TAIF, SAUDI ARABIA
AUGUST 12, 1986
“Who’s that?” I asked Anna.
We’d just walked through the gravelly soccer field and were about to pass through the small gate into the housing area of the compound when I’d looked toward the basketball and volleyball courts to our right. There, making his way through the parking lot toward the commons, walked a boy, about my age, dressed in shorts and a blue tank top. There was something about the way he moved, his languid and fluid walk, like the laws of physics affected him differently than everyone else, that caught and held my attention. He was … graceful.
He was too far away for me to make out his features, but I knew I hadn’t seen him before.
Anna stopped, and she put her hand to her face to block the hot sun. I stopped next to her.
Anna was a few inches taller than me, willowy and lean, and had long, blonde hair that she held back in a high ponytail. She’d been the first kid to welcome me to my new home and had taken me around the compound to show me things and introduce me to people. That was just ten days ago, but already I felt close to her. She treated me like we’d known each other for years, and I felt pretty comfortable around her. As an Air Force Brat, I was used to being the new kid. While I was fine being alone and not fitting in—it had happened before—that wasn’t something I’d choose over having friends. I’d been kind of anxious at first because the compound where I was now living was tiny. My mom told me there were something like five hundred people living here, and only a small number of kids my age. I’d been here at the compound ten days but had been introduced to just eight kids ranging in age from twelve to fourteen. They told me there’d been more kids last year, but most of them had moved back to the States at the end of the last school year. With so few kids, I’d been worried that they’d all be a tight clique and wouldn’t want to hang out with the new kid, especially since none of them were military kids like me. So Anna’s immediate acceptance had been a relief.
“That’s Alex,” she said as if he were a heavenly creature come down to earth to mix with the mortals. “I didn’t think he’d be back this summer.”
My eyes stayed fixed on Alex until he passed behind the basketball court fence and out of sight. “What do you mean?”
We resumed our walk into the housing area, heading toward her house.
“He just finished ninth grade,” she explained. “He’s going to boarding school in Switzerland this year.”
I’d heard of this. As an American kid living in Saudi, I would be going to an American school. A tiny school, just over in the small compound next to ours, but an American one. The school system here stopped at ninth grade. After that, you either moved back to the US with your family, or you went to boarding school. I was just about to enter ninth grade, and my parents had carefully explained that in a year, I might have to go to boarding school myself, depending on if my mom chose to stay in Saudi a second year.
“Do you know him well?” I asked as we walked down the street, houses on either side of us. One of the things about the compound that made it so different than anywhere else I’d lived was that, aside from color, the houses were identical. Two women in their late twenties or early thirties walked by us, and we waved to each other.
“Yeah,” she said. “Since my sixth-grade year. We’re pretty close. He’s a nice guy. You’ll like him.” Anna was about to go into ninth grade, too, so that meant Alex had been in seventh grade when they met since he was a year ahead of us.
I hadn’t realized Anna had been here so long.
“Were you two ever … you know …” I wasn’t sure why I was asking, but I found myself more curious than I would have expected.
She laughed, shaking her head. “Oh no. Not us. He’s been with other girls, but he’s never looked at me that way. Which is fine. Last year we kissed at a party when we were playing spin the bottle, and it was really, really weird. Like kissing a brother or something. But you know Stacy?”
I nodded. Anna had introduced me to Stacy that first day she took me out to meet the other kids. Stacy was also going into ninth grade; she seemed okay, but there was something off about her that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I sort of felt like I had to watch what I said around her. She was a petite girl, with dark skin like she had a permanent tan, and her hair was sun-bleached and full bodied, falling over her shoulders in loose curls.
Anna continued as we approached her house. “Alex was with a girl named Callie last year—she was in his grade—but it’s Stacy who’s been with him the longest. They’ve been on and off again since I’ve known them. And to hear Stacy tell it, they messed around behind Callie’s back last year, too. Which doesn’t surprise me. She’s … experienced, if you know what I mean. And she’s totally obsessed with him. Don’t let her catch you making googly eyes at him or you’ll end up on her bad side.”
I made a face, blushing slightly as I wondered what “experienced” might mean. I mean, I knew what Anna meant, I just didn’t know exactly how far that word suggested. Did it mean just kissing and stuff? Or going all the way? “I’m not going to make googly eyes at him, Anna. I don’t even know him.”
“Yeah, well, when you meet him you might have a change of heart. He’s really cute.”
I didn’t reply because I was surprised at the little bit of excitement I felt at the thought of meeting Alex.
I had my first babysitting job that night. My mom, ever the popular and outgoing military wife, had made friends with other wives right away. One of them, a nice lady in her thirties, had two little kids and needed a babysitter for the evening. Since I’d been babysitting for a while, my mom had volunteered me.
So I’d shown up at Mrs. Werner’s house in the early evening and was introduced to the husband—who told me to call him Sammy—and the kids. Jimmy was the oldest at four, and his little sister, Kira, was just three. Mrs. Werner had explained what the kids could and couldn’t do, what I should feed them, what I should do in an emergency, and when bath and bed time were. Of course, she said not to have any boys over, which I thought was funny because there didn’t seem to be any boys around. Not that I’d met, anyway.
And that rule was broken a little over an hour later when Anna showed up with Alex in tow. I’d answered the door to find them both standing there, Anna with a bright smile on her face, and Alex with his hands in the pockets of his shorts, looking like he didn’t have a care in the world, with a sexy smile on his lips.
Anna had been totally right. He was cute. But it was his eyes … his beautiful blue eyes that held me in place. They seemed to glow with an exciting energy that hinted at a wide-open love of life.
Anna didn’t give me a chance to say anything. She pushed her way into the house, pulling Alex in behind her by the arm.
“Hey, girl!” she said. “I wanted you to meet Alex, so I brought him over.” She watched me, and smirked.
Blushing, I looked over to Alex to see him looking back at me with that same alluring smile.
“Hi,” he said in a warm, rich voice. “I’m Alex.” He extended his hand.
After a few moments, Anna cleared her throat, and I realized with horror that I’d been staring at him. But … wow, he was really cute. His dark, brown hair was a little bit too long, and his bangs lazily obscured his bright eyes. And that grin … so sexy.
I wiped my hands on my shorts, hoping they weren’t too sweaty, then shook his hand as confidently as I could. “Hi, Alex. I’m Chloe. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Likewise,” he said. A few seconds passed. “I … uh … kind of need my hand back.”
I let go of his hand and turned away, so he couldn’t tell how badly I was blushing. There was no hiding it from Anna, though. She leaned in close to me. “Told you,” she whispered. Then she went to the hall and shouted, “Jimmy! Kira! Uncle Alex is here!”
There was a commotion of toys being abandoned from the bedroom where I’d left the kids, and soon Jimmy and Kira came running out with goofy, little-kid grins and huge, bright eyes.
“Alex!” They came running over and threw themselves at his legs, Kira reaching up so he could pick her up.
I was surprised. I didn’t expect him to know the kids, and I didn’t expect them to be so obviously in love with him.
Anna made a petulant face and said to me, “They like him better than me.” Her pout turned into a grin as she watched the kids.
Alex had a wide smile on his face as he scooped Kira up in his arms and rubbed Jimmy’s head. “Hey, guys,” he said to them. “How’s it shaking?” he asked in a knowing, secretive tone.
There was more squealing, and Kira wriggled in Alex’s arms until he put her down. She and Jimmy both turned around and stuck their butts out to him.
“Show me what you got!” Alex said to them, crossing his arms over his chest and looking official, like he was about to judge an event.
Immediately, Jimmy and Kira began to dance, shaking their rear ends and pumping their arms wildly.
Anna laughed out loud, and I watched, entranced, at how much these two little kids seemed to adore Alex. Then my eyes widened, and a little laugh escaped me when Alex jumped forward and began to dance with them (although he refrained from wiggling his butt). The three of them danced together until the kids fell to the floor giggling.
Again, I was surprised. Alex didn’t seem to care at all that he was dancing like a goof (and badly) in front of a girl he’d just met. I liked that he was comfortable enough with himself to do something like that. He was confident, and I found that attractive.
Suddenly Jimmy jumped up. “Alex! Come see what I got!” Then he ran back down the hall toward the bedrooms.
Kira ran after Jimmy. “Me too!”
“I’ll be back,” Alex said to us, then followed the kids down the hall like he lived here himself.
Anna and I watched him go.
I turned back to Anna to find her smirking at me. “And you said you wouldn’t make googly eyes at him.”
“He’s …” I managed, not really sure what to say.
Anna patted my shoulder. “Yeah, I know. He’s … Alex.”
“I guess the kids know him pretty well,” I said, wanting to get the attention off of me.
“He used to live next door,” she explained. “We’ve both known the kids since they were teeny-tiny.”
I made a face, and Anna’s smile faded. “What is it?”
“It’s just that Mrs. Werner said not to have any boys over.”
Anna waved her hand at me. “Don’t worry. The parents love Alex. They won’t care that he’s over. Just don’t get caught half-naked on the sofa with him when they get home. That might bother them.”
“Anna! That will not happen!”
She smirked again. “You said you wouldn’t make googly eyes at him either, and you didn’t even last five seconds.”
“That’s totally different!”
“Relax, Chloe,” she said, stepping toward the hall. “I’m teasing. It’s just that you look so amazed it’s actually kind of cute. We better go check on them before Alex has the kids dismantling the furniture to build a fort.”