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So here’s the beginnings of our story. Sometime after I turned 23, I was definitely craving a partner. Obsessed like an Indian aunty, but for myself lol. I was living independently, away from family, friends were getting married, etc. I did not quite have a checklist, and if I did, it changed at the rate of 12 criteria per half a Bollywood movie. I did know that I wanted someone who was Indian, preferably in Dubai, successful and able to keep up with my ambitions. Catholic, yes. Religious? I could let that one slide. But by my fourth year in the PsyD program, all of that had taken a back seat. I was at a low point, socially and spiritually, working two jobs, going for my internship, attending classes, completing coursework, completing my dissertation, missing family, and church people in Dubai. Why church? Because it was lent. Of course I had church friends in the US, but it wasn’t the same. I was at a point where I was giving and doing, but not really receiving and being. Historically, lent had always been my favorite and most meaningful season. I would prepare for it in advance, throw myself into whatever I had planned, and really committed to reconnecting with God and purpose. But with everything going on, that had become a luxury I couldn’t afford. No time for any of that stuff. That’s when I missed everything even more. But I was becoming tired of everything too, so I decided to atleast make the most of Triduum, the tail end. But I had to force myself to be excited about Easter at my parish. St. Katharine’s is small, simple, and dull compared to what I was used to. Previous Easters I would travel to Melitta’s or some aunt’s but I had too much going on to even travel and take a break. Just the thought bogged me down. So I decided to stay put and at least attend the Saturday Vigil mass at the cathedral. I tried to look for some company, even posted on Facebook, no takers. I had no choice but to surrender and make my peace with celebrating the Triduum at St. Katharine’s.

Good Friday morning, I walked into church in an unimpressive dirty green sweater, hair not set (just combed), zero makeup, no threading, waxing, nothing. Singularly focused on reconnecting with God. I walk in and this new fellow, an unmissable departure from the usual little kids and oldies at my parish, hands me the prayer book. The fellow I recognized as one of the two seminarians who were assigned to my parish for the Triduum. I thought nothing much of it, other than the fact that there was this boy who was refreshingly similar in age to me and that I probably stood out to both the new boys (considering I was the age, ethnicity, and height anomaly at St. Katharine’s). Meanwhile, this boy (resignation from seminary submitted) was hearing bells ringing, violin bows swinging, birds chirping, cupid victory-dancing. What a pleasant surprise this was for this man, who was grumbling the entire time about being assigned an unattractive local parish for Easter instead of being allowed to return to his family. The next day, I volunteered to help Sue (my “American mai”). While waiting for the flowers to be delivered, we struck conversation. I started with “So you are from St. Charles [the seminary]?” and he goes “yeah, and you?” “I study at Widener.” “Grad?” “Yeah.” “So we are similar in age then.” “25” “Hmm, yeah, 27. Are you from around here?” “No, Dubai” *Cue in WOAH eyes*

That evening, I had somehow made my peace with attending the vigil mass with my US family, Sue and the Brawleys, and I had finally become excited about dressing up and getting ready for mass (unrelated to Mr. Seminarian, but he may have been dancing around in my unconscious). I was the only extra-dressed person that evening. The vigil was beautiful, and after it was all over, he followed me into the sacristy to make small talk: it must be hard celebrating Easter away from fam, I am going back to New York tomorrow to be with fam, etc. “Weirdo,” I thought. Why would you want to tell me that. The next day (Easter Sunday...also April Fool’s Day) I was at a friend's place for dinner, and while we were watching a movie, I happened to check Facebook and saw a friend request from a Thomas King (urf Tom urf Tom Joseph King urf TJK). Naturally, I thought “Dal mein kuch kala hain” and went on mangi-aunty-FBI mode. I checked for mutual friends. We had none, which was weird because he was at the parish and with people I knew for a week before he met me. He also, by the way, had been teaching at the parish school, but our paths never crossed. I thought, at least he would be Facebook friends with the parish priest who also helps with the school. Zero mutual friends. Nada. I waited for an entire day till I finally decided to accept the friend request. Immediately there was a message in my inbox. He basically said that it was great meeting you, really interested “in your story.” And naive, gullible Clarice still tried to convince herself that “Oh he just wants to know about Dubai, etc. No biggie.” Well also because he was a seminarian, why would he show interest in me, unless it was to just casually connect with people (which oddly, is what alot of religious people tend to do, especially my priest friends who do exactly that). So, in typically Clarice fashion, I said, “Sure, I love to talk about myself!” (cringe).

We ended up meeting for mass and brunch two Sundays later. We met at the train station and then walked up to the church. That was when he first told me that he was questioning whether the priestly vocation was for him and that he had told his rector and gotten approval a week-ish ago to “take a break” from seminary for a year. He just needed to complete this semester by the end of that month. That’s when I was like “Aha!” It was also pretty obvious during that brunch that it wasn’t just a “I want to know more about you story.” Also, I remember feeling unexpectedly comfortable. I usually take time to make friends. I don’t connect instantly. But with him, even though I knew nothing about his values, philosophies, thoughts, lifestyle, family, anything, somehow I felt, no, knew that we shared the same values/philosophies. This I later recognized (and the fact that I remember all these details) as the “this is it” feeling, the “when you know, you know.” I never gave this a second thought though, did not think of it as that, because I was very focused on returning to Dubai and re-entering my very Indian life. We spent the whole morning at that brunch place, and he did not seem to want to leave. I did not want to leave either, but I was also feeling guilty for being away from work for so long. But who was I kidding, no work was done that day. I was supposed to study with a friend, but all we could talk about was what happened (side note: this friend is my desi, let’s-talk-about-boys-and-rishtas, foodie, and watch trashy Bollywood classics type of buddy, so there was no way out).

New for me: I could not stop thinking of him. I felt like a teenager. It was like that Kuch Toh Hua Hai song from Kal Ho Na Ho. I kept telling myself “This is a phase, hope it passes soon.” I did not believe in these “infatuation” things. In fact, I considered them to be terrible; they needed to be eliminated, go away. So I reined myself in. Also because this did not align with my plans and aspirations, like every other boy I had met. So I was treating this same as the rest, entirely as an acquaintance type of situation. It was a complete no no. Tom and I would text on occasion, maybe once a week or two, unremarkable. Then I invited him for my dissertation defense dinner, same as other friends. I forgot he would be the only guy there. I guess I had stopped thinking in terms of girl and boy friends by then so it did not really matter. But, among the 6 or so of us, he really stood out, and quite enjoyed that. He was the life of the party, which I really did not expect because a lot of my friends were not people you would typically see hanging around with very Catholic people. But everyone not only got along with him, but were also blown away by him. Wasn’t helping with my this-is-just-a-phase agenda. After that, he moved to Queens, New York, where he taught religion to high schoolers for a year. That entire time, we hardly ever spoke, maybe once in a month or three weeks, or sometimes months on end. And even then, nothing that deep. I was mostly trying to show him some of my life, but that was hard because he wasn’t on Insta. So eventually, I convinced him to join Insta (he’s not really a social media guy), and subconsciously he was at the back of my mind every time I posted something or planned to put up a post. Sometimes I would be in New York, or he would travel to Philly, but we never met. We were either too busy, or had plans with other people, or the plan was very last minute. Eventually, I got over him. Ish.

In Jan 2019, we reconnected after he noticed that I had India written all over my Instagram posts. He messaged and asked if I had left the US. We got chatting and I asked him, “You’re half way through your break year now, how are things shaping up?” And he goes, “Yeah sometimes I think back to the priest stuff, but I’m still not really sure of it. Honestly I had hoped to meet a girl after I left….” And immediately I was thought “Uhuh?!!” But he did not respond to that and somehow evaded that topic. Then again very sporadic communication, till it was finally time for me to graduate. I sent him all the invitations to my graduation that I had sent everyone. He messaged with an apology that he couldn’t make it, but good luck, etc. Honestly, that was a sigh of relief, because tickets were tight. And imagine him showing up; random boy from a different state, possibly the only non-family. Then he mentioned that he was visiting Philly on July 1, and asked if we could meet. Again, I said sure, but closer to the date, I was missing family (and jealous of all their trips across America), so I asked him if it was ok to change plans. He was accommodating (yet again), and I booked my ticket to travel to my cousin's place and surprise mama, dada, and Austin who were visiting her that weekend. After that, I was entirely done with everything in Chester and was getting ready to pack my bags and live with the same cousin for the next month. During this time, I was saying my goodbyes to everyone. He reached out again and said I must come visit him in New York before I left. I thought nothing of it and said “Yeah sure.” Tickets booked for July 9 (which he has marked as our “anniversary day”).

BIG MISTAKE! I started freaking it when that bus from Philly was well on its way to NYC. What am I doing? He’s a complete stranger. I haven’t met him since forever. This is crazy. WHAT IS GOING ON?!! I got off that bus, and saw him, and feelings flooded back like never before. It was awkward for 2 minutes, and then got back to being natural, comfortable, connected. We had breakfast, then went walking around town. We walked a lot. St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Times Square, Ground Zero, Freedom tower (the place where we took our first picture together). We had lunch at an Indian place he couldn’t pronounce (Dhaba), complete with spicy biryani and Kingfisher (he handled both like it was his daye haath ka khel). Towards that evening he had gotten super bold, shamelessly passing some pretty terrible one liners, making it beyond obvious and unquestionable that he liked me. He was also very respectful though, no touching, getting a feel for the situation, pacing himself. I was almost going to miss my 6:30pm bus back to Philly which, he was sure to say, he hoped I did because he would have loved to spend more time. He let me go, and did not look back even once, while I hope for at least one last glance (lol, who knew then that it wouldn’t quite be the last).

The next day, we texted back and forth, and I couldn’t take it anymore. So I initiated “the” conversation. He continued to shamelessly flirt and said something about there being only one way to get me a green card, and I grabbed the chance. “I think it’s time to talk.” But that’s all I could muster courage for. Then followed a series of “No you say”s before he finally laid it all 3 sentences. And I whipped out my frequently polished storytelling skills (courtesy Bollywood) and churned out matters of the heart, garnished with some DDLJ-level mirch masala. Trembling, with both joy and fear, I said everything including that I just wanted to be honest and set the record straight that I do have feelings for you but nothing can come of this because the plan is set: living in Dubai, marrying a mama-dada-suggested mangi boy. God was having the last laugh.

Over the next couple of months he would fight the need to be “just friends,” then comply with my hard-minded decision, then decide to hold his ground, then chicken out. Meanwhile, I pretended like the back and forth reflected his mental conflicts; I knew what I was doing. Focused, undeterred. But, when it was a no from him, even my firmly set walls couldn’t withstand the floodgates, I would let a tear or two pass, and then get back to studying for my licensing exam. When it was all done, he said he wanted to speak with me one last time before I flew back to Dubai. The verdict of our friendship hung on some terrible Pearson Airport wifi, through which he managed to communicate that he just could not let go and vowed to be relentless. Fine, I sighed. We can continue to speak, I said. It’ll just die a natural death anyway, I thought. It did not. I landed in Dubai on September 5 (mama’s birthday) and waited till the next day to say to both the parents “there is a boy and he is not Indian.” Austin rolled his eyes, Winston balked at the idea. Why would you tell your parents about a non-love, a casual fling?

I did not know either. Still did not know that these seemingly unnecessary things were all part of the divine plan, that was making my story far more interesting than the arranged-marriage-to-a-rich-Indian-boy vision that I had settled down for. I did not know that, same as every other instance in my life, God had hatke se plans for me, plans that weren’t straight forward or simple or predictable, plans that ensured I would cringe at my former mangi aunty ways of thinking and being (though, be warned, I still am a very mangi aunty). It’s been the story of my life, staring me right in the face, again. I began to see that maybe I was too rigid. Maybe I was giving too much regard to compatibility and logistics, and less attention to discernment and raw emotion. Maybe having the same passport, the same culture, the same interests, were not paramount. Important yes, but not essential. Maybe I did not know any better than every other reckless person that gave into useless “infatuation.” And that instead I should embrace these whimsical things alongside wise order.

Nevertheless, I proceeded with caution. This continued to be unfamiliar territory. I saw all “the signs.” I also saw the red flags. I prayed, I ignored, I processed, I wrestled, I tried everything. We technically weren’t “official,” but I did try to end communication with him twice (break ups if you will). Ask Austin, he’s the unfortunate witness. One day it's all gung ho, the next day crying and saying it’s all over. Poor fellow. Then finally, in November, I decided: fine, I will give this a solid shot. I will commit to this relationship. Tom’s joy knew no bounds. My parents’ secret dismay too. They were supportive (sometimes comforting, sometimes eww please stop) but also confused and afraid that log kya kahenge. I criticize not, I struggled similarly too. But I had come to realize. This might be it.

It was important for me that we continued discerning. He was already beyond ready, but was still very invested in continuing to figure things out. We prayed often, well, whenever we could considering time difference. We mostly spoke at night (his afternoon) so most time’s that was a struggle because I was tired and sleepy. But we tried. Sometimes I would wake up early in the morning to pray instead. Also a struggle because Clarice loves her sleep. We went for confession often (here’s one: he went more often that I). At a later point we even decided to consecrate our relationship to Joseph and Mary. Ex-seminarian that he is, he wrote up a beautiful and (according to him) theologically sound consecration prayer. When he was here we once prayed before the Blessed Sacrament together. It was really nice, and convenient, so we were looking forward to doing more of that though, with Corona, that plan is on hold. We were also trying to look for a patron saint, but we haven’t explored that yet. One step at a time.

Part of discerning also involved him coming to Dubai to at least dip into my world. I was well exposed to all our worlds. He, only freedom lovin’ ‘Merica. He landed in Dubai the evening of February 14, my first ever Valentine’s day date. This was a fortunate month before corona-marred Easter, which was his original travel plan. He stayed for a week. Magical. Also difficult, because we were talking about our future and challenges. He made his intentions clear to dada; dada and mama returned the favor. It was a good conversation. He was hoping I would move back to the US, but I wasn’t willing to budge. With great difficulty I had moved to Dubai, secured a license, set up shop. I had a plan and a vision, and it was already well underway. He meanwhile was miserable at his job. He wasn’t too sure about Dubai. The son of an NYPD cop, he’d never even dreamed of living outside his great nation. But then, someone told him about the perks of international experience and he clung onto it. I was concerned. He shouldn’t do it just because he wanted to be with me. So he spent some time networking, thinking, praying, then applying. No answers and mid-way corona struck. Finally, after multiple interviews, good news knocked at his door, pretty last minute, but just in time. He was moving to Dubai. Amidst the pandemic, he got a job, landed a stellar renting option, and managed to book and rebook tickets to Dubai.

And that’s where we’re at. Me and my 3 years older, 3 inches taller, and 3 kgs heavier boyfriend. The story isn’t over. It may never be. Or maybe it is destined for the death I was anticipating. Though, at this juncture that seems extraordinarily unlikely, in fact impossible. Of course challenges continue to lie ahead, but such is life, such are relationships. For now, I am both cherishing the moments, pondering with my heart and soul, learning, and bracing for everything that lies ahead. May it be done to me according to your will.

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