At dinner with a group of friends, a long narrow table in one of a handful of Italian restaurants in Riyadh.
“You seem, I don’t know, down,” says Noelle, from across the table. I slowly lift the apple juice beside me, pull the cocktail napkin from under it, and replace the glass on the naked surface.
“I’m mostly fine,” I reply, opening the napkin to its full extent. “It’s just that this city is starting to get to me, a little.”
“What’s the problem?”
Finding the centre of the napkin -- the convergence of the folds that remember the paper’s former size -- I fold one of the corners in to meet this cross, and say: “Nothing specific.” I crease the fold, being careful to keep the corner of the napkin unerringly centred. “And I think that’s just it.” I fold another corner to meet the first. “It’s just, shall we say, emotionally taxing, living in Riyadh.”
“Want to talk about it?”
“Well there’s nothing to really talk about, beyond abstractions and generalities.” I rotate the napkin for better access to the last two corners. “I’ve just begun to feel that this city is a bit of a drain on my, let’s say, good will.”
Noelle nods, says: “I know what you mean,” and stops, offering space in the silence for me to continue.
The four corners of the napkin now meeting in the centre, the delicate paper is half area it was a few moments ago. I start again, folding the new corners in to the centre once more. “May I offer an analogy?” I say, tilting my chin up between folds to make eye contact.
“It feels a little like this: emotional health seems to me like a bucket, being filled at the top, and draining away at the bottom. For most people, this bucket is being drained -- just by the nature of life, of having to function in a world that isn’t a 1950’s sit-com -- drained at a fairly constant rate. Whether or not one’s life is easy, it is never completely uncomplicated. But at the same time, it’s being filled up -- by whatever happens, big-or-small, that serves to validate our unrequested existence.”
“That makes sense.”
“Good to hear.” I smile slightly. “Now here’s the issue: even though things happen that might drain this existential reservoir -- a death in the family, to offer an unimaginative example -- the fact is that, if we live in an environment which offers sufficent emotional fulfillment, we have enough in that reservoir to allow us to recover, and continue on with ourselves.”
I run my thumbnail gently along the last fold, creating a square only a quarter the area of the original.
“But Riyadh is different,” I go on, as I flip the napkin over. “Maybe other places in this country, like Jeddah or Dammam are as well, but Riyadh has a reputation that it certainly lives up to.” I fold the first corner of the shrinking napkin in to the centre once again. “Riyadh doesn’t seem to allow this tank to fill up as fast as it is draining. Maybe the problem is not that this city is hard to live in; maybe it’s not a matter of the city draining me, so much as it is the case that it doesn’t offer enough in return.”
The four corners folded in once again, the napkin now a fraction of its former size, I begin sequentially pinching the corners, pushing them towards, but not into, the centre. “All cities take energy to live in -- physical, yes, but emotional too. However, everywhere else I’ve ever been to, there is enough happening to keep that tank filled up: from the typical demeanor of the residents, to the ease of doing new things, to the catharsis of commuting without feeling that everyone else on the road has no regard for their own safety, and less for yours.”
The waiter has appeared in my peripheral vision, and begun clearing the table. “Basically, my tank, my lifetime reserve of goodwill, has been draining, over the past year-and-a-half, no faster than it did in New Zealand, or Moscow; but unlike those places, Riyadh doesn’t offer me enough in return.” The napkin is now folded such that there are four converging points on the top of its square shape, and eight points, in two layers, converged on the underside. I slip my thumb gently under a hidden corner, and lift it, curving the edge, around and above the top of the napkin. “Basically, this city takes away slightly faster than it gives back, and I’m beginning to feel the effects.”
“I know what you mean,” says Noelle. “And I’m impressed you lasted this long. I was feeling like this after only three months, and Sarah,” she says, gesturing to her right, “is going through the same thing now. It’s like, everything that happens feels like it’s because we’re in Riyadh. Even if it’s clearly not, it’s like you hit your thumb, and the first thing you say God I hate this city!”
As she says this, I finish pulling the bottom flaps of the napkin around. Holding it out on the palm of my hand, I present a napkin-facsimile of a lotus, a petaled cup, which I lay on the table in front of us.
“Wow, that’s cool,” says Noelle.
And, with narrative precision, the waiter walks past, scoops up the paper lotus and absently balls his fist around it. We both look up as he drops the crumpled paper into an empty salad bowl on his tray; we silently return our gaze to the table in front of us as he continues along the table. “What were we saying about hating this city?” I say.