I am officially in lust but I am too afraid to vocalise it – because if I do, it will become tangible. It will cease being a game I play in my head, a few tugs on my heart strings, an occasional dry mouth, a pink cheek, a shy smile. If I tell the object of my lustfulness what exactly runs across my mind when he sends me an innocent message, I may just find out that the feelings are mutual. And if they are, then surely our friendship will take a sweeter but more dangerous turn?
When I declined Goldenboy’s dinner invitation last week, I wondered how he would react to it – whether he would be turned on or off by the ‘good girl’ façade. Incidentally, he seems to be turned on by it, sending me messages almost every day and inviting me out every other day. I can’t help wondering if he’s just enjoying the thrill of the chase though. I’ve heard the rumours about Arab guys – you know, about the way they fall in love at the drop of the hat and fall out of it just as quickly. How they will profess their love for you with such intense eloquence that you are left feeling as if you’ve had the wind knocked out of you. And how they will drop you like a hot potato the moment you become another notch on the bed post. I hope that Goldenboy isn’t the same as the stereotypical Arab guy. But then at the same time, I hope he is. Because his presence in my life is making me too excited, too nervous… and too scared.
I’m not so naïve as to claim that this is the first time I’ve felt this way, that this is the first time a cute, kind and funny bloke has had this profound effect on me. I have. And it took me to the highest cloud and then dragged me down to hell and back.
I’ve tried hard to forget Jayden. To forget his hearty laugh, his deep brown eyes, his ability to make the worst situation seem okay. I’ve tried to forget the way we first met, when he smiled at me from across the university library. Not pervily mind you, but because I had just tripped over the shoelaces on my silver adidas trainers. I had clutched onto the nearest bookcase in support and knocked over a potted plant that was resting there. Who keeps potted plants on library shelves anyway? The plant flew through the air and smashed headfirst onto the carpet, bits of soil flying in all directions. I stared at it, horrified, and then tentatively looked up to see if anyone had noticed the goings on in the west corner. No one had – except this boy – who flashed a bright smile at me, revealing a single, lonely dimple on his right cheek as he did. Turning tomato, I crouched down and unsuccessfully tried to shove the soil back into the brown plastic pot, bits of it getting stuck in my chewed-on nails.
Only I would display my lack of coordination to the fittest guy in the entire library, and render myself a complete and utter klutz in his eyes.
I’m used to making a spectacle of myself though. The library incident was almost as bad as the time I went on Tidal Wave at Thorpe Park. In a white top and white linen trousers. Tidal Wave, in case you didn’t know, is a ride at my favourite theme park that basically drenches you from head to foot. Completely forgetting that I was wearing white, I happily queued up for an hour and it was only when I got off, water dripping from me, and when all the guys laughed their heads off, I realised what I had done. Struggling in my (already tight) linen trousers that had shrunk a size because of the water, I waddled over to the bathroom, my arms folded across my chest in an attempt to hide the pink bra that was showing through the wet cloth. I then spent half an hour under the hand dryer, desperately trying to make my clothes opaque again. And who should walk into the very same restroom at that moment? My old mosque teacher. Horrified, she stared at her ex-student in a wet, transparent white outfit clinging to her curves and no hijab in sight. I muttered a quick ‘salaam’ and looked away in shame, cursing my bad luck.
That afternoon in the library, I ignored the fit guy’s piercing stare and continued stuffing the soil back into the pot. I also attempted straightening out the bent leaves, feeling sorry for the poor plant I had almost destroyed.
“Need some help?” A pair of white Nikes stopped in front of me, and I looked up, past the loose jeans, the grey hoody with the zip undone, past the smooth mocha coloured neck and finally to that beautiful dimple. My stomach did a somersault.
“Um, n-no thanks, I think I’ve got it covered,” I stammered, picking up the pot and shoving it back onto the shelf.
“Alright,” he shrugged, about to turn away. “But do up your laces before you buckle again. Oh, and nice trainers.”
I watched him swagger away, enthralled by the way his jeans hung perfectly on his hips, amazed by his confidence and furious with myself for not replying with something remotely witty or interesting. And what was up with that stammer? I’d never stammered in my life. But of course the one time I did, it had to be in front of a gorgeous black guy with trendy clothes and a swagger that would put Jay-Z to shame.
I became an ardent library goer. Every day, between lectures, I’d visit the bright, airy room with its shelves laden with heavy text books (and plants of course), its desks occupied by enthusiastic students, and sit in the same place as the Plant Debaucle, pretending to study. I actually ended up learning quite a lot during this time, with nothing but my books and my fantasies to occupy me. Every evening though, I’d shuffle home feeling disappointed. But when morning came, I’d wake up hopeful, and without any coaxing from my mother (who usually had to stomp up to my room and yank off the duvet to force me out of my slumber), I’d leap out of bed and get ready with nervous excitement.
When I was just about to give up on the library altogether and go back to my usual dossing ways, he reappeared.
“Knock over any plants lately?” he said, as I sat slumped in my chair, reading ‘Anna Karenina’ for my literature class and drawing hearts on the pages.
“No,” I replied, slamming the book shut. My heart thudding, I waited a moment to compose myself (and appear nonplussed in the process) before I looked up at him and raised an eyebrow as nonchalantly as I could. “Offered to help any damsels in distress lately?”
“Course,” he replied, grinning and showing off his dimple once again. “Some girl dropped her food in the cafeteria yesterday and I offered to eat it off the floor.”
“That’s disgusting!” I exclaimed, horrified. He started laughing, his laugh so infectious that I couldn’t help but join him. It wasn’t particularly funny, but the proximity to his smooth voice, his long limbs and the fresh fragrance of Davidoff’s Cool Water, made me dizzy with hormones, and I just couldn’t stop laughing.
“If you two can’t stop your hysterics than I suggest you leave the library,” the librarian hissed at us from the counter, not bothered to walk up to us to spare us the embarrassment. Still giggling, I gathered up my books and followed him out to the lawn outside, ignoring the dirty looks the more serious students were giving us. Placing his things under a tree, he gestured for me to sit beside him, so I did, and we ‘studied’ together for the rest of the afternoon. By this I mean I pretended to read Anna whilst imagining different scenarios of him ravishing me on the grass in my mind. And him? He took out an Economics book and actually did some work.
Thus was the beginning of a friendship infused with passion, laughter and the underlying sense of something brewing deep within.
* * *
As I lie in bed on Saturday morning, I try to tell myself that my relationship with Goldenboy is nothing like my relationship with Jayden. That I’m not the same Sugar I was back in London. That if we happen to fall in love, I will never make the same mistakes I made the first time – but I won’t even get that far. Because I won’t fall in love.
What are we doing today?
The message alert startles me, and I look down at my phone and smile at his using ‘we’ even though we’re not an ‘us’. I have already seen Goldenboy twice this week. A few days after the cinema day, we went for shisha in Momo’s which restored my ill-feelings towards it after I went there with Nadia. We were talking about work and other mindless things whilst sharing a double apple shisha and I wondered how much his salary was. Don’t get me wrong – I wasn’t trying to suss out his eligibility as a husband. I’m just really curious about pay discrepancies in Dubai. I can’t believe that people get paid according to their nationality – not because they have more experience or have earned that salary. Unless you count a maroon passport as really hard work, that is. This 'hard work' will often get you a hefty tax-free salary, accommodation allowance, school fees allowance, medical insurance, business class flights home and all other necessities that your salary won't have to pay for. A man with less experience (i.e. a different passport) will probably get paid a quarter of an EU member/American. He may also be given oars to row himself home with on a banana boat every year. If he’s lucky.
I didn’t realise that I had actually voiced my thoughts out loud until he looked at me strangely.
“What?” I asked, puzzled by the surprised look on his face.
“Well, salaries are quite personal things,” he said, raising his eyebrows. “Are you trying to find out if I’m a good catch?”
“No!” I exclaimed, taking a long puff of shisha in a lame attempt to give him something other than my eyes to look at. Whenever I look into his eyes, I feel a jolt of electricity and every time I feel it sizzle through my body, I am reminded of how un-platonic my feelings towards him are.
He told me though and I kicked myself for asking him when I learnt that he earned less than me. Despite being older with more experience. He then asked me how much I earned and I was torn between telling him the truth (a few thousand D’s more than him) and lying (to make him feel better). We already had an awkward conversation when he found out I didn’t have to re-take my driving test in order to get a UAE license, rather I just had to submit the relevant UK documents and wait in a few queues. Not like him. He had to invest hundreds of D's in lessons and tests, despite driving for many more years than me back in Syria and being experienced in driving on the right-hand side of the road.
“You Brits get away with everything over here,” he had said, half jokingly. I was a bit unnerved by the twinge of annoyance in his voice, unsure of what to say. Should I apologise for being British? Should I feel guilty about having certain things made easier for me?
“It’s not because I’m British, it’s because it’s really difficult to get a driver’s license in the UK so they know we’ve already been thoroughly trained.” I argued defensively.
“Not like me, you mean?” he answered quietly.
“No, I didn’t mean that,” I began, but he looked away and I wondered if the differences between our passports in the UAE would be a constant source of bitterness on his part and guilt on mine.
After that, I tried to avoid sour subjects, so when we went for shisha the second time, I kept the conversation light.
We went to Elements, an arty restaurant at Wafi City, which is a mall beautifully modeled on Ancient Egypt. I’d never been to Wafi before, and I was amazed by the colorful glass pyramids and the intricacy of the Khan Murjaan souk, with its huge stained glass ceiling engraved with Arabic calligraphy and the scent of bakhoor tickling my nose. The gorgeous open air restaurant hidden within the souk was exactly like the old houses in the ancient backstreets of Damascus. As the Khan Murjan restaurant was a little too noisy, with the live band playing old Fairouz and Um Kulthoum songs, we opted for Elements instead. We sat down on the low, mattress-like seats in the corner of the room and I resisted the urge to sit next to him and snuggle up.
He was sitting close enough to me for me to inhale his fresh, clean scent though. He smelt like soap, detergent and a bit of musk all rolled in one, and the combination was intoxicating. As we waited for our mint and grape shisha to arrive, we looked at the brightly coloured oil paintings adorning the walls.
“See that red one? Technically it’s incorrect as the shadows should be on the other side,” he explained, citing his Professor at the Fine Arts college, University of Damascus. “Look, let me show you. Do you have a pen or paper?”
I pulled out my diary and handed it to him, along with a pen, and he opened a blank page and began drawing on it. While he was sketching, he explained the way light and dark colours should appear on a canvas, the rules about placing objects on different parts and other complicated rules that I wasn’t particularly interested in. I was more interested in the way his strong fingers were gripping the pen, the way his hand moved over the page so fluidly, the way his eyebrows came together in concentration.
Oh man, I thought to myself, as the true depth of my lust became apparent to me. I couldn’t even watch him draw a box without feeling like my knees would buckle. How could I possibly stay friends with him? How could I continue justifying our friendship with the plea of loneliness?
That evening, I drove home feeling depressed, the absence of his presence making my loneliness in Dubai all the more apparent.
When Jayden and I became friends, I didn’t feel so confused. I was different then; more carefree, more adventurous, more open to new experiences. My parents aren’t strict Muslims (my mum doesn’t even observe hijab) but they’re strict Indians. At times, they think they’re still in Gujarat not Stamford Hill, with the way they go on about the community, their honour. When I’d come home late (by late, I mean 11pm), my mum would be waiting by the door of our five-bedroom terraced house, hissing, “What would people think if they saw you coming home in the middle of the night? Jaldi, go to your room before your father realises you’re not home!”
Despite my parents’ steadfast, un-budging traditions, I somehow managed to find ways to do what I wanted. I’d pretend to be staying over at a friend’s house, revising, when really I’d go out clubbing. I’d leave our house in baggy trackies and hoodies and then remove the hoody when I turned the corner to reveal tight t-shirts or sleeveless tops underneath. I’d even pretend to fast in Ramadan – waking up before the crack of dawn and feasting on a heavy sehri and then would indulge in a sarnie on my way to college or uni. I clubbed, I partied, I had boyfriends, I ate haraam food and I wore revealing clothes – just like everyone else I knew.
I knew that if my dad ever caught sight of me with a boy, I’d get beats. Not serious enough to inflict deep injuries, but enough to teach me a lesson or ten. I didn’t resent him for it – he rarely hit me – but when he did, I’d accept it unquestioningly. It was a normal part of my, and all my Asian friends’, upbringing. If my dad ever found out that I was in love with someone though, I didn’t know how he would react. Maybe he would send me on the next Air India flight back home like my Uncle Yusuf did to my cousin Sumaiya, or maybe he would throw me out the house like my Uncle Khalid did with my cousin Atia. Either way, the result wouldn’t be pretty. But for some reason, I just wasn’t scared. I thought I was invincible.
My dad’s wrath didn’t stop me from befriending boys though, all it did was make me more careful. All my cousins (I have a million) are around the same age so we’d hang out together, and we were all friends with guys. There were no secrets between us because there was no reason to hide anything. There was one unspoken rule though, that none of us would dare to even consider breaking. We could be friends with Asian guys as much as we liked – Punjabis, Bengalis, Pakistanis – but we never, ever became mates with white boys. Or even worse, black ones. There was no future with either race – no prospect of marriage (without being outcasted), and therefore, all liaisons with them would appear slutty or promiscuous.
And no girl in my family was a slut.
That’s why, when Jayden and I starting hanging out in the library together, I never told any of my cousins. I couldn’t. Anyway, we were only studying together, I reassured myself. There was nothing wrong with that. Plus none of my cousins went to my university, so the chances of them seeing us together were slim. But of course, the world is small and North London is even smaller. It was naïve of me to think anything else.
My memory suddenly takes me from the beginning to the ending. And when I think of the ending, a shudder runs through my body. I remember the look on my cousin’s face when I confided my secret to her. I remember my brother clutching a fistful of my hair and pushing me against the wall. I remember him storming out of the house, calling all the ‘boys’ in the process. I remember my dad turning his face away in grief, my mother's tears. And I remember the police sirens in the distance. The clink of the handcuffs in darkness of the night.
My palms begin to sweat. I can’t do it again.
The phone rings and I jump, forced out of my thoughts. It is Goldenboy, and I don’t know whether to answer or reject the call. I’m too lost in the past, too absorbed in my memories to force a smile and act as if everything is okay.