Leila suppresses a yawn as politely as possible as the fifty-three year old banker sitting opposite her bores her with supposedly witty tales from the banking industry. He drones on and on, completely oblivious to the blank look on her face, the emptiness in her eyes and the slump of her shoulders.
The date starts off promisingly. He picks her up in a black BMW 7 series which may not be the caliber she has experienced before, but is good enough. He has taken her to Zheng He's, the Chinese restaurant at the Madinat Jumeirah and has booked an outside table that boasts of spectacular views of the Burj al Arab, illuminated in the warm, night sky. Another box is mentally ticked. She can’t decipher the cut of his dark grey suit and is unsure as to whether it is designer or not, but at this stage, she doesn’t really care. She may be desperate for a husband but unless he is filthy rich, she will never put up with such a selfish dinner partner who refuses to at least try and make an effort to be polite and charming. In Leila's opinion, men who aren’t in the private jet league, have no right to be so mind-numbingly boring.
"Excuse me," she manages to say as soon as there is a pause in his monologue, getting up to go to the restroom. "I'll be back in just a moment."
"No problem sweetheart," he drools, staring at her plunging neckline with his beady blue eyes decorated with wrinkles. At fifty-three, he is older than most of the men she has ever dated but still far from her secret cut-off mark of fifty-nine. She narrows her eyes at him, smoothes down her beige knee-length cashmere skirt and stalks off to the restroom in relief. She can feel his eyes on her ass and she wiggles it a little bit more. After all, he isn’t going to get anything else tonight so he may as well get a good look at her infamous, Lebanese trunk full of junk, as described by the ever-eloquent Fergie.
Plenty of heads turn as she saunters across the restaurant, men and women alike – the men appreciative and the women constantly looking for flaws or praying for her to stumble and reveal old, greying knickers.
Men are always watching Leila move. Her walk is graceful and seductive, her shoulders always pulled back and her head held up high. She moves as if she is on a catwalk in Milan, not a restaurant, mall or even beach in Dubai. She is not overtly beautiful; her lips are a little bit too big (too much collagen), her nose is a little bit too sharp (an over-enthusiastic cosmetic surgeon) and her eyebrows are a tad too thin (no one to blame but herself). However, her big, blonde hair (courtesy of a fabulous hair stylist), smooth skin (La Mer), double Ds (a souvenir from Beverly Hills) and firm behind (her maternal genes) more than compensate for her aesthetically-off facial features.
As soon as she is away from everyone’s scrutiny, Leila whips out her mobile phone and hits speed dial number eight – her equivalent of 999.
“ ‘Sup shorty,” Lady Luxe drawls, answering almost immediately. “It’s only 10pm so he's either tried groping your ass a little too early or he's taken you for a streetside shawarma. It's not good, is it?”
“It’s not!” Leila whispers, afraid that the Old Fart may be skulking around outside the door, listening, until she remembers that he isn’t creative enough to think of something so adventurous and he isn't Arab either, so the chances of him stalking her are very thin.
“Ya’ani… he’s… just… so… boring!” she finally splutters, at a loss for a better adjective.
“That’s it? Come on habibti, you’ve dated worse,” Lady Luxe reminds her with a laugh. “Remember the one who tried to impress you by - ”
“I remember!” Leila snaps. “But you don’t understand! He’s not only ridiculously boring but he’s a pervert and keeps trying to stare down my blouse. I need to get out of here quickly!”
“Fine, I’ll arrange something. Go back to the table and order some dessert for a change. It might sweeten you up. What’s his name again?”
“Old Fart,” Leila answers quickly and then hangs up. Reapplying her signature deep red Bobbi Brown lipstick and blotting her slightly greasy nose, she quickly checks for food lurking around in her bright, white teeth and heads out of the restroom with dread. Directly outside the door stands a tall local man, quite handsome, with a gleam in his small eyes.
“Marhaba,” he drawls in a deep voice, slowly looking her up and down and absorbing the curve of her hips, her tiny waist and the swell of her chest.
“Hello,” she replies, quickly assessing him. His pristine white candoura is gleaming almost as much as his eyes, he is wearing a Tag Heur watch and there is no wedding ring in sight.
“Here’s my business card. Call me.” It’s not a question, but a statement, and before Leila can reply, he stalks off, leaving behind a faint scent of ‘oud. Not sure whether to be affronted by his assumption or complimented by the interest, she slips the card into her Gucci clutch (courtesy of the Generous Geriatric) and drags herself back to her table.
Almost as soon as she sits down though, Old Fart’s phone begins to ring and she sits up straight, her ears perking up with interest. He answers nonchalantly but his face quickly turns red with rage. Hanging up abruptly and spluttering something about an emergency, he gestures for the bill.
“I’m so sorry dear, but something has come up,” he says vaguely whilst signing the cheque. “Here, take a taxi home.” He throws a hundred dirham note on the table and disappears, leaving Leila half relieved and half pissed off. She hates taxis.
Half an hour later, Leila is sitting at Barasti with Lady Luxe, who is in her 'Jennifer' disguise – a long, blonde wig and blue contact lenses – sipping a colourful cocktail and ignoring the feeling of disappointment from yet another bad date. She is one of the very few people who knows about Lady Luxe's alter-ego and is fully aware of her privilege. Although she is happy that she is trusted with the knowledge, she does wonder if she will ever have to use it as leverage. She hopes not. Despite the ten year age difference (which she will never, ever admit and has even sworn on her dead grandmother's grave, may God bless her soul, that she is still twenty-seven), the difference in social status, upbringing and religion, she actually likes Lady Luxe and enjoys her company. She's a lot less pretentious than the majority of her friends and despite her craziness, her heart is usually in the right place. They also have completely different tastes in men (Lady Luxe is still young enough to care solely about looks and charm) and thankfully, the 'hoes over bros' philosophy has never had to be tested.
"So what did you do to get the Old Fart running out of Madinat Jumeirah like his wife's in labour?" Leila asks.
"I got his wife to call." Lady Luxe shrugs nonchalantly, looking around her for potential meals in the form of sexy men.
"He has a wife?" Leila splutters, choking on her drink. "The lying bastard! He told me he's divorced!"
"He is. Three times. But he's also married to the daughter of some Iranian businessman who knows my brother." Lady Luxe spots her dinner and smiles cheekily at a tall, broad man on the other side of the bar. He smiles back at her and she averts her gaze. Her rule is to only make eye contact with a man once until he musters up the courage to talk to her.
Leila sighs as embarrassment washes over her, willing her face not to turn pink in shame. She has been in Dubai for nearly a decade and she still isn’t able to spot the winners from the losers, the honest from the deceitful. The single from the married. Her last boyfriend turned out to be all three. A wealthy local businessman, he wooed her with orchids on her doorstep every Friday, long, lazy cruises aboard his private yacht in the weekends and, deeper into their six-month relationship, spontaneous weekend trips to Oman. Leila hadn’t found it unusual that he never introduced her to his family – Arab men rarely did until they were ready to get married – and nor did she find it strange that he was always working. Maybe she just didn’t want to read the signs; the way he would never let her look through his phone, the way he was never free on a Friday and the way he would suddenly become withdrawn, his mind clearly preoccupied with something he would refuse to talk about. She was just too hopeful that maybe this time, she had found The One.
They broke up after Leila had received a hysterical phone call from a woman who swore by her entire clan, ancestors and descendents that if Leila married her husband and became his second wife, she would poison her in her sleep. She never told any of her friends – including Lady Luxe - what the real reason for their break up was. Until now, she still pretends that she had grown bored of the tall, handsome, wealthy and charming Emirati (yeah right, was the look on most of her friends’ faces) and she has also resolved never to date a local guy again. She has a sneaking suspicion that Lady Luxe, with her ability to find out everything - from how many fillings a man has to how many women he has slept with - knows the truth but didn’t tell her for fear of hurting her, and for this, she is thankful. She hates being at anyone’s mercy, hates appearing weak or vulnerable.
When Leila moved to Dubai, when she was still a brunette with a wonky nose, blemished skin and B cup breasts, she never expected that she would grow into the kind of woman that needs a husband in order to feel accomplished. She thought that having a successful career and driving a BMW 3 series would be enough to make her feel content until Sheikh Charming came along. Over the years though, as most of her friends have settled down and started families, she has been feeling more and more alone. Dubai is, after all, a lonely, transitory place. People are always coming and going and it’s hard to maintain relationships like that. It is also full of temptation for men. The Las Vegas of the Middle East, women are available in all shapes and sizes and many are willing to sell their souls (not to mention their bodies) for the slightest bit of financial stability. The competition is tough for all women with high(ish) standards. An extended family that is desperate to see you with a ring on your finger doesn’t make the situation anymore bearable.
Towards the end of the evening, Lady Luxe disappears with a beefy but attractive Australian and Leila decides to go back to her one bedroom apartment in Discovery Gardens. Alone.
She walks into her empty apartment with tired eyes and a throbbing head. She longs for quiet evenings curled up on the sofa, leaning against a husband while they argue over what to watch on TV. She’s had a lot of time to visualize her fantasies in detail. In her dream, she’s wearing pink cotton pyjamas and he’s in shorts and a t-shirt.
In reality, she stands under the shower alone, trying to let the water numb the pain of having no one by her side. She goes through the motions of scrubbing her body clean with Bodyshop exfoliating scrubs, lathering her skin with moisturizer and carefully applying a dab of Crème De La Mer to her face, careful not to use too much for fear of it running out too soon, and rubbing cream onto her feet that are tired of being squeezed into tiny heels. Her beauty regime completed, she shuffles into her Queen-sized bed in an old, faded white nightshirt completely, and utterly alone. Face barren of makeup, she looks strangely innocent and young.
It takes her over an hour to eventually fall into a restless slumber.