Chapter OneA warm breeze from the Gulf blew her hair into my face; can love begin with the smell of a woman's hair? Lust certainly can, but when I tried to kiss her she pushed me away. She called me a ghost, high on the dark balcony of that deserted building where -- under different circumstances -- we'd first met. She didn't mean me. She meant our old relationship: dead for a decade. I stepped back, and the flash of the explosion far behind me lit her face. Her eyes were hard; the second, more dangerous shock hadn't yet registered. I turned in time to see the fireball vanish like a spent firework over the air base. From that distance the blast wave was only another breeze -- from the wrong direction. When I turned back Helen was gripping the balcony railing. She looked suddenly vulnerable, and I felt regret, not for having left, but for having left her.In memory, past lovers never age. But no one ever stays the same. Earlier that evening I'd awaited Helen's reappearance after thirteen years with anticipation, but also with misgiving. When I'd left her and Saudi Arabia, she was a young Irishwoman -- she'd breeze into my apartment with a laugh and a kiss, like a gust of fresh air blown in from the Irish Sea. But I had certainly changed -- the gray in my hair was evidence. She must have changed as well. The southern shore of the Gulf is a poor long-term environment for white women.The setting for our reunion, the Royal Orient Chinese restaurant, embodied the concept of decay. The street in front had broken and subsided and been repaired inadequately; my spirits began to fall even before I stepped in, carefully, over the uneven tar and concrete. During our affair the Royal Orient had been one of the best restaurants in Al Khobar. Tonight I appeared to be its only customer. Nothing had changed (except the manager -- he'd returned to Hong Kong) but everything had deteriorated. Broken plastic vines wound loosely down the room's columns. The pictures of the Swiss Alps on the walls hung flyblown and askew. Wall-mounted air conditioners roared ineffectually; my palms left a watermark of sweat on the plastic tablecloth as I straightened the place mats, the napkins, the silverware -- I like things to be in order. A layer of grease lay on every surface, and a heavy grease smell hung on the air.I wondered why she'd chosen it. Nostalgia? We'd dined there often in the past, but she must have known it had gone downhill. Maybe she saw it as safe. The last terrorist bombing had been months ago, but I'd been warned at an American embassy meeting in Bahrain not to frequent the larger restaurants or hotels in Khobar which catered to a Western clientele. Maybe she had her reputation to consider. Khobar was a very small town. Helen was, after all, now married.I was considering all this when the door swung open and a tall woman walked into the shadowy foyer. She was without a veil, but like all Western women in public, she wore a black silkabayaover her normal clothes. Most wore them like sacks, as if to emphasize the garment's ugliness; hers swept down from her shoulders like a fashion accessory. It was the statement of a woman who had decided she was going to look good in a garment she was forced to adopt.Her eyes swept the room. She was still in shadow. Maybe I imagined the look of anxiety: like a woman having arrived for a meeting she'd tried to avoid (with her ex-lover? her accountant?), half hoping that a last-minute schedule conflict, perhaps even an emergency, had forced them to stand her up. Then she stepped forward into the light.My ex-wife used to tell me I was out of touch with my emotions; I'd had reason to keep them under wraps for the past few years. I recognized Helen the moment I saw her face, and the shock immobilized me. She looked like memory come to life -- unchanged. I sat stunned as she strode to my table, smiling the fresh-faced smile I'd loved and almost forgotten, leaving the IndLathrop, John is the author of 'Desert Contract', published 2008 under ISBN 9781416567936 and ISBN 1416567933.