When I was a little girl, much smaller than I am now, I went to a school called Al-Rabeeh. The school was in an old villa in Abu Dhabi and I didn’t like it very much. I used to burst into tears every time my mother would drop me off, and I cried every day until a sweet girl with cornrows sat next to me and asked me why I was so sad all the time.
I can’t remember what I answered, but I do remember that we had a deep and unwavering friendship that lasted until the sixth grade. She was the Lavender to my Matilda, but this is not a story about us. It’s a story about the playground.
Al-Rabeeh eventually moved to a proper building with a real playground, but when I started there we were still in the crumbly old villa. Children shared folktales about the villa, like the rumor about the honeycomb patterned cement wall. If you put your hand through one of the hexagonal holes, children whispered to one another on the playground, a hand would grab yours and pull. It was terrifying. Plenty of the girls and boys stuck their hands through the holes in hopes of antagonizing the ghost. I was too scared, and caution was my middle name.
Aside from the haunted wall, there was a small area off the main playground that was filled with odd, jewel-colored plastic domes. Like most of the playground, this area was shaded to protect us from the sweltering Arabian sun. But, as it always did, the heat seeped through. Crawling into one of those plastic domes was like knowingly inserting yourself into an oven. And, as none of us aspired to leave the playground a rotisserie chicken, we avoided the plastic domes. I would peek in every so often, but only because I was taken with the colors the translucent plastic would throw onto the playground walls. Like stained glass, which I had only ever seen in books about churches and old, crumbling things.
Near the edge of the plastic dome farm sat a tree. It was an odd place for a tree, out of the sun and isolated. One day, I wandered into the dome area to look at the colors and to enjoy a little bit of quiet. I’ve always been attracted to quiet, which is why I spent most of my childhood and early adolescence hiding in school libraries. Because I was very small, and because there were no adults to watch me, I was not allowed to sit in the library alone. If I wanted peace and quiet, I had to go to the plastic domes. So I went, usually when the others felt like tempting the ghosts that haunted the cement wall.
On this particular day, I went to the tree. I was an odd child, always silent and watchful. I was so quiet that, when we lived in South Carolina for a bit, school officials came to my family home to make sure I wasn’t being mistreated. My mother was flabbergasted and offended, but apparently my habit of not interacting with the other children and hiding away with books was not normal. That was before Al-Rabeeh, before Abu Dhabi. Nobody in Abu Dhabi really cared. In fact, I was the ideal Arab student: quiet and obedient.
So I quietly examined the tree, taking a close look at the gnarled bark and tracing the bumps with my fingers. The plastic domes cast their rainbow light over the tree, and the heat seeped into my red-collared shirt. I contemplated joining the other kids at the haunted wall, but then I saw it: a pair of gossamer wings jutting out of a hole in the tree.
What a dilemma.
I reasoned I could do one of two things: I could pull at the wings, or I could leave the bug alone. I didn’t like bugs, I didn’t want to hurt this particular bug, it could be trapped, I could be leaving it to die – when I mentioned my middle name, I forgot to add that cautious was hyphenated with overthinker. I agonized over these tiny, glimmering wings, feeling slightly offended that my quiet time with Al-Rabeeh’s plastic jewels had been interrupted by a philosophical and moral debacle. I think it took me a good twenty minutes to decide what to do – but twenty minutes to an elementary school student may as well be a full twenty hours. Having retreated deeper into the dome valley, I returned to the tree, took a deep breath, and pulled as gently as I could at the wings.
The little butterfly had been stuck after all, trapped by the sap that filled the tiny hole. I was gentle enough not to hurt it, and it fluttered around me. It was a brown little thing, certainly not the most remarkable looking butterfly in the world, but I was not one to judge, having grown up feeling like the most unremarkable person in the world anyway. As a final parting gift, the butterfly decided to land right on the tip of my nose. I froze, very worried about a bug touching me with its spindly little legs, and also because I knew, deep in my very young soul that felt very old and tired already, that I was being thanked in the way that suited me best: silently.
A few months ago, I came home from work and I picked up a mug by my bedside table. It was filled with the quintessential Middle Eastern drink: laban. I lifted the mug to take a sip and caught sight of a black dot, stark against all the white.
It was a bug. Not a butterfly with soft little fairy wings, but an average, run-of-the-mill bug. I peered into my mug for a moment, wondering how disgusted I was supposed to feel, when I was suddenly gripped with an intense memory: the plastic domes, the gnarled tree, the unremarkable butterfly.
I went to my kitchen and used a spoon to fish the bug out of my laban, and I walked it out onto the balcony where I gently placed it on the concrete in a puddle of milk-but-not-really.
It didn’t take me twenty minutes this time. And, wouldn’t you know, the little thing dried in the cool breeze and took off, disappearing into the Los Angeles night like the butterfly, albeit on a different continent, had done all those years ago.