The radio says this winter is the coldest Dubai has ever seen. I slow down enough for the traffic light to turn red. I don’t want to cross the big roundabout on Al Qudra Road before I search my phone for that song about autumn. The January morning sunlight, weightless, warms my face and my arms.
My idea of a city: a place you can cross on foot with friends. Which is why my main longing when I moved here in 2011 was about streets. In Beirut and Tripoli, I walked across small alleyways, on broken sidewalks, alongside dirty walls and small shops, and looked up at water dripping from air conditioners, clotheslines, balconies. My polluted, raucous, nonmanaged, no-traffic-light, no-bike-lane cities were never pedestrian-friendly, but what was this place of seven-lane highways where you can’t simply make a U-turn if you miss an exit? Where you have to learn to use Google Maps instead of relying on friends’ directions? (The joke goes, “You see where there’s a broken glass bottle on the floor next to the trash? Eh, turn right there.”)
Sometimes it takes a departure to begin staying. You suddenly want to properly inhabit the place you’re leaving soon, to get things done around the house that you’ve been meaning to do for years. We’ve been saying we need a curtain in my office since we moved three summers ago from our old apartment in Motor City, a community in the hyper-developed Dubailand, to this house slightly further inland toward the desert. It has been about three months since the blue sofa broke, seven since the dog chewed the arm of the gray sofa, a year since she grazed the edge of the rug in the living room. Only when it was almost certain this could be our last year in Dubai did I call Hassan Curtain Rana. I saved his name on my phone as “Hassan Curtain” because he works in textiles, and the added “Rana” is because my friend Rana referred me to him. That’s one sign you have begun to know a city. Back in Lebanon, my mother-in-law has Mohammad Washing Machine and Mohammad Plumbing and Mohammad AC and Mohammad Aluminum on her phone, which means she’s been there long enough to know who to call if something breaks (whether anything gets fixed is another story).
I open the new curtain to let in the noon sun that it’s supposed to fend off; this is, indeed, a cold winter. Even the Nutella in the jar needs to melt a little. I’m allowing myself Nutella because, after a year and a half of being quasi-gluten- and lactose-free (my God, I’ve become this person) to try to deal with my ever-inflamed gut, the doctor said I should eat gluten today so we don’t get a false negative on my celiac test tomorrow. I begin eating Nutella with bread, then ditch the bread altogether. Earlier this morning, I could see a boat parked in a pit of sand, now a familiar sight from the villa-turned-health-center that I no longer need Google Maps to reach. As I dig my spoon into the chocolate, I realize I don’t even like the taste anymore, but the body still reaches for the old comforts. I stare at the bougainvillea outside my window.
This is the last of the bougainvillea years. I never cared much for trees. Sure, I loved to look at the cedars in the snow, the almond trees in blossom, but I always defined myself as a city girl — obsessed with cars and buildings and streetlights, with watching people on sidewalks, in bars, in coffee shops, from balconies. The bright pink bougainvillea, however, is almost worth a city. The “majnouneh,” as we call it, the crazy one. When we were looking for a house, it was the many mature bougainvillea trees that made me decide on renting this one. I can see their vibrant pink from most windows: my office, the now rugless living room, my bedroom, the kitchen.
On a phone app, I look at apartments for rent in Paris, where we are soon moving, and try to imagine what my window view there could be like. Once, a long time ago, shortly after I had moved from Tripoli to Beirut, I stood at my childhood friend’s window and looked out at my hometown. I sipped something and said to Rana (yes, the same one who’s in Dubai now): “It’s good to look at a place and feel like you know it, you know?” I was born too late to know the orange trees of Tripoli and their legendary scent. My teenage years coincided with the opening of the City Complex, a shopping center with restaurants and a cinema, where my friends and I gathered to watch a movie or eat or just stand on the main street, chatting. We felt so worldly, modern, cool.
I cried the first time I got in the taxi and left Tripoli to study in Beirut, as Mom stood on the sixth-floor balcony — a balcony where I slept on hot summer nights, where I played with my brother in our white underwear, where my mother shouted her orders to the grocer. I couldn’t wait to go back on weekends. Beirut felt like an alien and exciting and “superior” city in which I had to hide my Tripolitan accent until it was a semi-navigable wilderness with new friends who laughed at my “weheds” instead of “wahads.” Slowly, I skipped returning to Tripoli for a weekend, then two, then months. About 10 years ago, when I first moved to Dubai, I was on the phone with Rana, and I said the same thing, looking out onto desert and distant lights from an eighth-floor balcony in that foreign place: “It’s good to look at a place and feel like you know it, you know?” At that moment, I was thinking of Beirut.
The first thing that became mine in Dubai was the smell of the elevator: Again and again, I asked Marwan, my husband, “Doesn’t it remind you of ‘zaatar manoush’?” It wasn’t exactly the same smell, and it wasn’t one that made you salivate or reminisce either; it was a hint of dough, street, bad spices and old oil that felt familiar and misplaced.
As I try to prepare myself for our move to Paris, I’m scared I’ve forgotten what it’s like to live in a harsh city. Dubai has spoiled me, I always say, with its working water and electricity and fast internet, with its services and cleanliness, with its safety, its stability — how could I possibly function in a city where you’re supposed to walk home with bags of groceries, fit in tiny elevators, be cold in winter streets and hot in air-conditioner-less summers, navigate crowded buses and metros, hold your bag close to your body? Who is this past self who used to walk up endless flights of smelly stairs after school, who wasn’t scared of being stuck in elevators, who didn’t even hear the city noise permeating her bedroom? I can’t stand noise anymore, though I can only sleep to the hum of the air conditioner, even in winter months when I could forgo it. A war remnant, my mother calls it, from the days we slept surrounded by the buzz of generators. It’s also the only way to drown out the sound of the highway near our house.
I dread Paris, though I’m aware it must be more forgiving than Dubai. Isn’t that why we’re moving? We repeated the reasons every morning to each other last month in our December-cool garden, as if we were trying to convince each other and ourselves, as white flowers from the tree whose name I don’t know fell on us like dead bugs: Something about job security, residency, education, the arts, the future, nationality and the possibility to root ourselves, though we’re not entirely sure what we’d be rooting ourselves to. Something against transience. The song about autumn I was looking for in the car this morning says things disappear gently, without making noise.
I am scared of Dubai’s big roundabouts, especially the Trade Center one with its six exits. I’ve lived here for a decade and managed to avoid it, taking alternative routes even if this meant the drive would be longer. I come from cities with small roundabouts, where every car in every lane enters at the same time and manages, somehow, to come out unscathed, or so we think. My first car accident, in fact, was on the Allah roundabout in Tripoli, in the square that suddenly became famous as it filled with protesters in October 2019. I was driving my dad’s white Lumina and about to exit the busy roundabout when a car bumped into mine. We probably declared it not a big deal and moved on.
I think about the things I will miss. The heavy, decadent scent of the “fitneh” in the evening. Fitneh, the name we use for the frangipani tree, means temptation, or perhaps seduction, or perhaps blasphemy, or perhaps test or perhaps what incites a conflict, depending on context and pronunciation. What was I saying? The row of trees on the horizon (Damas, I think) as I wait on the traffic light on Al Nahyan Street. The pink color of the sky at sunset. The azan, a sound I now realize I’ve been hearing every day since I was born, in all cities I’ve lived in. Big living space. The fog that envelops the whole city on winter mornings. And the many toilets, the large toilets, the relatively clean toilets that people with my gut condition learn to appreciate.
My children don’t get that we are here on a work visa, like most expats who live in the United Arab Emirates, and that if my husband lost his job, we’d have one month to pack up and go. Yet they’ve come to call Dubai home, though this wasn’t always the case. My older daughter used to cry summer after summer every time we left Lebanon. She’d cry in the car, at the airport and for weeks afterward. Once, I found her, 2 years old, hiding behind a curtain in our apartment in Bahrain, weeping and calling out for Grandma: “Teita, Teita.” This week, she came to me crying late at night, describing her nightmare: She was standing in the park in front of our Dubai house, saying goodbye to her friends, hugging them and refusing to let go. When I tell her she’ll make new friends and get to know different places in Paris, she refuses to even imagine a possible life elsewhere: “This will always be my home.”
I think about my Lebanon, how it always tugs at me.
When the move to Paris begins to materialize, I cry. “Who are we?” I keep asking Marwan. This is it, I think, this is it — we are moving west. We are truly leaving Lebanon. Yes, we’ve been in the Gulf since 2006, but being in the Gulf meant we would eventually go back, because no one stays here forever, right? And against all rationality, I’ve always pictured myself in an old, high-ceiling Beirut apartment with a garden or by the sea, an apartment I can’t possibly afford and the kind that will probably cease existing soon. I guess this is a remnant of the romanticism of a Tripolitan who fell in love with Beirut’s vastness and possibilities. I think of our empty Tripoli apartment on the ninth floor, where the master bedroom overlooks the sea, as long as no building rises in front of it. We bought it after our second daughter was born because I wouldn’t agree to build a house in my husband’s village (I, the city girl) and because I would one day sell it to make a deposit on a place in Beirut. All dreams ended with an apartment in Beirut. My mother-in-law keeps checking on the Tripoli apartment, fixing a window here and a faucet there. We rarely stay in it during the summer because my daughters prefer their grandmother’s house in the village. I’ve secretly come to prefer the house in the village too, especially in the summers. Did I mention I was a city girl?
In my weeping and my refusal of Paris, I’m mourning. I’m mourning Dubai, whose highways no longer scare me and instead lead me to dear friends’ houses. I’m mourning Beirut, which rose and danced in October and exploded in August. I’m mourning the ever-reduced possibility of going back. I’m mourning Arabic, which my children will no longer learn in school. And I’m mourning the bougainvillea in my garden — my companions, my beauties, my trees with infinite iridescent flowers like thousands of windows.
And yet I do not dare sit too long with this sadness. I remind myself that I have the possibility of being away, the possibility of living in cities that have running water and electricity and a currency that’s not crumbling. And didn’t I always want to travel and see other countries? I did. But how much of a choice was going to Saudi, then Bahrain, then Dubai? How much of a choice is it to leave Lebanon when Lebanon spits you out, and how much of a possibility is going back to Lebanon when Lebanon is collapsing? I’m no wandering soul who can go back to her country whenever she pleases, who can safely age there, who can transfer savings to a bank there for years and years without having them evaporate like ours did. And I’m not the person, like many in Lebanon who are stuck there without a visa to travel elsewhere, longing to leave and watching everything around them fall apart. And I’m not the person who, despite everything, still chooses to stay even when they have a chance to leave. I’m grieving and grateful. I’m romantic and cynical. I’m angry and tired. I’m hopeless, and I still catch myself thinking: Maybe in 10 years, when my kids are independent.
We sit in the garden amid the noise of trucks and motorcycles from the nearby highway, reciting our reasons for leaving, and my husband repeats the same question every morning: “Why didn’t we think of this earlier?” He’s referring to the outdoor furniture we’re sitting on; we’d kept the seats on a secluded patio for the past three years, and only now did it occur to us to move them onto the paved space in the garden. We revel at the very uncomfortable (he’d made a rash decision buying them, and I’ve always complained about this) but better-than-nothing seats. Why didn’t we think of this earlier?
We discuss what we could ship to Paris and what we could sell or give away. The colorful dining room table: maybe. The beds: definitely not. The wardrobe in my bedroom: won’t fit in the imagined tiny apartment we’re supposed to find in July. The gray sofa: too bulky. The fuchsia Souad Hosni and Um Kulthum cushions: yes. The books: I tell him I’m not giving up any of my books, and I manage to keep my voice down, though in my head, I’m yelling. Thank you, antidepressants. I look at the big bougainvillea, stretching, spreading, singing. “Something about looking at the majnouneh in this particular color makes my heart truly happy,” I say. He nods. I’m relieved he doesn’t comment, as usual, that we should cut it, tame it, that the thorns might get into our eyes, that it’s suffocating the tree next to it.
Heaven, without people, is unbearable — so goes the Arab saying. I haven’t even begun to think about leaving my friends. When I was a little girl walking around town with my mother, I used to be astonished at how she knew everybody and asked, “Mom, how do you know so many people?” I realize now that staying a lifetime in one city must have been a factor, probably a suffocating one too. I’ve always been fascinated with relationships — how friendships, acquaintances and chance encounters could shape us. As I moved from country to country, I became increasingly aware that deep friendships are what saves me, that being “happy” was always a matter of how fast I made good friends and how connected I remained to the ones in different time zones.
After the Beirut explosion and the uncertainty about where we were moving next (the two aren’t related but happened around the same time), I finally started seeing a therapist. Back then, London was on the table, then Washington, then Paris, and every time I’d go into a spiral of endlessly Googling each city. I was so afraid of being lost, I printed a map of London’s underground lines and began studying it. When my therapist asked what my idea of happiness was, I told her it was about finding my people.
It took a lot of insistence and guilt to build my friendships in Dubai; insistence on being your own self, and the guilt of a mother who ran back from the Dubai Film Festival five minutes into the movie because her 1-year-old was vomiting. I remember going up the escalator to the cinema with the freedom of a woman who isn’t holding a child’s hand, then sitting in the dark theater and watching the revolutionaries on the streets of Egypt. What was that film? I don’t recall what it was called, and to this day I’m unable to find it again so I could finish it, though I’ve searched and researched. But whereas Riyadh and Bahrain were isolating to the point of almost ending a marriage, Dubai slowly opened up.
I consider whether I should ship the giant black-and-white photo of New York City that hangs in my living room. Bought from IKEA the year we moved to Dubai, it’s an aerial shot of the Flatiron district. The first time I went to New York, years after I’d bought the photograph, I walked around that neighborhood with my friend. We couldn’t find the building, though we pointed at something and said, “Yeah, maybe that’s it,” and moved on. What attracted me to that photo was in part the idea of New York (I, the city girl afraid of cities), but mostly, I now realize, the windows. The endless windows (some lit, some not) and the endless lives inside them. Isn’t this why I’m infatuated with cities, which are not quite like heaven but perhaps a sort of hell, with people? What I remember most from that first visit to New York is a young man pausing, looking into the glass window of the cafe where I was seated and gently tapping it to wave hello to a friend inside. This kind of familiarity is what makes a city become your city.
Back in Dubai, I drive through the Trade Center roundabout for the third time this month. Perhaps because I want to learn how to do this before I leave but most probably because I’m on antidepressants for the first time in my life. Why it took me so long to be on them is a cruelty. Antidepressants have been amazing, especially after you’ve seen your cities, through endless screens in another city, rise in protest, fall under an economic collapse and explode on an August afternoon.
Not only am I driving through the scariest roundabout in Dubai, but I’m also driving to the General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs because the golden visa I’d been invited to submit to was rejected. More than a month ago, I received an email from Dubai Culture, inviting me to submit to the 10-year visa for creatives, and I couldn’t help but laugh at the timing of all this. Now that I had decided to leave Dubai, it was almost as if the city was asking me to stay. Was that a sign that I’d made the wrong decision? After that email, I submitted some documents and waited, but strangely, the visa was rejected. Today, I’m here to resubmit (I would eventually be granted the 10-year visa that says “poet”). I’ve always dreaded government buildings of any kind, but here I am, driving, parking, walking in the sun with my passport and some papers in an envelope, looking at my blurry anxiety from afar, not capable of reaching for it. Is this what it feels like to be in my husband’s head? Is this what he meant last month when he told me, as we were discussing our move, “Life doesn’t work this way, Zeina. We cannot worry and be nervous about everything all the time.”
The broker calls me to confirm that we have a new landlord for our house in Dubai. I saw the Indian family stroll in the garden last week during a viewing, as I sat inside: two adolescents, a mother, a father and a grandmother. My husband told me we would have to leave this house by the end of our contract in July if they were planning to move in, which coincides with our move to Paris anyway. Perhaps this house was sold at the right time. The broker says the new landlord would like to see the inside of the house, if that’s possible. I tell him my older daughter has tested positive for COVID-19 and that we’re all quarantining, which is not a lie.
When my husband comes back from his Paris business trip, I don’t let him in the house. I want him to stay away until the rest of us make sure we are negative. I tell him our daughter is doing well in isolation, ordering chocolate cakes and happy I allowed her to watch “Friends.” He leaves, drops his things at a nearby hotel, then comes back and sits in the garden. Our sick daughter speaks to him from her balcony. I speak to him from the kitchen. I ask him not to cut the bougainvillea.
As it gets darker, he asks me to turn on the lights in the garden. We never managed to hang those beautiful garden lights I always wanted, with the yellow bulbs. The first year we moved here, Marwan wrapped threads of tiny solar lights around tree trunks. They shone beautifully every night, until they stopped working, and they were too stuck to the trees for us to remove, or perhaps we were too lazy to bother. The second year, he wrapped new lights, which also broke, and we left them on the trees. Over time, the bark swelled and waned and folded over the wires, swallowing them. Now six of our fitneh trees have bumpy trunks, and I wonder whether their form is a reminder of our cruelty. We never wrapped any lights around the bougainvillea. They remain intact, their branches full of thorns, and perhaps for this reason they will not remember us.
I organized two small farewell gatherings in my garden for my friend, who still hasn’t left Dubai. Right before the beginning of the pandemic, he quit his job and was supposed to immigrate to Canada. His immigration documents have been on hold since. He first decided to go back to Aleppo to be near his ill mother, then he decided it was better to bring his mother to Dubai as a guest on his sister’s visa, since going back to Syria would jeopardize his immigration application. When this didn’t work, and his mother started to get better, he had found a new job and decided to stay in Dubai after all. For now. His new work visa would be rejected four times before it would finally be accepted. We could have canceled his second farewell party, but we didn’t. It’s good to have a reason to get together and dance. It’s good to keep rehearsing departure.
From Sharjah, my friend Farah sends me a photo of her first car. My neighbors call to check if we need anything in our quarantine. My daughter’s friend rings the bell and leaves a bag filled with chips, candy and chocolate for her. My phone messages keep blinking. “We are here,” my people are saying, “we are here” — this is what it feels like to know a city, friends who remind you they are here for you.
Why, then, was I the one speaking of leaving Dubai, even before we knew we would leave? Why was I the one who repeated that we’d been here too long, that it was time to move on if we weren’t going back to Lebanon? Would I even want to go back to Lebanon if we magically could? Though I couldn’t fathom how difficult it would be to leave, I felt my time in this city had already ended, that staying would be a prolonged parting. When my therapist asked me how I felt about the move, I replied, “I feel I’m always in the wrong city. I’ve always felt this, except maybe when I lived in Beirut.”
My young daughter tells me the olive tree is her favorite, and I’m surprised at her choice. She says it’s the tree she always sees from the car on the way to her grandmother’s house in the village. She likes its leaves, the way it occupies space and its smell. “What’s your favorite tree?” she asks. I point to the pink majnouneh behind me. “Of course,” she smiles. When I tell her she has a Zoom call with one of the Paris schools we’re applying to, she places her palms on her ears. My favorite part about dropping her off at the nursery when she was not yet 2, other than watching her paint in the small garden with the other toddlers, was the giant weeping willow on the corner of that street. The year she stopped going to the nursery, I sometimes found myself instinctively driving to it after I dropped her off at school. I parked and watched the tree. This, too, is knowing a city.
My phone beeps: “To avoid the disconnection of your service, register your new Emirates ID now.” Du, a UAE telecom service, has been sending me the same message for months. When I register my ID, it says it’s already there. It keeps threatening to disconnect me, then reassures me I exist. At the end of this year, I will be in a cold, strange city during a pandemic. Some of my friends may still be in Dubai, some may not. Someone else will complain about the noise of the nearby highway; someone else will get to bask in all this color. I’ve thought about planting a bougainvillea in Paris, but I know nothing about gardening, and I’m learning there’s imprisonment in trying to recreate the past.
For my 40th birthday, I rent the garden lights I’ve always wanted. Rana organizes a “surprise” party because I asked her to; I called her one day and said, “I swear to God if you let my husband do this … .” There are balloons, a sparkly backdrop for photographs, roses, candles and a white cake that says, “Forty & Fabulous.” We dance endlessly, sweat, laugh, drink, smoke. I sing “My Way” into a white flower. Each of my friends speaks about me to Hind’s camera (the footage would be my birthday gift from her): Farah says I’m one of the craziest; Rana says I’m her backbone. When it’s my turn to speak, I cry and say I’m leaving. At 3 a.m., I spit out the temporary crown on one of my molars as I eat chocolate cake. Farah films this amid hysterical laughter. When I finish eating cake, I wash the crown and place it back into my mouth. Farah sleeps on the blue sofa.
I’ve been telling Farah I’m considering a tattoo: “Ibqi ala al-khat” (stay the course), inspired by “The Blue Light,” Hussein Barghouti’s book (her favorite), which she gifted me for my birthday. In one scene, he looks at himself in the mirror and repeats the phrase so he doesn’t lose his mind. Marwan makes fun of me, saying this sounds like one of those trucker slogans from Lebanon: mahrooseh or “ridaaki ya immi”. I get mad at him for ruining what I thought was a great idea, though maybe I am, in some way, a heavy truck on an endless highway, trying to stay the course. The truth is, I was never courageous enough to have anything permanent on my skin because I change my mind often.
Marwan walks in and sits on the blue sofa. It’s the last week of Ramadan, and I’m not fasting this year, but of course I’m watching all the terrible “mosalsalat” (telenovellas). He keeps asking me if I’m planning to stay up late, and I keep shushing him so I can focus on the melodramatic acting. I need to know how this will end — if the drug dealer and the police officer will fall in love, if the man will find out his wife married him to divorce him and take half his money though she has now fallen in love with him, if the person who blew up the club will repent and fall in love with one of the victims’ friends/sister/I can’t keep up. At 1 a.m., after all the shows are over, he asks again, “Are you planning to stay up late? I’d like to talk to you about something. Wanna grab a cigarette in the garden?”
I freeze. “I’d like to talk to you about something” can’t be good. No, I don’t want a cigarette. Spit it out already. What’s happening? He says the plan has changed. The Paris move is no longer possible, but there’s an opportunity with his company in the U.S. I look at him and laugh. It’s a quiet but frenzied kind of laughter. We’ve registered our girls in a school and were flying to look for an apartment next month. I’ve used Google Maps and visualized the walk from the building of a possible apartment to the school. I’ve thought about where to hang wet clothes in a tiny space. We’ve bought thick winter coats. We’ve booked the company to ship out our stuff. All my kids’ teachers think we are leaving. I’ve said goodbye to my friends a thousand times in my head. My friends have been sending endless messages about how they’ll miss me. I bawled on my birthday. We’re vacating this house in less than two months at the beginning of July. What will I tell the girls? I spent an entire afternoon yanking the thin light wires from the trunks of the fitneh trees, watching them bleed out white sticky sap, standing on a chair in the heat and letting my fingers trace the wires up the branches. I contacted acquaintances in Paris so I know who to call when things break and what the food prices are like. I don’t even have a U.S. visa. What? I think I want to go to sleep. I’ll think about this in the morning.
I water the trees in the garden of our new, temporary Dubai house. It’s a small garden, with artificial grass and baby trees planted around the edge. Inside: the white curtains that Hassan Curtain Rana installed last week (though Rana isn’t using his services anymore because he took down her old curtains to adjust them and never returned them), the blue and gray sofas, the colored living room table, new gray living room chairs (the old plastic ones were cracking), a new coffee table (I finally got rid of the hideous one Marwan had bought in Bahrain) and the New York photo on the wall. I like the way our furniture looks in this new house. My favorite item: our blue-glass cabinet that was hidden from sight in our previous house. Here, you can’t miss its gorgeous color. I’ve also added, for the first time, some indoor plants: succulents, devil’s ivies and the Dracaena massangeana (yes, I Googled this one) Farah gifted me when we moved in. The space is much smaller than our last house, but it feels brighter, homier, airier, more held together. There are windows everywhere. My tiny bedroom is also my office, and I’ve insisted on painting one wall bright teal. The sun fills the space abundantly. The cat loves the windows, and the dog is still afraid of her new surroundings.
This is a temporary house, one we managed to rent last minute, when we realized I can’t possibly get a U.S. visa anytime soon. Marwan would have to go to California first, and I’d follow with the kids. In the meantime, we downsize and stay. My friends laugh that I, too, will get two farewell parties. I laugh that I was moving to the farthest place on earth. Who would have thought? Despite the temporariness, I realize I can’t but make this transient place mine, hence the new coffee table, the house plants, the painted wall and the baby trees.
The baby trees were the most important thing for me. The owner of the new temporary house we were about to rent had told the real estate agent that perhaps we could make do with the artificial grass and hang a sail shade in lieu of planting trees, but I categorically refused. I messaged the agent once at 10 p.m. to explain about the importance of matching other trees and flowers in the garden to the bougainvillea. I asked her to tell the gardener not to bring a flame tree, because its orange wouldn’t match with their pink, then I texted again saying I’ve informed him myself. “Zeina, I’m having dinner with my friends,” she responded. What I was worried about the most, as my husband spoke about phone lines, internet connections, house contracts, continents, were the trees in this temporary house. I focused on the small things to forget the immensity of what was coming. I didn’t want the agent speaking with the gardener because I wanted specific trees, so I messaged and sent him tree photos every day. I had to have the ones I’m watering now: five “fil,” four fitneh (there were supposed to be three, but I negotiated) and three majnounehs. I know their official Latin names: Jasminum sambac (Googled this one too), Frangipani, Bougainvillea. I didn’t care that I wouldn’t be here to see them grow. I insisted: “For the bougainvillea, I want the pink kind, the brightest pink.”
It’s the end of December, and the house we’ve just rented in California is still empty, except for the mattresses we’ve been sleeping on and the Christmas tree by the window. It’s been such a long time since I felt this kind of cold, since I’ve heard rain on the roof, a sound I miss and that’s especially resonant in my room upstairs. I’m fascinated by the brown and yellowish leaves that carpet the side of the street. I remember that I’d forgotten about seasons. The days are short and the sun sets dishearteningly early, and I’m outraged that the coffee shops close by 7 p.m.
Earlier in the month, on our last week in Dubai, Marwan smoked a cigarette on the garden steps of the temporary house, and I lay down on the artificial grass, exhausted from packing up. The Dubai-based 800 Junk truck had just left with furniture, equipment, children’s toys, books, bedding and kitchen utensils — all the stuff we couldn’t sell, ship or gift to friends. The biggest of the bougainvillea, which we’d planted in July, didn’t bloom until the third week of November; I remember noticing it one morning, with my mug of coffee in my hand, and smiling. I took a picture with my phone and sent it to my friend in Lebanon: “See how this baby is flowering.”
After we landed in San Francisco, on our drive from the airport toward the suburbs, I looked at the green mountains of the eastern Bay Area and said, “Doesn’t this remind you of Lebanon a little?” My daughter agreed, though a few weeks later she would tell me she felt she was living in a Netflix series, surrounded as she was by Americans.
The California house has a little backyard with a clementine tree, from which hangs an old and slightly rusty wind chime that makes sweet music when shaken. This time, I’m quick to buy string lights for the backyard, as well as a comfortable turquoise papasan chair, but I take my time furnishing the house — I don’t want to rush and be stuck with furniture I’m unsure of, as I’ve done before. We’ve been here for two months, and the squirrels still scare me, though Marwan reassures me they’re harmless. The row of rose shrubs still hasn’t burst into orange, pink and white, reminding Marwan of the roses he used to gift me every day at school after having picked them from his parents’ garden in Lebanon. I download an app on my phone that identifies plants, and I learn that we have, in our front yard, two nectarine trees — my favorite summer fruit.
As I take my now-usual walk around town, I spot baby bougainvillea in small pots outside of a CVS Pharmacy. I can’t carry them with me, but I’m scared they’d disappear if I don’t buy them this instant, so I send Marwan a breathless voice note pleading with him to drive here right away and buy me two. Though he’s usually not one to respond quickly, this time he does and comes home with five small trees; we eventually place them in front of the roses in the garden. The weather is warmer now at the end of February, but I worry they won’t survive the next winter cold. We would need to bring them inside when the nights get too chilly, and I’m not sure I have the energy for that kind of care. I research what’s best for them: a pot with a 15-inch diameter, placement in the sun and other instructions I sloppily skim over. I read that when they’re the right amount of thirsty, they flower. I look at them: They’re beautiful and out of place.