What Love Is – Terry Barr

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                  I

My Iranian wife was not in love with me when we married.  We were on the road to being best friends, and I was definitely in love with her.  I knew it the day I found a strand of long, coiled black hair in the passenger seat of my car.  I held it to the light of my windshield:

“Nilly.  I’m going to marry her.”

I knew this more certainly than I had known anything in my life.

Still, it took a few weeks of driving countless miles at evening through the Knoxville foothills and courting her with purple wildflowers while hanging out as she waited tables at an outdoor café owned by an Iraqi couple, before I declared my love.

“Well,” she said.  “I don’t know.  My parents love you.  They can’t stop talking about what a good man you are.”

“Isn’t that a good thing?”

“Maybe.  But it’s a lot of pressure too.”

It was strange then, funny now.  But the reality is that I’m a guy whose future in-laws fell in love with him before their daughter did.

Maybe that’s why arranged marriages don’t really bother me.

Her parents fed me savory Iranian meals over those weeks: stews of pomegranate sauce and chicken, or marinated beef chunks cooked in lemony cilantro-onion greens.  I was the son they never had, but clearly wanted.

And what of their daughter?  What did she want?  Did she even know?

And if this marriage was being arranged, what about my parents?

I brought Nilly home that summer to meet them, and they liked her.  But Iran was a distant world, and they had always imagined that I would marry a nice Southern girl, someone like them, though they themselves occupied a mixed Christian-Jewish space.

In fact, they opened the door to my nonconformist world.  I don’t think they ever saw themselves as rebels, and I suspect there were times when they regretted their decision to marry outside their specific social/ethnic sphere.

Once, when I was home from college for the weekend, I got a taste of my mom’s bitter residue.  No doubt upset at some remark her mother-in-law had made—and my grandmother did have a narcissistic knack for making even the people who loved her feel worthless—my mother, unsolicitedly, admonished me:

“Don’t marry outside your culture.  I wish I hadn’t.  Jews can be so cold. I think believing in Jesus softens people, makes them, I don’t know, warmer.”

Maybe it was such remarks that kept me from telling them all that I fell for Nilly, my Iranian love.  They would have no clue where my exotic relationship was headed.  And in the end, I considered it easier to do what I wanted by keeping my parents in the relative dark: in Alabama.

And what I wanted, of course, was to marry Nilly.

Her parents, in their own bout of anti-Nationalistic cultural sentiment, wanted their daughter to marry an American man.

“Persian men are too chauvinistic, too spoiled, too full of themselves,” they said.  They found Americans to be gentle, kind, considerate.

And many of us are.

Working together, then, we convinced my wife that I was good, dependable.

Trustworthy.

Safe.

She was only twenty-one years old, an age that horrifies her when she thinks of our two daughters, and the possibility of their making such monumental life choices when knowing so little about the world.

“What does anyone know about herself at such an age,” she wonders.

What indeed?

Because in truth, six months before we married, we were involved in other relationships and barely knew each other.

Then, on the longest day of the year, June 21, after three months of dating, she called me at my apartment:

“You ready?”

I was.

I love that about us: Our shorthand code for life’s most dramatic decisions.  I also love that our wedding was nothing like I pictured it would be.

 

II

How do two people–one from Bessemer, Alabama, the other from Tehran, Iran– find themselves in a third town, Knoxville, Tennessee, arriving in the same month of the same year?  Seven years apart in age and worlds apart in experience, their present is shaky, their future distant and unclear.

How do they meet?  Who steers Dr. Steven Watt, Professor of Film and English, into taking his first sabbatical in the fall of 1983?  Who thinks of graduate student Terry Barr and decides he would make the perfect candidate to lead Dr. Watt’s discussion section of Intro to Film Studies?

Who planned for an Iranian girl to sit in that class? Just twenty years old, she is a junior Mass Comm major about to switch departments yet again.  She decides to stay in this film class though it will have no impact on her next academic major.  Her discussion leader enters.  He is wearing a dark blue French-cut t-shirt, the black letters spelling NO WAR in the form of a parachute streaming over a raging black panther.  His hair is shaved above his ears, emulating his favorite singer, The Clash’s Joe Strummer.  He has just returned from his first trip to New York City.

The class dissects Bergman, Truffaut, Kurosawa.  She writes her first essay full of parenthetical wit and social criticism.  He gives her strong marks for content, but a “D” overall, because the rules of English grammar defy her.

Maybe this grade is the last brick in her wall, the one that causes her to give up on communications and become a Human Services major.  In his office they discuss run-on sentences and proper comma usage.

There is so much that they don’t know about each other.  He is the would-be film expert; she is an expert in surviving on her own.

Her parents sent her to America when she was sixteen and boarded her at a private, Baptist academy in rural east Tennessee.  She weathered fiery hell-bent sermons, not understanding the language, much less why anyone would submit to being screamed at on golden autumn mornings.

His youth in a Methodist fellowship seemed more benign; yet crucifixes and infanticide pushed him to non-belief.  He doesn’t know it when he meets her, but soon, he’ll become attracted to his own ethnic minority: Secular Jewish culture.  And years after that choice they’ll both appreciate an even greater irony.

While he’s attracted to her at first sight, he doesn’t take his attraction seriously.  She’s his student, and she’s from another world.  He barely understands American women.  He’s got a terrible track record in dating.  Failure after failure.  He’s drawn to surface beauty, but knows nothing of a person’s inner nature.  Were his past lovers even good people?

Is he?

The semester ends, and he can’t stop thinking about her.  He finagled a “B” for her final grade.  She deserved it.  She worked hard, was always prepared for class, and openly expressed her semi-Marxist views in class discussions.

He was on the verge of becoming involved with someone else.  Tentative steps with a girl he had known for several years.  Someone who told the truth darkly after their first date:

“I thought that when you kissed me, I’d fall in love.  But I didn’t.”

Her words cut deeply, but before the wound had a chance to fester, she continued, “Don’t you think Nilly is beautiful?  I think you two look good together.  Why don’t you ask her out?”

“So someone else noticed too,” he thought.

The next night, he drove past West Town Theater. Fanny and Alexander, the latest Bergman film, headlined the marquee.

“I could ask Nilly to see it.”

Then he considered the future, the one where she said yes.  They’d enjoy the experience, and then others.  Soon, they’d be a couple.  And then he’d have to explain this romance to all those who knew him.

“They won’t understand,” he thought.  “They’ll laugh at me.  They’ll think I’ve gone off the deep end.”

His fantasies had them married before he ever asked her out.  And then his fears kept him from asking her.  He never considered how she’d feel or whether she’d accept a date.

So he didn’t call; he dropped the whole thing.

A couple of weeks later, she called him.

“Want to go somewhere and have some coffee?”

He hadn’t known her pressures.  That she had to cope now with parents who had escaped Iran and were living with her and her two sisters in a two-bedroom apartment.  He knew nothing of their attempts to get permanent asylum.

“I love my parents and am so happy they’re here, but they’ve given me a curfew again: Midnight!  And they want to know everything about my life.  How can I tell them everything about my life?”

He thought of his own parents and understood.

They started meeting for coffee regularly.  They wandered the campus and public parks taking photographs of nature.  They went to campus movies, to Gay clubs for dancing.  When he met her parents, they cooked him an Iranian dinner: Shirin polo made with stewed chicken, saffron rice and slivered almonds.  He found out much later that this is the traditional Persian wedding dish.

That “shirin” mean “sweet.”

That night, she kept untying his shoelaces. He tried to converse with her parents. Her dark eyes laughed at him, and though he tried not to let the untying get to him, after a moment he just had to retie them. This lasted for just as long as those beautiful eyes could trick him into not seeing her untie his shoes again.

“Be careful Terry,” her father warned with a twinkle in his eye.  “That’s what happened to me!”

That same spring, Fanny and Alexander came to campus and they saw it together.

And then came the night that he invited her to an Academy Awards Party at the home of his dissertation director.  She wore a lacy white dress that complemented her olive skin.  She took his arm as they walked up the drive.  His Oscar predictions that night were on target.  Picking The Killing Fields for most of the awards garnered him the prize handed out by his mentor.  Doing so also impressed her, in no small part because both appreciated the film’s refugee/sanctuary political message.  They left the party and drove to her house.

They still hadn’t properly kissed.

But the next morning, he was holding a strand of hair.

III

On June 21st, they stood in an antiseptic, air-conditioned receiving room at the courthouse in downtown Knoxville.  License in order, blood test secured, they waited patiently for instructions.  The clerk signed their papers, smiled knowingly at them, and then pointed to a little white-haired man sitting on a bench nearby.

“That’s the Bishop over there.  You can go with him now, and he’ll perform the service.”

The Bishop wore a crumpled, off-white suit and disheveled black bow tie with long ribbons.  He also wore a grin that from a distance seemed welcoming but up close looked slightly off-kilter, somewhat manic. Something between a leer and a scream.

At least eighty years old, he beckoned the couple to him.

“Now you just come with me, and we’ll take care of everything.”

The scene reminded him of Marathon Man.  Lawrence Olivier, white-haired, soft-spoken, playing Dr. Mengele, assuring poor Dustin Hoffman’s front tooth that this wouldn’t hurt a bit.  Then came the drill, and no novocaine.

They followed the Bishop outside the hall, to an adjoining building, a maintenance shed.

“Let’s step into the office.  Oh, we’ll need another witness too.”

They had two witnesses with them, her sister and her cousin.  For some reason, though, two weren’t enough.

“Don’t worry,” the Bishop kept smiling.  “I have someone right here.”

He walked down a hallway and soon returned with another man: A groundskeeper dressed in blue work shirt, faded jeans, and steel-toe boots.  This man took his seat in a swivel chair, propped his boots on the desk, clasped his hands behind his head, and fell fast asleep.

“Let’s start,” the Bishop recommended.

On the wall behind the Bishop’s head, two posters also witnessed the event.  The first, a colorful print of an orange tiger cat hanging by her front paws from a tree limb, suggested in bold black letters, “Hang in There!”  The second, a xeroxed print of Sylvester the cat, pointed in the direction of the hallway and asked, “Would you mind taking your silly-assed problem down the hall?”

The Bishop, “Good Book” in hand, stumbled over the vows, especially the bride’s full Persian Name: Azadeh Kheirkhah.  His garbled mumbling pushed different, foreign-sounding syllables out each time.

Finally, she asked, “Can I just say ‘I DO?”

The Bishop considered, “Good idea.”

Though they had no rings, the next pronouncement assured them that they could seal their vows with a kiss.

“And then you can give me whatever you want to give me.”

The groom handed him $5.00.

“They usually give me ten,” the Bishop disclosed.

The groom had only $10.00, money with which he hoped to buy a glass of champagne that the two of them might share.

“Well, five is all I have.”

“Oh, that’s OK then.”

It was surely enough for a bottle of Boone’s Farm.

Cheers!

They exit through the same shed door, noting this time the shovels propped against the entrance, the rust of old disuse lingering on their heads.

IV

A year later, Immigration calls.  Marrying a non-National who chooses to live in the States has certain requirements and implications.  The least arduous part is the physical journey, though for this happy couple, that still means trekking from East Tennessee all the way across the state to Memphis, the closest INS center.  That’s at least a sixteen-hour round trip, depending on the amount and quality of stops.

What should they expect from Reagan’s INS?  What questions will they be asked?  What attempts to uncover the possibility that they are faking a marriage?  They share an apartment just off campus—in an old Victorian mansion.  They cook together, share intimacies in their queen-size futon-bed, visit her parents for weekly meals.  How does an American man prove that he loves an Iranian woman?  That he has rejected all the wholesome American girls?  The Christian girls, not to mention a possible Jew here or there?

In Memphis, they spend the night with one of her old college friends.  The next morning they enter the INS building downtown.

“Do you have everything?” he asks.

“Yes, of course.”

But it turns out that the photo she’s taken to be used for her permanent residency card is all wrong.  Her complete right ear must be showing; apparently ears cannot be replicated, duplicated, doctored, or tailored.

They leave the building, walk two blocks to the convenient photo mart on the corner.  A place that knows why it exists.

Another twenty dollars and they’re back in the INS office.

Reagan’s photo beams down on all.

They engage in nervous conversation with another couple.  When she excuses herself to the ladies’ room, the other man turns to him and sympathizes:

“This process is hard on everyone.  But I think no one has it as bad as these poor Iranians.  No one wants them, and everyone thinks they’re guilty.”

It’s not exactly a calming moment.

Finally, they’re called in for their “interview.”

A man in a dark suit ushers them to two seats in a room as big as a good-sized closet.  He sits straight, opposite them.

His leather swivel-chair squeaks.  His blotchy-red face smiles, un-reassuringly.

“So Mr. Barr.  You live with your wife’s family?”

“We did, but not anymore.  We have an apartment of our own now.  I noted that on my updated form.”

“So you did.  Well then tell me.  When you did live with her family, what did you do?”

“What did I do?”

“Yes, around the house.  For fun.  What was your role in the family, Mr. Barr.  Your purpose?”

“Well, I’m in graduate school.  Mainly, I studied.  I’m writing my dissertation, and so when I’m home, when I lived with them, I was writing and revising.”

“How do you interact with her family?”

“Well, we watch TV together sometimes.  Thursday night is ‘Must-See TV.’  You know, ‘The Cosby Show,’ ‘Family Ties.’”

“Do you help around the house?”

“Yeah, sometimes I cook.  I clean up after they cook, and I cut the grass in summer.”

“You mow the grass?  You’re the yard boy?”
“Well, I’ve been mowing grass all my life.”

Never in his speculation about this day did he imagine that love and marriage, the determination of a perfect stranger as to what constitutes a “real marriage,” might hinge on mowing a lawn, a.k.a. “a labor of love.”

His last words in the interview:  “I love her.  What else can I say?”

The total time for the interview might have been ten minutes, or fifty.  They walk out of the office, the building, Memphis itself.  They drive home that day with no guarantee even of the time frame for the decision.

Weeks pass; then a few months.  Her student visa is limited.  She can start a graduate program, but to do so, she needs an assistantship.  She has to work, and she can’t without her permanent card.  His grad school stipend is $484 a month.  Rent is $150.  They live on JFG coffee and ninety-cent lunch specials at Smokey’s Den, the cafeteria at the UT Student center.  For that amount you can get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a bowl of can-opened vegetable soup.  Life is uncertain then, the future in doubt.

Finally, five months after the interview, a letter arrives, postmarked INS:

“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Barr,

Inspector ______ will be in contact with you soon.  Your case merits further investigation.

Sincerely,

The INS

“What do they want to investigate?  We live together.  We love each other.”

It’s all true.  He knows she loves him now.  They take long walks in the fall around campus.  They hold hands.  Her eyes, so shy in the early days, meet his regularly and don’t turn away.  How do any two people find each other and fall in love?  What other forms does love take?

They freeze together by the winter window wondering what form this investigation will take.

“Well I’m writing them back,” he declares.  And he does.

“By all means, come investigate,” he invites.  “Come any time.  We’re waiting on you.”

It’s as bold and simple as that, and three weeks later, unexpectedly, miraculously, her green card arrives in the mail.

No accompanying note.  No congratulations or salutations.

A few months later, her parents obtain political asylum.

Reagan is still President.

V

The following Christmas, his parents throw them a wedding party in Bessemer.  He had told them about the marriage on another visit earlier that fall.  They weren’t as shocked as he thought they might be, though his father did wonder aloud, as he dried the dishes that evening, about “where they went wrong.”  His question actually struck his son as funny, however, given all that the parents didn’t know about their son’s past adventures.

“I think you did a great job,” he says reassuringly.  And with his mother’s punctuated sigh, he knew that all, eventually, would be well.

At the wedding party, old family friends gather; champagne and beef tenderloin serve everyone.  And her parents, true to both their nature and culture, bring heaping platters of Shirin polo.

Four years later, she becomes a citizen.  George HW Bush, former CIA director, is the country’s new leader.

They move to South Carolina.  Get jobs.  Become fine, productive American citizens.

They have two children.  Daughters, just as they wanted.

And then, one evening over dinner with her visiting family, her sister reveals that they are half-Jewish on their mother’s side.

Ah life.

VI

He and his Iranian bride have been married now for twenty-nine years.

No, she wasn’t in love with him when they married.  Twenty-one at that time, their oldest daughter is beyond that age.

“I wanna know what love is,” the legendary 80’s rock band Foreigner pleads.  Sometimes even the unlikeliest sources make the most appropriate pleas.

But they at least have discovered the hidden treasures of love.

Love is taking chances: assuming the duties of an upper-level class when you’re only a graduate assistant; giving up teaching job in New Orleans because you know you’ll lose her if you move away.

Love is investigation and the perfect right ear.

Love is mowing grass and eating warmed-up vegetable soup.

Love is realizing that the path of two people, so twisted and far, should have never led to each other.

Love is also knowing that maybe it was these convoluted twists that ensured that their path to each other was meant to be.

Love is realizing that your parents paid a relative stranger, a rabbi from outside the community, $50.00 to marry them so that they could then produce you so that you would not necessarily seek, but nevertheless find, an Iranian girl whose great-grandfather was a rabbi, a man she never knew.

Love is listening to the Bishop mispronounce your name, over and over, at your own wedding.

Love is the $5.00 he accepted for doing so.

Love is listening to parents who more or less arranged your marriage.

Love is knowing that they were right to do so, and that the knowing, like the love, will never be lost.

Love is wanting to tell this story and then doing it.

Love is accepting that you weren’t loved at first, but that there was room to try.

Love is someone’s taking a sabbatical and leaving the door open behind him.

Love is walking through that open door.

Love comes in all colors: Raven black; olive-brown; and the verdant green of the year’s longest day, though as it turns out, a green card is actually a dark and rich hue of blue on an off-white background. This is a reality that, if you think about it, defies all logic, rules, and conventional space.

Just like the love the two of you have made.

 

 

Terry Barr’s nonfiction has been published in such journals as “Blue Lyra Review,” “Sport Literate,” “Poetica,” “Construction,” and “Full Grown People.” His column on music appears regularly on culturemass.com, and he lives in Greenville, SC, with his wife and two daughters.

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