It would be no exaggeration to say that I've known Nageen since I was born. Well, maybe shortly thereafter, but close enough.
She has always been stunning - thin, great bone structure, gorgeous hair. She would look amazing in a bin bag, whilst the rest of us needed to do considerable work to look even half as good as she ever did. Whilst I would heavily mortgage/consider selling my soul to look like Kajol, I'd also have negotiated a mortgage to look like Nageen. I'd have been more than happy with that.
Nageen was always the glam elder cousin with a touch of the rebel about her: self-assured, never an awkward physical phase, always ready with a quick answer, popular, daring to do things that I couldn't even imagine getting away with. (I daresay that though I may not have equalled her in looks, I've probably wrested the rebel crown from her.) We all wanted to be around her and we all wanted to BE her.
She met Steve whilst still in uni - one of her friends met him on the beach, then later cajoled Nageen into going with her to meet him later. Steve hadn't wanted to go to the beach; Nageen hadn't wanted to go out that evening. But when things are meant, they're meant, and go they both did. It was love at first sight.
I suppose I could say 'and the rest is history', but it isn't. What they've done to be together is awe-inspiring, life-affirming and all those things we say about films and books - except their story is real. It's not mine to tell, so I won't share it here, though I've mentioned one part of it to the odd close friend to illustrate the phrase made famous by Meatloaf - I would do anything for love.
I met Steve a while after they'd married and the dust had settled; the first time I was able to travel on my own to visit them in Virginia Beach. We got on like a house on fire from the minute we met; our kinship was cemented the day he was making fajitas and Nageen's brothers were coming over and he said, "I don't know what's wrong with those boys, why one of them doesn't marry you. You're *gorgeous*," said in the way only a straight man can say it when he means it, the first such compliment I ever received. It wasn't the last, but it will always be one of the ones that means the most; one that I remember during those dark, deeply insecure times that all women (and men, I guess) go through.
I've always known I could believe in what Steve said - he'll tell you what you don't want to hear as well as what you do in that no-nonsense midwestern way most Americans are familiar with. He's also one of the most supportive, loving and funny men I've ever met (you can pay me later, babe, I'll send you my bank details) - a real anchor.
As a couple? Fantastic. Their love for each other is palpable, and not in those icky, tonsil-hockey PDA ways that make you want to get a gun licence. It's in the constant flow of support and reassurance, the excuses to touch, the laughter, in the way they stand when they're together, the warmth that flows from their love to everyone around them. Have I seen Steve roll his eyes? Yup. Have I heard Nageen be snippy with him? Yup. Have I even heard the odd row? Yup.
But the love is constant; it's always there, no matter what - best exemplified by the time Steve and I were flipping through old albums and arguing over whether we liked Nageen's hair long (me) or short (him), and in the end he just said, "It doesn't matter - she's still the most beautiful woman I've ever met" - 11 years after they first met. That love is not just obvious in them, but in their three sons, every single one of whom I held as either a babe or a toddler, now on their way to becoming gorgeous young men - and like Sasha and Malia Obama, with the self-assurance and knowledge that they are loved by parents who love each other.
Thank you. Thank you for showing the world that real love exists; that it's supposed to get better as you go on, not fade away; that commitment is worth it; that there's hope out there for all of us; that we need to hold out rather than settle. And even if I didn't remember the lesson, thank you for showing me what a relationship is supposed to look like, and why I've waited.
Above all, thank you for loving me. Thank you for loving me when my parents didn't or couldn't; for loving me when I couldn't love myself. You were the family that I never lost, no matter how far I roamed - my refuge and strength in ways you will never know. And so it was, not so long ago, Steve, when you asked why another of my childhood friends wasn't married, I mentioned that I wasn't either, but that was because I was a bitch, you said, "Yeah, but you're our bitch."
I so totally am.
I love you and miss you both with all my heart - happy anniversary, and I promise not to embarrass you like this until your golden wedding anniversary.
Then, I'm really going to town.