PILLAR OF SALT
It was late September 1997 and my husband was killing time in a holding room at the airport in Jeddah. A claims inspector didn’t like the looks of the tapes in his carry on and, lacking the right player, decided a couple rounds of porno chicken would tease out whether they were software, or videos of naked women brushing their hair and eating pulled pork heroes.
I can see why he got stopped. His passport says he was born in California: porno capital of the planet; and his casual clothing, tribal garb of the programming set, smacked of porno hustler’s gear in cassock country. Then there’s all that inappropriate smiling Americans do abroad, it can land them in a tough spot, and this was a tough spot.
We were in the midst of moving into our Paris apartment for a year-long overseas stint when the business trip to Saudi Arabia came in. We knew no one who’d been there and had no idea what to expect. Handily our pop culture archive went into action, presenting us with flying carpets, and minarets, and The Clash playing “Rock the Casbah” at full blast. From there we wowed ourselves silly with Arabian tales, largely provided by our friend Bugs Bunny, and nearly flipped when we were told the meeting had been arranged by a Saudi Prince.
So many things seem amazing when you move to a faraway place. “Look at the river!” “Look at that church!” “Check out his purse.” “Cool lighter!” Who knew being wide-eyed was so stupid-making? Suddenly things I normally ignored, or flat out laughed at, became wildly irresistible.
This was not a good sign.
After an hour of porno chicken, Walter’s opponent got bored and let him go. He caught the last flight to Riyadh with minutes to spare. When he arrived his colleague was a no show, the phones were dead, and the airport was closing for the day. So much for “Rock the Casbah,” he had all he could do to find a hotel without attracting anymore attention.
Alone in Paris and behaving badly, I went on a Princess Diana bender, and discovered the true meaning of tawdry. I admit it wasn’t my finest hour, but her recent death was all the rage. I dressed in black, hit the pop-up memorial spots, and vogued somber. I gobbled up stacks of tabloids and photo-laden glossies, and spent hours reading all the shitty little poems and letters people left at the monument above the crash site.
I think I even cried.
Walter’s colleague turned up the following morning claiming he’d been at the wrong terminal the night before. They patched things up and headed off to their meeting, only to learn it’d been cancelled.
“Arabs don’t do business when it rains,” quipped a Paris pal.
The weather cleared but the cancellations continued, so did Walter’s run-ins with authority. He got whacked with a rubber baton for staring at an eye-popping building, and later yanked out of the market square. Single men may enter the square only on Fridays, when commerce gives way to justice, and anyone can watch as the hands and heads of people who don’t know how to follow the rules are chopped off.
It didn’t take long for Paris to show its less attractive side. After years of living in sprawled out California, I’d nearly forgotten that people had problems. My refresher course took less than a day. It began in a chapel on the grounds of the hospital where Diana died. I was reading in my guide book about how the place had been a prison for prostitutes and the criminally insane when a guy wearing nothing more than a head bandage and a hospital gown ran into the room. Realizing he wasn’t part of an historical reenactment, I panicked and fled, flinging fuck offs and leave me alones in my wake. Poor Young Frankenstein, all he wanted was a game of chase.
Back in Riyadh, time was running out. Four days had gone by and the meeting had yet to happen. Walter was up to here with the waiting and the constant threat of being harassed. His colleague took pity on him, and swearing that he had special protections, took him 4-wheeling far off into the desert with a jug of Middle East moonshine under the back seat, and a banned GPS device velcroed onto the dash. “Rock the Casbah” at last!
My hair looked horrific after my mad dash from Young Frankenstein and my clothes were bunched at all the wrong places. Clearly I was not French. I dove into a nearby museum to regroup, paid for my ticket, and headed to the bathroom. A bit of water and a firm hand smoothed out my disheveled bits, but the look on my face said “whack job.” Clearly the run-in with the monster had yet to leave my system.
Walter was checking out of the hotel when the call came in: the Prince’s people were ready to meet. At this point Walter was in utter “fuck it” mode and told his colleague he had a plane to catch. There would be no plane to catch if he didn’t attend the meeting, his colleague advised.
Was that an idle threat, or a real threat?
Walter attended the meeting and caught the next flight out.
My walk from the museum to the métro was almost a non-event until I saw a man collapse onto the sidewalk. Moments before, I’d been taken by the elegant tableau of him and his lively group as they emerged from a restaurant, looking ever so French, with their proper coats and beautiful scarves, and air of gastronomic knowing. His friends instantly set about helping him as his writhing body began to still. His clothes were loosened, his head was elevated, and an ambulance was called. Unlike back home, there were no hysterics, no arm-flailing ‘oh-my-god’s!!!’, no Johnny-to-the-rescue. Even the ambulance was chill. Other than the siren and the gurney, it might as well have been a hearse. There was no CPR, no zapping the old man’s chest with paddles, no crash cart, no I.V., no nothing, just a ride to the hospital. At that moment I asked God to please spare me of any medical emergencies while I resided in Paris.
The Eiffel Tower is beautiful at night and Walter and I decided a bite with the tower in view would help put our rough initiation behind us. During dinner I swore off anything to do Princess Diana, and Walter swore off anything to do with Saudi Arabia. Surely the road ahead would now be smooth.
We finished dinner late and caught a cab home, and watched as the Eiffel Tower peeked through the taxi’s windows. As it moved behind us, we turned, holding it in view as long as possible, and then we plunged underground and the tower and the city vanished. Startled by the scene shift, I realized where we were. As the pillars whizzed by I thought, ‘Diana’s car struck the thirteenth one’, but we were going in the opposite direction, making it very difficult to figure out which pillar was which. Then I remembered my promise, as I held Walter’s hand tight, and swore to myself, ‘I will not look back.’