Me and Mark sit in the grass and watch Mohammad do his chores. Usually we sit like this and stare at the road in front of our house, but today there’s nothing to see. Nobody is honking and weaving their fast cars around sluggish buses on their way to work. There is no line of enormous SUVs backed all the way down our street waiting to get to Starbucks. No Ferraris with the hoods up, trunks lifted, and glove compartments open, getting searched for bombs before driving into the parking lot of the Movenpick for egg sandwiches. It’s quiet, except for the scratchy sweep of Mohammad’s broom. Our dad warned us that traffic would begin to build in the early afternoon—worse than anything we have ever seen, and so we wait. Today is Kuwait’s version of the Fourth of July. Today is Liberation Day.
Mohammad is in charge of everything: guarding our door, carrying the groceries up to our kitchen, and wiping our smudgy handprints off the walls. He is our harris, which means house boss, but seems more like servant. He opens the gate to our courtyard at five o’clock every morning with a key he keeps tucked in the waistband of his shorts. If me and Mark are up early enough, we can see him from the window propping the heavy iron door open with a brick. Today he waters the lawn with a hose and clips the small patch of grass we are sitting on with hedge shears. Mohammad speaks Arabic, but he can understand a little English. When we talk to him we use our hands.
“You missed right there,” Mark says, and points his finger like a gun to a patch of grass. “Bam.”
Mohammad waddles over on his knees and snips in silence. Mark and I lean back on our elbows and tip our heads to the sky. It is blue and bare and I’m surprised by how much I miss clouds. Mohammad sets down his clippers, and me and Mark scoot off the grass and sit on the steps with our chins in our palms. Mohammad stomps over to our Prado with a bucket of water and suds it up with soap. We laugh as he squeaks around in flimsy plastic slippers, like they are real shoes, and not vacation throwaways for wearing by the pool. He’s from Pakistan and won’t shake hands with Mom.
“See the hand he uses to wash the car? The left one. That’s his wiping hand,” Mark says. “That’s the hand he uses on his ass.”
“No way,” I say.
Mark places his hand on top of my knee and pats it. Then he puts it on my face and over my mouth and nose like a muzzle.
“Say hello to my wiping hand,” he says.
I toss my head back with a quick jerk and turn it from side to side trying to shake Mark’s hand off my mouth. It doesn’t work, so I stick my tongue out and wiggle it between his salty fingers until he yanks it back. He rubs his hand on the side of his jeans and scrunches up his face.
“Gross,” he says. “You’re disgusting.”
We hear our mom open the sliding glass door to the balcony that overlooks our neighborhood, and we look up. She is peeking through the potted palms Dad brought home in huge wicker baskets. Before he put them there the family in the sandy-colored mansion next door could see directly into our house. Mom’s head is wrapped up in a towel turban and she cups a mug of tea with both hands.
“Hey you two,” she says. “I need you to do something for me. I need you to run a little errand.”
“Maybe,” Mark shouts back to her. “What is it?”
“Maybe?” she asks.
“Maybe we will and maybe we won’t,” I shout. “It all depends.”
Mark looks at me, like he doesn’t know who I am, and I realize that pissing off Mom was not what he had in mind.
“We’re just kidding, Mom,” he says, elbowing me in the ribs.
“Very funny,” she says, sharply. “Ha. Ha. Ha.”
“We’ll do it,” Mark calls up to her.
“Come and get some money,” she says, and slides the glass door shut.
“News flash, idiot,” Mark says to me in a hushed voice, “tonight we are having dinner with Dad’s boss. He flew all the way here to be wined and dined—by us. So try not to be an asshole.”
I nod my head and wonder why I can never keep my feelings matched with Mark’s. Just when I think we’re supposed to be sulking around, answering Mom and Dad’s questions with lots of noes, Mark switches everything up.
We tell Mohammad to go get us the money we need from Mom, because we don’t feel like walking upstairs. He drops his bucket by the car and does what we say. We can hear the echo of his footsteps as he runs up the marble staircase. The door to our house is wide open now in the morning heat. The freezing cold air from inside is leaking out into this sweaty country—no big deal, and I know that means we are the same as all the rich Arab families that live around us. We leave the lights on when we’re not home.
“Mohammad has your money,” Mom calls out from the porch balcony. “Get a nice box of dates—something that can be opened up with a little drama. Something with a bow.”
“Okay,” says Mark.
“You’re safe walking there alone?” Mom asks.
“He’s not alone,” I say.
We start backing out into the street and look up at Mom. Mark grabs my arm and holds it up for her to see.
“Jonah’s my bodyguard,” he says.
I let my arm drop back down to my side.
“Make a muscle,” Mark says, but I don’t.
He takes off running and I follow in a slow jog. We pass a woman in a black abaya power-walking in front of my favorite house. It’s full of copper-tinted windows, and each one shines in the morning sun like a new penny. I yank on clumps of yellow dates dangling in mesh bags from the palm trees I pass. I pull them down as far as they will go and then I let them fly. I can hear the swooshing of the sacks behind me as they bob against the dry fronds.
Mark is stopped up ahead and looking back at me to hurry.
“Come on,” he yells. “It’s right here.”
I sprint over and put my hands on my hips to catch my breath while Mark stomps dust off his shoes.
I follow Mark into Al-Rafai. The door jingles with a little bell as it closes behind us. The store is brightly lit and freezing. The air-conditioning buzzes in the rickety vents above our heads, and I wrap my arms around my body to stay warm as we take a look around. A tall Arab man in an orange button-down shirt appears behind the counter and offers us tiny glasses filled with white milky liquid, but I know that we won’t fall for this little trick.
“No way,” says Mark. “No thank you.”
The man comes from behind the counter and walks toward us smiling, thrusting the tray in front of us.
“Laban,” he says. “Laban for you, sir.”
Mark puts his hand up, to say stop.
“We don’t want any,” I say, putting my hand up too.
“That stuff looks like milk,” Mark tells him, “but tastes like throw up.”
“Laban is very nice,” the man says.
“No,” says Mark. “It’s not.”
The man smiles, does a little bow, and backs away.
Mark takes a deep breath and we walk over to the middle of the store and stare into barrels filled with dried fruits. Mark sifts dried elderberries and pomegranate seeds through his fingers. He pulls an apple ring out and twirls it around his pointer before taking a bite. I pull out a dried yellow pear, curled like an ear, and rest it in my palm.
“Let me try that,” Mark says, plucking the pear from my hand and shoving it into his mouth. “I need to taste test everything.”
We walk over to a glass case of jellied fruits. We see oozy kiwis and guavas dripping sticky syrup onto cupcake papers. Mark points at ripe dates stuffed with tahini paste, wrapped in pink translucent foil.
“I think that’s what we want,” he says. “A giant box of those Medjools.”
Mark points at the dates and taps the glass. The man appears again and holds up boxes for us to see. I like the purple one with the yellow bow, but Mark nods his head when we are shown the red velvet.
“Okay, next,” Mark says. “We need more stuff. We need something extra that will make this guy go crazy.”
I walk over to a shelf filled with colored bottles of water and try to figure out what they taste like from the pictures. The pink one shows roses, but that doesn’t seem like a flavor to me. I see a date on one and call Mark over.
“Jallab,” Mark says. “That’s what we’re looking for.”
I tuck two bottles up under my arms like bowling pins and carry them over to the counter.
By the time I turn around, Mark is standing all the way on the other side of the store where nuts and seeds sit in roasted piles behind glass. He has his arms pulled inside his shirt, so it looks like they got blown off. His short sleeves hang loosely from his shoulders. I shiver in the cold and walk over to pick out nuts with him. There are flavors here that I’ve never heard of, so we sample them all. Mark tugs his arms back into his sleeves so he can point to what he wants. Curried macadamias and lemon zatar peanuts are tossed in a shallow metal pan along with Egyptian seeds, and passed to us for tasting. We see freeze-dried peas that remind us of the astronaut food we ate at space camp last summer, and Mark orders up a baggie of those for the two of us to share. We taste everything, but decide four pounds of salted mixed nuts will look good dumped in a golden bag sealed with a wax stamp that says God.
“This is perfect,” Mark says. “Some extra-special stuff.”
Mark pays while I grab Fantas from a cooler filled with dry ice.
“Get one for Mohammad too,” Mark says. “It’s hot outside.”
“Really?” I ask. “Should we do that? Give him stuff?”
“Are you asking if it’s okay to buy him a Fanta that costs fifty cents?” Mark says. “Yeah. It is. It’s called being nice.”
We walk back to the house carrying bags of presents for Dad’s boss. The air is hot and sticky and I wish that we could stop and drink our Fanta in the shade of a date palm, but Mark is in a hurry.
“These treats are going to be perfect,” he says. “They will show that Dad is awesome, and deserves another promotion—back to civilization. I really think tonight we have a chance to turn this thing around.”