Reads: 311

Jane Stepanoff had been expecting a marriage proposal.  Five years of Chris’ favorite crime shows and slimy Chinese take-out deserved a happy ending. 

Fourteen days ago, one miserly text message put her life plan in peril.  She reread the words that she had already committed to memory.  Hey, babe.  I got the job.  I’ll be leaving in two weeks. So happy I’ll be around Mom and Pops again.  He hadn't said much since then, at least not much of what mattered to her — plenty about the breezy California weather, his mother’s collection of antique vases, his father’s scrambled eggs, surfing with his cousins, yet no mention of what the future held for the two of them.

Tears welled up in Jane’s eyes, but she swallowed them back. Chris never promised to marry her. He also never said he wouldn't, and she felt uncomfortable asking.  How dumb of her.  Well, at least she could stop waiting.  His flight must have taken off by now.  Jane sighed and returned her gaze to the computer screen, skipping over figures in an open spreadsheet. 

Decimals cued in rows and columns, and preprogrammed formulas generated answers to complex calculations.  If only men were logical and predictable like numbers.  Where did she go wrong with Chris?  A dedicated police officer from a conservative family, he seemed like a risk-free bet, or so she had thought until he applied to a drug task-force in Orange County — halfway across the country from her, but only thirty miles from his hometown.  She couldn’t even blame him for wanting to be around his parents. 

Jane shook her head and once again tried to focus on RAF Construction’s financial report.  This medium-sized, family-owned company balanced on the verge of bankruptcy, which made it a perfect target for Jane’s boss’s premium-priced consulting services.

To her left, the merciless Alabama sun shone through the blinds of a floor-to-ceiling window. Its rays lined the surface of a white credenza in perfect parallels.   The few papers on Jane’s glass top desk lay in two neat stacks, incoming and outgoing. A cityscape print, Chris’ gift to her, hung on the opposite wall — gray skyscrapers propped up the equally gray skyline — the massive rectangular blocks stood secure and safe in their immobility.

The office door flew open almost hitting the wall.  Rachel, the receptionist at Davis Consulting, rushed in.  Her tight toffee-colored curls bounced atop her shoulders.   “Good news.  RAF Construction finally signed.”

So much for shedding some tears in private.  “That’s great.”  The words tumbled out in a hoarse, barely audible sound. 

The brunette tilted her head, squinting.  “Don’t tell me Chris went back to Cali.” 

“Uh-huh.” 

“Oh.”  Rachel lowered herself into one of the steel-framed guest chairs and fell silent for a few moments.  She fumbled with a wooden business card holder, rearranging Jane's black and white cards.  “Did he say anything about you coming along?”

Explaining was a chore.  Jane leaned over and opened a drawer of the credenza.  Inside, underneath last month’s issue of Southern Brides, laid a box of Kleenex.  She pulled one out and dabbed her eyes.  “He knows I won’t resign from the firm.”

“You would if he proposed … There’s tissue on your face, sweetie.”  Rachel pointed one of her long artificial nails to Jane’s cheek.  “You’re not doing the long-distance thing, are you?”

“Pff.”  Jane swept the piece away.   “He’s strung me along for five years.  How much longer do I have to wait?” She reached down to the drawer again and this time pulled out the bridal magazine.  Rolling it into a tube, she stuffed the embarrassing evidence of her crashed dreams into a recycle bin underneath the desk.  “And please remind me next time to put ‘dating for marriage only’ on my profile.  I can’t afford any more vague intentions.” 

Rachel nodded, the corners of her lipsticked mouth drooping, but after a moment she perked up and smiled.  “Maybe you don’t have to.  How about a guy who’s ready to take the plunge?”

“Do those even exist?”

“Awad’s relatives.  In Pakistan.”

Jane chuckled.  “You’re insane. Why would they marry a stranger from another country?”

 “Awad says arranged marriages are the norm over there. ” 

“That’s why his own marriage went so well.”  Awad, Rachel’s long-term boyfriend, had divorced his first wife a while back and was now raising twin boys all on his own.

“He married some white trash.  She was only in it for the money.”  Rachel pursed her thin lips.  “You’re completely different.”

“Whatever.  In all likelihood, those men just want a green card, and that’s all.”  Jane looked at the computer again.  With rapid clicks, her mouse danced over the screen, closing out number-filled windows.  “Besides, if one believes the news, their culture can be quite scary.  No offense, Rachel.”

“Like you really believe all the TV BS, and Awad has never been anything but nice.” 

True.  Awad had behaved like a perfect gentleman and a handsome one at that.  At times, Jane even dared to compare his elaborate way of speaking, his Armani suit, and Rolex-clad wrists to Chris’ one-syllable responses, wrinkled police uniform, and tattooed forearms.  When Rachel peppered her with stories of their dazzling dates, Jane thought that her co-worker was incredibly lucky.   Still, it wasn’t a reason to jump into an arranged marriage with God knows who.  She wasn’t that desperate, was she?  Jane stood up and grabbed her suit jacket off the chair’s back.  “Tic-Toc. Time to go.”

 “Oh, shoot. Dinner with my darling.” Rachel jumped up, straightening her teal A-line skirt.  “Gotta run. And don’t be too sad, sweetie.  I’ll talk to Awad for you,” she called out of the doorway. 

Jane grabbed her phone off the desk and hesitated, staring at a monochrome cityscape on her office’s beige wall.  With both hands, she clasped the print’s edges, and the grayscale monstrosity went down without a fight.  Placing the shadowy picture on the floor, Jane looked around.  Soon, she found a new home for it behind the massive credenza.

***

The next morning, Jane stepped out of the cherry-paneled elevator onto the eleventh floor of the South Trust Plaza, which housed her office.  She wandered down the potpourri-scented hallway, her eyes glued to the phone, her fingers entering information into a miles-long dating questionnaire.

She had completed three pages of it already, but enough remained to keep her busy until retirement.  What are the most important characteristics in a partner?   Jane chewed her lip, scrolling through the answer choices.  Loyal, kind, and trustworthy.  Next one.  How would you describe your parents’ marriage? For a moment, her finger hovered over Divorced.  She let out an exasperated sigh and pressed the home button instead.  Who came up with these idiotic questions?  Did they really think that only married people had babies?

She stopped at the firm’s double glass doors and shoved the phone into her jacket pocket.  In the lobby, the light from the hanging LED lamps fell onto the curved reception desk.  Rachel sat behind it, and the star-shaped clock above her head showed a quarter past eight.  Nothing abnormal, except Rachel never came to work this early. 

Jane pulled the heavy door, and a camera flashed in her face — one, two, three times.  An elderly man was pointing a phone at her from the lobby’s black leather sofa.

Jane furrowed her brow.  “What are you doing?”

“It’s ok, sweetie.  He’s taking pictures for Mahsood,” Rachel called from behind the glossy white desk. 

“For who?” 

“Mahsood.  Your fiancé.”

Jane clenched her fists. “What are you talking about?  I never agreed to that.” 

“Miss Jane, let us converse.”  The man sprang up and moved forward, putting a hand on his heart. “You will not refuse, I am sure.  Mahsood is a wonderful boy.” 

She looked the gentleman up and down, scrutinizing his clean-shaven lined face, his tweed sports coat with a gingham shirt underneath, and his want of a necktie.   “I’m sorry.  I don’t think we’ve met.” 

“This is Awad’s dad, sweetie.  And Mahsood’s uncle.”  Rachel got up from her seat and approached them. 

Jane put on a tight-lipped smile.  “Mr. Khan … ”

“Please call me Uncle Gafar.  We are almost family.” 

Jane coughed, examining the fibers of the firm's ashen carpet.

The office door opened, and Evan, one of the firm’s junior accountants, strolled in. 

“Why don’t we discuss this in my office?”  Jane glanced at the Pakistani man.  “This way.”  She entered a corridor to the left and opened a heavy oak door.  Uncle Gafar followed, with Rachel treading in last. 

“Please sit.”  Jane settled into her chair and crossed her arms.  “I believe there’s a misunderstanding.  I never agreed to marry Mahsood.”

“No misunderstanding, Miss Jane,” Uncle Gafar said from one of the guest chairs.  Rachel paced behind him.  “Look here.”  He fumbled with his phone and slid it in front of Jane.  “Handsome boy,” the uncle exclaimed, pointing at the screen. 

She leaned forward, examining the digital photo.

On it, a man with jet black hair and a three-day stubble sat in a gilded armchair of the kind found in European museums.  Mahsood had light brown skin, an almost-too-large nose, and full lips, slightly parted.  He wore a cream overcoat with gold epaulettes and shank buttons, which resembled the past century’s officer uniform.   Mahsood’s eyes crinkled, yet he wasn’t smiling.  Such a dark color — the pupils melded with the irises.  How peculiar. 

“Ahem.”  Jane looked down at the desk’s matte glass. “Your nephew is certainly handsome, but I’m afraid that’s not a reason to get married.” 

“Sweetie.” Rachel stopped pacing and widened her kohl-rimmed eyes.  “What else is there to wait for?  Another five years and you may not be able to have children.  At least you know Mahsood is serious.”

Jane shuddered.  “You don’t have to be so blunt about it.”

“I am just trying to help.”  Rachel pouted.

“Mahsood is very serious, Miss Jane.”  Uncle Gafar nodded. “He wants many children.  You will not regret.” 

She massaged her forehead and looked up at the office’s gypsum ceiling.  Like Chris, who had dated her without any concrete plans for the future, most of Jane’s male acquaintances were in no rush to start a family. 

Her previous boyfriend Ian had broken up with her after three years.  For two of those years, they lived in his cozy midtown condo, making Caprese salad with home-grown basil and picking out toilets at Home Depot for a bathroom remodel project.  After the remodel was over, Ian took her to Chili’s and, over a plate of sizzling fajitas, said that he wasn’t ready for a commitment.

Thankfully, Walter before that had taken only a year of her life.   In her early twenties, Jane was star-eyed and in love.  Walter knew how to impress — Michelin-star restaurants and touring Broadway shows, weekend trips to Miami and his shiny black Cadillac.  Walter’s diamond-clad wife showed up to La Cage aux Folles.  She asked if the young lady had taken the wrong seat.

Jane shook her head and sat up.  No more of that.  Her next relationship might be her last chance to have a complete family.  Yet, using the same old dating apps would bring the same old failures.  She had to try something different.  Marrying Mahsood was sure crazy, but what did she have to lose?  Divorce was always an option.  More importantly, she had to state her needs clearly this time.  Ambiguity had harmed her in the past. 

She confronted Uncle Gafar’s crescent-shaped eyes.  “I have a condition.  I want two children, but if things don’t work out between us, I won’t hold him.”

“How can you say that, Miss Jane?”  His face twisted. “Mahsood would not do a bad thing like divorce.” 

“Mr. Khan, if after the marriage, I find out that our expectations were different, I will stop the immigration process.” 

“No worry, Miss Jane, no worry. You will have many children.”  Rubbing his hands, Uncle Gafar winked at her. 


Submitted: May 10, 2022

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