That Friday, I dragged myself out of bed in the pre-dawn darkness and headed out to her house on foot. She lived ten minutes away.
As I rang the doorbell, the first glimmer of the new day was appearing faintly on the horizon, broken up by low-lying houses appearing as geometrical blocks of solid black. In the distance, a rooster crowed and I shivered involuntarily.
She pressed the buzzer to let me in and I walked up the path in the walled garden to the main house. I had been there once before when she had a party to celebrate the end of the conference. It was a nice little villa in a very good part of Tehran – they had a swimming pool, which was quite rare.
Before I got too far, the door opened and she appeared, a vague amorphous form in the changing light. She came down to meet me.
“So, you made it on time – I’m impressed. I was ready to come knocking on your door if you hadn’t shown up.”
“I’m sure you would have. The thought of that is what got me here so quickly.”
She smiled at me and I caught the faint scent of a perfume.
“We can walk to the pickup spot from here – it’s not too far.”
So we walked out the door together, pacing quickly to try and warm up in the biting cold.
We made some small talk on the way. I felt awkward and was still unsure of the situation – I had never been with an Iranian woman before and this was beginning to smell like more than a simple outing between friends.
In high school, it was a world apart from the norm. I had attended an international school that was one of the few coed institutions in the country, and was surrounded by girls from all over the world. Even the Iranian girls at the school were westernized, either as a result of intermarriage or through assimilation. We socialized as westerners, without any of the taboos or customs normally associated with traditional Iranian culture. From there I had gone to college abroad, where I met few, if any, Iranian women. For me then, this was breaking new ground, and I had few markers to guide me.
Boarding the bus, I was thankful of the noisy, talkative group around us. Mostly younger men and women, in their twenties and thirties, the crowd gave us something to hide behind until we found our bearings. At that time, the new regime was still busy trying to consolidate its power and was not fully focused on the dangers inherent in this chaotic intermingling of the sexes. So there were still opportunities available for singles to meet and get to know one another.
The bus headed off and we soon left the city behind us, beginning the climb into the Alborz range just north of Tehran. The terrain was an arid, rocky one speckled with snow, the two lane road hugging the sides of the mountains as we passed the villages of Fasham and Meygun.
“Do you ski a lot?” I asked her.
“Not that much. I came up here with my friemds a few times. What about you?”
“So so. I am a little wild and tend to lose control so you don’t want to stay too close to me.”
“Thanks for the warning. Actually, I brought a book with me and I will be reading that most of the day.”
“Aha – scared you already, did I?”
The warmth in the bus had loosened me up somewhat; that, plus the drowsiness I felt seemed to melt away any trepidation I had. She looked vibrant.
“You live alone with your parents now?”
“With my dad. My mother died several years ago.”
“I’m sorry – ...” I did not know what to say.
“It’s OK. We were actually glad because she had suffered so much from the cancer.”
“It must be tough to deal with everything on your own.”
“I got used to it. I pretty much run the house now.”
We talked and she told me about her family. They had all been politically active; the father, once a high-ranking diplomat, even spending time in the Shah’s jail for being part of the opposition that had agitated for some semblance of democracy. She had inherited this activism and had plunged into the political life once she arrived in Berkeley to continue her college education.
“You were at UC Berkeley?”
“Yes, for a couple of years. I returned back home just before the revolution.”
“That’s funny. I visited the Berkeley campus during one of the Christmas holidays. We may have run into each other without knowing it.”
“I kind of doubt it. You were probably out partying with your friends all night while we were reading Mao’s red book.”
I smiled smugly – a you know how it is smile, but felt strangely lacking inside.
“What did you do there? I mean, were you involved in demonstrations and things like that?”
She shrugged. “We would get together and discuss the political situation in Iran and how we could help. A lot of heated debate, especially when the various factions would meet. During the time of the shah’s regime, there were many demonstrations in front of the consulate in San Francisco and we held political vigils and fasted. Anything to draw attention to the problems facing Iran at the time. Then there were several meetings of the various dissident student organizations for the US and abroad – congresses - where we would all get together under a unified banner.”
“You can see I was pretty busy.”
“When did you have time to study?”
“Studying was secondary. As well as partying,” she smiled and looked at me. “My whole life revolved around the student movement and politics.”
I shook my head. “This is something I know very little about, I’m afraid. Was your father not concerned for you?”
“No, not really. Although honestly he really wasn’t aware of the extent of my involvement.” She looked away. Before I could ask her anything more, she said: “That’s enough about me. What was your college life like?”
“Nothing like yours. We studied and went out together and came back home in the summers. Very boring.” I looked out the window at the passing scenery.
“Oh come on, David. Don’t be shy. You can tell me about your wild parties and girlfriends.” I felt her gently mocking tone.
“Really, there is not much to tell. It was a very ordinary time.” The bus suddenly seemed very stuffy.
She looked at me again quizzically and smiled. “OK, suit yourself.”
The tension gradually eased as we climbed the switchbacks higher and higher into the mountains. We goggled at the steep drops just a few feet from the bus and pointed out the white peaks to each other. In another hour we reached the slopes and piled out, greeted by an iridescent blue sky and sunlight reflected a million which ways in the snow.
It took me a few minutes to adjust to the bright sun and cold, thin air. Everything looked frozen, or at least slowed down a hundredfold. The vapor from our mouths crystallized the air in a white cloud that hung like suspended bubbles in the space between us, and it seemed as though it would take superhuman strength to move our limbs.
Her voice dislodged me. “David, you go ahead and get your skis and have a few runs. I’ll be hanging out on the terrace at the lodge and we can meet there for lunch.”
“Are you sure about this? I feel kind of bad leaving you on your own.”
“Don’t be silly. Go ahead, I can fend for myself.”
Skiing in Iran had a distinctly Persian feel to it. For one thing, the slopes were treeless, so there was no danger of colliding with any protruding stumps. More importantly, there were the people who were there: beautiful women parading around in the latest ski fashions from Europe with no intention of getting on the slopes; families laying out a picnic spread with lavash bread, feta cheese and herbs; and still others out to get their fill of skiing.
I quickly took a couple of runs down the intermediate slopes to work out the kinks, then headed for the more advanced trails. The sun was blazing off the snow and I was working up a sweat each time I came down. Shooting down the face of the mountain, I was always on the verge of disaster, gaining control at the last second. I hit the moguls the wrong way several times, jarring my knees and causing me to fall sideways.
All in all it was quite frustrating and I couldn’t seem to find the right groove. Giving up, I headed back to the lodge to find Fereshteh. The terrace had been split in half by a rope to separate the women from the men and I pulled up a chair to within a foot of where she was sitting, on the other side of the barrier.
Looking at her over the cord, I laughed.
“Be careful you don’t cross the line or you may get irradiated by the women,” she smiled mischievously.
“My God, we wouldn’t want that to happen now, would we? So, how’s the book?”
“Boring. But the view is magnificent. How was the skiing?”
“Not bad. Maybe I’ll improve in the afternoon.”
“Well, let’s have some lunch. Maybe it will help you in your skiing.”
She had packed some food for us, sandwiches made of noon sefid, that most delicious sandwich bread that resembles a small baguette. Filled with feta cheese, small gherkins and parsley, they were overpowering. Like a boor, I quickly wolfed down two of them before we had talked further.
“It looks like someone is hungry.”
“Sorry about that. I was starving and these sandwiches are delicious. I couldn’t help myself.”
I’m not sure what it was about food and me. Later on, after we had married, Fereshteh remarked that I reminded her of those nomadic Arabs who ate so quickly because they were afraid of losing their meal to another. Arabeh malakh khor she called me only partly in jest.
Whatever it was, for me eating was, and still is to this day, an activity that should remain undisturbed by small talk and other distractions. One devoured the food in a race against time – that much was clear by watching my father and other members of his family.
I clearly remember sitting in my aunt’s kitchen one afternoon when I was around nine or ten. We had just arrived at her house late in the afternoon, famished, from some shopping spree with my cousins, brothers and mother. My mother set the table while she rushed around, placing cold chicken, yogurt, bread, cheese and green onions in various platters.
Without further ado and so much as a check on the children, she dropped into her chair, rolled a handful of chicken pieces within a piece of lavash bread, then stuffed the whole thing in her mouth. Eyes rolling heavenward, she announced in full chew:
“Ghat turjef lesheti!” “My whole body is trembling from hunger.”
Yes, food was vitally important.
Sated after a few minutes of eating, I leaned back on the lounge chair and turned towards her.
“Thanks for packing such a great lunch. I thought we would just buy something here.”
Smiling, I closed my eyes.
The sun beat down brilliantly and through my eyelids I sensed movement and shadow as a cloud passed by. Sounds seemed muffled, far away. There was a fine line that the cool mountain air and the heat from the sun fought over along my brow, neither tipping the scale too far in one direction. The side of my face toward the sun grew hot and I shielded it with my arm.
We were visiting the southern oil city of Ahvaz on a high school field trip. In the late evening, it was a spectacular landscape of massive pipes, flaring gas and nodding donkeys pumping out black crude oil in a barren desert of shrubs and rocks. The light from the burning gas wells lit up the night sky and cast absurd, gigantic shadows on the desert floor, highlighting the up and down motion of the moving machinery. Even from a kilometer away, one could feel the fierce heat from the gas fires and hear the roar as the plumes rose skyward. Riding along with my friends on horseback, parallel to the flaming gas, I felt the sharp divide between the cool night on one side and the burning heat on the other along the bridge of my nose and forehead. We laughed and yelled wildly as we galloped to and fro, each of us costumed surreally in shadow and light. It was as though we had been transported to the forge of Zeus himself, where his blacksmiths were banging on their monstrous anvils in unison, turning out their lightening rods and too busy to bother with the tiny humans cavorting around madly beneath their noses.
“Are you going skiing again?”
I woke from my stupor.
“Yeah, I think I will.”
I dragged myself up and stretched.
“Time to get back to work.”
“You don’t have to go, you know.”
“No, I want to. I need to tame this mountain.”
So I headed back up, this time skiing down in swooping arcs, slow curving runs that sprayed the snow out at each turn, my body angled a few feet above the powder. The sun was drifting downwards toward the west and shadows began to lengthen. I went up the slopes for one last run.
As I was sitting in the chair lift, my fingers numb with cold, I suddenly laughed out loud.
I remembered the time I was out carousing in the dead of winter with my friends in the god-forsaken town of Arak on some trip, passing around what else, but a jug of the local arak. Frozen to the bone and drunk out of our minds, we were wandering around in the empty streets, the snow falling softly around us and the buildings closed and dark. The streetlights lent an iridescent glow to the snow-covered landscape and the spectral wail of Jack Bruce singing White Room wafted upwards toward the black sky from a hand-held tape recorder.
Stumbling around looking for a whorehouse, we came upon a wide mound of fresh-fallen snow that seemed as soft and inviting as a down comforter. Without thinking twice, the eight of us fell on our backs and proceeded to carve out some memorable snow angels, laughing and yelling like the school age kids we were. I looked up and saw the flakes appearing out of nowhere, tumbling down end over end dizzyingly. It looked like the blackness was in tatters, shedding itself. Sticking my tongue out I caught one, and the delicious coolness melted in my mouth and slid down my throat.
The lift reached the top of the mountain with a clatter, rousing me from the daydream. As I clambered off and pushed to the left, the memory of that night brought a smile to my lips and I laughed again, quietly to myself.
Standing at the edge, I looked out and saw below me the dips and contours of the mountain side, soft billows of grayish-white turning to deeper blue in the shade. In stark contrast, there were the hard patches of glinting whiteness caught by the remaining rays of the sun. I looked down again and saw far below the outlines of the lodge, and on the slope above, multi-colored forms moving this way and that. I felt like laying my head down on one of those snowy cushions.
Pushing off the ledge, I left myself behind, no mind or thought or fear but simply a breath of wind skimming down the side of a mountain. Unseen and unknowing I came down, no premeditation in my movements and no knowledge of sense itself. I felt the onrushing air only – I may have been standing on a balcony feeling the oncoming breeze.
Five minutes or five hours later – I did not know which – I found myself in front of the lodge bent double over my skis, panting in great heaves and staring down at the clumps of snow and ice on my boots. Regaining myself, I unbuckled the straps and straightened up, exhausted. For a moment I looked back up the mountain, my breath calming down slowly and my mind clear of thought. The top seemed shrouded in mist and blue shadow and for a second time, I had no sense of myself – there was only the mountain sitting in its massiveness.
“Unbelievable,” I murmured as I turned away and walked up to the terrace.
Sitting next to her on the way home, back in the corner of the bus, I felt totally uninhibited and loose. The warmth in the bus had made me slightly drowsy and I lay my head back with my eyes closed. She must have sensed a change because she looked at me quizzically a few times.
“That mountain air must have made you drunk.”
“Yes, I am totally drunk out of my mind. That was a great day.”
“I’m glad you enjoyed it – I had a good time too.”
Something in the way she said that made me turn and look at her. Staring back at me were two black pools, fathomless, slightly veiled behind a strand of hair that had fallen forward from underneath her headscarf. Without thinking I took hold of her hand and held it in my own. She squeezed back and I lent forward and kissed her softly on the lips, holding them gently for a few seconds. Her lips trembled under mine and I felt them full and powerful, each quiver sending a tremor through my body.
As shocking and unexpected as this public display was, in that split second we both knew what was going to happen and yet were powerless to prevent it. It was the most natural thing in the world, but the kiss had shaken us to the core and we pulled apart quickly and in silence. For the longest time, we remained thus, quietly holding hands between our legs. My mind was running away like a freight train.
Nothing is ever like the first kiss, no matter how chaste or passionate. The touch of the lips, unknown to you until that moment, explodes like an atom bomb in your mind, carrying along millions of sensations pell mell through every fiber of your being. The softness or roughness, whether they push back or are submissive, the scent of perfume or taste of salt, opening wide like the legs of a whore or closed in a modest bow – all this rains on you in a kaleidoscope of color. Everything is forgotten and wiped clean during that moment when you cross the threshold from the known to the unknown.
The rest of the ride to Tehran went by in a daze. We got back to the bus stop and walked to her house slowly, no longer touching but walking close to each other, the sensation so unbearable as to be painful.
It was dark when we got to the house. She fumbled in her bag for the key and unlocked the front door. I walked in behind her and closed it shut. As I did so she turned to me and I pulled her close, her bag dropping to the ground. In the dark, next to the garden door that closed out the rest of the world, I kissed her again, this time more urgently. I held her tight against me and opened her mouth to mine. She moaned softly and I pressed my hands against the small of her back, arching her body. I could feel the mounds of her breasts through the layers of clothing.
Suddenly, a mad desire took hold of me and I started pulling her jacket off. She gasped and pulled away.
“No, we can’t”, she said hoarsely. “Not here.”
I stumbled forward stupidly. “Why?”
“My father is home. We can’t.”
Slowly, I came out of the funk and regained my equilibrium, yet held her in my arms still. My heart was hammering and I felt the blood pulsing through my veins. What was hidden beneath those layers of clothing was intoxicating, and I was half drunk with the sensations and smells of her. I could not let go.
My throat had thickened and I found it hard to talk. “Yes.”
I looked at her again, her face close to me in the dark. In the shadows I could see her hair falling softly across her cheek. I pulled the strand back behind her ear and kissed the corner of her mouth.
“I told you I was drunk. This is what comes of going skiing with me.”
She laughed softly and held me tight. “In that case, we should go more often.”
That intimacy was dizzying. We kissed again, slowly this time. It was time to go and I released her reluctantly.
“I’ll call you tomorrow.”
She smiled and squeezed my hand. I turned toward the door and let myself out.
Standing there alone on the other side of the world, my head was spinning. How this had come to pass I did not know, nor did I care. I knew only one thing – I wanted to hold her in my arms again. Nothing mattered but this – not the fact that she was Moslem and I, Jewish; not the harsh realities of the regime we lived under; not the threat of torture or execution; not even the past, present or future of our fucking planet.
The night air was cold and sharp, and I felt its touch all along my face, but within, there was a radiating heat that nothing could penetrate. As I walked away in the dark, I whistled softly to myself. So that’s what an Iranian woman is like. God Almighty.
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