Lady Luxe slumps back in her chair with a grimace on her face, ignoring the quizzical look the young woman at the next table gives her. For the past week, she has had to endure Leila gushing about “Moe” taking her to swanky restaurants and bars, long descriptions of his orange Mercedes and painfully intimate details about his full lips that always know exactly how to probe, nibble and tingle.
Little does Leila know, it was actually her so-called friend who helped her sort-of lover choose his car, that his full lips have been inherited from their father, and that the expensive restaurants and bars will not even cause a tiny dent in his bank account.
“So now, I’ve decided to just go with the flow you know? I want to live a little, to stop worrying about finding The One, and have a little fun with The One I’m Settling For instead,” Leila explains to Lady Luxe with a cheesy grin on her face. She is looking happier than she has in weeks – her complexion is glowing, her eyes are twinkling and even the small creases on her forehead seem to have smoothed out.
“Right,” Lady Luxe answers noncommittally, taking a sip from her Moroccan mint tea, and when that doesn't soothe her nerves, a long drag from her double apple shisha. Part of her silky black Hanayen sheila slips off her head and she rearranges it, making sure that her über slick, chestnut brown fringe remains intact and the studded Hanayen logo remains visible.
Since Leila embarked on a love affair with her older brother, Lady Luxe has decided to abandon her Jennifer persona until further notice. She simply cannot risk bumping (or grinding) into Mohammed again, and with Leila constantly trying to run into him, she is afraid that she may not have a choice. As realistic as her golden wig may be (or as stupid as her brother is), he is certainly astute enough to recognise his own sister should he come face to face with her in broad daylight – no matter what her disguise. And that is a predicament Lady Luxe plans to avoid like swine flu. Thus, she has been putting off meeting Leila with lame excuses such as work (as if that ever got in the way of play) and pretend family affairs.
Tonight, after relentless hounding from Leila, Lady Luxe has finally agreed to meet her as her original, abaya-clad self at QDs, the outdoor Lebanese restaurant at the Park Hyatt Hotel. Although relatively atmospheric, with its cosy, majlis-like tents strategically placed around the restaurant, the corny 80s classics that are squeaking through the quiet speakers are grating on Lady Luxe's nerves almost as much as Leila's incessant chattering. She has the sudden urge to jump aboard one of the yachts moored nearby and disappear into the horizon.
"But I haven’t done it with him yet, you know," Leila confides with a gleam in her eyes. "I'm going to hold out as long as possible, but it is so hard to resist when all I want to do when I see him is- "
"I'm surprised he hasn't forced you seeing as you threw yourself at him the first time you met him. He really is one of the good ones." Lady Luxe interrupts snidely, a sense of nausea rippling through her. This is exactly the kind of conversation she refuses to tolerate, and is one of the reasons why she has been trying to avoid meeting Leila. The second is that although bumping into Mohamed as herself is far better than meeting him as Jennifer, it is only the lesser of two evils. She is still hoping that luck will be on her side (she has given up begging God for favours after failing to deliver on her promise to become 'good' the last time He helped her out) and that her brother will become bored of his Lebanese Lover before she has a chance to join the dots and use Lady Luxe's secrets as a lifelong leverage.
Lady Luxe often wishes that she was an orphan. And not just any orphan either, but a siblingless orphan with no extended family, no little note tucked into her Moses basket explaining her origins and no identity other than the one she has created for herself.
The desire to run away to another country, change her name and adopt a whole new persona occasionally fades away though. She enjoys having a sweet, fun younger brother to play Wii Sports with. It also dies down on the rare instances her parents acknowledge her existence in a loving way – rather than just trying to control her or attempting to impart their (very different) beliefs on her. There are even times when she appreciates her last name as well. Whenever she has a little run in with the police, for example, she always drives home feeling relieved that she does not have to endure their law enforcing efforts in the same vain as ordinary people do.
Then there are moments when she can barely stomach her life, her family, her existence; when a newspaper implies that her success lies purely in her name, not her talent nor her hard work, or when her other brother decides to show his authority. With every slap, pinch or shove, her hatred towards him grows stronger, so much so that she has recently started to fantasise about adding cyanide to his tea. She finds it ironic how she loves the brother who is not even fully related to her and yet despises the one who is. That she is closer to the brother who attends the Jumeirah Islamic Learning Centre in his spare time than the one who shares the same pastimes as her.
And then there are the times when she returns to Dubai feeling cold, confused and lonely after another “bonding” session with her mother in London. Lady Luxe’s mother, whom she calls Isabel, doesn’t try to hide her distaste for all things Middle Eastern. After making the dreadful mistake of falling in love with an Emirati man in the '70s and sacrificing her home, her culture and her family in order to be his esteemed wife, she realised that she was expected to sacrifice her freedom as well. Her husband, when he was her boyfriend, was fun, easygoing and modern. He drank like a fish, traveled like a gypsy and swore like a sailor. Having boarded at Sandhurst in his youth, like most of his family, he went on to read PPE at Oxford. She was the cute, preppy Literature student notorious for her endless legs and her quick wit and he was the proverbial tall, dark and handsome foreigner with wads of cash and an open-topped Aston Martin.
She found his accent endearing, his quirky habits cute, and his jealousy sexy. He found her sarcasm funny, her temper cute, her tiny shorts sexy. They shortly became inseparable, spending hours together, smoking weed and listening to Bob Marley. They would talk about how much they despised social norms, their rigid, traditional families, the ugly glares on peoples’ faces when they realised that this pretty English rose was frolicking with a dark skinned Bedouin. All the while, their fingers and limbs entwined – a beautiful contrast of milk and honey, East meeting West.
Isabel thought it would be exciting to move to the UAE, to embark on a marriage rather than a career, to don an abaya over the shorts and become a ‘Muslim’. Her husband’s religiousness did not extend beyond Ramadan and she assumed he would not expect any more from her.
However, upon returning to his homeland with his not-so-blushing, definitely un-virgin bride, Isabel’s new in-laws erupted into pandemonium. They cried, screamed, threatened to die and spun lies, all in an attempt to break up the relationship. Their efforts only made the stubborn English girl try even harder to assimilate, to win over their hearts, to cling onto her husband.
They eventually conceded that he could remain married to his harlot so long as she respected her new religion and culture. She would not work, would no go out unaccompanied, would never leave the home without her face fully covered, would never do anything that could tarnish the family reputation. Oh, she would also have to be willing to share his body and heart with another wife – an Emirati wife – from a wealthy and prestigious family – if he still wanted his inheritance.
After some time, Isabel's sarcasm was no longer funny, it was rude. Her temper ceased being cute – it became disrespectful. And her tiny shorts were more shameless than sexy. Her husband's jealousy became unbearable, his quirky habits uncivilised and his accent irritating.
When his wife disappeared on a sticky, summer’s night with their newborn daughter, leaving behind not just her husband, but their first child as well, Lady Luxe’s father’s heart and pride were shattered. He tracked her down, took their daughter from her and then proceeded to marry the first woman his family suggested in order to soothe his nerves and placate his parents. They had one child together and he divorced her soon after, preferring the company of mistresses whom he didn’t have to endure on a regular basis.
Thus, the X family consists of an English woman who dislikes the Middle East, an Arab man who is detests the West, an innocent Emirati woman caught in the middle of a vicious feud and their children; a curious mix of two cultures and two women, desperately trying to juggle each aspect of their personality and their family, unable to fit in perfectly in either world.
“…and then I said, ‘no habibi, I want it to be special and your tree of desire will bear many fruits if you water it with some patience.’ And then he said, ‘my tree of desire is so big that I am afraid it will explode!’”
Snapping out of her dream like state, Lady Luxe tunes back into Leila’s droning with disgust.
“How cute,” she mutters, scowling. “Anyway! Did I tell you that my cousins are coming to town?”
“You’re interrupting my man story to talk about your cousins?” Leila asks, annoyed. “Either your sheila is heating your brain so much that you don’t know what you’re doing, or you’re insanely jealous and can't bear talking about my perfect man.”
“Jealous? Ha! Why would I be jealous?" Lady Luxe scoffs, raising an eyebrow.
“Quite simply, I have a man. And you don’t. And you feel threatened.” Leila leans back in her seat with her arms folded across her chest, her mouth in a pout and fire flashing in her eyes.
Lady Luxe looks back at her friend in distaste. No woman wearing tight white jeans and a tighter pink t-shirt should have that sort of contemptuous attitude. Leila has been dating her brother for five minures and she has already developed airs and graces. Imagine if she actually – God forbid – married him? She would be positively unbearable.
“Carry on deluding yourself, my dear. We both know exactly how this little union is going to end up, so please, spare me the details until you reach the inevitable conclusion.”
There is a pause while Leila processes what Lady Luxe has said, and when recognition comes, it doesn’t dawn on her slowly, but slaps her hard in the face. She gasps and holds a manicured hand to her mouth in shock.
“You really are a spiteful little bitch aren’t you!” she says, standing up abruptly. “If you don’t mind, I have to go and meet my boyfriend now. The one you’re jealous of. I bet you’re wishing you didn’t hand him over to me in the club now, aren’t you? Well it’s too late. Try and steal him from me and see what I do!”
With that, Leila stalks off, her three-inch shiny hot pink strappy sandals clattering away until she has disappeared from sight. When she can no longer hear her shoes or smell her strong perfume, Lady Luxe lets out a sigh, knowing that she has just made the situation worse. There is nothing like the threat of competition to make a woman cling onto her man even more. If Leila was only interested in having fun with Moe before, now she was determined to prove Lady Luxe wrong. She would no doubt pull out all the stops to ensnare him in her web.
*#&$^@&*!, Lady Luxe curses, feeling completely drained. She takes another long puff of her shisha and releases the smoke slowly out of her mouth, her mind tired from scheming. She wishes she could just go home, curl up in her pjs and completely be herself. She doesn’t want to have to constantly worry about someone who is supposed to be her friend, finding out her real identity. She is tired of having to worry about someone who is supposed to be her loving older brother, finding out her alter ego. She just wants to be her. No labels, no expectations, no demands.
But she can’t.
Instead, she has to go home, swap Lady Penelope for her
“Where the hell have you been?” A voice demands as she runs into the villa to change her shoes, her feet tired from being squeezed into a pair of black vampy Blahnik’s that she had bought a size too small due to them being the last pair left in Barney’s. She stops in her tracks and whips around to see Mohamed standing in the foyer, having just exited the kitchen.
“I was at QDs with my friend,” she answers quickly, flashing him a smile. Reluctant to start a fight just before she has to go out again, she decides it is better to remain polite and informative.
“Which friend?” Mohamed asks, leaning against the white wall, almost camouflaging into it with his pristine white candoura. She stares at him, wondering what Leila finds so attractive (aside the obvious monetary fascination).
“Leila.” she replies simply, watching his expression carefully for any hint of recognition. His face remains impassive.
"Where is she from?" he continues, his gaze unrelenting. She unconsciously fiddles with her scarf, wondering where the questions are leading.
"She's Lebanese. Is there a problem?" Although Lady Luxe's voice is steady, inside, she is beginning to feel queasy.
"Lebanese? You're befriending Lebanese women now are you? What a great way to portray our family name."
Lady Luxe is agog at his hypocrisy, and she forcibly bites her tongue.
"Is there anything else you would like to interrogate me about? I'm running late."
“Don't be impertinent or you won't go wherever it is that you're going at all. Didn’t Baba tell you to ask my permission before you go out in his absence?”
Lady Luxe feels her blood begin to boil and she breathes in slowly, trying to soothe her anger.
“Actually no,” she manages to say, her voice shaking and her mouth contorted into a grimace. “He told me to inform you of my whereabouts, which I did, this morning. I told you I was meeting a friend for dinner and I also told you that I have to go and collect Moza and Rowdha from the airport – which I would be happy to let you do yourself if my impertinence prevents you from allowing me to leave the house. I sincerely hope your important admin career doesn’t require you to pay much attention to detail.”
She spins around on her heels and begins walking up the stairs, her pulse thudding in her ears, wondering if her tenacity will go unacknowledged. Before she can even reach the fourth step, she feels Mohamed grab her hair from back, where it is wrapped around a flower clip, and yank it hard. Her head snaps backwards and water fills her eyes as the hair pulls at her scalp.
“Let go of me!” she gasps, trying to wriggle out of his grasp.
“Not until you apologise for being such a mouthy bitch,” he snarls, his grasp tightening, causing her to yelp in pain.
“Let go!” Lady Luxe can feel the skin on her neck stretching so much so that her throat constricts, and she wonders how far he is willing to go to get an apology out of her. She is too proud to let her knees buckle and knows she will never give in, not like this.
“Say sorry.” He says quietly, his eyes narrow and cold.
“Hammoudi! What are you doing!” Lady Luxe looks up to see Ahmed at the top of the stairs, staring down at his older sister struggling to breathe in horror.
"Teaching your sister some manners," Mohamed hisses. With one final yank, he lets go of her and shoves her away from him. She collapses on the stairs, her breath coming out in gasps, strands of her hair stuck to her sweaty face, her body heaving.
Without a word, she picks herself up, and knees trembling, walks up the stairs.
“Ukhti, are you okay?” Ahmed asks tentatively, reaching out to her. She brushes his hand away and walks into her room, slamming the door behind her. Leaning against it, she hears the muffled sounds of two brothers fighting – one for respect he has not earned and the other in defense of someone weaker.
Lady Luxe washes her face, dabs on a little moisturiser, sprays a little Miss Charming and then plasters a smile on her face. She checks her reflection. Her eyes are slightly bloodshot and her plain face looks young and vulnerable. Grabbing her handbag, she slips her feet into comfortable trainers, gathers her nerves for a moment and then walks out of her room.
The stairway is empty and she looks down at the hard, cold Italian marble, wondering what it would look like with splatters of red, of how it will feel if her head smashed against it. Because if Mohamed finds out about her other existence, about the amount of men she has slept with, about the fire she has played with, no doubt it will come to this.
Water fills her eyes again, but this time in fear, not pain. She can't let him find out. She can't.