Apr/May 2003  •   Fiction


by Zett Aguado

Standing there, motionless, one straight blur, your eyes moved like escalators as you tweaked the end of your mustache. You drifted in after us, a duffel bag in one hand, a heavy winter coat draped over an arm. My husband pointed out the shortness of your robe. He jerked his chin in your direction and said, look, look. He's mutawa, a holy man, you can tell from his long beard and short dishdasha.

The ghutra on your head flowed to your elbows. The heels of your feet were pink. I immediately thought you were sacred. Around us, children stuffed into parkas cried. Their faces were bright. I was thirsty, but we were on our way to Paris, so I did not care.

The queue was long. Every few minutes, I turned around to see what you were doing. Men like you were everywhere in Abu Dhabi, but I never got a straight look. Usually, I averted my glance. Maybe it was because I was at the airport, exiting your country, that I felt safe to look at you. As I studied the way you tweaked your mustache, I remembered the story of a mutawa who caned the back of a Western girl's leg because her skirt was too short. The story was the mutawa reformed her, and she was now Muslim. They married. As I saw you wipe your nostrils with your index finger, I wondered if you were that mutawa, and if you kissed the neck of your woman, tickling her with the hair on your face.

Your mustache looked like a bat, soaring.

You were the only one in national dress, and you looked above the rest, like something majestic. I felt flattered and desirable, that I had your attention. You stood with that Arabic grace. Head up, shoulders up, black eyes all over me. I thought, this is the way eclipses look. Like that. Like your eyes.

My husband crossed his arms over his chest and tapped a foot. He did not want to make conversation, so I looked around and then back at you. Women surrounded us, walking, laughing, passing from security check to security check, tossing their hair. I watched them because they were beautiful, and because you didn't appear to notice them. Your eyes did not leave me. I wondered why you weren't looking at them, especially one girl in a short jacket over a belly dancer's outfit. Her face was a smear of blue eye shadow and red lips. I knew she was Russian. All of the belly dancers in your country were. Her hair was yellow like yarn, and she did not care to close her jacket when she walked. It opened and shut like a door with a faulty hinge. The top of her breasts vibrated with each step. She had been crying.

We advanced a step closer to the ticket counters. My husband noticed you, staring. He kicked our bags ahead of us. Maybe, my husband said, you shouldn't have worn those jeans. They are too tight, too provocative. Here, wrap my sweater around your hips.

I wondered if you detected the open scowl on my face. I suppose you must have, because my husband tugged my arm and said, don't make that ugly face at me.

I bound my hips and bottom and did not look at you anymore, because I was ashamed.

But then, I saw you in the airplane. I had awoken from a nap. My legs were knots. The engines were loud. Dinner, wrapped in plastic, rested on my tray. My husband winked at me, and I noticed how much younger he looked when he wasn't frowning or nervous. He's always on guard in your country. It was then you walked by, your hands behind your back. I was smiling because my husband was flirting with me, and I wondered if you thought I was smiling at you.

We were flying over Beirut. The monitor showed our flight path. Last time, we had flown over Iran. My husband explained things were different now, and it wasn't safe to fly over certain countries. I searched the airplane, peeking into faces. I cursed myself for not being attentive in the queue. Maybe somebody suspicious had boarded the plane, somebody with a bomb or a weapon. I could have noticed had I not been staring at you. My husband knew my thoughts and patted my hand. Relax, he said.

A shadow of scents trailed as you passed by again. Your back was unassuming, as fragile as a small boy's. I recognized the mukhallat, the mixed oils of your perfume. I once saw an Arabic woman dab some on her elbows in a public bathroom. The mukhallat crept into my hair. It was exotic. But on the airplane, it was overwhelming and foreign. I felt like sneezing.

I wondered why you stood by the Emergency Exit. It looked like you were stretching your legs. You shook each sandaled foot a few times. When you asked the flight attendant for a glass of water, the gap between your front teeth was wide and black. It was cold inside of the airplane, so you removed your ghutra and blanketed your shoulders with it. I wondered why you traveled alone and what was inside of your duffel bag.

My bladder was full, but I refused to go to the bathroom. I would have had to pass next to you. Crossing and uncrossing my legs, I cursed you for standing there, loitering, staring at me. I wanted you to sit down and take a nap. To disappear. My husband asked me if I was okay. I said I was and kissed him on the nose. I could kiss him flying over Beirut, mutawa or not. You did not make the rules there.

I ate, hunched over, trying to avoid your stare. The foie gras was delicious, but the bread roll was stale. You seemed to analyze the Emergency Exit, studying it with your hands intertwined behind your back. But when you touched the door and peered outside of the cabin window, the flight attendant asked you to take a seat. When you walked past, your eyes were like stones. I scowled at you. Your expression didn't waver.

A loose thread hung from the bottom of your dishdasha. Your feet were smaller than I had first thought. I ran to the bathroom, relieved myself, then returned to my seat and slept.

I forgot about you when we landed in Paris. I didn't look around to see if you were looking. My husband and I grabbed our carry-on luggage and waited as passengers filed past. We didn't care about being the last ones off the plane. We wouldn't have to queue at customs with non-French citizens. We were home.

My husband arranged the collar of my coat to cover my neck. Bundle up, he said. His gloves were shiny leather, and I thought, how nice. I had forgotten how winter clothes suited him. It was always too hot in your country.

I remembered you when we were outside of the airport. Looking around, I saw you were queuing for a taxi. It was drizzling. Your beard was ragged. The ghutra was wrapped around your head, covering your ears. It was limp and looked out of place with your checkered coat. My family called my name. While I hugged my mother-in-law, I saw you leave out of the corner of my eye. You were a blur, in white.