It’s no secret that even the most humble individuals occasionally get a rush of sweet, sugary satisfaction when they get the chance to feel superior to someone. I know you’re probably reading this and going “Nope. Not me.” at your computer monitor.
Yes, YOU, pumpkin. And me.
What happens, however, when the person you’re supposed to be superior to doesn’t get it? When they turn the tables? And don’t even keep it to themselves, like a decent-minded asshole would?
Names, identities, and locations have been altered in order to protect the guilty.
It was not a dark and stormy night. It was a mild (thanks, global warming!) December evening in Amman. My boyfriend and I were due to fly out to visit my family in Ukraine the next day and, in preparation for my inevitable terror and hysteria surrounding air travel, decided to treat ourselves – or mostly me – to a dinner out.
I was downing my second beer and trying to refrain from running the standard nightmare scenarios – engine failure, marauding birds, bad weather, poor visibility, terrorists, getting sucked out through the toilet drain, etc. – through my head, when Boyfriend was spotted by someone who knew him. This someone was with another someone – a pretty blonde who sized me up and spoke Russian to me without even bothering to check if she and I were both of the few, the proud, the scattered members of the post-Soviet diaspora. Her name was Lara.
Lara told me she was a student, originally from Donetsk, Ukraine. She became excited when I told her I was flying to Kiev the following day, and asked if I could bring her back some manka – which is a type of kasha mix (or porridge). I gave her my phone number and went back to my beer and paranoid fantasies. When she texted me later, to ask to bring her back some salo and sunflower seeds as well, I was too busy freaking out about the possibility of the wings on the plane falling off to take it as any kind of warning sign.
After a much-needed Eid holiday in Ukraine, Boyfriend and I came back to Jordan with a bag of kasha in one of our suitcases (along with other curiosities – most of which we kept for ourselves). I arranged to meet Lara to hand over the food. I was curious about her. She seemed very peppy – which wasn’t at all how I was feeling at the time, and I wanted to see if some of that peppiness would rub off on me.
We arranged to meet in a pub.
The first thing she did was scream at me for being late after the taxi dropped me off a good mile away from the intended location. Then, she took a look at my ancient Converse.
“Why are you wearing those shoes?” She snapped, as if we were at a debutante ball rather than a pub on a Tuesday night, and she was some nightmare version of my mother.
“Because… they’re comfortable?” I wasn’t quite sure how to react to her reaction. I’m a lover of high heels – but only if it warrants the occasion or else the showing off of a particularly neat short dress or skirt. I wondered if this was some sort of Donetsk thing.
Then I felt bad, because I seriously dislike the casual contempt that Kievans and former Kievans have for people not from the capital. A lot of it is quite classist, dim, and insufferable, practiced by people who are themselves terribly insecure about living in the wrong kind of neighbourhood or wearing socks belonging to the wrong kind of brand.
She shrugged in a manner that suggested that she would forgive me this one time, and we ordered drinks. I heard her story about coming to Jordan after falling in love, falling out of love, and falling in love with Jordan instead, prompting her to stay and study. It wasn’t nearly as romantic as I make it sound here. Her background was obviously wealthy enough to afford tuition at a private college, but she was mostly interested in other people’s money. That much became obvious when she began asking pointed questions about the economic background of the people that Boyfriend and I hang out with.
Well, I couldn’t blame her for being practical. Not in these times. Not initially, anyway.
“How’d you end up here anyway?” She asked. Before I could tell her, she made several guesses. I’m not going to say that she came right out and asked me if I was a prostitute, but that much was implied by a succession of winks and smirks and “so, what’s your job?”
I told her a condensed version of my biography: born in Kiev, spent the better part of my life in North Carolina – getting an education and going to a lot of concerts, got stuck with some pretty severe student loans, did get lucky with important connections that landed me a sweet job, went to Dubai to pursue sweet job with Boyfriend by my side, and found Dubai very expensive. Then both of us were lured to Boyfriend’s native Amman – he by a new job, me by the chance to save money in my old job. I found Amman emotionally harsh and professionally brilliant. Decided to stay.
I could see Lara’s eyes narrowing and the corners of her mouth turning downward. I had disappointed her in some profound way. “Let’s get the bill,” she said. I fumbled for my wallet as she took a long look at my shoulder-bag.
“Nice, uh, purse you got there,” she said.
The bag looks like a crumpled up newspaper made of plastic-y leather, which is why I like it. It’s one of those inexplicable bourgeois ticks of mine. It’s also very easy to keep clean.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Where’d you get it?”
“It’s from the Marc line by Marc Jacobs. I figured I’d waste money on it while we were still living with Boyfriend’s family. Got it on a huge-ass sale. One of the few perks of the economic crisis, I guess.”
“Who the hell is Marc Jacobs?” She asked, suddenly furious again, as if she had some suspicions about this Marc Jacobs character and she wasn’t going to hold them back, not even in polite company.
“You know, designer? American? This Marc by Marc Jacobs thing is a bit overpriced, to be honest, which is why you really have to wait for a sale in order to…”
“Well, I’ve never heard of him,” she said testily. “Are you sure you didn’t just get it in Borschagovka [a largely unpleasant neighbourhood in the city of my birth]?”
I looked into her eyes. She wasn’t joking. Shit just got real.
“And anyway,” she sipped up the last of the rum-and-coke I had magnanimously (or so I thought) insisted on paying for, “if you wanted a nice bag, why not buy yourself some Gucci?”
It made sense to share a cab as we were both headed in approximately the same direction. To my horror, Lara decided to get out with me when I arrived within a block of my house – this was after making fun of my Arabic and asking me a slew of pointed, leading questions as to where I had gotten my pocketbook, scarf, and watch.
“This watch was sent to me by a friend,” I said, getting defensive over the sentimental value, especially since the watch was kindly gifted to me at what surely qualified as a difficult time – when I was earning extra money by babysitting my neighbour’s rat terrier and couldn’t afford proper healthcare, let alone a cute timepiece with a pink face.
“You must have some cheap friends,” the gum-snapping creature sneered.
She isn’t really following me to my home, is she? I thought, as her hooves, I mean, heels, clicked on the asphalt behind me. I didn’t invite her. I DIDN’T INVITE HER. Inwardly, I shook my fist at my parents for all of the hospitality lessons they had ingrained me – all that stuff about opening the door of your home to a friend, be it day or night, be they announced or unannounced, sober or drunk, healthy or ill, snappily dressed or in rags. My parents had not accounted for Lara.
Our little apartment, the one so hard-fought for, failed to impress Our Lady of the Pinault-Printemps-Redoute Conglomerate.
“Ugh!” She said. “It’s so tiny and depressing! How much do you pay for it again? Ugh!”
I shielded myself with my laptop and announced I had Important Online Business to attend to. Boyfriend made small-talk. I don’t know how the hell he and Lara even got on the subject, but Boyfriend decided to relate an amusing anecdote about embarrassing himself horribly in front of a member of a royal family whose provenance shall remain undisclosed.
“Where’d you meet [said member of undisclosed royal family]?” Lara asked incredulously.
“[Member of undisclosed royal family] was at college with us.”
“What?” Lara laughed happily. “You’re telling me someone from [undisclosed royal family] went to your school? Why would someone like that even study… where was it again… North Carolina? Why wouldn’t they go somewhere good? Like, in New York?
Because I went into an ass-load of debt to be able to attend Duke, it’s easy for me to get defensive about my Dukieness. I get so defensive, in fact, that I fall back on stock-phrases in my righteous fervour:
“It’s NOT a dumb jock-school, that’s very unfair!” “I’m not an Ivy League reject, I never applied to any Ivy League schools!” “Anti-intellectual? I gave a ride to a Pulitzer winner in my car once!” “Coach K owns your ass!” “Fuck you too!”
But I wasn’t really sure how to properly respond to what Lara had just said. I just knew I needed to be Cool, Above-It-All Natalia in order to make it through the evening. I certainly couldn’t attempt to justify myself to someone like her – that would be doth protesting too much. And doth protesting too much is never my idea of a good time.
Boyfriend, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same knee-jerk desire to avoid uncomfortable discussions on educational privilege and lack thereof.
“Oh, Duke’s actually a pretty good school,” he said, and opened his mouth to continue with the amusing anecdote.
“Yeah, whatever. Pretty good school? I’ve never even heard of this place, seriously.” She persisted, getting visibly irritated. Was she actually Satan? Sent down to earth to rob me of all of my dearly held illusions concerning my own pure and humble nature? Was I being tempted into being an asshole? Hello? God?
“You’ve never heard about Marc Jacobs either,” I muttered.
“Huh?” She snapped her head and gum simultaneously. It was really rather skillful.
“It’s a great school. Lovely campus too. You should really visit, if you ever get the chance.” I snapped my own gum, crack, and went back to the nobly intellectual pursuit of trawling for Ewan McGregor pictures.
She asked Boyfriend to walk her out and help her find a cab. Then she called me up, angrily screeching about the fact that He! Didn’t! Help! Her! Carry! Her! Tiny! Little! Bag!
“Boyfriend!” I inquired. “Why didn’t you help out with her tiny, little bag?”
Boyfriend blinked up at me with all of the innocence of a baby chipmunk emerging from a particularly delicious nap.
“I didn’t notice she had any trouble carrying something that weighs less a pound?”
He had a good point, but I apologized to her anyway. I will hate myself for that apology, possibly forever. And ever. Amen.
Two of our friends said that they had to meet this person. I protested. They insisted. A time and place was arranged. Lara came late, dragging behind her a stock-character I can only describe with the phrase “Faulknerian Man-Child” (thanks, Onion!).
“I, like, have been doing this whole bachelor’s thing for about 8 years,” the Faulknerian Man-child announced halfway through his first drink. “School’s boring.”
“And awfully expensive,” I said.
“I guess. My parents keep paying for it. They really want me to get a degree, I think. Whatever. I’ve been thinking of going out to Dubai. Or the States. You know. Doing stuff. Export-import. That sort of thing.”
“Anyway,” he fixed his dull little eyes on me, “are you a student too?”
“No, I work as a journalist.”
He giggled. Lara joined him. Did they hear “professional vampire slayer” instead of “journalist?”
Some time passed. A few more drinks were downed.
“Do you, like… like being a journalist?” The Faulknerian Man-child blurted out.
“And you wanted to be one when you grew up?”
“Sure. I like writing. Always have. As a matter of fact, I write a lot of ficiton and poetry too. I’m working on a novel about…”
“What he’s saying is that journalism sort of… lacks prestige,” Lara interrupted helpfully. “I guess we’re just surprised that you seem so… proud of it.”
So there I was, sitting in a pub, the clocks ticking all around me, whittling the time away to the very middle of my twenties, with a war going on next door, while an oily-skinned, ferret-faced “export-import” enthusiast who had spent 8 years and thousands upon thousands of his parents’ money on a bachelor’s and a sly-eyed, chain-smoking connoisseur of the United States’ higher education-and-handbag scene were together lecturing me on prestige.
At the other end of the table, our friends were listening raptly. I took some grim comfort in recognizing the fact that they were both men, both from seriously well-off families, both cute, and generally precisely the sort of people that Lara thought herself worthy of hanging out with. I could tell from how she blew her cigarette smoke into their faces that she actually had no clue as to their class background. Of course she didn’t. Their clothes on that occasion were not stamped with designer logos, and they weren’t ordering Dom Perignon.
She had a few more drinks.
“Do you think I should go with” she jabbed her straw in the direction of Faulknerian Man-child “to the Gulf? Or the States? I could meet more people. You know, people who were interesting. I could meet another guy. But this guy could just leave me. And where will I be?”
“Sweetie, worry about your degree first. Then worry about him.” I almost felt bad for her just then.
“Whatever. Like you know anything about degrees. North Carolina? Right.”
I stopped feeling sorry for her.
Many centuries passed, but with enough hope and enough drink, I lived long enough to see the bill arrive.
Sliding my pocketbook toward Boyfriend, I caught Lara’s fiery stare.
Please. I thought. No.
“Any man of MINE,” she announced to the table, “would be EMBARRASSED to take MONEY from his GIRLFRIEND like that! The LEAST he would do is SLIP AWAY and DO IT OUTSIDE!”
Boyfriend got up.
“Hey!” She screeched. “I’m not finished with my goddamn cigarette!”
My friends stared at me with grave judgment, like avenging angels. The pub suddenly acquired a church-like somberness. What? I wanted to say. You TOLD me to invite her. Assholes.
“He really is rather short, isn’t he?” She fumed at Boyfriend’s back as we made our way out of the pub. “And rude. And he takes your money in front of everyone. Please tell me you cheat on him.”
“Who does your hair?” She suddenly started poking her fingers at my fringe.
I gave the name of a Ukrainian hairdresser who works in one of those salons where they bring you coffee, a nice, cozy place I can afford if I forgo heating in the apartment, and swiftly untangled myself from Lara’s grabby hands.
“Figures,” Lara told the Faulknerian Man-child, who grunted approvingly. “That hairdresser sucks. Everyone knows it. I’m shocked that you go there. Shocked.”
“WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?” My friend asked as he got behind the wheel, so irritated that he could barely put on his seat belt for a good minute.
“I don’t even know.”
I considered changing my number. Lara’s calls and texts were incessant, timed at regular intervals, like a small but very efficient torture mechanism.
“Why does she hate you so much?” I asked Boyfriend after punching the “silent” button yet again, already beginning to dread the cutesy Harry Potter melody of my little Nokia.
“I don’t carry her little bags. I don’t light her cigarettes. I don’t kiss her ass. Take your pick.”
We were sitting on a bench in Amman’s First Circle, and I was looking around warily. Amman is not as big as you would think, if you happen to stick to certain areas. You run into people you know all the time. People you know could be behind you right this minute. Watching.
When my father surprised me with money for a plane ticket to visit him on his birthday in Kiev, I made the mistake of letting Lara know. It was really just a way to say – See? I’m getting away from here for a few days. And you WON’T have my number in Ukraine.
“Any chance you could bring me back a little something?” She texted back.
“Sure.” This was purely an anthropological experiment. I wanted to see what would happen. I wanted to see if I could handle what was about to happen.
The text she sent me was so long that it crashed my mobile phone. I’m not kidding. My phone froze. She was putting on a banquet. Or saving up for nuclear winter.
Samogon. A litre of good, store-bought vodka. A type of sausage that’s “kind of hard to find, but you can look for it at the bazaars.” Another type of sausage, this one more easily accessible. Carrots. Greens. Something that I could only assume was a type of liquor (“you can get it in the duty-free!”). Caviar. A type of dried, salted fish – koryushka – especially beloved by my mother.
As I wrangled with my phone, follow-up texts began to trickle in. She wanted hard candy. It wasn’t heavy. What did I mean, “heavy”? I wasn’t taking any luggage? Bah. “You can carry this stuff. I get very hungry in Amman, you know.” “You understand what it’s like.” “Just put it in your carry-on.” “What do you mean, no room?” “That ugly thing is huge.” “Make sure you go to the bazaar for me, I really need that sausage.”
“Your phone is ringing off the hook,” the hairdresser, Nina, the one so cruelly disparaged by Lara just a few days ago, noted idly as she polished off my fringe with creamy dye. The texts had begun to get ominous, even abusive. Words like “goddamit” were introduced. “Since you’re going to Kiev, can you bring me some medicine for my joints?” Nina asked.
“For you, Nina? Anything. Anything.”
“It’s ignorance. Ignorance garnished aplomb, with absolute, crass superiority.” my mother snapped. We were making my way through the delicious European snow, in the delicious European gloom, on a search for a birthday present for my dad. The stores were mostly empty. Crisis, crisis everywhere.
“I feel bad for her though,” I said.
“Oh please. She’s a trainwreck. You want to put her in a story. And then you want everyone to say – ‘what a clever story.’ Feeling sorry has nothing to do with it.”
My mother still has the annoying habit of always being right when it comes to what I write and how I write it.
“Maybe she’s had it tough?” I wondered.
“If that little idiot has it tough in her little private school, then our village relatives should just go ahead and shoot themselves. Can you imagine… can you imagine your paternal grandmother acting like that? The woman didn’t even have indoor plumbing until she was this Lara’s age.”
Lara had caused my mother to hold up her mother-in-law as an example of something positive and even life-affirming. The world was, quite possibly, grinding to a halt.
I haven’t changed my number just yet, but I do make sure to pay attention to my cats. They can hear someone coming when I cannot. Their ears twitch, like miniature fluffy antennae. Any movement on the stairwell of my building piques their interest. They’re not quite watchdogs, but a watchcat is still better than nothing.
I am profoundly unnerved by the fact that this person knows where I live.
I will repeat myself:
I am profoundly unnerved by the fact that this person knows where I live.
The text have swung back from being wildly hostile to wildly friendly, which is somehow even more offensive. Just how stupid does she think I actually am? Hamster-grade stupid? Fruitfly-grade?
“What does this say about me as a person?” I whine to Boyfriend. “I mean, is it really hard to understand – that I am actually quite decent? That I go to a NICE hairdresser? That I LIKE my watch?”
“You’ve failed the test,” Boyfriend says. Or so I think. He has fallen asleep and is murmuring to himself. The cats purr.
“I’ve failed the test.”
I really am not a particularly good human being after all. It’s a relief to discover this after all of this time I have spent guessing.
Meanwhile, in the starry climbs above the city of Amman, avenging angels swoop out of their warm perches in the Promised Land and flap their wings and rain dark feathers on their charges. I imagine that at certain altitudes, angels get beakier and more judgmental, on account of being able to see very far, or else on account of the impossible loneliness of great height.
I wonder if its also loneliness that transmits the electric pulse of a late-night text message, pushing it through invisible networks so that my unglamorous phone begins to chatter in my undignified shoulder-bag, but I’d rather not find out for certain.