Once I spent some time with a man who had a cook. What I mean is that once, I loved this man with the cook. She was an older woman from his country and only spoke their language. She did his shopping, his washing, prepared his meals and sat down with him, when he didn’t have company, to eat.
Her food was simple, yet decadent—many options at each course: with two types of homemade bread that she kneaded, proofed and rolled each day, with homemade jams and homemade yogurt, with pickled vegetables from the garden, with tea on the samovar, with a mother’s banter for him—even though she was not his mother, even though his mother was dead, even though she was paid for her work—banter in a language I didn’t speak, but could feel.
I was comforted watching her care for him, and for me by extension.
She woke up early and went straight to the kitchen to prepare breakfast—cheeses, herbs, eggs, yogurt, jams, breads, olives. She set a full table for us, ready when we got up a little later and came out of his bedroom. I was always shy at first, embarrassed that she had seen me, that she knew what we’d been up to. A shyness I wouldn’t have felt if she weren’t Middle Eastern, if she didn’t remind me of my own grandmothers.
After breakfast she cleaned up and went to her room to call her daughter, her friends. She spent hours on the phone in between meals, Skyping and Face Timing with loved ones many time zones away. Then she’d come back to prepare lunch and it went on like that.
Dinners were as delectable as breakfasts. But I couldn’t eat. I’d pick at this or that and chew it all slowly, taking time between bites, and she would say to him, in their language, “tell her that she eats like a bird.” And she’d pick up a bowl and spoon something from it, onto my plate, gesturing for me to “eat, eat!”
We existed in our gestures. I’d learned a few words in her language, “good morning,” “thank you,” “that was delicious” and “good night,” which she received with delight. I’d also memorized the words for “darling” and “love” but it never got that far.
“I’d like to cook for you,” I said to him.
“Oh, yea? Are you a good cook?”
“Yes. Very. I like simple things, but also unexpected flavors.”
“I don’t like weird combinations of flavors,” he said. “People think it’s artistic, but it’s not. If that’s what you do, I wouldn’t like it.”
He said everything with intention. That wasn’t the only cruel thing he said to me. I should have known then to step aside, to let go. But I still dreamed of cooking for him. Of filling him with my love.
I hold on to things for too long, long after they’ve died.
I hold on to things so that I don’t lose them, like the houses I lost in childhood, leaving one behind in Iran and another foreclosed on my mother in America. I’m afraid to lose any more, like my dad who vanished in death, when I was nine. Like the family we left behind. Like the language I forgot. Like the culture I lost. I hold on to things in order to survive, my exiled self steadying herself.
Sometimes this man and I ate at restaurants. I was always famished when we sat down, hungry for the potential of our empty table. Hungry for how he looked at me across it, his handsome brown eyes narrowed on mine, like I was the only thing that existed.
Once, he put his name down at the restaurant at the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood, that replica of the relic it once was, with big ancient keys for each room, with fancy velvet couches that looked bohemian and evoked a sensual history. While we waited for our table we went up to his room, where I knew I’d spend the night. Walking up the old stairs, down the dark corridors of that place, I was overtaken by nostalgia for something I’d never had. He opened the door, not to a room, but to a full apartment, bigger than mine, with plush couches, a grand piano and a full kitchen with a fridge stocked full of green juices, chocolates and champagne—for charm, not utility.
We sat in the living room, on couches opposite each other, silent. He was on his phone, so I busied myself on mine. Then he walked away into the bedroom and I followed him. I always followed him, like a dog.
There, he wordlessly pushed me on the bed and peeled off my tight jeans, he pulled my t-shirt over my head, tossed it to the floor, unhooked my bra. He took my hand and stood me up, then stepped a few feet away and assessed.
“Look at you,” he finally said. “Just look at you.”
And those eyes, those brown eyes that could see everything, came closer and closer until he tackled me back into bed.
I thought that was love. I was too old to think that was love, and yet, I thought it was.
I had left my husband for him.
I had left my husband because it wasn’t working between us.
I had left my husband. Maybe, I had left for him, for this man. But I couldn’t admit that.
Once it was all done with my marriage, I packed up my things into two dozen boxes—mostly books—and sent this man, whom I loved, a picture of them, stacked.
“My life,” I said.
I wanted him to save me.
He did not respond for some time and when he did it was nothing to remember.
In my new apartment, the first home I’d ever rented on my own, I sat among those boxes, on a fold out couch I’d inherited in the separation that preceded the divorce, and I drank bourbon, neat, and ate expensive dark chocolate for dinner. Miserable and crying—loud, hysterical sobs—and joyous, all at once, thinking that was freedom.
Back downstairs, on the patio at the restaurant at the Chateau Marmont, I was starving, unsatisfied.
He ordered us a bottle of wine and told me to get whatever I wanted. I wanted everything. I was hungry. Hungry for him. Hungry for love. Hungry for that life, with the broody hallways and velvet couches and views of the whole town.
I ordered bread, olives, crispy cauliflower, broccolini, mussels, parmesan truffle fries, burrata, endive salad, linguini and lentils. All of that just for the two of us.
He didn’t stop me.
“Order whatever you want,” he said. That’s what he always said, recognizing something in me, showing me something of himself.
The food arrived and I ate a few fries, a bit of this, a taste of that. Same as him. He never had a big appetite. He was skinny and soft.
The mountain of food remained before us.
That was when there were still promises from him. There was the life we could have, even though he’d already been cruel, distant, unwilling.
Serious. I thought he was serious. I thought he loved me, too. Having mistaken the years he pursued me for love.
I was hungry for him for longer than I should have been. I held on, when I should have let go.
When it was over, when he stopped talking to me, wanting to see me, when he’d met another woman, I went searching for him in the streets of New York City. I drank bourbon after bourbon, at each passing bar, until the liquor gave me permission to do the thing I knew was stupid. I walked into the Greenwich Hotel, where he once lived, and I asked for him. Demanded him, from the front desk, the host, the manager, the waitress. Do you know him? Is he here? Can you call his room?
They all said, no. No. No. No.
A man who worked there walked me out. Put me in a cab.
It was disgraceful, but I wouldn’t know it until the next morning when I’d wake up hung over and ashamed.
“At least you were in love,” my mom, Shee Shee, said to me. “Some people never fall in love. I’m glad you had that.”
Shee Shee cooks me Iranian food when she visits. She makes me addas polo, which I love, the fragrance of her perfect rice, mixed with lentils and topped with fried onions, dates and raisins fills my tiny apartment and I’m transported back to Tehran. Back to my grandmother’s kitchen, who used to cook this same dish for me.
When Shee Shee visits, I am always hungry. Hungry for her who lives thousands of miles away, who speaks our language with a nuance I can’t understand, who still strokes my upper arm with the tips of her fingers, just barely touching, and lets me collapse in her lap and cry, even though I am 38 years old. I am hungry for the life we left. I am hungry for the dad I lost when I was a child. I am hungry for the traditions I’ll never own the way she can, because I’m not from home any more.
With her, I eat, because I am safe. The addas polo disappears quickly, the zereshk polo, too. She makes salad shirazi and asks if I want fereni, the milk, flour and sugar concoction she made when I was little and sick.
I never decline any of it. I never turn away.
And, I cook for her. I make her miso marinated cob, I make grain bowls and massaged kale salads. I bake breads and brownies and I take her to my favorite restaurants. This is my culture. Made-up recipes and dinners out in New York City.
I was so in love with that man, the one with the woman who cooked. The one who didn’t want me in the way I thought he did. The one who could be cruel. I never thought I’d love again. But then, a few years later, I met A and in the instant that our eyes caught each other’s gaze, the world disappeared, the other man disappeared, the future was gone, the past was erased. I couldn’t breathe! I found myself fallen into him.
Very soon, almost from the start, I loved him. So, I imagined cooking for him and his children—the kids I hadn’t met yet, the ones I’d heard about, the teenagers and their younger sibling whom he lovingly called, “my ingrates.”
The morning after one of the first nights we spent together, long and sleepless and full of discovery—colliding and falling and dancing and kissing and fucking and talking—he fed me a piece of cherry pie.
“It’s from the store,” he said. “It probably has high fructose corn syrup. I’m a bad father.”
He served it with a tiny piece of mint from the garden and an espresso he’d pulled himself. I ate as I watched a short film he’d written, directed and dedicated to his college girlfriend, decades ago.
On my way home, I stopped by the farmers market and picked up June’s strawberries and rhubarb. Back in my small, sweltering apartment, I simmered them down with sugar and honey, added a little bit of rose water and saffron, that Shee Shee had brought from Iran—the good stuff. I mixed the dough by hand, putting it in the fridge often, to keep the butter cool. Every time I ran its crumbles through my fingers, every time I kneaded, stretched and folded it into rounds, rolled it out, I gave this dough all my love, every happiness within me. I wanted all of that to move from me, into them, that family.
I dropped off the pie, in its red dish, stained and sticky at the rims with the juice of summer’s fruit, late at night. It was my offering, my way in.
By the next evening the pie was almost gone, devoured. I went to pick up the red dish. I went, actually, just to see him, under the guise of picking up the red dish. We sat on his stoop, where he’d lit a candle and set out two glasses of red wine, and we talked about life, about his “ingrates,” about his work and mine.
“How was the pie?” I finally asked.
“Delicious,” he said. “Perfect with ice cream. Not too sweet.”
“It’s always weird to bake a pie and give it someone when you haven’t tasted it yourself,” I said. It’s always weird to bake a pie so that a family will want you.
“There is still a slice left,” he said. “Do you want to try it?”
Inside, he took a fork and dug it into the sole slice of pie, picking up a piece and moving it up to my mouth. He fed me. It was an explosion of tart, a touch of sweet, the crust was butter melting, earthy, the rose and saffron were home.
There’s a metaphor in that. But we didn’t talk about it.
Instead, he kissed me and we danced, entangled in each other, down to his basement, with the toys and video games—the kids were three floors above us, sleeping.
I was hungry for his blue eyes. I was hungry for how tall he was. I was hungry for how he wrapped me in his arms and kissed the top of my head, pouring love into me, saying, “I’m glad this happened. I’m glad we met.” I was hungry for his kids, the family I wanted, but didn’t have. I was hungry for the way he told me he loved me, that we fell into each other, that we fit together. I was hungry for this man, who was 22 years older than me, who was safe and kind and well-meaning. Except that he had a long distance girlfriend. Except that he was careful with his words, implying that he would break up with her, that it wasn’t serious, that it wasn’t working. Except that he lied. Except that I still wanted him more than anything else. Except that I couldn’t let go. Again.
Once, at a Brooklyn restaurant, in the beginning, I arrived famished as usual. I ordered an appetizer, a big bowl of pasta and two sides of vegetables. He said he wasn’t hungry. He said he would just pick from my dinner. We drank wine and when the food arrived, I suddenly couldn’t touch it.
“You’re like my kids,” he said. “You order everything and then hardly eat any of it.”
An ingrate, I thought. Then I thought about my own dad. Was this a metaphor, too?
My stomach was in giddy knots. I was full of happiness. I was full of him. I thought I was full of good things. So, I drank red wine and gazed into his eyes and felt the touch of his big hand on my bare thigh, below the hem of my short skirt. We talked about his parents, about the things that scared us.
The girlfriend called. He held up his iPhone and showed me the screen with her name on it. He made a panicked face and sent it to voicemail.
“She’s not been well,” he said. “I can’t break up with her right now.”
The stomach is our heart brain. It’s willing to tell us things, if we’re willing to listen.
In Farsi when we say, my stomach is tight for you, it means I miss you. When we insist we’re doing something of our own volition we say, my stomach wants it. When we feel bad about someone’s situation we say, my stomach burns. When we’re melancholy we say, my stomach is being tightly gripped.
When our heart breaks we say, my stomach is shattered.
It all comes back to the stomach.
My stomach is always tight—for Shee Shee and my dad and my briefly happy childhood.
After months of being in love, being tortured, being hurt, I couldn’t take it any longer. He suggested we have coffee, we talk, we start over.
I went home and emailed his girlfriend. I couldn’t let go. I couldn’t not see him. I couldn’t not be in love with him. I couldn’t not want him. I couldn’t not rush to him every time he called. I would be hungry forever for this man and he’d take that hunger and lead me with it.
So, I blew us up. Exiled myself again.
In the weeks after, I couldn’t eat. This time from despair, my life and my body were disappearing. My stomach was tight for him. My stomach was shattered.
One night, my friend Kim came over with a container of homemade pho.
“Eat this,” she said. “You’ll feel better.”
I couldn’t hold back my tears. They’d been pouring for weeks.
She hugged me.
“Do you want me to stay?”
“No, I’m all right,” I said.
I wasn’t. We both knew that. But she couldn’t fill the empty space inside me.
I put the pho in the fridge where it stayed for so long that it transformed into something green and fuzzy and solid.
When I visit my brother in California, where he lives with his wife and their children and our mother, I sometimes cook for them.
I make pasta from scratch and they are amazed that it can be done and that fresh pasta tastes like another dimension. They gather around me in the kitchen and watch as I roll the dough on their marble counter. They take videos and photos and then they eat the meal I’ve made, cleaning their plates of every morsel. I make them slow cooked scrambled eggs for breakfast and they melt in the velvetiness of it, asking for more. I chide them for buying hummus at the store, when it’s so easy to make at home.
“But the hummus from the Iranian store is delicious,” my brother says to me.
He is 12 years older. We grew up as only children and there is that distance forever between us. He married his wife after just four months together and now it’s been 20 years. She is the best thing that’s come into our family from the outside. He built a life and became a dad to a daughter at the same age our dad was when he had me. And then he had a son.
My nephew, who is now 11, lies down on the couch next to me when we watch movies. He snuggles up to me and rests his head on my shoulder, facing away. He kisses my forearm and whispers, so no one else can hear, “I love you.”
The first man I loved. The one with the cook. I ran into him in Manhattan once. I was sober and not looking for him in hotels like a maniac. I was walking down the street in Soho and we both did a double take. He hugged me. “You look good,” he said. He asked about my work and I asked about his life. “I’m good,” he said. “Having babies.” I knew that already. We keep track of each other. I know that, too. “Congratulations,” I said.
The other man, A, he lives near me. One year went by, then two, then three. He lied to his girlfriend. And when he saw me, he glared meanly. But my stomach was still tight for him. I was hungry for every feeling I had when I was with him, every potential I envisioned, and wondered often if he’d felt the same.
Then one day, I woke up in Costa Rica and had a premonition that I would see him. After 13 hours of travel—a car ride, a flight and a bus ride—I stepped onto the C train at Times Square and five stops later, he walked into the same car.
Tired, hungry and travel worn, I got up and went to sit down next to him. We talked. About his children, about my work, about his work, about nothing and then about us.
“You and I are never going to see what happened eye-to-eye,” he said.
“But was it real?” I asked. “That feeling, had you ever felt it before?”?
“It was real,” he said. “It was other worldly. Being with you was delicious and unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced.”
“Can we be together again?” I asked, delirious and hungry.
My stomach is sometimes gripped. My stomach is often tight. My stomach is always wanting. My stomach. My stomach. My stomach. My Stomach.
Naz Riahi is an Iranian writer living in Brooklyn. This piece was adapted from her forthcoming memoir, Bad at Love. To learn about the book’s release, find Naz on Instagram and sign up for her infrequent newsletter. In addition to writing, Naz is the founder of Bitten and the creator and host of The Hungry Heart Podcast, which will be released in December.