Khaleel waited at the door for me and we went down the hallway and the elevator together.
The men at the front desk regarded us 'man and woman' with suspicion, but in this one instance, Khaleel figured our reputations didn't matter. There were worse things in the world tonight, and we were going to outrun them.
Masoud and Audrey met us, and Masoud got out from the driver's seat to let Khaleel in. Audrey was already buckled in, in the back.
I shook as I climbed in, lifting the folds of my abaya as if I were a parcel. Masoud looked magnanimously back at me with pity bleeding his kind brown eyes, and I reached for the seatbelt, ashamed.
Khaleel started to pull out, but noting my attempt to put the seatbelt on while struggling with the folds of the butterfly winged chiffon of my Dubai designer abaya, he stopped suddenly, and Audrey and I, our bodies lurched forward and our heads slammed into the boys' seats with a crunch.
"No seatbelts tonight," he warned me.
He paused one moment to turn up the MP3 player, music bled our ears, pounding worse than my heartbeat, so that I forgot I had a heartbeat.
Audrey and I glanced over at eachother, until I slowly, bravely, met Khaleel's reckless gaze. We could only make out the gleam of eachother's eyes in the dappled streetlamps of the Corniche, but we met eachother with the tips of our dead smiles invertered to the corners of our eyes, so that no one could read our gazes but us. We recognized the others' likeness.
He did not pull forward until I let the belt slip back into its nest.
With a whiz, and then a zip, it 'click'ed.
And then we were gone out into the night.
One lighted part of the world bled into the light of another as we raced down the corniche, taking the corners of Old Muscat at 3 am on all angles, trying to outrun the world.
What Khaleel wanted to forget I was not sure of as of yet. I couldn't fathom why he should be so haunted by my circumstances, as if they had melded with his own.
I stared at his brown neck and the frayed width of his t-shirt collar, trying to understand what made us so alike, and yet so apart.
Maybe, the fact that he had always believed I was a woman of privellage, with a nice expat 4x4 and a marble palace in MQ, none of which my family really owned. It all related to my father's job.
Now Khaleel didn't have that image.
I was a a western woman living out of a hotel room with a balcony overlooking the fish souq that had no lights beyond the light of Audrey's laptop when it was plugged in, which cost ten rials a day that I didn't have in my pocket.
Maybe it was something else. I don't know, but something made us equally insane that night.
"I want to drive!" I hiccupped from the backseat, and Khaleel laughed. "I want it to be like the old days when I was the bad one and you were the good one, and I was the one getting into all the trouble and you were the one getting me out of it!"
Masoud barked some semblance of laughter but was too kind to note, yet again I was in trouble and Khaleel was doing his damndest to find a way to get me out.
"No WAY!" Khaleel smiled. "Not in my car."
"I want to drive!" I demanded, pretty and petulant, and obviously spoiled. That usually worked with him, as prone as he was to his Omani cousins.
"And find a sure way to get yourself deported from Oman? Driving without a lisence! Ha. And in my car? No WAY!"
We slowed a little bit as we pulled into the Al Kuwair McDonalds and the boys bought us icecream and Big Macs.
Something must have happened between Old Muscat and Al Kuwair, I am sure, but my mental state was spewing wreckage, and I have no recollection to this day of anything but streaks of orange and purple light. I probably just stared out the window in numb shock like an accident victim.
Getting sugar and salt into me was good, though I won't call that food, but even Audrey was too starved to refuse.
We sat there munching our burgers as the boys raced us down Sultan Qaboos highway, taking a dangerous turn here and there until we ended up at Sawadi with the call to prayer that Audrey and I alone heeded, and a pink sunrise to greet us.
We slammed close the doors to ancient old Mercedes and felt our feet slip into sand. Khaleel wandered up the beach by himself a bit, and I sat down with Masoud and Audrey, Masoud asking us questions about family life 'in the West'.
"You mean you have to pay for your own education?"
"Your family can just kick you out when you turn eighteen?!"
Apparently, for any decent Omani man, these things our unheard of in relation to young women.
Audrey talked and I listened with quaint detachment. I don't think I had much to offer in the way of a comment, which reflects my mental state, for I think I am one of those people who likes to talk about myself, and about anything in general that I have even the slightest knowledge of.
Audrey spoke tentatively about ill-treatment on the part of her family, how they forgot to bring her when they went out for dinner or nelgected her education in support of her younger brother Gerome's efforts to become a rockstar, and how much money Gerome owed them all for recording his last CD, and yet they would not let her borrow even a fraction of that ammount to go to University.
I am sure Masoud had decided we were all barbarians in the West, after having seen my mother rip off her shirt in front of him with her boobs hanging out and yell at Audrey so.
I wasn't too bothered by that, since maybe I held that opinion at the time, tired as I was from being yelled at and treated as inferior in intelligence because of my religious dress.
But I was bothered by Khaleel being so alone, so I kicked off my shoes and chased after him, when I could see he was heading back towards us, his shoulders outlined by thin rim of white moonlight of the balck oily expanse of water.
"Hello," he smiled genuinely when I drew near.
"Hello." I scrunched up my nose at him. "You should say 'Asalaam alaykom' because we are Muslims."
"Right," he adjusted himself like those fern-like plants that you touch and they just curl up, or sea anenomes when you prick them with your finger-tip, "you are better than me."
It was like a slap in the face, for I could feel his self-loathing as if it were a wet cloth being thrown at me. I was ammune to abuse, crazed as I was. "Khaleel, what is wrong? Are you okay?"
He laughed a horrible deep laugh, the kind with no mirth in it, so that you know that it is darkness. The rising sun, growing in strength, did not lesson the hallowness of the sound.
"I should be asking you that, but I won't because it isn't any of my business."
We walked a few paces in silence, kicking sand.
I couldn't help myself though. Khaleel was like my medicine.
"Do you remember that time you took my Mum and Summer and I up here when we were kids?"
Khaleel's features softened. "Mhmm."
"It was the first time I saw an Omani fishing village," I continued with the invitation of his throat chords barely humming. "And you ditched us to play soccer---er, I mean 'football' with some Omani boys, and we had a picnic, and you were scared your uncle would see us the whole time? With us Devil-white women?" I was leaning into his path and grinning.
It worked. He grinned back.
"...And I played with the garbage eating goats, and you told us about the Castle, and it was the first day I didn't really hate Oman all that much."
We were both smiling, remembering ourselves before our cirucmstances in life had caged us, made him useless, and made me weak.
When we came up to Audrey and Masoud, as engaged as they were in what appeared to be, building a sand castle, Khaleel was staring directly into my face and really seeing me, not just who I used to be, for the first time since fate (or my mother's meddling, call it what you will) had forced us onto eachother's paths again.
His voice was kind when he spoke. "You were such a cute kid. I miss how you used to dress, like a little Kashmiri."
I scrunched up my nose at him again. "Don't remind me. I was trying to dress Omani but they charge us Westerners a fortune for Omani traditional dresses."
Audrey and Masoud were wholly absorbed in their construction, so that you'd never know that Masoud was 36, and Audrey 23, so they didn't even seem to take note of Khaleel and I standing there, feeling ancient with undocumented heartbreaks and disapointments belying our years.
"Why did you come back here Anna," his voice was hoarse. "Why don't you just go home?"
Khaleel wasn't trying to be mean, exactly, he just couldn't help me anymore than he had. I knew very well he didn't have the money to keep buying our meals and charging our cell phone with credit so that he could make sure we were okay daily.
I tried then to be thoughtful, and to remember my city. I remembered restaurants I had sat smiling at with Faisal and the tastes of familiar foods beyond a plain palate of rice and meat and salads of sliced onion with lemon, and I remembered sunny park benches in rose gardens he and I had cherished. That Faisal had been there with me, trying to hold my hand as I pulled away, and the the memory of his laugh was the most poignant...
And the pain of it all was really too much for me, even a world away from the harrowing absence of his presence.
All the rose petals in my memory are blown in a shock of wind to chill my young flesh, and disappear under thorny grey hedges in my mind's scape, with empty wrought iron benches taunting and wicked.
Lurid men cat-call me as I walk home alone from such places in my conjurance of the places and sounds of where once I made my life. They say sick things, like "take that scarf off or I'll come f**** you!" Or "I am nine inches, I bet you want the whole of me in you." Brave only because I am a diminuative woman alone, with a headscarf that supposedly makes me weak, and a face veil that makes them think I am deaf, or mindless.
I was not weak then.
A wan, thin smile grates my face.
I faced them bravely with a stone in my hand just in case, but with the courage and wit to use my tongue first, and well, that their pride was wounded, and their manhood less then my womanhood, which I did not have to bare to make known.
I was more than my face and my body. I was a woman and I had a home and I knew who I was and where I was going and what my life would be like someday if Saudi Arabia could just see that I was good, and not anything less for not being an Arab. I was a Muslim and that is all that mattered.
Where my strength had gone, I was not sure, but I was absolutely sure, that if even another woman refused to let me serve her at my work because I was "one of THOSE people" or another ignorant man in a plaid red coat inferred I should move to Saudi Arabia if I wanted to dress as I did, that I didn't deserve employment or school or to vote because of my headscarf and veil... I would not be able to work the one profession that was open to me in my headscarf. I would run to the staff toilet stall and sprall out on the floor with the good people that are in this world surrounding me but their voices making no differences.
"It's just ignornace!" "It makes me so mad!" "If he only knew you!" "Do you want me to smack him for you?" "I told her to take her business elsewhere!"
My hands were shaking, so Khaleel took his soft cashmere musayr [Omani turban-like headwrap] from his head, and draped it around my chest lightly, without touching me.
I was so weary of being the strong one, of trying, of trying, of trying. Defending myself, my religion, the men of my religion, defending countries like Oman and Saudi Arabia, explaining, explaining, and explaining, when in the end, that I was Muslim didn't matter to anyone but me. People maybe admired my idealism, and 'a wrong is a wrong' no matter what, but that is because we as whole, Muslims, humanity, what have you, were generally leaderless and divided within ourselves and with eachother. People would only follow my call so far, even if I said this way is better than that, because I could not break down the walls, and some people did not want them broken, high and safe in their palaces with people like Faisal and me fighting the battle they claimed in newspapers they wanted won. But like Joan of Arc, they left me to burn, only I was never pure enough to be a martyr.
"Go back to the West," Arabia commanded, when I, a Muslim, had announced "I have made hijrah!"
It smelled of an unfamiliar perfume, the mussayr, an Arabic strain stronger than any Faisal had ever worn, but that it was scented reminded me of Faisal's bright polo shirts with the collar flipped up with panache, and the feel of the rainbow's spread of cotton on my cheek.
I raised my eyes again to Khaleel's to control the shaking.
"I have no home anymore. I can't go back. There's nothing there for me anymore."
Khaleel looked out over the expansive plain there in Barka that was to be a future development project for the country and laughed bitterly. Two grey concrete future show homes sat like shell-shocked structures on the plain above us.
"There's nothing for you here. Trust me. I've lived thirty years of my life in Oman. I am thirty now and have nothing to show for it."
"That's not true," I defended him to himself. "You have friends who love you and speak endlessly of your loyalty, and family."
Khaleel ran a hand through his curly black hair. "And that's what an Omani man is supposed to want, to have?"
My heart was breaking but I asked it anyways. "And what DO you want Khaleel?"
He wandered us a ways to the water, where we dipped our feet in it, as fisherman started to splay open their areeshes and hefted up his dishdasha to tie it about his waist, to squat in the moist sand.
While we had been speaking (or not speaking), Masoud had been trying to teach Audrey an important verse from the Qu'ran that all Muslims are supposed to know flawlessly that she had struggled with in exasperation for nigh three years now and counting.
"I want a family that I CHOSE, just a small one, one baby, maybe more. A wife who is a good Muslim and doesn't want a ridiculous maher, who I like to be around, and who loves me. A simple house with simply things, a simple life. Maybe I'd paint again like I used to if I felt that kind of comfort."
My eyes bleed for his dream which was once my own, only I would write again, not paint.
"You can still make that," I tell him.
Khaleel tosses his head and stares bleakly as the morning fishing boats are dragged up onto the sand a ways away from us on the beach, and their silver catches glisten in the wane morning sun.
"What do you want now, ya Anna?" he catches me, like a fish, in the net of his thick lashed gaze.
But before I could answer Masoud and Audrey lumbered upon our private conference in elation for Audrey having memorized the Quran verse of Al Fatiha in almost perfect Arabic.
"Go take your madrassa elsewhere!" Khaleel barked at Masoud, and Audrey and Masoud skittered away from us like scared beach cats, laughing to eachother at Khaleel's bad temper. "Now," he turned back to me. "What does Anna need in Oman?"
I couldn't help myself. All my lost and vain dreams came pouring out and spilt on the sand between us like pearls who need their hard crusty shell for protection.
"I want to be married," I admitted to him. "I am ready to be married. I am good at being a wife and I like to take care of my husband, dress up nice for him, cook him things he likes, and I don't even like cooking!" He just listened as I went on.
"I want a house that is mine, that no one can take away from me, that I can decorate and make nice.
And I want to live in place where I feel safe and where people stop telling me to go live somewhere else just because I am Muslim or because I am not Saudi or Arab.
I am not ready yet, but maybe in one year, I'd like to have a daughter. But if I marry, it has to be someone who loves me for me, not just the idea of me 'cause I am a convert, or because I am white and ya'll Arabs seem to have a thing for that. I need to be known, and I know." In all this I was quite excited, and it drained me.
"I am so tired Khaleel, of wanting, of waiting, of hoping. I can't wait anymore."
[more later----to be continued]