Make the Desert Bloom

Submitted into Contest #132 in response to: Write a story about a teenager whose family is moving.... view prompt

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Coming of Age Fiction

Driving up the hill, Sooni nervously clenched the steering wheel, like it threatened to break free from the dashboard, fly away, and take with it all her newfound glamour. When she moved them ever so slightly, her palms left a humid imprint on the black leather. This was not the anxiety of a novice driver, Zein thought as she watched the sweat pearl down her best friend’s jugular. It was the unyielding worry of one whose good fortune is as fickle as it is new. 

Arrived at their destination, Sooni wiped her hands on the light wash of her jeans and gestured grandly towards the horizon, 

“Here we are: you can see all of Beverly Hills from up here!” 

Leaning back into the passenger seat, Zein looked out at the sea of villas bordering the highway; the wrought iron gates rising to surround them, the luscious golf courses and football fields burgeoning from the concrete. A city girl, unaccustomed to the brash extravagance of the suburbs, the sight left her deeply ill at ease. 

“Wow!” she exclaimed nonetheless, feigning amazement for Sooni’s sake. 

The Beverly Hills lying outside the windshield was not the most coveted zip code in Los Angeles; but a residential suburb in Sheikh Zayed, on the Western outskirts of Cairo. At the turn of the century, local developer SODIC had led the nationwide effort to relocate some six million Egyptians away from the Nile Valley; make the country’s deserts bloom. In 2001, Beverly Hills had inaugurated the birth of their real-estate empire. Aside from its name, all that the compound held in common with its American counterpart were its palm-lined streets and well-to-do residents. 

Sooni’s aunt Lilly often boasted of having been one of the first homeowners in Beverly. To any willing listener, she would relay the hefty sum she had deposited to purchase the plot of land ahead of construction. A high-ranking official at the Ministry of Housing, Tante Lilly bore the derisory title of a‘anes -spinster- like a badge of honor, a proud token of her unbending refusal to let any man sway her focus away from a stellar career. Thus unmarried and childless, she spent fortunes spoiling her only niece with all manner of wildly expensive gifts.

The brand-new Toyota was Sooni’s graduation present, as was the license her aunt had procured through one of her connections at the ministry. Driving came uneasily to Sooni, and parking more so. With a sudden drift, she brought the car over to the side of the dirt road and hit the brakes with unexpected vigor. Still shaken, she retrieved her handbag from the backseat and pulled out a loose Marlboro from its satin lining. With an extended arm, she held out the lit cigarette through the open window, nearly twisting her neck everytime she leaned in for a drag. Zein found a sweet tenderness in the awkward spectacle. Sooni played at being reckless the way little girls put on their mother’s lipstick: clumsily, and with far more pretense than the gesture called for. 

“If you’re tired, I can drive on the way to Glasshouse,” Zein offered. The nightclub was located on the opposite end of town, in Maadi. Truth be told, she could not picture Sooni daunting the unregulated traffic of the ring road.

“Oh, thanks, that’d be really great,” Sooni exhaled between labored breaths. She opened the car door and stomped the butt of her cigarette with the heel of her sandal. 

On noticing this poor choice of attire, Zein held back a chuckle. Wearing heels to a rave was just the kind of faux pas that betrayed each of her best friend’s naive attempts at rebellion; but she never called her out on the blunders. Something inside her still clung to the remnants of Country that Sooni worked tirelessly to shed from her manner.

Four years ago, Sooni had left her parents’ home in Port Said to attend university in Cairo. Newly arrived to the capital, she still went by Sawsan, wore her hair in a tight bun under her hijab, crossed her legs under long pleated skirts, and took rigorous notes in a thick spiral notebook. At the back of a crowded lecture hall, Zein had been enthralled by the shrewdness of her remarks, her outspoken feminism; the lilting highs and lows of her English, still thick with the smoulder of Arabic. 

So enamored, she had approached her with an offer, you seem to really know your shit, we should study together. From the proposition had grown a passionate bond between the two girls. Study meets lingered into all-nighters; all-nighters into sleepovers, late brunches, and nights out in Zamalek coffee shops. By the last day of classes, they had become inseparable. In the early days of their friendship, Sooni often recounted to Zein the terror she had felt on leaving the train station in Ramses. The metropolis had welcomed her with furious glee: passerby elbowed their way through the gates, beggars tugged at her sleeves and cursed, acrid fumes of exhaust filtered painfully into her nostrils, but most frightening of all were the savage currents of the Cairene traffic. Those big blue buses look scary, for sure, but it’s really the microbuses who drive like maniacs. My first day, and I swear,  I was almost run over!

Zein had become her first friend in the city, introducing her to many firsts thereafter: her first trip to the bars of Talaat Harb, first night spent on a nameless acquaintance’s couch, first joy ride through the streets of downtown at sunrise, in the crowded backseat of a stranger’s car.  

“Besides Tante Lilly, you’re the first person to ride my car,” Sooni announced giddily, crouching back into the vehicle. A light cough shook her slender frame, rocking her forth in a trembling bow. 

“Maybe you should cut down a bit,” Zein remarked with a hint of reproach. 

She offered a faint sigh by way of a response and fixed her eyes dreamily on the skyline,

“You know, the first time I came here, I was five years old. We were visiting Tante Lilly over the summer and got lost on the way to Beverly. Mama and Baba thought she was crazy to move out here,” she pointed to the cluster of houses at the foot of the hill, the marble fountain towering over the lush rosaries of the common garden; “there was nothing out here but sand.” 

The stroking midsummer heat sweltered the fabric of Zein’s seatbelt, which left a diagonal stain across the eggshell cotton of her shirt. She reached to crank up the air conditioning and her fingers found the radio dial button instead. A sha’abi tune pulsated softly through the vehicle, rhythming the hum of Sooni’s recollection, 

“When I first moved here, I didn’t know anyone. Sometimes, I’d walk out to this spot and sit here by myself” she continued, seemingly unaware of the music. “It’s a long walk from Tante Lilly’s house but I’d come here, every few weeks, and the houses would multiply. New families would move in. Their kids would play frisbee or ride golf carts, they looked happy. I didn’t know any of them, but it made me feel less lonely, somehow.” After a moment's pause, her chapped lips contorted into a smile, “then I met you and the boys, and I stopped coming here...” 

Only half-listening, Zein heard her friend’s voice trail off into the whirs of traffic on the highway. She knew all too well the rest of the story, had all but written the following chapter. Months into her first year of study in the capital, Sooni had abandoned the headscarf along with her given name. She said it reeked of old lady perfume, white stockings and petits fours served on aluminum trays at suhoor; said it reeked of country. Between gallery openings and house parties, roof gardens and bongs made from plastic bottles, something was lost. Four years on, the youthful flare of her features had dimmed into an eternally violet dusk; her passionate zeal, withered into a cold and jaded indifference. Like a frenzied dollmaker, the city had fashioned her in its own image; coated her lungs in its sunless grime, her eyes in its glaring disregard, her voice in a coarseness unfit for her years. 

In the driver’s seat of her new car, she dialed dealer after dealer’s number, anxious to secure the needful for the evening's party. When each failed to pick up, she cursed and groaned in exasperation. Coiled by the stifling afternoon heat, loose black curls clung to her forehead and circled the curve of her eyebrows, threaded to match the slim crease of her frown. Even so disheveled, she was beautiful; but between the faint taps of her brittle fingers against the screen, Zein found no trace of the gentle soul haunting her fondest memories. 

In the distance, tower cranes gnawed voraciously into the hills, wrenching the stone from their amber bones. Zein felt her hands itch to take the wheel, veer them away from the grim sight of sandstone churned into gravel. Instead, her left palm settled on Sooni’s shoulder,

“Why don’t we go for a road trip this weekend? You know, I’ve never been to Port Said. You could show me around, and I’d love to meet your family,” she suggested eagerly,

Sooni straightened her back with a startle and politely dismissed the offer, “Oh.. that sounds fun, but the boys and I were thinking of hitting this party in Heliopolis.” 

“Oh, come on, we do that stuff all the time. Let’s go somewhere new, just the two of us.” Zein’s tone grew more pleading than she had intended it to be. The last shreds of her dignity crumbled into a quiet desperation; yearned to take Sooni’s hands, press them into her own, and weep.

“I don’t know…” Sooni’s eyes wandered restlessly, as if scanning the walls of her mind for an escape route. “I think Tante Lilly needs me around the house. We’re remodelling the sunroom, she might need an extra pair of hands.” 

The words spread warmly like a cloud of steam, condensing between their two seats. Invoking her aunt’s authority was Sooni’s way of cementing her refusal. Zein felt something tug at her chest, her heart somersault into her stomach, her eyes grow damp with the sting of rejection. 

“Oh. Yeah, sure. I get it. We should probably get going. It’s a good hour’s drive to Glasshouse.” 

In silent synchrony, the two girls stepped out of the car and exchanged seats. The sky melted into sunset, sunset grayed into a pale dusk. A seasoned driver, Cairene born and bred, Zein skirted the oncoming flow of traffic with one eye on the road and the other scanning the scenery. Overhead, a myriad billboards curtained the red brick outlines of the city. Their bold types chanted in unison, clamoured on like a tone-deaf chorus: Live Unlimited, Luxury Living, Uptown Energy, Lakeside Leisure, Life Looks Better From the Top

Zein pictured the billboards caught between the tower crane’s metal teeth; cables writhing through the vinyl, sizzling into raw copper; pictures crackling into static; plastic melting into soil. In her mind, she watched the ground part beneath their concrete roots; brick meet sand like a long lost lover; fires sprawl from their wild embrace and swallow the ring road whole. 

In her heart she murmured a quiet prayer; for the mountains to swell from their amber ruins, for the desert to bloom from the city’s ashes

February 04, 2022 18:55

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1 comment

Dustin Gillham
19:47 Feb 19, 2022

Beautiful imagery and use of description. Great work!

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