Jean E. Verthein, author of Alabaster New Year, has previously short fiction at Adelaide Literary Magazine, Artifact Nouveau, Green Hills Literary Lantern, The Saint Ann’s Review, Downtown Brooklyn, Gival Press, Green Mountains Review, El Portal, Scarlet Leaf Review, Hypertext Magazine, Litbreak, Poydras Review, and others.
Sami, Davud, and Sharin could have issued from the Shahnameh. Before they arrived at Universal House, they were unseen. Or they could have stepped off the apadana of Takht-e Jamshid. Originally, the Greeks from the West had singed this palatial marble tableau, located at more than the desert in a thousand summers.
The Persians were upturning tableau into a table with damask. After searching the crowded great hall, a newcomer sat down. At this opening fall dinner, she with her noon hair paused among Iranians and near-Iranians with midnight hair. They spoke Farsi, Persian, and some Arabic.
Sharin, onyx hair springing off her chin ledge, gusted with laughter over her work. “I try harmonizing bent wood and womb chairs with Persian carpets.”
The Persians were upturning tableau into a table with damask.
This tiny artist in interiors and scientist in earth depths, Sami, sat across at diamond right angles.
He could have tossed a turban scarf. Iridescent meters flew in the blue-green, maroon, and sand brown of his Great Plateau. Reaching her on Great Plain, the turban unrolled a dream—revived—from its fullness and ardor.
At Universal House, U House, they had met. Anyone could choose anyone else from endless nationalities, sped from around the world. Each was apt to intersect with others, combining gifts, states of mind, sexuality, or politics, up to a point. On their city block, they wove a grid over an orb.
On her first morning, the U House aureole was dappling. She grew susceptible. At breakfast, a sidelong shadow stood there. Clouds perhaps faded his skin years ago and hers eons ago. She tasted the syrup on her waffle as he half apologized for sitting down so soon.
Two weeks after the dinner with newcomers from their sandy plateau, Anne slipped on the opaline snow, landing at his feet. Pulling her up, Sami cheered her and his find. His black hair framed his tawny forehead. Out of his dark-eyed scowl, he smiled and spoke. “For five dollars, I find suit that fits me.”
Gazing toward an unseen horizon, they strolled in the snow. Karakal, white lambskin, covered the park. The snow reminded him of his Zagros mountain childhood and North Tehran childhood, near Damavand, the highest peak, snowcapped in midsummer against the light azul sky.
When they climbed the steps to U House, he confided, “I have just published my ninth scientific paper. Others are in the works. You should come to dinner tomorrow at my apartment. Celebrate with me. Someday I should be famous.” His height cloaked her. She backed away. Coat off, his forearm black hairs contoured his muscles, rising with his face in watchfulness. Hesitantly, she agreed to dinner.
Back on her U House floor, about to knock on Sharin’s door, Grace heard a low prayer to Allah. After seeing Anne with Sami and praying, Sharin had gone to Anne’s door. In continental boarding-school English, Sharin asked, “Do you not think Sami one of the kindest of the kind?”
Sharin persisted, “I thought you knew him.” Anne remembered having seen twentyish Sharin and Sami several times in the U House dining room line. He bent to speak to her tiny stature. Hopping around him, she dashed words up to his height, with its grave manner.
To Anne, she was now saying, “Sami takes care of everyone, drives everyone everywhere, and makes them dinner. He even advises me on designs. I don’t mind, really. But he does furnish his living room with a worn sofa and hassock from junk on the street. True, he espouses peculiar ideas, like Iran for Iranians, the San Andreas Fault, and the River Jordan, one that I do not understand.”
Here in her U House room, Sharin doubted her agreeing to Sami’s dinner. “But he comes from one of our most eminent tribes. See, he possesses an inferiority complex under a superiority complex. He speaks like my parents’ servants’ Farsi.”
Sharin had modeled her family home in North Tehran in balsa with glue. To redecorate the house, in miniature, she marbleized its entrance with a small stair, a ziggurat. On one side, she duplicated the family dining room and on the other its great hall for events.
The next day Sami, dressed in a blue flannel shirt above black cords, baggy at the knees, welcomed Anne at his apartment house, six doors down from U House, where he had lived for two years. His living room was chance, as described by Sharin. He led Anne from the living room to the kitchen to sit her down next to Davud, smirking. Earlier, a wedge within her pushed her back to U House to study and hide. Uneasy at first though, she stayed.
“I don’t know,” Sami was saying, “how this meal will turn out, because Davud and I cook with our noses.” A meal already fixed did away with her wish for escape.
“Anne.” He, eyes a-wink, appealed to her in a break from stirring his sauce. “Your name sounds like our word for prostitute in Persian.” Appalled, she sat there. “You could be for us American Grace or Spanish Linda or any other name.” Still she sat. For the time being, she cast off her name. Nothing mattered other than surviving his meal. After trying out names—Lily, Violet, Terry, Flo, Liz, Chloe, Mallory—she chose Grace.
“Grace.” Davud beckoned her to the stove to see the tunnels in the cooked rice. Intimacies of a shared household she was wary of and drawn to. He lifted off the rice crust and identified it. “The best part.”
During the meal, Davud pressed, “Eat dolmeh, pilaf, khoresht fesenjan with pomegranate. Next time, I make shish kebab you expect.” Obliged to overfill and be vexed, she ate green baklava shavings for dessert. She imagined fattening to suit some Middle Eastern style of female body, though swallowed her tea.
“At home,” Sami proclaimed, “we ate until our guests stopped.”
“Ours too!” Davud, a short, compact man with a round face, squinted his already narrow eyes. “Before inviting you though, I would think twice. You are a human garbage can.”
“When your girlfriend left,” Sami retorted, “her Afghan stayed for your leftovers.”
More pleased with Davud’s mother’s baklava, he drank glasses of tea from his dented samovar, discovered in a thrift shop, between bites of dessert. Upon swallowing, his body verged on swelling, overflowing like an open qanat, a human-made underground rivulet to water the land and clean city gutters.
Because of her public health field, this watering system intrigued Grace. She watched this “human qanat,” as Davud designated him.
Thumping back onto his chair’s hind legs, with arms on the armrests, Sami relished his well-being. “Your father was lucky with your mother, who sends you forty pounds of pistachio, this baklava, and a hand-knit sweater to warm you.”
Grace ruminated on luck to win Sami or Davud, who offered this meal. Her habitual post-dinner sleepiness was overcoming her doubts. Win him and a career too?
“My father lost his fortune to bankruptcy.” Davud switched into Farsi with Sami.
They entered his room, magi-made, as-if kiosk, to gaze out its big windows. On the floor lay the deep red Bakhtiari carpet, a lozenge with arabesques within three borders. On one long wall, huge posters swept up her eyes from west to east. Seeming to apologize for no Najaf shrine of Ali poster, he ah-hed over Esfahan in poster. Esfahan could spirit anyone into enchantment. To the far southeast of Tehran was this Florence or Kyoto of Iran. Its blue calligraphy, geometry, and arabesques were webbing the inner dome of the madrassah. On another big poster, greenery spread over an unknown paradise from the desert.
The mosque of the last imam at Mashhad posed the reign of the hidden twelfth imam, wafting through time. Decembers back and away, the twelve were finalizing in Hussein. Sami resounded to Grace, familiar with her Messiah and His twelve. Then, too, he came from the land near the mausoleum of Queen Esther.
Below Sami’s posters, a plain dresser and one twin bed stood. The glass windows, ceiling to floor, exposed the estuary below and palisades across, as the sun targeted his room. Metal bookcases along the opposite long wall held books in winged script. Most were in English: political theory, physics, geophysics, and oceanography.
Weeks later, she scanned the spines of volumes in Farsi. Sami let memory go from the soft and striking poetry of Rumi, Hafiz, and Ferdowsi from the Shahnameh, Sa’adi. Lines he translated into easygoing English and spun out Sufi ecstasy. They coiled like dual helixes in their Heliopolis.
Slipping out of their trance and lore, she gazed out the window that magnified the world. He seemed unaware. Oil drums labeled with the name, though not the family, of the man she ought not have left. She relaxed back on the carpet, deep red and blue plush. On his light blue chenille bedspread, he lay blazed in the late day sun.
His rounded, oblong face rolled toward her. The darks of his eyes were enlarging to shade and observe her. He extended his arms where she sat. His hand cushioned hers. Back on her elbows, she inquired, “Where are you from?”
His road had been at the same latitude as hers. Only hers existed at a diagonal through the earth.
On his road, personal growth followed prehistory. Women in turbans and men in skullcaps, his people had been pasturing their animals across the Zagros, their three rivers, into an estuary. Sami back to the earliest Persians. Beneath the blue agate sky, his Bakhtiari rode horseback north of the Turkic Qashqai and the Arabians, across the desert of cinnamon.
Away from storms, their early clayey brick abode was lined with lime. Inside, his family circled their fire. Set into a meter-wide ground vessel, it warmed them whether asleep or awake.
As he and his brothers and sisters were growing up, his father decided to leave to cross the sands and the Silk Road. The family would follow.
“We sat in front of our redbrick fireplace,” she whispered back, so as not to intrude. “On Sundays, my parents and sister ate supper there.” They stayed.
He nodded and continued that while his father was arranging their way to reach the capital, eventually, his mother, enthusiastic about advancing her family, placed him around their schoolmaster.
In mid-century, some great dynamism was looming. Some more enterprising kin dwelled where oil was discovered during the Great War. Later, she urged her son to become “a doctor in oil.”
Meanwhile, from Tehran, his father sent for them. Life shift began. His grandfather sat his mother and sister on a donkey and he at age six on a burro to cross the desert with overnights at caravanserais. One day, he fell sideways on his burro. His lopsidedness unnoticed until the Esfahan bus stop, he did not cry.
“The only beast of burden,” Grace said, “I, a tiny girl, knew was an old Chevy that lurched, so I fell between the front seats.”
Broadly speaking, her family did the same as his from Europe. One great-grandparent set moved between gristmills, until owning land. After selling it, oil spurted there. But she became a master of public health and hopefully maybe a doctor of health, not oil.
Before delving into his doctorate here, Sami studied two subjects. He professed to comprehend neither English nor women nor American women. Neither did she. Grace leaned toward his soft, deep speech. “I tell truth.” He wagged his head. “Back home, I sleep in summer on roof with family across from my uncle’s roof with cousin next door. When I come to America, nun my best friend.”
Her black habit recalled women at home in chador. Their habits, Grace thought, made mountains out of women, shadows not quite substance. In time, his mother and sisters wore them to block the sun, sometimes outdoors, not indoors, never back on tribal lands. The nun guided Sami in English, till able in synonyms. Another, a wife of a town mayor, taught him colloquialisms. Grace gleaned he might have collected more than words.
“My cousin has waited seven years for me,” he commented, “since age fourteen.” Grace slipped in about the man with the name on oil drums across the river.
Dryly, Sami observed, “Oil keeps coming up.”
In Iran, scientists speak in poetics to lure, though this one’s bed fit only one person. Here, she wondered if possible.
For Sharin and her friends, two women could parallel each other to talk on a single bed in U House, a divan or carpet, or supposedly two men. But a man and a woman?
Outside azure arose with the stars. “You can stay,” he announced.
“I have calculations to do.”
“You have been calculating all along.”
“Work, I mean, statistics.”
“Everyone does. That’s how I spend spare time.”
Grace knocked on Sharin’s door. She offered her pilaf, kosher from a deli. Her Islamic orthodoxy practiced then resembled the Jewish. Sharin, jovial from her tasty dish, asked, “Grace, are you going with Sami to Washington? He told Zal, who told Ali, who told Tauriq, who told me.”
Grace denied this trip to protect Sharin from overexposure to the world. “Never mind. Tauriq from Turkey,” Sharin owned up, “pursues me to go with him.” Next to this petite one with her floss of hair and silk shirt the color of her turquoise ring, Anne-Grace felt slipshod and wrinkled in jeans and silk jersey. Sharin frowned. “In my dreams, my grandfather tells me to reject this offer. “Tell me, will you marry Sami?” he asked.
Grace jerked up and protected herself through denial. “In that case, Marcia is,” she emphasized, “big like him. Big women and her field—poli-sci—please him. They plan to marry.”
Anne, skinny and undernourished, had visited U House last summer, when the tall woman promenaded with Sami. His tall, memorable size and face at a distance impressed her.
Alas, she, Grace-Anne, saw herself entering a contemporary tie of the Indo-Aryan-European. In the sixth form of marriage between the unmarried, she and Sami swept up each other, warming, billowing, and writhing like the mounting sands of the desert. They rested on their sides like two plateaus.
Sharin bubbled on that Marcia appreciated Sami’s politics and studies of the earth’s upheavals. He no longer debated. With his wariness, Sharin marked him as a higher male. “He hated our emperor. I hate crude politics.”
“But Sami loves music and poetry and old Charles Aznavour records listened to last Nowruz.” Abruptly, she asked, “You do not want to marry Sami?”
To Grace’s smile, Sharin replied, “Maybe I will introduce him to my beautiful cousin, tall and clever enough for him. He says our government demands his return to our country. Because of its fellowships, he must go or face loss of honor. He will be better off there rather than here.” To define his problem, she was rubbing her thumb and forefinger on the silkiness of Grace-Anne’s turquoise shirt worn over her jeans. “Nice,” Sharin admired.
That night propelled Sami to visit Grace in her twin-sized bed for the first time. Usually they stayed in his. His ribs and muscles contoured the hairy over-brush on his chest, smooth to her touch. Rather than sleep or rest and dream after lovemaking, they probed domestic problems.
He and Davud were arguing. Davud’s cooking for others in their circle vied with Sami’s carting them around to parties or meetings, including Davud’s prayers Sami was avoiding. Their circle credited Sami though seldom at their get-togethers.
Huffily, Davud had moved from Sami’s place and in with his former girlfriend. Sami thought she was missing her Afghan. His friend’s exit was implying disaster.
Sami was further piqued. The journal editor of his latest article left off his name on his twelfth-to-be-published paper. Probing scientific truths had secured English. Perpetual competing was exhausting him.
So he welcomed Grace on his white pillow. He cooed, “Come live with me.”
Overwhelmed, she leaned back on her elbow. The candle was flickering. She asked, tauntingly, “Why not marry Marcia?”
“Really, I am sentimental. When I called you earlier, your voice sounded like hers. Marcia is married in Omaha.”
Grace reminded him, “You’ve been engaged for years. You told me so.”
“I am worth waiting for.” His head, above her on his pillow, tipped from side to side.
“You never tell me these things.”
“I have, to Sharin.”
“She has indicated her interest. Her size is too tiny for me.”
“And your cousin?”
“My cousin studies business in the West and Midwest.”
“No wonder you study the San Andreas Fault!”
“In your country people are all alike, thinking about our same-time marriages. But you have more than we dream about.” Released from the bed, he sat at her desk with his legs around her chair back, facing her while leaning his arms on its armrests. “You ruin life for everyone everywhere else. You Americans, even with all your machines and computers, are romantics—always look for your ‘one and only’ to love and your best device. You keep changing which one. Only, there is no one and only.” He smiled from his perch. “Never mind about machines. Many wives or husbands save you from loneliness. You wanted to hear that, didn’t you? How about wife-confidant and consultant, true friend?”
Cousins, cousins, Grace thought and said so.
Sami responded, “You be my cousin, if you want. Move in with me and stay.”
She smiled. Since the removal of her wisdom teeth, she had been staying with him.
In this time, he gave her the rippling turban scarf, a runner that unwound from around her head or his floor to floor, blue and maroon like a river.
In these days, unlike Grace’s melancholy, Sami’s cheer came from another source. A university had invited him to be a visiting full professor.
Months later, before the Spanish dance party at U House, they ate at a nearby grill. Talking about next to nothing, he was eyeing a woman at the next table. She filled an electric blue blouse, and her hair was midnight. Grace overheard her speaking with a third man in an unknown tongue. When he was paying the cashier in the front, Grace was returning from the toilet, and the blue blouse was handing a note to Sami.
Outside, he and Anne-Grace walked along the riverbank. The warming atmosphere under the scarlet sun against the navy brooding sky was thawing the river and cracking its iced surface to make a boom of chunks that whooshed down to the ocean. Beneath the tangle of stars, the bridge linked some into a string of crystals. Sami broke in. “I feel young again. What a tasty meal.”
Male passersby stared at Grace-Anne. She glared back.
Sami announced, “Whatever you do away from me, do not tell me.”
“But I have nothing to tell you.”
“With about oil drum name over there?”
“He never came back.”
After they circled back to U House, Sami paused to argue with a political science woman student. “Naïve.”
A mathematician greeted Anne-Grace. Frequently, they’d ridden the elevator of their wing, though to different floors. At the Spanish dance, he’d asked her to dance. Dance she did.
His meal no longer cheered Sami. Nor was he his usual bobbing peak on the dance floor. Usually he loved to dance.
His exterior was tightening into a cord of fibers around a steely center, glowing and dimming. “We are a couple! Everyone thinks so. All the Persians do. Do not,” he began to say, directing her to the hall, to the front door, down the sidewalk, to his front door, to his apartment door in the same block as U House. “Do not dance with that fellow. A year ago, Davud drove him to the airport. The next he knew authorities were interrogating him.”
Anne-Grace wondered if Sami objected to the mathematics of their quandary. Or was the problem one of the value of his theory or the country of the man?
Later on a June night, back in his apartment, Sami snatched an air letter from his brother, Farid, who needed more money. Research money Sami gathered helped support him. Of necessity, he had married a French anthropology student. “For all the years,” Sami intoned, “my father struck me as child and never paid for my schooling, I was family scholar. He counted on me to pay for my younger brothers. One better turn out doctor.” The blacks of Sami’s eyes fired up.
Grace slanted her eyes at his bookshelf: Creep, Creep Structure, and Earth and Physics. Opening a page one noted the stable shelf beneath the unstable one. Minutes later, he put his pillow fingers on her neck. She backed off and said, “I am going home.”
“You are home; I am not home.” He recited Rumi in Farsi.
“You have not seen me for the last three Saturday nights.”
“After our yearly lab picnic, I saw you last Saturday night.” His voice cracked. After a ride back with colleagues, she returned to her place.
At his institute, would-be madrassah, his charts, world maps, and printouts of earthquake patterns had been pinned around the main frame. He was working on his new small laptop computer. Remember?
From his white-walled office with carpeted floor, she had sat on a rock and worked on her own. En route, she had slipped down an incline, landing by a huge box, lettered, “Do not open without permission.” Suddenly, guards surrounded her and asked her to leave, until she identified herself as a guest of Sami. Told about the incident, he had humored her as “my top secret.”
Back here and now, she reminded him. “You drove me home.”
“I don’t like going out on Saturday night. Too hectic. I work in quiet lab.”
“As men go, you are awfully independent,” she noted.
“You Americans are more independent. You go off by yourself for your identity but complain of loneliness. True, I depend on myself.” He leaped up to shower.
Anne sank into one of Sharin’s finds, a bentwood chair Sharin had bought secondhand and handed to Sami. Anne wished Sharin to be here in his living room rather than far at home.
Minutes later, he reentered. Hair damp on his body, he slumped on his divan, one foot on it and one on his lumpy couch.
Uneasily, she walked toward the door.
“Wait,” he ordered her, “I am not ready to give you up. You never bore me.” She turned back and walked toward him. His eyes were veined. He said, “I am always alone.” They hugged.
Davud was coming for supper, like old times. Sami was cooking again for the three of them.
Davud would curb the uneasiness between Grace and Sami, she hoped. They gabbed about his gathering up secondhand furniture. Grace began hearing the “eh” at word endings in mid-tone and minor key.
Somehow, Davud resumed in English on how he and his brothers and sisters grew up with nurses. The oldest nurse was given to his great-grandmother. His family had wanted the nurse to be operated on because of her venereal disease. At that, Grace-Anne threw open her eyelids and groaned in public health virtue.
“That should be very dangerous for your family,” Sami commented to Davud.
“She was cautious and washed a lot,” Davud qualified. “She was very kind to all of us. My mother tried to pay her for her work. But this nurse refused. A roof overhead was all she needed.” She looked American-African black, like ones in their area of New York. Only her Persian-ness, he maintained, was visible in her skin, dark brown, and white hair. Her appearance born in slavery.
“You cannot wash that away,” declared Sami. He thumped his chair back square onto the parquet. He poured her more tea. Then, he pished, “No Africans live in Iran.”
“You never noticed them everywhere?” Davud countered. “Because of one in our house, I have seen others in other houses.”
“But Sharin says the servants in her house are light-skinned, more Slavic.”
“Sharin would,” Davud replied. “When my grandmother grew older, she became known for her formula to help old men. They came from afar for her rare compounds.”
“Where is Afar?” Grace’s puzzled look, Sami pooh-poohed. “You too young to know about Spanish fly.” Before her reply that he was too, he reverted to Farsi.
“My grandmother,” Davud slid back into English for Grace, “could also recite the Koran from cover to cover.”
“Mine too!” Sami saluted their grandmothers with another cup of hot tea held high.
Hers, Grace noted, could recite only verses from the Bible. She tried sipping the ultra-hot tea.
His paternal grandmother, Sami continued, could not read or write, could recite. If he covered a random page, except for a few words, she could follow up with the whole passage by heart.
Intrigued by these ancient women, African Iranian, Slavic, Iranian, Grace requested more data. Both Davud and Sami jumped up to retrieve it. With reverence, Davud handed her the Koran she could not read. She poked her finger through its hole with its bas-relief leather arabesques. She turned onionskin pages before handing it back.
In Sami’s photo album, a dark-haired boy with high forehead sat within women on a carpet. In another, Sami the young man, face black-mustached and light-bearded and forehead hair-crested, loomed above other family men. In another, he stood within his family before he departed for America, ten years earlier.
His father handed him the one book from his grandmother. Sacred for him twice over, her Koran had been carried always by her husband. This grandfather had accompanied them from the fields of oil across the infinity of desert to the capital. The sacred book in his pocket saved him from the bullet of an assassin, preserving its hole.
She herself moved from her first apartment into another farther from U House. The new superintendent helped her without Sami. Thereupon, Anne hung the turban scarf he’d claimed matched her flickering blue-gray eyes to flutter in the breeze from the window.
One day in a planned visit to U House, she met Sharin. Giddy with news gleaned from home, she whispered distress. “Davud’s lost in prison somewhere.” Sharin knew few details.
Already disturbed by Davud’s fate, Anne asked about Sami. He would marry, Sharin confided, Dr. Molsefedeh, friend of the Armenian woman bloused in electric blue. Sami had long preferred a doctor of medicine, not of oil.
Not only that, Anne gazed upon his cousin Sharin was gesturing toward in the great hall of U House. She chattered about her projects of redesigning insides of palaces, until the cousin scooted over. “Yes, yes, I grew up next door to Sami.”
Unlike Sharin’s coif, Shala’s puffed out as she emphasized all her words. “My cousins spread out. My women cousins started in the bank. The men cousins now specialize in oil, anthropology, stones, and carpets. I’m to be stockbroker. I stay here, open own firm.”
The U House crystals dangled overhead and heat passed through them and the long windows. The intricate chandelier felt pitched down on Anne.
By fate, she saw Sami. She congratulated him on his forthcoming marriage. Taking her hand in his, he asked, “Can I give you anything.”
“No,” she answered. “I will save the turban scarf.” She wished only to hold his hand.
After his current study, he would journey back to his land, exquisite pieces fit into mosaics. Prayers were recited more often than meals. And shadows were surrounding all in habits.