As I sit in one of the few local independent cafes left in Manhattan, I can’t help but observe the people around me. Though I pretend to appear busy and self-important typing away on this laptop, I’m secretly watching people. Reminded of a drunken yet poignant wisdom that was once imparted by a drunk in a bar. It holds true, even today as I look around at these strangers that surround me.
Wisdom 1: As different as we all may be…we will always have one thing in common. We have all once been in love.
From the African American Barrista slaving away behind the counter with more piercings than pores to the lesbian couple interlocking each other’s fingers at the other end of my sofa. The Latina nanny that rocks a stroller with one hand and turns the pages of Twilight with the other. The stuffed and starched intern in a suit struggling to find an outlet for his laptop, the statuesque blonde that saunters outside the window and then passes the short, angry feminist who probably makes more money than all of us combined. The hooker, the suburban housewife and even the desi cabdriver ashing his cigarette and swearing in Punjabi…we still have one bond in common. We once experienced the pain of love. When we couldn’t keep our eyes open no matter how hard we tried. When we couldn’t take the same advice we often gave to our friends. When we found ourselves doing things we knew were wrong…downright pathetic…and even vulnerable. Like sending that one more text… that one more email…one more instant message …even forgiving one more time…powerless yet holding on to self-assured hopes and maybes. Let’s compare notes now shall we?
But first, here are some other important wisdoms to remember.
Wisdom 2: Contrary to any belief and no matter how often you replay the moment in your head…you can’t prevent falling in love! So stop beating yourself up over it. Once it happens though, every songs lyric reminds you of it! Every character in a film tells your story.
Wisdom 3: Most times the ones you fall in love with are the ones you least expected to.
Wisdom 4: You always fall in love when life seems just PERFECT! When you have the world by its balls and no one can mess with you. You feel and look the best and life has just never been better. And then BOOM…some bastard or bitch comes along to jangle up your perfect world into a humbling mess.
For me it happened quite the same way. Junior year of college. I was spending the semester at Cooper Union in New York City and boy was I in my prime! Everywhere I went from family functions to nightclubs clubs, I was picking up compliments and numbers from aunties and male admirers. Once the victim of perpetual unrequited crushes, I was now the one turning down men left, right and center. With a group of very close friends (Jenny & Julie), an amazing self-esteem and complete independence; the world had quickly become my runway and from campus hallways to dance-floors, I was turning heads. During Fall break, Jenny and & Julie came down to visit me in NYC. We spent the week partying around Manhattan before they headed off to Staten Island for a weekend at Julie’s parent’s house. That weekend, I spent in Philly at Khala 1’s place but my girls decided to drive down one night so we could also make the Philly men dance on our fingertips for an evening.
I remember the night vividly, mostly because I would replay it constantly in my head afterwards searching for answers. But back then, it seemed like the perfect night! I even remember the outfit I wore. A black, criss-cross top with black satin pants. My hair, blow-dried to perfection and my makeup, just right. I recall admiring myself proudly in the mirror as I walked around Khala 1’s house, waiting for the girls to pick me up. Texting back and forth, they drove down and we sang along to Q102 on the radio. My younger female cousins watched me secretly as I covered my skimpy top under a college sweatshirt - immediately peeled off and stashed into a potted plant - when Jenny and Julie honked outside screaming, ‘Lets go bitch, the boys are waiting!’
We had dinner at an Italian restaurant on Rittenhouse Square, toasting to what promised to be an amazing night. Later we ended up in a bar around the corner, where we took over the place the minute we walked in. We didn’t have to reach for our purse even once because men immediately began to waft towards us with small-talk and free drinks. We just laughed and giggled about how much ‘we loved life’. After cocktails and a large side of an ego-massage, we jumped into a cab and headed to Spring Garden Street for some dancing at Club Egypt.
The night continued to unravel as one of the most perfect nights of our lives. We settled into a booth, jamming to the DJs beats and lighting up our cigarettes. Drinks continued to be sent our way from men, boys and grandpas. At one point, a young frat-boy type in a black leather jacket approached our booth to introduce himself and announce that his group of friends had apparently sent us our last three rounds of drinks. We thanked him politely. But then he turned to me
‘My friend over there is from Pakistan. He’s a little shy to come over himself but do you mind if I ask you what your nationality is?’
‘I’m Latina’ I lied and gave a fake name. (All three of us girls had fake bar names in college).
Though we snickered after he left and then headed off to the dance floor, from the corner of our eyes, we could sense the boys watching us as we danced. And obviously we loved it.
An hour later, Julie returned from the bar to announce, ‘Ok so I didn’t pay for any of these drinks, those guys did. The Pakistani’s really got the hots for you, he’s actually kinda cute, you should meet him.”
‘Wait!’ I knew Julie wasn’t the brightest in our crew ‘I hope you didn’t tell him that I was Pakistani? I just told his friend I was a Latina!”
‘But he’s hot…and sweetie no one’s buying that Latina crap anyway. Just flirt with him, he’s probably got some of that that oil money and we need more free drinks and maybe a ride back to our car.’
Didn’t I tell you Julie wasn’t the smartest kid on the block. I had barely rolled my eyes when I noticed the boys approach us. I didn’t really look any of them in the eye but Julie and Jenny immediately struck up a conversation. At one point, the Pakistani guy extended his hand towards me and introduced himself as ‘Mustafa’.
‘And you are?’ he pushed further as I pretended to rummage through my purse for a pack of cigarettes.
‘She’s shy….but her name is Padash!’ Julie jumped in.
‘PADASH!’ the guy exclaimed a little more excitedly than I would have expected ‘Is it really YOU?’
I immediately looked up at him and my jaw dropped open. Even after all these years, it took us both only a minute to recognize each other. Screaming our names we hugged as our friends watched with confusion.
‘Don’t tell me you guys know each other?’ One of the guys asked.
‘Hell yeah we know each other!’ Mustafa cackled ‘I’m seeing this girl after decades. The last time I met her was when she was watching cartoons and playing with dolls. She was my good friend’s baby sister!’
‘This really is crazy!’ I laughed out loud ‘How long has it been!’
‘Ages, I just remember how your brother and I used to hide your dolls and then we bought you cups of Polka ice-cream when you cried!’
‘I know…you guys were SO mean!’ I added.
‘I must say, you’ve really grown up since I last saw you!’ He added ‘You look great!’
‘Well, judging by all the free drinks tonight, we all know you feel that way!’ Jenny interjected with a snicker.
‘Oh my God…I can’t believe I just hit on Hassan’s baby sister. How weird is that!’
‘Very weird and very creepy…Mustafa bhai’ I teased ‘But don’t worry we wont tell my brother!’
The rest of the night was just as fun and we all paired off. Mustafa and I couldn’t get over the irony of the situation. But within minutes, he went from a creepy desi guy trying to get into my pants to the over-protective brotherly sort, shielding me away from all the other men in the club. Still he would cringe every time I called him ‘Mustafa Bhai’.
‘Please, Padash, you’ve got to stop calling me bhai now.’
At one point when we took a break from dancing and settled back in our booth, I realized another fact that I had completely forgotten.
‘Wait….” I squeaked ‘Weren’t you also engaged to my cousin Sakina?’
Scratching his head sheepishly he replied ‘Man, I was hoping that topic wouldn’t come up tonight.’
‘Not that I care!’ I shrugged ‘We’re not really that close to that side of the family anyway. And I’m definitely not close to any of my cousins so don’t worry I could care less.’
‘Good to know, but I’m surprised because Saks always spoke so fondly of you. She made it sound like you guys were best friends or something. Drew such a glamorous picture of you but I just remembered you as a chotee bachee!’
‘I don’t know why but Sakina has always tried to be very friendly, even though we have nothing in common!’
‘Well I guess that’s a good thing because otherwise you wouldn’t hang out with me tonight. You would probably have your girls beat me up!’
‘Don’t worry, I’m sure you had good reason to break off the engagement.’
It was at that moment when Mustafa became quiet for a few minutes. Awkward. I had completely forgotten that besides being my older brother’s friend who would bring me back ice-cream and Jubilees when they went out on their poondee rounds, he also had history with a cousin I knew very little about. If you haven’t noticed, things are always twisted in my life but lets try and get a quick and dirty history on Mustafa.
Mustafa was actually a couple of years younger than my brother but would look up to Bhai Jan as a role model. They had mainly become friends because Mustafa’s parents were family friends of ours and the two seemed to hit it off at a family dinner. After that, I would often see him come over after school, his white shirt un-tucked, gray trousers blotched in fountain blue, Dollar Ink stains and rickety baseball caps perched clumsily on his head. Most of the time, he would just head straight to Bhai Jan’s room and then they would sit for hours bouncing tennis balls on the wall and talking about ‘bachiyan’ and ‘Van Damme’. Quite the combo, I must say. The few times I would come in to Bhai Jan’s room, they would either tease me or nurture me. On some days they would snatch my doll to play catch with each other but on other days they would return from an afternoon of driving aimlessly around Jinnah with a cup of ice-cream just for me. When they prank-called female classmates they would beg me to ask for the girls name on the phone and the business woman that I was, I in turn bargained my flavors of Polka or packets of Choco Chums.
Once Bhai Jan left for college, I didn’t really see much of Mustafa anymore. I think shortly after, he too was sent off to boarding school at Aitchison. And from there he left for college. Needless to say he never really witnessed my transformation from the chubby little sister he teased to a rebellious partier/Alisha’s protégé. But to be honest, Mustafa Bhai was always kind of out of sight, out mind for me also. We did, however, almost cross paths a few years but somehow we always missed!
The first time was during the summer before I was heading off to college. I was waiting for Peanut to pick me up so we could see off a high-school friend who was leaving for a Canadian university. Bhai Jan and his wife were visiting from Dubai those days and mentioned something about guests so I desperately hoped that Peanut would whisk me away before I had to say Salaam to anyone. Luckily, a car pulled up in our driveway just as Peanut and I were driving off, so I was relieved to have escaped the guests.
When I returned, I found my entire family gathered around an empty trolley in the drawing room, yapping away about the guests who had just departed. I joined them to pick through the dry-fruit left on the trolley when Ma exclaimed.
‘Padash you will never believe this!’
‘Wait but first,’ my brother interjected ‘do you remember Mustafa? He used to come over all the time?’
‘Slightly’ I tried to recall ‘What about him?’
‘He just got engaged.’
‘Good for him.’
‘But guess who he just got engaged to?’
I obviously had no clue.
‘Sakina. Your chacha’s youngest.’
‘That’s like the most random thing I’ve ever heard.’ I laughed.
‘It is’ My brother laughed ‘He’s heading back to the States for an MBA so I guess his parents felt that it would be best to tie him down before he left.’
‘I’m assuming it was arranged?’
‘Completely. They got to know the family through us and they seemed to like Sakina a lot.’
‘Well of course compared to Shabana, anyone would seem better!’ I joked!
‘But I was talking to him and he seemed pretty excited himself.’
‘But isn’t it weird getting engaged and then married to a complete stranger?’
‘Well it is the traditional thing to do Padash’ My mother always grabbed an opportunity to tame her rebel of a daughter.
‘We had an arranged marriage too; I think it worked out well.’ My bhabhi chimed in.
To be honest the notion had absolutely no appeal for me. Maybe because it was a more exciting time in my life. I was finally running away to the States to discover myself in college and then live life on my own terms. The ‘abroad’ both Peanut and I would often dream of with wishful eyes. Sakina on the other hand, was being committed off to a guy, she had barely spoken to and in a way I actually felt sorry for her.
‘He’s going to Rutgers, in New Jersey.’ My brother added ‘I told him you were going to the States too so maybe you two can connect. He also did his bachelors in America so he knows his way around.’
‘America is a big place Bhai Jan’ I rolled my eyes ‘And besides I don’t need your friends to serve as my bodyguards, I’m a big girl now.’
I think I got an email from Sakina a few days later about how happy and in love she was. She also asked if I could take a gift to America for her fiancé and I told her I would. It still baffled me how she thought we were besties when her older sisters had tormented me as kids. When I landed in Philadelphia to spend a few days at Khala 1’s house before leaving for freshman orientation a few hours away in a small town, I got an email from Mustafa as well. It was a good-natured email which mentioned that New Jersey was very close to Philly and that he would be more than glad to show his me around. But to me it was obvious that his eagerness was fueled mostly by an interest in getting his ‘love letter and Cologne’ gift from Sakina rather than playing bodyguard/chaperone to a friend’s younger sister. At first we decided that he could come over for tea at Khala 1’s place and that’s where I would give him Sakina’s gift. However, the few hours when I wasn’t jet-lagged, I spent shopping with my parents for dorm supplies. Needless to say our schedules never connected. Finally, I decided to hide the pink wrapped gift in a potted plan (yes the same one where I now stashed my sweatshirts) and emailed him that though I was driving off to college with my parents, he could drive by and secretly pick his fiancé’s gift up late one night. And he probably did. I just never got to follow up with him nor Sakina since once I got to college, I immediately dove into the excitement of making new friends and going to frat parties.
A year later, when I was home for break, Ma and I were bonding over high tea at Islamabad Club. As she rummaged through her stash of gossip to fill me in on family news, I tried not to look bored. Falaan Falaan had another baby, Falaan Falaan got married.
‘Oh by the way Sakina’s engagement broke.’
‘Really?’ I asked half interested but still noticeably surprised ‘Wasn’t she engaged to your friend’s son Mustafa?’
‘That’s odd, they seemed like they were in love. Full courting shourting, writing each other letters and stuff.’
‘Exactly’ my mother preached ‘If you ask me, I’ve always been against this engagement-wala fashion. It usually ends badly. This whole calling each other on the phone, love letter writing, gift exchanging…its nice and romantic in the beginning but then comes pointless arguing and then suddenly it all ends. I’m a strong believer that guys and girls shouldn’t meet that much before the wedding. They have their whole married lives to be romantic.’
‘Ma, you’re so old fashioned.’
‘You can call it old fashioned but you know its true.’
‘Sakina must be devastated, I think she was really in love with this boy.’
‘Well I heard she’s the one who broke it off.’
‘You’re kidding?’ I was actually shocked.
‘Aray bhai who knows the actual story. All I hear is that in all these long phone conversations they used to have they had a bad argument and then both decided to end the engagement. Some people in the family say that Mustafa’s character was not right. He had goree girlfriends waghaira in America. Maybe that’s why they had a fight.’
And then just like that Ma pulled out some other family gossip and all was forgotten. And all was truly forgotten till after all these years of hearing about each other, Mustafa and I finally came face to face on that ‘perfect’ night in Philadelphia.
‘Looks like we closed the club down!’ Mustafa looked up at me with a smile as the lights in the club came up at 2am. ‘I’ll Fly with You’ By Gigi D’Astano was slowly fading in the background as Jenny and Julie returned to our booth with Mustafa’s friends. Their beautiful skins glistening with dance-floor sweat. ‘Lets blow this joint!’ Julie suggested and we all poured out onto the sidewalk. Someone suggested food and the next thing we knew, we were all squeezed into a booth at Nifty Fifties sharing pancakes, French fries and milkshakes. Everyone was getting along and none of us wanted the night to end.
Mustafa remained his chivalrous self, opening doors for my friends, picking up the check and then even driving my friends to their car.
‘Come on I’ll drop you off at your Khala’s.’ He offered.
‘Oh you don’t have to; the girls can drop me off.’ I answered.
‘Don’t be silly. There is no way I’m leaving my friend’s sister on the streets of Philly at 4 in the morning.’
‘Yeah you should protect me from creepy desi guys who send me free drinks.’ I joked.
As my friends drove away, I got into Mustafa’s car, admiring the streets of Philly which looked pristine as we zoomed across town to Khala1’s place. We talked the entire way and it was funny how I could now have a serious, grown-up conversation with Mustafa bhai. He also introduced me to an enchanting song in his car called ‘Longing’ from Nusrat Fateh Ali and Michael Brook’s album Night Song.
‘I hope I can trust you and that my brother wont be finding out about my drinking and partying?’ I laughed.
‘Oh don’t worry and you better not do the same either. I’m already the black sheep in your family after I broke off the engagement with Saks. I don’t want them hearing all about my hitting on younger girls in clubs.’
‘Done’ I raised my pinky ‘It will be our secret.’
Mustafa too raised his pinky finger too and laughed ‘Secret!’
We hugged goodbye and I could see him laughing at me as I pulled out a sweatshirt from a potted plant to wear before sneaking in. I crept into my room and immediately dropped on the bed to fall asleep. I was exhausted and it had been another fun night with my best girlfriends. It was also funny how I had reconnected with Mustafa Bhai so randomly. I returned to my semester after that weekend and resumed the perfect, prime life. I didn’t really think I was going to run into Mustafa again for another decade, if at all…
…Or so I thought!
To be continued…