Shisha

Short Story published by Tethered by Letters' F(r)iction #7 (2017)

Stagnant air hangs over the beach, where hip hop, halters and cocktails reflect a set of goals that are not shared by the woman in a burka observing us from inside the hotel. Dancers defy the oppressive heat and flock by the video wall, while Shareef, glazed purple from the lights, lies back on the white leather couch in his fine Italian suit. I lean over so my hair falls—a curtain to hide us as I approach his lips. He’s tempted, but pulls away. 


“You want to be arrested?” he asks, tucking his hair behind his ear, where it belongs. He knows I only do this when I seek a rush, and there’s nothing wrong with living by the rules, but he doesn’t thirst adrenaline the way I do.


A hookah sits on the table. Its red glass base, filled with water, tapers to a fluted neck of gold. A long tube wraps around it. I crave a deep drag of the shisha, but I’ll save it so I have something to look forward to—a little gift for later. When the server arrives, I tell her to surprise me, and before I have time to reveal my news, Shareef pulls a tiny transparent box from his pocket. 


“You scoffed when I wrote ‘permanently yours’ across your wall in red marker,” he says. 


“It was just a reflection of your state of mind in that moment.”


“In that moment and always. I want to grow old with you, Lana. I made this for you.” He unsnaps the box to hand me a ring. “The diamond is your clear head, the emeralds: your cat eyes, the rubies: your lips, the rose gold: your hair, and the onyx specks are your freckles.” A grape-sized diamond glows like the sun, gems orbiting in hammered gold. 


“Are you proposing to me so Immigration doesn’t kick me out of Dubai in three weeks?”  


“Lana. I defied my father by moving to New York to be with you for the last seven years. This isn’t rash. I’m looking for a commitment,” he says, blinking his long eyelashes. 


He reaches out to hold my hand, but catches himself so we don’t get in trouble. We’ve barely touched in the two months since I arrived in Dubai, despite my every attempt to lead him astray. I can’t stay at his condo here, even since his father died, or else the staff would whisper. 


“I don’t want you with me in the name of commitment. I want you to choose me, every day, over everyone else,” I say. 


“I know what I want. I think you’re the one who doesn’t know what you want.” 


I look around at all the colorful drinks on trays as I wait for mine to arrive. All I can think is that after our drink we’ll be hungry, and when we fill up, we’ll get coffee. If we satisfy this longing, our desire will dissipate. It’s human nature. That’s the problem with these things.


“It’s not that. It’s been almost a year, and I’m still lost,” I mutter. 


“Selling your business wasn’t the end of your life; it’s the beginning of our life together,” he says. 


After the closing, Shareef took me to the Ritz and gave me an engraved 24K gold pen. He’d been waiting for that day to talk about marriage, but it all still seemed like an abstraction. The sale was my big win, so why did I cry? Ten years building a product and a team, only to have it shed in an hour of signatures. Poof, the dream achieved, delivering me the credibility I’d been seeking: two steps up in lifestyle, and a gaping hole in my life. 


“I need direction,” I say, putting the ring back into its box.


“What if you already have everything you need?” 


“Where’s my drink? My throat is parched.” I cough so loud that a black man who looks like a body-builder turns to me. Mr. Universe rolls up his sleeves, catching me as I study his arms. He nods toward the camel sitting on the beach as if to offer me a ride. I laugh and shake my head. I can’t help the pleasure that comes from being desired. My hibiscus martini arrives, and despite its red color it turns out to be tart and complex. I lick my lips which only makes them more chapped.


My view of Mr. Universe is blocked by Shareef’s twin sister Sarina, who sits by her brother in a black robe and headscarf, after kissing the air by my cheek. She could be beautiful with makeup but she doesn’t care. She never speaks English, and I appreciate the thrill that comes from being an outsider. Plus, I’ve acquired a new taste from every man who’s been in my life—a consolation prize in case the relationship didn’t pan out: sushi from Steve, rap from Chris, snowboarding from John, and now Arabic from Shareef. 


“What did she say?” Sarina asks him, nodding toward the ring. 


“Nothing. More suspense.” He shrugs and flicks the box. 


“You think I’m too messed up for Shareef,” I say to her. 


“It’s a fair fight,” she says, and slips the ring on her finger to admire it, then puts it back.


“Let’s dance,” I say, and start to stand up, but they act like they don’t hear me. 


“I need to know if you’re going to buy the house from me,” she says to him. “If not, I need to put it on the market. Do you really want our childhood home going to strangers? I hope you don’t mind—I asked my friend Izdihar to join us so we can be done with all this. Do you remember her? She’s a real estate lawyer. I want her to take a look and advise us.” Sarina lays out photos of the beloved Dubai mansion, framed by creamy stone blocks, set behind palm trees and an iron fence. 


“What’s the rush?” I ask.


“I can’t take care of all this by myself.”  Everyone else here has staff, but she rejects her entitlements, intent to prove that enough is, in fact, enough. “I don’t know what Father was thinking, leaving it to me. You’re the one to have a family.” 


“A house and kids,” I say. “It’s just so predictable…”


“I can wait for you,” Shareef says to me, adjusting his cuff link, “but at some point you lose your option on children. Biology is even more obstinate than you.”


“I still have a few years to reject expectations before a permanent decision,” I say.


“That’s fine. I have my condo when I visit here. Until I know where this is going, I don’t need a house.” He tosses the photos on top of the little box. 


“Why not buy it and keep your options open?” Sarina says. 


“In my life, I pick a single path, not multiple paths. If I buy this house, it will be to visit when I come from New York with my children,” he says in an even tone. 


I flag the server for another martini. I’ve been holding this in for days. I swallow but there’s no saliva in my mouth. I have to tell him. 


“I was offered a dream job in China,” I say. “I’d be CEO of a new 3D printing division.” 


“Change for the sake of change,” Shareef says. “Why don’t you try commitment as a sort of novelty?”  


“Why not come with me in a few months, after you sort out your father’s estate?” I ask. 


“I need to return to New York to my investments.”  


“Then I’ll travel back and forth,” I say.


“Relationships aren’t static. They grow or they shrink,” he says.


“Life isn’t static either. This could be my next new thing,” I insist. 


“What if it turns out life isn’t a ratchet, and you lose what you already have?” he asks. 


“Something’s missing…” I can barely breathe in the viscous atmosphere. 


“You’re missing,” he says, crossing his legs. 


Sarina stands up and waves across the deck. “Here she is.”


Izdihar arrives in a cloud of perfume. A black silk scarf frames her face, which is highlighted by gold eyelids and Cleopatra eyeliner. Even under the flowing black floor-length robe, it’s clear her body is the type that converts cake to curves. When she sits beside me, I pull down on my pink dress—which doesn’t seem sexy anymore, simply cheap and obvious. The server pours her coffee from a long spout, and the smell reminds me of nights with the engineers assembling our first machines into the morning hours. When my life revolved around that coffee machine in the dark nook, all I wanted was an open window. Now that all the options are mine, nothing is good enough. 


“They took away our coffee,” I mutter. “The simplest, smallest pleasure. The buyer paid millions for my company, but their CEO said the coffee for our machine was too expensive.”


“Your visa expires in three weeks if you don’t get a job or a husband, and you’re worrying about coffee,” Shareef says, crossing his arms. I start to pour a little martini into his grapefruit juice, but he pulls his glass in with a look of disapproval because I should know better. 


“I don’t get all the rules here. You think stopping a behavior kills the craving?” I ask. 


“Do you think submitting to your wishes makes the future better than the present?”  Sarina asks. “The moment is already perfect, and desires disappear whether you satisfy them or not.” This lack of ambition is exactly what I’d expect from her; she’s been given everything.


“That may be so,” I say, “but submission creates new experience.” 


I check my watch, covered with a film of dust, to calculate the time in China. Flatbread and hummus arrive; they used to make my mouth water, but it’s been two months of this, so I pick up the menu to see what else there is. Izdihar doesn’t smile and barely speaks, but her eyes are on, and her musk wafts my way every time she leans over to drink. Peeking out from under her dress are stilettos of unfinished brown leather: raw elegance. It’s the kind of contradiction that rocks Shareef’s world. 


Izdihar’s eyes are riveted on Shareef. He takes off his jacket, folds it, and rolls up his sleeves as he speaks. These discussions aren’t quite so brilliant as I had imagined them before I spoke the language, and I wonder how long it will take me to get by in Mandarin. As talk turns to oil prices, Shareef tells a joke. Izdihar smiles. I know this type. She studies men like they’re baklava at the bakery, and when she makes her choice, there will be no words—just the eyes. Izdihar looks down, feigning modesty, and Shareef pretends he doesn’t notice that her long, black hair has fallen onto his arm. My dress is sticking to my torso, so I suggest swimming, but Izdihar looks down as if she’s embarrassed by my proposition. 


“Izdihar owns a sculpture gallery,” Sarina tells me. 


Now I see. Sarina orchestrated this because Izdihar is a more fitting match, and Sarina knows how quickly her brother can fall. During my pitch to Shareef for an investment in my startup, I could tell when he started observing me the way an artist would, igniting the chemistry I felt after he disagreed—correctly—with my answer to his first question. He took me to lunch and opened up about how conflicted he felt working for his father, as if we were old friends. Shareef doesn’t dabble. If he’s interested, it’s from his heart and he’s all in. Izdihar’s eggplant lips open wide when she speaks. Shareef nods at the names of the sculptors she mentions, and I wonder if he actually knows them. He may. As much as he tries to appreciate the music I share with him, it’s the tactile arts which move him. Perhaps he’s discovered the love of his life, right here at this club, sitting on the white leather couch, just moments after committing his life to me. Isn’t it so much easier to covet someone whose mystery is unblemished by reality? 


I wave to a server and ask for another martini. Shareef would say enough is enough but he’s too busy showing Izdihar a photo of the library: parquet floors and shelves to the ceiling filled with leather-bound books. I had always dreamed of such a room, and had piled my books in the corner of my Soho studio in preparation, until one day I flipped through Lolita and saw that the paper had turned yellow. 


Shareef is gazing at Izdihar and I can see he’s idealized her, the way he used to airbrush me in his mind. Those delusions were unsustainable. I always knew that, even though he denied it. I can’t be jealous for the fact that she’s reaching for something I’ve let hang in the air. 


“It’s a beautiful home. I always loved it,” I interject. 


“You loved it when it was new to you,” Shareef responds. 


A text buzzes in from China. 


“Just be here now,” he adds. 


I open the box to take out the ring and slip it onto my finger, which has swollen in the heat. I scrape it past my knuckle and then I realize I’ve pushed too hard. I try to pull it off but it barely budges and the blood flow to my finger feels constricted. 


“I could help Lana get a job here for the next few months until I sort the estate out, but she doesn’t want any favors,” Shareef says to Izdihar. 


“I remember, you told me,” Izdihar nods. 


“Remember what?” I ask, tugging on the ring under the table. 


“We ran into each other on the ferry to Doha a few months ago, just after my father died,” Shareef says. 


“See? I knew you’d be fine until I arrived,” I say with a whack to his arm like we’re old navy buddies, and the face of the diamond jabs his dark skin. 


As I retract, I knock over my martini—pink liquid crawls on the table and drips to the floor. 


“I told you about the art show,” he says, drying up the mess with a napkin. “Surreal imagery that was abstract enough not to break any laws.”


“Imagination is more provocative than reality,” Izdihar says. 


“I can show you a rendition of that old woman’s portrait,” he chuckles. “Do you remember?”


He asks me for my 24K gold deal pen and draws a face on a napkin which he hands to her. He’s expert at emulation, so he’s uniquely qualified to give this gift, and she’s in awe. My reaction is neither jealousy nor empathy for this woman who doesn’t see what’s happening; what I feel is disgust. 


I lean over to put the brass mouthpiece of the pipe between my lips and inhale the vapors, which heat up from the charcoal then pass through the tobacco and the long red tube into my dry throat. When the server appears, Sarina and Izdihar order. 


I lean over the table. “Do you have feelings for this woman?” I ask Shareef above the music. 


“I’ve never seen you jealous,” he says.

“I didn’t think you had it in you.” 


I would ask him to talk, but he always says people talk too much. I twist the ring around and around my finger, without making any lateral progress. 


The friction cracks my dry skin, so I look in my purse for some lotion. There is none, but my phone is there with the email string from China. The CEO is waiting for my answer, so I stand up and ask for the ladies’ room before noticing that Shareef is ordering his meal. 


“That’s okay,” he says, putting down the menu. “Go ahead. I’ll wait for you.”


I head onto the stone deck, hot as a just-lit match. The pool in the center glows like a sapphire. If I take this job, I’ll travel the world, make connections, learn another language, and create something new. My finger is starting to hurt so I pull on the ring as someone bumps into me. It’s Mr. Universe, who gives me a grin, as if we’re both in on some secret. 


“You look like you need a drink.” He steps toward the bar to order me a tequila. 


“You’re not from around here,” I say. 


“Houston.” His top button is undone to reveal a thick gold chain.


“Oil has a funny way of reshuffling the deck, doesn’t it?” I say. He shrugs and hands me the tequila. “I should get back.” I point with my unencumbered hand to our table out on the beach. He raises his eyebrows at Shareef, then leans against the bar so his arm flexes. A server passes a tray of chocolates in a variety of shapes wrapped in gold cellophane, so I take a bite from one and drop another in my purse. Mr. Universe leans in, grinning. I’m used to this. Men assume the flesh that escapes my dresses means I’m all woman—but I understand men so much better, which makes me an enemy infiltrant. 


I keep tugging on my ring, but it’s cutting off my blood supply, and my finger will surely fall off if I don’t take action. I stand over a potted plant, drizzle tequila over the ring, and then yank on it as hard as I can. The ring flies out of my fingers, into the night air, teasing me with flickers from the poolside torches before I hear a plop. I look down into the pool. The concentric ripples from the ring’s impact decorate the surface, but I can’t see beyond that.  


“I dropped my ring into the pool,” I say. 


Mr. Universe doesn’t react. I’d ask Shareef for help if he weren’t so far away. I pan the beach for Shareef’s grey suit. Izdihar is speaking to him, but he’s glancing around for me. He doesn’t even notice that her leg is jutting out from the folds of her dress. I stand on tiptoes to wave to him, but he’s looking for me on the other side. 



As I try to remove the sticky tequila residue from my hand, I replay his proposal. I was so out of line, but he understands me. When I fell low after the sale, he got me piano lessons with my old teacher and then built me a wooden metronome. Wherever I am, I’m being watched by him, safe and loved. Perhaps it’s what pious people feel when they think of God. I wonder if he was ever religious as a boy in Dubai, and it strikes me that there are still parts of Shareef that I don’t know or understand. Maybe that’s where the novelty lies. Eyes peer at me through the slit in the burka of a passing woman. I wonder if it’s the same woman who was watching me with Shareef, earlier.


“What do you think they wear under those robes?” Mr. Universe asks under his breath. 


I turn away from him in disgust to kneel over the pool and gaze into its opaque water. 


“It’s down there,” I point. “You have to help me get it back. Please.”


He bends down and peers into the water, then stands up and hands me his shot glass before taking off his shirt. 


The area is crowded, but the music is so loud that only a few people notice when he dives into the pool in his boxers. I sit down cross-legged on the stone deck which causes dirt and water to seep into the fabric of my pink dress.


He finally comes up for air, empty-handed. 


“Matter doesn’t disappear. It’s there, somewhere. You have to find it,” I say. 


“What’s it worth to you?” he asks, grinning. 


“I’ll go in myself if you won’t help me.” 


“No need to get huffy.” He dives back under. 


Shareef would’ve found another way to get it back without making such a fool of himself. Before I met Shareef, I had been warned about his arrogance, but after we spoke I understood: he is smarter than most people, but nonlinearly. He sees things people don’t see and makes connections lost on others. Izdihar is in awe of his calm, dark eyes. But those eyes don’t look at her the way he looks at me. He sees me. Seven years in, he still chooses me. He must have spent months working on that ring, selecting those gems. All the money from the sale of my business couldn’t buy me that ring.    


When Mr. Universe’s head pops out of the water, he looks genuinely sorry. 


“I couldn’t see where I was going, but I felt across the floor. Nothing.” He opens his thick hands to show me.  


“It’s my engagement ring. Please,” I beg him. “It’s all I have.” 


I watch his squirming legs and email the CEO in China. I won’t be accepting the position. 


Mr. Universe pops out for air once more, this time raising an arm to the sky. 


“Bingo!” He rests his elbows on the deck, dripping water all over my feet and onto the stone floor. He presents me the ring, as if he’s proposing. “That’s one big-ass rock.”


I take it and stand up, water seeping into my sandals. I admire the ring under the light of a poolside torch. The inside of the band is inscribed “permanently yours” and is spotted with four sapphires, marking the date Shareef and I each independently recognized we were in love. It was December 4, so four became our number. When I ran into him in the Emirates lounge, days after we first met, we became so absorbed that we almost missed our flight to New York. He was disillusioned with work, so we talked through his options, and then I told him my dreams for my startup. During the flight, we spoke for thirteen hours, connected by a mutual understanding I’d never experienced before. He texted, “miss you already,” just an hour after we landed, and that’s when I knew. December 4. 


I drop the ring into the shot glass so I won’t lose it again. I look up but it’s clear; it’s been dry for weeks. 


Mr. Universe climbs out of the pool to congratulate me with a wet hug, which has to be illegal here, but he doesn’t care. He locks me into his dripping grip. 


The water has infiltrated my dress but I laugh and admire the ring once more. Then I spot Shareef, standing at the bar holding a grapefruit juice and a hibiscus martini. He sees me, clutched by this topless body-builder in soaking boxers, so I start to disengage—but a group approaches the bar and I lose sight of Shareef. I scan the faces for his tight beard but there’s no match. My stomach is burning and I need to see his soft lips, to know that everything’s okay. I have to hear whatever snarky remark he has about Mr. Universe. I turn on my phone to text him, but it’s out of battery because I’ve been googling all day about architecture, food, money, and customs in China. I can’t see him anywhere. 


“I need to go.”  


I jostle my way through the designer crowd to find him. There’s no way he’d ever leave without waiting for me; it’s not just who he is in our relationship, but who he is. I finally see him sitting at our table—I nearly twist my ankle, hobbling in my sandals on the sand. 


When I arrive, out of breath, I want to explain, but I don’t want to embarrass him. I drop to my knees in front of him, clutching his leg. My grip soils his ironed pants as tiny stones pierce my skin. 


“Buy the house,” I plead. Sand is grinding into my flesh and I feel blood, but I can’t remove my eyes from his. The angles of his cheeks make his nose look distinguished. He looks older, beyond the ten years he has on me. 


“The staff is out tonight, so you could sleep there,” Sarina says with a smile. She always wanted this for us—she was just waiting for me to commit. 


Shareef doesn’t respond. He looks at the ring inside the shot glass in my hand, and his nose twitches at the stench of tequila. He wraps his long, delicate jeweler’s fingers around the hookah and blows into the hose to create pressure which releases the stale smoke through a valve. 


A server comes to hand him his keys. “Your Ferrari is out front, as you requested.” 


Izdihar says, “I prepared paperwork, but we can wait if you need more time.”


I bite my lip. Shareef turns to the papers in her hands. 


“No, I’m done waiting.” 


I let out my breath. It’s settled. Shareef crosses his legs to disentangle from me, so I get on my feet and sit on the couch beside him. He puts his hand out for the papers and starts reading. I pour the ring out of the glass and rest it in its box with the cover open so I can admire it. When I lean over to glance at the drawing he made of the veiled woman, a drop from my hair falls and smudges it. Shareef rubs his beard with his long fingers, flipping through the pages, while we watch and wait. My legs are stuck to each other, so I re-cross them the opposite way. He reaches over to the ring box and snaps the cover shut. It’s just like him to have selected lucite instead of cardboard. He taps the box on the table. He weighed all his options and chose this, just for me. It means something. 


Tonight, he’ll remove everything on me but my ring, and I’ll remember the touch of his skin in all the rooms of our new house. After a long bath in jasmine salts, we’ll stay up late eating chocolate. He’ll drink mint tea while I sip champagne, and we’ll smoke shisha on the cashmere rug listening to his father’s old Rachmaninov records. When we collapse on the down pillows in the master suite, together in bed for the first time ever in this country, I’ll turn my head to feel his breath on my face. He’ll explain every decision of his design for my ring. I’ll weave my cold legs in his warmth and tickle his toes with mine. We’ll have a long, delicious sleep through the morning, until the sun streams into the tall windows, and then I’ll make Arabic coffee, heavy the way he likes it. I lean back on the couch to study his full lips—the kind that are begging to be kissed, bitten, sucked on and devoured. I pick up a date from the bowl on the table. It melts sweetness throughout my mouth. We should get married on December 4. 


Shareef picks up the box, which is clouded by the condensation from water on the ring. He stands and glances not at me but at Izdihar, like he’s going to propose to her. He shakes the box, making a rattling sound. She watches him across the table without blinking. She’s cranked up her seduction to its maximum, but she’s powerless, which is a little sad for her. Shareef takes one last look at the box in his hand, then turns and tosses it to his sister. I sit up to check his face, but he’s leaning over to pick up his jacket and dust it off. Sarina’s eyes light up, and it’s clear that she doesn’t understand that this is either a mistake or some kind of joke. 


“Wait—” I cry, and Shareef starts to step away. He stops and looks back. Sarina unsnaps the cover of the box. 


“I love it,” she says, slipping the damp ring onto her finger. I look to Shareef for some explanation but his dark eyes are looking right through me. 


“Good enough,” he says. He turns and walks away, through the crowd.