I can’t get my fill of the emptiness. Sand the colour of cayenne pepper, dusty date palms clustered around unseen water sources, scrubby trees stripped bare by roaming camels. But mostly sand. I watch the desert roll by. Out here, there’s plenty of room for my thoughts.
Hamad doesn’t speak enough English to interrupt me with a conversation. Marco is asleep on the backseat. His head has dropped back, his mouth wide open. I’ve been able to assuage my panic.
A bald mountain has an escarpment running round it at a tilt so it looks like a jawline and, on the summit, an indentation looks like puckered lips. The mountain is an upturned face kissing the empty sky. Without announcement, Hamad veers off the highway. This is how we come to all our stops: as if it’s an emergency. I turn to Hamad.
‘Fruit,’ he says.
Several four-wheel drives are pulled up in front of a fruit stand with its piles of oranges, melons, dates, loquats and pomegranates.
I dig into my daypack for some change and come up with the New Year’s Eve blower I’ve been carrying since Marco and I met at Richard’s party. I blow the tooter. The squawk startles me.
Marco lifts his head to see the paper tongue distended within an inch of his nose. He frowns.
‘Fruit break,’ I announce and depress my seatbelt. Before I can get out of the glaring sunshine, an old man calls to me. He shuffles quickly, coming from behind the stall or from the heart of the desert itself. His worn sandals cling to gnarled toes. And now he’s in my face. The garlic reek of his breath is a physical assault. I step back, but he continues to speak into my face. ‘Bakshish’ He is cross-eyed. ‘Bakshish.’ Around the shoulders of his dishdasha are rusty stains. Nausea wells up in me.
Two men, carrying bags of fruit, approach. They speak to him in hushed Arabic and press money into his palm. Then they climb into a Land Rover, roll up tinted windows and pull away. I turn my back to the stall and the old man and try to control the nausea.
‘Are you OK? Are you sick?’ Marco asks. He encircles my waist with an arm.
‘Maybe it was the falafel.’
Across the expansive horizon, camels stride. We see herds of goats and donkeys, but never people. Not for the first time, I doubt this journey. Hours are spent travelling across the desert just so we can sleep in an oasis or swim in a wadi. We should have gone to Athens or New Delhi. We should have had a cultural holiday, something we can’t do in Dubai. I remember the moment we planned this holiday. Marco had taken me to the Park Hyatt for my birthday. We had a bottle of Pol Roget on the patio overlooking the marina. The needle of the Burj Dubai floated in the distance. An office party was in full swing at the next table, expats. Americans mostly.
‘Why did we come here?’ I asked Marco.
‘I came to make money like everyone else.’
‘That’s not why I came.’
At that moment, getting out of the city and into the desert felt like the reason I had come. It was the same reason I’d moved to Barcelona to teach seven years ago and then to Istanbul. I love being in a place where I don’t belong.
‘The desert,’ Hamad announces.
‘Yes.’ I nod.
‘Now we drive into the desert.’
‘To the wadi?’
We stop at an airing station where Hamad lets air out of the tires.
Marco’s arms reach round the seat to hug me. ‘Do you feel better?’
‘A bit better. It’s the smell of the oud. It must be making me sick. A swim will make all the difference.’ It’s what I’ve most wanted to do: step into the water at the wadi, feel it claiming my body as I wade in, my thighs, between my legs, my hips, on up. I can’t recall desiring a swim this much.
Waking this morning at the oasis, I counted, trying to make sense of it. I counted backwards from today. Then I counted forwards from when it might have happened. I had avoided thinking about it for too long. It had been all about the sex which was crazy at first. Well, what can I do? If I’m pregnant, it was all a matter of timing. Good or bad timing, who knows?
It’s mid-afternoon when Hamad parks near a wash in the desert. The three of us hike down a steep path, a declivity between outcroppings of swelling red stone. This is the wadi, the way the water has shaped it over millennia, the walls undulating, swelling to block out the sun, hollowing out caves.
Marco and I pull on swimsuits while Hamad lies in the shade, looking up at the sky.
I step into spring water that is shallow and tepid. Marco takes my hand. We wade out together until my feet lift from the bed and we swim side by side. The water feels colder on my stomach, so I keep moving, to swim toward the source between red walls of sandstone. Birds chip sharply at the cool air. Then we touch bottom again. We stand to look up at the blue snake of sky thinly stretched between the rocks above. Marco kisses me. I keep my eyes open to look into his brown eyes that were my undoing on New Year’s Eve. We kissed for the first time at midnight as the fireworks exploded over the Burj-al-Arab. I want to tell him what I’ve been thinking. I want to tell him my fears.
He takes my hand. We climb over rocks to swim away from the real world, deeper into the wadi. My breath is all I hear now. When we can touch bottom again, Marco hugs me, ‘Happy anniversary. It’s been three months since we met, you know. How are we going to celebrate in the middle of the desert?’
‘Well, that’s a hard one, but we’ll come up with something.’
Marco laughs close to my ear, sending a thrill down my neck. At first the sex was crazy, but lately it has become courteous, even cautious. The pressure of his hands on my butt, his all-consuming mouth trip me into happiness—desperate and reckless. We make love submerged in the water.
Hamad opens the door and Marco slumps into his seat. We follow the ruts in the sand of the cars that have gone before us, not that there are any in sight now. Hamad grins and shifts gears as he takes a dune.
‘It’s hard to hit a camel,’ he tells me.
‘We’re not camel bashing, are we?’
‘No. I am a good driver.’ He pauses, then says, ‘I hit the gazelle sometimes.’
The gazelle is what we’ve come to the reserve to see, not as roadkill though.
In the early evening the sun softens. Tonight, we’ll celebrate three months together by eating barbeque in the desert, smoking shisha, listening to the buzuq. We need to celebrate something about us because already it feels like we’ve stalled, come to a crossroad where we either break it off or move in together. I know what Marco wants. He says things like, ‘You could come home to dinner already cooked.’ He is a good cook. All too well I can picture us living together here. Saturday mornings at Starbucks—that’s the sort of thing we end up doing. We cross the street in front of Marco’s apartment, he orders a double espresso, I order a cappuccino, the barista speaks to us in fine English, and Marco settles into a chair to read the Italian news.
I didn’t come all this way for that. Planning the summer holiday together has seemed natural. We’ll visit his family in Milan, then stay at Lake Como for a week. But not moving in. When will I tell him? I know I’m pregnant. I think it’s been about seven weeks. This knowledge rests almost weightlessly in me.
The evening turns out differently than I thought. The gamekeeper, Ahmed, has a surprise for us. At dusk we walk far from camp. Ahmed has invited a friend named Mo who breeds saluki dogs and hunting falcons.
I reach to touch the hooded falcon on Mo’s arm.
‘Don’t touch. He’s wild. It’s not good.’ But later Mo pulls the hood off and the falcon, with eyes as big as black beans, checks us out and stretches each speckled wing. Mo gives me a leather glove and I support the weight of the bird on my arm. Mo tells Ahmed to take a photo of me with the falcon.
Mo is Emirati. In his country full of foreigners, he is exotic—an actual Emirati. I don’t teach with any locals and I don’t personally know any. Shopping for groceries at Carrefour in the mall, I mix in a crowd as eclectic as the U.N.—families from around the gulf, India, Pakistan, North Africa. There are the Europeans and Americans. Rarely do I spot an Emirati. Occasionally, I see a woman draped in black and wearing a hand-beaten gold mask. That is traditional Emirati. There are a few. I encounter them in the crisps and sweets aisle at Carrefour.
Mo releases the three saluki dogs from their leashes and they race across the sand. Their silky coats are swept back, blurs in motion. The Arabian hunting dogs.
Ahmed tells us that Mo and the salukis were recently featured in an episode of National Geographic.
‘Now I have a lot of visitors to my Saluki Centre. I sell dogs around the world. Sometimes people come to my centre. They write something about it.’
‘You must be really pleased,’ I say. Marco is feigning no interest whatsoever in Mo’s story.
‘No. I’m not. They never ask if they can write about my centre.’
‘Well, you’ve interested them. They want to share that interest with others,’ I say.
‘It’s not right.’
‘It’s good publicity though.’ I don’t see Mo’s point, but I try to be diplomatic. Marco’s inability at polite discourse today pisses me off suddenly.
The salukis sniff around rocks and small shrubs. They lift their legs to mark territory. Each one pees on the previous dog’s marker. Mo calls a dog over. ‘Feel the hair,’ he tells me. ‘It’s very soft.’
I kneel on the sand. The saluki licks my face. Mo takes a few photos.
The light is fading so Ahmed builds a fire with wood that he has packed in. He offers us kilims to sit on. We watch as Mo sends the falcon flying.
‘It’s too late to hunt,’ he tells me. He no longer addresses Marco at all.
The salukis sniff round the kilim. Mo snaps a photo of me nuzzling one.
‘Why is he taking so many photos of you?’ Marco asks me.
‘I don’t know.’
‘He’ll probably try selling them to us.’
‘Don’t worry about it. Why ruin the evening?’
Marco hands his phone to Mo. ‘Take a picture of the two of us,’ he says.
Without a word, Mo extends the phone toward Ahmed who takes it. Mo calls to the salukis. Ahmed snaps the shot.
We eat shish kebab and bread warmed by the fire. When the flames have burned down to embers, the blackness is punctured with all the stars we can’t see in the city.
Ahmed shovels sand over the remains of the fire. He shakes out the kilims. We are about to start back to camp by the light of the moon. Marco pulls a few dirham from his wallet. He offers them to Mo. ‘Thank you for bringing the dogs.’
There is an awkward silence. ‘it’s not like that, Marco,’ I whisper. ‘We’re guests here.’
As if no one can hear him, Marco says, ‘We’re paying customers.’
Mo turns to Ahmed and there’s a rich bubbling up of language between them.
‘Please put the money away,’ Ahmed says.
Mo strides toward his Land Rover without another word to us.
‘What the hell,’ says Marco. He shoves the notes into his pocket. ‘No bakshish? No bakshish? It’s always bakshish.’
‘Obviously not here,’ I say.
Ahmed says, ‘He did it to me for a favour.’
‘Maybe you should apologise,’ I say to Marco.
‘Merda!’ The vein in his forehead stands out.’
I feel angry. In some way, they have each made me angry. This was a nice surprise and it should be a celebration with Marco, but anger curls heavily in me. I walk off into the desert by myself. I just want to get away from their clashing. The desert lends me its solitude.
My foot plunges into a dip in the sand that I don’t see and my stomach plunges too. I feel emptied out by the suddenness of each jarring step. The men around the dead campfire feel as distant as the sparks of stars above me. I am totally alone.
‘Alex!’ Marco calls me. ‘Alex, where are you?’
On my way to our tent, I see the camp workers behind the breakfast tent watching T.V., so I sit down with them. They offer a cup of mint tea, which is exactly what I need. We watch a Bollywood film in Arabic.
Marco finds me. He wants me to come to bed. I tell the camp workers ‘Shokran.’ They stand to wish us good night.
The good thing about Marco is that he cools down as quickly as he heats up. With me, anger swills around for longer and by the time I’m empty of the emotion, it’s left a residue. When we get to our tent, Marco climbs onto the dais that is our bed and pats the sleeping bag next to him. I take my time undressing. With the help of a flashlight, I find my cami in the backpack. I turn my back and tug it on, worried that I might be showing. I crawl into the sleeping bags that Marco’s zipped together.
He pulls me to him. ‘You know what its like when someone is infatuated with you. They find reasons to call you, bump into you. When they talk to you they’re like on speed. They’re always trying to catch your eyes.’
‘Yeah.’ We’re lying face to face. With the flashlight sitting on its end, there is enough light to watch Marco’s face.
‘And then one day the person understands that nothing’s going to happen. They know you’re never going to be interested. So you become wallpaper again. They hardly notice you. They never call.’ When Marco speaks English, his voice flattens out to become monotone. It makes me dozy listening to him.
‘Yeah, I know what you’re talking about,’ I tell him.
‘It’s sad, isn’t it, when they go off you?’
‘Maybe,’ I say. “Maybe it’s a relief.’
‘Well, I feel sad. Like you’ve gone off me. That’s how you make me feel.’
I lift my fingers to touch the grey that flecks Marco’s black, cross-cropped hair. If there is going to be a time to send him packing, it’s not now. Not till I’ve told him.
‘It’s not like that,’ I say. ‘I’m right here. I’m with you.’
I’m conscious of birds shrilly chirping around the tent but I don’t wake until they begin a frenzy of tweeting. Ahmed is outside. ‘Its time to see the gazelle,’ he says.
It must be sunrise. I shake Marco. The first words to pop out of my mouth are almost, ‘I’m pregnant.’ But I’m afraid of his reaction. Resting on one elbow, he’d probably say, ‘Let’s move in together,’ just like that. And then what would I say?
I should take a pregnancy test, though I’m pretty sure that won’t change anything.
In silence we pull on sweats, zip up hoodies and push open the flaps of the tent. Marco never wakes quickly. I take shelter in his silence.
After seeing the gazelle and having breakfast, we toss our bags into the four-wheel drive and head for the coast in Oman. It’s a long drive on an empty highway. I take the backseat. Marco can chat with Hamad today.
Occasionally, I see a car behind us in the wing mirror. Then, suddenly it’s gone. Cars just drop off the highway although there are no roads leading away. I suppose I should figure out what I’m going to do, but at the moment I feel suspended from the need to take any action. If I have a baby, will I stay in Dubai? Since I met Marco, I haven’t been considering a move to Cairo or Prague like I’d planned. I try to envisage being a single mother in those places: teaching during the day, a local woman caring for the baby. What sort of social life would I have? I suppose it could work out.
Going home is pointless. It’s just the place that I’m from, not a place to go back to.
Along the highway sit strips of dusty shops with corrugated iron roofs and corrugated plastic awnings, sometimes with a few pink flowers. Then the desert opens up again. Scattered across the desert are compounds, probably Bedouin homes, of a few pointy-topped tents encircled by sand-breaks made of green plastic mesh.
Marco has finished droning on to Hamad. It’s been a long monologue. I haven’t listened. Now Marco is silent in the front seat, but he’s not asleep.
The dunes are high here. I feel seasick watching them roll past. At the base of one dune, a four-wheel drive is parked. Here, in the middle of nowhere. On top of the dune is a man in a white dishdasha. What is he doing up there? As we move past, I notice he is flying a kite high above the desert floor. Alone in the middle of the desert. He is flying an orange kite.
Further down the road, we pass another man atop a dune. His hands are clasped behind his back. Where he has come from and how he got on top that dune puzzles me. He seems to stand in contemplation of the blank sky. Or, as I see when I turn my head, the orange kite.
After all, the distance between these two dune climbers is real, but not so great. Between them is the desert floor. Above them flies the orange kite and that’s where each keeps his gaze. I look at the back of Marco’s head. What does he see? Then I turn back to the desert outside the window.
About The Author
Originally from California, Kimbalena calls London home. She completed a master’s in creative writing at Birkbeck. After teaching literature and writing for years, she has recently dedicated her time to practicing what she preaches, crafting prose and fashioning stories. Her debut novel, No Life to Breathe, the story of Hamlet’s mother, is currently seeking a receptive publisher. Other short fiction will soon be in Storgy.
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