The New Year’s after I lost my job in the registrar’s office at the university, my husband, Julian, and I got a sitter for our six-year-old daughter. I always worried about holiday babysitters: what kind of teenager doesn’t have anywhere to be on New Year’s, and do I want to leave my daughter with her? Julian, ever practical, told me to stop wondering so much about other people’s lives. Truthfully, this did nothing for me: what kind of person doesn’t wonder about other people’s lives, and do I want to be married to him? But I said, “You’re probably right.”
We got dressed up in the way that we did then—in what I categorized then as a married way, but it was really just our particular married way. Julian wore clean khakis and a pressed shirt; I made an effort by putting on a bra that wasn’t ripped at the seams and a reasonable top over it. And then we spent the evening at an averagely boring party where I stared into what seemed like an always empty glass of gin and tonic, thinking, Who’s being stingy with the goddamned limes?
It was Julian who suggested a vacation. Though I’d already been at home for several months, I was a saver, and we had a little contingency fund that we hadn’t touched in years.
“Just take a few weeks,” he said the night after the party, New Year’s Day. He reminded me that first, when the gin ran out, I’d gotten rowdy and arranged penis shapes from baby carrots and radishes in the hummus dip, and then, after I had apparently tired of it, I’d fallen asleep on the host’s couch.
“That was a joke,” I told him. “It went along with the story of when I was in college and worked in that grocery store by campus. I’ve told you. Someone would come through at night and do up a zucchini and some limes in the ice case. It was funny.”
“I know,” Julian said. I could tell he did not think it was funny at all. “But maybe you need a break.”
We looked online for cheap tickets. If I was going to do this, I wanted to go somewhere far, so I requested brochures and checked the consular warning pages. I narrowed my choices to İstanbul, Dublin, Paris, or Rome.
“Istanbul?” my mother asked when I spoke with her by phone. “Don’t you think it’s dangerous? I won’t come there to claim your body,” she said.
And so it was decided.
I left in mid-February. I was sure it would be warm—wasn’t it the Middle East? Land of endless deserts and flies?—but it wasn’t. Julian had implored me to bring cash, and to bring twice as much as I thought I’d need. He was practical. He said there might not be ATMs. It was a point of irritation with me, though, as I had shown him the literature describing the country’s amenities, and it was like he just didn’t believe me. Though clearly I hadn’t read enough about the weather.
When I got off the plane, through the easy customs, I stopped at a change booth and exchanged my dollars for the local currency. Even an inexperienced traveler like me knew this was not necessarily the place to get the best rate, but I was here now. I wanted to be ready, and for a moment I worried that Julian might have been right—that beyond somewhere like an airport, there might be few services and a lot of dust.
I collected my lira, checked to make sure I had my things, and headed for the exit doors.
And it felt so familiar.
I knew, without question, I was passing through the double glass doors for the first time, yet I had heard other people describe a feeling similar to what I felt—an Italian-American colleague of mine, for example, when she stepped into Milan, where her parents were born but a place that she’d never seen, felt at home.
And it took only a moment to see how wrong Julian was. This place was cold and modern. They took Visa, MasterCard, and bribes.
It was late afternoon, and the taxicabs were flashing their brights at the crowd, trying to get the attention of potential fares. And I knew I had not ever seen this particular array of cars, nor had I seen these people in the streets or smelled the air carried to the gray curbside by these particular breezes, but there was something in that moment, surrounded by the men with their heavy mustaches and women in their heavy coats, where even I could tell I looked like an obvious tourist—my pale skin, my labeled luggage—where I felt it first: that I could just walk into the crowd and disappear.
What struck me was not how easy it might be to vanish into a country that did not publish telephone directories, but rather the feeling of buoyancy. It was a feeling that the crowd would hold me, like water does, close on every part of the skin, and, with the tilt just right, I could float along indefinitely, instead of being swallowed whole.
I smelled the same briny air I’d gotten used to living in Seattle, but there was something underneath it, something that reminded me of the feeling of my father’s hand resting lightly at the back of my neck when I was small, something that made me feel a sense of surety.
I hadn’t brought much, a suitcase and my daypack. I kept my things close as I sat on a bench and waited.
I remembered kissing Julian goodbye. I remembered how, when I went through the ropes and off toward the metal detectors, the TSA employee said to me, “You made that man cry,” and I looked back at Julian and he was indeed crying.
I was speechless. I hadn’t seen him cry in years. I’m not sure I had ever seen him cry for me.
I had an address for my hotel, in the Sultan Ahmet area, a mecca for tourists, and I finally got up and took a taxi there.
From the airport, there is nothing, really, to see but high-rise apartment blocks stacked like layer cake and traffic. The buildings, all very similar, poured from concrete, and the cars a little boxier and smaller than American models, but mostly it was that mile after mile of houses piled in on top of one another and the buses and minibuses and taxis and pedestrians and the minarets of the mosques, and it was stunning.
When I arrived at my hotel, I checked in without event. I was surprised when the man at the counter asked for my passport number, but he smiled through his beard and handed the document back quickly.
“There will not be hot water for another half an hour,” he said.
I went to my room, and the taps did, in fact, run cold. I washed anyway. I tested the bed, which was passable, and I opened my suitcase so the contents wouldn’t be quite so smashed. I considered that I should call Julian. I also considered that I wasn’t sure if I could hear his voice.
Freshened up some, I was exhausted but excited. I went back out into the street and found an Internet café. I wrote to my husband: Flight was fine, but long. I’m checked into my hotel safely and getting ready to look for some early dinner or late lunch. I am not sure, exactly, how to make an international phone call, but once I’ve got it sorted I will ring. I lied in that part—phone booths with a credit card swipe were plentiful. Give Anne a hug for me, please. Love, Laura.
I sent the email, paid, took tea in a tea house a few blocks down, and wandered around the district. Though there was a startling concentration of tourists like myself, it was not unlovely.
By the time of evening prayer, I was rooted on a bench.
Mosques I had only seen pictures of, and only heard the call to prayer, ezan, in the background of newscasts. When the call begins, the voices of imam across the entire city start in with Allahu akbar (God is great), and from there, every imam puts his own twist on how the words are called, inventing the melody. Some imam are very good. They can sing the way we expect those called to the cloth should. Some are not so good, but Muslims listen anyway. Like Dylan almost—the notes don’t ring, but it’s the words that matter, it’s the sentiment. When the mosques go off all at once, it is like birds the way they chatter, or children all speaking at once in a room, or an orchestra warming up. It’s a cacophony, but it is holy.
I had never been a religious woman, but I listened to the call, and the voices did speak to me, saying, Please, please. You have come so far, now come inside to pray.
For the first days I took taxis everywhere, indulging in the waste after all my scrounging. All of the drivers near the tourist destinations spoke English. My hotel room was modest, and, even with hired cars and meals out and paying tourist prices, compared to what things cost in the US, I was not exactly burning through my lira. I packed up my backpack and spent my days out, visiting the museum homes of sultans and the ancient castles.
A week passed, easily. My plan had been to see some of İstanbul and then travel by bus to the interior of the country, come back, catch my flight, go home perhaps tired but renewed. I think Julian’s expectation was that, on return, I would get interested again. Get a job, commute, participate in the household.
I meant to head inland, but I delayed, as I was feeling constipated from new food and dehydration.
Also, I had been worshipping. Not as in formal prayer, but this was as close as I’d ever gotten. Even in just a few days, with my body turned sideways from jet lag, I felt looped into the ezan, and I would wait for it, listen for it, pay attention to when it came. I hadn’t yet gotten the courage to go into a mosque, except to the large ones that were attractions, and I wasn’t sure of the gender customs—I knew Friday was off limits, but that was all. Still, I kept my ears open for the imam, and my heart.
I visited the Internet café again and wrote to Julian. It is hard for me describe what I am seeing here. On the one hand, this is a normal, modern city. It is the kind of place where you can certainly get whacked by the commuter train. On the other hand, it’s not like visiting Austin, which is different from Seattle but not foreign. It’s different than visiting London, which is foreign, but lacking this kind of shimmer. So far I have not left İstanbul. Will call soon, Laura.
That day, my body turned from uncomfortable to actually ill. I hadn’t been so sick since I was a child. I spent most of the evening vomiting into the recessed toilet, and then, though my period wasn’t due, I started bleeding and it wouldn’t stop.
For three days I was down in what became the greasy linens of the hotel bed. I could not remember feeling so helpless, except perhaps as a child. In the fever, I had never felt so utterly alone. The hotel staff brought me mineral water with aspirin dropped into it, a supposed remedy for bowel trouble, and kept the windows locked tight, heat choking the room, and I did feel like something was burning out of my body, though I could not have said what it was.
On the fourth day, I awoke out of the haze. I took cheese and bread with salted tomatoes for breakfast. The hotel proprietor’s daughter brought me tea to my room, quietly, with her head down.
It wasn’t until after that I remembered that during the whole time, I hadn’t called anyone from the hotel—they’d simply noticed that I’d entered my room and not left, and I felt sudden gratitude, followed by a deep indignation; it was not the kind of kindness, I figured, that would ever happen in an American establishment. First of all, if anyone noticed a guest had retired semi-permanently, the most investigating that might happen was some banging on the door and a hollered reminder about check-out. And second, maybe not even that.
When I am honest, I know that I had traveler’s sickness. Or maybe a touch of what I had heard called the meat sickness—an adverse reaction to the different bacterium in animal products in a geography that is not your home. Americans, with such sanitary supermarkets, are susceptible to this especially. So I was sick with that or something else, stressed and trying to let go of the feeling of fever.
When I am honest, I also know my body was becoming clean, as if pulling out the silt when panning for gold.
Waking from a fever is almost like venturing outside after heavy rain, when the air is still a little heavy and the eyes smart from the light.
And the world has been washed or the underbrush burned clear.
On the other side of the world, the moon and the stars seemed in the wrong place, the gravity different, and it was as if the tether that had held me to my life in Seattle had come undone somewhere between being wracked with fever and then with chills, and now, emptied, I could just float off into the mist above the minarets that punctured the skyline.
After my breakfast, I dressed in warm clothes because I still had some of the chills of nausea, and the wind coming off the Bosphorus cut my skin. Boarding a bus headed toward Taksim, the city’s historical center, I had the kind of lucidity that the ill are sometimes granted—my life sketched on vellum and laid overtop the Puget Sound, and then, just as easily, across the Golden Horn.
I got off the bus in Taksim’s main square and chose from one of the towering lunch shops flanking the street.
I thought, maybe there’s nothing else.
I took my tea quietly, sitting on the low wooden stool. I ate my simit, a firm dough baked circular, covered with sesame.
My hands had gotten ragged, and I felt fatigue around my eyes. The cashier near me was moving very quickly. I sat near a window opening onto the street, and the customers zoomed in and out. Traffic streamed like time-elapsed film. After the slow lull of illness, the entire world around me moved so fast.
When I thought of America, the bread crumbled in my mouth like ash.
It was sudden. I had only a day of my two weeks left; my flight would embark in the morning. I’d spent most of my time touristing and frantically searching for toilets. I had still not called home.
I had walked through the old cisterns, the pillars that stood on Medusa heads.
I had walked barefoot through Mimar Sinan’s mosques.
I had had my shoes shined by a seven-year-old on the street.
Dutifully, I had checked my email and written to Julian a few times. I had gorged myself on meatballs and tahini and things I wasn’t sure there were English names for, but I felt thinner. Light. I was beginning to understand the pace of the city, its ancient sprawl. I had stopped noticing the damp cold, shirked the paranoia about bag snatchers and pickpockets.
Finally, my body settled, and so did I.
I could breathe, and the air was damp and salty like a lover.
I spent my final hours in a fish house on the Black Sea, staring into a glass of rakı, an alcohol I understood women did not ordinarily drink in public, but had been served to me because I was clearly foreign.
The fish house was dark, with waxy tablecloths, rough wooden furniture, and dirty windows looking onto the water. The waiter served my drink in two parts—ice water in a fluted glass, the small bottle of transparent liquor set beside it. Mixed, the liquid turned pearl. Turks called it aslan sütü, lion’s milk, and I sipped mine slowly, waiting for the surge of courage or at least drunken impulsiveness.
There was nothing. The fish house started to close its doors, and the only light was the candles on the tables. I smelled coal. I was not exactly sure which buses I had taken to get here, as it had been day then and I’d followed a sort of general, weaving path. I settled the tab and stepped into the dim cold.
I had enough cash on me, maybe, for a cab, depending on how far I’d really come. It was very late, but my head was finally starting to turn, like someone had just greased up the gears and got the whole machine moving. I counted my bills again, and hailed a taxi.
“Sultan Ahmet,” I told the driver, feeling sure, feeling clear, feeling loosed finally.
In the morning, I felt it was only fair to at least make an attempt.
I took my packed-up bags and got on the metro. The seats were sculpted in garish orange plastic. I sat near one of the car doors. I rode the train to the end of the line, the airport stop. My flight would leave in two hours, at 10 a.m.
But I did not get off, couldn’t, so instead I rode the length of the tracks, back to the starting point at Sirkici, and then back to the airport, where again I watched the passengers file out, and I stayed put.
I rode the train until my flight would have been well in the air.
It was like establishing an alibi.
Hours later, I dragged my bags onto the train platform and across the cobbles and back to the hotel. I hadn’t even bothered to check out, though I didn’t process it until I returned, and the proprietor up and downed my luggage but didn’t comment. I talked with him and negotiated one more night’s stay, and then walked around the corner to a pay phone to call my brother in Bismarck. It was extremely early in the morning in North Dakota, and he didn’t even know I was in İstanbul, but had always been solid and promised to relay a message to Julian and my parents. Tell them I missed my flight and I will be in touch soon, I said. Tell them I’m sorry. Try to call before Julian goes to the airport to pick me up, but there’s ten hours until then, you have time.
The next day I took a blanket from the hotel and dragged most of my luggage to the streets near the train stop. There had, as I’d passed through as a tourist, been a constant, informal bazaar taking place, so I joined in. I laid my clothes out and sold the majority of them to Turks, American brands I had paid too much for and mostly not worn since leaving home.
I shared a sly smile with the other pavement vendors, hawking their stolen Adidas and knock-off Louis Vuitton handbags. I took whatever buyers offered. I kept only my toilet things, all of the jewelry I was wearing and the other pieces I had brought, and my daypack. The jewelry could fetch more money than any of the clothes, but I wanted metal next to my skin, not softness.
I had held softness for far too long.
With my luggage reduced to what my daypack could hold, the feeling of lightness was less abstract. Everything I have, I thought, it fits here. So neatly. A few changes of underwear, a clean shirt, a nice wool sweater, canvas pants, socks. A tangle of silver at the bottom and a guidebook.
I knew my money wouldn’t last in a city, so I checked out of the hotel again. I took the orange train to the inter-city bus station, a building made of mirrored glass, and I bought a ticket from a man at the counter. I intended to see the interior of the country after all.
“One?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I said.
“One?” he asked again.
“Yes,” I said.
“One woman,” he said.
He gave me a seat in front, directly behind the driver. I checked my faded blue daypack into the cargo space, the low belly of the bus, and climbed into my seat. The bus was clean and wide like a hallway. It had been too long, I thought, since I had thought of myself as one, singular, the solitaire stone in a silver setting, the remaining finger on a mill-worker’s hand.
I wondered about Julian, about Anne, and I will admit that in the first steps I took, after I’d purchased my ticket, I faltered some in thinking of them.
Their faces were still clear to me. I could hear Anne’s voice—You coming back soon?—and I could hear my own voice in answer to her. I knew I should call Julian immediately. He’d really never asked me to play the wife to him—never had he tried to use authority or pressure to make me change my mind, but I worried if I called now, he might, and I never wanted to hear him talk that way to me, to anyone. To implore or to demand or worse, to beg. When he asked me to marry him, he said, I want to spend the rest of my life with you, and I said, So do it, and he said, Marry me, and I said, Okay. Never as a question, just a conversation we had and decided something. I liked that about him. So I didn’t call.
I boarded the bus, seat one. One.