Daniel Rafinejad | Longreads | May 2018 | 17 minutes (4,503 words)
My friend Sam makes experimental films I do not understand. Sam is an artist; I like Doritos.
Sam is tall, a little cross-eyed. He’s earnest but also contrarian and snobby. He acts like he’s the one person ever to have noticed the moon.
We met as freshmen at Columbia. I was flattered someone so cool would talk to me. Sam clothed and carried himself with a perfect carelessness, while I wore sweater vests and dropped things a lot.
I won Sam over by talking about weasel menstrual fluid.
“I like taxidermied animals, too,” I lied, as we rode the elevator up to the 11th floor of John Jay Hall one autumn afternoon. He was holding a stuffed rodent.
“It’s a weasel?” I mumbled.
“Yes,” he answered. He looked at me blinking, as if peering through a curtain of bangs, though his raven hair was combed and parted to the right of his clear, pale face. “His name is Portnoy.”
“Portnoy means ‘tailor’ in Russian,” I said. He looked down at me with a half-smile and studied my buzzed head. I continued with more confidence: “My great-grandmother, who, I think, was a witch in Iran, said that sleeping on a pillowcase stained with a she-weasel’s menstrual fluid chases away nightmares.”
Sam let out a high, delicate giggle. “That’s remarkable,” he said. The elevator doors opened, and we were friends. I followed him down the hall, in the opposite direction from my room.
We stopped in front of his door. He opened it with the key card the university had just adopted in its dorms. The walls and ceilings of his room were taped with flowers made from colored butcher paper. I stopped as he crossed the door saddle into his room.
Sam didn’t care that his friends, some of whom were in their 30s and had names like Fran, looked at me as if I were an encyclopedia salesman with a hump.
“I know nothing about Iran,” he turned around and said after putting Portnoy on his bed.
“Oh, you can ask me anything,” I responded, trying to lean in the doorway. “I think I’m going to major in Islamic Studies.”
“Are you a Mooss-lim?”
“Oh! Yeah. Totally Muslim. My mom wears the veil, and my dad beats her up at night. I’m kidding. Well, sometimes I wish she would beat him, and she’s totally capable of it, but I’m from San Francisco. We celebrate communist Christmas there on December 31st.”
Sam chuckled a puff of air out his nostrils.
“I also like math,” I added. How were his cutoff shorts so perfectly frayed? “D’you know what you might wanna major in?” I vulgarized my speech — dropping final g’s, gliding over consonants — when interrogating straight men.
“Film,” he answered.
“I’m going to make a film about Portnoy here. I have a taxidermy collection.” He gestured behind him to a rabbit and two chicks on his dresser. I didn’t take that as an invitation to enter.
“Iranian film is having a kind of renaissance, you know,” I said.
“Then I’ll have to check some out.” Another chuckle puff, a head nod, and Sam shut the door in my face. I stood, staring at the paper daisy blocking the “–uel” of the “Samuel” sign the RA had put on Sam’s door before move-in day. Move-in day felt like a hundred years ago.
A few weeks later Sam’s high school girlfriend visited from Mount Holyoke. He stopped me in the hall on my way to the bathroom to introduce me to her. She was paler than he: black jeans, black hair, last-call eyes, but sexy and dewy — a fructiferous Patti Smith. He called me “the funniest cat.”
I’d still never entered his room.
“What are you two doing this weekend?” I asked from the hallway.
“You know,” Sam answered bluntly. “Talk. Take walks. Have sex.”
I heard the word sex, all sussurant slips and inhalations, and my body became a flock of doves that flew away in a thousand directions, leaving behind a lump of sweaty clothes from the Gap and a pair of Pro-Keds. I had never been kissed before. Because of music videos, I thought heterosexual sex was all about body paint and loud singing.
“You went to the same high school?” I asked, trying to inject innocence into the conversation.
“No,” the girlfriend said. “We’re from nearby towns in Massachusetts. We met on a program in Nicaragua last summer.”
“Oh!” I squealed. “I’d love to go to Nicaragua! Do you two know that the United States military has intervened in Nicaragua at least ten times since 1890. That’s like once a decade. Isn’t that bananas? Like … literally.”
“See?” Sam said, as he released his airy giggle and looked at his girlfriend. “This guy’s nuts.”
“So you speak Spanish, Sam?” I asked.
“I do not,” he answered. He stared at me.
“I’ve found out that you can go pretty much any place knowing just English and get along fine.” How many places had he been to? I blushed and gestured toward the bathroom.
That Thanksgiving Sam and I were the only kids on the 11th floor who didn’t have a place to go. I couldn’t afford to fly back to California, and the winter break was a few weeks away anyway. Sam could have gone home to New England, but he chose not to. He mumbled something about Indians and conservative parents and the slaughter of fowl. In honor of “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” I made buttered toast and popcorn and set out two small bowls of jelly beans on the coffee table in the student lounge. He checked out a VCR and a video of Cries and Whispers from the library and tossed a bag of fresh cranberries onto the coffee table as a contribution to the Snoopy feast.
Watching the movie, I told him how weird it felt to hold a cold cranberry while watching a 19th-century Swedish woman shatter a crystal glass against her vanity and cut out a chunk of her vagina with a shard.
“Remarkable,” he whispered.
Later that night, I smoked pot for the first time. I didn’t feel much, but I was finally in his dorm room. I lay on the floor. We talked about Noah Webster, Tarkovsky (whom I had never heard of), and our mutual love of Southern Comfort.
He was kind and, for the first time, interested in my life. He asked me to draw a picture of the house I grew up in. I obliged.
He confessed to me that his first name is actually Simon. He’s Simon Samuel. He’s a fifth.
“I don’t have a middle name,” I said. Another lie. I didn’t want to hear him say Reza, because it would sound like “razor.”
Sam didn’t care that I preferred Patti LuPone’s live album to The Velvet Underground & Nico or that I failed at vegetarianism or that his friends, some of whom were in their 30s and had names like Fran, looked at me as if I were an encyclopedia salesman with a hump. We went to concerts (“shows,” he called them) and museum exhibits and bars that didn’t card us. I never had fun, but I found the experiences edifying. I got the courage to Nair off all the hair on my torso and start wearing overalls.
I cried in the Hollywood sunshine holding Sam.
Junior year, Sam went to Salamanca, Spain, to study under an expert on the films of Buñuel. We sat on the floor in the dark, dusty apartment he had sublet the summer before, discussing which books to take with him.
“Lovecraft?” he asked.
“Racist,” I responded.
“His nihilism pleases me. What about the Bhagavad Gita?” Sam threw me a sly smile.
“Sure. It’s short. It’s also Indian, you know.”
Sam’s mother was born and raised on the Mississippi Delta, although she spent most of her adult life in Yankee territory. Of the many Southern writers I love, Sam had only read Truman Capote, and only one work of his at that. In high school, Sam wrote a paper called “Towards a Homosexual Marxism: Sexuality and Transaction in Other Voices, Other Rooms,” the title of which struck me as fearless and fabulous, like sauntering naked out of the dorm shower stalls.
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I decided to compile a reader of short literary pieces for Sam to take abroad, so that he could better comprehend his white Southern roots. In Butler Library, I carefully Xeroxed Eudora Welty’s “Music from Spain” (not set in the South but featuring the best description of San Francisco I’ve ever read), William Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun,” James Alan McPherson’s “The Faithful,” Carson McCullers’s “The Haunted Boy,” and Truman Capote’s “A Beautiful Child” (also not set in the South, but Gothic in mood). Then I had them bound together at a copy store.
I was most excited for Sam to read the Capote. “A Beautiful Child,” an essay first published in Esquire, is about Marilyn Monroe and the movies. I thought Sam would be pleased by a line at the very end, a punk shock that disrupts Capote’s lyrical reportage: Why does life have to be so fucking rotten?
Sam never mentioned my gift reader in any of the emails and aerograms we exchanged while he was away. When he got back, I asked him about it.
“I did not care for the Capote,” he said to my eyes. His slow blinks were resolute, his gaze, unwavering. “He’s so self-involved.”
I felt a flush of admiration for him. He was honest. We weren’t kids anymore, and it was time for us — he was telling me — not to be so self-involved.
While I was in grad school in Los Angeles studying Persian literature and he remained in New York working in film, Sam and I engaged in long email exchanges that never touched on the feeling present. We wrote about words we liked: how “transfix” seems both like a contradiction in terms and accurate; how perfect “purse” sounds, in all its meanings; how neither of us would ever call a person “eccentric.” We joked about behaviors that confounded us, such as when people berate you and then say, with a laugh, “Aw, I’m just givin’ you a hard time.”
We struggled in our 20s to make the forces swirling around our lives reflect us. We lost as much as we gained. Sam was interning for a documentary filmmaker in Tribeca on 9/11. He got out safely, and like thousands of others, he walked north. He kept on walking and walking till he got past Madison Square Garden, to where he could no longer smell the smoke or the acid or the flesh. Smoothie bars were popular then, and Sam had three smoothies along the way.
He told me he had followed an elderly Hasidic man up the island. Sam would invariably pass the faltering man, pop into an open juice bar for another smoothie, come out, and rejoin the Hasid for their tandem walk toward clean air. They never spoke or acknowledged one another.
A month later, Sam emailed me for help. He still hadn’t replied to dozens of messages and notes from friends concerned about his safety and whereabouts. He wanted me to write a group email for him to let everyone know he was shaken but OK.
“I am not capable of it,” he wrote me. “I still haven’t found an anodyne for my own grief.”
I didn’t know where to begin. How could I replicate Sam’s cold, articulate voice? For inspiration, I watched parts of two Douglas Sirk “women’s pictures” from the 1950s; they seemed like the right blend of bourgeois and emotional. My first draft was ridiculous: “My dear friends, I feel like an absolute heel for taking so long to reply to your sympathy letters.”
I spent an entire day writing and rewriting. I settled on short, declarative sentences favoring words of Germanic origin to Latinate ones and avoiding contractions. I am well. Life is hard. Sam called the email “good.” I felt compelled to remind him that Iran had nothing to do with the attacks, that no Iranian had ever committed an act of terror on American soil, that maybe he should read about Iranian ‘Āshurā rites and ta’ziyeh passion plays. I thought he might be moved by them in the way that solitary Hasidic man moved him. He never replied, but he did send the email unchanged.
In 2006, my boyfriend died at 36 of pancreatic cancer, and Sam flew out for the funeral. I hadn’t seen him in years; he had met Srdjan but once. I walked out of the little bungalow Srdjan and I shared as Sam pulled his suitcase up the walk. The yellow light of early afternoon stung my eyes. We hugged, and without saying a word, I wept into the sleeve of his upper arm.
During the six months of Srdjan’s illness, no one else saw me cry. Less than a week before he died, I sobbed in sudden, animal paroxysms while on the phone with my mother; then I cried in the Hollywood sunshine holding Sam.
Sam and I never talk about grief, but we’ve bountifully told stories about our late loved ones to each other. It’s a relief to discuss the dead without worry of seeming depressing or excessive, but I wonder whether we’ve run out of stories.
In 2012, his wife, a historian he met after college, died in her 30s of leukemia. She looked like Jean Seberg, though she was an Italian American from Staten Island. I told her she embodied the literal meaning of the word “kind” in Persian, mehrabān: the guardian of love.
Sam wrote me the day after she succumbed. It happened faster than anyone expected. I replied immediately:
I’m so sorry. I can’t know what Jamie’s painful passage must have been like for you and your families. I do know from Srdjan’s death that grief is a sort of insanity. I hope you have people checking in on you and to whom you can speak.
I also know for certain that at some point — I promise — you will feel lucky. Lucky to have known Jaimie and lucky to have been able to love someone so much.
I apologize I haven’t been in better touch. I was in New York last summer for a month, and I thought of you and Jamie quite a lot. I’m so sorry we didn’t meet then.
You two seemed permanent as stone. I thought once things settled down with me and my foolish dramas, I’d give you a call, we’d all catch up, I’d tell you more stories about my crazy mother, as if no time had passed.
I’m so grateful that we were able to do that as many times as we did. I’ll never forget any of it.
Of course I’ll be there on the 22nd. I’ll call you tomorrow.
In love and brotherhood,
and with as many condolences as can give you wings —
your friend Danny
At her memorial service, Sam asked that I sit next to him. He spent most of the ceremony staring ahead blank-faced, gripping my wrist.
His parents, who had him later in life, died within five weeks of one another. They were not kind people. As Sam’s wife’s body was being lowered into the earth, I overheard his father say, “Well, I guess we’ll never see her again.” I wanted to turn around, pull down the brilliantined wires atop his fat head, and push him into the grave. Instead, I hummed a march from Guys and Dolls that entered my mind during the bleak church service that preceded the interment: “If you’re a sinner, and you pray no more / Follow, follow the fold.”
Sam and I never talk about grief, but we’ve bountifully told stories about our late loved ones to each other. It’s a relief to discuss the dead without worry of seeming depressing or excessive, but I wonder whether we’ve run out of stories. Those imaginary bangs on that beautiful head are gone; he’s bald now. We both look tired around the eyes. Moths turned Portnoy to dust years ago.
My absentmindedness and my easy enthusiasm for everything get on his nerves. I’m too undisciplined and emotional, too mainstream in taste and mien. And I’ve come to find his hipsterdom tiresome. Maybe it’s envy: I’m in awe of his facility with English, his wardrobe, and his good looks. Maybe it’s a crush that I thought dissipated long ago on those elevator rides up and down John Jay Hall.
Maybe it’s also a growing intolerance toward posturing and spoiled behavior. His deportment is now one of constant injury. Even his whinny of a laugh seems to have gone.
Two summers ago, he forgot to call me when he said he would, because, as he told me via text the next day, he “got caught up re-caulking the tub.” That struck me as a particularly cruel, particularly hetero thing to say to clumsy me, someone who only thinks of caulk when making a bad pun. I responded with a bitchy email complaining about his unavailability. I thanked him for teaching me “a deeper respect for mystery” and for reminding me of “the grip and the menace of grief’s heartlock.” (I impressed myself with the word “heartlock.”) Of course I didn’t mean to end our 21-year friendship, but I did intend to remove myself from the blue spotlight we’d shared for four years.
He telephoned right away, which surprised me. I let it go to voicemail. He didn’t leave a message.
We spoke at the end of that week, and we repaired the ruptures, as grown-ups do. He apologized. I apologized. I called him a honky and had to apologize again. The next day he sent me a rough cut of a film he’s made. We’d never discussed his work before. I didn’t understand his movie. It’s an “experimental” comedy about a young man with a grotesque proboscis — Sam’s word. It seems smart and sexy, but I hated it.
Sam is declarative. I should have responded in kind, as he had with “A Beautiful Child.” He has opinions, as he likes to say, and so do I. He likes Lovecraft. He’s not ashamed of having never learned Spanish or of writing about homosexuality or of possessing no interest in Iran or the Middle East. He deserved a frank response — what we’d always given each other.
I delayed a discussion of the film with my own version of bathtub caulking: weird jobs, not feeling well, reading forgotten American authors like John Ehle and Conrad Aiken. Finally, I suggested we see the movie Christine — not the old Stephen King movie but a 2016 feature film about a Sarasota newscaster who shot herself dead on live television in 1973. It’s a fascinating film. It wasn’t the right movie for us to watch, however, after not having seen one another for three months. It is relentless, and we both left Lincoln Center rattled.
“It was good,” Sam said as we walked up Broadway on that windy, moonlorn October evening. I hate the word “good.” It means nothing outside of ethics.
“I thought it was … astonishing,” I said, careful not to say “remarkable,” a word which I had given him in 1995. “I liked the ending, that it ended with the Mary Tyler Moore theme song. That’s also set in a newsroom. And it’s about women in the workplace.”
“It felt contrived,” said Sam. “Like out of a first-year screenwriting course. It could have been so much messier.” My beard stubble started to sting.
“Well, what do I know?” I said. “I don’t even like film. I don’t like movies anymore.”
“You are aware that I am a filmmaker?” he asked.
“You are aware that you’re condescending?” I replied. I should have called Sam’s film a piece of shit right then and there. But I continued, like a Woody Allen character: “It’s an expired medium, Sam. It once held a place at the center of culture, but no longer. I won’t die if I never see another film again. In fact, I’ll consider it a triumph in my small life if I never again have to witness straight white dudes creaming over Stanley Kubrick and convincing me he’s God.”
“I love Kubrick.” I knew that. He owns a giant Kubrick coffee table book. His pronunciation seemed purposeful: I had said Queue-brick, while he said Coo-brick.
“You’re really stressing me out, man,” he said. “I feel sick. I’m going home.”
I could feel my heart pattering against my rib cage. He did look sick. He pressed a wrist into his concave belly.
I turned around and watched his slim frame gamboling down the street. I wanted to call out his name. I tried to think of a plane crash, a shooting, a natural disaster that could justify a shout after a year and a half’s silence. Nothing came to mind.
A few months after his wife died, I noticed a bag of Doritos sitting upright on a shelf in one of his kitchen cupboards, and I was delighted. It seemed so human, so promising — a reach and a relinquishment at the same time: movement forward, toward people, away from framed alligator teeth and outfits for his deranged dog, Milton, a creature more sin than mammal.
I wonder whether I’d be so moved today. I might log it as further evidence of his hypocritical hipster life.
A hipster is a negative predication. No one admits to being a hipster. I should have just told him I am not. I am not the person to comment on your film. I’m not a gangly undergraduate anymore. I am not an amusement. I am not a condolence.
“Let’s not talk about this anymore,” I said on 71st and Broadway, as wind from the river picked up, and Sam yanked his skullcap down over his brows. “Come on, I have every stomach medication in my apartment.” I said. “We’re almost at my place, Sam-Sam.”
“I need to go now.”
“We’re just there.”
“I’m not coming.”
“I can’t take this, Sam. I can’t.”
Before I could continue, as I looked up at the Big Apple Bank clock, he had hailed a cab and was stepping backwards into the car. I made a noise, something between an “ah” and a goose call. Chuckle puff, head nod, door slam … and Sam went off into the night, back to Brooklyn and heartlock and his gang of peculiar white buddies watching their endless Stanley Kubrick film festival.
The night we saw Christine, I was supposed to return to Sam his wife’s black baseball cap, which I had borrowed from him during the Summer of Caulk, when he and I had taken Milton for a walk through McCarren Park in Williamsburg. I forgot to give it back and felt bad about it, so I shipped the hat to Sam in an enormous Christmas-themed USPS box, along with a letter I typed out on an electric Smith-Corona typewriter (a new hobby). I wrote that I had spent a lot of time thinking about his film and that while it was good, I knew he could do better.
A thirty-minute whatsit of a movie can be quirky; ninety-minutes of doggerel imagery is indulgent. “Experimental” can’t be boring. I wouldn’t be drawn to those images if they were playing silently on one of those little Plexiglas screens in an art installation.
What happens to the old lady in the beginning? Why does the little boy pee blood? What are you trying to say with the “proboscis” and the horses?
I politely asked for my thermos back. Some time before, I had brought him butternut squash soup with sumac in a thermos from an old metal Family Affair lunchbox. Family Affair was a sitcom, glamorous (to me) and slightly queer (to most urban gay men pushing sixty, and me), that ran from 1966–1972. As a boy, I used to watch it in reruns on a UHF TV station, and I had found the lunchbox at a tag sale in Los Angeles. I wrote that the lunchbox was just a thing, an inconsequential object, but that it did not belong to him. Could he please either return it to me or throw it away?
Sam sent back the thermos without a note, but he made sure I knew, by refusing to write out my address by hand, that his deep hurt adumbrated the trouble of shipping the squatty thermos. He ripped the return address label from the Christmas box and taped it onto a jiffy bag mailer.
Sam had a Facebook page on which he’d post photographs maybe once a season: a Thanksgiving yam sprouting antler-like roots; a selfie with Milton inside his parka, Sam’s eyebrows arched in defiance at his iPhone. But Sam seems to have gone off all social media since the presidential election. Aside from an outdated LinkedIn page, I can’t find him online.
I think I saw him one day, in January, on 18th Street. I was walking west, he was walking east. I saw the black jeans, the beanie, the sad, bright face, the green-honey eyes. Ensconced in our winter drag and music pods and moving at full New York gallops, we passed one another. I walked down half a block and stopped. I turned around and watched his slim frame gamboling down the street. I wanted to call out his name. I tried to think of a plane crash, a shooting, a natural disaster that could justify a shout after a year and a half’s silence. Nothing came to mind.
I read an article in an oldish New York magazine that argued it was New York City that created Donald Trump. We New Yorkers are as exceptionalist and as snobby as he, only we think — we know — that his snobbery is execrable and bigoted while ours is righteous and kind. I thought of Sam. Whatever our backgrounds, he and I have our own smug, idiosyncratic definitions of cool. We’re both snobs who, when we’re alone with our thoughts, outside our personal cathedrals — bookshops or cinemas or cafes or theaters or museums or Netflix — view ourselves from without and know that a life of impeccant mediocrity is the best we can hope for.
I began to work on this essay. I emailed him a draft, up to the part when he goes back to his Kubrick bromances in Brooklyn.
I received a short, two-sentence reply: “Good luck with it, Danny. It is excellent.” Excellent. Can we excel now? Are you excelling, Sam? Do you know I still cry for you?
I don’t think I shall see Sam again. The great-grandmother witch in me knows that. I don’t want to think of him or of our pasts anymore. I want to think of Sam far away from the fold — in Vermont or maybe Minnesota, someplace cold — re-married. I want to think of him and his wife having tall beers with another married couple, gay or straight. I want one person in that other couple to mention Iran, and I want Sam to say, “I had an Iranian friend in college, and he told me that Iranians don’t think of themselves as olive-skinned or brown but ‘wheaten.’”
I want to imagine him dancing with his daughter to a pop song that was nostalgic even when it was first released — The Dixie Cups’ “Going to the Chapel” or Madonna’s “True Blue.” He and his little girl are in a bright upstairs bedroom. There are no grotesque curiosities anywhere. Sam is trying to do the twist, and he is laughing loudly.
* * *
Names in this essay have been changed.
Daniel Rafinejad taught Persian language and literature at Harvard University before devoting himself to full-time writing and translating. He is currently working on a memoir.
Editor: Dana Snitzky