The Red Robe
She was looking up at the heavens, just like all the other labourers around him. Storms such as these were not common in Dubai, so life came to a standstill when the skies changed face. She finally lost interest in the thunder and walked away from the window and he felt his heart sink. He felt a nudge on his shoulder. A fellow labourer, also clad in red overalls, said they were preparing to leave the construction site. But for some reason he just didn’t want to go anymore. He didn’t mind getting soaked. He had finally found a reason to be here, on this skeletal building, amid the rubble.
The laborers slowly climbed into a mini-van, drenched to the core but happy to have ended their 12-hour shift at just 11 hours. He squeezed in between two others and looked out the window as the car rolled along, hitting the perfectly leveled, slightly slippery concrete.
He stared at the rising skyline, impressive yet eerie, as the clouds descended onto its tapered peaks. It reminded him of the day he had first arrived there. In this twinkling city. He had never seen a building with more than three floors before but the ones that now surrounded him surpassed twenty times that amount.
The bus which picked him up at the airport cruised along a magnificent highway, lined with buildings, each one more glorious than the other. The cars that whizzed past the bus were shiny their shapes so new he felt he could never have imagined their existence. He was awestruck. But then the landscape changed as the bus approached his future home. The scenery flattened, the road became rougher and dust hovered around the bus. He didn’t mind. All he believed was that this city of the future would provide him opportunities he had never had before.
But once again, on that night of the storm, he realized he had received only one opportunity. It had come at such a terrible price that today, six years from the day of first and only plane trip, he was still paying off his debt.
He had kept his head low and continued his job all this while, unconcerned by a passport held hostage and exhausting work. One construction site after another, his only companions the beams and concrete. Never tiring and never looking up. Until today. The day of the storm. Now he couldn’t look the other way.
The next day the skies cleared and he had a better view. An unobstructed view. He found himself staring at the twentieth floor window during every break he took. She would stand by the window, holding a mug, looking out towards the road, but she never spotted the obsessed labourer in red overalls working on the ever-rising skyscraper. Floor by floor, he came closer to her. He began to feel her proximity. The closer he got, the less he heard the jeering of the men next to him, who had caught him peeking more than once into the adjoining building.
He signed up to work double-sheet just to see her getting dressed. She had a way of leaning really close to the full-length mirror, pursing her lips and staring at herself. He saw her look critically at her body, turning around, running her hands through her wet hair. He saw her entertain her guests, withdrawing at intervals to stand by the window as the party continued behind her, as if she was a guest in her own home. He saw her frowning into the phone, putting it down and crying until the darkness shrouded her from him. It made him bleed. The floors kept rising and he found himself working harder, with more resolve so he could be on the same level as her. To see her completely, head to toe, right in her face. But he also found himself slowing down because the faster he finished, the sooner he would be in that van on the way to a different site, away from her, away from her red robe.
He would gaze at her massaging her feet, sore from wearing heels all day, and he found himself ignoring his own reality. His shared apartment, which smelled of curry and dirty laundry, fazed him anymore. Neither did the fact that his accommodation had moved farther and farther away from the glittering lights of the city. Even the ceaseless cough of the labourer, who shared his bunk bed, did not distract his thoughts. He was on his way up and he was going to see her, face-to-face, with only a glass window separating them.
The floors kept rising and he entered his seventh year in Dubai. The memory of back home was overpowered by the twelve hours he spent waiting to catch glimpses of her – her laughter, her tears and her red robe. Every inch of her skin created ripples of excitement in him and fueled his frenzy to complete work on each floor, to get to her.
His fellow labourers teased him; they taunted him and pretended to throw small bags of sand toward her window as he wrestled them to the ground, his rage fuming at their insensitivity. But he restrained his anger. He was counting the days to the twentieth floor as he sloughed away in the summer heat.
He had controlled his peeking because he wanted to focus on the concrete; to make sure the floors were coming up as quickly as possible. The days were flying. He couldn’t resist anymore, just a few more floors and there she will be. He had to look up. He just needed a glimpse of that red robe softly grazing the window as she turned away to watch TV. He looked up and saw her looking right back at him, a moment shared, her face blank, her eyes disgruntled. She reached up, her red robe fluttering around her ankles. And the curtains came down. Never to lift again.