Leila dashes out of her apartment, teetering in her pink, patent 5 inch Louboutins and slams her front door closed without locking it. She wiggles over to the lift and grins as she looks down at her fabulous new shoes with delight, like a fat kid who's just been handed a massive ice-cream. It has been two glorious weeks since the incident she refuses to speak of, and it has possibly been the best two weeks of her life.
In the last fourteen days, Leila has been to dinner with Moe six times and each time, the bill has come to more than a thousand dirhams. The very first time, it was close to three thousand, the same amount that Leila budgets for her monthly glam expenditure – for manicures, blow dries, occasional shopping and dining out. They have been clubbing twice, during which they lounged at a VIP table, sipping on Dom and making small talk without actually dancing. Just like Leila imagines celebrities to do. They have been to the cinema once (Gold Class of course, where they spent more time canoodling on the reclining leather seats than watching the movie), they have gone for shisha and coffee a couple of times (Leila enjoys making subtle innuendos with the shisha pipe and her lips) and shopping twice. During these shopping trips, whatever Leila 'oohed' over (just clothes and accessories thus far, it's too soon to peer through Damas' sparkly windows) miraculously appeared at her apartment the next day by an express courier. She was in heaven.
"Habibti, weinich enti?" Moe growls down the phone as she exits the building and fumbles around in her new white Chanel quilted bag for her keys – the same one that Lady Luxe has in three colours and that ordinary people have to wait in line for. His voice is smooth and deep, and she feels a little shiver tickle her spine, though she is unsure if it is his voice or the calfskin bag that is having that effect. She can't believe her good fortune. Not only is Moe attentive, sweet and generous, he is also chivalrous. He opens doors for her, refuses to let her spend a single fil when they are together and always makes sure that she reaches home safely. Of course, Leila is not completely delusional, and knows that a major part of his fascination with her stems from his desire to peel away her expensive clothes and go where she has implied that no man has been before. She knows that once he has had her, his fascination with his Lebanese 'virgin' will disappear like a sweet dream in the morning and she will be left feeling cold, empty and alone. As usual.
Thus, she is determined to make the most of her time with him while she can. She knows that their days are numbered, despite her silly denial to Lady Luxe, and she is angry that her bitchy 'friend' forced her into declaring that her relationship with the handsome Emirati was more than a temporary, mutually beneficial affair – glamorous evenings out and pretty gifts for her, an exciting build up to a deflowering ritual for him. She knows perfectly well that there is nothing more to it. That they have no future together. She knows that for him, she is just another conquest to be caught, another notch on the bedpost. But she wishes she wasn't.
"I've just left my apartment," Leila replies checking her reflection in the building's glass door approvingly. She is wearing a white chiffon dress with bronze embroidery from the boho boutique, Antik Batik, that she had borrowed a long time ago from Lady Luxe and accidentally-on-purpose forgot to return. At first glance, she appears to be modestly dressed; the kaftan has long sleeves, it is loose and it falls just above her knees. But on closer inspection (and no doubt Moe will be analyzing her every move), it transpires that her dress is the tiniest bit transparent, that the neckline occasionally slips, displaying a smooth, tanned shoulder and a pale pink bra strap . She has pinned her hair up, but has left loose tendrils framing her face, begging to be tucked behind her ears and her makeup is subtle, giving the illusion that she isn't wearing any at all. In actual fact, she is wearing most of MAC on her face: primer, concealer, tinted moisturizer, a brief brushing of studio fix, bronzer, a tiny dab of gold pigment on her eyelids, brown mascara, a little bit of brown eyeliner to define her eyes, eyebrow pencil to bring out her otherwise non-existent eyebrows and her favourite lip plumping gloss – Sexy MotherPucker. The result of her entire look seems completely natural and effortless, not the outcome of six outfit changes, an hour's worth of careful makeup application and another hour of hair styling. Perfect for an afternoon wandering around JBR, browsing through the designer boutiques and sipping coffee at an Italian café by the beach.
"Yalla, hurry. I miss you." Moe says, and Leila hangs up, putting on her new Prada sunglasses. She makes sure that she is always the first to hang up, that she never calls him first, only returns calls if she absolutely has to and she often lets him call twice before she actually answers. She also ensures that she never agrees to meet him until she has checked her schedule, after which she feigns unavailability and offers an alternative after some probing.
The games she is forced to play to maintain his interest in her are physically and mentally exhausting. As she drives out of Discovery Gardens and joins Sheikh Zayed Road, she feels an unexpected urge to just let down her hair and be herself. She wants to wear denim cut-offs and an old t-shirt. She wants to run a comb through her hair before pulling it into a haphazard ponytail. She wants to call her boyfriend whenever she gets the urge to hear his voice, to answer with a huge smile when he calls her, wants to send him cute messages telling him she's missing him. She wants to curl up in bed with him and fall asleep in his arms, to drop the façade, to stop constantly watching her words, her actions, her expressions and just be herself. Leila Saade. Not Leila the Lebanese Temptress.
But she can't. Because the last time she did, the time she actually thought what was happening went beyond the surface, she found out the hard way that it was not. That the Leila with no makeup, no barriers, no inhibitions, simply wasn't what he wanted. It was too real for him. And now, she is afraid that it is what no one wants.
Fahd was the first Emirati she had dated and everything Leila envisioned for herself when she moved to Dubai. He was the epitome of perfection; kind, generous, good natured and funny. He gave her time and affection, and in return, after a very short dating streak, she gave him all of her.
One night, after she caught him flirting with another girl when she surprised him at work, jealousy bloomed within her like a thorny rose and she threw the biggest tantrum of her life. She screamed until her throat became hoarse, until makeup ran down her face like a dirty, muddy stream, mixing with the water seeping out of her nose. She cried until she began to hiccup, accusing him of cheating on her, playing with her emotions, pretending to love her. She pushed him out of her apartment and told him never to call her again. Like most fights between lovers, she never meant a word of it. She expected him to come straight back. After all, only the day before, she had made him all his favourite Lebanese dishes – tabbouleh, sambousek, kibbeh, bamia, which they ate before making love on the dining room table whilst clearing up. For the first time.
"I love you," he had said the next morning, after they fell asleep on the living room rug, completely naked, limbs entangled, their skin a contrast of white and gold. He traced his finger tips over her bare stomach, as light as a cloud resting on a mountain, and watched the goose bumps form on her smooth skin. "I love you, Leila. Every part of you. Even that fart you did last night."
"Shutup, hmar," she replied, turning pink with embarrassment, her heart bursting with love.
"I said I loved it!" he laughed, trying to pin her down on the floor and she pretended to struggle as she stared into his baby face, his huge, dark eyes, his beautiful smile. Her entire being full of love, happiness and hope, she suddenly softened, wrapping her legs around him and pulling him closer to her, letting go of all her barriers once again.
That very same evening, they had their first major fight but after she had forced him to leave and when she had finally calmed down, she waited for him to call. To apologise. To send flowers. To beg her to take him back.
But he didn’t.
An hour turned into a day, a day turned into a week, and eventually, Leila swallowed her diminishing pride and called him. With complete indifference, Fahd told her that he was engaged, to his 17 year-old virginal cousin. She dropped the phone as if it had scalded her and stumbled into the bathroom, where she retched into the sink. Nothing but acid came up and she clutched on to the sides for support. Her purple toothbrush sat in the holder next to his green one. Shaving foam sat beside her deodorant. She eventually let go of the basin and fell to the floor, silent tears pouring down her face as all her dreams, all her plans for the future, disappeared into the night sky. Along with her naivety. The 23 year-old Leila had finally grown up.
Leila pulls into JBR (or Jumeirah Beach Residence to newbies) and parks awkwardly in the large car park by the ocean between two imposing 4x4s, feeling unnerved by her memories of Fahd. She shakes him out of her mind, and focuses on her surroundings instead.
JBR is buzzing as always. The car park is packed full of Hummers and Corvettes, the occasional Lamborghini and Ferrari providing tourists with glamorous holiday photos. The walkway is full of people; mothers pushing strollers, lovers holding hands, teenage girls in tiny summer dresses, showing off their lean, golden limbs. Students are sat at tables with their laptops, families are browsing through the market stalls. It is just as the developers envisioned it to be – a vibrant, family-friendly promenade, parallel to the ocean, where people can relax, dine and shop whilst absorbing the fresh sea air and basking in the sun. Leila can't believe that just three years ago, the entire Marina area was a ghost town, nothing but a construction site within sparse expanses of empty desert, and now, it is one of the most happening locations in Dubai. The forty odd sand coloured premier apartment blocks in JBR blend into the scenery like mountains, and if Leila could, she would rent a one bedroom apartment in one of them. The rental price however, is at least twice as much as what she is paying in Discovery Gardens, and regardless of how much she would enjoy having an ocean view from her bedroom window, she enjoys saving money even more.
She spots Moe sitting at an outdoor table at Paul's, and to her dismay, sees that he is with a friend. So much for a romantic evening. Pasting a smile on her face, she saunters up to the table and greets them both breezily, allowing them to stand up to return her 'marhaba'. Moe pulls a chair out for her and she sits down, smiling sweetly at him, irritation clawing at her insides. He could have at least told her that he would be bringing someone.
Moe is wearing a white candoura and white gutra. With his Ray Ban aviators, he looks young, trendy and sexy, and his good looks melt away the iciness Leila felt upon seeing his friend. For once, she is actually happy to be seen with her date. She usually has to persuade herself that it is wallet size, not looks, that matters. She has dated fat men, old men, balding men, ugly men, smelly men, obnoxious men and even short men, all in the pursuit of monetary satisfaction.
"After all, they're all the same when the lights are down," Naila, her Russian friend had once said. And Leila half-heartedly agreed, secretly hoping that she would find a man who owned both a Ferrari and a small nose.
"You look beautiful as always, my angel," Moe declares gallantly, taking her hand in his. "Leila, I'd like to introduce to my good friend, Humaid. Humaid, this is my… Leila."
"Nice to meet you," Leila says, acknowledging Moe's inability to refer to her as his girlfriend and looking Humaid up and down. He too is in a candoura, a dark brown one, with a beige guttra messily wrapped around his head. His complexion is a lot darker than Moe's, and bits of curly hair poke out from beneath the head wrap. He isn't ugly and could be considered to be attractive had he been sitting next to someone lesser. There is something familiar about the glint in his eyes and she feels as if she has seen him somewhere. Nervousness buzzes in her stomach. Please don’t let him be someone I've hit on before.
"Actually, we've already met," Humaid answers with a knowing smile. Leila's own smile falters as she struggles to remember where. "At the club, remember? We danced together before you decided to go for Moe instead".
Recognition finally dawns on Leila, but Humaid continues talking good-naturedly. "…And you don’t know how much I regret letting you go that night!" He winks at her and both he and Moe start laughing, their guffaws causing her to turn red with anger, shame and regret.
"Now, now, don't insult my girl," Moe chastises vaguely, getting up to answer a call on his Blackberry and leaving Leila to fend for herself.
"Humaid, as lovely as you are, you are clearly not in the same category as my dear Hammoudi, so there's no way you would have gotten anything that night." Leila hisses scathingly, giving him a look so evil that it would have made a weaker man shrivel up in fear. Humaid, however, simply laughs. She gives Moe's back the same look and contemplates creating voodoo dolls for them both. She cannot believe that Mohamed has completely ruined their so-called 'romantic' Friday afternoon by inviting his buffoon of a friend.
"If you say so, habibti," he replies sarcastically. "As it happens, I'm actually more interested in your friend than the favours you bestow on mine. The sexy Syrian girl with the long blonde hair and breathtaking dance moves that was with you that night. She hasn’t returned a single one of my calls and I'm getting impatient."
Although Leila is thankful that the spotlight is finally off her and the 'favour' he is referring to, she cannot believe that once again, a man has sought her company only to enquire after Lady Luxe.
"Perhaps you should take the hint then," she says, raising a perfectly drawn on eyebrow, willing Moe to come back to her and rescue her from his evil friend.
"If she didn’t want me to call, she wouldn’t have given me her number. She's just playing hard to get. Why is it that you Arab girls make things so difficult for us?"
"Difficult how?" Leila asks, biding time. He has a point. Why did Lady Luxe give her number to him if she didn’t want to speak to him? No doubt it had something to do with another one of those complicated games she liked to play. If their relationship was as it used to be, Leila would have excused herself and then called her friend, warning her of the situation that was brewing. But after the way she scoffed at her relationship with Moe, Leila is convinced that Lady Luxe regrets handing over him to her and wants a slice of Expensive Emirati Pie for herself. This is treachery beyond Leila's limited tolerance threshold, and she decides that an ad-hoc response to Humaid's questions is ample payback.
"It's the games you play!" Humaid exclaims earnestly. You want us to chase you based on the subtlest of signals. Why can't you just be clear and tell us yes or no? Why do your 'no's actually mean 'yes but I can't tell you for fear of looking too easy?'' "
"Well maybe it's because you actually like playing games. If a girl reciprocated your interest, how long would you remain interested?" Leila answers uncharacteristically articulately, folding her arms across her chest in defiance. The nerve of the man, accusing all Arab girls (including her, no doubt) of playing games when clearly he reveled in the excitement of the chase.
"Well your Syrian friend was definitely interested," Humaid says confidently. "Have you forgotten the way she practically snatched me away from you? And not only did she give me her number, but she took my hat! Right off my head! How many more signs do I need? I love Syrian girls! They're so original and...classy. They're not easy like you Lebanese."
Leila holds back a snort, unsure whether to be further aggravated by his comparing her to her more traditional neighbor, or thrilled that she has the upper-hand over him.
"Sorry to burst your bubble habibi, but your Sophisticated Syrian is actually an Enigmatic Emirati," she says snidely, putting both Humaid and Lady Luxe in their places in one, swift move. Check.
"What?" Humaid is shocked, and the strange look on his face makes Leila regret the words that maliciously poured out of her. She shifts around in her seat, unsure of what to say next.
"My apologies for that long phone call, it was actually my father." Moe reappears at the table and sits down, squeezing Leila's hand as he does. She almost weeps in relief, hoping that Humaid won't continue the conversation in his presence. She squeezes his hand back.
"Ahlan," she says goofily, the nerves in her stomach beginning to relax in his presence, his delectable looks adding to her sense of peace. In Leila's eyes, Moe is practically perfect. His eyes are rimmed with thick eyelashes, his nose is nothing like the typical Emirati nose (it is straight for one thing) and his jaw is strong, hidden by a very slight beard that adds to his masculinity.
"I'm not being a very good host tonight am I, habibti?" he continues, smiling warmly at her. "I'll make it up to you, don't worry. What have you been talking about?"
"Oh noth-" Leila begins, leaning forward and staring into Moe's deep eyes, trying to focus on him and forget about his annoying friend.
"Apparently Leila's Syrian friend isn't Syrian but Emirati!" Humaid interrupts. "The nerve of the girl! Pretending to be Syrian like that! She even spoke in the Syrian dialect. Don’t tell me the blonde hair isn't real?"
"Of course it is. She dyes it that's all," Leila answers quickly, panicking and sitting up straight. She lets go of Moe's hand, glancing at him to gage his reaction.
He tuts, shaking his head in disapproval.
"Emirati girls these days are a disgrace," he declares righteously. "She is obviously of very poor breeding. No girl from a good family would behave like that."
Leila looks down in humiliation, aware of the unintentional implication. "Well anyway, she's not interested," she says, trying to repair the damage she has caused. "She's really not that bad. She doesn’t date guys. She just likes to have fun." There is a short pause whilst the two khaleeji men comprehend what Leila has said, and she relishes the silence, hoping that the conclusion will be to drop the subject like a hot falafel.
"Make her interested," Humaid says quietly, a steely note in his voice. Check. There went the queen.
"How am I supposed to do that?!" Leila squeaks, the colour disappearing from her face.
"Tell her that I know she's Emirati and I know her phone number. It won't take that long for me to find out who her father is. Tell her to spare me the hassle. And tell her that I don’t like girls who play games."
Leila looks over at Mohamed for help, but he is uninterested, pressing buttons on his BB instead of paying attention to her.
"Humaid, she really isn’t that pretty in the light," she says nervously, desperately clutching at straws. "Just forget about her and move on. A good looking guy like you can get any girl, so what's the point of chasing after one who won't give you the time of day?"
Humaid doesn’t answer. Instead, he looks over at the uncomfortable Leila who is fidgeting in her seat quizzically. He wonders if she has feelings for him, and is jealous of his interest in her friend. He smiles to himself, his chest swelling with pride.
"Khalas, we'll talk about it later," he says reassuringly, grinning at her. Leila lets out a conspicuous sigh, glad that the chess match is over but oblivious to the reason why Humaid has temporarily stopped hounding her. Her heart resumes pumping blood around her body. She is certain that he will forget about Lady Luxe as soon as another reasonably attractive female pays him an iota of attention.
"Anyway, it was lovely seeing you again Leila. You are just as beautiful in the sunlight as you were under strobe lights. I'll be in touch! Yalla Hammoudi, nshofak bokra. Bye!"
Leila watches Humaid's back as he strolls away and finally stops tapping her feet, which she had unconsciously been doing the entire time he was there. She glances over at Moe who is still playing on his Blackberry and frowns. He looks up and notices the annoyance on her otherwise pretty face, which she doesn’t bother to disguise. Feeling sticky, irritated and stressed, Leila has had enough for one afternoon and now wants nothing more than to go just go back home and work off her aggravation in the gym. Her romantic date – the one that she spent more than two hours preparing from has been more like a police investigation and she is tired of feeling like a criminal.
"Sorry, I'll just be a minute. I'm arranging a few important matters with my father," he says apologetically.
"You know what? You carry on doing that. I'm sorry for getting in the way of your important business. I'll see you later," Leila gathers up her belongings but Mohamed places a hand on her arm to stop her as his phone rings.
"Yes Baba," he says to his Blackberry, pleading at Leila with his eyes to have patience. "No, I didn’t have a chance to talk to him about it again today but we'll schedule something for next week, earlier perhaps. I'll let you know. Salaam."
He hangs up and takes Leila's tiny hands in his, almost swallowing them up completely. Still annoyed, she looks away and takes a deep breath. If she was planning on marrying him, she would have shown more patience but as she knew that their relationship would die out in a few more weeks, she didn’t see the point of acting like an angel. Sure, she didn’t mind pretending to be innocent or uninterested, but that was it. He had to know that her time was valuable and no man, no matter how rich, had the right to waste it unless he was planning on putting a ring on her finger.
"Habibti don’t be angry," Mohamed implores, stroking her face. She stiffens, hoping that he is not ruining her makeup and he assumes her reaction is because she is still annoyed that he is not paying her enough attention.
"I'm not angry."
"Yes you are, and I deserve it. It's just a little family thing I have to contend with."
At the mention of the word 'family', Leila's ears prick up. Moe, like most Emiratis dating illicitly, has been extremely secretive about his family. She still doesn’t know his last name, where he lives or what his father does and is gagging to know more about her mystery man other than his first name (which he shares with at least 70% of the entire male Emirati population).
"Like what? What is more important than me?" she demands to know, exaggerating slightly, excited at the prospect of knowing more about his personal life.
"Well, my father wants me to find a suitor for my sister," he says, gesturing for the waiter and ordering another coffee. Leila leads forward in anticipation, like an eager student and almost wishes she could take notes.
"And?" she says impatiently as soon as the waiter leaves.
"And I'm thinking of introducing Humaid to her. Purely in a professional setting of course."
"What a fantastic idea!" Leila exclaims with a broad grin on her face. If Humaid is introduced to Mohamed's sister, perhaps then he'd stop pining after Lady Luxe and she wouldn’t have to worry about incurring her wrath after blurting out some of her secrets.
"Really? Do you think so? What did you think of Humaid?" Mohamed asks.
"I thought he was very intelligent and charismatic," Leila lies smoothly, reaching out to brush a strand of hair out of her face and then tingling at Moe's touch as he stops her hand and does it for her.
"Hmm… I don’t know how serious he is though. He certainly likes his women, but then, we all do don’t we? I don’t expect any man who marries my sister to be content with just her. Marriages need mistresses to keep them fresh."
"Oh yes, I agree," Leila nods dishonestly. After all, I won't be the wife who has to worry about your affairs. In fact, I will probably be the mistress.
"You do? That's refreshing." Moe looks at Leila with newfound respect, a smile playing on his lips.
"Well, marriage is a very boring institution don't you think? No man can ever be satisfied with one woman and accepting this fact is healthier for all parties involved." Leila is astounded at how quickly the lies pour out of her mouth, anxious to continue persuading Mohamed to allow Humaid to meet his sister. And hopefully forget about her friend and then save her back in the process.
"I agree wholeheartedly," Mohamed says with genuine enthusiasm. "Though I doubt my sister agrees."
"Why? What is she like?"
"Very… fiery," he answers, stroking his beard thoughtfully. "She's very intelligent, slightly arrogant and extremely rude. She needs someone who is able to control her and keep her in line. I think Humaid would be able to do that adequately. And he is, of course, from a good family so they may be a good match. My father seems to think so anyway. He thinks she's becoming far too independent so we're planning a meeting between them soon."
"Will your sister agree?" Leila asks curiously.
"Oh yes, if my father tells her to, she will have to. She will have no choice."
Leila grins happily, leans forward and gives Mohamed an unexpected quick kiss on his cheek. She is thrilled that she has managed to salvage the situation between Humaid and Lady Luxe and learn more about his family in the process. She really is more sly than Lady Luxe gives her credit for.
"But anyway, in case things don’t work out… After all, he may not even like her…He needs something to keep his mind busy," Moe continues, his eyebrows knitted together. "Ensure that your friend is willing to cater to his needs."
"What?" Leila's grin freezes on her face.
"Yes. This Emirati friend of yours needs to be taught a lesson. She can't just dance with a man in such a provocative way, give him her number and steal his hat without expecting to give anything in return. I can't stand teases. She needs to know that there is a price for everything."
"There is?" Leila squeaks, her voice almost inaudible.
"Yes. There is. Nothing in life comes for free, my dear Leila. Yes, the matter is solved. Humaid will meet my sister soon, in the next couple of days anyway, and he will meet your friend soon after. He really is a good friend of mine and if he is to be in my family, I want him to be happy. I trust you understand how important it is that you arrange that?"
Mohamed looks over at Leila, and her breath gets caught in her throat as their eyes connect. She notices something beneath the apparent warmth that she never paid much attention to before. Ice.
"By the way habibti, I forgot to mention how marvelous your handbag is. Simply divine! It wasn't easy to get hold of it without waiting on that ridiculous list though."
Leila looks down at her pristine white handbag and her toes curl in fear inside her new Louboutins.
"Thanks," she manages to whisper, a wobbly smile on her face.