The Fiction Issue: ‘The Pilgrims,’ by Siobhan Fallon

November 15, 2013

(Yuta Onoda)

You can tell how much a kid is loved by the amount of sunblock on her skin. This is Abu Dhabi, after all. Late November may be considered cool here, but the temperatures still average high-80s, with no rain for a year and blue skies that scar.

There are the kids who arrive at the hotel day care with the shine of high-octane SPF meticulously applied.

Then there are those with chalky white streaked haphazardly over their skin.

And finally there are kids who show up without any sunblock at all. They fry on the playground in 30 minutes flat, come back the next day with blisters, then sit around the air conditioning peeling strips of skin from their molting limbs. Some of the staffers bring sunblock just for those kids and apply it first thing.

I do not.

Farla, always sunburned, starts banging on the door, expecting my assistant, Liberty, to open it for her. Farla is 5, but already a bully, makes the babies cry by poking them in the forehead, hard. She is followed by her mother, a woman pretty in an expensive way: nose designed by a surgeon, lips freshly plumped. Her mother doesn’t cover up in a black abaya and sheyla like the Emiratis but wears long sundresses, modest by American standards but probably viewed as lascivious by the locals. She and her daughter are fair for Arabs, perhaps they are moneyed Lebanese, their long brown hair streaked by the sun. The mother holds a cellphone against her shoulder, indignantly signing in as if it’s an imposition to write her name in exchange for our watching her child for eight hours.

I don’t greet either of them. Kindness is not my job. I’m the manager of the Zara Hotel Creche, the child care for folks staying here. The Zara is new and trying to lure Westerners to its pool bar and spacious rooms overlooking the city. I am part of that lure. As a high school teacher with eight years of experience, I was hired to instill an American “sensibility.”

I applied, hoping I wouldn’t get the job.

The principal at my school in Fairfax, Virginia, claimed there were rumors circulating. We’d never been caught in public together and yet he said the other teachers “just knew.”

I’d heard about high-paying work in Abu Dhabi, and I mentioned the possibility of going, thinking surely Paul would not let me move to another time zone, country, continent, to a place where people raced camels. But he nodded his head gravely, said, “You would do that for me?”

So I took a leave of absence.

I applied to the Zara because it asked for only one recommendation (Paul wrote it that night) and a mere six months of my life.

I told myself that if I left, he would miss me so desperately he’d immediately fetch me back.

But I remain waiting, unwanted, unfetched.

And Paul remains married. He writes less and less each week. Yesterday his e-mail mentioned he would spend the holidays with his estranged wife and two small children. Last year he’d celebrated a candlelit Christmas with me.

Farla’s mother leaves without a goodbye, and Farla immediately grabs the end of my light blue Zara Hotel polo shirt, twisting her fingers into the material. I am used to kids sidling up, mewing, trying to win me, sensing my immunity to the charms other adults find so adorable.

“What is your name?” Farla shouts the way she has each and every day for two weeks.

“Elisabeth,” I say, carefully pushing her away.

I almost miss teaching ninth grade. Ninth-graders have left behind precocious childhood and are just beginning to try on obnoxious teenage-hood. It’s an awkward age, and I know how to take advantage of it; a few well-placed insults and they cower in front of you, ready to learn.

“What is your name?” Farla repeats, reaching, but she has never tried to say it. I assume I am unpronounceable.

I look for Liberty.

Madam Lilabesh!” Liberty says, roughly pulling Farla’s hands off me. Liberty was in charge before my arrival and she hates me. She mangles my name in a new way every day: Madam Lesheesh. Madam Ezavet. Madam Leboeuf.

“What is your name!” Farla continues as Liberty drags her toward the craft table.

The girl shouts at no one and everyone, “You are naughty!” This is her favorite insult, used on children, adults, crayons. Three girls sitting at the table pull their chairs as far away as possible, angling their backs at Farla, hiding their drawings. Such devouring, desperate little creatures. How they pull on us. How raw they are with need. And in an instant they are pure cruelty, refusing to speak to the new girl, wrenching toys from the hands of a boy just arrived from France until he weeps. Even Farla, here for 15 long days, has not made friends with those who have been here over a month while their work-transplanted parents search for apartments. Children understand best what it means to be ostracized, how annihilating it is when there is no one on your side.

Each night I drink exactly half a bottle of illegal wine (I do not have the requisite liquor license required for purchasing alcohol, but my blond head seems to be enough for the cashier at the Australian grocery store downtown). I go out on the balcony and look at the water or the flashing neon lights of the small Filipino disco below. The fact that I’m living in the hotel is an example of how I’m not a real employee. The real employees live in their own apartment complex, women in one building, men in the other, probably in cramped quarters. I imagine them cooking together, ridiculing their employers; I imagine Liberty laughing at me. The living arrangements were explained to me during my initial, and only, meeting with the owner’s nephew and a hotel events manager. The night I arrived, strung out on jet lag, we all sat in the coffee shop just off the lobby. The nephew had a fine line of black hair around his lip and wore the traditional white kandoura robe with a white head-covering folded back, looking part playboy, part priest.

The manager, in a navy blue suit, asked me to sign the contract. Neither mentioned goals or changes I was supposed to make. The manager looked at the photo I’d sent with my application and studied my face, then said the hotel would take a very much better picture. I glanced at the nephew, unsure, and he did not speak, just nodded and passed me a plate of sticky dates. That’s when I realized I was hired so they could put a photo of my white face fringed with blond hair, my American “sensibility,” in their brochure. Nothing more.

I didn’t mind. I thought I’d be gone before the new Zara brochure graced the front desk. But I am still here and the brochure, with the very much better picture of me, sits over my room’s television.

I’d planned to be back by New Year’s Eve, Paul picking me up at the airport, his two-year separation finally transformed into divorce.

But there hasn’t been any mention of divorce in a long time. There also hasn’t been any mention of my returning to the school. Perhaps I ought to extend my contract here another six months.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and Paul will be at the head of a table, completing his family’s circle, within reach of his wife’s butter and rolls.

His children have exerted their power and won.

Bright and early, I find Liberty in the corner of the creche, yelling at a new kid to finish his snack, not letting him play until he has cleared his plate. Do we do this sort of thing in America these days, or do we fear “clearing a plate” paves the way for future obesity? I’m not sure, and for a moment I feel guilty about not imbuing the Zara Hotel Creche with any trace of America whatsoever.

Especially today.

Farla is ripping up the day’s craft material, empty toilet paper rolls, while muttering, “Naughty, naughty, naughty.” There is something dark smudged on her chin, dirt or chocolate.

I sit down next to her, find a pencil in a bucket of crayons, and say, “Let’s do turkeys.”

Each morning we make something so the kids can show their parents they’re getting their money’s worth in high-end day care. Plastic bottles filled with layers of colored sand, newspapers folded into rings, shells pasted onto recycled paper. Garbage made into treasure, put back into the garbage when the kids aren’t looking.

“The United States is celebrating Thanksgiving today.” I trace my left hand on a piece of paper.

“What is your name?” she shouts in my face.

“Elisabeth.” I show her my outline. “A long time ago, the Pilgrims were outcasts in England. They went to America to practice their religion. During their first winter, 46 of the 106 colonists died.” I can’t tell how much Farla understands, but she’s watching my mouth, much more fascinated than my students are when I give this same spiel.

I begin to color the handprint — a beak sprouts from my thumb, the red wattle hangs down, the whole bloated thing is balanced by spindly feet. “A Native American, Squanto, taught the Pilgrims how to survive, and when the second winter came around, they were ready. They lived. They gave thanks. And maybe they ate turkeys.”

I take Farla’s dirty, sunburned hand, expecting her to wrench it away, but she lets me hold on. I imagine Paul snapping wishbones with his son and daughter, small pinkies slippery with turkey fat, pinkies attached to wishes of a happy family.

Of course this was the only outcome.

Of course he would stay, and I would go.

I smooth Farla’s palm on a blank page. Every day she is exiled on the rocks of this day care and sits alone. But she demands attention, pushing the toddlers, howling at the staff. Now she watches my pencil move up and down the valleys of her fingers.

I let go.

She peers at the drawing and then begins to color it in.

I always tell my students there hadn’t been just one Thanksgiving, but many. Squanto and the Wampanoag helped the Pilgrims in 1621, yes, but the Puritans at the Massachusetts Bay Colony had their own Thanksgiving, just as the Dutch in New Netherlands did. Originally, each colony had a different date and tradition. Each colony recorded the moment when survival reigned over death and oblivion. Maybe there was a drought that broke with plentiful rain, or a ship thought lost at sea suddenly arrived with needed supplies. Spontaneous moments when weatherworn, filthy strangers acknowledged each other across a table and celebrated the miracle of survival.

“Elisabeth,” Farla says, her enunciation perfect. I lift my head. She watches me, grinning, as wicked as ever. Her turkey has fangs and a rainbow mane.

“That’s right.” I pat her hand, a superfluous touch I never would have condoned in the classroom. We are both outcasts, this deranged little girl and me. Here together another day, and another, and another.

“Elisabeth,” Farla repeats. She reaches for a fresh piece of paper, places her hand on top, and waits for me to trace her into being again.

Siobhan Fallon is the author of “You Know When the Men Are Gone,” which won the 2012 PEN Center USA Literary Award in fiction. She lives with her family in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. To comment on this story, e-mail wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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