“That point doesn’t count,” Andy shouted as I jumped around the ping-pong table doing my victory dance. “You leaned over the table to hit the smash and that’s an illegal move. We have to redo the point.”
I looked up at him making my puppy dog eyes, knowing they would work as usual.
“You know I can’t reach if I don’t lean over it. I’m short and little,” I said.
“Oh no, your cuteness isn’t going to work on me this time. I’m not losing to a little girl.”
His words angered me to no point. I had been practicing over the last year with my brothers so I would be a real challenge and he still saw me as a little girl. “I’m six, I can’t not be cute,” I shouted as I threw my paddle at him and stomped up the stairs out of his basement — and my favorite place in the world.
Even though I hadn’t seen him for five years, I had been thinking about Andy Khan since moving to Philadelphia for school. Our dads were best friends since the second grade and our families would get together at either our home in Alexandria or his in the Philly suburbs. We were best friends until it became inappropriate for us to be. I was 13 when my mom subtly hinted that I should hang out upstairs with the moms instead of following the boys out to play. I had been expecting her to say something any day now as I remembered Andy’s big sister was about my age when she stopped hanging with the boys. From the way he refused to look at me, I was fairly certain his mom had a similar conversation with him, too. Philadelphia lost its appeal without him and I stopped visiting with my parents. Eventually, I went abroad to boarding school and he went away for college. We both forgot we ever knew each other.
I heard about him over the years. He remained close friends with my brother, and my mom would gush about what a man he had become. I heard when he tied for the highest MCAT score in the country. I heard he had been accepted into the MD/PhD dual degree, a prestigious program that would earn him doctorates from both Harvard Medical School and MIT. I wondered what he had heard about me over the years, if anything at all. Did he know about my freak-out at Cornell and that I transferred to Drexel University’s accelerated law program instead? Did he think I was an under-achiever? Did he think about me at all?
A few months into my first term at Drexel, my parents came down to visit. They were invited to the Khans’ for dinner and dragged me along. I took longer than usual getting ready, though I knew Andy would probably be in Boston doing some groundbreaking research. As we entered, his mom, whom I call Aunty, enveloped me in a teary-eyed hug as she scolded me for not visiting in years. I was right about him not being home and as I let myself relax, I felt horrible about staying away for so long. I even hit it off with his big sister now that our six-year age difference didn’t seem as much. Soon the Khan residence became my home away from home and I visited Aunty whenever I missed my mom or her cooking, which turned out to be almost every weekend.
On one of my visits, I was cleaning up the mess in the kitchen; it was the least I could do after Aunty had cooked me that delicious biryani. I was loading the dishwasher with my back to the kitchen when I heard someone open the refrigerator. I turned around, shocked to see him in his own home. We openly stared at each other for a few seconds, taking in how each of us had grown and matured over the years, until I realized I wasn’t wearing a scarf. I awkwardly put it on thinking what’s the point — he had already seen me — but also feeling the need to cover in front of him more than anyone else.
Slowly, his shocked expression turned into a smug smile at my awkwardness and he asked, “Are you the maid? I heard we got a new one.” I chose not to answer and went back to doing the dishes hiding my smile from him; he knew damn well who I was.
Soon after, my parents called and said they were coming down to talk to me about something important. I knew what it was going to be about. My mom had been hinting at the fact that she was already married by my age for months. It was my time to enter the arranged marriage hunt. Now that I was 19, and soon turning 20, I needed to get hitched or at least engaged before my pickings dwindled to creepy, bald, old men. I was fine with an arranged marriage. I had seen hundreds of successful ones and being the good Muslim girl my parents raised me to be, there was no other way. I had my own list of demands, though. I wanted someone educated and between three and five years older than me. I didn’t want more than two children and would not get married until I received my JD. He would be solely in charge of supporting me and the family, as I only wanted to do pro-bono human rights work. In return, I would raise his kids, be a good wife, and never soil his name. I didn’t care what he looked like, but he had to be a practicing Muslim who valued his faith. Let the search begin.
“Sarah, you have a proposal and we understand that you are young, but we think you should seriously think about it. Proposals like this don’t come often,” my mom, continued. “We know the family and he fits everything on your list. Why don’t you at least talk to him?” My mom asked giddily. My mom’s never giddy.
“Who is it?” I asked, with genuine curiosity.
“Like, Andy Khan, Andy?” I wondered, perplexed, and unable to think of anyone else named Andy.
“Yes honey, how many Andys do we know?” my mom asked, exasperated.
“I’ll pray on it and get back to you,” I said as I got up to get some air without hearing her response.
I was so confused. Andy was the last person I expected to agree to an arranged marriage. He always talked about wanting to love the person he married and I would always make fun of him for being mushy. I guess people change. Maybe the world had made him a cynic who didn’t believe in love, like me. This thought depressed me.
I prayed on it for over two months and when I didn’t get any bad feelings, I texted my mom, because how else was I supposed to communicate such life-altering decisions? “I’m down. Set up the meet,” was all it said. She would get what I was talking about.
The next weekend we were invited to the Khans’ for dinner. It was weirdly formal; we sat on the special dining table instead of just eating on the couches as usual and Aunty kept on gushing over how pretty I looked as I fidgeted to keep the slippery silk scarf on my head. My mom told me to go make tea, a request to which I elegantly snorted because it was so cliché. Every arranged marriage had the serving tea scene, and everyone knew I didn’t know how to make tea. It eased some of the tension in the room. “Okay, so why don’t you two kids go talk in private?” Andy’s dad finally spoke up.
I followed Andy out of the room and into the basement. He sheepishly handed me a paddle and said, “It was always the best way to get you to talk.” I scored the first point and it gave me the courage to tell him I needed five years before we got married.
“Okay, I still have time in Boston too, so that works.” He nodded in agreement as he hit the ball back to me.
“And I don’t want kids.” I smashed the ball back to him, my competitive nature taking over even at this crucial juncture.
“None?” His eyes widened in shock and he didn’t even notice the ball fly past him.
“Okay fine. One. But you will have to support the family.” He didn’t know I would settle for two.
“Because you’ll be busy saving the world?”
“Something like that,” I said trying, but failing, to hide my smile. I had a feeling someone had already told him about my list.
“Sarah that’s fine, I understand I’m not a priority but I believe we can make it work. I want this, that’s why I sent the proposal. The question is, do you?”
I couldn’t take it anymore. “Why are you doing this?” I blurted out. “You’re the one who always believed in love and all that mushy crap.”
He searched my face for something. After a while he just laughed humorlessly and said, “You wouldn’t get it.”
That’s how at the age of 19, over a game of ping-pong with a boy I hadn’t known in a decade, I entered into a marriage arrangement of pure convenience. Because maybe, I wanted to get it. • 5 March 2014