"The Meeting"

5k words, short story, prose

When Saifya catches the bouquet at her cousin's wedding, it emboldens her to agree to an arranged meeting with a possible suitor. Will she find what she's looking for when she meets Yusuf, and does she even know what that is?

While it’s not wrong to say that I’m the one who catches the bouquet at Hala's wedding, it's probably more accurate to say that she throws it right at me. I catch it on instinct, and then my gaze flits to her; judging by the way she grins in my direction, I can tell she feels no shame about singling me out. I make sure that I give her a very flat look to communicate how unamused I am, before looking down at the bouquet in my hand, a cluster of peonies and camellias tied together with white ribbon. I bring it up to my chest and inhale the rich floral scent.

 

Can this ever really be me?

 

I push that unbidden thought away and march the flowers back to Hala, pressing the bouquet into her hand.

 

“You should know that I'm very mad at you,” I insist on saying, even as the DJ queues up a fast song and the dance floor bursts back to life around us. Hala laughs at me as she takes her flowers back.

 

“You're not allowed to be mad at me on my wedding day.”

 

“Alright. Expect a strongly worded text message tomorrow morning,” I warn her, but before she can respond her attention is swept away by some of her guests.

 

I watch her mingle her way through the crowd back to her new husband's side, and can't help but remember the night she called me to blurt out that she was in love with him. They’d only known each other for a few months back then, and I was still sort of waiting for things to fall apart. Hala’s certainty blindsided me, and as I stayed on the line while she gushed about perfect Adel it felt like a hand was twisting up my guts. I couldn't admit it to myself for months, but after they got engaged maid-of-honor duties forced me to acknowledge that I was jealous. Over the past few weeks, the expression 'Always the bridesmaid, never the bride' has really started to resonate with me.

 

When I realize my feet are aching in my heels, I decide to head back to my table for a seat and a sip of water. My mom is talking intently with a woman I don't recognize, and she lights up when she sees me approaching.

 

“This is her! My daughter, Safiya,” she introduces me. “Safiya, this is Auntie Mona. She's a friend of Auntie Hind.”

 

“Hello,” I say politely, allowing her to kiss my cheek.

 

“Auntie Mona was just telling me about her son, Yusuf.”

 

“He's 30 years old, an engineer,” his mother adds. “And he's looking for a bride. You wouldn't be interested, would you, Miss Safiya?”

 

I'm not sure how I didn't see this coming; my mother, gossiping intently with an unknown woman? At a wedding, of all places? I must be more tired than I realized to have walked right into this trap, but in my defense, my mom usually has the sense to conduct these negotiations over the phone, when I’m not around.

 

My first instinct is to decline, to laugh self-consciously and say something polite, like “I'm sorry, Auntie, but I'm focused on getting settled in at my job,” or “I was thinking about going back to school and I’ll need to pay attention to my studies.” Those are the excuses we've used in the past, ones that make it clear it’s nothing against the women or their sons.

 

This time, though, the words catch in my throat. A montage of memories takes over, and I can see Hala's smile as she pinned her veil in place this morning, the way Adel gazed at her during their first dance, the image of them exchanging rings and their entwined hands, Hala laughing as she smeared icing on her husband's nose...

 

I recall the weight of the bouquet in my hand.

 

Why not?

 

“I might be,” I say, surprising both my mother and myself. I wonder if this is what an out of body experience feels like. There’s a voice inside of me shouting, 'I want this, I want this so bad,' and I can't say no to it. I don't want to say no. But there's the other voice in my head telling me that I shouldn't, that I can't possibly, unless I want to get hurt.

 

“Safiya,” my mother calls, getting my attention. She pushes a glass of water towards me, and her eyes are wide, conveying everything she can't say in front of this stranger. Without a word, she’s asking if this is really okay with me, if I need her to step in and cover. I’m almost touched by her concern, because of all the people in my life my mom has been the one harping on me to start looking for a husband the most; it's reassuring to know that she cares more about my wellbeing than seeing me married off.

 

The truth is, I'm not even remotely convinced that I'm ready for this. But I chance a glance at Auntie Mona, and when I see how she's beaming one thing becomes crystal clear: I can't back out now. So I take a small breath, put on a smile, and nod.

Five days after Hala's wedding, Mama drives me to my first meeting with Yusuf. It's not that I can't drive myself, but she's so eager to do it I can't bring myself to turn her down. We head to IHOP, the place I chose exclusively because I just want to get in and out as quickly and painlessly as possible. I figure that if we get breakfast together, I won't have to spend an entire day with this meeting looming over me. Plus, at IHOP, even if everything goes wrong at least I'll still get to have hash browns.

 

The whole way there, Mama is gushing with excitement and energy, waxing poetic about how wonderful this will be for me and how proud she is. It's hard for me to stomach her happiness with all the anxiety brewing in my gut, so I keep quiet and stick to making appropriate noises.

 

But then, once we're in the parking lot, she kills the engine and her whole demeanor changes. Under her scrutiny, I start to squirm. "What?"

 

"Nothing. I'm just thinking how much you've grown."

 

It dawns on me that my mom is trying to have a moment, but I'm so twisted up inside all I can think is that of course this only occurs to her after she's driven me around like a teenager. Fortunately, she continues without waiting for me to respond.

"I was so surprised when you agreed to this. It's very unlike you."

 

"Yeah, well," I grunt. "Aren't you the one who's been trying to get me to do this basically since I turned 20?"

 

"Yes, but this is the first time you said yes." She purses her lips. "I just don't want you to think you have no choice about this, or that you're running out of time."

 

"That's not it, Mama." I assure her. The real reason I agreed is still pretty unclear to me, but I know it's not for fear of becoming a lonely spinster.

 

"Good. And remember, you don't have to like him." Mama hesitates, then lowers her voice conspiratorially and adds, "You can think of this as a first date, if that helps. Just to see if you're interested in him."

 

I can see the slight look of guilt on her face, and it's no wonder why. A first date. Where my parents come from, dating is explicitly forbidden, so I guess this arranged meeting would be the closest thing. It is basically a blind date, after all My mom probably thinks she's bringing that cultural gap between us and putting me at ease by letting me call it one, even though it's probably hard for her to say so after years of telling me how harmful dating is.

 

What she doesn't know is that I have gone on a first date once before, and it ended with me getting ice cream dumped on my head and becoming the laughing stock of the seventh grade. It's not exactly the kind of memory I want dredged up before I go meet someone, but now I can't forget the humiliation or the shame I felt when I realized that Jake Breslin never actually liked me.

 

The worst part was that I couldn't even tell my parents why I'd been hurting, because they would just have chastised me for going out at all.

 

It dawns on me slowly that this time will be different; if things don't work out, I will be able to talk to my mom about it. And I won't have to face Yusuf at school tomorrow morning either, the way I'd had to face Jake and all the boys in class who'd come to watch the prank unfold. I've never met Yusuf before in my life, which means I will never have to see him again, either. All I have to do is get through the next hour, maybe two hours at most, and then I can put all of this behind me.

 

"Safiya," Mama calls in her throaty, guttural Arabic, interrupting my thoughts. "Are you sure you don't want me to come with you...?"

 

"I'm sure," I insist quickly. "His sister is going to be there already."

 

Mama looks a little down, but she smiles nonetheless. "Okay. Be safe. Send me a text when you're almost done, so I can come get you." She leans over the center console and kisses my cheek. "Trust yourself."

 

I leave the car without telling Mama that I don't know if I can do that.

 

When I enter the IHOP, the first thing that hits me is the smell of the food; everything on the menu is blending together to create an aroma that makes my stomach turn. Then I see Yusuf, who is easy to spot when the restaurant is otherwise so vacant on a weekday morning. His features look exactly like they do in the picture his mother showed me, but seeing them on an actual, living, breathing, three-dimensional person is a novel experience, and I can almost feel my heart beating against my ribs. Standing with him is a girl who looks around my age, and given the resemblance I assume she's his sister, our “chaperone” for the day. We all agreed she wouldn't have to sit with us, but I still can't help but feel irritated that there will be a witness to whatever's coming next.

 

“Safiya?” Yusuf says suddenly, before I realize he's even seen me. His face is lit up now, and his crooked smile gives him a boyish charm. My treacherous heart palpitates with something other than nerves when I realize he's specifically smiling at me.

 

“Uh, yeah,” I stammer. “Hi. Yusuf, right? And this is...?”

 

I gesture blankly at his sister, and he supplies, “Noura.”

 

“Nice to meet you,” she adds with a grin. “Just pretend I'm not here, okay? I only came so that Yusuf has to buy me breakfast.”

 

“She'll probably be on her phone the whole time, she's gotten really into this weird Japanese game.”

 

Noura sticks her tongue out at her brother, but then smiles at me. Her smile is almost as charming as her brother's, and it does put me at ease to think that she won't be paying much attention.

The hostess calls Yusuf's name, and our tables get sorted out with Noura sitting a small distance away from our booth, out of earshot given the ambience of the restaurant . I'm well aware that we're perfectly within her sight, though, and slide into the booth with my back to her so at least I won't have see her watching me. I thank the waitress for the menu she gives me, and when she leaves that I look up and realize Yusuf and I are completely alone. He's looking at me, so our eyes meet, and I immediately start talking.

 

“So, um, your mom told me you're an engineer?”

 

“I am,” he agrees. “I didn't get to find out what you do, though.”

 

“Oh, I work for a PR firm.”

 

“Oh? So you must be good at making people look good.”

 

“Sort of? Most of my work is writing emails.”

 

I flip through my menu, peering at Yusuf over the top of it. It looks like he's about to say something, but then the waitress comes back to our table, pen poised over her notepad. “You guys ready to order?”

 

Yusuf looks at me, and I nod. “Strawberry french toast, please.”

 

“And a chicken fajita omelette for me,” Yusuf answers. “Plus some coffee, please?”

 

“Oh, and a plate of hashbrowns,” I add quickly, making the waitress chuckle a bit. She promises our coffee will be right over, and when she heads out I shift my gaze to the table.

 

It's hard for me not to think about the point of this meeting; if things go well today, Yusuf and I will meet a few more times, and then our parents will start to put the pressure on us to get engaged. For them, there's no point in us dating when we can use the engagement period to figure out if we work well together. I can't help but think that this time next year, I might be making chicken fajita omelettes and french toast for our first anniversary.

Yusuf's voice cuts into my thoughts, “Safiya?”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Your face just got really red. Are you okay?”

 

If I'd been blushing before, it only gets worse, and now I can feel my face burning. I'm a terrible liar, but I nod nonethless. Looking to change the subject, I ask, “Is... is this your first time? Meeting someone like this?”

 

“You mean, someone my mom arranged for me to meet?” I nod, and then Yusuf shakes his head. “No, this is the third time. Maybe it's true what they say, and the third time will be the charm?”

 

I can feel the grimace on my face when he says that, as I think about how unlikely that really is. “What happened the last two times?”

 

Yusuf purses his lips a little and gazes at something over my shoulder. I can't tell if he's looking at his sister, or just lost in thought, and I don't really want to turn around and check. Eventually, he looks at me again and shrugs.

 

“Nothing happened, I suppose. They were both nice. But I guess I didn't really feel... anything. You know. I was waiting for that spark.”

 

I realize then that Yusuf is a romantic. The notion boggles my mind, because I never really thought 30 year old men could be romantics except in movies, where no one acts the way real people do. I stare at him, trying to figure out if what I'm thinking makes any real sense, until he starts to seem a little disquieted by it.

 

“So, what about you? Have you ever done this before?” He asks, and I stop staring at him pretty immediately.

 

“No, this is my first time... I guess I never really felt ready before, if that makes sense?” I decide not to tell him I don't particularly feel ready now, either. Although maybe he's already guessed that from how I've been acting, especially since he apparently has a basis for comparison. I can't help but wonder about those last two girls, and whether they were more composed than I am.

 

“Of course it makes sense,” Yusuf agrees kindly. “If you're not ready, you're not ready. And some parents can be so hard on their daughters; my sister constantly has to fight my mom off about guys. I don't think that makes it any easier.”

 

I nod, and slowly look up at him again. He's got a very soft smile on his face, something a bit sheepish, and then he adds. “For what it's worth, I'm really glad you said yes this time. I didn't get the chance to say so earlier, but you are really beautiful, Safiya..”

 

I can feel the heat in my cheeks, as I'm overwhelmed by the compliment. I can't remember the last time a guy my age commented on my looks. It's possible that it's never happened. I have to cover my face a little with my hand. “Oh God,” I say into my palm. “You can't just say stuff like that.”

 

“What? Oh, wait, did I make you uncomfortable?”

 

“No,” I lie, and thankfully that's when the waitress comes by with a fresh pot of coffee.

“Sorry for the wait,” she says harriedly. “Your food will be right out.”

 

“Don't worry, thank you,” Yusuf says to her, and then to me he adds, “I'm just gonna head to the bathroom--”

 

I nod, and Yusuf goes. I sit at the booth by myself for a minute, and then suddenly Noura, Yusuf's sister, slides into his vacant spot.

 

“So,” she asks slowly, a little smile on her face. “How's it going?”

 

“Fine,” I say quickly, hoping she'll go back to where I can't see her and can pretend she doesn't exist. Sadly, it doesn't seem to work.

 

“Just fine? Did Yusuf say something stupid? Do you need me to yell at him?”

 

“What?” I ask. “No. He hasn't said– we just started talking. He's barely said anything.”

 

Noura frowns a little, which makes me anxious. “What?” I repeat more forcefully.

 

“It's nothing,” she starts at length. “I just worry about him, I guess. He's a good person, but he has some weird ideas about marriage.”

 

“Weird?” I echo in alarm. Noura notices my concern and backpedals.

 

“Not the kind of weird you're thinking, whatever you're thinking!” She says quickly. “More like, even though he's an adult, I think he's still fixated on this idea of finding his 'soulmate'. We have this uncle we both really love, and when we were kids he was married to this really awful lady. Our parents tried to hide it from us when they were having a divorce, but it was so messy it was impossible not to notice. I think somewhere in Yusuf's head, he got the idea that if he marries the perfect person the first time, that can never happen to him.”

 

I almost want to tell Noura that I am absolutely not the perfect person. If Yusuf has commitment issues, there's no way I can cure him of them. But I know I probably don't have long until Yusuf gets back from the bathroom, and I want to get as much information from Noura as I can.

 

“Are you sure this is something Yusuf would want me to know? I just met him.”

 

“I know, I know, and I'm definitely not saying you have to do anything about it! I'm just saying, I'm sick of watching my brother blow his chances because he's insecure and a little delusional. So just... yeah. Be patient with him.”

 

Under the table, my hand clenches into a fist. I take a slow breath, then ask her the question that's really been eating at me. “Do you think your brother would settle for me...?”

 

I can tell by the immediate frown on her face that Noura doesn't understand why I'm asking, and I instantly feel ashamed for letting that insecurity show. But her frown turns into a sad smile and she answers, “I really think that's something you should ask him.”

 

Just the thought of asking Yusuf something so needy fills me with extreme mortification, but then the voice in my head reminds me that I have nothing to lose. Maybe I should ask him, just to put it out there. Isn't it better that I know from the outset whether or not he'll be able to understand me? At least if he reacts badly, I'll know it won't work out between us before I've invested any time into this.

 

Noura suddenly looks up behind me, and I have a feeling she sees Yusuf coming back. I'm even more sure it's him when she suddenly flings herself out of the booth and scurries back to her table.

 

 

 

A minute later, Yusuf slides back into his spot with a tiny frown.

“What did my sister tell you?” He asks. I shrug my shoulders and pick up my coffee mug, trying to mask the way my hands are shaking.

 

“Nothing,” I say quickly. “Just, uh, showing me that weird Japanese game.”

 

He pouts in her direction for a moment, but then sighs and smiles at me. “In that case, thanks for indulging her. But please feel free to tell her off if she ever gets annoying.”

 

“No, it's fine. It was... strangely enlightening...” I trail off as I lift my mug to my lips. Yusuf smiles a little more openly at that.

 

“Just as long as she hasn't infected you with the game plague. You seem like a good person, and I'd hate to lose you so soon.”

 

Again, I embarrassed. How can Yusuf say such things so easily? What kind of response is he trying to get from me?

 

“...It does make you uncomfortable, doesn't it?” He asks suddenly, and to my confusion. He clarifies, “Whenever I compliment you, you make this face like you're sucking on a lemon.”

 

I find myself biting my lip. “It's not that I hate getting compliments,” I start slowly. “It's just that I hate it when people compliment me because they feel like they have to.”

 

“You think I feel like I have to compliment you?”

 

“Isn't that what this is about?” I ask, trying not to notice that his quizzical expression is strangely cute. It really isn't the time for distracting observations like that. “This is... you're sizing me up. To see if you might like me. Trying out the compliments to see if they fit.”

 

I can't believe I said that out loud. Judging by the way Yusuf is looking at me, his eyebrows up by his hairline, I don't think he can believe it either.

 

Before he can say anything, our waitress returns once again, this time with our breakfasts. I thank her profusely, but inside I'm cursing her terrible timing.

 

We unwrap our cutlery from our napkins in silence, and I'm grasping for any thread of a safer conversation to retreat back to when Yusuf speaks up.

 

“Safiya, I know this is intimidating,” he says carefully, like he's afraid of saying the wrong thing to me. “But I promise, if I give you a compliment, it's because I mean it.”

 

What he's saying is directly at odds with how I feel, but there's something so earnest about the way he's said it that I find myself wanting to believe him. I nod shakily, then stab at a strawberry.

 

“Yusuf, um... what exactly are you hoping for here...?”

 

I have to close my eyes just to get the question out, but it feels like a load comes off my shoulders after I've said it. Of course, that load is quickly replaced with a new one, as I have to wait for Yusuf's response.

 

“A wife?” He answers, as if it should be obvious. “I wouldn't waste your time if I wasn't truly interested in getting married.”

 

For a minute, I almost feel guilty when it occurs to me that I might be wasting his time; I still don't know how serious I am about wanting to get married. But I swallow my guilt, and it goes down a little easier with syrupy french toast.

 

“No, I mean, when you think of your wife, who is she?”

 

A furrow appears in Yusuf's brow. “Well... a partner, I guess. Someone loyal and patient. Probably someone who is confident and self-assured, to balance out how stubborn I can be.”

 

Could that person be me...? I can't help but wonder. How should I know if I'm loyal when I've never had a long-lasting relationship? What does he think confidence looks like?

 

Yusuf takes a swig of coffee, then nods towards me. “What about you? What do you want in a husband?”

 

The first thing that occurs to me: a pulse. My stomach twists a little at how desperate that sounds, even just in my own head. I put my fork down and close my eyes, because this is a question that requires me to work hard to answer. Am I allowed to be picky? Can I ask for a person who looks at me, sees me, and makes me feel understood?

 

It occurs to me that I came into this meeting telling myself that I had a choice, when in reality I didn't give myself any options. I walked in operating under the assumption that it was going to go poorly, and this entire time I've only been thinking about how Yusuf sees me, whether he finds me likable. Did I even consider what I want out of this, other than a way out of this lonely feeling?

 

“Uh... well...”

 

My toes curl in my shoes. It suddenly feels important that I answer this, not for Yusuf, but for myself. I don't need to have an exhaustive list, but even one quality in a guy that has nothing to do with how he sees me–

 

“Someone... open,” I answer decisively. “Someone who isn't afraid to say how they feel. Whether it's happy or sad, positive or negative. I don't like having to guess what's on someone's mind.”

 

As I say it aloud, it feels like something inside me slots into place, like two puzzle pieces are fitting together seamlessly. I can actually imagine it, being with a man who speaks his mind. The man my imagination supplies looks a lot like Yusuf, which is a little embarrassing, but I can't help how I smile at him anyways.

 

Yusuf sits back in the booth, returning my smile with the same charming grin from before. “It sounds like you like being in control,” he says, and I don't think I'm imagining the playfulness in his tone. “I think I might like it.”

 

I'm blushing again, I can feel it, but this time instead of telling him off for what I'm pretty sure is flirting, I just stick my tongue out a bit. Yusuf barks a laugh, and it feels so good to know I'm the one who drew it out of him.

 

“So,” I ask as I finally attack my hashbrowns. “Do you play any weird games, foreign or otherwise?”

 

We launch into a conversation that has nothing to do with complicated feelings. Yusuf tells me about the hours he logged onto his PlayStation when he was an undergrad, and then asks about the wedding where I met his mother. Talking about my relationship with Hala is easy, and Yusuf supplies his own stories about his friends, his sister, his life. The waitress comes back to refresh the coffee pot, but we don't miss a beat trading anecdotes back and forth. Yusuf gets me to laugh more than few times as we chat, but I feel even better when I can get a throaty chuckle out of him, even though it doesn't seem to be hard to make him laugh.

 

I'm surprised when I tap my fork against my plate and realize I've finished my food. A quick glance at my phone shows that nearly an hour has passed since we first met, and I almost can't believe how quickly they've gone. Evidently the waitress notices our empty plates, too, because a minute later she's at our table, asking if we need anything and then dropping off the bill. Yusuf reaches for it before I can.

 

“It's on me,” he says simply, to which I frown.

 

“I thought we were going to split it.”

 

“We never discussed it before,” he claims. “I want to treat you.”

 

I really hope I'm not blushing again. “You don't have to be chivalrous. I don't want you owe you anything.”

 

“Owe me?” Yusuf repeats. “You wouldn't owe me, Safiya. I had fun, ”

 

“What if I had fun, too?” I counter, and it isn't until I say it aloud that I realize I did have fun. I enjoyed myself more than I expected to, awkward beginning aside, and it actually hurts to think it's almost over.

 

Yusuf looks at me, and maybe it's a trick of the light but his face seems rosier than before. “You had fun?” He asks with the tiniest of smirks.

 

“Well.... yeah.”

 

“Oh, good,” he says, the little smile tugging wider on his lips. “Then maybe we can do this again? Soon?”

The question sends me reeling, and I'm pretty sure all I can do is gape at him. Yusuf wants to see me again? Really?

 

For years I've told myself again and again that I could never make it here, to a place where I could be attractive to someone, where someone would get to know me a little and then want to get to know me more. I never imagined that anyone could love me, or like me, or even want to be with me. But Yusuf is looking at me so intently, and maybe also with concern, if I'm reading his face right. I realize that he doesn't know about all those lonely nights. He doesn't know that my best friend in highschool tried to pay someone to ask me to prom, or that a classmate in college called me a “callous bitch” after I turned him down. He doesn't know about my past, or maybe only has a small idea of I see myself in the present. And I get the feeling that maybe, if I ever do decide to tell him, he isn't going to judge me for it.

 

“You... really want to see me again?” I ask, my voice a little breathless.

 

“Yeah,” Yusuf agrees. “I really do.”

 

I exhale slowly, then smile. “Actually, I was planning to go see the new Ryan Reynolds movie tomorrow afternoon... if you aren't busy, maybe you can join me? And Noura is invited too, of course.”

 

I can almost see the smile grow on Yusuf's face in slow motion, and it tugs so hard on his cheeks that it reveals

dimples I haven't seen before.

“I'd love to.”

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