“Everything . . . is not horror, but joy.”
There are two versions as to how we met. The first version is “through friends,” which is true—the second version is “on a dance floor,” which is also true—our mutual friend Manya made our introduction at 3am at Stereo, an afterhours EDM club in Montreal, in October 2019, by screaming our names at each other while others smashed into us. I had never heard of his Persian name before (Kourosh), so after several attempts at repeating it back to him correctly, I finally gave up, settled on an approximation, and waved my hands to indicate yes, I understood the pronunciation exactly, even though I didn’t. For the next several hours, we supplanted the “getting to know you” investigative courting ritual known to all with shared drugs and thrashing limbs; our explosive dancing, from the Middle East and American Midwest, synced up perfectly.
I wasn’t supposed to be at Stereo that night: I had overridden my exhaustion to go out at the pleading of my friend Rich. After waiting in line at 2am for over an hour on a freezing night, I remember thinking: beauty is pain. And by beauty I mean new experiences, in their capacity to jolt one out of past habits and judgments, not beauty as in physical attractiveness (my anemic, drug-addled body was squeezed into a sequined mini-dress whose sequins were shedding, and covered in body glitter, a phosphorescent mating dance gone wrong), or in ambiance: Montreal is bone-chillingly cold 9 months out of the year, and Stereo makes scenes from Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream seem glamorous.
I was not an expert mixologist when it came to drugs, their side effects, or how they interacted with or counteracted each other, those days: I simply ingested or inhaled whatever I could get my hands on. Clubbing, for me, wasn’t a time for romance, thus, which requires some degree of interlocution, intentionality, and game, but a place to further lose my mind in the ecstasy of a perpetual now that would never end. So when Kourosh kept dancing with me that night, I was attracted and compelled, but bemused by how much fun I was having dancing exclusively a man rather than spinning around like a whirling dervish, bashing or collapsing into people, who lifted me into a mosh pit or just cradled me gently before releasing me into the club’s perfumed insanity: at Stereo, you never had to ask “where’s the love,” because it was everywhere, in everyone, even the atmosphere: or at least that’s the vibe I tried to cultivate and project and thus remember receiving back, in spades.
Around 6am, Kourosh and I had found an uncanny rhythm, at hysteria’s pitch, so I decided to make polite conversation, leaning toward his ear and shrieking “I’ve never met someone with more energy than me!” to which he instantly responded: “Not more, we match!”
Other than a few scrambles to the batting cage-style smoking enclosure outside together, to watch the vapors from our cigarettes rise like the trail of a Phoenix in the crude early dawn, that was the extent of our verbal communication that night, as it was every night in the past, breakout conversations mostly being limited to glazy-eyed high fives, body slams, and poetic quotes such as “ARE YOU OUT OF K,” and “DANCE FOR THOSE WHO CAN’T, GURL!”
It was at 8am that morning when Rich remembered I’d left my car in a tow zone at my studio a mile away, likely too late a realization to avoid the tow, but we left anyway, to attempt a miracle. Said miracle happened, but by then, Rich and I were danced out, so we returned to my apartment, texting Manya and Kourosh to invite them over for afterhours afterparty mimosas.
Kourosh texted back immediately to say they were on their way: I was thrilled.
The next couple hours in which we drank, chatted, and laughed are much clearer in my cognitive memory than the actual night at Stereo, because we were able to communicate in language. I had, however, already written off the idea of Kourosh as anything other than a friend—at Stereo, he’d asked me my age, and I’d told him (40); when I discovered his age (31), I dismissed, tout court, the idea of a hookup or anything else, not because of my lack of interest, but what I assumed would be his, as he had flown in from Halifax for the weekend, and likely had a life back there.
That day, Rich was hosting a Friendsgiving party, and I was planning on coming at 3pm with several dishes I hadn’t yet prepared. After everyone left my apartment at noon, instead of napping, I got stoned and threw myself into a meal prep spiral, only emerging at 5pm when Rich texted: “Where are you? Kourosh has a flight back to Halifax at 7pm!” When I finally arrived, Kourosh greeted me at the door: he had re-booked his flight home for the following morning, he said. When I innocuously asked why, he just as innocuously responded that the changed flight fee wasn’t that expensive, and he didn’t want to miss the party (i.e. me).
Within an hour or so, the melee was well underway: at the dinner table, we passed trays of drugs along with the delicious harvest offerings. I was having a great time, without being overly conscious of Kourosh, a desirable yet improbable match, not just because of the age and generation gap but much else, beginning with background—he grew up in the Islamic Republic of Iran in the 90s, me during the Clinton era in a small suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. I had a PhD in English, was recently separated from my husband, a nine-year relationship for which I’d reluctantly moved to Montreal in 2014 from Chicago, and was trying to slowly kill myself and my nascent career with substance abuse and other ills; he was, I’d soon discover, not just a party animal, but an award-winning urban planner and family man who owned commercial real estate.
The night evolved into a living room dance party, however, and I couldn’t deny the intense magnetism between us: we seemed to find a way to each other effortlessly, despite our attempts to hang out with other people. By 3am, we were locked at the hip, our crazed last 24 hours culminating in something more intimate. His next words, “Your place?” gleefully and erotically transposed the moment’s innocence, and we were gone.
Another sleepless night, though this time the moments were razor-sharp—the shock of sensation and the desiring gaze in his dark eyes are forever etched in my mind—but by 7am, he was packing his backpack to leave. We shuffled around my kitchen making coffee, and when he left, I quickly sought to categorize the experience, to avoid being emotionally hijacked—a one-night stand with a great guy. But what a night! As Edith Piaf says: “Non, je ne regrette rien.”
Then he texted me to say he was at the airport. Then he texted me upon landing, and I again responded, chalking it up to the chatty aftermath of a memorable encounter. The last conscious thought I had, before our lives were to be inseparably joined, was “Why is he still texting me?” Regardless of the reason, within two days, we were Skyping nightly and spending a large portion of our days texting, in what his sister later described as two computers uploading each other’s data. By day three, he told me he had something he needed to tell me, but that it had to wait. That night, on Skype, I could sense his impatience, so I encouraged him to spill it.
“I think I love you,” he blurted out. The hilarious, Descartian “I think” aside, I was shocked—I could feel the sincerity of his words, and knew from his disclosures that he had rarely told a woman that before, even after years of dating—but all the same—a profession of love, after 72 (mostly high) hours?
Yet we proceeded, from there: with dozens of poems, admissions of mutual desire, and of course the requisite Relationship Status Talk. He initiated it after week one, asking me what I would like to consider us as: a couple? Dating? Seeing each other? We decided on no label, with “boyfriend/girlfriend” to come, but that “no-label” agreement gave me vertigo, so I came up with my own name for him: “He to whom I am bonded” (relationally, not molecularly, or as a debt peon or incarcerated inmate hoping to make bail, though that too, given my unsustainable lifestyle). He-to-whom-I-am-bonded had, I soon learned, near-boundless energy and enthusiasm, so our Stereo night wasn’t an outlier, and while I could see it was because of his relative youth, on the other hand, I could also see he was anything but naïve, as an immigrant, family provider, and owner of an apartment building and urban planning company—he moved at breakneck speeds, like me, only his upward trajectory was success, and mine was downward, to death.
This was a rough decade, and the worst year to date, of my life. I was struggling with multiple compulsions, sleeping 1-3 hours a night, and rarely eating: what I did eat I got rid of, immediately. Kourosh visited Montreal again the weekend after we met, for Halloween, and drove us to Toronto, where I had a chapbook launch. I remember changing from jeans into a dress in the passenger side seat of his white Volkswagen Jetta, half-nude and struggling with my zipper, and while attempting to maintain modesty before him and the other drivers whizzing by, I said: “I’m a little crazy, you know.” He just smiled warmly at me. He clearly already knew that, from day one, and didn’t seem to be dissuaded, which I found alarming, prompting my self-hating Groucho Marx auto-defense dating mechanism: “I don’t want to belong to any club [or person], that would accept me as a member.” What man wants to hitch their rising star to a train wreck? I was starting to have my doubts.
He sat in the back of the audience at Knife Fork Book in Toronto, and I got choked up with emotion while reading from my chapbook of centos, The New Alphabets, realizing as I was reading that several of the poems had prophesied a loving presence I’d never expected to find. Afterwards, I signed copies, then we went to a Diwali party hosted by his Indian friends: we drank champagne in their palatial home and watched a fireworks display in their backyard, with children running around in Polo outfits. Then we went back to his friend David’s three-story brownstone (we were staying on the top floor), to change into our Halloween costumes. I was a 1920’s flapper, and he was Justin Trudeau, dressed as Aladdin: an ironic joke inspired by photos leaked of Trudeau in brownface from when he was 29, during an Arabian Nights-themed gala (Kourosh could pull this off, in good humor, actually being brown).
The Halloween party was at another Toronto mansion, with free-flowing alcohol and a live band in a converted outdoor space with an adjoining tent. It was pouring rain that night, matting my hair to my head and distressing my headband’s feather, but we danced again like it was the first, or last, night of our lives. Complaining of the cold, we then went outside to cuddle by the firepit to warm ourselves, on this, our third official encounter. He closed his eyes dreamily while holding my emaciated, soaked body, then before I even knew what was happening, he dropped down to his knees and looked up. “Will you marry me?” he asked. I gasped and started laughing, looking around for support, but we were alone by the fire.
“What?!” I said. And then I started to cry, while he waited. “Yes!” I said. “Yes.” He stood up, kissed me deeply, then got the attention of a nearby man dressed as a fuzzy unicorn, who introduced himself to us as “Jeff.” Kourosh asked Jeff the Unicorn to take our photo with his iPhone, and he did: while his phone wasn’t programmed to any special camera setting, some trick of light, rain, or fire made us stand out against a background of phantasmagoric technicolor, an aurora borealis dripping with purples, blues, and greens over near-strangers in silly Halloween costumes, seconds after our pledging ourselves to each other, because it was the right thing to do.
Kourosh swore Jeff to secrecy, and we eventually made it back to David’s, where we made passionate love in the brownstone’s loft. The next day we had brunch with his friends, then Kourosh drove us back to Montreal, where he had one more day before returning to Halifax: that afternoon, while I was straightening up my studio that now resembled a trashed hotel room, he again fell to his knees and proposed, this time asking me if I would be his girlfriend, which, in retrospect, is so funny, as I again said yes, not caring or understanding whether the girlfriend proposal negated or strengthened the marriage proposal. I was still married at the time, to my now-ex husband, anyway, and why would anyone want to be with or commit to me?
It was magical, but shit got real two weekends later, when he couldn’t afford to take time off work but came back to Montreal anyway unannounced, knowing that I was bendering hard, sleepless, and on the brink of losing both my job and my life. My usually put-together, smiley self was not available, that evening, to greet him at my door. What greeted him instead was a wasted, bedraggled shell of a person in sweatpants, barely able to say hello. He later told me that was the day he realized the severity of my issues and wasn’t sure he could help, so after running an errand the following morning, he called his best friend Steve in Halifax on his way back to my apartment, and told him he thought he should break up with me, asking him for advice.
Steve listened, then said “Everyone has problems, and every relationship has problems. You’ll either deal with them now, with her, or later, with her, or with someone else. Do you love her?” Kourosh said yes. “Stick around, then,” said Steve. “It sounds like she’s worth it.” So he did, and became the perfect strategist and partner, helping me address my most serious concerns, which at that time included a few criminal charges for petty theft of groceries. We survived that weekend, and I began to slowly heal, spurred on to better choices by the fact that I now had an accountability partner I couldn’t lie to, all the while believing that I had no chance with him if I didn’t lie about who I was and where I’d been. The only times I’d ever been brutally honest in a relationship before, it’d ended badly: honesty, to me, felt like a form of relationship suicide.
To this day, the only time I ever lied to Kourosh was during a road trip to Vermont and New York that winter; he was pumping gas while I sat in the car’s passenger seat, snorting coke off my hand and not realizing he was walking toward the car. I shoved the baggie into my purse when he entered the car, and he said “Did you just do a line?” “No!” I said instinctively, in automated flight from reality. He wrestled the truth out of me while driving, and while he was upset I’d brought drugs on our road trip, it was the bold-faced lie that troubled him the most, as evidence I could lie about anything, and may have been doing so all long. It took months to recover his trust, and required me to learn how to confess my most shameful admissions to him, again fearing that it was the ugly truth that would make him reject me, not the pretty lies I used for cover, but never once did he judge or reject me for being honest, and my memory of the deep sadness and hurt on his face when I lied to him that day was all I needed to not only tell the truth in the future, but also be motivated to change the behaviors that caused me to feel I had to lie.
It was during this second visit to Montreal, in early November, that the conversation about how to bridge the long-distance gap arose. A few days later, I heard from the University where I taught, and my one course per semester contract was not renewed for winter, as I’d maxed out the part-time union restrictions by teaching an additional class the previous summer.
“Move to Halifax,” he said. I had been living in Montreal for nearly five years by then; the damage to my marriage was irreparable; my addictions had spiraled out of control, living alone; and most importantly, I was madly in love: so despite protestations from close friends (“Didn’t you just meet him last month?”), I sublet my studio to a couple from Lyon, France, and packed my worldly belongings into several hefty bags. Knowing I was unlikely to survive the 12-hour drive without his help, Kourosh flew into Halifax, helped me pack my car and clean my studio, then drove us back to Halifax, where we set up home in the two-story turquoise bungalow he lived in, adjacent to the three-story apartment building he owned: his mother lived there too.
We spent a few weeks joyfully nesting (by then I had two decades of experience transforming bachelor pads with moldy produce in the fridge into cozy, welcoming homes), overawed at the seemingly-inexhaustible treasury of affection, tenderness, eros, and love we’d tapped into, like two wild animals willing to consider domestication with the right guidance, then returned to Montreal for another Stereo night on New Year’s Eve with friends, and to transport the rest of my things in his brother’s SUV. Drugs were still in the picture, because I had several dealers by that point, avoided air travel, and was heavily addicted, and we spent NYE, when not dancing on the rafters, in tantric group hugs, and refreshing our highs with multiple substances (ecstasy, coke, ketamine) throughout the night, then returning to Halifax a couple days later.
Life in Halifax with Kourosh continued to exceed my wildest expectations, as did our bond, and I slowly grew curious about what a sober, or more sober, life with him could look like; I had run out of the large stash I transported to Halifax from Montreal during those trips, as I typically began my drinking and drugging around 10am before sitting down to read and write.
While I had a learned allergy to white male savior narratives (handsome, successful businessman saves broken druggie girl from hell), Kourosh isn’t white, and am a survivalist, with or without men around—all I needed was time, and a safe space to detox and breathe—so I tried my best to just embrace this bizarre and completely unexpected tide of good fortune, luck, and blessings that had happened when we serendipitously met clubbing five months prior.
But even after I ran out of ecstasy and cocaine, I was still struggling with sleeping and my eating disorder: purging and supplanting meals with alcohol. Many were the mornings when he’d stumble downstairs to find me at my computer by the door and beg me to come back to bed, or, during the day, to stop drinking and eat a meal, or go for a walk: anything but write furiously with what always felt to me to be borrowed time I was racing against, bracing myself for the end of whatever circumstances I was in that provided wifi and a small spell of respite from poverty, addiction, high-risk behavior, abuse, and other elements of a shiftless, dangerous, precarious life.
Kourosh’s life had also just taken a major turn: in February, his older brother Sam’s restaurant, the Garden was going under and Kourosh, in an act of familial good faith, had decided to buy Sam out, and assume ownership. I was shocked, given his success, and local as well as national fame as a young urban planner, coupled with his complete lack of knowledge and training in the hospitality industry, as well as food and beverage: before I moved in, he was subsisting, as he had his entire life, on take-out and dine-in restaurant food, as well as the Persian meals his mother made for him: while I staged a few pictures to the contrary, for laughs (of him pretending to knead dough), he had never so much as cooked a pot of rice or boiled a potato in his 31 years of life, and he rarely drinks alcohol, having being raised in a Muslim country.
The interim transition from his previous career to ownership of a 4,000 square foot restaurant/bar/café, with Middle-Eastern themed décor, gold chandeliers, and an events space, was extremely stressful for him, personally, professionally, and financially, and the Edenic bliss of the previous five months was tested; he had his own problems to deal with, now.
That same month, I returned to Montreal for a weekend, alone. I had tickets to Stereo that Saturday, with Manya, and was excited to experience it sans Kourosh, to see what it was like. Stereo was this time a completely different experience, like seeing an ornate opera stage deconstructed by day, all the singers, props, and scenery in raw states of disassembly. I moved around in a daze, and contracted a bad cold without Kourosh to keep me warm. The rampant drug use, disgusting bathrooms, and sketchy lurkers freaked me out, and try as I did to feel the magic again, it was gone. By 8am, instead of scheming where we’d go from there, I hailed a cab: when I looked at my reflection in the rearview mirror on the way home, I saw a hungover woman with smeared makeup and dilated pupils, lucky to have escaped the night, and scene, unscathed. I returned to Halifax the following day, with mussed hair, sunglasses, faux-fur coat, and a cigarette dangling from my fingers. Kourosh was waiting for me at the airport; we joked that my rehab stint had been unsuccessful. Upon arriving home, I was greeted by a clean house, and our excited new tortoiseshell kitten, Gigi. I put down my bag, and we all had a group hug.
A couple weeks later, I was preparing to leave for San Antonio, Texas, for AWP, for the annual conference in early March, when news of the pandemic soon to sweep the world hit. We watched the news obsessively for updates, but didn’t then fathom what global or local impact it would have. The night before I was supposed to leave, I crawled on top of Kourosh’s body in bed, and wept onto his chest for reasons unrelated to COVID-19: the thought of leaving him, for even four days, was completely intolerable and unbearable to me, and it had nothing to do with enmeshment, codependency, or other forms of traumatic bonding and toxic relationships, though we’d discussed all those possibilities when inquiring about the strange nature of our connection.
At the 11th hour, I decided to cancel my travel reservations and remain in Halifax.
A week later, off street drugs for a month but still drinking, I began a new prescription drug, Vyvanse, to help with my near-daily bulimic episodes. Within a week, the pep I’d lost being off coke and ecstasy was back in my step, and I was counting down the days before asking my psychiatrist when I could increase the dosage. I also decided, that week, to go off Abilify (the medication I’d been on since I was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown in 2010 in Chicago), without medical consultation, cold turkey. Within a few days of that, the big feels returned, coupled with a decreased appetite, and no desire to purge what I’d ate for the first time since I was 15 years old. Within two weeks, pandemic quarantine in full swing, all the various therapies I’d begun upon moving to Halifax (shoplifting prevention, psychotherapy, outpatient eating disorder therapy, AA, and medical appointments) disappeared, and Kourosh’s learning curve at the restaurant, still open for take-out and delivery, started to amplify, meaning he was gone not for 8 hours a day, but 12-14. It was winter; I was in illicit drug withdrawal, while covertly having ended an antipsychotic medication that alleviated paranoia and beginning a legal amphetamine; and I was living in a new city in a Maritime province with a man I adored but had only recently met, and now he was gone from 7am until 9pm or later, seven days a week.
The following eight months were a perfect storm of self-isolation, Murphy’s Law, unmedicated PTSD, and protracted divorce proceedings from my ex- husband of nine years: the details are another story for another time, but I, or my unconscious mind, decided to go not around, but into, the trauma, with a naked mind, broken body, and long-immaterialized spirit. I spent my days wailing, and developing a host of physical ailments from rheumatoid arthritis in my hands to fainting or blacking out mid-day; many were the nights when Kourosh would come home to find me lying on the floor or splayed on the couch, catatonic, eyes rolled back into my head. I remember thinking that every fictional character needs a goal or desire, and for me, those eight months, it was often to crawl from the living room to the kitchen, on my hands and knees. I’d been off social media since March, and couldn’t even fathom how I would represent or portray what was happening to me to friends or online networks, but it didn’t even matter, because my hands were swollen to the size of baseball mitts, and when not red, blistered, cut, and aching, completely insensate, with either numbness or tingling: rare were the days I could even type on my laptop, and when I could, I found it necessary to describe in poems, when able, all the insults and injuries I’d suffered in my life. A dark, necromantic vocabulary became second nature to me, as that’s all I thought I’d known in my selective memory of events, along with unemployment, massive debt, and enough education to know I’d made all the wrong choices: “Your situation isn’t enviable,” as my dad put it once.
Kourosh didn’t know what to think or do during these months, though tried his best to understand and be supportive, even if it was just carrying me to bed or holding me when I cried. When I lashed out at him, as the nearest target for my life’s disappointments and griefs, and also my only target, as I was isolated and friendless in Halifax other than him and his friends and family, he didn’t even try to defend himself, just told me to “let it out,” and trust in his integrity. Then finally when he came home from work late one night to find me sobbing in bed with a knife, he knew the situation had gotten out of control, so he called the Mental Health Mobile Crisis Team, whom I spoke with several times on the phone and once in a public park, to a counselor and attending cop wearing a bullet-proof vest, and he began researching online about the medications I was on and those I’d gone off without professional consultation back in March.
Still unconvinced that he was right for me, or that I had a place of belonging or right to exist in this world, I left him twice that summer, the second time to spend three weeks in a women’s shelter north of Halifax, the third shelter I’d stayed in that decade, from where I wrote him long, angry, incoherent emails for two weeks before finally agreeing to see him one town over for dinner: we began the reconciliation process, I agreed to resume my therapies in Halifax, virtually, and I left the shelter to return to our shared home in late August. On September 1st, he bought a new house across town, and we moved in with Gigi; a day later, he broke his foot in a bike accident, and was on crutches for six weeks, while I struggled to stay sober, attend AA and keep my appointments with various counselors on Zoom, as that was my commitment to him, and his only condition for the survival of our relationship.
Two months later, we are at the tail end of a glorious and wretched year for me, him, us, and the rest of the world’s 7.8 billion inhabitants, as we work toward marketing the coronavirus vaccine and making it available to civilians, thus ending this backdrop of fear, anxiety, biological warfare, and social distancing (six feet apart or six feet under); and now, with Joe Biden elected, I feel a hope born not of evading the worst, but diving into it: there is no way out but through.
Recently, having finished furnishing our beautiful new home, we watched our first movie together in the living room (A Star is Born), with mint tea, and afterwards did home karaoke together, one of my passions that I didn’t think he would ever share with me, as he’s self-conscious about his voice. After serenading me with The Backstreet Boys’ “I Want it That Way,” in a heavily-inflected Persian accent, using the remote control as a mic, I serenaded him with Adele’s “Make You Feel My Love,” using a taper candle, and we ended the night with an off-key duet to Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” I sang the first verse, which echoed my experience of mental illness, even though “crazy” is usually avoided as a triggering term to describe neurodivergent people:
I remember, I remember when I lost my mind
But there was something so pleasant about that place
Even your emotions had an echo
In so much space
And when you're out there, without care
Yeah, I was out of touch
But it wasn't because I didn't know enough
I just knew too much
Does that make me crazy?
Then Kourosh sang the rest:
And I hope that you are having
The time of your life
But think twice
That’s my only advice
Hmm, come on now, who do you
Who do you, who do you, who do you think you are?
Ha ha ha, bless your soul
You really think you’re in control?
Well, I think you’re crazy
Just like me
From perfect stranger, to “he to whom I am bonded,” to fiancé, back to dance and life partner (we’re taking it slow): how unlikely, the circumstances and gulf of differences that brought us together. And how improbable—beyond all odds, really—the forces that keep people together, as if bound not just by hope but the very atomic matter of the universe, which, for all we know, is the material manifestation of love, the spiritual animation of a maker’s mind. If I could do it all over again, the only thing I’d do differently is run to him faster, and trust life’s processes, transitions, and nonlinear, unorthodox paths of integrative healing sooner. How forgettable it seems now, celebrating one year, the impossible months and years past; how amazing, how “crazy,” a new, believable real of recovery, grace and joy, built on ruins, is achieved.