Stacey Franser always went along. For anything.
She went along at thirteen, when her big brother, older by eighteen months, said, “Let Dustin kiss you for a dollar.”
In freshman year, she went along with Marylou when she wanted to go bungee jumping.
Then at twenty-three, she went along with Jack Franser when he said they should get married.
Eight months into the marriage, Jack Franser, a mechanical engineer, was hired on a massive contract with the Dubai Airport Authority.
Let’s go, he said; all that tax-free money’s just too good to miss; only for a few years and they could retire or do whatever.
Of course, Stacey went along; though she’d never thought she would actually go away from Philadelphia.
In Dubai, they lived in a posh one-bedroom apartment in The Red Door building near Al Mullah Plaza – all the front doors of all the apartments were painted red. On the ground floor, there was a gym, indoor swimming pool, steam room and sauna. Stacey spent most of her mornings there.
Behind the building there was sand as far as she could see. Some afternoons she walked along the back road looking at this sand as if waiting for it to say something.
Half of every month, Jack Franser was away at Sharjah or Al Ain.
The only other people that Stacey saw occasionally were the two friendly Indian girls who lived in the opposite apartment, Susan and Marina. They were of Portuguese descent, from Goa. They belonged to a prayer group and were quite serious about their religiosity.
Susan was severe about everything; she had rules for clothes, prayers, food, a right way and a wrong way. Marina was completely opposite; she spent most of her time feeling guilty.
Every day, Stacey looked forward to meeting them.
Marina would tell Stacey, “This sharing apartment situation is no good. Susan always watches me; that’s all she ever does. She threatens to tell my parents whatever I do.”
Susan would say, “This Marina has no morals. Look how much she spends on make-up and clothes. Now, she even wants a boyfriend. It’s quite sinful.”
Stacey smiled and listened, very careful not to introduce her likes and dislikes between them.
One afternoon, when she went on the back road, Stacey saw many men, trucks, poles and those men putting up large white tents on the sand. Two of them stopped to stare at her, they said something loudly in Arabic and laughed very pointedly. Stacey went home, trying not to be afraid.
“Ramadan starts next week, don’t you know?” Susan said when Stacey told her about the tents. “Every evening, at sunset, they’ll come to break the fast. Old people, young people, women, children, it’s quite a festival.”
The sand landscape was transformed, energized. Though she did not walk that way anymore, Stacey could see the festivities from the gym area. All the people she hadn’t seen all these months were now here. The men in their billowing tunics, the women in their burqas, the squealing children, people sharing plates of food from one tent to another. The air was joyous with their sharing, their words and laughter, their looking at each other.
When Stacey watched these evenings of warmth and community through the glass doors of the gym, an incompleteness began to steal into her skin. But she did not know how to talk about it to Jack. He was in a business where incompleteness had no purpose.
She moaned for her own festival, a Christmas time to happen for her, with cake making, marzipans, grandparents, some uncles, aunts, fried food, cousins who would tell her what to do, with whom she could go along. Even if it was a Christmas time in the sand, sweating and hoping for a breeze.
She almost asked Jack if she could go home in December.
As if they were subconsciously aware of the separations within her, the two Indian girls came to Stacey more often; sometimes they brought food, books and giggled aimlessly.
One Friday, when Jack was in Al Ain, Marina said to Stacey, “We go crab fishing in Jebel Ali on Sunday, Stacey. Then we cook them, pray and eat.”
Susan followed up with, “Yes, Stacey, this is our big annual meeting because after this everyone will be going away on vacation or somewhere or other. We invite you to come along to our prayer meeting.”
So Stacey wore a white sequined shirt with a beige skirt, gathered up her reddish hair into a knot, accented her jaw line with turquoise earrings and went along.
The prayer meeting was in the spacious apartment of Joshua Mendez, the president.
About thirty people were assembled there by two pm. All of them boarded two large vans and went to Jebel Ali. No one was quiet in Stacey’s van. They gossiped about husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, and neighbors, but they were all comfortable and jolly. Stacey felt absorbed, they embedded her in their conversation as if she had always been one of them.
They drove through a village with dangerously narrow streets. Fine red mud was everywhere; little boys in muddy white tunics ran about screeching as they played with stones and cricket bats. A camel put its head over a mud wall.
When they left the village, the land became more and more impressive. Smooth, naturally sculpted red rocks appeared large, larger, largest, until they reached a mountain of them and the road ended in shining white sand, which ended in clear shallow water. Stacey felt that they needed to step into the water to make the scene a reality.
Everyone began to work silently, intensely. They brought out Styrofoam containers and small nets; some put on gloves and went into the water. They bent, they ducked, they stalked, they sprang, they teamed and they schemed.
“Jebel Ali backwaters,” Marina said to Stacey as the sunlight lit up her sequins.
Stacey walked up to the water and then she saw the crabs.
They were tiny fellows, their shells very weak, some of them transparent. They fought back, aggressive on their hind legs, confident of victory. They grouped and moved as a single patch of survivalists, more and more surprised that they did not stand a chance.
They had to be caught alive. If any died, they were thrown back.
“I do feel quite sorry for them,” Joshua’s wife, Karina, said to the group which did not hunt. “They are too small, this is not the right time. They get bigger and harder near the full moon.”
They returned at quarter to four; back in the van they recounted the hunt, their clever tactics, how many they caught, yes, the crabs were small, but very good, very flavorful for soup stock. No meat, yes, but you could suck the juice out of them and that was quite delicious.
In the apartment, the women went into the kitchen, cutting onions, carrots, leeks, peppers and cabbage. The crabs were gathered into one big bucket, squirming against each other. Stacey found a knife and peeled garlic.
The men sat in the large living room.
Karina Mendez placed an immense cauldron filled with water on the front burner, when they heard Joshua, “Everyone, please come to the living room. It is time to begin.”
“They never give us time to do anything. How do they expect the cooking to get done,” Karina said and wiped her hands. “Stacey, do you mind watching this? Joshua is very particular I am there for the start. It shouldn’t take long, I will keep checking every few minutes.”
She lifted the bucket of crabs and poured them into the cauldron and turned on the burner.
Stacey gasped, “They’re alive.”
Karina laughed, as did the others. “Yes, Stacey, yes, more alive, more taste.”
Everyone left, shutting the kitchen door.
Stacey looked into the cauldron. With more space now, the crabs were swimming about. As the water heated, they moved a little faster.
“Come along in, Stacey, the water is nice and toasty,” they seemed to say. One of them jumped up and Stacey heard it shrieking, “Don’t wait, Stacey dear, come on, come along with us.”
Stacey went along and put her face into the cauldron. Wet warmth caressed her skin, crab feet tickled her lips, nostrils, her eyelids; as the water heated up more and the heat entered her eyeballs, she heard Joshua Mendez’ deep voice, “The Lord’s Prayer. Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” Stacey took her face out from the cauldron and turned off the burner.
“No, no, this time, I’m not going along,” she said and wiped her face with a kitchen towel. “This time, you guys are coming along with me.”
She scooped the crabs back into the bucket. The ones that died she left in the water. She took them to the toilet and flushed every one of them down.
She straightened and saw her face in the mirror. It was still quite red. She adjusted her earrings and went to the living room.
Everyone was sitting straight, attentive, with eyes closed as Joshua said more intense prayers. Stacey went out quietly. She could hear them break into fervent, rich noted singing: “Praise Him, praise Him.”
BIO: Padma Prasad is a poet, writer and painter. Her fiction has appeared in several journals, most recently in Amuse-Bouche and Peacock Journal. Her poem received honorable mention in the Palm Beach Ekphrastic Poetry competition, 2016. She blogs her poem-drawings and other stuff at padhma.wordpress; her art is mostly figurative and can be viewed at: fineartamerica.com/profiles/padma-prasad.