Zainab Khan — a freelance digital creative, specialising in social media and community — puts many faces to love with her latest photo series titled “Affinity”— a project that highlights the diversity of love. Based in the United Kingdom, this is Khan’s fourth photo series, previously known for her Trailblazing Muslim Women collection which celebrated professional, women in London transforming a variety of industries—and what it means to be a Muslim woman.
Likewise, “Affinity” challenges the stereotypical face of love in South Asian culture by capturing 10 different couples in the UK and presenting their love stories in their own words. The series celebrates that love comes in a variety of forms and why representation is vital to acceptance. Khan serves as Creative Director for “Affinity,” which was photographed by Sarah Ali, Ragib Choudhury, Saima Khalid and Lina Maryam Karuvetil.
Here, Brown Girl presents snapshots of these couples:
We had a winter ball and I was just like it would be nice to go with someone. This was the weirdest way, I asked him. I said to him: ‘Do you want to go that thing?’ and he’s like: ‘Nah, I’m alright.’ I was like well: ‘You know if you get two tickets, it’s discounted.’
It was really funny cause their conversation was so basic to each other that day, but in a nice way. They realized, my parents especially my dad: ‘oh they’re immigrants too.’ They had the same struggle. That’s probably what brought them together. They spoke about the first time coming to London. Her dad and my dad are from village towns. They both had these big bellies. They had this beautiful immigrant moment.
I remember him calling past midnight, he called me and said to come outside. I was like this better be good cause it’s 1 am. He used to take long pauses before he said something. He said, ‘we’ve been talking for a while now’. He was looking down at the staring wheel. And I think I just said, ‘do you want to be together?’ and then he’s was like ‘yes!’
We pretty much made commandments on our first or second date. We’re two independent people but together. The relationship is a part of our life, it’s not something that takes over or becomes to separate. It’s part of and within everything; work, music and family.
Before I got pregnant with her, I wondered how she’d fit into this duality. Her spending time with his family is so different to when she goes to mine. His is fairly small, mine is massive and hectic. We do Christmases and Eid.
But now that she’s here, I feel less worried because most importantly, she’s loved. From all angles.
He said to me, that he had booked the day off, booked breakfast and a manicure cause you might want to show off your nails a bit later. And he went, you might want to show off your nails cause I have a question for you. Then he got down on one knee.
Actually, that’s not what happened, what I did say was I booked this, I booked this, I booked this, I booked in a manicure cause I figured if you have an engagement ring you’ll probably want nice nails to show it off, and then I proposed.
I know that because I spent fucking ages rehearsing it. When I wrote that I was like, ‘I’m a fucking baller. That’s cool. That’s going to work.’
So I graduated and I really struggled to get a job in the industry, so I was working in retail for a few months, and then I eventually started my job with a design company. Throughout the whole time, Luke really supported me, and even now he’s so supportive of me and my career and believes in what I do and literally, The Other Box, wouldn’t be where it is without him.
I just found Kamran really easy to speak to. The first time we spoke, we spoke for 14 or 15 hours. I was never a girly girl growing up with 3 brothers, my parents have instilled what I would say is quite core values, I come from a very liberal family – they always said if you want to find someone that’s fine, you just have to be honest about what you want in life. I knew what I wanted in a partner, I wasn’t into the let’s hangout and date and let’s see where this is going.
When I first told my mum about Kam, I said, ‘Oh, he’s Indian and from Hong Kong’. The first thing she asked was, ‘Does he have a British passport?’, which cracked me up. Before meeting my mum for the first time, the cheeky sod sent a picture of his passport to me to show my mum. We still laugh over it today and my mum still thinks he’s from Singapore!
Things came to a head one evening, I’ve always been honest with my mom. One evening things came to a head and I came out to my mother. It was quite an emotional evening. I tell everybody that the words that came out of her mouth were really strong, positive and powerful to me: ‘If I can’t share in your happiness, what kind of mum would I be.’
I’m at the gym. I’m on my grind. I keep telling myself that if I keep doing ‘X, Y, and Z,’ I’ll get results. Which is true — all the fitness gurus say so. The personal trainer I once had said as much. Yet, I forget to take a breather. I’m hoping for instant gratification, when I know the results I want — better energy, endurance, and metabolism — take time. I have to be patient with myself. So why do I feel pressured?
When I sit down to take a breath, I notice this idea of instant gratification weaves a common thread. I put pressure on myself to complete projects, quicker and faster. As a licensed therapist, my clients also talk about how they feel the pressure to do more work in a shorter amount of time, leading to longer work days and burnout. Some new clients ask, “How long does therapy take? Will I feel better after three sessions?” It’s like those junk tabloids with headlines like, “how to lose 10 lbs in 10 days!” In an ever-changing, fast-paced world, there are expectations to do things faster and better. On top of that, a relationship with our body, our career, our mind, and yes, our therapist, takes time too. To wait for results can create an uneasy feeling. We can’t trust the process if we don’t see results right away. We’re focused on the destination rather than the journey.
I believe the same idea is being applied to dating and relationships too. I cringe and roll my eyes when I hear, “Dating is a numbers game.” While it’s true that you might have to meet many people before finding your person, this has caused some of my clients to ‘gamify’ dating: swiping right on every dating profile and trying too hard on the first date in the hopes of landing “the one.” This prevents them from slowing down, truly seeing the person in front of them for who they are, and being vulnerable. My South Asian American clients feel the cultural pressure to settle down quickly and think they need to “catch up” with their friends who are getting married. They’re working very hard in the South Asian dating market, hitting up all the singles they meet, and finding instant chemistry with “the one.”
Here’s how South Asian American singles should stop shaming themselves for being single, this Valentine’s Day season, and try dating with intention. At the same time, this therapist has some thoughts on how we South Asian singles could be dating better. If you’re single this Valentine’s season and wondering, “when am I going to find my person?” you’re going to have to challenge some long-held, societal beliefs about dating, marriage, and relationships, both within and outside of our culture. It means:
Being okay with not going on a ton of dates
Dating is not a game to win! Forget about the “numbers” game. You are also not trying to “trick” anyone into being with you. That shit is not cute. Show up authentically and don’t be afraid to be “caught off guard.” After changing their perspective, some of my clients tell me, “I haven’t found a decent quality person!” Yeah, that’s kind of the whole point. You could go on a ton of mindless dates and have your time wasted, or you can have one or two quality dates and feel fulfilled. Pick one.
Because some South Asian cultures have a much faster timeline with marriage, you might find yourself trying way too hard to impress your first date in the hopes that it will rush the chemistry high. Dating scenarios that start this way burn out once things get serious. Looking for chemistry too soon is like chasing a temporary high. Be patient and take your time getting to know someone because chemistry takes a long time to build.
Paying attention to what your date says and how they say it
We’re all putting our best foot forward on a first date. What do they talk about? How do they talk about other people? Does the conversation feel superficial? Does it feel like a performance? Do they take an interest in you? Are they sharing anything about themselves?
Remembering what you want from a long-term partner
Superficial qualities aren’t an indicator of how good of a partner they’ll be in the future. Having a high income doesn’t mean they’ll contribute to your relationship or the family you both build. However, their financial decision-making can indicate what they prioritize and what they value. And while physical attraction is important, there is no fountain of youth. Will you still want to share your life with this person when they are 60? Or will they annoy the shit out of you?
Taking your parents’ opinion with a grain of salt
Marriage is not just a blending of two families; it’s a ‘business contract’ between you and your spouse. Would you go into business with this person? Would you want to share physical space with them? Share a bed with them? Your parents are not the ones who are going to bump uglies with them, and at some point, your parents will no longer be around. Whose decision do you want to be stuck with?
Remembering no one is perfect
There is no such thing as “Mr/Mrs. Right.” Let go of the idea that there is someone better out there. Dealbreakers are important because they indicate what you have tolerance and patience for, and this can affect intimacy, but don’t write someone off for something workable. Think about the things that give you the “ick” versus things that don’t give you the “ick.” If someone’s qualities are only mildly imperfect but overall don’t give you the “ick,” then it shouldn’t be a dealbreaker. If it’s something that can be changed, then maybe it’s worth being flexible. If it’s something that can’t be changed and you can’t get over it, then you’re wasting your time and their time too.
As a South Asian American who is also single, I am pressured by my family to get married quickly too. I know that many people in my situation would either give in to their demands or take matters into their own hands. They might date to appease their parents that they’re “working on it.” But I refuse to give in to the pressure. When I date, I date to enjoy the person in front of me. I see the person for who they are, not some idea I cooked up in my head for the outcome I’m trying to achieve. I put my most authentic self forward. If this doesn’t result in a relationship quickly, I’m okay with that.
If this therapist can be patient with her process, then why can’t you? Like exercise, relationships take time, and you could be doing everything right and still not getting exactly what you want. You won’t be a good fit for everyone, and likewise, not everyone will be a good fit for you. But don’t close yourself off from the world. This Valentine’s season, learn to trust the process. Tune out the noise; the idea of “instant gratification,” Be patient, be honest, and be yourself. And don’t forget to take that breather.
Valentine’s Day is here, and my calendar is fully booked on February 14th. It’s not what you think. My calendar is fully booked with therapy clients who will most definitely be reflecting on their singlehood this year. And so will I. Most of them are just like me — single South Asian Americans, between the ages of 22-40 who come from moderately conservative cultures. The adult children of immigrants, who had arranged marriages, wondering when we will ever find “the one,” and why we won’t settle.
I’m a therapist in therapy, and I’ve had a lot of family trauma and baggage to unpack with my therapist. Through my training and personal therapy journey, I learned to question a lot of the things that I’ve been told about marriage and relationships.
At the same time, it’s not easy. No one wants to be lonely. Brené Brown talks about how detrimental loneliness can be for humans in “Braving the Wilderness.” We all want to belong to someone or something bigger. And there is a difference between being lonely, without intimate companionship, and being alone in our experiences. As we get older, everyone we know in our age group is on a different life trajectory, and we start to feel both alone and lonely.
We straddle the line between two cultures — the one that we were born and raised in, and the one our parents and family tried to teach us. Many of us might live double lives. But being single is not an anomaly. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, about 31% of adults in America are single. About 32% of American women, between ages 18-29, and 29% of women, 50-64, are single. This means that roughly about a third of American women are single, regardless of age or developmental stage.
Results vary by sexual identity and race. 56% of adults who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, between the ages of 18-29, are single, compared to 29% of their straight counterparts. Black adults are more likely to be single than White or Hispanic adults. However, no statistics included Asian Americans. Some studies show we are more likely to get married due to strong values placed on marriage in Asian cultures, and less likely to get divorced. There is also a huge stigma against divorce. For Asian American women, there is a cultural pressure to not only get married, but stay married.
For many South Asian Americans who are first or second-generation, we have no blueprint for the modern world of dating. A lot of us don’t know what a healthy dating experience, let alone a marriage, is supposed to look like if it is even at all possible. In the South Asian diaspora, marriage is taken very seriously, but counter-intuitively; we are not given the opportunity to spend time on making the decision — we are expected to decide very quickly. For most of us, who are children of immigrants, our parents more than likely had an arranged marriage — that was a decision made by our grandparents, aunts and uncles. And the wedding and engagement happened fairly quickly. That is our blueprint
There are many mixed messages about how to approach marriage and dating. Many of us were told to not start dating until after we graduate from college and get a full-time job, which left a lot of us with very little dating experience, and then, Poof! We’re magically just supposed to settle down. There are many desi people who stay single because they know they have issues to work on. A lot of us are aware of how messages about marriage and dating in our communities are sometimes not realistic, if at times rooted in colorism, internalized colonialism, patriarchal and misogynistic values,and racism.
Dating is uncertain because you can’t control whether or not someone wants to date you, let alone if someone wants a relationship with you. And sometimes that has nothing to do with you and everything to do with that person’s preferences or baggage. But is it possible you have some baggage too?
Staying single because of personal baggage is not uncommon for South Asian American millennials. Because of this, many of us believe that something must be “wrong” with us, especially when people ask why we’re still single and unmarried. While we should address underlying issues for why we’re still single, that doesn’t mean anything is necessarily “wrong” with us.
As a licensed therapist, I see many single South Asians Americans who believe that something must be wrong with them because they’ve never been in a relationship before, or because they’re not in a serious relationship yet. If you’re one of these people, I want you to consider:
Who taught you how to date?
Who taught you how to socialize with other genders?
When were you allowed to date?
How often were you allowed to socialize with other genders?
What is your model of a healthy marriage or relationship?
Who taught you free will and how to exercise choice?
How were affection and romance modeled for you?
When we unpack the answers to these questions, we start to realize that there are actually very good reasons for why we’re still single.
If there are that many South Asian Americans who are afraid of dating because they don’t want to repeat toxic relationship patterns, that means that many of us are…meant for each other. So why can’t we find each other?
Our parents had an easier time finding each other because they lived in a homogenous society. My parents came from a community where everyone was of the same or similar Malayalee-Indian background and the same religion. My parents hope that I can find someone from our culture, but they forget that we live in a heterogeneous society, where finding someone who is South Asian, let alone of our specific culture, background, community, and religion, is few and far between. There is pressure on many South Asian Americans to find someone within their specific communities. Not to mention that meeting someone through a mutual connection doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a good fit for you. It makes it feel like our options are limited.
This creates a ‘scarcity mindset.’ Scarcity mindset is the belief that there aren’t enough resources or opportunities out there. When you feel there aren’t enough singles within your community that you can meet, it can cause you to become hyper-fixated on these limited ‘resources’ and even heighten anxiety. And to some extent, there is some truth to that fear — some of my clients are joining dating apps to meet South Asians out-of-state. As the people around you start to settle down, you might start to feel the pressure of settling down quickly to “catch up.” You may have tried to go on a bunch of dates or entertain the idea of certain people in your community, but they eventually fizzle out, fall flat, or end in rejection. You might start to feel discouraged. This kind of pressure can result in:
Avoiding dating in the culture or dating altogether to prevent being hurt or feeling rejected, or having to confront the social anxieties of meeting new people and being open and vulnerable.
Latching on to the idea of someone we meet, working too hard to impress them early on, and attempting to force chemistry to guarantee an outcome (marriage).
When you feel this kind of pressure, you might underestimate or overestimate how to interact with potential partners. This pressure might come from messages you’ve heard in your community that you’ve internalized. For instance, if you’ve heard someone say, “we don’t get divorced in our culture,” you might start to believe that divorce is the worst possible outcome. That might put pressure on you to find the “perfect” partner in order to prevent divorce, but the future of your marriage is not something that you can guarantee. Another example — if you hear your parents tell you to “just compromise,” you might start to believe that your expectations are not realistic; therefore, that’s why you’re not married or in a relationship yet. You might start to lower your expectations and get attached to any potential partner in the hopes that you can guarantee a relationship, but changing who you are does not necessarily mean you’ll attract what you want.
How we approach dating, especially when under this cultural pressure, can have an impact on how we bond emotionally with people. One theory based on psychological research, called Attachment Theory and Styles, describes patterns of how we create and maintain emotional bonds with others and where we fall on the attachment style spectrum or circle. Cultural pressure to settle down and marry someone from your specific culture or community can influence how we date and why, but it prevents us from being mindful and enjoying the process of dating. Your attachment style might be the result of your family dynamics, your parents’ style of emotional connection, and cultural messages you’ve been taught about what a relationship or marriage “should” be like. For example, if you’re under cultural pressure to get married quickly to appease your family, you might develop an anxious attachment style because it triggers thoughts and behaviors that fall under that category. If you question the cultural pressure, you might associate marriage with negative connotations. You might push away dating and marriage and act in the way of an avoidant attachment. Your attachment style is not genetic or something you are born with. It is a pattern of behavior that is about how you relate with others, especially in relationships. It can change over time and vary based on your anxiety or the person you’re seeing. If you want to learn more about attachment style, seeking a therapist is a good resource.
Regardless of what your attachment style is, it can prevent you from being patient, truly vulnerable, and having quality dates or quality relationships. It might keep you in unhealthy dating situations or relationships too long out of fear that you won’t find anyone else “in time.” You might be jumping to conclusions about what should happen next when you date someone. When you really like someone, you might be asking, “What if things go wrong?” But what if things go right?
Valentine’s Day has never been something special for me, and while it would be nice to be in a relationship, I’m not going to let the cultural pressure of what I’m “supposed” to do, as a South Asian American single woman, dictate my life. I have my reasons for being single, and it’s no one’s business but mine (and my therapist’s). If someone in my family or my culture doesn’t approve of my singlehood, then I sincerely hope they’re awake at night thinking about why I’m single. What they think of my life is none of my business. At the same time, I’m not going to shut myself off completely from dating and relationships. Dating will be on my terms. While rejection hurts, I have accepted that people will come and go and I wouldn’t want someone to feel forced or obligated to stay with me if they have emotionally left the relationship. Ultimately, I’m looking for someone who will fit the lifestyle I already have, but if I don’t find my life partner, I’m okay being with myself too.
You don’t have to follow your parents’ blueprint to marriage and relationships. You’re allowed to follow your own. If we adopt an abundance mindset, a mindset of knowing that there are enough resources for everyone and accepting what resources are available to us — along with practicing healthy relationship habits — we might develop better, more satisfying relationships. There are enough single South Asian Americans out there who would love to be with you. Stand firm in who you are and what you want, and be open to what comes your way.
For BGM Literary’s third short story of the year, editor Nimarta Narang is excited to share Ankita Saxena’s short story titled “Date Night.” Chronicling Anapurna’s dates with Oscar, the story delves deeper into Anapurna’s relationship, well, relationships, as we learn more about her family and her parents. Saxena, a British Indian poet and performer, has also recently launched her debut called Mother / Line.
It is Saturday night. The drizzle has left Anapurna’s hair a little wet. She walks in and scans the room. The waiter at the entrance pauses before speaking, as if also unsure what she is doing here. At that moment, she remembers she has left her umbrella on the tube. Fuck.
The booking is under Annie, she says — and the waiter pauses again, as if unsure how such a light name could belong to such a dark girl. She remembers then, that whatever happens, the clocks will change overnight. Tomorrow, daylight will squeeze into a smaller dress size, diet all the way through winter.
Follow me, he says, suddenly in a rush, grabbing two laminated menus from his podium. He reminds Annie of the black cat that crossed her path earlier — its back slightly arched. She did not know then, or now, whether to feel scared or lucky.
He places the menus on a round table for two in the back of the restaurant.
Oscar arrives like a train, leaving only a breath of silence before opening with the customary: Hi, sorry I’m late. It is nice to finally meet you. By the time he arrives, Annie has already read through the menu in Italian and English. She is deciding between the prawn and the spaghetti, but of course — it is never down to the best option.
In the next moment, she is standing, smiling, extending her right hand, and then her left arm, for a sideways embrace. He smells like cologne, of course, and as their cheeks bristle, he feels like rain.
So, how has your week been? She starts, adding Did the curry turn out well last night? A mark of familiarity, a gesture that this is something more than small talk. Yeah, it was suitably spicy. My flatmates were very impressed. He pauses, and takes a sip of the tap water that has by now appeared on his left-hand side. I like your look, a polite way of expressing surprise at her low-cut body, blazer and culottes.
Annie orders the prawn in the end. Better conversation starter.
They talk of holidays to Spanish seaside resorts, getting piss drunk and spilling onto the streets from one bar to the next, with the same light thrum of English pop songs playing in each. They talk of his work trips to Belgium and Buenos Aires, the time he was nearly mugged in Lagos after taking one too many unknown pills from strangers. These are extravagances Annie has never known.
Would you take a random pill from a stranger? he asks, and she thinks of her mother, which she hoped would not happen this early in the conversation. Her mother, who gets ‘drunk’ from half a glass of wine, her austere façade crumbling to a giggling mess. Her mother, asks time and time again what people mean by kissing strangers on the lips in nightclubs: how do they trust them like that?
No, she says, I like being in control.
Oscar shifts his weight forward on his chair and lays down his cutlery like a declaration. They have had a glass of wine each by this point, and something about her caution makes him bold.
So, what’s your story?
My story? – the last prawn hung on a fork like a question mark.
Annie does not know which version to tell. Oscar is both familiar and from a different world. In one breath, he talks about his immigrant grandmother; in another, of Yacht Week with his university friends and the time he trashed his parents’ house when they were ‘away’ for the weekend.
Annie cannot imagine trashing her parents’ house. At the age of 11, when she got into her first-choice secondary school, she realised how easy it was to please them. She got good grades, did not cause any chaos, and in return, they left her alone. All her friends would envy her for her harmonious relationship with her family. But it was not difficult with a little pragmatism. She was never too deliberate about being ‘good’ — she just had no desire to be ‘bad’. In return, she had her own set of keys from the age of 14 and returned home often well after they went to bed.
More than this, Annie cannot imagine her parents being ‘away,’ that too, with just each other for company. Their marriage, and everything that came with it — discussion over discounted items in the supermarket, loud Saturday morning calls to old relatives, their hands joined in monthly prayer — always seemed more ritualistic than love. On family drives, Annie would sit in the back seat with headphones plugged in, watching for signs of love. Maybe a casual hand on a thigh? A sideways look in the mirror. A laugh over an in-joke. But every time the music quietened, all she could hear was her mother cursing at her father’s driving, her father demanding directions, or, more often than not, the silence of people who have nothing more to say to each other.
One Valentine’s Day, she sent them on a dinner date to the new Chinese restaurant on their local high street. She and her brother put on a movie at home, and they returned well after the credits, faces giddy like new lovers. But the next morning, they were back to their usual selves — her father complaining about the bill, her mother complaining about the way he treated her family.
Annie and Oscar talk of hobbies then. She mentions dancing at university. He mentions winter sports and cooking. She cannot imagine anything worse than falling on ice.
She notices the restaurant has thinned behind them, all the old-fashioned wall hangings suddenly visible, like shells in low tide. Everything alright Sir? Ma’am? the waiter asks, and they request the bill, going Dutch as she has been trained to do by now.
Outside, the rain has stilled, leaving large puddles reflecting the streetlights. Annie slips inside her coat, imagining slipping into his — the baggy weight of it, the cliché. He places his hand instinctively on her lower back, laughing as the splash of a puddle makes a small smudge on his suede shoes.
As they near the station, he extends the hand to an arm again, and this time she lets her body bend in the fold of his, noticing suddenly how thin her jacket is, how little fabric and skin separate their bones.
She does not say, I do not know how to be more intimate than this. Instead, she rubs her palms against his spine, and then draws back quickly taking her and her shadow into the darkness.
What’s your story? The question plays back in her head. They have come to see an exhibition. It is precisely six days and 15 hours after their first meeting. They walk side by side, Oscar slightly behind, Annie’s shoulder occasionally and intentionally pressing into his chest.
They glide through the gallery like a pair of ducks. She has never observed still objects so close to someone else. She is fascinated by how long he looks at the sculpture, and how he takes her around them like a waltz. She notices how well-dressed he is for the gallery in his light blue chinos and black coat. She notices, once again, his cologne.
She had come to this gallery last with Zeina and Chrissie — Zeina in a rush to get out the door and get some food, Chrissie taking pictures of every painting to send to her boyfriend. Annie always felt peaceful around her friends — each of their habits etched into her like a chant from childhood. Zeina started adding flat peaches to their shopping list in the second year. By the time they graduated, the kitchen cupboard was stocked with Molasses, Sumac, heaps of chickpeas. Annie imagined growing up with Zeina and her sisters, and when Zeina facetimed her mother in the middle of their flat dinners, Annie almost felt she had.
And Chrissie — who stuck to Annie from the first day of uni, later introducing her to all her theatre friends, saying: this girl is an angel. Once, before a black-tie ball, she had shown Annie how to read her eyes: your eyes are long, not wide, so you should draw your liner thick on the lid ratherthan with wings. That night, she felt like Beyoncé. When Annie was shaking uncontrollably the morning she was expecting her university results, they both gathered around her. She nearly asked them to open the email — don’t be dramatic, Zeina said, Chrissie on the other side smoothing out Annie’s hair out like a bed.
What do you think of this one? Oscar asks, looking at an abstract piece. She cocks her head, It looks like a city.
Really? To me, it looks like the peaks of mountains.
Annie remembers stories of the college ski trip — the hot tub with the whole milky way in view, the excessive drinking, reckless life-changing accidents. What would she do with a world like Oscar’s? What new perspective could he offer?
Oscar takes that moment to put his hand around her shoulder — her skin tingles unexpectedly under the layers.
Or a face, maybe. See, that jagged streak of red could be a smile.
She relaxes. He starts pointing out the chin and the eyebrows. They laugh. It is a chaotic old woman, they decide. It is always easy to find faces in abstracts.
Later, they go for a walk by the river. He asks her about her job. She says all the buzzwords. Product manager. Start-up. Incubator. He asks her what she loves about her job.
She remembers getting the offer in April of her third year. She was at home, in her bedroom. She had been juggling applications and interviews with finals preparations for three months. The phone call comes as a shock. She is expecting an email. She starts screaming at the top of her voice. Guys! Guys, I got the offer!
What? What? Her mother, always the first to listen, appearing from nowhere in a sudden gust of elation, jumping with her until their feet are sore. Her brother bolting up the stairs: What? How much are they paying you? Her father pausing the football downstairs, What? What?
Later that evening, the family meal — spicy chicken,a rare bottle of wine. Her heart is full. Her parents laughing across the table. This is better than any grade she has received.
I like the stimulation. She says. How each day is a new challenge.
Annie has learnt the art of sculling through bar queues — how you must pick a corner edge and gradually navigate inwards diagonally, shoulders guiding you through like oars.
I’ll get this round.
You paid for the gallery tickets. Only fair.
Once a group of bulky, beer-breathed men appeared behind her, laughing loudly over her head. Excuse me, two G+Ts please, she yelled over their grunts. You alright, love? one of them slurred into her hair, his T-shirt exposing muscles like hedges lining his arms. We’ll get her those, he said, one bulbous hand on her waist, another extending his card to the slobbery bar top. She let him pay. Grabbed both G+Ts shiny on the counters, drained half of one by the time reached Chrissie, pristine at the back of the queue. Some old creeps in this bar. Let’s go find your boyfriend.
When he drove her to university the first time, her father switched off the radio halfway through the journey. You know, Beta — you must be careful in the nightclubs. Men can be mad. Don’t drink, shink there. They can put things in them.
I know Papa. Relax.
Just be careful.
Months after, she found Zeina at the corner of a club, pulled her up by the elbows, hair matted with sweat, eyes dilated. Annie — what is happening to me? Nee, am I drunk? Anapurna — don’t tell my mother about this. Zeina, who had never had a sip of alcohol. Never intentionally.
She orders two Espresso Martinis — Oscar had posed with some in his dating profile, and it’s time she made an effort.
When she returns, he is on his phone, smiling.
Sorry, those were my friends. They’re getting wasted tonight. A party? Yeah. Rob’s flatmate’s 25th. You should go! No, no. I’m here now. We could go together. Really? You’d be up for that? Yeah.
The Uber drops them off by a semi-detached house on a dark street lined with lamplights. Just before they enter, Oscar touches Annie on the waist turning her around. She is conscious of the thick layer of faux fur between them.
You sure about this? His breath leaving a cigarette trail in the November air. My friends can be intimidating. She lets her chin fall on his chest, Come on, I’m cold.
Inside, there are fewer people than she anticipated. It is less a party, more a circle of friends passing around pringles and tin cans — lights on, the vague attempt at bunting, the bass of speakers filtering from another room.
In the presence of friends, Oscar is louder; more sarcastic. He introduces Annie by her job description — Annie works in tech, by Southwark — the first time she realises he cares. They meet Johnny, who is doing a Ph.D. in Literature, and Elisa, who has just come back from six months abroad. Annie scans the circle, realises she is at least three foundation shades darker than the rest of them. In her fur jacket, heeled boots and red lip, she is also the best dressed.
She posts a dancing girl emoji in her WhatsApp chat with Zeina and Chrissie. Guess where I am?
Oscar takes off his coat. I’ll be back soon, he says, slipping through an arch underneath the stairs. Annie makes small talk with Elisa — So where did you travel? They talk of backpacking in Cambodia and Vietnam, You know how it is on a budget? I need to go back there sometime, spend a few months in each place. Annie pretends to understand. Other friends float over — Michael who has beautiful long hair, and Lucy, who is a newly-qualified lawyer.
She walks over to the window — if she squints, she can make out train tracks buried beneath the room’s bright reflections. She watches the quick passage of tubes rubbing bodies for a few loud seconds, before going their separate ways.
Behind her, Oscar comes over with two plastic cups. Punch he says, gesturing to a large bowl on the TV stand. Annie remembers the housewarming party she and Zeina threw after university, both their mothers calling them to ask about the food arrangements. Ma, it’s fine – you don’t need to feed people here, she said, still impulse-buying a few boxes of Tesco-branded samosas and tortilla chips for nachos. What kind of people will they think you are if you don’t even give them food?
Annie’s mother would begin a cooking operation each time her friends came over for the weekend: chili chicken and noodles, pasta with an onion-fried tomato sauce, vegetables baked in cheese sauce. Get the nice stuff, not discounted, she would say, pushing her daughter to make a last-minute trip to the supermarket, returning to a dry-cleaned house, each unnecessary item hidden like lightbulbs inside drawers.
Zeina was the only friend who was not considered a guest. In the absence of any relatives outside the Middle East other than an uncle in Canada, she adopted Annie’s as her own. She would arrive on Friday evenings and eat what the family ate, not leaving until Sunday morning, when she needed to get back to study for her Monday morning seminar.
They would stay up until two or three in the morning, lying on Annie’s beige carpet, drawing pictures and coded messages with colouring pencils in the cork underside of her desk. These are for our eyes only — Annie would say — write whatever you want, no one will see them.
Once, Annie’s parents were fighting downstairs, the odd word occasionally slipping into focus like letters in the last row of an opticians’ screen.
You have no bloody right to – Why do you always have to bring my mother into – I don’t care if the kids are – Oh, so I’m – am I?
Zeina got up early the next morning as if nothing has happened. You know me, Annie, I can sleep through anything, between toothpaste gargles.
What you looking at? Oscar asks, following Annie’s eye-line. She is reminded of the art gallery — how they learnt to observe minutiae side by side, read the other person’s gaze. She wonders at what point her parents forgot to do this.
Annie tells him about Zeina and Chrissie, about her family — how her mother was the one who pushed her to start dating at the age of 24. You have to live your life Anapurna. You cannot use me as an excuse for everything.
She talks and talks until the drinks evaporate, and she reaches for him with the abandon of prayer, nerves racing to her toes, chest aching, neck pulsing.
What’s your story? Oscar had asked barely half an hour into their first conversation. And what could she say?
Liberal Londoner in trendy tech job OR Second-generation immigrant with traditional family values
As they walk in the bright sunlight, three weeks after their first date, Oscar squeezes Annie’s right earlobe in his index and thumb.
Are you always this cautious?
The park’s molten brown foliage shimmers in a large, grey lake, where a dog has plunged into the cold water, creating ripples that land within metres of their feet.
Only when I am worried I might slip.
The hours after she hears of her parents’ separation, Annie does not tell anyone. Annie, come look at this. The girls are watching Zeina’s cousin’s wedding videos. How unfair is this? She curls up with them, comforted by the lack of questioning. They remind her of her father — always there to pick her up, never bothered about the details.
Chrissie is trying to explain the situation to the co-director of her play. He gaslighted me. Are you even listening?
That evening, her mother calls her, cool and blabbering. It’s only been a couple of months. We didn’t want to tell anyone until it was official. We didn’t want to distract you. The words months and official repeating in her head for weeks to come. She remembers the night she got her job offer — how could her mother have laughed like that on the verge of separation? How could she have lied for so long?
When Zeina finally finds out, she moves into Annie’s bed. Don’t worry. I won’t let you down. Later, Annie slips away to the sofa and lies there all night, ghost-like in the green of her WhatsApp screen, trying to memorise the timelines, her thighs rubbing against each other, sweaty in the August heat.
She does not answer her mother’s calls for another two months, until the day before she starts her job, and her mother, as usual, makes up for it: I have so much faith in you, Anapurna. You have nothing to worry about. Call me in your lunch break. Or whenever. I love you.
What’s your story? Oscar will ask again. And what will she say now, three weeks into knowing him? And what will she say to all those who ask after him?
Afraid of ending up like her parents OR Afraid of not ending up like them.
Experienced in heartbreak, in friendshipOR Hugely inexperienced in intimacy, in love.
In the winter sun, the birds are creating raucous in the trees. The dog is shaking off lake water, more alive for having taken the dive.