Exiles

noun: the state of being barred from one’s native country, typically for political or punitive reasons.

We wrote letters home. A message in a bottle. I was six, drawing letters outside the dotted line, filling white space with my name and a link of hearts, trying to describe our house and our backyard and the shapes I found in the slow-moving waves.

My baba would always rewrite what I wrote in Farsi, making the words legible and clear in a language that I was slowly losing. He’d place his palm over the page, writing from right to left, and my mother would stare at her own blank page from her place on the sand, carefully glancing at the open hardcover in front of her. She was reading books on assimilation. On letters that we could send from sea. And the idea was this: that in writing letters home, letters that traveled through water, letters that we knew would never be found—we were letting go. We could detach from the place we left behind. Whatever we threw into the waves would bury itself there, idle in the current before it disappeared completely. My mom said that we could stay connected. That we could bring our culture and our traditions with us. The life we carved could be one of two identities, but the home we left couldn’t exist here—what was on the other side of the ocean had to die. So the literal act of writing a letter was meant to heal, something that no one would ever read, or know, untraceable in the low tide.

But with my small hands cupped over my notebook, I fantasized about my grandparents and the rest of my family in Iran finding the bottle on the shores of the Caspian Sea, coated with sand and thick with seaweed. I still imagined someone pulling off the cork—reaching in and pulling out the letter I wrote on a beach in California, where the sand was heavier on land and I felt lighter in the water.

My baba would put me on his shoulders and tell me to throw the bottle as far out into the ocean as I could. We’d watch it spin in the air, then spiral down, and when it landed in the water I swore that I could feel it sinking.

“Don’t worry, aziz,” my baba said, but I could barely hear him. We were suspended in the waves. “We know where it’s going.”

I had no memories of Iran. All I had were the things I saw in pictures. And I saw orange trees. Mountains that went beyond the frame.

In the picture my baba keeps in his wallet, I’m two, holding a jasmine in my hand and grinning at the camera. The image is in black and white, gritty at the edges, and the house in Shiraz is out of focus.

“You can’t leave me here. I’ll die without you.”

Anna was dramatic. She was also thin and wispy, and her jeans were always falling from her waist. We were at The Grove, people watching, choosing each other’s future husbands from the crowd of men that passed by. “That one,” I said, pointing to a tall, lanky man in a blue beanie with a beard almost as long as his torso.

“I hate you,” she said, using her straw to puncture the melting ice that clouded her Diet Coke. “Seriously, though, you can’t leave me. This fucking sucks.”

“It’s only for the summer.” I picked at the ice cubes in my cup, watching families hail the trolley by the Barnes & Noble. Tourists were already flooding to Los Angeles for the summer.

People came from cold places, bringing their kids with fanny-packs and brand-new Sketchers. August wasn’t that far, really, and I could spend most of my days in Iran sleeping on the beach, the Caspian Sea bordering the sand.

“A summer is basically forever, Nicole.”

“That’s really comforting. Thank you so much.”

She laughed, making sure no one was looking before she tipped her ice over the bench. “Okay. This is what we’re going to do. In two days you get on a plane to the fucking Middle East, and you won’t be back until school starts. God. So I propose we do something really radical tonight, something to remember the summer by.”

“Because we would forget it otherwise?”

“Fuck you. So, are we doing it?”

“What did you have in mind?”

“What if I told you I could get us into Ethan Lane’s grad party?”

I pulled my knees to my chest, trying to find some relief from the heat.

“And how are you managing to get two lowly sophomores into the party of the year?”

“Um, we’re juniors now, actually.” She stood up, stretching her arms behind her before pulling up her jeans. We had been sitting on the bench for over an hour, and she was already darker, slightly red at the shoulder blades, her dirty blonde hair catching sunlight. “I had history with Andrew Arso, remember? He’s friends with all the seniors, and he said he’d bring us.”

“Anna, he’s probably only doing it because he wants to hook up with you.” We circled our way towards the Barnes & Noble, trying to find shade.

“Probably. But it’s Ethan Lane, so I’m willing to at least let him grab a boob.”

“You’re my hero.”

She looped her arm through mine, the bangles on my wrist sliding down the length of my arm.

“Would I still be your hero if I pushed you in front of the trolley?”

“You’re twisted as fuck, Anna Sharp.”

“Why don’t you cry about it?”

The only person less excited about going to Iran than I was, was my mother. She didn’t have the memories that my baba had. She didn’t carry the same weight of nostalgia, overcome with longing at the sight of jasmines in bloom. She hated the idea of the two of us in veils. She didn’t say it out loud, but I knew she didn’t feel entirely safe going back. I knew she worried. But my baba told her that it had been years. It was better now than when they had left, and so long as we kept to ourselves, no one would bother us. She used to tell me stories about the veils, and the men who leered at her for walking through the streets alone, sizing up the length of her denim miniskirt and the fringe just above her knees.

She would tell me stories about how it used to be before the Shah was exiled. She could wear red lipstick, there in the desert daylight, without worrying about who would see it and who would care. When she would tell me these stories, I would imagine I was there. I would play with her makeup, drawing different colors on my lips. More than once, I fell asleep with the burgundy lipstick, and it would leave marks on my pillowcase.

“There are people who did not like the Shah, Nicole.” My baba told me this on the beach that day when we wrote our letters and let them drift to sea. His fingers curled around the ballpoint pen in his hand, and when the wind shifted, sand danced across his notepad.

“But he didn’t make people believe things they didn’t like.”

“That’s right,” he said. “But he was modernizing Iran. Do you know what modern means?” He knew I didn’t, but he was always testing me, teaching me, and encouraging me to read books in English that were beyond my years.

“He was trying to make Iran more Western. Iran has always been very traditional, and the Shah wanted to make it more…current. A lot people didn’t like that way of thinking.”

I lifted the sand into my hands. I was already bored and I wanted to make a sandcastle.

My mother was waving me over from her place in the water, her red bathing suit gleaming against her wet skin. She looked like a mermaid.

“I’m going to go swim with Mommy,” I said. My baba nodded, cupping my elbows as I stood up.

These memories were swimming in my head when Anna dropped me off. The afternoon heat had cooled into a stubborn breeze. I found my mother in the kitchen, the smell of chicken kabobs and roasted eggplant greeting me as I stood in the doorway. She always did this—in the days before we took a long trip, she would cook everything that was perishable, emptying the fridge completely. The kitchen counter was lined with fresh cucumbers soaked in yogurt, raisins mixed into a steaming bowl of basmati rice, and lentils cooling over warm sangak bread. I took a spoonful of yogurt, forgetting that she mixed it with raisins—I hated raisins unless they were covered in layers of chocolate.

“Hi, Mommy.”

“How was the mall, jeegar?” She let her hand linger on my arm, kissing the place between my eyebrows where I once had a pink birthmark my parents worried would never fade.

“It was okay. Who’s all this food for?”

“For us, of course.”

Persian food was rich and decadent. Overpowering in taste and smell. Every sense was exhausted. I wanted a pizza with one kind of cheese, an ice cream cone with one flavor, and a single taste. Anything that took less, really—less than the power it took to stew kidney beans evenly through parsley and green onions. I reached into the fridge and pulled out a cold Diet Coke, noting the bareness of the shelves. My mother had given our neighbors a key and phone numbers in Iran, but for months it would feel as if no one lived here. Every room would be unoccupied, buried in shadows.

I was halfway to my room when I heard my baba calling me from his study. I walked down the hallway, touching the banister. My mother had insisted on decorating everything in the house in shades of gold, from the banister to the chandelier. There was a large oil canvas of Cyrus the Great next to my baba’s office, the frame rimmed in emerald. When I was seven, my baba found me drawing on the gold helmet in blue crayon. It was the only time I could recall him truly yelling at me, curses in Farsi flying from his mouth.

He was at his desk, a large map of Iran spread across his lap. When he heard me come in, he leaned forward, reaching for the magnifying glass in the top drawer. His office was a mess of maps and open books, his blueprints from work scattered all over the floor. He was an electrical engineer and he studied the interior of places, outlining the electricity that would power whole buildings.

“Nicole joon, come look at this. Come see your baba’s childhood home.” I stepped behind him, leaning over his shoulder. From this angle, I could see every city and province. “See this here?” The magnifying glass hovered over Shiraz. One of the photo albums we normally kept downstairs was lying open on his desk. He flipped to the last page, pulling out an old photo of a house on a steep hill.

“You see this house, Nicole? This is where I grew up. Right here on the map. This is where I’m taking you.” The photo was in black and white, but something about the shading on the grass told me it was a deep green. The house itself wasn’t so remarkable. I made out a window, two stories, and a driveway that extended beyond the frame. I peered closely, my hand on my baba’s shoulder.

“That’s really something, isn’t it?”

“It’s really cool, Daddy.”

“Just wait until you see the real thing, aziz. You’ll never want to leave.”

My parents were in bed by eleven. I waited until I could hear the sound of my baba’s snoring before I plugged in my hair straightener, feeling heat radiate from the iron bar. I had long, unruly curls, and it took me nearly an hour to flatten every split end. I brushed through the knots, fighting every tangle with a wide-tooth comb. Anna called me just as I finished applying my eyeliner.

I didn’t sneak out of the house often. I was afraid that my mom would wake up in the middle of the night to check in on me, like she used to when I was little, only to find the bed empty and the window open. But lately, it had become necessary. My parents never would have let me go to Ethan Lane’s house close to midnight, even if it was the first night of summer and fireflies were rotating in the backyard. Who were his parents? My mother would ask. Had she met them? Who was driving, and how long had they had their license? She worried over every stomachache and scraped knee.

I crept down the stairs as quietly as I could, using the kitchen door that led into the backyard. We lived in a gated community in Bel Air Crest, and I had to walk four blocks to the entrance outside the gate. Andrew Arso was parked down the street, all the lights to the BMW off, and his hand on Anna’s knee.

“What took so long?”

“I kind of wanted to avoid waking up my parents.”

“Are they real hard asses?” Andrew’s hand was still on Anna’s knee, trailing further up, and he directed this question to her, left hand loosely hanging on the wheel.

“They’re Persian,” Anna said. I wasn’t sure if the implication of this meant anything to him. He said nothing, letting his hand roam over Anna’s thigh, fingers scaling the surface of her skin. She turned around abruptly, pulling her knees to her chest. I could tell that she was annoyed.

“How was dinner?”

“Uneventful. You?”

“My mom told me she isn’t going to tolerate me bumming around all summer, so it’s either a job or summer school.”

“What’s the verdict?”

“I’m still trying to find a plan C.”

“Can you guys stop talking? This is the best song on the album.” Andrew turned up the volume, and a song I didn’t recognize echoed throughout the car.

“I used to play this on my iPod during free writing in Bortnik’s class.” He spun the dial on the stereo, louder, and the car vibrated with the sound. “Old man lost his shit every time. You know how thick that Russian accent got whenever he was pissed?” Laughing, he looked at Anna before he found my gaze in the rearview mirror.

Anna pulled out her lip gloss, twirling the metallic stick inside the ice blue tube. “Yeah,” she began, offering it to me after she applied a layer. I shook my head. “You can barely understand him when he’s speaking normally. But when he’s angry, he doesn’t even sound like he’s speaking English. It was the worst.”

“Did you have Lawson for English? I heard she was super easy. Graded on a curve and shit.” He was looking at Anna again, as if I was incapable of answering from the backseat.

“Nicole was in honors English. She’s basically read everything.”

The song was winding down, hitting the final chords. The next one was quieter. Slower. I finally recognized it as a track from The Strokes’ new album.“Ize of the World” at 12:14. We were inching closer to the water.

“No shit. Maybe she could tutor me or something. GPA could use a little boost.”

“That’s not the worst idea you’ve ever had.”

Andrew snorted, finding her knee again. I felt like I was fading.

We drove into Malibu, taking Mulholland Drive, and we lost sight of the water. It was always better like this, at night, when it was too dark to really see but the sound of the ocean was clear. Ethan Lane lived in the best part of the Pacific Palisades, where all the houses had oceanfront views. His parents famously threw a 4th of July party every year. Fireworks shot over the balcony, a whirl of color shooting into space.

Dozens of cars were parked along the driveway and down the street, red cups patterned on the hoods. We stepped past the empty beer cans lining the grass. Cigarettes abandoned on the gravel. People were leaning against cars and drinking from flasks, My Chemical Romance audibly playing from someone’s stereo. I was starting to feel lightheaded. Anna took my hand as we walked into the house, the smell of stale beer and smoke heavy in the narrow hallway.

“Who wants beers?” Andrew directed us towards the kitchen, where half the football team was standing around a keg.

“Arso, you made it! Where the fuck have you been?” Gavin Harrison was one of the four seniors suspended for the senior prank, and the joke was already something of a legend. In the week after prom, all of the water in the school poured in streams of bright blue and yellow, the school colors. No one knew how they managed to tap into the water main, but the rumor was that Principal Boone nearly passed out when he realized he was washing his face in a jet of yellow water.

“Better late than never, right?” They high-fived, the sound barely audible through the music. “You know Anna and Nicole?”

Gavin nodded in our direction, unfazed, pouring three cups of beer. He handed me a red cup, the foam licking over the edges.

“Oh, man, you guys have got to see the balcony,” Anna rolled her eyes as Andrew grabbed her by the wrist, pulling us out of the kitchen. I tried to drink the foam from the overflowing cup, but it was seeping through my fingers, drenching my arm as we pushed our way through the crowd.

Outside, the balcony was filled with senior girls, a nearly empty bottle of vodka passing between them. Rise Against was playing from an iPod, passed between acrylic nails, and when Swing Life Away came on, they began singing loudly and off-key. I recognized Holly James, captain of the dance team and prom queen. She held a joint between her thumb and her index finger, her long blonde hair falling over her shoulders. Despite the heat, she was wearing a loose black sweater, the hem of her jean skirt rising as she backed into the railing.

This was how I imagined the balcony, but not how I had imagined the people. The railing went for miles. There was a ladder that led to the roof, rusted wooden floors, and a view that overlooked the entire city. But these girls—this was not how I had pictured them. I had imagined them aligned against the railing, whimsical behind charcoal eyeliner, arms linked with their beer spilling over red plastic and popping brightly in their MySpace photos. They would be tan, glistening under glitter body-spray, moving towards the future.

But Holly James was not tall facing the water. She was bent over at an angle with smoke curling from her mouth. Her makeup was running down her face, and I met her gaze as she grabbed the railing with both hands. She made a point of looking away, waves of blonde acting as a curtain. Two of her girlfriends were crying, one with pink lipstick on her flask, the other wearing a light hoodie with the Abercrombie logo stamped on the back. I couldn’t remember their names. For some reason, this made me sad. One month ago, at the last pep rally of the year, the girl with the pink lipstick wore purple. She presented the senior class video from the center of the gym, staring up into the bleachers with an assertiveness I worried I would never have. She read from a single notecard, tight blonde curls braided to her waist. She wore no makeup except for the purple lipstick, her simple black leggings paired with a low black tank-top.

“What do you think came first?” Anna poked me in the rib. She was drawing hearts on her jeans with a faded blue sharpie. “That body or the belly-button ring?” The girl’s black tank-top rose higher. I could make out a silver star hanging from her navel, her toned stomach unabashed underneath fluorescent lighting. I fingered my chapstick, stared at the black polish chipping from my nails. I only wore bold lipstick when I was alone.

Now I felt lightheaded again, the beer clinging to the wrong place in my throat. I pushed past the girl, her silver star visible here under a low moon, the smell of her Juicy perfume thick between us. I found Anna near the ladder. Andrew was telling her a story, gesturing wildly. She was sipping her beer, her lips static over the plastic rim like she didn’t care.

“Anna,” I reached for her, my hand finding her shoulder. “I think I’m going to go inside for a bit. It’s too crowded out here.”

“It’s going to be just as crowded inside, if not worse.” I realized then that Andrew was the kind of person who talked over everyone, looking past them as he spoke, and I wanted to put as much distance between us as possible.

“Thanks for the tip, Andrew. I’ll be back.”

“Come back soon,” Anna dug her nails into my arm, pressing half crescents into the skin.

I nodded, forcing my way back into the crowd.

Inside was worse. Someone had hung a banner congratulating the class of 2006 over the staircase, a graduation cap drawn in the corner over the Santa Monica high school legend. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but it seemed easier to go up. I took the stairs two at a time, bypassing empty beer cans and what looked like a condom wrapper near the top.

I had a fascination with hallways, but this one was nothing like mine. The banister wasn’t gold; there was no chandelier. On the walls were photos of Ethan Lane and his family. In one frame, he had his arm around a blonde girl, a girl with distinct blue eyes and the same sharp jawline as Ethan’s. In the next frame, he was holding a football, a tall gold trophy at his knees. The worn jersey rose above his waist, arms raised above his head and aimed to throw, and I could make out a faint tattoo on his lower hip. It looked like a series of Roman numerals. I traced the photos as I walked, my heels digging into the clear white carpet. The wallpaper reminded me of sea glass. It was the color of foam, nearly transparent in the dim lighting. At the end of the hallway stood a circular table, a single candle burning incense. It was surrounded by small vases holding sunflowers and lilies.

There was a drawer tucked into the side of the table, and without thinking I pulled it open. There was a stack of bills and an old flight itinerary from the summer of 2003. Non-stop from Charles de Gaulle to LAX. I stared at the itinerary, memorizing flight numbers and thinking of time-zones. I folded it and put it back where it belonged. Everything here was light. From the seafoam to the white of the candle—the sunflowers that were printed like a backdrop.

I found an empty bedroom next to the bathroom, the lights dim and the window open. I could see the balcony, Andrew’s hands now steady on Anna’s waist. I was finishing my beer when I heard the door open, the lights brightening throughout the room. Ethan Lane dropped a case of beer by the bed, the cans rattling against themselves, and he looked utterly unsurprised to find a strange girl in his bedroom.

“Sorry,” I began, moving away from the window. “I didn’t—”

“You’re fine.” He used the front of his shirt to wipe the sweat from his forehead, his toned stomach visible in this new shade of brightness. Everything about him was chiseled and defined, and that was why he was our prom king, why he would excel at USC, then life. There was beauty in his symmetry, in the line of his jaw and the curve of his mouth, the blond hair that could have been gold if he let it linger in the sun.

“Do you go to SM?”

“I’m a sophomore. Well, junior now, I guess.”

He smiled, sitting on the edge of the bed. He was looking at me so intently I felt myself blush, but cheeks don’t flush on olive skin. I never burned. In the sun I only grew darker, layer by layer until I no longer recognized myself.

“I think I would have remembered seeing you,” he began. “There weren’t that many cute lowerclassmen.”

I wasn’t good at flirting back. I had my first kiss at a Naw Ruz party that March, letting the boy in question place his hands on my lower back, his mouth struggling to fit against mine. The sound of the Persian new year came with chapped lips and enthusiastic tongues. He had no idea what he was doing, and neither did I.

“I like to think I stand out,” I said, and when he made room for me on the bed, I knew that I had said something he’d remember. He let his hand travel through my hair, instantly hitting a spot on my neck that gave me chills. This was his reputation. Ethan Lane didn’t wait for first dates or lengthy conversations. He moved fast, in badly lit rooms and parked cars. I was supposed to move fast with him. We were meant to blur in a wide, open space.

“What’s your name?”

“Nicole—Nicole Mir.”

“That’s a weird name.”

“It means ‘ruler’ in Farsi.”

“Ruler, huh?” He repeated, the tips of his fingers pressing into my neck. “I really like that. What else can you say in Farsi?”

This was what I hated: people asking me to say things in Farsi, to translate things into Persian that to my knowledge had no direct translation. When people asked me to “say something” in Farsi, I said “Hi, how are you,” and I moved on, forgetting reactions. But when Ethan Lane asked me to say something in Farsi, I wanted to tell him something real. Something he would remember when his girlfriends and lovers left him, leaving behind the scent of their particular perfume and nothing more. I licked my lips, feeling the weight of his hands on my neck.

“Delam barat tang shode.”

“I like that.” The first kiss fell under my jaw, lightly, and I could feel goosebumps rising there. “What does it mean?”

“I miss you.” His lips parted on my neck, slowly inching towards my mouth. “It means I miss you.”

“I miss you,” he repeated, finding my mouth before I had a chance to explain. It didn’t directly translate, but words rarely did. The whole phrase, in English, spelt my heart has become tight for you. There was a poetry there, a whole spectrum of grief, in this idea that your whole body caved at a point of absence. That when someone was gone, you didn’t just miss them, but felt the space of emptiness carved in every muscle, burning directly through the heart. Things were constricted. They ached and they gave us pain—a physical manifestation of loss. This was how Farsi gave us meaning. Nothing was ever as simple as I miss you. Every phrase conveyed the full collapse of being. When we missed and when we loved.

I didn’t kiss him back at first, but slowly I gave in, opening my mouth just enough that I could really taste him. There was something sweet, but he also tasted bitter, the taste of rum and Coke shifting from his mouth to mine. Everything about this room gave way to kissing and kissing back—the white sheets that felt cool against my back as he eased me down, the curve of the mattress, and the sound of the waves reaching me from below the ground. I didn’t know if this was his bedroom or if it belonged to someone else, but everything in his grasp belonged to him. I felt his hands curve under my dress, fingers finding the hook of my bra. My hands found his neck, pressing into the same point where he had reached me, but I knew the reaction wasn’t the same—there were no goosebumps aligning into my fingertips, rough beads drawn into a line on the skin. When he began kissing my neck, it felt like he wasn’t really there—like he was only aware of his mouth, detached from the rest of himself. I stared at the ceiling, suddenly aware that it was concealing stars. Nothing here belonged to us, to him or to me, because there was a whole body of water outside that no one could ever claim. There were stars and a moon that I took note of because they didn’t just circle this place, but every other city. The same moon hung over Iran, and I realized then that I was never as far apart from things as I once thought.

I curled my knees to my chest, pushing myself out from under him, pulling down my dress over all the exposed skin. He sat up, finding my knee.

“What’s the problem?”

I thought about his tattoo. The Roman numerals linked like constellations, hidden under low rise jeans and smooth white sheets. I was guilty of this, too: we didn’t reveal ourselves completely, even when our bodies were in sync, mouths, and hands and bare necks angled to the ceiling. I had an idea of him, an idea of me and him together, and the formation of the two didn’t connect when it really mattered.

“I have to go.” I found my shoes, forcing them on, aware that he wasn’t letting go.

“Hey,” he began, finding that point on my neck. “We’re just kissing. Nothing else has to happen.” But that wasn’t true. We both knew that if I stayed something else would have to happen, the natural progression of things, and I wasn’t ready for that. All I had were these moments. There were things that I could still decide.

“Maybe some other time.”

I left him there, still feeling the taste of him. I let my fingers roam my mouth, wondering if it looked as swollen as it felt. Like it had been sucked and bitten until it bled. I couldn’t find Anna on the balcony, but I saw Andrew there kissing Holly, pressing her against the railing. She had taken off her sweater. She had one arm around his neck, the other looped under his shirt. A pack of cigarettes was rising from his back pocket. I watched them for a moment, wondering if Ethan and I had looked the same—digging into each other urgently under some forced moonlight.

I finally found Anna in the front yard, standing on the lawn. She was staring at nothing in particular, a waning cigarette in her hand.

“Anna?”

When she turned around, I saw that she had been crying. “Where have you been?”

“Just…walking around. Are you okay? What happened?”

“God, I feel so fucking stupid, Nicole,” she leaned into me, smoke rising between us.

“Andrew is such a dick. He tried to shove my hand down his pants—on the fucking balcony, in front of everyone—and when I told him to calm his tits, he freaked out on me and called me a bitch tease. What an asshole.”

“You did the right thing. He’s a huge dick.”

“Yeah, and that huge dick was our ride home. God, I’m sorry. I’m such a spazz.”

“Anna, stop it. Did he really think he was getting a hand job in front of half the senior class? You stood up for yourself. Don’t ever apologize for that.”

“But now I’m gonna have to call my mom, and we’re both going to get our asses kicked.” She pushed the cigarette into the grass, her heel digging into the embers. We watched the orange tip tap out, fading in the dark.

“You look all…like, flushed or something. What happened to you?”

“Nothing,” I said, placing my hand over my mouth. “I’ll call my mom, okay?”

Anna nodded, every movement heavy, dissatisfied until she was sitting on the grass. The phone rang once, then twice, until I heard my mom’s voice alert and stifled with sleep. When I told her where I was, I heard her wake my baba. My baba started lecturing me in Farsi, but there was static puncturing the sound, and it could have been any other language. It could have been them all.

If I could send a message in a bottle, I would write my words neatly, letting the letters take shape on blue dotted lines. I would address it to no one in particular, but it would reach everyone in Tehran, then Shiraz, and it would circle back to the house that was out of focus, to whoever lived there now and had no idea what was coming:

To whom it may concern:

That summer we were sixteen, kissing boys we didn’t know in places we’d never been, baby doll dresses that were too short and heels that were too high. Don’t grow up too fast, my mom said when she found me wearing her lipstick and waving her mascara like it was a wand, like I was invincible and the other side of the world could never touch me. I stood with Anna on the lawn like I was like her, like I could be her, but olive skin doesn’t flush and everything is so much harder in Farsi because nothing is ever as simple as I miss you.

But that wasn’t the message I sent that day, playing mermaid and diving headfirst under the water. Suddenly I’m there again. Maybe I never left.

Pens and paper were lined between us, old bottle caps digging into sand. We were trying to say something. To reach our family in Iran. They would never leave, my baba said. Exiles in their own country. Remembering a Shah who had slipped away. Here, we could say what we wanted and be who we wanted and no one would ever say no, but I sometimes wondered if he even believed the things that he would tell me if it was worth the absence of a veil and their corrupt interpretation of the religion they forced everyone to believe. If he really felt free. If in the act of writing home, he was chasing the deep loss he felt for his home and everything he left behind. With his body bent over the paper, a pen shaking in his hand, he’d spell words in Farsi from the right-hand side first. Our alphabet. Our words. My heart has become tight for you. He looked up. I was cold, and my wet bathing suit clung to my skin, and I was suddenly very sad for us. Because this was not an exercise in assimilation. We weren’t letting go. If anything, we were holding on tighter, playing dress-up in the sand, throwing memories and homesickness into the ocean, and wishing we could travel by sea.

I reached for my pen, my tiny teeth chattering violently, and my baba wrapped his arms around me, keeping us warm. He took the pen from my shaking hands, gently placing the tip over the damp paper. Sand scattered on the clear, white page.

“What do you want to say, Nicole?”

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