Let us set the stage of this Like a Love Story excerpt for you.
It’s 1989 in NYC, and the world is changing. Reza is an Iranian American boy who just moved to NYC with his mother to live with his new stepdad and stepbrother. He’s also gay, but at the height of the AIDS crisis, he’s too terrified to admit it.
Judy and Bartholomew Emerson Grant IV, a.k.a. Art, are two best friends who attend Reza’s new school. Art is the school’s only out and proud gay student, and under the tutelage of Judy’s uncle Stephen—who is living with AIDS—the pair are learning to be activists of their own.
What ensues is a story of first kisses, heartbreak, family bonds, finding your voice, Madonna, and so much more. Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian is the kind of book that sticks with you long after you put it down. It’s the kind of book you should have a box of tissues readily available while you’re reading. It’s the kind of book you don’t want to miss. And it’s also the kind of book you can start reading now!
There should be a limit on how long any human being has to wear braces. Also, there should be another name for braces. Mouth invaders, maybe, or teeth terrorists. Although I suppose an Iranian boy these days shouldn’t even think the word terrorist, so I take that back. Maybe I should just call them friends. They’ve accompanied me as we moved from one country to another. But it’s been three years now, and I’m done. Tomorrow, I start my senior year of high school, in a new school, in a new city. This is it. My last chance to not be invisible.
I’m watching two television shows at once on the largest TV screen I have ever seen. Everything in this home, and in this country, is jumbo sized. It isn’t even a normal television. It’s a projection screen. Abbas says the quality of the image is a lot better. And the image can split, so you can watch multiple things at the same time. As if the split screen television weren’t stimulating enough, he also has an endless VHS collection and closet full of board games. The only games my dad ever played were called “How fast can I empty this bottle?” and “How many times can I leave my family and come back, only to leave again?” My mom wants me to call Abbas “Baba” or “Daddy,” but that’s never going to happen. No man with this many versions of Monopoly could ever be my father.
I’m watching The Golden Girls on the television, and in a smaller box at the bottom of the television, I’m watching The Neverending Story. I grab ahold of the edge of my braces, the part that digs into my gums, and pull. Hard. I yank on those braces like I am playing tug-of-war with them, and soon they start tearing off. I feel a sharp pain, and with it, sudden freedom. It feels right. Maybe freedom always comes with pain. That’s what my dad used to say about the revolution. There’s blood too, lots of it. I see it on my nails, now ruby red like my mother’s.
My mom, who is at her desk reading Architectural Digest, sees me and screams.
“Reza, what have you done?” she asks. “Are you out of your mind?”
I look at her as the taste of blood clogs the back of my throat. She removes a tissue from a gold box and approaches to help clean me. But as she’s about to touch my face, I push her away and grab the tissue.
“I can clean it myself,” I say. I hear the edge in my voice and immediately feel guilty. I wish she knew the truth—that I’m trying to save her. Just in case my blood is toxic. Just in case you can get it from having too many thoughts of boys in locker rooms.
“You really are out of your mind,” she says, with enough tenderness to make me feel guilty again.
I want to tell her that of course I am. What else could I be after what our family has been through? But instead I just say, “I think I need an orthodontist.”
We moved so recently that I don’t even have doctors here yet. My mom sighs, unsure of what to do. I can feel the wheels in her head turn as she whispers to herself. Then she finds the yellow pages and starts flipping through them until the ruby-red fingernail of her index finger rests on the image of a smiling man.
“He looks capable,” my mom announces.
“Hard to tell,” I say. “All these guys have crooked teeth.”
My mom smiles finally. Almost even laughs. Her own teeth are, of course, perfectly straight and gleaming white. There’s something unspoken here; that she doesn’t want to call Abbas and disturb him at work. She doesn’t want him to know that his new stepson is the kind of deranged kid who rips out his own braces. She likes to deal with problems privately and quietly. That’s her way.
“I can’t handle this right now,” my mom says. But she rushes me to the orthodontist, proving that she can, in fact, handle this right now. That’s the thing about her. She always can handle it right now.
As I lie on the orthodontist’s chair, listening to the doctor and my mother chat, my mind zones out. I do this sometimes. I’m afraid of speaking, of saying the wrong thing, of revealing something about myself I shouldn’t. So I listen. And if I listen too long, the voices become hazy, like I’m hearing them through an ocean. When I was a kid, I would sink into the bathtub every time my parents would fight. Or more specifically, when my dad would yell, and my mom would appease. I could still hear them from below the water, but they sounded far away. And I felt safe. Well, almost.
There was so much blood, Doctor. Should I call you Doctor?
I have so many Persian patients. I love your people.
Can we be done by the time my husband gets back from work?
And so beautiful. Do all Persians have such long eyelashes?
The orthodontist puts on his blue gloves, which makes me feel a little better. I wish the whole world could wear a giant latex glove around itself, like a shield of armor. It would not be so different than Iran was, with women in their chadors. They thought those chadors were protecting men from their impure thoughts. Maybe latex around everyone would protect me from mine.
“You have such a quiet child,” the dentist says. “My own kids won’t stop talking.”
“I’m not a child,” I say, coming out of my haze. “I’m seventeen. I should be allowed to make my own decisions.”
“Reza,” my mom says. “When you are my age, you will thank me. I promise you.” My mother has made many promises to me. That the revolution would never succeed. That my father would change. That I would grow into a good-looking man.
I don’t tell her that I will never be her age. I have known this from the moment we left Iran and landed in Toronto. I was eleven years old, and there was so little I knew about the world. But I knew that my dad would never change, and that my mom had finally found the strength to leave him. But there was something else I knew, something I knew from the moment I first went swimming with some other boys, and one of those boys’ swim trunks fell. I knew that I longed for other boys, to touch them, and hold them, and be with them. I hid that knowledge away, buried it. It was safe inside me. Then we landed in Toronto, and my mom and my sister made a beeline to the airport newsstand, giddy over the selection of fashion magazines, choosing which to buy, discussing Isabella Rossellini’s beauty.
Does she not look vaguely Iranian?
Well, Iranians and Italians do not look so different.
No chadors. I can’t believe it.
She looks identical to her mother. You both look like your father.
I think I want to be the first Iranian supermodel.
My eyes were glued to another section of magazines, and to the cover of Time. “The AIDS Hysteria.” My mom and my sister were so immersed in analyzing Isabella’s
skin tone that I managed to covertly flip through the magazine, and inside I saw sickness, disease, lesions, young men dying. I knew that I liked it when boys’ swim trunks fell. But the fact that this would kill me, this was something I did not know until that moment. Until Time magazine informed me that I would die soon.
I’ve been living in fear ever since.
“I just want to be able to smile this year,” I plead, to both my mom and the orthodontist. Before getting the braces, my incisors were so high on my gum line that even when I smiled, they were invisible to the outside world. This horror was among the many reasons I never smiled, but let me be honest, I had many other reasons for not smiling.
“Is that too much to ask, to be able to smile without scaring people? To be able to start at a new school without being the four-eyed, metal-mouthed kid everyone makes fun of? To actually have someone . . . like me?” I can feel my face burning.
My mother suddenly smiles. “Oh,” she says. And then adding a few syllables to the word the way she loves to do, “Ohhhhhh.” I have no idea what is going on in her overactive mind, but then she declares, “I understand. You want to have a girlfriend!”
She does not understand. She never does.
My mother turns to the orthodontist. “Is there anything we can do?” she asks. “We need your approval, of course.”
I don’t understand why she treats this orthodontist as her accomplice, and not as a man that we just randomly chose from the yellow pages. Or as a creep who likes talking about her beautiful eyelashes.
The orthodontist makes a deal with me. He will remove the braces if I wear a retainer every night without fail. I shrug in acceptance, and a small smirk of victory forms on my face.
When we get back home, I rush into my room, which is too big for me, and stand in front of the mirror. I run my tongue around my mouth, reveling in the feeling of smooth teeth. Maybe I’m a little fixated on my teeth, maybe I have spent too much time analyzing them, measuring with my ruler the microscopic movements they made day by day. But now that the braces are gone, I can already tell that this obsession only saved me from thinking about the sad state of the rest of my appearance: my thin, nondescript body (not tall enough to be lanky, not stocky enough to be athletic), my cheeks with their remnants of baby fat (which have been mercilessly pinched by my sister), and my thick mop of unkempt hair.
The pathetic state of my appearance is only reinforced when Saadi walks into my room without knocking. My sister may be in college now (or at least pretending to be in college, since no one trusts her to show up to class or read a book), but I have inherited a new stepbrother. He’s six feet tall. He plays lacrosse, whatever that is. He’s the same age as me, but he’s twice my size. He walks around the house in white boxer shorts and a white baseball hat, and he calls me “the little prince,” since I’m named after the former shah of Iran, even though my dad hated him. I suppose that reveals a lot about how present my dad was in my life, even back when I was born. I think I hate the shah too. Maybe if he had been strong enough to stop the revolution, we would all still be living together in a place where people look like me.
He starts opening my drawers. “Where’s my Fine Young Cannibals CD?” he asks.
“I, um, did not touch it.” I keep my gaze fixed on the mirror, but in the reflection, I see him bending down to open a bottom drawer. For a moment, I compare his thick legs to my scrawny ones, but after that moment passes, I don’t think of my legs at all. All that exists are his legs, his back, his shoulders. I hate myself. I wish I had braces in my mouth again so I could rip them out a second time. I wish I would die, and if there is an afterlife, I could find my dad there and tell him that I’m just as messed up as he was.
“Can you stop staring at me,” he says. It’s not a question, it is a command.
I quickly look out my window at the city streets outside. At the base of a tree, trash bags are piled up, and I feel so nauseous that I can almost smell them.
“I was not looking at you,” I scoff.
“Why do you talk like that?” he says.
“Like what?” I ask.
“So formal. Like you’re fresh off the boat. Loosen up. Weren’t you in Canada the last few years? Don’t they talk like normal people there? It’s 1989. You talk like it’s 1889.”
“I don’t know what normal people talk like,” I say. And this, I think, is exactly why I do not usually talk.
“Your family should’ve left Iran during the revolution like the rest of us,” he says. “I don’t know why you stayed.”
We stayed because my dad believed in the ideals of the revolution, even though my mother knew they were immediately corrupted. Also, because my mother was not ready to leave him yet.
“I said stop staring. You better not be a fag,” he says. “One per school is more than enough.”
My heart races. Is it because this hairy beast has figured out in a few moments what my mother has not figured out in seventeen years? Or is it because I now know something about my new school that I would never have imagined in my wildest dreams . . . . that there will be someone like me there?
“I’m not a . . .” But the word won’t escape my lips. I want to say it. I know that if I say it, he won’t think I am one.
He opens a drawer and pushes some of my underwear aside—starched white briefs, which, next to his boxers, seem like what a little boy would wear. My room used to be his, before he got upgraded to what used to be the guest room. “I’m just shitting you,” he says. “I know you’re not. My mom says homosexuality is luckily a problem that Iranians don’t have. I guess we don’t have that gene or something. But Art Grant definitely has that gene.” He moves on to another drawer and finally finds what he’s looking for. “Here it is,” he says. Once he has the CD in his hand, he looks at me. “Hey, little prince, my dad asked me to take care of you at school.”
“Oh,” I say. “Um, I don’t know if that is necessary. I can take care of myself.” That’s untrue, but I am good at disappearing into the background.
“I figured,” he says. “You look like a strong, self-
sufficient person.” There’s a hint of a smile on his lips. “I’ll be watching you from afar though, just to make sure you’re okay.” He smiles bigger now, and then adds, “I’ll always have my eye on you.” He says it like a threat, and I know it is.
When he leaves, I close the door and put a chair in front of it. I need privacy. I find the yearbook the school sent me. It’s on my bookshelf, where it sits next to the summer reading I had to do (Maya Angelou, Bram Stoker, George Orwell) and the Homer books I will be reading this fall. I quickly flip through the yearbook, scanning the small square black-and-white photos of my new classmates. Most of them look shockingly similar, the boys with their collared shirts and side-parted hair, and the girls with their ponytails and pouts. I notice a girl named Judy who looks so different from the rest, with heavy eye makeup and a piercing gaze, and I think that it’s nice someone else at the school doesn’t
But I’m looking for Art Grant. I go to the Gs, but at first I don’t find him, until I realize Art must be a nickname. He’s listed as Bartholomew Emerson Grant VI, and he’s very hard to miss. His hair is shaved at the sides, and a soft Mohawk at the top sways toward the right side of his face, which is turned slightly, probably to reveal the earring in his left ear. He has a smirk on his face, like he knows exactly what people are thinking of him, daring anyone looking at this picture to call him a fag again, telling the Saadis of the world to go to hell. Even in black and white, his eyes look like a cat’s, defiant, challenging you. My mom once told me that no matter where you stand, you’ll think the Mona Lisa is looking right at you. That’s how I feel about this picture. Like Art is looking right at me. Like he sees me.
I quickly close the book, overwhelmed by his image, but his face haunts me. I cannot stop thinking about him, and his shaved scalp, and his studded ear, and his devilish lips. I need to stop thinking about him, and I know there’s only one way to do that. I lie back on my bed, close my eyes, and unzip my pants. I see Bartholomew Emerson Grant VI come to life, enter my room, climb into bed with me. He kisses me, undresses me, tells me not to be scared. But then he’s gone, and all I can see are images of dying men with lesions.
I hate myself. I hate these thoughts. I hate Bartholomew Emerson Grant VI.
I close my eyes tighter, and my breath quickens. When it’s over, I breathe out all the air inside me, hoping that with the last bit of oxygen leaving my body, this sickness will leave me too. I know this is a phase. It must be. I grew out of needing my stuffed rabbit with me all the time. I grew out of hating eggplant, and of putting McDonald’s french fries on every Persian stew my mom made. I will grow out of this. I must, because I cannot ruin my mom’s new marriage. And because even though my mom can handle anything, I don’t know if she can handle me dying.
I need to live, and to live, I can’t ever be what I know that I am.
It’s the irony that hits me first. That I have never felt more alive, while I’m surrounded by people who are dying. In a city that feels completely segregated, this community center is overflowing with people of all races, ages, genders, and income levels. Bankers and dancers, all in one place, with one purpose. To fight the power, to screw the system, and to show the presidents and CEOs of the world what we’re made of. There’s nowhere else in the city with this much energy in it, nowhere with this much color, this much diversity. Maybe death is the great equalizer. Except it’s not. Because gay people seem to be doing most of the dying. My people. The final irony, that here in this place, it’s okay for me to be gay. I try to be gay at home, but with my parents’ judgment and denial, and all those photos of Ronald and Nancy Reagan staring at me from within their silver picture frames, it doesn’t work out so well. At school, the starched gray-and-navy-blue uniforms they make us wear basically tell us to conform to heterosexual norms, OR ELSE. Here in this room, I don’t need to be gray and navy, I can be a proud-ass rainbow.
“There’s a new report out,” a woman says. She’s super tall, her hair is buzz-cut, and she wears overalls and a black bra, which makes me love her already. She looks like the kind of woman who could play Molly Ringwald’s best friend in a prom movie. I pull my camera up from around my neck, where it’s pretty much always dangling, and I snap a photo of her. She speaks with an edge to her voice, a tremble of anger and fear. “It’s hidden in the back of the newspapers, of course. They don’t like putting our stories on the front page. It says teenagers are the plague’s newest victims. Teenagers.”
The eyes of the room turn to me and Judy. Almost three hundred people are massed in this dingy space, but we’re the only teenagers. And fabulous ones, too. Judy’s wearing a frayed azure-blue top over striped leggings with combat boots. She designed the outfit herself. Like with a sewing machine. She’s brilliant that way. She jokes that the reason she’ll make it as a fashion designer someday is ’cause AIDS is wiping out her competition, but that’s not why. It’s ’cause she’s beyond talented. We keep our eyes on each other. “Oh God,” Judy whispers to me. “Please tell me they’re not going to make us speak.”
“Our whole culture is in severe denial,” the overalls lady continues. “TEEN. AGERS. They are out there having sex. And nobody is talking to them about the risks. We need to protect them!” When she says the word teenagers, she says it with a level of passion that scares me, like there’s something about being a teenager that’s so intense that the word needs to be spoken like a warning.
“I guess this is one advantage to the fact that no one wants to sleep with us,” Judy whispers. “We won’t get AIDS.”
Judy and I haven’t made a celibacy pact or anything, though that’s what our parents and our sex-ed teacher have recommended. It’s just the reality of our situation that there are ZERO romantic prospects in the world for us, which has the benefit of making us each other’s everything. I’m the only out gay kid in our whole school, and Judy isn’t exactly the kind of girl most guys go for, though she has certainly pined for a few. I think she’s gorgeous, of course. She looks like a cross between Cyndi Lauper and a Botero painting. But as she often says, gay guys finding her gorgeous doesn’t do much for her. Also, she’s allowed to make AIDS jokes ’cause her uncle Stephen has AIDS and makes AIDS jokes all the time. He says he’s too close to death NOT to make fun of it.
“Speak for yourself,” I say. “The whole basketball team wants to sleep with me.” I pause for dramatic effect, and then add, “They just don’t know it yet.”
Judy smiles and swats my shoulder, which is bare thanks to the tank top I’m wearing, purchased at the merch table at a previous meeting. Judy and I have been coming to these meetings for a few months now. At first, Stephen wouldn’t let us come. But we begged, and we got our way. He still hasn’t let us go to an actual protest, but we’re working on it.
“Shut up,” Judy says. “We are at a serious gathering of serious people discussing a serious issue about TEEN. AGERS.”
Judy’s uncle Stephen stands up, adjusts his shawl, and clears his throat. He’s high drama, and we love him for it. Once upon a time, he was also the most handsome, charismatic man I had ever met. Now he looks like a ghost. But at least he’s still alive. His lover, José, is gone, as in not with us anymore, as in deceased. The hospital threw his body in a GARBAGE BAG when he passed. He’s one of the ninety-four friends Stephen has lost to the disease. He keeps a list. He also keeps a pot of jelly beans and adds a jelly bean to the pot every time someone dies. He says that just before he dies, he will eat every one so that his friends will be with him. As he begins to speak, I snap a photo of him. “What about an action at the department of education?” Stephen asks. “We could demand a change in their sex education policies. We could demand condom distribution. We could dress up like librarians. I have the perfect blouse!”
Another man—thin as a rail with hollow cheeks—stands up. “We don’t have the time or the resources to be distracted,” he says. “We know who the real enemy is. The price of AZT is obscene. We have our plan, and it’s going to need all our attention.”
“Well, that’s what affinity groups are for,” Stephen says. “And I’m on board with our plan. Like all of you, I’m ready to risk getting arrested . . . again.”
There’s some laughter in the room, solidarity in the number of times they’ve all been booked and released. That’s the way it usually works. ACT UP members are given civil disobedience training, and they’re usually released without being put through the system. But there have been exceptions, and no one wants to be that exception. I see a man in a leather jacket in the corner of a room eyeing a handsome young dancer type. They cruise each other with heat. For meetings about a deadly sexually transmitted virus, these gatherings are surprising breeding grounds for hookups. I snap a photo of the two men.
“But we also need to find a way to stop new cases,” Stephen continues. “And what better place to start than by educating young people?” He looks at Judy and me, and he adds affectedly, “Our innocent, pure young
“If my face isn’t enough to scare young people into having safe sex,” the thin man says, “then I don’t know how protesting outside the department of education will help.”
He’s right. I look at his face and realize it’s the face I’ve been seeing in all my nightmares since I first understood what sex was, and since I first understood that Judy and I would never get married and have kids like we said we would, because I really do want to sleep with the basketball team. And the football team. And every member of Depeche Mode and the Smiths. I basically want to sleep with everyone with a Y chromosome. But this man’s face—gaunt and covered in caked-on concealer doing a poor job of hiding purple lesions—is the face that stops me from acting on any of my abundant desires. It’s the face my dad and I were looking at five years ago when we were sitting outside one of those awful French bistros where all the men wear identical suits and all the women wear dead animals on their backs. One of those faces walked by us, leading a poodle on a leash, and my dad looked at it—the face, not the poodle—with a grimace of disgust and said, “They deserve it, you know. Maybe when this is all over, we won’t have any more of them in the city. Maybe even in the world. Wouldn’t that be something?” And then the face walked away, leaving me and my father alone, steak frites in front of us and a new barrier in between us.
How was he supposed to know that only a few months before, I’d had my first wet dream, about Morrissey? How was he supposed to know that I had discovered—after a childhood spent assuming I was just like others—that I was not only different but despised? That he had just suggested the world would be a better place if his own son dropped dead after a few years of lesions, diarrhea, and blindness? I wanted to reach over and strangle him. To exterminate him and anyone with that kind of hate in their hearts. I could see the headlines—Old Money! New Scandal! Greedy Banker Killed by Effeminate Son. Revenge of the Gay: Son Brutally Strangles Father. But I didn’t kill him. I just ate my steak in silence and listened as he told me about his latest trades.
“We do have two teenagers here with us,” Stephen says, pointing to me and Judy. “My beautiful niece Judy, and her best friend, Art. Not to put them on the spot or anything, but maybe they could tell us something about their experience.”
“We have no experience!” Judy says, way too boisterously. “Not in that department, I mean. None. Nada. We’re basically Doris Day and Sandra Dee.”
A man in the corner with fuchsia hair says, “And even if they had experience, do you think they’d want to tell a roomful of grown-ups including their uncle? Have you forgotten what being a teenager is like?”
“Bite your tongue,” Stephen says. “I only just turned nineteen.” When he says this, he sounds like he’s in one of his melodramas. Stephen loves old black-and-white movies. It’s funny, ’cause he’s the most colorful person I know. He’s brighter than color. He’s Technicolor.
“I have something to say.” That’s me talking. My palms are sweaty, and my voice shakes. “I, um, it’s about something that I think is, um, super important. It’s just, well, I think that there’s something that would be missing even if the department of education spoke to teenagers.” I pause for a long time, and Stephen gives me a nod of support. “It’s the parents,” I finally say. This is it, the gist of what I want to say, and once I start, I can’t stop. “It’s the parents who have to change first. Because so long as parents are telling their kids that being gay is a sin, or that this disease is God’s way of killing gay people, or that celibacy is the only way not to die, or that they can get it from sitting on the wrong toilet seat, then nothing else matters. Because teenagers, well, I mean, we don’t tell grown-ups what we do because we already know how they’re going to react. We already know that they’ll either pretend we never said what we said or they’ll ground us or blame us. And you know, most people don’t really have parents like you.”
“Thank God—I’d be Daddy Dearest,” one man in the back cracks, but Stephen quiets him with a flick of his wrist.
“I don’t know what I’m saying,” I say. Stephen gives me another nod. Here’s what I think I’m saying: that Stephen is the dad I wish I had, the dad I was supposed to have, the man I consider my spiritual father. And that life for gay people is inherently unfair, because most gay people are born into families that just don’t get them at all. And that’s the best-case scenario. The worst cases . . . being abused, kicked out of the house, thrown into the streets. I guess I’m lucky my own case is somewhere in between. I mean, I know my parents think I’m a pervert, but they also haven’t disowned me or anything. But that’s probably because if they did that, then their whole social circle would inevitably find out why. And they’re saving face as long as they can. They just care how things look to their bridge club. When I told them what they should have already known from the Boy George posters on my wall, my dad just walked out of the room, like this was a business meeting he was cutting short. And my mom . . . she looked at me with disappointment, like I’d gotten a B-minus in math or something. Then she told me that it would all be okay, so long as I didn’t tell anyone or do anything.
They never mention that conversation, not even when I wear eyeliner or tank tops or dye my hair or blast Madonna so loud that our place sounds like a pride parade. They’ve basically chosen to ignore me, and I’ve chosen to make that hard for them. “I guess I’m just saying that I think someone should protest parents. Or maybe not, like, all parents. But someone should protest my parents.”
I finally shut up. And then the man with the fuchsia hair turns to me and says, “Gimme their address, and we’ll handle them.”
I sit down, my face hot and my hands shaky. I’ve been to a few of these meetings with Judy, but this is the first time I’ve spoken. Thankfully, the conversation is steered back to their next action. Six men are going to dress as traders, use fake badges, and infiltrate the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to protest the pharmaceutical company that is making AZT prohibitively expensive. As I listen, it suddenly hits me how hard being eloquent is, how angry I am, and how I have no idea how to be an activist. That’s when I raise my hand and stand up again. All I say is “I want to help.”
Stephen glares at me, but I stare him down. This is when it comes in handy that he’s not really my dad. I don’t need his permission. And nothing’s more important to me than ending AIDS. Yeah, it’s because I want to help people, and I don’t want to die before my time, and I’m filled with love for Stephen, and I’m inspired and swept up in the electric energy of this room. But it’s more. I don’t know how I’ll ever begin to live while this disease is raging. Who will love me when all they’ll see when they look at me is the possibility that I may kill them? Judy will meet someone eventually. She’ll probably have kids, be a famous designer, live in a fancy Upper West Side condo overlooking the park with her hot architect husband. And me . . . I’ll either die or be eternally single because guys are too scared of me. So what choice do I have but to do something about this?
“Art,” Judy whispers to me. “These things are dangerous. There are always cops . . .”
I ignore her. “Yeah, I want to help,” I say, more firmly this time. “Just tell me where to be.”
I don’t know how, but I know that this decision will change my life. I’m a little psychic sometimes. I see colors. I can’t describe it, but I know that in this moment, it’s like a bright-pink light shines around me, and it just feels right. I hand my camera to Judy. “Hey, take a picture of me,” I whisper.
“Why?” she asks.
“Just because,” I say. “I want to remember this moment.”
At first, I see only his eyes. They’re staring at me from above his long blue locker door. Brown doesn’t do justice to the color of these eyes. My eyes are brown. His are something else entirely. Other eye colors conjure up so many beautiful images. Blue eyes bring to mind deep oceans and endless skies. Green eyes bring to mind rolling fields of grass or ancient emerald stones. But brown doesn’t conjure much, does it? Mud. Dirt. Excrement. Pretty much describes my eyes. But his, they are more like the richest caramel ever created. They look like a vast desert, endless, beautiful, romantic, like some gorgeous Saharan desert, not that I’ve ever seen those places outside of some old Marlene Dietrich movie my uncle chose as one of our Sunday-night films.
Once my dull brown eyes manage to glance away from his caramel ones, I look down and see his bare feet, also caramel colored, with a few stray black hairs on each toe. So basically, I see the top of his eyes, one long locker, and bare feet, and I can’t help but think that maybe this mystery man is naked, and that behind that locker, he’s mooning our whole high school. His index toe is bigger than his big toe. I notice that right away because Art once told me that guys with an index toe longer than the big toe are supposed to be phenomenal in bed, or are going to be really rich. I don’t remember anymore. Art has a lot of theories and superstitions, like people with gaps between their front teeth are supposed to be geniuses, which he obviously thinks is true because he and Madonna have huge gaps between their front teeth. If I were Art, I would start spreading a theory that fat girls with avant-garde fashion sense and severe black bangs are the chosen people.
“You’re Judy, right?” the mystery man asks in a shaky voice, his mouth still hidden by the locker.
Wait, he knows your name, Judy. Maybe he traveled from a distant land to find you. But what will you wear for your wedding? Not some boring wedding dress. Maybe like a slip with an absurdly long veil.
I look up to his eyes (still perfect) and down to his feet (still perfect). Eyes. Feet. Eyes. Feet. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned his hair: black, thick, wavy. I let my mind wander, imagining he really is naked behind that locker, and that soon he will reveal himself to me: body, heart, and soul. Art always says I’ll be the first to meet my soul mate, and I always say he’s totally wrong. But maybe he’s not. Art says he sees auras around people and things. I think he makes that up to seem interesting, but maybe not.
“Um, yeah, I’m Judy,” I say. “And who are you, naked man?”
Shut up, Judy. That wasn’t an internal monologue. He can hear you.
“I’m sorry?” he asks with a laugh, and now I notice his sexy accent.
“Oh God, I’m the one who’s sorry,” I say. “It’s just that you’re not wearing any shoes, so from where I’m standing, it kind of looks like you might be naked behind there.”
I sound like an idiot, but what else is new? This is why I limit my conversation partners mostly to Art and Uncle Stephen. I know they’re not going to judge me no matter what lunacy comes out of my mouth. And yeah, I have parents. And yeah, they judge me, usually silently or through annoyingly supportive suggestions about how I could slim down. For the record, my parents have female baldness and cancer all over their family trees, so a little extra weight is the least of my problems.
He closes the locker door and reveals he’s very much not naked. Oh well, that fantasy is over. But he’s also definitely not wearing our school uniform. His khaki shorts and white polo shirt are appropriate for the September heat wave, but most definitely inappropriate for this prisonlike school my parents choose to send me to, even though it’s killing them financially.
“My stepbrother told me this was the uniform,” he says. “Luckily, I brought tennis shoes for gym class, so I was just putting my sandals away.”
That’s when I notice that in addition to the aforementioned, and very hot, Middle Eastern accent, he also has a weird choice of words. “We call sandals flip-flops here,” I say. “And we call tennis shoes sneakers.”
He nods as he ties the laces of his white sneakers. “Thank you, Judy.”
I let myself imagine bending over and tying his shoelaces for him, massaging his legs in the process. God, I’m a perv. Art always says that straight people are ultimately much pervier than gay people, and if we were the only variables in the sample set, he’d probably be right. Art has a dirtier mouth, but I have dirtier thoughts. I have to—there’s no way other people’s brains are this gross. I mean, I’m seriously picturing myself rubbing this guy’s thighs right now.
“Hey, so how do you know my name, mystery man?” I ask, attempting flirtation, but the minute the words escape my lips, I realize I probably sound pathetic bordering on creepy.
“Oh,” he says. “They sent me this.” He pulls out a yearbook from his locker.
“And you actually studied it?” I ask. I haven’t looked at our yearbook since sophomore year, when me and Art went through and rated all the guys together, hating ourselves for giving tens to all the biggest assholes, like there was an actual correlation between a guy’s dickishness and hotness.
He nods. I don’t mean to make him feel bad. I hope I didn’t.
“I don’t remember everyone, but you stood out.”
Of course you did. You’re the only fat girl in there.
“So, um . . . ,” I stammer, trying to make scintillating conversation and failing. “What’s your name? I haven’t studied the book like you.”
“I’m Reza,” he says. “I’m not in the book yet. There wasn’t time to include me. I just moved here from Toronto, by way of Tehran.”
“You didn’t wanna move to Tokyo next?” I ask, but he doesn’t seem to get the joke. “You know, cities that start with T.”
“Oh,” he says. “I understand.”
If this were Art, we’d be riffing by now, listing off every T city we knew. I search for something else to say. “Well, I wish my picture was cuter. I look like a girl who cut her own bangs in a sad attempt to look like Louise Brooks but achieved Cousin Itt instead.”
“Judy?” Reza says quietly, and when I look up, he asks, “What are bangs? And who is Louise Brooks? And Cousin Itt?”
I laugh. “Bangs,” I say, pointing to my forehead, “are this ugly shape my hair makes on my forehead, which was both an attempt to cover up my forehead acne and an effort to look like Louise Brooks, a silent-film star of the 1920s who never made it in talkies. And Cousin Itt is a hairy creature from the television show The Addams Family.”
I can tell he wants to ask me what talkies are. That’s definitely a question I asked my uncle a while ago, but he just says, “You look good.”
I don’t say anything, because I’m freaking out inside. A beautiful boy just told me I look good. I need to seal this deal before some skinny girl scoops him up from under me.
Other kids are zipping past us, going to class, gossiping about their summers, and yet it’s like Reza and I are all alone. He has a weird quality about him. A calmness. He speaks softly, chooses his words carefully. It’s disconcerting and exciting, maybe because I’m so used to being around Art, who spews words from his mouth like an active volcano.
“Perhaps you can cut my hair someday,” he says.
“First of all, I won’t touch your hair ’cause it’s perfect,” I respond. “If Rob Lowe’s hair follicles and a perfect ocean wave had a baby, they would birth your hair.”
What the hell is wrong with you, Judy? Why are you talking like this?
“And second of all, my attempt at cutting my hair was disastrous, so my uncle fixed it. If I look halfway normal, it’s because of him. Okay, what’s your first class?” I ask Reza. He takes his schedule out of his pocket and hands it to me. “We both have English with Tompkins first,” I say. “Follow me.”
But before we can start down the hallway, Art rushes toward me frantically, his face obscured by a winter hat, which is an odd choice for a sweltering September heat wave. When he’s uncomfortably close to me, he takes the hat off, revealing hair dyed a strange shade of lavender that wouldn’t look out of place on the mane of a My Little Pony. “How bad is it?” he demands.
“It looks fine,” I lie, because Art is my best friend, and as his best friend I know that if I tell him he looks like a My Little Pony, he’ll go apeshit. Art says he’s a little histrionic because both of his parents are so rigid and rarely show emotion, so he overcompensates.
“Okay, you’re clearly lying,” Art says. With his hat back on, he shifts to the right and eyes Reza. “Who are you?” he asks. “And what do you think? Honestly?”
Reza stares at Art with what I can only read as either fear or disgust, and my heart sinks a little. It suddenly hits me that if and when I finally fall in love, the chance that my heterosexual lover is a homophobe is high. And I can’t love a homophobe. Definite deal breaker, right alongside dirty fingernails and guys who don’t wash their hands after they pee, which Art tells me is another important epidemic that women are unaware of due to bathroom segregation.
“Hello!” Art says to Reza. “Do you speak?”
Reza clearly doesn’t know what to do with Art’s super-intense energy.
“What do I think about . . .” Reza trails off. He’s still staring at Art like he’s studying him, and it’s starting to piss me off a little. My best friend isn’t a circus freak. But then I tell myself that maybe Reza is staring because he’s curious. I try not to jump to a negative conclusion. I know I can be defensive, protective, judgmental. Take your pick.
“About my sherbet hair!” Art whisper-yells. “Is it the worst tress trauma since Pepsi burned Michael Jackson’s scalp to a crisp?”
I turn to Reza and explain, “Michael Jackson is a pop star. He started out as part of the Jackson Five before releasing what I still consider to be his masterpiece, Off the Wall, then . . .”
“I know who Michael Jackson is,” Reza says.
“Thriller is his masterpiece, and don’t change the subject please. I need an honest opinion.” Oh, that’s another thing about Art. When he’s in the room, it’s all about him. Don’t even try to divert attention away from him.
Reza doesn’t give an honest opinion. He doesn’t say anything. And this makes Art crazy. “Okay, whatever, you can’t even be bothered to answer a simple question. I’m done here,” Art says. But Art doesn’t leave. He hovers around us.
Reza has a far-off look. He shrugs. “I should, um, get to class.”
He awkwardly gives me a kiss on each cheek, and as he does, he rests his hands on my love handles for a moment, like they’re a hand pillow. I wish I hadn’t eaten that bagel for breakfast.
Finally, Reza lets go of me and walks down the hallway. Once he’s safely out of hearing distance, I turn to Art. “What is wrong with you?” I ask, irritated.
“Um, hello,” he says, lifting his hat once more to reveal his hair.
“Art,” I say, “I was having a moment with that guy.”
“Oh,” he says. “You mean, like a sexual-healing, super-freak, touched-for-the-very-first-time moment.”
I blush and nod. “I don’t know. I think so. He’s new, and cute, and seems, I don’t know, different. Maybe they like girls like me in Tehran and Toronto.”
“Or Taipei,” Art jokes, and I smile, because I love that our brains sometimes work the exact same way.
“Or Türkmenabat,” I say.
“How long have you been waiting to throw Türkmenabat into casual conversation?” Art asks.
“I mean, since I was born.” I’m smiling now. This is me and Art. This is what we’re like when we’re at our best. Like two puzzle pieces that decided to escape the rest of the puzzle because we fit so good.
“Look, I’m an asswipe and I’m sorry,” Art says. “I promise you that my number one goal from now on, other than pissing my parents off by dyeing my hair the gayest color that’s not rainbow, will be to aid your mission of romancing that stone-cold hottie. You got that, Frances?”
Oh yeah, Art sometimes calls me Frances, usually when he’s said or done something stupid and needs my forgiveness. My uncle named me Judy for his “favorite Homo sapiens of all time,” and Judy Garland’s real name was Frances Gumm. Art likes to think he’s the only person who knows the real me. His real name’s Bartholomew, by the way. Bartholomew Emerson Grant VI. He comes from a long line of men who would probably be horrified to share a name with him.
“I got it.” I sigh. “Do you think this is the year I’ll finally get a boyfriend?”
“I hope so,” Art says. “And if it’s him, more power to you. His ass is Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” That’s a movie my uncle made us watch. “So does this mean your crush on Ben Stark is over?”
“Yeah, that ended when he misspelled fabrication in his editor’s letter for the school paper,” I say. I shake my head, wondering how I could ever have had a crush on anyone but Reza, and say, “Come on, My Little Pony, let’s get to class before the bell rings.”
“You wench, you lied. I do look awful.” He groans. “I’m going to burn you at the stake.”
“We love My Little Pony,” I counter.
“Iron-i-cal-ly,” he says, stretching out every syllable. “The way we love Stacey Q, scrunchies, and Mommie Dearest.”
I hold Art’s hand before he can bolt out of school, and we walk toward English class together. On our way in, we run into Darryl Lorde, who takes his white baseball hat off and greets Art with “Hey, faggot, you know hats aren’t allowed.” Then, when Art takes his hat off, Darryl leaps back. “Whoa, I didn’t think you could get any gayer.”
Art just smiles. He’s used to Darryl by now, the ringleader of our school’s homophobes, who is so good at sports that he can pretty much get away with anything. “I did it just for you, Darryl,” Art says, then winks.
Darryl shakes his head in disgust, then heads into class. I can hear him fake sneeze when he passes Reza, but instead of saying “Aaaa-choo,” he says, “Aaaa-
yatollah!” And his dumb cronies laugh. I shoot him a dirty look and glance over at Reza, who seems to be trying very hard to ignore what is happening.
Art and I are the last ones to arrive. As we walk in, Art fake sneezes himself, blurting out, “Aaaa-ssholes.” But no one laughs this time. A few people stare at us like we’re aliens, including Annabel de la Roche and her gaggle of girlfriends, who all look like they subsist on multivitamins and iceberg lettuce.
There are only two empty seats left. One is next to Reza. “Take that seat,” Art whispers to me. I hesitate, and when I do, Art practically pushes me into it.
Reza whispers to me, “Why is your friend so aggressive?”
Before I can respond, Art leans in close to Reza. “Because life is short and I’m not going to let it be boring too.” He catches himself, then backs off. “Sorry, I’ll go sit up front and leave you two lovebirds alone.”
Oh God, Art, lovebirds? Seriously?
“I’m sorry about Darryl,” I say to Reza.
“Who?” he asks.
“The idiot who was making fun of you,” I say.
Reza shrugs. “I’m good at tuning things out,” he says. “Denial is even more Iranian than ayatollahs.”
I giggle nervously, not sure where to take the conversation next. “Sorry about Art, too. He comes on a little strong.”
He nods. Then in a hushed voice, he says, “There was nobody like him in Iran or Toronto.”
“I’m sure Toronto has gay people,” I say, way too de-
fensive. “As for Iran, I don’t know, maybe they’ve killed them all.”
Okay, this is over. You’ve definitely scared him off.
“Oh,” he says. “I’m sorry to offend.”
That’s all he says. And it’s enough to make me feel like total shit about myself.
“No, I’m the one who’s sorry,” I say. “I’m just sick of people making fun of him.”
“Was I making fun?” he asks.
“No,” I say. “No, not at all. You were just making an observation, which was probably totally true. In fact, I’m the offensive one. I’m the one who assumed that he’s basically like all other gay people. When in fact you were right. Absolutely no one in Toronto, or Iran, or any place where humans live, is anything like Art. Maybe that’s why I get defensive of him. ’Cause he’s special.”
Reza just nods, almost like he’s agreeing with me.
We both look up at Art, so hard to miss with that hair. He’s flipping through some notecards. Not just any notecards. The Queer 101 notecards Uncle Stephen made for him to explain important gay concepts like conversion therapy, the Cockettes, and Quentin Crisp. And those are just a few of the Cs. I can see that Art is reading
#67 John, Elton.
“I talk too much,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
“Do not apologize for talking. Most of my life, I’ve talked too little.”
He smiles hesitantly, stopping himself midsmile. It’s like he’s just learning how.
“I’m not, by the way,” I say.
Stop. Stop now.
“Not what?” he asks.
“I mean, we’re best friends, and he’s on the upper echelon of the Kinsey Scale, but . . .” I can tell he has no idea what the Kinsey Scale is, and I explain. “Oh, that’s this scale, this thing that says some people are into men, some are into women, and some are in between.”
“Oh,” he says.
He seems extremely uncomfortable with this conversation, and I want to change the subject immediately, but instead, I say, “I’m on the side of the scale that’s totally hetero. That’s it. I just wanted you to know. I have no idea why I’m telling you this.”
Yes you do. Because he’s cute, and unlike the rest of the boys at school, he doesn’t seem like a total tool.
“Oh,” he says. He closes his eyes for a moment. After a beat, he says, “Me too.” Then he smiles awkwardly. And I smile back.