It didn’t look particularly easy to me, but I shrugged. My dad was a master of making things, and he was always trying to recruit me to join him in his projects, which I didn’t mind at all. In fact, it was kind of our thing.
I was nine the first time my dad took me to a hardware store, and I’d thought the place was so cool my brain just about exploded. I began daydreaming about going back there, about saving up the money I would’ve otherwise spent on Lisa Frank notebooks and instead purchasing a piece of plywood just to see what I could do with it. Later, my dad was the one who taught me how to work a needle and thread. He’d seen me stapling the cuffs of my jeans to keep them from dragging, and one night he showed me how to properly hem a pair of pants. He also taught me how to swing an ax to split firewood. How to change a flat tire.
But sometimes my dad’s mind worked so quickly I almost couldn’t keep up. My father’s father—my grandfather—had been an architect in Iran, responsible for designing some of the country’s most beautiful buildings, and I could see that same kind of brain in my dad. He devoured books even faster than I did; he carried them around with him everywhere. Wherever we’d lived, our garage became his workshop. He’d rebuild car engines, for fun. He built the table we were currently sitting around—it was a re-creation of a mid-century Danish style he’d always loved—and when my mom went back to school and needed a bag, my dad insisted on making one for her. He studied patterns. He bought the leather. And then he pieced it together for her, stitch by stitch. He still has a scar, spanning three of his fingers, where he accidentally sliced his skin open.
It was his idea of a romantic gesture.
Dinner was already on the table, slightly steaming. I’d been able to smell it from upstairs: the scents of buttery basmati rice and fesenjoon had flooded the whole house. Fesenjoon was a kind of stew made of walnut paste and pomegranate molasses, which sounds weird, I know, but it was so, so good. Most people made fesenjoon with chicken, but my late aunt had reinvented it with bite-size meatballs, and it had become a family recipe in her honor. There were also little side dishes of pickled vegetables and garlic yogurt and the still-warm disks of fresh bread that my dad baked every evening. There was a plate of fresh herbs and radishes and little towers of feta cheese. A bowl of dates. A cup of fresh, baby walnuts. The samovar, gurgling quietly in the background.
Food was a fixture in our home, and in Persian culture in general. Mealtimes were gathering moments, and my parents never allowed us to break this tradition, no matter how badly we wanted to watch something on TV or had somewhere else we wanted to be. It had only occurred to me a couple of years ago, when a friend of Navid’s had come over for dinner, that not everyone cared about food like this. He thought it was kind of crazy. But this—here, on the table tonight—this was the extremely stripped down version of a Persian dinner. This was how we set a table when we were really busy and no one was coming to visit. For us, it was normal.
It was home.
When I finally made it upstairs, it was past eight, and Ocean had hit peak panic.
I cringed as I clicked through his messages.
this is ocean
i really hope this is the right number
this is ocean, your lab partner, remember?
it’s getting late and now i’m getting worried
we really have to finish this before class tomorrow
are you there?
I’d only gotten a cell phone a few months ago, and it had taken a great deal of begging—everyone I knew got theirs the year prior—before my parents finally, begrudgingly, took me to a T-Mobile store to get my very own Nokia brick. We had a family plan, which meant our limited bundle of minutes and text messages were to be shared by all four of us, and text messaging, though still kind of a brand-new phenomenon, had already caused me a lot of trouble. Somehow, in my excitement to experience the novelty of text messages (I’d once sent Navid thirty messages in a row just to piss him off), I’d gone way over our limit in the span of a single week, racking up a bill that caused my parents to sit me down and threaten to take away my phone. I realized far too late that I was being charged not only for the texts I sent, but also for the ones I received.
One glance at Ocean’s long string of messages told me a lot about the state of his bank account.
hi, I wrote. you know these text messages are expensive, right?
Ocean wrote back immediately.
i nearly gave up on you
sorry about the texts
do you have AIM?
AIM was how I figured we’d do most of our talking tonight. Sometimes kids used MSN Messenger to connect, but mostly we used the tried-and-true, the one and only, the magical portal that was AOL Instant Messenger. Still, I was always a bit behind on the technological front. I knew there were teenagers out there with fancy Apple computers and their own digital cameras, but we’d only just gotten DSL in my house, and it was an actual miracle that I had an old, busted computer in my bedroom that managed to connect to the internet. It took me like fifteen minutes just to turn the thing on, but eventually we were both logged in. Our names now lived in a little square messaging window all our own. I was really impressed Ocean didn’t have some kind of douchey screen name.
I checked his profile automatically—it was practically a reflex—but I was surprised to find that he’d left it blank. Well, not blank, exactly.
It said paranoid android and nothing else.
I almost smiled. I wasn’t sure, but I was hoping this was a reference to a Radiohead song. Then again, maybe I was imagining something that wasn’t there; I really liked Radiohead. In fact, my AIM profile currently contained a list of songs I was listening to on repeat last week—
Differences, by Ginuwine
7 Days, by Craig David
Hate Me Now, by Nas
No Surprises, by Radiohead
Whenever, Wherever, by Shakira
Pardon Me, by Incubus
Doo Wop, by Lauryn Hill
—and only then did I realize that Ocean might check my profile, too.
For some reason, I quickly deleted the contents. I didn’t know why. I couldn’t explain why I didn’t want him to know what kind of music I listened to. It was just that the whole thing felt suddenly too invasive. Too personal.
riversandoceans04: Where were you today?
jujehpolo: I had a really busy afternoon
jujehpolo: I just saw your messages
riversandoceans04: Were you really breakdancing after school?
riversandoceans04: Wow. That’s cool.
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t really know how to respond. I’d just looked away to grab my backpack when I heard, once again, the soft double ding that indicated I’d received a new message, and I turned down the volume on my computer. I checked to make sure my door was closed. I felt suddenly self-conscious. I was talking to a boy in my bedroom. I was talking to a boy in my bedroom. AIM made things feel unexpectedly intimate.
riversandoceans04: Hey I’m sorry for thinking you weren’t allowed to do things after school.
riversandoceans04: I shouldn’t have said that
And I sighed.
Ocean was trying to be friendly. He was trying to be a friend, even. Maybe. But Ocean was all the traditionally pleasant things a girl might like about a guy, which made his friendliness dangerous to me. I might’ve been an angry teenager, but I wasn’t also blind. I wasn’t magically immune to cute guys, and it had not escaped my notice that Ocean was a superlative kind of good-looking. He dressed nicely. He smelled pleasant. He was very polite. But he and I seemed to come from worlds so diametrically opposed that I knew better than to allow his friendship in my life. I didn’t want to get to know him. I didn’t want to be attracted to him. I didn’t want to think about him, period. Not just him, in fact, but anyone like him. I was so good at denying myself this, the simple pleasure of even a secret crush, that the thoughts were never allowed to marinate in my mind.
I’d been here so many times before.
Though for most guys I was little more than an object of ridicule, occasionally I became an object of fascination. For whatever reason, some guys developed an intense, focused interest in me and my life that I used to misunderstand as romantic interest. Instead, I discovered—after a great deal of embarrassment—that it was more like they thought of me as a curiosity; an exotic specimen behind glass. They wanted only to observe me from a comfortable distance, not for me to exist in their lives in any permanent way. I’d experienced this enough times to have learned by now that I was never a real candidate for friendship—and certainly nothing more than that. I knew that Ocean, for example, would never befriend me beyond this school assignment. I knew he wouldn’t invite me into his inner circle where I’d fit in as well as a carrot might, when pushed through a juicer.