“Ohhhh . . . . I can’t look!” I closed my eyes and turned my head away from Tijae to look out the window into the darkness. In the front seat the cab driver turned to the side window in unison. The anxious guffaw that welled from my belly like a tympani was difficult to suppress. A few moments later I glanced back toward Tijae to see the nurse’s gloved hands outside the window returning the swab to the vile. The three of us burst into uncontrollable laughter.
The party just was beginning to fade to a chuckle when I heard a tap at the window beside me. Rolling it down I tensed as the masked nurse removed the swab from the glass vile.
“Tip your head back,” she instructed. She reached through the window and I felt the swab go up my nose. Tijae’s words repeated themselves in my head, as if I remembered what he had experienced just moments ago: Well the swab is not as big as I remember it. I guess it’s not that bad. That’s got to be enough. Really. You can stop any time now. Aren’t you done yet? That’s enough. Okay I’m done!
The urge to laugh sent paralyzing fear deep into my sinuses and throughout my body, which merely inflated the urge to bellow. Could I hold out longer than the swab? Why isn’t she done yet? If I move she’ll puncture my brain!
Five days previously, we had received an email message from our employer indicating that, after a year, finally we would be granted a standard visa, but we would have to leave Kuwait and re-apply as if the previous year had never happened. As if there was no pandemic. As if we’d never arrived in the first place, and yet somehow, there we were. The airport had been closed (again) to expats on inbound flights for the six months prior, and the government had not yet begun to re-issue visas after closing services more than a year previously. Given the reality of the situation, and no place to live upon arrival in the U.S., we had been settling in for our first summer in Kuwait.
In the parting days of June, the temperature had been averaging 115 degrees for a month; a sequence of minor sandstorms hung in the air. Masks were a blessing outside, though could not block the layer of dust from settling on every horizontal surface inside our eighth-floor apartment. The spiritual nature of the niqab and the hijab surely originated from the power of the physical environment when they emerged how many thousand years ago. I might have adopted some version of these traditions myself if it had not felt sacrilegious, though meaningful refuge seemed impossible without the shade of a wide-brimmed hat anyway.
During the five intervening days before we found ourselves making friends with the driver from the back seat of a smoke scented cab on a sticky evening, with PCR test swabs shoved up our noses, we visited the Avenues one last time, kept a previously scheduled routine doctor appointment, took daily walks, participated in daily Arabic classes, and I made my first introduction to a community-based social change agency. In other words, life just hummed along as if nothing had changed.
But it did. Time shifted to an accelerated pace as we searched for flights and places to stay, secured transportation upon arrival, and posed many questions to our employer, most of which went unanswered. How would we get back into the country or back to work if the nascent visa process is slow to churn or fails altogether again? If the airport fails to re-open? Without a place to live we had no ability to work overnights online again. Regardless, after a month working overnights from Portland last fall, I was physically unable to do it again, even if we had more stable and more suitable housing than couch surfing through guest rooms and hotels with sketchy Internet service.
The most grave concern, however, was our vaccination status. Without a proper visa we were not really in Kuwait, and never had proper ID indicating that we belonged, despite having a temporary entry permit stamped many times over into our passports. Without proper ID we were ineligible for the basic benefits of residency, including the COVID-19 vaccine. In the spring, someone friendly to private schools negotiated to allow teachers with our makeshift visa status to receive a single dose of Oxford-AstraZeneca. But then school was dismissed for the summer, and since we didn’t really exist in Kuwait, we couldn’t complete the regimen. We’d both traveled safely to Kuwait nearly a year previously before any vaccine existed, but that was before the delta variant ravaged India and continued its rampage around the world. Moreover, we wouldn’t be allowed to return to Kuwait without proof of a complete vaccine.
We had no choice but to hope for the best. At 19-hours, the flight to JFK was half the length of my journey into Kuwait the previous fall when I first arrived in the Gulf. Without hope of a vaccine before departing, we found a pharmacy near the airport hotel in Queens on Long Island. Our first steps on U.S. soil led us to a dose of Moderna—the same mix-and-match combo pack that Angela Merkel completed earlier in the month. During our stay with family in New York we celebrated U.S. Independence Day, a fitting welcome, though a strange experience after social gatherings had been all but suspended globally for more than a year.
From New York we went on to Portland for a week’s stay in a friend’s guest room just outside of town. From there we spent time with friends and family at the coast. From there we visited friends in Portland, then back to the coast, to Yakima, to Hood River . . . . . The juggernaut that swept us back into the U.S. continued pushing us through the summer with so much turbulence I’ve lost track of where our adventures took us, for how long, when, and to see whom.
When we arrived in the U.S. I had been reading Nomadland for my book group as we continued to meet online. Figuring out where we would stay next week, every week, toting everything we meaningfully owned in the trunk of my hatchback, brought the book’s message to vivid life. It was not a life I would choose, yet so little of life is really a choice. Gratitude seeped though every moment, and each humbling email, text message, and phone call to friends requesting a place to stay, searching hotels online for a few nights on our own, without burdening our social network as corona’s delta variant stormed callously through the Pacific Northwest.
As the weeks wore into months, and work began again in the fall I could no longer manage the daily turnstile—not with the prospect of, once again, existing in the Northwest while functioning half a world away in the Arabian Gulf. While I’d never really existed in Kuwait, the nomadic lifestyle left me wondering if I existed at all. The previous fall I’d reached a breaking point while working the graveyard shift teaching classes online from Portland, before my arrival in Kuwait. I never had the opportunity to recover from the physical exhaustion or the trauma of mental exhaustion and unrealistic work expectations. I could manage anything on my own daytime schedule as I had for decades, but was never allowed that opportunity despite the commonplace use of technology that made work possible at all the previous year.
But context is everything. In the background of our journey government leaders around the world were orchestrating the largest emergency evacuation in human history, airlifting many tens of thousands of people out of Afghanistan with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, leaving behind unknown thousands. Gratitude peeked at me around every corner. Bound to our jobs with no place to go while we waited indefinitely for the visas promised a year before, we never had the freedom of vacation. Nor did we have to camp at the airport, chasing airplanes down the runway, praying for safe passage to anywhere but where we were. The grace of friendship was our safe passage. Every moment of every day was precious, with the constant reminder that nothing could last.
Finally, in mid-September, after nearly a month of assurances that my visa would be available, “if not tomorrow by the end of the week,” we jumped off the careering train of madness. The journey to nowhere was beginning to take a toll on Tijae. I had internalized our strange separation from the world, waking up in a midnight fog, trying to remember where we’d gone to bed the night before. Was it a dream or was it real?
What was real is that while we had keys to an apartment in Kuwait, we no longer lived there. And somehow, without even noticing, a life had sprouted around us at the Oregon coast. With a long-term situation emerging instead of persistent uncertainty, a generous friend was able to provide housing stability as the juggle of daily life finally gave way during our third or fourth tour through his guest room. We had a routine with regular walks through familiar neighborhoods and terrain, a favorite coffeehouse, and even friends and neighbors. We would not be returning to Kuwait: not to our jobs, not under pandemic conditions, not under the fictitious belief that everything is as it always was when clearly it is not. If nothing else, the raging storms of the Oregon coast force a person to accept and to live in the moment as it really exists, not in a moment of clear and sunny yesterday, nor the peaceful moment that will again manifest soon.
So here we are, real people with a real place in this world. Right here. Right now. Passports filled with credit card quality entry stamps summarize the story of our pandemic experience. What did we leave behind? Friends, jobs, the freshest hummus and the sweetest dates on the planet, and a whole lot of sand. Everything else is just stuff. The unexpected convergence of loss and new beginnings swells with the tides and breaks with the waves, constantly rolling and reshaping themselves and with them the shoreline beyond and beneath. When the pounding roar of the winter surf begins to calm what shape will she leave me? And Tijae? When her currents lay us on new sands again, onto which shores will we take our first steps? For certain the sun will rise again in the east, and set in the west. All the rest is yet to be revealed.