I still remember exactly when I met the woman who would have such a significant effect on my life. She was in her 20s and working at London’s Soas University when I ventured out to Friday prayers at a nearby mosque and saw her: an imposing figure, head held high and clad in a pristine white hijab. She drew me like a tractor beam.
She was a young widow, about 40 years old. A fierce and determined woman, the direct type that does not accept nonsense. If you were an idiot, she would let you know. Fortunately, she didn’t think I was one, and what began as a brief encounter in the mosque turned into a deep friendship.
I would stay at his house, laugh, drink strong chai, and chat for hours about life, faith, and aspirations. We even went on vacation together. I admired her unwavering confidence of hers and she taught me how to step on my own. She became a kind of mentor, helping me accept who I was.
She often told me that she hoped to introduce me to the only family she had, her son, who was a couple of years younger than me. She was at sea for months at a time while working in the merchant navy.
When we finally met at her mother’s house, it wasn’t what I expected. He looked like a ’90s Eminem-fan skater in baggy jeans and a hoodie. But he was sweet and considerate and gentlemanly.
We also started a friendship, and the three of us hung out. My friendship with him grew when he was at sea and for the next five years we exchanged long emails that became quite philosophical. He was one of the purest souls I had ever met. Meanwhile, his mother loved that we were in contact.
I fancied myself as a sort of Emma to his Eminem and did my best to pair him up with a friend when he was on the ground. He reluctantly agreed, but ultimately turned her down. He asked to meet with me to explain. We meet at a restaurant in London’s Soho for dinner. He handed me a rolled canvas of his travels. As he unraveled the beautiful oil painting of fishing boats floating along the Singapore skyline, he confessed to me that he had fallen in love with me, his only true friend.
I looked down at the painting, wanting to dive in and escape. I was scared. I didn’t feel the same. But still I said I would try to see it as something more.
When the call ended, I felt devastated. All the trust and love we had built up over the years was crushed in a moment.
The first person I wanted to talk to about everything was, of course, her mother; he had told her about her feelings for me. I tried to call for several days, and finally when she answered, instead of comfort, there was coldness; instead of calm, there was tension. She barely let me speak, saying that it was between her son and me. It had nothing to do with her.
But it had everything to do with her. When the call ended, I felt devastated. All the trust and love we had built up over the years was crushed in a moment. She never called me back. To this day, I don’t know if she shut me out because she thought we’d crossed the line or because I didn’t reciprocate her son’s feelings. We never got to have that conversation.
My phone rang the next morning. Was the. He was boarding his ship, leaving again for several months. I felt my words weigh me down like stones when I told him I couldn’t be with him, not even as a friend. He was taken aback and said that I had decided all this on my own. He sounded as broken as his mother had made me feel. And I felt terrible for him.
That call sealed the end of my two friendships, with mother and son.
I didn’t fight for my friends. I let them slide. The situation felt too complex and I was out of my league. My decision was mixed with shock and pain at the mother’s reaction, overwhelmed by her son’s feelings for me, and torn between the two of us. Deep down, maybe she knew she wouldn’t love him the way he wanted, and she also knew that after this she couldn’t return to the carefree, unbroken bond she’d enjoyed with his mother.
At the same time that I felt helpless, I allowed myself to believe that I could save the relationship that mattered most: the one between mother and son. I clung to that idea at the time. The last thing he wanted was to be a barrier to their relationship.
I have thought of both of them from time to time, even dreamed that I have met them and reconciled our differences.
It was painful to end friendships, but things had changed, we had changed and we couldn’t go back to the way we were. Yet all the moments and memories we had together: no one, not even pain, can take that away.