Entering the open-air part of the citadel in Shiraz, two guys and I check the sign detailing the fortress’ history. 18th century. Behind us are two young women. I look at the one with chocolate hair trailing from her blue hijab and I forget what year this place was built in. I say hello as we walk off but she doesn’t realise I’m speaking to her, probably.
The interior between the walls. Geometric patterns on stain-glassed windows. Bright orange and green flowers. Red. Blue like the hijab. The girls have caught up. I walk over.
“Hey, how are you?”
I look at her white dress with a blue pattern. “You matched your hijab with your dress.”
“Yeah, I did.” She smiles.
She nods and says yes.
I smirk. “Cool. You look good. Visiting from Tehran?”
“No, I’m from Shiraz.”
“Really? A tourist in your own city.”
“I go to university in Kerman but I’m home for the week.”
After introducing myself, I take Ava’s Instagram which is full of her origami.
Outside a cafe later in the day. Already a date with a stunning Persian. I don’t know if hugging in public is appropriate so I stand still as she approaches. She holds out her fist to bump. Inside at a table. At her university the guys are shy or scared of girls, apparently. One classmate, faced with the terrifying prospect of having to sit at the only vacant desk, next to Ava, went to the extent of picking up the desk and moving it across the room to avert such danger. The ice in my iced latte is melting. The rattling fan above is futile and she’s nineteen and never been with a guy before.
What would you do if you had $10 million tomorrow?
Open an institution to educate poor kids.
Make some origami with this serviette.
What would you do if you were a butterfly?
What kind of question is that?
Fuck, that was dumb. Her nights spent watching Korean drama.
No! Not Korean drama.
My hand on hers on the table. If somebody says they like something belonging to someone else, it’s supposedly a Persian saying to have “jealous eyes”. She liked her friends watch, who then gave Ava the watch, and asked for it back the next day. Don’t have jealous eyes. But hers aren’t jealous. I don’t know what they are. Wary yet innocent. Not the kind of innocence that some men project onto women without understanding the complexity of female sexuality. But citadel eyes, protected from the world’s dark forces. From me.
The same cafe the next day. Having two identical first dates is dumb. How to move our dance forward? We’re sitting outside. Watermelon juice. An hour or two.
Ava takes me to her mum’s shop. Her mum wears bright colours and round hanging earrings. I say Ava got her fashion sense from her. Ava translates my words into Persian and her mum giggles. Black tea. Selfies. Her mum gifts me two soft toys of an elderly man and woman. The man looks like the character in the animated film Up, the old man who lives in a flying house held up by a hot air balloon. What’s the symbolism? She wants me to marry her daughter and grow old together in a hot air balloon and fly off into the stratosphere? I’m reading into this too much.
We walk around the city. The sun in the bare blue sky traps heat under my black jeans. Taking photos with a statue of a photographer-explorer, we look natural and happy and her loose headscarf has fallen off.
“I feel like I’ve known you for two years,” she says. “But it’s only been two days.”
She wraps her arms around the statue, leans her head on its shoulder, melting into him and I imagine her cheering me up after a bad day.
In an old bathhouse, now a museum, lifelike-sized human figurines line the room’s perimeter. These workers, masseurs, barbers and clients give an impression of the bathhouse before the time of post-history and museums. Once every minute, through a speaker sounds a man screaming with descending volume as if spiralling down a black hole. How this relates to the bathhouse escapes me. My arm is around Ava’s lower back and I tell her to scream when the sound plays next. Shy, she asks me to do it together. We scream.
I smile and look straight ahead, while she looks right to a middle-aged lady peering at us with disapproval. We giggle. In another room the walls create some privacy. We sit on a ledge, embracing one another.
Would you like company in Kerman next week?
Sure, why not?
Lips that may never have been kissed. They stay that way as she tilts her head to my chin. I kiss her forehead.
Through the bustling bazaar she grabs my sweaty hand, and speeding past vendors of spices and clothing and manchester, I want to wipe my hand on my pants or change sides but she moves with the swiftness of a hawk, so I try to stay slightly ahead as I don’t want her leading me, but she grips tighter, a woman who wouldn’t take any of your shit, weaving around customers and passers-by and children playing as we emerge through a gate to a brightly lit square, stopping to hug goodbye she says she’s proud to meet me, and to tell her when I’ll be in Kerman, then she kisses the corner of my lips and nervously skips away into the crowd.
Cover by Alex Azabache