Consuming Life by Philip Charter

Each class was costing Sarah nearly one hundred Dirham, even if she went to Yoga twice a week. That was nearly thirty dollars an hour. She could imagine Arnold’s look of disapproval at her indulgence, but keeping in shape made her feel better about living in a city surrounded by desert. Sarah couldn’t go running in the humid evening like her boyfriend.

She stole a glance in the mirrored walls of the all-women fitness club. Most of the other members were in much worse shape than she was. It wasn’t their fault; some Arabian women barely got out of the house. But, the instructor helped them much more than her.

What could it cost to rent the space, provide mats, and employ one teacher? The fees were outrageous, let alone the books, clothes and the equipment she bought. Sarah could afford it, but that wasn’t the point. Now she was used to scrutinizing every dollar and dime that left their joint account. Yoga, it seemed, was good business. Everyone was in such a rush for wealth and status in The Emirates. What happened to earning success little by little?

“Thank you, everybody. That’s the end of the class for today.” The diminutive woman clasped her hands together in a show of respect to the business magnates’ wives in the class. Sarah gathered her gym pass, towel and water bottle and prepared to leave.

“Miss Sarah,” said a familiar voice.

Sarah turned and saw her colleague from The Four Seasons in very expensive looking workout gear. Even though she was just twenty-one, Mansour didn’t consider the price of anything much — her father was a big deal at one of the banks and her ‘career’ in hospitality didn’t have much more time to run.

She liked Mansour, but was tired of deflecting invites to her family gatherings. Sarah wasn’t exactly her boss, but as a marketing manager, she was much higher up in the company. “Hello there, Mansour,” said Sarah, putting on her customer-service voice. “How did you find the class?”

Mansour laughed. “Oh, very difficult, but I try to improve myself.”

Sarah smiled, half thinking about whether Arnold would pick up dinner on the way home or whether he would be in one of his cooking moods. “Sure. Listen I’ve got—”

“I want to ask if you will come to my event at the hotel.” She brought up an advert on her glitzy Swarovski phone. It promised high-quality gift bags, and a chance to meet the creator of Platinum Cosmetics.

“Mansour, I don’t think I can. I know you worked hard to put this together, but I have plans.”

That was a lie. Arnold would be playing golf with clients on the weekend. Besides, Sarah knew enough about finance to spot a dressed-up Multi-Level Marketing pitch when she saw one. The magazines she advertised The Four Seasons in were full of information about how Platinum Cosmetics could help you unlock your potential and attain the life of your dreams. “I’ll see if I can come . . . but no promises.”

Mansour stood on tiptoes. “Oh, good. Very good. It is a wonderful opportunity. You will see.”

There would be judgemental mothers in burqas and beady-eyed chaperones watching on. Sarah wondered how many boxes of that junk Mansour had stored in her father’s garage.

Sarah was eager to get back to her apartment, but neither Dubai nor Connecticut really felt like home anymore. Sarah missed little luxuries like quality food, magazines, and the feeling of receiving a new package. Emirati women were so focussed on showing their status and wealth through accessories — the watches, bags, gadgets. In Dubai Sarah felt plain and invisible.

Mansour left with a wave, probably off to buy her fruit smoothie and a copy of Cosmopolitan Middle East. “See you at the hotel tomorrow,” she said.

At home, Sarah took a shower and put on one of her ‘liberated’ hotel robes. The modern apartment was a good size, but it still looked bare after two years there. She filled the washing machine with her gym clothes but waited to turn it on. Perhaps Arnold would have something to add. Almost everyone else she knew had a maid, but her boyfriend was dead against it. “We’ve got no children to look after, babe, and we need to save every penny for the plan.”

Sometimes she cursed that life plan of his — Financial Independence, Retire Early — like life was all about beating the system. Arnold treated it as some kind of religion. He ran this kind of double life, pretending to value French food and seven-star hotels but eating rice and beans at home. He only cared about stocks in order to manage his own personal F.I.R.E. fund. He tried to get Sarah interested in the strategies and price-tracking data, but she preferred tangible investments. If they bought jewellery, property or art, at least she could enjoy the experience of looking at them.

Sarah made a mental note to buy more detergent and checked the monthly budget on the spreadsheet. It showed a healthy profit, despite a few lunchtime jaunts to the mall. She never bought much. Her retail therapy was to look through the glass at the rows of organized rails and assistants with painted-on smiles. Having to walk away empty-handed was a bit like sex without climaxing. Sarah never thought it would be this hard to live among luxury, without touching any of the exhibits.

She remembered the ‘conversations’ about moving, which were really just sales pitches about the ‘life plan’ from Arnold. “Do you think we could scrap this as our dream?” he had asked, holding up a wedding magazine.

Sarah was embarrassed. She didn’t only care about material things but she loved seeing how happy the people in those pictures were. It was nice to desire things and feel the accomplishment of getting them. It’s what the American education system taught you: how to want and how to take. In their apartment in Dubai, they didn’t even have a damned coffee table to keep the magazines on.

Sarah ordered some Indian take-out on the app. She thought about how she missed tipping the pizza guys and seeing them smile in thanks. In America, people still valued cash. Value in Dubai was determined by the type of car you had and the number of staff you employed.

While she waited for the food, Sarah flicked through a few brochures she had picked up at work. Even on short journeys, she liked to look through the in-flight magazines. They were pure escapism, but that was okay. Didn’t everybody secretly dream of spa treatments and exclusive resorts? Maybe everyone except for her boyfriend, who used the time to study his financial plans.

In one of the magazines, Sarah came across an interview with a familiar face. She shifted herself to an upright position on the sofa. Becky Ferguson, one of her dorm-mates at Columbia, had a full page spread in Emirates magazine. The photo showed her in an exercise studio looking out onto a sunny pine forest. She wore a headband and clasped her hands in the namaste pose.

In the interview, Becky explained how her upstate New York project had been funded by just four years working in the city. According to the article, the average American spends $140 per day across seventeen transactions. Tall Pines sought to reduce that number to zero, and instil a culture of making and sharing. The title read ‘Minimal Millennials’. Could she be happy with this lifestyle after the rollercoaster ride of working on Wall Street? Sarah made a mental note to reach out to her.

Just then, Sarah heard a key in the door. Arnold was back.

“Woo, hot one,” he said.

Sarah caught a glimpse of his back as he scurried into the bedroom to change. His blue shirt and black hair were soaked in sweat.

“How was your day?” he asked from the room.

“All right, I guess. Went to Yoga. Got Indian food for dinner.”

He shouted back, “Babe, we’ve got to get used to cooking. I told you.”

It wasn’t worth a fight. It was fifteen dollars. The ingredients would probably have cost the same in a supermarket. Sarah dropped the magazine she was reading onto the space where there should have been a coffee table. It slapped onto the tiled floor.

Sarah got up and looked out of the window at night drawing in. “Mansour asked me to go to her makeup event.”

Arnold had shed his shirt and trousers and was pointing his naked torso towards the AC. Even at nine PM, it was sweltering. “That girl and those crappy MLMs.”

“She’s just trying to be successful. It isn’t easy here for women if you hadn’t noticed.”

He put his hands on his hips. “You’re not going to go are you?”

Sarah she wouldn’t. Her mind flashed forward to another weekend of television in their white cell of a compound, while Arnold sipped lemonade and shook hands at the golf club. “It’s just, it costs to do anything here. I don’t know how long I can—”

“Six months,” Arnold interrupted. “When I get my bonus, we’ll call it.” 

“That’s what you said last year.”

For a few seconds, the hum of the air conditioning unit did its best to fill the silence in the apartment.

Sarah decided to change the subject. “Look at this.” She picked up the Emirates magazine and found the page with Becky Ferguson. “This friend of mine from college is running a Yoga retreat.”

Arnold cast his eye over the article, his blue eyes flickering with calculations, projections and annual estimates. “Huh.”

“Becky was never the type to preach minimalism. She was laser-focused on a law career.”

“Huh,” he said again. “Guess we’re all trying to get a little piece of freedom.” He handed back the magazine like he was relinquishing responsibility for her friend’s life. That’s what Sarah hated about this ‘retire early’ idea. It cut you off from the world as if you were building a shelter and hiding from civilization.

Just then, Sarah’s phone sounded. It was a message from Mansour.

My father is playing golf with Arnold tomorrow. How fantastic. You will come to the Platinum event? It can make such a difference.

Sarah sighed. She’d have to go now. Mansour craved recognition more than financial success, and supporting someone trying to make it on her own was the right thing to do.

Arnold took a bottle of water from the fridge and gulped it down in one. He refilled it from the tap and replaced it. “Going for a run,” he said, and then went to pull on a pair of shorts and his sneakers. Of course, he wouldn’t spring for a gym membership, he went running through the dusty air, past endless gray concrete.


He asked what it was, as if he didn’t know.

“How much is enough?”

Arnold stared back with a puzzled-labrador look on his face.

Sarah continued. “We’ve made over a million dollars since we’ve been here.” It sounded ridiculous to say it out loud. One million dollars. “When are we going to start building a life, not just a portfolio? I don’t even know what home means anymore.” She stood up and motioned to the empty space in front of the couch. “We don’t even have a goddamn coffee table to put our stuff on.”

Arnold looked at the door. He had been so close to escaping. “We don’t drink coffee…”

Sarah glared through him, daring him to use his line about coffee being an overpriced cup of beans when he had a six-figure bonus cheque coming. “Maybe I’ll start,” she said. “I’ll get myself hooked so we can finally get a table for this room.”

He puffed out his cheeks.

Sarah knew what he was thinking. He was searching for some anti-capitalist statistic about how a barista might deal with hundreds of purchases in one day, and how that would keep them on the transaction treadmill for life. “We’re not saving to build a nuclear bunker,” she said with a sweeping hand gesture.

“All right. I know . . . I know.” He put a muscular arm around her shoulder. “We’ll talk when I’m back, okay?”

He always did that to try and diffuse the tension. As he left the apartment, he looked back and flashed a smile.

She seethed. Six more months. Then what? Even though she didn’t drink coffee, Western-style cafes were about the only places she found attractive in Dubai — friendly customer service, WiFi, aircon, and beautiful cakes. Who didn’t want that? Coffee was just a by-word for the social currency that was missing from her life. Cups normally came in twos and sat next to the magazines, on a little table next to luxurious chairs. The door buzzer interrupted her thoughts. It was the food delivery.

While she ate her portion of spiced rice and lentils, she thought of herself cooking meals in a farmhouse kitchen. Perhaps she would start a blog about using the produce they planned to grow on their land. That would make her college friends laugh. That figure of a million dollars went around and around in her head. Would it seem so enormous when there were extra mouths to feed too?

For Arnold, this frugal life was freedom, but for Sarah, it just seemed like she was trading one kind of slavery for another. They both liked the idea of creating something together and building a family, but having it all at once seemed like cheating. And how would they explain it to her parents in Connecticut? They would want to dote on their grandchildren, not chase them around a farmyard. They’d want them to go to the best private schools. Sarah’s parents were the kind of people who had scaled life like a ladder, getting more and more careful as they climbed.

She must be missing something —  the off-grid, back-to-basics lifestyle must be rewarding in ways she didn’t understand. She got her tablet and searched for Tall Pines Community. Sure enough, Becky Ferguson’s smile beamed back from the homepage. According to the site, bookings were temporarily disabled. Strange. A further search of the internet revealed some negative reviews of the business and an entire thread on an NY Yoga forum discussing what had happened. Becky’s husband had left, and she couldn’t manage the place on her own. As of last month, the community had folded and the bank had foreclosed on the property.

Sarah nearly choked on her dinner.

A tearful post by Becky said she felt duped. It had been him driving the project, but when business took a downturn he left her with all the debt. Sarah wondered if Arnold had somehow guessed the business wasn’t viable. Perhaps it wasn’t time to jump into things until it was time.

After finishing her meal, Sarah went and sat on the couch. She scrolled through the Ikea website and found a small faux-walnut coffee table for under two hundred dollars. It was like the ones the Four Seasons had in their standard rooms, certainly not extravagant. She entered her credit card details on the screen and clicked the purchase button. As she did, that familiar hit of dopamine kicked in and she breathed a sigh of contentment. It would be even better when the thing arrived.

Each purchase decision from now on was going to be a big one, but she would stand up for herself more. She would work with Arnold to acquire the life they desired, piece by piece. In the meantime, she’d have to deal with self-important Sheiks and trumped-up business events. Sarah looked forward to receiving her little table and having the discussion with Arnold its arrival was sure to provoke.

Philip Charter is a British writer who teaches writing to non-native English speakers. His work has been featured in Fabula Argentea and The Lit Quarterly among other publications. In 2018, he released his debut short fiction collection, Foreign Voices. He likes orange cats, but hates oranges.

Twitter: @dogbomb3