INGULFED

In Shanghai

المصعد — The Elevator

I stepped into the elevator holding a bottle of French pastis that I hadn’t been drinking. In such cases, I expect always to run into Arab women wearing abayas and demeaning scowls. This time, it was one of my building’s non-university Emirati men, thirtyish, in a khandura.

“Thalatha w’ashriin. Twenty-three,” I slurred. I had, however, been drinking something else. I repeated my floor once again. He pressed thirty-two.

“Studying hard?” he smiled.
“Oh, I… I’m working here. I was just picking this up from a friend.” All true, but still bullshit’s doppelganger. My floor came.

An hour later I was up at the pool on our building’s glassed-in roof. Outside the gym, the sauna read 115 degrees Celsius (239 Fahrenheit) — just about hot enough to roast shawarma. So I got out, showered, and too dizzy and lightly broiled to manage a towel, just got back dripping into the elevator.


At the same time as a Russian family got in, baby in tow, a neighboring elevator popped open. They hadn’t seen it, but I saw the possibility of a clean shot straight down to my floor — no awkward moments at all. But who does that? What would the sweet Russians think of someone who silently turned to hide from them in a private elevator? I don’t think they even saw that another door had opened, or that I was even there at all, but I still got into their elevator. I packed in, my swimsuit dripping.

Next to me was the same man from earlier, holding headphones and a water bottle with lemon-lime Gatorade-colored liquid in it. I said hi.

“You working out?” I asked. He was still wearing the traditional white robe.
“Me? No.”
The Russians got out. He asked me in Arabic where I was working, and I told him New York University Abu Dhabi. “How much are the administration fees?”

“Salary?” That was what I thought he was asking — an all too common question I usually had trouble answering, not because I thought it was crude (which it is), but because those curious always wanted your monthly earnings in Emirati dirham, and I’ve never really figured that out.

“No: tuition.” The doors opened on his floor. There was one other person in the elevator.

I tried to explain NYU Abu Dhabi’s tuition policy — the marvelous financial aid packages that precluded any family from incurring debt to fund a student — but he looked incredulous. “It depends what you can pay,” I said. “Some students will not pay anything.” Drip, drip.

He raised an eyebrow, “Even locals?” Good call. No. Not locals. Giving you financial assistance would be like sending food aid to Mario Batali’s house. I summoned dizzy, heat-struck professionalism: “It depends.”

The elevator doors were knocking against his BlackBerry. I stepped out and he apologized to the young woman still inside, who nodded deferentially.

“What are the Sorbonne’s administration fees?” he asked me as the door closed. I told him I had no idea. Drip.

He said that his fiancée was studying in Geneva, had two years of college, and “wanted” to come back and restart undergrad in Abu Dhabi. What tests, he wanted to know, what people would she have to meet. “There’s a panel?”

I began to explain that out of thousands of applicants (I didn’t tell him it was ten thousand), only two hundred had been accepted. “It’s a long process.” I stood in a puddle outside his apartment.

I gave my number and he gave my phone a missed call, mildly surprised I hadn’t brought it with me into the pool and the million-degree sauna. Most Emirati men wouldn’t be caught dead without their cells.

He wanted me to explain the process in greater detail, but he had no interest in getting to know admissions folk. “I will call people at the very top to push in the right places,” he said very clearly, lifting his hand to show how high he was willing to go.

“It’s a hard process for everyone,” I said.

Drip.

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