Nadia is at work, pretending to write a report on the fluctuating oil prices in the Gulf. She has the right software open on her screen, her eyes are focused in the right direction and she is sitting with her back straight, her fingers carefully poised on the keyboard. For anyone observing her, she seems to be an intense, hard working woman who is deep in thought.
Intense and deep in thought she is, but hard working she is not, for her mind has been on every subject other than oil for the past four hours, and beneath the flitting thoughts, is an uneasy sense of guilt. Not because she is on the brink of leaving her husband, or because she is experiencing failure for the first time, but because last week, when she picked up the phone to call her mother, her fingers began dialing a different number altogether – one that has always been familiar to her.
“Hello?” he answered, his deep voice lilting slightly upwards at the second syllable. The familiarity of his voice together with the warmth in that single word brought instant tears to Nadia’s eyes. She opened her mouth to speak, but instead of words, sobs began to pour out. With her face soaked in tears, water dripping into her mouth, rolling down her jaw, she struggled to answer.
“Nadia? Is that you? What’s wrong?”
After months of battling through her problems alone, those simple words uttered by someone she knew genuinely cared for her, instilled a sense of peace into Nadia’s heart. She wiped her tears away on the sleeve of her worn long-sleeved jersey shirt and forced her breath to regulate.
“I don’t know what to do,” she finally whispered. Leaning back against the soft sofa with her knees drawn to her chest, she clutched on to the phone as if it were his hand, and closed her eyes, remembering his scent - pine trees mixed with cinnamon. It was an odd combination but one that reminded her of her youth in Qatar; playing knock-down-ginger in their compound in Doha, dancing to Michael Jackson mix tapes and her very first kiss. It had been over a year since they last spoke, her union with Daniel encouraging her to steer clear of her first love - just to be on the safe side. But now, the barrier she had hastily built between them to protect herself, her husband and her marriage, had a self-inflicted crack in it.
Nadia was just ten years-old when her father, a treasured computer engineer in the days when IBM was still the king of the industry, got a job in Doha and persuaded his wife to join him on an Arabian Adventure. Nadia's mother weighed her choices – raising her three daughters in a two bedroom flat in London Bridge or an eight bedroom villa in Qatar. Like any woman who had always dreamt of a beautiful family and a comfortable life, she agreed and quickly found herself living the proverbial over-indulged expatriate life.
They assimilated into compound life easily; discos on Wednesday nights, potlucks on Thursdays, picnics on Fridays, pool parties, sailing trips, glitzy malls. Their life was so very different from the one they left behind in London. The cloudy skies were replaced with painfully bright ones, the long queues at the Post Office, waiting to cash child benefit vouchers were a thing of the past, and there was no more struggling on the Underground or lugging prams onto buses. There were drivers and maids to contend with all that. It was easy to fall in love with life in the Gulf.
And it was easy to fall in love with Yusuf as well.
The only other Moroccan family in the compound, Yusuf and his younger brother Tahir spent hours with Nadia and Yasmine, riding their shiny bicycles the days the weather was mild and playing cards whilst lying on the cold, tiled floors in their homes when it was too hot to venture outside. Everyone always joked that Yusuf would end up with Nadia, that Tahir would end up with Yasmine, that they were perfect for each other.
But perfection only lasted during their unsuspecting teenage years, when their biggest difference was their taste in movies. When Nadia's parents separated and her mother moved back to the UK with the girls, Nadia lost not only her father, but the first boy who stirred her stomach, who caused a flush in her pale cheeks. The first boy who made her cry in secret when he danced with another girl on a Wednesday night.
The evening before she was forced to close a beautiful chapter in her life, Yusuf pressed his soft, inexperienced lips against hers and swore that he would come for her as soon as he could.
In his defense, his promise lasted as long as his fidelity. They sustained their pubescent love through composing long, badly written love letters, creating mix tapes for each other, listening to Richard Marx's 'Right Here Waiting' over and over again.
Then Yusuf's family moved back to the US. The more immersed he became with his new life, the more he lost what attracted Nadia to him in the first place – the sweetness, the innocence, the faithfulness. He stopped praying, started drinking, began catching up for all the time he had lost whilst living in a religious state. He had less and less time for the girl waiting for him on the other side of the Atlantic. Like two pieces of driftwood in the ocean, they floated further and further away from each other. Their breakup was an unspoken, mutual understanding that neither needed to articulate. They just knew.
They remained friends though. As friendly as two people with nothing but a shared history in common, who live on different parts of the globe, can be. Every so often, Yusuf would break down and beg Nadia to wait for him, every so often, Nadia would relent and accept his clumsy, confused love back into her life. She met other guys during her time at University but somehow always found herself back with Yusuf in the end. Until she met Daniel, during her Masters, who showed her what love was supposed to be like - two people on a journey to the same end, a relationship thriving on respect and understanding.
Nadia and Daniel got engaged. Yusuf, who heard the news from his brother before he heard it from Nadia, was devastated.
"You were supposed to wait for me!" he said when she answered his call at two in the morning, his voice cracking, his throat hoarse.
"Wait for what? For you to sow your wild oats? To stop having fun at Uni? To stop the parties, the clubs, the drinking?"
That was the last time they spoke, almost two years ago. But when Nadia called him last week, all their differences seemed irrelevant, and deep beneath his cynicism and her pain, they were still Nadia and Yusuf, the picture-perfect, young lovers.
They spoke for almost five hours. At first, about Nadia's problems, then about Yusuf's own issues – his white American girlfriend who didn’t understand him, his inability to balance both his cultures, his sense of displacement. They joked about setting his girlfriend up with Daniel. They analysed the steps they had taken that lead them to their respective disillusioned positions, what they could have done to avoid all the heartache. The conversation was like a glass of ice cold water –clear and fresh, and Nadia drank it all, like a traveler stumbling across a desert oasis. Until, during a moment of comfortable silence, Yusuf mused;
"Why didn’t we end up together, Nadia? You know we were always meant to be with each other. You know I'll always love you."
The glass of water ended up on Nadia's face, snapping her out of her dreamlike state. She was married. Yes, to a cheating bastard, but that didn’t give her the right to stoop to his level. That didn’t mean she wanted another man professing his love for her. Bidding Yusuf a hasty farewell, she hung up, her hands shaking.
As if her life wasn't confusing enough, without adding Yusuf, his feelings and their joint baggage to the equation.
Pressing that little red button may have ended their conversation, but it didn’t stop her from constantly wondering about Yusuf, if she had made a mistake in letting him go, if he would still want her after her relationship with Daniel came to an inevitable end. If he had grown into the man she always hoped he would be. His messages to her have only succeeded in confusing her further.
Maybe all this happened so we could end up together the way we were supposed to, he wrote to her that morning. This time I'll wait for you, like I wanted you to wait for me.
She had wanted to wait for him, and she had waited, all those years. But with every year that passed, another part of him changed, until he became virtually unrecognizable. Almost everything she ever loved about him faded away, and although a piece of her heart would always be with the first man who took it, she had doubted that they had a future together.
Was she wrong?
Now, she is sitting at her neat desk at work, trying her best not to make eye-contact with anyone. She doesn’t want to have to partake in small talk or fake smiles with any of her colleagues today. She doesn’t want anyone asking her how she is (shit), what did over the weekend (lament) or what she’s doing that evening (meeting Sugar to bitch about Daniel and perhaps confess about Yusuf).
When six ‘o’ clock finally arrives, Nadia drags her body out of her seat, hoists her handbag onto her shoulder and begins the short walk home. She used to be fit, nimble and athletic but recent events have taken a toll on her body and her energy. Now, the short walk home from Internet City is a burden. Her bag feels too heavy and cumbersome. Her legs feel lethargic and stiff.
Daniel is already home when Nadia walks up the three flights of stairs to their apartment and lets herself in. He is watching TV and completely ignores her as she quietly enters the apartment. She used to feel a burst of warmth whenever she’d come home to her husband, but now, their brief encounters give her the chills. She doesn’t say anything to him, just walks through the living room to her bedroom (it has ceased being ‘their’ room) and closes the door softly behind her. She leans against it, takes a deep breath, and then begins getting ready to meet Sugar.
She’s not in the mood to dress up, to make an effort to appear normal, but the TV sounds coming from the other side of the door are annoying her. She hates the way Daniel just sits there acting as if he has done nothing wrong. She hates the way he ignores her as if she isn’t there. But most of all, she hates that he doesn’t seem to care that their relationship has crumbled away, that he is unperturbed by the fact that he has not exchanged a single pleasantry with his wife for a week.
Suddenly, her desire to leave the house in tattered jeans and a frayed sweatshirt is replaced with an urge to make him know exactly what he’s missing out on. She steps under the shower and uses as many scented products as she can, knowing that he has a weakness for beautiful fragrances. When she emerges ten minutes later, she smoothes lavender moisturizer over her entire body then slips into a dark purple silk maxi dress. She evens her face out with foundation and then blends purple and black eyeshadow onto her lids, giving them a sexy, smoky look. Highlighting her cheeks with MAC’s ‘Flirt and Tease’ and then applying lipgloss to her pout, she sprays herself with ‘Very Sexy’ and then leaves the room, pretending to look for something in her handbag which lay on the living room floor.
“Are you going out like that? Without hijab?” Daniel asks incredulously as she rummages around in her handbag, taking out various bits and pieces as she feigns looking for her ipod. She smiles to herself, half tempted to do it just to piss him off.
“Have you seen my ipod?” she asks innocently, knowing that it is in the bedroom.
“No I haven’t. Are you going to go out like that?” he asks again. This time Nadia stops and looks at his face for the first time all week. He actually looks tired. There are grey circles around his slightly bloodshot eyes and stubble is beginning to show on his chin. So now he cares about her whereabouts. She feels a sense of accomplishment as she throws him a pitiful glance.
“What? Don’t be silly, of course not,” she answers airily, brushing past him to check the bookshelves by the dining table, leaving the ‘Very Sexy’ scent behind. She hears him inhale, and feels contempt. She couldn’t make him want her when she was in bed naked, but now, a bit of perfume and cleavage was driving him wild. He just didn’t have a clue what he wanted or needed. She gives up pretending to look for her ipod and stalks past him again. As she puts on her shrug to cover her bare arms, and covers her hair and cleavage with a bronze scarf, she feels as if she finally may have the upper hand in this battle. She spotted at least ten empty packets of instant noodles in the kitchen bin. Daniel’s salary is too small for him to eat out regularly, but since Nadia is not cooking for him, he has been preparing nothing but cheap, easy meals. His little internet lover must have returned to the US so he isn’t getting any action in the bedroom either. Right about now, he must be realizing how good he actually had it with Nadia.
Good, she thinks to herself, slipping her feet into bronze heels. She leaves the room and grabs her bag from where she left it in the living room.
“So where are you going?” Daniel asks, just before she exits the apartment.
“Out,” she retorts, slamming the door behind her and feeling a little thrill of excitement. At last, he knows what it feels like to be unwanted.
Sugar collects Nadia from outside the apartment building in her rented Toyota and the two of them make their way down to the Marina, where they have dinner at the Lebanese restaurant and ignore the stares they are getting from all the Arab guys in the surrounding tables. She decides against telling Sugar about Yusuf, but instead, explains the anger, frustration and worthlessness Daniel is making her feel.
“You need to leave him,” Sugar states simply. "Leaving him isn't giving up. It's realising your self-worth".
Deep down, Nadia knows that she probably does. But she can’t bear to acknowledge that the Daniel she married has metamorphosed into the Cheating Daniel. She doesn’t want to join the long list of divorcees in her family, to openly declare that her marriage has failed. She keeps hoping that he will suddenly revert back to the Daniel she fell in love with, that she will wake up from this nightmare and realize that none of it actually happened.
Nadia doesn’t know how to articulate everything she feels simultaneously, so she doesn’t say anything at all.
* * *
She quietly enters her apartment at 1am, feeling exhausted and regretting the amount of makeup she piled on. It will take her ages to wipe it all off. She feels embarrassed to admit that she actually enjoyed the lingering gazes of the men that caught sight of her. It had been so long since she felt desired or sexy that she relished the attention poured on her.
The word comes as a shock to Nadia, who is fumbling around for the light switch in the dark. She jumps, letting go of her bag.
"What the hell, Daniel! What's your problem?" she gasps, finally finding the switch and turning the light on. Daniel is sitting on the sofa, staring at her with an expression she has never seen before. She feels conscious under his gaze, and fiddles with her scarf nervously, wondering why her heart has suddenly started to pound.
"My wife, whilst perching on a ridiculously high horse, has been secretly having an affair with some guy called Yusuf. That's my problem."
Nadia stares at Daniel, aghast at the accusation. She then spots her phone in his fist, and realizes that during her big 'where's my ipod' parade, she had emptied the contents of her bag and left her phone for him to go through.
"You should be so lucky," she spits out, disgusted. "You wish I’m having an affair, so you can justify your actions to yourself. Sorry to disappoint you Daniel, but I most certainly am not. Now give me my phone back."
She stalks over to him and attempts to snatch her phone. He moves his hand away and grabs her wrist, pulling her towards him.
"Don't lie. It's all here!" he says, anger in his eyes. "I read all your messages. Yusuf, huh? I never would have taken you for a cheat."
"And I never would have taken you for a promiscuous bastard either but hey, we learn something new everyday. Now let go of my wrist."
"Tell me who Yusuf is."
"I don’t owe you anything. Let go."
Nadia is unwilling to explain herself to the man who has stalked her friends, indulged in pornography and embarked on a sordid affair with his ex-lover. And then lied about it all. She cannot believe his audacity in questioning her over innocent messages after all he has done. She struggles in his grasp, wondering why the idea of her with another man – which, incidentally, was something he suggested before – is bothering him so much,
"Tell me!" He pulls her arm and she falls onto his lap. She sits there for a moment, the physical contact paralyzing her. Butterflies start buzzing in her stomach and she doesn’t know whether to feel disgusted for allowing herself to be effected by him after all that he has done, or feel repelled by their proximity to one another. She feels neither. Instead, she feels a glimmer of hope light up inside her heart. Before she has a chance to hoist herself off his lap though, he leans forward and presses his cold lips onto hers.
"Don't leave me," he murmurs, pulling away for a second and then kissing her again, this time longer. His words electrocute Nadia, who has been waiting for a sign of remorse from Daniel for so long, waiting for a reason to keep trying with him. She melts against his body. He stands up with her still in his arms, and carries her to the bedroom, where he gently places her on the bed and begins unwrapping her hijab.
It is almost like their wedding night, all over again.
But this time, Nadia feels fear and nausea. She cannot believe that she is allowing herself to be caressed by a man who has caused her so much agony but she is fearful that this could potentially be the last time they have each other. She doesn’t stop him though. She sinks back onto the sheets and tells herself to relax, to let tonight be okay and worry about the repercussions tomorrow.
However, as he plants gentle kisses on her neck, she can't help but wonder what it would feel like if Yusuf were in his place.