Friday retreat

“Eight years Dustin,” said Laila, hovering over me with her hands on her hips. “You should know your way around by now. Why do you refuse this system?” Her facial gestures reveal a borderline action: will she storm out of the room in blood-boiling frustration or crack a sympathetic smile?

In my defense, it’ll be seven years next month, but she’s right. I’ve lived in Qatar too long to constantly need driving directions around Doha. I spent 45 minutes this morning looking for the veterinarian to clip our dog’s nails, which is five blocks from our apartment.

“I told you not to send me out on the roads alone,” I said, flipping face down on the futon. Laila smiles. She gave into the hilarity of a childish tantrum from a 32-year-old man.

Doha’s constant rotations are confusing. Roundabouts manage most intersections, where traffic revolves around a center island. Streets circle the municipality, connected by numerous crossroads – it’s like an asphalt spider web.

Laila understands the tangled roadways. I call her whenever I’m lost amid concrete buildings and roadway construction. Her teenage years in Morocco helped hardwire a strong sense of direction. She mastered mazes of alleyways to arrive home by 7 p.m. I was raised with neatly gridded and numbered streets and avenues in Minnesota.

Even the familiar seven-mile commute to work, six days per week, is frustrating. Many drivers shove their way through traffic without police intervention. Mounted roadside cameras deter high-speed violations, but most motorists know when to tap their brakes long enough to avoid a fine. Besides that, the cameras don’t cite careless and inconsiderate drivers.

Eight-cylinder sport utility vehicles and luxury-class sedans rule the streets. Qataris command respect with three or four-digit license plates labeled with consecutive or identical numbers. We get by in our Nissan X-Trail, a mid-size SUV powered by a 4-cylinder that “acts like a six-cylinder,” according to the Nissan showroom manager.

“I’m not telling you where to drive tonight,” said Laila, trying on her second attempt for a comfortable pair of jeans. I told her that I knew where to go – she said I’d ask regardless. We left our flat at 5:30 p.m. for my favored Friday retreat.

I navigated a roundabout, besieged by a steady stream of traffic, and then stopped behind a line of cars more than 300 meters from the streetlight at C-Ring Road. A Nissan pickup packed with Pakistani laborers inched toward my lane, contemplating a merge. Nobody uses turn signals; fearing gaps will close after indicating the intention. Vehicles usually stay tight like schools of fish – successful lane changes require a touch of grace and a dash of abruptness.

After we made it through the light, a white cargo truck plowed into traffic from a side street. The driver didn’t stop, look both ways and then proceed with caution – he just barreled into the road. A Honda Civic swerved, honked, and then forced its way back into formation. I could feel Laila’s nervousness from my right, but she stayed silent to avoid giving me directions.

A few miles later, I was sandwiched in roundabout, caught between a Toyota pickup and Camry. I hit the breaks and rescind on my advancement. I often feel compelled to conform to the madness, to avoid constantly getting shoved aside. But I know Laila appreciates the passiveness.

“You’re going to miss your turn,” said Laila, in a monotone voice, barely budging from her seat. I had been focused on a Chrysler 300C injecting some commotion into our final stretch. The silver sedan sprinted between cars, flashing its high beams.

We approached a sprawling, single-level mall with a Venetian theme. The parking lot was packed. An Indian man standing next to a cart of cleaning supplies waved us toward an open stall. He offered to wash our car for $4. Laila kept us walking, suggesting our car was still clean from the wash last Friday. We used the nearest entrance, next to the movie theater – my retreat.

Four Filipino women offered admission to the cinemas at a sales counter. A cutout “Robin Hood” advertisement made of cardboard was 10 feet from the round concession stand. We saw that already. Laila and I debated over “Karate Kid” or the “A-Team,” while a cashier sat patiently waiting for some sort of resolution. Her hands were tucked below a touch-screen seating chart.

“Is that a man or a woman,” said Laila, casually pointing at a young adult with shoulder-length hair and feminine mannerisms. She’s lost interest in the movie showings, and shifted her attention to an Arab dressed in a long, white thobe. He was indoors, after sunset, wearing designer sunglasses. His braces glistened with each over-exaggerated smile and flirtatious laugh.

“What movie are we going to see?” I said, turning Laila’s shoulder back toward the ticket counter. She agreed to watch “Ghost Writer,” a thriller about an Englishman hired to complete the memoirs of a former British prime minister, who is accused of war crimes. I asked for seats H07 and H08, five rows from the screen, at 6:30 p.m. That gives us 20 minutes to grab some coffee.

We step off for Starbucks, passing 200 meters of beeping Carrefour registers. We brushed by two Indian teenagers discussing a party on Al Saad Road. A Nepali walked from a Western Union station, while pushing buttons on his cell phone.

We returned to the theater sipping a dulce de leche latte sprinkled with cinnamon and nutmeg. I ordered us a bottle of water, diet coke, caramel popcorn and two tubs of salted popcorn. We staggered to cinema seven, trying to avoid a spill.

Blue LED floor lights led us to our seats in front of a 30-by-70-foot window presenting a temporary peek outside Arabia. I enjoy living overseas – Qatar’s extraordinary growth is amazing – but sometimes a breather is necessary to sustain sanity 7,000 miles from home. My thoughts left Qatar for 128 minutes, minus film cuts for sexuality. Seated in darkness, I basked in political conspiracies and inspiring situations from interesting characters.

“That was a stupid movie,” said Laila, standing during the closing credits. She’s halfway out the door while I’m still brushing off popcorn fragments – stunned by the final scene. The movies aren’t always the best, but the brief break spent forming that judgment matters more than the final review. Well… back to reality. It’s time to drive home.

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