Permission to Sleep: Accepting a Long Road to Love
By Kim Sutton Allouche
At age 21, I spent my junior year abroad in Aix-en-Provence, where, despite the many classes I skipped, I learned French in the bed of a long-haired French musician and occasional math tutor named Eric (pronounced Erique). One day, two weeks after we’d started dating, Eric stopped me at the front garden path of my host family’s house.
“Je t’aime,” he said, looking directly into my eyes.
“But you don’t even know me!” I said, mortified by the thought of what caricatures of our cultures we seemed at that moment.
“I do. I know you,” he insisted, and kissed me softly on the mouth.
For years, when I was relaxed and my senses were open, I’d recall his exact smell at that moment, an impossible combination of peaches, oceans, and babies.
I’d always been skeptical of intimate relationships. From what I could see growing up, marriage seemed like a confusing, if not dismal, arrangement. My parents’ marriage, after all, had been more or less arranged. When my mother, a Syrian Jew, was 16 years old, she returned from school one day to find her father and two men from New Orleans sitting in her Brooklyn living room sipping Turkish coffee. She was of age, and so were the two suitors, both Syrian Jews, who were 11 and 12 years her senior. That night, she wrote in her diary that she’d marry the elder one, the doctor. Soon, she had the braces she wore on her teeth removed for the wedding.
My parents were taught to value perseverance over happiness in marriage and deference over closeness in child rearing. My whole life, I’d been told I’d marry young to one of our own, a Syrian Jew. At 17, I asked my mother, “Ma, what’ll you do if I’m not married by the time I’m 21?”
For once, she was succinct: “Kill myself.”
Just a few months after my 21st birthday, my parents visited me in France over my spring break. When I introduced them to sexy and unshaven Eric, they grew concerned for my future, and insisted I drop out of my exchange program. For the first time in my life, however, I fought for what I wanted and finished the semester.
Back home in New York, just 10 months after my affair with Eric, I got engaged to AJ, an American Sephardic Jew, just as I was supposed to. Although I was still 21, I was already considered old by the standards of my parent’s community. It happened like this: AJ and I were at an upscale nightclub on the Upper East Side, on our fourth date.
He said, “We should get engaged.”
AJ didn’t talk much. What I knew about him I’d either observed or heard. He drove a pale blue Mercedes, drank scotch, and ran a tourist-scamming electronics store in Midtown. I also knew his father had died when AJ was 11: he’d been on his way home from work one perfect summer night when a freight train hit his car at the Jersey shore. That was the hook for me—AJ had such a sad story, I thought marrying him would be the right thing to do.
“I guess so,” I heard myself say in response to his proposal. I’d explain how I really felt to him later, when he wouldn’t be so let down by my doubts. For now, I’d be polite and not make waves.
On our way home from the nightclub, he called his mother from a payphone to say, “Guess what? We got engaged.” By noon the next day, I’d gotten congratulatory calls from dozens of people.