On the first Friday of every month, a thin mustached man wearing a trench coat and a pair of dark reflective sunglasses came through our door with a shiny black briefcase packed with VHS tapes. He was a man of few words, and our exchanges were brief. He would place his briefcase on our dining table, unclasp it, and ceremoniously spread open its contents with a gesture that said, I lay it all out before you. His voice, normally stiff and remote, expanded into a high-pitched squeal if I requested a movie he had been chasing after but had not yet acquired. It delighted me to provoke him, not out of malice but because each time his toad voice erupted, I pictured him breathlessly trying to outrun his fellow smugglers through the subterranean corridors of the black market, the tails of his trench coat like wings in the wind, clutching the illegally filmed videos of movies screened in foreign theaters, where the shadowy bare heads of female viewers, sharpening their teeth on Red Vines and popcorn, filled the bottom of the screen. Besides, he was in on the joke. It was all a show. I was matching his performance with a false theater of my own. We both knew that deep down, the only thing I wanted was to rent The Phantom of the Opera over and over again.
“Again?” my mother would ask, her voice drawn out, thinly disguising her concern.
“Again!” I would command, my eyes wild with pleasure.
At this, the mustached man gave a stern bow, implying he was willing to concede to my request. After all, competition was low; no one else was interested in The Phantom of the Opera, at least not as interested as I was. Perhaps interested is too mild a word. I was entranced, enamored, obsessed. Watching it was all I wanted to do.
More than two decades have passed since those days of subterfuge. Though our film smuggler’s face remains imprinted in my memory, I have long forgotten his name—a loss of little consequence since he had put forward a false one: Mr. Akbar or Davood or Xerxes. What I remember was that he never removed his glasses, never scratched his mustache, never accidentally wiggled his nose or ears. For all I knew, his parts could have been as fake as his name, attached to his face as a disguise.
At the time of our encounters, I was ten. I had my priorities straight. I was in possession of a character equal parts restless and reflective, goofy and serious. And I was an avid collector: textured paper, pencils, Russian nesting dolls. These fixations fed into my obsession with The Phantom of the Opera like rivers do into seas. Like the nesting dolls placed one inside another, within the frame opera—The Phantom of the Opera—are lodged brief clips of rehearsals from other operas, among them Hannibal and Faust. The leading role is played either by the larger-than-life Carlotta or the timid, gifted Christine, depending on the Phantom’s mood. In between rehearsals, notes of great consequence, beautifully penned on paper and sealed by the Phantom with a red skull, are passed hysterically from hand to hand. As far as I was concerned, The Phantom of the Opera had it all: writing utensils, paper, and a penchant for hiding worlds within worlds, signaling an infinite, contagious sense of the mystery of life.
Month after month, I fueled my obsession for storytelling with that bombastic, lyrical, perverse drama. I wriggled in my seat every time the Phantom appeared on screen. I was as hypnotized as Christine was by his masked face and his dark seductive presence. I loved his candlelit lair with its gondola and steaming pools of opaque water. For me, he was the material incarnation of the spirit of art. I shrieked with joy each time his image appeared in Christine’s mirror and she, transfixed, walked through it and into the webbed stone corridor, down the spiraling staircase to his ornate, underground cave. I was sure she was stepping into a hologram of her inner landscape: moody, romantic, tender, damaged.
It’s not that I didn’t recognize the love triangle among Raoul, Christine, and the Phantom. But the love story was a level of reality that failed to captivate my attention. What fascinated me the most was Christine, the grieving orphan, who discovered new parts of herself through the Phantom. In his presence, she was simultaneously innocent and dark, inexperienced and desirous of ecstasy, yearning for protection and yet perfectly self-possessed. In my mind, she was not so much seduced by him as she was enchanted with what their encounters revealed to her: the power of her own voice.
And then there were the elaborate gowns and extravagant set design, Carlotta’s grotesque and hilarious narcissism, the deviance of the various scheming characters, the atmosphere of the opera house laced with death and danger. It all mirrored the mood of our own double lives: behind closed doors, we led an extravagant, uninhibited backstage life; in public, we were hypervigilant, looking over our shoulders in an attempt to predict when our own ghost, the morality police, might appear.
At some point, I succeeded in roping my friend Valentina into my obsession. She was nothing but trouble. Our love for one another was uneven and our relationship tempestuous. We were inseparable until we came to blows. But in the best of times, we dressed up in our mothers’ most extravagant gowns, spread makeup over our eyes and lips, and sang at the top of our lungs as we raced down the corridors of our homes. I was always Christine. Valentina, the revered child of Italian expats, was always Carlotta. For my birthday on the last year we spent together, she bought me two ducks. She had tied black ribbon around their necks like the black ribbon the Phantom tied around the red roses he offered Christine. I adored those ducks. I couldn’t tell them apart. They were proof of the infinite repetition of things, each a doppelgänger to the other. But my mother promptly gave the ducks away. “They are not objects; they have a right to a dignified life near a pond, breathing fresh air!” I conceded. She had a point. The year before that, Valentina put on a burlesque show for me. The only other spectator was her German shepherd, pushing his snout against her window and baring his teeth at me. Her house was tucked up against an abandoned villa. We had placed a long wooden plank across the divide separating the two roofs, and we would crawl across it, descend on the other side, let ourselves out the gate and down the street to buy a jar of Nutella with money she had stolen from her mother’s purse. We returned with our prize to the ruins and ate ourselves sick, crouched in a corner like street cats.
Valentina and I never saw each other again. Perhaps we never will. Sometimes I wonder where she is living. I try to picture the shape of her life. But if we were to meet again, I doubt the fire of our friendship would be rekindled. I am in possession of the same sense of mischief that had propelled me in her direction, but I have also developed a healthy distaste for volatility, for nihilistic turbulence in love. Perhaps she, too, has grown out of those tendencies. I should reserve her that right. I owe her that much. After all, we taught each other how to survive by subterfuge in a space that was heavily surveilled, in a time when our bodies were monitored, overtly and unapologetically policed. We taught each other the art of a good laugh, enhanced in one another the spirit of dissent, transgression. But what I most remember now about those electric years of my youth is the Phantom. The Phantom—the spirit of art—is what prevails in my mind. It informs my thinking as an artist, feeds my hunger for an aesthetic that is at once grotesque and highly lyrical, simultaneously dark and humorous, eccentric and yet rigorous in its interrogation of what it means to be human. To this day, when I think about The Phantom of the Opera, I think about the way we spin our experiences into narratives that give shape to the chaos of being alive. From our experiences of loss to our first powerful encounter with love, to the discovery of the power of our voice. Watching The Phantom over and over in Tehran turned my life into art, permanently blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction, the seen and the unseen that looms just beyond, haunting us with its ghostly power. To this day, every time I’m at a loss for words or faced with an unyielding blank page, I plunge into the memory of discovering the spirit of art as a child.
Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s work has appeared in The Paris Review, Granta, Guernica, BOMB, and the LARB Quarterly Journal, among other places. She is the winner of a Whiting Award, a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree, and the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship. Her latest novel, Call Me Zebra, is out this month.