Greetings from Paradise! Can I Come Home Now?

It took moving to an unabashedly modern wonderland halfway around the world to make me realize how much I love Boston. An even deeper love has me saying goodbye yet again.

A week ago, I was lying on my back atop the Jumeirah Sceirah, the terrifying, straight-down water slide that’s supposed to be a rite of passage for anyone planning on living in Dubai. I’d always avoided this particular ritual. I had visions of shooting, feet first, across the Dubai skyline, a victim of the attention-to-detail deficit disorder that often characterizes this region. But now that I was leaving town for good (or so I thought), the risk seemed reasonable. A hundred feet above the ground, arms folded across my chest, legs crossed at the ankles to prevent an unintended enema, I scooted off and closed my eyes.

It reminded me of living in Allston.

In the early ’80s, when I first came to Boston, the joke was that you couldn’t really consider yourself a local until you’d lived on Glenville Ave. The time I spent there had more to do with my financial situation than a sense of tradition, but I understood what people meant. The apartment smelled like a deep fryer. Roll-up blinds the color of flypaper. The amorous outpourings of the girl upstairs, like a seagull being assaulted. In one of the nearby backyards, I heard, they’d found a human foot. No one knew what had happened to the leg.

Scoot off and close your eyes. If you had time to think on the way down the Jumeirah Sceirah’s narrow chute, it might occur to you that we are always closer than we imagine to losing control. Plummeting down that slide, that calibrated near-death experience, I kept my eyes screwed shut. Unnnngggghhhh! It was more painful than it should have been, this being fun.

A few days later, I was on a plane, on my way back to Boston. We were descending into the airport, and I needed off. The guy dozing beside me was all elbows, all shoulders, all head. We were dipping through thick clouds and the plane clattered and the guy yelped awake. A roar of engines and we were climbing again. Trouble with the wing flaps, the captain said. Nothing serious. Round and round, we kept hitting pockets of turbulence, like dice in a cup. When we landed, half an hour later, everyone clapped.

In general, the past few months had been like this. I’d briefly returned to the United Arab Emirates to help my girlfriend, whom I’d met while living there, sort out a U.S. visa problem. We’d been pretty confident, even after we’d showed up at the American Consulate in Dubai and found that her appointment had been canceled; even after they said they couldn’t see us again for another two weeks; even after our immigration lawyer warned us that the people we’d be speaking to were trained in running interference. We were sure it would be okay.

I thought of this just now, standing on the Christian Science Plaza, smoking a cigarette, the wind whipping snowflakes up my nose. In a few days, I have to fly again. I have to do this because I have to. Being sure it’ll be okay, apparently, doesn’t make it so. The immigration people are adamant: reentry denied. My girlfriend stranded in Dubai, me with no choice but to move back. I lit another cigarette, then another. The Prudential towered above me, the gray sky beyond. In Dubai it’ll be maybe 70, 75 degrees. Like living in a holiday resort.

I should be happy.

The Pakistani guy said he’d never seen snow before he came to the deserts of the U.A.E. We were standing at the top of Ski Dubai’s wintry indoor mountainside. Twelve hundred feet down. I watched as a local woman took tottering steps over the edge. Then she was off, gathering momentum, making a straight line, faster and faster, and a terrible smack as halfway down she hit a wall, colored pale blue to signify a cloudless, endless sky. The sky was amply padded. The woman got up.

That’s Dubai for you. In New England, that skier, clearly unfamiliar with the dynamics involved, might have slammed into a tree. At Ski Dubai, she ping-ponged down the slope until she reached the bottom, then stepped out of winter into the warmth of the Mall of the Emirates, one of the world’s largest, located in the world’s fastest-growing
city, a few minutes’ drive from the world’s tallest building in the making, the world’s biggest man-made islands.

When I first saw the Dubai skyline a few years ago, I laughed. A sand-surrounded cluster of towers, bristling with architectural flourishes. Like an artist’s impression of the future, only real. Boston, stricken with heritage, would never tolerate such exuberance. Even our trash compactors have to be, as the relevant authorities recently decreed, “sympathetic to the historic context of the neighborhood.” In Dubai, you come up with a proposal to build a tower of neon and titanium topped by a revolving aquarium that shoots flaming sharks into the night sky, and the only question you’ll get is: How soon can you finish it?

I’d moved from Boston to this desert city-state to take a job as editor of an English-language business magazine. “Man,” a friend said when I told him how much I’d be earning there, “you’ll be using teenage boys for blankets.” He was right in a way—the city, and the high life it offers, is built on cheap foreign labor. Not that I came cheap.
I quickly made the transition from cash-strapped alt-weekly feature writer to uppity editor of a monthly glossy, from Filene’s Basement to Hugo Boss, from MBTA to BMW. The building I lived in, the doorman used to salute as I walked by. Tax-free income, swimming pool on the roof, a reprieve from reality.

I was mesmerized by the place. In my office I had a high-back leather chair, and from the window I could see the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab, the Arabian Gulf, the wind towers of the sprawling Madinat Jumeirah. I’d drive home down Sheikh Zayed Road, through the zany skyscrapers, and off into the moil of Karama. Sometimes I’d stop at the Shangri-La Hotel and sit at the third-floor poolside bar, sipping cocktails beneath the palm trees, listening to the songs of the muezzins in nearby Satwa. On weekends, I’d drive out into the desert, pulling over now and then to try to stroke the camels.

And Dubai is where I met Helen.

The first time I had my heart broken was in Boston. I was 13, and it happened in a dream.

I’d come here from London to visit my estranged dad. Part of the deal was that I’d keep a daily journal, which was more like a collection of fast-food restaurant reviews: “Today we drove to New York in a hurricane and I ate a very nice hamburger. It was enormous and had pickles.” There really was a hurricane while I was here. Belle. A big one. At its height, as I watched from someone’s porch, a cord of firewood soared by my head. That didn’t make the journal. Neither did the brief, tragic love affair I had, asleep on my dad’s couch.

There was a row of gardens, and slatted fences, and the lovely girl with the brown hair always on the other side. I climbed over one fence, then another, then another, and that was the dream. I wonder now whether the ache I felt had anything to do with seeing my father for the first time in seven years. Or maybe it was being so far from home, the loss of place. I couldn’t have expressed those ideas at the time, of course. But I knew that the girl in my dream meant something, that the feelings she stirred had changed me, shifted things around.

I moved to Boston permanently in my early 20s and spent the passing years chasing after women, never quite getting what I was looking for. I couldn’t turn my head in this city without seeing something that reminded me of an ex. Peterborough Street was Alex. Ellery Street was Lee. And Tanya, at the Algiers in Harvard Square, crying into her Turkish coffee. That’s part of why I left. Got rid of pretty much everything I owned. Closed my eyes and scooted off.

In Dubai there was no this-is-where-we-used-to-live or here-is-where-we-said-goodbye. The city is built on sand, a skyline where before there was none, and I liked that. A guy in a BMW, just passing through. As the man said, No yesterdays on the road. This is how it was for all of us there. You don’t so much go to Dubai as leave somewhere else. New buildings pop up, the surrounding dunes never the same shape twice, every day a fresh start.

Ending a relationship and leaving home provoke similar sensations. The absence that follows you around. The need to demonstrate that you’re doing much better than okay. When I talked to friends in Boston, I’d be sure to mention the fancy car, the cocktails at the Shangri-La. Come the winter months, I’d call to ask them how the weather was, usually while I was sitting by the pool. It didn’t help. People would tell me about the stuff they were doing, the same stuff they’d done when I was there, nothing amazing. And that’s what bothered me. It bothered me that the Number 1 bus still rolled up and down Mass. Ave., that people went in and out of restaurants and bars. It was an unsettling feeling, things just going on without you. Somewhere between losing your keys and worrying about death.

Two years after arriving in Dubai, I decided to go home.

I came back to Boston with Helen. April of last year. Moved into an apartment just outside Harvard Square. Got a cat. Settled in. It was easier with her, walking across the Common, through Davis Square, into the Plough & Stars. The familiarity no longer weighed on me. Then Helen returned to Dubai to sort out her visa situation. Then she didn’t come back. The few weeks of me coming home every night to an apartment without her in it, the cat looking at me like something’s wrong. And my failed rescue mission, my failed attempt to take control.

This is how I came to be standing on the plaza, chain-smoking, staring up at the Prudential. I always hated that building. I remember walking down Boylston on 9/11, through the crowds of evacuated office workers, everyone wondering if their building would be next. One guy jerked his head toward the Pru and said, “Might not be such a bad thing.” We all laughed, and we all moved a little closer to realizing that the world wasn’t coming to an end.

Looking up at the Pru now, I find there’s a grudging affection, the kind you have for a rat-furred family dog that refuses to die. It’s taken me 20 years to reach this point, where I can say that I’ve always felt this way about something. I’ve always hated the Prudential. (There it is in the photos I took when I was 13, hogging the skyline.) I find something comforting in that. And now that I’m leaving, I’m less inclined to moan about Boston’s obsession with the past, its compulsion to preserve, because much of this city’s “historic context” is also mine. Even on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, I’ll be made up mostly of Boston.

This is what you lose when you go away, the feeling of belonging. You’re like that foot they found, the one without the leg.

But Dubai is where Helen is, the lovely girl with long brown hair, and so I have no choice. I’ve given up the apartment, given away the cat, gotten rid of a whole new bunch of stuff. When the people who were taking Puffy came to pick her up, she jumped onto her favorite chair and dug in so deep she left a claw behind. I understood. I was worried, too. That push over the edge. Pockets of turbulence. The loss of control. Because once you take your feet off the ground, that’s it.