When he looked up from the plate of oranges in front of him, he saw the Sphinx in the direction of his nose - big, sandy, bulbous, and majestic. Equidistant from it, to the right, was the Eiffel Tower, and to the left, the Big Ben. At night, the tower lit up, and people flocked to the gardens for barbecues with live musical performances. The music got really loud, to the point where almost no one in Egypt, England, and France was able to sleep. The USA was farther off, and the sounds were fainter there. Besides, the sounds of construction on Istanbul Street in Turkey were sufficient to drown anything else out. The workers went on all night so that the block would be ready by New Year’s, on which the most number of new residents usually arrived. Winter had just set in, so people could still enjoy its perks alone, not its banes.It was a ritual now - every morning, she arranged for breakfast to be served on the terrace. They ate together, their chairs facing the city. Some morning walkers waved when crossing the lane below and smiled reverently. He knew she woke up an hour earlier to get ready for breakfast with him on the terrace. He always got seated first, right after the young helper had laid out the chairs and table and gestured for him to sit. Only after the food was fully laid out would she join.
God knew how long she had spent curating her entrance. She almost cried when he didn’t notice her, fumbling with her hands nervously and pouting in silence without touching her food. Over the shimmery dress she wore, she had draped on a winter shawl, and, although it was cold, she had decided against wearing socks inside her sandals because she wanted him to notice her freshly painted toes. She began to twitch nervously and loop a strand of hair behind her ears, like she did whenever she was happy to get his attention at last, but didn’t quite know how to handle it when his eyes were on her. He was keenly aware that, like all women, she was waiting for that special moment, two months and counting. How could he tell her?
How could he tell her that it reminded him too much of his first time with Sarah? What had he done wrong that had made her cry, that first night, and so many nights for the thirty years they had been together? The years through the children birthing, the years through the children going to school, the years through the children graduating, the year when one of them died, driving himself into a tree.
During the hours between breakfast and lunch, she was mostly out of sight, administering work around the spanking new house. He crossed her intermittently, as she led in some visitors, or stepped out with the driver in the bright yellow Hummer, the only one on the block, to get some groceries from around the corner. He would hear her at intervals, her sweet small voice, packed, it seemed, with droplets of laughter, trying to sound authoritative when speaking to the kitchen help, feigning anger when tricked by them, pleasant when welcoming guests at the door. They were all richly treated to snacks while they stayed. To his face, they called him Anees Sahab, drawing out the two parts, his name, and the title of reverence they attached to it. But, he saw beneath the surface. He always felt used. The men always warmed into the conversation, the wives keeping the meetings oiled and running, watching their frequency intently so that it stayed just comfortable enough to allow for the ask, but never excessive enough for it to become familiar and arouse contempt. There was a pattern to it. It was after the third or fourth meeting that they leaned in. He sensed the tones right before it happened, discerned the well-orchestrated sequence of ticks, pauses, and facial expressions leading to the build-up. The men had been told by their wives when the timing was just right, the wives having dug out enough information from the unsuspecting, young wife. The investment in the relationship had been enough to state the demand, plant the idea of their need and his ability to address it. Then, over the meetings that followed, they would coax gently and consistently until he caved. They called him ‘the dollar man’ behind his back.
“It’s not the money she needs,” Seema had said every time he had asked her what was wrong with Sarah. They were very close as sisters. “She needs your presence in her life and the children’s.” But he could never understand why she was so sad all the time. He would imagine her alone at night in the mansion in Madison, with the Sri Lankan maid he had flown in. How many people in the USA could boast of such luxuries? The children were all in private schools. She was completely unshackled, with free access to his bank accounts. She had everything a woman with her ambitions could ask for. He made sure to call her from wherever he had travelled to. Most times, she would simply answer and sob to him. It was strange, this young mother of three, always sobbing.
“A man is like an asset. When they’re considering you for a proposal, they will look at you very coldly. The benefits you can bring, the disadvantages you possess. You are sixty, not forty. Most men your age would only be considered by women who are widowed or divorced. A woman who considers you a match will clearly have made a decision not to have children. Do you understand that?” “Of course. I do not want the hassle at this age. I just want a partner, so I’m less lonely.” He so wanted to do better this time. “I’ll see what I can find. We have a young girl, around 35 years of age. The family has shown interest, but there are two things I want to warn you about. She’s young, so she might want children, and she might need to be cared for in ways you might not be comfortable doing, if you know what I mean. There might be a difference in the maturity levels and expectations that could lead to disappointments. Also, her family will expect a lot of financial support. Typically, when they give a young girl, the family is very demanding. We’ve had that complaint from many clients before.” “Mm.” “You should be very clear about that going in. At this age, you should not be signing up for anything you cannot fully commit to.”
“It’s ironic. You all live alone, within walls you have built up. Why can’t you live together? Does Sasha speak with you now?” “I asked Sarah for the address of the gym she goes to. I waited outside for her to come out. She was with some friends. When she saw me, she just turned her face away. I couldn’t have insisted with her friends by her side.” “Does she answer your calls?” “No. Neither does Ali. Not since they lost their brother, the only one who spoke to me.”
She had grown so bitter after his death. When he flew in for the funeral, she kept saying to him over and over again. “God has punished you by taking away the son dearest to you.” And what about her? Hadn’t she lost as much? What was she being punished for? What had she done wrong?
He didn’t travel anywhere that week. He sat in a room in that mansion which had just been featured in Wall Street Journal interiors. Sometimes, he would go to her room and she would be praying. In her sujood, she would bang her head on the prayer rug. He booked them a flight to Makkah and a room in a hotel with a direct tunnel to the Kaaba. She said nothing throughout the whole journey, silent in her grief. They had separate bedrooms in the suite, but they went to prayers and meals together. While doing the tawaaf, he held on to her lest she got lost in the crowd. He always carried a spare cool water bottle. He had been warned that people faint because of the heat. If you were weak, you could fall down, and get trampled upon. Once, just before the entrance to the room, in the corridor, she fainted. He lifted her in his arms and carried her into the room, the hotel staff running behind him. As he laid her on the bed, it struck him that, ironically, they were sharing this closeness because they were mourning for their twenty-year-old son. This was the only time he was performing these rituals in his marriage, these small acts of showing care, of making a woman feel loved. As she often complained with that inconsolable sadness of hers, they had never even had a honeymoon.
“Sir, when you invest in this house, you will be saving yourself the cost of your honey moon. Every day will be a honey moon.” The estate agent’s office was a plush three-floor building. When he had sold his family house before leaving the country for the USA as a young boy, he noticed that property dealers worked in very different environments. “Sir, the truth is, we are not property developers, we are dream developers. Others are building houses. We are building dreams. If you pay ten times more, we are offering you a chance to start over. You are paying for a new reality.” “Does this house have four parking slots?’ He asked, pointing to the brochure laid out before him. “No, but there is a provision for two-visitor-spots right outside the snooker club for each resident. You can avail those. It’s a five-minute walk from Egypt, right next to the swimming pools. Are you sure you do not want to consider the USA? You will move in with some delay, but those houses are the grandest on the property.” “No, thanks, Egypt is fine.” “It doesn’t really matter, anyway. Sir, the whole world will only be a drive away. You could leave your home, circle the world, and be back in an hour. Mark my words, if you want to start a new life, there is no better place than this.”