It Was Me (part 1)

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01/06/2008

Bath Avenue in Bensonhurst, 14th St & 8th Ave, 11214

Neighborhood: All Over, Manhattan

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It was me, the girl standing in front of the Krusq, the wedding party, wearing a wedding dress. How did it happen? What went wrong? I had asked God to change things. I didn’t like the man I was going to marry -- but I had no choice. “On the day you were born God wrote on your forehead who you would marry and when you will die,” my mom told me when I was eleven. I believed it. What I couldn’t believe was that he chose Fatmir as my husband. He wasn’t what I had expected. What I had hoped for. How could I love a man who couldn’t carry a conversation? I had always wanted a real man -- one who took the lead. A man who was highly respected -- someone like my father.

The first time I met him was at his uncle’s pizzeria in Manhattan, on 8th Avenue and 14th Street. Fatmir had started working there when he came from Macedonia at the age of thirteen. Being the oldest boy he was made responsible for his family’s survival and came to America to work -- this seemed to be all he did -- all he knew. My brother Asllan and his wife Behare accompanied me to the pizzeria. This was only fitting since it was at their wedding a few months ago that Fatmir’s uncles had seen me and decided I would make a good wife -- especially since I had my papers. Behare’s father was Shkus i parë, the Head Matchmaker, who came to ask for my hand in marriage on the behalf of Fatmir and his family. It was a Thursday, the day appropriate for these things, and I was in school.

“They came to ask for you today,” my mother told me when I got home, and proceeded to tell me what the Shkus said about him. He was a hard worker, didn’t do drugs or drink alcohol, and wasn’t a womanizer. My mother commented that he didn’t look “wild,” which I took to mean he wouldn’t hit me. Thank God for him I thought to myself. I also found out from Behare that his uncles, whom Fatmir lived with, treated their wives really well; so there was a good chance I would be too. One wife even drove a car, and both went shopping for clothes by themselves frequently. I really wanted to like him. “Here’s his picture,” Mom said as she handed it to me.

There he was standing by himself at some wedding hall, dressed in a dark suit and white shirt, with thick dark brown hair combed to the side, and beautiful eyes -- he wasn’t smiling so I couldn’t tell if he had nice teeth. That was one thing to look out for in photos. It was obvious he had this picture taken just for this reason.

“His name is Fatmir,” Mom said.

Fatmir…I liked the name, it meant good-luck, and he was very good-looking. There was some potential here -- all I needed was to feel an attraction, so arrangements were made for me to meet him face-to-face -- with chaperones of course.

I was wearing an expensive stylish off-white dress with three small hand painted flowers that playfully fell over each shoulder. The dress was an appropriate “girls” dress which covered my legs mid-calf. I had recently worn it to a wedding. It wasn’t something I would normally wear to a pizzeria -- but this was a special occasion.

Fatmir was expecting us. He looked like his picture, except with acne. He didn’t smile, but I could make out that he had nice teeth. He was nervous, shy, and hardly spoke. He didn’t even look at me when I shook his hand ‘Hello,’ and he even blushed.

Asllan, trying to make the “visit” seem casual, ordered a large pie for take-out. The fact that we drove in all the way from Bensonhurst Brooklyn was conveniently overlooked. Fatmir made us a fresh pie and spoke to Asllan between serving customers, other customers, looking at me on the rare occasion when I said something. Joining in on the conversation was hard since I was supposed to be the submissive female, and was a little shy myself. Fifteen minutes later, with fresh pie in hand, Asllan, Behare and I were ready to leave.

I hadn’t felt anything and was hopeful that something would happen when he shook my hand ‘Good-bye.’ Maybe he would look at me in a special way? Maybe he would say something nice? Maybe my heart would skip a beat for no apparent reason?

None of it happened.

We got to the car and I noticed that he had forgotten to give us napkins.

Being the cool brother, Asllan said, “You go and ask for the napkins.”

At first I was hesitant, and then I thought maybe it would be different if I saw him one-on-one, and bravely headed back in.

“You forgot to give us napkins,” I said with a smile.

“Oh,” he replied and grabbed a big handful of them, and turning a light shade of red, he handed them to me.

“Are you trying to say we’re slobs?” I asked playfully, hoping he’d be funny, sweet…something.

“No. No,” he replied, now even redder.

My heart sank. I smiled, told him I was only kidding, turned around, and left.

So when the Shkus came on his behalf for the answer to their proposal my answer was also “No.” Actually I said, “I don’t know. I don’t feel anything for him.” This I had to repeat to everyone who inquired if I wanted to marry him -- my sisters, sisters-in-law, and brothers. The biggest surprise was when my oldest brother Nezir asked me. I remember it like it was yesterday. I did not think he cared about me and my future. He had his wife, who he chose, his children, and he lived in Staten Island -- far away from us. Only the girls were supposed to leave the house when they married. He visited every weekend but he felt more like a guest than family. He had the attitude of being above all the Albanian bullshit, as he called it. He wanted to make sure I picked my own husband, and wasn’t pushed into it. His genuine concern for me made me feel like his sister for a minute.

“I don’t know,” was the acceptable way of saying “No.” I knew everybody wanted me to like him, but I didn’t feel anything extraordinary -- the way I expected love to be like. I wanted to love the man I would marry -- in this way I was Americanized.

We weren’t your typical Albanian family -- I was allowed to make the final decision on whom I’d marry. There were twenty-six suitors in all, but the majority of them weren’t approved by my brother Sokol or my Mom and didn’t pass the first round. Only three made it to the second round of meeting me -- and Fatmir was one of them, and I think my mother’s favorite. She wasn’t happy to hear that I didn’t like him.

The Shkus decided not to take ‘No’ for an answer and came again the following week, and the week after, and the week after that -- or so that’s how it felt. It was two months later and they would still call to let us know they were coming for “a coffee,” but we knew what they meant. This persistence was unusual and everyone who heard about it was impressed that Fatmir had wanted me bad enough to swallow his pride and continued his pursuit. I knew I was a great catch, and although I was a little flattered, I just wished they would leave me alone. And besides, I didn’t think Fatmir had that type of conviction -- although I saw he liked me, I believed it was his uncles’ doing. Or had my mother left the door open for them by somehow giving them hope? She used the excuse, “They keep coming for you so why don’t you give him one more chance.” So I did. How could I say no to her.»

This time I went to the pizzeria with my sister Qamile, who excused herself minutes after we arrived with “I have to do some shopping.” It was funny to me that everybody knew what was going on yet went along with it. Why not just say, “I am going to leave you two alone to talk for a while?” I hated lies, even if they were supposed to help one save face. Inside I just shook my head in disbelief.

I sat at a counter on a stool near the ovens, again wearing a dress which was how I silently acknowledged that I knew my place. In school I was a tomboy, but he wasn’t marrying me for who I was. He gave me a slice, directed the Mexican to make pies, and we tried talking while he served customers. I spoke to him in Albanian because I didn’t want to make him feel inferior to me, and I wanted to show off that I can speak the language even though I came here when I was seven. I was not Americanized and was a proper girl.

“How long have you been in America?” I asked in Albanian.

“Five years.”

“Do you like it here?”

“Yes.”

Then silence. Jesus! Couldn’t he answer me in full sentences! Couldn’t he take the initiative and ask me a question. Couldn’t he take charge?! After all he was the man. In a final attempt to break the ice, I asked with a smile, “What were the first curse words you learned in English?”

“What?” He did a double take.

Feeling a little awkward about having asked such an inappropriate question I decided to act as though it was no big deal.

Une e kum mësu ‘motherfucker,’” I learned ‘motherfucker,’ I said.

Edhe une,” me too, he responded with a smile. I could tell he liked my gutsiness, but I didn’t care for his lack of it.

Damn it. He didn’t even laugh. This was not going to cut it. I needed more of a man. I should have been the one wearing the pants. An hour later, when my sister “finished her shopping,” we headed home, and I was no closer to liking him than before. Although I wanted to want to marry him, I did not feel anything.

“So, what will we tell them when they come tomorrow,” my Mom asked that Friday night before the Shkus came for the answer again.

My heart dropped as I looked at her and then up at the ceiling. It was dark and we had just gone to bed. I slept in the pull-out twin bed next to hers. There was nowhere to run. I knew she wanted me to say ‘Yes,’ and I didn’t want to disappoint her.

Se di,” I don’t know, I responded as my heart beat loudly in my chest. I knew she knew what that meant. She always understood what I wanted to say even when I didn’t say anything.

“What do you mean you don’t know?”

It was obvious -- she didn’t want to accept ‘No’ for an answer. Fatmir seemed like the perfect catch. But I couldn’t say “Yes” when my heart said “No.” So I lay there in silence not knowing what to do.

“You know…Sokol told me you were becoming an old lady in his house,” she said coldly.

He was right -- I had turned nineteen. That was pretty old.

The words took me by surprise and my heart sank. The light that came in from the windows was not bright enough to expose the tears that began to run down my face. For this I was thankful. Sokol had been like a father to me since I was eleven, when Dad died. I couldn’t believe he felt like this. But I didn’t dare ask her if he really said it. That would be like calling her a liar -- which no one dared to do -- half out of respect, half out of fear. Such an insinuation could mean she wouldn’t talk to me for months. And besides, the thought of her lying about something as hurtful as this was not conceivable -- I had to accept it as truth. I lay there like a doe with a deep heart wound, silent and still on the outside, painfully dying on the inside.

“So… what should we tell them when they come tomorrow?” she asked, trying to make it seem like it was really up to me, and that the boulder she just dropped on me was only a feather. But she must have known the weight of it -- she had to.

What could I say? I no longer had a home. I wasn’t wanted. There was NO choice. I did my best to collect myself. I could not let her know I was crying. I didn’t want her to think I was being a baby and felt sorry for myself. She hated that.

“Do whatever you want,” I responded and turned away. Silently letting the tears drip off my nose and cheeks onto the hand that cupped my face. With the other hand I wiped my nose carefully so Mom wouldn’t notice.

The tears dripped me into sleep.

The next morning the Shkus, according to tradition, were supposed to be there before noon so I left before ten -- anxious to get out of the house. I didn’t want to be there for it. I was so hurt I avoided seeing Sokol. It took me twenty years to tell him how hurt I was about what he told Mom. Confused, he replied, “I never said that.” We looked at each other and shook our heads in disbelief -- Mom had always known how to get just what she wanted.

The fifteen minute walk to Qamile’s house took forever. The usual excitement of window shopping past the 86th Street stores wasn’t there. When I got to her apartment she didn’t mention that she knew fjala, the word, was being given today. She was sensitive to my feeling and knew how I felt.

“You’re engaged,” Qamile said to me an hour later, after getting the phone call from my Mom.

I looked at her and gave a fake smile while fighting back the tears.

“Don’t worry. You will learn to love him,” she said.

I hoped so. I really hoped so.

Who was I to question what had worked for hundreds of years? I really wanted to love the man I’d marry. I guess I’d have to get over that. It made more sense to entrust your elders to do the picking, I reasoned with myself. “Look at the Americans, their marriages almost always end in divorce, and they pick their husbands, they start out loving each other,” I heard many women say in defense of our ways. They were right. Albanians hardly ever got divorced -- maybe they knew what they were doing? Regardless, I was relieved this whole marriage thing was over. I was tired of wondering whom I’d marry. Whom God had chosen.

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