Leila hangs up the phone and slumps down on her cream coloured IKEA sofa, her face in her hands. She stays in this position for ten minutes, her eyes closed, while she tries to regulate her breath. When her face starts feeling hot and sweaty, she slowly gets up, straightens her stained grey vest top and black velour jogging bottoms and shuffles her way to her fake Chanel handbag that is sitting on the tiny dining table next to a wilting bunch of flowers. She rummages around for her diary, flicks through the pages and when she finds July 14th, she writes: Lara’s Wedding in tiny letters, pressing down on the page so hard that the imprint can be seen on the following three pages.
Lara, Leila’s sister, has just been proposed to by her boyfriend of two years, and is wearing a 2.8 carat solitaire on her left hand that is so heavy, she was barely able to hold the phone to her ear in order to call her older sister with the good news.
“Congratulations habibti!” Leila had exclaimed, visibly grimacing and resisting the urge to throw the phone at the plain, white wall in front of her. “I’m so happy for you!”
Now, as she stares at the date that somehow seems more insulting in its written form, Leila fights the urge to collapse into a bundle of tears. She repeatedly tells herself that she is not a failure. She has a good job, she drives a nice car and she has her own apartment, while Lara, although engaged, is unemployed and still living with her parents. Leila also has a nicer ass, bigger boobs and a smaller waist than her 28 year-old younger sister.
But Lara has a fiancée who loves her and wants to spend the rest of his life with her. And Leila comes home every evening to a hollow apartment, which her mother seems to take great pleasure in reminding her of every time they speak.
Leila’s mother has never forgiven her fiercely independent daughter for moving to Dubai without her permission. It had taken the twenty-one year-old Leila two years to persuade her overprotective, very Christian parents to allow her to leave Beirut to complete her final year of her Bachelor’s in Marketing in the US. Two years of arguing, crying, reasoning and begging eventually made them relent – but only to study and only for one year.
Only that year in the States wasn't half as glamorous as Leila had expected it to be. With barely a cent to her name, she waited on tables almost every evening to get by and her social life was non-existent. As soon as she had completed her degree, she withdrew the little money she had managed to save and flew straight out to Dubai, the land of opportunities, all the while pretending to her parents that she was still in the US doing a little work experience. When she eventually confessed that she was actually in Dubai after embarking on a flourishing career in real estate, her mother’s first reaction was screeching: “How will you ever find a husband if you carry on being so CRAZY? How will we ever find Lara a husband when her older sister doesn’t care about HONOUR?” down the phone. And every month since that day, Mrs. Saade reminds her daughter that independent, career girls always end up alone. So far, she is right.
Sighing audibly, Leila grabs her iPod, scrapes her hair into a messy ponytail and heads over to the gym on the top floor of her building. She is relieved to find she is the only one there, as she hates having to worry about people spotting sweat patches under her arms. Thankfully, the gym is usually empty. Although ideal for those wanting an average bit of space in a not-extremely-bad location but who don't want to pay too much for it, half the apartments in Discovery Gardens are still uninhabited. The rent decrease has meant that those who can afford it, have moved to more happening locations like Jumeirah Beach Residence or the Marina. Leila may like appearing wealthy in public but she doesn't believe in throwing away money on rent.
Sticking her iPod into her ears, she starts jogging on the treadmill to old Amr Diab tracks, and with every step she takes, she feels another stab of envy at the way her shy, sensitive little sister who everyone thought was too simple to find a decent man, has bagged a fiancee before her.
Leila remembers standing in the middle of Sheikh Zayed Road ten years ago absorbing in the construction, the growth and the sheer potential rippling in the city with excitement buzzing in her stomach. Young, naïve and full of hope, she was certain that she would find a dashing prince, preferably a Westerner, who would sweep her off her feet and whisk her away to a place that was protected from war, where she would fall asleep to the comforting sound of owls hooting, not bombs falling. But despite the loneliness that tempted most men into marriages, somehow, she could never make a relationship last longer than a couple of months. Every man she had ever dated just ended up disappointing her.
Her thirty minutes of jogging over, she slows down to a brisk walk, perspiration dripping down her hairline and tickling her forehead when she suddenly realises that in her bitterness, she hasn’t paid much attention to Lara’s wedding itself. The wedding where she will probably have to be the single, lonely and very desperate maid of honour, the focus of everyone's pity.
“FUCK!” she shouts as an image of herself in a fuchsia pink taffeta dress blinds her temporarily, and she stumbles on the belt of the treadmill and falls down hard on her knees. Rolling off to the bottom of the machine on her knees, she somehow ends up on flat on her back. Gasping for air, she squeezes her eyes closed, her legs throbbing in pain.
“Are you okay?” a concerned voice asks as she lies on the ground, not moving. Too embarrassed to open her eyes and face the man who has witnessed her yell an obscenity and then fly off the treadmill, Leila keeps her eyes closed, cursing herself for being so absorbed in her thoughts, the music and the running, that she never noticed anyone else enter the gym. Maybe he’ll think I’ve fainted, she thinks to herself, trying not to let her eyelids twitch.
“Dude, I think she’s passed out,” an American voice says from somewhere to her right. “Shall we call an ambulance? Concussion can be serious.”
Leila, who has no medical insurance, has no desire to be sent to hospital and billed crazy amounts for a fake concussion. At the same time, she doesn’t want to have to put a face to the male voices either. She is acutely aware that with no makeup, unwashed hair and her tattered vest, she looks like she belongs in a trailer park, not in a nice-ish apartment in Discovery Gardens. Get lost and leave me alone she thinks, desperately trying to transmit this thought telepathically.
“I don’t know. Let’s see if we can wake her up first,” the first voice replies in Arabic. “Go and get some water, let’s splash some on her face.”
“No!” Leila cries out without thinking, her eyes flying open. The last thing she wants is water washing away her carefully drawn in eyebrows.
“You’re awake?!” The second voice exclaims.
“Nooooo,” Leila whimpers, not looking at the boy. She flutters her eyelids a little, pretending to be woozy and tries to sit up. “Nooo,” she says again, unsure what else she can say that will make her sound ill and weak.
“Here, sit up and drink this,” the first voice says. Leila slowly opens her eyes and lets them roll into focus. She stares up at a beautiful, tanned face with thick eyelashes and messy, dark brown hair and realises it's the same face that has been appearing in her dreams all week.
"Hey, do I know you?" Mr Delicious asks, helping her to her feet. The warmth from his strong grip surges through her body and she feels a stirring in the pit of her stomach that has nothing to do with the fear of him recognizing her.
"No you don't!" she answers sharply, standing up straight. "I'm sorry but I have to go, I don’t feel well. Thanks for your help. Bye!" She pulls her hand away from his and mentally swears never, ever to work out without makeup, blow dried hair and fashionable sportswear.
"Wait, let me help you, you might hurt yourself," he says, following her as she limps out of the gym.
"No thank you," she replies curtly without looking around. Just go away she prays as she calls for the lift. Her prayers go unanswered and he enters the lift with her.
"Let me just make sure you get to your apartment in one piece," he explains kindly, looking down at her tiny, 5,3" frame. Well over six feet, he makes her feel like a little girl and dizzy with anticipation, her sore knees buckle and she grabs on to him to steady herself.
"Thanks," she says, finally looking up at him properly and smiling shyly. Screw it, she tells herself. He's seen me now anyway. Might as well make the most of it. "I think I may need your help after all."
They smile at each other and she leans against him, pretending that she can't hold herself up properly and he puts his arm around her to steady her. Heart pounding, she relishes the feeling of his lean, toned frame against her and loves the way the top of her head nestles into the crook of his armpit. He is looking just as delicious as he did at the Cavalli Club in black adidas jogging bottoms, a black t-shirt and hair messed to perfection. Leila resists the urge to run her fingers through it and clenches her fists tightly.
"This is me," she says dejectedly when the lift reaches the eighth floor, wishing it would break down and they would be stuck there for eternity.
"Let me see you to your apartment," he replies without a thought. "What number is it?"
"803," she tells him, barely getting the number ‘three’ out of her mouth before the doors open and he effortlessly scoops her into his arms.
“What are you doing?” she protests halfheartedly, wrapping her arms around his neck. Her heart feels like it may suddenly go into cardiac arrest, and she presses herself up to him more to let him feel it beat against his chest.
“You’re obviously in no state to walk so just be quiet and let me make sure you reach your home safely.” His tone is authoritative, making Leila melt even more. She can’t believe that after an entire week of dreaming about him, wondering what she should do with his phone number and persuading Lady Luxe not to call him, she has ended up in his arms without even plotting. Fate must be on her side.
The door is unlocked as always, security rarely being an issue in Dubai, and he walks in purposefully, carrying her as if he is afraid she may break. She is painfully aware of her empty, plain apartment, the one bit of colour being the half dead flowers on the dining table, wishing that it was cosy and inviting as he gently lays her down on the sofa. He is so close that she can smell his aftershave and she inhales deeply, absorbing the fresh, lemony fragrance.
"Let me get you some water before I go," he says, walking through to her open-plan kitchen and grabbing a glass as if he owns the place. "The layout of your apartment is the same as Khaled's," he explains at her surprised face. "You know, the guy upstairs. I don’t actually live here, I was just visiting him."
"Where do you live then?" she asks nonchalantly, lying back on the sofa. When his back is turned, she quickly pulls off her hair band and lets her hair tumble to her shoulders.
"The Palm," he replies, filling the glass with water. He comes back to the sofa and sits on the edge with a familiarity that makes her yearn for him to stay exactly where he is for ever.
"I swear we've met before," he says, frowning as he takes in her dark blonde, wavy hair in confusion while she gulps down the water. "Anyway, get lots of rest okay? I'm going to be at Khaled's apartment pretty much all day so here, take my number and call me if you need anything." Scribbling down his number on her diary that is still open at July 14th, he gives her a quick smile and then exits the apartment, leaving her full of longing.
As soon as the door closes, Leila runs to the bathroom and looks at herself in the mirror. Her stained vest is pretty bad but the rest of her looks better than she had expected. After showering, she decides that she should thank Mr Delicious for his help. Grabbing her phone, she writes:
Thank you for saving my life. Let me make it up to you and Khaled. Dinner at mine at 8pm?
She enters his number without even looking at it in her diary and then waits anxiously for a response. A minute later, her phone beeps.
Grinning happily, Leila grabs her car keys and makes her way to Spinney's. She has a dinner to prepare and if there's one thing she's good at after ten years of husband searching, it's cooking.