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By four o’clock the traffic starts to build and there is a lot of honking outside our windows while we get ready for dinner. I look out and see our neighbor’s harris lift two small girls in sequined dresses up into their SUV. Their parents climb in next, and they pull out of their shaded parking spot to join the traffic jam. Mom irons our dress shirts and takes her favorite scarf out of tissue paper to tuck around her shoulders during dinner. Dad paces back and forth in the kitchen checking his cell phone. Earlier today he took his boss on a walk-through of the plant, and he is happy it went so well.
“He actually shook my hand congratulations, and clapped me on the shoulders. That’s something I want you boys to remember to do tonight. When you shake hands with Jack, look him straight in the eye and say your name.” Dad holds his hand out in front of him and cuts the air like a knife. “You say, ‘It’s very nice to meet you’—or ‘It’s a pleasure. My name is so-and-so.’”
“I think they can handle that,” Mom says, running her comb under the kitchen sink, and shaking it off. She slicks down my flyaways, and tells Mark to hurry up because tonight we will have to walk to dinner. The traffic jam will be standstill until midnight, and the only way to get anywhere quickly is to walk. Lucky for us, Dad knows how holidays work around here and we’re meeting his boss at a restaurant that overlooks the Gulf a few blocks down the road.
“It’s a fifteen minute walk, tops,” Dad says, as we head out the door.
We walk down the stairs of the apartment, and Mohammad is there to see us off. He tries to grab the bags of gifts out of Dad’s hands, but Dad brushes him away.
“No thanks, Mohammad,” he says. “We’re fine tonight.”
Mohammad places his hand over his heart and shakes his head apologetically.
We cross the street as a family, and the chaos all around us is like nothing I have seen before. Large hotels and restaurants line this road, but nobody is pulling in for dinner. Cars sit idle, and passengers hang out the windows waving the Kuwaiti flag and clucking their tongues to wild Arabic music, like this is a parade. Only it’s not. A boy smaller than me carries flashing colorful light sticks in both hands like batons. He swirls them in front of the windshields of cars, tosses one in the air, and catches it just before it reaches the pavement. He runs over to us trying to block our way. He waves the light sticks in front of Mark’s face.
“One dinar,” he shouts above the music, but we shake our heads no and keep on walking. I am sweating badly in this heat, and I see Mom sweep her hair up into a pile on her head, and hold it with her hand. Dad pulls the scarf from around her shoulders like there’s no point in extra clothes, and we keep walking.
We watch as a group of children are hoisted up on top of an SUV where they stand with their arms raised to the sky. The driver turns the ignition on with a jerk, and inches forward just a little, rocking all the kids on top. A girl is nearly toppled off when the car is thrown back into park. They have only moved a foot or so, but the man driving looks satisfied and cranks his radio up. Behind us we hear a squeal of tires, and Dad moves us farther over on the side of the road. Now we aren’t even on the sidewalk. We walk through dusty sand, past empty bottles and styrofoam cups. Dad holds his arm up shielding Mom and we turn our heads to watch as a car swerves out of line behind us and comes racing up the sidewalk.
“They’re going to hit us,” Mom yells, and crouches down in the sand. The car is honking at us to move out of the way, but we can’t, because there is nowhere else to go. Hot wind passes over my face as the car speeds by. It barely misses us.
“Damn,” Mark says.
“This is dangerous,” yells Mom. “I want the boys next to me—right now.”
We walk in a little huddle, and people yell and clap as we pass by. Five teenage boys swing open their car door and jump out and surround us. They sing and shout and jostle us as they move around pushing us into the middle of a tight circle. One guy grabs Mark by the shoulders and pulls him into the outer ring of dancing boys, but he just stumbles backward into the road.
“Stop it!” yells Mom. She grabs me by the hand and we push through them, breaking everything up. All five boys abandon their car and run off down the street making whooping noises and punching the air, like they just won a game.
I feel a stream of water hit me on the back at the same time I here Mom gasp.
“What the hell?” Mark yells, and turns toward a silver Prado, just like ours.
A boy his age pops up in the window and douses us with a Super Soaker.
“Keep your heads down,” Dad says. “Ignore it. We’re almost there.”
“Ignore it?” Mom yells, giving Dad an angry look. “That’s your solution to us getting shot?”
“It’s only water,” Dad says.
I can see the restaurant’s glowing sign ahead of us, and I grab Mom’s hand. “Almost there,” I say. “Hang on.”
Mom lifts her head, and we see paper confetti explode from the sun roof of the car in front of us.
Inside the restaurant, we are greeted with apologies.
“The Kuwaiti people,” our waiter says. “They like parties too much.”
“That didn’t seem like much of a party,” Dad says. “That felt more like a riot.”
“American?” our waiter asks.
We nod our heads, and he points to himself shrugging his shoulders, “Lebanese.”
Me and Mark order mint lemonades and wait at the table with Mom, while she combs her hair and smoothes her blouse. Dad goes out back to meet his boss. He’s staying at the hotel next door, and didn’t have to walk past all the messy traffic to get here.
When they walk up to the table, we stand and shake hands with him like we’re supposed to. I’m shocked that he’s younger than Dad. I grab onto his hand, squeezing tightly, and look him in the eye. “Nice to meet you,” I say.
Mark is up next, and he does the same thing.
“I’m Jack,” Dad’s boss says. “That’s quite a grip you boys have there. I like that. Firm handshakes.”
We all sit down, and Mom and Dad tell Jack about the walk over like it was fun and interesting, instead of scary.
“Culturally,” says Mom, “this has been a wonderful experience.”
“Sure has,” Dad says. “They’ve got Super Soakers over here. Who would have thought!”
Mark and I let our mouths hang open as we listen to Mom and Dad tell Jack how much they love Kuwait. Dad’s arm rests on the back of Mom’s chair and she tips her head back laughing at everything Dad says.
“The time you got spit on?” Dad asks. “Can I tell that one?”
Mom leans across the table toward Jack, and I’m confused because she is acting like everything bad that has happened here is really hilarious.
“So, I was waiting at the drive-through of Kentucky Fried Chicken, if you can believe that—KFC!—when I realized that my headlights were shining into the eyes of a group of boys about Jonah’s age. Well, I turned off my lights, so I wouldn’t blind the poor things. Poor things! Can you believe I thought that?”
Dad laughs and takes a sip of his lemonade. “Get ready,” he says to Jack.
“Uh-oh,” Jack says.
“Well,” Mom continues, “those boys saw this as a signal to run up to my car and bang on the hood making kissy faces. I waved my hands at them to go away, and I thought they had. But when I rolled down my window to order, one popped right up in my face and made those same kissy lips. I shouted ‘Stop that!’ and waved him away.”
Jack leans in and shoots a quick look at me and Mark. We are listening with our arms crossed.
“Then that kid sucked in his cheeks and shot a big wad of spit on my shoulder. He spit on my bare skin! Can you believe that?” Mom says with glee. “It’s the grossest thing that has ever happened to me!”
“Wow,” Jack says, laughing. “That’s unbelievable. How did you react?”
“How did she react?” Dad repeats, with a smile. “She broke every rule in the book. She threw that car in park so fast, and went running through the Salwa marketplace after them. It was busy as hell, right before evening prayer. The place was packed, and my wife, my lovely wife. Oh God. She went tearing through that place screaming bloody murder like a lunatic. Talk about not calling attention to yourself!”
Mom is laughing now, like this story is her favorite one, but I’ve never heard it told this way. She has her fists raised in the air like a warrior.
“I’m going to kill you!” she says. “I’m going to rip your goddamned head off!”
“Can you believe that?” Dad says, “She was out of her mind!”
“That’s a good one,” Jack says, laughing.
“I thought I’d never hear the end of it,” says Dad.
“What do you think about that?” Jack asks Mark.
“It’s funny, I guess,” Mark says.
“It wasn’t funny at the time,” I say. “It wasn’t funny at all.”
“Well,” Dad says. “All this stuff makes for good storytelling, once you have time to cool off.”
“You’d be a hit at dinner parties back home,” Jack says. “I’m going to have to invite you guys out on the boat when you get back to the States. My whole family would get a kick out of hearing this stuff.”
I see Mark perk up. I know he’s waiting for Jack to say that this will happen soon, that Dad is awesome, that we are going home. I watch him stare expectantly.
“I’m glad you are enjoying it over here,” Jack says to Dad. “Cause we’re really in it now. We’ve got orders coming in that we weren’t prepared for. Orders so big, we can’t fill them fast enough. But we’re going to get you some help in the plant. More down-fill, shift managers, someone from HR on site. We’re gonna get you all set up.”
I see Mark’s face go limp. Then he screws up his mouth in concentration and I’m afraid he might start to cry.
“Damn,” Jack says reaching his arm under the table. “Someone just kicked me.”
“Sorry,” Mark says. “I thought it was the table.”
“You got me pretty good there,” Jack says, and I can tell he is rubbing his shin. “Damn that hurt.”
“Mark,” Dad says. “Watch what you’re doing.”
I pat my hands around under the table and feel for the gifts we picked out. I loop my fingers around the ropey handle of the Al-Rafai bag and yank it up onto my lap.
“Here,” I say, holding the red velvet box out to Jack. “We got this for you.”
“Jonah,” Dad says. “Well all right then. That was supposed to be for after dinner, but okay.”
Jack reaches out and takes the box and the gift bag from me. He rifles through it pulling out the Jallab water. He holds a bottle in one hand and the sack of nuts in the other.