I don’t have the words to describe how plain he was…
There was nothing impressive or memorable about him and I have to admit I forgot him quickly, as quickly as a spec of dust that one wipes clean… or a fallen eyelash that lingers past its time… It was so for me.
Rehan had never mentioned him and it was only that he had gone out of his way to include him in our itinerary that gave me any indication that he was someone of consequence but even that was not unusual. Rehan never missed an opportunity to socialize; in fact, it was one of his trademark characteristics. Rehan’s friends often intrigued and confounded me. I had very rarely seen Pakistani liberals up close… with their networking…their Sunday brunches…sipping their cocktails as if it was water. It was a world that could not have been more foreign to me had I stepped out of a parallel universe rather than landed at Logan International Airport but this was Rehan’s world and I was Rehan’s fiancé.
It wasn’t until after I got engaged that I dared to venture out of the little suburb that I had grown so attached to. To look at, it was a neighborhood that was as plebian as any with row upon row of houses made with brown brick with little variation in color or style sharing a patch of lawn.
A bird’s eye view of my little subdivision would reveal nothing special but if you zoomed in a little more closely, wiped the fairy dust from your eyes and took more than a casual glance you might notice the dark hair, the olive complexions, and eyes that masked the struggles of an immigrant community. Faces seldom seen on Leave it to Beaver or Wisteria Lane and if that did not pique your curiosity it would be difficult to ignore the colorful pajamas, the saris, the head scarves, the turbans that people wore as naturally as if they had been living in a neighborhood in the Subcontinent; all amidst the aroma of South Asian cooking lingering in the background. This was the state of Toronto’s expanding ethnic community.
In this heavily insulated society we rarely socialized with outsiders. Our parties were simple events attended mainly by relatives. Dressed in elaborate salwar kameezes, we’d sit on the floor, drink soda from paper cups, and eat rice with our fingers. During the summers we would play volleyball in the backyard unconcerned about the state of our formal wear (later when we went home we would realize how we had ruined our new clothes with grass stains, perspiration or curry). This is what a soiree was for my immigrant parents who often worked twelve hour factory shifts and had little aspirations for me other than a white collar job and a respectable marriage.
Back then just getting on a plane was an adventure and when I began visiting Boston it was like stepping through the glass door, on one side was my old life on the other was the new world and Rehan with his good looks and grand plans.
“Take me to Legal Seafood” I would tell Rehan almost as soon as I landed. Having grownup observing Muslim dietary laws I rarely ate meat outside the home and by default had become a seafood junkie. I was thrilled to find a place where I could munch on Thai styled calamari, shrimp stuffed with lobster and spicy fish, utterly surprised that I could love anything more than Red Lobster’s buttery biscuits. It was often how we spent our first nights together before he would deposit me chastely in my hotel.?
It wasn’t until the next day that I began to meet his friends. I use the term loosely as they consisted of a variety of relationships from those going back many years to someone that he had become acquainted with the day before and everyone in between. They ranged from yuppies to academics, to the infamous American Born Confused Desis (otherwise known as ABCDs). All of whom had been brought here in pursuit of education or career often leaving behind their families in different cities…in different countries.
It was here that I began to observe the culture of young professional with too much time and too much money on their hands, where social and professional pursuits often intertwined and family parties were replaced by friends and networking. Many had done time in the country’s most notable schools, each one felt they were on the brink of a high profile career or so they insinuated as they sipped their wine and discussed the state of politics in Pakistan or the Middle East…and I as an outsider missed many of their references.
Actually, I wasn’t even Pakistani and had rarely considered myself so. My parents were Indians born and bred yet the migration to the west led them through Karachi stripping them of their nationality and giving them a new identity…a new homeland. It wasn’t an identity that I entirely shared and this group of Pakistanis confused me all the more looking at the world from their pristine towers, using the wealth of the old country to buy credentials in the new. It was a game I didn’t quite understand often mistaking their social niceties as acceptance. Years later I would feel sorry for these people with their myopic, privileged-class outlook that prevented them from seeing the people for the corrupt and entangled nation.
This story begins on one such evening. It was April and we were living in purgatory, not quite winter, not quite spring. I had flown in the day before. I’d had an almost pleasant dinner with Rehan’s friends some of which I had begun to recognize over the course of my frequent trips. In fact, I was even looking forward to dessert. I was always looking forward to dessert in those days… and I would have been enjoying a rich chocolate cake or a crème brulee had Rehan not cut our evening short.
Rehan being the quintessential schmoozer that he was had scheduled another event. We were to stop by Shaun Mirza’s party. Shaun Mirza was in venture capital … a rising star if you want to use a cliché. He had been instrumental in taking a couple e-commerce startups public quite an impressive task during the post dotcom bust. Rehan being a moderately successful entrepreneur always found it useful to stay in touch with his contacts in private equity. So off we all went to see the wizard. It was the end of an already long day and I hoped we wouldn’t have to stay long. My one consolation was that that Imran (Rehan’s best friend at the time) would be coming with us. Imran always treated me like I was his friend and not just an extension of my fiancé. Imran, who was considerably less impressed with Shaun, had left his car at home and was forced to tag along until we called it a night.
We arrived at a neighborhood that reminded me of New England’s horse and carriage days. It was quiet, well maintained and a little unnerving. We walked a couple blocks until we reached the old house on the Hill. There was nothing else to do but rap on the door. The tranquility of the night had done little to prepare us for the party raging inside.
I had envisioned a sophisticated soiree with cocktails and something smooth and sultry playing in the background. Instead what we walked into resembled a frat party; bodies packed together, beer everywhere and music so loud it stunned me. It was then that I found myself thinking twice about Shaun Mirza. He eventually appeared. I smiled as Rehan introduced us some of the nervousness wearing off. There was an awkwardness about him that reminded me of a much younger boy. I could picture him a tongue-tied freshman in a former life, though in reality he was older than I. I thought little about him after that day. I was too busy planning my wedding, my life with Rehan, which at that time seemed much farther away than it actually was. Looking back it was easy to see how I could overlook him with … his dark complexion…his fine hair… his stocky build… and a gap between his two front teeth that shone out when he smiled…not my idea of prince charming.
It wasn’t until many years later that I thought of him again. When the engagement had run its course; when the whole elaborate wedding was done and I had successfully transitioned from fiancée to wife. I began to finally wake up. I noticed not only the way people interacted with me but also with each other; the overly affectionate hellos, the subtle and not so subtle name dropping of not only people but also trendy restaurants, exotic vacations and the way the women looked a little too well put together. Outfits were less than modest and I noticed that no matter where we went I was the one wearing the most clothing, which only confirmed my self-image as conservative and frumpy. I also noticed who came up to me and who didn’t. I gauged people’s social status by the number of people who wanted to talk to them. Needless to say that in most cases if I did not take the initiative I would have been left standing by myself and many times this was the case.
I noticed that Shaun Mirza was almost always approached by those that knew him though with apprehension, I might add, as if they were not sure how to perceive him but wanted to stay in his good graces nonetheless. He was one of them, but not really. I’d see him infrequently at a party or a brunch doing the necessary rounds. He liked pretty girls. He flirted shamelessly with some of the more fashionable sort in their little dresses and tank tops in a way that brought a blush to my cheeks – indignant by the bold self assurance of someone whose looks were so obviously second rate.
As it turned out I had made, as little an impression on him as he had on me for never was there a glance in my direction or a friendly hello. I was invisible to him. His disdain followed me wherever I went and even though he and Rehan orbited the same sun, never did a ray of light shine upon me. I was a weed in a garden of flowers. I disliked being dismissed. Even a weed needs a little light. It was perhaps for this reason that I needed to prove my existence. It was therefore no accident when I sought him out at a crowded party.
It was almost Christmas and we were still waiting for the first signs of frost. The bright oranges of Halloween had turned into a dull brown, which the host tried to compensate for with vibrant colors and loud music. I saw him standing at the bar. A sixth sense told me that Rehan was at the other end of the room. It was crowded; already there were people on the dance floor. I stood near him, inches away, so that he would hear me over the music.
There was no space to be ignored.
I am both pleased and confused as I see him for the first time… floored by the intensity of his gaze I do not know what to say next. Not once, not twice but three times do I look away only to return to the same fire that couldn’t possibly have been meant for me. It is only then that I shamefully realize what I am after, that I want to be seduced…that this is someone who could seduce me…and then as if it never happened it’s gone, a private moment in a very public arena.