By Zain Omar
This essay appears in Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy edited by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi.
I often think awkwardness is my superpower. No one else I know has such a deft way of turning an ordinary situation into a hot mess of confusion and apprehension. People have noticed—particularly at work, where I seem to bumble my way through meetings and pleasantries with high-powered executives.
When I tell people I work in online marketing, I usually get a confused response: they assume that I work from home in a get-rich-quick scheme or that I’m spamming their e-mail address about performance-enhancing drugs. It’s still a fairly new field, and it doesn’t yet have much cachet because there hasn’t been a television series to glamorize it.
In one of my many attempts to legitimize my life’s work, I started a job in Los Angeles with the hopes of turning the phrase “I work in online marketing” into “I am an executive at a marketing firm.” However, my inner AwkwardMan took over and sabotaged me before I could get a firm grip on the corporate ladder.
“That’s a good-looking coffee cup,” said the CEO of the company as I arrived last to my first significant meeting.
“Thanks!” I replied, excitedly. “I got it to match my good-looking face!”
As a deafening silence fell over the conference room full of important people, I realized that my humor did not translate well to this audience.
I like to think that AwkwardMan could be a new superhero—maybe not one invited to the same parties as Batman and Superman, but definitely part of the nerdy group that includes Quailman and Captain Planet. I imagine that my superhero cape would be just a little too long and loose fitting, something that would get caught in a doorway as I made my triumphant entrance to catch the bad guys. Then, as I stumbled clear, it would rip in half. Not to be deterred, I’d attempt to halt them with a catchy and powerful tagline, but mispronounce a word or have trouble projecting the phrase loudly enough, and they’d stop briefly, struggling to understand what I’d said. “AwkwardMan Inconveniences Bad Guys!” would be my signature headline in the newspapers.
I wasn’t always so uneasy in social settings. In fact, for most of my life I enjoyed meeting new people. I moved to the United States from England when I was fourteen and quickly found that having an English accent had many benefits—people seemed to like talking to me, regardless of what I was actually saying. It’s much easier to start conversations with new people when you know that at some point they will use the phrase “I love your accent.” That kind of instant validation made socializing less daunting to a natural introvert.
It was only during the last couple of years—after a hurtful breakup with a woman I nearly married—that I developed an intense unease. To say that my self-confidence was affected by the breakup would be an understatement. To this day, no words have taken as intense an emotional toll as when my then-fiancée said: “You are a horrible person, I hate you, and I hope you never hurt another girl the way that you hurt me.”
That sentence reverberated in my heart, destroying my self-image. I had always imagined myself to be a kind person who went out of his way to help others. But if the person I nearly married could say that about me, maybe I didn’t know who I was after all. Maybe I was a bad person. Maybe I was kidding myself that I could be in a healthy relationship, or even a friendship with anyone, because I would only end up hurting them. This internalization was the birth of AwkwardMan.
Confidence and self-esteem were aspects of my personality that I only fully appreciated when I could no longer feel them. I changed from a person comfortable talking to new people to one preoccupied with self-doubt in every interaction. At one social gathering a few months after the breakup, I was so nervous that I spilled my plate of food three times. My existing network of friends were close with both me and my ex-fiancée and, not wanting to cause any issues, I withdrew from that crowd, preferring the comfort of my own company rather than having to answer questions about what had happened between us.
As I withdrew from social circles, AwkwardMan flourished. Life became very lonely—although I did start a great friendship with my Roomba robot vacuum. He was a friendly little guy, working away on the carpet on Friday nights as I heated up frozen pizza and complained about what had happened at work that week. Roomba was a great listener.
My apartment slowly turned into its own fortress of solitude. Aside from work, I only ventured out to play in a local pickup soccer game on the weekends. I even renamed my Wi-Fi network Quantum of Solace as a passive plea in the hopes that my neighbors might want to hang out. They didn’t.
When an old friend came into town and insisted we go out to eat so that I could meet his wife, I went out for the first time in months. It turned out to be an entertaining night, made easier by pleasant company and good food. I had awkward moments, but the conversation flowed well enough that they weren’t too apparent.
However, the next day highlighted the extent of my isolation. My credit card company called me in the morning.
“Sir, we have some unusual activity on your card—can you verify these charges?” The caller then proceeded to list all of the previous night’s charges.
“Yes, those are good. Anything else?” I replied.
“No, that was all the unusual activity we found. Thank you, your card’s temporary suspension has been lifted.”
I couldn’t help but laugh after the call ended. I knew my credit card company’s fraud monitoring system had a sophisticated algorithm to protect accounts. If I suddenly used my card in a new city they would call me. Or, if I made a huge purchase, I would get an alert. But this time, I triggered an alarm because the company calculated that based on my purchase habits, there was little likelihood that I would be out on a Friday evening, let alone getting sushi and crepes. By their logic, it had to have been someone else.
That was a turning point. I knew things had to change.
Reflecting on my postbreakup life, I realized I had actively isolated myself, punishing myself for everything that had happened in the relationship. While I was to blame for certain things, we shared responsibility for many of our problems. The hurt of my ex’s last words still lingered, making me doubt that I deserved good things. However, after a year of nights at home with Roomba, and after my credit card company decided that going out on a Friday night was completely out of character, I realized I needed to start saying yes more often. I needed to relive those old days when I was genuinely excited by the company of others. I even resolved to exaggerate my English accent, if needed.
AwkwardMan didn’t like this rejuvenated spirit. He struggled with and fought me at every step, whispering that I didn’t deserve to have any fun or that I was a horrible person. At times, I listened and gave in, but mainly I pushed on, spurred by my new goal of spending one day per week in a social setting. I reconnected with old friends (who were happy to see me again), found groups of young Muslims to hang out with, and attended events where I managed not to make a fool of myself. Friday nights, once dedicated to video game marathons, might find me instead at a Star Wars concert at the Hollywood Bowl. I went from sleeping in on Saturday mornings until noon to driving to Orange County at 8 a.m. to volunteer at a food bank. Slowly, I rebuilt my social circle. It was difficult, and talking to new people still held some challenges, but it ended up being more worthwhile than I ever could have imagined.
Here’s what happened: I was meeting a new friend, Muna, at the mall, where we were planning to catch a movie. Initially, I couldn’t find Muna in the crowd. When I finally did, I joked that her new workout routine was so effective that when she turned sideways she disappeared. Don’t worry, she didn’t laugh either. Another victory for AwkwardMan!
Muna let it pass and brought me over to say a quick hello to a group of her friends that I hadn’t met before. Like every great comedian, I used the same material again on these young ladies, thinking my obvious charm and good looks would carry the joke successfully this time. They did not.
As yet another awkward silence lingered in the air, my winning smile deteriorated from delighted, to polite, and finally to sullen. I had struck out before the night had even begun. As we left to watch our movie, Muna made fun of me for trying the same lame joke twice. “Seriously dude, you are just not smooth. Better get on the aunty connection quick because you need help.”
It was true. I needed divine intervention if I was going to be successful with the ladies. To AwkwardMan’s delight, we ran into the same group of friends again after the movie. I wasn’t stupid enough to try humor as an icebreaker again, so I kept it simple this time, using techniques I learned after Googling “How to talk like a normal person and not be weird.”
I had noticed Zaiba right away. She was beautiful and had a good vibe: cool and down-to-earth. After the movie, as we all stood around talking, I happened to find myself next to her. Without overthinking it, I asked her and her friend if they were going to get dessert with the rest of the group. But, as the large group struggled to select a place, Muna and Zaiba’s friends decided to go back to Muna’s apartment.
“Want to tag along?” asked Muna.
“Yes. Yes I do,” I said, in accordance with my recent resolution.
AwkardMan was kept rigorously in check that evening. Somehow, by the grace of the Big Man himself, I was able to start conversations with simple opening lines. And to my surprise, this continued successfully for the next couple of hours.
“You went to the same college as me? The same major? At the same time?” These were the highlights of my first conversation with Zaiba. AwkwardMan wanted to shout, “Where were you this whole time, you lovely person?!” Thankfully he mostly stood aside, only briefly making an appearance when, after talking for a while, I asked Zaiba how she spelled her name—my go-to question when I forget a person’s name but am too embarrassed to admit it. I hadn’t really been listening when we first chatted—she was distractingly good looking and I was busy thinking of the next half-interesting thing I could say to keep the conversation flowing.
“Z-a-i-b-a? That’s so close to my name!” I said excitedly.
“Uh-huh, you mentioned that when we met earlier this evening,” Zaiba replied.
Ah, AwkwardMan, you’ve had your bit of fun. Now please retire for the evening, I pleaded.
Zaiba seemed a little too good to be true. Beautiful, smart, funny, and willing to talk to me? This looks promising, I thought to myself. When this had happened in the past, my mind had quickly moved from “This girl is cool” to “I should definitely marry her, my whole life has been leading up to this point, don’t screw it up!” That would generally be when AwkwardMan would appear and I would screw it up. But Zaiba was so easy to talk to that I just felt like myself. She made conversations easy and fun.
The next day, Muna asked me if I’d had a good time the previous night, with a raised eyebrow and wink. That’s when I realized it was all part of a setup, casual but effective.
“Zaiba is really cool. We should hang out with her again,” I replied.
“Oh, yeah?” she replied. “A few of us were having lunch next weekend if you want to join us.” Again, I said yes.
Saying yes was starting to become a habit in all areas of my life. Yes, I will go to lunch. Yes, I will take on that new project at work that I don’t have any experience in. Yes, this girl is cool and interesting. And yes, I like her and want to get to know her better.
After lunch the next week we decided to walk around the mall. Muna and her friend walked a little bit ahead of us as Zaiba and I chatted. We were having a great conversation when out of nowhere we began talking about soccer and I insisted on showing her a cell phone picture of my new cleats.
“They’re black on black!” I pointed out.
Zaiba politely agreed that they were indeed an excellent choice. A moment later, I realized what had just happened. AwkwardMan had made an appearance. No girl should be subjected to an extended conversation about the benefits of Adidas Predator soccer cleats, their history, and the list of famous players who wear them. But Zaiba hadn’t reacted with a weird look or a shocked response. She accepted my awkwardness warmly, never made me feel stupid, and carried on as though things were normal.
I asked if she wanted to hang out together soon afterward. And, when that went well, we hung out again. Then, I randomly called her on the phone while she was out of town and soon we were hanging out often and talking every day. Each time we saw each other it felt a little better than the last. Within a few months, I realized I’d fallen completely in love with her. I loved her sense of calm, the way she treated her friends and family with such importance, and the care and effort she made in those relationships. I loved our conversations and the fact that AwkwardMan no longer had to be a secret identity. He was a part of me, and I finally accepted him as a personality quirk.
There were moments when we talked about my past, about how it had altered my outlook on life and how I was still in some ways rebuilding myself. But I was well on my way to a complete recovery, especially since Zaiba accepted me as I was, AwkwardMan and all. It was the most cared for I’d ever felt. For the first time in a long time, I allowed a good thing to happen to me.
Exactly a year after we first met, I took Zaiba to the place where we had had our first dinner. We ate our shawarmas, grabbed a selection of cupcakes, and headed over to Seal Beach. As we sat down, I took out something from the picnic basket I had brought with me. It was a jigsaw puzzle made up of photographs from our year together, including ones of an evening cruise around Newport Harbor, our fantastic time at Griffith Observatory, and the time I took her to see an LA Galaxy soccer game.
As Zaiba started piecing the puzzle together, I thought about how selecting the photos had given me a deep appreciation of our relationship. As she finished, I took out the last two pieces of the puzzle from my pocket. I said the words written on the pieces as I completed the puzzle: “Will you marry me?”
It was the moment my life had been building up to—as though the pain I had experienced was just one part of the Big Man’s carefully designed plan. That pain made me grateful for the woman who accepted me as I was, and with whom I could share conversations, uncontrollable laughter, and even some lovely and awkward moments.
Zaiba was the missing piece in the puzzle of my life, and I loved her dearly. I waited, wanting to hear the same word that had changed my life and taken me from brokenhearted solitude to a happy life.
She said yes.
Zain Omar grew up in Leicester, England, and San Diego, California. He studied management science at the University of California, San Diego, and currently works in the online marketing industry in Los Angeles. In his free time, Zain likes to spend time with his lovely wife, play soccer (both on the PlayStation and in real life), and hang out with friends and family.