By Haroon Moghul
The first job I ever applied for was at McDonald's. Had my mom and dad, both doctors, discovered this, they'd have been horrified. I needed money to cover my date to the high school prom, which they weren't supposed to know about either. But, sitting in that plastic chair, testifying to my aptitude for flipping burgers, guilt wasn't the first feeling that came to mind.
I'd tried to go along. I bought into it. We didn't drink. They did. We didn't dance. They did. We didn't date. They did. We did not "like" girls, never mind "need" them. Somehow, it was assumed but unspoken that a spouse'd pop up, in a kind of ironclad Pakistani American Hegelianism. Thesis, antithesis, children. But there was only so long I could stand being on the sidelines.
I'd decided, come fall of my senior year, that I had to go to the prom come hell (probable) or high water (climate change). It'd be my Ferris Bueller's Day Off, my riding the ball in Take Me Home Tonight, my shot at that one unforgettable night. Even then, you see, I looked forward to life nostalgically, salivating over its reliving before it had come to pass. "Remember Haroon?" they'd say. "Who snuck out to prom?" And with who!
There are, after all, different ways of trying to live forever. Some start with an anodyne decision to cross state boundaries, like my parents did when they moved us from an old-money Massachusetts suburb to a barely postrural town. I showed up in a new school system in the middle of fifth grade; too late to make friends. Then, in sixth grade, my parents got a letter in the mail, which would change my life — by denying me one.
Not only did my mom and dad never talk to me about girls, but they also made sure that no one else did. In order to be enrolled in sex education, students needed parental permission. Every single student received it, except me. The only brown kid. The only Muslim kid. The new kid. I was assigned a project on the solar system instead of sex education and deported to the library to research it. For a doofy twelve-year-old who wore pleated pants, mismatched polos, and large, cinnamon-colored glasses, this was social homicide.
Fast-forward six years. I was a deeply superficial upperclassman — for someone so stunningly awkward, I was convinced I had a shot with the school's hottest girls. But I wasn't just interested in them for their bodies. I really wanted someone to hold hands with. Someone to see the world and share it with. Someone to make sure I'd never be alone again. Because I was many things: narcissistic (no one should leave me) and despondent (everyone will one day).
By my senior year, the battle of immigrant Geist versus female corporeality had been decided. Not only did I want to go to prom, I wanted a date to it. She turned out to be a sophomore named Carla, who first came to my attention one day late in March. My good friend Jeremy and I were walking the senior hallway after school when Carla stepped out of a classroom she shouldn't have been in. She stopped and looked both ways. She waved hello to him — she didn't know me — and walked ahead of us.
Even Jeremy, ever the embodiment of propriety (and piety), muttered an "Oh, my goodness" before he noticed my staring and suggested I stop. This I liked Jeremy for: he treated religion religiously. A man of God, but one who danced and dated, and so he threw me for a loop. When I admitted to Jeremy I was smitten by Carla's Italian genes, her stonewashed jeans, and her striped green tank top, he swore to help me make the leap from fantasy to reality.
On a Wednesday in early April, I was taken from school to attend Eid prayers at the closest mosque, some forty miles north, where the Muslim part of me was all but born and bred. As usual, we had to wake up uncomfortably early to not get stuck in the un-snowplowed outré-mer of the Islamic center's parking lot. Also, you wanted a short walk from the car to the building so you didn't freeze to death. Our obstinate Punjabi-ness demanded we wear shalwar kameez, no matter its inappropriateness for the weather.
If Eid was one thing growing up, it was boring. Among the few upsides, we got some money — mine, it should be noted, helped pay for Carla's corsage. Which meant she said yes. Let me tell you how.
I was home from Eid prayers by late afternoon, and called Jeremy to find out what I'd missed in school. As if, as a senior, I really cared. Turned out I'd missed only everything. During eighth-period English, Carla had stopped by our class. She had a message for her older sister, a senior like us.
To call me crestfallen would be dishonest. I was shattered. Carla, with the wavy hair, which smelled like heaven, underneath which rivers flow? Carla, with the mesmerizingly sapphire eyes?
"Did she look hot like she always does?" I asked.
Jeremy answered elliptically. "You should hurry up and ask her before someone else does."
How exactly should I do that?
I'd never talked to her, never acknowledged her, never, so far as I could tell, been noticed by her. But so badly did I want to that I tossed social anxiety aside and decided to ask out one of my Abrahamic coreligionists the day after celebrating his near-sacrifice of his son. It should've been easy enough. Because, for one thing, her sister had already told her of my interest.
Carla's locker was right outside our AP biology classroom, which is where I'd make the ask, except I lost my nerve at the last minute and sought refuge in that same classroom, until her cousin Bradley showed up with a huge grin on his face. "Did you do it?" he asked, entirely rhetorically until he saw my expression.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" He may or may not have said that. Because Bradley had other ways of communicating. Upset with my spinelessness, Bradley punched me. To add insult to social injury, he shoved me out the door. This meant I came into Carla's line of sight by flying out of a classroom and halfway across the hall. I tried not to think about how this looked. Her friends scattered at the sudden sight of me, because they knew what I was there for.
"Hey, Carla ..."
She turned to give me her full attention. This was not helpful.
"I was wondering if you — "
"Would, uh, want to go to the prom?" I'm really not sure if I included the "with me"; I may have simply inquired into her interest in the function generally.
"Sure, I'd love to."
Then she slammed her locker shut and said she had to get to class.
I like to think I stood there like a Punjabi Peter Parker, when he first becomes aware of his super spidery powers. I felt a new man — taller, better, braver, and a cooler shade of brown. High on myself, I spun around and nearly ran over Mrs. D., my AP biology teacher. Who'd been behind me during the entire exchange.
She practically gave me a black-power salute: "Good work, Haroon!"
I was mortified. "You saw that?"
By the end of that day, the whole science department had congratulated me. I should, in honor of this alliance, apologize for scoring a 2 on the actual AP exam. More important things were unfolding.
My parents left town a few weekends later; Carla and I talked on the phone and agreed we were "dating." You might at this point think me possessed of incredible memory. Rather, it's that I wrote volumes of poetry, as every bookish kid my age would; they are my photographs. They recorded, mostly, what I didn't do. Except this time I did.
For our first date, I'd gone all the way to Westfield, which had the closest Friendly's. Her father told her, by which he meant me, not to be late, but we were. We talked over frothy chocolate milkshakes. About what, I don't know. Didn't care.
Our two months together were my AP in assimilation. How do dates work? (Ask friends.) Am I allowed to check her out because she's my girlfriend? (Answer didn't matter.) Holy crap, she's going out with me. (Holy crap, she's going out with me.) The whole not touching thing didn't last either. Late one Saturday night in May I decided to kiss her.
We pulled up to her house and I walked her to the side door, under the porch, one of those halfhearted basements, part underground and part above. (I sympathized with this bipolarity.) When she turned to face me, ostensibly to say goodnight, I stared stupidly into her eyes until she asked, "Is everything okay?"
"I wanted to kiss you."
She went with it. Carla approached me slowly, gingerly, and when she got close enough, closed her eyes and reached up toward me, tilting her head ever so slightly. I was kissed. Nothing I'd read prepared me for that feeling — pure joy, a wave displacing everything else inside of me. Rapture had come to lift me up and away. I kissed her back, and a second later it was over. She smiled and disappeared into her house.
Did she know I'd never kissed a girl before?
And then, a week or two later, my parents found out. My mom called me downstairs first thing in the morning. She stood on one side of the kitchen and my father on the other. Trying to play it cool, I focused on breakfast. My mother glanced at my father.
This was his cue. "Why did you have a girl in your car yesterday?" Someone in the Muslim community — the local mukhabarat — had snitched on me.
I shrugged. "She needed a ride home."
They stared into me. Hard. They could tell I was guilty of something. But what? Since offering a girl a ride home was already a moral trespass, maybe that and that alone was the worst of my deeds, the source of the guilt in my eyes. I folded an Eggo in half and shoved most of it into my mouth, washing it down with a glass of chocolate milk. "It was nothing."
Though it most certainly was not. It was the most important thing ever to happen to me. But that was a close call, which meant I'd have to outsmart the local morality police. I started my own Arab Spring. My actions had to be kept hidden, though at great cost to posterity. For example: friends were asked to submit prophecies for the graduating seniors' yearbook; Jeremy thought it'd be a riot to submit "Haroon dates a supermodel."
Which meant when my parents asked me about yearbook photos — another letter in the mail — I had to move preemptively. "Yearbooks are stupid," I said, doing my best impression of a jaded teenager, permanently bored out of his mind. "I'm not going to have my picture taken for that crap."
So they never asked for my yearbook, and never found even the flimsiest evidence of my double life. The yearbook editors were proactive; they assumed I'd forgotten to submit a proper photograph, and helpfully found the worst possible picture of me, slapping it above my name, such that any future reader would wonder what kind of washed-out supermodel would date that man. It was too late, though, to try to erase myself from history: Months before, I'd submitted a quote. Pearl Jam. These were the years when we were too new to understand ourselves. We needed music to explain us to us. "All that is sacred comes from youth."
McDonald's never called back, so I found another job: helping my fellow students polish off their assignments. Technically I did not graduate high school once but several times.
I'd walk past Carla every morning; I needed to see her. Touch her. "To breathe. To feel. To know I'm alive." Tool. I was years away from understanding my depression, years further from learning what to do with it. But I knew what Carla did, how she made me feel. Before her, what I thought was numbness was really a desperate, terrifying loneliness.
My friends teased me for not yet making out with her; I, too, wondered why I held back. Her friend Samantha sprang a pool party on us at the end of May, which I knew I had to attend — I'd make my move then and there. But of course her house had to be next door to that of our masjid president, which meant he might see my car. A huge risk to take two weeks before prom — but this new Haroon loved the edge.
Not enough, however, to drive his car over it. I asked my friend Jacob to be my ride. And, of course, on the way over, his nose started bleeding so badly that he all but ran his station wagon aground on someone's lawn, opened his door, and nearly tripped into the grass. Then he sprinted to the closest tree, whose leaves were repurposed as napkins.
We met the homeowner, who had real napkins too, which she shared after we explained why a plurality of our town's young Semites were frolicking around her favorite tree. This unfathomable omen aside, I ended up that night exactly where I'd wanted to: on Samantha's pool deck. With Carla. But for the first time, things did not go my way. And they would keep on not going my way from then on.
Blind children learn how to walk without seeing anyone else do so — it's deep instinct, buried inside them, and just needs to find the right time and place. I felt myself overcome with desire, but (and this was the best part) I could sense, with some radar I did not know I had (but would never again neglect), that Carla wanted the same thing. Opposite ends of a magnet. I knew what to do and for the first time how to. Fusion releases more energy than fission.
But we put more energy in than we got out. Her mom pulled up much earlier than expected. I walked Carla to her car, dejected, but as she made her way to the door, she offered me her hand in apology. My skinny fingers squeezed inside her smaller, softer, subtler hand. There was so much in that grasp, and I feared I'd spend my life trying only to return to that squeeze. Because there were no more such nights.
I led my parents to believe that on the Friday night, the first week of June, I'd sleep over a (Muslim) friend's house in Massachusetts; his (Muslim) mom covered for me. After school, I crossed state lines, where I showered and shaved, and then returned to our hometown just in time for events to be set in motion.
Jacob's neighbors were on vacation, so I parked my hulking beige and brown SUV not merely in their backyard, but under their deck. Just in case my parents wandered up a driveway many streets away from their own and decided to look around. Then I went to Jacob's house and threw caution to the wind, because I had to have some kind of memory of this: photographs.
Back then, you had to wait weeks for them to develop. You actually got to live in the moment, as opposed to looking at yourself living it a few seconds later, which meant the moment lasted considerably longer than a moment. The six of us, me, Jacob, Jeremy, and our dates — looked damn good, I must say. I have no other pictures of Carla. Just the smiles we wore for the camera, belying what was around the corner. I never got to thank her, though.
See, she held back on what she wanted, and gave me my night. Many students congratulated me, amazed I'd made it. Amazed I'd wanted to — everyone's belief system appreciates validation. And I wanted theirs. Maybe so that one day I wouldn't need it. We had steak and pounding music. Then Carla and I slow-danced to Sarah McLachlan's "Adia," which to this day I cannot listen to without getting goose bumps.
Carla was in my arms, like she'd been only a few times before in the past months (once after a flute solo in a school concert, once on the occasion of her communion). I couldn't shake the thought: why was God sending me an Islamic meme here, of all places? "We are born innocent," McLachlan sings. And Satan asked Adam, "Shall I lead you to a Tree, and to a Kingdom that never decays?"
Time stopped for me in that slow dance; I felt poetry flow through me. I've learned, in the years since, to pull over whenever an idea enters my mind. Published essays have been typed at New Jersey rest stops, or in the Istanbul airport, where there is no seating.
"Believe me, Adia. We are still innocent." I was convinced I still was. We all were. No matter where I was or who I was touching. We can do the wrong thing for the right reasons. It depends on whether you think gray is still close to God. Adam and Eve both ate from the tree, but they repented. They were forgiven. But they stuck together. That is the point of innocence lost. It reclaims itself when it restores itself.
I was a seventeen-year-old who wanted more than anything in the world to belong. The flared jeans, the metal necklaces, the occasional bracelets: the tribal markers of an aspiring snowboarder were meant to validate me by announcing that I was other than me. Sticking out to fit in. But even these emblems couldn't tell you how badly I'd wanted this cheerleader.
We can want what others want and still want it for ourselves. Sometimes we're unable to point to where our desires begin and others' end. After prom we might have stopped at Friendly's, but Carla wanted nothing to do with me. The next afternoon, alone in an empty bedroom in someone else's house in Massachusetts, half an hour from home, Carla turned to AOL Instant Messenger to shock and awe me: We should break up, she suggested.
Of course, I typed. I lied. My parents drove me to New York that night, to see family, but I sat broken in the backseat — they must have known something was wrong. But I could not tell them how my end run around them had failed because I was, in the end, them. We never moved beyond that kiss; I'd been more Catholic than the Catholic girl. This is human nature, or at least my fragment of fitra, what's left of the Adam in you after Satan's through. To me, dating was no different than marrying. Terminology was technicality.
I was shattered like I couldn't believe. My religion says a man should not be alone with a woman. But somebody should have told me a man should not feel so alone that being with a woman is the only way he can feel life is worth living.
If every person has one great test, then mine was — and may still be — parting. I could deal with death. If I was a good Muslim (which I'm not), I believed I'd see the people I cared about down the line. We're going to live on, forever and ever, Oasis sang. God would add: So will everyone else. But I couldn't accept that God would let lives intersect, get entangled, and then be yanked apart. How can you live forever and be parted forever?
The further you let a person into your soul, the longer it'll take her to leave. The first time I saw Carla, she was walking away from me. I couldn't have guessed then how much it would hurt to give anyone anything of my heart, so I'd naively given all of mine. My college friends, who met me a few months later, can tell you it took me a year to get over a girl I dated for less than two months.
The idea of Carla preceded her, and survived long after her. Her smile, her lightness, her kindness, all of them a bond she provided to a universe I otherwise felt misplaced by. But what I missed most of all, for months on end: her hand. From the first time she offered it to me, at a roller-skating rink (a dance remix of Celine Dion's unavoidable "My Heart Will Go On" was playing), to the last, when we left the dance floor and I escorted her to our table.
"It may be you hate a thing and it is good for you." That would be God. Beyond my desire for Carla was an awesome loneliness, a feeling of living in a nothing-place only briefly interrupted. From time to time, this emptiness made the world stark and beautiful, but most of the time it haunted and pursued me. After enough years had passed and enough hurt accumulated, I began to pursue the emptiness instead. Something came from nothing: "With every difficulty there's relief." Him again. It could be that this is me, or all of us. We stumble onto God in the blanks, the places you live in but don't belong to, if only to be taught this hell of a mercy: no one belongs here.
Excerpted from Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy, edited by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi. Copyright 2014. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.