I set out to scam you. “Swindle” is the going term I believe. There! I’ve said it. I am a vulture that predates on prey that range from dead to weak.
If this were me, I’d throw this letter away after that first line, but I know you won’t. You need answers, so here goes! This is a long letter, full of what one might deem digressions, but bear with me. Consider it a last –and first, for that matter– request.
When I saw your Tinder profile, you seemed like the perfect target: introverted, doe-eyed, a little desperate (or so I thought).
Your pictures were modest, no fancy landscapes or holidays, no cute dresses or poses at a party. Just one awkward bathroom selfie and one photo of you and your hot sister. In reality, by the way, Helen can’t hold a candle to your grace and charm!
I played the long game with you. We both lived in New York City, but I disabled location detection and texted you from my “faraway ship”, battling sea storms, loneliness, and longing, in vain, to finally meet you.
I looked you up of course. Though your Instagram and Facebook accounts were private, I was still able to figure out that you were upper-middle class. Your mother’s Facebook account had pictures of you with backhanded compliments. “No Christmas is complete without Catherine’s pies, whatever is left of them anyway!” Or “Catherine finally graduates, couldn’t be more proud!” Girl with a critical mother. Great stuff!
For three months we texted every day. You were patient. You sent me songs and inspirational quotes and I sent you Gibran and Rumi poems.
What you don’t know is that I was born to an Iraqi father and a Persian mother, who had nothing to give me other than the gift of producing me in America, “the land of opportunity”. My whole life, I watched my father, who used to be an Arabic literature teacher, fix cars by day and drive a taxi he didn’t own by night. My whole life, I listened to my mother, who used to be the most beautiful girl in her town, complain about cleaning school toilets by day and cooking in her brother’s restaurant by night. And I took care of my siblings most of the day, every day.
“You’re the man of the house in our absence,” my father would say. But what about me? Who was I to cry to when I grazed a knee or was beaten up on the way home?
So I carved a path out for myself. I went away to college, lived at the campus gym when I wasn’t working at the library, and later found a decent job, but I was nowhere near where I wanted to be in life. I wanted to bring my business ideas to life. I wanted to mix with the elite, travel the world in private jets and gleaming yachts.
I tried my hand at intimacy too. Believe it or not, this proved to be a much harder luxury to procure than any fancy clothes or watches. There I was, in my late twenties, frequently asked if I was interested in modeling, attracting all kinds of women but unable to feel anything for anyone. If I touched a girl, it felt devoid of meaning, of fire. If a woman held me, I felt like an overused rag in her arms.
Don’t get me wrong, everything else worked, and the women thought they had been loved, at least for a night, but luckily, no one pressed an ear to my unbeating heart.
Every day I wondered why my heart was so hardened, like an unchewable piece of overcooked meat. Was it the burdens I had carried since the day I opened my eyes to this world? Was it the shame of my humble upbringing? Or was it simply the clash of those humble beginnings with my grand ambitions? The sheer ridiculousness of someone like me feeling happy. Feeling anything.
You know? I thought about it long and hard, but that’s not it. My main handicap was my cold heart. In my third year of college, I took the coach home and for hours watched my mother die… and felt nothing. I couldn’t even cry while my father and siblings shattered. It terrified me. Was I a sociopath? A psychopath?
I locked myself up in my dorm room for two weeks trying to figure out the nature of my freakdom.
One Saturday morning, I emerged from my room a changed man with a mission: I was going to be rich, fast. Perhaps I was created without a heart for a reason. Emotions are distractions. Education, good looks and no emotions are a winning combination for success.
From that day, I no longer pursued girls I found attractive– because what’s the point? Instead, I started to entertain older, richer women. Sometimes with limited success, sometimes with great success. Susan, my first prey, was in her mid-forties, and while she smelled really good and looked really expensive, she turned out to be no richer than I was. That was a waste of two months. So I looked harder, slowly learning to ask the right questions and look for the right signs of ability and vulnerability.
That meant I had to look expensive too. I became an expert at scouring thrift stores for hidden gems and knockoff accessories. Sometimes I rented expensive cars or borrowed them to impress those who posed next to expensive cars in their dating profiles. But I cultivated my mind too, including, but not limited to, reading every romantic novel and watching every chick-flick out there. I divided my time between reading, to impress the nerd lovers; working out, to impress the ab lovers; and working long hours to finance it all.
Whatever I scored from one woman, I splurged on the other. Any businessman knows that to make money, you have to spend money.
When I “came back” from my overseas mission, I arranged a date with you. Like a gentleman, I let you choose a place you were comfortable and familiar with. You chose a small cozy cafe in Williamsburg. You were right on time. No power games or playing hard to get.
When I saw you peering through the door looking around for me, I was quite certain it wasn’t you. Your photos had shown a slightly older-looking, less attractive woman in her early thirties. So when you approached my corner table with a tentative smile, I blankly stared at you.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
“Ali?” you whispered suddenly unsure, “it’s me? Catherine?”
“Catherine?” I said standing up and bumping my head on the low-hanging light fixture.
You caught me off guard. So unlike me and so not good for my brand. I always played it cool. I had to be this mysterious, self-confident man who played unsuspecting women like a snake charmer, hypnotizing them into swaying this way and that, without them knowing. Only I ate them and spat them out after the spiel ended.
“You look…” beautiful, I wanted to say but I had to keep myself from giving compliments too soon.
“Hopefully better than my photos?” your plump lips smiled, revealing gleaming, white teeth.
You did this on purpose, you revealed later. Your tactic was to use unflattering photos on your Tinder profile to have your dates positively surprised. I was catfished in the opposite direction.
This would’ve been an effective tactic with other men, but with me, it threw me off. You were supposed to be unattractive and self-conscious (preferably self-loathing) so I could love-bomb you before suddenly withdrawing because I was having trouble accessing my (loaded) bank account and didn’t know what to do. You would then swoop in to lend me all of your money–and possibly that of the bank– to save your poor rich lover who will, no doubt, return the money soon after.
But now what? Now how was I supposed to latch onto your non-existent insecurities?
Everybody has insecurities, I reminded myself. I was still younger, fitter and by society’s standards, considerably more attractive than you.
“So what makes your heart sing?” you asked me less than ten minutes into our first date.
If that was your idea of an icebreaker, it was my idea of the second iceberg to hit me because, Catherine, what I wanted to say was “nothing”! Absolutely nothing made my heart sing. I was hoping that you, or, more precisely, your wallet, could help change that.
“Oh, seeing those I love thrive, I guess!” I said instead.
Your big brown, green-rimmed eyes widened. So I got that right: you were one of those “empowerers”. Perfect.
Before I knew it, three hours had passed. That was the first time I never stole glances at my watch during a date. I was supposed to leave after an hour to leave you wanting more.
You told me about your work with children with learning difficulties, your favorite movies, and how your dad, your dearest person in the world, died of a brain tumor. I tried to answer your questions and tell you about my childhood, but I had no fun childhood holiday stories or heartbreaking stories. I was numb to it all. With other women, I took liberties in concocting fun stories or touching incidents, but with you, I felt too lazy to do any of that. Your voice was free of any affectation. Other girls I’d been with would talk like someone was choking them or like they were having whole conversations in question intonation or like they were speaking through their noses. Not you. Your voice flowed like honey. It was soft and naturally melodious like a flowy liquid-gold song.
When I got home that day, I wrote you a really nice message about how it was lovely to meet you but sorry that I felt no spark. I typed the text and let my finger hover over the send icon for a long time. But I couldn’t bring myself to send it.
For the second date, I invited you to a fancy restaurant. Time to flash some green notes, I thought. Again, you were appreciative but not really impressed.
“Did you know that according to some sources, the first wine was made in Iran?” I asked you after ordering an expensive bottle of wine, looking intently at you to see if this was the way to impress you.
“I did not know that!” you said amused, “So, would you consider yourself a connoisseur? A foodie? I must say, one of my favorite places is the farmers’ market in Pittsburgh where my family lives!”
“I see!” so what was the way to impress you?
Weeks rolled by and I couldn’t bring myself to break up with you or ask you for money. “Money” suddenly sounded like a dirty word when I was around you. It was the only reason I had set out to seduce you, yet I couldn’t lay down any baits.
The perfect opportunity came when your aunt died leaving you her house and the contents of her bank account. I sat on the edge of your floral bedspread surrounded by sandalwood incense and held you while you grieved and let snot and tears smear my Versace shirt. But I couldn’t even plant the seeds of how you should see the silver lining in her death. How you could now use that money to help people around you and honor her memory.
While I stroked your long curls, I asked myself how on earth I got there, wasting my precious little free time on something that didn’t bring me closer to any of my goals. Then you suddenly stopped crying and looked up at me. Your eyes, glistening with tears, looked me in the eyes for a few seconds. I gulped.
“You’re a good man, Ali,” you whispered, your voice filled with gratitude.
“Me?” I blurted, genuinely surprised. So there it was, the key to your heart: tenderness. Damn it.
You held my hand in both your soft little hands, turned it over and planted a damp kiss in the ravine of my palm. Then you moved it to your blotchy cheek and closed your eyes. My fingers involuntarily pressed the side of your hot face and lingered. Then my other hand held the other side of your face, thumbs brushing the corners of your mouth.
I panicked. I got up, clumsily muttering that I was running late for an appointment. You looked confused, but you nodded.
I ran down the stairs, feeling the building walls closing in on me and the stairs slipping from underneath me. What just happened? It reminded me of a physical sensation I felt in what felt like an eternity ago, in the deepest depths of my core. Not even as a child but perhaps as an unaware infant. Was that the experience I felt when my mother held me to her chest? In her womb? In a past life?
I burst into the cold night air and heaved as I slammed the building door behind me. I looked up at the sky unable to close my bulging eyes. The vast sky was a void. A colorless black canvas studded with the most brilliant diamond shavings. My unblinking eyes started watering and I didn’t know if those were tears or involuntary moisture my eyes forced out to stop my eyes from burning.
Confusion engulfed my being, and I ignored your messages for the next three days. I am genuinely sorry about that, but I didn’t know what to say or what to do. Because how was it possible that a heart that never felt any joy, shame, regret or even anger could suddenly be shaken by the random existence of a single person? What if I had never met you? Would I have gone on living my linear, unilateral life? Had I been capable of feeling this all along? Then why didn’t I ever? Or was this a superpower only you could inflict on me?
Can you understand why this terrified me? Life was straightforward and simple. Life was transactional and logical. Where did these convoluted sensations come from? How was I supposed to make sense of anything or continue living a life I never knew existed?
Catherine, I’m deeply sorry if I’d added to your grief–who knew I could feel sorry for anyone? Trust me, you dodged a bullet, or perhaps the bullet spared you.
Lying in my dark room on New Year’s Eve, I scrolled over our never-ending chats and came across a small Rumi quote I’d once sent you in the early days:
“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
I almost fell off the edge of my bed. How could it be that I’d read, memorized and recited like a parrot so much of Rumi’s work and never understood any of it?
My throat swelled and I felt a sudden sense of suffocation, so I put my coat over my pajamas and rushed outside for some fresh air.
Every New Year’s Eve, the question, “What are your new year’s resolutions?” was thrown around like confetti, and I always had a long list of small goals and changes that I set out to achieve and always succeeded.
That cold night, however, surrounded by festive lights and jovial partiers, I saw a different question on the side of a parked blue bus: “What are you grateful for this year?” Any other year, my answer would have been a resounding NOTHING. Life was a constant struggle. A sickening hustle. But this year, my answer is: a heart that feels.
I walked for five hours, saw the parties ushering in the new year begin and end. I thought and thought until my head exploded and birthed a conclusion.
I am indeed a vulture. A hawk with spread wings but feet tied together. My whole life, I couldn’t see my wings because all I could focus on was the tight rope around my feet. My whole life, I stood there on the ledge of life feeding on carrion and carcasses that were put in my way, unaware that I was capable of hunting something beautiful. But now that I found something beautiful, I’m petrified.
I need to throw myself off that ledge and see. See if my wings can soar despite the tied feet. Once I’ve figured out how to fly, I will return to you.
If you’ll let me.
But for now, goodbye.
Keep on glowing. My lighthouse in the dark.