He handed over the latest mail.
Farah said, “Thank you."
Quentin sat across the table.
“This is Quentin,” Farah told her companion, as if he was just one of a parade of men passing through the restaurant today, bringing bundles of letters. “Quentin, this is my friend, Maryam.”
Sitting beside Farah, Maryam was a slight creature, Persian and pretty and smoking with the relish of a committed addict. She smiled just enough to avoid being unfriendly and then took another deep puff on her gold siyar.
“Hello,” he said to both.
“How are you?” Farah inquired.
“All right. How are you?”
“Really, quite well.” She looked tired but relaxed. “Make the best of every day. Isn’t that what they say? But I do miss Warner, particularly my friends.”
“You don’t visit?”
“Not often. No.”
Maryam made a soft, disagreeable sound. Her meaning was clear to both women, but not Quentin.
“Maybe you can return to class,” he suggested.
“I should,” she agreed.
Which made the other woman smile, offering a few words of Farsi.
The two shared a laugh.
“I should explain,” Farah said, blinking while looking at his hands. “Maryam says it would make my family even angrier with me. A mere girl earning an impressive degree.”
Polite laughter, then silence.
“Family matters,” she continued. “I've told you the story, haven't I? A difficult relationship with my parents. Mostly with my father. My mother vacillates between lavishing her only child with too much hope, then when she thinks it’s best, giving nothing but misery to that spoiled, ungrateful daughter.”
“Parents,” Maryam said.
The word was delivered with a saw-toothed edge.
“Fortunately I’ve survived well enough on my own.” His wife’s accent was thicker than ever, the words less polished. Was this unconscious? Was it for her companion’s benefit? Or perhaps Farah was living among people who saved the native Latin only for rare occasions. “I have enough money, at least for the moment.”
“You found work.” Quentin guessed.
The suggestion deserved a nod, nothing more. Then she looked back at her own hands, adding, “I’m staying with a good friend. But people are paying me to live in my old apartment. They give me far beyond what my rent is.”
The economics seemed unlikely. “Okay,” seemed like enough of a reaction.
Someone needed to push the conversation forwards. Finally the laconic friend shivered with a theatrical flair, saying, “Family.”
“It’s unfortunate,” Farah allowed, hands flipping through envelopes.
“You aren’t getting as many letters,” he mentioned. “Judging by dates, they’re taking longer too.”
“Oh, yes,” she agreed. “Everyone else has to read them first.”
Maryam picked up one tiny purple envelope, addressed with a fine black pen and resealed with several layers of tape. Quentin had seen that handwriting many times before. The scrawny girl flipped the envelope twice before setting it aside, carefully stamping out her siyar in a crowded ashtray.
A waitress appeared, long blonde hair in braids, lucky rabbit-ears and owl feathers dangling over her back. Coffee was poured for two, and a professional smile was pointed at the man.
“My treat,” Farah insisted. “Anything you want.”
He order breakfast and tea and watched the waitress walk away.
Maryam spoke again. Whispered Farsi somehow seemed more comprehensible than their opaque Latin.
To the comment, Farah said, “I know.”
“You know what?” he asked.
She sighed and said, “Quentin.” Nobody else delivered the name with such precision. There was no other Quentin in her world, and she wanted no mistake to whom she was speaking.
“I have a considerable favor to ask.”
“A favor,” he repeated.
“Not for this Saturday, but the one that follows.”
He held his breath.
“There is an event. Social, not religious.”
“What is it?”
Maryam muttered a foreign word.
“It is a meal,” Farah continued. “A meal always served in the evening. Families celebrate their bounty with mutton and wine.”
“I would very much like to attend this celebration. But I’m a married woman. My husband must accompany me. Custom dictates. Otherwise my good name will be in jeopardy.”
“Your good name,” he said.
Maryam straightened her back.
Farah ignored his tone. “This isn’t a religious service, and nobody expects you to take part in prayers.”
Two Saturdays seemed like a long time into the future.
“You’re right,” he said. “It’s a big favor.”
“When is it, exactly?”
“Exactly, it begins at four-eleven in the afternoon.”
“That’s oddly specific,” he said.
“Your clocks and ours are different,” Maryam reminded him. “This is the equivalent of your five o’clock.”
“The moment has historical significance,” Farah promised. “A great man named Arash Kurosh ordered his wives to set the table as soon as the sun dipped behind the Tree of Life.”
Quentin didn’t react.
Farah studied him. “Can you do this for me?”
“I have a date that night.”
She said nothing.
Maryam said something about Ponca City.
“What’s that?” he asked.
Farah explained. “This happens at the Maimun temple, in Ponca.”
“You said it wasn’t religious,” he complained.
“Arash Kurosh was a teacher, a scientist. Not particularly religious, no. But Temples are respectable meeting places.”
Her companion had to make a larger point. “Christians don’t rent their facilities to heathens.”
Quentin held his breath.
When the anxiety was palpable, he said, “I can’t. Sorry, but my event is really more than a date. I can’t go.”
Farah had no response. She was deaf or unsurprised, or she was in shock. But the tiny woman beside her became angry, slipping another siyar from its box, unwrapping it from its ivory-colored paper and lighting the oblong tip. Looking at the coffee and cup before her, she made a few bitter remarks in Farsi.
“You don’t know that,” Farah responded. She didn’t sound confident, but those words had to be heard.
“We can assume it,” her friend countered, glaring at the difficult man.
Quentin stood, pushing his chair back under the table. “And I don’t want the breakfast,” he said.
“Think about the Kurosh,” was Farah’s advice.
“I said I can’t go.”
“No,” she said. “You told me that you won’t go. Which is something else entirely.”