I can’t remember a time when I didn’t think of Hadi as a potential husband. Our families took road trips together, to the beach and national parks. His family stayed at our house, and we stayed at theirs. Back then, I didn’t feel sparks or butterflies around Hadi. With his messy 1990s mullet, his shirt buttoned to the top, I sometimes wished there was someone else in our small community of Iraqi-Americans that would have made a suitable match, but Hadi was the only boy I knew who checked all the boxes, same religion, same culture.
Hadi’s mom was the closest thing our Southern California’s Iraqi community had to a matchmaker. I’d overheard her talking about our community’s risky marriage market — where the freshest, sweetest girls never sat on the shelf. I took comfort in knowing I had Hadi as a possibility. American romance was frighteningly fragile with people falling in and out of love, but Muslim love was secure and uncomplicated, entirely under a person’s control.
One evening my mother revealed that someone had asked Hadi’s mom about me.
“Don’t even think of it. She’s ours,” his mom had replied.
I felt as if I had been spoken for at 13.
“But does Hadi actually like me?” I asked.
“It’s obvious,” my mom said. “His eyes go wherever you go.”
As a teenager, I went to an all-girls school. I had no guy friends, and I’d never spoken to a boy on the phone. My senior year, my mother asked, “Do you want Hadi to take you to your prom?”
This shocked me.
She told me that Hadi’s mother had suggested it and added, “We won’t tell your fathers, of course.” If I was ever going to experience the kind of one-on-one dates I’d seen in the movies, this was my chance.
That night, I flipped through magazines until I spotted the dress I wanted to be wearing when my love story started.
Prom morning, I got my hair done at the mall. Back at home, I said my afternoon prayers, careful not to disturb my up-do. Then, I put on nail polish and makeup for my first time out of the house with a boy, a boy who could be my future husband.
When we got in the car Hadi said awkwardly, “Your dress is nice.”
“You look nice, too.” With a brand-new haircut, his face freshly shaven, and a crisp tuxedo, Hadi looked more handsome than I’d ever seen him before. On the veranda, we looked out at the moonlit lawn. Hadi offered me his jacket and held it open. I blushed at the body heat we shared for the first time, his cologne pressed on my neck.
Hadi’s sleeves covered my hands. Even if Hadi wasn’t a big guy, he was big enough for me.
A few months later, Hadi’s family came to attend my high-school graduation. After the ceremony, we gathered in the family room with pajama-clad relatives, drinking tea and watching television. Hadi and I stayed seated until everyone had gone to bed. He scooted in next to me, so close our legs touched. He stared at me lovingly, and I fixed my gaze on my lap. Taking a string from an unwrapped gift, he tied it around my ring finger.
I held my breath. I was in my pajamas, my hair a mess, and we had no diamond ring.
“I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”
Those words did not slow time, make fireworks burst from the sky or conjure a congratulatory cheer. It wasn’t anything like a moment lifted from “Pretty Woman” or “Sleepless in Seattle,” but it was warm, tender and sweet.
“Yes,” I said.
On Thanksgiving break, my freshman year of college, our families made our engagement official with an announcement at a large family dinner. A year later, at 20 years old, I was transformed into a dramatic-eyed Arab bride.
Outside the hall of the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles in 1997, Hadi took my hands and said, “I can’t wait to spend the rest of our life together.” His shoulders filled out his tux, and his bronze skin stood out against his white dress shirt. Standing there, embraced by sheets of tulle, I felt as if I was wearing the brand-new pages of our story together.
Three children and two decades later, my husband still chafes at the term “arranged marriage.” I am his childhood sweetheart, the woman he’s always loved. I find it harder to overlook our mothers’ efforts to bring us together, but I love my husband even more because of it. Our mothers’ support has been the foundation of our lives together. I used to think I’d been cheated of the classic boy-meets-girl story. Now I think I have a story that makes boy-marries-girl just as compelling.
Huda Al-Marashi is the author of “First Comes Marriage: My Not-So-Typical American Love Story” (Prometheus Books), out now.
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