Dr. Farber bounced a black, leather whip in her palm when she said the ladies in our classroom would find Taoist sexual philosophy especially interesting. Taoist men, she explained, trained themselves to last.
“That’s why a Taoist man is hard to find.”
The room broke into an easy laughter. My lips went tight. Last at what?
After class the curly-haired blonde guy that sat two rows over motioned me to his desk. He introduced himself as Matt and the woman standing next to him as Jen and said, “We’re getting a study group together. Interested?”
“Sure,” I said. This lecture had been a rude introduction to college life for an eighteen-year-old Muslim girl. I could use the help of what I figured to be a senior and a thirty-something on her second career.
“Do you wanna grab some lunch?”
I didn’t. Matt and his mature friend seemed like boring lunch company, but it struck me as impolite to refuse now that they’d invited me to join their study group.
“Okay,” I said.
We were headed for the cafeteria when Jen walked away with a wave, and Matt started toward the parking lot.
I stopped. “Isn’t Jen coming with us?”
“No, she always leaves right after class.”
“But aren’t we going to the cafeteria?”
“I make it a policy not to eat there. I’ll take you somewhere off campus.”
I didn’t know how to tell Matt I wasn’t allowed to go out with him alone so I convinced myself there was no need. I was a college student now. Boys and girls had lunch together, and it didn’t mean anything.
Matt opened the door of his run-down Datsun for me, and I sat down, dizzy with regret. I heard the voices of my Muslim Students’ Association friends saying, “When an unmarried boy and girl are alone together, the third person is the devil.”
Matt parked outside a diner that looked like a barn, its name printed in capital letters that appeared to be dripping paint. Inside a sign asked us to wait for a table, and my stomach turned. I wanted to stand in line for fast food, eat, and get out.
At our table, I ordered a salad. Matt frowned. “Don’t tell me you’re one of those girls that doesn’t eat?”
I didn’t feel like explaining the restaurant’s menu was a festival of meat, and I only ate halal. Instead, I said, “I’m not that hungry,” which was true. Thinking of my Muslim friends spotting us together sickened me.
After an awkward pause, I brought up our ethics class. “It’s hard to get through all the reading,” I said, hoping Matt might impart some upperclassman advice that would justify this outing.
“So don’t read it,” Matt said with a nonchalance that annoyed me. Why would I want to study with someone who didn’t do the reading?
When the check came, Matt paid for lunch despite my protests. I didn’t know much about guys, but I knew paying for meals implied things. He drove me back to my dormitory and idled in the loading zone.
“We should do that again some time.”
“We should get together with Jen and study.”
“Have you ever been to the Six Flags out here? We could go.”
I panicked. Matt was asking me out, and now there was no denying this outing was exactly what it should not have been.
“This has nothing to do with you, but I can only study with a guy and even that can’t be one on one. In my religion, men and women don’t go out together.”
“What kind of a religion is that?”
Matt hit the steering wheel. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, suddenly certain this entire exchange was my fault. Of course he was angry. He’d just wasted twenty bucks on lunch.
“I’ve heard a lot of excuses from girls, but this is a first.”
“No. It’s not like that. I’m really not allowed.”
Matt nodded dismissively. I apologized and got out of the car, shaken. Stopping at the bench outside my building, first I feared sin. Then I cursed the vagaries of American male-female relationships. In Islamic culture, a man secured a woman’s consent to be pursued. For the first time, I saw a benefit to the directness I’d spent many a teenage night lamenting. A heart had passed through my hands that had no business being there in the first place.
Huda Al-Marashi is an Iraqi-American living in California. Excerpts from her work-in-progress memoir have appeared in the anthologies Love Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of Muslim American Women, Becoming: What Makes a Woman, In Her Place, and Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women and Extreme Religion. Other works have appeared in The Rumpus and the anthology Rust Belt Chic. She is the recipient of a 2012 Creative Workforce Fellowship.