It was 2:00 a.m., Abu Dhabi time. The airport was deserted. A man with beautiful blue-black skin and thick curly hair beckoned to her on the other side of the glass as he waved some documents. Annabel hesitated but approached upon noticing the familiar hotel logo on the documents. She was exhausted from the long flight and she had few options in this foreign land where she didn’t know a single soul.
He introduced himself as the hotel’s HR liaison officer. With genuine interest, he asked about her flight as he escorted her through immigrations, customs, and luggage claim. The documents were presented repeatedly to the airport officers (every single one, male) as he answered their many questions. It was a guttural, hostile-sounding language. In time, Annabel would learn to tolerate that sound, but not the open stares.
Sitting behind the HR officer as the car sped through wide desert highways, Annabel realized, with a tinge of fear that she was totally on her own. She calmed her apprehension by heightening her senses and observing the scene, trying to imprint details in her mind. One day, she thought, this would make an interesting story.
A Gut Decision
When Annabel took the job, friends and colleagues questioned her decision not because it was far away from home but because it was in a place where women, in particular, experienced cultural difficulties. She went ahead, trusting she won’t encounter such difficulties, and she didn’t. But that’s mainly because she worked and lived in a hotel.
International hotels operate within a universally accepted environment of neutral space where cultures and industries merge freely. Seated in the lobby, you easily lose track of which country you’re at, recognizing instead the familiar sameness of accepting differentness.
Business travelers, eager tourists, relaxed retirees and digital nomads inhabit the space with their assorted skin tones, accents, and languages. They’re attended to by trained hotel staff of varied skin tones and accents, speaking at least two languages. The common denominator: getting things done.
Stark differences in culture are softened by the players’ shared goals in business and diplomacy so interactions are mostly smooth peppered with unavoidable surprises. Used to working in such an environment, Annabel felt no cultural challenges.
Not part of the Plan
Life flowed smoothly with little bumps here and there, but no big jolts. And then, came a plot twist. Enter: Luke, an unavoidable part of working life. The same department, that’s all they had in common. He was an overly self-assured, blued-eyed blond, a combination Annabel associated with shallow beach bums. She kept their interactions to a minimum but the more she avoided him, the more he pursued her company. His vulnerable side began to show, often looking like someone’s neglected dog until colleagues orchestrated a proper connection. Early on, he asked how she felt about him. “I’m fond of you,” she said. He pressed for an explanation. “Same as liking a lovable dog,” she smiled, but he was not thrilled. Soon, fondness developed into stronger feelings, which Annabel chose not to analyze, deciding instead to take things day by day.
When New Connections have Past Links
One day at a time, she repeated to herself as she opened the door, and there he stood, dark eyes fringed with unbelievably silky eyelashes. She’d dreaded the moment when she would face him–an eight-year-old–no longer a baby but far from grown up. She searched for a hint of openness in those eyes but found none. The awkward moment passed when he gave her a dutiful kiss on the cheek at Luke’s prodding beside him, done to please his father more than anything else. Thus, began Annabel’s cultural and relationship difficulties.
She saw very little of Luke during Fredrik’s visit. He spent most of his time with his son and that’s just as it should be, she thought. After all, Fredrik only got to see his father twice a year since his parents’ divorce. Fredrik was a study in contrast. When he was around Luke, he was the sweetest boy, cuddling up to his father. The love between father and son was so real, so naked that sometimes she had to turn away because the honesty blinded her and brought a sharp pain to her chest. Away from Luke, Fredrik was distant, even mean. He treated her with disdain. Annabel overlooked this behavior, trying to see the situation from his point of view. But it took so much effort and she was emotionally drained.
Deadline at Dawn
Unable to sleep at the end of a particularly difficult day, she watched Fredrik in his slumber. Annabel ran her fingers lightly through his hair–dark brown, not blond like his father’s. Asleep like that, he could not hurt her. She knew she could not take his mother’s place nor did she wish to, but she wasn’t even allowed to be his friend. This hurt and angered her. She was angry with Fredrik for being there and taking away Luke’s attention, which she wasn’t used to sharing. She was angry with Luke for springing Fredrik on her, expecting her to take him into her life. She tried but Fredrik remained unmoved. In his natural eight-year-old world view, only one woman should be sharing their lives–his mother. Most of all she was angry with herself.
In the night’s stillness, the sound of a Christmas carol drifted through the open window. A rush of yuletide memories hit her. Suddenly she felt so isolated, so far away from home. Quietly, she began to pack. It was December 23. If she hurried, she could catch the 6:50 a.m. flight and be home for the holidays. By the door, she whispered a soft goodbye, gazing at father and son in repose, arms around each other. Her heart warmed from being witness to their deep connection in spite of the pain she felt for not being part of it.
Outside, the sky was slowly turning light. It was unusually cloudy, with a rare drizzle. Annabel buttoned up her coat, raised its hood, and turned right at the corner toward the exit gate. Suddenly, soft rays broke through the clouds even as the rain continued. She paused, raised her face, closed her eyes, and finally let the tears flow.
When she opened her eyes, the rain had stopped. A gasp escaped her lips upon seeing a breathlessly perfect rainbow arched against the blue-gray sky. Glued to the spot, she sat at that crossroad, watching until it faded into the orange reach of the rising sun . A new serenity enveloped her as she stood up to face the new day. One day at a time, she thought to herself. Her wristwatch read 7:04. She had missed her flight.