From the plane, this is what you see: the tinkling green-grey sea giving way to spiral jetties of yellow sand. Then nothing but sand, sand swirling around still points and shibboleths of dunes shifting and sighing into golden waves. Then light. This is the first thing you really notice as the plane begins its descent, bobbing a little left and right from the wind as the skyline of the city moves closer. You are between the sun and the skyline; you think you have never seen light this sharp, reflecting off the steel and glass of the strange skyline. Looking at the city is like looking into the sun itself, and the whole cabin is bathed in ochre light. Below your feet, the door to the wheel compartment unlatches, and then there’s the groan of the plane stretching its legs. The man sitting in the window seat next to you looks just like all the other white-robed men on the flight. He strokes his beard, leans close to the window, squints, and pulls down the shade.
You are in the last row of the plane. The man next to you seems restless once the plane has landed, speaking in a language of all consonants that you don’t understand, but is familiar nonetheless. You can smell him sweating underneath his robe. Men in this region, you note, have their own particular odor. You sit and wait, and he finally stops talking, pulls up the window shade and looks out at the glistening black tarmac.
You are about to step onto the jet bridge when the petite stewardess who has been watching you during the flight touches you gently on the wrist. Your seatmate, still behind you and now blocked from exiting, grumbles in consonants again at another delay. The little stewardess puts her hands on your hips and pushes you sideways with a surprising force, allowing enough space for the man to sidle past.
She leads you to the galley where she pulls a long red scarf from a storage compartment. It is just like the one she wears. You have forgotten to bring your headscarf. She pulls her scarf back to show you her long black hair, pulled tight in a bun at the base of her neck. Then she touches the ends of your own black hair, purses her lips, and kisses the air. You understand this gesture to mean that you are too beautiful.
The airport facade is conch-shaped with metal awnings reaching out in lengthening layers to shade you from the sun as you go across the waiting area and reach the taxi bay. It is hot; a hot hostile to life, and sweat beads on your scalp underneath the borrowed red scarf. The arrivals area hums with a quiet, contained business which you are not part of. You are outside it, extraneous to the action, non-essential.
You’ve been in the air so long, you don’t remember what you’re supposed to do on the ground. You’re contemplating this when a dark-skinned driver mistakes you for someone else, some important member of the European elite, judging by the language he speaks and the deference he enacts. Before you can figure out what’s going on, he has ushered you into the back of a black Town Car with heavily tinted windows. You are hit with a frigid blast from the air conditioner as you get in; you are disoriented as the driver taps the car into gear and swings onto the clover-shaped bridge connecting the airport to the city.
He has not stopped talking in that European-sounding language the whole time you’ve been in the car, and the more he talks, the more you begin to understand. You wonder how you know this language: are you learning it just now or remembering it from long ago? Where is he taking you? He repeats the city’s name over and over, the city that you came at from above and now are driving straight into, the traffic on the six lane highway thickening like a blood clot around the downtown. The sun is so bright that you don’t notice the tint on the windows.
“It is your first time in the city?” the driver says.
You say yes even though everything is familiar about it.
“It’s a good thing you came now. This city will disappear in ten years. All of this will be gone. It was a marvel of engineering, a novelty. The entire world will be like this soon, a hot little intolerable basket, a feeling like you get when you press your thighs together for too long. Do you mind if I smoke?”
You say no, and he lights a cigarette without putting down the window.
The car comes to a complete stop, the city flat against the endless horizon, looking more like a painted backdrop than a real place. You hear them coming toward you before you see them; you hear the puttering of the little moped they’re riding and the faint bouncing of the Saharan cell phone music, distorted by the substandard speakers of the boombox tethered to the handlebars of the bike. Theirs is the only vehicle moving, the only thing stirring in the still, hot air thick with engine idle. They drive along the dusty berm of the highway, two women in full hijab, traveling just fast enough for their scarves to wave around their burnt faces. As they cruise past you, the one in the back turns as if she can see you through the glass, pulling her thick sunglasses down lower on her nose. You look into her big eyes just as she unwraps an arm from the waist of the woman driving and takes a long drag on a cigarette. Their engine revs and they take off faster and you kiss the air they left behind even though they’ll never know you existed.
About the Author: Tatyana Kagamas is a graduate of Texas Tech University’s creative writing program. Her fiction is also forthcoming in Unstuck. She currently lives in Southern California where she is working on her novel.
Story Song: “Track 6″ by Cheb Hamza and Cheba Wasila (Music For/From Saharan CellPhones Vol. 1)
Photo Credit: Elisabeth Clem/Poppy and Pinecone