Marriage Eyes

Zahra Noorbakhsh

Zahra Noorbakhsh

Dylan and I sat in the well-worn cushions of the black pleather love seat in our counselor’s office, the three of us wondering how I’d respond to Dylan’s marriage proposal.

“Well?” Dylan asked, his gray-green eyes locked on my face.

“Yes! Oh my god, yes,” I said, but my up intonations gave away my uncertainty. “Of course! It’s what we’ve been talking about! Of course I want to get ma-mar—engaged!”

I winced at the shrill sound of my own voice. The pleather groaned as I shifted and sunk into my seat.

The rest of the session I was Woody Allen in “Annie Hall.”


“Look, I’m trying to think about why I forgot. I mean, people forget things all the time. I just didn’t think to mention it. I wasn’t sure it was real. So, when you asked me what Dylan and I did this weekend, I forgot that he proposed. I had said yes, kind of. When you asked me, it was small talk and I forgot. Except, why is it bothering me so much, right? Why am I so uncertain? Why is it making me sick? If I vomit, is your office prepared for that? I mean, I won’t. I’m terrified of vomiting. You know, the universe is expanding and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Our time was up!

I couldn’t bolt down the stairs and out of the office building fast enough. I could feel Dylan walking behind me, wounded and droopy eyed.

We got into the car in silence, drove home in silence, entered our studio apartment in silence, and then laid on our Queen bed like two matchsticks in a box. I don’t last long when there’s subtext.

“Quit breathing down my neck,” I said.

Dylan shot up, “I haven’t said anything!”

“I want to be engaged,” I said, “I love you. I just don’t know if I want to be married.”

“So all year—this entire year that we’ve been in therapy, talking about my commitment issues—you were lying,” he said.

“Pipe down!” I couldn’t believe I actually said the words “pipe down” like some school marm, but I was pissed. “You have no right to be afraid of marriage. What are you worried about, Don Draper? Your worst case scenario is that we get married, you resent me and we get divorced. I have 100,000 years of oppression on my side. 100,000 years of Tarzans clubbing Janes over the head and Eve being cursed for making Adam human and hysteria and yoyo dieting and nothing but daytime television to keep me company. That’s not even the worst case scenario.”

“If we have kids—“ Dylan began, but this was getting way too real, way too fast for me.

I couldn’t listen to him talk about kids. I went into the bathroom and shut the door.

“Zahra? Zahra! Open the door,” Dylan knocked on, tapped and talked through the door. “Zahra, how long are you gonna be in there? Come on, it’s ten o’clock. Zahra?”

I was so embarrassed. I felt like a charlatan. Dylan was right. I would never let him get away with a secret like this. The idea of having children terrified me. We’d been together for 6 years and we’d never once talked about kids. Dylan wanted to get married because he wanted to have kids. And I didn’t want to lose him.

+++

I am the oldest of four kids in my family. I spent my whole life babysitting and care taking, responsible for everyone but myself. My parents were practically teenagers when they had me. We figured out parenting together.

“You were the gerbil,” my dad says. “With the first one, we always wondered, ‘What’s gonna happen? Are we doing this the right way?’”

As far as I was concerned, getting into UC Berkeley and heading off to college was my retirement. It was me time. I met Dylan and he was perfect for me. He was terrified of marriage. I never imagined that my commitment phobic, tradition-loathing, Dawkins-esque boyfriend would be tapping on the bathroom door to coax his trembling fiancée out of the bathroom and into an engagement.

For the first five years of our relationship, Dylan was the one who was terrified of the word “marriage.” He was so scared of it that it was comical. Every time he heard the word his eyes bulged with terror. It didn’t have to even be “marriage” as in a “wedding.” I could’ve said, “Dylan, the marriage of the horse and cart is a beautiful thing.”

He’d hear nothing else but the “M” word and his body would freeze up like a popsicle.

I liked imagining the montage that would flash before him every time he heard the “M” word. It had to be some horrifying nightmare for such a primal response. I didn’t even have to say the word, it could just sound like “marriage.” I could ask, “Dylan, what’s Mary’s age again?”

The consonants would whisper past the hair cells in his ears and his auditory receptors would transform the vibrations into a priest slamming the Bible shut, screaming at his atheist, ex-Christian soul, “Wedded to her till death! Till death! Till death!”

Even his pupils would dilate, staring past me as if he could see the Wicked Witch of the West cackling and jettisoning across the sky, puffing out the words, “Surrender, Dylan,” from her broomstick in clouds of black smoke.

It wasn’t until year two of our relationship that I started to notice his “marriage” eyes. So, of course, I took advantage of every opportunity to terrify him. I started fake proposing to him in bed, at restaurants and, sometimes, at dinner parties. It became so hackneyed that it was like that terrible joke of putting your finger on someone’s chest and saying, “What’s that?” just before flicking them in the eye as they look down.

Then, one day, we were hiking in Tilden Park when Dylan got one on me.

It was a perfect spot for a fake proposal, I thought. A clear blue sky and a warm breezy day in the middle of spring. I bent down on one knee.

“Dylan,” I said, taking his hand, “I’ve loved you always and will forever. Will you marry me? Marry me, Dylan! I want to be with you, handcuffed in love until the day you die.”

But, there were no bugged out marriage eyes this time. Instead, Dylan was pensive.

I stood up and asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Zahra,” he said, “I really want to have kids.”

I could feel my stomach flip with anxiety. Then, I appreciated his point. “Jesus,” I said, “Ok, Dylan, I get it. I get it. I’ll quit messing with you. Don’t freak me out like that.” I laughed, fake punched him in the gut and kept walking.

“I do,” he said, “I want kids.”

Dylan had just jumped the shark in our relationship.

I stopped walking and swung around. “Dylan, usually—and I’m not saying we have to—it’s just that, usually, a couple, when they want to have kids…a lot of times…they get married.”

He stopped breathing for a minute, then puffed up his chest and shoulders and took a step toward me. “So. Are—are you saying—you’re saying—you—you want to get—m-m-married?”

I started to laugh, but then I saw how serious he was. He wasn’t joking. How could he be so afraid of marriage and be so ready for kids?

“Kids are for forever, Dylan. Forever-ever-ever. Like marriage. Like getting married. They’re supposed to be there until the day you die.”

“No,” he said, “Everyone I know who gets married gets divorced.”

For the first time, it dawned on me that Dylan wasn’t afraid of being tied down. He was afraid of breaking up. His parents got divorced, but they never stopped being a family. They still had Thanksgiving and Christmas together. His dad still came by the house when Dylan or his brother came to visit. As separate as his parents’ lives were now, they were still connected because of their children.

To Dylan, the institution of marriage, with all its expectations and conventions, left room for resentment to fester and tear a couple apart. I don’t know what happened that caused his parents to divorce. I imagine it was a number of factors. But, I did know that Dylan was afraid that he’d grow to resent me or I’d grow to resent him in the static gender roles of marriage.

“Dylan, you’re a barista and I’m a comic who tutors algebra sometimes to make rent. We can’t have kids. If you want kids then we would have to lead very different lives.”

I could feel the heat spread in patches across my chest. I felt betrayed. Didn’t he know me at all? Didn’t he know how important my dreams and career were to me?

“I’m not trying to be a stay-at-home mom. I’m trying to be a comedian and it’s going to take me a long time. And I’m not quitting just cause you want kids. I don’t even know if I want kids. Ever. if you want kids then you need to change your life, ‘cause I’m not giving up on my career.”

“I want to be a stay at home dad,” he said. “You have this big family and I didn’t grow up with that. I want that. You’re going to be thirty soon and—I’ve been researching it. If I get a nursing degree, then I could work during the day and you could perform at night. It only takes two years. I ran the numbers. After I become I nurse, I could make enough so that you won’t have to work. You might have to stay at home with the baby for the first two years, but you might want to. After that though, Zahra, you wouldn’t have to. I’d be there and you could work and I could fix my hours. I can make it work,” he said.

This time, I had stopped breathing. The words coming out of his mouth hit me like the flu: kids, dad, thirty, baby. I realized I hadn’t blinked for more than a minute. My eyes burned and in the distance I heard the cackle of that green-faced witch mocking me from her broomstick.

+++

I’m remembering that day in Tilden Park, now, here in the bathroom, sitting on the cold pink tiles listening to the man I love try to understand why I’ve shut the door. A year later and Dylan has changed his life. He quit his job as a barista a week after our hike. He’s back in school now, getting his Bachelor of Science degree. When I open the door, he’s going to want answers to questions I haven’t asked myself yet, questions I don’t have the answers to.

Read more by Zahra, here.

Zahra Noorbakhsh is a Feminist Muslim comedian and writer. The New Yorker 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 story The Birds, The Bees, & My Hole was featured in the groundbreaking Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women anthology. 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 GoodMuslimBadMuslim.com featured on PRI’s Global Nation, NPR’s “All Things Considered” and most recently, Tapestry on CBC.

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