Last night I was lucky enough to attend the book launch for one of my professor’s from NYU, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh (say-rah-fee-zah-day). Yes, I did just take the book off of my nightstand to spell his last name. Before the first day of class, I read his name on the front of my course reader and was certain it was a test to see if I’d mastered the English language.
His collection of short stories is titled, “Brief Encounters With the Enemy” and from reading the first story and a half on the train ride home, I must say I love it. Saïd’s voice is clear. His sense of humor is unique and off-beat. And after taking such an amazing class with him, I can almost hear him reading the stories to me.
When I arrived at McNally Jackson’s Bookstore on Prince Street in Soho, I initially stood all the way in the back. All the seats had already been taken. Behind me, a group of several women were commenting on how stuffy it was where we stood. I had come to the event not only to support my professor (and dare I say it, friend) but also to try and meet some other writers in New York. Some may call it “making connections,” but in class, we always called it “making friends.” I was determined to meet at least one new person.
I turned around to the ladies and said, “It is really hot back here, isn’t it?” Very original. Thought provoking, even. The older of the ladies laughed and commented on how she wasn’t a good judge of temperature. “Hot flashes,” she said. The two other women laughed as well. One had milk white skin and wore a light turquoise dress. Her hair touched her chin in dark ringlets. The other wore a white blazer and black pants with long sandy hair past her shoulders. I wasn’t sure if I had officially entered their conversation so I stood there quietly, halfway turned towards them and halfway towards the microphones at the front of the room.
Through the labyrinth of bookcases, I caught a glimpse of one of my classmates. I slipped past the women, who by then had forgotten my silly comment about the indoor climate, and snaked my way to the front of the room.
“David!” I shouted, but in that quiet way as to not disturb anyone. He didn’t turn. “David!” I tried again a little louder.
He looked up from the pastry he carried through tortoise shell frames reminiscent of Woody Allen. He looked exactly the way I left him at the end of June. Gray hair turning white. A matching beard. And when he caught sight of the lone girl who called his name, he smiled. The same goofy smile that reminded me of my dad the first day I met him.
David had been a real estate lawyer for many years in New York. He lives in Manhattan, only a block away from where we had class, in what I imagine is a beautiful (read: unbelievably expensive) apartment. After decades, he’s left his law firm to pursue a writing career. “Time for something new,” he might say. Courageous, I might reply.
Saïd read an excerpt from the first story in the collection, called “Cartography.” I was reminded of the first time I heard him read.
It was my second night in New York, and all the writing students for the Writers in NY program had been crammed into the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers house. A podium stood in front of the stained glass window looking onto 10th street. Rain streamed down the window in rivulets. Outside, it looked like a black and white film.
Small black folding chairs had been set up in rows across the entire floor. The chairs were so close together that if you shifted even an inch to either side, you’d bump into your neighbor, who, chances were, you just met earlier that day in class. Not awkward at all. But there still weren’t enough seats. Bodies littered the staircase.
I imagined how funny it would be if the people in the building across the street, with their curtains opened, walked across their living room naked. The reader at the front of the room would have no idea, with his or her back turned to the excitement, but we would all laugh. The reader would think he or she was funny. Oh, I hoped the readers would be funny.
After the first professor read, I remembered a friend telling me how she used to record the audio of all our lectures on her cell phone during the spring semester. I didn’t think people actually did that.
But I took her advice and pulled my cell phone out and hit record. Each night after, I did the same thing.
I’d only had one class with Saïd at that point, yet I felt a certain pride in seeing my professor up in front of all the students of the program. Those in my class and not.
He introduced the piece. “This was written ten years ago. At the start of the Iraq war. For those of you who live in New York, you’ll understand by the title alone, some of the significance…it’s called War and Duane Reade.”*
Like a switch had been flipped within, he began. Animated and lively, yet incredibly articulate, pronouncing every syllable. “Day 14: U.S. Troops four miles from Baghdad. It was 9PM and I was out of Breathe Right strips.” I knew this was going to be good.
By the time he finished a few minutes later, I couldn’t be happier that he was my professor. A few weeks later, my other professor from the program had us read the piece he had read aloud that first night. I loved it of course. But there was no way it could even compare to his reading of the piece. It wasn’t even a reading. It was a performance. And when I learned that Saïd was once an actor, it made perfect sense how he knew just how to lilt his voice to create the most dramatic effect, or how to time his phrases just so, as to emphasize the funniest part. On one particularly lonely night in the dorm room, I listened to him perform his piece. It was just as funny as I remembered.
Last night was no different. I noticed how he guides the listener through the story, sometimes in the wrong direction just by the tone of his voice. The place we end up is even funnier, wittier, and more clever than we expected. He’s not afraid of silence and pauses to not only demand attention, but create curiosity in his listeners.
The woman in the turquoise dress had come to sit up front. As another friend of mine would say, she had “rock star seating.” It made complete sense when Saïd mentioned his wife and motioned towards her. Karen.
After the reading, I introduced myself. I hope she didn’t remember me as the incompetent small-talk girl. If she did, that was alright too. I had met my one person for the night.
Saïd had spoke of her in class a few times. It was obvious how much he loved her. It was in the sound of his voice. If you listened ever so closely, a special tenderness could be heard that was only saved for mention of her. I could have been imagining it of course, but when I saw the way her eyes gleamed with pride while Saïd read, I knew I hadn’t.
I felt that sort of pride too. Not the that’s-my-husband-and-I’m-so-proud-of-him-because-he’s-worked-on-this-book-forever-and-now-it’s-finally-published-hallelujah-now-we-can-actually-talk-again sort of pride. More of the holy-crap-that’s-my-teacher-(and-I-like-to-think-friend)-who-I-am-watching-live-his-dream-that’s-so-cool-I-hope-one-day-that’s-me kind of pride.
I couldn’t help but crave to be a part of this literary world. It hadn’t ended when I left New York. It’s still going on. And I guess Saïd knew I’d realize this because he signed my book, “Here’s to everything in NYC…It’s waiting for you.”
*For those of you that want to read “War and Duane Reade,” here’s the link: http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2003/04/war-and-duane-reade