Unavailable: How I Had To Let A Boy Down Gently
By Hafsa Arain
I have only been asked out once in my life, though I had been warned of such situations since I was eleven years old. My parents, without ever even saying these things aloud, warned my sister and me of boys and dating and American things – things we were absolutely forbidden to take part in. It was often phrased as “staying true to our culture”. We knew what it meant, for we had always known that this was part of us being different from everyone else.
In reality, they needn’t have worried about any of it. We were brown faces in a sea of white – there is no standard of beauty that exists in the suburbs of Chicago that makes us desirable. We have pitch-black hair, dark caramel skin, and deep brown eyes. In our schools, we stood out as being almost unnatural – an object to inspect, but not to dignify.
It came as a surprise to me, then, being asked out. In my small and extremely nerdy group of friends (nearly all of whom were Asian), there was the one odd girl who had been asked out by the age of fourteen. By fifteen, nearly everyone in that group had been on a date. And by sixteen, I was the only left who had never been kissed.
I didn’t speak of it, and thus expected everyone to gloss over it. They obliged me, but I think in the back of their minds they must have pitied me. A Muslim girl, not Hindu or Christian like them, how limited a life I must lead.
I assumed everyone knew this about me, or must have understood what it meant to be a Muslim girl. After all, I could not wear shorts, even in the hottest of summers, and I could not take part in swimming lessons in my bathing suit for “religious reasons”. Surely nothing shouts, “waiting for marriage” more than a covered woman.
But Brian was new to school, a good-natured delinquent who had recently transferred from a military boarding academy. As a whole, we were slightly in awe of him. On the first day of class, when prompted by our teacher to recite our favorite music, he responded simply with, “Bonnaroo.” Now, we had barely heard of such a thing as Tennessee, let alone a four-day music festival full of indie rock. Thus, the general awe culminated in tall tales of Brian performing elaborate pranks at his military academy, resulting in his transfer here.
He sat behind me in English class, my favorite subject, and here I must admit that I have always been something of a teacher’s pet. Especially in English classes, I am the first to raise my hand and the student who actually peer-reviewed other student’s papers with a special red pen (I cringe at the thought now). My teacher learned this about me quickly, and assigned Brian, whom he assumed would need the help, to be my peer-review partner for the entire semester.
At first, Brian barely spoke to me. After I returned one of his papers with red markings all over it, he grimaced at me. My paper was returned with obscene drawings covering the margins. I decided to shrug it off.
After a few weeks, I began to assume that Brian was relying on my edits to sustain a passing grade. He often asked me questions about which books I enjoyed, and in return told me bands to listen to. I never did listen to any of the bands, though I appreciated his effort in becoming a better peer-review partner.
After mid-quarter, Brian began to disappear from classes. He often told me he would smoke pot behind the school, and once even invited me to join him. Did he not yet realize I was the Muslim girl? If I was not allowed to drink alcohol, and was not allowed to smoke cigarettes, then getting high behind the school would have just been the death of me.
There were a few weeks where none of us ever even saw Brian. After a while, we assumed he had left school for other worldly pursuits. But one day, as I was standing at my locker filling my backpack with books, he tapped my shoulder. I remember the moment as if it had just happened to me the other day, so mortified am I by its existence.
“Hi – umm, what’s up?”
“Oh, hi,” I responded.
“Umm, how was English class? I mean, whatever, I don’t care about class.” He dug his fists into his pockets.
I stared at him.
“Umm, I just stopped by to tell you something. Or ask you something, really. Umm, do you think you would maybe want to go watch a movie with me? I was thinking we could go on Saturday, or Friday if you want.”
At this point, I felt so sorry for Brian. Was it possible that he really did not know that I was the Muslim girl? That I could not spend time with a boy at all, let alone go to a movie with one on the weekend? I felt sorry, because I assumed Brian was clueless, not infatuated. And then I felt embarrassed, because he was a delinquent and I was a teacher’s pet.
“Oh, I’m really sorry,” I started. I must have apologized to him ten more times after that. “I’m sorry, I can’t really, like, you know, go out. I mean I can’t really go out on a date. You know?”
For a fleeting moment I thought I had it all wrong. He was never asking me out, I had misunderstood everything. My face flushed, and it burned up so much I was sure it must have been purple.
I kept going, “I mean, I’m Muslim, you know. So I can’t really go out…”
He nodded and added, “But you’re very pretty.”
Too pretty to be Muslim? No, too pretty to be unavailable.
He kept going, “And you’re smart. You get, like, really good grades.”
“I have to catch the bus,” I said promptly.
And for some reason, without even saying goodbye, I turned my back on him and left school. I sat in my usual seat on the bus and faced the window. As the bus turned the corner, tears gushed in my eyes. I don’t remember why I started crying, but I knew that the emotions were too much for me to handle. I never thought anyone would think I was pretty, and I couldn’t do anything about it. It was even possible that part of me wanted to like Brian back, and go out to watch a movie on Saturday. I wanted these things, because then I could sit down at the lunch table with my nerdy friends and tell them I was just like them.
February 8, 2012