I remember a journey I once took.
Well, actually, it was just two weeks ago. Somehow, all ‘intense’ life experiences only seem to happen in the random moments. You’ll come home from school one day and realize that your mother has wrinkles. She has wrinkles and the sun is setting and you are getting older but she is getting old and we are all ageing all the time. This kind of ageing Olay face cream can’t fix — but what can face cream fix anyway? Or you’ll be making toast at 4pm on some blind Tuesday, and that’s it — you’re in love. You discover, first-hand, that all the love songs and poems had to have come from somewhere and maybe it’s this feeling of half-soaring, half-falling inside your chest that won’t go away. Even when you’re making goddamn toast on a goddamn Tuesday.
It’s still a Tuesday at home, when the plane lands in the blue fog of Abu Dhabi. Half-soaring, half-falling. The lights and buildings are seemingly sparser than in Dubai, which is where everyone lands on their way to somewhere else. People back home always thought and probably still think I am coming to Dubai. It’s all they know of this region — Dubai, the lone, glittery pearl in a swath of sand. Flash. Glitter. Bang.
I don’t bother telling them that they’re wrong. “It’s Abu Dhabi, not Dubai,” I say a dozen times. Like hitting the edge of the bullseye, but not quite. Not quite.
I walk down the aisle of the plane. Cabin trolleys, sticky hands, little children, neck pillows. How ordinary, how mundane. I have made the most radical change in my life and all I can think about is the shade of purple on a neck pillow.
I’m sure I’m going to write about this, maybe not tonight but sometime. It’s my great adventure, my new beginning; I keep murmuring ‘this is it’. Cloying, clichéd words on starting over, on clean slates and finding success. I expect the rest of me to follow suit, to fill out these words with colour and feeling, to intensify this blank newness into vivid novelty. But I feel nothing. Half-soaring, half-falling. It’s as if my heart decided not to come along with me; it closed its eyes and, when I wasn’t looking, crawled into my old bedcovers in Botswana, refusing to uproot itself.
I walk out of the plane, someone’s purple neck pillow in the corner of my eye. I have uprooted myself.
The first thing I feel is a wall of heat. It is so oppressive, so forbidding, so totally and completely hot and alien, that for a flash-second, I think of running back into the plane and cowering amongst the economy seats. The air hostess behind me is all red lipstick and white teeth and clean, bright future. My glasses fog up and I cannot see. I have a strange urge to laugh and cry all at once. Opaque vision now. I’m walking into my future, my new life, blind blind blind.
Waiting for me are bedsheets so invitingly white, they put the clinically pretty window-view to shame. I sit down, in my new bedroom, my luggage at my feet like a bomb crater, the bookshelves gasping for something, anything, but emptiness. This is it. Yes, I have made it. This is the dream. There is no music, no fanfare, but only the hum of the air-conditioning. ‘This is it’, it says to me.
On the way to campus, my mother had spoken in Hindi to the taxi driver. She had asked him if he’s happy here and I know she did not ask for him but for me. It suddenly strikes me that I will have to learn how to miss my mother. Any day, I would rather take calculus.
Instead, I think about my friends. Their letters are as white as my pillowcase. Hasty farewells, hasty ink.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again.”
There is a tumbleweed in my throat, gathering hurt by the second. It tumbles and I crumple. I don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again. How lonely this is. I didn’t think it would be this lonely. Final hugs in the departure lounge. Seeing my father cry for only the second time in my life. Carrying luggage that is too heavy because I packed too many novels and too many clothes and now I think I packed too much of my memory too.
Half-soaring, half-falling. This is it.
Painting by Ashwaq Abdullah