In November 2021, I endeavored to write at least 1600 words every day for a month without limiting myself to any one form. I had a story I needed to tell, but I was unclear on the “how.” What came out was an array of personal essays, short narratives, whimsical fables, occasional rants and manifestos spoken in a variety of voices, and ranging in perspective. I’m delighted and honored to share a few of the pieces here from the collection tentatively titled “Third Person, or Nastaran Ahmadi writes personal essays about Nastaran Ahmadi.”
THE GREEN CARD
Interrogation rooms have always fascinated Nastaran. The film noir ones are her favorite because, though they’re exaggerated, they get the tone right. Film noir interrogation rooms are not set up to let the truth set anyone free. They’re set up for psychological brutalization – that swinging light over that wooden table is meant to make a man sit there and sweat and feel like a criminal, even if he isn’t. Nastaran often wondered if interrogators weren’t some of the smartest people on Earth.
When her mother, Soussan, was interrogated, it was called an interview. The facts of what happened before Nastaran was brought into the room to sit beside her mother weren’t explicitly spoken about until Nastaran was sixteen. The day of the interview, Nastaran was thirteen. She was proud to have just been cast as Emma in the high school production of Curse of the Starving Class. She loved rehearsing the part where she yelled, “Any rutabagas in there?!” into the refrigerator onstage and the part where Emma threatens to leave the whole fucking family behind and escape to Mexico. At school, she was mastering the art of how to charm people with her sense of humor, something she was told was a top quality. At home, she was mastering the art of scared, but stoic.
The day of the interview, Soussan was forty-two. The same age Soussan’s father was when he died, leaving behind Soussan and her three siblings. Young Soussan was used to losing parents. Her own mother died three months after Soussan was born. And her loving second mother, her father’s beloved second wife, died when Soussan was just eight. Losing parents is something Soussan would like her own two daughters not to have to experience, if at all possible.
It’s a straight shot down I-65 from Nashville to Memphis; the tank was full and everyone had peed before leaving the house. There was no need to stop. But they did. Four times. A black tea at McDonald’s, the bathroom at the Exxon, directions they didn’t need off the exit, and Beale Street to take a picture for Nastaran’s guitar teacher. At each stop, Nastaran watched her mother check her purse for all four Green Cards. She shuffled through them, like a tic. Mahmoud, Nastaran’s father, who she and her sister Yasy call “Baba,” but everyone else calls “Moe,” wasn’t worried. He was excited. He had no problem renouncing his old country for a new one. Later, during her confession, Soussan justified her actions by claiming that she’d have been fine with a simple renunciation. A renunciation is just a string of words. Meaningless if you don’t believe. Handing over the Green Card, though, was an action. An active move to sever ties. The list of things that had been taken from Soussan prematurely was already too long – three parents, grandmother, uncle, brother, sister, home, and on and on. Adding country to that list voluntarily seemed to Soussan to be an act of sacrifice she thought might break her in two. Later, during the confession, Soussan insisted Mahmoud knew what she was going to do that day, and Mahmoud insisted he thought she was joking. Of course, for Nastaran, Soussan’s confession wasn’t necessary. Nastaran already knew what her mother had done.
The other thing about film noir interrogation rooms is that all lies are detectable – the sweaty brow of the stuttering perp always gives him away. Real interrogation rooms, at least the kind Nastaran and Soussan shared that day, called a citizenship entrance exam room, are much more like the office of a shittily-paid government employee. However, these office-like rooms are not made for working; they’re made for staring people down.
Nastaran didn’t know that yet. As she sat in the waiting room, guarding her mother’s purse in her lap, she didn’t even know if she’d be called in. The waiting room reminded her of the DMV when the whole family went with Yasy to get her license. No one smiled. Everyone was nervous.
Yasy had been called into Exam Room One with Mahmoud. Yasy’s name, Yasaman, is easy to translate. Her friends have always called her Jasmine. In the car, on the drive to Memphis, she announced she had decided to permanently change her name. It was Yasy’s upcoming school trip to Greece and Egypt that triggered this citizenship project. Because the school had never had a student with a Green Card before, they were unsure how to handle the logistics. For Yasy, the point of this whole trip was to make life easier. After the interview, Yasaman would be Jasmine forever. Nastaran’s name had no easy translation. People said it differently everywhere she went. As she watched her older sister walk into whatever fate awaited in Exam Room One, Nastaran thought to herself, “You’re my sister, Yasy. That’s who you are. How could you? How could you?”
Now, Nastaran was in the waiting room alone. She was not used to this. Usually, when her parents were doing official adult things, she and her sister were always left alone together until their parents returned. Her foot started to jiggle. This was the habit that had formed when she gave up thumb-sucking three years earlier. Soon, Nastaran would discover what her mother had said in Exam Room Two, while Nastaran waited outside. When asked to hand over her Green Card, Soussan said she’d lost it. Nastaran’s mother had lied.
But Nastaran had no knowledge of this when the man stepped out of Soussan’s room and pointed, summoning Nastaran to join them. Nastaran stood, lifted her mom’s purse off her lap and brought it with her into Room Two. She assumed this meant Soussan’s interview had concluded, and it was time to go home. Instead, she and Soussan were left by themselves in the tiny non-office to sweat it out under the buzzing fluorescent lights for a full ten minutes.
Soussan seemed strange. When Nastaran asked, “How’d it go?” Soussan gave a strained smile and answered with a nod. This made Nastaran’s heart start pounding rapidly inside her chest. As far as Nastaran could tell, her heartbeat had become audible. Soussan tried to calm Nastaran down with a normalizing question, “Who discovered America?” It worked. Nastaran’s heart slowed. She knew the answer. “Christopher Columbus,” she said. Soussan nodded. “Huh. I don’t know him. I think I got that one wrong.” Nastaran’s nerves really settled now; she loved being an expert at things. “In fourteen hundred ninety-two? Columbus sailed the ocean blue? You don’t know Columbus?” This dynamic where she gets to lord her knowledge of American culture over her mother is a familiar one. In that moment, Soussan’s efforts at normalizing succeeded.
The man came back inside and sat down behind the desk. He said they were almost done. Soussan tried to soften him. “My daughter told me who discovered America.” The man did not respond. Nastaran sensed that he might be nervous too for some reason. “Columbus,” Nastaran informed him, smiling, trying to help the man out. Still no response.
Instead, he looked at Nastaran and asked, “Have you ever left the country?” Soussan’s body stiffened. Nastaran could tell she wanted to intervene, but the man put his hand up to stop Soussan speaking. Later, during Soussan’s confession, she explained how she’d beamed the right answer through her pores into Nastaran’s brain, but that Nastaran must have been too scared, at first, to hear. “Yes,” replied Nastaran. Soussan’s head jerked, strangely, involuntarily, but she stayed quiet. Nastaran could tell she’d said the wrong thing. The man zeroed in: “Where did you go?” All Nastaran wanted to do was ask her mother for the right answer. She knew this would have given away whatever it was she could tell Soussan was trying to hide, but Nastaran wanted to ask anyway. She wasn’t a kid any more, though. Something was being laid on her shoulders, and she had no idea what it was. While Soussan sat there, supposedly beaming, “Not Italy. Not France. Nowhere that requires a flight,” into Nastaran’s skull, Nastaran wondered how much of the future of four vulnerable people relied on her answer. “Canada,” she finally said, and she could hear her mother sigh with relief. “To visit my uncle,” said Nastaran, truthfully.
Soussan picked up the baton, “Oh, yes, I didn’t think of that because we drove. My brother-in- law lives in Vancouver. We drove to visit him when we were living in Los Angeles. They only asked to see my husband’s Green Card because he was driving. I don’t even remember if I’d already lost mine by then.” As Soussan spoke, Nastaran kept her eyes on the man; she could tell this was what he wanted because he kept looking back at her. It seemed to Nastaran that he was trying to peer inside her body to see if there was anything left for him to scoop out. To defend the family, Nastaran hollowed herself, cocked her head and waited.
Finally, he sighed and let his head fall forward; Nastaran could tell this was not bad. He seemed relieved. Years later, on reflection, Nastaran would wonder if he was just as worried as she was that the family would fail the citizenship test and be sent back to Iran. The man smiled, and they knew they were in the clear. He got up and left again, but this time, he kindly said, “I’ll go get your husband.” Soussan was beaming with pride. At the time, Nastaran assumed this was because she’d somehow saved the day.
It was only when Nastaran looked down at the purse she was still holding and handed it to her mother that it hit her. The Green Card was inside. She’d seen her mother do a final tally of all four IDs not two hours earlier. Nastaran’s foot started to jiggle again, heavily now. Before, when Soussan said the words, “lost mine,” Nastaran had not been thinking about what was true and what was not; she had not been thinking about her mother at all. Nastaran had been thinking about the man, trying to detect what it was he needed to see from her in order for him to let them go. Whether she had engaged in a willful deception or a willful forgetting, Nastaran could not say. What was clear is that Soussan’s lie was sitting on Nastaran’s lap the whole time.
This was the moment Nastaran became deeply aware that the project of not telling the truth was an important one. In her mind, she rolled through the rolodex of all the other truths she could have revealed that would have gotten them all in trouble. She knew they had to show their Green Cards every time they moved through customs after returning home from Europe. They hadn’t gone to Italy or France in a long time, but she remembered all those vacations well. How did she know what to say? Nastaran would wonder, when looking back, whether that was the room where the psychic connection between she and Soussan was truly forged because from that day on, Nastaran knew in her bones what her mother had already known – not everybody needs to know everything, and the only people we can really trust are the ones who rode with us in the car on the drive to Memphis. We are four. There is no other we. Trust no one else.
Nugget: ANNIE HAMMOND
When Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke finally consummate their Reality Bites love, they’re eating under-microwaved chocolate brownies out of a bowl, and it’s hot. Love is totally hot. I mean, not as hot as unrequited love, which is why they have to wait ‘til the movie’s almost over to actually kiss because after that, the roller coaster ends and we have to get off the ride, but before and during? Hot. I watch the movie sitting next to Annie Hammond – best friend and “Winona Ryder as presented in Ben Stiller’s fantasy representation of 20-somethings in the ‘90s” look-alike. Skinny, small nose, pointy features, thin lips that somehow plump up in a sexy way when she smiles. She wears jeans that are too big, black t-shirts that are too small, and her winter coat always looks like it’s about to fall off her shoulders. She stuffs her pockets with soft packs of Camel Lights, and when she walks, she looks around to make sure everyone knows she’s coming, but in that way where she’s looking up from a bowed head, not out from one held high. She lets her straight black hair fall in front of her face, just so she can seductively sweep it out of her eye line for me – you… for you, or whoever.
Annie already knows she looks exactly like Winona, and what she really wants to discuss is her new hero who she vows to worship, Janine. But the whole time she’s outlining the virtues of Janine, who counts her sexual partners in a sex journal, who has to take an AIDS test because life has consequences, who understands the value of a dollar and isn’t afraid of hard work, I stare at Annie’s mouth, busy espousing Janine’s integrity, and think, “You – Winona, me – Ethan; you – smart waif girl writer, me – smarter hipster boy on guitar; you – denier of our love, me… deny too, so whatever, no big deal – until you and me don’t, and then lust and then love and then… reality, which can only get better than this, right? Reality doesn’t really bite, not for lovers who share the ecstasy of undercooked brownies and then sex together. Right?”
“My Sharona” is our favorite song on the soundtrack at first. But soon, I realize “Add It Up” is the best. Because why, Winona? Why can’t I get just one… kiss indeed?
Nugget: ANITA HILL
She’s obviously telling the truth. Just listen to her voice. Yes, it stays at a steady rhythm that, yes, she’s obviously practiced because the presence of self-confidence, in front of all these white, dick-swinging assholes, is not guaranteed. So, to avoid panic, yeah, she probably practices saying what she needs to say – what they’ve called her there to say. She’s a lawyer! They practice! I mean, probably, what she really has to rehearse is the idea of sitting at that table in front of those men with all those microphones and cameras in her face, which she has no choice but to do. But, instead of saying thank you, the Dick-Swingers doubt her? All the evidence you need is in the timbre of her voice! She’s the one refusing to lie! Listen!
… Is the kind of thing I say when I bring Anita to history class as my current event. I mean, I don’t say dick-swingers, but they know what I’m thinking. When everyone gets annoyed because here I go again, I switch it up and point to a headline in the Tennessean about AIDS patients’ access to AZT. Deal with it, dudes! What else is there to talk about? A million people dying of AIDS and we’re about to have a rapist, basically, on our Supreme Court! Talking about this shit is our civic duty. That’s the whole point of bringing in current events. We’re in ninth grade – talking is, like, our only job.
I’m political. I can’t help it. I think it’s because I come from a revolution, or something. Mommy gets nervous when I bring up politics because I start to sound like someone who might not be okay with the way things are, and she’s pretty sure the way things are won’t change, and that makes her wonder if I’ll ever be okay. She also thinks it’s dangerous. Maybe not now, while I’m thirteen, but later, when I’m older and imprisonable. Baba understands. He gets into it with me. Not heated, like me, but smiling, like, “Check my daughter out.” He believes Anita too. Says it’s obvious. I can tell the whole thing reminds him of something, but he doesn’t say what. Maybe it’s not a specific thing. Maybe it’s a whole category. Like… “Justice – something to fight for, and be prepared to cry over.”
Nastaran dreams that she is a binary star system. She is two stars that orbit the same point. One of her is a white dwarf star that always seems to be dying, and therefore, has to steal energy and matter from her other star, her binary counterpart – the companion. Nastaran, who is dreaming, knows that Nastaran, the white dwarf, is a thief. The dreaming Nastaran knows the thief is not evil, just as the dreaming Nastaran knows the companion is no hero. The White Dwarf one is obstinate, passionate, hungry; the Companion one is uncompromising, intransigent, burdened. Nastaran can’t stop the dream cycle. The companion always survives, diminished, not vanquished. The white dwarf always struggles to its last ember, explodes brilliantly, dies, then, somehow, returns – replaced by another, different thief. Someday, some fuckin’ day, they will collide, combine, come together. On that fuckin’ day, dreams the dreamer, Nastaran becomes her own point of orbit – diminished no more. A single star, totally fucking filled in — a bright, blazing bitch.
She knew the dream was about Annie, but the fact of the white dwarf’s continual return, its constant regeneration, made her wonder whether it was also about Richa. They’d been best friends since fourth grade. In tenth grade, Nastaran’s new smoking habit and her developing friendships with potheads pushed Richa to spend more time with parent-sponsored, non-USN friends, which meant immersing herself in an Indian cultural identity that Nastaran could not adopt or infiltrate or join in any way. This was by design. Nastaran appreciated the need. She was no longer only Richa’s best friend; she was also this other thing – this thief-thing that sought to feed off other, less predictable, more unwieldy, dangerous sources. Confused Nastaran split in two; Lucky Richa stayed singular. Even after finding a new best friend, which Nastaran thought would calm her inner life down enough to at least keep her in a steady state, her atoms proved to have minds of their own… called electrons, or something, and hers were volatile, or just determined to repeat a pattern, because yet another self appeared – a creature, really. Another thief-thing reared its head, and once again, she was divided. How many times was this going to happen to her? Over and over and over?
The origin story of Nastaran’s dream was a short paper she and Annie wrote about the two different kinds of supernovas. The duo had signed up for an astronomy elective. The class was full of delightful eggheads, the kind of kids Annie and Nastaran enjoyed at school but never hung out with off campus. These other kids were smarter, or just more motivated. Annie and Nastaran were okay with that. The mission was to look at stars and learn about constellations – that was all.
The first thing they learned for their paper was that sometimes, a star eats itself to death. When an old, haggard, aged star runs out of nuclear fuel, its mass, its own mass, drains into its core and boom – the core collapses. Like Chernobyl, but in space. The resulting, luminous explosion felt to Nastaran and Annie as though the star managed to use the energy of its death to celebrate the glory of its life by putting on a magnificent show for any galaxy with the technology to look. The stars that go this way are bigger even than the sun. It’s hard to see these supernovas in our Milky Way because of all our dust – too much crap between us and the light.
Then, there was the other kind of supernova – less sublime, more dog-eat-dog. Sometimes, one of two binary stars – these are stars that orbit the same point – greedily steals too much matter from its counterpart, or companion. The little thief is usually a white dwarf star that’s already pretty much dying. Its only hope is to consume everything it can as its last stand against total annihilation. This act of theft, its final grasp at life, is the very thing that leads to its destruction. Ironically, it explodes because it can’t contain all the energy it worked so hard to suck. The second star, the one that withstood the steady energy drain, biding its time, ultimately gets to keep the point of orbit for itself. “Good for you,” thought Nastaran, “Fuck that tiny asshole who took all your shit. Live long and prosper, winner star. Orbit your point in peace.” Supernovas were fun to anthropomorphize. And until the night the dream started, after the day Nastaran experienced her second split, it was easy to see the universe as full of thieves and heroes, winners and losers, the goods and the bads.
Nastaran and Annie wrote their paper. Their teacher, Mr. Rod, loved it and offered them an opportunity. Mr. Rod’s new obsession was not located in the sky, not technically. He had just begun to learn the Internet and wanted to share his discovery with the class – would Nastaran and Annie like to put their paper on the world wide web? This would be the first web posting in USN history. The school didn’t even have a URL at the time; Mr. Rod had to create one. Nastaran and Annie had no idea what the internet entailed, but they both had a lot of respect for Mr. Rod, and he seemed sure this was a worthwhile endeavor. Turns out, he was right – posting their paper was super cool. Their research was now available, they were assured, for anyone in the universe to see. For Nastaran, the thrill wasn’t in the posting, or the content, but the byline: Written by Nastaran Ahmadi and her new point of orbit, Annie Hammond.
It’s important to note that, after their paths of assimilation took different directions, Nastaran and Richa continued to care for each other from an ever-widening distance. They only ever felt kinship and loyalty and trust in each others’ company. That never changed. But, junior year, Richa did leave the debate team. And that’s exactly when Annie Hammond, senior and Winona Ryder look-alike, joined. Some “firsts” ensued.
On their first away tournament together, Nastaran and Annie shared a motel room; on the first night, they went for their first cigarette together in the outdoor stairwell. Nastaran remembers she was hopping off the landing onto the lower step when Annie said Nastaran didn’t seem like someone from Nashville, and then Nastaran asked where she did seem to belong, and Annie said, “New York City.” Nastaran remembers feeling a pang; she thought that sounded right. New York, obviously. Annie, obviously. It was really cold that night. The next day, the day of the tournament, it snowed. They lost, which didn’t matter, so who cares.
Nastaran was rendered speechless for the first time one afternoon when she took too long to put her books away before lunch, and a hungry Annie rushed down the hallway, pinned Nastaran to her locker by her shoulders and cried, “Eat! Me!” Nastaran was stunned. How to respond? What to say? In that pregnant pause, Annie must have realized how her words might be misconstrued to mean something other than a girl asking her friend to hurry up so they could go get tacos from San Antonio’s because, obviously, “eat me” can also be a euphemism for other stuff. Annie, taking in Nastaran’s strange shyness, cracked up at what she insisted was a totally inadvertent, non-Freudian slip, assuring her friend, “I just want food!” And so, Nastaran cracked up too, then changed the subject to whether they should go hear The Shakers play on Saturday night.
Annie’s second elective her senior year was photography. She discovered, through working on black and white prints of naturescapes, that she had an eye for seeing beauty in opposites. A mountain and a valley. A blossoming wildflower in a field of dried grass. A harmonica inside an empty water glass held by a man in a fedora whose face was turned away. Where’d she get that one? Did she stage it? How’d she know it would mean what she wanted it to mean by making it look the way it did? The photos weren’t profound; they were thoughtful. The intention wasn’t to capture beauty, but rather dynamism in opposition. “These are good,” Nastaran thought, “Annie’s good at this.”
For her final portfolio, Annie asked Nastaran to pose topless – definitely another first. It was easy for Nastaran to say no. It was not easy for Annie to take no for an answer. Her argument went something like, “Come on, it’s like, from behind; you seem like a boy, but then, when you turn around, and we see you from the front, it’s the other side of you!” Look, they were young. They did not have the vocabulary to discuss gender dysmorphia or sexuality or the idea that human beings contain multitudes, or at least dualities, and that sometimes these dualities form themselves around sex. It was the nineties. Anita Hill was somehow wrong, Kurt Cobain was somehow right, Michael Stipe was somehow straight. Duality was a fantasy in which Nastaran could not afford steeping. So, Annie compromised. She promised she’d only photograph a cross-legged Nastaran from behind. No nipples, no problem.
When they got there – to the top of some rock in Percy Warner Park, in public – Annie only snapped a few photos before shamelessly abandoning their agreement and asking Nastaran to spin around. Nastaran heard right through Annie’s attempt to sound nonchalant, off-the-cuff, detached. This was a solicitation, premeditated and with only one desired outcome. What surprised Nastaran is that this entirely predictable, almost obligatory, if not procedural request must have caused some kind of rupture in the space-time continuum because, even though she knew she couldn’t do it, she felt herself start to turn. Not fully, just enough to make it clear she was considering it.
She’d never felt tension like that before. It wasn’t the same as attraction; it was more like a plea from the universe. She was being called upon to deliver something. But what? Suddenly, there were two Nastarans. Again. Different from the one with Richa, though, this thief was hungrier. Would it succeed at turning toward the camera to insist on being fully seen? Maybe. It was a part of her, after all, which meant it was stubborn, sensitive and really fucking strong. It, too, revolved around Annie, which meant it had good taste. But only one of her would be the victor. The thief pulled, sucked, pulled, dared the other Nastaran, the one she’d come to know as her “real” self, to give over. Some part of her emerged a dying star desperate to live; willing therefore, to beg, borrow, steal attention, energy, food. Her thief was not evil; she just needed to eat. But the “real” Nastaran did not turn around. While the white dwarf thief-creature-thing burnt up, imploded; its binary counterpart – diminished, not vanquished – faced forward and put her shirt back on. She couldn’t hate the part of herself that wanted to turn around any more than she could respect the part of herself that didn’t. Trouble was, she couldn’t feel neutral about either. She was plunged into an emotional wave – highs, lows… peaks, chasms. She didn’t choose her duality; it sort of just came a-haunting.
Annie packed up her camera. Nastaran got dressed. They lit cigarettes and smoked them on the way back to the car. The photos Annie did get that day weren’t all that dynamic. Nastaran had inadvertently been holding her arms tightly to her sides, probably to make sure no one would see any side-boob, so the figure in the photos just looked… like nobody. There was no spark to make the figure specific or special; he/she/it just looked generically human. Nastaran can’t remember if, after all that, she ever even made it into Annie’s final portfolio. Perhaps Annie could have doctored the photos to be more dimensional, more interesting. But, something had ruptured between them. Annie had promised not to ask, yet asked anyway. Then again, given everything they experienced together over the course of that year, Nastaran had silently promised she was a true adventurer. Annie must have wondered, was it all bullshit? They never talked about that part. They never talked about any of it.
After the photo shoot, the Nastaran that remained needed something else to revolve around. Unlike stars, humans get to choose their points of orbit. And she had successfully shifted this kind of focus once already, from Richa to Annie. Sure, Nastaran was a large ball of gas, but she also had consciousness. Even human beings who believe in God have to agree that they choose their faith. Everything is a choice. Nastaran believed then, as she does now, that everything needs a gravitational force to keep itself from blasting off into nowhere or floating away. Even now, at forty-two, she does not subscribe to the theory that we are lone warriors, meant to stoically wander the universe solo. Solitude is one thing. Solitary confinement is another. Never be ashamed of the need to feel held, kept, anchored. “Look for these things,” she thought to herself, “You need them. Who can you trust? Who can you trust?”
Nastaran’s anchor had been Annie, and boy, did she wish she had the courage to see how far the anchor would drag before plummeting them both off the edge of a cliff. But it wasn’t time to plummet, or blast off, or explode. Sure, a good effort supernova flares out an ethereal burst, a glow, but the beauty is short-lived, and then you’re just a dead star. Nastaran, the surviving one, wasn’t ready to die. Because of the dream, she knew it was inevitable that the white dwarf would reconstitute itself, eventually, and come for her again. She had some time, though, and fuck if she wasn’t going to use it. And so, as she discovered her hunger through Annie, she found a way to channel it with Gabe – a boy she came to love and trust with the whole heart of her active half.
Nugget: VAT IS A POEM?
My mother asks me, “Vat is a poem?” I’m fifteen, and I know the answer, but I don’t want to give it, so I say, “A good poem makes you wonder.” My mother never quits; she insists til I cave, “No, vat is a poem? Not good. Vat is it? At all?” “Dude. You want me to, like, define poem?” This is like when on Sundays Mr. Berry comes to cut the grass, and I have to translate Deep Southern to Middle Eastern. English to English. I have to say to my mom how “fixin” means “going to” and that Mr. Berry already knows the herb garden doesn’t need weeding. And, without me, Mr. Berry wouldn’t know to come next week on Saturday because we’re going out of town, if that’s all right. Sometimes, I take longer to translate than necessary. I like the look of the three of us standing under that carport together. Him with his leaf blower. All smiles. Nodding at my mom. My mom offering him a glass of water. All smiles. Looking at me. Me. Beaming – America! The experiment works! We’re all here together, making sense of it as best we can! Finding ways to need each other out in the open, without shame, without pandering, without discomfort. Needing each other to anchor us in the place we find ourselves.
Needing each other to make sense of ourselves. Next year, Baba buys a used Mercedes, and he gives our old station wagon to Mr. Berry. My mother argues it had a new engine installed six months ago, and could be worth something. But Baba needs to give it – the value is in the giving. Yasy and I fill the backseat with all our old toys and stuffed animals from the attic, including my My Little Ponies. Mr. Berry’s daughters come with him to pick up the car. He cries when he sees the girls light up, understanding that everything inside is now theirs. Mr. Berry is a man who cries. I knew it. That man with the leaf blower and my father have a lot in common.
“Dood. Nevermind,” my mom never cries, “I know about poem; I don’t need you to tell me. Poem is how you show you under-stand something that you did not under-stand before.” I’m impressed, but I know that’s not the whole story, so I just say, “Sometimes.”
Nugget: JODIE FOSTER
In the car, all I can think is, “I just watched Jodie Foster take down a transgender-ish serial killer with the help of a psychopathic cannibal, and I’m pretty sure I’m gay.” How one thing led to the other, I’m not certain. Did the Jodie Foster part have something to do with it? Probably. Probably. My mother checks on me in the rearview, so I try to appear empty-headed, just looking out the window, staring at the moon. Inside, I’m like, “A full moon? Really? Too much, God, too much!” But outside, I let my eyelids grow heavy, so the prying-rearview-eyes can see that I’m closed for business. A drowsy “It was good,” is all my parents get from me. I worry that if I say any more they’ll know. This is a ridiculous concern. They saw JFK. They can’t know shit.
When Starling uses her car jack to open the garage door because the owner’s beefy driver with a bad back refuses to help, and she only manages to budge it wide enough to slide underneath, ripping her pants, and scratching her leg on a rusty nail, drawing blood, enough to make her worry and smile and stoically press on, I swoon. Why. She smiled stoically, who cares?! She’s no hero. She gags when she sees formaldehyde-preserved eyeballs and tongues, or whatever, floating in a glass jar just like any regular person would – she’s regular! Stop swooning! I also swoon during that scene in the police station, or mortuary? where the FBI director and the chief of police don’t invite her to debrief because she’s a woman, and she has to stay outside, surrounded by all those huge state trooper dudes, which makes no sense because she’s me in that scene, and so it’s like I’m swooning over myself, and so I’m not just weird; I’m an ego-maniac.
I see the movie again with Richa who has the right reaction to Jodie because she’s smarter than I am and only weird in a normal way. Richa’s into it in the way a future doctor is always into gross, decomposing human parts – like she’s in biology dissecting Lothar, our fetal pig. I think she can tell it’s different for me. I think she can see that I don’t just like this movie; I love it.
Some wounds are made by others, some are self-inflicted. Either way, Soussan’s preferred salve was anger. Her older brother, Bijan, born of the same mother, died of an overdose – a doctor lost to addiction and a ruined country. Bijan’s ghost was allowed to reside in the land of Soussan’s grief. Bahman, Soussan’s younger brother, born of the woman Soussan grew up calling mother, was a fuck-up and a failure. He was still alive. His mistakes could have been course-corrected. Soussan and Mahmoud had tried to help.
They sent money – even got him out of Iran and brought him to LA at one point, hoping he’d re-settle. This was a risky move at the time because the hostage crisis had only gone down a few years earlier, and Iranians were on thin ice. But Mahmoud figured out a way to get Bahman a Visa, and yet, only six months passed before the fear and the loneliness sent him running straight back to the nightmare republic he now called home. About a year later, Bahman began begging again for another Visa. But Mahmoud worried. His own status as a legal alien felt tenuous, and he couldn’t risk sponsoring the residency of a foreigner who seemed like nothing but trouble. He and Soussan kept sending money. Bahman kept begging for more. In Bahman, Soussan found someone to blame for everything that had gone wrong since the day she was born.
When she thought of Bijan, the sadness was unsatisfying, somehow – it lacked heft. Grief didn’t adequately reflect how hopelessly complicated and utterly unfair everything was – grief was a pebble in a landscape of boulders. When she thought of Bahman, the anger came; it was a torrent; it was deeply satisfying. It was more accurate than grief, more representative, more just. When Soussan and her younger sister, Simin, Bahman’s full biological sister, but closer with Soussan than any of their other siblings, put heads together about how to help their brother, they decided to let him sell their childhood home. This was not an easy decision – it was their only inheritance, the only home they still had to go home to, if they ever decided to go home again. But they gave it as an offering. Bahman got swindled on the sale, lost most of the money and spent the rest on booze. That was the last insult.
The first came in 1979. When Mahmoud took his family on a vacation from Tehran to Nice, he didn’t know they would never, ever return. So when it was clear they needed someone in Iran to handle mundane details like shipping furniture to the U.S., they asked Bahman for help and offered to pay him. But instead of diligently overseeing the safe transfer of family heirlooms, rugs, paintings, tapestries to Los Angeles, Bahman went ahead and sold those things, planning to beg forgiveness later. And when that money was spent, he kept asking for more, citing unemployment, a failing economy, a religious epidemic that was steadily murdering hope, murdering joy, murdering progress, murder, murder, murder. It didn’t matter to Bahman that other people were finding a way; he was committed to his failure – he never let it go. He probably should have known, by the late ‘80s, when Soussan and Simin signed away their share of ownership over their childhood home, that they were testing him – this was his last chance to earn back the trust he had squandered. Bahman was a fool, though, a tragic figure that found himself stepping repeatedly into voids that plummeted directly to hell. Bahman failed Soussan and Simin’s test, and when he failed, Soussan, who felt she’d earned the release that came with fury, decided Bahman was her place to put it.
To Nastaran, that release looked righteous, grand; the sounds, the gesticulations – short quick whips of the hand, slicing through air, claiming the space – all of it was thrilling. Occasionally, Nastaran would have to fight off thoughts that threatened to sabotage her confidence in her mother. “Didn’t Mommy say that Dayi Bahman joined the Navy just to be close to their older brother, Bijan, and wasn’t that a thing good guys did? Wasn’t Bahman the sweet little brother that everyone doted on because of his kindness, his total lack of guile? Isn’t that what Mommy said about this man that she’s calling a fool and a traitor? Isn’t that what Aunt Simin Joon said? Does Simin Joon feel this way about Bahman too?”
However, listening to Soussan accentuate new words she used to define her younger brother – idiot, waste, loser, defenseless, pathetic – Nastaran would find herself swayed. She was always relieved when she could re-align herself with her mother. All she wanted was to know what it would like to feel so clearly. What is it to know that your feeling is right and good and has somewhere to be where it belongs, so that it doesn’t simply sit inside your chest and eat you from the inside?
Lately, Nastaran had started to have certain feelings that seemed tailor-made to sabotage her good standing in the life her parents had made for the family. They were bigger than she knew what to do with, and they somehow involved Jodie Foster. She wanted to blame The Silence of the Lambs, but she also wanted to worship it. She wanted to be Starling, but she also wanted something else. She also wanted to be the cannibal. “Fuck this feeling,” she thought to herself as she watched her mother unleash. “Fuck this feeling and everything it fucking means!” And why not blame the feeling itself? Soussan blamed her brother, the traitor. Nastaran would blame the feeling, less corporeal, but just as treacherous.
In this way, Nastaran discovered her life-long weapon of choice – anger. Couple that with the sense of subterfuge she’d inherited from her mother, and then double it all down with the secrecy and fear that seemed to be building blocks of her DNA, and Nastaran had an arsenal it would take nearly thirty years for anyone to penetrate. And even then, it would take some work to get past all the metal. And even then, what Nastaran uncovered there brought more suffering before it brought transcendence.
Soussan was an anger expert, though, and Young Nastaran was just an apprentice. She’d seethe, but quietly. She’d carve “Life sucks” into her desk at home, but small and in purple ink. She’d sing along to “Tommy,” slowly incanting “See me, Feel me, Hear me, Touch me,” while squinting her eyes and admonishing her own soul for daring to ever hope for such things. “It’ll never happen, but I want it, and so I’m pissed.” The truth, of course, is that she was hurt. She was hurt by knowing that she would always be alone. She solved this problem by gathering friends. This was a successful strategy in high school.
Her senior year, Nastaran was awarded the “Faculty Prize” for most… what was it? beloved student? She can’t remember now what they carved on the plaque. She remembers walking into the auditorium and being surprised to see her parents there. They were all smiles, but would not reveal the reason for having come to school that day. As various faculty members announced various prizes, Nastaran realized she must have won something, otherwise Mommy and Baba wouldn’t be here. But she hadn’t gotten the best grades, not good enough to get into Columbia like she wanted. She wasn’t a musician, like Gabe, or a writer, like Claire. She was a theatre kid, but that’s not noteworthy. And, anyway, if there was a prize for that, it would go to Nich Sweeney, cuz… Pippin.
Then Annie Germuth – lesbian, cyclist, algebra teacher – came to the podium to announce that the faculty had created a new prize this year. They invented it for Nastaran. The faculty must have realized Nastaran wasn’t going to get any of the other prizes and been bewildered because they’d come to think of her as the class’s glue stick. She held people together. She wasn’t the best at any one thing, except kindness. Kindness was Nastaran’s trump card, and the faculty could always rely on her to play it liberally. For that, Nastaran deserved an honor.
Mahmoud could not have been more proud. Nastaran could not have been more proud. Soussan could not have been more boastful. How Nastaran managed to get through high school without ever letting on that under her coat of many smiles and welcomings and hand-extensions and words of encouragement to peers and faculty alike, beneath it all she was boiling away, consistently delivering internal lashings to her own feeling, she still cannot say. But she did it. And on the day of the prizes, she felt triumphant.
In 1995, Nastaran was the seventeen-year-old owner of a 1985 white Honda Civic SE. The SE meant it came without floormats, or a back windshield wiper, and the windows rolled down manually. Gabe had accidentally burned a cigarette into the passenger seat between his legs, but other than that, the car pretty much looked exactly as it had the day Nastaran went with her dad to make the purchase from a Vandy professor who had only ever used it to drive to work. She kept it clean – the smoke aired out and the garbage collected. Nastaran parked her car under the carport next to her father’s moderately used black Mercedes Benz. To this day, Nastaran can’t say when the “moderately used black Mercedes” became part of the Iranian-American dream. The trope turned cliche is an enduring little fucker, though, and remains true today.
The Civic was in its spot under the port on a snowy Monday morning in December when, at 8:30 a.m, Nastaran finally called it and decided to drive to school. Her parents asked her not to go, but USN was known for posting its school closings early, and none of the channels were reporting any information. Besides, she liked early mornings at the school best. She liked having the place to herself before most people arrived. The empty hallways made her feel nostalgic, an emotion she always enjoyed. She’d been at this school since she was ten years old, and she felt it belonged to her.
Nastaran was not a good driver, is not a good driver, has never been a good driver. Her parents were always relieved when she was hanging out with Stephen because they knew Nastaran would give him the keys and let him drive instead. Still, that morning, she made it all the way to Edgehill Road without incident, and the final stretch before the turn into the senior lot was easy. The road was always clear. She leaned down to grab The Indigo Girls’ Rites of Passage off the floor in front of the passenger seat.
Rites of Passage usually lived parked inside the tape deck. For about a week, though, it had been replaced with A Chorus Line, which she saw the Friday before at TeePac with her parents. Every time they went to the theatre, her parents would walk out with the same question, “Good?” They never seemed to have an opinion of their own.
They were asking. They genuinely didn’t know. She always replied, “Yeah, really good,” and she usually meant it. A Chorus Line was “Great.” She, too, could never really sing. She, too, felt her life was a continual struggle to be seen. And sometimes it felt like she lived in a constant state of “hoping to get it.” That song about The Music and the Mirror bored her, though, and she was in need of a Galileo pick-me-up. If the deck had been loaded with her Peter Gabriel, or her new and utterly bold Ani, or her old-school Elton, everything would have been different.
Obviously, it was a mistake. Obviously, the road was not entirely clear. Obviously, it was her fault because by the time she heard the honk from the car on the other side of the road, the Civic was already barreling across the yellow lines and into the side of a Toyota Camry.
She exchanged insurance information with the middle-aged driver who probably had kids of his own. His hands shook. He begged her to be more careful. She begged him not to call her house until she’d had a chance to talk to her father herself. He agreed.
The rage came almost immediately. The senior parking lot, when she finally arrived, was practically empty. No one else bothered. They must have known something she didn’t. Or was it that she knew something no one else bothered to recognize? There had been no announcement. They were supposed to come to school. People don’t just get to choose. Where was everybody?
At first, the rage felt like breathlessness. Her diaphragm ceased to factor into her relationship with air. Her lungs were working overtime to help oxygen travel to her brain. She grabbed her backpack, opened her barely-functioning driver-side door, and walked into the building. She could have died. She could have killed someone. She could have just died. Fucking Chorus Line. Fucking Music and The Mirror. Why couldn’t “Dance 10, Looks 3” have been playing? If she had known she was about to get to belt Tits and Ass at the top of her lungs, she would not have leaned down to reach for Chickenman. She would not have veered.
Walking up the four flights of stairs to the top floor did not calm her down. The warm air hit, and she started to sweat, which just made her more angry. How is it possible that this school, after thirty years, hasn’t figured out heat regulation in winter? Fucking radiators and the fucking adults in charge of them.
“School’s closed. I just posted it,” a voice called down from the third-floor landing. Principal Ed Costello was a Mitt Romney-type Republican – nice, well-meaning, profoundly short-sighted. He usually posted closings by six a.m. The forecast looked like it might clear up, though, so he held off making a final decision until well after eight. By the time the morning news was reporting USN closed, Nastaran was already in the Civic, driving poorly over icy roads.
In that stairwell, Nastaran’s rage found its target. Costello had delayed the announcement. He was responsible for her near-death-slash-near-murder. Nastaran was still sweating; her fury hadn’t even peaked. Costello was the man in charge of the school, of its schedule and of regulating the fucking radiators. Everything was all his fault. This man, now descending the staircase to her level, fucked Nastaran over this morning. She wanted to punch him in the face, and he could tell.
“I thought the snow would let up,” he explained. “I’m sorry you came all the way here. Do you live far?” He was begging her forgiveness. She pressed the wound. She couldn’t help herself. “I got in an accident driving here.” He was mortified. He asked if anyone was hurt, and when she said no, he apologized again and left. He did not ask if she needed a ride. He did not offer to call her parents. He tucked his shamed tail between his legs and walked away. Not only did she want to punch him in the face; after this encounter, she was certain that he’d deserve it. After this encounter, her rage had a release valve, which somehow made the anger feel earned, warranted. She told a lot of people about the Costello encounter. It became a staple story of the Spring semester. Everyone knew what had happened, but no one talked about it on campus.
At the time, Rosalind S. Helderman, current political reporter for The Washington Post, was Ros Helderman, Ira Helderman’s younger sister. Before he graduated, Ira and Nastaran had been on the debate team together. Ira was deeply invested in dominating that terrain with big wins. His research centered around compiling evidence to prove that any position the opposing team defended would invariably lead to nuclear war, famine and the destruction of all human life. Unlike Ira, Nastaran just joined for the credit. She abandoned the team for the final stretch of her senior year. Unlike Ira, Ros was sweet. The two girls probably had a lot in common – nerdy, smart, female. Ros was a sophomore, though, so the relationship mostly consisted of hallway-waves and hellos.
This is why Nastaran was surprised when Ros barreled down the senior hallway, stopping just short of slamming into the water fountain in front of Nastaran’s locker. Ros, out of breath, cheeks flushed, looking like a frantic child about to beg for a ride on the carousel, managed to say, “I’m Ros, Ira’s sister,” which they both knew Nastaran knew, so they both laughed. This calmed Ros down a bit. She explained that she had written an article for the school paper that was set to run on the first page of the next edition, which was about to go to press within the hour. In the article, Ros quoted Nastaran. When the editor pressed Ros on whether the quote was something she had permission from the source to print, Ros had to acknowledge that she’d never actually spoken to Nastaran. The quote was hearsay, a rumor. Now, Ros was in a bind. She badly wanted her article on the front page, but she wanted to earn it with her integrity intact. “Did you tell people that you wanted to punch Costello in the face?” Ros finally asked. Nastaran, who until then still had no idea what Ros needed from her, broke into a smile. “Oh, yeah, I did. I totally wanted to punch him – I got into a wreck!”
Ros was overjoyed. This was what her article was about. Could she quote Nastaran, a student everyone supposedly liked, as having said she wanted to punch their principal in the face? Nastaran, after an initial gesture of refusal to establish that she understood this kind of behavior to be uncouth, ultimately capitulated. Ros’s delight at “breaking this story” was infectious. And theirs was a school where people could say things without being punished for them later. To this day, Nastaran believes this must have been investigative reporter Rosalind Helderman’s first scoop.
What makes this a lasting memory? Was it the trauma of the car wreck? The uniqueness of the snowy morning? Was it Ros’s exuberance? Was it the fact that Nastaran and Costello met eyes in the hallway on the day the paper was issued, and she realized he was afraid of her? Or was it the anger in search of a villain? The anger at the one dull song in an otherwise delightful musical. The anger at the snow, then the heat, then at Costello and the world. Nastaran managed to easily (very easily, too easily) commute her anger into a story that captured the imagination of her fellow students; thereby transmuting her excuse for what had happened, an accident she caused, into a verified reality. The wreck was not, and would never be, her fault.
Nastaran Ahmadi (she/her) is a multi-disciplined writer, producer, and playwright, originally from post-revolutionary Iran, who is based in Brooklyn, New York. Her plays have been developed and/or produced by theater companies and festivals such as The Cherry Lane Theater, New York Theatre Workshop, Actors Theater of Louisville, and The Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Her original short film, “This Is Harriet,” premiered at The 2022 Mammoth Film Festival, and was an Official Selection at Chelsea Film Festival where it went on to win the 2022 Audience Award and Best Actor in a Short Film. Nastaran has received residencies from The Exchange’s Orchard Project, The Vineyard Arts Project, and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Workspace program. She holds a BA in Theater with summa cum laude honors from Washington University in St. Louis and an MFA in Playwriting from Yale School of Drama, where she was awarded the ASCAP Cole Porter Prize in Playwriting.