“Authenticity” was first published in The Djinn Falls in Love, edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin, March 2017. Photo by Monica Byrne: the desert in Farahzad, Iran, October 2014.
It started with a knock at the door. It was Abbas, holding a plate of oranges and a white plastic knife. I was glad because I was hungry. Even after the enormous evening meal in the main house, I was still hungry.
“I can’t stay, after,” was the first thing he said.
“That’s all right,” I said. “Come in.”
He did, but only one step at a time, as if he were unsure how far into the room he was allowed. But my guest room was tiny, more like a cell. I let him come.
Once he got to the other wall, he turned around. “The reason I can’t stay is because I have to be on set for a night shoot.”
“A set? A shoot? What are they filming?”
He looked out the window into the alley below, to see whether anyone might be listening, and then said in a low voice, “An adult film.”
The wind made a panel of the window spring open and knock against the outside wall. We both jumped at the sound. I went to the window and pulled it closed, and fastened the clasp. The glass continued to rattle in its casing.
“It’s like that out here, sometimes,” he said, as if in apology. “I grew up in the desert. The wind picks up right at this time of year.”
He still held the plate of oranges and the white plastic knife, rigid, in front of him, as if he were a statue. I wanted him to put them down so we could eat. I was also torn between the wind and the adult film, as both topics seemed worthy of comment. But I was hungry. I wasn’t used to being so hungry. I put my hand on his arm and drew him to the floor, and he understood, without words, what I wanted him to do. He pushed his thumb on the white plastic knife and turned the orange in his other hand. Juice spritzed and diffused in the air as he cut. He held out a double segment for me, and I took it and ate it, and immediately wanted more. But I didn’t want to be rude. I didn’t know what manners were like here; it was best to go slow, not to frighten him.
“I’ve never met anyone who worked on an adult film before,” I said, while I waited for more orange segments. “I watch normal films and think, How could they be skin on skin like that, and not be wet and hard, doing exactly what they look like they’re doing? But in interviews the actors say, ‘No, we don’t get aroused. Not when there’s an entire camera and lighting crew right in your face. None of our parts even touch. We bind them up in nylon.’”
“And it’s true,” he said, handing me another segment. “You never see scrota.”
He was matching me, tone for tone, reveal for reveal, wit for wit. “But you’re filming real sex,” I said.
“We’re filming Nilou Tar,” he said.
I smiled, mid-chew. It was a clever name – suggesting both lotuses and music.
“I’d be surprised if you’d heard of her,” he said. “She’s only famous in some circles. She’s setting up right now. I’m not needed till later.”
“Digital or celluloid?”
“Celluloid,” he said. “Nilou Tar only shoots in celluloid.”
He looked abashed. I felt bad. I’d been hasty and flippant. I didn’t want to be rude in my quest for authenticity.
“Well,” he said, gesturing with the knife, “all artists need constraints, don’t they? Infinite possibility is actually limiting.”
Ah, so he was artist-minded, too. I’d chosen well. “I don’t think so. I think infinite possibility is thrilling.”
“But we don’t have infinite time,” he said, monitoring my reactions from beneath ropes of dust-curdled hair. “And we can’t grasp infinity, not for more than a second or two. So we choose the constraints that are most interesting to us.”
I was learning about him. This was turning out to be part of my work here. I willed myself to be content, to flow alongside him. “All right. Why does Nilou Tar find celluloid an interesting constraint?”
“Because celluloid is a physical medium,” he said, “and so is the body, which is the most important thing in erotic film.”
“So are you her partner?”
He smiled and shook his head, as if I’d made a great joke. As if to answer, he put down the knife and pulled out his phone—cracked screen, a still from The Pear Tree – and showed me a video. A young woman in a wetsuit sat on the edge of a dock, pale-skinned, blonde-haired, her legs open and her shoulders hunched; she looked back at the camera once and squealed. Male voices exhorted her in English off-camera.
“Is this Nilou Tar?” I asked.
He laughed, and his hand flew to his mouth, to cup a little orange coming out. He pushed it back in, looking sheepish. “No. She’d call this tacky,” he said. “These are just some drunk university students.”
“What is she doing?”
“She’s waiting for a dolphin.”
I watched the woman in the video, and the grey dolphins streaking back and forth just below the surface, and the rippling black waters beyond.
“You don’t have to watch,” he said, second-guessing his choice to show me the video. He took the phone back, pressed a few buttons with his thumb, and then set it down again. “I was just making a visual analogy. Nilou is waiting for her partner. That’s the whole point of this shoot. The plan is for her to sit just like this, on top of a dune overlooking the desert, and then…we’ll just wait.”
I smiled at him, which made him uncomfortable. He solved it by talking more.
“We don’t know what they look like. We don’t know if they’ll come. We don’t know if we’ll even be able to see them, if they do. But,” he said, dropping his voice, “the guesthouse owners said they live in a community just a few kilometers north of here. I love them. I know I’m not supposed to, but I do.”
He smiled. He had one of those concave smiles with more teeth showing at the edges than in the middle. It gave him the appearance of a crazed cartoon character.
I swallowed the last of my orange and told him to close the door.
He did so.
I told him to turn off the lights.
He did so.
I saw his hands shaking a little. I wondered how experienced he was. He went to the corner and began to pile the blankets in a sort of nest. I waited. It was sweet. The orange mist lingered in the air like an incense.
Then he sat in the middle of his nest with his legs drawn up against his chest. He laughed, nervously, and spread his hands as if to say, Well, here I am.
I crawled to him and tapped his knee. It fell to the side, taking the suggestion. Then both legs fell open, like his body was blooming, and then his arm curled around the small of my back, and I was being kissed all over my face, as if I were a beloved doll.
How did I think it was going to be, when I first saw him? I’d been having dinner in the main house, on my third helping of everything on the table – flatbread, cream soup, khoresh, dizi, lamb kebab, chicken kebab, saffron rice, Shirazi salad, and pistachio gaz made on the premises, for which the guesthouse was famous – when I saw him at the other end of the table, admiring my appetite. I was not a normal student on holiday. He’d intuited this. I was hungry for an authentic experience. Just last week, over rose tea in our favorite underground haunt, my fellow student and I had been discussing my trip to the oasis. She understood how I craved new places, new foods, new experiences, new art, new men. She asked, as if posing the question to the cosmos, “What are the men there even like?” and I just stared at her, squinting, cocking my head this way and that, turning over one possible answer and then another.
I settled on the midpoint of the seesaw: “Strange.”
“Strange?” she asked.
“Strange,” I repeated.
And then we both said the word again, locked eye-to-eye, and bent our heads to the side in sync as if we were mirror images, drawing the word out like taffy.
I was half-asleep when I heard Abbas stir. I pretended to be asleep. He kissed my shoulder once. I heard rustling and shuffling, and then felt warm fabric settle against my skin where there’d been only air before.
When the door clicked shut, I opened my eyes. He’d draped the bedding all around me where I lay. The plate, the rinds, the white plastic knife were gone, but the smell of oranges lingered.
I turned over and stretched, enjoying the new aches, and then let my limbs settle into new delicious positions. I’d done well. I wanted to do that again. That was a good authentic experience. But the more I tried to remember the details, the more they slipped away – as if there was a veil in time, dividing the before and after. It bothered me. I tried to fall back asleep, but I couldn’t – the exhaustion had knocked me out at first; now, it kept me awake. And the wind was still so loud, as if the guesthouse were a plane careening through the sky at a terrible speed. How could they be filming porn in this wind?
I turned on my back and blinked at the ceiling. My questions weaved together and acted as a membrane that kept me from falling back into sleep. I sat up and started putting on my clothes.
When I was pulling my door shut and locking it, careful not to wake the other guests, I saw the tiny skull of a jackal mounted on the wall. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed it before. Had I walked right past it? I tapped the bone snout, to test for realness. Maybe it was new, something the wind had blown in. I looked into its big black eye holes and admired its little teeth. I could smell the calcium dust of old bone.
Outside, the wind pushed me sideways and forward. I had to hold my headscarf down to keep it from unraveling and blowing off. In between gusts, I could hear the snuffling of camels in the corral next to the main house, and the crow of a rooster in the palm forest. But then the stone alleys gave way to dark dunes like standing waves. Abbas had said the community lived to the north of them. I saw a faint reddish glow in that direction. That must be the set. I made for it.
The wind got quieter, but the sand got deeper. I sank and slid sideways on my sandals. I hadn’t brought the right shoes. But I continued, now wondering whether I’d be welcome. Surely they were afraid of the police. I had a story ready if anyone should ask why I was there: I was curious, a progressive, open-minded film student. Which was the truth. Abbas would recognize me and confirm, having been inside me just two hours ago.
At the top of the ridge, I saw two people silhouetted black against a warm pomegranate light: a figure behind a camera, and a figure sitting on a rug. I assumed that was Nilou Tar. I could only see the back of her – she was sitting cross-legged, swathed and regal in black, on a long Persian rug.
I stopped. One silhouette was marching toward me. It was a woman in a hijab – the director, I assumed. Nilou Tar remained facing the desert.
“Who are you?” asked the director.
“I’m just a guest at the guesthouse,” I said. “I’m a student.” I felt stupid and childish, as if caught in a lie. From what I could see of the director’s face, that’s exactly what she thought.
“So you’re a student?” she asked with a touch of mockery. “What do you study?”
“Film,” I said.
She smirked. “Celluloid or digital?”
Like with Abbas, I felt this was a test of some kind. It was only fitting to be honest. “I’ve only worked in digital,” I said.
“Tell me why.”
I felt my face get hot. “It’s my native medium. I’m young,” I said. She didn’t look impressed. I remembered what Abbas had said, about artists choosing a set of interesting constraints. “I like how much I can do, how finely I can cut, how quickly I can move. I like that I can make quick decisions and splice segments, one into the other. I like that it moves as quickly as I do.”
The director’s face remained impassive. She was not convinced.
“But I want to learn other ways,” I said. “I was curious. I wanted to watch, or even help.”
Then Nilou Tar turned around on her rug. I could only see the shadows of her face in red and black, as if seeing the contours of an eroded goddess at Persepolis. She was much older than I’d expected – in her fifties.
“She can clear me of sand,” Nilou called to the director in a voice firm as an oboe, without even looking at me.
The director nodded. Apparently it was as good as done.
Nilou turned to face the desert again, and the director started walking back up toward her camera.
I sensed I shouldn’t wait for further permission. I staggered after her to the top of the dune, where the director handed me a long elegant horsetail brush in passing. I took it, felt the coarse hairs over the palm of my hand. I’d never felt such a thing. As I came closer to Nilou, I saw that the rug was laid over the ridge of the dune, which was so sharp it was almost a right angle. Her legs were dangling over the side, much like the blonde woman in the dolphin video Abbas had shown me earlier. Where was he? He’d said he wasn’t needed until later; how much later, I didn’t know.
I chose a position right at the outside of the pool of red light, making sure I wasn’t casting a shadow or showing up in the camera’s line of sight, and knelt, and shifted back and forth to make comfortable wells in the sand for my knees, and waited.
The wind gusted, like a soundtrack. I looked at Nilou, outlined in the red light. She looked serene. She had a severe, queenly beauty, not the girlish cuteness I’d expected of a porn star. She was looking north in silence. It was hard for me to be silent, or even very still. I tried. To distract myself, I tried to remember more about Abbas. But it was as if there’d been a jump cut in my life, an edit ahead to a later time. Memory depends on the medium, I thought; brains are such imperfect recorders. I needed to see him again. I needed to remember.
The wind was picking up again. My eyes were closing of their own accord, against the wind and the red light. The sexual exhaustion that had first allowed me to sleep, and then forbade me to sleep, was now washing over me again.
Through half-closed lids, I saw Nilou sit up.
I opened my eyes fully and sat up, too. The director had gone rigid behind the camera. I looked to where they were both looking.
A male figure stood at the bottom of the dune.
I pulled out my phone, clicked it on, and – making sure that no one could see – positioned it in the sand, on its side, recording.
He was tall – almost two meters, I guessed – and wore a gauzy white shroud around his body. I couldn’t see his face. He wore a mask over the top part of his face, with a long snout and big black holes for eyes. For a moment I thought he had no feet, but then he began climbing toward us, and I saw them rising and sinking in the sand. He had real feet. As he came toward us, he opened his arms and let the shroud fall on the dune behind him. Underneath, he wore a linen tunic around his waist, bands of gold around his arms, and leather straps that crossed over his sternum. He had a broad chest and round, muscled shoulders that glittered, as if rubbed with mica.
He stopped in front of the rug where Nilou sat. He looked absolutely real.
Nilou had drawn up her knees on her rug. She looked up at him, determined, but was breathing hard, which I hadn’t expected. I could see she hadn’t expected this. She hadn’t known what to expect, but she hadn’t expected this. He looked just like a real man, though bigger and smoother and with a strange sparkle to his skin. She had expected him to be incorporeal or invisible. Here he was, enfleshed. I saw his jawline beneath the mask. He looked like Abbas, but he was much bigger.
The man dropped to all fours, crawled forward, and tapped one of her knees.
It fell to the side, taking the suggestion.
Then both of her legs fell open and she fell back, like her body was blooming, and the man crawled up over her, kissing her along the way, not taking any notice of me, or the director, or the camera, or my blinking phone. I was so near to them. I told myself to watch for the signs of authenticity. I told myself to watch for any signs of trickery. She pulled back her black robes, and even in the red light, I could see her pubic hair, no nylon, nothing flattened, nothing bound. He shifted his sparkling hips to the side, and there was pubic hair there, too; nothing flattened, nothing bound indeed. Nilou reached up with both hands. I could see skin-to-skin contact. I could see him push, and I could see her draw him in, and then he moved forward and disappeared inside her, just like his foot had sunk into the sand. They were joined. It was real. The both of them closed their eyes as if falling asleep for just a moment, turning their heads, one to the right and one to the left.
But the stillness gave way to motion; human bodies can’t linger like that.
I didn’t move. The director didn’t move.
Time went slowly.
I felt hungry again.
I had never been so aware of time.
What interesting constraints for a soul to choose: to have a body, made of muscle and bone and fat, discrete in time and space.
They seemed to be taking forever. There was no wind at all. Now more of their clothes were off, and her dress was up around her waist, and her hips were up off the rug, reaching up and drawing him down as if tugging on a kite. His hands pressed into the rug on either side of her, his knuckles pale and sparkling. They were conjoined below the waist and I could no longer see what was happening. But it was intensifying. Neither of them made any sound, besides their breathing. Nilou had her hands on his hips, now, fingernails digging into his flesh, steering herself up, eyes wide open as if angry. He looked afraid. His mask slipped. I willed it not to come off and drop on her, not to ruin her rhythm. But I could see more of his face now – more ear, more jawline, more forehead. He was indeed Abbas. But he’d grown since I’d last seen him.
Nilou threw her head back and screamed. But the scream went nowhere. It never even left her mouth. Then Abbas pushed his fist into the sand just beyond the rug, and it disappeared into it, wrist-deep.
I watched for authenticity.
I could see them pull apart. She pulled her black dress down. He pulled his white shroud back around him. Neither I nor the director moved, still, even as Nilou flopped onto her side, panting. As for Abbas, he trudged back down the dune, beyond the circle of light, until he was lost to sight in the darkness.
I turned back to the set.
Nilou and the director were facing me.
It ended with the video screen going black.
My fellow student handed me back my phone, careful not to drop it in her rose tea. Her face was just barely composed, but she was titillated, I could tell: her features oozed from human to dolphin to jackal and back again. Emotion, like memory, depends on the medium.
“He brought you oranges?” she said.
“Yes. He was a sweet one. What do you think?”
“Wipe it and shoot again,” she said. “Next time I want to see more cock.”