My coffee date turned out to be the beginning of a 17-year marriage.
“Will you be my valentine’s?” I texted him first. I waited for the dots on my phone. It was Saturday, February 11. We had met for the first time the day before.
Will you be my boyfriend before we get married? Can we at least pretend to be a little normal, I thought to myself.
I fell in love with the idea of having a Valentine’s one day, before I even had a prospect.
At 19, it seemed strange to not be the object of someone else’s affection. I was blissfully unaware of what it meant to be with someone, to be anything beyond sister and daughter. I had never been in any sort of romantic relationship. I kept mostly to myself. I was not a loner, but I spent a lot of time alone. I was confident in my own company. I made a trip to the Guggenheim alone. Who can walk around that place alone for hours? Well, I can. I loved the solitude. I went to thai restaurants, and sushi bars alone. I went to fundraisers alone. I never felt like anything was amiss.
This comfort in being alone, experiencing shows or exhibits alone, is something I adored about being a New Yorker. The kinds of things I would do, somewhat anonymously, were delightful. I didn’t frequent these places that other people went to at night simply because I preferred the company of books and the quiet of the library. I found the idea of meeting someone in a dark and loud room slightly nauseating. Before social media, and the desire to constantly document where I was, or who I was with, I lived blissfully unaware that anyone was missing.
But on valentine’s day, I noticed the absence. This was the one day in the year when being so comfortable alone made me rethink.
Valentine’s Day was a part of American culture; it was a day that meant nothing and something at the same time. I grew up believing that the commercial holiday of Valentine’s was stupid. It was also exclusionary. Only people who were in a romantic relationship could celebrate. The 5-year-olds gave hearts to their mothers and fathers but as young adults, either you were loved or unloved romantically. It meant that maybe someone loved me in the here and now, versus the love of a girlfriend or sister. I was curious about what the holiday meant in a real physical sense, and I entertained the idea that maybe I could be someone’s valentine one day.
I had just met him for the first time on a Friday, after Jummah, of course.
If asking someone to be your wife on the first date sounds strange, imagine the guts it takes to ask someone to be your valentine’s after one meeting. I suppose we are both gutsy.
He was 24 years old. Law school student. A boy from Jersey. Muslim. Indian, my favorite kind of brown. When he told me he was Gujarati, my first thought he must know how to dance in those elaborate circles. I didn’t marry him for his dancing skills, which turned out to be absent. He made me laugh, and he made me think. He challenged a lot of what I grew up with. And most of all, he made me rethink what it meant to be faithful, to be religious.
We were introduced by Imam Khalid Latif, a reputable and trustworthy mutual friend. We talked on the phone multiple times, between my philosophy classes at NYU and his torts classes at Seton Hall. We were both students.
He didn’t date. I didn’t mind other people buying me dinner for the pleasure of my company. A college girl needs to eat.
He didn’t talk to girls. I talked to the opposite sex openly and freely.
He dressed conservatively. Another Friday in the future, he arrived at Starbucks wearing what looked like a long dress. He wore a nike turtleneck inside his thoub. The nike swoosh stared at me, as I tried to get a glimpse of his neck. Even that was covered.
I learned he liked basketball, he played sports. He had gotten a full ride to law school, and in fact the school paid him to attend. He was valedictorian of his high school. He could write and make speeches with zero preparation. He was born and raised in Jersey. I remember our first fight was about Jersey. I said Jersey is only good for the Turnpike. It’s basically a pit stop on your way to New York or Philly. He convinced me otherwise, and I’ve lived in Jersey for 16 out of 17 years now.
Sometime in January, I asked him to meet me for coffee.
He said he usually gets coffee with his brother.
I said, I’m asking you out to coffee.
He said can I meet your parents.
“What for?” Is he for real, I thought.
“I want to speak to them about marriage,” he said. Like I said, confident.
I hit mute on my phone. I scream.
My roommate Nadia rushes in from the other room of our apartment. “Are you okay?” I nod.
Most guys are nonchalant about coffee. Coffee is casual. I’ve met so many friends for coffee, and it is an easy thing. Drinking coffee. Small talk. Public places.
I stated the obvious. “We haven’t met yet and you want to meet my parents? I don’t understand.”
“I have been thinking about you every day since you went for hajj with your parents,” he said.
Earlier in the conversation, he said I was gorgeous. Or maybe he was talking about the spiders in a documentary we were watching from different places over the internet. I can’t be sure.
Now, he wanted to marry me? He sounded like someone who knew what he wanted and just went for it. There was no pretense. Not even Jane Austen could question his decorum.
I’m an undergraduate student, barely able to make it on time to class, even though I live across the street from most of my classes. He’s already in law school, confident of what he wants to do, and more importantly why he wants to do it.
There was not a lot I could say in terms of what would make me even remotely marriageable. Most of my clothes had oil stains or food remnants from misuse of the washer. I could spend an inordinate amount of time in libraries, used book stores, and sit in coffee shops reading new releases without buying a thing. I didn’t cook. My roommates would testify that I didn’t clean, even when it was my turn. I was not particularly affectionate towards children or stray cats. In fact, our house cat hated me so much she once pooped in my bed and ate my rabbit hair sweater. If a stray cat can’t love me, who would? I had the trust and duas of my grandma, my mother, and my father who seemed confident that investing in my education would yield some kind of stability in my life. My dad sent me for 3 weeks to Cornell to study political science when I was 15; he took me to Singapore and London; he wanted me to have opportunities he never had as an orphan. My father had absolute confidence in me, which is a subtle and very powerful thing. He wasn’t emotionally available that much to do things, but he said little things that made me think that anything was possible. In college, every month magically there would be money in my bank account for discretionary spending. He never asked me what I did with the money. He just trusted me. My first month of college, I bought a $1000 scroll painting by Hajji Noor. I don’t know how many other 18-year-olds think that that is a good use of money, but I bought it for my parents.
Despite my shortcomings, I was open to seeing where this man was going. I was curious.
I was the girl who played with dinosaur trikes and pulled the heads straight off my dolls for looking too pretty. My Ma thought it unlikely that anyone would want me. She said I was too much into my books, that I don’t even try to look nice at dawaats or parties. She said I was like the last mango in a crate of mangoes, the one that only someone desperate could want. She had told me about sex when I was 8 because of course, I went to public school and needed to know everything before other kids could break the news. She was straightforward, and honest, my Ma. She was not your typical immigrant mom.
When I was on hajj with my parents few weeks prior to this conversation, I had made the same dua, or supplication. I asked God for the love of those who love Him, and whose Love would bring me closer to His love. I repeated it in Mecca, in Medina, in transit, in every place I stood, or prostrated. It was the most perfect supplication. I understood now that God had answered my prayer, and sent this young man who wanted to marry me. He was literally the answer.
He had confidence, for sure. He had a gentle and kind voice that sometimes put me to sleep, especially when he talked about the different roasts of coffee. He was smart. He challenged me intellectually. He was my one consistent reader of my blog. I laughed at his attempts at jokes. But mostly, we talked about what we wanted to do after law school, what we wanted to achieve in this world. There was alignment as we say in business. I was more interested in all the coincidences and signs I saw around us that made it clear that we should definitely hang out.
For instance, on Facebook, there was a single photo of him wearing what looked like a Dr. Seuss hat. I too, had a photo wearing a giant crab hat.
What a coincidence that two people from different worlds (New York and Jersey) could find humor in very large hats. And not only that but they post public photos of themselves wearing ridiculously large hats.
As if this wasn’t enough evidence, there was the fact that the formal proposal for marriage came from two prominent Bengali doctor families my Dad knew well. They vouched for Mohamed’s family, and extoled his virtues as a child. It was like God literally put Mohamed in my lap. Or the other way around.
I agreed to let him talk to my parents.
And he agreed to be my valentine’s.
We met on February 10. We were married three months later, in May.
He said he’d be my valentine if that’s what it would take to be my husband.