Jacob and Deanna first met when Jacob was a Ph.D. candidate preparing to defend his thesis and Deanna was a second year doctorate student at the same university. Jacob had been sitting alone at a table in the food court when he heard a chair being pulled out across from him. He looked up from the soft drink in his hand and the array of open books in front of him to find a woman smiling down at him. The first things he noticed about her were her eyes and her hijab. Her eyes were a rich brown, the kind that makes you do a double take because you might have missed them at first glance. The hijab she wore was a burnt red, a detail that stood out to him because it was his mother’s favorite color.
“As-salaamu’alaikum, Mr. Jacob Bivens,” the woman said, setting down her food tray as she lowered herself into the seat she had pulled out for herself. “I’m Deanna Michaels. I remember you from your lecture at MSA career day.”
Jacob smiled, flattered that he had made an impression at the Career Day Symposium sponsored by the Muslim Student Association about a month ago. “Wa’alaiku-mus-salaam. I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
“I didn’t say I enjoyed it,” Deanna said, humorous sarcasm in her tone. “I said I remember you.”
Jacob chuckled self-consciously and nodded. “Sorry about that.”
“Are you coming to the dinner tonight?” Deanna looked at him in between putting forkfuls of lasagna into her mouth.
“The MSA is having a dinner tonight. Well, it’s actually more like a cocktail party,” Deanna said, “but without the cocktails.”
“This is the first I’ve heard of it.”
“You should come,” she said. “You need a break from all that studying.”
It struck Jacob how the woman was speaking to him as if they’d known each other for years. He didn’t know whether to be flattered or offended. He’d never liked forward women. Before he became Muslim, there were times that he reveled in the attention he received from assertive females, but that was only when he had selfish motives. As early as middle school, he’d known that the woman he finally settled down with had to be not only educated and intelligent, but also humble and reserved.
Which was probably why he was still single. He was beginning to wonder if such a woman even existed. “What time does it start?” Jacob asked.
Deanna couldn’t keep from grinning triumphantly. “Six thirty,” she said. “In the MSA room.”
Jacob nodded. “If I don’t get too bogged down,” he said noncommittally, “I’ll see if I can stop by.” But internally, he knew he had no intention of coming. He wasn’t a fan of religious-based clubs, though he occasionally felt obligated to accept invitations to speak.
“Give me your number.”
For a second, Jacob thought he’d misheard, and an uncertain smile lingered on his face. “What?”
“Give me your cell phone number.” She spoke as if it were the most natural request in the world. “I know you won’t turn down the chance to spend more time with me.” Her lips twitched in a flirtatious grin. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I could be your future wife.”
Jacob laughed out loud. He liked this woman already. He wasn’t one to laugh easily, but Deanna’s confidence and not-so-subtle hints touched a part of him that he didn’t know was there. “I’ll give you my number if you give me yours,” he said, mirroring her flirtatiousness.
“Deal,” she said then opened her purse and withdrew her phone. “I’ll give you a missed call.”
When Jacob arrived at the MSA dinner, his attention was immediately drawn to the far corner of the room. A woman was leaning against a wall reading a book, oblivious to all the commotion and chatter around her. Her expression was one of thoughtful intrigue, as if the words on the page offered a perspective she had never considered before. Educated and intelligent, he found himself thinking. And humble and reserved.
He wondered if she, like he, had been convinced to come to this event though she desired to be elsewhere. The thought humored him, and he smiled to himself, as if he and she were a single mind. He walked toward her, but before he was close enough to introduce himself, he heard someone yelling his name.
He turned to see Deanna bounding toward him with all the confidence of an old friend. “As-salaamu’alikum, Jacob. You came!” She was no longer wearing the burnt red hijab, and for some reason, this disappointed him. The shimmering gold cloth that she now wore struck him as excessive and gaudy. “It’s too much,” he heard his mother’s voice in his head. “If you want to make a statement, make it with your mouth shut.”
Jacob’s mother was a fashion connoisseur who ran a small but renowned public relations company known for its witty, often figurative advice about physical appearance and social image. She often made analogies between being mouthy and annoying, and wearing loud “look-at-me” clothes. As a teenager, Jacob was often frustrated and embarrassed by his mother’s comments about people’s wardrobes and behavior, especially when she was quoted in a newspaper or magazine or was being interviewed on local television. But as he grew older and became directly involved with the company, he began to understand the significance of what he’d previously interpreted as hypercritical and nitpicky.
“Wa’alaiku-mus-salaam,” Jacob said to Deanna, forcing a smile. He tried to keep from looking across the room at the woman leaning against the wall, but his gaze kept lingering in that direction.
“You must be hungry,” Deanna said. “Let me get you something.” A grin played at her lips. “But don’t worry, Jacob. I’ll find us a quiet place to sit down and enjoy each other’s company while we eat.”
Jacob offered a tightlipped smile that faded after Deanna turned around and headed toward the buffet tables. He found it unsettling the way Deanna was already referring to him by his first name. He was a respected adjunct professor at the university, so he was accustomed to being referred to as either Professor or Mr. before his last name. Amongst Muslims, the respectful title Brother was used if anyone referred to him by his first name alone. Only close friends and family called him “Jacob.”
Jacob glanced over to where he’d seen the woman reading a book, and he was disappointed to find that she was no longer there. He looked around the room, hoping she hadn’t left without him noticing. He scanned the faces of the crowd, and after a few minutes, he spotted her at one of the buffet tables, a paper plate in one hand and a large serving spoon in the other. He watched as she carefully tilted the spoon, a pile of spinach spilling onto the plate. Her mouth spread into a full-teeth smile, and she tossed her head back in laughter. And though it was the most irrational thing to do, he smiled too, as if it were he making her laugh. He glanced next to her and saw that it was Deanna who had been saying something to her.
“There you are,” Deanna said a few minutes later, handing him a plate of food while holding another close to herself.
He surveyed the plate’s contents and nodded approvingly though he wasn’t fond of most of the food items on the plate. That was another thing he didn’t like about forward women. They behaved as if they knew exactly what you wanted; and they rarely, if ever, asked you yourself. It was while he was in undergrad that he learned that many women saw it as a sign of being “a real woman” to know exactly what a man wants and be able to give it to him without instructions, feedback, or advice. “That’s dumb,” he’d said to a woman he was dating at the time. “What does reading someone’s mind have to do with anything?” She’d responded, “It’s about connection, not telepathy. If you’re soul mates, you don’t have to say anything. You just know things.” Incidentally, their relationship crumbled because she felt he prioritized his studies over spending time with her. Of course I do, he’d thought to himself at the time. I’m a college student, for goodness sake. But for her, his reaction was apparently a sign that their telepathic soul mate signals were out of sync. That was one of the last relationships he’d had before studying Islam. Sometimes he wondered if his internal frustration with women was what sparked him to search for deeper meaning in life. Maybe it wasn’t a humble and reserved “perfect woman” he was looking for, but a meaningful connection with a deeper part of himself.
“It’s quieter out in the hall,” Deanna said, her voice jolting him back to present tense. She was already walking toward the door before he had a chance to reply. She glanced back only once—to make sure he was following—before disappearing into the hall herself.
Jacob halted his steps. A part of him was tempted to stay right where he was. Maybe he could find a place in the MSA room to sit comfortably (preferably near the woman he’d seen earlier) and eat alone. But he knew it would be rude to stay inside the main room if the woman who’d invited him wanted to sit in the hall. As Jacob walked out into the hall himself, it was like deja vu. Following a girl out of a room when he knew he didn’t like her reminded him of his experiences at his fraternity’s parties. It was unsettling to have that same feeling as a Muslim.
“So where are you from originally?” Deanna asked in between mouthfuls of food after he joined her on a couch in the hall lobby. As Deanna had predicted, the lobby area was much quieter than the MSA room, but right then, Jacob didn’t care about the quiet. His mind kept wandering back to the woman he had seen reading a book.
Jacob answered the questions as affably as he could, but he made sure that his answers were as brief as politely possible. He hated that he couldn’t get the other woman out of his head, and he mentally debated making up an excuse to go back into the room.
“We have a lot in common,” Deanna said after they had been talking for about fifteen minutes. “We should keep in touch. I’m sure you’d like to see me again.”
Jacob chuckled, again surprised by how easily he laughed with Deanna. And he couldn’t deny that he did want to see her again. Her charisma was contagious, and her physical beauty made it difficult to tear his eyes away from her. He even had to fight the urge to touch her, which was a rare struggle in his interactions with Muslim women. Maybe there was something to their meeting after all.
“Who was that sister with the book?” Jacob said when he sensed it was safe to ask.
“You were talking to her when you were getting our plates,” Jacob said, hoping he sounded casual. “She had on a green hijab.”
“Oh, you mean Aliyah?” Deanna contorted her face. “She would be reading a book when everybody else was socializing. She has zero people skills.”
“So you know her?”
“I’m her best friend. Probably her only friend,” Deanna added, rolling her eyes. “She’s so high maintenance.”
Jacob furrowed his brows in confusion. He knew what the term high maintenance meant when a man was talking about a woman, but this was the first time he’d heard it from a woman talking about another woman. “What do you mean? She’s materialistic?”
“No, not at all,” Deanna said, a glint of humor in her eyes as if enjoying a private joke. “She buys her clothes from Wal-Mart. And her shoes.” Deanna wrinkled her nose. “Can you imagine?”
Jacob didn’t know what to say. He shopped at Wal-Mart himself from time to time. As a grad student, he had no choice but to be frugal. But his mother, who was a stickler for quality designer brands, had bought most of his wardrobe and all of his shoes, so he was rarely faced with the need to buy anything for himself. But his mother could afford to have expensive tastes. He imagined Deanna’s friend couldn’t. Oddly, that made him like her more. He respected a person who was levelheaded enough to live according to his means, and he found this quality especially appealing in a woman.
“She’s high maintenance emotionally,” Deanna said, shaking her head. “She’s been Muslim for eight years, and she still has a strained relationship with her family. To me, that’s just pathetic. If you can’t find a way to have a good relationship with your own parents, then that says a lot about your Islam.”
Jacob pulled his head back in surprise. “I don’t agree with that. Some parents give their children a really hard time after they become Muslim. My mother refused to speak to me for a whole year.”
“But you’re both speaking now, aren’t you?”
“Yes, but I—”
“That’s my point. With Aliyah, everything is melodramatic. It’s like she can’t tie her shoelaces without my support. I swear, sometimes I feel like I’m stuck in a codependency relationship or something. It’s so exhausting.”
“Is it really that bad?” Jacob wondered if he had completely misjudged the woman. To him, she’d appeared quite self-sufficient and sensible.
Deanna fixed her gaze on Jacob with her eyebrows raised. “You can’t begin to imagine what I go through with that girl. I feel sorry for her fiancé.”
“She’s engaged?” Jacob hadn’t meant to sound so disappointed, but he couldn’t help it.
Deanna averted her gaze and shrugged. “Pretty much,” she said. “If the poor guy agrees to marry her after he learns she needs to be spoon-fed basic life skills.”
It wasn’t until years into his marriage to Deanna that Jacob realized that Deanna had been lying to him that day. Not only had she embellished her description of Aliyah so that Jacob would think Aliyah was a mental case, but Deanna also had concocted the whole story about the fiancé.
“Girl, you have to be proactive,” he’d overhead Deanna say on the phone one day as he was sitting in their home office grading midterm exams. He had no idea who was on the other line, and he was only half listening as he got up to close the door to drown out the conversation.
“Let me tell you how I snagged Jacob,” he heard her say just as he started to close the door. Interest piqued, he halted the motion. He heard her giggle. “He didn’t know what hit him,” she said. The door to their bedroom across the hall was closed, but as usual, Deanna’s voice was loud. Even her whispers were often intelligible. But she wasn’t whispering today.
“Did I ever tell you he was interested in another sister when I met him?” There was a brief pause as Deanna listened to whoever was on the other line, then a burst of laughter sounded through the house. “I know, right? By any means necessary, girl. That’s my motto when you see a man you want.” A knot of apprehension tightened in Jacob’s stomach as he sensed he was about to hear something he didn’t like.
“But let me tell you,” Deanna said, laughter in her voice. “I fixed that sister up real quick. People had been talking about this new Muslim brother looking for a wife, and I’m not playing when I tell you I made sure that sister hooked up with him, not Jacob. I didn’t want that new brother for myself because I’d heard he was still getting over some old girlfriend of his. And you know, I’m not about to be somebody’s rebound. Those relationships never worked in the dunya, so I sure as hell wasn’t about to marry into it as a Muslim. Men always end up going back to their girlfriend. And I’m not about to be cheated on, divorced, or co-wifed if I can help it. And anyway,” Deanna said jokingly, “I needed a real man. And that new shahaadah brother just wasn’t it.”
Jacob slowly closed the door to their home office and walked over to where his iPod was connected to a stereo system. He powered on the iPod then turned up the volume. The bass from the first song on his playlist thumped in the room, drowning out his wife’s voice across the hall. Deanna was talking about how she had intentionally misled Jacob into believing that the woman he wanted to marry was already engaged to someone else, and the news disturbed Jacob more than he could stomach right then. Jacob sat on his leather swivel chair and turned himself until he was looking out the window behind his desk.
Aliyah and Matthew. The thought still left a bitter taste in his mouth. When he’d first met Matt in person months after the MSA dinner, Deanna had introduced him as Aliyah’s fiancé. Even at that moment, Jacob knew something wasn’t right. Matt just didn’t seem like Aliyah’s type. Though Matt appeared to be doing well for himself, Jacob sensed that the brother wasn’t ready for marriage, and definitely not to someone like Aliyah. Matt barely seemed ready to be fully Muslim. But Jacob had fought these thoughts, assuming they were coming from jealousy.
Looking out the window in his home office, Jacob clenched his jaw. It had been a stupid decision to come to Deanna’s apartment for dinner about six months after they’d met. He knew it was a bad idea before he even agreed to it, but there was something about Deanna that made it difficult to stay away from her for long. In retrospect, he probably desired her more than he could rationally admit to himself as a young practicing Muslim. But at the time, he kept telling himself that their frequent conversations, which often included sexual innuendos, were inspired by their need to determine if they should get married. Besides, they would not be alone, he’d told himself as he stood outside Deanna’s apartment door. Deanna had said it would be a double date. Aliyah and Matt would be there too. Except that they weren’t. Jacob knew that less than five minutes into his visit. And still he stayed.
The truth was, in the pit of his stomach, he knew exactly what he wanted that night. But he wouldn’t let his mind believe it. When he’d accepted Islam, Jacob had vowed to remain celibate until marriage. He had grown tired of the meaningless relationships and one-night-stands. They had left him feeling empty and filthy inside. Even as a Christian, he knew that was no way to live. Sex was supposed to be something special shared between two people who loved each other, not a casual encounter after a drink or a celebrated conquest after a party.
When Jacob fell into that same sin with Deanna, he was ravaged with guilt. During that time, Jacob would wake up every morning feeling nauseated, dreading even looking at himself in the mirror. He tried to remind himself of Allah’s mercy, but he just couldn’t bring himself to believe he deserved forgiveness. But still, Jacob spent night after night in prayer, begging Allah to forgive him.
“The only solution is for us to get married,” Deanna had said to him on the phone about a month later.
Jacob had recoiled at the thought. If there was one thing this experience had clarified for him, it was that he definitely didn’t want Deanna as a wife. It didn’t escape him that not once did Deanna say she regretted what had happened between them. It left him wondering if she’d planned the whole thing. No, he certainly couldn’t deny his own culpability in their sin. But he seemed to be the only one with a heavy heart about the whole ordeal.
“Marriage isn’t a solution,” he told Deanna. “If anything, it’ll bring more problems.”
“Raising a child without a father brings more problems.” Her voice was tight in offense. “And I’m sure you don’t want something like that for your child.”
Jacob’s heart dropped. He was immediately reminded of his high school girlfriend telling him she was pregnant. Even years later, he was still unable to forgive himself for convincing her to get an abortion. After that experience, he carried protection with him everywhere. He didn’t want a repeat of that agonizing ordeal. But naturally, he’d stop carrying contraceptives after he became Muslim.
A week after they spoke, upon his suggestion, Deanna went to a clinic for a pregnancy test. When she called him and said that it had come back positive, he felt as if the world was caving in on him. It was painfully ironic that he was faced with this predicament as a Muslim, and for a sin that he’d fallen into only once after his shahaadah.
Jacob reluctantly agreed to marry Deanna in a private ceremony at the local masjid. But just weeks after the marriage, Deanna rented out a hall at a five-star hotel and hosted a wedding party with more than three hundred guests. She said she wouldn’t be able to dance so hard once the pregnancy was further along. But it turned out that the pregnancy would never progress further along. She lost the baby about a week after the waleemah.
But as Jacob sat in his home office chair, his wife’s words to her friend replayed in his mind. By any means necessary, girl. That’s my motto when you see a man you want. An angry knot tightened in his chest as he wondered if the pregnancy itself was one of Deanna’s “snag Jacob” routines. …If there had been a pregnancy in the first place.
Aliyah watched as Jacob turned to leave her office after apologizing for calling her uncle to ask if he could marry her. She sensed that there was a lot Jacob wasn’t saying, but she knew it wasn’t her place to ask. He appeared to be under a lot of stress, and Aliyah’s heart went out to him. She felt horrible for thinking it, but she wondered how he handled living with Deanna. Aliyah imagined he had to be a really patient brother. Or maybe he and Deanna were so compatible that he didn’t need patience to deal with her. They certainly interacted easily whenever they did marriage workshops together.
Aliyah was walking toward her car in the faculty and staff lot when she heard someone behind her. She turned and saw Jacob walking toward his car, which apparently was in the same row as hers. She lifted a hand in a polite wave then turned back around.
She immediately felt on guard. But she reminded herself that he had apologized about the marriage inquiry, so this had to be about something else. “Sure,” she said with more assurance than she felt.
“Deanna and I…” He looked away from Aliyah and pursed his lips, apparently trying to gather his thoughts. “Well, it hasn’t been easy.”
Aliyah averted her gaze. She didn’t like where this was heading. She felt like she was betraying her best friend by just listening to him.
“I was just wondering if you could talk to her some time,” he said, “you know, about some of the things you’ve studied about Islamic marriage in your classes. Maybe just a few things about the role of the husband as the leader of the household.”
Aliyah shook her head, apologizing in that gesture, her expression pained. “I’m sorry, Jacob, but I don’t think it’s my place.”
“I’m not asking you to come outright and say she’s not a good wife or anything. And I’m not saying she isn’t,” Jacob said quickly. “Because she’s a really good sister, mashaAllah. It’s just that I don’t think she’d listen to anyone else.”
Aliyah lifted her palm as if to ward off any further details. “Jacob, I really don’t think Deanna would listen to anything I say. And I don’t mean that sarcastically. I mean that seriously.” She coughed laughter, but it was due to discomfort at the irony of the conversation, not anything humorous. “There’s nothing I could say about marriage that Deanna would listen to.”
“But as her best friend, you know what to say. She has a lot of respect for you.”
“I don’t think so,” Aliyah said apologetically. “Honestly.”
“Can you at least give it a try?”
“Okay, insha’Allah,” Aliyah said, mainly because the conversation was making her uncomfortable. She didn’t want to talk about this anymore. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“JazaakAllaahukhairan,” Jacob said, a smile of grateful relief spreading on his face. “I really appreciate it. Truly.”
“As-salaamu’alaikum,” Aliyah said, turning and walking toward her car again.
“Wa’alaiku-mus-salaam,” Jacob called out in response.
In her car, Aliyah exhaled and leaned back on the headrest. Oh my God, she thought to herself. What just happened?
Posted every Friday
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