This memoir is a passion project that I’ve been working on periodically for a little over a year. It is what compelled me to create this blog.
If you have not read my previous blog post The love I could not see. The love I could not hear. The love I could not feel. I recommend reading it for the sake of some context. In it I allude to a change in mindset that led to my personal growth. The introspection needed for that change required a catalyst, which is the story that I share here.
Names have been changed and some details left vague for privacy.
The Magic of Macy’s
I spent my freshman to sophomore year of college working at Macy’s in a premium shopping center. I was essentially a weekend laborer who twice a week made sure the dock/landing area for new products was kept clear so that the back elevators could be used. Sometimes, a handy man changing light bulbs, at other times a shopping bag distributor- so really a jack of all trades. Someone once even said, “All you do is move stuff…” which eventually got me thinking. Sales support associate didn’t have that nice ring to it, so instead I began referring to myself as manager of interdepartmental logistics.
The work was easy and because I consistently completed my “projects” I didn’t have anyone micromanaging me. As the only person in my role, I really didn’t have any coworkers to interact with, and most of my time was spent in the back where hardly anyone comes through. The job was isolating and felt a little lonely at times. To circumvent that I started taking certain liberties with my time. I took any excuse to be around people whether it was customers or other Macy’s associates. Changing lights was the most enjoyable because I got to be a spectacle for all to see- dangling from the tip-tops of the tallest ladders. Able to work as I observed and felt the presences around me.
A usual occurrence at this store (despite all the money that came through this upscale shopping center) was that the freight elevators in the back would break down. When this happened, I would be forced to use the customer elevator. There was only enough room for 1 flatbed cart (the kind you see at Home Depot) and about 3 people compared to the 5+ carts I could fit on the freight elevator.
As fate would have it, on the busiest of days, the customer elevator would be the one I would be using for the entire afternoon. When I walked up to the elevator flat bed in hand that day, I was ready to perform my logistical duties. When I walked out, I was filled with only curiosity and captivation. As the elevators doors opened and I got in, I saw the most beautiful girl I had ever seen with my own two eyes. I motioned for her to stand towards the front corner as I fit my flatbed neatly into the back, carefully swinging it flush with the back wall with just a few square feet for us to stand up front. As we stood, she let out a loud sigh- one of exhaustion. Over the span of a few seconds, the following went through my head: How are you so comfortable that you would sigh like that in front of a total stranger? This girl seems like she’s looking for attention. Am I getting baited for attention? Well if you want to talk to gorgeous women Bilal you need to be a man of action. I’ll take the bait. So, being the suave and sophisticated individual that I was, I proceeded with the absolute best opening line I could come up with- “Long day?”
That one action did quite a bit for me. I established a new acquaintance for myself while overcoming some approach anxiety I had developed from putting gorgeous girls on pedestals not interacting with enough new women in my life. We made small talk about having to get up in the wee hours of the morning, work, and in that brief period we had reached the next floor. A quick exchange of pleasantries and she was off. As I dragged the flatbed out of the elevator, I couldn’t help but have a grin on my face- taking pride in the success that was social interaction- one that was a little challenging no less. But that grin was also a translucent veil. I hoped she was Pakistani, she looked Pakistani, perhaps Hispanic if I had to take a second guess. Not that it mattered- I was already smitten.
The next day I saw her again, but this time as a captive to the up escalator as she walked the floor below. My instincts wanted me to talk to her, but the most I could do was marvel from afar and enjoy my ride to the 3rd floor, as my heart melted against my chest. I took note of the keys she had on her wrist on a coiled red lanyard- management keys for the doors throughout Macy’s. Who was this girl who looked my age (19) yet was already well established in a leadership position at Macy’s?
I spent my subsequent days at Macy’s eager to come to work for a chance to run into her. Finding excuses to be outside the desolate loading dock and landing areas now came secondary to loneliness and boredom. I was doing it with one goal only- to have any and all opportunities to run into this girl.
Weeks pass and I don’t see her for a time and my eagerness to meet her dwindled back into the recesses of my emotional compass. Unloading suitcases one morning near the office (another hat under my logistics title) provided me quite a pleasant surprise when I glanced down the hall. I greeted her warmly with a “Hey, long time no see!” and shook her hand as I formally introduced myself.
“What’s your name by the way?”
“I’m Anam, nice to meet you.”
We chatted about anything cool or interesting we had done recently. With an open-ended “See you around!” I now had a name. And a rekindled affection.
Fondness to a Fault
My life experiences so far had not equipped me for this. Over the next few months, I spent my days not in love, but absolutely infatuated. My nights were spent in my own imagined fantasyland where I envisioned what our life would be together. Where the only thing that mattered in that world was her. If she asked me to jump, I would’ve long been in the air. If she had asked me to quit my pursuit of medical school I would’ve… – considered it.
In one of my classes at the University of Houston I was offered the opportunity to get extra credit for attending a career presentation of my preference on campus. Of the ones available there was a presentation from a recent doctorate graduate in Anam’s field of education. Knowing she had higher aspirations than Macy’s, learning about her academic interests would help me know about her and consequently aid in knowing her. When I attended I made sure to take plenty of notes so that I would have talking points handy (I recently discovered that I still have the notebook that contained them). It was quite helpful for when I would internally grasp at straws for a topic with her.
Every conversation with Anam was like I was taking a test. A voice in my head was constantly worried- reminding me not to mess things up out of concern of being blacklisted from all future interactions if I did. Appreciating the voice’s advice, but needing him to shut-up while I was preoccupied with pretending I am socially competent, I tried to make it a point to drown him out during conversation. I would run my mouth so that he wouldn’t have time to get a word in (at times to my detriment as I would talk myself into an awkward corner). The moment I stopped talking to her I knew the voice would instigate an intense nervousness making me flustered, unable to get a single word out.
A friend of mine would refer to my incessant fixation as me being a stupid BOY. I agreed, with the boy part. The only way I could explain my feelings was as though my heart was telling me: I want that one and would not settle for less. However, my end game was to hold her in my arms and for us to melt into one another (figuratively). This desire was perhaps a bit shortsighted, but it was what my heart strived for.
This girl was constantly on my mind. Especially on the ever-short weekends when I went to work. A chance to encounter her. Two chances a week was not enough. My boss Faisal (who was also Pakistani and on good terms with a certain someone as they were both management) asked me how I was doing one day and I responded honestly and thoughtfully (or at least more thoughtfully than a conversation imploding “Good.”) that I had something on my mind that was bothering me. For the next couple days he felt sorry for my situation and bad about the fact that I wouldn’t confide in him- all of which he confronted me on. He had managed to get a negative impression and to an extent, being captivated by a girl is a problem, but isn’t the most serious of problems to have.
In the most roundabout way possible, I disclosed to him the truth. I tried to say it out loud. I couldn’t. The words would not come. It was easy in my head, but to admit it out loud where the world might hear me? Where Anam might hear? I couldn’t do it. So, I did the next best thing and wrote on a piece of paper, I like Anam and showed it to him. He was surprised, grateful, and relieved all at once. He shared with me that he felt she was a quality individual, not two-faced and a good person since he had worked with her professionally (and I was applying for a job. Official title: Suitor). One key detail that was dropped in that conversation was a chance that she had a fiancé (a tidbit I VERY quickly forgot about for a few years until now when I recollected this conversation), but hastily added that he wasn’t sure (so as to not destroy my dreams). He even offered to talk to her on my behalf. I was grateful for his offer to help, but I declined. Citing that I needed to do this myself, he commented, “You’ve got guts… I would never be able to do something like that.” My younger self understood that there was inherent value in facing your challenges independently. However, I could never consider nor appreciate the implications and personal transformation I was imposing on myself through this decision until later in my life.
An Unrequested Favor
A few weeks later, Faisal invited me and a few other coworkers to his house on the weekend. Looking at the group text, I was curious who else had been invited. After work I went home, freshened up, and made my drive to the suburbs. In my head, I had a small gut feeling that I would see someone in particular at this gathering. I ring the doorbell and Faisal greets me warmly. As I looked over his shoulder, I see none other than a casually dressed Anam (management has to look professional at work- so this was the first time seeing her in normal clothes). Surreal.
I was both appreciative and daunted. Couldn’t I have gotten a heads up? This was an ideal situation for me to potentially be impressive. Made unfortunate that I had absolutely no idea how to do that- or even where to begin. I believe I managed to mitigate most of my awkwardness as we talked and played a bit with Faisal’s kids. As a few more people arrived however- they could sense I was being a bit quieter and less engaged than I usually am. When asked why, I brushed off the questions, but progressively withdrew a little further from the conversations- sitting more deeply and uncomfortably in my plush leather chair. Overall, it had gone okay, but I wish I had let myself enjoy myself rather than being on edge with nervousness the entire night.
Faisal was very passionate about feedback as a manager- always eager to improve his capabilities. He probably would’ve been more than happy to give me some feedback on my performance that night, and I definitely could’ve used some, as well as some reassurance. Especially since he would often tell me that he sees me like a brother, a relationship that I was too much of a “jerk” (his words that I cannot deny) to appreciate or reciprocate because of our decade age gap.
The Smile Story
In one of my inevitably to become awkward dialogues with Anam, I ran out of any topics of real substance and somehow segued into talking about how I didn’t really know how to smile. She called me a “negative Nancy” a strange phrase I had never heard, but instantly understood. After hearing that and barely salvaging the conversation with some lackluster banter about working out while being a full-time employee, I withdrew into myself and she went on her way. Her words were like a knife- although dull and a bit curt -they had offended me. I spent a few days struggling with this offense and my affections as they clashed and conflicted threatening to destroy the wondrous fantasyland I had established. Despite my obsession with her I did not let it belittle me for long. Realizing the only reason I could be offended was because the words rang true, then to resolve this I should make them absolutely false. If I was a negative Nancy, I should do something about it.
For the following week, I took it upon myself to make an active effort to smile whenever I could remember. Walking around campus- smile. Sitting in lecture- smile. I did it solely because I wanted to train that smile into my face and become a more positive me as a result. If I was faking it then so be it, but at least perhaps I would be less of a negative Nancy. My face felt less strained (from working out my facial muscles) as the days went on and although it didn’t become my natural look, I at least could confirm I had the capacity at times to project something warm and vibrant like a smile.
Heading to lunch one afternoon at Macy’s after taking care of my logistics duties, I happened upon Faisal and Anam walking together just a few meters ahead. Assuming they were getting lunch together at the food court, I formulated a plot. I texted Faisal “Hey want to grab lunch?” knowing my fortune. Sure enough he responds “Sure you can come join us at Salata.” Coyly I asked, “Who is us?” which was met with a “You’ll see.”
Eating salads was equal to living the life of a goat, so I opted for a sandwich at Potbelly, and then walked over to the Salata seating area to join them. From beyond the glass divider into the restaurant I see Anam and Faisal yet to get their food and Faisal points to a table. As I’m about to sit he starts pointing to another table, and once again as I’m about sit at this new table, he points to another. I watch the two laugh each time muted behind the glass divider. Somewhat miffed, I figure I could just sit anywhere else rather than putting up with a lame game like this. I began walking towards my usual spot in the food court forgetting the original purpose behind this lunch I had orchestrated. A few steps in Faisal was already behind me grabbing my shoulder and telling me apologetically, “Come on don’t be mad”- which I wasn’t. He pointed to a final table as he led me back and said, “Please, have a seat.”
Eventually, Anam and Faisal join me with their salads. After having excused myself to wash my hands, I return to them mid debate in which I chime in with a very cheeky comment (whose details I don’t recall for an obvious reason) that lets slip a smug smirk. Anam says enthusiastically “Hey- see you’re smiling!” and we continue with the flow of the conversation. I had not asked for this. This wasn’t in the game plan. Establishing this goal to make smiling a more common and familiar feeling on my face was only because I had some understanding of the importance of improving myself. To be recognized by the very person who inspired the idea? I couldn’t have asked for a better source of praise. This only helped reaffirm the importance and noticeability of this exercise. My smile was solid for an entire week after, but that wasn’t on account of the exercise.
My approach to getting to know Anam was slow. Maybe even glacier melting slow resulting from a self-impeding prison of feelings and perception. In the grand scheme of it all, these things were arbitrary, but at the same time very relevant as establishing relationships can depend upon timing. While she had a bachelor’s (in an interesting field no less) I was still finishing up my sophomore year of college and was nothing more than a pre-med (a label I loathed in my later years of undergrad as it belittled and reduced an individual to only their hopes and dreams for the future, disregarding their past and present). The work dynamic was different too- where technically she’s indirectly one of my bosses as a store manager- while I am at the lowest rung of a corporate entity, a manual labor employee.
There was also this work phone that I detested. Its purpose was to make communication easy between associates at registers and the store manager who patrolled the floors (which rotated between managers). The patrolling made it easier to encounter Anam. The phone made it difficult to have a conversation. 75% of my encounters were met with a hand wave because some associate had some problem and needed managerial assistance. I was already having a hard time with all of this with chance encounters over only two days, and this interference was just the icing on the proverbial cake that I had no control over whatsoever.
Even when I did have opportunities in my control, I wouldn’t leverage them. When Faisal invited me to that party, he sent the invitation via a group text. Somewhere among those phone numbers was Anam’s. I could’ve taken advantage of it and had a direct line of communication, but it felt wrong. Almost a bit slimy to take it from somewhere else against its intended purpose. To eliminate any temptation to deviate from my principals, I deleted that group text from my phone a few weeks after the party. My morals continued to sabotage my goals.
I wanted to be honest in my thoughts and actions, but if I was interested in her and was just talking to her casually- was that being honest? What is my intent? At the time, it sounded deceitful. Mostly to the other individual because I would have an underlying pretense behind my actions. Arguably, it was also deceitful to myself because I was not being honest in the actions I was taking to achieve my goals. These thoughts also made me a bit hesitant and conflicted. Caught up in desiring a relationship, I was also overlooking the process involved with developing one.
Anam also seemed to have a lot more life experiences from which I inferred she had at least 3-4 years on me. I never tried to confirm her age as it didn’t matter to me personally and was not in my best interests. Asking and bringing attention to it would have led me to be directly perceived as young and subconsciously immature to my detriment.
Everything I evaluated told me that the chance of success for creating the type of relationship that I sought was not in my favor. It was during this phase where I really began questioning myself. The most pressing one was even if I did love her- why would she love me? What value did I have that I could give to her life being the nobody that I was? What did I have to offer? Not a whole lot- or anything at all really from my cursory review of myself. Last I had been told I was a nobody. Nothing. This was a fundamental impasse resulting from a lack of self-worth that lasted for months clashing with the need for actions that would lead to the fantasy world that I imagined so often.
While pondering this dilemma I sought a solution. Any solution where my dreams could become a reality. In doing so, I began asking people questions about value in general and what value I hold to them.
“…well, there’s a reason why I still talk to you, right? We’ve been friends for years and there’s a reason why we still go out of our way to hang out. I don’t know what that reason is, but it’s something…” my best friend once said to me.
Their answers aided in creating certainty and reassuring my own value. My perspective was incrementally shifted. The greatest realization was in the fact that I was unsure of what my value was. Not that I inherently had no value, as I had been indoctrinated to in the past (which had initially obscured my ability to understand my problem). Able to formulate a conclusion I resolved myself. I have value. I am what I have to offer that will be valuable to her.
From time to time I would get more and more opportunities to get to know Anam. Most of it by just sheer luck since I always felt so inhibited in approaching her. As I got to know her aspirations and background, I found her progressively unique and interesting. It also gave me opportunities to highlight my forte that was humor, especially irony. Some would be small quips like “Why are you following me around all the time?” in the mornings when we both happened to be going floor to floor- her opening doors to the store and I collecting hangars from registers. Another time I greeted a “Hey what’s up?” with “The ceiling.” She gave me the heaviest eye roll I have ever seen in my life, but I recovered with the truth. “I’ve been working on lights all day…” which managed to earn an amused “Ha!”
Rushing in one morning I caught Anam hastily walking to the office muttering “I am so late…” as she approached. But that didn’t stop her from taking the time to greet the people she knew on the way.
“How are you?!” she asks.
I answer after a thoughtful pause and a sigh “I’m okay. I’ve had better days.”
“Awhhh. Well I hope it gets better!”
Running into you already has I said aloud. In my head. There was no way I could say that to her face.
Anam was the most beautiful girl I had ever met. Another manager was once discussing her in earshot to someone unacquainted with her. I remember being quite excited internally to hear someone else who also thought positively of her (as well as just hearing about her in general). Although when she mentioned that she was ”…very pretty” I corrected her in my head …you mean gorgeous.
One evening finishing up my tasks I saw a dazzling girl walking around on the first floor in a dark wine dress with plum lipstick. I couldn’t help myself and took a second look. This girl looked kind of familiar. She had that stupid work phone and a pair of keys on a coiled red lanyard. As I turn away, I think, Is that Anam? It had to be. Who else? I completed my triple take. It’s definitely Anam! Wow. Just stunning. Dressed to the nines and radiating glamour. I hadn’t even recognized her on first glance. The plum really suited her.
Somewhere in the midst of all this there came a point where I thought I needed some extra help. So, I sought divine intervention. Muslims pray 5 times a day. In my supplications to God for about 3 months alongside the standard prayers I also regularly requested: Oh Allah (God), please bring Anam to me.
Lights Camera Action
One morning at Macy’s Faisal approaches me and asks me if I knew that Anam was quitting. She had successfully gotten admitted into the doctorate program that she had taken a gap year for.
Playing it cool I asked, “Why are you telling me?”
“Just thought you might want to know. …have you talked to her?” he said with allusion.
“Uhhh- no. I’ll…- I’ll figure it out. Don’t worry about it.” I said with a slightly faked confidence.
My infinite calendar had become a timer. Glacier slow was not an option when I had a deadline, and mine had become her two-week notice. If I was to act- now was the time, or forever live with the consequences of inaction. It was time to be bold.
In Faisal’s office there was a manager schedule that I occasionally referenced some mornings to see if I might run into Anam. That day I really looked it over to plan when I could manage to be at work while she was. I worked strictly weekends, but there was another person who did the job of logistics manager during the weekday, and when I offered to pick up his hours, he was more than happy to load them off to me. I had maximized my opportunities to run into her, and the only thing left was to execute.
The day I had offered to pick up from my colleague would be the day (and God am I grateful for having this idea to pick up extra shifts). In the most opportune way possible as well. Anam came into the loading bay with a new employee looking for Z-bars to hang clothing on. The only place to get those was in a corner of the loading area- in my deserted domain. After I hassle them for the paperwork to checkout a Z-bar (there is no paperwork, but I need to keep this job entertaining somehow) Anam sends the newbie ahead. Before she left with the second Z-bar I inquired “Hey Anam can I talk to you for a second.”
“Sure, what’s up?”
I’m absolutely terrified. This was a show for one, and I had brought myself under the spotlight. All eyes (her eyes) were on me. I could feel the adrenaline kicking in a bit too early as I unintentionally cool guy leaned on a nearby stack of boxes to stay comfortable while on the verge of jitters.
“I have a problem. It’s you.”
“What do you mean? What have I ever done to you?” she voiced in disbelief.
Existed. “I’m interested in you. Where do I submit my application and resume?” I had practiced this line in my heart because it was the most honest thing I could think of.
Anam’s eyes widen as she breaks into a realizing smile. “Sorry, but I’m not single.” Fuck. I had selectively not calculated for this turn of events (despite Faisal’s caution).
“Guess I’m just a little too late yeah?”
“Yeah… but good for you- doing something like this is hard…”
I don’t recall the rest of that conversation. The last thing I can remember thinking about was a previous time Anam described how one of our coworkers joked about wanting to jump from the third floor of the store (out of exasperation). I wanted to jump from the roof (out of embarrassment). She was just too cool about it. Which made me like her even more.
I saw her again later that day while I was dealing with some packages with the HR manager. While in conversation with him, I catch her out of the corner of my eye. As she made her way to the office I noticed her go from slightly expressionless to a grin as she glanced at me.
Discount Robert Frost
A few weeks before my deadline I had started a prank. I would write anonymous cryptic haikus and leave them in the manager’s physical mailboxes. I thought I would try my hand at this form of art and derive some personal joy from confusing people. Faisal would later catch me one day as the paper size was nontraditional and I happened to have the notebook on me, putting 2 and 2 together. The week before I asked Anam out (not totally sure if that’s what I had attempted, but let’s call it that) I had placed a haiku in her mailbox as well.
I had forgotten the details of this haiku remembering only that it was a bit more directed than the other ones I had written, but (un)fortunately for me I still retain this notebook and the haiku’s drafts. I rewrote my 5, 7, 5 prose 16 times to choose the one with the best handwriting (how cute and stupid on what planet is seduction expressed through calligraphy?). I had long forgotten why addressing it was so important, and rereading it I completely understood the urgency. Please take a moment to cringe with me.
L’Oreal ad hair
a stupid boy admires
When I wrote this, I was reveling in a day that she came to work in this very cute white dress. In passing I had asked “Do you have a photoshoot with L’Oreal later?” Fanning her hair, she flirtatiously joked, “Can’t you tell?”
Assuming she had connected the dots that I had probably written it, and since the timing of her reading it was after I had asked her out, it would only look as if I’m being strangely pushy. I needed to clear up her impression of me before she left Macy’s where I would never see her again. However, when I approached her about it, she seemed surprised when I brought it up. Worse yet I had not recovered from the embarrassment I had created for myself just a few days prior. I was still vulnerable. Trying to talk to her provoked so much embarrassment that the most I could get out was a “You know that poem in your mailbox… I can’t do this” made worse by the “Aww…” she expressed as my resolve crumbled at her feet. Shaking my head in self-disappointed, I sulked off to do a consult in the office.
Being the absolute satire that is my life, it just so happens Anam had business in the exact same office as I did with the same person. As I’m finishing up my business, I look up in this cramped office space, and there she is blocking the only exit. I couldn’t look this girl in the face. Trying to maintain a disconnected seriousness was difficult, but this coincidence was just too funny and I’m quite sure I saw Anam laughing silently. I contorted my face to not let my smile slip through as I mumbled an “excuse me” to request safe passage. I had challenged myself once and exceeded my own expectations, but I failed on my second attempt. My slightly improved confidence could not overcome my timid nature.
Despite the frequent praises that I received from those around me about my maturity in the way I would conduct myself, my youth and naivety showed in other places. I had never been in this type of situation before. Nor had I experienced rejection in a manner where I had to make myself vulnerable. I could not properly wrap my head around a rejection. Over the next few days I warped and deeply interpreted what she had said to me. She hadn’t said no. She hadn’t said I’m getting married next week or that she’s engaged. Just that she wasn’t available currently. My final conclusion was that this might be subject to change- giving me a chance in the future. Fortunately, I had enough sense not to act too much on this.
It took quite a few months (close to a year or so?) for me to actually accept my rejection despite my inclination to hang on to a hope that I recognized as another fantasy and unhealthy. Feeling like I had gotten over it, I eventually added Anam on Facebook- which didn’t do me any favors. For whatever reason, every time she would post something, the Facebook algorithm would put her post first at the very top of my feed every time I opened it up. Whenever I would see her posts, I would quickly scroll down in embarrassment. This girl was not even in front of me and that is my reaction even behind a computer screen. As my curiosity outlived my fleeting embarrassment, I would sheepishly scroll back up to find her posts.
Another part of me wanted to thank Anam. Write some lengthy Facebook message since I was unlikely to ever see her again. But for what? Letting me down easy when she could’ve very easily crushed my little heart? Was that really so valuable that it deserved gratitude? Perhaps this was a kindling of my infatuation that I may accidentally reignite. I thought better of it and restrained myself. I had a firm grasp that my infatuation had been an unhealthy mindset, and I would never allow myself that type of folly in the future. It was not until later in life that I would understand why I felt compelled to do so.
A couple years later while in medical school, we tried to meet up in the silliest manner. She was finishing up her degree in a nearby city just an hour and a half away. Surprisingly she was receptive and even willing to come to me rather than I come to her. I would try to make plans nonchalantly as if I didn’t really care, but in my heart of hearts I did. This half-assed attitude is probably the reason why when either of us ended up having to flake, I never made a point to reschedule. Multiple times. Although I was chatting with her over Facebook/Instagram, I still had not tried to get her number to ensure a good line of communication. It was as if I were trying to prove to myself that I am not that desperate to see her while also wary of my past and the fact that she was still stuck in my thoughts. Needless to say, we never saw each other, which we would joke about on occasion.
One of the problems that I faced back then was never completely resolved. I can successfully talk to women- that has never been a huge problem, but when it comes to the ones I’m actively interested in, I have recognized a pattern (a bit difficult when n=2 for the sample size). Managing to forgo getting to know them I get caught up in the process of getting to know them- as I once did with Anam. Worried about a plan that I don’t need. Arrogant that I know what I’m doing. I’m not socially incompetent so what is there to change about my approach? But I am not perfect. Acknowledging that has helped me better grasp the nuance and art in developing relationships- especially with those that I’m interested in. When it truly counts.
Smile Story Symptom
While in medical school, I also had the chance to do some modeling as a side gig. During a photoshoot, my photographer Cindy was attempting to direct me to smile out into the distance. She was trying very hard to get me to produce one that was genuine to fulfill her photographic vision and I was making it a little difficult to deliver.
She asked, “Do you have a girlfriend? Think of her!” as she attempted to coerce her vision to fruition.
“Heh. Uh, no…” I puffed in amusement at her assumption as I continued trying to force my smile. Each subtle tweak I made to my face remained unsatisfactory to Cindy.
“Well think of someone you really like and they’re over there waving to you!” She had said the magic words as Anam immediately came to mind. I could work with that. As I imagined her in front of me it created a subtle charm that I harnessed into my smile. It was exactly what Cindy was looking for.
“Perfect! Cute! So cute!” Cindy fawned as she captured my likeness.
Probably the best picture of me smiling currently in existence.
I don’t typically dream about the people that I know, but I’ve had 2 possibly 3 dreams about Anam. Once was while in a busy kitchen restaurant, and I was overseeing chefs. While interacting with a Hispanic woman who was working on a large pot (maybe it was soup?) with chopped vegetables on her cutting board, I became distracted. The doors of the kitchen had just opened, and Anam entered. I don’t recall her having anything to do with my kitchen although clad in a chef’s uniform, but as soon as she appeared the dream became lucid. I became somewhat conscious of my choice to disregard everything that was going on in the kitchen for the sake of interacting with her. The other people in this kitchen disappeared or perhaps they were there, and I could no longer perceive them as my attention was now elsewhere. Regardless as we talked, we began prepping ingredients for a dish together and the dream faded away.
During my third week of medical school I had another dream. I was in a house that was familiar to me, but not my own, and I was putting something back in the overhead cupboard of my kitchen. As I was doing this Anam called out to me from behind. As she does this, she comes up behind me and wraps her arms around me placing her face between the shoulders of my back softly telling me “Congrats on getting in…”. My heart melts. I melt. The dream becomes lucid. I tell her “Stop ittt…” knowing full well that is NOT what I wanted. I couldn’t verbally admit that I was enjoying myself. Even in my dreams. The embrace and dream then faded and I returned to my consciousness. I transitioned fluidly into an awakened state aware of my returning to my body. I slowly opened my eyes- like in a movie scene. I wasn’t groggy or tired. I was able to get out of bed easily and was quite alert. Unusual for a person that likes to lay in bed for an extra hour before getting up. Instead I got up within moments of waking. I felt like a million dollars. That dream had felt so real and I could sense a hearty warmth and happiness throughout myself.
These are the only instances of lucid dreaming I have ever experienced.
I was visiting a friend in Seattle when I got a text from Faisal. It had been over 5 years since I had last worked at Macy’s. He had linked me a news article. I saw the picture before I read the headline and was excited to see Anam. The headline however cut my excitement short. No. Denial. I clicked the link and read the first few sentences and quickly closed it in disbelief, unwilling to comprehend the truth. This wasn’t even news. It was dated last week.
Just the day before, in Seattle, I had visited the grave of Bruce Lee. On my walk there I had the audacity to think if someone important to me passed away, I wouldn’t be too affected. At the site it was off putting to see foreigners taking selfies with the tombstone. An opportunity to somberly respect and reflect was reduced to a photo in an album that will be never be referenced again. Making the deceased a spectacle.
A hollow emptiness set into my heart as if a few pounds of weight had been excised from my chest. I could sense the lightness. Interestingly, my first reaction had been wanting to console her. To hug her. To tell her that everything was going to be okay despite the poor circumstances. How do you console the deceased?
The next morning, I took my red-eye flight back to Houston and drove straight to my work cubicle. The frivolous account tax statuses I was supposed to be working on were even more meaningless to me than usual. I continued to work as I tried to process this new reality. Eyes watering on occasion, but not leaking. No rivers here. I was not looking to draw attention, and what could anyone else do for me if they knew?
Why was God testing me and why like this? Anger (frustration really). I had been relinquished of my career as a future doctor and now this? If this is a test, then it implicitly must be something that I am able to handle? Right?
I requested sad music from my friends to wallow in my sorrows. Depression. But none of them struck the right tone-especially because of their love themes. I wanted a death song to really let it all wash over me.
The week before I had been hanging out with my best friend. We were reflecting on the best ways to live your life, and one topic involved the use of your energy. Not on a metaphysical level, but in a literal sense where you experience different feelings and emotions, but how you react to them is up to you. That this can be channeled into something more productive than a perpetual frustration or other emotion. One thing led to another and I managed to bring Anam up as well. I confided in him that I hadn’t made any successful moves since my first attempt when I was 19. Here I was now 24 still talking about her no longer infatuated, but also unable to get her out of my thoughts. We tentatively agreed that since that time I must have become a different person with a stronger constitution. “Hit her up. No expectations. Just see what happens” was his advice and my conclusion. She perished the following night.
Time travel would have been able to prevent this calamity. Bargaining. She was only in her late 20s and just graduated from her doctorate. Plenty of life to be lived- that was cut short. You can’t console the deceased, but I guess you can console the soul through prayer. The best I could to do was pray. For her. For the family that lost her. Especially for the mother that lost her daughter, a grief that I don’t think I could ever begin to imagine.
The next day I wallowed in my sorrows at my desk once again, but only briefly. Recalling last week’s conversation with my friend on wasted energy, I figured it can and should apply here. Acceptance. My mourning wasn’t productive. What could be a better use of this energy I’m spending being sad? Make her proud. Channel my energy into positive actions inspired by Anam.
I figured she was likely buried in Houston. After a few phone calls that weekend I found the graveyard she was supposed to be at. I drove there and entered the office for detailed directions to the tomb. The secretary asked for the name and I disclosed. She perused her list for a bit and in little too chipper voice said, “Yes, she’s here.” My gut sinks a bit further as her confirmation makes the truth more real. I spent a few minutes grave hunting. Finding her name and reading it was painful. So was seeing all the wilted flowers from the burial 3 weeks ago. As I prayed for her at her grave, I resolved myself with a purpose.
I had told her about me potentially leaving medicine the previous summer, and she gave me reassurance in my abilities as a future doctor. When I did leave it behind, I told her about the steps I was taking to pursue a new career, and she held steadfast in her belief in me. I indirectly probed her about why, and she told me “You can always use someone in your corner.” When I shared with her my first interview at a Fortune 100 company, she told me this would be “The first of many.” She had an absolute unwavering confidence in my success.
In death, the only thing that can be left behind is legacy. She touched me in a very special way whether she knew it or not. A lot of my growth was catalyzed by her. Arguably, I shouldn’t be giving her all the credit as anybody could’ve filled her role for me- highlighting my own ability to inspire myself. However, she was so deeply pivotal to my shift in perspective in developing self-love and self-worth that she deserves the recognition.
Her existence in my life played a substantial role in who I am today, and leaves an everlasting impact on where I will end up in the future. I am her legacy. To that end, it is my responsibility to live up to that legacy. My duty and what I had resolved myself to strive for at her grave was to be the best me I can possibly be.
Secondary Smile Story
A few months later, I was walking through the hall at my new Fortune 100 job when I was confronted by a friend. As we looked at one another she made an upset face, and in a slightly aggressive manner said to me “You need to smile more.” I was taken aback and all I could really mutter was a bemused “Damn…” as she walked away. Those words- another dull knife that offended me for obvious reasons, and a few not so obvious. She may as well have said You. This current you… as if an outstretched arm was pointing a circling finger at me …sucks.
In a situation where these roles were reversed, you discover the stereotypical situation where a man tells a woman “You look prettier when you smile.” A disgusting backhanded compliment that shows how aloof and detached an individual is from what they say and who they say it to. Who are you to understand what’s going on in someone’s life to be able to make such a suggestion? Regardless of what is going on in your life- just smile about it! It’s easy!
I took my offense home with me that day and pondered it in my bed. This was not the first time I had encountered a similar request. When I was a kid, I would often get harshly screeched at by my father for various things. I was supposed to stand there at the entrance of the living room and accept my verbal beat down. You’re supposed to look at the ground (I think) as part of this ritual, but everywhere else in my life I had learned you’re supposed to maintain eye contact to indicate you’re paying attention to your scolding. This conflict made it difficult to understand which to follow sometimes, so as not to further antagonize my furious father, as it would be unclear which was effective. In an effort to reduce the overall intensity of my trial, I would try to remain expressionless. No emotion.
More than once, I was unsuccessful resulting in a “FIX YOUR FACE” being yelled at me in Urdu. I was confident that my face was showing no expressions at those times (and it was imperative that I do so), but perhaps I had done it ineffectively. I acknowledged that this could be a reoccurring problem that had been surfacing in different forms over the years. Then I recalled a similar situation where I had recognized the shortcomings in relation to my face and used it to inspire change in myself. My heart was warmed as I recalled The Smile Story.
As upsetting as those words had been, I was caught up in its delivery and was overlooking its message. Reinterpreting them I found another underlying implication …and you can be better than that. I believe in your capacity to do it.
I reinstated the smile exercise. It had been effective before, but I needed to make it permanent. I smiled whenever I could remember and when I forgot, I smiled some more. I practice exuding this positivity through my face so that it will parallel the life I aim for and the words I share. A better me.
For a few weeks after her departure, whenever I would think about her, it would start off as “Hey Anam…” and I would have to catch myself every time. She’s not here, nor there, nor anywhere anymore. Anything I could say even in my head, as a hypothetical conversation, was worthless. There was no value in longing for a conversation that will never happen in my lifetime. But it did help serve as a reminder of my new resolution. Also, there was nothing else for me to say to her. I’m sure it would’ve pleased her to know what she had done for me, but she doesn’t have to know. And that’s okay. I’m sure my messages and actions (especially me asking her out so long ago) showed whatever I may have wanted to convey. That I loved her.
Not in the way you might initially think and very different from my phase of infatuation. I’m not in love with her. I simply love her. Which explains why for the longest time, I couldn’t help reserving a spot for her in my head. A spot in my heart.
While reflecting on love and Anam, I discovered a genuine appreciation of my own life and existence telling my best friend “The world and this life is so lovely.” The pleasant feeling led me to ponder about love. Love shouldn’t be like a switch that I turned off and on or exclusive to certain things or people. Having love for this life and everything in this world at all times- is that not a beautiful thought? A marvelous, permanent feeling?
Easier thought than realized. In contrast, I hate looking Anam up as it is a reminder that she’s gone (had to quite a bit for this memoir). However, among the reminiscing that I enjoyed and the aches I reignited, I happened upon a scholarship setup by her family to promote her legacy. I hope to have the resources to meaningfully contribute to it one day.
What Anam did for me I could spend my whole life trying to repay her for and still never succeed. To be the best me I could possibly be.
Definitely a tribute.
Probably a love story.
Absolutely not a love letter.
In loving memory of Anam.
إِنَّا لِلَّٰهِ وَإِنَّا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعُونَ
Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un
To Allah (God) we belong and to him we return