The hills threatened to defeat me. The restaurant we’d identified for dinner that first day, still stumbling from jet lag, was only five minutes away from our hotel, but the route was straight uphill. After just one minute, I had to stop to allow my heart to slow and my breath to catch up, but there was more ahead, and I didn’t know if I could make it…. We knew that Lisbon was a risk, a stretch. I had not made a trip as far and as demanding since the day in the late spring of 2015 when everything changed.
With two Pfizer shots in my arm and a possible third on the horizon, I should be feeling renewed, eager to engage in the months to come. Instead I’m apprehensive. Because even if the world outside were perfectly safe, I don’t have a normal life to return to.
My father-in-law died unexpectedly on the last day of the decade. He was a quiet, gentle man who had affected my husband’s and my lives more and more the older we became. We were devastated, and I felt guilty.
What you said made us angry. You were an experienced doctor, a member of the Indian professional class in Kenya. We were naïve, young white women, accustomed to respecting authority. But we did not take to you. I think it is fair to say you did not take to us either, two American girls in Africa for the first time.
In Dubai, I was taken for a prostitute. It was late, maybe midnight, far away from the city center in a bizarre hotel–a sprawling, deserted complex next to the largest horseracing track in the world. Luxury hotels in the United Arab Emirates are overstaffed, so we weren’t surprised that one porter opened the taxi door, a second held the door of the hotel, and a third greeted us in the lobby and followed us down the hall toward the elevators, chatting. But there was something off, something too attentive. The first time he said it, his words were muted. Only after he’d repeated himself, urgently and pleading, Sir, you must register your guest, did we understand, did the man at my side stop, point to me, and say, That’s my wife.
On April 18th, seven months after Hurricane Maria plunged Puerto Rico into darkness and devastation, the lights went out again, all over the island. A bulldozer had damaged an important transmission line near the island’s largest electrical plant. By the following afternoon, energy had been restored to 97 percent of the island, though not to the 40,000 homes that continued to be without power since the September 20 storm. It’s hard to imagine the depth of frustration—and fear—that the April debility provoked in people just beginning to rebuild their lives.
This summer, I got very ill and couldn’t read. Words on a printed page swam, and the brain work of transforming images to concepts pained and exhausted me. It was depressing, the disappearance of reading, one of my most constant pleasures since I was 5. More seriously, it was a problem for my work as an editor — I was supposed to moderate a panel of writers at an upcoming festival, but I could only read their work in short bursts, just a few minutes at a time.
“Tell me the story of your romance with the Arabic written word.” The journalist asking was from The National, Abu Dhabi’s English-language newspaper. She wanted to know why we’d devoted an issue of The Common, Amherst’s literary magazine, to Arabic fiction. Editing Tajdeed: Contemporary Arabic Stories had been a labor of love, but it had not been romantic. Just as setting off naively for “the West” or “the Far East”—destinations that are grand notions rather than findable locations—is romantic in inspiration, but in reality involves a lot of getting lost and stuck in the mud.
In San Cristóbal de las Casas, on a street whose name I’ve forgotten, a dog bit my ankle. I kicked the mongrel in the teeth. He yelped, and a sharp voice called him away. I peeled down my sock. Not much blood, but the skin was broken in three places.
The husband did not stop until he reached the ocean. Did not turn to wave at the woman he would widow.
On the farm outside Jamnagar they’d grown millet, but the drought hit, and then the famine. The ocean was vast and burned his eyes, but the brightness boded well, he thought.