Marco was waiting for me outside Jivamukti Yoga Studios, leaning against a white Ferrari. He held the door for me and I got in.
“Okay, yoga girl,” he said. “What do you feel like eating?”
“I don’t care,” I said. “Let’s just drive.”
This was our first date. Spring 1998. We drove to the South Street Seaport. We walked around talking about our moms and watched the bridges that span two boroughs.
“BMW,” he said. “Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg. That’s how you remember the order, from south to north. BMW.”
I’m going to learn a lot from this guy, I thought.
And then, out of the blue, he asked, “So, do you ever do drugs?”
“Like what?” I asked. I felt very uncool, all of a sudden.
“You tell me,” he said.
I couldn’t tell what he was getting at, but I wanted him to think I was a badass. “I’m up for anything,” I lied. “Even the hard stuff.”
Marco stared at me, as though possessed by a demon. “You’re serious?” he asked, and before I could answer, he took me by the arm, led me to his car, and raced us up First Avenue. He made a left on 34th St, then another left on Second Avenue, and in less than five minutes we were standing in front of a sign that said, “Psychic Readings.”
“Just wait here,” Marco said. “I’ll be right back.”
He didn’t return for at least forty-five minutes. I was starving. Finally, he came out and approached my side of the car. I rolled down the window and he waved a small brown paper bag and said, “Your wish is my command.”
I was shaking as we sped off. Is this what happens on first dates in New York? I wondered.
“Marco, I’m really hungry,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll cook you something at my place. First we need to try the stuff.”
Marco lived in a brand new co-op on Grand Street. A dog and cat greeted us at the door, which put me at ease. His place was clean and nicely furnished. He led me into the bedroom and put the bag of drugs on the bed. Part of me wanted to run, but I wasn’t exactly sure where I was. Fuck it, I thought. Who cares?
Marco took some white rocks out of the bag and put them into a glass pipe.
“Is that crack?” I asked.
“Don’t call it that,” he said. “That’s what people in the ghetto call it. We call it ‘smoking coke.’”
He took big hit and leaned back on the couch with a satisfied look on his face. There was something disturbingly familiar about this scene. As his limp body melted into the couch, something strange happened to me. I heard the Muslim call to prayer, though we were in the Lower East Side of New York City and there were no minarets. I paused, straining my ears to listen. Children’s voices seemed to be coming from outside the window, though we were on the fourth floor. I let their sounds wash over me. Then the deep, soft voice of my Uncle Hossain started to circle inside my ears: “Azizam, movazeb baash kasi nayad too. My love, don’t let anyone in.”
My Uncle Hossain was addicted to heroin, and this habit was a source of shame to our family, though my grandmother, Maman Bozorg, always tried to defend him, blaming my uncle’s addiction on the Iranian revolution. Hossain had once been jailed for rebelling against the Shah, and the guards had drugged him while in prison, “by force,” as she used to say. This explained why he aged so fast and was a full-blown addict by the time he was finally released.
When Hossain came to visit, he always stayed with us for at least a few weeks. He became my babysitter, or maybe I was his. My grandmother asked me on several occasions to watch him and let her know if he ever used drugs in the house. I promised to tell her what I saw, but I never did.
At eight, I knew everything about heroin and how to prepare it. This was a secret I shared with my uncle. I used to hide his drugs and the special spoon he used to mix them inside one of my dolls. My mother and grandmother always knew when Hossain was using because of the sleepy look in his eyes, but they never were able to find his stash because I had hidden it so expertly. One day, they searched the whole house, every floor, room, and closet. After a whole day of looking, they were beside themselves with frustration.
“Maybe he’s just withdrawing and we’re wrong about his using,” my mother said to Maman Bozorg.
“I guess it takes a long time to recover,” Maman Bozorg replied.
Thanks to me, my uncle Hossain was never caught.
One day, I was sitting in the kitchen with my uncle. I was wearing the red shirt he had bought me three years before. It was way too small on me, but I wasn’t ready to let it go.
“This is the shirt you got me as a gift,” I reminded him. It took a moment for him to process what I was saying. I saw that he was already high. Then he brushed my black hair and said, “Atash joon, I will buy you a hundred new red shirts one day when I get a job.”
Hossain spread a little cloth over the floor near the kitchen stove so he could cook more heroin without burning the carpet. He knew Mamon Bozorg protected her Shirazi rugs the way a mother bear guards her cubs. Then he asked, “Can you bring me your doll?” I followed his instructions. When I returned with his stash, he let me light the first drag of heroin for him. This was our ritual together. Then he smoked by himself, holding his spoon over the fire, while I craned my neck to be able to catch a whiff of the sweet-smelling smoke. Our cat Malos also would come around as soon as the smoke began to spread in the air. After Hossain had smoked for a bit, he began to nod, squirming, bending, and moving around like a cartoon character. He mumbled words I couldn’t understand. I sat next to him and watched with curiosity, petting my cat Malos. I played with his spoon and watched the door to make sure my grandmother wasn’t coming back early.
At some point, the doorbell rang. “Get up Daiee joon,” I said. “Someone is here.” I expected him to give his usual reply, “Don’t let anyone in,” but his whole body lay slumped on the floor, motionless.
“Get up, Daiee joon,” I said again, but he didn’t stir at all. Something was wrong. Did I mess up our ritual? Fear gripped me: What if I’ve killed my uncle? I pulled his huge shoulders onto my lap and begged him to move. I kissed his forehead. I pleaded with God to make him open his eyes. “Take me instead of him,” I said to God. “Don’t take the only one who cares about me.”
I’m not sure why, but at that moment I remembered this movie called Atash Bedoone Dood — “Fire Without Smoke” — that I had seen a few days before. In the movie, a raging fire killed all these people and carried them to heaven, where there were rivers and trees and kids playing without worrying about food or being hurt. Suddenly, it all made sense. All the good people go, because they’re waiting for me on the other side.
I reached over and picked up the matches my uncle had been using to cook his heroin and walked over to my mother’s walk-in closet, the one in which I used to play hide-and-seek with my brother. There were so many clothes stashed in there that it was easy to get lost. I sat down in the middle of the closet and stared at the darkness.
I lit the first match and threw it over towards the right corner of the closet. The match went out in the air. I lit another one and threw it at the space right near my foot. The match caught on one of my mother’s blouses. I picked up the blouse and threw it away from my feet over into a corner of the closet. I lit a third match and threw it into the other corner. For a moment the orange flame seemed to fade but then it grew again as it caught the corner of one of my mother’s magazines. Finally the fire began to spread rapidly as I’d intended. Before I knew it, I was roasting. There was smoke everywhere and I couldn’t breathe. The smell of my burning hair was making me sick.
This was a mistake.
“Atash! Atash! Atash!” I screamed my own name, which means fire. “Fire! Fire! Fire!” My own name seemed as powerless as my little body swallowed up by flames.
A pair of big hands appeared out of nowhere. I could hardly see because of the smoke, but I knew those hands. The doorway of the closet was ablaze. The hands grabbed me, lifted me into the air, and carried me out. It was my uncle Hossain. His shirt had also caught on fire. He was trying to put out the flames coming from his chest at the same time as he sat me down a few feet from the blaze and wrapped me in a nearby blanket. He managed to extinguish his burning shirt; then he rushed back into the closet. Running through the flames, he looked like a madman in battle, as though he were fighting a dragon. He used blankets and his own bare hands to put out the fire. When finally, it had all been put out, he looked at his burnt hands and began to blow on them, trying to ease the pain. He had tears in his eyes. I was still wrapped up in the blanket. He walked over to me and picked me up. He first checked for injuries on my skin. There were black holes in my shirt but no real burns. I thought he was going to yell at me or hit me for what I’d done. Instead, he kissed me and thanked God I was alive.
“Please forgive me,” he cried. “Atash joon, forgive me.” I didn’t understand why he was pleading with me. I felt as though I were the one who had to be forgiven. He held me so hard I thought I’d suffocate. He kept crying and his cries got louder and louder. But I was so exhausted that his cries soon seemed like a lullaby to me. Gradually, they put me to sleep.
When I woke up in the middle of the night, I heard my mother, stepfather and my grandmother talking to each other in the kitchen and yelling at my uncle. I couldn’t see them because I was still on the couch in the living room. I pretended to be asleep, but heard every word.
“I swear, I will stop using,” Uncle Hossain said to them. He was still crying. He told them that, this time, things would be different. “This is the end of the line,” I heard him say to Maman Bozorg. “Seeing Atash in the middle of that fire was the end of the line for me. I’m going to stop using for good.” Then I heard a silence fall on the house.
Uncle Hossain was telling the truth; he sobered up after all. But this was a difficult process for him, as it was for everyone else in the house, including me. He locked himself in the basement for a few weeks. I could hear him yelling and screaming all the way from the top floor. “I am fine now! Hey, Maman! Let me go! I’m better now!”
He sounded like a wounded beast. But my grandmother was stubborn and wouldn’t let him out of the basement until two weeks had passed. She assured me that he was really okay and that this was just a part of his journey towards getting better. It was hard to hear him in pain, though. My grandmother cried for him too, and she cooked him lavish stews, dishes of rice, and kettles of tea – but she still clung to the role of tough mother and wouldn’t let him free. There was a small window in the door that led to the basement, and it was only through that that we were able to safely give him his meals. We were all scared of opening the door while delivering the food for fear that Hossain would come bounding out like a beast on the loose. Maman Bozorg promised me that when Hossain was cured, I could be the one to unlock the big door for him.
When Marco picked me up in his white Ferrari and took me to his apartment, smoked the coke and slumped on the couch, that night I fled. Yet I went back to him and stayed with him on and off for years. Marco was an addict but a good man and I wanted to save him. I watched him unravel many times and he quit drugs eventually. I never really understood why I stayed on with him for so long until years later I recalled how I had heard my Uncle Hossain’s voice and realized that it was him I’d really been trying to save.
I'm a licensed clinical social worker with two decades of experience working in New York City public schools and providing social and emotional support for urban youth, immigrants, and their families. I'm Director of Counseling and founding member of Harvest Collegiate, a progressive public high school in Manhattan, where I also train social workers. In my private practice, I treat adults through a mixture of psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, and Reiki. In my spare time I write literary nonfiction.