It has to be Halal,” he said as he perused the menu.
“Oh,” I said, putting on my most polite smile. On the inside, my eyes grew a few inches in diameter.
On Tinder, I had described myself as “part-atheist, part-Buddhist.” I meant to save time by attracting like-minded people and repelling those who were prone to misunderstanding me. Thus, the man sitting across from me felt like a clear breach in the market structures I had set up — a breach made possible by my newfound appreciation for masculine Middle Eastern features. I ordered a glass of wine. He had a glass of water.
I’m not the most politically correct person. It doesn’t make sense to me to be completely devoid of racist/phobic sentiments when I can see cultural trends happening right in front of me. Race X, for example, has a penchant for pooping in public toilets and leaving an unspeakable mess for the next person. And while I’ve only had the opportunity to visit two Muslim countries so far, both of them gave me the experience of being leered at so much more intensely than what I experienced from men of other cultures. In addition, a vast majority of the creepy strangers adding me on Facebook were either Middle Eastern or South Asian. “That’s what sexual repression does to you,” I concluded condescendingly.
It didn’t help that my date seemed irritable and barely cooperative when it came to carrying a conversation. “Just like that,” he said when I asked why he hadn’t bothered to visit his home in Pakistan for so many years now. He gave that same flat answer a few times more. And when we hit a dead silence, he asked, “So what else?” I shrugged and smiled. I had gone on enough dates to no longer feel solely obligated to keep a boat afloat. I would pitch in and try, for sure — but I wasn’t going to die if it sunk.
We had trouble hearing each other over the noise of the pub we were at. He suggested we move. I suggested a nearby speakeasy bar. I quickly regretted it when I realized it meant leaving the safety of Greenbelt — “a place where you can run,” a friend had told me — to walk with him alone along the quiet streets of Makati at around 10 in the evening.
“You travel. You should be used to walking,” he said when I started to complain. Nevertheless we were off.
When we turned into a side street, I switched on my Google Maps. “Oh yeah, we’re going the right way,” I said.
“What do you think I’m gonna do, kidnap you?” he joked. “I’m the one who should be afraid of you.”
“What could I possibly do to you?” I asked back. Without realizing it, I eased into an appreciation of how his six-foot frame towered above mine.
In the darkness and quiet of the bar, he started to thaw. I ordered a cocktail, while he had a glass of orange juice. I realized it was the noise of the previous venue that had made him cranky. Not an excuse, but nevertheless I suddenly had a person who was genuinely interested in conversing.
I told him it was very weird that he called instead of texted as soon as I gave him my number. I would have thought it downright creepy, had another man from a similar background not done the same with me before. “Text is a lazy way of communicating,” he said. “I need some mental connection. And I need toknow.”
Socially awkward topics
At first, he was reluctant to discuss religion with me. He painstakingly insisted that along with politics, it was socially off-limits. But atheists give a lot of thought to why we think the way we think, so we can’t help wanting to turn other people over and around in the same way. “That’s a very big part of a person. How can I know you?” I argued.
But little by little, as the conversation meandered, he started to slip into territory he had previously declared off-limits. And each time he did, I hung back with an inner smile, afraid to break his comfort.
He told me that Halal, aside from the very specific method of killing an animal, had a lot to do with acknowledging them as living beings. I thought that made sense, in contrast to how we’ve learned to mindlessly and egoistically assume they were just around to be our food. Similarly, he believed in treating people well, regardless of what they believed in. He alluded to “true Islam” and not what we had been hearing in the news of late. In my head, I retorted that there were as many versions of a religion as there were believers. But I decided not to blurt that out.
I told him there was a stark difference between Muslims in Asia and the Middle East. A guard glared at me in an Abu Dhabi mosque when I tried to quickly fix my head scarf. But in a quiet Malaysian city, I walked around a mosque in a sleeveless dress and no one seemed to care. “There were just certain rooms I couldn’t enter,” I told him.
He nodded. “You cover up to pray. That’s it.” He likened it to having to wear uniforms in school.
He told me about his many drunken nights, both here and when he lived in the UK. He eventually decided to sober up because he no longer felt right. Although he burned through a pack of cigarettes while we were on our date. “We are on a date, right?” he confirmed.
He told me he’d had two girlfriends so far — one American and one Filipina (another victory for me; “Past is past,” he initially insisted). I asked if he could end up with a non-Muslim. He said he could end up with a Christian, but atheists were certainly out of the loop.
“So what we’re doing is pointless?” I offered.
“We can have sex,” he answered. I laughed.
Strangely, I didn’t feel offended. Neither was there any form of coercion. He had simply put his desires on the table, and I had all the freedom in the world to choose how to respond (Spoiler alert: It was a no).
Even odder, I found that I actually appreciated and was a bit turned on by how forward and real he was about it. And how ironically, I was the square one. My flirtation and seduction game was at an absolute zero. The last gentleman I dated assumed I had friendzoned him, and thus friendzoned me. A man who could open the door to such things was not without value. Had we had a bit more time (my temperament tends to need time), he might have gotten what he wanted.
But my heart was tired and bruised at the time. I was in no mood to go down pointless roads. Not even just for the sake of it. And maybe, so was he. When I turned him down the next time he asked me out, he sent back a smile and never asked again.
He did steal a kiss though, as I was about to board my ride home. Up until that point, I had been complaining to my friends how making out never felt like anything. “I might as well make out with my own hand,” I liked to say. His lips and his stubble touched me but for a second. But for the rest of the night, from the time I turned to watch him walk away, to when I was finally alone with my thoughts, it was as if a light bulb had been switched on. “Is that how it’s supposed to feel?” I thought to myself.
Illustration by Rob Cham