Almost exactly a year ago I left home. I had lived in the United Arab Emirates for two decades, having moved there at age three with my parents; they were fleeing the poverty of Egypt for jobs that felt promising in the Gulf. I watched Abu Dhabi grow as I grew, a city so small it felt like one neighborhood.
After a tearful goodbye, I got on the 15 hour flight that would take me to Chicago. I spent those 15 hours alternating between watching movies I can’t remember, and trying to twist my body into a position comfortable enough to allow me to fall asleep. Whenever the panic of leaving home started to feel unmanageable, I reassured myself that I would be home again within six months to see my sisters and my best friend.
It’s been a year, and I haven’t gone home yet. Still, I’ve found small things that make me feel at home. Some of them are TV shows: “Gilmore Girls”, “Buffy”, “Veronica Mars.” Some of them are books and a lot of them are music. Rihanna’s “Anti,” released early 2016, is an album that consistently made me feel at home.
Here are the moments Rihanna’s “Anti” brings back to me every time I listen to it, a year and a half after it became part of my life:
Sitting cross-legged on the floor of a hotel room with my best friend a few days after Comic Con in Dubai had left me completely burned out. The exhaustion made me extremely sensitive to noise and touch. The only person I could bear to be near was on the floor next to me, chewing on his slice of pizza, gesturing for me to eat more.
I remember the five days I spent in that hotel room in flashes. Me lying in bed, chain smoking. My best friend walking into the room with pizza, or sushi, or Lebanese food, or burgers. Sitting on the floor eating Nutella, banana, strawberry, and hazelnut wraps from my favorite restaurant so fast I keep getting hiccups. Watching “Gravity Falls.” Listening to “Anti” on repeat.
Playing the album through a friend’s expensive sound system, dancing around his guest room, only stopping to examine my face in the mirror, my eyes bright, my cheeks flushed, my heart racing. Always comfortable in the knowledge that I wouldn’t be alone by the end of the day. Still chain smoking, pausing the album only to watch whatever it is that I was binge-watching at the time. Relieved that I wasn’t at my parent’s place, where it was always noisy and messy, where my mom was always yelling or guilt-tripping, and my step-dad was either distant or furious. The guest room, and these songs, were a welcome refuge from my abusive parents.
Staring out of the floor-to-ceiling windows of a different friend’s bedroom. Studying the Abu Dhabi skyline as it starts twinkling with its own lights, while the sun sets orange and pink. Playing dress up in her clothes. Trying on her lipsticks and highlighters, striking poses in her bathroom mirror. Her A.C. keeping her room chilly, her floor cold under my feet. Wrapping myself in her blanket, playing with her cat.
“Close to You”
Sitting at a table in the outdoor seating area of a coffee shop waiting for my sister to pick me up. Reading comic books, still chain-smoking, drinking coffee that was really just caffeinated hot chocolate. Looking up every now and then to watch people walking by the café, children running around, nannies, girls in abayas carrying designer bags, men wearing heavy gold watches smoking cigarettes, teenagers in skinny jeans holding rose gold iPhones. Stray cats running under tables, cars speeding by, blasting music or the Quran, windows tinted dark, engines smooth and quiet.
“Same Ol’ Mistakes”
Curled up in my twin-sized bed in the room I shared with two of my sisters. Headphones on, painting my nails, ignoring my sisters’ bickering, my cat trying to push my laptop off the bed, my mom praying loudly in her room. Looking up and remembering that this was home: Here with my beautiful, frustrating sisters, our mean cats, and our exasperating mother. In this room that always smelled like cat litter, leftovers, laundry, and makeup. Learning to exist as both present and absent.
Sitting in the passenger seat of my best friend’s car, my feet on the dashboard, letting the A.C. blast cold air onto my face. It’s a welcome relief from the unreasonable heat of Dubai summers. We’re on our way to Dubai Mall, or Abu Dhabi, or both. Talking excitedly about the classes I was going to take during my first semester at SAIC, trying not to think about how far away from home Chicago is.
We try to decide where we were going to eat instead, which movie we were going to watch in the spacious, always crowded cinema. There was a stand that sold tiny pancakes covered in Nutella or cookie butter, and another selling pretzels coated in parmesan cheese. We always end up in my favorite bookstore, with me sitting on the floor surrounded by piles of books.
I have spent a year in Chicago listening to this album on repeat, walking to and from train stations, rushing to class, or work, or therapy. I’ve listened to it while standing in my kitchen trying to figure out what to eat, or while sitting on my bed skimming through homework. It comes and goes, the feeling the album made bearable when I fell in love with it, feeling too sensitive to sound, to touch, to anything new or strange. It’s been a year since I left home and things are often new and strange — frequently difficult to process or understand.
With the slow beat of the “Consideration” and Rihanna singing “I came fluttering in from Neverland / Time can never stop me / No, no, no, no” I’m home again. I am in Neverland, in the liminal space of both here and there. I’m walking around Millennium Park and around Dubai Mall, or lying in my bed in my tiny room in the apartment I shared with strangers in Logan Square, and curled up in bed next to my best friend in a hotel in downtown Abu Dhabi. Sometimes, by “Desperado,” while Rihanna admits that she doesn’t want to be alone, I am anything but alone. With my eyes closed I’m with my sisters, or my best friend, or my chosen family. I’m at the mall, or in a car, or in my favorite bookstore. I’m home and I’m loved.