The following story is fictional. While the characters are figments of my imagination, their experiences are based on real-life situations. We continue from Part One.
“It is insulting to ‘date’ a woman,” Sam’s mother had once explained to him, years ago, when he was about eight years old. They were in the kitchen of his childhood home, and Sam had told her, casually, that a girl in school had offered to be his girlfriend. He was confused. What, exactly, did that entail? He didn’t know what a landmine he had stepped on.
His mother had looked shocked, then upset, then determined. That’s when Sam knew he’d be learning one of her Life Lessons. He instantly regretted asking her. His mother kneaded dough as she spoke, pounding it as if to emphasize her words. “You and that girl are far too young to be thinking about these things! When you are a man, your father will talk to you more about this. I can tell you this: if a man truly cares about a woman, he would never disrespect her or her family by dating her — by having a relationship that only married couples should have.” She pursed her lips in displeasure.
“Besides,” she pronounced, “dating is haram. Forbidden.” She had fixed Sam with one of her intense and formidable stares, and Sam had nodded dutifully, knowing that she wanted him to understand and to agree. And that was the end of that.
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Sam had known since childhood that dating was not permissible in Islam and therefore would never be sanctioned by his parents. According to Islamic rules, only if a man and woman were intending to get married could they spend time together, and even then under specific circumstances: in the presence of chaperones, with specific guidelines, and without physical contact. Back home, there was a whole elaborate system in place to help unmarried people find potential spouses. Relatives would eagerly network with their friends and neighbors to suggest potential candidates, set up meetings, act as chaperones, do background research, and then weigh in on the final decision.
As a child watching his older siblings go through the spouse-finding process, Sam had thought the whole thing was ridiculous, unnecessarily complicated, and somewhat humiliating. Now, as an adult who actually did want to get married, Sam wondered how he could possibly find a wife in the United States in a way that would not make his parents roll over in their graves. Emma’s not-so-subtle hint about dating made Sam feel both optimistic and defeated at the same time. For a moment he let himself imagine a tempting scenario: dressing up in his best clothes, taking Emma to a nice restaurant, eating a delicious meal, and then enjoying some more stimulating conversation with her. And what would be the harm in dinner and conversation? Sam asked himself. Because I wouldn’t want it to stop there, he answered himself honestly.
After a long pause, Sam forced himself to answer Emma’s question. “I guess half-practicing means I can’t date . . . not without a lot of guilt,” he added, with a sigh. He tried to arrange his face into a smile, hoping he was making some sense. “Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to ask you out on a date, for instance,” he paused, noticing the blush creep onto her fair cheeks. “But I actually feel . . . this is going to sound weird, but I actually feel like I already like you too much to date you.”
“What?” she asked with a laugh.
“I mean, to date a woman casually, without intention of marrying her, is disrespectful to her,” he explained.
She furrowed her eyebrows. “Not in this country, Sam,” replied Emma. “Men and women date with the intention of having a nice time together, not because they think they’re probably going to get married down the road. You wouldn’t be disrespecting me if I knew what I was getting into and I was agreeing with the situation, right?”
“But sometimes dating leads to more than just having a nice time together, you know, and then if things become physical . . .”
“Lots of people have no problem with that, either,” said Emma with a slightly defiant look.
“But they should!” Sam found himself speaking with intensity. “No woman should be left by a dishonorable man with her reputation ruined, or a baby to care for!”
“Well, I think the idea of a woman’s reputation being ruined is pretty old fashioned,” said Emma, “but I do agree that it’s wrong for a father to abandon his child. If a child is born. There are reliable ways to prevent that, you know.”
The conversation had become too private, too loaded, and far too awkward, all of a sudden. They both stood in silence for a while, and then Emma abruptly changed tack. “Sam, I actually think you’re the most honorable guy I’ve met in a long time. I admire you. Really. I understand your decision not to date. I respect it. So, I guess I’ll just see you on Monday, then.”
“Monday?” asked Sam.
“You need help with your health insurance forms, right?”
“Oh, yeah. Right. I’ll stop by Monday afternoon. Um, thanks, Emma. And sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry about,” she said briskly, and walked away.
Sam found himself thinking about Emma often throughout the weekend. He felt like he had insulted her, somehow, by rejecting her, even though that was far from his intention. He knew he sounded old fashioned, prude, and overzealous spouting off about women’s reputations and physical relationships and abandoned babies. He should’ve kept it much, much simpler. Somehow with Emma he couldn’t stop talking, saying whatever crazy thought came into his mind. He really wished that he could date her, but he had to hold on to this one last bit of self control. He could still feel his mother’s stern gaze as she pounded the dough all those years ago, making her mark. On it, and on him.
All day Monday at work, Sam’s thoughts continued to drift to his upcoming meeting with Emma. He forced himself to think that she was just a colleague who was helping with a work-related issue, like so many other women in the office. But she wasn’t just like the other women, and that was the problem.
At 4:00 his work was finished. He tidied his papers, shut off his computer, gathered up his nerve, and walked toward the Human Resource office. Halfway there, he realized he had forgotten his health insurance enrollment forms and had to go back to retrieve them. Finally there was no more stalling; he had to do it. He knocked on her open door and peeked in.
“Sam! Hi!” said Emma, removing a pair of reading glasses and setting them on her desk. “You came at a great time. I just finished up some paperwork and I’m free to help you with your forms.”
Sam was relieved to see her acting cheerful and normal, as if nothing weird had happened between them. “Should I take a seat?” he asked, gesturing to the chair in front of her desk.
“Actually, I’m dying for a coffee,” she said, rising up from her chair. “Can we have the conversation in the cafeteria?”
“Sure,” said Sam. “I’d like a coffee, too.”
The two headed toward the empty employee cafeteria. Sam thought it was funny that he must have crossed paths with her in this same cafeteria many times, but he hadn’t noticed her in the crowd. Now he couldn’t imagine himself not being aware of her presence. Lunchtime, he reflected, would never be the same again.
“Milk? Sugar?” she asked as she filled two mugs from the communal coffee pot.
“Both, please,” answered Sam.
She handed him some sugar packets and a couple mini pots of creamer. They mixed their drinks and then settled at a table in the corner, where a welcoming, soft afternoon light poured through a large picture window.
“So, let’s see those forms,” she said, putting on her reading glasses. Sam noticed that they made her look extremely intelligent.
It didn’t take long for Emma to identify Sam’s mistakes and fix them. She promised to re-send them to the insurance company on Tuesday and to ask them to expedite the enrollment process.
“You don’t want to be caught without health insurance in this country,” she said. “Something as simple as a severe sprain like you had last week could set you back thousands of dollars, after X-rays, emergency room costs, and miscellaneous hospital charges.”
“Good thing my injury wasn’t bad enough to require a doctor,” said Sam with relief.
“Definitely. You know,” she said, changing the subject, “I think Mr. Barnes is still miffed that we missed the glorious horseshoe tournament.” She rolled her eyes.
“Is it true that Justin managed to hit Mr. Barnes in the shin with a horseshoe?” asked Sam with a delighted laugh.
“I heard that, too,” she chortled. “I wish I could’ve seen it.”
They chatted on animatedly. After quite a long time, Sam noticed with surprise that the light in the sky had definitely changed. The cafeteria was dim, and the sun had almost set.
“What time is it?” he asked with surprise.
“Wow, it’s a quarter to six,” answered Emma. “Where did the time go?”
“I’m usually out the door exactly at five,” said Sam.
“Me, too. Well, I’m not usually having such a good time . . .” she stopped abruptly. “Huh. I guess we’d better leave before security kicks us out of here or, worse, Mr. Barnes gets the false idea that we’re overenthusiastic employees.”
Sam nodded. “Yeah, right. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow. And thanks again for your help, Emma.”
“No problem. Bye, Sam.”
The next day, Sam was eating lunch with Alejandro when Emma spied him from across the cafeteria and waved. She walked over with her lunch in hand.
“Can I join you for a quick minute?” she asked.
“I just wanted to update you on your health insurance forms, Sam. I spoke with someone I know well at Blue Cross, and she promised to enroll you right away, even though technically you are past the group enrollment date. So, you should be covered starting at midnight tonight, just in case you decide to enter any volleyball tournaments.”
Sam smiled. “Thanks, Emma.”
“Oh! Medical insurance forms!” exclaimed Alejandro, slapping his forehead. “I meant to get help with mine, too, many weeks ago. I don’t understand the difference between the two plans and the different deductibles. I can’t choose between HMO and PPO. It’s so confusing, I didn’t finish filling it out. Man, I probably missed the deadline, too.”
“No problem,” Emma said, kindly. “Bring them by my office later today, and I can probably fix them up in a few minutes for you. Maybe my friend at Blue Cross can do me one more favor.”
By now she was sitting at their table and, quite naturally, unpacking her sandwich and fruit. She, Sam, and Alejandro kept on talking and eating until the one-hour lunch period had long expired.
Over the next several weeks, it began to seem perfectly natural that Emma would sit with Sam, Alejandro, and other colleagues at the lunch table. While their coworkers talked about work, their weekend plans, or the latest episodes of their favorite sitcoms, Sam and Emma got lost in their own, private conversations. Sam heard about the various countries Emma had visited and the places she hoped to go someday. He learned about her parents, who were both retired, and her best friend, Margo, with whom she shared a condo. He found out about her eccentric cat, Monty, and her hobbies (reading, swimming, baking, photography). For his part, Sam found himself opening up about his homeland, his family, his own hobbies and interests. When Emma found out that he was a huge soccer fan and a Spanish League follower, she exclaimed with delight.
“You watch La Liga? Oh my God, my dad will be thrilled!”
Sam looked at her, puzzled. “Why?”
“My dad has loved La Liga ever since we lived in Spain, years ago. He watches the matches religiously, but he doesn’t have any friends to watch with him. His friends are all into golf, if you can imagine. Who would want to watch GOLF? Anyway, he’s a HUGE Real Madrid fan. Don’t tell me you support Barca?” she asked with a sudden hint of desperation.
“No, Real Madrid,” answered Sam.
“Thank God! So, of course you’re going to watch El Clasico on Sunday?”
“Definitely,” laughed Sam. Again, Emma was surprising him with her uncanny connections to his life and his interests. There was no other way to put it: she just fit in his life.
“Please come watch the game with my dad,” she nearly pleaded. Then she seemed to forcibly curb her enthusiasm and calm her voice. “I know it must sound really bizarre for me to ask you that, but I just know my dad would LOVE to watch this match with a true soccer fan. It would make him so happy.”
“Then how could I say no?” smiled Sam. “I’d love to meet your parents.”
“Yes, of course.”
Emma smiled radiantly. “Alright, then. I’ll e-mail you their address. I think the game starts in the afternoon, so plan to come for lunch. Around noon.”
“Sounds good,” said Sam.
“I’ve got to get back to my office. See you soon, Sam. See you, Alejandro!”
As she walked away, Alejandro blew a low, long whistle. “Man, she’s got it BAD.”
“Got what bad?” Sam asked, knowing well what his friend meant.
“She is SO into you, amigo. She’s practically begging you to propose to her. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s on her way to the store right now to find a wedding dress.”
“What? No! Shut up! We’re just friends. No, colleagues.”
“Colleagues who beg you to watch soccer with their father? To have lunch with their parents? That is not colleagues. The way she looks at you is not work-related, amigo.”
Sam just looked at Alejandro mutely, part of him really wanting his words to be true, part of him doubting that it could be that easy. Could this dynamic, beautiful woman really be ready and willing to marry him? Could it be that simple? What about the complicated pre-marriage process? The chaperones? The awkwardness? The angst? Or, in this country, the dating? This was just too good to be true.
“No,” Sam finally replied. “You’ve got it wrong. She’s just open and friendly like most American women. If we took them seriously we’d think most of them were asking us to marry them.”
“Tell me this,” said Alejandro. “When she helped you with your insurance forms, how long did it take?”
“Well, fixing my problems was pretty quick. She’s really good at her job. But then, you know, we chatted for a while. About an hour.”
“Exactly!” crowed Alejandro. “When she helped me, it only took a few minutes, start to finish. She didn’t keep me there chatting about her photography and her weird cat for hours. And,” he continued, “I did mention to her one time, weeks ago, that I love soccer. Did she invite me to watch with her father? No, she did not. So trust me, amigo. She’s enamorada. She’s in love.” He wiggled his eyebrows up and down until Sam punched him in the shoulder.
On Sunday Sam was a bundle of nerves as he prepared to go to Emma’s parents’ house. He got a haircut in the morning and bought a new polo shirt to wear with his wrinkle-free khaki pants. Finally, on his way there, he stopped at a local upscale bakery and bought six really delicious-looking mini cakes, each with glazed fruit and decadent whipped cream on top.
Emma’s parents’ home was exactly the kind of house Sam had always seen on American TV shows about affluent families: two stories, colonial style, painted white with black shutters. The emerald grass was neatly trimmed, and each bush and tree was sculpted and tidy, as if they too had had a haircut for the occasion. It looked immanently respectable and a bit fastidious, to tell the truth. Sam pressed the doorbell and tried to slow his racing heart by breathing deeply.
A man with grey hair and an athletic physique opened the door. “Come in! You must be Sam! I’m Hal. Nice to meet you!” He shook Sam’s hand with a firm grip and a brisk pump.
“Hi. It’s nice to meet you, too,” answered Sam. Hal ushered him into the stylishly decorated home. Sam could instantly see evidence of the family’s world travels: a Persian rug in the hallway, a Chinese tapestry on the wall, directly across from an African mask, and a variety of colorful vases and ceramics that might hail from a dozen different countries.
Emma came through a doorway, followed by an older, slightly shorter and plumper version of herself.
“Hello, Sam,” said the older lady, warmly. “Welcome. We’ve heard so much about you. I’m Evelyn.”
Sam returned her smile and handed her the box of pastries. “I hope you’ll like these,” he said. “I’ve been seeing pastries like these in the bakery window for weeks, and I’ve been waiting for the right occasion to buy some.”
“Thank you so much. Why don’t you come and sit down until lunch is ready?”
Sam, Emma, and Hal sank into the comfortable sofa.
“Can I get you a drink, Sam?” asked Hal. “Soda? Juice?”
“A Coke would be nice, thanks,” said Sam.
“I’ll get it, dad,” said Emma. “Do you want anything?”
“Thanks, Emma. A diet Coke for me, please.”
“So, Sam. Emma tells me you’re a true soccer fan. There aren’t very many of those in the U.S.”
“Yes, it seems like more people here like basketball and baseball,” Sam agreed.
“Well, I played soccer a little bit as a young man, but I really got the soccer bug when we lived in Madrid, for business,” explained Hal. “I’ve been watching La Liga ever since. I have to order a special cable package just to watch European soccer, can you believe it?”
“Yes, I can. I don’t get many soccer games on my basic cable, so I usually watch it with my friend Alejandro, at his house.”
“Well, today’s match is going to be a great one. Emma tells me you’re a Real Madrid fan. Is that true, or were you just being polite?”
“No, it’s true. I’ve supported the Blancos since I was a boy.”
“Alright then,” said Hal, grinning.
“Dad, Sam, lunch is actually ready, so why don’t I just bring your drinks to the table?” said Emma, entering the room with the sodas in her hands.
“It smells delicious,” commented Sam as he sat at the table.
“Mom made her famous vegetable lasagne,” said Emma. “Well, it’s not, technically, world-famous, but in our family it’s definitely a favorite.
“I wasn’t sure if you ate only kosher meat. .. I mean . . . halal meat, Sam,” said Evelyn, carefully setting a large, steaming baking dish onto a trivet. “So I made something vegetarian. I hope that’s okay.”
“It’s really thoughtful of you,” said Sam. “And it looks delicious.”
“So do you? Eat only halal meat?” asked Evelyn.
“Oh, um, no. I eat the meat in the U.S. because it’s a majority Christian and Jewish country. I don’t eat pork, though.”
“Ah, good,” said Evelyn, looking satisfied. “Next time I can make my pot roast, then.”
The conversation around the lunch table was surprisingly easy and casual. Emma’s parents had a gift for making small talk, and it was clear to see where their daughter had learned her communication skills. They told some amusing anecdotes about their travels and asked Sam some questions about himself, but to his relief they did not ask anything too probing.
When lunch was finished, Sam offered to help clear the table. Evelyn, Sam noticed, beamed at her daughter.
“No, thank you, Sam. You’re our guest of honor today. Maybe next time. You guys should go turn on the game. Isn’t it starting soon, Hal?”
“Yep, in a few minutes. Are you going to watch with us, Emma?”
“I’ll help mom in the kitchen first.”
In the comfortable family room, Sam sat with Hal in front of an impressive large screen TV. They turned it on it just in time for the kickoff. The two men became totally engrossed the in the game, speaking only to celebrate a spectacular play, to protest an odious foul, or to offer a commentary on strategy. Sam didn’t even notice that Emma hadn’t joined them. He supposed she was still in the kitchen.
At halftime, Hal pressed the remote to turn off the TV and adjusted his body so that he was facing Sam.
“What a game!” he exclaimed. “Even though the score’s 0-0, it’s still fascinating. That’s the thing about soccer. You don’t even need to see goals every five minutes to enjoy the art of the game. Although, I do hope the Blancos will manage to put some balls into the back of the net in the second half.”
“Their offense is solid,” said Sam. “I’m sure they’ll start scoring now that the game has settled down.”
Hal took a deep breath and patted his hands on his knees. “So, Sam, I believe in getting right to the point. I know you care pretty deeply about Emma.”
Sam, taken completely off guard, just looked at the older man, wide-eyed. Had he actually heard what he thought he just heard? Where did that come from? One minute they were talking about soccer, and then this? He wasn’t even sure what to say, so he sat silently. His palms started to sweat.
“I say that,” continued Hal, looking serious, “because Emma has talked about you a LOT over the past months. After a while, we asked her if she was dating you, and she told us she wasn’t, because you wouldn’t. That you didn’t want to disrespect her. So now I think I know what kind of man you are. If you weren’t a man of integrity, you wouldn’t be here today, looking as nervous as you do, and not even her boyfriend. So, here’s the thing,” explained Hal, looking Sam straight in the eye. “Emma is our only child. She means the world to us. She’s everything to us. She clearly likes you a lot, and that’s saying something. She’s had lots of guys interested in her before, but she’s picky. She doesn’t want to settle for second best. Which I like about her, of course. But we’re picky, too, her mother and I. We won’t settle for anything but the BEST husband for her. I’m sure you understand.”
“Yes, I . . . “
“Now Sam, let me get to the point,” interrupted Hal. “I’ve met lots of people all over the world, including lots of Muslims . . . in Morocco, Saudi, Dubai, and Indonesia. Now, I know a little about Islam, but not a whole lot. But let me tell you a story that really makes me wonder about Muslim men’s beliefs. In Morocco, where we lived for two years, I had two neighbors, Nabil and Ridwan. Nabil was the nicest guy you’d ever meet. He always stopped by our house to offer us some sweets that his wife had baked, or to make some repairs to our house, or to smile and play with little Emma. I saw how he treated his wife and kids, and he was a great dad, always laughing and playing. He was kind to his wife, as far as I could see, and she was a happy, cheerful woman. But then there was Ridwan. I’ve never seen such a bully. His poor wife worked — and acted — and dressed — like a slave. She cleaned and cooked from dawn to dusk while he played checkers and drank tea and yelled. And he beat her. We heard her screams. That poor woman was scared of her own shadow because of that monster. He beat his teen-aged daughter, too, when he caught her outside without her headscarf. I finally confronted him, and he said it was his right as a Muslim man. Can you believe it? He said it was his job to teach them the right way to be Muslim, and that women had to obey the men in their lives. So I know, Sam, that there are two kinds of Muslim men, and, to be totally honest, I really need to know what kind you are.”
Sam was trying to digest Hal’s weighty words, questions, and challenge to his faith while also coping with the serious and tense turn this visit had taken. All of a sudden he was in the exact awkward, nerve wracking position he had thought he’d escaped. Actually, no. This was worse than he had imagined.
“Hal, I didn’t expect all this, “began Sam. “I really thought I was coming over to watch soccer with you, that’s all. But since you want complete honesty, I’ll tell you. I do care about Emma. I’ve gotten to know her at work and she’s an amazing person. In fact, she’s just the kind of woman I would want to marry someday. But I hadn’t gotten that far in my thinking yet, honestly. I . . . I don’t think I’ve made specific plans yet. But as for what kind of man I am, I can tell you. I am nothing like that man, Ridwan. He is the opposite of Islam; I can tell you. My parents died in a car accident when I was fifteen. I don’t have them to help guide me now, but they taught me right from wrong while they were alive. My father always respected my mother and his mother and sisters, and he told me to do the same. I would never, ever hurt a woman or force her to do anything. I see what kind of person Emma is. She’s smart and independent. She has her career and her hobbies and she likes the culture that she grew up in, and I respect all of that. I like her for exactly who she is, and I wouldn’t ever want to change her. That’s not my job, or my right.”
Emma walked into the room with a worried expression. She looked from her father to Sam to the blank TV screen.
“Dad? Where’s the soccer game?”
“Oh, it’s halftime, hon. I was just having a little chat with Sam. I think we see eye to eye on a lot of things. Let’s see if the game is back on.”
As the screen lit up, Emma sat next to Sam. He could feel her sending him searching glances, but he could not bring himself to look at her. What could he say? Even if her father was not sitting right there, how could he broach this sensitive topic? He glued his eyes to the game and felt numb throughout. Later, at home, he didn’t even remember who had won the game or how he had driven home with such a rattled mind. He must have said the proper goodbye’s and thank you’s, but he could not remember any of it.
On the following Monday, at work, Emma approached him in his office, looking very subdued. She checked to make sure they were alone, and even though they were, she kept her voice very low.
“Sam, I’m so sorry. I had NO idea my dad was going to talk to you like that. Oh my God, I am so embarrassed, I — “
“Emma,” interrupted Sam. “You dad did surprise me. I was in a daze all weekend; I was so surprised. But I’ve been thinking. A lot.
“Sam, please let me explain –”
“Emma,” said Sam, “will you marry me?”
…To be continued