Eds. Note: Please welcome comedian, playwright and Love InshAllah anthology contributor Zahra Noorbakhsh! You can find her column, My Infidel Husband, here every fourth Thursday of the month.
On my 26th birthday, I shot awake with the realization that I was in my mother’s relationship.
My then boyfriend (now husband), Duncan, and I had just moved in together, shortly after celebrating our two-year anniversary. In all this time, he had never bought me a present. I looked over at him snoring sweetly with our two cats at his feet. Lying on our fluffy bed with twinkle lights from our housewarming still dangling above, I recalled my parents’ gift-giving turmoil like a once dormant, posttraumatic flashback.
Dad rarely bought mom presents but, when he did, he missed the mark every time. Mom claimed the role of victim, lonely and unseen. Dad avoided the conversation altogether. How had I, an outspoken, confident Feminist, wound up the overlooked partner just two years into my relationship?
As cozy as Duncan and I were with each other, I didn’t feel comfortable saying, “Hey, why don’t you ever buy me things?”
I took the twenty-first century approach: in the shadows of early morning, I pondered what my role was in getting us here. I hadn’t discouraged Duncan from romance, but I hadn’t encouraged it either. His disregard for chivalry was why I started dating him in the first place.
In college, Duncan was a refreshing alternative to the crooning, clichéd tricks of the Persian boys I had dated.
Okay, so there was just one Persian boy and it was only for one night.
Actually, we only dated for an hour.
I was enjoying his guitar-playing sweetness, until I saw a self-satisfied, Cheshire cat grin spread across his pretty boy face. I may as well have put up a sign that read, “STUPID. FELL FOR IT,” outside his dorm room. His guitar morphed into a different tune in my mind, “Zahra’s getting dumber by the strum….”
I bolted out of there and kept the great barrier reef of “bitch” between any future “in it for the chase” dates and me. Romance seemed to require that I stay on a pedestal until knocked down. I didn’t want anything to do with it and yet, in college, I felt surrounded by it.
My guy friends boasted about the money they had spent on prospective girlfriends. The bigger the price tag, the bigger their dicks. Every gift exchange sounded like a transaction, and they took pride in the fact that their women had no idea. She’d been duped.
“I took her to this five star restaurant…and then I got my dick sucked.”
“I bought her an opal ring…and then I got my dick sucked.”
“I’m taking her to Mendocino…you think I’ll get my dick sucked?”
I tried explaining, “if you’re with a woman who likes and trusts you, you can probably just ask her to suck your dick. It won’t cost you anything, except your delusions.”
It didn’t matter. They loved hearing about and talking about the conquest. They swapped MySpace hook up stories and Facebook finds like leveling up in a video game. Every guy had a “system” and the system worked if it fooled a girl into sleeping with him.
I tried explaining again, “Did it ever occur to you that maybe she’s horny too and you were also convenient?”
My insults never landed. When I called them “convenient lays,” they just heard “player” and we were back in the game.
These weren’t bad guys. A lot of them were good guys, nice guys, men who were worthy friends. But, for whatever ego-fueling reason, these guys needed to feel bigger than women. I had to hunt carefully for proletariat love.
Three weeks after dating Duncan, splitting checks and treating each other to movies, I asked him to be my boyfriend.
“I’m comfortable with that nomenclature,” he said.
His honesty and matter-of-fact demeanor made me feel less alone. On our nights out, when we’d look across the street and see a guy dressed in Diesel jeans letting a Bebe clad girl into his freshly waxed car, we’d snicker and roll our eyes. Why spend so much time and money pretending to be someone you’re not while on a date during which you’re meant to get to know each other?
Romance could be bought, but trust ran deeper. When Duncan and I hit our two-year anniversary mark, some of our friends whispered marriage, but neither of us needed a certificate to verify our feelings, let alone an engagement ring. Besides we were anti-diamond.
There used to be this Kay diamond commercial that always drove me nuts. Some prince charming would pop open a tiny velvet black box to the surprise and delight of his sweetheart. Gazing into its infinite brilliance, she discovered for the first time how much her man valued her.
Every time it aired, Duncan would turn to me and say, “Every diamond is a blood diamond.” Every time he said it, it romanced my progressive heart.
We had romance in our relationship, just not the twitterpated, phony kind. And, to be fair to Duncan, there were some presents…
At Christmas, he got me a Homer Simpson Rubik’s cube. He said, “I thought you’d like this cause it’s stupid.”
It was stupid and that is why I liked it. Besides, I’m Muslim. I don’t really celebrate Christmas.
On our first anniversary, he said, “I love you,” by accident. He looked terrified when I said it back. We both sat frozen for a moment and then started laughing. I wasn’t thinking about gifts. We were both overwhelmed by our budding new relationship.
On our first Valentine’s Day, he showed up at my door with a red carnation. I took it as a, “Fuck you!” to the Valentine’s Day rose industrial complex. When he handed it to me, I nodded with accord.
On my birthday, the first birthday to come up in our relationship, he didn’t get me a gift, but that made sense. He had just graduated and we were long distance. He wasn’t making enough money to send me some one-time trinket. We weren’t even sure if we’d make it to year two. But, then we did.
We made it to year two, and past Christmas, and another round of Valentine’s Day, all the way to my next birthday without any presents. No bows. No ribbons. No tiny boxes.
It’s not like I had waved the scepter of a no-gift decree. I had been buying and making Duncan gifts all this time. Christmas, I spoke to his love of Viking artifacts with a bone beer stein from some old English manufacturer. For his birthday, a few of his buddies and I pooled together to get him a Sean John jacket that he’d been eyeing. On his next birthday, I made him this awesome, double-decker cake and decorated it with toy soldiers on a battlefield.
So, where were my presents? Proletariat love could come with presents! Where the hell was my chivalry?
I lay against the headboard, grinding my teeth, feeling my mom’s anger simmering inside me. I tried imagining my conversation with Duncan and kept winding my way through a mental maze of mom’s attempts to change dad—first coy, then passive-aggressive, then aggressive-aggressive.
My whole childhood, whether it was an anniversary, a birthday or just souvenirs, he always managed to get it wrong. He’d bring her flowers, but they were the wrong kind. He’d buy her jewelry, but not to mom’s taste. Once he bought her a really nice television set and she accused him of buying it for himself. Dad was so discouraged for a while that he stopped buying her presents.
My brother and sisters and I were scared for their relationship. We were worried that they would start to hate each other or, worse, get a divorce. I was an avid Oprah watching teen and learned a tip that I passed onto Mom.
“Just make him a wish list,” I said, “then it’ll give him something to work off of and he’ll improve.”
Mom was annoyed. What was the point of explaining her own birthday surprise? Dad didn’t get it either.
After some tag team coercion, we got her to write a few things down, like lavender bath salts, perfume, and earrings, but dad wouldn’t get her anything on the list.
“I know your mom,” he said, “If I get any of these, she’ll say I don’t know her.”
Instead, he tried to get creative with a sweater that was too big and too many colors, and failed miserably.
There was so much pressure to see Dad get a gift right, and so much resentment with each unwrapped box of disappointment, that, after a while, even I stopped getting mom gifts. I don’t remember getting her a birthday present the entire time I was in high school. It wasn’t on purpose. I think birthday disappointment had become so familiar that I quit trying and, eventually, stopped noticing.
The early morning sun shined brighter and diminished the gentle twinkle of the lights dangling above our bed. I slunk under the white down covers and lay my head back on the pillow.
Why did mom have to make such a big deal out of presents? If “gifts” weren’t working as a symbol of affection, then couldn’t she let in all of the other ways dad showed his love? Like, with how bad he felt each time she looked disappointed? How hard it was for him to try?
I blamed her. Then I blamed Duncan for making me angry and turning me into my mother, on my birthday. Fuck coy. I’m a Feminist, goddammit.
I reached across the bed and poked him awake.
“Duncan, “ I said, “I am so excited for today, because it’s my birthday. You didn’t get me a gift for our anniversary, or Christmas, or Valentine’s Day this year and you didn’t get me a present for my birthday last year. But I know it’s just because you’ve been saving up to get me something really special and expensive, today.”
He turned pale.
“I’ll be right back,” he said.
He bolted out of bed, threw on a pair of jeans, shuffled into his flip-flops and leapt out the door. The cats got up and filled the warm space he’d left behind. I smiled knowing that in the end, my Feminist roots hadn’t failed me. I spoke up for my needs and was going to see them fulfilled.
By the afternoon, four hours later, just as I started to wonder what country he’d fled to, the door swung open and slammed against the plaster wall.
“Close your eyes! Close your eyes!” he yelled.
“Okay, okay!” I said, sitting up on the couch and shutting my lids. I felt giddy. This was all I wanted, a small surprise and a precedent for gift-giving to come.
I heard the sound of furniture moving in the hallway of our tiny studio.
“Keep your eyes closed,” he said, between heaves.
A slow steady drag ended with a thump in our bed nook. I opened my eyes and saw his white undershirt and belly charging at me.
“No, no, no! Wait! Don’t do that, you’ll ruin it.” he said.
He put his hands over my eyes and guided me across the apartment. He sat me down at the foot of the bed and gently turned my head. “Okay,” he took another breath, “Now, look!” He parted his hands like Moses to the Red Sea.
I blinked and tried to focus on what was in front of me. Green puffs of carpet topped a twisted, brown post. I was looking at a cat scratch post that was shaped like a bonsai tree.
“Can you believe it?” he said, “I was driving around and around and thinking what should I get Zahra? And, I saw this gem sitting outside Petco, on sale—I mean it was still expensive, but you know. Anyway, I knew you would die.”
The cats jumped right on it and made it their home.
All I could think was, ‘What the fuck?’
Then, out from deep within, the voice of the Kay diamond girl sprung forward with exasperated, saccharin delight.
“Ohhhhh myyyyy god! Thank you so much, honey! This is so thoughtful and sweet and perfect,” I said, smiling big enough to hide my inner anguish.
I kissed him and he hugged me. As I lay my puzzled brow against his shoulder, he swayed me back and forth and said, “I can’t believe my luck. Your cat tree could’ve been swooped up at any minute.”
I bet there isn’t a man in this world wondering how to tell his girlfriend that he doesn’t want a cat scratch post for his birthday.
Read more by Zahra, here.
Zahra Noorbakhsh is a Feminist Muslim comedian and writer. The New Yorker Magazine dubbed her one woman show “All Atheists Are Muslim” a highlight of the Int’l New York City Fringe Theater Festival, the largest multi-arts festival in North America. Her most recent one woman show “Hijab and Hammerpants” is playing in theaters around the Bay Area. Zahra is also one half of the podcast “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim” featured on PRI’s Global Nation. To keep up with Zahra, visit ZahraComedy.com and join her newsletter.