A couple of weeks ago, I heard from an old friend.
Several lifetimes ago, he asked me to marry him. There was a little problem, however. He was engaged to someone else.
I said “no,” and pointed out the little problem. He laughed , and said, “yeah, that is a little problem, but” . . . . then he raised his left eyebrow, lowered his voice, and in a serious tone said, “I want to marry you.” I can still see his teeth flashing, his eyes dancing, the cavalier and earnest attitude in which he sat me down to ask me to marry him while engaged to another. And without a ring, the proposal lacked a ring, which I promptly pointed out to him, as I laughed.
If it had been anyone else, I may have thought the man despicable, but there was an innocence to his proclamations of love, even as I told him I wasn’t interested.
He was charming, sensitive, handsome, gentle, and kind.
Oh, yes, and a Muslim.
Devout, I now see how he grappled with modern American life, after moving from his home country to pursue research in the states, behaviors and cultural attitudes that eluded me then, become clearer now. None bad, none stereotypical, just ways of being that were endearing because he wasn’t an American, and his ways of approaching love and life that weren’t all about ego, consumerism, and self-aggrandizement.
This is how we met: one evening he saw me in the grocery store near the campus where we attended school, eventually our eyes caught over the apples, he then introduced himself, walked me home, asked for my phone number, and after pursued me. It never occurred to me that he was a Muslim. Or a foreigner. Or anything other than himself. I simply thought, “Hey, this guy’s cute.” But he seemed hopelessly irresponsible (compared to my annoying gravitas about every bit of micro-minutia life brought to me), because he was a man of heart, which he wore on his sleeve.
I wasn’t interested in marriage, I had worlds to conquer (read: gravitas). And I wasn’t interested in seeing an engaged man, no matter how good being with him made me feel, despite the tenderness and passion of our moments. The situation made me uncomfortable, even though he told me stories about his spoiled fiancée whose father paid all of her bills, the non-stop fighting, etc. “Not my problem,” I thought.
I eventually moved from that city. A few months after my move to another state, he tracked me down, phoned, and said, “I’m coming to see you.” He showed up and showed me even more ardor, as if to say, “I am for real.” But I never listened, because he was still engaged, I had no intention in fighting for a man, and still I had worlds to conquer. I always felt there was something karmic between us, a connection not tethered to this lifetime, or any of the physical realities that we lived in. I held this feeling lightly, given the circumstances. Our histories couldn’t be more different: me, an only child, overachiever from a poor background, who rebelled against the doctrines of her strict Christian upbringing; him, a reverential Muslim from a large family with royal ties, who took his studies with a light stride, secondary to life.
So, after many, many years, he contacts me, out of the blue, a couple of weeks ago. He and the one-time fiancée eventually married, then divorced, after the birth of two children. (Their divorce was no surprise to me, the surprise would have been if they were still together.) He now lives in his home country, is a founding member of a research facility, having remarried, and having six children with wife number two.
He’s been polite, gracious, and deferential in his recent notes. No romantic overtures, no nonsense. His seems only to have wanted memory weaving, for whatever reasons, for fond remembrances, for feelings of bygone loves, for echoes of youthful adventures. He has settled into the responsibilities of research, marriage, professional and community responsibility, and six children. What strikes me in our brief correspondences is how much good he’s done, how much he’s helped the people in his home country.
He now wears gravitas; and with everyone passing year, I rarely wear it, finding play life’s more comfortable garment.
Even with these character changes, I see why we connected way back then. There was something terribly decent and humane and generous about him, as there was about me.
Flashback to a young woman by herself, in a big city, working two jobs — housekeeper and café waitress, one summer putting in sixteen-plus hour days, living on double espressos and grit — to take classes, striving to do and be her best. One winter I volunteered to collect, sort, and fold clothes for the homeless, while wearing my wealthy room-mates tossed out bras, because I couldn’t afford to buy my own.
This oddity never occurred to me. I just thought it Providential that I found the bras, that they fit perfect, and that she didn’t care that I had rescued them from the garbage dump.
While other students partied on Friday and Saturday nights, my free weekend nights were often spent in the university’s video library, watching the BBC’s Complete Works of William Shakespeare. I watched every Shakespeare play at least once, and the ones I liked I watched more than once. I decided that this BBC series was part of my education, assumed that if I hadn’t seen every Shakespeare play, I wasn’t intellectually measuring up. This hyper self-critical myopia joined the relentless pursuit to live according to my inner music, and perhaps for this reason I ignored facts and circumstances that others may have seen as consequential (engaged, Muslim, foreigner).
This myopia dictated why I never saw my lover as a cheat, or labeled him unnecessarily. I wasn’t interested in a long-term relationship with him, because I wasn’t going to give up on what I wanted, and that included moving to the east coast, living in New York, and, eventually, going to Harvard. It took over a decade, but all of that and more came to pass. Muslim, foreigner, or whatever the back story that might have turned others off, weren’t even on my mattering map. I simply saw someone with whom a long-term relationship wasn’t going to work because of my dreams.
Again, I never saw him as a Muslim, though he once gave me a copy of the Qur’an and told me “please don’t put this on the floor, it’s our sacred book.” “Yes,” I said. “My grandmother always says the same thing about the Bible. Never put it on the floor.” I never put the book on the floor, but I never understood if a book were holy, why its inherent power wasn’t greater than the floor, and I was less interested in another religious book than I was in literature and philosophy and art history and discovering the inner and outer worlds waiting for me.
Again, I never saw him as a foreigner. During his visit after my move, one morning we went out to breakfast. I remember as we were eating, he put his fork on the plate, looked down and then looked me in the eye, and said in a hushed tone, “they are staring at us, because they think I am a black man.” I didn’t understand him, thought he was being paranoid, remember thinking, “what is his problem,” because it never occurred to me that he was black or a foreigner from a country that even before 9/11 would raise eyebrows in suburban Amerika. “No they’re not,” I said in complete oblivion, “It’s just your imagination.” I never understood what he probably lived with, and perhaps he found my naïve obliviousness to racial bigotry both incredibly sweet and insensitively annoying. To me, he was just charming and irresponsible. The problem wasn’t Muslim or foreign or dark-skinned, he was irresponsible — and I deemed him so, because he loved me, and he wanted to know with some certainty that I loved him, but I couldn’t give anybody that, then.
I am not certain that I could have loved him, or anyone else, in those days. For the truth be told, as I write these things down, I understand that I was the shallow one, incapable of loving the person before my eyes, obliterated as they always were by the angels and demons haunting my imagination, the push to do more, be more, and keep reaching for something beyond the life I inhabited.
If there is a karmic tie between my friend and me, which I believe there is, it comes as no surprise that he comes around again, to remind me of things long-buried, to remind me of a younger version of myself, the woman who successfully overlooked the love she sought, the love right in front of her, over and over again.
There’s an unconscious ordering to our lives’ chaos, and every so often that ordering becomes a little clearer with hindsight, the fortunes of circumstance, and notes from former lovers who we never understood.