“Coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous.”-my Great-Grandmother Colligan
This is the tale of Leigh, a stranger who quickly became a friend at O’Leary’s Irish pub in Terminal 3 of Abu Dhabi International, at 8am and two Stellas deep.
I’d been in the airport for 13 hours, and had two more until the departure of my connecting flight to Johannesburg. It had been a particularly unpleasant evening with the only airport hotel for non-visa holders booked to maximum capacity. After being saved from the piece of terminal floor upon which I’d set up a makeshift lean-to with my backpack and scarf, an incredibly kind airport worker named Magdalena brought me to the Muslim female prayer room next to the elevators in Terminal 4. I spent the rest of my night curled up in the corner of dark cocoon of a room, but I had to scram at sunrise because the shifts were changing, and clusters of female airport staff were coming in and out to do their makeup and gossip over tea in paper cups. I seemed to be a pretty unwelcome intrusion, so I decided to gather my things and venture into the heart of the airport.
I headed back through security and immigration, past the duty-free shops and up the escalator to the end of the restaurant corridor. I’d killed a few hours at O’Leary’s on my flight over to New York six weeks prior and I’d kept its location tucked in the back of my mind for my return. The sun had already risen but still felt dreadfully early to order a beer. Still, all I had to do was wait for two more hours before boarding an 8 hour flight.
“Hi…Are you serving beer?”
“We serve alcohol twenty-four hours, ma’am. May I take you to a table?”
“No, I’ll order from the bar and take it to the back.” I gestured to the smoking lounge, annexed from the rest of the restaurant by a pair of swinging glass double doors in the back corner. “A pint of Stella, please.”
Leigh walked in after I’d written three pages in my journal, or what might amount to twenty minutes. There were about twenty men in different clusters around the room, staring at sports programs on mute, each with a cigarette in one hand and a coffee or beer in the other. She was the only other solo female traveler there besides me.
And like myself, and everyone else there, she was waiting for a connecting flight, on a layover from somewhere to somewhere else, trying to make time dwindle in a place where time is the only currency of which everyone has far too much.
She told me she liked my T-shirt.
I had donned it two days earlier in Brooklyn, before helping my best friend load a U-Haul truck with most of her worldly possessions & schlepping them to a shared sublet in Bushwick. I’d cut it too close to change before my flight—boarding the plane mere minutes before the gate closed, as is my typical personal (masochistic) custom. I took half a sleeping pill, half-heartedly watched a movie whose plot left me before my dinner tray was cleared, and woke up 12 hours later in Abu Dhabi, where it was a sweltering 90 degrees at 8pm with the sun down.
Naturally, I took off my sweatshirt upon exiting the airport terminal onto the terra firma of the United Arab Emirates for a smoke, only to be horrified at the heather blue T-shirt that I had been wearing this whole time. It boldly declared, in colorful text situated between an ironic graphic of two palm trees and a sunset, ‘Capitalist Patriarchy is ruining the world and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.’
Don’t get me wrong, I love the shirt. I’d gotten it for myself for my 26th birthday and had seen fit to wear it proudly on multiple continents since then. But here, in the heart of the United Arab Emirates, a place of “benevolent dictators,” and theocratic expectations, where first amendment privilege are foregone for cushy ex-pat lifestyles and internationally-transferred fortunes, the shirt felt out of place. It felt incendiary, taunting, defiant—like a troublemaker that was apt to incite the wrong type of conversation—not a good look.
So, when this woman sat down at my table and a few minutes later broke the ice by saying with a dry chuckle, “I like your shirt,” I was so relieved.
Alas, a Western feminine ally in the most unlikely of locales!
She was Canadian, in her mid-50’s or so, and she exuded a free-spirited independence that reminded me of the likes of Eileen Myles, or Patti Smith, or Susan Sontag—women who had conquered more battles, and had lived to tell far more stories of defeat and glory than myself–Women of intellectual and spiritual admiration. I could sense by her gravitas, or perhaps lack thereof, of her ‘ordinary authentic-ness,’ that Leah was one of these women.
Alas, in the corner of the only smoking lounge, nestled in a Boston-themed pub in the heart of the alcohol-prohibited UAE, I had found a kindred spirit who had no qualms about taking her white-skinned self to O’Leary’s to nurse a cappuccino and roll a few cigarettes in solitude, ambivalent to the looks and leers of the room’s fellow occupants—all of whom were of the opposite gender, and of different cultures than the two of us.
“I like your shirt.”
“Thanks. My gosh, I definitely shouldn’t be wearing it here.”
“No, that’s why I like it so much. It’s a little screen-printed rebellion.”
“Yeah but it was quite the surprise rebellion when I took off my sweatshirt upon landing and remembered that I was wearing this … It played a lot better in Brooklyn.”
“Ah … The best things usually do.”
Leah and I tumbled into a chat about the state of America, about Trump, about immigrants, injustice, hypocrisy, and fear of the current global sociopolitical landscape. I realize it’s the first real conversation I’ve had since leaving Amelia’s new sublet in Bushwick. Our chat feels like warm bath water after hours spent marching through a snowstorm.
There is a certain kinship that I have found to remain particularly unrivaled, and that is the kinship of two people from the same part of the world, at a bar in a place on the other side of the world. It reminds me that nothing is as sweet or rewarding as feeling understood. Granted, Leah was from Calgary and I am from Pennsylvania. Admittedly, this kinship can be even more potent when I meet someone from a place like the Main Line or central Jersey and we get into the superlatives of Philadelphia upbringings like favorite place to get a cheesesteak in the city, favorite retired Eagles quarterback, and the best things to get from Wawa when you’re stoned. Alas, to have Leah as a transient companion made me realize another adamantly-defended belief that I hold: that I have not met a Canadian that I haven’t liked.
I told her how people often peg me for a Canadian when I’m traveling, which I always take as a compliment. It’s commonly known that Canadians are (at least stereotypically) more polite, good-natured, obliging, and generally more evolved than Americans at large. I tell her that I’ve never met a Canadian that I didn’t like. And how, truthfully, this statement used to be 100% true but has recently come to include one caveat: a particular French Canadian woman who I encountered on an overnight hiking trip in Mpumalanga,who slept in the bunk beneath mine and told me, quite rudely, that I moved around too much in my sleep.
My conversation partner let out a laugh as she rolled her eyes. “Yeah, but they’re a totally different breed, those Frenchies over there in Quebec. They can be real loose canons sometimes. Don’t lump them in with the rest of us.”
“I’ll take your word on that. If you remember not to lump Trump voters in with Americans at large.”
“Oh, you mean you don’t like Trump? With a t-shirt like that? I wouldn’t have guessed,” she quipped facetiously, as she took another sip of her cappuccino.
“So…Where ya comin’ from and where ya headin’?” Leah inquires to me with a casual flick of her gray-blonde hair, after fifteen minutes of covering just about everything else except what we’re both doing there.
“Welp… I’m comin’ from New York and heading to South Africa. Johannesburg.”
I explain what I’m doing there, how I’ve been living in Joburg, how I’d been back in the states for the past six weeks for a visit, and how today is actually the exact three year anniversary of my moving to Johannesburg.
“And you?” I returned the favor, after telling her more about myself than I’d expected to.
“Comin’ from Canada. I’m from Calgary. Headin’ to Kathmandu.”
She explains how she will meet two married friends upon arrival. And how the same friends invited her to join them in rafting down the Ganges ten years ago, and how she had really wanted to join them, but her husband was too sick for her to leave.
“I’m sorry to hear that. But I’m glad you’re able to go now.”
“Yeah, me too…I just wish he could’ve joined me this time.” she tells me with a resigned shrug.
“I take it… he never got better?”
“No… He died.” She heaves a deep sigh of resignation that I can tell masks a deep reservoir of feelings on this subject. “Ten years ago to the day, actually,” she says with a kind of laugh that is not meant to convey humor but rather cushions sentiments of extreme pain in casual conversation.
I don’t know what to say for a moment. And although the subject matter has quickly turned to subjects of sadness, I am so grateful to be partaking in a real conversation that has transcended small talk.
“Do you feel him with you?” I ask her quietly.
“Oh God, yes! All the time! Sometimes too much. I find myself talking to him out loud all the time. People must think I’m crazy.” A pause. “He really wanted me to go. 10 years ago, I mean. But I couldn’t leave him … We both knew he was dying.”
My eyes filled to the brim with tears as I listened to her tender confession.
“Don’t you start with the tears!” she warns me, with a laugh. “If you start, I’ll start.”
And I know how easily one’s dam can be broken, how quickly one’s composure can leave them when discussing those that they have lost, and how sometimes it can take entire days or weeks to rebuild the dam of composure. So I laugh too. “Well, now you get to go for the both of you. I hope you have the time of your life.” “Ugh! I know I will. I have been counting down the days for months. And it’s helped, I planned it so that I’d arrive in Kathmandu on his anniversary, which is today.”
I am quiet, keen to listen, remembering that God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. But then I become emboldened to share a secret. “Actually, you know what? It’s an anniversary for me too.”
“Yeah. You mentioned that. Three years in Africa, right?”
“Oh yes, yes I did mention that to you already. But the day I arrived in South Africa for the first time three years ago, it was my Grandma’s birthday. The first one without her. She had passed away five months before.”
“So does that make her birthday today?”
“Why yes it does … She was really important to me.” I add, feeling my voice catch a bit in my throat.
“I can see that.”
I pursed my lips, looked down and took another sip of my beer, taking a moment to ensure that my own dam would not break.
“Well isn’t that something? We’ve both assigned new, exciting things to days with heavy significances.”
“And they’re both today.”
“Yep, and here we are.” Her words sound like a warm smile.
“At the only Boston-themed pub in Abu Dhabi.” My words sound like a chummy elbow nudge in the ribs.
We are quiet for a moment as we sip our drinks and smoke our cigarettes, separate but together.
“I went to college in Boston, actually,” I pipe up. “God. I love it there. And it’s so surreal—being here, so far away, but surrounded by all of this memorabilia … I actually picked this table because of this,” I said, gesturing to a framed 11×7 photo on the wall above us. It showed a landmark that was all too familiar to my co-ed years, a gilded metal sign that said, with much Revolutionary gravitas, declaring the entrance to the Boston Public Gardens.
“Our campus was right across the street from the Gardens. I used to go there every single day. It was my happy place.”
“I’ve actually been to Boston. A couple’a times. Hell’uva town! Certainly more my speed than this place,” she said, reminding me that, despite our immediate surroundings, we were still in the a futuristic, theocratic police state.
She had finished her cappuccino and pantomimed the universal ‘check please’ sign to the waiter across the room. I checked the time. 25 minutes until boarding was to begin for my flight.
“Ooh! I didn’t realize it had gotten so late! I feel like I just sat down a few minutes ago.”
“I’m so glad you did,” I confessed. “This was the nicest conversation I could’ve asked for after a night spent sleeping on the floor of the female prayer room.”
“Well I had a lovely time chatting with you, too!” she said, in a way that I knew was genuine.
“What’s your name by the way?”
“I’m Leigh” She stuck out her hand for me to shake, which I did quite obligingly. “And yours?”
“Micaeli,” I tell her with a confident smile.
“Me-kay-lee,” she said, rolling the syllables on her tongue like a thought-provoking dinner mint. “Pretty. Is that Russian?”
“Ha, no. It’s Irish. But you’re not the first person to guess Russian.”
“Yeah, that sounds about right. You have too many freckles to be a Rooskie.”
And as she took out her wallet to pay for her cappuccino, she removed from it a small white envelope, the long rectangular kind that could fit a pair of keys. She looked up at me sheepishly, with a bit of mischief in her eye, as if she were revealing a grand secret to only me, which she was, of course.
“I brought him with me,” she whispered. Her voice sounded like a gentle lullaby. Then Leigh opened the top flap of the envelope to reveal a small pile of chalky dust, the color of slate. “I bring a little piece of him to every country that I visit.”
Before I could respond, she added, “His ashes are spread over three different continents… and counting.” Another pause. “That’s not too weird, right?” she asked, sarcastically, “That we just met and now I’m showing you my dead husband’s ashes?”
“No. No no!” I reassure her with as much sincerity and compassion as I can muster. “It’s beautiful. I’m honored that you would share that secret with me.”
My voice sounds like two hands reaching out for two others and squeezing them tightly.
“I’m going to sprinkle these in the Ganges.”
No words seemed appropriate. What a beautiful, painful, love-filled, full-circle declaration to be able to make. Her words rang with a gentle triumph. I looked her clear in the eyes, smiled with pursed lips, and nodded my head, with respect, with understanding, with love. Sometimes, words aren’t enough.
“Well, I’m off Me-kay-lee. Safe travels to you. Thanks for listening.”
“You’re thanking me? Thank you! For sharing. I didn’t realize just how starved I was for some quality human interaction.”
She laughed the same deflective chuckle as she gathered her jacket, purse, and trekking knapsack.
“Oh, and by the way—Happy Anniversary,” she said with a knowing smile.
“Happy Anniversary to you too, Leigh.”
“It is happy, isn’t it?” she said with another laugh and a confident nod, before bidding me farewell once more and leaving the smoking lounge.
Unfortunately I never got a photo of Leigh. The moment would have been less organic if I’d asked for one. All I have from this interval is a selfie I took five at O’Leary’s a few moments before she sat down to join me.
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