The cool October breeze tickled my cheeks and the few spots on my shoulders not submerged below water. I was never the strongest swimmer, but being in the pool always had a way of putting me at ease, so I bobbed myself forwards across the length of the pool-my weight displacing the water with each and every move.
None of the six or so people lying by the side of the pool seemed to notice this poor attempt at exercise. They were all preoccupied with the usual by-the-pool activities, which fortunately for me, did not involve people-watching and passing silent judgement. I chuckled to myself, people in Abu Dhabi do pool days differently than Beirut.
I had three hours before lunch was served. There were no pending Powerpoint presentations, piles of laundry, dirty diapers, or any of the hundreds of tasks that usually consumed my weekend. There was absolutely nothing demanding my attention, allowing me to finally explore the outdoor area just past my front door for the first time.
“No one needs you right now,” I told myself sterenly, hoping this would help me slow down and appreciate this rare moment I had all to myself- one of few in over two years. It was a foreign and peculiar thought. I was not one to slow down and enjoy the moment, not when so much needed to be done, not when the past few years had been one change after the other.
I knew this was in stark contrast to the city I now called home, where the expected completion date on most projects and even large scale constructions like the Gugenheim was not 2025, but in fact, Inshalla-when, if God wills.
While my life had been in flux, it seemed that not much, if anything, had changed in Abu Dhabi. And I would have to learn to live with it, appreciate it even.
I tried to divert my attention to the feeling of being in the water, the lightness extending all the way to my extremities- one which I hadn’t felt after I’d put on so much weight. The lack of exercise and the food courts at every turn had done that. I should have done better to control my weight, I knew just as much. Time and convenience had other thoughts.
I tried to focus on the completed surrounding towers, the very ones I saw twinkling at night and wondered what gave them the right to twinkle so brightly while my homeland faced its demons in the dark.
Who were the inhabitants and why were they here? What brought them to this city and how similar were their stories to mine? I wondered. I was hesitant at first, scared even, to live in one of those buildings, with their glittering all-glass facade. I still could not sit near the large windows without imagining the worst-case scenario: glass turning into deadly shards in an instant, piercing through everything we loved before we could do anything about it. We had not been affected physically or materalisticaly by the August 4 Port blast,but I doubted the emotional scars would ever heal.
No amount of diversions or distractions were going to do, I soon realized. Because no matter how hard I tried, I could not shake off the nagging voice at the back of my head, reminding me that just a year ago on that day, I’d begun the final preparations to move to Abu Dhabi.
It was never in my plans-but my plans also never included having an infant sleeping without air conditioning in the relentless, suffocating August heat, or jumping from one store to the next, pleading with the storekeepers for a can of formula for the baby. It was never in my plans to feel unsafe in the city I’d grown up in: trembling, jittery, even in my own house.
Most of my friends had left long ago, choosing to start their lives post-college anywhere they had an opportunity to do so, leading me to excel in writing detailed pages upon pages describing the minute details of my life so they could be up to date . But I’d always been so steadfast in my belief that I was where I was meant to be. I came back from the Netherlands for Beirut, I liked to tell the naysayers. We didn’t all have to be doomed to a life of crying at airports. That is, until I was the one shedding the tears myself.
A year prior, I’d begun the difficult task of dividing years of memories into three piles in our guest bedroom: “Take,” “Keep,”and “Discard.” There had been no rhyme or reason to my method- only choosing to go by gut feeling, only stopping when I could no longer see the floor or the blue circles of the duvet cover. Everything I’d chosen to keep behind would remain in its place, as it had done many years before, waiting for our return. Everything I’d chosen to take would have to fit into 3 suitcases, 2 carry-ons, and a large cardboard box- a true test to the packing skills I’d accumulated from years of back-and-forths. We were after all, both Gulfies, who’d grown up without ever really identifying a single place as home, and we were about to do the same to our daughter. She would call four bedrooms her own before her second birthday.
History was bound to repeat itself, I told myself as I rolled one shirt after the next, trying my hardest to leave no gaps in the bag.
There were already too many large gaps in my heart.
Goodbyes to the remaining friends and family members were completed in a handful of days- anything longer would have been too painful. I didn’t even do one final tour of Beirut- it had changed too much and I wanted to preserve whatever I remembered from the good old days. I refused to remember Beirut as a shattered city, on the verge of being abandoned and having its stores and homes boarded up- even when I was doing just that.
I hoped Beirut would forgive me for the choice I had to make- it was the only plausible one.
A faint sound of children’s giggles from the corner of the pool nudged me back- the packing, the farewells, the fear of being on our own in an unknown city: it was all a year before. There was no sense in dwelling on the past when the new city had been kinder to us than we had expected- all while I’d remained anxious, waiting for things to take a turn for the worst.
Contact details of former colleagues were soon replaced with those of new ones. Favorite weekend haunts and delivery joints were quickly established. The apartment we eventually settled in quickly took shape, allowing us to rectify the mistakes we’d made as newlyweds who had no access to IKEA and didn’t know any better. We stopped flinching whenever the lights flickered or the internet slowed down because the power never went out. We did not need to run to the corridor to hide from stray bullets, fired for reasons never explained.
As I swam to the edge of the infinity pool to take in the sight of the up and coming concrete jungle in front of me, it finally dawned on me. I was unable to slow down and enjoy the moment because I’d been weighed down too heavily by the guilt of leaving- rushing from one thing to the other to distract myself from this change. For too long, I thought hurriedly making my way through the days meant I wouldn’t have to reconcile where I currently was with where I thought I’d be. I’d have no opportunity to linger on any thought or event or anything that reminded me of the past. It was why I stopped reading the news and maintained only essential contact with the people back home. I missed them but I no longer wanted to relate.
What I didn’t realize was this was all hindering me from enjoying the present.
“I am here, now,”I whispered to myself, a silent promise to learn, slowly but surely from Abu Dhabi, how to do things at a pace that suited me best. I would never be able to run away from the past, but I could put it in the background while allowing the future to unfold, as it should.