You know, it was during a time of Ramadan such as this – a few years back – that I had an experience which left me shattered for months. She was my friend from our Nigerian Muslim community in the Bronx. We’d been friends for as long as I had been in the United States. She knew me well, she knew my wife too, and that was what made it more hard.
We met up at a café in midtown just after the setting of the dusk, when maghreb had been done with. She had told me she wanted to talk about something. I asked about her son and she said he was spending the weekend with his father. I dusted the crumbs of croissant on my beard, admired her lustrous ankara gown, then asked her what’s up. The next thing I saw she was in tears.
I handed napkins and napkins until she was able to speak. Her mom was giving her hell. She’s too controlling. Nothing she does is ever okay. Right there, I wanted to reach out for her hands, to hold her, and let her head fall on my shoulder, but the best I could do was to tell her, across the table, that it was going to be okay.
Then she talked about her baby daddy. He wasn’t being a good model. She wanted her son to have a good model. She wanted to leave the hostile home of her mother, to be independent. She was a physical therapist. But her conviction wouldn’t allow her to do that, she said. I don’t want to live by myself and be a typical single mother.
I said there’s nothing wrong with that. She’s a strong person. She is raising a good boy already. She can afford a good appartment in a good neighborhood, she should go for it. Her baby daddy may step up later on. She said no, he was getting worse by the day, and she might need full custody. She wished she had made better choices in her teen years.
Alhamdulillah now. I said. Then a silence.
She readjusted her black scarf and her brown face shone beneath the fluorescent bulb. “I want to tell you something and ask you something.” She said, with a solemn voice.
Okay. Go for both.
“I know you like me. I can see the way you sometimes look at me.”
My mouth went dry and the sight of the cafe became unusually blurry.
So, just like that, she asked if I would like to marry her. She covered her face with her hand, and the ring on her finger glistened. She put her hands down and took a sip from her coffee. There was another chilling silence and this time I was the one that broke it.
What about Muhydeen? I asked. The worst thing to say. I fumbled. I knew she had been matched to a Nigerian brother by a matchmaker.
He said he preferred if I didn’t have a child. She said as a matter of fact, then sipped more coffee. She was calm. And this perplexed me.
Nusrah was, for all intent and purposes, feminist. I knew her. She was a Muslim woman who was interested in gender equality. There were times I had in the past thought about her, and I knew man could dream. That she was willing, rather asking to be a co-wife came to me as a utter surprise. So I asked her why.
Listen, Tariq, she began. Conformity is good but not always. And we’re all product of our environment. I thought deeply about this, and each time I came to this conclusion that aligned with my heart and head. I asked myself if I was really unable to be a cowife, or if I had come to that conclusion because it wasnt a norm in this clime. Does marriage reduce me as an individual? Am I less a physical therapist or less a woman if I choose to marry someone I believe will complement me?
She was now speaking with zeal, drops of tears following each word.
I know you. She resumed. I have even before you met Zeniat. You’re kind, you’d never intentionally hurt a woman. You treat my son well. He likes you. Zee and I are good. This can work. We would be a team. I have seen the way you look at me, Tariq, you like me.
It was true. I did like her, but when I thought about my parents, in laws, friends, my paystub, I concluded man could dream.
I left the café shattered. Getting home I prayed Isha and then went straight to bed, my body burning with fever. I told Zee everything the next morning. It didnt suprise her. She had known before hand. Women. I drank tea for sohur.