Leila is in the middle of a beautiful dream. In this dream, she is lounging in the Burj Al Arab's Sky View Bar and she is wearing a classic black Chanel dress accessorised with her pride and joy: her white calfskin Chanel quilted bag. Peep-toe Louboutins are caressing her perfectly manicured feet and she curls her toes in joy. How she loves the obviousness of red soled shoes. Moe compliments her on her sophisticated outfit and tells her that he has always wanted a strong, independent, classy woman to stand by his side. Leila's siren-red lips curve into a smile and she brushes off the compliment as if it were a piece of flint on her dress. But then, he takes her slender hands in his and turns her around to face her, and she realises that he is not merely complimenting her to inflate her ego.
Just as the sun begins to descend, casting an orange glow over the entire Persian Gulf, he coughs nervously and takes out a heart-stopping pale blue box. Leila's eyes grow wide as she spots the simple black logo and the tiny hairs all over her body prickle in trepidation.
In real life, the doorbell rings. And then, like all good things, Leila's wondrous dream comes to an abrupt end.
Cursing silently, she rolls over onto her stomach and covers her head with the pillow, hoping that whoever it is who has stumbled across her doorstep at such an ungodly hour will interpret her silence as her absence. And leave. She forces her eyes closed and desperately tries to make the dream come back and start where it left off.
To her dismay, the doorbell rings again, diminishing every iota of slumber remaining in her system. Leila is a morning person and it usually takes her alarm clock a mere thirty seconds to persuade her to arise. She mumbles an incoherent "I'm coming," (along with a list of other profanities) and then pulls herself out of bed, scowling and muttering as she stretches, her slim body arching like a baby tiger.
I didn’t even get to see what kind of ring it was, she laments to herself as she pads over to the front door barefoot, the cold tiles abusing the warm soles of her feet. Her eyes sore from the bright sunlight flooding the entire open-plan living area - courtesy of the gigantic floor-to-ceiling window - she opens the front door, squinting at the little man holding a clipboard.
"Yes?" she scowls, folding her arms over her chest in an attempt to hide the lack of a bra beneath her cotton nightshirt. So this is the munchkin that ruined my dream, she thinks, her frown deepening. She smoothes it out abruptly when she remembers that she spotted her first wrinkle a few days before (first post-Botox that is). And it was (unsurprisingly) on her forehead.
"Leila Saade?" the small Indian man asks with a grin, bemused at Leila's bedraggled appearance. Her hair is sticking up in all directions as it always does first thing in the morning - before she has a chance to smooth it out with her Braun IONTEC hairbrush that is - and her tattered nightshirt is so faded that it barely resembles a colour.
"Yes?" she snaps impatiently. Her eyes fall upon his hands and widen as she comprehends the familiar red and grey Aramex packaging, colours that have recently become synonymous with beauty and luxury.
"Ma'am can you please –"
"Okay!" Leila snatches the biro out of his hand before the poor thing has a chance to complete his sentence and hastily scrawls her name on the form. She is barely able to contain her excitement and grabs the parcel before he can protest. She slams the front door closed without even thanking him, let alone tipping him.
Leaning against the door and listening to the disappointed footsteps of the delivery man on the other side disappear, she holds the package in her hands for a few moments, wondering what it could contain. The last time she went 'shopping' with Moe, she pointed out various things in Dubai Mall's fashion avenue that had taken her fancy, but none of the things she had 'oohed' and 'aahed' over were small enough to fit in parcel of that size.
Although Leila is accustomed to receiving gifts from generous suitors, she still gets a tingling sensation in her stomach every time she is bestowed with a package – whether it comes wrapped in pretty paper, adorned with bows, in its original packaging or, as of late, in a plastic courier packet. In the past she has received designer goodies, jewellery, hampers, experiences and once, a horse. The latter was from an ex, also Lebanese, who was anxious to prove his love to her despite her breaking up with him, changing her number, and threatening to report him to the police for his stalkerish ways. He named the horse Lei-mo – a testimony to her name and his - completely oblivious to what it sounded like it English.
Leila gently shakes the parcel and feels something move inside. Unable to suppress her curiosity for a single second further, she runs over to her slightly dusty kitchen table and plonks herself onto a fragile IKEA chair. The scissors are still lying on the surface from three days ago when she opened a package containing a gloriously luxurious La Perla underwear set in pale pink with a note saying, "when will I get to see you in this?" She grabs them and cuts the parcel open as neatly as possible.
Inside the plastic packet sits a flat box with the stomach-tingling Damas logo glistening in the centre. Shaking with excitement, she opens the box to find a stunning white gold necklace encrusted with what appear to be countless brilliant cut diamonds. Her breath stuck in her throat, she lifts it out of its velvet surroundings and gapes at it in awe before running over to her full length mirror and placing it against her smooth, tanned neck. It sits perfectly on her collarbones as if it were created especially for her and she turns her body to examine it at all angles. The diamonds sparkle in the sunlight and a shiver runs down her spine.
This is it, she thinks to herself as she studies her reflection, knowing how amazing she will look once she wears it with a more appropriate outfit. It's time to give in to his needs.
Leila has had enough experience with generous men to know that it is unlikely to get better than this. A diamond on her finger is almost certainly out of the question so she will make do with a whole load glittering on her neck, while little something back before things turn sour. She is perfectly aware of the fact that every gift comes with a price and only last week she was forced into almost betraying her friend in an attempt to stay on Moe’s right side.
The time for her to get out with her gifts while she could, had arrived.
For the first time since she embarked on her precarious relationship with Mohamed, Leila picks up her phone and dials his number. She no longer cares about appearing to be too interested, too eager, too easy. In fact, she would rather control the way their relationship degenerates than allow him to just dispose of her like an empty cigarette carton once he has had his way with her.
"'allo?" he answers, dropping the 'h' in the typical Arabic, guttural way.
"Keefak habibi?" she purrs back, still looking at her reflection and tentatively touching the necklace with her finger tips.
"Do you like it?" Moe says, as more of a statement than a question.
"I love it," she answers with sincerity, beaming. She imagines his chest swelling with pride and for once, allows his ego to inflate as much as it wants.
"It is exquisite," she adds. "Thank you."
"So when can I see you?" he demands impatiently, raising his voice over the sound of traffic.
"Whenever you want," is her coy reply, a small smile playing on her lips. There is a stunned silence as Moe's heart begins to thud. During their entire courtship, Leila has remained stiff, stern and, for want of a better description, positively prudish. There were moments when Moe would wonder if he had imagined their first physical encounter, whether the entire scenario was a figment of his imagination.
"Now?" he suggests quickly, as if he is worried she may take back her promise.
"No, not now. Tonight." Leila affirms, still staring at her reflection. She may be grateful but certainly not so grateful that she is willing to drop everything to go and cater to his whims.
"Come and collect me at 8:00pm. See you later…" With that, Leila hangs up the phone and then gently takes off the necklace and places back inside the box, as carefully as if it were a newborn baby. Turning on the taps in the bathtub, she fills the tub with fragrant bath oils and when the temperature is just right, climbs in and closes her eyes. She was ready to give Moe a night he would never, ever forget.
* * *
Leila is wearing pale pink satin dress so tight and so low that her breasts are almost spilling out of its embrace. She is also wearing her new diamond necklace, although the spectacular creation is struggling to compete with her cleavage. Every single man in the restaurant is aching to catch a glimpse of Leila’s bosom as she wriggles past them, until they realise that her rear assets are just as generous as the front. Every woman is shooting her down with death stares, their eyes fixated on her sparkling necklace.
In ode to the occasion, Leila’s hair has been professionally blow dried and is sitting in soft, sensuous waves down her bare back and her makeup, courtesy of the MAC counter at Ibn Battuta, is simply smouldering. Everything about her persona – from her silky blonde hair to her tanned golden skin, her slender neck surrounded by a cluster of glittering diamonds and her tiny waist – is screaming for attention, and oozing with sexiness.
Quite naturally, the Emirati man who has the pleasure of escorting walking the sex siren is being tantalised by her in a manner he never anticipated. Not even his highly overactive imagination that was often fuelled by late night television could have conjured up the stirring sensation in his loins, or the lump stuck at the back of his throat, as his heart pounds so furiously that it is almost threatening to spill out of his mouth and into his date’s lap.
They are dining at Ewaan at the Palace Hotel in Old Town, and are sitting by the pool. Tiny yellow lights are wrapped around the palm trees and the atmosphere is alive with gentle laughter and the clinking of glasses. The tortured voice of the singer seduces the audience with his own renditions of the renowned Um Kulthoum, while Leila and Mohahmed puff on individual sheeshas and sip fine wine.
Unbeknownst to said singer, he is not the only one on a seduction mission.
From the moment Leila slid into Moe's orange AMG, she has been all over him like a rash, touching his knee, stroking his face, clinging to his arm. Now, at the restaurant, she is staring at him through half-closed eyelids and slowly licks her lips before taking the mouth of the sheesha pipe between them. Moe almost chokes on his Chardonnay and tries to compose himself, wiping his clammy palms on his dark brown candoura. Leila pretends not to notice and inhales deeply, before allowing the smoke to whirl out of her mouth slowly and gracefully.
Although Leila was originally only pretending to be like a cat on heat, the more she pretends, the more real the feelings become, until she too is desperate to get away from the crowd of people and spend some quality ‘alone time’ with the man who she knows is about to slip through her talons.
She analyses Moe's handsome face as he stares at the singer and realises with a jolt that she will miss him. Over the past few weeks he has become the only constant in life. With the global economic crisis at its peak and the subsequent crash of the real estate sector, Leila’s career has taken a gigantic plunge. She has been getting paid late, her commission percentage has been reduced, and she is highly unlikely to receive a bonus.
If her turbulent financial status wasn’t bad enough, Leila has also noticed with horror that her body is changing. A fine line here, a wrinkle there, a sun spot, an ache. Although hours of Yogilates has kept her muscles supple and flexible, she just doesn’t move with the same agility she did a decade ago, her face just doesn’t hold the same youthful glow, and no amount of gym, microdermabrasions or sneaky visits to clinics in Jumeirah can prevent time from taking its natural course.
Then there is her love life. Turbulent, exciting, promising, painful. Uncertain.
And now, with Moe soon to exit the scene, she will be left alone. All over again.
Leila wonders when that defining moment in her life was, the moment when she traded her naivety for cynicism, when her innocence was stripped away from her, when she realised that there was no such thing as a ‘happily ever after’. She wonders if she should pin all the blame on Fahd who taught her that no man wanted an imperfect woman and no Arab man would marry a ‘loose’ girl. Or maybe she should blame Michael – the American who falsely made her believe that fairy tales did exist.
Michael had escaped Leila’s thoughts for a very long time. She liked to tell herself that he was just one of her countless conquests, and his memories often became trapped between those of recent lovers. Until she catches a whiff of his spicy cologne, or her gaze accidentally falls upon a pair of startlingly blue eyes, or her ears catch hold of a wry, New York accent. Then the memories slowly come seeping back and she spends the night looking up at the ceiling and remembering his broad smile, the tiny bump in his otherwise perfect nose, his sandy blond hair… and those eyes. Those bright blue, sparkling eyes that she would disappear within whenever she would gaze into them.
They met in Leila’s second week in Dubai and for the naïve twenty-something Lebanese girl, it was a dream come true. Not only was he intelligent, attentive and respectful, but he was also American. And not the kind of American she had encountered whilst studying in Ohio either, but a native New Yorker who drawled, dropped his r’s and wore Italian shoes. The fact that he was ten years her senior made him all the more appealing.
Although Leila had youth on her side, she was certainly lacking in the looks department and it wasn’t long before the sweet Michael dropped a few hints about his fascination with blondes during a post-movie dinner. Mortified, the brunette hastily booked herself into her local salon and emerged three hours later with a gorgeous yellow mane.
As the weeks progressed, Michael’s dissatisfaction with his girlfriend continued to grow. Fuelled by their lack of physical contact and her commitment towards maintaining her virginity, Michael expressed his frustration through degrading Leila whenever possible. He commented on her acne-prone skin, persuaded her to see a dermatologist, made subtle remarks about her B-cups and laughed at her very Middle Eastern nose. He even made fun of her accent that was tinged with Arabic and French. The more he ‘joked’, the more Leila withdrew into her shell. Her confidence deteriorated with every comment and she was desperate to do something right.
Then, two months into their relationship, came the inevitable day when he invited her for ‘dinner’ at his apartment. She happily agreed, stunned that a man was willing to cook for a woman, completely oblivious to his ulterior motive. Or perhaps she knew, but was hoping he would prove her wrong.
The putrid stench of his alcoholic breath on her face, the wildness in his eyes, the aggression of his touch, plagued her at every moment for weeks after. How could she have understood the situation so wrong? How could she have expected a man to respect her monogamous choice?
You fucking tease. You’ve been fucking using me and expecting nothing back? You fucking ugly bitch.
His voice continued ringing in her ears long after she had managed to extract herself from him after kneeing him in the groin, long after she had stumbled to the lobby of his apartment, her dress torn and her arms bruised. And long after the bruises faded away.
For months after that night, Leila would sit in the shower with her knees drawn to her chest, her entire body shaking as tears rolled down her cheeks, trying to wash away the invisible imprints Michael had left behind. She would scrub away the memory of his forceful hands pushing her against the wall, his unwavering grip on her sore, bruised wrists, his clumsy lips all over her neck.
And all the while, deep down, she believed it to be her fault.
When she gave herself to Fahd, a year later, her mind wandered back to Michael and her refusal to give herself to him. Sometimes, during her darker moments, she wished she had.
The Michael incident, coupled with Fahd’s betrayal, taught Leila an invaluable lesson or ten: virginity had no value to absolutely anyone – least of all herself – with the exception of her future husband on their wedding night. And that was if he happened to be Arab. With simple surgical procedures readily available for women wanting to repair their hymens in order to dupe their unsuspecting husbands, even that wasn’t a big deal anymore.
Leila realised that her body was her own, what she did with it was her business, and what was more important was the illusion she portrayed of herself. For it was the illusion that was something she had 100 per cent control over.
“Shall we go?” Moe’s tentative question, coupled with the longing in his dark eyes, is a welcome distraction from Leila’s painful memories, and she nods. When the bill is settled, Moe stands up and for the first time in their relationship, offers her his arm. Leila feels another stab in her heart. Would this be the last time? She accepts it graciously and stands up. There is the same look on every man and woman’s face as they watch the tiger and tigress glide away: envy.
* * *
Leila gently extracts herself from Moe’s embrace, his gentle snores assuring her of the depth of his slumber. As she lifts one heavy arm, he stirs, and she stiffens, her heart beating quickly. The last thing she wants is him waking up and pretending that he still wants her there after finally achieving his goal. She would rather his last memory of her to be beautiful, strong and sexy – not weak, cowardly and ashamed.
She smiles as she recollects the look on his face when he unzipped her dress and let it fall to the floor. His eyes moved up and down her body, savouring every inch of it and lingered on the pale pink lingerie that he had bought her for just a moment, before taking it off and leaving her in nothing but the diamond necklace.
Then, it was non-stop for almost two hours. Three times in one night was quite an achievement for Leila, who usually got bored after just one. But the pent up tension from weeks of dating had developed a hunger in her that had to be satiated and finally, exhausted, they both collapsed onto the bed. Moe immediately fell asleep, while Leila played over the details in her mind. At least it was a night neither of them would ever forget.
She finally manages to sneak out of bed and looks around the room for some clues as to who Moe actually is. She still cannot believe that he has actually brought her home instead of taking her to a fancy hotel, and she relishes the opportunity to snoop around.
Mohamed’s bedroom is the stereotypical bachelor pad, and needs just a mirrored ceiling to complete the look. The walls are a plain grey, all the furniture is black and all the accessories are chrome. The bed is possibly bigger than any of the beds Leila has ever slept in and a gigantic zebra print rug sits at its foot. On the wall opposite is a 60-inch plasma screen and below it is a water feature that is more annoying than soothing. Leila cannot comprehend how Moe can manage to sleep with that incessant racket. There are no photos on the nightstands and no pictures on the walls. Nothing to divulge who the real Mohamed is.
Treading carefully, Leila gathers all her clothes, tiptoes across the room and opens the bathroom door, hoping it doesn’t creak. Thankfully it glides open with ease and she locks the door firmly behind her.
The bathroom is just as sleek as the bedroom with stark black and white tiles and a huge shower. There is a corner tub which Leila assumes is a Jacuzzi and she wishes she could fill it up and just soak there for a while. It is a definite upgrade from her own little bathroom in Discovery Gardens and she sighs audibly, wishing she had been blessed with better fortune.
Hoping to learn something new about the man who is soon to become her ‘ex’, Leila peeks inside the medicine cabinet but is disappointed to find that all it contains is toothpaste, floss, mouthwash, shaving lotion and aftershave.
She closes the cabinet and stares at her reflection. The girl staring back at her looks tired and weary. Makeup is smeared all across her face and her hair has lost its grace. Tearing her eyes away from her pitiful appearance, she sits down and opens up her gigantic handbag, glad that she didn’t use the new Chanel. As beautiful as it is, it wouldn’t have been able to hold a pair of leggings, a long t-shirt, deodorant, a hair brush, ballet pumps, face wipes, moisturizer and her wallet. Not to mention her perfume, makeup bag and keys.
Leila gets to work with the face wipes and cleans off every scrap of makeup before rinsing her face quickly and moisturizing it. She moves quickly and diligently, afraid that if she stops moving, the void that Moe had temporary filled will resurface, leaving a dull ache in its place.
So, she focuses on completely the task at hand as soon as possible so that she can go home and forget that Moe ever existed. She runs the hairbrush through her hair and pulls it into a ponytail before putting her bra back on, climbing into her new outfit and slipping her feet into her rubber soled pumps. Spraying on some deodorant and perfume, she squashes her beautiful pink dress and lingerie set into the bag, places the necklace back into its box and then zips it up.
Khalas. Time to say goodbye.
Exiting the bathroom as quietly as she entered, Leila takes one last look at Moe’s peaceful expression and turns away before tears begin to form in her eyes.
Stop being such a wimp, she thinks as she forces herself to open the bedroom door and step out into the deserted upstairs hallway. She is glad she had enough sense to bring rubber soled shoes that will reduce the chances of her making enough noise to wake him (or God forbid, someone else) up. All the doors in the hallway are closed and although Leila is dying to peek into some of the rooms, she controls herself in case there are any other people living there, despite Moe promising that no one else was at home.
Walking down the magnificent marble stairs and absorbing the crystal chandeliers and intricate stained glass window, Leila wonders if she has made a terrible mistake by approaching her relationship with Moe as nothing more than a little fun on the side. Had she put up the innocent act a little longer, had she packaged herself as the perfect wife, perhaps he would have wanted her enough to marry her? She stops at the foot of the stairs and looks around her at the beautiful artwork and ornate marble with wonder. Imagine if she could wake up to such splendour every morning.
Don’t be stupid. You met him in a club. You gave him a you-know-what the same night. You were nothing more than a bit of meat for him. You ruined it before it even began.
Her limbs aching from the indoor sports and her heart heavier than ever, Leila tells herself that she made the most of her situation. She had a 50,000 dirham diamond necklace in her handbag and was obviously better off than she was when she met him. Straightening her back and holding her head up high, Leila decides to just go home and enjoy the memories she had created instead of skulking around the villa wondering about what might have been.
The front door is heavy and creaks as she pulls it open. Wincing, she steps out into the cool, desert night and closes it behind her. Inhaling deeply and enjoying the fresh scent of the mysterious desert plants all across the driveway, she looks back at the enormous villa and smiles. This will be one interesting story to tell her daughters one day.
A roar fills the garden and Leila jumps, almost dropping her handbag. She spins around and then squints as a bright light shines on her face. Like a deer caught in headlights, she freezes, wincing at the intensity of the spotlight and wondering if there is a guard with a gun about to shoot her down.
The lights turn off and so does the deafening roar, leaving Leila in complete darkness and silence once again, and she blinks rapidly, trying to adjust her vision, her ears still ringing. The hair on her arms begin to prickle and as her eyes adjust to the moonlight, she realises that the lights did, indeed, belong to a car. And not just any car, but what appears to be a Ferrari.
Staring at the familiar car but still not registering where she has seen it before, she tries to see who is at the driver’s seat, the tinted windscreen preventing her from doing so. Perhaps it is Moe’s parents back early from their vacation. It is too late to hide behind a palm tree, and all she can do now is walk away as gracefully as possible. How she hates walks of shame.
Feeling more than a little awkward, she quickly begins shuffling towards the gate, but as she passes the Ferrari, she realises with a shock that it is pink. Stopping in her tracks, she stares at it again, not caring that it could potentially be Moe’s father. Something just doesn’t feel right. A million thoughts begin racing through Leila's confused mind and through the dark tints, she eventually makes out the silhouette of a woman. Still disoriented, before she can control herself, she raps on the window. There can’t be only one pink Ferrari in the whole of Dubai…but then, she has never seen more than one before.
Anger begins to boil within, and Leila raps on the window again, this time with her fist not her knuckles. It can't be her, she desperately tells herself, panic racing through her system. When there is no answer, she tries the door and it swings open, revealing exactly who she was afraid she would find.
Her face red with fury, her mouth dry and her eyes wide with shock, Leila clenches her fists and forces herself not to react until she knows precisely what is happening.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” she manages to hiss as Lady Luxe, the woman she once described as her friend, stares back at her, with eyes full of guilt.