Our second Valentine’s Day as a married couple, my husband, Hadi, made me breakfast, a heart-shaped omelet that we shared. After we ate, I gave Hadi his gift, and Hadi told me that he’d forgotten mine at his parents’ house during our last visit to California. He’d give it to me the next time we flew home.
We’d recently moved to Guadalajara, Mexico so he could attend the local medical school. I’d given up my plans for graduate school for Hadi’s studies, and this news of my forgotten gift drew across me like a dark curtain. I said thank you and tried to shake off a disappointed rush of questions. I’d uprooted my life for this man’s education, and he couldn’t remember to pack his gift? Or get me something else as a stand-in? But wasn’t it superficial to want a present? But didn’t this disregard for special occasion gift-giving say something about who we were as a couple?
I couldn’t bear to think that we were already a boring married couple in our early 20s when I was still struggling to come to terms with how we’d met. Our fathers had gone to the same medical school in Baghdad and reconnected after immigrating to the United States. When our families were first introduced, I was six years old and Hadi was nine. We got engaged only twelve years later, and ever since then I’d been on the lookout for evidence that we’d been brought together by more than our families’ friendship. This missing gift seemed to prove that our relationship was never going to look like the love stories I’d seen in movies and on television, the kind that didn’t invite people outside of our culture to ask whether or not our marriage had been arranged.
By lunchtime, I couldn't hold it in any longer. I told Hadi that going forward we needed rules. First, the whole point of an occasion was to exchange gifts on that day, and second, when holiday plans were compromised, substitute plans had to be put into action.
My declaration baffled Hadi. He'd planned ahead, bought a gift, and made me breakfast, and it still wasn't good enough. He grabbed his keys and walked out the door of our apartment.
I paced the entire house, certain that something terrible would befall Hadi as punishment for my pettiness. When he returned an hour later, I told him how worried I’d been, and he released an exasperated sigh. "I went to get you a gift," he said and handed me a white paper bag.
I reached inside and pulled out a hot pink Hello Kitty box with a plush Hello Kitty inside. When I looked up, puzzled, he said, "It’s a Sunday. The only thing open at the mall was the novelty store by the movie theater."
The gift shamed me. It was a child's toy to match my childish demands, but almost immediately that child in me was also placated, relieved. I grasped for a story. Hadi knew I thought Hello Kitty was cute, and now this could be one of those moments in the movies where the girl knows the guy loves her because he paid such careful attention to what she likes.
As I rehearsed this, I felt a rebuke surface. We’d been married for close to two years, and I still hadn’t shaken the need for an alternative story about us as a couple. I thought of all the times I’d told Hadi how I wished we’d had the kind of chance meeting glorified in television and movies, and he’d said, “But people always tell me how lucky we are to have found each other so young. We get to spend our whole lives together.”
I remembered bristling at the cloying cuteness of this vision of us as childhood sweethearts. Hadi was leaving out the pressure of our families’ friendship, the community gossip that we were promised, and our highly-supervised courtship that hadn’t afforded us a proper date before our wedding. But looking down at my Hello Kitty box, I wondered what was so honest about forcing our relationship onto the narrative arc of a romantic comedy.
I thanked Hadi for the toys that grew heavy with the weight of their uselessness in my hands. I wish I could say I was done with holiday gift-giving after that Valentine’s Day, but the alluring notion that our relationship could be transformed by a special occasion persisted. It took a combination of age and having children to make me see what I had really fallen for was consumer culture’s dangerous myth—the idea that one magical purchase can set your life right, turn you into a better version of yourself, and even translate a marriage from one culture to another.
Huda Al-Marashi is the author of the newly-released memoir, First Comes Marriage: My Not-So-Typical American Love Story