"I hear he walks around high school with his shirt unbuttoned, gold chains around his neck, and a girl on each arm," my friend Shireen said.
"No way!" I replied, feigning disdain. I hoped she didn't catch the flicker of intrigue that crossed my face whenever she talked about the local bad boy, Faisal.
Shireen and I were on the rishta track. We were marriageable Pakistani-Canadian girls: young, pretty and oh-so-housewifey. At sixteen, we were only two years away from the flurry of wedding proposals that were sure to come our way.
There was nothing we wanted more in life than to get married, so we did what we could to ensure it would happen: wearing the most fashionable shalwar kameez at weddings, and helping aunties wash dishes after dinner parties. Most importantly, we made it our mission to find out everything there was to know about all the eligible bachelors in and around Toronto.
And that included the activities of the not-so-eligible bachelors too.
Shireen knew who all the "good" bachelors were. And Faisal Khan from Brampton was not one of them. Still, we talked about him. A lot.
I finally saw Faisal for the first time when I was eighteen. He was performing at a Pakistan Independence Day celebration. No gold chains, leather, or earring in sight. He was wearing a sweater vest and was there with his mom. He didn't seem hot enough to have girls hanging off of each arm. But, there was something about him that intrigued me.
The next two years were filled with marriage proposals through Pakistani moms with their sons in tow. The sons were all the same: boring Punjabi guys who owned gas stations, were engineers, or worked in IT.
"When I meet the right guy, I'll feel something happen in my heart," Shireen said, "You know, like in that Indian movie, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai."
Kuch kuch hota hai, literally means "something happens". Shireen and I both wanted to experience that moment, that Bollywood moment. The moment when your eyes lock with his and you can almost hear a high-pitched voice singing, "Aaah-aa! La la laaa la la," in the background as the wind ever-so-gently lifts your hair.
But my Bollywood moment never came. At least not with the long list of suitors I met at aunties' houses, the local masjid, or in the drawing room of my parents' home. I began to consider that this could be a long road for me. After all, I was already twenty years old and I still hadn't found "the one."
College friends of mine were getting married at eighteen and nineteen years of age to doctors and Bay Street investment bankers ten years their senior, moving in with their in-laws, and popping out their first child a year after marriage. Shireen got married when she was nineteen, to a drop-dead gorgeous 29-year-old gas station owner. She didn't even finish her university degree.
With a lavish wedding and a good-looking husband, we thought she had it all. But when she popped out twins, he didn't change a single diaper. Instead, he went out to watch Indian movies with his brothers, leaving his wife and infant sons at home.
No, I thought. That's not the life for me.
I began inching away from my friends and the life of a good Pakistani girl, and experimenting with a new circle of friends.
I was still a Muslim Students' Association (MSA) girl praying five times a day and attending halaqas at the mosque. But I wasn't sure where I fit in as I outgrew the culture of "no" and "haraam" that had kept me in line thus far.
In the spring of my twenty-first year, I was admitted to the Masters' program at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario. . I convinced my parents to let me go.to London, three hours away from Markham, where I'd grown up. That summer, as my last hurrah, my undergrad friends from the University of Toronto took me out for a night on the town.
I remember that night so clearly. I donned a black halter top, a pair of tight Parasuco jeans, and had my toenails painted purple before sneaking out of my basement bedroom window for the first and last time in my life.
It was also my first time in a club. By midnight, the noise was giving me a headache. By 2 a.m., I was sitting alone on a barstool as my Pakistani-Canadian Muslim friends danced and drank the night away, grinding with each other like slutty lesbians, hoping it would attract someone's attention.
At 2:30 am, I became impatient and began looking at my watch. My friends pretended not to see or hear me, but I could see them mouthing the word "prude" to one another.
That's when I saw him: Faisal Khan, the Pakistani bad boy, dancing with an Italian brunette in a tube top.
I don't know if it was the desire to shock my friends that propelled me off the bar stool that night or if it was being in the "shatyaani" environment the khutbas always warned us about, but I walked right up to him, squeezed in between him and the brunette, tossing her aside like a rag doll. I pushed the khateeb's voice out of my head and did the unthinkable: I picked up a guy at a club.
"You could start by saying hi," I said.
This was the boldest move I'd ever made, but he didn't even flinch. My friends reacted, though, stopping their three-way grinding to stare at me.
"Would you like to dance?" he asked. I'd never danced with a stranger at a nightclub before. Heck, I'd never danced with a guy before. But, my friends were watching. And so were his.
What happened next went down in the books of infamy in the Pakistani and MSA circles that summer.
"It's my birthday," he said, slurring his words. "Can I have a birthday kiss?"
"Come on," he cajoled.
I repelled his inebriated requests for a kiss, but I still let him dance with me. Though I knew this just a fun, one-night thing, something happened when I looked into the eyes of the notorious bad boy.
That Bollywood Moment.
Time stood still and I heard Indian music. Okay, it was actually Missy Elliot's "Get Your Freak On" with the Indian intro "maawth mujh ko!"
But still, it was as close to a Bollywood Moment as I was ever going to have. I was breathless, my heart pounding.
He lived up to his reputation and made drunk come-ons to me all night. But I enjoyed every minute of it, as well as every envious looks thrown my way by my friends. As the song Closing Time began blasting on the speakers and the lights turned on, he asked me one last time for a kiss. Instead, I gave him my business card.
"I'll call you," he said, as he kissed my hand and left me to my shocked friends.
On the awkward, silent drive home back to Markham, one of the girls in the car broke the silence.
"You know, you're not his type," Saima said. "Besides, he was totally plastered. He probably won't remember anything, anyway."
I snuck into my bed at 4 a.m., still euphoric from the night but having fully accepted that the next time I ran into Faisal, he'd have no memories of our encounter.
I was sitting in my bank cubicle three days later when the phone rang.
"Umm, hi," said a deep voice.
"Hi..." I replied, instantly recognizing Faisal's voice.
"Listen, I... the other night. I'm really embarrassed. I didn't mean to..."
"I get it. It was a mistake," I assured him, "I didn't take it too seriously and you shouldn't either."
"No, it's not that. I crossed the line. I want to make it up to you. Can I take you out to lunch?"
Two days later, we met for lunch, at a tiny café near my work. I don't remember what he ordered but my stomach was in knots and I shoved around my salad for most of the date. Our conversation was vast—talking about our career aspirations, religion, the Pakistani-Canadian community, and the fact that I was leaving for London in two weeks.
One week before my departure, we went out again. We walked through downtown Toronto, and he took my hand in his. It was the first time I'd ever held hands with a boy. I was speechless during most of our walk. We finally sat down in a quiet park.
It was 8 p.m. and the sun was beginning to set. He opened up about his family, his friends and even his bad-boy reputation. Several years prior, he told me, he had been in a serious relationship and when it ended, he was heartbroken. In his desire to forget his heartache, he began to hit the clubs and pursue meaningless relationships.
Then, he fell silent. After a moment, I leaned over to kiss him in a kiss that went on and on and made me feel like I was flying.
"We aren't supposed to be doing this. This was never supposed to happen," he said, finally breaking away.
"What?!" I exclaimed.
"You and I. We're not supposed to happen. I came here tonight to tell you that I can't be with you."
"You're leaving for London. I'm not emotionally ready to be in a long-distance relationship. I can't put myself through any hurt again."
I sat quietly in the humid Toronto night air. "I'm not going to hurt you," I said, running the back of my hand across his stubbly, unshaven face. He closed his eyes for a few seconds before pulling my hand away.
"We have to go. Let me walk you to your car."
I stood up, confused. We made it one block before he stopped and pulled me close to kiss me again, before pulling away and apologizing. At my car he said, "This is goodbye."
I didn't call him or hear from him before I left. I packed my bags and headed for London, heartbroken.
I now understood what my friends meant when they said that I was not his type. He was a modelizer. The type of guy who had a serious problem lowering his gaze. He had a weakness for women, "fast" women. A marriage-minded, good Pakistani girl like me was never going to give him what he wanted.
But, over the course of my stay in London, in my desire to forget him, I became him. I went to clubs and bhangra parties to hook up with strangers. I was the bad Muslim girl on campus. Since nobody knew me in London, I had no reputation to uphold.
Faisal and I maintained an online friendship, occasionally chatting on MSN. He was bothered by my random dates and flirtations, especially when it came to guys he knew. He'd surprise me with late-night phone calls, urging me not to hang out with one guy or another.
"He just wants a booty call," he would say.
Why do you care? I'd wonder silently. You didn't want me.
He showed up in London only once with his posse, to attend the famous Western Show, a desi dance competition. I was still hurt and I wasn't very nice to him or his friends, sending him on crazy errands, including getting groceries for my empty fridge. He never faltered, though I only found out years later that he dragged his friends to several stores to get the sometimes bizarre items on my list.
Thereafter, his friends called me "Crazy London Girl."
After that, there were a couple of years of silence. In my second-to-last year at Western, we rekindled our friendship and hung out once or twice over coffee as if nothing had ever happened. We ran into each other at weddings and shows. We talked on the phone. We were friends. But deep down, I was never okay being "just friends".
During my final year at Western, the ristha train finally rolled in. That May, I had a very promising suitor from Chicago. I'd only met him a few times and while I didn't have butterflies, I knew he was going to take care of me. He was a nice guy, down-to-earth and religious.
I called Faisal, asking for advice.
After a few minutes of deep thought, he said, "You have to do what's best for you. You need to be with the guy who will step up to the plate and take care of you."
"So, you think I should marry the Chicago guy?" I asked, "Even if I don't have butterflies?"
"You have to do what's best for your future," he replied.
Was I hoping that Faisal would suddenly stop me, like a Bollywood hero, and profess his undying love?
"You know," he said, as if reading my mind, "marriage isn't like an Indian movie. I could be madly in love with a prostitute, but I'm not going to marry her. Life's just not like that."
That's when I finally let Faisal go.
One year later, I ran into Faisal right before getting married and leaving for Chicago. We had coffee. I showed him my 2-carat engagement ring.
"I can't believe someone actually wants to marry me," I said. "I thought I was no longer the marriageable type after my partying days in London."
"I would have married you," he blurted out.
After all these years, he tells me this days before my wedding?
"But... you didn't want to be with me before," I said, trying to laugh it off.
"That's because you were Crazy London Girl then. Now, you're not."
It's been over a decade since that July night in Toronto. Faisal and I are Facebook friends and for 11 months of the year, that is all he is to me. I'm the happily-married mother of three kids, with a loving husband, living in a beautiful house. A perfect life, by anyone's standards.
But every July, I foolishly log into Facebook and send Faisal a message.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Bollywood. From: Ms. Hollywood.
Every July, I'm met with the same response, of how much the birthday message means to him, or how friends come and go but what we have will be forever. Once in the last ten years, I even got a phone call.
"Hi, Crazy London Girl," he said.
When he calls or messages me, it's tempting to forget the blessings in my life and relive every detail of our time together. I know I'm not alone. I've met other women like me, who hang on to feelings and memories from long ago. Some women like to relive old dreams. We move on and have blessed lives, but a part of our heart remains trapped in a beautiful and distant memory.
But, that's just Bollywood talking. Marriage decisions aren't made because of butterflies or romantic nights out under the stars. And they certainly aren't made in nightclubs, with Missy Elliot playing in the background.
Do I wish I'd married Faisal? Not for a minute. Do I regret my decision to think with my head and not my heart? No, especially not when my loving and deeply beloved husband is washing the dishes, picking the kids up from school or foregoing movie nights with the boys to stay home with us, his family. My husband taught me what real love is.
No, I don't regret it—especially knowing that Faisal is still single, searching for his Kim Kardashian. In one respect, though, Faisal was right. I thank him, my one-time romantic hero, for helping me draw the most important conclusion of my life:
Life isn't a Bollywood movie.