So, do you ever do drugs? I wanted him to think I was a badass.

Then the deep, soft voice of my Uncle Hossain filled my ears: “Azizam, movazeb baash kasi nayad too. My love, don’t let anyone in.”

I HEARD HIS VOICE BY ATASH YAGHMAIAN 34THPARALLEL MAGAZINE ISSUE 70


Marco was waiting for me outside Jivamukti Yoga Studios, leaning against a white Ferrari. He held the door open 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 looked at the bridges that span two boroughs. “BMW,” he said. “Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg. That’s how you remember the order, from south to north. BMW.”

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 wanted him to think I was a badass. “I’m up for anything,” I lied.

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 the car, and raced us up First Avenue. He made a left on 34th Street, 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 come back for at least 45 minutes. 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 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 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. 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 a big hit and leaned back on the couch with a satisfied look on his face. As his body melted into the couch, something strange happened to me. 

I heard the Muslim call to prayer, but we were somewhere in the Lower East Side of New York City and there were no minarets. I strained my ears to listen. Children’s voices seemed to be coming from outside the window, though we were on the fourth floor. I let the sounds wash over me. 

Then the deep, soft voice of my Uncle Hossain filled 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 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 came to know 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 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. 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,” 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 him. I was wearing the red shirt he had bought me three years before. It was way too small on me now, but I wasn’t ready to let it go.

“This is the shirt you got me,” 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 hair with the back of his hand 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 watched over her Shirazi rugs the way a mother bear guards her cubs. Then he asked, “Can you bring me your doll?” 

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. 

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 Malos. 

And I watched the door in case my grandmother came back early.

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 body lay slumped on the floor.

“Get up, Daiee joon,” I said again, but he didn’t stir. Something was wrong. Did I mess up our ritual? Fear gripped me. What if I’d 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 the heroin and went to my mother’s walk-in closet, where 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 struck a match and threw it into a corner of the closet. The match blew out. I lit another one and dropped it right near my foot. The match caught on one of my mother’s blouses. I picked up the blouse and threw it into a corner of the closet. I lit a third match and threw it into another corner. 

For a moment the flame guttered but then it caught the corner of one of my mother’s magazines. There was fire and smoke everywhere and I couldn’t breathe. My hair was burning.

This was a mistake.

Scream.

“Atash! Atash! Atash!” I screamed my own name, which means fire. “Fire! Fire! Fire!” My 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. They grabbed me, lifted me into the air, and carried me out. 

It was my uncle Hossain. He sat me down a few feet from the blaze and wrapped me in a blanket. 

His shirt had caught on fire. He managed to extinguish it and then he rushed back into the closet. He used blankets and his bare hands to fight the fire. In the flames he looked like a madman in battle, as though he were fighting a dragon. When he had put out the fire at last he looked at his burnt hands and blew on them. He had tears in his eyes. 

He walked over to me and picked me up. He 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 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 had himself locked 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. 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 scared of opening the door 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 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.

ATASH YAGHMAIAN

I see storytelling as a tool for healing trauma, and I bring both my experience as a survivor and as a therapist to my work in an effort to bring hope to people like me. I am working currently on a memoir called My Name Means Fire. I was born in Tehran, Iran, and I have lived in the United States since I was 19. My experience with trauma, war, oppression, and revolution in my own country led me to psychotherapy as a way of understanding and processing the trauma. I have worked two decades in New York City public schools as a licensed clinical social worker giving social and emotional support to urban youth who struggle with poverty, injustice, and abuse. I am a founding member and Director of Wellness of Harvest Collegiate High School.