When I was 15, I lived for a year in Iran with my grandmother. Some Friday afternoons, we would steal away from the chaos of Tehran and go to a traditional kebab house outside the city. Sitting on the restaurant's outdoor beds, I would let down my scarf and lie back on the cushions, and she would order a hookah and let me smoke it with her. Two free, rebellious souls.
"Some day," she would say, "you will meet your man and you will know." She never said, "Some day, you may meet a man over a phone app — and know."
I met him on Tinder.
He was Egyptian, a first-generation immigrant, like me. But other than the way we met, nothing felt foreign between us. On our first date, we ended up at a hookah lounge, and I thought of my grandmother. "A respectable man will always make you feel safe," she would say, and he did. When we walked into Byblos on Westwood Boulevard, I felt like I was with family. Everyone knew him, and I, by association, got a warm welcome. I felt at home.
We had stayed up till 4 a.m. that first night. I traced the edges of his salt-and-pepper beard through the cloud of smoke around our heads and gasped at how beautiful he looked when he smiled. When he spoke to me earnestly about his first marriage — a big no-no in the dating rules I had gone over with single girlfriends — I felt myself merge with him. He was wounded in a way I never thought a man could be by a woman. He had cared in a way I never thought men did about women.
While my grandmother had taught me to be rebellious and free, she had also taught me, perhaps without meaning to, that men could not be trusted, that committing to a man was to lose your independence. Over the years, I had dismissed my inability to commit as a sign of my modernity and independence, but deep down I knew I carried my grandmother's fears.
In between dates, I reviewed his pro and con list and was shocked to discover that I liked things about him that would normally have been deal breakers: He was recently divorced, he had a child, he had an altar in his living room with Christian memorabilia.
At 35, I was suddenly faced with a man who knew what family was, what responsibility and commitment required, what pain was, and what faith was.
My friends weren't convinced. "He's not sophisticated enough for you," they said.
"Your biological clock is doing your choosing."
"You can do better."
It's true that he wasn't as sophisticated as I am, but his outlook on life was far more mature than mine. He was tender. When I told him I liked him, the words came out naturally. I was vulnerable, but somehow it was OK.
My mother and my therapist reminded me of his "cons."
"Maybe you're just attracted to his brokenness," my therapist suggested.
Their doubts would feed mine, but the moment I would see him, I knew what everyone who loved me was denying: I was the broken one, and he was the one healing me.
We were at a sushi bar on Centinela on the night he asked me about our future. "What do you think about us?" he asked as he topped off my sake cup.
I imaged myself telling him the truth, saying that I loved us. I wanted us. But instead, I said, "I don't know about you. You have a child. You are still wounded. You're from a different religion. Your marriage … your ex-wife … your child … "
It was as if something were holding my mouth closed and speaking for me. They were not my words, but out they flowed, so loud even the sushi chef heard some of them over the chatter and noise of the bar. And with each word I felt him pull back from me. With each word I felt myself undo all the ties that had bound us.
He listened and didn't object and quietly drove me home. He never tried to overrule me. And that's when I knew I loved him even more than I feared.
My girlfriends tried to explain it away. "He's insecure. Who just ends a relationship like that?" My mother let out a sigh of relief, and my therapist suggested I get right back into the dating game.
But even now, months later, after a night out with the girls or on a date with a guy from some other app, I lie awake at nights thinking of him. And though as a Muslim I've never thought much about Jesus, I think of his picture hanging in his living room, and I hope it is protecting him and his little boy. I say a little prayer and hope that I am forgiven.
Bibinaz Pirayesh was born in Tehran and, at age 10, came to Los Angeles, where she now lives and writes.