In June, days after the Supreme Court lifted legal blocks on President Trump’s Muslim Ban save those with “bona fide relationships” to the United States, we asked writers to imagine creative openings and counter narratives as to what a bona fide relationship might be. Trump’s latest iteration of the travel ban was stopped by two federal judges last month. We are publishing a series of stories and poems on The Margins that create new narratives and futures in response to the Muslim Ban. The following short story is the latest in our series. Read more and follow along here.
When Shayan’s US student visa application was rejected a second time, he wished for his death.
He had been interviewed at the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan, Armenia. After receiving his number, he took a Prozac, drank two cups of water, and sat in the third row. Other than Shayan, there was a young couple with their twin boys as well as two young men in the embassy. To relieve his stress, Shayan went over to the young men and started to chat. Their appointment was after Shayan’s. He learned that they, too, were graduate student hopefuls in their early thirties. But the commonalities ended there. They were mechanical engineering majors, and knew nothing of music except for Ebi and Googoosh—two Iranian pop singers whom Shayan had never cared for much. He told them he was a GRE teacher back in Tehran. Shayan asked if they had received scholarships from their schools. They both told him that their dads were going to sponsor them throughout their studies.
When his number was called, Shayan gathered himself. The palms of his hands were damp with sweat, and the blue polo shirt he had ironed the night before was getting wrinkled. He trudged towards cabin number five. The air inside the cabin was overbearing. A bespectacled, gray-haired gentleman in a dark navy suit and a red tie sat down and asked Shayan a series of familiar questions: Why had he chosen Berklee College of Music? “Because it’s one of the finest schools of music in the world.” What was he going to do after the completion of his degree? “Go back to Iran and perform as a pianist in a band.” (It was the same answer he had given in the first interview—a lie he had practiced telling a thousand times.) Did he have any friends or relatives in the US? He didn’t. While listening, the interviewer’s gaze shifted back and forth from Shayan’s face to his computer screen. Every few seconds, he typed something. Shayan wiped away a stream of sweat from his forehead. He kept his hands off the counter, so the interviewer wouldn’t see him wringing them.
Two months before, Shayan’s interview at the American Embassy in Istanbul had gone well, but in the end his visa request was rejected. The reason, he was told, had been “lack of social ties” to his home country. In other words, American officials weren’t sure that a thirty one-year-old guy from Iran with a full tuition waiver scholarship from Berklee College of Music would go back to “Eye-Ran” after the completion of his degree.
“Unfortunately,” said the bespectacled man, “We cannot approve your visa at this time.”
“OK. Thank you, sir,” said Shayan, his voice fading.
Dragging his feet, he exited the cabin with all his documents—his Iranian ID, military exemption card, and letter of acceptance and scholarship—dangling from his grip. The two young men asked him about the result, although they had already guessed from Shayan’s sunken eyes and fallen face. One of them placed a consoling hand on Shayan’s shoulder and told him to schedule one more interview.
“Third time’s the charm,” he said.
“I think if I get rejected three times, I won’t be able to apply for any US visa for a certain number of years,” said Shayan.
Shayan had dreamed about going to America all his youth. Every morning, he would drink coffee from his mug, which carried the picture of Boston’s Hancock building. One of his students had brought him the mug as a gift. Each week, he would go to his local newsagent and buy the latest New Yorker, though the magazine arrived in stores a week after its original release because the Ministry of Culture had to use a black marker to censor the pictures that revealed women’s bodies. Whenever Shayan went to a coffee shop, he would order a cortado, imagining himself sitting in a coffee shop in America. At night, before sleeping, he would use a VPN to circumvent the internet censorship, so that he could use SoundCloud to upload his latest piano improvisations. He had more than 2,000 followers from all around the world, many of them in America.
During the one hour plane ride back to Tehran, Shayan remembered how he had won a scholarship to the Conservatoire de Paris at the age of seventeen. He had received the letter a day after finishing high school. The letter was written in French and in English. His parents didn’t read or speak any English, but they had signed up Shayan for an ESL class when he was nine. When Shayan told his mom about it in the kitchen, she hugged him and kissed him on the cheek multiple times with her apron hanging loose from her body. Shayan went out to play soccer with his friends afterwards. When he arrived home later that evening, he noticed his dad’s shoes in front of the door. He walked in and saw his dad having dinner in the living room. He hugged Shayan upon seeing him.
“I’m so proud of you pesaram,” his dad said. “Let’s eat dinner right now.”
At the dinner, Shayan’s dad stayed focused on his plate of rice and chicken, nibbling at his food. His bushy eyebrows remained motionless the entire time. Shayan wanted to talk about his letter of acceptance, but he kept toying with his food instead. The squeaky chairs and the chiming cutleries made the only sounds in the house.
“Shayan, I know this means so much to you,” said Shayan’s dad, “but I can’t afford your living costs in France at this time.”
“Why not?” asked Shayan in a trembling voice.
“Because the business is too slow these days. I’m not making much.”
“But this can change my life,” said Shayan, wiping away tears. “Can’t you do something?”
When the plane landed in Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport, Shayan noticed the marooned airstrip that resembled a vacant lot; there were only four other airplanes around. The passengers got to their feet before the warning sign above their heads turned off. They started removing their bulging luggage bags from the cabins in mayhem. Shayan sat there, motionless, looking out the window of his seat. After everyone else had left the aircraft, he got up and walked with his carry-on luggage. As soon as he set his foot onto the passageway, he saw a young woman being pulled aside by an officer who told her she had to go with them because of her clothing. The officer was short, with a black beard that accentuated his craggy face. His crooked teeth revealed themselves as soon as he started talking. From the corner of his eye, Shayan noticed the young woman was wearing a mid-length white coat that fell over her blue jeans. He walked past the scene, focusing his gaze to the floor.
A stern officer greeted Shayan at the passport check. He stared at Shayan’s passport photo, studied his face, and affixed his entry seal. Downstairs, Shayan saw people standing behind the window glass, waiting to welcome their friends or family members. A mother was holding up her four-year-old daughter, telling her to wave to her dad. As Shayan was about to exit the last gate, a fifty-some-year-old officer asked him to put his suitcase in the detector.
“I have no liquids in my suitcase, sir,” said Shayan.
“Just do as I say,” said the officer.
Shayan slammed the suitcase onto the surface of the conveyor belt. The officer asked his colleague to check things in the computer. He then asked Shayan to open the suitcase. He angrily unzipped it. The officer rummaged through Shayan’s clothes and underwear until he found a copy of Lolita.
“What is this?” asked the officer.
“It’s a novel, and I’ve bought it from a Book City store here in Tehran.”
The officer looked into the suitcase’s small pockets after he had thrown Shayan’s clothes, underwear, and personal effects all over the table.
“Okay,” said the officer, “Now put everything back into your luggage and go.”
Shayan clenched his teeth and put his belongings back into the suitcase.
“Quick,” said the officer.
As soon as the airport’s exit doors swooshed open, three unofficial cab drivers surrounded Shayan. They were all holding burning cigarettes in their hands. Shayan flinched at the reek of the smoke.
“Where is your destination?” asked one of the drivers. The question was echoed by the other two. Shayan ignored them and walked towards the airport’s official taxi stand. The bulky man sitting behind the desk asked Shayan where he was heading. The man was wearing a long-sleeved shirt and his armpits were pronounced with sweat. He called the name Kazem. A man in his late fifties, with salt-and-pepper hair and a clean-shaven face showed up. He was six feet tall, wearing a white t-shirt and classic blue jeans.
“Welcome,” he told Shayan, leading him to his yellow Toyota Camry.
While driving, Kazem asked Shayan where he was coming back from. Shayan spoke in a flat tone about his US visa rejection in Yerevan.
“You’re too young—you’ll get there eventually,” said Kazem.
He told Shayan about his cousin who lived in Connecticut, a name Kazem could barely pronounce. His cousin had left Iran in 1977, and after the Islamic Revolution took place two years later, he decided to never go back to Iran, worrying for his life.
Shayan’s apartment was inside an old building in a neighborhood in western Tehran. Most other buildings in their alley had already been rebuilt or renovated, making Shayan’s building look incongruous. Inside the dark parking garage, Shayan shook his head at the sight of broken fluorescent lamps. None of the five other neighbors had taken the initiative to pay for the fixing costs. He pushed the cranky elevator’s call button forcefully and a tiny cabin landed heavily before his feet.
Outside the elevator on the third floor, in front of his neighbor’s door, Shayan noticed some pairs of men and women’s shoes. He had never met the neighbor because he was new, but he had heard about him from his mom. He was a twenty-year-old college student whose parents had helped him rent the apartment. Every other weekend, he threw a party with his friends, which meant a lot of Persian pop music and lengthy, late-night, loud goodbyes outside Shayan’s door.
Shayan tried turning the key, but couldn’t move it.
“Shayan, is that you?” asked a coarse voice from the other side.
“Yeah, mom. It’s me,” said Shayan.
The door squeaked open and revealed a short woman with shoulder-length, henna-dyed hair. She was overweight and had pudgy hands. Shayan’s mother was a retired nurse from Tabriz, an Azerbaijani-speaking city in northeast of Iran.
“Didn’t they give you the visa, again?” asked Shayan’s mom as soon as Shayan got in.
Shayan shook his head and sat down on the sofa. He noticed a row of cigarette butts in the ashtray on the table. Behind him, on the other side of the living room, he could hear the sound of BBC Persian news on satellite TV. He stared at the timeworn body of his piano sitting across from him.
“Why is it so dark in here?” he said in an angry tone, turning on one of the dusty lamps that hung from the ceiling.
“I know you’re upset, but perhaps it wasn’t in your ghesmat—your kismet, to go to the US.”
“Goor-e-babay-e ghesmat—to hell with kismet,” said Shayan, yelling.
He dashed to his bedroom, slammed the door, and turned on the light. He looked at the posters of his past small gigs in Tehran; he had tried to find an audience for his neo-classical music by playing underground performances to small crowds. A stack of music CDs was sitting next to the window frame. There were practice books strewn all over his desk and a small Yamaha keyboard standing in a corner. Shayan lay on his bed and clasped his hands on his chest, staring at the ceiling. His mom knocked on the door, asking if he wanted something to eat.
“Leave me alone,” said Shayan.
He hid his face underneath his arm and closed his eyes, trying to sleep. The loud music from the next-door neighbor was piercing through the walls. He put the pillow over his head with force and lay on his belly.
Shayan met Niloufar in his new GRE class a week later. He taught at a private language academy in Tehran that was twenty years old, with timeworn walls and scruffy desks. Five boys and three girls attended the class. At the beginning of every GRE course, Shayan asked the students to talk briefly about their ambitions and their reason for taking the test. Niloufar said she wanted to work and live in the United States.
Niloufar never missed any homework. She always took note of every nuance and was the only student whose cellphone never rang in class. Her analytical writings always left Shayan impressed. Over the next three months, Shayan began to notice things about Niloufar. It wasn’t just the unblemished skin of her face, her intense eyes, or her graceful gestures; Shayan felt connected to Niloufar because of her aspirations. Sometimes Niloufar showed up ten minutes before the start of class while Shayan was organizing the horseshoe seating arrangement of armchairs. They often talked about different things. Niloufar always addressed Shayan as shomaa and Mr. Nazemi. During one of their pre-class talks, Shayan asked Niloufar about her favorite music.
“I listen to almost anything, except heavy metal,” said Niloufar.
Niloufar asked Shayan if he played an instrument.
“The piano,” said Shayan. “I used to play the guitar and harmonica as well.”
A few weeks later, on a winter afternoon and on the last day of the course, Shayan asked Niloufar to stay after the class. He told her he wanted to give her some one-on-one feedback on her study progress. Other students left the room one by one, saying their thanks and goodbyes. Shayan wished them luck.
Niloufar was standing a few steps away from Shayan’s desk. She was wearing a turquoise shawl and a gray cotton overcoat that day.
“I know this is crazy,” Shayan, “but I’ve been meaning to ask you out.”
A moment of silence ensued.
“I don’t know what to say,” Niloufar smiled sheepishly, “Are you sure you want to go out with me?”
“Of course,” said Shayan, “But I don’t normally ask my students out.”
“I would hope not,” said Niloufar, averting her eyes while trying not to blush.
For their first date, at Niloufar’s suggestion, they went to Café River. It was a week after the GRE course had ended. Shayan arrived ten minutes early, waiting. The aroma of coffee and the sound of Andrea Bocelli’s voice were wafting in the air. A group of young girls and boys were sitting at a community table a few feet away from Shayan, talking and laughing. As Shayan was checking his cell phone, Niloufar entered the café, walking in high-heel shoes. The man behind the counter and the two waiters called Niloufar with her last name, greeting her warmly. She shook hands with Shayan and took a seat.
“How come these people know you?” asked Shayan.
“My dad is an architect and his office is in this building. We’ve come here together before,” said Niloufar.
They ordered two lattes and started talking. Shayan told Niloufar about his love of coffee and coffee shops, his small circle of friends, and his passion for music. Niloufar spoke about her family. While talking, he used the phrase zendegi hamine—that’s life—a lot. Niloufar told Shayan about her family. Her dad had designed many buildings in Tehran.
“The building we’re in right now is one of them,” said Niloufar.
They talked about their families. Niloufar felt comfortable opening up to Shayan. She told her about her parents’ divorce. She told him that her mom had become depressed after her brother’s death.
“I was nine, and I still remember empty bottles of alcohol and piles of cigarette ashes lying around our house,” said Niloufar. She told Shayan that she had decided to live with her dad after her parents’ divorce. “I honestly don’t love my mom all that much,” she said, “she’s been living in Germany with her new husband, and we sometimes talk on the phone. What about you? First, tell me this: when had you decided that you wanted to ask me out?”
Shayan smiled, stirring a spoonful of sugar into his latte.
“You wouldn’t believe this, but since day one,” he said, “I found you very attractive, and then you said earlier that everybody wanted to go to America.”
Niloufar let out a ripple of laughter.
“Since you asked,” said Shayan. “My dad was doing great in the bazaar as a shoe salesman until he went bankrupt. He was too good for working at the bazaar. People would often take advantage of him. After the bankruptcy, he had a stroke and passed away.”
Niloufar looked into Shayan’s light brown eyes as he averted his gaze for a moment. She placed a hand on Shayan’s.
“How about your mom?” she asked.
“She’s alive, but is mostly sick,” said Shayan.
They walked inside the mall, window-shopping stores: Benetton, Nike, Adidas, and Massimo Dutti. On their way down the escalator, Shayan held Niloufar’s hand loosely, without looking at her. Niloufar’s hand was limp, but a few seconds later, she pressed Shayan’s hand without looking back. When they left the mall, Niloufar told Shayan they could go to her house.
“My dad is at work,” she said.
Shayan was surprised. He had never gone to a girlfriend’s house on the first date, but Niloufar sounded very laid-back about her offer. Shayan agreed. They took the elevator down to the parking garage. The garage was full of Hondas and Peugeots. Niloufar’s car was a Porsche Cayenne. Shayan believed this only when he saw Niloufar opening the door of its pristine silver body. In the car, Niloufar asked Shayan to play any music he liked. Shayan connected his iPhone and played Le Moulin by Yann Tiersen.
Niloufar drove to Daroos, an affluent neighborhood in northern Tehran. The mansion-like houses, with their grandiose designs, resembled houses in Florence, Rome, or Copenhagen.
“When did you first start learning the piano?” asked Niloufar.
“When I was eight.”
“I started learning the piano at nine,” said Niloufar, “but I quit after a month. I’ve done that a lot; taking a class and then quitting after a month or two.”
“You don’t have to stick to everything you start,” said Shayan.
“I still have a piano at home, though,” said Niloufar. “It’s been collecting dust, but it works just fine.”
They arrived in front of a thirty-story residential complex. The garage door started to roll up after Niloufar pressed the remote button on her keychain. All the while, Shayan was studying the building’s marble exterior and its giant windows.
“We’re going to use the elevator in the parking garage, so that the lobby man won’t be able to write down your name in the visitors’ list,” said Niloufar. Her apartment was on the twenty-third floor. Every floor had only one apartment situated right across from the elevator. “It’s better this way,” said Niloufar, “because neighbors can’t poke their nose in your business.”
Niloufar unlocked the gigantic heavy door and went in first, turning on the corridor lights. She told Shayan he didn’t have to take off his shoes and then excused herself to go to the bathroom. Shayan walked in along the long, wide corridor until he found himself in the living room. He had never seen such a big living room in his life. Two exquisite Persian rugs, with their intricate patterns, were rolled out on the hardwood floor, partially covering it. Shayan noticed an enormous LCD TV broadcasting the CCTV camera in the lobby. There were two sofas in a corner. A framed handmade Persian rug was hanging on the wall. And a three-piece couch was sitting across from the TV. Shayan sat down and rested his head back against a soft cushion pillow. He rose from the couch to take a closer look at a photo on the wall. In it, Niloufar was blowing out the candles—number eighteen—of her birthday cake. Her eyes reflected the fire of candles planted in the middle of a round chocolate cake. A man with short salt-and-pepper hair and a handlebar mustache stood next to her, laughing and clapping. Niloufar had the same intense eyes as him. She looked solid like her dad, but fragile at the same time.
“Ah, those photos,” said Niloufar, walking into the living room.
She was wearing a beige sweater and black skinny jeans with blue socks. She had let her wavy, hazelnut-brown hair down. There was no trace of a buttoned-up coat or a headscarf. She was thin, but strong.
“This house is so big I could get lost in it,” said Shayan, laughing.
Niloufar smiled and walked towards the open-bar kitchen. She filled the electronic kettle with water and switched it on.
“Can I see your piano?” asked Shayan.
Niloufar ushered him into one of the three bedrooms located behind the living room. It was a spacious room with a small balcony that overlooked the whole city. A queen bed and a desk were placed next to the window. The piano was sitting on the left corner with its back to the wall. It was a classic Yamaha. Other than some specks of dust, it was pristine. Shayan squinted at its body as he gently swept his right hand across the fallboard.
“This piano looks great,” he said. “Mine is just a very old Russian piano.”
“We don’t use it, but we have someone come and tune it once every six months,” Niloufar said.
Shayan lifted the fallboard and gingerly pushed it back. He sat down on the chair and tested the keys as well as the pedals. The sound was in tune. He started improvising on the minor pattern. His short-but-steady fingers fondled the keys. Soon, he found an infectious melody around which he could build his improvisation. Niloufar sat on the bed and lay her hands on the mattress, watching him. Shayan closed his eyes and played for a couple of minutes. His touch was impeccable. His timing was flawless. His body movements were graceful. He ended on a C flat with his eyes still closed.
Niloufar clapped her hands and rose from the bed. “That was magnificent,” she said.
“I’m so sorry, but I have to go now,” said Shayan.
“It’s only 7 pm; where do you have to be?”
“Because of my heavy load of work, I see my mom only a few hours every night.”
At home, Shayan’s mom was watching a Turkish soap opera on satellite TV. She had left her key on the other side of the door. That was what she did whenever she was home alone. She stood on her tippy-toes, peered into the peephole, and opened the door upon seeing Shayan.
“Have you taken all your pills?” asked Shayan.
“I’m not sure,” said his mom.
Shayan asked her to lay down. He walked to the kitchen and grabbed the box of pills from one of the cabinets. Inside the box were colorful rows of pills for every day of the week. He checked the one for Wednesday. His mom memorized the pills by their color because there were too many pills to learn about. She told Shayan she wasn’t sure if she had taken the red pill that day. Shayan poured a glass of tap water and took it to his mom with the red pill in his palm.
“Paasho—get up—you have to take all your pills,” said Shayan.
Shayan’s mom grunted while getting up. She listlessly picked the pill from Shayan’s palm and swallowed it with disgust.
“Shayan,” she whimpered while lying down, “will you play some piano for me?”
“The piano is out of tune right now,” said Shayan.
One afternoon in late March, two days before Norooz, the Persian new year, Niloufar received her acceptance letter from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her dad was still at work. Niloufar was arranging the Haft-Seen setting on a blue cloth for the big table in the living room; the seven items starting with the letter seen (?): lentil sprouts in a dish, sweet pudding, dried Persian olive, garlic, apple, sumac, and vinegar. While arranging the table, Niloufar was murmuring to herself: “Sabze for rebirth, Samanu for affluence, Senjed for love, Seer for health, Seeb for beauty, Somaagh for sunrise, and Serkeh for patience.” This was something her dad had taught her when she was eleven. Every Norooz, her dad would go over the Haft-Seen with Niloufar, asking her to repeat what each item symbolized.
After arranging the table, Niloufar checked her cell phone and noticed a new email. Those days, she checked her inbox at every opportunity. She scanned the content anxiously, looking for words that would give her a quick hint.
“I have some good news and I have some bad news,” she told her dad on the phone. “The good news is that I’ve been accepted to MIT. The bad news is that they haven’t given me any funding.”
“Don’t worry about that. I will cover everything,” said Niloufar’s dad.
Niloufar called Shayan afterwards to tell him about the news.
“That’s wonderful, sweetheart,” said Shayan, “I’m so happy for you.”
Niloufar invited Shayan for dinner that night. She told him that her dad was away in Isfahan for work. That night, arriving at the door, Shayan handed Niloufar a large bouquet of red roses. He was happy for her, but his happiness was tinged with frustration because he felt unlucky about his own life. Niloufar had arranged a small table in the kitchen. She had ordered lamb kebab with rice, Shirazi salad, and yogurt.
Niloufar went to her bedroom and came back with a wrapped box that had a silver ribbon tied around its violet wrapping paper.
“This is for you,” said Niloufar. “Ghabeleto nadare.”
Shayan held the box with his loose, hesitant grip. He placed it on the table and looked into Niloufar’s eyes.
“Why did you buy me a gift?” said Shayan.
“I owe you my great GRE score. This gift is nothing,” said Niloufar.
Shayan unwrapped the gift and squinted at the box inside. It was a Cartier wrist watch with a certification of authenticity. Niloufar knew about Shayan’s affinity for wristwatches. He had a decent Cerruti that had cost him 1,000,000 tomans, half of his monthly income.
“This is too much. I can’t accept this,” said Shayan, stammering.
He felt worried that the gift would result in some kind of expectation from Niloufar; an expectation he felt he wouldn’t be able to live up to.
“Try it now,” said Niloufar. “I want to see how it looks on your wrist.”
Shayan nervously untied the watch and gazed at its screen with reservation. He closed his eyes for a moment before holding his head up and thanking Niloufar.
While eating, Shayan told Niloufar he was thinking about making a visa appointment for a third time. He told her he had nothing to lose.
“Third time’s the charm,” said Niloufar, smiling.
After dinner, Niloufar suggested they watch a comedy. She inserted a flash drive into the DVD Player and grabbed the remote. They sat on the couch. Sitting next to Shayan, she rested her head on his shoulder. Shayan smiled and turned his head toward Niloufar. He could smell the sweet perfume on her jumper. He held Niloufar’s hand and placed it on his heart.
“Why is your heart beating so fast. Are you okay?” said Niloufar.
Shayan motioned for Niloufar’s lips and kissed her. Niloufar didn’t budge. Shayan kissed her soft lips with gusto, holding her face with both hands and wrapping his fingers around her ears. She lay back on the couch and let Shayan take off her jumper. She took off Shayan’s jacket and shirt, touching his hairy, rock-hard chest. Shayan held Niloufar up and walked towards her bedroom. In the bedroom, the half-moon was shimmering in the starless sky. Shayan took off Niloufar’s jeans and his own. They lay on the bed, kissing.
“We can go all the way,” said Niloufar. “I’m not a virgin.”
Shayan didn’t ask Niloufar about her previous experience and continued kissing her in the room’s dim light. He caressed Niloufar’s breasts and kissed them. After they both ran out of energy, Niloufar rested her head on Shayan’s chest and curled herself up into his arms. He got up and took a quick shower and put his clothes back on as Niloufar was making herself some coffee.
At the door, as Shayan was putting on his shoes sitting down on his knees, Niloufar told him that her dad wanted to see him. Shayan stopped moving for a moment and looked up. He had been with four or five girls before Niloufar, but none had told their dads about him.
“How come you’ve told your dad about us?”
“Well, I never hide anything from him,” said Niloufar. “He knows you’re my boyfriend.”
“Are you sure you hide nothing from him? Like, does he know you’re not a virgin?”
“Did you have to bring that up?” said Niloufar. “Okay. I mean he knows most things.”
After a pregnant pause, Niloufar asked Shayan if he had told his mom about her.
“I haven’t,” said Shayan, “because if she knows I have a girlfriend, she’ll want me to get married. In her mind, a serious relationship should result in marriage.”
“Don’t worry; I’m not the marrying kind,” said Niloufar, laughing.
Niloufar and her dad met with Shayan at a small pizza restaurant. Before going in, Niloufar introduced Shayan to her dad as they were shaking hands. Mr. Karimi was in his late sixties, but looked young. He was noticeably tall, wearing a cashmere suit. He had a husky voice and a commanding presence at the table. He spoke with an affected tone that made him sound all the more charismatic. He told Shayan about his days at UC Berkeley, where he had received his Ph.D. in 1970. He told him about the impact of the Beat Generation, about the art scene in Berkeley, and about the world of young hipsters. He asked Shayan about his biggest dream. Shayan told him about his background as a pianist, that he used to be a protégé to one of the renowned piano instructors in Iran. He told him about his dream of becoming a world-famous pianist in the US.
“How come you’re an ESL teacher then?” asked Mr. Karimi.
“Because music doesn’t pay well,” Shayan said.
“I see. Well, I think if you can enter the United States, you will go places.”
After they ate, Shayan suggested that he pay the check, but Mr. Karimi didn’t budge.
“You can do that when you go out with Niloufar, but not when I’m around,” he said.
Niloufar and her dad told Shayan they could give him a ride home. They dropped Shayan off in his alley and got out of the car to say their goodbyes. Shayan shook hands with Mr. Karimi and waved goodbye to Niloufar. He couldn’t hug or kiss her in front of her dad.
“He seems to be a nice guy,” said Niloufar’s dad in the car.
“Yeah, he’s honest, talented, and strong,” said Niloufar.
“I can give him money to make an album in Iran.”
“He won’t accept it,” said Niloufar. “He has a lot of pride.”
That night, there were no shoes in front of Shayan’s neighbor’s door. His mom was holding the phone set in her hand as she opened the door. She was talking to her sister. Shayan kissed her on the cheek and walked to his bedroom. He sat at his computer and googled photos of Boston. He googled the weather and found out that winters were too cold and summers were very humid. He googled images of Boston in the fall, marveling at the colors. He imagined himself and Niloufar going to Charles River Esplanade, sitting on a pier. He imagined himself and Niloufar going to the Museum of Fine Arts and talking about art all night long. He imagined sitting on a bench at Boston Common in the summer, kissing Niloufar for as long as he desired. He imagined living in the same apartment with Niloufar, sharing the same bed with her every night.
“Shayan jaan, would you like some tea?” asked Shayan’s mom from the living room.
“Yeah, that’d be great, mom,” said Shayan.
He switched off his computer and reached for his GRE handouts. He counted them to 35, putting them in order. In two days, he had to teach five classes back to back.
The Bona Fide Relationships Portfolio was published with support from the David Rockefeller Fund and the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics.