I had to do something. He was about to walk away and cancel the meeting, and I couldn't afford to lose it. Then I remembered a couple of armchairs near the elevator, up on my floor. We rode up and ordered room-service coffee. We talked as the elevators chimed up and down the spine of the skyscraper and the roar of vacuum cleaners echoed in the hallway.

--

ONE glaring spring day, when the hot winds raced in off the plains and the sun blotted everything to white, I stood outside a Riyadh bank, sweating in my black cloak while I waited for a friend. The sidewalk was simmering, but I had nowhere else to go. As a woman, I was forbidden to enter the men's half of the bank to fetch him. Traffic screamed past on a nearby highway. The winds tugged at the layers of black polyester. My sunglasses began to slip down my glistening nose.

The door clattered open, and I looked up hopefully. But no, it was a security guard. And he was stomping straight at me, yelling in Arabic. I knew enough vocabulary to glean his message: He didn't want me standing there. I took off my shades, fixed my blue eyes on him blankly and finally turned away as if puzzled. I think of this as playing possum.

He disappeared again, only to reemerge with another security guard. This man was of indistinct South Asian origin and had an English vocabulary. He looked like a pit bull — short, stocky and teeth flashing as he barked: "Go! Go! You can't stand here! The men can SEE! The men can SEE!"

I looked down at him and sighed. I was tired. "Where do you want me to go? I have to wait for my friend. He's inside." But he was still snarling and flashing those teeth, arms akimbo. He wasn't interested in discussions.

"Not here. NOT HERE! The men can SEE you!" He flailed one arm toward the bank.

I lost my temper.

"I'm just standing here!" I snapped. "Leave me alone!" This was a slip. I had already learned that if you're a woman in a sexist country, yelling at a man only makes a crisis worse.

The pit bull advanced toward me, making little shooing motions with his hands, lips curled back. Involuntarily, I stepped back a few paces and found myself in the shrubbery. I guess that, from the bushes, I was hidden from the view of the window, thereby protecting the virtue of all those innocent male bankers. At any rate, it satisfied the pit bull, who climbed back onto the sidewalk and stood guard over me. I glared at him. He showed his teeth. The minutes passed. Finally, my friend reemerged.

A liberal, U.S.-educated professor at King Saud University, he was sure to share my outrage, I thought. Maybe he'd even call up the bank — his friend was the manager — and get the pit bull in trouble. I told him my story, words hot as the pavement.

He hardly blinked. "Yes," he said. "Oh." He put the car in reverse, and off we drove.

--

DRIVING to the airport, I felt the kingdom slipping off behind me, the flat emptiness of its deserts, the buildings that rear toward the sky, encased in mirrored glass, blank under a blaring sun. All the hints of a private life I have never seen. Saudis are bred from the desert; they find life in what looks empty to me.

Even if I were Saudi, would I understand it? I remember the government spokesman, Mansour Turki, who said to me: "Being a Saudi doesn't mean you see every face of Saudi society. Saudi men don't understand how Saudi women think. They have no idea, actually. Even my own family, my own mother or sister, she won't talk to me honestly."

I slipped my iPod headphones into my ears. I wanted to hear something thumping and American. It began the way it always does: an itch, an impatience, like a wrinkle in the sock, something that is felt, but not yet registered. The discomfort always starts when I leave.

By the time I boarded the plane, I was in a temper. I yanked at the clasps, shrugged off the abaya like a rejected embrace. I crumpled it up and tossed it childishly into the airplane seat.

Then I was just standing there, feeling stripped in my jeans and blouse. My limbs felt light, and modesty flashed through me. I was aware of the skin of my wrists and forearms, the triangle of naked neck. I scanned the eyes behind me, looking for a challenge. But none came. The Saudi passengers had watched my tantrum impassively.

I sat down, leaned back and breathed. This moment, it seems, is always the same. I take the abaya off, expecting to feel liberated. But somehow, it always feels like defeat.

--


megan.stack@latimes.com

Stack reported in Saudi Arabia repeatedly during her tenure as The Times' Cairo Bureau chief from September 2003 until last month.