Lady Luxe winces as her car door swings open and Leila glares down at her, her eyes wild with uninhibited rage.
For almost a month, Lady Luxe has spent every waking moment – and occasionally, even sleeping moments – worrying about the day her friend would discover the truth about her relationship with her boyfriend, either through a mistake of Lady Luxe's own, or Mohamed's careless attitude towards hiding his identity. She has plotted and planned, lied and avoided, and even persuaded her cousin to pretend to be her alter ego in order to ensure that the subject of her nightmares would never materialise.
And now, for the first time in twenty-two years, Lady Luxe finally understands what God means when He says he is the Greatest Planner.
No amount of scheming or hypothesising has prepared her for this moment. In all the scenarios she has imagined, one thing she never expected was for her mindless brother to actually be disrespectful enough to bring his girlfriend to his father's house. How difficult would it have been to hire a hotel room for the night, or even take her to one of the many extra family villas scattered around the city? But no. The obnoxious fool had to bring her to the main home – the one her Grandfather had given his eldest son when he finally let go of his inappropriate Western wife and agreed to marry a more suitable bride – the home that symbolised all that the X family stood for; respect, culture and loyalty.
What an idiot.
For all his lectures on honour, shame and dignity, Mohamed was really nothing more than an ignorant boy, ruled by the anatomy on the lower part of his body, completely oblivious to the consequences of his hormone-induced actions. And it is Lady Luxe who has to pay the price.
Staring back at her friend with a thudding heart and a dry throat, she suppresses the urge to drive away with the door still open and instead, persuades herself to climb out of the car as gracefully as possible, trying hard not to let her legs wobble. She takes a deep breath and turns around to face her furious friend.
Leila's face is contorted with anger, but beneath the fire, Lady Luxe knows there is a deep sadness. Once again, she fell for the charms of a wealthy, handsome and enigmatic man who lacked the most crucial characteristic in a relationship: loyalty. And once again, Leila was embarrassed in front of Lady Luxe, who had warned her against such predators right from the start.
It is this pain, this shame, and this humiliation, that Lady Luxe knows she will have to exploit in order to protect herself. After all, everyone knows that all is fair in love and war.
“You fucking bitch,” Leila begins, her body heaving as she visibly tries to control herself, her rising voice shattering the previous silence. The watchman’s light turns on and Lady Luxe begins to panic. The last thing she needs is Mohamed waking up.
“You fucking backstabbing bitch,” Leila continues, the intensity of her venom causing spittle to spray out of her mouth. “Of all the guys in
“Control yourself, you silly tart,” Lady Luxe snaps with slight defiance. “Why are you staring at me like I’m some kind of traitor when you’re the one who is imposing on my territory?” It is my territory, she justifies to herself. Although not in the way I am implying.
“What?” In an instant, Leila’s voice plummets to a whisper, the blood draining from her face. She clutches onto the Ferrari for support, her knees almost buckling from the shock. Surely she doesn't mean what she thinks she means? Her mind spinning, she stumbles, and Lady Luxe is forced to grab onto her before she falls to the ground.
The contact between her hands and Leila's quivering body sends a pang of guilt shooting through Lady Luxe's body, and she swallows, trying to push the intense feeling of unease aside. You have to look out for number one, she tells herself, still holding onto Leila frail frame.
“Look Leila, it’s not a good idea to talk here. Let’s go for a drive,” she finally says, letting go of her friend. Leila doesn’t reply, so she ushers her friend into the car and looks back at the watchman who is watching her intently. She gives him a quick smile and a wave before slipping into the driver’s seat, igniting the engine and rolling out of the grounds.
The street is dark and quiet, as it always is after midnight, with the dim streetlamps providing only enough light for haggard stray kittens that to observe their surroundings. The only sound to be heard is the Ferrari, which slices through the silence like a knife through butter. In the distance, the silvery grey Burj Khalifa juts into the cloudless sky, standing tall, proud and imposing; a reminder of
Lady Luxe glances over at Leila who is staring straight ahead, almost as if she is in a trance. She looks away, guilt poking her again, and continues to drive. She has a good idea what Leila is thinking, and it is exactly what she wants her to think. But if things are going the way she is planning, why does she feel so terrible?
They reach Umm Suqeim public beach, without a single word uttered between the two of them during the entire journey. Lady Luxe pulls over next to a group of young Emirati boys sitting on the low wall, blasting traditional Khaleeji music from their white Land Cruiser. She ignores their stares and kicks off her shoes, rolling the legs of her jeans up to her shins.
“Let’s walk out onto the sand and sit here for a bit,” she suggests, looking back at Leila who is still inside the car. Lost in her own thoughts, Leila obliges without uttering a word. She too takes off her shoes and follows Lady Luxe onto the sand. It is cold underneath the clammy soles of her feet, and she welcomes the sensation.
Dropping to the ground, Lady Luxe draws her knees to her chest and looks out into the ocean and at the illuminated Burj al Arab in the near distance. The beach is unusually quiet, but at three am on a Thursday night, she guesses most people are either sleeping soundly or wandering drunk out of one of
“So? Are you going to tell me what’s going on?” Leila finally ventures, unable to stomach the suspense any longer. She looks over at Lady Luxe, who has a strange expression on her face, one that Leila has never seen before. She wonders if she should just get up and walk away, without listening to the explanation and without looking back. Although she would love to just pretend that all this never happened, she knows she cannot. As much as the reason is sure to pain her, she needs to know exactly what has been going on without her knowledge. What kind of ride she has been taken on. How much of a naïve fool she has been.
Lady Luxe, knowing that whatever comes out of her mouth next will determine her immediate fate, mulls over the various explanations one last time before she takes a deep breath and clears her throat.
“Mohamed is…” she begins hesitantly. Leila’s anxious face has distorted into a mixture of pain and anger, and Lady Luxe’s words get caught in her throat. Should she confess the truth and relieve of her pain, or should she utter a lie to protect herself? Whatever she says, she is inextricably connected to Mohamed now, and whatever she says, Leila will have the opportunity to blackmail her. However, if she does lie and profess to be a girlfriend, there is a small possibility of Leila being angry enough with Mohamed to cut him out of her life once and for all. If she tells the truth, that she is only his sister, Leila may still believe she has a chance with the handsome Emirati and use her new-found knowledge as lifelong leverage.
“What?” Leila feels as she if has been punched in the stomach and she struggles to breathe.
“We got married about a year ago, while I was still in
Lady Luxe cannot look Leila in the eyes for fear of revealing the truth, so instead, she stares at the sea and digs her toes further into the sand. Please just accept what I say and then just leave me and my family alone.
“W-why didn’t you tell me something sooner?” Leila asks shakily, remembering the night they came across Moe and the way Lady Luxe practically shoved him onto her. So that was why she couldn’t get away fast enough. That was why she was so condemning of their relationship. And that was why she had been avoiding her like an epidemic and had refused to meet the two of them together.
"What was I supposed to say?" Lady Luxe retorts, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "The guy you manhandled in the alleyway was actually my husband? You should know me better than that, Leila."
"Turns out I don’t know you at all," Leila replies quietly, looking straight at Lady Luxe.
She believes me, Lady Luxe thinks with sheer relief as she stares back at Leila's confused eyes that are brimming with tears."I'm sorry," Lady Luxe says simply. Leila accepts the sentiment with a nod, completely unaware that her friend is not apologising for hiding her marital status, but apologising for lying about it.
"Me too," she says after a while, digging her toes into the sand and wrapping her arms around her cold body. "Listen… I kind of need to be alone right now. Do you mind if I just hang out here by myself?"
"Of course not,” Lady Luxe answers without pausing. “I'll see you soon okay?” She is thrilled at the opportunity to exit, but before she leaves, she leans over and gives her friend an unexpected hug. I'm sorry, she says silently before she hoists herself off the ground and walks to the car, leaving Leila's dejected silhouette behind.
Neither girl looks back at the other.
Lady Luxe drives down Al Sufouh on the slow lane almost at a snail's pace, ignoring the curious looks her pink Ferrari receives from passers by. She realises that her knuckles have turned white from clutching onto the steering wheel and she flexes her fingers in a lame attempt to relax them.
"It should be illegal to drive a Ferrari that slowly!" an Aussie voice shouts out to her from a gigantic red pick-up truck that pulls up beside her, slowing down to match her pace. Lady Luxe ignores the intrusion and looks straight ahead, a scowl on her lips. Why can’t a girl ever drive in peace around here?
“What’s your name, sweetheart?” The man tries again, raising his voice over the loud engines of both vehicles.
"Fuck off," Lady Luxe replies, and although it is against the law, sticks up her finger to reiterate her point. Let’s see you try to report me you prick, she thinks, closing the window and stepping on the gas. The car roars to life and she shoots forwards like a bullet, leaving the pick-up far behind in a cloud of dust.
Sniggering to herself, Lady Luxe continues driving without thinking, her mind still focused on Leila and Mohamed. She absent-mindedly takes the first exit onto the Palm and is surprised to find herself outside a familiar villa.
A recent birthday present from her father, the villa she is parked outside is also supposed to be part of her inheritance, yet Lady Luxe feels like an intruder as she walks through its gates. Upon handing her the keys, her father specifically told her that she could do whatever she pleased with it after she got married, but until then, it was hers in name only. Thus, the blissfully naïve X has no idea that his daughter has taken his sentiments with a pinch of salt (after all, it was like handing a lollipop to a baby and telling it not to taste it), and has actually been visiting it every few weeks whenever she needs a little time out from her stifling social life.
The exterior of the modest villa is inspired by Islamic art and it is decorated sparsely with traditional berber and shaami furniture. Although a cleaning service cleans it every week without fail, no one uses it, and whenever Lady Luxe does venture into her respite from the outside world, she feels guilty and nervous, as if she is a trespasser. Hence, for the most part, the villa sits abandoned and derelict, like a beautiful virgin bride whose husband refuses to touch her. A complete and utter waste.
Still shaken from the confrontation with Leila, Lady Luxe feels light-headed as she leans against the front door and tries to regulate her breath. When she finally manages to calm down and her pulse returns to normal, without turning on a single lamp, she walks through the house and into the garden facing the artificial beach and sea. With her abaya still covering her body, she lies down on one of the two sun loungers by the pool and stares out into the sea, aching to hear it crash against the shore. But it doesn’t. It sits still and silent, much like her.
* * *
From the moment Lady Luxe awoke up to the brutal wails of her alarm clock, she was confronted with a nervous sensation in the pit of her stomach, warning her of the events that were yet to occur.
After dragging herself out of bed, she bumped into Mohamed, whom she can barely look in the eye following the staircase incident. He muttered ‘salaam’ to her, their brief encounter putting her off her breakfast. Dismissing Claudine’s delicious waffles, she changed into a plain abaya coupled with a hot pink sheila and went to meet her cousins who were due to fly out that evening.
Moza and Rowdha, anxious to remain in
Bored of their endless moaning, Lady Luxe tuned out and listened to the low hum of conversation around her instead. Anything to take her mind off the growing sense of unease she was experiencing.
A blast of air conditioning from the vent directly above her head soon destroyed the daydream, and Lady Luxe opened her eyes and inwardly sighed. It was far too cold indoors and far too sunny outdoors for her to be in
Get over it, those days are gone, she told herself, trying not to think of her glorious three and a half years studying in
"What the hell's wrong with you?" Rowdha, who detested public displays of emotion, wrinkled her nose, shooting Moza a dirty look upon receiving a sharp dig in her ribs for her brutal approach. "What? Why did you just assault me with your pointy elbows?"
"Can't you be a bit sympathetic for a change?" Moza scolded, taking Lady Luxe's hands into hers. "Ignore her habibti. She's just pissed off because we're going back to Saudi tonight. Now tell me. What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Lady Luxe mumbled, pulling her hand away and staring out of the window at the happy people walking by, enjoying
"What exactly about your over privileged life is upsetting you today?" Rowdha continued, almost as if her sister hadn't spoken. "What? It's true! Look at you. You’re young, beautiful, healthy, rich. You live in a gigantic villa, you drive a Porsche and a Ferrari, and to make things worse, you’re even a successful businesswomen. So please, enlighten me. What exactly about your life is so shitty?”
Lady Luxe remained silent, knowing that what her cousin said was harsh but true. She didn’t want to try to explain that she was always disorientated, that she never, ever felt truly comfortable, even in her own home. Especially in her own home. She didn’t know how to describe the ache in her gut whenever she heard a British accent, came across a picture from her student days in
But most importantly, she didn’t know how to adequately convey the fear that was slowly creeping its way around her entire body, warning her that things were about to blow up in her face. And she didn’t know which was worse. To be beaten by Moe, kicked out of the family or killed in order to protect their honour.
“Nothing,” she said shortly. “My life is great. And so was Hend’s I’m sure.”
There was a discomforting silence.
It had already been five years, yet a mere mention of the circumstances that lead to Hend’s disappearance was enough to send shivers down the spines of all the girls in the X family.
The product of a consanguineous marriage, Hend was both her father’s sister’s daughter and her father’s cousin’s daughter, a common practice in the X family. She was bright, fun loving and feisty, and when Lady Luxe is being honest with herself, she acknowledges that there were great similarities between them both.
Externally, they could not have been more different. Hend’s hair was jet black and unruly, her skin was a smooth mocha and her eyes were framed with the thickest, darkest eyelashes Lady Luxe had ever seen. Unlike Lady Luxe’s slight, athletic frame, Hend had a curvaceous body that could rival the likes of J-Lo and Beyonce, and she loved to show it off in skin-tight glittery gowns whenever they went to weddings. She was loud, she was smart and she had no qualms about speaking her mind. Everyone knew when Hend was in the room.
Beneath the lively exterior however, was a deep sadness that only those extremely close to her could detect. When all the cousins would get together and joke about their other family members, amidst laughter and giggles, Lady Luxe would look over at Hend to find her staring into the distance with a pained expression on her face. When their eyes collided, Hend would always smile at her younger cousin, but Lady Luxe, even as a teenager, was aware that the smile was hiding a sorrow that could not be articulated.
When news of Hend’s disappearance made its way to Lady Luxe’s ears, when rumours of Western boyfriends, stolen chastity and shameful acts travelled through the grapevine, everyone knew exactly what had happened. But no one had the nerve to say it.
They stopped visiting Hend’s house and for a while, the inhabitants of the house stopped visiting everyone else. When they finally made their way back into the community, all mentions of Hend stopped. It was as if the parents had raised two sons and no daughter.
Two years later, Lady Luxe paid a visit to her sick Aunt. Her Aunt’s health had completely deteriorated following the disappearance of her only daughter. Dark, deep circles rimmed her eyes, her sallow skin was sickly and thin, and she had lost most of the hair on her head. Towards the end of the customary visit, Lady Luxe claimed to need the toilet. Ignoring the bathroom door altogether, she slipped past the wandering maids, crept up the stairs and sought out Hend’s bedroom.
She pushed open the door and stepped inside, bracing herself to be assaulted by memories of her missing cousin. But she didn't have to, for the pink walls were now a clinical white, the countless photographs were nowhere to be seen and there was not a single pretty ornament in sight. It was almost as if Hend never existed.
Feeling nauseous, the eighteen year-old Lady Luxe turned away and closed the door softly behind her. Tears falling down her face, she ran back downstairs and for the first time in two years, confronted her Aunt.
“Where have all of her things gone?” she demanded upon returning to her Aunt’s bedside, unable to contain her emotions.
Her Aunt looked over at her niece and saw in her hazel eyes her own tempestuous daughter.
“Habibti,” she began, her voice quivering with uninhibited pain. “There is no place in this family for shame. Not one member, even those who profess to love you, will spare a girl who soils our name with dishonourable acts. Never forget that.”
* * *
Lady Luxe shivers, the thin cloth of her abaya providing little warmth from the ice that has numbed her body. Thinking about Hend always has this effect on her. No one knows exactly what happened to her cousin. What they did to her; if they were kind enough to drive her out of the country, if she had voluntarily left and never looked back, or if they got rid of her forever. She is not sure she wants to know.
“Salaam’alaykom,” a voice calls out to her and she sits up straight, startled at the intrusion. Pulling her sheila onto her head, she looks around to see a solitary figure in the adjacent garden looking out into the sea, and she scowls, wishing the walls separating the two were higher.
“What do you want?” she snaps in English, shooting him a cutting look that goes amiss in the darkness.
“Sorry, you just looked a little lonely so I thought I’d keep you company,” the man replies sheepishly, also in English but with a strong Arabic accent.
“What makes you think I’m lonely?” she asks, adjusting her abaya to cover her body properly.
“Well, for starters, you didn’t deny it.”
“Oh, we have a jester on the
“Every queen has a jester,” he flirts back, and Lady Luxe laughs at his audacity. He too laughs and edges closer to the wall. “May I request the pleasure of your company this evening, my lady?
"Ahlan," she replies with a smile, welcoming the distraction from her painful thoughts. She would rather indulge in meaningless conversation with a flirtatious stranger than be left alone with haunting memories of Hend or Leila.
She watches the man jump over the wall, his fluid movements catching her attention and she readjusts her abaya to expose one slim, smooth ankle. Before he turns around, she lets her sheila drop to her shoulders and hastily rearranges her fringe. After all, with her naked face and her drab abaya, there isn't much else she can do to make herself more attractive for this intriguing stranger.
"Mind if I take a seat?" Without waiting for a response, he hops onto the lounger beside her and stretches, his fitted t-shirt rising to expose a taut stomach. Lady Luxe feels a stirring within and she swallows nervously. It has been a long time since she has sowed her oats, and the combination of the sensual moonlight, the seductive breeze and an attractive stranger is making her feel a little flustered.
"Sure," she croaks, too worried to look at his face in case he senses her feelings. She watches him lie back onto the lounger from the corner of her eye and then turns to look at him, ready to get a proper look at the mystery man by her side.
Despite the darkness that surrounds them, despite the shadows playing on the angles of his face, there is absolutely no denying the familiar dark eyes and messy hair. Lady Luxe, overcome with sheer horror, stares at the man - no longer a stranger and definitely no longer attractive - not knowing whether to get up and run or throw herself into to the sea in front of her. Either way, she is completely and utterly screwed.
"So," he says, turning his body to face her. "How are you my dear future bride? And pray tell, how is our mutual friend Jennifer?"
* * *
A million light years away from the luxury man-made island, Leila sits alone in her bare bedroom in Discovery Gardens staring at the blank wall in front of her. Unable to digest what she has recently come to know, she feels weak, queasy and stupid. She wonders what Lady Luxe was thinking all those times she gloated about Moe's attentiveness, his full lips and his big hands. When she boasted about all the gifts she had received and how she would return the favour.
She was thinking you were an old, delusional tramp who could never bag a single man, a cruel voice taunts her, causing her heart to wrench in shame and agony. She didn't tell you sooner because she wanted to prove you a fool.
"Shut up," Leila mumbles, unaware that she is actually speaking out loud to herself.
She wanted to mock you, to jeer at you, to snicker when your back was turned, the voice continues, relentless in its sadistic - or perhaps masochistic - pursuits.
Rocking back and forth, her knees drawn to her chest, Leila begins to cry. She weeps for herself, her achingly lonely self who had been played a fool all over again. She weeps for her heart, in love with a man who was married to her friend. And she weeps for this friend - stuck in a loveless marriage with a man who brought his conquests to their marital home.
Thinking back to the opulent villa with its marble floors and crystal chandeliers, Leila feels another emotion that suddenly replaces the previous emotions of pain. Envy.
She has all of that yet she's still not happy, she thinks, her mind taking a more dangerous course. Plenty of men cheated on their wives, but at least their wives were not alone. They had someone who came home to them at the end of the day. They had someone to look after them. They had someone to raise children with. What did she have? A shabby little apartment in the middle of the desert?
She needed a man. She needed a husband. She needed someone to spend the rest of her life with. She wouldn't have minded sharing him with someone else if it meant that she was taken care of.
I could have made him happy, she thinks wistfully.
And then, a tiny seed plants itself in the darkest depths of her mind.
I can still make him happy.