Dubai, United Arab Emirates – September 2015
In Dubai, humid desert is not an oxymoron. Each intake of breath coats my lungs with a suffocating vapor. Like a sodden veil constricting my face. I now understand why he always used to take his vacations at this time of year.
My journey consists of a walk across the street from my hotel to the metro station. The entrance looms ahead. Tightly sealed cars with darkened windows pass by. The first tendrils of cool air emanate from within. Just a few more steps and I am enveloped. The train is packed full of workers. Every region of Asia is represented in their faces. They recoil when I enter, leaving a wide circle free around me. The penalty for harassing a tourist is harsh.
After a few stops and a fifteen-minute walk through an air-conditioned passageway, I emerge at the largest mall in the world. I scuttle past the tacky jewelry, fast food, and cheap makeup. Familiar brands appear. The crowd, already modest in size, thins to a trickle. Soothing Arabic music wafts down the corridors. I slow my pace and exhale with relief. I am ill-at-ease in shopping malls. Squawking females. Whining kids. Blaring music that borders on sadistic. Was pop music always so obnoxious? All paths lead to the aquarium, however. Groups and individuals pause, take the obligatory selfie, and then move on. I turn away and enter the Cheesecake Factory restaurant. I did research before my visit. Oh, yes. If I have to spend my short time in Dubai in a mall, I’m going to luxuriate in American restaurant chain nostalgia.
The female server commences the hollow American customer service banter. “Hello. How are you? My name is _____ and I’ll be your server today. Where are you from? Oh, really? That’s nice.” Desperation in her smile. The workers surely can’t afford to eat here. I want to pat her hand gently and say, It’s okay, dear. I know you don’t give a crap. Just do your job and I’ll tip well. A couple sits down across the aisle. He is wearing a t-shirt and jeans. Everything but her eyes is obscured in black. She drops her hot pink Victoria’s Secret shopping bag against her chair. They lean towards each other deep in conversation, eyes soft. While I eat, I watch them with quick, furtive glances. I’ve never thought about the mundane mechanics of Arab female dress. She drapes her veil over her glass of lemonade and sips. I stifle my surprise when a plate of buffalo wings is set in front of her. She cuts them into small pieces, quickly lifts her veil, takes a bite, and then lets the veil fall as she chews. She catches my look and her eyes harden. I signal for my bill. A veggie burger, fries, lemonade, and a piece of white chocolate rasperry cheesecake comes to thirty euros.
Away from the epicenter, I find myself nearly alone in gilded corridors. A melodic male voice wails from the sound system. Even in this immense cathedral of consumerism, prayers are broadcast at the designated times. Arabic men in long white robes and headdresses drink tea in ornate cafes. I scan their faces for familiar features. Once, long ago, I knew a man who is one of those responsible for Dubai’s transformation. We met via a mutual friend. I was nineteen years old. He was older than my father. He is like a king in his country, I was told. A country very few had ever heard of. In this place, marriages are arranged and only for the purpose of producing heirs. His wife lived in her own palace. Discretion was still necessary, however. No photos. We only met in public when there was no risk of discovery.
My family panicked when I told them that he had invited me to Cannes, France. Blondes fetch a huge price on the white slavery market. I kept their warnings at the back of my mind as I flew across the Atlantic. I would be vigilant. I had never imagined that I would be able to travel overseas. He was making my dreams come true.
My room at the Hotel Martinez overlooked the sea. I shared the room with a young woman from Italy, his friends’ daughter. His Indian secretary and a soft-spoken British gentleman, one of his dearest friends, were also in the entourage. Most of the tourists had already left for the season, so we had the beach and the fancy restaurants almost to ourselves. One evening, we went to a dinner show that featured a topless cabaret. I squirmed in my seat and looked down at my plate. Families were in attendance. Young boys wearing matching dinner jackets and ascots sat at the table next to us. They set down their forks and applauded at the appropriate times. After the show, they got up and danced with their grandmother. It was Europe. Boobs were no big deal. A young woman with an older man didn’t merit the slightest surprise.
If anyone noticed the long, soft looks we exchanged or where I slept at night, they didn’t show it. Except for the Italian, who clasped my hands in hers. I love that kind man so much. Be happy, Julie. And yet, shame gnawed at my insides when I imagined what others thought. I’d only had one serious boyfriend in my life: an alcoholic sociopath who stole from and cheated on me. I couldn’t possibly deserve all of this generosity. I was certainly being scandalous.
I have wandered into the luxury section. Louis Vuitton. Hermes. Gucci. Dior. The shops are vacant, except for salesmen in suits. They stand at the entrances. Backs straight. Hands folded. Sentinels of retail. I’ve never seen anything in these windows that would tempt me inside, even if I had the money.
He invited me to Italy a few months later. Over the next two years, we met a couple more times in a small American city where he regularly flew his family for medical care. Each time, he was more distant. The soft glow in his eyes hardened to a shrewd glint. Big plans, was all he would tell me. I was also not the same. My style of dress was erratic. My skin had broken out in huge cysts. My fingernails were chewed to the quick. Something bad had happened in my life. Someone had stolen my spirit and I was spiraling into darkness. I could no longer fake the optimism that he required.
I never heard from him again.
What would I do if I crossed his path here, today? I could never approach him, of course. But I couldn’t just let him pass by without making my presence known. He probably wouldn’t recognize me, at first. A quarter of a century has passed. My hair is darker. My round cheeks have weathered away. There are lines around my eyes.
I would stare at him until I caught his gaze and the veil of time fell away. Thank you. For treating me well. For taking me out of my small world. I’m sorry I didn’t allow myself to enjoy it more. That is all. Farewell.
I peer through the doors to the pools where the fountains dance every thirty minutes. Sundown skyline silhouette. Three black-robed women materialize on the other side. I hold the door open. They glide through the portal. Sila Djinn from another dimension. Faces ensnared in black gossamer veils. A hand emerges. Blood red fingernails in polished ebony. The faint rasp of eyelash against spun silk. A cobwebby susurration, “Thank you.”
I step through to the other side, into the heat’s embrace. People congregate at the artificial shore, phones and cameras ready. The Burj Khalifa pierces the evening sky. A glittering dagger.
If only we were able to conjure up those souls from the past that haunt us still. Weave a spell from all the words ever left unsaid.