I knew I’d had hit rock bottom the day I found myself considering Ariyan’s proposition. He made it at Le Relais Basque, a café down a side street just off Hollywood Blvd., popular with the Middle Easterners who lived in the area.

I think I was feeling even more depressed that day than when I was 16 and tried to kill myself.

In Croydon, where I grew up, that horrendous London suburb, my mum worked nights at the local pub. In our depressing flat, flocked wallpaper adorned the living room walls, ugly shades of smeared brown, like shit or something. I think I tried to kill myself because of that wallpaper; closing in on me one drug-filled night, Mum boozing it up at the pub with the locals and me there alone, staring bug-eyed at that wallpaper.

Death had visited me in fantasies plenty of times, and so I just walked into the bathroom quite calmly, took the razor blade, and sliced. It felt amazing. Already, I’d been cutting myself regularly, so it wasn’t a shock, used to the pain and liking it since it made me forget all the other kinds of pain that were much worse. Obviously, though (or I wouldn’t still be here), I wasn’t skilled enough to succeed in ending my miserable existence. Mum came home and there I was, propped against the loo in a pool of blood. You want to hear someone scream, rant, tear her hair and clothes in despair and self-guilt, you should listen to my mum. She’s dead now, liver failure, but sometimes I wake up with her screaming in my ear: “Hannah!”

It should be no surprise if I tell you I’m an artist, because that’s how artists are: obsessed with death and making a big show of it. Oh, the drama! And maybe that’s a cliché, but anyway, how does something become a cliché? By being so true that it’s repeated over and over until it loses its meaning, but not its truth.

I was now living in Los Angeles and married to—get this—an aspiring rock star named Slick. Pathetic, you might say, and you’d be right, because how many of those are there in Hollywood, right? Just one more cliché in a city filled with them.

Almost every morning, I walked the two blocks from our sorry little flat to the café. That’s where I met Ariyan Barzani; I guess it was about three months ago. I’d noticed he always seemed to be there when I was, as much a part of Le Relais Basque as the squeaky chairs and tables. He was in his usual spot when I came in that day, desolate and alone, lower than ever. I glanced at him balanced precariously on one of those uncomfortable, impractical wrought iron chairs that are a common feature of small cafes, the spindly, uneven legs teetering back and forth as he motioned eagerly for me to join him. The café was steamy and overstuffed with bodies escaping the unusually cold winter weather, and I gladly accepted his offer.

Ariyan fit nicely on the chair, like the baby bear in the Goldilocks story: just right. The pock marks on his face were distinguished, his brown eyes soulful. Beneath the luxuriant moustache, his lips were set in a perpetual pucker. He was short, not exactly fat, but with a slightly protruding midsection. I never saw him without his ridiculous cowboy boots on his way-too-tiny feet.

“Why the boots?” I asked one time.

He beat a fist on his chest enthusiastically. “This is America!”

Thankfully he didn’t carry his patriotism further than a cowboy hat.

In a town where looking the part meant everything, Ariyan had the appearance of an archaically ludicrous nobody. It seemed to me he was fully aware of how people viewed him, cursed as he was by a squat frame and ugly face, and so he used it to his advantage, when all the while he was the puppeteer pulling the strings in the background.

From the first time Ariyan saw me standing indecisively in the doorway, looking for a place to sit, he was fascinated. He told me as much shortly after we met, and everything that fascinated Ariyan had to be thoroughly investigated by his inquiring mind. In knowing about me, he might get close enough to touch me. Apparently, my “lovely, waif-like vulnerability made [him] want to hold [me] in his arms and never let go.” That was how he really talked, as if he’d learned English by watching old romances on television.

I enjoyed my conversations with the odd little man, so old-fashioned in his manners, so effusively polite in his attentions. He always paid for my coffee and croissants, and over the past three months, I figured I’d saved at least $250. That in itself made the encounters worth it.

Ariyan Barzani was Kurdish. His English, although heavily accented, was excellent, and he regaled me with tales of his adventures in Kurdistan. He’d come to Los Angeles just a few months previously, via London where he’d lived for the past ten years or so, after having escaped over the mountains from Iraq into Turkey with five million pounds in a suitcase. He didn’t tell me how he’d come by the money, preferring to talk about living by his wits in the mountains, and even admitting that he had, at one time, been on the Iraqi government’s ten most wanted list.

“But that is behind me now,” he said, brushing the air, as if assuring me such things were of no more consequence than an irritating fly.

I wondered if this was true. I couldn’t fail but notice how there were always two men seated at the table next to Ariyan, as well as one outside the door. And how a van always followed behind his car. It was also clear that the other men in the café respected and perhaps even feared him.

Before meeting Ariyan, I hadn’t thought much about the Kurds. Why would I? But when you meet someone and they interest you, it opens doors to other kinds of curiosity. Ariyan interested me, perhaps almost as much as I interested him. He was so out of place and I wondered what had brought him to Los Angeles. He said it was real estate. Certainly, that must have been part of the truth.

I went to the library and found out more about the plight of the Kurds. Ariyan had explained he’d been a high-ranking warlord in Kurdistan. Depending on one’s point of view, that meant he was either a terrorist or a freedom fighter. It appealed to me that this seemingly inconsequential man held such high standing in the world outside of Tinseltown. I had no doubt if Ariyan and a bunch of corporate elite were dropped into the middle of, say, Watts with no money and no way out, Ariyan would soon been running a multimillion-dollar crime syndicate while the others wouldn’t live past a week. Ariyan was so much more than just a funny pair of cowboy boots and an old-fashioned moustache. He was more alive, more dangerous—and, I felt, more trustworthy—than anyone I had ever met in this city of fallen angels.

He took great pains to make it known he’d been married, but was no more. “That was in my homeland. An arranged marriage to a woman I never met until our wedding day. I never loved her, never wanted to live that way, so old-fashioned. I’m progressive. I disdain those constraints. And,” he said this with great pride, “I believe in a woman’s freedom. Yes, certainly, I do. Kurdish women fight alongside the men and they are fierce warriors. I have two children, two boys, ten and twelve, and I raise them not to be chauvinists, I can assure you.”

I accepted the stories of the wife and children and the five million pounds. Why shouldn’t I have? Truth is a mucky business; who can really know it? Obviously, the man was rich, displaying the rich man’s nonchalance when opening his wallet and tossing bills on the table. He always paid in cash and the fat wad never seemed to diminish.

Whenever I opened my wallet and withdrew a meager dollar or two, it was despondently, as if parting with a piece of myself never to be replaced. Slick and I had run through quite a stack of credit cards and were on the verge of being evicted from our flat. Slick had used credit to buy studio time, produce CDs of his music, even paid to perform on stage in clubs. I thought the clubs were supposed to pay him. Even panhandlers on the street made more money than Slick.

I’d been forced to use the credit cards to buy the real necessities of life, like food. Rarely, I bought art supplies, and when I did, Slick complained about the useless extravagance. He was the talented one, not I. It made sense to invest in his music because it was going to pay off. I, on the other hand, should get a job and contribute something instead of putting all the pressure on him. Try working in the art store; yes, how about that?

I didn’t bother to argue, didn’t remind him that I’d actually sold some pieces to a few Los Angeles celebrities. I saw the look in Slick’s eyes when he ranted at me and knew he was absolutely terrified of the possibility that I might outdo him.

Why didn’t I hate Slick? Because he was so absolutely weak and scared. I pitied him. Which was worse than hate. I was going to get a show in a major gallery and leave, just move out, disappear.

Not long after I met Ariyan, I started accepting rides from him in his sleek silver Jag. With great pleasure, he drove me to my meetings, the art store, the market, anywhere I wanted to go. And whatever I needed to buy, he paid for it. If I found myself analyzing what this meant, I stopped the thoughts. It was wonderful having someone pay the bills, and Ariyan’s car felt so decadently delicious. On cold winter days, because L.A. can be like that sometimes, the leather seat warmed up beneath me. When it was hot, cool air wafted on my face. I’d lean back and close my eyes.

While Ariyan drove, he talked on his phone, rarely in English, his voice sometimes clipped and precise, other times lulling and melodious, in exotic languages I knew nothing about. Perhaps Kurdish, or Arabic, Farsi, or maybe Turkish. Sometimes, I recognized German. It was clear he was able to move effortlessly between languages, making his stock market and real estate deals and other, shadier business. I was sure there was shadier business.

It wasn’t long before Ariyan was reaching out and holding my hand as we drove. His was hairy, his fingers shorter than mine, but I liked the way he held onto me so naturally, so without a second thought, as if it was always meant to be. From there, we progressed to kissing, and once Ariyan got his lips on mine, there was no turning back. Of course he wanted more. The question was: would I give it to him?

I resisted and he didn’t push me. “I’m married,” I told him.

“Do you love your husband?” he asked, straightforward, looking directly into my eyes. “Oh, how beautiful are your eyes!” he said, rolling his own as if about to faint.

I couldn’t help but laugh at his dramatic performance and he shrugged and laughed, too. At the same time, I tried to think of what my answer might be to his question. No, I didn’t love my husband. I couldn’t even imagine what had possessed me to marry a man whose real name was Gary but who called himself Slick and looked like a caricature of Freddy Mercury. It had seemed so romantic three years ago. Slick’s band, Hatchet Proof, had been negotiating a recording deal, performing in clubs, getting air time on the radio. It had been incredibly exciting and I’d felt at the center of things. Slick took me to Las Vegas and in one wildly expensive, passionate weekend, we’d gotten married. We’d come back to the tiny apartment that seemed so bohemian and full of promise, making love in the afternoons, out every night.

And then, suddenly, without warning, the deal Hatchet Proof had spent months negotiating went sour, the band members turning on each other, at each other’s throats. As quickly as interest in the band had risen, it faded. Los Angeles is cruel like that; fickle and without loyalty. The afternoons of wild sex ended almost before they had begun, as if they had never really happened at all. It seemed they had been nothing more than unsettling images, implanted in my brain by a god with a sadistic sense of humor.

Slick displayed his anger like a wounded animal, lashing out so viciously that I kept as quiet as possible, since even unrelated comments or actions were misinterpreted and brought on abusive diatribes. Eventually, his anger was replaced by despair and he began to shrink in stature and personality. I faced the reality that my husband would probably never “make it” and that he was on a steady slide deeper into drugs and debauchery. I didn’t like to imagine how far he’d gone down that road already. What terrified me was how quickly it had happened, how quickly my brash, self-absorbed husband was defeated.

Mostly now, we lived in quiet hopelessness, tiptoeing around each other while sharing the tiny space that was our home, the boredom eating at me until I thought I’d lose my carefully controlled sanity. Moments of friendship still existed, little sparks from the past rising on occasion when we watched a movie we both liked or shared a bottle of wine and actually conversed, managing to forget ourselves for an hour or two. It was sad to see the demise of our dreams. At least we didn’t have any children. No little Slicks running around, thank God.

I paint fireflies, hundreds of them, trailing after one another in orbiting, swirling masses. When I slashed my wrists, I saw fireflies and I wanted to follow them. If I had died, maybe I would have. When I paint, I can feel their presences again. With the recent recognition my paintings had been receiving, I was holding my breath, hoping it would last. I could almost taste the success, and I knew if I timed it just right, I’d grab it. I had to keep believing in myself, because the minute you stopped, people smelled the decay. You could smell it on Slick. The last thing I ever wanted was to die a slow death like Slick. When I went, I wanted it to be with a bang.

***

For all installments from Firefly Lane, click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Chapter 1: Come to Me — Lana