The call came in June 2009. I was lying on the couch, doing nothing as usual. Probably daytime TV was on, Judge Judy or something like that.
The caller spoke with a Sub-continental accent and yes, I profiled him on the spot – telemarketer. I hung up. Whatever he was selling, I didn’t want it and couldn’t afford it.
I still had a “land line” because I was too lazy to get rid of it. That phone rang and the same voice said, “Please do not hang up. We want you to apply for our job.”
“What job? Where?” I asked.
I hadn’t applied for any job in the United Arab Emirates. In fact, I’d barely heard of the country. I had never traveled abroad and didn’t even have a passport. The UAE was as real to me as Shangri-La, as remote as Timbuktu.
But, since I had nothing to lose, I agreed to visit the school’s web site. This appeared to be a real school, offering a real job. They’d found my CV on a higher education jobs website, where I had posted it almost a year earlier. I’d forgotten all about it.
I sat on the floor of my crappy apartment, the one I would lose a few weeks later, and filled out the application.
That’s the end of it, I thought. I was probably only one of many candidates. This looked like a big school – nearly 20,000 students – far bigger than anyplace I’d yet worked. I was almost fifty-eight years old. In the U.S., nobody my age would even be considered for such a job.
A few weeks later, I interviewed by videoconference, showing up as instructed at 8 a.m. Allentown time – 4 p.m. in Abu Dhabi. I was relaxed, because I knew there was no way I would get this job.
The woman asking most of the questions spoke with an English accent and I was conscious, for the first time but hardly the last, that I speak American, not English. When the hour ended, I thanked my interlocutors and drove off to the miserable rooming house where I was then living. Again I thought, “That’s the end of that.”
My landlady, one of the most awful people I have ever known, said that I was crazy. “Going over there to get your fuckin’ head blown off,” she said. Wanda was pressuring me to accept the one full-time job I’d been offered – Starbucks barista.
It wasn’t intellectual snobbery or pride that held me back. It was the feeling that, despite everything, I was still me.
In mid-July I got into a big argument with Wanda. She accused me of “isolating” because I wouldn’t watch “Dog the Bounty Hunter” with her, and was angry because I had yet to go to work. That night I packed up my car and left.
To lose almost everything is oddly freeing. It was a beautiful summer, 2009. I spent my days in the public library, checking e-mail for news of my family or a job. I kept my $1-a-minute TrackFone charged at all times. I ate at McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts. In the evenings I went to a park that closed at dusk. After that, I drove around to the better neighborhoods, sleeping for an hour or two under a tree. I learned how to wash my hair in the park.
Soon, the day approached when I had agreed to start working at Starbucks. I went to Target to buy the required khaki pants and polo shirt.
That night my Trakfone rang and I was hoping, hoping – but the caller was from the repossession service hired to take away my car.
For a brief moment I thought of running, but I didn’t have money for a full tank of gas, and even I wasn’t crazy enough to add ‘fugitive from justice’ to my CV.
That night, I slept on a bench in the lobby of the Salvation Army Shelter.
I was allowed to visit the car a couple of times before it was sold, crushed, or whatever. I took the bus to the repo yard and I scavenged what I could. I tried to keep the things that were important. I spent $50 to ship all the kids’ pictures to my son in Michigan. I had already given most of my jewelry, whatever I hadn’t pawned, to my daughter.
Early one morning I finally got the call. I was hired, and for a salary higher than anything I’d earned in the previous thirty years. I returned my Starbucks clothing, called to thank them for the offer, and called my kids to let them know that Mom finally had a job. My son invited me to stay with him and his wife until I traveled to Abu Dhabi.
One evening in late July I boarded a bus from Allentown to Detroit. I had with me my violin, two suitcases, and the clothes on my back. My son picked me up at 7 a.m. in Detroit; even then, it was a broken city, but it looked beautiful to me.
I soon discovered how ignorant Americans – and I include myself – are of geopolitics, and how we tend to think our country is the center of the world. Most people pictured Iraq or Afghanistan. At church, one lady put her hand on my arm and asked, “How long before you go into harm’s way?
In fact, the streets of Allentown or Detroit are undoubtedly more dangerous than those of Abu Dhabi.
It’s been almost eight years since I moved overseas. It’s been an exciting, challenging, eventful journey. I changed jobs in 2013, and am now working for another Abu Dhabi school. I have grandchildren now, all born during my years abroad. The time will come when I’ll need and want to retire. Until then, I’m enjoying an experience that most people will never have. And that’s the end of it.
-Ann Marie Liska
Anne Marie has been making up stories since she was ten years old. She writes mostly fiction, but occasionally ventures into creative nonfiction and academic writing. Her work has been published or accepted for publication in Ink Stains Anthology, Pure Slush webzine, Tempo Magazine, Corvus Review, and the Academic journal College & University.
Since 2009 she has lived in Abu Dhabi, UAE, where she is a university administrator.