Raja, a Lebanese queen, kissed my forehead goodbye. I floated off the ferry onto the Istanbul sidewalk, chuffed, with a loss of equilibrium. From the dock I looked back. She stood on board with her silk turquoise robe billowing with salt air, ready to sail northward along the Bosphorus in search of a house.
She was the daughter of an English mother and a Muslim Lebanese doctor. Her father forsook everything to move to England and raise Raja, the queen. But Lebanon called to her and she married a man from Beirut and started a family there.
I knew her for an hour. The length of time it takes to travel from Büyükada, Istanbul’s biggest city-side island, to the mainland. She made me miss family. Is it possible to miss kids I don’t have? She made me miss them anyway.
I left the dock and walked down Ankara Cd. A sudden, blistering pain developed on the backs of my legs. Of course, I fell asleep in the sun, and only woke to the smell of four sweet open hourglasses of chai being delivered to a group next to me. I had put sunscreen everywhere but my legs. My legs never burn, but the late-July Turkish güneş proved me wrong.
The burn grew cold as I waited for a break in the cars while crossing the road. A chill on sunburnt skin is not a good sign. It was going to be a long last night in Istanbul.
On the way back to Erenler Hostel, I spotted two bunnies sitting on a box, and a scowl-faced man guarding them with a cigarette torch between his fingers.
The side of the box said “1 Turkish Lira”. I took out my camera and took a photo. As I walked away, the man yelled something that cracked with tar in his throat. I assumed the 1 TL applied to petting the bunnies as well as taking photos. I feigned ignorance and continued walking.
By the time I reached my hostel, my stinging legs had already turned red. The sky grew dark, and while the diminishing heat helped the pain, it did not abate it. Luckily I was wearing a long black dress, so it only occasionally brushed against my skin. Enes, the hostel manager, was sitting at his desk looking up race cars. He was one of those dark-eyed, sensitive types. We’d become friends.
“Hi, Rachelle. Happy Bayram.”
I asked him, “Do you know where I could get a good pizza nearby?”
“There’s Turkish pizza just a block away called Pidda. We order from there a lot. It’s good.”
I thanked him and walked down to a literal hole-in-the-wall. There was a small kitchen about five bricks wide and three tables on the sidewalk. . In the kitchen, there was a cook and outside stood another man smoking by the tables. Additionally, there were three blonde boys between the ages of 5 and 8 standing between the kitchen and the man smoking. The smoking man noticed my interest in the restaurant and pulled out a plastic chair for me to sit.
I ordered a regular cheese pidda. I needed something simple and comforting. As I waited, one of the young blonde boys asked in a thick Oliver Twist-like accent, “Where are you from?”
“I live in Ireland, but I’m American.”
“My name is Oliver [of course] and these are my brothers John and Harry.”
(…okay, Dickens, what did you do with the bustling, sexy Istanbul?)
He continued, “We live in Ethiopia with our parents and there are lots of Americans there.”
My face lit up, “Ethiopia? I love Ethiopian food. We had many Ethiopian restaurants in Atlanta where I grew up.”
Oliver seemed to be the spokesperson for the three boys, “All the dishes come with the traditional bread, injera, and should be eaten with your right hand. However, I am naturally left-handed and am excused.”
My heart sank into my womb. The eloquence of this young man-child was magnificent. I smiled out of sheer enamor. Two large boxes of pidda were given to them and they trotted off to the hotel where their parents were waiting.
I decided that my make believe kids would be exactly like Oliver and his brothers.
Before returning to Erenler, I picked up a few candy bars from the shop. Enes was still at his desk when I arrived and I asked him if he wanted to share some tea and chocolate. He went to the tea parlor next door and brought back two chai. We spoke about the festivities he had with his family for the end of Ramadan, also called Bayram in Turkey. It lasted for three days and he ate a lot. He told me it was a good night for chocolate since it is common to enjoy indulgences during those days.
My sunburn was really starting to bother me and I winced as I stood up to go to the bathroom. Enes said, “You should put toothpaste on that.”
“Toothpaste soothes sunburn.”
“Sure,” I said as I walked away laughing.
The hallway was lit in red. It happened every night at 10. It felt like home, if your home was a brothel at Christmas. And I mean that innocently.
When I returned from the bathroom, Enes’ friend from the shop next door had brought over beer. Enes didn’t drink, but he said I was welcome to have one. It was a cold Efes, and felt like a million dancing men on my tongue after the hot pidda and chocolate.
We ventured outside so Enes could smoke. I sat next to his friend on a window sill. Enes was across from me in a plastic chair. His friend boasted about how his father owned the row of shops on our street and that someday it would be his. He quickly became drunk.
When Enes went to the bathroom, his friend asked me if I wanted to move to Istanbul to live with him. The balls on him! I laughed directly in his face and said no way. Somehow, he was offended and proceeded to explain just how much wealth he and his family had. I got fed up and went inside.
As I walked down the red hallway, I stopped to pull up the bottom of my dress and feel the heat. It was really hot. I needed some sort of relief. I looked up and Enes was walking towards me.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yes, but my sunburn is worse than I thought.”
“Is it only on the backs of your legs?”
“Come with me,” he said, and started walking towards the end of the hallway. I followed.
“This is my room,” he said at the end.
Inside was a small cot, a big wardrobe of white T-shirts, and a prayer run folded to one side of the room.
He grabbed a tube of Colgate from his dresser and told me to pull up the bottom of my dress. I did and he gently began to rub the blue gel on the back of my left calf. I stood there like a deer in the moonlight. It was soothing. It was vulnerable. A Turkish Muslim hostel owner was rubbing Colgate toothpaste on the backs of my legs. I glanced over at his coiled prayer rug, eyeing me like a snake.
This went on for about ten minutes. He approached mid-thigh, but did not go any further. I let the bottom of my dress fall and he told me goodnight. I gave him a hug to say thank you, and he didn’t seem comfortable or familiar with the concept. Somehow that was the most awkward part of the evening.
He went back down to reception and I went to my room. The red light shone through a small window above my door as I lay on my single bed. The toothpaste throbbed with menthol on my legs. He was right. Toothpaste was good for sunburn.
As I closed my eyes, I thought about the fish market where I met Raja before boarding the island ferry. I was inhaling a smoke outside when the queen in a flowing robe and all her glory asked me for a lighter. It was the first cigarette I’d had in a year. Perhaps we were meant to meet. The first thing she asked me was if I was married. I told her no. She smiled like she knew something funny and dear.
“My husband died this year,” she said.
“I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry is not necessary. I came to Istanbul because there is evidence my husband had property here.”
“You didn’t know?”
“He didn’t share his affairs with me. He was a secretive man.”
I was without words, but she was strong and started to laugh.
“When you reach my age, you don’t take things so seriously. It’s the magic gift that you wish you had when you were young, and don’t know what to do with after you’ve already lived your life.”
She took a weighted drag of her cigarette. From behind the cashier of the fish market, a rooster walked out and stood guard like a doorman. Raja and I watched as the waiters continued without moving the rooster from his position.
“He’s quite confident, isn’t he,” Raja said as the rooster cocked his beady eyes up towards her. She nodded down at him and he walked over to a nearby potted plant and ate a bug.
Oh God, Istanbul, take some part of me. A Romany family began to play music by the entrance to our ferry. Raja and I swayed together, breathing in the delicious salt-smog heat of the city. The rooster danced across the entranceway like he knew the song. Raja and I walked arm-in-arm to the ferry. I supported her like a grandmother. Like a daughter. Like a friend. And somehow we perfectly understood one another.