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“STEPHAN! THE CHEESE!”
“Dad I’m com…” he tried to reply, eyebrows furrowing in distress.
“NO TIME FOR TALKING! SORAYA! I NEED THE RICE”
She looked at me in desperation. “Honey Joon,” Soraya said. “Take this rice into the dining room ya? We are late oh boy we are late AY SHARAM!”
The doorbell rang. We all stared. “Shit!” she yelled. I looked at Stephan and our eyes laughed.
The door opened, and a man, dressed in a leather jacket, entered jubilantly. “Sharam! Heello!” a kiss on both sides of the cheek, “Where ees Soraya? In de kitchen, eh? Well she has got to work! Bahaha. Do you have a lighter for thees cigar? Ah yes.”
“SORAYA! I NEED THE MANCHEGO!”
“SHARAM I AM COMING…”
“WOMAN BRING THE CHEESE! WOW!”
Soraya looked at Stephan. “Ay all the things I do, Stephy, all the things I do for him you don’t understand sometimes, it is crazy. It’s crazy.”
This is where I grew up. Some call it a second home. I call it a Persian one. Whatever it is, it is the place where my best friend lived, so I was forced to embrace it. Stephan wore basketball shorts, sometimes with a pair of Nike’s. His hair usually buzzed, his eyebrows connected like the Golden Gate Bridge. He was always the tall one in school, and always seemed to struggle with classes. But we were made for each other. Between Laker games, rap music, and video games, we were inseparable. It might have been the most stable relationship of my childhood. His household however, couldn’t be any different.
“JACKSON! WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?”
I looked up at Sharam, who was obviously baffled. “Sharam, I saw you earlier! I’m sleeping over, remember?”
His mouth opened slightly as if he was waiting for something to land in it.
“OF COURSE! HOW ARE YOU MAN?” His scruffy beard tickled my cheeks as he kissed me. “GOOD TO SEE YOU! NOW GO AND HELP SORAYA WITH THAT SALAD”
“Sharam I have been help…” I pleaded as he turned his attention back to Soraya.
“SORAYA! NO TOMATOES! AZADA IS ALLERGIC!”
“BUT SHARAM, I PUT THEM IN…”
“AH! THIS SHOULD HAVE STARTED 10 MINUTES AGO!”
The men in the dining room looked impatient and unimpressed as they talked quietly amongst one another. Sharam mumbled in Farsi to one, who chuckled softly. Soraya rushed in to the dining room, two plates in each hand. “Here, here, here, I’m sorry I’m SORRY! Hello Sarfaz, yes nice to see you, hello Azada sorry about the tomatoes, they are out, yes it’s good…”
Her eyes kept darting back and forth. Sharam announced something in Farsi, and the men sat down and began to deal cards across the circular wooden table. Soraya came back into the kitchen and hugged Stephan. She mumbled in his ear as her arms rocked him back and forth.
“Mama’s sorry, Stephy, Mama’s sorry.”
As we grew older, Stephan and I found different crowds. He, the wannabe “gangsters” (although neither he nor I considered him one), and I, the cool kids. This separation never seemed to strain our deep-rooted friendship, and things stayed the same. Stephan had two brothers: Sean and Sasha. Both handsome, both older. They’d stop by when I slept over, kissing me on the forehead and asking me how many girlfriends I had. Stephan once said Sean dated a girl from a reality show, but I didn’t believe it. Even if the brothers came over, Stephan and I hurried through pleasantries to get to the one thing we desired most: video games. We would hungrily climb the stairs to his room and turn on whatever the newest game console was. (Although he wasn’t wealthy, he always seemed to have the newest system). Then, the games would begin, with always the same subject: basketball. We’d stay up to the wee hours in the morning editing our players, drafting our fantasy teams, yelling at each other as we fiercely and lovingly competed in a game. When our eyelids burned, and our ears were ringing with the sound of Marv Albert’s voice, Stephan would climb into bed. I’d fold out the dark blue pad that Soraya left in the room every time I slept over, and burrow into my sleeping bag.
The poker game was going full throttle in the dining room. Soraya seemed momentarily relieved. Stephan and I were flicking through channels on the 20-inch Toshiba in the kitchen, desperately looking for something to drown out the noise of the Farsi cries of defeat next door.
Soraya turned her attention to me. “So Jackson honey, you want something to eat? Eh? I got Pom juice! I know you like this juice.” She paused to glance over at my facial expression, and seeing that I looked back, she continued.
“Your mom still got a boyfriend ya? He’s a good man. And your grandma? How is she? Poor Stephy his grandma lives so far away.”
Stephan’s eyes stayed glued to the TV.
“Look. He doesn’t listen. Ay, Jackson, I wish you lived with me. You’re smart; you’d know what to do when bills come--ay mommy! Sharam doesn’t know what to do anymore…”
“Mom, could you stop please?” Soraya and I both looked at Stephan. “I’m trying to watch TV…”
The house was a simple two-story structure, located in the lower middle class suburbia of Bel Air. The furniture was old and dull, and whenever I walked in I always looked for something that wasn’t beige, maroon, or white, although deep down I knew I’d never find it. Stephan and I would use the house to shape everything we did. Out back, in the yard they shared with a neighbor (who at one point was a Chinese guy with a daughter named LaLa, or so we thought. We ding-dong-ditched them frequently), two basketball hoops were bolted into the cream stucco wall. One stood 7’6’’, the other a standard 10’. Stephan, always the better basketball player, would invent games for us. One time, when we were in second grade, we rolled over the recycle bin to the short rim. Stephan climbed on top, and triumphantly dunked the ball. Right when he let go of the ball, the lid of the bin collapsed, leaving him hanging on the rim, bewildered. I frantically grabbed his legs, and he let go. We both fell onto the ground, hysterically laughing.
In the hallways, we’d play catch to annoy Soraya. One day, we were ricocheting balls off the walls, when one struck a picture. Soraya stormed out. “Ay! Mommy! Who is this picture?” She picked up the frame and turned to us, genuinely perplexed. “Who IS this? I don’t know!”
“Mom,” Stephan said. “That’s your sister.” I fell to the floor laughing.
It was break time at the poker game. The men lined up at the long table, walking down it, inspecting the food. When all had gotten their share, they sat to eat. But the large china Soraya owned couldn’t fit all together on the small dining room table.
“Soraya, I will sit here with you in the kitchen,” one of the men announced.
“Ok, ok, ok Mahtab this is good. STEPHY! GET THE CHAIR” Soraya ordered.
Mahtab kissed Stephan on the forehead and sat down. “How ees thees dog?” He asked, pointing at Peanut.
Peanut looked back. He was a five-year-old, small enough to fit in a purse, about a foot long, weighing in at five pounds. I remembered when Soraya first got Peanut. She yelled at him, cursed him, and cried to him. Peanut ran around the house, peeing on everything, humping the throw pillows. Finally, Soraya had had enough. Peanut was to be neutered. Every since, he peed outside, didn’t bark, and only humped the occasional stuffed animal. Soraya was proud.
“What? Peanut?” Soraya asked. “He’s good, good doggie yes you are!” she said as she pressed her face to Peanut’s, and he greeted her with a lick on the nose.
Mahtab nodded approvingly. “Do you take heem to get thees anus gland clean?”
Stephan choked on his Pom juice.
“No Stephy it’s real!” Soraya stressed.
Mahtab nodded again, and began to explain.
“See, the dogs, they need to be esqueezed there in the anus,” he reiterated, while making a pinching motion with his fingers. I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing.
“It is becaahs, well you know, when ze other dogs sniff in the beehind, they know who they are, and so, when you esqueeze thees gland, ze dogs can communicate.”
Soraya nodded as if she was listening to a college professor. Stephan looked at me. One of us had to say something.
“Um, Mahtab?” Stephan asked timidly, trying not to laugh. He looked at Stephan and raised his eyebrows. “How do you know this?”
Mahtab’s face remained serious, and he took a long drink from his wine. He set the glass down triumphantly and stared at Stephan. “Becaahs” he said as he took a bite of chicken. “I know!”
The relationship between Soraya and Sharam was unpredictable, to say the least. Whenever I was at the house, I’d see one of two situations. On some days, Sharam would come back from a day of work at Angela’s Rugs, the store he owned, and snap at her.
“SORAYA! WHERE IS DINNER, EH? HAVE YOU WALKED THE DOG?”
Soraya would simply mutter something to the extent of “Sorry Sharam, I try” and shuffle upstairs.
On other days, usually the weekend, Sharam came home joyful and excited.
“EY STEPH! LAKER GAME ON TONIGHT EH? AH! MY WIFE! SORAYA! COME HERE JOON JOON.”
He’d kiss her on the head, look her in the eyes and tell her calmly, one of the only times he wasn’t fervently shouting, “You look gorgeous.” Soraya would laugh and push him away.
“Ay Sharam! Stop it! See Jackson, what he does to me? What will I do with him?”
I liked to believe that deep down love existed, even though I wondered how being married for that long could be any fun at all. As much as I loved and understood the chaos in which the two lived in and created, there were times when my tolerance was pushed too far.
It was the night of Stephan’s Bar Mitzvah. The service, complete with the whole family of S’s (Stephan, Sean, Sasha, Soraya, Sharam), had gone smoothly. I thought of it as a success, considering Soraya’s habit of crying and yelling (which she did), Stephan’s intense stage fright (which he aptly displayed), and the fact that there was a room full of Persians (but to my disappointment, no one argued during the service). The party had gone as planned. The DJ was overzealous; the music was TOO LOUD SORAYA IM TELLING YOU TOO LOUD, and the food was good enough for the price.
Before hand, Soraya had consulted with me. “Ay Jackson! I am so stressed; I don’t know does the food look good to you? I hope they like it. Your mamma would know what to do because she has money! Ay I don’t have any Jack, no money for this. Why am I having a party? Ha, ha, ha oh no…” She caught her breath and regained her composure.
“We will have fun! Stephy’s Bar Mitzvah! My last kid can you believe that? Ah! I cant! They cost enough anyways ha, ha, ok! You will dance? You will dance so people will? People like you Jackson yes! They do! Poor Stephy is so nervous but you are good! Without you Jackson ay I don’t know anymore.” She stared off into space.
“Come on,” I encouraged her, once again accepting my role as the family moderator. “Lets start setting up.”
“Thank you, thank you” she whimpered, embracing me in a hug so tight I could see the makeup on her forehead, trying to disguise the wrinkles.
The party took place at a hotel, a nice one. Stephan had invited me to sleepover, but I had to decline, citing an early morning appointment with my mom to buy dress shoes. Though Stephan understood, this message wasn’t relayed to Sharam and Soraya.
It was around 10 o’ clock, and the party was beginning to wind down. My mom and I looked at each other across the room, nodded, and stood to begin saying goodbye.
Suddenly, something strange occurred. Soraya, somehow sensing I was leaving, rushed my table.
“Hey Soraya thanks so much for hav…”
“Where are you going?” she asked frantically.
“Leaving” I replied.
“What? No! You said you’d sleep here! With Stephy!”
I looked at my mom desperately for help, but she was engaged in a discussion with another parent. I breathed deeply, as I usually did when dealing with Soraya.
“Soraya, I cant. I told Steph. I told you. I have something to do tomorrow.”
She stood, her face pale. “Ay, ay, ay Stephy will be so sad ay mommy SHARAM! SHARAM!”
Oh shit. I shot my mom another look, but she had moved a few people down and was chatting with another mom. Great.
Sharam paraded over. “JACKSON MAN! WHATSUP!”
Soraya looked at him, about tell him something grave.
“Sharam, Jackson says he cannot sleep over with Stephy after the party.”
He raised his eyebrows and looked at me.
“IS THIS TRUE? BUT YOU SAID WE WERE! WE HAVE DESSERT AND EVERYTHING! COME ON KID! IT WILL BE FUN!”
I breathed deeply. This was getting rough.
“Sharam. Soraya. I told Stephan I couldn’t. I love you all, you know that, but I can’t. I just can’t.”
All of a sudden, like a sign from God, my mom appeared by my side. “Hey! Are you ready to go…”
She stopped as she saw their faces. She knew those faces. “What’s up?” she whispered to me.
“SOFIE!” Sharam declared. “JACKSON IS SLEEPING OVER WITH US!”
I stared at her with a “you know how he works” look.
She breathed deeply. “Um, well Jackson, is that what you want? We can always postpone the shopping trip…”
Sharam’s eyes lit up.
“SEE! WHAT DID I TELL YOU SORAYA? COME ON, EH? AHA! PERFECT! WE WILL HAVE FUN! YES!”
I looked at my mom with contempt. She mouthed, “I’m sorry,” as she tried not to laugh, and left.
Soraya was left standing, looking at me. “Jackson joon. I know there are things for you to do. But you are Stephy’s best friend ya? He needs you. Come on. You know after all this time we have fun, right? Yes we do.”
She kissed me on the cheek and walked away. I stood in wonder, reflecting on the first sensible advice in eight years that Soraya had given me. She was right. It was my duty as Stephan’s best friend to sleep over. I ended up having a great time anyways.
That night, as Stephan exhaustedly collapsed on his bed, his ears ringing with Hebrew, congratulations and 70s music, I laid awake on my blue mat on the floor, thinking about the family in who’s home I was sleeping in. I thought about my friendship with Stephan, and for the first time in eight years I felt weird about my relationship with his family. By the age of 14, I had been to four family birthdays, two funerals, and two Persian new years. That wasn’t the part I was concerned with. Alongside these important and celebratory events, which I deemed appropriate for the intimacy of our friendship, were situations that, upon my current reflection, had begun to make me feel uncomfortable. I had comforted Soraya at two in the morning as she wept about Sharam’s treatment of her and the mortgage on the house. I had stormed into the principal’s office upon hearing of Stephan’s expulsion, a different story entirely, demanding justification when Sharam and Soraya had already given up. These are not situations that the average best friend has to deal with on a daily basis. Then again, this isn’t the average family, and I’m not the average best friend.
The men were getting ready to leave. They all had puffed their cigars, ate their desserts, and began to kiss one another on the cheeks, exclaiming goodbyes in Farsi.
“Out of all the nights we have had, this is one of the funniest.”
Stephan looked at me. “I know.”
The last man walked out the door, and the dining room was left smelling like the Macy’s cologne section. It was getting late, and Stephan and I knew it was time to go upstairs to begin our videogame marathon. As we began walking towards the stairs, I heard Soraya shout with joy. I stopped.
“Thank you God! Ah! You do everything Jackson! Who knows where we’d be without you baby. That’s right Stephy ya? Without you Jackson I don’t know. You are my other kid! Can you believe that Sharam? He’s my kid! Oh ha, ha, ha!”
Sharam smiled and walked over. He whispered in my ear, his warm breath and prickly beard irritating me. “Thank you.”