It wouldn’t be proper to jump right into my adventures without first introducing my wife, Pooneh. She didn’t move to the U.S. until after she finished high school in 1985, which was six years after the Iranian revolution. Speaking only a very primitive form of English when she arrived in California, she learned quickly through classes and working at a donut shop. Our paths didn’t cross until twelve years later when I was working as an intern, and she was a visiting medical student performing a two-month rotation at a hospital in Michigan.
Sure enough, I even managed to bungle plans on the first day we met. While attending an evening conference for residents and medical students, I had my eye on this beautiful Persian girl with pretty brown eyes and sporting a little flower in her lush, dark hair. She was sitting with a bunch of other medical students a couple tables away. After dinner I went over to ask them if they would like to join me and the other interns to play pool at a bar across the street afterwards. They exchanged uncertain giggles and glances with one another, and the best they could reply was “Maybe.” I asked the guys at my table if they wanted to go but they didn’t look too enthused either since they had to work in the morning. I felt a little disappointed that everyone was being so lame, so I just went home and watched TV. Apparently, the girls decided to go after all because the next day Pooneh came up to me with a big teasing smirk on her face and asked why we stood them up at the bar last night! Ugh, I’d already screwed up and it wasn’t even our first date. At least she knew who I was now, so it was easier to say hello and chat when I saw her in the hospital.
The following weekend, I got a call from one of the medical students who asked me if I wanted to take her and her friend out to a movie. I wasn’t at all interested in her, although she was really friendly, so I asked her who her friend was. “Pooneh, do you know her?” Without a moment’s hesitation I replied “Oh yes! I’ll pick you guys up in an hour.”
We went to see the movie Liar, Liar with Jim Carrey. Pooneh was sitting in the middle of us and couldn’t believe the contrast between our reactions during some of the scenes. On her left, she heard my unrestrained, bellowing laughter, while her roommate on her right wouldn’t even crack a smile because she probably thought it was too corny. Pooneh later thought she might have been angry because she didn’t get to sit next to me even though she was the one who called me. After the movie the three of us went to an Irish Pub nearby. Pooneh and I talked the whole time for over an hour, while this poor girl just sat there with no expression and didn’t say a word unless I asked her a direct question or made an effort to work her into the conversation.
We became more acquainted that month by going on a couple dates to the park for paddle-boarding, and a musical called Showboat on our last weekend together. Over dinner, she told me her name comes from a type of pretty blue flower that grows in the mountains of Iran. She told me that she loved sports, but it was against regulations to run or jump in high school grounds because it was not considered “proper” in a Muslim country. Volleyball was allowed, but they had to play in a carpeted room with only a nine-foot-high ceiling while wearing a full-length gown (kind of like a tunic) and a head dress. She told me stories of her family having to endure bombing raids during the Iran/Iraq War while having to study for final exams.
In comparison, stories about my high school days on the swim team or heading to the malls and teenage night clubs to “pick up chicks” sounded quite ordinary, but she did a good job of indulging me.
Before she left at the end of her rotation, I let her know that I was changing my residency to Good Samaritan Hospital in Arizona, and since it wasn’t too far from her home in California, I suggested that she schedule some of her fourth-year rotations over there. She did! And the faculty liked her so much she was accepted as an Internal Medicine resident the following year.
After a series of romantic blunders which I won’t go into (hell, I could write an entire blog about that!), I gradually learned what it meant to be in a committed relationship. I just looked at myself as a wild and undomesticated caveman who needed to be trained and humbled into husband-hood.
We planned a big wedding at a castle that we rented in Hollywood Hills. I knew from experience after her brother’s wedding that the bride and groom are expected to remain on the dance floor for the majority of the night to “keep the party going” and that most of the attention is centered on them. It became clear to me that if I wanted to impress her on our wedding night, I needed to learn to dance like a real Persian man.
Unfortunately, I didn’t even know how to dance like an American, let alone like a suave Persian dude—and to unfamiliar foreign music no less. My brother, Rob, knew what a terrible dancer I was from our days at those teenage nightclubs like “Club Soda” and “Jubilation,” so he was really looking forward to getting a good laugh at my expense.
Pooneh’s brother and uncle were always the studs of the dance floor, executing their moves with masculine flamboyance and confidence, raising their arms in the air, and shaking their shoulders without moving any other part of their bodies. Their wives and even Pooneh complimented them with such perfect grace and elegance that I felt like I was in the Persian-version of a Bollywood movie. Needless to say, I felt extremely intimidated which made me dance even more awkwardly.
Some of the parties we attended with her family involved dancing in the family room with really nowhere for me to hide. Since I was the only American in the party, and Pooneh’s new boyfriend, they even lured me in from the backyard, beckoning and chanting my name with growing vigor until I joined them. At first, I was kind of shy, so I’d just try to wiggle around with subtle motions so as not to attract much attention. This didn’t do any good though because they soon formed into a big boogying circle that each one of us had to enter in turn and lay down our best impromptu jig with everyone clapping and singing around you. I actually ended up just letting myself go and it turned out to be pretty fun.
When the big day finally arrived, I surprised myself that I wasn’t even nervous. I just felt honored and excited to see so many guests arriving from across the country and even overseas. The castle and grounds for our outdoor wedding looked surreal and even more picturesque than I imagined. Pooneh looked absolutely stunning. We strode out of the castle and over a bridge together to a lively Persian wedding song, taking our place under a beautiful gazebo cascading with vibrant red and white flowers and overlooking the valley behind us. The minister read beautiful poems in Farsi which he then intermittently translated into English. This actually sounded better in planning than how it played out because nobody could really focus on what the heck he was talking about through his strong accent.
After the ceremony, an extravagant display of hors d’oeuvres stretched across about ten long tables, while a DJ played a good mix of both Persian and American music. Rob and Chris were with my cousins and friends that have known me since I was a kid, sitting on the edge of their seats, eager to see what a fool I would look like trying to dance in front of all our guests.
I nailed some of the new moves Pooneh showed me which seemed to energize the guests with rousing cheers and applause. This gave me some confidence, and realized for the first time that I was actually enjoying myself on a dance floor! Then I copied some moves of the other good dancers on the floor and improved as the night went along. Rob and Chris joined me for a Russian jig, which we performed arm in arm with our long legs kicking out from a squatting position (think of the wedding from the movie The Deerhunter). Rob told me afterwards that he was quite impressed but also disappointed that I didn’t give them enough material to make fun of me at their table after all. I felt like my triumph in learning to dance was a symbol for my triumph of finally becoming a husband that Pooneh would be proud of. We continued to dance the night away, as I watched my big American family try their best at some Persian dance moves alongside my new family that they had just met—truly an unforgettable night.