“Shit, shit, shit!” I hissed as my straightener met the bathroom floor with a loud clank! Without thinking, I stuck my burning thumb into my mouth, and immediately spit it out. I’d forgotten about the fresh coat of “Berry Naughty” Essie nail polish on my nails – which though is a beautiful color, tastes very ugly. Between the spitting, coughing, and the clank of the straightener, I wasn’t doing a good job of keeping quiet.
I crept to my bedroom door and pushed my ear against it. No sound. Good…they’re all still asleep! I returned to my post at the bathroom mirror, and put the final touches of my black eyeliner on, grateful for the silence. When I finished, I stared at the reflection before me. A girl with flushed cheeks and sharp features stared back at me; she had shoulder length chestnut hair, high cheekbones, and hazel eyes hinted with hesitation. I recognized myself, thought it was as if the expression on my face was warning me against what I was about to do. I shrugged it off and finished styling my hair, opting for a minimal part down the middle, and then applied a final coat of matte, dark red lipstick.
Suddenly, the Marimba ringtone of my phone echoed throughout the room. Argh – why didn’t I put it on silent?! I rushed to my bed to find the phone and silence it, but it stopped ringing almost immediately. When I did find it, the screen flashed: 1 missed call from Nourah. Was she already here?! I quickly shot her a text saying I’d be down in a few minutes, and I turned to my closet to grab my black clutch (“borrowed” from my mother for the night) and heels.
Without forgetting to rub on some perfume, I turned off the light in my room and carefully pulled the door shut behind me. As I tiptoed down the hallway, heels and clutch in hand, I prayed that no one would wake up. I applauded myself for making it down all 27 steps safely – and quietly – whilst keeping my hair and makeup in tact. I walked to our abaya closet, the final step for most women before leaving their homes here in Saudi, and I hastily pulled out a burgundy abaya and a matching cream-colored lace tarha. I slipped the garment over my head, and threw the scarf around my daringly exposed neck. Finally, I emerged from the back door, quietly pulling it closed behind me and locking it to conceal any evidence of my departure.
Most nights I walk out and the humidity and heat don’t fail to provoke me, but tonight was strangely different. Perhaps this was a good sign? Regardless, it was good for my hair. There was something special about the light breeze, and the formation of bright stars that were laid out in the sky, arranged as if by the tip of an airbrush. The air was laced with euphoric sensations, with an ecstasy of possibility. I felt just the right amount of guilt – the exciting amount that comes with something new and forbidden.
I wondered if every night was the same in this city – if I just didn’t sneak out enough to know nighttime. But then I realized that couldn’t be true. Tonight is different because you are different, Layal. Usually, I play it safe. I ignore that my name gives me the right to the dark time of day, and I stay in with the lights on. I do homework and watch movies. I don’t even look out my window. Today, I’m embracing my name for the first time. Embracing the freedom given to me at birth, but quickly revoked by a culture of fear and walls.
I caught myself before I went too far off in metaphysical thought, and I tried to focus on the task at hand: spending the night out without getting caught. I pushed open the heavy front gate of the house to find Nourah’s car waiting for me. My heart was racing as I pulled the gate shut behind me, pausing to make sure I had the key before I closed it all the way. I opened the back door of the silver jeep with tinted windows to find Nourah angrily glaring at me. “Sorry! I thought you would be late,” I chirped as I climbed into the car.
Her forehead was a mix of stern lines and the glimmer of tinted moisturizer. She looked stunning, and pulled me into a friendly hug whilst simultaneously yelling at me for making her wait in the car. We plugged the AUX cord in and blasted our music as always, trying hard to pretend that this was a normal outing. But I could tell she was nervous, too. Her breath was slow, and her smile seemed slightly forced. A few minutes passed and she suddenly turned down the music.
“What if we get caught?” she asked.
“It’s possible, but just don’t think about that!”
“What do you mean don’t think about it, Layal! We could be in serious trouble…is it worth it? Should we go back?”
“No! I don’t want to spend the rest of my life fearing the consequences of having a little bit of fun every once and awhile…even if it’s not the kind of fun my parents approve of.” I responded.
She followed with a “you’re right” sort of sigh and a contemplative frown.
“Just don’t worry” was all I could manage after that. My own mind had suddenly gone to all the possible negative outcomes of the night ahead. I felt the sudden urge to turn back around and return to the comfort of my own home – the comfort of what is familiar.
Though I didn’t actually want to turn back around, I couldn’t help the thought from popping into my head. The others were already waiting for us after all; we couldn’t just bail on them now. I shrugged off the thought and selected Beyonce’s Grown Woman as the next track, sure that the song would get us back in the mood. As I sang along to the chorus – I’m a growwwwn woman! I can do whatever I want! – I felt lighter. I could tell Nourah did, too.
After what seemed like forever, but in reality was just a fifteen-minute drive, the driver announced our arrival to Beit Sarah – as we had falsely informed him. I reluctantly stepped out into the blackness of the night, and looked up once more to the sky for guidance. She seemed to understand my fear, and she looked down at me with a mother-like kindness, cradling me with her winds, whispering: just go!
And so, we did. With our elbows linked together, we waived off the driver, and rang the old doorbell at the big metal gate. A buzzer sounded and the gate swung open. We stepped in, taking comfort in the late night’s approval, and turning our backs on the sleeping world behind us.