Nouf moved the curtain aside an inch and peered down on the villa’s back garden. No one would look up, but nonetheless she remained hidden behind the wall of her room. The four men sat below the palm trees on two diwan benches taken from the tent. Another stood a few meters away next to the fountain, talking into his cellphone and gesturing at his interlocuter. Nouf took a puff on her vape, then let it disappear into the pocket of her sweatpants.
The man next to the fountain was in dress uniform—a major—but Nouf was certain that her father’s other visitors also had spent years in the military. They sat with the measured precision she knew from her father. Two in suits, white shirts, collars open. Short, mustachioed. Arab, definitely, but not Khaliji. Both smoking. One of them in his early thirties, slicked-back hair, tense features, navy blue Italian suit, tailor-made. Good looking in a bland sort of way. The guy beside him, in his fifties. Twice the size of the younger one. Like he needed to turn sideways to get through a door. Shaved head, jowly, grey couture suit. Across from them, next to her father, a portly man in his early sixties. Brown winter dishdasha, bareheaded though. Pulling the beads of an amber misbah through his fingers with the nail of his left thumb. A bored, powerful face.
Nouf had seen them all before. This was at least the fourth time they were here. The first time in summer, months ago, shortly before the family vacation in Zell am See. Then again in September. Not all of them that time, minus the suits. The whole bunch a few weeks ago. And now. They never entered the house, just parked their Land Cruisers and Jaguars in the driveway. Her father would greet them, before leading the way along the side of the villa into the garden. Now it was cool, so they could sit outside and smoke. Her mother always had a conniption if someone smoked in the tent.
The tent stood open, though, the flap draped over the AC unit. In winter, her father sometimes had his diwaniyah there. The TV inside was turned to a news channel; every once in a while, the men would glance in that direction. Nouf watched her father. In fatigues, as he liked it. Three stars on each shoulder. He always looked so handsome in uniform. Lately, he’d aged though, gone mostly grey. He’d also gained some weight. Since taking that job in the Ministry two years ago he hardly talked about when he came home.
Scratching his chin beard now, laughing with the Khaliji next to him. Her father was nervous. He spoke curtly with Josie, who had stepped out from the kitchen to serve yellow-green Arabic coffee in engraved glass cups. He gestured toward the two foreigners: Attend to them first.
Nouf walked over to the side table next to her sofa and took a sip from her karak. Lukewarm. She swirled the tea around, considered the Safran smear in the milk. Her father had not looked this uncomfortable the last time with his visitors. What is going on? Her phone pinged. She set down the cup. A wave from A. Ahmad—careful, considerate. She liked that about him. Always made sure she was alone before calling. Also, he did not snoop. She was going to marry him, though he didn’t realize it. Better to keep it that way for now. Another year and a half till they’d both graduate. Then they could marry and go off for their Masters in the US. Maybe never come back.
She checked her laptop. An email from a professor of hers, a reminder about a submission date, another from the president of the Anime Club, asking if she wanted to introduce the club to some high school kids visiting the campus next week. She composed a quick answer, begged off, texted Ahmad ‘Call u later’ and walked toward the door. A once-over in her dressing mirror. She breathed in, nodded, shook her head, then nodded again.
The November light spilled through the stairwell window. Mocha on her haunches, staring intently. Outside, the fat stray tomcat prowling around a Ministry Land Cruiser, sniffing its tires. Mocha’s fur rose at the nape of her neck. She hissed, then looked up at Nouf, curled around her leg. Across the street on the other side of the roundabout, the ice-cream vendor was selling popsicles to three of the next-door kids. The red and white parasol over his tricycle flapping in the breeze. Nouf contemplated the scene. She was invisible, the window glass was one way. Her face went blank. She reached down to scratch Mocha’s head, then continued skipping down the stairs.
Already in the corridor, she could hear her mother questioning Josie: