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Fiction Romance Contemporary

Dearest Catherine,


I set out to scam you. “Swindle” is the going term I believe. There! I’ve said it. I am a vulture that predates on prey that range from dead to weak.


If this were me, I’d throw this letter away after that first line, but I know you won’t. You need answers, so here goes! This is a long letter, full of what one might deem digressions, but bear with me. Consider it a last –and first, for that matter– request.


When I saw your Tinder profile, you seemed like the perfect target: introverted, doe-eyed, a little desperate (or so I thought).


Your pictures were modest, no fancy landscapes or holidays, no cute dresses or poses at a party. Just one awkward bathroom selfie and one photo of you and your hot sister. In reality, by the way, Helen can’t hold a candle to your grace and charm!


I played the long game with you. We both lived in New York City, but I disabled location detection and texted you from my “faraway ship”, battling sea storms, loneliness, and longing, in vain, to finally meet you. 


I looked you up of course. Though your Instagram and Facebook accounts were private, I was still able to figure out that you were upper-middle class. Your mother’s Facebook account had pictures of you with backhanded compliments. “No Christmas is complete without Catherine’s pies, whatever is left of them anyway!” Or “Catherine finally graduates, couldn’t be more proud!” Girl with a critical mother. Great stuff!


For three months we texted every day. You were patient. You sent me songs and inspirational quotes and I sent you Gibran and Rumi poems. 


What you don’t know is that I was born to an Iraqi father and a Persian mother, who had nothing to give me other than the gift of producing me in America, “the land of opportunity”. My whole life, I watched my father, who used to be an Arabic literature teacher, fix cars by day and drive a taxi he didn’t own by night. My whole life, I listened to my mother, who used to be the most beautiful girl in her town, complain about cleaning school toilets by day and cooking in her brother’s restaurant by night. And I took care of my siblings most of the day, every day.


“You’re the man of the house in our absence,” my father would say. But what about me? Who was I to cry to when I grazed a knee or was beaten up on the way home? 


So I carved a path out for myself. I went away to college, lived at the campus gym when I wasn’t working at the library, and later found a decent job, but I was nowhere near where I wanted to be in life. I wanted to bring my business ideas to life. I wanted to mix with the elite, travel the world in private jets and gleaming yachts. 


I tried my hand at intimacy too. Believe it or not, this proved to be a much harder luxury to procure than any fancy clothes or watches. There I was, in my late twenties, frequently asked if I was interested in modeling, attracting all kinds of women but unable to feel anything for anyone. If I touched a girl, it felt devoid of meaning, of fire. If a woman held me, I felt like an overused rag in her arms.


Don’t get me wrong, everything else worked, and the women thought they had been loved, at least for a night, but luckily, no one pressed an ear to my unbeating heart.


Every day I wondered why my heart was so hardened, like an unchewable piece of overcooked meat. Was it the burdens I had carried since the day I opened my eyes to this world? Was it the shame of my humble upbringing? Or was it simply the clash of those humble beginnings with my grand ambitions? The sheer ridiculousness of someone like me feeling happy. Feeling anything.


You know? I thought about it long and hard, but that’s not it. My main handicap was my cold heart. In my third year of college, I took the coach home and for hours watched my mother die… and felt nothing. I couldn’t even cry while my father and siblings shattered. It terrified me. Was I a sociopath? A psychopath?


I locked myself up in my dorm room for two weeks trying to figure out the nature of my freakdom. 


One Saturday morning, I emerged from my room a changed man with a mission: I was going to be rich, fast. Perhaps I was created without a heart for a reason. Emotions are distractions. Education, good looks and no emotions are a winning combination for success. 


From that day, I no longer pursued girls I found attractive– because what’s the point? Instead, I started to entertain older, richer women. Sometimes with limited success, sometimes with great success. Susan, my first prey, was in her mid-forties, and while she smelled really good and looked really expensive, she turned out to be no richer than I was. That was a waste of two months. So I looked harder, slowly learning to ask the right questions and look for the right signs of ability and vulnerability. 


That meant I had to look expensive too. I became an expert at scouring thrift stores for hidden gems and knockoff accessories. Sometimes I rented expensive cars or borrowed them to impress those who posed next to expensive cars in their dating profiles. But I cultivated my mind too, including, but not limited to, reading every romantic novel and watching every chick-flick out there. I divided my time between reading, to impress the nerd lovers; working out, to impress the ab lovers; and working long hours to finance it all.


Whatever I scored from one woman, I splurged on the other. Any businessman knows that to make money, you have to spend money.


When I “came back” from my overseas mission, I arranged a date with you. Like a gentleman, I let you choose a place you were comfortable and familiar with. You chose a small cozy cafe in Williamsburg. You were right on time. No power games or playing hard to get. 


When I saw you peering through the door looking around for me, I was quite certain it wasn’t you. Your photos had shown a slightly older-looking, less attractive woman in her early thirties. So when you approached my corner table with a tentative smile, I blankly stared at you.


“Can I help you?” I asked.


“Ali?” you whispered suddenly unsure, “it’s me? Catherine?”


“Catherine?” I said standing up and bumping my head on the low-hanging light fixture. 


You caught me off guard. So unlike me and so not good for my brand. I always played it cool. I had to be this mysterious, self-confident man who played unsuspecting women like a snake charmer, hypnotizing them into swaying this way and that, without them knowing. Only I ate them and spat them out after the spiel ended.


“You look…” beautiful, I wanted to say but I had to keep myself from giving compliments too soon.


“Hopefully better than my photos?” your plump lips smiled, revealing gleaming, white teeth.


You did this on purpose, you revealed later. Your tactic was to use unflattering photos on your Tinder profile to have your dates positively surprised. I was catfished in the opposite direction.


This would’ve been an effective tactic with other men, but with me, it threw me off. You were supposed to be unattractive and self-conscious (preferably self-loathing) so I could love-bomb you before suddenly withdrawing because I was having trouble accessing my (loaded) bank account and didn’t know what to do. You would then swoop in to lend me all of your money–and possibly that of the bank– to save your poor rich lover who will, no doubt, return the money soon after.


But now what? Now how was I supposed to latch onto your non-existent insecurities?


Everybody has insecurities, I reminded myself. I was still younger, fitter and by society’s standards, considerably more attractive than you. 


“So what makes your heart sing?” you asked me less than ten minutes into our first date.


If that was your idea of an icebreaker, it was my idea of the second iceberg to hit me because, Catherine, what I wanted to say was “nothing”! Absolutely nothing made my heart sing. I was hoping that you, or, more precisely, your wallet, could help change that.


“Oh, seeing those I love thrive, I guess!” I said instead.


Your big brown, green-rimmed eyes widened. So I got that right: you were one of those “empowerers”. Perfect.


Before I knew it, three hours had passed. That was the first time I never stole glances at my watch during a date. I was supposed to leave after an hour to leave you wanting more.


You told me about your work with children with learning difficulties, your favorite movies, and how your dad, your dearest person in the world, died of a brain tumor. I tried to answer your questions and tell you about my childhood, but I had no fun childhood holiday stories or heartbreaking stories. I was numb to it all. With other women, I took liberties in concocting fun stories or touching incidents, but with you, I felt too lazy to do any of that. Your voice was free of any affectation. Other girls I’d been with would talk like someone was choking them or like they were having whole conversations in question intonation or like they were speaking through their noses. Not you. Your voice flowed like honey. It was soft and naturally melodious like a flowy liquid-gold song.


When I got home that day, I wrote you a really nice message about how it was lovely to meet you but sorry that I felt no spark. I typed the text and let my finger hover over the send icon for a long time. But I couldn’t bring myself to send it.


For the second date, I invited you to a fancy restaurant. Time to flash some green notes, I thought. Again, you were appreciative but not really impressed. 


“Did you know that according to some sources, the first wine was made in Iran?” I asked you after ordering an expensive bottle of wine, looking intently at you to see if this was the way to impress you.


“I did not know that!” you said amused, “So, would you consider yourself a connoisseur? A foodie? I must say, one of my favorite places is the farmers’ market in Pittsburgh where my family lives!”


“I see!” so what was the way to impress you?


Weeks rolled by and I couldn’t bring myself to break up with you or ask you for money. “Money” suddenly sounded like a dirty word when I was around you. It was the only reason I had set out to seduce you, yet I couldn’t lay down any baits.


The perfect opportunity came when your aunt died leaving you her house and the contents of her bank account. I sat on the edge of your floral bedspread surrounded by sandalwood incense and held you while you grieved and let snot and tears smear my Versace shirt. But I couldn’t even plant the seeds of how you should see the silver lining in her death. How you could now use that money to help people around you and honor her memory.


While I stroked your long curls, I asked myself how on earth I got there, wasting my precious little free time on something that didn’t bring me closer to any of my goals. Then you suddenly stopped crying and looked up at me. Your eyes, glistening with tears, looked me in the eyes for a few seconds. I gulped.


“You’re a good man, Ali,” you whispered, your voice filled with gratitude.


“Me?” I blurted, genuinely surprised. So there it was, the key to your heart: tenderness. Damn it.


You held my hand in both your soft little hands, turned it over and planted a damp kiss in the ravine of my palm. Then you moved it to your blotchy cheek and closed your eyes. My fingers involuntarily pressed the side of your hot face and lingered. Then my other hand held the other side of your face, thumbs brushing the corners of your mouth.


I panicked. I got up, clumsily muttering that I was running late for an appointment. You looked confused, but you nodded.


I ran down the stairs, feeling the building walls closing in on me and the stairs slipping from underneath me. What just happened? It reminded me of a physical sensation I felt in what felt like an eternity ago, in the deepest depths of my core. Not even as a child but perhaps as an unaware infant. Was that the experience I felt when my mother held me to her chest? In her womb? In a past life? 


I burst into the cold night air and heaved as I slammed the building door behind me. I looked up at the sky unable to close my bulging eyes. The vast sky was a void. A colorless black canvas studded with the most brilliant diamond shavings. My unblinking eyes started watering and I didn’t know if those were tears or involuntary moisture my eyes forced out to stop my eyes from burning.


Confusion engulfed my being, and I ignored your messages for the next three days. I am genuinely sorry about that, but I didn’t know what to say or what to do. Because how was it possible that a heart that never felt any joy, shame, regret or even anger could suddenly be shaken by the random existence of a single person? What if I had never met you? Would I have gone on living my linear, unilateral life? Had I been capable of feeling this all along? Then why didn’t I ever? Or was this a superpower only you could inflict on me?


Can you understand why this terrified me? Life was straightforward and simple. Life was transactional and logical. Where did these convoluted sensations come from? How was I supposed to make sense of anything or continue living a life I never knew existed?


Catherine, I’m deeply sorry if I’d added to your grief–who knew I could feel sorry for anyone? Trust me, you dodged a bullet, or perhaps the bullet spared you.


Lying in my dark room on New Year’s Eve, I scrolled over our never-ending chats and came across a small Rumi quote I’d once sent you in the early days:


“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”


I almost fell off the edge of my bed. How could it be that I’d read, memorized and recited like a parrot so much of Rumi’s work and never understood any of it?


My throat swelled and I felt a sudden sense of suffocation, so I put my coat over my pajamas and rushed outside for some fresh air.


Every New Year’s Eve, the question, “What are your new year’s resolutions?” was thrown around like confetti, and I always had a long list of small goals and changes that I set out to achieve and always succeeded. 


That cold night, however, surrounded by festive lights and jovial partiers, I saw a different question on the side of a parked blue bus: “What are you grateful for this year?” Any other year, my answer would have been a resounding NOTHING. Life was a constant struggle. A sickening hustle. But this year, my answer is: a heart that feels.


I walked for five hours, saw the parties ushering in the new year begin and end. I thought and thought until my head exploded and birthed a conclusion. 


I am indeed a vulture. A hawk with spread wings but feet tied together. My whole life, I couldn’t see my wings because all I could focus on was the tight rope around my feet. My whole life, I stood there on the ledge of life feeding on carrion and carcasses that were put in my way, unaware that I was capable of hunting something beautiful. But now that I found something beautiful, I’m petrified.


I need to throw myself off that ledge and see. See if my wings can soar despite the tied feet. Once I’ve figured out how to fly, I will return to you.


If you’ll let me.


But for now, goodbye.


Keep on glowing. My lighthouse in the dark.


Yours always,

Ali


December 28, 2022 09:16

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23 comments

AnneMarie Miles
07:58 Jan 02, 2023

Rama, you snuck so many details into this letter, I can hardly believe it. Ali is a unique and intriguing character, and he begs us to learn more about this story. The opening confession is the big book, it calls us in. Ali's story and his personality keeps us going. It's so convoluted! I wonder what Catherine's reaction was to this letter.

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Rama Shaar
08:20 Jan 02, 2023

Thanks so much, Anne Marie! I'm glad you found the story dense and Ali's character convoluted, which is what I was hoping to achieve. Your comment is highly appreciated!

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AnneMarie Miles
08:31 Jan 02, 2023

Absolutely! My pleasure. Thanks for an engaging story!

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Aeris Walker
17:23 Dec 31, 2022

I love a good character growth story. You take our emotions on a ride with Ali; we pity him, we are disgusted with him, we are disappointed in him, then we are hopeful for him. I liked the very personal, direct letter format. This almost felt like a sneak peak into a diary entry, with a clear view of his dark and somewhat disturbing nature. It was good to see the change in him by the end.

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Rama Shaar
21:28 Dec 31, 2022

Thanks so much for taking the time to read and give feedback on this. Wishing you a wonderful new year full of magical words!

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Wally Schmidt
02:03 Jan 03, 2023

When the story begins I thought, 'here we go again. The Tinder Swindler,' but your story ends up in a very different place. Although the MC does end up opening his heart, I think I disliked him so much at the outset, that I had a hard time softening my heart towards him when he did transform. But you know what? That is just an acknowledgement of how well you wrote the main character. I think I would have liked to have seen something in the beginning of the story detailing something positive he took away from his parents. He seems to blame ...

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Rama Shaar
07:28 Jan 03, 2023

Hey Wally, thanks so much for reading the story and taking the time to give me feedback on it. I totally agree with you on trying to make him, if not likeable, then at least relatable. I suppose there were a few reasons why this didn't happen, mainly the word count,but also the fact that I wanted him to seem cold, numb and teetering on psychopathic... until he discovered that he wasn't. But I should've fleshed him out more and explained that he took care of everyone at a tender age to the point of resentment and resistance and that he wanted...

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Wally Schmidt
07:33 Jan 03, 2023

So glad you didn't give up. It is a story worth reading and I'm so glad I did.

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Rama Shaar
07:45 Jan 03, 2023

Thanks so much! This means a lot to me!

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EC Sheedy
21:39 Jan 02, 2023

Beautiful. I loved every line of it! If I wasn't on the way out, and a bit late because I had to finish your wonderful piece, I'd say more. Lovely!

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Rama Shaar
22:22 Jan 02, 2023

Awww, this is such a kind and encouraging comment! Thank you so much!

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Laurel Hanson
15:37 Jan 02, 2023

This has such an engaging start! And it kept pulling me through at a really nice pace that built momentum while also providing so many rich details to lend it authenticity. Very well written and enjoyable.

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Rama Shaar
07:47 Jan 03, 2023

Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment, Laurel. I'm very glad you enjoyed it!

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Molly Kelash
23:18 Dec 31, 2022

As others have mentioned, the epistolary format works so well for this tale of redemption and a defrosting heart. Enjoyed the read very much. :)

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Rama Shaar
07:36 Jan 01, 2023

Thanks a lot, Molly, for reading and taking the time to give this kind comment! I'm glad this story worked because I really struggled with it :-)

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Rebecca Miles
11:32 Dec 30, 2022

Like Zack, I enjoyed the epistolary format: the idea that this is more about the writer than the reader; how Ali is learning to soar through the act of penning his confession. This pairs well with your last piece; the vulture and hawk are birds of a feather ( sorry!) with the cry of the crow. In both, the avian imagery works, here to signal a much more hopeful idea of release. Wishing you many stories which soar next year dear!

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Rama Shaar
12:22 Dec 30, 2022

Thanks so much Rebecca! Same to you! And yeah, I seem to be on a weird animal analogy phase 😅 enjoying the research though!

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Zack Powell
04:01 Dec 30, 2022

I will just eat any epistolary-formatted story up, and this one was no exception. Love the structure, love the little asides and tangents in the letter, love the character's voice. This is fun. On a technical note: Part of why I love this epistolary format specifically for telling a retrospective narrative is because there's a level of intimacy that we wouldn't otherwise get in a traditionally told story. It really does feel like this is a secret letter and we're peering over Catherine's shoulder while we're reading this. Almost like it's s...

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Rama Shaar
10:44 Dec 30, 2022

Thank you so much Zac! As always, your comments are insightful and genuinely encouraging! I struggled with making him sound a little relatable and somewhat likeable and developing his journey from trauma to swindler to an open-hearted lover. I'm glad you found it effective!

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Michał Przywara
03:44 Dec 30, 2022

This was enjoyable. Ali is quite well realized here, and it's clear his experience has sent him into a crisis. It's not just that he's lost control, but he lost control in a domain he didn't even know existed. Considering how she surprised him at the first date, and how she did the reverse catfish, I wonder if she wasn't also manipulating him. Though, it seems like for her, it's not to exploit but rather to forge a relationship. I think this works well as a letter. It has that tone of someone who's put a lot of thought into something.

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Rama Shaar
10:47 Dec 30, 2022

Thanks so much for reading and giving me your feedback on what you found effective. I did struggle with realising his voice and journey, so I'm very glad you approve :-)

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Wendy Kaminski
23:43 Dec 29, 2022

I read this like a particularly powerful journey of self-discovery, awash in really great imagery (especially how the narrator describes himself at the end, as an hawk who's mistaken himself all this time for a vulture). I liked the presentation style -- as a letter to a woman nearly wronged -- and found it effective for expressing what was going on in monologue format without it being a strict monologue. Enjoyed this story very much, thank you for sharing it!

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Rama Shaar
10:51 Dec 30, 2022

Wendy, thanks so much for your lovely comment. I hesitated before committing to writing this in letter format, but I'm glad I did. This was one of the most difficult ones to write because I found it very hard to explain (and make believable) the journey and motive of a swindler. I'm really glad you found it effective and really appreciate your taking the time to let me know!

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