From the back of the bookstore, where I was stocking travel guides, I noticed Bardia immediately. He was standing by the cash registers at the front, looking around. He caught me watching him, and I quickly looked past him, towards the front windows, pretending clumsily to be searching for something in his general direction. By the time I turned back to the travel guides, he was making his way towards me, weaving through the display tables.
He was not much taller than me, but broad and muscular. His head was closely shaved, and he wore small, rimless glasses that should have looked incongruous but somehow didn’t. His t-shirt was tight around his arms and chest, and his pants showed off his pert, solid butt. It was obvious he was a gym-goer. He was browsing the shelves and displays at the front of the store: our recent and popular fiction meant for rushed or indecisive buyers, and for those looking for a novel to distract them effectively and effortlessly from the everyday grind.
“Hi. I was hoping you’d be here today.” His voice was melodious.
“I was here last Saturday, saw you working, said hello. You don’t remember?”
“I don’t, I’m sorry. Saturdays are very busy.”
“Well, I saw you on Saturday and thought to myself, ‘I’d like to see this girl again.’ I came back Sunday, but you don’t work here Sundays.”
“I don’t.” I smiled cautiously. I’d detected a very faint accent, middle eastern or close, different from my own Portuguese intonation. I still noticed accents—they made me feel part of a family in a strange land, although admittedly about half the population in London seemed to have an accent of some sort.
“I asked one of your colleagues. She wouldn’t tell me what days you do work, though, so I just tried today, and here you are!”
I smiled again, looked down at the books in my hands, back up to his face.
“Is there anything I can help you with?”
“My name is Bardia. I was wondering if I could take you out sometime.”
“Hi, Bardia.” Pause. “I’m flattered, but you don’t even know my name.”
“It’s Lucy.” At this, my body did an involuntary little jump. I was mildly alarmed. I was also intrigued. I liked these feelings.
“I could be married. Dating someone,” I tried.
I didn’t ask how he knew my name. I was young. I found it charming that he’d gone to these lengths to find out when I work, what I’m called. He’d definitely made an impression. He was older than me, at least 29 or 30, and looked clean and put-together and confident. I wanted very much to go out with him, but I wasn’t about to accept immediately. I told him that he could come back the following Wednesday during my shift at the store and ask me out again, and if he did, I’d say yes.
I was hoping not to be too distracted the next few days by the prospect of another visit from Bardia and a potential first date. I was busy with work and graduate school applications, but I couldn’t quite get Bardia out of my head. I was unaccountably horny thinking about this stranger who, except for the fact of being an immigrant, to which I inevitably gravitated, was in no way my type. I usually went for taller, thinner guys with long hair; pony tails had long been a slight fetish of mine. No less than half the boys and men I’d dated had pony tails. I’d wanted to cut the pony tails off when those relationships fizzled out, keep them in a special mother-of-pearl topped box, each tied together with a different color of elastic band and the previous owner’s name on a little tag. I hadn’t been able to convince anyone to surrender their hair, which I knew was for the best.
Wednesday came again, and Bardia showed up at the store as I was wrapping up a transaction with a frequent customer. I saw him come in, and smiled hello from the cash register. When my customer left, Bardia approached me.
“I’m back,” he said.
“I can see that.”
“So…” He seemed momentarily unsure of how to proceed. A bit shy. I liked it, and jumped at the chance to take charge.
“I’ll go out with you, if that’s what you’re here for.”
Bardia smiled broadly, straightened his back, lifted the top of his nearly bald head toward the ceiling.
“That’s great! I’m so glad. When are you free?”
“You can pick me up Saturday evening, after the store closes. Maybe we can go have a drink someplace near here.”
“Excellent. I will pick you up then.” I thought he’d take his leave at this point but, to my surprise, he stayed and asked about books. He said he’d come in the first time after an appointment nearby, to see about getting some light reading fare—he had a long train commute to his new job in Wimbledon—and that’s when he’d first seen me. In the end, he said, he’d bought some silly French novel about a man looking for the writer of an unaddressed letter he finds somewhere or other, which had bored him to death. I laughed. I knew which novel he meant. It was, in fact, dreadful, and I was impressed by his discerning taste.
I waited anxiously for Saturday. This second time I’d seen Bardia, I’d liked him even more. He smelled of good cologne applied sparingly, and his shirt was nice. He had hazel eyes, I had noticed, the same color as mine. His hands seemed elegant to me. He was grown up and gainfully employed somewhere in Wimbledon. I knew this was not much to go on for a full assessment, but one hardly ever goes on first dates with much more than this level of insight.
At the start of my shift on the appointed day, I told my colleague Reese about the upcoming date. She was surprised I’d accepted (“are we even allowed to date our customers?”), and then said to be careful. I asked her to call my cell phone about an hour into the date, in case I needed an out. When Bardia arrived, at 7 o’clock, Reese gave him the once over and then me the thumbs up. I was glad for her endorsement.
“So, what kind of name is Bardia?” I asked as we sat down at the bar in a pub on Marylebone High Street.
“Iranian. I was born there, came here with my parents at fourteen.”
“Are your parents still here?”
“No, they left me at boarding school and headed back to Tehran. I don’t see them often.” He said this matter-of-factly, but I quickly conjured up a scenario in which he was damaged by the abandonment, perpetually searching for tenderness, for connection. I was moved by the very few words he’d said on the matter. To me, it had been a life story, expansive and profound.
He asked about me, and I told him a bit about coming to London from Brazil for university and deciding to stay for graduate school, about missing my family but not being sure I could ever go back. He was interested, asked follow-up questions. Reese called, as arranged, but I ignored it. She tried twice more, then gave up. Bardia and I had banter, and did not avoid looking into each other’s eyes for long minutes as one talked and the other listened. I had one glass of wine, he had two beers. It was the perfect first date.
Just as we were leaving, I asked how old he was. He said thirty, about what I’d guessed. He asked my age, and I said “a whole nine years younger.” He smiled. I walked him to Baker Street as he was a few tube stops away. I lived close by, with a roommate, and didn’t want him to walk me home just yet. When we got there, he asked if he could kiss me. He bit my upper lip gently and my knees buckled. I desperately wanted to take him home, roommate be damned, and got awfully close to saying so, but then he turned around and bounded down towards his train.
The next week I got my period. I knew it was coming but was hoping for some kind of deferment, some way that my body would know to hold up so I could sleep with Bardia on our next date. I wasn’t a prude, I’d had sex with men while having my period before, but never the first time. I debated for hours whether to go out with him again that week, even before he called. In the end, he did call and we arranged to meet, for dinner this time, on Wednesday after my shift at the store. I didn’t have to sleep with him on our second date. I thought, much as I want to, let’s wait for a more auspicious time, and in the meantime let’s just get to know each other more.
By the time he picked me up at the bookstore on Wednesday, however, I had fantasized about sex with Bardia in every conceivable position and location. In my mind, this would be the most delicious sex I’d ever had, and it just wouldn’t do to be concerned about blood and stains and tampons and smells and so forth. I was determined to stick to my guns, even say in advance that I had no plans to sleep with him that night, just so we’re clear. But I did no such thing; instead, I immediately agreed to his suggestion that he cook a typical Iranian dish for me at his place.
He lived in a small, well-appointed apartment near Paddington station. I looked around for signs of culture, and quickly found a bookcase, in the hallway, full of volumes. I walked over to them and looked at the spines. Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, Martin Amis, Irvine Welsh. All four Harry Potters that had been published up to that point. Travel guides to Europe and the Middle East, and some computing books. I sighed with relief. This all looked very normal, except there were no pictures of family or friends save for one of a child sitting on a leather sofa, which I assumed was Bardia himself. Same hazel eyes. Given what he’d told me about his parents and his youth, the absence of photos of loved ones was no surprise.
While I looked, he’d disappeared to the kitchen where I could hear him opening and closing cabinets, and moving pots and pans around. We chatted while he cooked, and drank white wine. Dinner was chicken with jasmine rice and pomegranate seeds, simple and delicious. “My grandmother used to make us this in Tehran,” he said. He kissed me after dinner. It tasted of jasmine rice and I liked it. I forgot for a moment about my period. Then I remembered, when his hands started traveling to my hips, and pulling away slightly I said: “Let’s not tonight. I have my period.” Bardia didn’t hesitate: “I don’t care.”
The sex was not the worst I’d ever had, which I realize is not a ringing endorsement. I was concerned about staining the sheets on his bed, and about just the general unpleasantness of the small, foul trickle of brown-ish, old blood, but he was a gentleman about it and helped me relax into it some. Still, I didn’t come, but when he was finished, he asked if I was too and I said yes. I thought, better luck next time.
Next time was only a few days later. He’d sent me flowers to the bookstore, the only address he had for me, with a card that just said “see you soon, kid,” then called to arrange our next date. It was all very sweet, although I wasn’t too keen on the condescending ‘kid.’ I was terribly eager to sleep with him again, because I’d felt cheated somehow by our first experience. It hadn’t been right, it hadn’t been the real first time. This would be our first time, where we’d roll around and change positions and pant and both come, hopefully at the same time. When we got to his place after a drink at a nearby pub, I pressed myself against him even before he’d closed the door.
I guess there are no excuses for the second time. It should have been great. It should have been a contender. He spent a while diligently going down on me, but didn’t quite hit the right note. I made little sighing sounds and caressed the top of his head until I was afraid I’d get bored and dry up before the deed was done. I pulled him back up by the ears. We tried other things, all pleasant, but rather than intensifying the desire, I felt it wane slowly and irrevocably. I was dismayed.
“That was nice,” he said dreamily after he came.
“It was. Thank you.” I regretted thanking him as soon as I’d said it, it sounded condescending, or maybe just sad, but he didn’t seem to mind. This time, he didn’t ask if I had come, and I didn’t tell him I hadn’t. His arm was under my neck and he’d bent his wrist to reach back to my hair, which he was twisting and untwisting around his fingers. I couldn’t help but be disappointed. The experience had most definitely not lived up to my expectations. For the last two weeks, I’d played and replayed in my head fantasy scenes of us coupling that both got me really wet and made me roll my eyes at myself. Perhaps my expectations were too high? I decided to give it a bit more time. I did like him after all, his arms and eyes and foreignness to the country.
Over the next couple of weeks, I tried to maintain the enthusiasm for our dates and hook-ups, but it was just seeping out of me. Our dinners and drinks and movie nights were still lovely. We talked about Iran and Brazil, about loneliness and fitting in, about books and music and the peculiarities of the English. He said he still felt like an outsider, even though he’d been in England for so many years. I told him that after three years in London, I still preferred the company of fellow immigrants.
And yet the sex did not get better. He was a determined giver, but missed the mark so predictably that I began to find his efforts in bed comical. He wouldn’t correct course even when I nudged him quite forcefully, a failure that I ascribed to a stubborn overconfidence on his part. He just couldn’t make me orgasm. I could do it for myself, but I felt that was hardly the point of sex with another person. I realized that his asking me whether I’d orgasmed had been a fluke that first time we slept together. He never asked again and I was too proud, or ashamed, to tell him. Then again, I wasn’t lying either, but he was oblivious to it all. It was clear to me now that we were just not a compatible sexual match, even as we seemed compatible in so many other ways.
One night, at his place after a long stroll through Green Park, I tried to spice things up by suggesting we watch porn. He laughed at first, but then realized I was serious.
“Why?” he asked, somewhat incredulous.
“Why not? It could be hot.”
He was not on board, gave me a judgmental look. “It’s demeaning to women, and I don’t want you to compare the men’s dicks to mine.”
A few days later something unexpected happened. As we were walking back to his apartment from a tapas bar where we’d had dinner, he said: “There’s something I need to tell you.”
All kinds of things occurred to me in the milliseconds between him saying those words and me saying “Mhm?” He was secretly married. He was divorced and had children. He’d lost his job and apartment. He had an STD. Or the very humiliating I don’t want to see you anymore.
“So, remember when we had dinner that first time, and you asked how old I was?” he said tentatively.
“Yes. You said thirty.”
“I’m actually not thirty.”
“Oh?” I hadn’t seen this coming.
“Oh.” That made him sixteen years older than me. I wasn’t necessarily put off by the age difference; what concerned me most was the fact of the lie itself.
“Why did you not tell me your actual age before?”
“I knew you were in your early twenties and thought you might run for the hills if I told you how much older than you I really am…” He paused. “What are you thinking?”
What I was really thinking was, this is my chance to end this elegantly. It was time. I was wasting my sexual prime on someone just because he was nice and not from here. I could have told him ‘I’m sorry but I’m not comfortable with this lie and this age difference, blah blah blah.’ Instead, and to my great surprise, what I actually said was “That’s okay, just no more lies though.”
Things continued as they had been. Bardia could not hide his enthusiasm about us, which I found dispiriting. I figured I’d exhaust all sexual options with him in two to three more weeks, a month, tops, and then I’d have to end it. But then, about two weeks later, he came to my house, unannounced.
“What are you doing here?” I asked with some alarm. “How did you find my address?”
“Oh, I have my ways,” he said with a smile. This kind of thing, which had endeared me to him the first time we met, now creeped me out. He looked around the living room, spotted the couch, looked back at me for invitation to sit down. When none was forthcoming, he walked over and sat down. I followed, reluctantly.
“What’s going on? I thought we were meeting tomorrow. I have work to do, school applications, so…” I wanted him out of the house. All these feelings I’d harbored for him these past few weeks, which had quickly turned from wanting to tender to unconvinced, were suddenly, conclusively gone. I wanted the whole thing to be done.
“I wanted to talk to you about something. My job, they’re offering me a promotion.”
“That’s great, congratulations,” I said with fake enthusiasm.
“The position is not in Wimbledon, though. It’s in Basel.”
“Yes, of course! Do you know any other Basel?” He chortled with what seemed to me a somewhat contrived joviality. “I think you should come with me.”
I burst out laughing.
“I’m serious.” He frowned, straightened his back a little. “You’re done with school, you can work on your grad school applications, you’d be free to do whatever you want!” I would most categorically not be free. But I understood where he was coming from. He was thirty-seven. Not so young anymore. Ready to settle. I felt bad for him. I was also, against my better judgement, flattered that he was asking me to move abroad with him. It was almost like a marriage proposal. I didn’t want to marry him, but it was nice to be asked.
“That’s a sweet offer, Bardia, but I don’t want to move to Basel.”
His face froze in a grimace. I’d never seen this look on him before. Instinctively, I leaned back on the couch, away from his body. Had he made up his mind that this was going to happen? That I would up and leave London, my job, my friends, all of my plans?
“You won’t even consider it,” he said coldly. I felt as if the ground had shifted quickly under me, leaving me without the tight grip on our dynamics that I’d enjoyed up to this point. He seemed mad, for the first time since we’d met.
“You took me by surprise! But no, I won’t consider it.”
“I see. Basel not good enough? And what, may I ask, is so appealing about your minimum wage job here? You live with a roommate.” He sounded disdainful and angry. I had a flashback of my father, chastising me for choosing to study sociology instead of a practical trade like medicine or law. It dawned on me, all of a sudden, that I didn’t know Bardia, this man who was big and strong, a never-married thirty-seven-year-old with no family who had lied to me about his age and god knew what else.. I looked at his arms, his broad chest, which I’d found so attractive at first. Now they seemed a bit like weapons.
It took all I had to stretch my arm and put my hand on his chest sweetly. “Bardia, I’m so sorry. I love that you asked me to go with you. But I need to stay here, with my job, and I need to work on my applications for graduate school, and you know I’m spending the summer with my family in Brazil. But this is such a great opportunity for you.” He relaxed back into the cushions of the sofa we were sitting on. He put his hand on mine, on his chest. I added: “I’m proud of you.” He beamed. I’d turned him around.
“But you’ll come visit.”
“Of course.” I had no intention of doing that.
“Can I ask you a question? Can I spend the night here?” No, no, no, no.
“Sure! What’s going on though?” I was a flake.
“I’m having my apartment re-painted today, so it’ll stink. I’m going to rent it out while I’m gone.”
He went to the store and came back with supplies to make my roommate and me chicken with jasmine rice and pomegranate seeds that I’d loved the first time. After dinner, during which he went back to being his most amiable self, Bardia offered to sleep on the couch, since all I had was a small twin bed that would not fit the two of us comfortably. I told him I’d sleep with my roommate, who had a double bed, and he could stay in my room. My roommate and me locked the door to her room when we went to bed. Even though he’d been charming to her since she got home, she was understandably uncomfortable with this stranger in the house, who’d found out our address through who knows what trickery. “I know I’m a bit paranoid, but just in case. You don’t mind, do you?” she’d asked. I didn’t argue against this measure. I thought it was sensible, given how angry he’d been before, how quickly and unexpectedly his disposition turned, how little I knew about him after all.
I woke up in the middle of the night with the sound of a faraway siren. Police, or possibly an ambulance. I laid in bed, listening to my roommate’s steady breathing next to me. She felt safe with me in the room and the door locked against unknown forces. I could still taste the jasmine rice in the back of my mouth, hear Bardia’s voice telling us that the Farsi word for rice is berenj, the one for jasmine, yasamin. He had asked what they were in Portuguese. Arroz. Jasmim. I turned this way and that in bed, restless body syndrome, impatient for sunrise. But it was taking too long. I sneaked out of my roommate’s room and into my own bed, with Bardia.