by Cara Prill
11:11:11 on 11/11/11 was a long time from when they first met. Sarah had been barefoot, sitting on the back of a couch, when Ahmed fell in love. Of course, he’d been in the States awhile and seen plenty of feminine toes exposed in flip flops outside or trotting naked across the dorm’s lounge. Sarah’s, though, were smoothing the couch cushions beneath her, and Sarah was laughing in a way that gave him shivers. He watched her light hair fall across her mouth and stood too long staring.
David knew Sarah already and, for some strange reason, suggested to Ahmed that she would make a great match with Steve down the hall. They spent an afternoon deciding how to set it up, which meant Ahmed got to ask David lots of questions about Sarah, all for the purpose of helping out Steve.
That evening, after David invited Sarah and Steve to Ahmed’s room, the four of them spread out. David was in the chair, Steve against the desk, Ahmed on his bed, and Sarah on the floor. No matter how often Ahmed offered a pillow, Sarah just smiled and said she was fine. Pizza was delivered, late night talk shows ended, and Steve left to finish a paper. Eventually, David got tired and took off. Then Ahmed and Sarah stayed up through the night; she was still on the floor beneath the edge of his bed, so Ahmed hung his head over the side. Her face, below him, looked angular and perfect.
Ahmed liked counting the freckles on Sarah’s nose, twenty-four, twenty-five. He planned to be an accountant. Sarah studied religion. She said she liked knowing how people answered the big questions about life and death. Lately, she had a lot of questions about Islam. Ahmed prayed five times a day, or tried to. She said she loved how Muslims touched their heads to the ground in prayer. But he couldn’t pray in front of Sarah, and the only time he misused his prayer mat was when they sat by it together.
Sarah was doing her homework on Ahmed’s back while he bent over his laptop. He studied her feet against the black and gold corner of his mat. They were like shells, those pearl shells that shone. He touched them again to feel how soft they were. She readjusted her legs around his waist and tapped her pen on his back.
“Are you bored?” he asked her.
“No. This is nice, doing homework. Like this.” He felt her arms sneak under his elbows and around his waist.
He said, “You’re like a turtle shell on my back, you know?” She wiggled her toes and fingers in front of his computer. He felt completely crazy. “Sarah, do you want to kiss?” was what he’d been thinking of asking for a month.
“Yes.” She put her head on his shoulder.
“Yes, I want to kiss you.” He stopped breathing, and she added, “That’s what you said, right? Under your breath? Oh, I mean,” she stuttered, “I’m sorry.”
He pulled her right foot off of his crossed legs, set it to the side, leaned over, and brushed his lips against her toes.
Ahmed had never been on a date before, not exactly, and not American style, so he studied up. David said that it wasn’t much different than in the old movies that Ahmed watched in his film studies class: take her out to a movie, out for pizza or a sandwich, pay for everything, maybe get ice cream. If it gets cold, offer your jacket.
So Ahmed wore his best leather jacket. He walked Sarah across campus and bought tickets at the little theater that played “artsy flicks,” as Sarah called them. But he was afraid she didn’t like the movie much. It was more serious than he expected, and she only laughed once. He wasn’t sure if he was holding her hand right either.
At the pizza place she ordered a sandwich, so he did too, except that he ordered the beef. She’d taken three large, adorable bites and had a mouthful of ham when he couldn’t stop himself and began to laugh. She reached up to her lip as if she had some sauce on it.
“No, no. It isn’t that.” He explained that he loved how she could be herself around him and order whatever she wanted.
Her eyes opened wide. “Oh, God,” she said, setting down the sandwich. “I forgot about ham!” He asked her to please not stop eating just because of him. He wasn’t sure if kissing an American who had eaten ham counted as eating ham yourself, but he was certain, ham or no, that kissing was forbidden in the first place, and he decided to think less.
He kissed her on the mouth later anyway. She was wearing his jacket, and they were hiding in a classroom on campus to get out of the cold. She smelled like leather, ham, and shampoo.
“You missed seeing Hamid and Zaynab. They came to your cousin’s wedding.”
Ahmed switched the phone to his other hand and turned his back to the bed. He started speaking in Urdu.
“How was it?” he said, trying to change the topic.
“Fine, Ahmed, fine,” his mother replied in Urdu, and then continued in English, “Why aren’t you calling Zaynab? She says you haven’t talked for a while.”
We haven’t talked for six months, Ahmed thought. “I think we’ve both been busy, Mom.”
“Well, I hope you’re not too busy to plan your wedding. We went to a lot of trouble, convincing her family that a Shi’a was welcome in ours after you two begged us to match you.”
Ahmed looked behind him at Sarah, who smiled before hiding her face under the sheet.
“I’m sorry, Mom.”
“You should have come home this break. If you’re not careful, Zaynab will forget what you look like and marry someone like Hamid!”
Ahmed wondered if his mother knew already. “Hamid isn’t bad looking.”
“Really, son, come home for your spring break. Don’t spend so long away. We can pay for your ticket.”
“I know. OK, I’m sorry,” Ahmed stammered, then said that he needed to eat breakfast before the sun came up. She sounded relieved that he was keeping Ramadan, and let him off the phone after that.
When Sarah said she thought he was speaking Urdu with his family, Ahmed relaxed, but then she laughed a little, telling him that eventually she realized he was just speaking English very fast. He didn’t get back into bed. He tried to remember what he’d said in English. Sarah answered that for him: “Hamid must be hard to talk about.”
After an awkward moment, they managed to discuss it, seated together on the edge of the bed. He was relieved to learn David had already told Sarah about Zaynab and his best friend. Instead of being jealous, Sarah seemed sad for him. She took his hand in hers. “Losing your sweetheart to your best friend,” she said, “is a good reason to not want to go home.”
Ahmed thought to himself that Sarah was a good reason to not go home. They hurried to the cafeteria to beat sunrise.
Not having homework over semester break and having the dormitory to themselves was bliss. It was going to be “Oh-one, Oh-one, Oh-one,” as Sarah liked to call New Year’s, 2001, and she was cooking dinner for him. He assured her that Ramadan had ended three days ago and he could eat at a normal time. Besides, he was very hungry. But she insisted they have a late night meal to stay up for the New Year. He was supposed to show up in the lounge at 9:30 p.m. sharp, with grape juice—“the kind that’s not fermented,” she said.
To pass the evening, he walked to the grocery store and back. When he went downstairs at 9:30 the lights were off, the TV—showing Times Square—was on mute, and Sarah had tall candles burning. Chicken legs and rice were on the end table, and she had arranged throw pillows on the floor. He held out the grape juice to her like a prize, for which he won a smile. He had never seen someone in blue jeans, a sweatshirt, and oversized socks look so beautiful.
After the ball dropped in Times Square, after they kissed for 01/01/01, after they cleaned up the dishes and lit more candles, Ahmed held Sarah on the couch. He lifted up on an elbow and took off her socks to count her toes.
“I have ten, same as you!” she said.
“I know, but these are special.”
She twisted around to face him. “What do you think you’ll be doing ten years from now?”
“I don’t know.” Ahmed thought about it. “Maybe I’ll be a wealthy accountant by then. Or maybe I’ll go into computers.” He wadded up her sock and threw it at the TV.
“Hey!” she said.
“It’s binary today, Oh-one, Oh-one, Oh-one,” he said, wadding up her other sock. “Maybe it’s a sign I should go into computers.”
She went to grab his hand, but he tossed the other sock across the room too. “My feet’ll be cold, computer guy!”
He smiled, “Well, I can keep them warm.”
She turned back around and spooned up against him. He maneuvered his legs around her toes like a sandwich.
“The coolest date,” she said, “is going to be all ones. Eleven, eleven, eleven.”
“That’s about ten years from now,” he said into her hair. “It’ll even have eleven-eleven, like the time, twice in that one day.”
“Ooh, you are so good with numbers,” Sarah replied.
He loved every compliment she gave him, even if he didn’t deserve it.
A ticket home showed up in the mail a couple of weeks later, and Zaynab called a week after that. It wasn’t so easy to talk with her again, not as easy as with Sarah even though Sarah and he could only speak English. Hamid had broken up with Zaynab because he wasn’t supposed to date, and Hamid, or “Chicken-Shit” as Ahmed began referring to him, still hadn’t returned his calls. No way would Ahmed want him at his wedding now, assuming he had one.
“I always thought I would have two children,” Ahmed replied to Sarah’s question. “A boy and a girl, or two girls. Because people don’t always value girls at home, but I would.”
From the chair behind him, Sarah rubbed his shoulders and kissed the top of his head.
“What about you?” he asked, as he tilted his head back to look at her.
She squeezed him with her knees. “I don’t think I’ll have kids.”
“Really?” He turned all the way around. “Why not?”
“I don’t know. I guess I never saw myself with kids, you know, as a mom.”
Ahmed shifted back into position between her legs and thought about it. “You are lucky you’re American. A Muslim woman in Pakistan would be expected to have children.”
“Yeah, I don’t think I would make a good Muslim woman.”
They sat quietly for a while, hands entwined. Then Ahmed laughed lightly after the silence. “I don’t make a very good Muslim man.”
Sarah said, “I don’t know about that! You observe holy times, and do prayer. You even pray in the stacks at the library when you have to.”
“That’s not what I mean. I always think I am too liberal, you know? Like I think Bush is wrong about abortion. I think women should be able to decide if they want to be pregnant.”
“You’re awesome,” she replied, giving his head a bear hug from behind.
Ahmed blew out his breath from underneath her forearms. Sarah released him and went back to rubbing his shoulders.
He said softly, “It’s just that I always thought I’d be too liberal to raise my children up as good Muslims, but I thought Zaynab, as a Shi’a, she would be more strict. She would make sure my children don’t end up too American.”
Sarah’s hands kept going, but she didn’t speak for some time. Then she said, “Would you raise them here? In America?”
“I’m not sure. Wherever I could get a better job. Probably here, but I’d like to be near my family too.”
Sarah slipped her thumbs under the neck of his T-shirt, caressed the hair along his spine, and pressed deeply into his shoulder blades. Someone knocked on his door, but Ahmed ignored it. Then he asked, “Why do American women hate hair on men’s backs?”
Behind him, he heard Sarah sniffle, and then say in his ear, “Because they’re stupid.”
The night he said what he had to say, Sarah made it easy for him. She didn’t cry or say he was making a mistake; she didn’t even get mad. There was one thing she did ask, though, after they stared at each other from opposite ends of the bed. She wanted to keep seeing him for one more month, up until Spring Break. Then it would be over.
And Ahmed agreed right away. He didn’t want it to end, not really, not with how he felt when he was around her, the way her face lit up. So for a few days they kept going. Eating at the cafeteria, watching some TV.
But he couldn’t stop thinking about the numbers. They were always there, counting down. He kept eyeing the leftover dates on his calendar, feeling as empty as each tiny square.
Ahmed sat at his desk with lined paper and his best pen. He had written a page already, trying to explain. If he saw her in person, he would never be able to do it. Or he wouldn’t do it right. He let his pen tell her that. He let his pen say how much he wished she could find a nice American boy to marry someday. But the whole thing seemed cold to him, like the weather outside. It was so cold and he was so lonely without her. She deserved something better. She deserved better words, better English, something that truly said how he felt about her and how he would always remember her. Because she was—had been—his life these last few months. She was warm, like spring. She was, she was….
Sarah believes in lucky days and lucky kisses, and she isn’t about to miss a New Year’s style moment on the luckiest day of the century.
“Meet me at the front of Eagan Hall. I’ll be there at 11:05. Be there, or be square!” she types, adding, “Oh, yeah, you already are square.” She hits enter, and wonders if his boss will read his Facebook. They might get caught!
She grabs her coat and house keys and heads to campus. A half hour walk from home, she is sitting on the steps outside their rendezvous point and grinning in the chilly weather.
“It’s your lucky day,” Sarah says when Josh takes her hand and lifts her off the steps. She hugs him and whispers, “Come on!”
They pretend to be nonchalant as a group of undergraduates passes in the hall.
“This one’s empty,” she says. “This was my old classroom when I took Buddhism.”
She sits Josh in the last row of the auditorium-style seating. They remove their gloves and coats, and he pulls out his cell phone which has the date spelled on its background.
“Hey! It says eleven-eleven!” Sarah beams at him. “Can you get it to say the time too?”
When that doesn’t work, they settle for watching the little time marked in the corner of the phone, but it can’t count down the seconds or rather, in this case, count up seconds. This means that to get their good luck right at 11:11:11 on 11/11/11, they have to start kissing at 11:11 and keep on kissing for at least eleven seconds. Josh kisses Sarah for longer.
Sarah kisses Josh again outside before he sneaks back to work. Then she wanders along the campus paths that connect her with the road home. Campus has changed a lot, she thinks, but this is the same brick path she took on a date with Ahmed ten years ago.
The last time she heard about him was from David the next school year. It was after 9/11, and Sarah had worried that Ahmed would have trouble flying home from his summer internship in Atlanta. But David said Ahmed called him in October, soon after the wedding.
Sarah knows that Zaynab has married well. There was a letter Ahmed wrote that Sarah keeps in her boxes from college. Before she met and married Josh, she would pull the letter out from time to time, especially whenever some dumb American boy had dumped her. Now, she doesn’t need to go looking for it, because she has read its last few lines so many times, she has them memorized. She wraps her coat tighter around her body and smiles.
You are the fresh spring breeze that breathes new life into all species. You are the rainbow after the torrential storm. You are the face that makes me smile. You are the reason someone, someday, will be glad that he came home.
Cara Prill grew up in southern Indiana, and like many others who have attended IU, she stayed put after college. Bloomington has been her home for 20 years. She leads creative writing workshops through Ivy Tech’s Center for Lifelong Learning and enjoys participating in the Bloomington Writers Guild.
Illustration by Ali Maidi.
The Ryder ◆ July 2014