an excerpt from Istanbul Days, Istanbul Nights


          “I’m sorry to leave you alone to do all this tedious work,” Michael says as he returns to his office to find İrem still making lists.

            “Oh, I don’t mind,” she says.

            “Really?” and he looks skeptical.  “Anyway, let me buy you dinner as a reward.  That is, if you don’t have any other plans.”

            “That’d be great,” she says.  “But I must warn you, I’m pretty hungry.”

            “Me, too,” he says.  “But you sure you don’t have other plans?”

            “No,” and she smiles.  “I have no other plans.”

            “Well,” and he grabs his coat from the rack on the back of the door, “let’s blow this pop stand then.”


            Dave is standing outside the school debating about what to do for dinner exactly when Katja comes out wearing her leotards under a loose fitting skirt and sweater.  “Hi,” he says. 

            “Hi,” she answers.

            “You look a little lost,” he says smiling.  “Been a tough day?”

            “Yes and no,” and she returns the smile but it’s a little weak along the edges.  “Just contemplating what to do for dinner.”

            “Oh, is that all?” and he laughs.  “Here I thought it was something more serious.”

            “Well,” and Katja’s smile starts to fade, “dinner is pretty serious stuff when you live alone.”

            “Tell me about it.”

            “Do you have this problem, too?”

            “Frequently,” he says.  “It can be one of the loneliest times of the day.  But,” and here his smile turns on the old charm, “if you have no plans tonight, how about solving this problem by joining me?”

            “Is that an invitation?”

            “You bet.”

            She looks at him for a moment, then seems to come to a decision in her heads and says, “I’m dressed rather informally so it can’t be any place fancy.”

            “We could go to Taksim,” he says.  “There are many informal places there.”

            “And they serve alcohol, too,” she says.

            “My thoughts exactly.”

            And she brushes back her hair and says, “Then what are we waiting for?”

            And off they go looking for a taxi.


            Philip meets Brenda for dinner on Bagdat Street.  “Well there certainly are several choices here for coffee at a Starbuck’s,” he says.  “But where do you recommend for dinner?”

            “There’s a nice kebab place that isn’t expensive we could try,” she says.

            “Do they serve beer?”

            “Yes, they do.”

            “Then that sounds divine.”

            “You’re certainly easy to please,” she says laughing.

            “When it comes to food anyway,” he says.  “I’m a bit more picky with the beer, but I’m sure, this being Turkey, they’ll have Efes on tap.”

            And as they make their way to the restaurant, Philip can’t help but notice how different the crowds walking up and down the avenue are than in his neighborhood of Kadikoy.  “A bit upscale here,” he remarks.  “And quite trendy, too.”

            “Yes,” Brenda says.  “It’s a great street for a woman to lose herself trying on shoes.”

            “Something I’ve always found fascinating but never could identify with myself.”

            “You mean you don’t like trying on shoes,” she teases. 

            “Right,” he says, stopping to light another cigarette.  “I think I own 2 pair myself.  One black, these here on my feet,” he says, pointing down at his feet.  “And the other brown.”  He stops and reflects for a second.  “I did have a pair of boots once but I fear I have left them somewhere in London.”

            “You poor boy,” Brenda says, consoling him.  “Not even a pair of slippers?”

            “Ah yes,” he says.  “I have one pair of those at home here.  Do they count as well?”

            “We are speaking of anything in the category of footwear,” she says, “so yes, they count.”

            “Three pair then,” he says.  “And they’re brown as well.  Very comfortable, too.  A bit of fleece lining, you see.”

            She laughs and then stops in front of a kebab house called Günaydin.  “How’s this?” she asks.

            “Good Morning,” he says.  “I’m not sure this is appropriate for this time of day but I’ll overlook the hour if you will.”

            “Then we have arrived,” she says and patiently waits for him to finish his cigarette before entering.


            Meanwhile Deniz and Meric are sitting in a rather noisy bar in Taksim drinking: she white wine and he beer, while nibbling on mezes of eggplant puree, deep-fried oysters, and sucuk with fries.

            “They say these are good for one’s sexual prowess,” Deniz says as she pops an oyster into her mouth.

            “Really?” Meric says, his eyes widening a bit.  “Perhaps we should order another dish.”

            “But they should be raw,” she says, laughing.  “I’m not sure they work like this.”

            “Ah well, I’m young yet and don’t really need such aids,” and he winks at her.

            “And you feel that is necessary to tell me,” she says.

            “I think it’s important to fill you in on all my vital statistics,” he says.

            “Oh?” and her eyebrow rises over her right eye.  “And do you have a resume to offer for me to peruse in my spare time listing all your experiences, your strengths, weaknesses, bad habits, etc.?”

            “I could supply one, if you need,” he says.  “With references, of course.”

            “Of course,” she says.  “At least three.”

            “Not more?”

            “Well, more is always better, but let’s not overdo it.”

            “Oh, I don’t want to overdo anything,” he says.

            “Not anything?” she asks, that eyebrow rising again.

            “Well, nothing that isn’t requested,” he says.

            “And you think I need to know all this?” she asks, a playful glint in her eyes.

            “Most definitely,” he says, gravely serious in tone.  “I don’t want to make any promises I cannot keep.”

            “And you are a man of your word?”

            “I have been trying to tell you that for quite some time now.”

            “Hmmm,” she goes.  “This is all very interesting.  I will have to take it under advisement.”

            “But hopefully you won’t delay too long,” he says.  “You know the old poem about gathering rose buds while you may because otherwise they begin to wilt so it’s especially prudent to enjoy them while you can.”

            “In season, you mean,” she says.

            “Exactly,” Meric says. 

            “And is this the proper season?”

            “As far as this particular rose bud is concerned,” and he grins.

            “Hmmm,” she goes.  “I think I need to dwell on that while having another glass of wine.”

            “And more oysters?” he asks.

            “Yes,” she says.  “I think we need more of those, too.”

            And whether one would see Meric as a rose bud or not, he certainly feels himself to be blooming.





            Pelin, meanwhile, hovers in the background, her mouth watering for more than oysters, her heart beating wildly against her chest as she watches a seduction in progress she wishes were her own.  And yet as she sees Meric, in her mind, becoming half of a couple, she is only more acutely aware of how alone she truly is.




            Murat sits alone at a tavern in Bebek, drinking raki and watching people walk by on the street outside.  He can’t help but remember how he used to sit here, at this very same tavern, with Sönmez drinking raki while she drank beer and they would invent stories about the people passing by and laugh uncontrollably, touching each other under the table and whispering into and licking each other’s ears.  They couldn’t wait to get home in those days to rip off each other’s clothing and make mad, passionate love on the floor, in chairs, across the kitchen table, and finally end up in bed where they would sleep wrapped in each other’s arms, their legs intertwined, until morning.  He can’t help but wonder what happened to those days, those nights, and thinks it isn’t just the children, that there had to be some underlying cause before that.  But no matter how much scrutiny he applies to his memories of those times, he just cannot see any indication of where it changed, what went wrong, what missing ingredient there might have been in their chemistry to cause this reversal.  Just how did he happen to find himself here alone, drinking raki, and whispering to no one?



            Michael watches in amazement once again as İrem charms the waiters at his favorite fish restaurant, The Hamsi Pub.  They are usually very solicitous of him since he is a regular customer but she always utterly captivates them all, their eyes constantly settling on their table to see if they need anything, refilling the water glasses and the wine glasses before they are even half empty, bringing over a second basket of fresh bread, deboning the fish, and blushing slightly when she speaks to them in that casual manner of a lifelong friend.  He can’t help but think she is very sophisticated and credits that to her experience living alone overseas as well as here in Istanbul, far from her family in Izmir.  And though he hates the thought of her leaving him, he knows she is a star in the making, destined for bigger things than staying here to work under him.  And that thought saddens him and dims the glow he has been feeling in his heart.

            She, however, looks at him for a moment and then asks, “What?”

            “Huh?” he says.

            “What are you thinking that’s made your mood change?” she says, her head tilted slightly, a look he can’t quite recognize in her eyes.

            “Nothing,” he lies, then shifts in his chair.  “Well, yes, actually maybe something.”

            “Go ahead then,” she says.  “I promise not to bite.”

            “You bite?” he asks.

            “Only people I don’t like,” he says, “so you have nothing to worry about.”

            “That’s good,” he says, sighing with mock relief.  “It certainly wouldn’t do for a constructive working arrangement.”

            “I think we have more than a constructive working arrangement,” she says.

            “We do, of course,” he says, a little surprised by her perception but then realizing she always surprises him by her ability to read his thoughts.

            “Yes,” she says.  “I admire and respect you, and hope to learn a great deal from you.  But I also like you very much and always think of you as my friend.”

            And here the terrain becomes a little difficult for him, that no man’s land that stretches out between colleague and friend, working relationships that grow deeper than that, deep enough to develop into evenings like this, ones he finds he cannot bear to think will end, but knows instinctively they must.  But boundaries have been crossed, barriers erased, and she has become an important part of his life here, and that frightens him a bit.

            “Did I say something wrong?” she asks, staring at him with those eyes that appear older and wiser than he had previously thought, or at least had not consciously acknowledged.

            “No,” he says.

            “Then what is it?” she asks.

            “I was just thinking about the play,” he lies again, and thinks he should perhaps feel guilty about this deception, but knows no other way around a conversation he would rather not have at present.

            “What about the play?”

            “Just images,” he says.  “You know, these images I have keep interrupting my thoughts, bringing disorder to my days.”

            “You’re obsessing about the play,” she says.  “Didn’t you once tell me that when you start dreaming about your work, it’s time to quit?”

            “My Uncle Mike used to say that actually,” Michael says.

            “Do you always quote your Uncle Mike?”

            “He was my favorite uncle,” Michael says. 

            “And what did he do?”

            “He worked as a supervisor for New Jersey Bell,” Michael says.  “Which is, of course, not the same thing I do.  Except maybe they’re both related to communication.”

            İrem studies him carefully and then says, “So you don’t plan on quitting, I take it.”

            “The thought never entered my mind.”

            “So maybe you’d like to share some of these images with me?” she asks.

            “Not now,” he says.  “Now let’s just have some more wine.  I’d rather forget work right now and just enjoy a pleasant evening with you.”

            “What a splendid idea,” she says and reaches over for the wine bottle but before she can touch it, a waiter comes out of nowhere and pours them each another glassful before retreating again.

            “So,” he says lifting his wine glass, “to a good year ahead and both of us getting what we wish.”

            And İrem taps her glass against his and adds, “Insallah.”


            Dave leans back in his chair content as the waiters begin clearing the table.  “Well,” he says, “this was certainly much better than eating alone.”

            “It seems to me the food always tastes better when shared, don’t you think?” Katja asks.

            “Yes,” he says.  “And that was especially true tonight.”

            Katja laughs.  “You are a flatterer, I think,” she says.

            “Yes,” he acknowledges, “but not in this case.  With you, there’s no need to flatter.”

            “That’s very sweet of you to say,” she says, but her smile is not as bright as he had hoped.  Instead there’s that tinge of sadness tugging at its corners that no one, including Dave, can seem to wipe away for more than an instant, a fleeting second, the blink of an eye.

            Dave reaches over to the wine bottle and refills both their glasses.  Then, having second thoughts as he looks at her sad, tired eyes, he says, “I really shouldn’t encourage you to drink any more.  You look so tired that perhaps some coffee would be a better idea.  Or,” and he smiles tenderly her way, “maybe we should call it a night and you should go home to get some rest.”

            “No, I’m okay,” she says, her head slowly rising so that her eyes can see into his.  “I’m just not getting a lot of sleep these days.”

            “Anything you want to talk about?” he asks.

            “I don’t know if I can, but,” and she smiles tenderly his way, “I really appreciate the fact that you asked.”

            “Hey,” he says, “we are becoming friends, aren’t we?  And isn’t that what friends are for?”

            “You are too kind.”

            “No,” he says. “I am not too kind.  I try to be kind enough.”

            “Well, you are successful,” and that sad smile again.  “At least where I am concerned anyway.”

            And they sip their wine, sit in silence, each lost in thought.  He gazes at her, her face turned away slightly, her eyes lost in some distant memory, her full lips partially open, her face so beautiful it takes his breath away.  There is so much to fall in love with, he thinks, and then slaps himself in his mind to keep himself grounded in reality.  Trouble, he thinks.  There is too much trouble here, too much work, the recesses too deep for him to fathom, and so he tries hard to avoid the pitfall, looks away from her strong cheekbones, the length of her neck, the way her hair falls effortlessly onto her shoulders.  And he lets the silence speak volumes for him, for her, for them.


            Brenda feels extremely comfortable with Philip, safe and secure, an older man from her own country who exudes empathy toward her, not sympathy which she would not appreciate, but empathy which is quite a different thing, the ability to look at life and her situation from her perspective and thus understand her.  And she does not find him unattractive, though she is not necessarily attracted to older men, or at least not a whole generation ahead of her, her father’s generation, and there have been men from that generation that have seriously flirted with her, even going so far as to ogling her on the tubes, or on the street, or even while at a restaurant with Mark, but she has never really seriously considered a relationship with someone that old, though Philip is certainly cultured, intelligent, and handsome, also unattached, though there seems to be something not quite right with the picture, as they say, and so before she starts thinking about the possibility, she must first clear up this mystery.

            “I really enjoy your company,” she says, though thinks that’s a rather lame way to start a flirtation, and realizes just how out of practice she is in this potential dating game.

            “Yes,” he says, “and I enjoy yours.”

            “It’s just that I haven’t really felt comfortable with men since my divorce,” she says.  “Actually it probably goes back further than that.  I was never really very good at dating even before Mark.  And he certainly didn’t help increase my confidence since the lack of physical compatibility has almost made me self-conscious with men.”

            “Well it seems to me you’re best out of that marriage.  You’re sure to find someone who can stimulate you here.”

            “You think so?” she says.

            “Oh yes,” he nods.  “You’re charming, quite beautiful, intelligent, with a stable job and income.  Believe me, you’re quite the catch.”

            “Really?” she asks.  “I just never seem to think of myself that way.”

            “But you are,” he says emphatically.

            “And you think men will find me attractive?”

            “Of course they will.”

            “Do you find me attractive?”

            “Well I would,” he says, “if I were so inclined that way.  But,” and he smiles, “I’m not.”

            “Inclined what way?” she asks, slightly confused by that expression.

            “Inclined toward women,” he says.  “But, you see, I prefer the other gender.”

            “Oh,” she says, almost embarrassed at her own stupidity.  “I didn’t realize.”

            “No?” he asks, almost as surprised as she is.  “But I thought you knew.  It’s clear if you’ve read my CV.  I mean, it’s what I write about.”

            “Oh, well I haven’t read it,” she says.  “Nor have I read anyone’s, actually.  Oh, how silly of me.”

            “No,” he laughs.  “No harm done.  But again, to answer your question, yes, I would find you quite attractive if I were so inclined.  So I really wouldn’t worry about finding men here.  They will, I’m positive, come flocking soon enough.”

            “You really think so?” she asks.

            “Yes,” he says.  “As soon as you open yourself up to the possibility.  You know, begin to dress a little more provocatively and start flirting with the single men.  And go to clubs and such where you’ll meet them.”

            “I’d feel a little awkward doing that here,” she says.

            “Well I’ll accompany you, if you’d like, so you’ll be safe.  Would you like that?”

            “You wouldn’t mind?”

            “Of course not,” and he smiles.  “I’m not actively on the prowl myself but I certainly have no objection to window shopping.”

            And Brenda can’t help but laugh.



            Meric has Deniz twirling on the dance floor, doing shots of schnapps in beer, and laughing at his impersonations of Turkish pop stars.  She thinks he is perhaps the funniest, most charming man she’s met in a long time and finds her sides hurt from laughing, her legs ache from dancing, her head is spinning from the alcohol.  And when she finds herself out on the streets of Kadikoy with him in the hours long past midnight, eating Anatolian style food in a place called Ali Riza, she is hungry for more than the white beans and pilaf on her plate, and he navigates the way to his apartment in Acibadem where he slowly undresses her, caressing the nipples of her breasts, burying his head between her legs, her mouth sucking in air, and the night closes around them and only their breathing, their sighs, cries of delight, follow them to morning.



            Pelin is on the street below, watching the light turn on, then off in Meric’s apartment, her heart breaking in pieces in her chest.  She has trouble breathing as she starts what seems to her the longest walk in her life back to the bus depot, and home to her lonely bed.



            Murat is numb with raki as he fumbles with his keys in the lock, bumps his way into the apartment, collapses on the couch, his jacket dropped on the floor, his shirt partially unbuttoned, his shoes lost somewhere in the hall.  He wishes he had someone to hold his head so it would stop spinning but there is no one there, just the darkness, the couch, the sound of someone crying.  And as he falls off into a troubled sleep, he is suddenly aware the person crying is himself.


            Dave dreams of doors closing, footsteps on the stairs, a car door shutting somewhere on a street long, long ago.  He is standing in his living room, a glass in his hand, music coming from a far wall, a clock dropping digits on a nightstand that stands forlornly beside an empty bed with sheets as cold as a January morning in a room he hesitates to enter.  And the loneliness that plagues him from house to house, state to state, now country to country, is what he wakes to, along with his stifled sobs, on another chilly morning, in another bed, alone.


            Katja tosses and turns in the night.  Her dreams are so vivid, the faces that surround her, the arms that hold and comfort her, so real, she surrenders to the illusion.  There is Hasan, his dark, curly hair falling across her face as he holds her ever so tightly against him, cradling her in his arms and whispering, “I love you” in her ear, and slowly, ever so slowly, rocking her to the rhythm of his breathing until her breathing matches his, their breathing becoming one breath, they becoming one person, there in the night, in their bed, a haven safe from the world of screaming women, frightened children, from dark men in dirty military uniforms banging on doors outside.  And the fitfulness of her sleep dissipates and the world is once again full of hope and peace.

            But this does not last for Hasan is ephemeral, a ghost in the night, and he disappears as the night progresses, a vapor, no longer a presence in her life.  And the terror returns, her heart, her breath constricts, and she shrivels up into a ball in the center of the bed, hoping to withdraw so far inward that the fear will not find her. 



            Brenda wakes to the phone ringing.  She can see by the Caller ID that it is London calling.  It is 5 am there and she knows it is Mark.  Another restless night for him, she supposes, and more tortured love poems that he’ll send in an email and that she will delete without reading.  She wishes it would end but knows it will not, not for a long time yet to come, for he is relishing his pain too much, and then feeds on that pain to write more poems.  He will continue till he gets a book out of it, she supposes, which will bring him many female admirers who will wish to soothe his pain away.

            She waits for the phone to stop ringing, then turns it off.  She closes her eyes and turns over in the bed.  She pulls the comforter up around her shoulders and wills herself back to sleep. 


            Philip sits on his balcony looking out as dawn lights the street below.  He has a glass of cay in his hand, his robe pulled tight against his body, his slippers dangling from his bare feet.  He thinks he should get dressed soon, and go out for his morning stroll.  This is his favorite part of the day when the city is not quite awake but still a bit groggy in the day’s first light.  He likes it groggy, its citizens not up yet, though Istanbul, unlike London or New York, is not wary of strangers, and though aware of the foreigner among them, lets him roam about its ancient streets unmolested, undisturbed.



            Michael sits in silence on a bench by the water watching the ships that lay out on the water, motionless and dark.  He likes watching the ships, the gulls as they glide and swoop out over the sea, their cries like babies calling out for attention.  He has not slept much in the night, having risen way before dawn to shuffle around his apartment, make notes on the play, dwell on the images in his mind.  He thinks it is past Thanksgiving back in America, and his brothers had celebrated yet another holiday without him at the table, drinking wine and trying not to talk with his mouth full.  He missed the holiday again this year, as he missed the others last year, as he’ll miss the ones yet to come.

            His eyes, though, are almost vacant, yet a spark glows there, somewhere, in that part of the eye that sees either the future or the past, depending on who is looking and the circumstances surrounding their gaze.  With Michael, though, here, the circumstances are primarily pensive and thus he is lingering in the past, both distant and only just recent, images circling around in his brain, of faces, both lovers and friends, and some names he cannot quite recall, and others he would like to forget.  And those eyes grow heavy, there on the bench.  And he closes them as he feels the breeze on his face, hears the gulls in his ears.


            And finally to İrem who is up in her kitchen making menemen, adding a touch of crushed red pepper, and tiny bits of meat and green peppers.  She will taste it in a minute to make sure there is enough salt, then scoop it into a container to bring to Michael at school, a surprise in his day.  She knows he will be there, even though it is a weekend, annotating his script, staring at his charts, nibbling on a pencil as he leans back in his chair, and feeling a gnawing in his stomach because he has, as usual, forgot to eat.  She knows his habits, his routines, and though she doesn’t want to change anything about him, she does want to make sure he eats.  And they will eat together, this morning, as she helps him work on the play, and slowly, very surely, remain a part of his life.




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