Down and Across
by Ahmadi, Arvin

"Sixteen-year-old Scott Ferdowsi's impromptu trip to a famous professor for advice about success turns into a summer of freedom that brings him answers in unexpected places"-

Arvin Ahmadi grew up outside Washington, DC. He graduated from Columbia University and has worked in the tech industry. When he's not reading or writing books, he can be found watching late-night talk show interviews and editing Wikipedia pages. Down and Across is his first novel.

You can follow Arvin on Twitter @arvinahmadi.

Saaket will be the first to admit he's a bit of a flake-the 16-year-old Iranian American has abandoned just about every endeavor he's started-but he's convinced he's found the solution in Dr. Cecily Mallard, a psychologist studying grit. If he can get to D.C. and meet her, surely she'll give him the key to developing tenacity. Of course, it isn't that easy, especially when he runs into Fiora, a beautiful, brilliant, grouchy girl whose freewheeling ways wreak havoc on his plans. And yet, Fiora's obsession with crossword puzzles and her intense loyalty gives him some insight into a different kind of resolve. Debut author Ahmadi sets up a meet-cute with a manic-pixie-dream-girl type, but he refreshingly upends those tropes, instead telling a smart story about transformation with barely a glimmer of romance and a girl whose impulsiveness can be hurtful. While the plot hinges a bit too much on coincidence, both Saaket and Fiora emerge as multifaceted personalities with an engaging dynamic, and readers will easily cheer Saaket on as he blunders through toward meaningful growth. Copyright 2017 Booklist Reviews.

While his parents travel to Iran to visit his ailing grandfather, 16-year-old Scott Ferdowsi quits his boring summer lab internship in Philadelphia and secretly travels to D.C., seeking answers about his (in)ability to succeed.Saaket (the Iranian name he does not like) seeks advice from the expert on the topic, a Georgetown University psychology professor studying grit. His two-day trip grows into a four-week adventure in which he befriends the peculiar, sincere, and often reckless Fiora, a college student from a troubled family, and the generous and politically ambitious Trent, whose coming out as gay cut him off from his Southern family. Both introduce him to drinking, networking, and crossword puzzles. Scott also briefly dates Jeanette, a politically conservative college student whose xenophobic attitudes almost destroy their newly formed friendship. Scott's journey touches on his relationship with his overprotective parents, Muslim identity, being a minority in modern-day America, and his Iranian heritage. In this highly original novel, Scott's insights are reinforced through the personal stories of his new friends; only Jeanette's character does not rise to the same level of sophistication. He finds out in D.C. that he had grit all along, as he succeeds in convincing the professor to take him on as a research intern and even supports himself financially for the first time, goals far beyond his original plan. An engaging debut novel about self-discovery. (Fiction. 14-18) Copyright Kirkus 2018 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.

Eight mornings before running away, I found myself at McDonald’s, wondering about the direction of my life. It was one of those moments that should have felt important. I should have said to myself: Hey, Self! You’re having a Pivot­al Moment in a Sentimental Place. On a scale of 1 to Serious, I should have rated this occasion at least a 9. But I didn’t. My Serious Scale didn’t even register. Not a single cell in my brain cared to define that morning in the grand scheme of things. Or in any scheme of things, really.
That morning I wondered about dirty tables. The one in front of me had almost certainly just been wiped down, still freshly wet and slippery. I imagined the motions the McDon­ald’s employee made cleaning that surface: up, down, up, down. Left to right. Loop-de-flippin’-loop, like a drunk man on a Zamboni joyride. Still, the table reeked, so I knew they cleaned it with a dirty rag. This conundrum hijacked my fo­cus. On one hand, sure, it was better for the environment to clean hard surfaces with a rag. But then, wasn’t the rag just transferring gunk from one surface to another?
“Pay attention,” he snapped. “I’m trying to understand what you want.”
Right. My dad. He clenched his hands tight, the skin bunching up around his knuckles. I felt guilty. Not for any­thing I had actually done, but for what I wasn’t doing.
We sat at our usual booth in the very back. It was like our boxing ring. In one corner: Me, Scott Ferdowsi, my lanky five-foot-ten frame slouched like a golden arch. Fighting to quit a summer internship that hadn’t even begun yet. In the other corner: My dad. Fighting to keep me on the right track, any track, because I’d been known to derail.
“I know what I don’t want,” I said, stabbing my plastic fork into a rubbery glob of eggs. “I don’t want to look at micro­scopic mouse poop for the rest of my life. Research is boring.”
My dad chuckled. “What could be more exciting than mouse poop?”
I glanced over at the table next to us. A girl in a sparkly Frozen costume was stomping her My Little Pony toy into her hash browns.
“Horse poop,” I said. “Perhaps I will become an eques­trian.”
Dad scrunched up his face. “Saaket bash,” he hissed. Be quiet.
 “I am,” I teased softly. My Iranian name is Saaket, which means “quiet” in Farsi. It’s one of my best jokes: “Be quiet!” “That’s my name!”
Dad didn’t laugh.
“When are you going to get serious, Saaket? This is your life. You need to stop playing games and plan for your future.”
Bingo. It would be his usual lecture. I rolled my eyes and slid lower into the tattered cushion to get comfortable. If there’s one thing Iranian parents love more than chelo ke­bab and their children, it’s making a point.
“You’re all over the place,” he said, waving his hands fran­tically. “Look at the opportunities you’ve already screwed up. High school! You get accepted to a very nice high school, but you hardly study. You’re pulling lousy grades.”
“Last summer. I got you a job with Majid’s law firm. You quit after three weeks.”
“And now, after I pulled every mediocre connection I have to get you an internship at the university lab, you’re giving up before you even start.”
He kept going, as if he hadn’t just put me down over and over: “You know, I was reading a study the other day by a very famous professor at Georgetown . . . Cecily Mallard. She’s a genius, Saaket. Really! They just gave her an award that is specifically for geniuses. The genius award, it’s—”
 “Okay, Dad,” I moaned. “What did she say?”
My dad paused dramatically and pointed his finger upward, à la eureka. “Grit,” he said. “She discovered that the best predictor of success isn’t IQ or how wealthy your parents are, or even your grades. It’s grit. Do you know what that is?”
“Nope, but I’m sure—”
“It’s a person’s ability to stick with something. To focus. To really follow through. Tahammol. It’s treating everything you do like a marathon, not a sprint.”
“Come on, Dad, a summer internship isn’t a marathon. It’s, like, the JV track meet that nobody watches. I don’t need a participation ribbon for—”
“You’re missing the point, Saaket.”
“Scott,” I said curtly. “It’s Scott. I’ve been going by Scott since kindergarten.”
“Sorry,” he replied, only half-sincere. “Scott, you’re miss­ing the point. When you set your mind on something, you need to give it a shot and persist.”
“Mouse poop.”
“Yes, mouse poop,” he said, gritting his teeth. “You were excited about it a few weeks ago. You were cracking jokes: ‘poopular’ this and ‘micropoopic’ that.”
I buried my face in my hands, wondering if my dad was at all embarrassed by the words he had uttered in a public place. Probably not.
He sighed deeply, as if I were the one exhausting him and not the other way around.
 “You’re almost seventeen years old, Scott. In a few months you’ll be a senior, filling out applications for college. What in the world do you care about? What do you want to do with the rest of your life?”
“I don’t know, Dad.”      
“See? That’s exactly the problem!” His eyes lit up. “Pesaram. My son. You need to start thinking about your future. You could study engineering, or you could go to medical school. Those are both respectable fields. I just”—he threw his hands up—“I just want you to care about something, Scott. I can’t think of a single thing you’re gritty about. I’m not calling you a failure, but I only wonder if we should have kept you more focused.”
Clearly my dad was calling me a failure. I held my breath as a stream of shortcomings bogged down my mind. My grades. My SAT score. The Earth Club I let wither away like the ozone layer. The mystery novel I got bored with writing after three chapters. All those instruments I used to play.
“Are you paying attention?” he barked. “I need to know you’ll take this internship seriously while your mother and I are away. This is important.”
“Important for you or for me?”
His eyes jumped. “For you,” he said, forcing the words out slowly. “You’re almost an adult now.”
“If I’m almost an adult, then why can’t I go to Iran with you and Mom?”
“Here we go again. We’ll take you one day, I promise, but now isn’t the right time. It’s a critical summer for your fu­ture. And with everything going on with Baba Bozorg . . .”
We both got quiet. Dad broke the silence with two taps on the table.
“This is the right plan. You stay home and do your intern­ship. We deal with Baba Bozorg’s health.” His voice cracked, and he forced a smile. “Don’t you always say we should trust you more? Well, here’s your trust. One month!”
“One month,” I repeated.
“June fourteenth to July fourteenth. Precisely one month. I asked the travel agent what kind of discount we would get for such a nice coincidence—”
“Dad, you’re so lame.”
“We’re coming back on your birthday! I believe that is the opposite of lame.”
“In fact, your mother and I are very cool. We suspect you might throw a birthday party with your fellow interns, and we are cool with that.”
“I’m the only intern. And I’m sure you’ll be calling twenty-four/seven.”
Dad dropped his buddy act. “One phone call a week, that’s all. Look, we’re trying to meet you halfway. Please, focus on your internship.”
I didn’t have it in me to keep arguing, so as usual, I gave up. “Okay, Dad. I’ll do the stupid internship.”
We sat there silently for the rest of breakfast like boxers with their foreheads pressed together, dripping sweat, too tired to throw the last punch. I didn’t finish my eggs. Instead, I imagined my parents in the airplane to Iran, gazing out the pressurized window at the chalky sky and everything beyond it—stars and galaxies and dark matter–type craziness. I imag­ined the big bang, which created our scattered universe: scat­tered, but acceptable. Indefinitely incomplete.
I wondered: Why aren’t I allowed to be indefinitely in­complete, too?
The next morning, I hugged my parents goodbye in the kitchen. Once again I didn’t finish my breakfast. I left a few flakes of Raisin Bran in the bowl, dumped it in the sink, and took off to catch the bus to my internship in Philly.
Exactly one week later, I boarded a different bus to Washington, DC.
Everything happened so quickly. I drew a blank as soon as I stepped onto the Greyhound. Technically I was run­ning away. I knew that. The stream of gut-punching, sweat-inducing adrenaline made that much clear, even if it would only be for two days. But for a brief moment I couldn’t recall why I was doing it, like I’d stumbled into the kitch­en in the middle of the night but forgotten what exactly I wanted. The reason was escaping me.
Then the bus jolted forward, and I remembered.
Fucking grit.

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