Suchen und Finden
Daddy isn’t here to read this story today. He can’t give his account, or counter all the negative with all that he did right. And so I will do it for him. Number one, he stuck around when my “mom” didn’t and he stayed long enough to teach my sister and me a lot of good qualities. He often told me he loved me—”I love you, Jes-SEE-ka,” that’s how he said my name. He made sure we always lived in a safe, beautiful home, in a safe, beautiful neighborhood. We were never once hungry and we were always clean and well dressed. Daddy ensured that my sister and I got college educations. He taught us to be empathetic and giving. He taught us to always use good manners. He passed along an immense love for animals—we always had pets, usually cats. Our first cat, gray and fluffy and sweet, was named Mouse. I have had cats pretty much ever since. Daddy taught us to be strong in the face of adversity, even when that adversity came at his hand. He did a lot of things wrong, but Daddy also did a lot for my sister and me, and for what he gave us, both the good and the bad, I will be forever grateful.
It took me a long time to forgive my father, but for the most part, I have. And while that has been one of the most difficult things I’ve done, it’s also, really, been the most important, because it’s allowed me to move past my terrible childhood and forward into my life today. I suppose a big part of forgiveness is understanding: If we can understand where someone comes from—the hardships they’ve endured, the pain they carry—then we can imagine why they might have gone on to inflict pain on other people. It’s so often cyclical. That doesn’t make it okay by any means. But it makes it possible to comprehend, which is the beginning of forgiveness. So I’ll go back even further than my childhood and tell you some of Daddy’s story, which began in Tehran, the capital of Iran.
When you think of the Middle East, you probably think of camels and deserts. It’s partially true in Daddy’s case—his family really did have a camel when he was growing up—but there is a lot more greenery in the Iranian desert than you’d think. I’m told that Tehran, coincidentally, looks an awful lot like Phoenix, Arizona, where I’ve lived all my adult years.
Daddy was the first of five children born to a colonel in the Iranian Air Force and my sweet grandmother, Parisa, who stayed home to care for the children. They were quite an affluent, prominent family; in fact, my grandfather was evidently very close with the Shah. I gather that things were pretty good in his family; they were relatively happy and functional. Of course, my grandfather was an Iranian man, who lived by those norms. He occasionally hit his children—I know of one specific incident when my dad lied or stole something—but in Iran he wouldn’t have been considered abusive. And the stories I’ve heard suggest that he was actually quite sensitive. He wrote poetry in his spare time. And my grandmother was one of the most patient people on the planet.
But the family’s peace and stability was destroyed when the Shah became suspicious that my grandfather had betrayed him, sometime during my father’s childhood. I don’t know the details—all I’ve been told is that the Shah would have had most people jailed—but because of their close relationship, instead he had my grandfather demoted so that he no longer had any power in the air force. My grandfather was devastated, and the stress of it caused a stroke and, eventually, his death.
As a young man, my father had wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a pilot in the air force. I don’t know why, but it did not happen, and I think it was a crushing blow for him. In early 1968 or late 1967, unhappy with his own prospects as well as with the Iranian government, Daddy left for the United States, settling in Washington, DC; he was twenty-six or twenty-seven. My grandmother came some years later, when I was about five years old, and various other relatives gradually made their way to the DC area.
Here is where the stripper called “the Snake” enters the story—the Snake, aka Patty, aka my “mom.” I put that in quotation marks because I don’t really think of her as my mother; she gave birth to me, but that’s it. She left when my sister, Serena, and I were very young, and I’ve had little interaction with her since. She worked in a dirty, smoky, gross club called Dream Dolls, and she and her full C cups were evidently mesmerizing. She didn’t discriminate—she’d sidle down beside whoever was sitting near the stage and allow them to slip a few more bills into her lacey thong. Patty had chestnut brown hair all the way down to her waist, hollow brown eyes, and a body like Jessica Rabbit’s, all God given. The patrons of Dream Dolls no doubt thanked God for this blessing on a regular basis.
It gets better: Daddy ran the strip club. How’s that for a “how we met” story? With his movie-star good looks—he had a bone structure girls would die for, and piercing black eyes—and his role as boss, I’m sure he seemed quite the catch to Patty, at least for a while, enough so that Patty and Daddy married and started a family.
From the outside looking in, Dream Dolls probably seemed like just another little shop on Wisconsin Avenue. But inside its walls were countless lost souls, both on stage and in the audience. The club is sandwiched between two eateries, the kind that seem to change hands on an annual basis; at last check, it was a pizza joint and a sushi place. It’s just a block away from some lovely shops and very close to the nation’s monuments, but Dream Dolls feels a million miles away from that world of light and order. It’s strange to think I exist solely because of this dark, sad, lonely place that is a last resort for young girls who have lost their way and an escape for lonely, horny men. Yuck. What a way to start. But it’s my start; it’s where the story of me begins.
I often marvel that Daddy ended up in that establishment, that he went from the capital of Iran to the capital of the United States—from beautiful but rule-laden Tehran to this tiny strip club where the men and women seemed free of any type of rules or structure at all. I’m not sure how he got the job; I know the owner of the club was Persian. It was Daddy’s first job in the States, and it set the course for his future work life. I imagine it was painful for him, given his dream of becoming a pilot like his father. He absolutely loved airplanes and jets; he was really kind of obsessed with them. Throughout my childhood he had pictures of jets all over our basement walls, and he built model jet planes. He would go to Dulles Airport and just watch the planes fly. Sometimes he would take me and my sister with him.
He never talked about it, but his unfulfilled dream, combined with his shame over working at a strip club, must have contributed to his enormous sense of failure, which he would carry with him his whole life. I’m sure it was humiliating for him to come down in the world, after growing up with a father who once had such an impressive career.
Shortly after I was born, the Snake shed her skin—that is, she left us. I would learn much later her ever-so-predictable reason for leaving: She ran off with a man she met at the strip club. He was a musician and, as the story goes, a very talented and successful one, at least for a time. I was told that she left us to follow José Feliciano, whose big hit, “Feliz Navidad,” was played on radio stations around the world every Christmas season throughout my childhood; to my chagrin, it still is. For the record, even though I heard this story from more than one person in my family, on more than one occasion, for years, there’s always a chance someone got it wrong—I wanted to say that, just in case it wasn’t actually José Feliciano.
Growing up, Christmas in our house was always a little different from everyone else’s, though I suppose that could be said of many things involving my family. Most of the Christmases I remember were in our house on Carrleigh Parkway, a very cute street lined with brick townhomes. Some houses had blue front doors, some had black, with shutters to match. We had an end unit, with a huge pine tree in the side yard. Throughout my childhood, our houses were always decorated the same: Persian carpets over the hardwood floors, dark colors, good antique furniture—Daddy only ever wanted “the good kind” of everything. The idea is so burned into my brain that I still use that term to this day. I’m forever saying, “Oh, you have to get the good kind,” though I’m usually referring to toilet paper or something trivial like that, not antique furnishings.
In any case our houses were always well kept, uncluttered, comfortable. If you peeked in our living room window on a Christmas morning before everyone awoke, you would have thought a perfectly normal family lived in that charming townhouse. The peaceful and pleasant appearance of our home betrayed none of...