October 12, 2000
You walk into your university’s Deep Sea Conference - it’s a once yearly event that you are relieved to be let into, since it’s 1:59pm and the event starts at 2. It’s your last one, too, since you’re graduating this year. Your best friend, who is terribly sweet but perpetually late, trails at your side, checking her reflection in the big glass doors. She doesn’t particularly care about the ocean, or all the weird creatures living in it, but you joined her in Fro-Yoga (spoonfuls of cheap ice cream between lunges designed to show off your ~assets~ to onlookers) so here she is now.
“We should stay in the back,” your friend says, sliding into a chair.
“No, come on, I want to sit near the front.” You crane your neck, looking for spaces, when you notice a spot in the second row. You hurry through the crowd, laser focused on the seat, and you’ve almost slid into the chair when a forearm blocks your path.
“Sorry, that’s my seat,” you say, somewhat obnoxiously.
“You’re not sitting on it, which implies it’s not yours,” the forearm replies, equally obnoxiously.
“I was here first. Find your own seat,” you insist.
“I did find my own seat. This one.” You look up and notice that the forearm is connected to a particularly handsome stranger. Despite how much you hate your seat being stolen from right under you, you can’t help but be drawn into his eyes, deep and intense. As your eyes meet, your tongue twists in on itself, but he also seems to soften in front of you.
“This isn’t musical chairs,” you manage to say, aware of how ridiculous and pointless this statement is, but it seems better than standing there in awkward silence.
A pause, then he says, “we can share.” So you both sit on the cheap plastic chair, which creaks under your weight. It’s thoroughly uncomfortable, but something about the way his forearm brushes against your shoulder blades every time he tries to readjust himself makes it worth it.
As the conference progresses, you find inside jokes between yourselves. Deep sea flora and fauna is a passion of both of yours. When the conference breaks for lunch, he asks if you like pizza. “What a stupid question,” you say, then curse yourself internally for calling him stupid. Luckily, he doesn’t seem to take offense, and you eat pizza next to the doors of the conference room, squinting in the bright sun, trying to keep the soft cheese from sliding off the slice. You learn that his name is Mohamed. He has two brothers. He loves marzipan. Little facts that you file away in your brain, determined to remember. When you head back into the cool dimness of the conference room, you realize you have no idea where your best friend went. You also realize that you don’t really care that she ditched you.
The conference ends at 8pm, and you both stand outside in the night chill, unwilling to separate. You exchange emails and phone numbers and still linger by the railing of the parking lot, watching the presenters saunter out of the back room and pack up their posters. Your mouth is dry from all the talking but it’s a small price to pay for the conversation. Finally, when the janitors come in for their midnight sweep, you split, but his eyes still sparkle in your dreams.
December 20, 2000
It’s been almost two months since Mohamed first took you to the campus frozen yogurt shop and kissed you under the pastel green-and-pink sign in the front. You’ve learned that he’s allergic to honey and that he wears mismatched socks. You know he cracks his knuckles when he’s nervous, and that his favorite movies are the offbeat Disney ones, like Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Great Mouse Detective.
You show his picture to your parents when you go back home to visit for Christmas. You weren’t planning on showing them - after all, two months is still early days - but something about this relationship feels different. It feels serious, heavy, right. It feels like something clicking into place. Your parents, staunch Christians, look uncomfortable with the idea of you dating a boy named Mohamed, but for the sake of family peace, they maintain an uneasy silence. Your younger sister is the only one enthusiastic about him, gushing about his expressive eyes.
April 2, 2001
“What do you mean you haven’t told your family about us?”
“Don’t act so betrayed. My family works… different.” Mohamed is apologetic, pleading, but you’re incensed. He hasn’t told his family about you, even though you’ve been together for months now. Only now has he bothered to mention this to you, and only because his brother is coming to visit.
“What’s so different about them?”
“They don’t believe in dating. They believe in meeting someone and marrying them. When we get engaged, I’ll tell them, of course I will, but like this? It’s a cultural difference, and a generational one too, I don’t know how to explain it. They wouldn’t understand, they-” he pauses as he sees the smile spread across your face. “What’s wrong?”
“You said when.”
“When? When what?”
You can’t help yourself. “You said ‘when we get engaged.’ Not ‘if.’”
He pauses, blushing, then tries to stutter out a response, but you’re already laughing.
“Is this a proposal?”
“... Shut up.”
June 17, 2001
Mohamed gets his first job offer. He’s an accountant with a passion for naming the types of coral, a combination almost as rare as a white girl from the suburbs with Polish heritage and an Iranian boy with curly hair and a love for marzipan. You get accepted to a PhD program for marine biology. You celebrate both your successes with ice cream and a down payment on an apartment together in the city. Your best friend comes to decorate, still hungover from last night’s party, but she puts in a good effort. The apartment is tiny, but filled to the brim with energy and love.
September 11, 2001
The first indication that something is wrong is when you see seven missed calls from your mother. You call her back, and all you can hear is the relief in her voice. “The World Trade Center’s been hit by a plane.” Suddenly, the news is everywhere you turn. TV stations broadcast the tragedy as you call all your friends, panicking. Chaos unfurls around you: brown dust swirling around the crumbling buildings - once so stoic and impenetrable - crying babies, wailing mothers, devastation all around. You pace around the apartment, desperate to talk to everyone, anyone. As the day slowly draws to a close, your face is chapped from the salty tears, and your throat is raw from screaming. Your cousin - dead. Your high school best friend - dead. The sweet cross eyed boy who always delivered your newspapers - dead. When Mohamed comes back from work at night, unusually disheveled, you don’t even need words. You just fall into each other's arms and sob in silent grief, a crumpled heap on the kitchen floor.
September 18, 2001
It’s only been a week since the towers fell. Mohamed has been attacked every single time he goes out on the street, either to go to work or to come back. Sometimes, the attacks are verbal; other times, he comes back with swollen bruises on his face, gashes in his arms. He has become uncharacteristically silent, and his voice shakes when he calls family members. He stands in front of the mirror and shaves his beard silently, diligently, every morning, tears rolling slowly down his cheeks. Hawaiian shirts now adorn his closets in an effort to appear harmless. You do all the grocery shopping, all the errands around town, making sure to pick up his favorite items. He thanks you by doing the chores at home. Somehow, these things go unspoken. Keep him safe. Keep you safe. Neither of you goes out after dark anymore.
Your mother calls and asks to speak to you alone, so you sit in the hallway, cross legged on a threadbare rug.
“Break up with him,” she begs, her voice strained. “Come home. We’ll help you find a job here, feed you, keep you safe-”
“Oh honey, I know you’ve always been a romantic, but come on, this isn’t sustainable, this isn’t safe, look at what his people have done to this country-”
“It’s not his people. It’s terrorists. His people are not terrorists. He is loving, and kind, and he would never hurt me.” You hang up the phone, but stay sitting on the rug for a few moments longer before you get up and walk back into the apartment, reassuring Mohamed that it was nothing.
It’s not nothing. Your mother calls incessantly, with occasional interludes from your father, both insisting that this isn’t safe, that you’ll never be happy with him, that his family will never accept you and your family will never accept him. You respond with increasingly curt explanations, until after a while, you stop picking up the phone completely.
Mohamed faces similar pressure from his side of the family. His brother lands in the emergency room after a particularly brutal attack outside a grocery store, and his mother yells at him so loud even you can hear it. She begs him to leave you, argues that your family will be racist to him, that he will be looking over his shoulder every minute if he stays with you. He flashes you an apologetic look and hangs up the phone.
Sometimes, during the quiet half-hours between work and dinner and sleep, you glance over at him, laboring peacefully on some calculations on the desk, and wonder if it would be easier to just leave. To just stop fighting, to just rest. But then he looks up at you with those adoring, curious eyes, and you remember the obnoxious forearm pressing into your shoulder at the conference so long ago. And you look around, and the room is filled with paper fish and blue paint, and you recall a time when you debated each other, walking fearlessly in the silvery moonlight on a college campus, forever ago.
September 11, 2002
Mohamed goes by Mo now. He dyed the tips of his hair a frosted blond. Both of you hate the blond, which looks so ugly and unnatural against his beautiful dark curls, but it makes him look silly. Silly is safe. When Muslim holidays roll around, he celebrates them quietly with other Muslim friends. You are accepted into their group, an obvious outsider, but allowed into the soft sanctity of their friendship. You see a new version of Mohamed come out, completely relaxed for the first time in a year.
Your mother still calls, but both of you carefully avoid mentioning Mohamed or any kind of deep personal life questions. You chat about your work, and the neighbors, and your sister, and the weather, and at some point you both realize the conversation is pointless and hang up. Still, she tries again a few days later, and although you are nervous every time you hear her voice over the tinny speaker, you are grateful that she hasn’t given up.
January 8, 2003
You complete your PhD. You’re a doctor now, and Mohamed can’t contain his excitement. The two of you take a trip to Mexico, and while it’s clear you’re both foreigners, there is a newfound freedom in the way no one stops to yell slurs at Mohamed, or do a double take at the two of you strolling on the sidewalk. You get a sunburn, he gets stung by a jellyfish, and you both get food poisoning, but there is a lightness you haven’t felt in ages. At sunset on your last night there, on a beach in the middle of nowhere, Mohamed proposes, and there isn’t a single ounce of hesitation in your jubilant yes.
May 19, 2003
The wedding is small. Your best friend is there, pregnant with twins. Your mother is there, sobbing, and you’re not sure if it’s from joy or grief. Your father is noticeably absent, having begged off due to a sore throat. Your sister does her best as your only bridesmaid, and Mohamed’s brothers are there, playful, but his parents are missing. Nonetheless, there is too much happiness surrounding you to be upset. You emerge from the park as man and wife, and it feels so right, your hand fitting perfectly into his, that it feels like nothing can rip it apart.
October 27, 2003
Your father is involved in a car accident, and badly battered. Your mother is injured too, but not to the same degree. You arrive at their house, horrified at the state they’re in, grayish skin, empty eyes, surrounded by pills and oxygen canisters. You bring them food, wash their clothes, visit every other day, but as time stretches, this level of involvement begins to take its toll. You see Mohamed less and less, until he finally takes it upon himself to make the 45 minute drive with you, just so he can talk to you more. Once you get there, he sits in the car and busies himself with god knows what while you putter around inside. Then he drives you back home, and you stop for Taco Bell, munching on the salty, greasy food, a sordid reminder of your engagement vacation.
It takes nearly two months, but your mother is nearly fully healed, and your father has recovered enough to walk around from room to room without help. You sit them down to talk, and you agree that from now on you’ll come visit on weekends, but you really can’t keep up this every-other-day schedule. Your mother is full of tears and gratitude, but your father sits there, gruff and stiff, until finally he barks,
“That Mohamed boy. He’s a good one. Invite him for dinner next Saturday.” It’s not a long sentence, but it’s endlessly deep, and both you and Mohamed cry tears of relief at Taco Bell that night.
September 10, 2005
Your first son is born. His name is Ali and he is tiny and soft and screaming from the moment he is born. You lay on the hospital bed, exhausted but beaming, and your parents stand in the corner by his crib, cooing softly. Mohamed’s mother is tight lipped at first, but she melts at the sight of her grandson. His brothers punch him in the arm and make jokes about being a bad father, but you’ve never seen Mohamed so euphoric.
Unfortunately, the joy is short lived. When you go back to work, you end up having to put Ali in daycare. The other moms assume you’ve adopted him, and you have to reiterate to them that he’s really biologically yours as they eye his darker skin. Once, Mohamed goes to pick him up, and another parent issues a Suspicious Persons Alert to the daycare staff. You end up having to leave your laboratory to go prove he’s your husband and the baby’s father.
You give him to your parents to babysit, but they grow angry with you when he responds to Arabic words more than English ones. You give him to Mohamed’s parents to babysit, but they take the baby clothes off him and dress him in Mohamed’s old clothes, scratchy and faded after years of disuse. Somehow, nothing is ever good enough, nothing is ever enough.
You and Mohamed fight more now, whisper-yelling so as not to wake the baby. The sleep deprivation and constant family pressure makes you petty and resentful, and you grow impatient with each and every thing he does. You are angry, you are tired - but you are also in love with the man who patiently reads his son books about sharks, who feeds him while the bright colors from Finding Nemo flash across the screen. Sometimes, he puts Ali to bed, your hands hovering over him, and there is a perfect peace in the way the three of you operate. These are the only moments that help you keep your sanity.
September 11, 2011
Exactly one decade after your lives collapsed. You drop off your two sons at your best friend’s house - she has four kids, and they love company. Mohamed drives you far down, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, New Jersey. You discuss mundane things, what to have for lunch tomorrow, whether Ali needs a math tutor, when his brother’s wedding is. You arrive at a beach, salty wind whistling, cold sand under your feet. Holding hands, you climb to the top of a sandy dune, clumsy but determined. Eventually, despite the chill, you both decide to go into the water.
You’re in the ocean, waist deep, fully clothed, holding hands. You are silent; there’s something mesmerising and otherworldly about the waves. They lap ceaselessly at the shore, utterly unbothered. The further offshore you look, the water gets darker, murkier, but calmer. The waves aren’t so big - they don’t crash so aggressively. You imagine yourself from a seagull’s point of view. Not a white girl and a brown boy, not a Christian and a Muslim, not foolish kids who fought for something forbidden. Just a pair of forearms in the endless sea, holding hands.