An Ocean Ran Through It
It is Christmas Day. As I sit here, looking out on the cold winter breaks that are rolling in along the coast, my thoughts are not out there floating in the pungent kelp beds but reaching back to a dry, desert time earlier in my life, some 24 years ago and 11,000 kilometers distant from these pacific shores.
My black porcelain coffee mug sits close at hand, its contents already cold despite having been just poured. On the counter, the despised Starbucks press-pot I have begrudgingly adopted in which to brew my coal-dark decoction of caffeinated joe seems to mock me silently, as I momentarily reflect on my intense dislike for green corporate mermaids of the Starbucks persuasion. I am also ruefully reminded that as I get older, the coffee becomes an increasingly more important part of my daily ritual.
Searching through the dusty attic of my mind, I remember that the Arabian word for coffee is Gahwah and that coffee, whether dispersed by a capitalist monopolistic outfit like Starbucks or not, came to us originally from that fabled region of desert harshness we are presently wasting human lives and trillions of dollars in.
Back in the early 80s, a particularly painful romance had just come to its conclusion and I was filled with a sense of intense personal grief and anger. I have learned that at times like that, when the pain of emotional hurt still has a bitter, salty sting to it, that I tend to do things that I would perhaps not otherwise even remotely consider. That was just such a moment.
I had been recently reading T.E. Lawrence’s precursor to his immortal ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ (titled ‘Revolt in the Desert’) and had Arabs on the brain, I suppose, but knowing my tendencies to alter course 180 degrees in moments of duress, I was already thinking vaguely of the French Foreign Legion. Wasn’t that where the lovelorn suitor retreated for solace in the great classic adventure tales of the early 1900s? I knew myself well enough to recognise a greater than usual sense of the romantic idealist in my makeup (a confluent result of being too widely read at an early age, I suppose), but I had no idea at that point that within a year I would be living right smack out there among the Arabs in the storied Western Escarpment of the Hijazi mountains that loom over Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea shores. Momentarily relishing the mental picture of myself fitted out with a French kepi and carrying a rifle on some doomed frontier border trek near Marrakesh, I set about regaining some sense of domestic continuity, hoping that the pain of losing the love of my life (to a law student!...even more galling!) would diminish into a mere background throb of dulled hurtful self-indulgence.
Fate has a way of dictating a course other than what one fancies is the proper resolution for moments of significant personal unpleasantness, however, and less than 8 months later I was disembarking from a jam-packed Saudia (Saudi Arabia’s national airline) 747SP jumbojet at the Red Sea port of Jiddah. My first distinct and still ineradicable memory of that moment is the instant formation of dense fog within the aircraft’s interior when the super-chilled and dry cabin air hit the hyper-humid heated air of Jiddah’s sere frying-pan of an airport at the instant the aircraft cabin door was opened. It was somewhat like passing from a vividly clear patch of sky directly into a cloudbank in an aircraft. One minute everything was clear and distinct and the next, you couldn’t see you hand in front of your face. To say it was mildly startling is understating things, since airliner cabin air is extremely dry (humidity of about 15%) and cool, while the ambient ground temperature along the Red Sea is usually above 100 degrees, with a humidity of 75%. When two weather precursor catalysts like this confront each other, an instant artificial fogbank is the result.
Several hours and a Graham Greene type ‘Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride’ later, our taxi had crossed the that bleak and wretchedly hot (140 degrees in the sun) stretch of dry coastal desert known as the Tihama and we found ourselves facing an impossibly steep and towering wall of sheer mountain precipice that rose abruptly from the desert into the sky to a summit, some 7,000 feet or so above us. Clearly marked upon its rocky face was a zig-zag pattern traced in white against its reddish sandy hues. This, I was told in broken English by our driver (a Saudi Bedu with a semi-crazed look in his eyes), was the switch-backed roadway up which we would have to travel in order to reach our destination: At Taif, the summer residence of the Saudi Royal family and seat of government during the hot months. It had been laboriously hacked out of the living rock by a combined assault force of over-compensated Italian engineers and under-paid Yemeni ditch-diggers, back in the 60s, with a total loss of only 300 lives (not including goats, camels, and sheep).
Long story short, we did indeed make it up that perilous road intact and safe, despite the obvious remains of numerous cars and taxis that lay in plain sight at the bottom of cliffs below each turn. To this day I can only determine that somehow or other, fate decreed that my companions and I live so that we could fulfill greater destinies than that of ignominious roadkill attributable to Bedu driving ineptness. The sight of several absolutely crushed automobiles along the way with dead camels on their collapsed roofs did very little to reassure us that Allah was on our side during our dangerous traverse, but we finally managed to reach the top of the Hijazi precipice alive and arrived safely at our destination (Al Hada Military Hospital), if still scared stiff by numerous near-death moments. I then recall reflecting briefly on whether or not the Arab Bedu had at sometime in the past centuries mated with Japanese warriors of the ‘Divine Wind persuasion, since these wild-spirited Bedu would have made fine Kamikaze pilots, indeed.
At any rate, in the succeeding months I settled into my new accommodations at the hospital, perched as it was on the edge of the Hijazi escarpment. Across the small plateau sat HRH Prince Abdullah’s massive summer residence, looking more like a small city with a replica of the Taj Mahal situated at its center than a private home for royal summer residence only. I would later find out exactly what that compound was like inside its fortress-like gates, as an invited guest to some of the wild debaucheries held there, even though I wasn’t a cute western nurse with a nice tight ass and big bazoongas (they had to allow a few token men to those affairs, if only to preserve the cordial niceties of diplomacy and despite the fact that all they REALLY wanted were over-sexed western women to seduce—but more about that at some other time).
For my part, this was all new to me and my mind was filled to overflowing with hopelessly romantic notions of the former noble Arab civilization, with all its fabulous culture and history concurrent with the ignorance of our western ‘Middle Ages’. I soon came to understand that the era of Ibn Kaldun (in Arabic, ابو زيد عبد الرحمن بن محمد بن خلدون ) and his flowering culture had long since passed into the shades of history and that the 1932 discovery of oil in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had brought with it a plague of the worst aspects of western excess. The fact that Prince Abdullah, then the Crown Prince under King Fahad, would shortly ascend to the throne of the Kingdom was not something I focused on, since King Fahad had only recently assumed the crown from his elder brother, Mohammed.
Interestingly enough, elderly King Mohammed had been in residence in Taif the summer I arrived and had had a massive coronary infarct (read: heart attack), from which he failed to recover on our cardiac surgery operating table, despite our best state-of-the-art interventions. Given the extremely high-fat, high cholesterol diet the ‘new’ Saudis (as opposed to the old and vigorously austere and healthy, desert-dwelling Bedus) were used to, enabled by all of that oil revenue, it should come as no surprise to anyone to learn that coronary occlusions were the number one cause of death in the Kingdom and were in fact almost as common as head colds are in the West (the second most common cause of death: car crashes and frequently with camels, who loved to rest on the warm desert roadways at night, in the dark).
At the risk of sounding like some sort of ghoul, it was a great place for any cardiac specialist to set up shop, consequently, so there I was, daily putting Band-Aids on aortas and ligatures on femoral arteries. I could have composed a song titled “Let’s just say I sorta, stomped on your aorta” to accompany my occasional lackluster off-time guitar strumming, but I failed to avail that opportunity with MCA. Still, it isn’t everyday that a King who controls a third of the world’s entire liquid wealth passes on to the next world under your very nose. I remained uncertain whether or not he found the promised Islamic paradise teeming with beautiful virgins and spring water fountains, or Saint Peter’s Pearly Gates of Christendom waiting for him on the Other Side… I suppose I’ll have to wait a bit before resolving that particular question to my own satisfaction (hopefully!).
So there I was, a recently arrived ‘Amriki’ in this ancient land of Bedouins and endless sand. There was much to learn about this new home away from home (for it would be, over the next 10 years or so of my life) and learn QUICKLY, before some small and inadvertent violation of public morality resulted in my having my tender young Western ass thrown into a dirt-floored, boiling hot Saudi slammer full of depraved Bedu sodomites.
Fortunately, despite the severely strict Islamic morals that we Western infidels were expected to practice and observe, things were pretty relaxed on the Al Hada residential compound that lay adjacent to the hospital facility, some 12 klicks up the escarpment from town. We had a large swimming pool, a spacious gymnasium, lots of workout gear, weights, and what have you to occupy our spare time. It was in that gymnasium one afternoon, after a long day probing coronary arteries and ballooning blockages, that I just about dropped my jaw on the floor (along with my cool).
I think I had just finished up several sets of bench presses with 150 pounds of weights and turned around to take a look at the gym area near the locker rooms. Right there, to my immense surprise and less than 25 feet from me, was one of the most beautiful women I have ever been favored to lay eyes upon!
Now those of you who know me will recall that I am extremely partial to darker hued women from the Far East or the Pacific Islands, with their long and lustrous black hair, almond-shaped eyes, and lithe, feminine figures. It is therefore somewhat rare that I ever pay much attention to honky broads (white Anglo-Saxon women), or as we would call them in the islands, haole malihini wahines. Ever since my earliest days in the Air Force (during Vietnam), I have found that women of Asian extraction (especially when mixed with the blood of native islanders, such as are found in Hawaii) typically offer the best possible combination of feminine assets under the sun. I speak here of not just slender, lovely figures and gorgeous long dark hair, but sensually spirited, if reticently modest personalities, curiously mixed with a measure of significant physical strength and an animated depth that could have come directly from Pele’s (the Hawaiian Goddess of Fire, under the tenets of the ancient island religion) sister.
Rarely have I encountered white Anglo-Saxon women who compare favorably with these languorous alluring maidens of Asian and Asian-Pacific ancestry, since for the most part, Western women too often wear their armor on the outside like a shield (whereas Asian women and Asian-Pacific women wear it just beneath that soft, velvety exterior with all the pleasing bumps on it (I call it the ‘iron fist in the velvet glove’ effect). The formidable personality is still there, but that arrangement of appearing to defer to men allows us poor benighted males at least to pretend that we have a small vestige of our self-imagined superior prowess in all things intact. All in all, a very satisfactory arrangement, by my reckoning and FAR superior to the typical Western woman’s tendency to emasculate men with a withering first glance.
Be all that as it may, this creature facing me in that gym was spectacular, despite the fact she was clearly and obviously a Westerner. Clad in a sports bra and Lycra tights, she was doing some gymnastics on the parallel bars that virtually left me breathless. The definition of her lithe, but well toned arms exactly matched all the rest of her gazelle-like body, and I was shortly to find out exactly how appropriate the use of the term ‘gazelle’ was in describing this, my initial response to the sight of her there. Gazing open-mouthed and no doubt stupidly at her medium shade of short brown hair and deeply tanned skin, I felt like I was caught up in some sort of Star Trek type ‘Tractor Beam’ that drew me towards her as surely as the sun draws everything into it with its immense and irresistible gravitational pull. She was stunning!
This, I quickly came to learn, was Daniella, a South African expatriate critical care nurse who actually worked adjacent to our cardiac surgery suites. She had come over from ‘Joberg’ with several other nurses of South African Boer extraction and had just recently arrived on contract herself.
Since I had absolutely lost every bit of cool I normally possessed and was reduced to a staring, gawking, puddle of lava as I continued to gaze at her with a stupefied mien, all I could do was turn back to my weights, pile on a few more hunks of pig iron, and reflect on all that spectacular femaleness that was spinning on those wooden bars with the agility of a natural athlete. There were only a few others in the gym with us at the time, since there had not been that many patients on the heart center’s schedule for that day and most of the staff had already gone back to their residences.
Despite my being in what I consider the best physical shape of my life at that particular time, my previous luckless experience with the fair sex had led me to habitually regard myself as some sort of congenital Quasimodo. Hence, all I could do was glance at her occasionally, try to smile a bit without looking like a certified looney, and overall try to feign an air of disinterested nonchalance. Imagine my disbelief and shock when after completing several of her routines, she toweled off a bit and then directly came over to me and introduced herself. I can’t remember exactly how tongue-tied I was at that moment, but I can imagine my eyes were as big as pie-plates, although I sincerely hope I had not yet been reduced to drooling stupidly like some sort Mongoloid idiot.
Although a bit defensive by habit and feeling as if I owed her some sort of apology for staring at her so transparently, it took me only a few minutes to recover my wits and relax, for she herself was about as perfectly at ease and friendly as anyone I can ever recall having met, anywhere. Daniella (that wasn’t really her name, of course), had the most delightful South African English accent I had heard—either before that moment or after. As someone who has always had an inordinate regard for elocution, language, and verbal eloquence, I think I was already half in love with her by the time she had her second word out. That lilting accent, combined with the perfectly toned outline of her drop-dead beautiful body, flat stomach, tight ass, perfectly molded breasts and all was simply too much for this poor old ‘Amriki’ expat in King Fahad’s Court to handle. I’m afraid all my vaunted Irish bravado and verbally adept bullshittery must have failed me completely, so much of an impact did she make on me (and I’m not exaggerating any of this here—on my scale of 1-to-10, she was easily a 12).
By the end of that workout session, Daniella was barely breaking a sweat, but the sheen of her perspiration was apparently scentless. Ether that or the pheomones produced by her unique biochemistry were such as by my reckoning, she had a bodily aroma equal to the sweetest perfume imaginable. As if all this weren’t enough, when we were both through working out, she came over and boldly reached out to pull my head close while she planted a big wet smooch directly on my lips! I just about died right then and there, I can assure you. Talk about a completely unanticipated turn of affairs! I mean, meeting someone for the first time calls for a handshake and perhaps penetrating looks. NOT, by most reckoning, for a wet, full-frontal lip-lock that spoke of unimaginable potentials to come. I barely made it back to my flat!
As the days passed after that initial shock of an encounter, I quickly learned more about this unusual and animated wonder of a woman. She was a runner, among other things, and had run several of those ultra-marathon type races from Joberg to Durban in her native South Africa before coming to Saudi Arabia. She was also a climber who enjoyed rock work and had studied classical ballet back at home for many years. Now I know that this is starting to take on the nature of what sounds like a fairy tale, but believe me, it almost was, given my own past track record of dismal near-failure to attract anything more than the romantic attentions of a female she-goat. Daniella became more and more the perfect human form of a female creature I had largely constructed only in my mind over all those years. And yet, here she was, right there in real flesh and blood, and clearly (so it certainly seemed) interested in me (for reasons that were WAY beyond my understanding).
Although at first it was a bit startling to learn she was an exertional asthmatic (someone who experiences the vasoconstrictive effects of asthmatic dyspnea upon exercising) when she brought out her inhaler to take an occasional puff or two, it wasn’t long before this didn’t seem odd at all. She also had a curious habit of briefly staring deep into one’s eyes in an intensely concentrated manner, as if she could read thoughts and uncover secrets otherwise hidden away in one’s thoughts. I still think about that now and then and wonder if she had some sort of extrasensory ability most of us lack. She would tilt her lovely head, with its mass of short brown hair, to the side and search your eyes so deeply it seemed as if she was trying to suck inutterable feelings right out of your brain!
But this was only scratching the surface of Daniella’s pleasing, but perplexingly mysterious nature. I would later find out exactly how pleasing that nature actually was from direct experience, of course, but at the outset all I could do was wonder at what family background and what early life circumstances had managed to produce such as exotic creature as she obviously was.
As the weeks passed and then the months, we became running partners, coursing over the dirt trails and paths at the 7800 foot elevation that Taif occupies. Throughout that time we remained very close, with a bond of closeness developing somewhat along the lines of that which a brother and sister would have, yet suggestive there was far more to it than that. It was a sort of closeness mingling fraternal affection with an unconsummated, underlying stream of suggested passion that puzzled me and defied my understanding.
Even something as perfectly ‘ordinary’ and healthful as running, in those parts of the Arabian ‘outback’, was still fraught with an adventure-tinged component of risk, since just about anything we expatriates accepted as perfectly normal public behavior back home was looked upon as egregious sinfulness by the stringent standards of Taif’s Islamic culture. There were times when we had taken a brief stretch of roadway to run on that locals in their little white Toyota pickups would seem to suddenly veer steer crazily and deliberately towards us on the road’s shoulder, as they passed by. I later learned that this was one way of expressing local disapprobation over our exposed legs and arms. For Daniella’s part, her short brown hair probably helped disguise her female identity (especially under a shapeless loose T-shirt), but even if the locals thought we were just two male expats running bare-legged, it was still looked down upon as ‘harram’ (forbidden), since under strict Wahabbist interpretations of the Islamic faith, ANY exposure of bodily flesh is forbidden.
There were less vigorous moments to share as well, particularly long, thoughtful strolls together atop the Taif plateau under the backdrop of vast, starry nighttime skies, and particularly memorable walks beneath the thin crescent of the moon, that together with Mars ascendant nearby reminded one literally of the symbol of Islam around the world—the crescent moon and star. To say it was poetic is understating things considerably. To walk quietly, with no words needed, arm in arm with this beautiful creature provided a sense of fulfillment that I have never achieved ever again with another woman. It was as if we were each the complement of the other, two hearts and one beat as the old saying has it. It was serenely meaningful, this shared time spent with Daniella, and my recollections of those moonlit walks under the luminous spirals of the Milky Way are among the most memorable of my entire life, even today.
As the months passed, I was in no hurry to bring that ultimate, furthest physical measure of closeness into actuality, for I was already as much a part of Daniella’s whole matrix as either of us felt anyone could or should be. For our part, neither did we feel the need to rush this delicious and to me amazing sense of singularity of spirit to any possibly higher level of physical union, although it did ultimately come to that not long after. I meanwhile wrote prodigiously of this feeling, producing the usual volumes of poems and prosaic expressions of heightened feeling and emotional sensation that such closeness invariably inspire in me. I still have almost all of that mass of emotion-laden word-mongering in my files, but it is all so exquisitely personal that few would doubtless appreciate it half as much as do I each time read those words.
Finally, on a climbing trip down the escarpment, things happened of their own accord and I at last entered that final and most intimate aspect of Daniella’s great infinity of allure that had hitherto remained unaccessed. I had brought all my Class 6 climbing gear (artificial aids) and we had planned a day’s outing only, with a lunch and everything packed into our knapsacks. The wall to be climbed was a somewhat hidden prominence a bit up slope of the hospital, but far enough out of the way so that the only creatures within viewing would be the large birds that soared in the thermal updrafts that spilled over the escarpment’s edge. It wasn’t a difficult hike and the climbing itself was limited to several pitches of what I would call ‘exciting Class 5’ stuff, so by the time we had regained the top of the plateau, it was late afternoon, with the sun already draped into lengthening shadows as it neared the horizon, across the desert Tihama below.
Near the edge of the escarpment was a small recessed area that is hidden from the sight of anyone standing atop it. It was grassy and smooth and a delightfully private and secluded niche carved out of the living rock of that great escarpment. Depositing all the gear there, we sat back to drink in both water and the spectacular view of a hundred miles of desolated openness that characterised the vista only those with our outlook could appreciate. Despite the sun and warmth, we were both refreshed by the unusually gentle breeze that drifted up towards us and the resulting mood of serene beauty and spiritual emotion was most ethereal, yet also quite palpable.
Daniella sat down beside me and we drank the cool water we had brought with us for a few quiet moments. And then, in that peculiar manner she affected, she placed herself directly between me and the breath-taking view and searched my eyes briefly with that deep, soul-sucking gaze of hers. Then, taking my head in her hands, she kissed me lightly on the lips. It was an much of an invitation to cross that final barrier as an electric signal can be. I needed no further inducements and slowly and gently removed her bra as she pulled her pants down with the grace of a dancer. After removing my T-shirt and shorts, we melted into one another with an intensity of pure physical passion that I doubt seriously will ever come my way again.
Daniella became at one both a savage animal and the most delicately sensitive lover imaginable. Amazingly, neither of us had much of an odor, since our chemistries were so closely attuned that even the sour stink of our sweat merged and mixed with perfect aromatic congruence. Daniella quickly pulled me into her with the same level of hunger that shined out of her carnivorous eyes when she gazed deeply into my own and I could feel myself losing all control, as I penetrated to that molten core of her innermost physical recesses, plunging into the heated warmth of her taut body. Rutting there, fused together like a single creature, poised on the edge of all eternity (7000 feet below) and almost entirely mindless of an immortal sense of timelessness that permeated the unreal visual setting, we became totally lost in each other’s fantasy. Before either of us was aware of it, the sun had disappeared and we were now lying naked and spent, still fused together under the moon’s first rays. It was a full moon, fortunately, or I would have been a bit ashamed to think of flaunting my host country’s moral conventions under the very symbol of its religion.
Daniella remained at Taif after my contract ended and although we remained in touch, she ultimately disappeared into my past, leaving no trace except our letters and a disclosure that I had no clue of when we were together.
As it happened, I somewhat later learned that Daniella preferred women for sexual partners and was apparently what is known crudely as a ‘lipstick dyke’ (a lesbian who affected a glamorous and ‘normal’ female appearance and who could be mistaken for an exceptionally beautiful heterosexual woman, if it weren’t for the fact that she prefered women for sexual partners).
Thinking about this today, I still marvel that what I consider that perhaps the peak experience of my life—both spiritually and sexually—came at the exquisite ministrations of an amazing woman, who normally prefered to love other women. Why we had such an intensely close relationship despite the apparent status quo of her sexuality is a perplexing question I shall never have an adequate answer for…nor have I ever cared to provide a logical explanation for it. All I know is that I experienced all the delights of heaven and earth in her embrace and in her company, and nothing can ever be as profound an experience as that was. This remains the result of an extremely paradoxical encounter I experienced in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, these 24 years ago.
[If you are asking yourself what the title of this piece (‘An Ocean Ran Through It’) has to do with this tale of Daniella, be assured that it has little meaning other than the fact that all the vast, dessicated deserts of Saudi Arabia used to lie at the bottom of the ocean, several hundreds of millions of years in the past, LoL!]
Be well, be true, and above all be yourself,