The words had the impact of a punch in the gut, and like space junk, came out of the blue. “I’m going to be moving out.” Shock was swiftly followed by a feeling of stupidity, then shame for having been so stupid. Thinking back, there had never been any indication of a lasting bond, no sense that he placed her above anyone else in terms of significance. What kind of needy, assuming, limpet of a human being was she? Outwardly, she echoed the mild surprise of the others at the table, while her mind raced on.
What she knew about South Asian culture, you could have written on the back of a postage stamp and still have had room to doodle. He was a fun housemate, friendly and outgoing, with a quality about him that she couldn’t quite name. He was sociable but not ego-driven, he wasn’t shy, but neither did he hog the spotlight. He wouldn’t talk just to fill a silence and he wouldn’t agree with something he didn’t believe in. He was comfortable in his own skin. No small achievement for a Pakistani boy growing up in 80’s/90’s Britain. She felt comfortable around him and this, coupled with their common interests, meant they often spent time together: cycling, cooking, and chatting while sharing space, life and laughs with the other two housemates. But, as time passed, something must have happened. Imperceptibly, his friendship had become more important to her, so that when the moment arrived where he announced he would be moving out, she was dismayed.
It happened on a Friday night in late summer. All four housemates were out for a drink in town The pub, and the beer garden where they sat, was heaving with the usual weekend throng. Dusk was casting shadows, painting the template for night to fill in, when, out of the blue, he mentioned he would soon be moving out. At that moment, it seemed like the flow of time ground to a halt. The noise of the crowd receded, as the conversation at their table came sharply into focus. To her, his words seemed to reverberate in the empty air, like a shouted warning continually ricocheting off the walls of a canyon. It felt a little like that moment just before you faint: the intense concentration on something, to the exclusion of everything else, before you lose your mental grip and spin away into oblivion.
As the others expressed their surprise and asked the reason, she left the table and headed in the direction of the bar. Getting another round in was a welcome excuse to clear her head. Waiting to be served, she casually mentioned how shocked she was to P, the charming Belgian housemate who had followed her to help with the drinks. It turned out they’d both been blindsided. He hadn’t seen this coming either. They were like characters in a cartoon strip, facing each other, open-mouthed, their jaws on the floor. Comforted by his similar response, relieved that she hadn’t given away too much but still feeling numb, she followed him back out to their table where the reasons for this imminent departure were being explained. It was all to do with Marriage.
South Asian culture is known for its arranged marriages where it’s the duty of those who know you best to find someone you can share your life with. Armed with the uncensored knowledge of your personality and a roadmap of your strengths and weaknesses, families use the formidable reach of their social network to find someone who best suits your disposition and balances out your extremes. They “put the word out”, photos might be passed around and the news filters through. In theory, both parties receive a bespoke matchmaking service that would rival that of ANY dating agency. After enquiries through the grapevine and conversations over the phone, if the potential match still ticks all the boxes, the families meet to suss one another out. Although forced marriages undoubtedly take place, and are wrongly portrayed by the media as representative of all arranged marriages, the majority of matches arranged in this way are entirely consensual. Marriage, as an institution, is viewed differently by Asians – it’s a business contract where both parties negotiate and agree their roles and responsibilities beforehand. “Love marriages” are viewed with suspicion; in a marriage founded on love, where do you stand if the love wears off? Better to agree to a commitment with clear expectations and let respect, and love, grow over time.
With university completed and a steady job in the bag, the pressure was on to get hitched. He explained he was doing the rishte rounds; visiting or being visited by various aunties, uncles and prospective matches. He laughed as he told them how picky he was; whoever she was, she would have to be someone special.
She struggled to adjust to the idea that someone she had only ever thought of as a friend actually meant more to her. There had been no flirting, no simmering sexual chemistry, no longing looks or declarations of love. It was a purely platonic relationship. These feelings had ambushed her. If it wasn’t for the catalyst of the whole marriage thing, who knows how long it would have taken her to discover them. Even now, in light of how she felt, the implications of a mixed race relationship didn’t figure in her thoughts. As she saw it, there was nothing to think about. He was leaving. He was going to get married and that would be the end of their friendship.
The day after “That Friday Night” was market day. They’d come to the town centre to shop for fresh fruit and vegetables. After scouring the stalls they separated and agreed to rendezvous at HMV. Later, as the crowds dissipated and the market began to pack up, she joined him, thumbing through the CD’s while they waited for P to arrive. P was taking his time, and, bored of browsing and being buffeted by other shoppers, they went outside to see if they could spot him. It was as they paused there, side by side, among the squashed fruit and littered crates, the frenetic activity of last-minute bargain-hunters and frazzled stallholders filling her senses, that she noticed his hand, relaxed and open at his side. It was one of those “break in the clouds” moments when, for a brief instant, you see something ordinary in a different light. You see beyond what’s visible to the world at large and briefly glimpse that humanness, that vulnerability and uniqueness that we all possess but guard so fiercely. Instinctively, she put her hand in his. She hadn’t thought – she just acted, just wanted to make that connection. Wanted a friend to know he wasn’t alone, as they stood there; an island of stillness in the swirling eddies of the town centre crowd.
A millisecond behind her body’s action, her brain tripped the adrenaline trigger, flooding her veins with the anxiety of a poker player who has revealed their hand for all to see and feverishly calculates the myriad possible outcomes. At the same time, she felt his warm hand tighten around hers, and the anxiety vanished instantly as her heart swelled and threatened to burst. No ridicule, no shock or rebuff. He understood. She didn’t know it then, but a crash course in Asian culture awaited her. She had just connected with her soul-mate.