In March, when I left Beirut, where my husband Felix and I were living, for a new job in Sydney, I knew we would be apart for a little while. It wasn’t a huge deal – if the worst came to the worst, one of us could just jump on a plane.
But 10 days after I arrived in Australia, Lebanon closed its only airport. Ten days after that, Australia introduced a mandatory fortnight of hotel quarantine for all overseas arrivals.
There were repatriation flights but we decided it was best for Felix to stay in Lebanon. He was working for the United Nations high commissioner for refugees and, with the country closed, it wasn’t possible for UNHCR to replace him.
We didn’t know the airport’s reopening would be delayed several times. Or that three of Felix’s flights home would be cancelled. We didn’t know it would be five months.
But somehow, in late July, Felix boarded the plane. At 8pm, he landed at a mostly empty Sydney airport, where a border agent, struggling to scan Felix’s passport, said, “Sorry, my machine is shitting itself.” A colleague ribbed him, “No, it’s human error! Human error!” Ah, Australia.
By the time he was at the hotel – the extremely swish Sheraton on the Park in the middle of the city – it was 2am. So I visited him the next day, depositing gifts collected from friends on a gold luggage trolley as, somewhere behind me, the lobby filled with Australian defence force members saying things like “Sixteen-hundred hours”.
Felix’s room was on the other side of the building, 18 floors up. He could see me, but the sun’s reflection meant I couldn’t see him – just the outline of a white pillow he held against the window. I was conscious of how mad I looked to people walking past: craning my neck up at the sky, squinting and yapping into earphones.
The next time I visited, it was evening. The man at the front desk suggested I write a message on a sign I could hold up, and handed me a marker and sheet of paper. “People in love never give up,” he said as I drew a picture of a duck and a speech bubble.
Felix couldn’t make out the sign. But I could see his silhouette, waving, dancing, miming going down stairs and up again.
Time has never moved as slowly as it did in that last week. But eventually, the day arrived. In the months since we had last seen each other, the world had changed completely. Had we?
At the hotel, a woman took down my details and asked who I was there to pick up. My voice cracked as I explained, and she warned me not to cry, “because I won’t be able to hug you”. As I left the lobby to head to the street where Felix would emerge, I heard her cooing to a colleague: clearly I was one of many pining spouses, and she was a romantic.
As I waited on the street in the middle of the city, I attempted to lean coolly against the blue Toyota Corolla borrowed from my in-laws. To my left, guests emerged, embraced their parents, friends and partners. To my right, every now and then, was someone craning their neck up, smiling as they spoke into earphones.
Then Felix called to say he would be emerging from the lobby side after all. I jumped into the car and turned the key in the ignition. The engine spluttered. The battery had died.
Sheepishly, I canvassed the drivers in nearby parked cars for jumper cables. A hero appeared in the form of Nigel Nazareth, the hotel manager. He and another employee pushed as I steered into the underground hotel parking, and Nigel left to bring his car to jumpstart mine.
As Felix made his way to me, he called and gently made fun of my well-earned reputation as a klutz. Incredulous, I burst into tears.
In the end, we met halfway up a parking ramp. He was gorgeous. I kept crying. Then we packed the remaining pieces of our life in Lebanon into the car, drove home, drank beers, laughed and laughed and laughed, and slept.
On Felix’s second night back – at 3am on the morning of Wednesday 4 August, I woke to my phone buzzing as floods of messages arrived. The Beirut explosion had just happened. At least 135 people would die in the coming days. At least 5,000 were injured.
The site of the blast was less than a kilometre from our old apartment. Some of our friends lived in the same block as us, and many lived on the same street. They were injured, their homes were blown to pieces, but somehow they were safe. Their world had changed completely, again. This time in a matter of seconds.
“I’m just so glad you guys weren’t here,” a friend there said over the phone, her voice scared and small. After finally getting Felix back to Sydney, and despite how irrational we knew the feeling was, Beirut was the only place we wanted to be.