The Case for Being Touched

“Can I come over?”

It was a simple text. One I probably shouldn’t have been feeling so anxious about having sent as I drove to Matt’s house on the west side of Los Angeles after a late night at the office.

But for a Muslim woman in her late 20s who had lived her entire life governed by the social rules of her faith (mainly avoiding the opposite sex until marriage), those four words meant so many things: betrayal, lust and sin, among them.

I was unprepared for what I would do once I arrived at Matt’s maturely furnished condo, which revealed his cleanliness and attention to detail. His couch was custom-made from an artisan co-op in Venice — “the beach, not Italy,” he said. He continued to make small talk about his place, I suppose to avoid the real conversation to come.

A few hours earlier, I had been sitting in a plush chair at work taking notes on my laptop. It was my first job in a writer’s room, on the Hulu show “Ramy,” about a Muslim American man searching for meaning in his life.

If you’re not familiar with television writing, the only way I can describe it would be as one giant therapy session, every day, with the same handful of people over the course of many weeks. You sit together and share stories from your life in hopes that they will inspire a nugget of drama that can be mined for entertainment.

There’s this notion that to write the most “authentic” stories possible, we must dive deep into our own experiences and trauma. The room is a “safe space,” most showrunners would say, no judgment at all. Except I judged my own experiences as unworthy of sharing, mainly for my choice not to have sex or be in a relationship until I was married, meaning that, at 27, I was still a virgin.

I thought they would find this interesting since it was so uncommon, perhaps a story we could use for one of the female characters in the show, which is how I nervously pitched it: “Maybe she’s trying out masturbation for the first time but doesn’t know which side of the toothbrush to use.” I thought it would be funny, but I was met with blank stares.

“Who doesn’t know which side of a toothbrush to use?” one of the female writers said with a laugh.

Me! I wanted to scream. But I stayed quiet, fearing I already had shared too much. Besides, like most of my pitches, this one had fallen flat, leaving me to stew in my own unworthiness for the rest of the day.

That night, as I did every night as an assistant, I stayed late to clean up the notes and prepare for the next week. I was always the first one in and the last one out, which left little room for socializing, let alone dating.

But mostly, I felt like a failure. In my late 20s, I had left a lucrative career in the tech world to become a writers’ assistant, and I worried that I wasn’t making a strong impression in the room — wasn’t sharing enough or being vulnerable like everyone else. The reality was that I didn’t have anything to share.

I’m not sure what came over me, but before I knew it, I was scrolling through the contacts in my phone, trying to figure out who I wanted to target for this manufactured experience.

And then I saw him, Matt, a guy I met at my previous workplace, a business bro who liked music; a tech nerd with glasses and a bald head. I didn’t initially think he was cute, and I’m not sure what attracted him to me either, considering I dressed modestly and covered my hair with a hijab.

Not to say that hijabi women aren’t attractive. Some even find us more intriguing because of the “mystery” (hijabi fetishists). But at the time, I was deeply insecure and didn’t think anyone would want to be with me. Plus, I was opposed to the whole sex before marriage thing, so I didn’t think that was conducive to dating a non-Muslim.

Needless to say, I had written Matt off despite his advances toward me — until this very moment.

I thought Matt would be nice, safe, very safe. He didn’t know anyone in my community and barely used social media, and I no longer worked in his vicinity so there would be no way of this ever coming back to me, which was my biggest concern. Despite wanting this experience, I also sought to preserve my pristine Muslim girl reputation.

But after watching three full episodes of “Age Gap Love” — a British reality show we were both weirdly infatuated with — Matt turned to me and said, “Why are you really here?”

I took a breath. “I just feel the need to be touched,” I said.

Matt scrunched his nose with confusion.

I tried to cover the bases of what he was probably thinking — that this would be a one-time thing, that I wasn’t looking to date him. I didn’t want to have sex, or even to kiss him. All I knew is that I was yearning to be held. “Maybe we could just go to bed?”

I hadn’t thought to shave my legs or straighten my unruly hair. The writers’ room was set up in an Airbnb (don’t ask why), so I had managed to take a quick shower before driving over. And despite the lack of product, my curls were cooperating.

I didn’t want to make a big deal of taking off my scarf. I had seen too many scenes in movies of Muslim women removing their head coverings to reveal beautiful, perfectly manicured hair. I didn’t want Matt to gasp or make any unnecessary comments about how pretty I was. I just wanted to exist. To be normal.

Thankfully, he just nodded and took off his shirt. “You don’t mind if I sleep without it, right? I just get really hot at night.”

I did mind but pretended I didn’t. I was in his house after all, having invited myself over. I still remember the silky feeling of the pillowcase on my head. Matt said the fabric helped keep his head cool at night.

“What do people do when they sleep next to each other?” I asked.

Matt chuckled. “For starters, I can put my arm around you.”

I didn’t know where to put my hands or head. Do girls sleep in guys’ armpits? Or on their chests? What if my head was too heavy? My mind raced as I tried to think of what I had seen in movies. So much of my understanding of the world came from fiction because I rarely dared to live fully in the real world, perhaps explaining why I became a TV writer.

“Just do whatever you want,” he said.

I had never allowed myself the luxury to do whatever I want. I hadn’t even touched my own body sensually until recently, let alone someone else’s, but in this moment, it felt so good.

That night, Matt’s arm never left my side and never ventured beneath my shoulder blades. He was respectful. I let my head fall onto his chest as his breathing began to soften, mirroring mine. Somewhere in the middle of the night, our lips touched. My first kiss, at 27. And it was magical.

Not long after, I ended up writing an episode where a married Muslim woman sleeps with the protagonist during Ramadan, the holiest month of the year. Many Muslims on Twitter were up in arms, of course. They couldn’t understand how she could cheat on her husband, and at such a holy time. God forbid a Muslim woman would also have urges, wants and desires.

To this day, I still get questioned about whether I think that episode promotes “sin.” I have the utmost respect for what our faith teaches us, but I’m also acutely aware of being a woman in the 21st century.

Many of us aren’t getting married until our late 20s or early 30s, if ever, and I refuse to believe that we can only feel intimacy once we are in a “sacred union.” Touch is one of the strongest, most-essential human urges, as the pandemic has made so clear to us. That night, I realized how powerful it can be.

The following Monday, back in the writer’s room, everyone was eager to share what escapades had unfolded over the weekend. For the first time, I had a story to tell, but when it came time for me to talk, I kept quiet.

With this story, I would wait until I was ready to share it on my own terms.

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