|Story 1: His Other Wife||Story 4: Her Best Friend’s Husband|
|Story 2: Her Secret Admirer||Story 5: The Toxic Friend|
|Story 3: The Other Woman||Story 6: The Perfect Man|
“Marriage isn’t hard work,” Deanna said, a bright smile on her face as she sat opposite the talk show host. “It’s work, yes, but not hard work. It’s only hard work for people who don’t understand what marriage means.”
“So,” the interviewer said, puzzlement on her face, “are you saying that all the experts and married couples are wrong when they say marriage is hard work?”
“No,” Deanna said. “I’m saying they are ignorant of the meaning of marriage. Or they have bad marriages.”
“That’s a really provocative statement.” The interviewer shifted in her seat then leaned forward. “So tell me, is this point of view based on your professional experience, or your religion?”
“Both, actually,” Deanna said, pride in her voice. “Islam teaches us that God is the foundation of all our relationships, so when you understand this, life isn’t so difficult, and everything begins to fall in line. Only people without a proper understanding of God and the sacred bond of marriage have serious problems in their lives and marriages.”
“But what about divorce? Certainly, people of your faith experience this problem like everyone else.”
“Yes, they do,” Deanna said, frowning briefly. “But only the Muslims who are ignorant and take marriage lightly. If they were really following their faith and valuing their relationships, they wouldn’t be in th—”
Jacob turned and walked toward the kitchenette around the corner, mentally shutting out Deanna’s voice. He needed a shot of coffee before he joined his wife on the set. It was a few minutes past 7:30 on Saturday morning, and he was already regretting getting out of bed. He had agreed to this interview weeks ago, but he was beginning to wonder if it would be wrong to back out right then.
In the kitchenette, Jacob removed the glass pot of coffee from the hot plate and filled an insulated paper cup. Only people without a proper understanding of God and the sacred bond of marriage have serious problems in their lives and marriages. Jacob clenched his jaw in annoyance. How could Deanna say something so recklessly stupid? He hated when Muslims touted the “Islam will solve all your problems” line. It was such a load of bull. Maybe Islam offered the best spiritual guidelines when facing the inevitable problems in life and marriage, but it certainly didn’t guarantee that the more serious problems of life and marriage would skip you. And, heck, marriage is hard work, he thought to himself, even if you have a proper understanding of God and the sacred marriage bond. Then again, Deanna might be on to something. Maybe Jacob was one of the ones stuck in a bad marriage.
Jacob stirred sugar and cream into his coffee and carried it back to the set. As he waited behind the cameras for the cue to sit on the couch next to Deanna, he mentally planned the most strategic way to offset the absurdity his wife was sharing with the world about Islam and marriage.
“How could you do something like that?” Deanna said an hour later, glaring at him from the passenger seat as he drove back home. “That was so disrespectful. We’re a team. You don’t undermine my advice in public. If you disagree with me, you do it privately.”
“I didn’t undermine your advice,” Jacob replied, surprised by the sense of calm he felt after having spoken his mind instead of parroting the lines that he knew Deanna expected of him. “I offered a different perspective.”
“You can offer a different perspective when we’re alone.”
“Not when you’re offering yours in the public.”
“But I’m the marriage expert,” Deanna said, fury lacing her words. “How do you think that makes me look to have my own husband saying I’m wrong?”
“Truthfully?” Jacob glanced toward his wife then back at the road as he guided the car along the interstate. “I think it makes you look like a human being instead of a self-righteous know-it-all. And,” he said before she could cut in, “it also makes Muslims look like human beings instead of self-righteous know-it-alls. You have no right to speak on behalf of Allah and Islam when you share your views on marriage. It’s one thing to say ‘In my professional opinion,’ but it’s another entirely to say that the people who aren’t Muslim or who have serious relationship struggles are effectively godless, ignorant, or doomed to bad marriages. You do not have that right.”
“I have an obligation to speak the truth,” Deanna retorted. “And if you find that too difficult to be a part of, then you can go back to focusing on fashion fads and mathematical formulas. I, on the other hand, have a higher purpose in life.”
“You’d do well to make your primary purpose keeping your mouth shut from time to time,” Jacob said, the fire of anger flaring inside him. He was tired of politely listening to all her holier-than-thou rants. For years he’d assumed she was the expert on marital life, but he was only recently beginning to realize that she was an expert on only marital theory. “You have no idea how many lives you’re ruining every time you open it.”
The car swerved as Jacob’s head jerked to the side with the sting of Deanna’s slap. Car horns sounded as he quickly regained control of the vehicle and steered the car back into the center of its lane. Pain pulsated from his cheek and he gritted his teeth to calm the conflagration of rage sweeping through him. He willed himself not to look in Deanna’s direction or to even acknowledge her violent outburst. Over the years, he’d learned that giving even the slightest attention to her slaps, hits, punches, or kicks, even if only in argument or protest, only fueled her fire of fury. So he’d learned to go inside himself at such moments until her anger passed.
He knew the routine. She rarely apologized with words, but she would pour out her apology in the minutest of details in preparing his favorite meal, in the touch of perfume on her clothes, and in the alluring, sensual smile and coquettish words as she coaxed him into the blind passion of sexual intimacy that lasted late into night. He hated himself for looking forward to it, but it was difficult not to relish in that pleasurable release. But as he guided the car onto the exit toward their home, there was an unfamiliar surge of resistance that unleashed a heartfelt determination in two words: No more.
Jacob had no idea where this wave of strength was coming from, but it reminded him of the determination he’d felt after he accepted Islam and his mother refused to speak to him. During that time, his mother threatened to fire him from the PR firm and to remove his partial ownership in the corporation if he insisted on remaining Muslim. No more, he’d told himself at the time, sparking his determination to get a doctorate in mathematics so that he could stand on his own two feet without his mother’s support. He was not his father, he’d told himself at the time. He was not going to allow the sway of a woman’s social and financial status to be a constant tool in her emotional manipulation of him, even if that woman was his own mother. He refused to voluntarily subject himself to emasculation at that hands of anyone, man or woman.
But had he been blindsided from the emotional manipulation in his own marriage? Had his wife’s marital “expertise” and Islamic identity served as blinders to the possibility that he was living merely another version of his father’s existence? The thought terrified him. Perhaps Jacob himself was like Deanna, imagining that a proper belief in God and a strong educational background protected him from the humiliating existence of “other people.”
Or maybe he was, as Deanna often said in a fit of anger, a “poor excuse for a husband” who was lucky that someone as beautiful, intelligent, and prominent as Deanna even looked his way and agreed to marry him…
“Oooooh. It looks like Larry finally got over Jasmine!”
Laughter still echoed in Aliyah’s mind as she pulled the covers over her head Sunday morning shortly after praying Fajr, trying to make up for her restlessness the night before. She had to work tomorrow morning, and though she still had a full day ahead of her before she had to worry about that, Ibrahim was staying with her until that evening. So she wouldn’t be able to sleep as much as she’d like, especially if she couldn’t stop thinking about this “Jasmine” person.
“Who’s Jasmine?” Aliyah had asked Larry on the phone last night. A week had passed since she’d visited his aunt’s house, but no matter how hard she tried to push his family’s teasing out of her mind, she couldn’t. After talking to her uncle Benjamin, Aliyah was on the verge of accepting Larry’s marriage proposal. But she was beginning to fear that she was about to repeat the same mistake she’d made with Matthew. Had she known that Matt was still getting over an ex-girlfriend, perhaps she would have never married him. The soul’s attachment to false beliefs might be completely erased upon accepting Islam, but the heart’s attachment to former relationships certainly were not.
“Oh…” There were probably a million questions storming Aliyah’s mind after hearing Larry’s response, but she had been unable to articulate a single one. But even if she had been able to think of an intelligible response, it was no use. Seconds later, Larry had already moved on to another topic.
“Have you thought any more about what we talked about?” he’d said to her.
“About what?” Aliyah said, distracted by thoughts of Jasmine.
“Marrying me,” Larry said.
“Oh, well, I…” There you go again, Aliyah thought to herself. Why did she find it so hard to express herself to Larry? Did she think he wouldn’t understand her doubts and fears? “…I have to think about it.”
Larry chuckled. “That’s what you said last week.”
“Larry,” Aliyah had said, exhaling her apology, “I just came from a really bad marriage. It’s not easy to just pick up and start all over again. I have a four-year-old son. I have my…” Aliyah’s voice trailed as she realized that nothing she said after mention of Ibrahim would make any sense to Larry. She didn’t even fully understand the apprehension herself. She was about to mention her job at the college and her strained relationship with her family. But what they had to do with her reluctance to marry again, she had no idea. Or perhaps they were merely the excuses she’d used so often to get out of other things that she now imagined they would somehow allow her to wriggle out of this.
“I don’t mind being a stepfather to Ibrahim,” Larry said. “I have a pretty big extended family, and I take care of my nieces and nephews all the time. In fact, I grew up helping my aunts, uncles, and cousins with their children.”
That’s beside the point, Aliyah thought to herself. It wasn’t Larry’s adjustment to change that she was most worried about. It was Ibrahim’s. He’d been through so much already. First there was the divorce, something he was just beginning to make sense of (and with understandable difficulty). Then there was the thrusting of a strange woman into his father’s life in a role that his mother had once fulfilled. And now, the prospect of his own mother remarrying? Aliyah couldn’t stomach the thought. Though she was wrestling with the idea of accepting Larry’s proposal, she didn’t know if she had the heart to put her needs above her son’s. The only normalcy Ibrahim seemed to have in his life right then was spending weekends with Aliyah without distractions. Aliyah imagined that, to Ibrahim, their time together wasn’t much different from what he’d grown accustomed to whenever Matt was gone to work all day or away on a business trip while he and Aliyah were still married. Though he’d occasionally ask why she wasn’t “coming home” with him, Aliyah sensed that her no longer being in their “home” was not as confusing as another woman being there instead.
But Aliyah didn’t have the energy to explain all of this to Larry.
Aliyah’s eyes fluttered open as she felt rhythmic patting on her shoulder. As the grogginess of sleep wore off, Aliyah saw Ibrahim leaning into her face as if searching there for any signs of life. “Mmm,” Aliyah moaned as she looked at him through squinted eyes.
“I know, sweetie,” she said apologetically. “Go wash your hands and wait for me in the kitchen. Mommy’s coming now.”
Deeja Marriage Guru: Sometimes the people closest to you are the ones you can’t trust. Watch your back. #realtalk (a few seconds ago)
Groaning, Aliyah sat up and tossed her mobile phone on the crumpled comforter of her bed as she swung her legs around until her bare feet rested on the carpeted floor. It was probably a bad idea to check her email and Facebook account before going to the bathroom and preparing Ibrahim’s breakfast, but it had become a daily routine of hers.
Maybe she should unfollow Deanna, Aliyah considered as she lathered her hands with soap then held her hands under the stream of water from her bathroom faucet. For the past few days, Aliyah had toyed with the idea of unfriending Deanna on Facebook, but she ultimately decided against it because it would defeat the purpose of preventing anxiety and avoiding confrontation. It would likely be only a matter of time before Deanna realized that Aliyah had unfriended her, and Aliyah knew that Deanna would leap on the opportunity to make her life miserable as a result. Deanna’s passive aggressive statuses would quickly become openly hostile, perhaps even stopping short of only mentioning Aliyah by name. Deanna had certainly done it before to other sisters who’d made the inauspicious mistake of crossing her. Aliyah shuddered to think that the same could happen to her.
What Aliyah really wanted was Deanna out of her life completely. She was tempted to block Deanna on social media, but the idea made her nervous. Deanna was so well known for her marriage workshops and relationship advice blogs and books that she was used to being the one whom people flocked to for the mere honor of being associated with her. Deanna had so many friends and followers online that she no longer could accept Facebook friend requests. So, naturally, Deanna was used to being the one to unfriend, block, or unfollow someone. At times, it appeared as if she took pride in this prerogative. Don’t bring your BS on my page. I’ll unfriend you real quick. #watchyourself
Aliyah remembered being bothered by that status, posted more than a year ago. Because it was posted on the heels of a longwinded online debate about the high divorce rate amongst American Muslims, it gave the impression that anyone who disagreed with her point of view was not only speaking “BS” but would be duly “punished” for it by Deanna unfriending them. “People might misinterpret that,” Aliyah had told Deanna. “It sounds like you don’t welcome legitimate disagreement, and that people should view it as a privilege to be on your friend list. As a respected marriage counselor, you don’t want to give that impression.” But of course Aliyah’s point of view was lost on Deanna because, allegedly, it wasn’t based on knowledge or experience since Aliyah didn’t have a degree in marriage counseling (Aliyah’s divorce would certainly have also been used as further evidence against her had she not been still married at the time). “You should stick to math and science,” Deanna had told her. “You don’t have a good feel for social interactions.”
But a part of Aliyah admired Deanna’s fortitude. In private conversations and in some of her blogs and interviews, Deanna spoke of how she was inspired to go into marriage counseling after witnessing an aunt of hers endure domestic violence for years. “My uncle was an alcoholic,” Deanna said in an interview. “So maybe he wasn’t always aware of the harm he inflicted on his wife and family, but that didn’t make it any less pernicious. Abuse is abuse,” she said, “no matter what context it happens in. And the only way to deal with abuse is to educate yourself and get out. But I choose the proactive approach. I’ll never allow myself to be abused in the first place because I know better. I wish I could have helped my aunt, but I was too young and naïve at the time. But what gives me solace is knowing that I’m saving women just like my aunt each day. The best protection against abuse is prevention, and this is the message I implore my patients and readers to pay attention to.”
Sometimes the people closest to you are the ones you can’t trust. Watch your back. #realtalk
As Aliyah stood in front of the stove pouring dry oats into boiling water while Ibrahim sat at the kitchen table waiting for his oatmeal, she saw Deanna’s status from a different perspective. Maybe it had nothing to do with Deanna taking a jab at Aliyah or any other person in Deanna’s close circle. Maybe it was just Deanna’s way of telling women to be careful about letting someone close to them harm them by using their trust as a weapon and an inroad. And that was definitely “real talk.” Though Aliyah didn’t know how it felt to be in an abusive relationship, she definitely knew how it felt to have her trust used as a weapon against her. Till today, the knowledge that Matt and Nikki had known each other long before Aliyah was in the picture was still a sore spot for Aliyah. The mere reminder made her stomach churn. How could she have been so naïve as to welcome Nikki into her social circle and even her own home without asking a single question about why Matt was so keen on Aliyah teaching her about Islam? It should have struck Aliyah as odd that Matt cared so much about the woman’s soul given that he wasn’t actively involved in any Islamic work himself. But being the trusting person that Aliyah was, she’d assumed the best—when she would have done better to just “watch her back.” Then perhaps she would still be married to Matt today.
When Jacob had arrived to work early Monday morning, he was hoping to catch up on some work that he had fallen behind on. So when he heard a soft knock at his office door forty-five minutes before his official clock-in time for work, he couldn’t help feeling annoyed. A part of him was tempted to ignore the interruption. But whoever it was knew he was inside, possibly due to the thin rectangle of light glowing beneath his door, so there was nothing to do but get up, unlock the door, and see what they wanted. Jacob put on an expression of forced politeness as he pulled open the door. If it was Dr. Warren, he didn’t want her to think she was unwelcomed.
“As-salaamu’alaikum, Dr. Bivens,” she said tentatively, apologizing with her eyes and soft tone.
The sight of Aliyah was so unexpected and pleasantly surprising that Jacob’s spirits lifted immediately and a smile spread on his face before he realized it. “Wa’alaiku mus-salaam, Professor Thomas,” he said, unable to keep the happiness out of his voice. “What can I do for you?”
“I’m sorry for interrupting,” Aliyah said. “I saw you walking ahead of me to the building, so I knew you had come early too.”
“It’s okay,” Jacob said, opening the door wide and stepping back so that Aliyah could come in. “Take a seat. You’re always welcomed.”
“Thank you,” she said, averting her gaze as she sat on the edge of a chair opposite his desk, as if anticipating that she wouldn’t stay long.
For some reason the prospect of her leaving so soon dampened his spirits slightly, but he still wore a smile as he settled in his office chair. “What’s on your mind?”
“I was thinking to maybe sign up for One Plus One Equals Won.” She was fiddling with the straps of her purse on her lap, unable to look at him directly, and in that moment, jealousy enveloped him so completely that he recoiled at the thought of his brother marrying her.
“Pray for me, bro. I asked Aliyah to marry me,” Larry had said to him a few days ago. “I will, man,” Jacob had said. “I’m really happy for you.” And Jacob was happy for Larry. Or at least he’d thought he was. But now that Aliyah sat opposite him in flesh, Jacob couldn’t quell his desire to have Aliyah for himself. It was a selfish thought, but he couldn’t help thinking that Larry didn’t deserve Aliyah. What had Larry done to justify having someone like Aliyah as a wife? Jacob immediately sought refuge in Allah from Shaytaan and silently asked forgiveness for his vain thoughts. If Larry didn’t deserve Aliyah, then Jacob certainly didn’t. At least Larry was able to offer Aliyah some semblance of normalcy in her life. But what about Jacob? The most he could offer her was the miserable lot of the “second wife.” And Aliyah deserved much better than that. And Jacob didn’t come close to being able to offer her even half of what she deserved. Besides, she didn’t want Jacob as a husband in any case. For all intents and purposes, she’d already made that abundantly clear. “It’s okay,” she’d said after he told her about his “momentary lapse in judgment” in calling her uncle to ask about her. “We all make mistakes.” Jacob grunted. A mistake. That’s what the culmination of all his years of unrequited longing and regret had amounted to in her eyes. A forgivable “mistake.” The realization cut him so deep that he had a difficult time focusing on what Aliyah was saying to him that morning as she sat opposite him in his office. But he found himself looking at Aliyah and taking in her breathtaking beauty while comprehending none of the words she spoke.
“—give me your point of view, if you don’t mind,” Jacob heard Aliyah say, looking up at him for the first time, a question in her eyes.
“I think you’d be a great fit,” he said quickly. “We’d be honored to have you in our program.”
Aliyah looked confused momentarily. “Thank you,” she said hesitantly. “But I’m also asking about Jasmine, you know, in case I have anything to worry about.”
Jacob drew his eyebrows together. “Jasmine who? Is she a current or former student?”
Aliyah shook her head. “No, I mean, Larry’s Jasmine,” she said. “His ex-girlfriend.”
“Oh, Jasmine,” Jacob said, his eyebrows rising in sudden realization. “Yes, I remember her. Why do you ask?”
“Last weekend I went to your aunt’s house and—”
“Oh yeah,” Jacob said, smiling, “my aunt and mother wouldn’t stop talking about you when I saw them a couple of days ago.”
“—some of the family said…” Aliyah appeared to lose her train of thought as she registered what Jacob had just said, a shadow of concern passing over her face. “What do you mean?”
“No, no, no,” Jacob said, chuckling and apologizing in his tone. “It wasn’t anything bad. They couldn’t stop talking about you because they really like you.”
“Oh… MashaAllah. I really like them too.” The smallest hint of a smile appeared on one side of Aliyah’s mouth, but it disappeared as a look of concern spread on her face. “But they kept joking about this Jasmine person and saying they were happy Larry was finally moving on.” She frowned as she glanced at Jacob. “Do you know anything about that? Are he and Jasmine still in touch or anything?”
Jacob immediately felt uncomfortable. He knew what Aliyah was asking, but he didn’t feel he had a right to divulge that information. Larry and Jasmine’s relationship had been serious for many years, but Larry’s interest in religion had driven a wedge between them. Jasmine was agnostic and held such a strong contempt for religion that it bordered on anti-theism. But as Larry’s inclination toward Islam grew, Jasmine’s contempt for religion waned, but only to the point of obligatory respect. Ultimately, the biggest point of contention between them was Larry’s desire to have a life partner who believed in God while Jasmine felt that love, not a person’s religion, should matter most in a partner. They eventually broke up officially shortly before Larry became Muslim. But Jasmine was still a Facebook friend of Larry’s, though they rarely communicated except for the occasional “like” or commenting on the other’s status. From what Jacob could tell, they were still “friends” in the loose, meaningless definition of the term. But based on what Jacob knew from his own past relationships, a man remaining casual “friends” with a former girlfriend was either an indication that he had moved on, or it was a sign that he still had strong feelings for her and was holding on to the hope that they would get back together one day. In all honesty, Jacob believed that the latter was more common, at least from a male point of view. And given the complex history between Jasmine and Larry, Jacob had a difficult time believing that Larry was completely over Jasmine despite Larry’s sincere dedication and commitment to Islam.
“Those feelings don’t just go away,” Benjamin had said to Jacob during a phone conversation in which Jacob told him about how strongly he’d felt drawn to Aliyah twelve years ago at the MSA dinner. “You can deny them all you want. But when a man loves a woman…” Benjamin paused and made a “hmph” sound. “…I’m telling you, man, there are only two ways to deal with that. Leave her alone completely, or marry her immediately. There are no safe compromises.”
At the time, it was so unsettling for Jacob to hear the term love used to describe his feelings toward Aliyah that he was almost offended. But it took some time for Jacob to come to terms with the fact that it wasn’t the word love that disturbed him most, but the fact that it really didn’t matter what term was most apt in his situation. He’d never have Aliyah for himself anyway, so what difference did it make?
Aliyah left Jacob’s office more confused than when she’d arrived. She hated thinking that Larry and Jacob were hiding something from her, but the feeling kept gnawing at her. There was something amiss about this whole Larry-Jacob ordeal, but she couldn’t put her finger on it.
It had been difficult enough divulging her concerns to Jacob. But Aliyah really didn’t know where else to turn. She had considered calling her uncle, but she realized that would do little good since he didn’t know Larry well enough to tell her what she needed to hear. The only person who could allay her fears about having another Matt-experience was either Larry himself or someone close enough to him to be privy to his interactions (or lack thereof) with his ex-girlfriend. Aliyah had loathed the idea of asking Jacob about a deeply personal matter concerning his brother, but after careful thought and du’aa, Aliyah accepted that it was her best option. Of course, she could call Deanna. But besides the fact that there was little Deanna would likely know about her brother-in-law, Aliyah no longer trusted Deanna to be honest and impartial in what she said to Aliyah.
Aliyah had no idea why Deanna seemed to despise her so much, but if what Larry had said about it actually being Jacob and not Deanna who had initiated the idea of Aliyah working at the college, Aliyah could understand Deanna having some level of resentment toward Aliyah. A part of Aliyah wanted to apologize to Deanna for unintentionally being a source of stress in her marriage, but even if Aliyah decided to reopen the channels of communication with Deanna, there was really no context to make such an apology. At best, what Larry had told her was hearsay, and at worst, it might be grossly incorrect. Of course, Larry had no reason to lie to Aliyah about who had suggested the idea of Aliyah working at the college; but it was possible that Larry himself had misunderstood his role in the ordeal. Perhaps it had been Deanna’s idea initially and Jacob had merely asked Larry’s advice to see what he thought of the idea.
But why would Deanna be so upset with Jacob about a proposition that she herself had suggested? Or maybe Larry had misunderstood that too. Maybe Deanna and Jacob were arguing about something else and the topic of Aliyah’s job had been brought up somehow, leading Larry to believe that the argument was about the job itself.
The vibrating of Aliyah’s phone interrupted her thoughts as she walked into her office and set her handbag on her desk. She withdrew the phone from her purse and saw a notification for a Facebook message. Girl, I hope you don’t think you’re avoiding me. I keep getting your voicemail. Call me back. Now.
A headache pulsated at Aliyah’s temples as she walked around her desk and settled into her office chair. She turned off her phone’s Wi-Fi connection then drew in a breath and exhaled slowly. Whether she liked it or not, Aliyah needed to have a long talk with Deanna, sooner rather than later.
Next… Story 8: Why He Stayed
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