The French boy had hair the color of wet sand. Not beach sand, but desert sand. The six months I lived in Saudi Arabia, it never rained in Dhahran, but if it had, the color of the sand and the color of the boy’s hair would have been the same.
I was 13 and he was 10 when we met. It was 1973 and a Friday afternoon, the first day of the weekend in a Muslim country, and of course it was hot and muggy. The boy and his hippie French parents were in Dhahran for only a few days, on a road trip from France to Yemen in a VW bus.
I don’t know how my parents met these people. Ever since moving to Saudi Arabia, they had “tried to be friendly” — joining water aerobics classes and the Northrop Cribbage Club — and now here we were, going on a drive to the sand dunes with people they’d met through friends of friends.
The French people had parked their van outside our apartment complex, and my mother whispered, “Be nice to the boy,” as we walked down to meet them, probably because she knew I wouldn’t be. That’s when I saw him: tall for his age, thin like a cheetah, his bright blue eyes brimming with curiosity and friendliness. He was standing next to the van — a sorry old thing of faded red, with patches of duct tape holding it together — and clutching a black binder to his chest.
The air smelled brackish and sour from the Persian Gulf down the street, but it wasn’t the stench that bothered me, or even the sticky heat. I could tell that this boy was excited to be friends with me — one hundred percent, nothing barred. I couldn’t do it. Even now, I can show myself only bit by bit, never all at once.
“Hello. I am —” the boy said, but I didn’t catch his name. I walked right past him and lumbered into the back seat of the van. The boy was not deterred. Still smiling, still bright-eyed, he got in and sat down next to me. He smelled like fresh laundry and had a scab on one knee. Our knees touched. I jerked away. Again, he was not deterred.
He opened up the binder he’d been holding. It was full of loose-leaf paper, and as he turned the pages, I saw an assortment of blue ink drawings: a scrawny little dog asleep in a flowerbed; a girl in a long ragged dress, sweeping a doorway; a shirtless, shoeless boy herding goats along a rocky path; an old man, toothless and grinning, leading a donkey from a barn. Each drawing had a caption scrawled beneath it, written in French, which I couldn’t understand, but I knew it was his writing — I could spot little-boy handwriting from a mile away. And yet the drawings themselves were so delicately constructed and detailed, and the lines so precise, I wondered if his mom or dad had drawn them. But I saw the ink stains on his fingers, the same color as the ink on the page, and I knew they were his.
His smile turned shy. Here is a precious thing, his smile said, and I want to share it with you.
But I frowned and turned away. This was all too much — he expected too much of me. To this day, I can’t tell you what I thought he expected, but that’s how it felt: like I was being asked to give him something that I didn’t want to give.
So I looked out the window and watched Dhahran go by: the cinder block buildings and busy streets; the men in long white thobes; the women in black, leading long lines of dark-haired children through crowded souks. There were plenty of things for him to draw — couldn’t he see that? Couldn’t he just leave me alone?
The traffic thinned out beyond town. The endless sand shimmered with humidity. I saw the boy in the reflection of the glass, gently turning the pages of his journal. My heart softened. I had a journal, too: nothing as grand as his; filled mostly with observations about the cute lifeguard at the compound pool, and my theories as to where he came from, and snippets of dialog I hoped we would have one day. The thought of showing my journal to anyone made my face burn. How brave this boy was to show his to me.
So I turned back to the boy and smiled. He smiled back, and together we pored over his drawings. He told me stories: about the blind man who fixed their van when it broke down in Sarajevo; the family of gypsies who swam alongside him in the Black Sea in the moonlight; the group of boys who played soccer with him in an empty lot in Bagdad. When we came to the end of the journal, he drew a picture of me — he gave me shy eyes and a shy smile, but I looked happy, and I knew someday a new friend of his (in Oman or Yemen, or maybe Dubai) would see it, and the boy would say, “Here is my new American friend,” looking proud and pleased. When we said goodbye, I scribbled my address below my picture, and to this day, we’ve kept in touch. He’s the most interesting friend I have. The bravest one, too.
But no. That didn’t happen. I kept my head turned from him, and after a while, the boy moved up to the middle bench to sit between his mom and mine, where he joined the adults in their half-French, half-English conversation:
“How’s the van holding up, all this way?” my dad asked.
“The engine is — how do you say …” The French dad looked to his son in the rear-view mirror and rattled off a question.
“It is ‘a genius,’ Papa.”
“Yes, the engine is a genius.” The boy’s dad patted the dashboard with affection.
“Yes, that is true,” said the boy’s mom, “but the tires are shit.”
My own mother stifled a laugh, while the boy proceeded to scold his — in French, of course, but intermingled with a good deal of laughter.
“So sorry,” his mom said, good natured and not at all embarrassed. “The tires are no good, that is what I meant.”
And sure enough, soon after that, the back left tire began to squeak and then to squeal; so we didn’t stay long at the sand dunes once we got there but headed back home, just in case. And that’s when the boy started telling jokes (“Why was the bee deaf?”) and giving the answer before anyone could respond (“Her ears were full of the wax!”). On and on he went, making us forget about the tire, and him laughing a great big belly laugh each time, so infectious that even my dad chucked once or twice, even though he rarely laughed at children’s jokes.
Not me, though. Oh no. That would have been admitting something: for instance, that I felt left out; that I wanted to join in. But I couldn’t admit those things. It was too late. The boy had forgotten about the sullen girl in the back seat.
But I’ve never forgotten him. I hear about this boy all the time: a man with wet-sand hair. He plies the waters of the Amazon in a log canoe. Travels solo on camel from Marrakesh to Timbuktu. Walks the Great Himalaya Trail with nothing but a knapsack. Along the way, he tells corny jokes to the natives. And he keeps a journal. A black binder full of loose-leaf paper. His drawings are precise, concise. Beautiful.
Don’t ask me the boy’s name, though, because I never learned it. He’s the boy in the van, that’s all. The friend I never had.
Marilyn Horn is a technical editor in Silicon Valley. Her short stories have appeared in publications such as Blotterature, Marathon Review and Fine Linen Magazine, and a collection will be published in 2016 by Thinking Ink Press. See more at marilynhornwriting.com.