Advice for the Lovelorn ... Teacher

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Chapter 14

Now that the “carnivore” coast was clear (pastor’s e-mail said it was OK to eat meat on Good Friday!), I met Fanta for lunch at Chipotle.

After we exchanged greetings and briefly perused the menu while standing in the line to place our order, we were casually discussing what we were going to be ordering. Innocuous enough, but at that moment I didn’t realize that eating meat on Good Friday was the least of my sins for this hour.

Fanta was going to order the burrito bowl with the black beans. I admit I have not ever eaten black beans, at least knowingly, but like any 3-year-old I kind of wrinkled my nose and, looking even harder at the burrito bowl choices, I mused aloud why none of the choices had meat. As healthy as black beans in reality are, I decided to stick with my usual three tacos with carnitas!

I think she blanched at that statement. It wasn’t until after I had placed my order that I discovered Fanta was a vegetarian. Most Muslims do not eat animals because they are a creation of God.

Somewhere, my great-grandmother is probably shaking a finger in shame at me, but smiling. See? I told you no meat on Good Friday!

Thinking back, Fanta and I had met a few times for a meal. Once at a Chinese restaurant, once at Olive Garden (she ordered eggplant parmesan—I remember this because I had never seen it before, let alone knew anyone who actually ate it). I just thought she was a healthy eater.

Damn, what else could go wrong?

I was about to find out. Obviously, my education from reading The Secret took a while to sink in.

We sat at a tall table with the tall chairs that had the rung about halfway up so people could rest their feet on it. Fanta was excited for the company because her parents were in Pakistan.

“Oh, really?” I asked. “Is everything OK with your brother?”

“Eh, he’s all right. They’re arranging my marriage.” Fanta uncovered her burrito bowl. She shoved it toward me. “Are those garbanzo beans?”

“Wait. What?”

“Are these garbanzo beans?” she poked her fork at the small tannish yellow bulbs in her bowl as if her fork was a stick and she was poking a carcass of road kill.

“I think so,” I said. Did she say her parents were in Pakistan arranging her marriage? “Why? Don’t you like them,” I said, referring to the beans, not her parents.

She wrinkled her nose. “Not really.”

“So, take it back.”

“No, it’s OK. I can eat them,” she said slowly and mournfully, looking at her meal.

“If you don’t like it, take it back. Is it part of the meal?”

“No.”

“Did you ask for them?”

She looked up at me. “No.”

“So, take it back. Complain. They screwed up your order.”

This exchange continued for at least three rounds. I think it was somewhere during the fourth round, I told her to just “eat it then,” and, like a proper 3-year-old, she started to whine a little.

“Either eat it or take it back. Your choice.”

She looked up at me, almost like she was having an epiphany. “I can really do that?”

“Yes. Just politely tell them this isn’t what you ordered and you don’t like garbanzo beans.”

She didn’t seem too sure of my advice, but she slipped down off her chair and went back to the counter. I turned my head to watch her go. Holy crap—look at that line. Looks like we got here in the nick of time.

Out of the corner of my eye I see something. I turned my gaze toward the left, and someone was waving. I looked around.

They were waving at me.

I smiled and gave a faint wave back.

Who the hell is that woman? Why is she waving at me?

She left her table and came toward me. Shit. We exchanged pleasantries and I tried to rack my brain for clues to her identity. After years of teaching, you become used to former students dropping by to chat and it may be years between this exact moment and when they last sat in your classroom. So, basically, you lie and pretend to remember who on earth they are.

But this wasn’t a student. I don’t have much of a social repertoire. I just go to work and church.

That’s it! She’s from church.

I think.

She and her husband were meeting another couple there for lunch as well. The men were now approaching their table with the trays of food, so she excused herself. I smiled at the husband and waved. He gave a faint smile and a limp wave back. He has no idea who I am either. I could see his wife quickly explain, more to their friends, who I was and the sudden realization on the husband’s part. Thank God I’m not alone on this one.

Fanta returned, smiling. She had what she wanted. She hoisted herself up into her chair. For some reason I looked back at my church friends. A very brief albeit startled look crossed their eyes.

How do I explain my Muslim friend? Do I need to explain my Muslim friend? As Christians, aren’t we supposed to love everybody?

I turned back toward Fanta, ready to eat. I probably would have already started eating while she was gone except I was distracted by the lady from church. And then again—am I supposed to wait for my meal partner before I begin to eat? What’s the rule? You don’t begin eating until everyone is served? But that’s at a dinner party and she had been served. But since this meal is an affront to my dining partner, should I have devoured it so she was not exposed to my cruelty? But then I’d be staring at her eating and it’s impolite to eat in front of other people. But what if they’ve eaten their share …

Where the hell do these rules come from??

I tried to go back to where we were, conversation-wise, a full two-minutes before. I had no clue what we were talking about. Dammit, think. Think. Think. Something about Pakistan …

Ah! Her parents were in Pakistan …

ARRANGING HER MARRIAGE.

Yeah, that was it.

How the hell could I forget something like that??

“So,” I began, “you said your parents are in Pakistan?”

“Yes,” Fanta said. She was poking at the contents of her bowl, several times, as if she were trying to find the exact morsel to put in her mouth. “They flew there on Tuesday. They’re preparing for my engagement party.” Pokepokepoke.

I furrowed my brows. “Shouldn’t you be there?”

“For what?” She popped her fork into her mouth.

“Your engagement. Aren’t you supposed to be there? You’re the one getting engaged.”

Pokepokepoke. “No, my parents will handle all of that and tell me what happens.” Bite.

She was very matter-of-fact about this, cool as a cucumber. Again, I know very little about relationships and the quaint little rituals like weddings and engagements. But from what I’ve heard and seen on TV, it’s usually a big honking deal to get engaged. Usually it’s a surprise to the girl. A very elaborate surprise, but she’s usually there to get the ring. And then there’s engagement photos that must be taken (which seems ironic as newspapers rarely run such photos and announcements anymore), plus a party and God only knows what else.

And Fanta isn’t even there? Did she say her parents would let her know what happened?

Again, I am learning from my student.

In Muslim tradition, the parents arrange the marriage. The parents make the decision about the spouse, the dowry, the dates. The parents would accept or reject the proposal, it was Fanta’s duty to obey. Communication between the couple was prohibited, but with cell phones and the internet, they would chat. They just couldn’t physically be in the same room until after their marriage.

Fanta had photos on her cell phone, which she shared with me. There was one of her parents sitting on a couch. One of her aunt and uncle, who were parents of the groom. The one of her father and uncle. The photos of the groom between his parents, her parents, with his siblings.

What could I say? He looked like he was 12, Fanta says he was 21, the same age as her.

The actual ceremony would take place Sunday.

“Sunday?” I said. “You’ll be engaged on Easter?”

Fanta looked at me, not quite sure what Easter had to do with anything. Then it dawned on me. I celebrate Easter, Fanta does not. To Fanta, it was Sunday.

I tried not to sound like a total idiot. “So, now how long until the wedding?”

Pokepokepoke. I was long done with my tacos, she had barely eaten any of her burrito bowl. Probably because she was pulverizing it with her fork. “December 25th.”

“Christmas?”

Fanta shrugged. Muslims don’t celebrate Christian holidays. I keep forgetting to whom I’m talking. “I guess. My family will wait until the end of next semester when I can go there and spend some time there. This summer I am taking classes so I can finish my studies by next year.”

“You’re getting married but not staying there? Is he coming with?”

Well, no, she explained. He has a job and needs to earn money. She has classes to take and a degree to finish. In a few years, when he gets his visa—

A few years?

--he’ll move to America and they’ll begin their life together. There was plenty of time.

Why, yes, my head is ready to explode. This most certainly is one for the books. I just couldn’t fully comprehend (translated: over think) the symbolism here, especially when there isn’t any. Here I am, Jane Smith, eating meat on Good Friday with a vegetarian Muslim who’s getting engaged on Easter Sunday for a Christmas Day wedding. Did I leave anything out?

What an education I am receiving. I don’t know why this is such a revelation to me. To Fanta, Dec. 25 is a very practical day to marry. Based on the GNU U calendar, finals week ended on Dec. 19. The family would make the 24-hour flight to Pakistan beginning on Dec. 20, arriving Dec. 21. There are preparations to be made and meals and rituals for Fanta to observe, so the first available day for her is Dec. 25. It’s just practical.

And if you think about it, the dates for the Christian holy days aren’t really Christian dates. Easter is based on the Jewish calendar, Christmas is basically usurping the pagan solstice date of Dec. 21.

This is just kind of one of those “Only in America” stories. As American as Fanta was in her thinking (very practical and more of a capitalist), she was very happy living according to the “old” ways, the traditions that have defined generation after generation of Muslim women. It was almost a sacred duty, proscribed by Allah.

Would we all hold fast to something decreed by our God. What an anchor to have in your life. It gives a sense of purpose I find I am lacking. A grounding that I desperately want. A raison d’etre, if you will.

But can I handle (or accept) that much commitment? That almost sounds like marriage …

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