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– Nonfiction by Brina Romanek –

“I need to ask you something,” I said, “It’s difficult, but I’m going to try.” I swallowed the lump in my throat and attempted to force out the words that had been stuck in my head for days.

“You said in your religion you can’t date. We can’t date. So, I need to know if there is a possibility of…. marriage?”

The word shot into the air. It hung like a giant neon sign, the glare so bright you couldn’t turn your eyes away. There I stood, on a damp May evening, in a sleepy neighbourhood, a Caucasian, Canadian-born woman asking a Muslim and resident of Canada to marry her.

If someone had told me two months earlier, as I sat under a tree eating gelato and unknowingly falling in love with a man named Ashar, that soon I would be asking him to marry me, I would have laughed uncontrollably and called them insane.

I have always considered myself the fiercely independent type, a woman determined to find someone who will accompany me on my own path in life. I had never thought of myself as the type of person who would change their beliefs, let alone their entire life, for someone else. But back then I hadn’t met Ashar.

It was quiet. A couple sat in a little parkette across the street. Someone passed by, taking their dog for its final walk of the night. But my eyes were only for the man in front of me. Every hair on my body stood on end awaiting his answer. If he said yes, I would leap in with both feet. I would learn a new language, adopt a new set of beliefs, and change my dress, and I would do it with the energy and exuberance of a child performing her first play.

We met at waterpolo. I had joined a recreational team the previous fall to learn something new, I had told myself, but a small part of me hoped I might meet someone. I remember, very clearly, the first time I saw Ashar. He did a cannonball into the pool reminding me of a gleeful, eight-year-old boy. I had never seen anyone so beautiful. His curly dark brown hair, his olive skin, his infectious smile. He intimidated me.

But it was his love of books and stories that made me fall in love with him. We would talk for ages after each game about the latest novel one of us had read, or a new movie we had watched, the chlorine clinging to our bodies and drying out our skin. It seemed like we could never stop talking, there was so much we needed to share.

And yet, now, as I stood with him I found myself clawing for words, searching for something to say.

I looked at my shoes, I looked up into his eyes, then back down again at my shoes. With each passing second, my hope for the word “yes” to leaves his lips faded into the night.

My gaze returned to his tortured face, and my words tumbled out, “I don’t mean now. I don’t mean I want to get married right now. I just… need to know if it could ever happen. If there is any point in waiting. Because I will wait.” I was desperately trying to cover the mess I had made,
but there was no tarp large enough to do the job. I wished we were back in the pool. The ref could cry foul, and we could carry on with the game as if nothing had happened.

On our first “non-date,” we had seen a movie. As we sat in the darkness waiting for the film to begin, he whispered in my ear, “Someday, it’ll be your movies on this screen.” I had blushed. I loved how big he dreamed, like the world was mine for the taking. But after, as he walked me
home, telling me that in Egypt he was raised to never let a woman walk alone, he turned to me and said, “I could kiss you, but I don’t think it’s wise. What would be the point of us dating, when most likely it won’t work out?”

At the time, I had interpreted his cautiousness as a loss of faith in romance. The idea that our differences in culture and religion might be too great hadn’t even crossed my mind.

I was starting to get cold. Waiting. Beads of water still hung in my hair, and my jacket was too thin.

“Uh…” he scratched his head and tugged on the navy blue chords of his backpack.

My stomach sank further. Not the response I was hoping for, and yet a small part of me had always known that this was what it was going to be.

His feet shuffled back and forth, “I mean I don’t really even know what could happen tomorrow, you know, so to make a promise like that….” His eyes told me he wanted to run.

I remembered another evening when we had walked home together. He had looked at me and said, “In Arabic there is a word, hubun. It is that initial, immediate love between souls. We have that.”

Where were those words now, I wondered.

“Marriage is very different in my country,” he said, averting his eyes. “It’s thought of as a more serious thing. Whole families are involved, you know? If there is ever a problem in the marriage, the entire family comes together to make it right. A father steps in or a mother. And it works. I’ve seen that your kind of marriage doesn’t often work.”

I wanted to scream at him, but I LOVE YOU. And in the oversaturated, Hollywood-worshipping world that I was brought up in I believed, in that moment, that love concurred all. Our love could concur anything. But even as I thought it, I knew it wasn’t true.

For the past few months the Quran had become my constant companion. Every night, I would crack it open, trying to decipher his kind of love. In his world, the love Allah created between you and your spouse would offer you comfort and provide for you. But it was a love that you could not choose for yourself. It must be chosen by those who know you best — your parents.

As a privileged, white woman who had been told from a young age that I could be whatever or whomever I wanted, I wrestled with this concept. When I had told my mother I was falling in love with Ashar, she’d looked at me with worried eyes and said, “Please don’t forget who you are. I know how unhappy that would make you.” At the time, I had brushed the words off, thinking she couldn’t possibly understand the power of our connection.

Now, her words rang in my head as I listened to his excuses. I felt numb.

“I’ve got a lot going on with my family right now. And I’m trying to figure out work stuff. I’m just not in a place to even think about that.”

Just say no, I thought. Just tell me that we don’t have a future, that I’m not worth fighting for. Say it so I can pick up my heart and move on. But I knew he would never do that.

“Okay.” I exhaled, turned, and started walking the final blocks home. His footsteps followed.

“I’ll walk you,” he said.

It wasn’t fair. He wasn’t allowed to be nice now, to show me kindness. Why couldn’t he just dump me and leave me alone?

We continued to walk in silence.

“So do you feel better?”

“What?!” I blurted out.

“Do you feel better now that you got that off your chest?”

I turned to look at him, his damp brown ringlets hanging over his forehead, framing his richly tan face, and I knew he meant no harm. He was looking at me like a puppy that’s just realized it was playing a little too hard and has begun to whimper to restore balance.

What could I say to such a face? He didn’t want to hurt me, I knew that. He had a heart of gold.

“No,” I swallowed back the tears. “But I will, eventually.”

“Can I still bring you books to read?” He looked so muddled and confused standing at the corner of my street. A passerby might mistake him for the broken-hearted one.

I couldn’t help but laugh. “Yeah, you can still bring me books.”

It was over. I had destroyed everything. I would never get to kiss him again or know the warmth of his smile that was only for me. Why did I have to ask? Still, something whispered in my mind, this will set you free.

Right now, all I could do was focus on getting to my door. I turned.

“Wait, you’re not going to say goodnight?” He grinned cheekily.

I smiled, my pain subdued for an instant as I basked in his glow. But now, when I look back, that moment haunts me. Did I mean anything to him? Or was it all just play, light-hearted fun like our matches in the pool, where all it takes is an apology for everything to go back to normal?

“Goodnight.” I turned, clenching my insides until they screamed, desperately trying to distract myself from the tsunami of hurt building in my chest. Five steps to the door. Three numbers for the key code. Twist the knob, shut the door, and you’re free.

But I wasn’t really. My heart felt like it had been left on the pavement, flattened by the late night cars driving by. Cars filled with married couples. Couples who loved each other, shared intimate moments together, reflected on their days, and dreamed about their futures.

On our very first evening stroll home from waterpolo, he had bought me gelato. We’d sat under a tree and shared our dreams and looked at the stars. That night he looked at me nervously and said, “I’m muslim.”

I smiled back at him and said, “So?”

About the Author – Brina Romanek
Brina Romanek

Brina Romanek is a documentary filmmaker and storyteller. At 24 years of age, she has directed and produced for Rogers TV, True Calling Media and the CBC. Brina is a graduate of George Brown’s prestigious theatre program and has a passion for podcasts, films and poetic non-fiction. When she isn’t sharing stories, you can find Brina playing water polo or rock climbing.

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