped the veil off facade. She said that shortly after we met in Santa Barbara she was "devirginized". I repeated the word in my mind.

Arezou continued naming various boyfriends, some of whom had identical first names, but I was still busy deciphering the term "devirginized".

She had her first kiss when she was twelve; somewhere in the suburbs of Denver a twenty-four-year-old neighbor escorted her into his secluded and dingy garage and penetrated her with his fist. By the time she was 15 she had caught venereal disease.

She continued: "I was afraid Dave would've committed suicide if I left him."

I was confused with which Dave this was but refrained from asking for clarification.

"When was your last relationship?" I asked.

"Oh, three months ago! I dated this Italian guy for a short time."

"How short?" No answer. I tried again: "Was it romantic and what happened?"

"Let's change the subject," She said bitterly.

"So she was dumped," I cheered up at the news.

A period of dead air followed.

"How do you feel about my past?" said Arezou abruptly.

There was dead air again, and I knew I had to say something and do it quickly.

"Why all the obsession with sex?" I finally said irritably.

"Don't ask WHY," She snapped, "Know me by what I did, not by why I did it," she stressed. "Why is sex bad?" She said, as if to herself, "And what's wrong with having sex anyway?"

"There is nothing wrong with it," I said with a low voice thinking how strange intimacy felt without love or love felt without intimacy.

The flight attendant brought the fat lady another tomato juice with no ice. We trudged through the clouds, moving painfully slow. I switched the channel on my tiny TV screen and followed a miniature airplane on the map hovering now above Nebraska. I pictured a speck of a farmer on his tractor 35,000 feet below laboring the frost-hardened earth. A stout wife kneaded dough on flour-sprinkled tabletop with rhythmic persistence. A man in fatigues and orange cap, crawled on elbows and knees, shotgun tucked to his chest. A jackrabbit hopped worriedly over sage and thorny underbrush.

Daydreaming has been a friend since early childhood. It has been my medicine to numb the senses and smooth the edges of hard reality. When I was a boy, I took sanctuary in daydreams and imagined myself with wings or a flying apparatus in which I would leap off rooftops and escape to lost lands and distant mountains.

Then, I discovered escape through romance in which I have never lost my youthful attitude. In my sporadic diversion from solitary life, I sought solace in women. They are like the colossal sea drawing us into its ominous waves, dangerous and soothing. The formidable deep invites us to submerge our wretched souls and drown our thoughts, venture out to smooth sail or be devoured by foreboding waves. In either case the link to the world outside is still through her, the inherent power that conceivably drove man to suppress and control through his rule and religion. But in all essence, she is the sole reason we roam the earth, build cathedrals and mosques, and land on the moon.

I had almost dozed off when the descending aircraft made a slow turn and paralleled itself with the runway. And when it finally touched the pavement, I saw relief in passengers' faces for not having been flown into tall buildings of concrete and glass.

I went through long corridors into a JFK terminal, followed the "TAXI" signs, found an exit and waved down a yellow cab. "Park Slope, Brooklyn," I shouted from the back seat. It was nearly dark as we rode on busy New York freeways, toward the Brooklyn Bridge, and to Arezou's studio apartment.

When she opened the door, I stood there beside myself. Her large eyes sparkled as they did two decades ago, only now they had subtle lines of age under them.

"Hi Latif," she said in Farsi excitedly. Her dark hair was wet from a recent bath. She had on a black shirt and brown pants, which hung low on her waist. She was small and stood four or five inches below me.

"Hello..." I said and dropped my bag on the floor, stepping forward and holding her close to where I felt her wet hair against my cheek. I placed one hand on the small of her back and kissed her on the lips. I sensed a hint of tobacco on her mouth and smelled strong burning incense in the air.

"This is very nice," I said glancing around the room and giving a reassuring wave of the hand.

The apartment was on the first floor of an old building on Carroll Street. To my right stood an old fridge with its door propped open where a large block of ice dangled making a puddle on the floor. Shawls and traditional eastern garments hung decoratively on the wall. Myriad of books were stacked in the corner. The door of her bedroom was half-open where a frameless mattress lay on the parquet floor draped with arabesque coverings.

"Sorry about the mess," she said without meaning it.

"Can I help you with the fridge?" I grabbed the enormous chunk of ice and broke it loose with a stern pull and carried it into the sink.

"I've something for you," I unzipped my bag and drew out the 20-year-old letter and photograph. She swiped the photo from my hand. "I've never seen this picture," she said excitedly, "Why didn't you send it to me?"

"I didn't think you were interested," I said regretfully. She began to read the letter and blurted out intermittent chuckles. She placed the envelope on the nightstand and asked if I were hungry.

"I am starved," I said.

We walked to Monte's, a quaint Italian restaurant on Carroll Street. The lights were dimmed and a solitary candle burned between us. When the waiter pulled the cork off the '96 Shiraz, I insisted impulsively: "The lady should do the first tasting."

The waiter fidgeted at this remark and in all possibility considered it ill chosen. I began to self-doubt, reflected pensively at my last statement. She tried to divert the conversation to politics.

"What do you think about war and innocent people being killed?" she asked, testing me.

"She is a liberal," I thought, considering my options in the matter of microseconds, and decided not to engage in political small talk.

"I hate politics," I said, as unaggressively as possible, steering the conversation back to center. "It's a dream to see you," I said with debonair, garnishing it with a, "I am still attracted to you."

"Me too," she said covering her mouth and laughing so severely that made her entire torso shake as a result. A plump old man dressed in a close fitting suite and orange tie-- conceivably the owner of the establishment -- approached our table.

"What's all the excitement about?" He said with a vacant expression, his face quite red with too many drinks on the house.

"We haven't seen each other for 20 years," said Arezou still giggling.

"Then we must celebrate," said the old man cracking a half-smile. "So what are you gonna do about it?"

"Another bottle and I might propose to her," I said flushed.

"How old are you?" after a slight hesitation, "39."

"You're ripe," said the old man, letting out a self-complacent laugh.

"Well take my advise and do something about it," he said in a grandfatherly tone and a mind of a dirty old man. "I'll lend you a pill," he said, letting one last chuckle before turning away.

We left the restaurant half drunk and half deluded. We came across a flower stand.

"Do you remember what sunflower is called in Farsi?" I asked.

"I don't recall," said Arezue, reaching for my hand.

"Aftabgardoon, which means literally circles around the sun," I said, and continuing with a sermon, "The simple beauty of the yellow flower is in its love for the sun. Draws life from the fiery disk, follows it with devotion as it moves across the..."

"So you're a poet," said Arezou crudely interrupting.

"I am drunk," I said, disentangling my clammy hand from hers, and wiping it on my pants.

When we entered the apartment, Arezou lighted a candle, dimmed the lights, pulled out a Tom Waits CD and pointed it to me, smiling. "Blue Valentine" played out of a small boom box. She sat on my lap and placed her cheek against my chest.

"You deserve so much love," She said teary-eyed, then burst into an uninhibited full cry. Her tears permeated my shirt and feeling them on my skin, I embraced her tightly. Her body burned inside my arms. I said nothing, but rocked her as one would rock a child. I wondered whether this was a fling, or did we simply find solace in a familiar face? Or, "could this be love?"

I visited a premonition I received as a child and how I was to lead a solitary life. And even though I had ventured to divert from my destined isolation, I had always been forced to return to it in the end. Although Arezou had hardly been isolated, she seemed to be in the same predicament. I glanced inside her bedroom and saw ghosts of many lovers, and wondered why she was alone.

She kissed me. I reciprocated with hesitation. It felt mechanical as if she were demonstrating her proficiency in the art. I moved my head back slightly and caressed her long wavy hair with both hands, which felt thin lacking the bulk prominent in Persians. I looked into her brown eyes decorated with long eyelashes that curled up, her dark eyebrows were unscathed from plucking, and there were faint freckles on her light skin revealing her mixed heritage.

"She's dangerously beautiful," I said to myself, feeling ambivalent, for beautiful women are sought after by the arrogant masculine, or the dreamy philosophers, who in either case end up spoiling the inner feminine beauty and blemish their souls.

We lay together on the sofa and after a while Arezou fell asleep, or pretended to have fallen asleep. I carried her into the bedroom nonetheless, and put her on the bed enveloped in Egyptian tapestry.

"Good night," I said and kissed her on the cheek. She clung to my neck. I stared bewildered.

"What should we do?" I said with a tortured face.

"Let's play checkers," she said sarcastically.

For a moment I remained on my knees. I had been here before where choice so poignantly presented itself and that one never really knows which path to take not so much to ponder morality, but the concern for its destined end. On the other hand, if life is a fleeting journey, and if we do not possess the power to alter our, or other people's predispositions and destinies, or the ability to mold life to any considerable extent, then we can only do the best with what comes to us and accept it and cease making exhausting efforts to become happy.

"I'll stay," I said.

The next day I followed Arezou in the streets of Brooklyn, down into dingy subways and to Harlem. We walked asynchronously. My long forward gate leading the way for my other half of my body, clashed with her quickened kid-like steps. She swung her hips in a syncopated fashion stressing her left stride ever so slightly.

After we entered the apartment of a former housing project and I was introduced, I immediately felt out of place. It was as if I was being forced to entertain complete strangers going as far as playing tunes on an unplayable shabby guitar. Scarcely had I begun listening to people's babble, when I noticed Arezou's disappearance. Someone with a thick French accent refilled my glass. He seemed to take special interest in me. He put his nose in the air and gave autobiographical accounts of his life.

Since conversation bores me and ego ensues much talking and little learning, I plunged into my own thoughts while pretending to listen. The man glared at my face speaking solemnly, pausing now and then to draw air only to begin once again his long-winded stream of words. I submitted by giving periodic nods. Two hours had passed and still no sign of Arezou. I rudely interrupted wedging a sentence in: "Where is the bathroom?"

The French man had hardly finished pointing, when I jounced off my seat venturing into the hallway. The blurred chattering subsided a little as I walked farther away from the main room. "Which door is the bathroom?" I was pantomiming when I heard voices muted by thickly plastered walls. I continued toward the sound and came to an old-fashioned door.

Overpowering incense and smoke wafted from the room. "Is this too short?" I heard someone say coquettishly. Involuntarily, and as though by impulse, I bent down to the keyhole, moving my head this way and that, peering through the haze. In the faint light of the room, there sat Arezou cross-legged on a tiny sofa. She was sandwiched between two men whom I had not yet had the pleasure of meeting. She was whispering to one on her left, as he looked at her with gaping eyes.

He had one hand on her knee with which he disordered her dress, playfully pulling it up, then rearranged it patting it flat again, only to repeat the whole process from the start. The man on her right stroked his blond goatee while staring vacantly at some object in the room, then slowly turned his gaze toward the keyhole. I sprung to my feet, and with my heart beating in my throat; I made a hasty return to the French man where he now seemed more amiable than before. At long last, only after much wine and much small talk with an artificial New York society did Arezou reappear sitting next to me and taking my hand.

"Are you enjoying yourself?" she said with marijuana scent in her hair.

"A wonderful time," I lied.

The following evening - my last in New York, Arezou danced the exotic dance like a serpent. Only she was utterly in control with a thousand tricks up her sleeve, and I, the flutist, was merely a mesmerized prey about to be devoured or simply preserved for a future time.

She had put on a low cut blouse provocatively revealing and a long red skirt that hung low on her hips. A shawl wrapped around her waist ornamented with thousand golden bangles. She put on Arabic music and began to move fluidly about the room, her skirt rustling about her legs and her slender arms waving in the air like two opposing cobras.

I remained on my seat and gazed at her as she spun entangling web in the air with precision and purpose. I kissed her goodbye and disappeared into the narrow Brooklyn streets.

When I sat in the airplane I was dazed. The engines roared westbound. My limbs trembled. I had lost my equanimity and saw my path take a sharp turn into stranger lands. Late at night, as we landed, I drove straight to the ocean, trotted down the narrow wooden stairs toward black waters and gigantic gray-white foam. My knees dropped and sank into the sand. I peered into the sea and heard bellowing waves rushing forth.

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