I didn't see it coming. They all say that, I know, but it's not like you wake up one morning and say to yourself: "This is the day it all falls apart; now, what should I wear?"
Dodi and I made sure everything would be as close to perfect as mere mortals could ever hope to get. From a Reem Acra confection of silk and organza so sweet and fluffy it could have been a meringue, to scheduling the big day to fall on Friday, that holiest of weekdays, our wedding day had been unequalled in pomp and over-the-top indulgence since Auntie Najla married off her fifth and final daughterto a lesser member of the Qatar royal family (much, much lesser).
Then, in less time than it takes to round off one lunar cycle, kaboom.
A mushroom cloud of unforeseen humiliation detonated in the halls of one of Montreal's finer department stores, and rose up with the dread of impending doom. The dust of public scandal has yet to settle on me, and already I have no idea what I'm going to do.
Snuggling deeper into my armchair, I surrender to the soothing aura of white linen tablecloths, tinkling stemware, and ebullient chatter of young women sitting in clusters around the hotel's private lounge, evidence of their morning jaunt to the shops stacked in brightly colored carrier bags at their feet. I try to channel a different time, when these things stood for all the wonder and delight of a five-year-old tagging along on a business trip with her indulgent father, or perhaps on a European shopping excursion with her mother. Instead I can only wonder if any one of those pretty girls with their flashy jewelry and bouncy giggles would ever have the misfortune of waking up one morning to the sucker-punch discovery that their husband of one month, the catch of the decade, the long-awaited award for obedient patience in the face of advancing time and mounting despair, was in fact, hopelessly and beyond any doubt, gay.
I pick up the cup of steaming amber liquid in front ofme, focusing on the mint particles huddled together at the bottom, and try to make like Julie Andrews and think about a few of my favorite things. Like Nutella straight from the jar and a lazy half-day at a spa.
"C'est payant, le terrorisme," I hear a woman next to me say, suddenly and without warning, to the man snuggled in a red velvet upholstered chair beside her. She tosses her wispy hair to the side and raises a glass of champagne to her lips, giggling.
I cradle my teacup back in its gold-rimmed saucer and square my shoulders.
Terrorism pays, she mouths again, surreptitiously jutting her chin at the groups of women sitting at tables around us.
Her eyes meet mine for half a second. She smiles, blissfully unaware the puffy-eyed woman in the belted Victor & Rolf shirtdress and cinnamon streaks happens to be one of Them--the Others. Girls who, if you were to take away their headscarves and have them show a little more leg, would look a lot like me.
"Them" being the veiled, coffee and mocha and olive-skinned versions of me.
There are lots of us filling the lounge, sitting around in gaggles, some conspicuous, some not, prattling in a thousand different variations of Gibberish, the official language of the Others--Urdu, Hindi, Farsi, and at least three different kinds of Arabic.
What I think has got the pointy-chinned blonde so miffed is that this particular set of Others isn't conforming to hergeneral idea of what Others should be like--their headscarves are multicolored, some fringed, some sequined, some in solid, saturated hues and some patterned in plaid, or paisley, or Pucci. They're not bundled in shapeless black but rather swathed in longish boho skirts I recognize from the storefront windows lining Bond Street. Scattered throughout the room, flowing saris kiss the carpeted floors and pointy stiletto tips poke out from underneath the edges of structured wide-legged trousers while she, Miss Freckles, sits apart with her bored and listless companion. Worse--these Others seem contented, carefree, and positively unsubmissive.
I should say something.
I can embarrass her, bring a much-needed flush into those sallow cheeks. But I lower my head and stare into my own cup instead.
What would I say? Me, a grown woman who chose flight over fight when she had been wronged by a philandering husband?
"Excuse me, but I think you owe this lady an apology," a masculine voice booms in English.
"What?" The blonde cradles her china cup back in its saucer and looks up at the man towering over her. Her face crumples up into a mask of loathing. Oh, no.
"I'm pretty sure you heard me the first time," says Mystery Man.
The blonde is just as frozen as I am. Her friend just sitsback and looks the other way, contempt dripping from every facial feature.
"Whatever." She shrugs.
"'Whatever' isn't exactly an apology."
He doesn't budge. He has the build of an athlete, stuffed into a sleek (Italian? English?) single-breasted suit, and a sort of sunny informality about him that stands out in this somber crowd. I try not to stare, but that's hard to do when you're already frozen in place.
"Excuse me, Mr. Mallouk, can we help you with anything?" A hotel attendant with a shiny name tag that says "Katie" scurries up to us.
This should be my cue to leave. Now, before any more damage on my account is done. Still, I can't seem to budge.
"Yeah, actually, these guests were being rude to Miss ... uh?"
He looks at me and smiles encouragingly. His teeth are too straight to be anything but American.
"Ranya." Should I give him my last name, too? Tell him I'm technically a "Mrs.," though I don't think that should count given the circumstances?
Again, probably not.
"I don't mean to cause a scene or anything, Katie," he turns to the attendant, who seems just as awestruck by this man as the rest of us are, "but I think Ranya is as entitled to a comfortable and respectful environment as the rest of us."
"Of course she is, Mr. Mallouk, may I ask exactly what happened?"
Katie looks back and forth from the American's relaxed face to the blonde's visible annoyance, then to my own mortification.
I came here to be invisible. This is the absolute last thing I wanted. To cause another scene, upset yet more people. But it seems Humiliation won't be releasing me from its clutches anytime soon.
"Well, this lady over here," the man Katie referred to as Mr. Mallouk nods toward the couple, "she made this joke--at least I think it was a joke--and I'm pretty sure I misunderstood ... . Why don't you ask her to share it with us, you know, just in case I heard wrong," he says icily.
The culprit fidgets, scratches the back of her skull, and tucks a strand of yellow hair behind an ear, without once looking at any of us.
"Fine. I'm sorry." She exaggerates a bow of her head in my direction. "Are you happy now?"
"Not really, but you've wasted enough of our time." He turns to Katie, thanks her, and then stops in front of my table.
"Look--I'm really sorry about that. It was totally uncalled for. You really should have said something."
"How did you even know?"
He shakes his head and laughs. "Trust me, I know."
"Mallouk ... Lebanese, right? You don't look it, though." I can feel myself blushing again. I'm not exactly prone to striking up conversations with perfect strangers in hotel lounges.
"Well ... they taught us to say 'Phoenician' at Bible school, but yeah, Lebanese. I guess." He laughs. "Fourth generation. If it hadn't been for my dad's near-maniacal obsession of making sure we spoke Arabic in the house, I don't think I would've been any more Lebanese than this English muffin over here. I'm Georges, by the way." He looks flustered, as if not sure whether to shake my hand or not.
He settles on shoving both hands into his pockets instead and nodding in my direction.
"Well, uh, it was nice meeting you, Ranya. I'm sure I'll see you around."
"Mmm-hmm." I try to convey my gratitude by flapping my curled and tinted eyelashes at him. It's the best I can do. Where, I wonder, did the sparkling social graces I was bred to exhibit go? The au courant remarks designed to hint at a political science major, minor in French literature? An offhand reference or two to semesters at a Belgian lycée, summers at the family flat in Cyprus where beautiful Cypriots would slow their scooters to a near halt on dusty narrow streets and holler sweet obscenities at my cousins and me while we pretended to ignore them?
He turns and heads back to his table. There's a woman I hadn't noticed before sitting there waiting for him. She's around my age, a little thick around the middle and in need of serious exfoliation. And her eyes are shooting daggers at me.
Yeeee! Ranya? Ranya Hayek, is that you?"
I look up. Two women, one in a salmon pink headscarfcovering her hairline and cascading in a silky curtain down to her shoulders, the other with poker-straight honey-colored hair and matching skin, are making their way to my table.
Leave it to the Universe to kick you in the shins just when you've never been more down. I needed the social equivalent of a Nepalese ashram buried in some mountainous wasteland, and instead I was about to be thrown into a lion's den while "It's a Small World After All" ran in a loop inside my head.
"It's such a small world, isn't it?" Soheir says, swooping down for the obligatory air kisses, her hair swooshing across my face.
I could cry.
If you had been around in the days when oil had made the desert bloom with the spoils of sudden wealth, chances are you would have met a Sabah or a Soheir. I happened to have gone to school with this particular pair in Riyadh, where my father, an industrial engineer from the small city of Sidon in Lebanon, was stationed. The Gulf area had come into a lot of money--fast--so they were happy enough to handsomely compensate anyone who could help transition them out of the Iron Age to something resembling the twentieth century. My father, educated at the American University of Beirut, was one such person. And that's how I, the daughter of a modest workingman from a regular working family, came to rub elbows with petrodollar heiresses like Sabah and Soheir el-Bustani.
"Ma'sha'allah, you look great!" Soheir coos. "Still, after all these years. How long has it been, Sabah?"
"Too many to count," says the less ditzy of the sisters.
"Can we sit?" asks Soheir.
"Of course ... shame on you for asking!" I try to swallow back the hard knot of foreboding gathering at the back of my throat. There has to be a way out of this. Naturally, my cell phone, which had been ringing off the hook ever since I set foot off the plane at Heathrow, now slumbers mutely in my purse.
"That's not your husband over there, is it?" Sabah's gaze flits to somewhere just above and behind my head.
It's a lucky thing I didn't actually have anything in my mouth at the moment she uttered those words, because I immediately proceeded to choke on my own saliva.
Should I add "access to a teleporter" to the list of things-I-should-have-known-about-Dodi-before-I-married-him- but-didn't?
"Sa'ha," Soheir mumbles the Arabic expression for "bless you," pummeling my back with her heavily bejeweled fist in the process. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," I manage, laboriously sucking in short gasps of air.
I whip around to find only the American, Georges, at the table behind me. He catches my stare and smiles. I turn right back, hoping he'd missed my cheeks exploding in bouquets of bright pink fireworks.
"That's just ... someone I met here," I mumble.
Sabah betrays just a hint of disapproval. "Sorry, I just assumed ... you know, since you were clearly getting along--"
"Oh, shush!" Soheir jumps in. "Ever since you took the hijaab you think everyone should be as stuffy as you. Let the poor girl talk to whomever she wants." She rolls her eyes before setting her gaze back on me. "Congratulations, by the way." She leans in and lays a dainty hand over mine. "We heard. You must be over the moon! Where is he?"
"Who?" I blink numbly.
"Your husband." She blinks back, her pasted smile freezing in place.
I inadvertently let out a snort. Some things never change. Or is it the people who don't change?
Sabah, Soheir, and I used to be part of a bigger shillah--a clique--back in our Riyadh school days. Loosely assembled though it was, a pastiche of girls who talked a little louder, held their noses a little higher, and flitted around in social circles a little brighter than the rest, I could imagine some ties in the old gang had resisted the pull of time and place. And with all the possible topics of conversation and debate this world holds for us, all they ever seemed to talk about was the weather and who had bought what from Europe or America to wear to which wedding. I'd spent the better part of my life convinced I had nothing in common with these girls. That if I socialized with them, it was for lack of more stimulating company. Sure I shopped a lot, but I'd also read Dickens and Zola and Flaubert not because anyone made mebut to prove to myself I wasn't above intellectual improvement. I volunteered at the Red Crescent blood drive ... once. I could tell a Monet from a Manet, and it was certainly not because I thought it was a talent my future husband might appreciate. And yet, sitting across from Sabah and Soheir today, I can't help but wonder if the biggest mistake of my life hadn't been my abysmal choice of a husband but in ever thinking I was any different from the pair of empty, vacant child-women in front of me.
"I don't know where my husband is, and you know what? I don't really care," I finally say.
They both gape at me quizzically as if trying to figure out the joke (another thing they were never very good at).
Calmly I stand up, grab my handbag, and leave the room.