She froze. How could she answer him sincerely? He knew the pressure she was under. Why did he have to push her like that?
“I love you,” Ryan remarked, in response to her silence.
“Yeah, Salima, I know you know, but do you love me?”
“Ryan, you know that’s not fair. You know what I have to put up with at home.” She hated herself for that. She felt so weak, so little, and so ashamed. “We only have a few months left together before you head off to the East Coast and I’m at UCLA … can’t we just enjoy our time together?”
He obliged, and they started kissing. Their mouths spoke to each other silently, then slowly he nibbled on her lower lip. Their noses would rub each other in a way that always made her giggle. “Stop! That tickles!” Ryan knew what that signaled, and he began to caress her stomach. She arched her head back in response, and now his lips were on her neck, his tongue moistening it slightly.
She gave out a deep sigh of satisfaction. She loved the way he made her feel: so special, so unique, so beautiful. But she couldn’t love him, and so whenever he crossed that line, she was quick to stop him.
“What’s wrong?” Ryan looked up at her.
“Nothing, nothing’s wrong. Just not today.”
“If not today, then when?”
“Just not today, babe.” It was her turn now. She kissed his shoulders and then his chest. He was so strong. She always felt like nothing could happen to her as long as she was in his arms. She began to kiss his nipples, slowly teasing each one. Her hands were on their own program. She would always tell herself, Don’t do it, you know it’s not right, but her hands wouldn’t listen. So while one hand stayed just between Ryan and her, her other hand slowly caressed his inner thigh.
His hands always found themselves in her hair, long and luscious. As she crept closer and closer, he began to fidget. She was almost there when …
“Stop. That’s enough.”
“What? I thought you liked it when I did that.”
“I did. I … I do. Look, Salima, I can’t do this any longer. I can’t pretend to be happy with things as they are. You don’t love me, you’ll never love me, you’re a tease. I’m your plaything, and I …”
“What are you talking about, Ryan? How can you say that? You know how much you mean to me, Ryan, more than words can …”
“Just one word, Salima, just one word.”
“Ryan, please don’t ask me for that, don’t ask me for something I can’t …”
“No, you’re right. I’ve been selfish about all of this. So let me make this easier for both of us.”
Her eyes welled up. She couldn’t even look at him. She knew that it was over, and she knew it was because of her, because of her parents. As he left, she lay there curled up, sobbing, her tears the only companion to her grief, which was burning inside with one question: Why wasn’t she allowed to love freely without consequence? Without shame? Without guilt? Really, the question could be whittled down to its essence, to its core.
Why wasn’t she allowed to love?
“Because your parents don’t see how the world is changing! Think about it. My naani got married when she was fourteen and had my eldest aunt soon thereafter. Sex coincided with marriage, which coincided with puberty. It was about surviving. Our parents grew up in the ripple effect of that era. The difference now is our cousins’ parents in India have all modernized with their society. Our parents think they’re in a culture war with us as their pawns.”
She looked up at him, at that smirk of his. That smirk that said, listen to me as I expose you to my all-knowing brilliance. How arrogant and alluring at the same time, Salima thought.
“Are you telling me what to think, Sheil?”
“No, look, you just said that you’re never going to have a boyfriend in college, that you were just gonna let your parents take care of everything, decide who you’d date and eventually who you’d marry. I’m telling you why they’re so crazy.”
“They’re not crazy.”
“I don’t mean clinically insane, I mean, come on, Salima! This idea they’ve ingrained in you. Do you think that’s healthy? That it’s realistic? Practical? Or even feasible?”
“Look, they’re doing what’s in my best interest.”
“So you’re saying what’s in your best interest is to never feel pleasure, feel pain, experience life?”
“What’s in my best interest is none of your business. Is this over? Are we done here?”
“Just tell me this, all the times we hung out, you never felt anything? Not a thing?”
“I’m sorry I misled you, Sheil. I guess that’s my M.O.”
“Your M.O., huh? Who’d you mislead in the past?”
“Some guy from high school …”
“Oh yeah? What was his name? Was he Indian? Muslim? White?”
“His name was Ryan, and he was white. Sheil, you’re a really nice guy and all, but I’m sorry, I really don’t have time for this.”
Ignoring her, Sheil continued, “Wow, so Ryan made you laugh, made you feel good, and you felt nothing for him, huh? Poor guy. Alright, well, good luck with everything, then.” Sheil sat there, smiling but defeated.
This time it was Salima who got up and walked away. Salima had no tears for Sheil, just scorn and hate: for digging up her memories, for forcing her to lie, for her realization that she had cast aside love once again.
“No, Sheil! Are you crazy? It’s midnight, and I have four more pages to write.”
“Listen, freshman, you gotta learn how to relax, live a little! Otherwise the next four years are gonna be pretty boring.”
“Sheil, I’m serious, this paper is worth too much of my grade to screw up on.”
“Fine, I’ll tell you what, my roommate’s an editor for the school paper. He can help you revise it.”
She knew what she had to do.
“Perfect, I’ll pick you up by De Neve. Come out in five minutes.”
Five days later her paper came back a C+. Her first C in college, her first C ever, in fact. She was on the treadmill at the Wooden Center when he approached her.
“Salima! Thought you vanished, whatchu up to?”
“Sheil, I got a C+ on my paper.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I take it you think I’m a bad influence, huh? Please, please don’t penalize me, give me a second chance!” He pleaded half-jokingly. But Salima could see the desperation beneath it all. She wasn’t about to tell him, but the C+ was the last thing on her mind.
Salima stared at him as he lay there, motionless except for the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest. He was so calm, so peaceful, like in a state of bliss. But she couldn’t see any of this. She didn’t even realize he had caressed her ankle right before dozing off.
The silence in the room had left her drowning in her own thoughts. Why had he asked her to come over? Just to fall asleep beside her? She couldn’t concentrate on her paper in the least. She wanted to be held, to be nurtured, to be embraced. Salima had hated herself for wanting this. But for those few hours, she put aside her self-inflicted torment, only to be met with … nothing.
She fought with herself. Do I touch him? Do I lie next to him? But this part of her had withered away with the love she had kept from Ryan the summer past. Instead, she became paralyzed by her inaction. As the sun rose, reality began to set in; Salima knew what she would have to do. Sealing her and Sheil’s fate forever apart, like oil and water, from that day forth they could never mix.
Salima promised herself that she would never admit any of this, not to Sheil, not to her friends, and if she could try hard enough, not to herself. Given her upbringing, she realized it was better to be adored and worshipped.
Rather than share in love, she would betray it.
How else could she survive in this prison of corrupted emotions? To break its walls was to disobey her parents’ wishes, to spurn their dreams, to seek out a life all her own.
That night, on Sheil’s bed she had peered out her prison window, looking for a ray of hope. Met with a confounding darkness, Salima believed it was an exercise in folly.
If only she could have willed herself to look out once more …
Rahul Varshney is a labor organizer for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in McAllen, Texas.