Tragedy seemed somehow inappropriate in perpetually sunny Dhahran, like the sudden death of a child on a bright, carefree afternoon. Indeed, only rarely did the horsemen of private apocalypse deign to descend on our community.
But such happened one summer afternoon, a Friday after church, when a little boy playing in the camp pool with friends and family drowned unnoticed.
The cause was popcorn.
Apparently, in the teeming din of the crowded water, nobody saw the boy struggling in the shallow end and then floating, lifeless, to the surface. It seems he had been snacking on popcorn just seconds before he jumped in, my dad later explained, and some residual kernels lodged in his windpipe. The absorbent, air-puffed fluffs instantly became waterlogged, and blocked the kid’s airway.
Strangely in such a small town, I didn’t know the boy, which made the already surreal event seem even more alien. Afterward, whenever I knew I would be going swimming, I refused to eat popcorn for hours before or after.
Another blighted day, I awoke to a morning gloom that had settled like a black parachute over our neighborhood.
A large group of adults and kids were milling about in the alley outside our front yard, speaking furtively, as though they were afraid someone might hear. During the night, apparently, our duplex neighbor’s houseboy had hanged himself in the tiny, grime-encrusted servant bathroom sandwiched between the two halves of our shared dwelling.
Nobody seemed to know why he had done it, and I had no idea how to process this news because I had never known anyone who committed suicide. I had never even heard the term, in fact, so I had no useful frame of reference. I did ponder, though, why anyone would ever decide to end his life, when existence seemed so great from my privileged, youthful vantage. Some unexplained, alien sadness, I thought. If so, how sad must someone get to arrive at such a place? Could I ever get that sad?
Since no answers were forthcoming, life went on. But in the back of my mind was a new truth: These inscrutable men who quietly tended our lives were clearly, like ourselves, vulnerable to suffering. After that incident, I never again considered servants —or anyone, for that matter — in the same cavalier, offhand way.