After six on Wednesday evenings, even before the sign reading “Infectious Diseases: Do Not Enter” was hung on the shrimpmonger’s door, the dark, empty, treeless streets gave the effect of walking under an oilcloth in yellow light. I’d close my eyes: I was both inside and outside the house.
With his jutting cheekbones and long thin frame, his voice and movements giving him an effeminate air, Istepan would observe the effect on me of the broken melodies emanating from his cheap oud. The shrimpmonger would have just come in from the street. Sturdy, with bristly hands and broad shoulders, his face covered in hard lines, the length of him covered in a large-pocketed jerkin, his black hair constantly wet with rain, he’d come around filling my tiny rakı glass. His wife was a very dark-skinned woman. I could see she was pleased to entertain me, but eventually something in her eyes made me suspect she might feel sorry for me. Squinting and winking, narrowing and bulging out her eyes, she’d accompany Istepan by swinging her head along with the song he was singing—the one that starts, “O tamehasis toteta mezitisis.”
All the objects in the room, the smell of charcoal and cloves, drew up close to me as the number of glasses increased; it was as if they were all telling me that the one by my side, the one whose face I wasn’t looking at, the one who had been waiting for me in this room on that winter night in a poor and desolate but loving state—it was as if they were telling me that even though the shrimpmonger had shouldered their expense, they also loved me for being a good tenant.
The moment when everything drew close and said, “Our tenant! Our sweet tenant,” without my getting used to the objects around me, I couldn’t get comfortable. Nothing could make the shrimpmonger’s house more beautiful, not Istepan singing the Greek song “You’ll Look for Me When You Lose Me” in Turkish, nor his melancholic humanity, nor the shrimpmonger’s deep booming voice that filled the room, not even Sofiya’s ample, flawless brown legs now resting under the table. I’d turn around and look:
There she is—my beloved. Still in the pullover they’d call a chemise, its color a sweet red they’d call cyclamen, and the voices around us would cut out. Everything stopped, as if all the Sofiyas and Istepans and shrimpmongers had gone away, and we were daydreaming that we were alone with only the smell of burned cloves in the room. I would be in love. I would say:
“Brought from my lover’s lips.”
“Don’t look at me,” she’d say, “don’t look at me like that!”
I’d drink another glass of rakı. On my back, I’d feel the drip-drop of a cold raindrop on a tin roof nearby. I’d follow that raindrop wherever it might go. The raindrop that lands by a cat left on the street or on a bare-legged wretch, or a white neck, or a strand of curly hair . . . outside that heated and well-lit room lined with bookshelves, by the side of some beautiful face . . .
A sadness took hold of me. This raindrop where abjection, wealth, despair, satisfaction, solitude, the thousand things attached to human life mixed together, was just outside. I was seized by the desire to raise the tightly drawn curtain, open the window, and let that drop fall into my rakı. I’d fill my glass with all the yearning, poverty, satisfaction, all the jewels of human life’s happiness and misery contained in that raindrop, add to the glass a dash of the fleeting, fleeing taste of my lover’s brown face, then take it down in one gulp:
“Istepan,” I’d cry out. “Play me an old song!”
Istepan, thinking of the two lira I was going to give him, or wondering somewhere behind his white and innocent forehead whether or not I’d give him, his eyes set on some undetermined point in my face, would play outmoded songs by some bad songwriter who’d just turned forty.
In the past, I’d met up with one of my lover’s friends. In one of the small rooms in her house, the rains still falling on some zinc roof. Lying on a low divan, listening to the thrum of rain, with the girl’s blond hair falling over my chest, I found myself saying:
“Yorgiya, my dear.”
The girl shot up like a dart.
“It’s hopeless. There’s no way you can forget about her. From now on every woman is her.”
In order to put into these stories whatever my memory stirs up, writing whatever comes into my mind without trying to give it any coherence, it seems I’ve lost track of the shrimpmonger’s house.
Again I see myself going in there one Wednesday evening with my arms full of packages. A light mist of snow falling. The lights of Beyoğlu had come on just a moment before. I was as content as a grocer decently returning home in the evening, the wallet in his pocket full, his wife waiting at home, business in his shop running like clockwork.
I understand why such people are unable to see into things, into the truth of things. Annoyed, as if it were a great act of charity, I pull out my wallet and give ten kuruş to a beggar. As if I’d already paid back my entire debt to others, to humanity. Now I’ll go to some house with these packages, a door will be opened, and I can embrace a woman and lock the door behind me. I can throw back a glass, then another. After that, thinking of the warmth of my bed, I’ll eat a little pastrami, a forkful of sauerkraut. I’ll throw back one glass after another, light a cigarette, and say:
“My dear wife, you’re in my days, my nights, my dreams, my cigarettes, my rakı—you’re in my blood.”
I wonder if I’ll be able to find the shrimpmonger’s house without thinking how much more content I’m going to be than I would be by giving ten kuruş to a kid on the street, shivering in the snow.
It’s still too early: she won’t be here yet. How hard it is to wait for her! I better walk the streets of the neighborhood a little more . . . And this happiness I feel doesn’t even come from giving ten kuruş to a person growing cold.
Since people degrade the world into this form.
Since twenty-year-old girls learn to scrounge off guys they don’t love . . . Since . . .
I’m wandering into the mire. Drifting away in this foul, cadaverous world, away from the bought-off shrimpmonger, from his house, his bed, from Istepan, even from the dark, narrow face of my beloved, where the most the primitive lights of natural law, blood, soul, and thoughtlessness shine—calling out, calling out and drifting away.
Drifting away but to where? I might end up in some cinema, some cinema that displays crowds of beautiful guys, or maybe in the one place where everything is peaceful, noble, splendid, the most decent place a man can find in the world, the tavern. As if hypocrites weren’t twice as hypocritical there, the indecent even more indecent . . .
There’s no escape. Better we count the shrimpmonger’s house as a tavern. An intimate tavern for three . . . Beloved faces, if they were only scoured clean of hypocrisy! If Istepan would only get to his feet:
“My friend. I’d have come even it weren’t for your two glasses of rakı, your two lira. I’ve grown accustomed to you. Tonight I’ll play my songs for free.”
If he’d said that it would do me in. When the money flowed, there was one name Istepan was always going back to. He’d ask his wife: “Ah my Sofiya, what if Katina were here? What if I called her over?” With his two-year-old son in the house, dressed like a girl, with the world turning the way it does; if he would ever talk exactly as I’d want him to, the way I’d have him talk, it would shock me completely. No! Better Istepan says nothing at all! Better he looks at some unknown point in my face and sets his mind on my two lira!
Istepan sometimes says to this Katina, whom he loves with a girlfriend’s jealousy:
“If I didn’t have kids I wouldn’t be able to put up with it. My Sofiya!”
If Katina didn’t cheat on Istepan, who would?
At some point one of Koço the shrimpmonger’s three kids would wander into the room. I’d start trying to analyze what these three kids felt toward me and my lover. If I were their age, if I were one of the shrimpmonger’s kids, I’d understand the feelings of this man with the big pale eyes sitting across from me, of this girl with the thin brown face, wide shoulders, the damp, straw-colored neck. I’d understand from their gazes, the way they sat, their movements.
On Wednesdays, this man comes with packages in his hands and bottles of rakı. On other days with other packages. In a strange silence, he enters this room that’s only able to produce whispers and thin whistling voices. He creates a passionate, peaceful universe. Our mom and dad also blend into this universe. Let the others think whatever they want about me, the children don’t think like them. The curly-haired youngest of the shrimpmonger’s kids looking from the apples and pistachios to the salted almonds, with his beautiful curly hair, looking out from his mother’s skirt as she puts pastrami in his mouth, would also plunge beneath my lover’s long eyebrows into her coffee-colored eyes. He’d sing folk songs through his tiny, stuffed-up nose. He was four. After eating all the almonds, after chewing up the pastrami, he’d look in some Freudian way at Yorgiya, then at me, then back at Yorgiya. He’d grab his mother’s hand, ask for water. She’d give him water from a rakı glass. Some days I liked to watch how greedily, with what relish he sucked down that alcohol-laced, anise-scented water. I always loved the shrimpmonger’s youngest child. There was something alive and hectic in his moods that I relished, that fed off human desire and greed, that made him want, one day, to be like this big red man sitting across from him.
The shrimpmonger’s other two kids were from a different mother, so they had a different position in the house than the smallest.
One of them was eleven years old, the other was fourteen. Both were boys. The eleven-year-old—putting up with everything, with his big, rotten eyes, his sallow face, small, ugly, with rough hands, chewed fingernails, affectionate in a way that would make you want to run away—there was nothing cute about him. But of the three children, I thought him the most good-hearted, the one that would become the most beautiful young man. He was something to see—looking people in the eye lovingly, throwing himself with a joyous velocity at the smallest chores and working with pleasure, then peacefully drawing into himself. It was like he waited all week for these Wednesday nights. Coming into the house, he’d yell:
“Mama, Mr. Ahmet’s here!”
He’d immediately take the packages from my hands:
“Did you buy lemons?”
I’d always make sure to forget the lemons. He was certain to rush to bring the can opener for the tin of sardines.
The boy’s servile behavior at her side would drive Sofya into nervous distraction. With some half-scolding anger—but not so she could be said to mistreat her stepchildren—she’d say:
“Sotiraki, baby, don’t run all around me like that. My head is spinning. Here, the nice man gave us money. Run and buy some lemons!”
Sotiri would say, “You need anything else, Mr. Ahmet?”
I’d have him buy a pack of cigarettes. He’d ask, because he knew I’d give him a whole lira and let him keep the change—then he’d have seventy-five kuruş to buy something extra.
The third son, fourteen-year-old Aleko, was a model of rebellion. It was like I could read his mind as he reinterpreted even the sweetest things Sofiya said to him. What a rough, frightening, rebellious creature he was. He wasn’t even afraid of his magnificent father’s large hands.
Sofiya, always whitewashing over her evil stepmother’s soul around her other children and her husband, sanctimoniously presenting herself in the role of the good-hearted mother in front of everyone, with every gesture trying to express her blamelessness, failed only to pull it over on this kid.
He abhorred her. Maybe we—Istepan, Yorgiya, me, maybe also Koço—thought Sofiya was in the right. But little Aleko would look at his stepmother with a rancorous gleam in his eyes, his small, wide-set teeth clenched together. Sofiya would say to her husband:
“He’ll never grow up right. Whatever I do, Koço, this kid never acts decent! It’s impossible, impossible. Demboro! Demboro!,” she’d mutter in Greek, then turn to us. “We found him a job. He ran away. He won’t work with his father. He’s started hanging out at the movie houses, the movie houses . . .”
Aleko, with the toes of his shoes torn out, the skin of his thighs—crimson and chafed with filth—appearing through the holes in his tattered navy-blue shorts with their snow-white button, his hair a mess, was unapproachable—or if anyone did get close to him, we supposed they’d be driven away by the thick human stench soaked into his shirt that hadn’t been washed in months. Acting like a model child in his stepmother’s hands, waiting in front of us like a little picture of success, he’d take twenty-five kuruş from me and run off.
When Yorgiya would take one last sip from her small glass and signal to Sofiya with her hand not to refill it, and first Istepan with the kids, and then the shrimpmonger, and finally Sofiya, would leave the room. The sound of the rain would start to speak, then the still-burning charcoal would speak.
She and I wouldn’t speak. If I called it fear, lack of desire, or if I called it a young girl’s awful shyness, something would start in her. You couldn’t call it lack of desire exactly. She didn’t love me—that much is true—but she could feel herself about to enter the trembling, frightening universe of a man’s embrace. It gave me the sensation she’d never seen another man before me.
Yorgiya’s hands in mine like I was inspecting treasure—gold and silver, things formed from wealth and happiness. I’d inspect them like a rich old miser. I held everything in those hands. I held an entire world in my unstrung, waveless interior.
In her I found a rich, joyful life, and a misery that—maybe because we tasted it together—immediately increased to the point that it became happiness. On my tongue I tasted things I’d never tasted before. Unknown dreams flew before my eyes, colored, like Disney films. Then the door would be unlatched and the shrimpmonger and his wife would came back into the room. From the other room the in-out of the sleeping kids’ breath drifted in, the shrimpmonger’s elderly mother talking to herself.
I’d never set eyes on the shrimpmonger’s house during daylight. Then one day I’m ringing, going in to wait for Yorgiya before night falls. The shrimpmonger’s house consisted of two rooms. With the door that separates them opened, it seems like one corridor. They seat me in their conjugal bedroom. I’m sitting in the divan in front of the windows overlooking the street. There’s a Singer sewing machine and a few paper bags next to me. Stuck up on the wall to the right of the doors, just above the bed, a European-style fabric meant to resemble a carpet. At the edge of the footboard a mirror with two pictures stuck to it. Half in sight under the bed was an upturned sewing basket, a carpenter-made toy car for kids. Closer to the divan, some mirrored cabinet that shows a man at his best. I’m overcome with curiosity to see what’s inside.
As I’m picking up a neatly arranged pink paper pincushion, my eye is caught by a bright and shiny set of scales hanging on the wall. I set the pincushion into the bottom drawer of a dresser.
Time is passing. Outside it’s hailing. The way a room can darken in one moment. I’d just said a few words into the mirror. The lines on my face and my swollen eyelids—just a moment ago, when I was talking to myself in the mirror, I could see them clear as day. But now as it grows dark I find an almost young, attractive but desolate man. I find myself talking to the mirror:
“Sir, there’s no reason for us to fool each other.”
However hastily I might have said it, Sofiya calls out as she is trying to bring the burning grill inside:
“She’ll come. Don’t worry! If she doesn’t come I’ll go get her from her house.”
“I’m not worried a bit, madame,” I say. “She’ll come for sure . . . Even with this hail.”
“Let it come down! Our stove is already lit. Don’t be afraid. Should I bring it in? It smells a little, but . . .”
“Don’t bring it in for God’s sake. It bothers me!”
“I’ll throw a few cloves on it.”
“Don’t bring it in here!”
“I’ll leave it where it is so it goes to the girl’s head, right? You old letch.”
In two months I’d grown old. I was angry more with the mirror than with Madame Sofia.
“What did you say?”
“Not to you, Sofiya, to the mirror!”
Madame Sofiya goes on talking. I’m not listening. How much furniture is there in this room! They call this a commode? Let them call it whatever they want . . . Let’s say it’s a commode already. Next to it there’s a needlepoint picture:
In a horse and carriage, next to a man with a black beard and a fur coat, the carriage driver with his bushy moustache sits motionless, not bothering himself with the horses’ progress. Now I notice a girl tucked up next to the bearded man. The girl’s face is invisible. She’s got a white fur on. A dog runs alongside the horses, but judging by the running of the carriage the dog appears motionless, almost still. It must be an error in the picture. As if I know anything about pictures!
There’s a knock on the glass. She came early tonight . . . I feel a tremor somewhere inside myself, as if I’m the room, as if I’m the glass. I call out that I can’t get the door open:
She shouts from inside:
“I heard. I heard!”
The smell of bad charcoal mixed with the smell of cloves from the inner room . . . Mixed with a beautiful smell redolent of hashish, this girl whose eyes are so far from me, her hair wrapped in a red handkerchief—who is she?
I open the bottle. The smell of cloves flies off and the smell of anise fills the room. The hail stops. A plate of cold shrimp, red, as if from flames.