It seems that most people don’t keep in touch with their exes once they divorce or break up. I guess I’m the exception; I stayed friends with both of my ex-husbands. People may find this strange, but I happened to marry two really great guys. My second husband and I were married for twelve years. That’s actually pretty good considering the fact that we met five days before our wedding.
It’s a strange story that I don’t usually tell people, but it’s something that I find myself thinking about lately. It all started in December 1995, when I was feeling pretty low. I had been married to my high school sweetheart for three years after dating for seven, but somehow things had gone horribly wrong. I was in school working on my bachelor’s degree, but otherwise, my life didn’t have much going for it. I was seriously unhappy.
I had never been a terribly religious person. My mother went to the local Methodist church every Sunday, but I think it was mainly for outward appearances. She wore a completely different face in public than she did at home. When I was younger, I went with her to church. She had a terrible temper and was very apt to curse (mainly at me) for the entire drive to church, being careful to put on a “pious” smile when we arrived. As soon as we pulled out of the parking lot after the service, her true personality returned, and so did the cursing. As soon as I was old enough to understand what it means to be a hypocrite, I lost any interest I had ever had in church-going.
So when my life seemed to become hopeless, it was quite odd for me to speak to God. But that’s what I did one night; I sat up in bed before going to sleep and said, “God, if you really exist, please tell me what to do to be happy. I promise to do what you tell me if you just show me what that is.” That night I had a dream. I dreamed that I was getting married, although I couldn’t see the groom in the dream. All I knew was that my friend, Nasser, had arranged the marriage. And I was happy. Very. Very. Happy.
Even when I woke the next morning, I was happy. I hummed cheerful tunes all day, skipped to the mailbox at lunch, and drove to classes at night still feeling upbeat. When I walked through the courtyard at school, I saw Nasser sitting on a bench, studying and eating vending machine cheese crackers. I sat down beside him, stealing a cracker and popping it into my mouth before he could say anything. I was very tempted to tell him about the dream, but restrained myself. If it was real, it would happen without my forcing it.
After a few minutes of small talk about classes and exams, Nasser said, I have a nephew back home; I think you would make a great match for him.
I couldn’t believe this was actually happening. If I hadn’t had the dream, I would never have listened to Nasser’s spiel. But, after all, I had promised God that I would do whatever he told me, right? So I listened. And found myself writing to this nephew the very next day.
We wrote to one another for maybe a month. The picture that he sent me of himself was disappointing when I first saw it. He wasn’t smiling, and his hands were awkwardly clasped in front of the hideous shirt he was wearing. His hair was unkempt and I thought that he kind of looked like a Middle Eastern Fred Flintstone. And to top it off, he was standing in front of an obviously-fake backdrop of palm trees. But I believed that the dream meant something, so I propped the photo up on my nightstand and looked at it first thing each morning and last thing each night. It wasn’t long before the picture had grown on me. I started noticing that the hands looked strong, and the eyes looked honest and intelligent. And kind of sad. At the end of our month-long letter writing, I was on a plane to Tel Aviv.
I can’t say that the month I spent in Israel’s West Bank was easy. He didn’t speak an awful lot of English, and I knew exactly two words of Arabic (neither of which I could pronounce correctly). Our wedding took place in a sweet shop, where I ate entirely too much kanafeh (which I hope to never see again). A celebration took place at his parents’ house that night; women danced around me all night as I sat uncomfortably in the tackiest pink satin dress that his sisters could find. The men danced outside; by the sound of it, they were having a blast, but I wasn’t allowed to go see.
By the end of the month, I was convinced that the dream had been prophetic. God existed. And he evidently wanted me to be happy. Because I certainly was.
And we were happy for most of the twelve years we were married. Things weren’t always great; mixing cultures and languages is hard. But we hung in there until one strange day in 2008.
It seems petty (and quite possibly bat-shit crazy) to say that I divorced my husband because his scent changed. But that’s pretty much what happened. One day I noticed that he smelled different. His normal scent had been replaced by a strange dark musty odor. And with this change, the spell that he had over me was broken. I suddenly could see him objectively, and for better or worse, felt that we were no longer compatible. All the grievances I had with him over the years were now deal-breakers.
So we got a divorce, but we stayed friends. I wondered about the dream and the promise I made, and what it meant that things had ended this way. I did what God told me, and still ended up unhappy. I was a cosmic failure.
He called me one day five years after our divorce and told me that he had been diagnosed with stage four stomach cancer. It was early January, and he had only found out in October. I thought, “He’s young (only 41) and otherwise healthy. Maybe he can beat this.” He said the doctors thought the cancer had begun five years earlier. Around the time we divorced. I started thinking about that, wondering if having cancer changes your body scent. Evidently it does to a dog’s nose, but could humans possibly detect a difference as well? When I told my brother this theory, he said, So you’re saying that you have the ability to smell as well as dogs? As far as superpowers go, that’s pretty lame.
I went to see him shortly after the phone call. He was very thin; I didn’t know if it was from the cancer or from the chemo he was taking. They also had him on an experimental drug which he seemed pretty hopeful about.
On January 17, 2014, I had a dream (yes, another dream). My ex was standing in front of me, looking young and healthy. He said, I’m going back home. I think I replied with something like, Oh, that’s great. I guess you’ll be getting treatment there. I don’t remember the rest of the dream, or maybe that’s all there was. Three days later, my phone rang after ten at night. The caller ID said it was his uncle. I didn’t want to answer the phone, but I knew I had to. The uncle’s voice said, We lost Fareed.
I went to the funeral home the next day, but I felt completely out of place. His mother, who had always been so friendly to me, pretty much ignored me. Two days later, they flew his body back to the West Bank for burial.
Yesterday I found myself thinking about him without knowing why. Then I realized what the date was. For a while after he died, I talked to him. Yesterday I talked to him again. I apologized for leaving after his scent changed; whatever happened to “for better or for worse” (although in my own defense, that’s not a part of the Muslim wedding service)?
Fareed was a very nurturing person. When my mother was dying, he would visit her every night. Many nights he would simply stand by her bed and hold her hand; my mother might have been a less-than-ideal patient all day long, but the moment he appeared, she quieted down and a peaceful look would come over her face. He was the only one who had this effect on her. Lately, I’ve wished that he could be here for me when I haven’t felt well, even though I realize I was too selfish to be there for him when he was sick.
I still haven’t figured out why the universe hooked us up only to split us apart twelve years later. Did we do something wrong? Did God decide I didn’t deserve to be happy, after all? With my own recent diagnosis, I think there might be some truth to the latter.
Some Hindus believe that everything in your life contains a lesson that you need to learn. If you don’t learn the lesson in one life, you will be presented with it again in the next. And the next. And so on until you finally learn whatever it is the universe is trying to teach you. At this point, I obviously have no idea what the universe is trying to tell me. Evidently I’m not a good listener as far as cosmic conversations go.
But I honestly think I’m trying. Several people close to me have died of cancer: my mother of breast cancer, my father of chronic leukemia, my grandmother of colon cancer, and my ex of stomach cancer. Now I too have cancer. There must be a lesson here somewhere. Maybe I’ll be able to learn it in this lifetime. Going through this over and over again in many different lives doesn’t seem like a good option. So speak to me, universe. Sooner or later, I hope to figure out what you’re saying.