We had a tree. I think it was an oak or an elm. Big, a
good climbing tree, generous with shade. People tell me there’s
no way an oak or elm could survive in Saudi Arabia, that I was twelve,
that I must have remembered it wrong. This wasn’t Saudi Arabia,
I tell them. It was the compound, where we and 5,000 others lived
out our own version of America, surrounded by fences and gates.
We had a tree. We were new and we had this huge tree in our front
yard, on one of the only tree-lined streets in the compound. (My
father was important, so when the company hired him, we got priority
housing.) On warm, clear, windless Arabian nights, hundreds of couples
and kids converged on foot and on BMX bikes to stroll and ride the
length of our tree-lined street, the most convincingly American
street in the compound. People called it Little Houston. A template
for memories of the world we’d left behind.
I used to take a lot of pictures, and before we left Texas for
Saudi, I shot a whole roll of film to make a panorama of our house
and neighborhood: 360 degrees around, then up to the leafy canopies
and the sky above. When we arrived in Saudi, I pasted the pictures
to the inside of a big bowl and hung it over my bed with a pulley,
so I could lower it just above my face while lying on my back.
My desk lamp, the shade cranked to the side, lit the dome perfectly.
Something woke me that night: a giggle, a thunk. By the time
I was awake the night was silent again. We’d been in Saudi
maybe three months. I was in a state of constant exhaustion, having
problems falling asleep, waking up at dawn every day. Any glimmer
of consciousness and I was wide awake, wishing this life could
be just another layer of the dream-continuum. But you can feel
when you’re awake. There’s a heaviness, a solidity.
My mother had died the year before: malignant melanoma. My father’s
affair with the au pair, long suspected and long ignored by our
community, suddenly became a scandal. Next thing we knew, Megan
was our stepmom and we were on a plane to Saudi.
The night was still and quiet and dry. I turned on my desk lamp,
cranked it to the side. It was two a.m. I lowered the Texas dome
over my face and then I was lying on the grass, on Sassafras Drive,
on a muggy August afternoon. The sky was divided, high wispy clouds
to the North, a bank of massive gray clouds to the south. Our
old house, its porch, half-rebuilt by my father: the skeleton
of a porch. Among its bones, in triangular shade, I could just
make out the cinderblocks we’d used as steps…
I awoke to Megan’s shaking my shoulder gently. “Sweetheart,”
she said, “come out in front.” It was morning. She
had pulled up the dome and tethered the string to its little cleat.
My brother stood in the hall. His eyes were puffy, and he was
on the verge of tears. I dressed and emerged into the hallway.
My father stood at the open front door, a silhouette ringed by
blinding brightness, sparkling dust. I followed him outside. Before
my eyes adjusted, I thought something had exploded.
Our tree had been draped with hundreds of feet of flowing white
toilet paper. My father began to gather it from the lawn, using
a long curved stick to herd the mess. It was early, and our street
was deserted. My brother looked to me. “Don’t worry,
Max,” I said, “I’m sure it was my friends.”
He had doubt in his eyes. He held large clumps of toilet paper
in both fists. Megan picked through the ribbons, harvesting intact
rolls. “We can use this stuff,” she said. Our tree
shimmered green and white in the breeze. Streams of toilet paper
rounded out its roundness, and the contrast made the green leaves
greener. We gathered all of the toilet paper in the yard, and
some of it that had blown onto the street. The wind picked up,
paper fluttered everywhere, and in fifteen minutes, the sky went
from deep blue to dusty washed-out blue. For some reason, we’d
saved the tree for last. I climbed high into the branches, to
work from the top down. My father, my brother, and Megan all watched
from below. Paper was everywhere. Above roof level, I tasted dust
on my tongue. I could no longer see my family through the dense
white ribbons of paper. I reached the top, and poked my head up.
The paper at the top of the tree lined up with the wind, and flapped
like a bunch of aviator’s scarves. I saw green lawns, bungalows,
swimming pools, the walls of the compound. And in the beige distance
beyond, the clump of boxy buildings that was Al-Khobar, the towers
of the desalination plant (like smoldering matchsticks stuck in
the ground), the shimmering waters of the Gulf. My father’s
voice from below: “Get to work.” I reached out to
retrieve a strip of paper. It tore at a perforation, like it was
supposed to. The orphaned piece clung to the end of a small branch,
the wind gusted and the piece looked as though it was going to
come loose and fly away, but did not. I had a handful of toilet
paper. I crumpled it and watched it fall. It was a long way down.
The paper snagged on a crook and stuck. Of course, I thought.
Of course you’re going to stick to this bark, to these leaves
and these branches. You used to be a tree yourself.