Messenger from Mystery
146 pages

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146 pages

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Deno Trakas's novel Messenger from Mystery features English graduate student Jason "Jay" Nichols, a third-generation Greek American who claims to be named after the heroic Argonaut leader despite an introspective and self-absorbed nature. On the cusp of his transition into adulthood and from student to teacher, Jay still lives primarily in his own thoughts and studies. Having been an activist in college, he considers himself knowledgeable about local and global politics, but when the Iranian hostage crisis begins while he is teaching students from Iran, he realizes that his understanding of geopolitical conflict is naive and superficial. Jay becomes infatuated with one of his students, Azadeh "Azi" Ghotbzadeh, whose cousin is the foreign minister of Iran and wants to work with the United States to resolve the crisis, which makes Azi vulnerable to manipulation and other threats. Her family insists that she return to Iran at the end of the semester, but before she goes, she spends a week with Jay, and they fall in love. When Azi leaves, Jay is crushed.

When Hamilton Jordan, one of President Jimmy Carter's closest aides, learns that his college friend Jay has a close relationship with a woman with access to the inner circles of the Ayatollah, Jordan enlists Jay's help. At first Jay is a simple intermediary, but when his mission goes terribly wrong and Azi is put in mortal peril, Jay finds himself in the unlikely and uncomfortable role of rescuer. Aided by a CIA operative and Jay's literary hero, he travels to Iran to free Azi from her captors.

Like the award-winning film Argo, Messenger from Mystery harks back to the difficult final years of the Carter administration and looks closely at the hostage crisis, which captured the attention of the world for 444 days, garnered its own news show, ensured the defeat of Carter and the victory of Reagan, and frayed any American confidence regained after Vietnam and Watergate. A story of love, politics, terrorism, and heroism, Messenger from Mystery mixes accurate, fascinating history with convincing, engaging imagination. Trakas's novel depicts the human heart in conflict with itself as well as a subtle, thoughtfully rendered critique of U.S.–Middle East relations of the era, still relevant today.

Elizabeth Cox, a Robert Penn Warren Award–winning writer, provides a foreword.



Publié par
Date de parution 31 janvier 2017
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781611177343
Langue English

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,1000€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.


Pat Conroy, Founding Editor at Large
2017 Deno Trakas
Published by the University of South Carolina Press
Columbia, South Carolina 29208
25 24 23 22 21 20 19 18 17
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data can be found at
ISBN 978-1-61117-733-6 (paperback)
ISBN 978-1-61117-734-3 (ebook)
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Front cover photographs: top: visualspace/ ; bottom: Ryan Klos/
The way of love is not a subtle argument.
The door there is devastation.
Birds make great sky-circles of their freedom.
How do they learn that?
They fall, and falling they re given wings.
Rumi, 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic, from The Book of Love , translation by Coleman Barks
After years of reading short stories and poems by Deno Trakas, I am already an admirer of what wonders he can achieve with language, images, and characters. Now, in his first novel, Trakas shows a talent for enlarging his focus and sustaining the keen interest of his readers in a richly honed cast of characters and a complex narrative unfolding against an historical event: the capture of Americans as Iranian hostages in 1979. A clash of cultures, the pull and push of personal relationships, and rising senses of duty and forgiveness create the driving force of this novel, but at its beautiful beating heart, this is a profound love story.
The novel focuses on the cloistered world of Jay, a University of South Carolina graduate student in English. He teaches his students literature and focuses on his comprehensive exams for his PhD, but this young man has never been required to risk or commit to a cause greater than himself-until he develops a strong connection with Azi, a student from Iran. Her beauty, intelligence, courage, and worldview all beckon Jay. At first, he lives with a kind of loose faithfulness to her, without real loyalty, but his commitment grows, as does the distance between them, when Azi returns to Iran. In Trakas s capable hands, we come to know the deepness of the bond between these two students of very different worlds.
As global dangers escalate and Azi s life becomes threatened, decision and action are demanded of Jay, and his innocence in the world at large begins to unravel. William James calls this kind of unmasking a tolerance of facts in opposition with each other. The truth is too great for any one actual mind, many minds are needed to encompass an understanding of life.
During the Carter administration, when American hostages are captured by the Iranians, Jay s world becomes overshadowed by a wider world of terrorists, foreign countries, political maneuvering, and vast cultural differences he has never imagined. His high-minded literary ideals and any notions of heroism he might have entertained all fail him as he becomes caught in the dangers of an Iranian conflict. Trakas describes these events with compelling peril and threat. He makes the heart jump with the risks of capture or death, and we wonder if, after such harrowing experiences, this quiet student and teacher can ever return to his former life within the insular sanctuary of the academy. Jay s perceptions, which had been so carefully settled (and ensconced in poems and literature), are shattered and his view of the world and of himself are inevitably altered.
Jay becomes entangled in the politics of terrorism and his actions awaken both him and the reader to a world of brutality and callousness. The hostages captured in the political conflict between nations become a mirror of the kind of hostage-taking we do to each other, and to ourselves, as we separate ourselves from seeing or understanding those of other cultures. And the questions come to mind: When we begin to understand another person s suffering, what then is our responsibility? How much should we risk for others? For someone we love?
Rumi says, Love is the way messengers from the Mystery tell us things (as translated by my brother Coleman Barks), and love has much to tell to Jay and Azi. When this cloistered young scholar awakens to the ruthlessness and threats of the world, as well as to his deep love for Azi, the momentum of the novel makes the reader mindful of a variety of hostages-political and personal. Through lovers and terrorists, Trakas unmasks this very human trait of our selfish blindness to the plights of others. He explores the courage it takes to amend this trait in ourselves through empathy and action, and to move at last, with heretofore unknown strength, against our own self-interest and out of a love that is greater than ourselves.
Every writer of historical fiction sets his or her own parameters for the interplay of the factual and the fictional. When I read a historical novel, I want to know what those parameters are, and I m frustrated if they aren t offered, so I m going to tell you what they are in my book: the background and events of the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979-1981 are true. I ve researched them and related them as accurately as I can, drawing from excellent nonfiction accounts such as All Fall Down: America s Tragic Encounter with Iran , by Gary Sick, the White House Aide to Iran; Crisis: The Last Year of the Carter Presidency , by Hamilton Jordan, President Carter s Chief of Staff; Guests of the Ayatollah: The Iran Hostage Crisis , by Mark Bowden, an award-winning reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer; Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President , by Jimmy Carter; The Man in the Mirror: A True Story of Love, Revolution and Treachery in Iran , by Carole Jerome, Canadian journalist and girlfriend of Sadegh Ghotbzadeh; Witness: From the Shah to the Secret Arms Deal, An Insider s Account of U. S. Involvement in Iran , by Mansur Rafizadeh, former chief of SAVAK; and a half dozen other books. However, the rest of my story is fiction.
Hamilton Jordan, Carter s Chief of Staff, and Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, Iran s Foreign Minister, play important roles in the story but do not have speaking parts in my novel. My other characters are not based on real people, except that Richard has the sense of humor of my friend Steve, Dr. Sheldon has some of the admirable qualities of Professor Don Greiner, and Oman Lare gets his name and spirit in an odd way from my friends John Lane and Scott Gould. However, if you recognize yourself in any of the characters and like the portrayal, then of course I was thinking of you.
During the, oh, thirty years that I ve been writing this book-I m a slow learner-I ve asked many friends and family members to read parts of it and give me feedback. Rather than try to list them all and invariably leave some out, I ll just say you know who you are, I thank you for your encouragement and helpful comments, and I m sorry for not naming you here. But three people-Kathy, Steve, and Jonathan-have read the whole manuscript more than once, more than twice, and their faith and good advice have sustained me and made the book much better than it would ve been without them.
The Iran hostage crisis: it s been thirty-five years, but I remember it vividly, especially my ignorance before it happened. We didn t have CNN back then, and most of us didn t have PCs. No Wikipedia or Google. We didn t know what Islam was, what an Ayatollah was-we didn t even know many of the countries in the Middle East. And of course we didn t know that one day Muslim men would fly planes into our tallest buildings.
I ve been unable to write this book about my small part in the crisis, even though my best friend Richard, my advisor in all things literary, has encouraged me to do it ever since I returned from Iran. But now I have to do it for Azi, for Oman, for Garrison, for all those who can t. And for myself too, to put us all together once again, to be the memory-holder and the meaning-maker. I have to write it because, as the novelist Lois Lowry said, the worst thing about holding memories isn t the pain, it s the loneliness-that s why they have to be shared.
When Azi stepped out of the plane into the glaring light of a late summer morning in Athens, she looked like a black and white photo from my past. She wore a plain black dress, little makeup that I could see, no red lipstick, and her honey skin was pale, as if diluted with milk. Then I saw the glint of one of the garnet earrings I d sent her. But black and white, red, whatever, it didn t matter, it was Azi.
As she walked across the tarmac, she glanced around as if she were looking for me or looking for danger, or both. I held up my sweaty hand, pressed it against the glass, but she didn t see me inside the terminal as she disappeared into the building and the customs lines. A half hour later, in the travel-weary, multi-national crowd of strangers at the baggage claim, there she was again, there I was, in a foreign place, somewhere I had never traveled, both of us thrilled and amazed that we were anywhere together again after eight months, and without speaking we melted into a hug, one of those rare, full-contact hugs that s both soft and firm, sexy and soulful-her body, thinner than Nadia s, fit mine just so-and I wondered if there was any force in the universe that could make me let go. She trembled in my arms and began to cry. Her tears triggered flashbacks of our first awkward date, and all the simmering love bubbled and popped in my chest.
Finally I found my voice and said, Are you okay?
She pulled away, looked at me as if to double-check, smiled, flicked her wet cheeks with her fingers. She put her hands on my forearms as if for balance. Yes, Jay, I am sorry. Why I cry? I am happy for to see you. Is long time. Is hard to believe.
Yes, very hard to believe. You look great.
Baizan had asked if I wanted him to come to the airport, and I was glad that even though I d never done anything like this, and I was nervous and scared, I d said no-I needed time alone with Azi to let our emotions run, to see where they might lead us, in this time and place, with what I had to ask of her. I d planned for us to talk over drinks at the airport-she had no idea what this was all about-but the airport was chaotic, noisy, and stuffy, so I said, Let s get your luggage and get out of here.
The taxi was not air-conditioned, so between the dusty heat rushing in the windows and the bouzouki music blaring from the radio, conversation was nearly impossible. I tried to make small talk-How was your flight? How have you been?-but it wasn t the time or place for big talk, so I gave up. We sat back, stuck to the seats, holding hands awkwardly, exchanging smiles awkwardly, not enjoying the long ride and unimpressive neighborhoods that spread like rubble between the airport and the city until all of a sudden, there was the Acropolis, rising above downtown Athens, coming up on my side of the cab. I tugged her hand and nodded toward the sight. She leaned over against me, saw it through my window, and said the name in Farsi.
We go there? she asked.
I said, Sure, anything you want.
I had the driver drop us off at a tavern a few doors down from the Hotel Harakas where I d already checked in and where Baizan waited for us. Here, deep inside a dark, narrow room cooled by ceiling fans, we sat at one of the scarred wooden tables, the only customers except for four men playing cards by the front window, and ordered a Coke and a beer from a surly young guy with bushy black eyebrows and a three-day beard who was stuffing grape leaves behind the bar. I remembered our first date again-so far my reunion with her had been framed by flashbacks of our week together in December, every moment seeming to happen in two parallel time zones. As if nothing had changed. But so much had changed.
Azi sat quietly, sipping her Coke, poised, even though her chair wobbled whenever she shifted her weight, and patient, even though I was acting like a seventh grader on his first date, staring at her in dumb amazement, asking dumb questions: Do you want to move to another table? Do you want anything to eat? Do you want a glass? Do you want ice?
She said No, thank you four times, her eyes, amber liquid, regarding me, tolerant, maybe amused.
Do your parents know about me or do they think you are here with a girlfriend? I asked.
My mother know I have letters from you and you are man, and I tell to her telegram come from sister in Greece, also friend, but I think she know this is no true, I think she know you are here. But my father think I visit girlfriend.
What did he say?
He is angry but, um, he is guilty? -I nodded- and he say o-kay I visit girlfriend if I have papers. He think impossible for to get papers, but I have passport before, and visa and ticket come, so everything o-kay. Thank you for to help.
I held out my hand, palm up on the table, and she placed hers in it. Her other arm braced her stomach as if she d been wounded there. I m sure you have a lot of questions and want to know how and why, all of a sudden, I arranged all this. She raised her eyebrows and tilted her head as if it wasn t that important, but if I wanted to tell her . . . . Well, I ve missed you so much, as you know from my letters, and the phone call, and I ve wanted to see you every day, but Americans aren t allowed to travel to Iran, and I couldn t have come here, and, most important, I couldn t have gotten papers for you, and, well, what I mean is that I couldn t have done it without help. I know this is going to sound crazy, but I m here because the government has set it up. You might remember that I have a friend who works for President Carter, and after you called, he asked me to meet with you to see if you might be able to help us come up with ideas to solve the hostage crisis.
She didn t move, but her face seemed to tighten as if someone had pressed her forehead right between the eyes. Her glance slid off me sideways and landed on the floor between the tables. Her hand shrank in mine. She breathed hard as if the fans were pushing the air out of the room. She had come to see me, of course she had, but I had come because the government . . . . A romantic reunion had just turned into a political maneuver.
But I said, I came mainly to see you, and if you don t want to talk about the hostages, fine, we don t have to, and we get to spend the weekend together anyway. This seemed to relax her a little, and she settled her weight against the back of the chair.
Of course, Jay, you ask question, but I no understand-why the government want for you to talk to me. I know nothing.
Actually, there is another person here who wants to ask questions too.
Who is here?
The man who helped you get your visa and ticket-he s from the CIA.
She jerked her hand away and stood up, bumping the table, knocking over the empty Coke bottle, saying, No! No CIA.
Afraid I d blown it already, afraid the card players or bartender would call the police to arrest the CIA spy who was torturing his victim, I tried to do five things at once: I caught the Coke bottle as it rolled, set it on another table, held up my hands, stood, and said, Wait, it s not like that. I stepped around the table and she let me hold her. Azi, listen. I lifted her chin up so she d look at me, and she did, as if begging me to start over and get it right this time. If you want to go home, I ll take you back to the airport. Right now. But you don t have to be afraid of these other men. I ve met with them and I trust them. I ll be with you at all times, I promise, and I would never let anyone hurt you-you know that. No response. All they want to do is sit with you in the hotel and ask questions about the current situation in Iran. If they ask something you don t want to answer, just say so, no problem. They re only looking for intelligence, for information that might help solve the crisis. That s all. But tell me if you don t want to do it. I ll make them send you home.
Finally she said, You trust CIA?
Yes, I trust these men.
But why they talk to me? I know nothing.
You know more than they do, you re the cousin of the foreign minister, and they re desperate-all their lines of communication with Iran have been broken. I think they mostly want you to talk about Sadegh and talk to Sadegh.
They hurt him?
No, no, just the opposite. They think of him as an ally. Sadegh met with my friend secretly in Paris. Nobody knows about it because if it had leaked, Sadegh might have been executed. They tried to work out a deal, but for some reason it fell through. Now the people around Sadegh are suspicious of him, so he can t risk further direct contacts. Still, our government thinks he s the only hope we have of getting the hostages released, and we want you to tell him we ll help any way we can.
She considered that and nodded. After talk, what?
Then you and I have until Sunday afternoon to do whatever we want.
She looked down. She still seemed bewildered, and I couldn t guess what thoughts passed through her mind, but then she looked up and asked, You stay with me?
Every minute.
We are safe?
Yes, they ve assured me that we have nothing to worry about.
A final pause. O-kay.

As soon as we got to Azi s room on the third floor of the Harakas, the phone rang and Baizan gave me instructions to take Azi to his room down the hall, and reminded me to be observant-he d want to know if we saw anyone who looked suspicious in any way. He met us at the door and led us into a dim room furnished, much like mine, as if from Goodwill, with two threadbare armchairs, a sagging double bed, a faded seascape on the wall, a floor lamp and a low dresser-the exception was a compact, high-tech tape recorder on a side table. Baizan, a wiry guy, about 6 1 , wore jeans and a Sorbonne T-shirt-with his long brown hair and stubble beard he looked like a rebellious student himself. He shook our hands then and introduced himself to Azi-he spoke English for my benefit and told us that he had been at the American embassy in Tehran the day before the takeover but had been called to Cairo unexpectedly; otherwise he d be one of the hostages.
He offered us the armchairs, then had a short conversation in Farsi with Azi, which, when it was over, he translated. I told her we appreciate her coming, we want her to be safe and comfortable, and we ll keep constant surveillance on the building just in case there are any curious Iranians around.
I could tell by the way Azi sat, letting the chair absorb her weight, that he d already relieved some of her suspicions, and his knowledge of Farsi was also a welcome surprise, I was sure. He outlined his plans: we could come and go from the hotel like any couple enjoying a vacation, but we d have to come to this room for interviews. Do you speak Greek, Jason? he asked.
A little.
Good. We ll have one of our Greek agents keep watch, but that s as close as we ll come except when you re here. The more Greek you speak, the better you ll blend in. You want a Greek-English phrase book?
He pulled a tattered paperback out of a briefcase and handed it over, then looked at his watch. It s almost noon. Azadeh, you re our guest. Would you like to answer some questions now, or do you want to rest first?
Now is o-kay.
Baizan took out a legal pad and turned on the tape recorder.
Azi pointed to it and said, Why you have this?
Baizan turned it off and answered, Well, for one thing, I don t trust my ability to take accurate notes, and for another thing, I want to share your opinions and information with other members of my team, including those in Washington, so we can decide how to proceed. Is that okay?
She nodded.
He conducted the taping session more or less the way he d explained to me, except that it took four hours instead of two, with a fifteen-minute break for gyros and French fries that Baizan had one of his people deliver. Baizan spoke English for my benefit and the benefit of the others who would listen to the tape, but he encouraged Azi to revert to Farsi if necessary.
The early questions were general: How serious are the student militants about their demands? What s the mood of the Iranian people? How do they feel about the hostage situation, especially now that the Shah has died? How do they feel about their government-President Bani Sadr, Sadegh, the Ayatollah, the Majlis-and how do they feel about the student militants? How deep is their devotion to the Ayatollah? Baizan often asked for elaboration, and this part took well over an hour. But then the questions became more specific: Where are the hostages being held now? Are they being treated well? Are they being guarded by the same students who first stormed the embassy? How influential is the communist Tudeh party? Does Sadegh have regular contact with the students? With the Ayatollah? With the Ayatollah s son? Are Bani Sadr s personal opinions the same as those in his speeches? Will Sadegh continue to struggle against the Majlis, or will he give up? Does he have any ideas for breaking the impasse? Who are his principal adversaries? What, in her opinion, is the main obstacle to the release of the hostages? And what, in her opinion, will be the future of Iran, after Khomeini?
Azi didn t have an answer for every question. Using English mostly, but switching to Farsi when the complexity of the issue required, she explained that America s decades-long support of the Shah, a corrupt and ruthless dictator, was still the problem even though he had died. Most Iranians, with their affinity for conspiracy theories, believed the U.S. was behind every move the Shah made, so what the militants wanted was, at a minimum, our admission of guilt and apologies. She said that although the Shah had spent most of Iran s oil revenues on himself, his family, and friends, he had also modernized the country and improved conditions for women dramatically; but now the fundamentalists had pushed the country back to the old days of Sharia law and its many oppressions-if they had their way, women would be merely breeders and servants. Her point was that she wasn t allowed to participate in political matters, but she was close to Sadegh, his favorite cousin, and sometimes talked to him privately about international affairs. She proved to be a keen observer of the internal wrangling and power struggle that had brought the hostage crisis to a stalemate.
The problem now: the U.S. refused to give in to all the militants demands, and although some Iranian officials wanted to take control of the hostages and end the crisis, no one except Sadegh would speak or act boldly because they were afraid that if the radicals protested, the liberal officials would be called traitors, they would be arrested, they might even be executed. Sadegh, who had always been a close confidant of the Ayatollah, took risks, criticizing the students and demanding they turn over the hostages, but he couldn t solve the crisis alone. He tried to persuade the Ayatollah to back him, but even the Ayatollah was afraid of making decisions that might nick the fickle will of the people-that surprised me.
Finally, just before five o clock, as Azi s eyes began to droop, Baizan said he was asking the last question of the day: Can we do anything to help, perhaps by paying bribes, eliminating a key adversary . . . ?
Azi asked for a translation, and when she heard it she shook her head quickly. No, no. If person kill, the people think CIA. Bad, very bad.
Okay, Baizan said. Any ideas?
Azi shook her head again, staring absently out the window. Then she rubbed her fingers together, looked at Baizan, and said, Pishkesh maybe.
He glanced at me. We call it a bribe. They call it a gift for a favor. Then to Azi, Who?
Must to be careful, but maybe Rafsanjani, leader of Parliament. In past he is, how you say -she spoke in Farsi again, which Baizan translated, moneylender. She nodded and continued. And Beheshti, leader of Islamic Party, friend of Rafsanjani. Maybe they tell Majlis to discuss hostage soon. Or maybe Ayatollah Khalkhali. But pishkesh . . . very bad if CIA.
We would have someone else make the offer. Maybe we could give you money to take back with you, to give to Sadegh to use according to his judgment.
She shook her head and said, I no take suitcase of money to Iran.
If we decide to send money, and you agree, we ll use a bag with a secret compartment of some kind. But only if you agree.
She nodded again.
Baizan turned off the tape recorder. Okay, let s stop for the day. That was great, Azi, very useful. We ll have some follow-up questions tomorrow, if you don t mind.
She gave me a you ve-got-to-be-kidding look making my protective instincts kick in, so I said, Hasn t she given you enough?
Baizan looked at Azi. You ve given us a lot, but I m sure my people will have a few other questions-we ll try to keep it short.
She said, O-kay.
Good. Now the two of you can have some time to yourselves, but if you need anything, we ll be here. Jay, you have our number, but try not to use it. One last thing: if you notice a Greek man following you-he s about five ten, thin, has lots of curly black hair and a mustache, a scar on his chin-and if he s good, you won t see him, but if you do, he s one of ours so don t worry.
Azi s room had a balcony with a direct view of the Acropolis, and she was visibly pleased when she saw it. Standing in front of the sliding glass door, looking out into the smog that blunted the view, I held her for a minute, massaged her neck, and asked what she wanted to do now. Sleep, one hour maybe. Then we eat, o-kay?
How much sleep did you get last night?
No sleep. For you?
A little.
I kissed her forehead and told her I d call to wake her in a couple of hours.

Azi slept off her exhaustion and suspicion, changed into a flirtatious red summer dress-where did she get it?-applied lipstick, and greeted me with an uninhibited hug.
Because Baizan had impressed us with his professionalism and assured us of his protection, and because we didn t know any better, we felt secure. First, since we d miss it if we waited until after dinner, we went to the sound and light show at the Acropolis, starring the Parthenon and a few of the world s other famous, crumbling, past perfect structures. I told Azi that, according to my father, the statues on the Porch of the Karyatids were modeled after the women of his family hometown, Karyae, so we were probably looking at my great-great-great etcetera grandmother. Azi opened her eyes wide to tease me for my exaggeration, but she was impressed nevertheless, and for a moment I felt like a descendant of Athena herself, with god-blood running through my veins.
From there we walked down to the Plaka neighborhood below the Acropolis, where we ate roast lamb and Greek salads, sipped ouzo, clapped to the bouzouki, and danced with other tourists, arms on each others shoulders, in a line that swirled like a ribbon around the restaurant. I d never danced with Azi before and admired her quick study, her light step-she danced as if she d been holding in joy and had decided to let it out, and everyone watched her, enjoying her enjoyment, taking some of it for themselves. I played my role, spoke the Greek I knew, mimicked the Greek mannerisms I d seen all my life, and enjoyed being Greek. But mostly I enjoyed being with Azi. I kept staring at her and touching her-hands, arms, shoulders, hair-making her blush, her skin like honey made from roses.
With myths and moonlight caressing the marble pillars of the Parthenon in the background, against a black sky that knew its place, the evening couldn t have been more romantic. And Azi couldn t have been a more perfect companion: intelligent, lovely, sexy, happy. I was smitten, again. When the moon had risen to midnight, when we were sweaty and tired and almost deaf from the high decibels of the bouzouki, we walked out onto the uneven sidewalk in front of the restaurant. I turned to her, held her hands and said, I hope you re having as good a time as I am.
Yes. Very good.
Are you glad you came?
She smiled politely, closing her eyes for a second, then nodded as if to save words for more important questions.
I pulled her into the dimly lit entrance area of a closed boutique to separate us from the tourists who still milled about. I put my arms around her, all the time trying to read the language in her eyes, and kissed her dark red lips. She kissed me back, into another flashback, this one of our walk in Five Points, just off-campus at the University of South Carolina. Let s go back to the hotel.
Holding my arms as if to prevent me from running there, she frowned and said, You have other girl now? Nadia?
I wanted to lie but couldn t because I didn t know what Nadia had told Azi in her letters, and because, well, I didn t want to. Yes, I said. I put my hands on her waist above her hips to let her know I wasn t going anywhere and I didn t want her to go anywhere either.
She smiled again, but this time it was melancholy. You love her?
I could have said Yes, or No, or Not like you, and all would have been true, but I said, I don t think so. I told you about the fire, right? She nodded. And about moving in with her? She nodded again. Well, she went home to Kuwait for the summer, and while she was gone, I moved out-did I tell you that?
Well, I did. I d say we re just friends, best friends. It sounded like a clich people use when they want to date two people at the same time.
She nodded as if she thought the same and waited for me to say more, but I didn t know what to say-I didn t want to get into a philosophical or psychological discussion of love and friendship with Azi about Nadia.
She came to my rescue and said, You know poet Rumi?
Yes. You introduced me to him in December.
He say love is language of messenger, I think that is word, messenger? I nodded. Messenger from mystery. I say it right?
I don t know-it sounds right. Messenger from mystery. I like it. That s not how I feel about Nadia-it s how I feel about you.
She hugged me, held it, I did too, and when she tried to release me I wouldn t let her, I held her longer, until she pushed me back and wiped her eyes, smiling but sad.
What about you? I asked. Do you have someone in Tehran?
She shook her head. My mother and father want for me to marry, but I no want. I go to movie with friend sometime. Just friend.
Why didn t you write me more often? Why didn t you tell me . . . ?
Looking into me as if she were probing a wound, she answered, I think I never see you again. I think better for to forget, better for Jay to forget. And I am, how you say, confused?
Confused, she said again, and I could see it in her eyes, shadows and light, confusion just like mine: what was she to make of my distant, messy, impossible love.
Don t you think you ll ever come back?
She shook her head. Mother want me stay, father want me stay, Sadegh want me stay.
But what do you want?
In better world, I come.
I felt as if Zeus himself had picked me up like a doll and was squeezing my chest to see if I d make a sound. And there s nothing we can do about it?
We have good time. Sunday, good-bye again.
I felt surges of love and loss just as I had in December-she was the one, she was perfect . . . I wanted to get down on my knee and propose . . . but it was . . . the word kept coming back . . . impossible. She could see my agony and said, What, Jay?
I wonder if Rumi has a poem about love that is personal and powerful but impossible because of political problems?
You feel this?
She hugged me hard again and pressed her face against the damp shirt over my heart. I closed my eyes and gave into it, felt her body every place it touched mine, felt bruised, loved, and helpless. Also exhausted. With my arm around her shoulders and her arm around my waist, we headed back to the hotel.

I slept pretty well, if alone, or maybe because I was alone-Azi had insisted. We went out to a leisurely American-style breakfast at a nearby caf and acted like lovers on vacation. Without the bouzouki blaring or the tape recorder rolling, we were able to talk, to fill in some of the story of the last eight months without worrying about spies or terrorists or the definition of love. I told her about studying for comprehensive exams, waiting tables at the Peddler, fighting with Saad, and more, but not all, about my relationship with Nadia.
Azi told me about the austere and lonely offices of her home life with her miserable mother and sonofabitch-I supplied that word-father, her uncertain job at the bank, the general paranoia that gripped the people, the strangeness of living in a city where hope was on hold and where normal business struggled to survive in the tangled underbrush of revolution, which caught fire every few days. She thought she might continue her education some day, but she wasn t sure of that or anything else. She made me ashamed to think so much of my puny problems.
The afternoon passed much like the previous one, consumed in part by another session with Baizan, who apologized but had to ask detailed and exhaustive follow-up questions, and then wanted to work out a specific plan of action: he wanted to give her money to take back to Sadegh to distribute as pishkesh, and he wanted her to talk to Sadegh about the possibility that the U.S. might help Iran by supplying spare parts for its military hardware in exchange for the hostages. That struck me as ironic and idiotic-we had virtually brought the Shah to power, supplied and supported him, and now we were going to support and supply the radical regime that deposed him.
Finally Baizan looked at his watch and said, Okay, we can wrap it up for today. That was great, Azi, thank you. But I d like to talk to you briefly one more time tomorrow morning. I think your plane leaves around noon, right?
And Jay, yours leaves about 1:00, so I thought you could take her to the airport.
Azi, can you meet me here at 8:00 A.M .?
Good. We ll talk, make final plans, and I ll have a bag for you to take back-it ll be well disguised.
Good. Well, as far as I m concerned, you two are free until tomorrow morning. If you haven t tried it, I recommend the Olympia, across the square-the moussaka is the best.

A few hours later, we returned to the hotel, limp with exhaustion and disappointment that our time was almost over. As we stepped into the room, before we could even turn on the light, a man grabbed Azi, yanked her away from me, and put a small handgun to her head. He spoke quickly but quietly in Farsi, which she translated. He say come, move slow, close door. Terrified and confused, I did as I was told, and as I shut out the light from the hall, the room became a gray box with an eerie red hue from a neon light across the street. He say he want to kill you, and me, he want to kill me, but if we do that he say, he no will kill.
He was pressing the barrel hard against Azi s temple and twisting her arm behind her so that she winced, convincing us that he was serious. Desperate thoughts flashed through my brain: could I knock the gun away? In movies heroes disarmed villains in less time than it took to pull a trigger, but there was no way. I was sure, sure that if I tried anything, he d kill Azi. But why, who was he, what did he want, where the fuck was Baizan, where the fuck was the agent who was supposed to be watching us? I held up my hands and said, Okay, don t hurt her.
He say close curtain. I thought maybe someone was watching from outside, but he thought it too, and Azi translated, No make sign or he kill me. I closed the curtain slowly, stole a glance at the street below, saw nothing to encourage me, then turned around, and there was still just enough light from the street so that I could make out the black shapes of Azi and the terrorist-that was the word that came to me, terrorist, because what I felt was terror, not because of danger to me, but because of what he d do to Azi.
The next order didn t make sense. He say take my clothes.
Your clothes? I mumbled, my voice a pitiful sound.
I shook my head and said, No.
He did something to her that made her wince again and cry out.
Okay. I came to her, seeing her better as my eyes adjusted to the dark. I said, I m sorry, I m sorry -he seemed to understand and just laughed. I kept my eyes on hers to avoid his hateful glare, saw in them fear but also defiance, and I tried to show her more of the latter, less of the former, as I unbuttoned her blouse. He yanked it off her shoulders, and with the barrel of the gun, yanked the elastic back of her bra. It snapped hard against her but didn t break. He growled something at her, let go of her arm, and she unhooked it. He flicked the shoulder straps off, it fell to the floor, then he reached around her, grabbed one of her breasts and pulled her back up against him. He waved his gun, signaling me to take off her skirt. I unzipped it on the side and it slid to the floor. Still squeezing her breast with one hand, he reached around her with the gun, stuck the barrel down the front of her panties and said something to her that she didn t translate. Then he signaled for me to pull them off too.
At least Azi had her eyes closed now, so I didn t have to look into them.
She translated, Now take your clothes. I undressed. Now take sheet. I pulled back the covers and he shoved Azi into the bed, then positioned her on her hands and knees. He motioned me to get in behind her as if I were entering her and said something. He repeated it more sharply and she translated, Like dog.
I kneeled behind her, shaking and shrunken. I m sorry, I said again. Then he turned on a lamp, and we got a good look at him for the first time. He didn t look as I d expected: he had dark hair with a reddish tint, caramel colored skin, no beard, and alert, malicious eyes-he was about the age of my students and would ve fit right into my class. Without putting down his gun, he took out of his coat pocket a small camera. He said something else and laughed.
Azi was trembling against me, fighting back terror and tears. She stuttered, He say . . . he say he learn from American movie. Her skin was cold and damp. The terrorist kneeled before her with his camera and gun, and I kneeled behind her, helpless, useless, and just as frightened.
He pushed us roughly into a couple of different positions and took a whole roll of shots, including close-ups of our faces. He never put down his gun, never forgot to remind us that he wanted to kill us and would if we didn t obey. I said to Azi again, I m sorry. Finally he put the camera back in his pocket and stepped up to the bed where Azi was lying on top of me, her face, eyes still closed, just above mine. He covered her mouth with his hand, pulled her head to the side. I saw him raise the pistol to strike me . . . .
FALL 1979
She was the only female in my class of seventeen at the University of South Carolina, mostly Iranians, Kuwaitis, and Saudis. Azadeh Ghotbzadeh, a lyrical first name, guttural last name, but she asked me to call her Azi, as in Ozzie and Harriet. She wore American clothes, tight jeans and sweaters; she had wavy, past-the-shoulder dark brown hair and a face not chiseled like a model s but soft and open with curiosity. She tended to put on too much makeup-her skin was the color of honey and didn t need it-but I loved her red lipstick, especially when it was applied carelessly, and her embarrassed smile, the way she touched the back of her teeth with her tongue. And I loved her amber eyes, deep-set but not suspicious, with a lively shadow, like a thin curtain swirling over an open window in late afternoon, eyes that would dazzle you for a moment and then look down. That combination of bold and demure fascinated and attracted me. I even loved her imperfections: her large hands and feet, her crooked tooth, the mole on her cheek.
She liked the way I ran my English conversation course by bringing in magazines and holding up pictures of TV stars and other newsmakers, generating discussions without worrying about the rules for auxiliary verbs. She liked for me to talk about my family, my graduate school work in American literature, my other job teaching English 101 to American freshmen, and about Americans in general, their habits, beliefs, dreams. I d discuss a book I was reading or a New Yorker story I d read about a newlywed and her problems with her grad school husband, including the affair with the teenage driving instructor. I didn t know at first what Azi thought about sex, but I figured that the guys, coming from a land of black veils to a campus where girls wore short shorts and halter tops, might be confused, even more than we were, about our sexual values. They probably thought that finding a partner for sex in America was like finding a partner for tennis-almost anyone would play with you until he or she found out you weren t very good.
I wanted to set the record straight, to teach them everything about America from the inside, but they thought I was different from other Americans, which flattered me. When we were discussing heritage, I told them that my father, who had died in February, was a second generation Greek American, which, along with my curly black hair, dark eyes, and big nose, was enough for them. I also explained that my grandfather s name had been Nicolaides, which he shortened to Nichols when he arrived in New York in 1906. I added that I d been named Jason after the Argonaut, and I d gotten the nickname Jay from a girlfriend in high school who was reading The Great Gatsby , neither of which was true. They called me Mr. Nickel. Or Sir. I was their teacher. Especially Azi s-almost every day she stayed after class to ask a question or chat.
One day she came up to explain why she d been stifling yawns. I sorry, Sir. I no sleeping last night. I afraid for torpedo to come.
You know, the big wind. She clutched her books against her as if they would keep her from blowing away, and I remembered the ominous storm that had blown through the previous day.
Don t worry, I said, wanting to add honey or some other Southern term of endearment. I ve lived in South Carolina all my life, and I ve never seen a tornado, or a torpedo. She nodded, realized her mistake, blushed, smiled.
I d shared with my students some of my own fears. I d told them that my grandfather had lost the family home and all our money in the depression. I d told them that my dad never went to college but ran a successful diner by working from 6:00 A.M . to 11:00 P.M ., six days a week, but he worried endlessly about bills and taxes and died at age fifty-seven from a heart attack that I knew was stress, and I was like him in so many ways. I d told them that I had a B.A. in Political Science-I loved literature and had always made good grades in it, but really, what the hell was I doing in a PhD program in English, especially since I had to take out a loan to pay for it? They liked my confessions and sympathized, but in the end they knew I was an American, and Americans always had money, and money could always solve problems. So here, with Azi, I just touched her arm, as if we were in this together, and said, We ll be okay.
She repeated, O-kay, a word that all foreign students picked up quickly and used frequently. I see you tomorrow.

Day after day we talked our way along the twisted trail of American idioms. The students freely admitted their blunders, like going to McDonalds and asking for a Pig Mac. One Friday night when I took them to Pizza Hut, Abbas ordered pizza with jelly on it. That was a fun evening until a random guy at a booth nearby muttered something about the sand niggers. I didn t think my students understood the insult, but I blurted my opinion that I d take a sand nigger over a dumb redneck any day.
He eased out of his booth, stood up, all six feet two or three and about two hundred fifty pounds of asshole. He stood right behind Azi, who sat across the long table from me. You have sump n to say to me, Buddy?
I d never been in a fight in my adult life, didn t know how to fight, didn t think this was the time to learn, and didn t want my students to try it either, especially since Azi would literally be in the middle of it, so I said, I m sorry, I thought I heard you insult my friends, but maybe I was mistaken. All fifteen of us looked at him. He glared back, up and down the table. My apology and hint of deference allowed him to be satisfied-he expressed a contemptuous snort and returned to his booth.
That was a portent. A few weeks later the Shah was admitted into a U.S. hospital, which enraged the Iranian people; the U.S. embassy in Tehran was overrun by student militants; hostages were taken (although a few personnel escaped to the private residences of Canadian officials), and without my knowing it, my life began to change.
Politics fascinated me, but it was one of the few topics I avoided in class; however, the day after the takeover, my students wanted so desperately to discuss the event that I let them. I argued that taking embassy personnel hostage was terrorism, plain and simple, and the new government s refusal to release them would bring widespread international condemnation rather than the acceptance that their proud nation wanted. The boys shouted and pointed, as if there were buttons in the air that had to be pushed to win the argument. They tried to convince me that the act was purely political and that the hostages would be released unharmed soon since the student militants had made their point to the world, the point being to expose the crimes of the Shah, the oppressive dictator the United States put into power in 1941 and supported until his overthrow earlier in the year. They launched into a diatribe about the Shah s brutal secret police, SAVAK, and its connections to the CIA, FBI, NSA-they spewed acronyms like machine-gun fire. They also blasted Israel, our puppet, our baby, and said something about the Jews controlling the U.S. I thought I had completely lost control, their arguments flying so chaotically that it was impossible to hear them all much less reason with and respond to them, but then it got worse. Saad jumped up, shouting half in English, half in his native hatred, about his brother who had been tortured-I think he said he was boiled, but I couldn t be sure.
I held up my hands and closed my eyes, and within half a minute their angry voices sputtered to silence, and I opened my eyes again. I looked at Saad and said, I m sorry. He was about to say more, but I stopped him. No more. We can t talk about this anymore, it s too emotional. Let s quit for the day and try again tomorrow, a safer topic. And as they gathered their books and began to mutter out of the room, we knew, we had ample evidence-they were foreigners, and I was American. Our argument was an unambiguous indication of the broad differences between us. We would not be able to discuss this subject, the subject so constantly in the news and on our minds.
But Azi. As the last three boys, hot and disappointed, steamed out, she came up. I sorry Sir. The boys they not hate for United State. But Shah-
I know, Azi, it s okay. What do you think-will it be over soon?
I no know. I talk to cousin in Tehran and he say no one control student-is all confusion.
Will you all stay, or will you go back to Iran?
Oh, we stay for education, yes. Also we like United State. The boys buy the car and drive to Murdel Beach. She smiled, her lips the color of burgundy wine.
And what do you do, I wanted to ask, but said, Well, I hope it passes quickly.
I think so, yes, thank you. She pronounced her th like t, tink and tank. She nodded, almost a bow, and hesitated a second to see if I had anything to add.
I wanted to hug her, she was bright and pretty and kind, but I was her teacher, and we d been told many times to keep our distance from students, Iranian or American, and I needed this job. All I could say was, Tell the boys I m sorry we can t talk about it.
Yes, o-kay.
Thank you, I said. And don t worry-we ll get through it.

In December, three weeks after the storming of the embassy, a few days after thirteen of the hostages were released (women and blacks who, according to the militants, couldn t be spies), the Director of English as a Second Language at the university called me in to say that he had to let me go at the end of the semester, one week away. Because of the crisis, no new students would be coming from Iran, and since I was the most recent addition to the staff, I had to be the first subtraction. I told my students about it, thinking that maybe I d found a good way to illustrate a typical American concern.
I won t be your teacher in January. I was fired.
What fire, Sir?
No fire, Hussein. I was fired, meaning I won t have a job here anymore.
But why, Sir? You need job, you need monies, you have problem.
I smiled. You got that right. Dr. Flick fired me because there won t be many new students next semester, so he doesn t need me.
But Sir, we can like you.
Thank you, Abid. I can like you too.
From there we drifted into a discussion about unemployment in the U.S., which was around 6% and rising. They asked me how I would get by and I reminded them that I still had my teaching assistantship, which paid $400 a month plus tuition, and I had a loan, so altogether I had enough for rent and Hardees hamburgers-maybe that sounded like a lot to them.
After class I asked Azi to wait, and when the others had left, I asked her for a date. Rules, discretion, uncertainty about our cultural differences . . . I didn t give a damn about any of that. I was pissed, worried, rebellious. And I wanted to go out with Azi, just Azi. I thought I might be in love with her. I wanted to be. I hadn t been in love in such a long time, three years, not since my senior year in college. Her name was Wynn, but I was planning to go to grad school in South Carolina and she was going to take a teaching job in Florida, and we didn t think the relationship could span the distance, and when, finally, I said I d follow her wherever she went, she said no, she didn t want that either.
But Azi accepted. I didn t think she was seeing anyone regularly, Iranian or American, but I thought she might be intimidated by the teacher in me. She wasn t, at least not so much that she d refuse a pizza date. We arranged to go out the following week, after the semester officially ended.
I was nervous myself, not having dated much recently, and certainly not with students, or Iranians, or Iranian students. When I knocked on her door, she asked who it was. I didn t know what to call myself, but I said Jay. She opened the door timidly, with a smile that lacked conviction, so I worried I was making a mistake. She picked up her purse and coat and led the way out without saying anything. I didn t know what was wrong but followed her. When she got in as I held the car door open, I saw her face clearly-she d been crying. I stood there until she looked at me.
Excuse please, I sorry, she said, then stared at the glove compartment.
It s okay, Azi. Look, we don t have to go anywhere.
I want for to go.
You sure?
She nodded, so I closed her door, went around and got in, and we headed to the restaurant in Five Points. She wasn t ready to risk her emotions to the perils of English, and I didn t know what to say anyway, so we rode the short distance to Capris in silence. She handed her menu to me, indicating that I should order for both of us. When the waitress left us alone in our romantic booth-framed by iron trellises woven with plastic vines, the table lit by a candle stuck in a Mateus bottle-I had to break the silence.
Azi, tell me what s wrong.
Thank you Sir, o-kay, I tell you. The man attack me today. I thought of the redneck at Pizza Hut, but she paused, seeing the shock on my face, and then continued. I no know he, he is sitting on car in front of apartment, and when I am walking beside he take arm. She made a snatching motion and gripped her left arm with her right hand. He say, Come here you Mus-lim bitch. He try for to hold I, but I am hitting he and pulling away. Then he pull dress -she reached the back of her collar and tugged on it- and he -she made a ripping motion with her hands.
Yes, he ripped my dress, but I am running to apartment and locking door. She took a breath and tried to continue, but tears came instead. She leaned forward on her elbows and covered her face with her hands as if she were ashamed, as if she d heard that crying was unacceptable in America.
Usually I m not a consoler, I m not good at finding reassuring words and gestures, but for Azi it was different. Without thinking I got up, sat beside her, and put my arm around her. She leaned into me, trembling, her face against my chest, and closed her eyes. I looked down at the table, into the flickering candle in front of us, then I closed my eyes too, trying to black out the anger in my head, which was white, hot, and sharp. I wanted to find the sonofabitch and beat him, strangle him, whatever. But I was holding Azi for the first time, stroking her arm and neck, feeling her relax as she cried more freely, smelling her hair and tears, and we stayed as we were, with the same shadows on our closed eyes.
Then she sat up, squeezed my hand-I withdrew my arm from her shoulder-and she leaned back in her seat. She dabbed at her face with her cloth napkin but didn t excuse herself to go to the bathroom to fix her streaked mascara. Without crying again, she finished her story. The man had followed her to her apartment and had banged on the door a couple of times, shouting obscenities. He didn t stay long, but Azi spent the next hour locked in her bedroom, hoping her roommate would come home. Finally she recovered enough to change her clothes for our date.
You didn t call the police?
And you didn t recognize him? You d never seen him before?
Did you see the car he was driving?
No, I sorry, I no think.
Let me take you to the police to report this.
Thank you Sir, but no.
Why not?
I am Mus-lim bitch, she said, staring off across the room. She pronounced the words as if the sounds were imprinted permanently and exactly on her memory. And she was right-no one here was going to put much effort into protecting an Iranian student. For the first time I realized how difficult it must be for her, for all the Iranians, who were trapped behind enemy lines. Some had probably gone home, but most had stayed, and they stayed at the mercy of our benevolence. God help anyone who had to depend on that, I thought. Just the other day I d heard a local congressman on a TV talk show say that what he wanted for Christmas was a machine gun and a room full of Iranian students. He d pretty much summed up the mood of the country.
Our pizza arrived, so I went back to the other side of the table. I put a slice on Azi s plate, then took a big one for me and started eating with my hands. I was embarrassed by my hunger and slowed down. She used her fork and only nibbled.
Listen, I said, America is a violent country, and there s a lot of hostility -the teacher in me noticed the squint in her eyes that meant she didn t understand the word- anger toward your country, but all Americans don t hate you. She half-nodded. And you ought to move, at least for a while, in case he comes back, and so you can forget what happened. Do you have another friend you can stay with?
I have one girl friend, Nadia, room-mate.
Well maybe you should both move.
She smiled. Thank you Sir-
Call me Jay, please.
O-kay, Jay, but I go home. Tehran. I plan many day. Here was another shock for me, and, noticing, she explained. Mother sick. And cousin Sadegh is new Foreign Minister, and he say I go home.
Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, of course. I d heard the name and seen the man on the news, had wondered if there was a connection although they didn t look alike at all. I laughed-this was theater of the absurd.
What is funny? Azi asked.
Hell if I know. It s just, for three months I ve wanted to go out with you. Now, finally, I get the chance, but I find out that you re the Iranian Foreign Minister s cousin, and you were attacked today, and now you re going back to Iran. The next time I see you you ll probably be on the six o clock news, marching in the streets of Tehran, chanting Death to America.
No, she said simply.
But you ll be mad, you should be, after what happened today.
Yes mad with man, no mad with America.
I leaned back, idling, looking at her, staring at her, admiring her, wondering what she was thinking. After a moment I asked impulsively, How old are you, Azi?
I m twenty-seven. Then, because I couldn t think of anything better and because I didn t want to take her home and give her up, I asked if she wanted to go to a movie. She said o-kay, though I could tell she was indifferent to the idea. Al Pacino was in it-Azi said I looked like him-but I don t remember much else except sharing a big bucket of popcorn and a Coke.

In the yellow light outside her apartment, she smiled and said Thank you Jay, I have good time.
When are you leaving for Tehran?
The next week, Thursday.
Will you go out with me again?
Yes, I like.
We stood looking at each other, the early December air visible between us as we breathed. I held still, nervous, not wanting to go. Will you be okay tonight?
Yes, Nadia here, I think.
Why don t you check, just to be sure?
O-kay. Come in, please.
The decor inside the apartment was attractive, the furnishings matched in shades of peach and lime as if they d been ordered from the same page of a department store catalog by a woman who didn t trust her own taste. There was no trace of Mid-East culture, except for some photos on an end table of people with dark skin and black hair. Compared to my place, this was elegant.
Azi returned, after having checked the back rooms, and said that Nadia was out. Why don t you stay with me tonight? You can have my bed, and I ll sleep on the couch.
Thank you, but I, no.
It won t be any trouble. She hesitated a second, looking over her shoulder to her room, but said no again. I can t leave you here alone.
I am o-kay. Nadia come soon.
Then I ll stay until she gets here. Do you mind?
No, thank you. I make the coffee. But before she even got to the kitchen, the doorbell rang. She stopped, looking at me to tell her the next move. I held up my hand to make her stay, and I went. There were Saad and Abbas, bowing, smiling uncertainly, saying, Hello, hello Azadeh, hello Mr. Nickel. For a second we all stood awkwardly, then Azi invited them in and went to the kitchen to fix the coffee.
I wondered about the lateness of their visit-almost 11:00 P.M .-but I just assumed this was their custom. Without taking off their brown blazers, which, I d noticed, they wore in all kinds of weather, they sat on the edge of the sofa. I faced them from an armchair, and we talked about the holidays. They told me they were not going home to Iran but were planning on driving to California, with a stop at the Grand Canyon. I said I thought that was a great idea and wished I could go with them, but since I was broke I had to go home to Spartanburg and let my mother supply room and board for a couple of weeks. Actually, I was dreading it, going home for the holidays, but I didn t want to open that closet for the boys.
Azi returned and the small talk continued over coffee and halvah, but soon the gaps in conversation made it clear that four was a crowd and someone had to leave. Under other circumstances I would have bowed out, but slowly the feeling had grown in me that Abbas and Saad had come just for that reason, to make me leave. So I was determined to stay. Azi showed no sign of wanting me to go; in fact, she seemed indignant too and had begun to speak faster and louder to Saad in Farsi or Arabic. Suddenly he was shouting and waving his arms as if he were in treacherous water and didn t know how to swim. Abbas had been telling me about Saad s car, a 68 Grand Prix that they d gotten up to 108 miles an hour on the interstate, but he stopped to join forces with his buddy in battle. Azi seemed embarrassed and tried to stay calm, clenching the saucer with both hands in her lap, rattling her half-full cup of coffee. Their glances in my direction indicated that I was part of the fight, and I wished like never before that I knew their languages.
Soon it was over. Azi said something, the tone of which sounded like Get out, Saad argued and called her something, she repeated her orders, and the boys left, glaring at both of us on the way, trying to slam the door, but the plush carpet slowed it to a click.
I waited for Azi to explain, but the first thing she said was, O-kay I sleep with you tonight?
I was surprised by the phrasing and didn t answer, so she began to tell me about the argument. She had politely asked the purpose of their visit, but when there was no answer, she indirectly asked if they had come to check on us. At first they denied it, but eventually they admitted that they were afraid the American would take advantage of her.
Oh, so now I m The American? I asked.
Yes, I am angry and I say you are teacher and friend, but they say no American is friend. Then I say you protect I, and I say about man who attack, and I say you want for I to be safe in your apartment. They say I no to go to your apartment, Islam say no. They say where Nadia. I say I no know. They say they protect I, but I say no, you. Then they say bad word and I say they leave. She was seething and shaking now and had to put her cup and saucer on the coffee table to keep from dropping them.
I put my hand on her arm and said, I m sorry it happened like this, but I m glad you re coming over. Let s go.
Yes, o-kay. I write the note and take the clothes.

Abbas and Saad were sitting in their car in the parking lot when we came out, and they followed us to my apartment. I asked Azi if she thought they d try to hurt us-she said no. I could ve tried to lose them, but my beat-up Toyota was no match for their old Pontiac, and they probably knew where I lived anyway. Ignoring their car as it pulled up to the curb across the street, I took Azi inside my half of the duplex.
I gave her the tour, meaning I swept my arm around to indicate the wobbly Goodwill recliner, the duct-taped couch, the concrete block and board bookshelves, the decent stereo, the thirteen-inch TV, the wooden spool coffee table, two posters on the walls, one of Goya s dark paintings and a quote by Jimmy Carter: America did not invent human rights . . . human rights invented America. My place was messy with books and legal pads, but at least there weren t dirty dishes in the sink or dirty socks on the floor.
I made sure the door and windows were locked, and for a while we kept an eye on their car through the curtain as we sat on the couch in the living room and watched Saturday Night Live . I had a beer as usual before bed, but Azi didn t want one. I could tell by her heavy eyes that she was exhausted-what a day she d had-so I gave her a towel and showed her the bathroom, which wasn t too embarrassingly dirty, while I went into the bedroom and straightened up.
When Azi came out of the bathroom, dressed in pajamas and a robe, she thanked me again, kissed me on the cheek, and retired. I pulled on a coat, stepped outside, and walked across the street. The windows were all fogged up except for two portholes the boys had cleared with their hands. At first they didn t respond to my presence, and I wondered if they d fallen asleep. Or maybe they were afraid I meant to bash in their windshield or something. But finally, as I stood a couple of feet from the passenger s side, hands in pockets against the cold, they rolled down a window and looked at me defiantly, the American Satan holding their woman. I took out my hands and held them up to show them I wasn t carrying a weapon. Why don t y all go home where it s warmer? Azi is safe, she s sleeping in my bedroom. I ll sleep on the couch. You don t have to worry about anything.
Saad rattled off something to Abbas, then turned to me and said, We watch. No do bad.
I won t. You don t have to sit out here in the cold.
They looked at each other and Saad said, We stay.
I shrugged, said, Suit yourself, which I knew would confuse them, then turned around and went back inside.

In the morning, when I opened my front door to get the paper, I half expected to see the boys Pontiac still parked across the street, frosted over, but it was gone. Instead, I saw my car resting on its rims-they had cut off the stems of all four tires and let out all the air.
I was furious, stomping around the car and cussing when Azi came out, already dressed, with a coat thrown over her shoulders. What, Jay? she asked, and then she saw. Oh no, I sorry. She came over to where I squatted, trying to determine if I d have to buy four new tires, and she put her hand on my shoulder. I was thinking I d have to pay for a tow truck at least, and how much would that cost-twenty dollars? fifty? Maybe I should just leave the car there in the street and let the neighborhood thieves haul it off piece by piece. This my problem, Jay. I call to Nadia, she help.
That s okay, Azi. I stood up. I just don t know why they have to be such assholes.
They are angry. They are . . .
I supplied a word. Frustrated, I know.
Saad is divooneh , crazy I think you say, very Islam, and he think I am bad. . . . I talk to he.
We went inside and I called a garage on Harden Street, less than a mile away, and arranged for them to come get the car and check the tires. Azi called Nadia, who gave us a ride to school in exchange for a full account of the dramatic last twenty-four hours.
Azi and Nadia went to see the boys that evening and scolded-explained-argued that their personal lives were none of the boys business, and threatened to go to the police if anything else happened. Abbas apologized and gave Azi ten dollars to help pay for the damage; Saad did neither. Azi insisted on paying me back, and I let her split the cost with me. That night, at the girls invitation, I slept on the couch at their apartment, happy to be close to Azi. I lay awake for at least an hour thinking of her in the next room, but eventually I fell into a comfortable, heavy sleep.
The following night, we slept in our separate places, but Azi spent all the next day with me, and most of every day after that. My classes were over except for exams, so my schedule was flexible and I took her everywhere. She always carried at least one book, always in English, and read whenever I studied or graded papers. She wanted to be with me not because she was afraid, but because she wanted to live the life of an American for her last few days in the States. Ordinarily I guarded my privacy, but I loved having her with me. I loved her waiting for me to pick her up, running out of the apartment and hopping into my car, kissing me on the cheek to greet me. I loved her beauty, her quirky questions, her attention, her honey hands holding my hands as we walked. But that was the limit of our contact. She seemed guarded-with good reason-so I didn t push her although I wanted more.
I took her to my office building and introduced her to my best friend, Richard Santiago, a young, married English instructor at USC who was always trying to set me up, sometimes seriously, sometimes not, and he winked at me with approval. I told him Azi was an opium merchant with the finest shop in Tehran, and I was going to help her open a stall in the farmer s market in Columbia. I m sure you could do a good business up here on the T.A. hall, he said, and there re some faculty members who might be interested too. We laughed, but I wasn t sure he was joking.
Her English seemed to get better every day, and we talked about everything. She liked hamburgers and French fries, Loggins and Messina, the hour after sunset, poetry by the Persian poet Rumi, and she was passionate about improving her country, making it safe and democratic. Her dream was to study law at an American university and return to Iran to practice, also to marry and have children; her fear was that the Islamic revolution and Sharia law would destroy Iran, or bring danger to her father because he had once supported the Shah, or to Sadegh, who had many enemies.
One day, on our way into Piggly Wiggly, a name she found hilarious, she stopped and pointed to a teenage girl pulling into the parking lot in her family s station wagon. This is America, Jay-every person, even little girl, drive big car, and every place have big store with everything.
I don t have a big car, I said, but you re right, we re a rich nation, we re lucky.
Yes, you are rich, and other countries are jealous, so they attack you.
Yeah, you re right about that too. You think that s the reason the students took the embassy?
Yes. They say the Shah, they say America is Great Satan, but they are jealous.
So what should we do? I asked.
You have solution for jealous?
She shrugged. Okay.
When we were looking at butter, she noticed I was reading the fine print and asked why. I told her I tried to follow my dad s doctor s advice on avoiding saturated fat, even though I believed my dad died from stress. She stopped and touched my arm in sympathy, and all the memories came back-the funeral, my mother and sister crying uncontrollably, the wispy clouds of incense hanging in front of the altar, Dad s waxy face, his olive complexion gone gray . . . . She broke my reverie by hugging me and whispering something that sounded like a prayer into my ear. When she let go she asked, You believe in God?
Surprised, I said, I was raised Greek Orthodox, so yes, but it s complicated.
I believe in God and Heaven, she said, and I believe your father there. He is good because you are good and he is your father.
Her consolation was loving and, in a strange way, sexy, and that s when I asked her the first time, looking into the variable shadows of her eyes. Why don t you stay here, Azi? Live with me. I need you. The last part surprised me as I heard the words leave my mouth, but I also thought it was true.
Her answer was soft but immediate. Thank you, Jay, but I no stay.

Tuesday night the pathetic heater in my apartment broke down completely so we sat on the floor, wrapped in a blanket, leaning back against the couch, drinking hot chocolate with marshmallows, watching Happy Days . The Fonz snapped his fingers and two blondes rushed to his side. Why they like this man? she asked.
He s cool. He rides a motorcycle, he s tough, independent, street-smart, handsome, calm, confident, in control.
Yes, o-kay, cool, like you.
I laughed. Thanks, but I m not any of those things.
Well, okay, I don t like the boys like he, Fonz. He is only self.
Yes, self-centered. In Iran I have friend she love man like he. She is sixteen and he is twenty-one, in Army. Many time she say to mother she is in my house but she is with Amir. Now she is with baby. She shaped pregnancy with her hands, looking at me for the word.
Pregnant, she got pregnant.

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