Underground Voices

Adapted from The Pull of It, by Wendy J. Fox

 

When I left Istanbul on the bus that cruised gently from the coast into the heart of Anatolia, I had, like torn halves of the same snapshot, a memory. First, a cobbler hammering small heels onto little girls’ dress shoes, and each was painted chrome. He sat on a low three-legged stool, and the piles of shoe crowded around him and overflowed out of his door and into the street, like spawning fish into a causeway. Second, nearby, in the tiny yard of a tumbledown house, a Turkish-made car, the finish oxidized and tires gone flat, was for sale, and heaped inside were the tanks of four or five Western toilets, broken into pieces.

I saw these things while walking through a neighbor­hood I didn’t know and definitely didn’t know the name of. I was just walking. Not for exercise, not to go somewhere, just passing time until my bus left.

And then, while I rode, sunken into the uphol­stery, head against the window, I thought of the shoes and the car to stay focused—the cobbler, pounding away, the car, static. The air had been clear and the street softly shaded, and I worked very hard at keeping myself at the center of the picture. My daughter, Anastasia, would have been thrilled at the shape and the quantity of the shoes; my husband would have had something more precise for me: not fish, he’d say, herring. They fish them in Alaska for roe, now that all the salmon are gone.

But I didn’t think this way, and I didn’t think how they both would have given the same puzzled face at the car, how she might have kicked at one of the tires, how he might have swiped a finger across the bumper to test the depth of the dirt. Instead, I remembered only the hammer against the silver heels, and the white of the porcelain through the dusty rear window. I thought of only myself on the patched cobbles of the street and distracted myself trying to come up with some of the words from my small Turkish dictionary. Araba, car. Ayakkabi, shoe. Beni, me. Balik, fish. Pencere, window.

I was very tired and I didn’t know the word for it—the two weeks I’d been in Turkey alone hadn’t necessitated learning verbs—but when the bus stopped for breaks, and also when the porter came around with the beverage tray, I tried to revive myself. Tea with sugar. Coke. Sweetened tea. Bites of chocolate. I felt sleep falling onto me, but I wanted to stay awake for this—this exit. I’d come to Istanbul as a solo tourist, and I was leaving as someone else, having purposefully missed my flight, counted my remaining money, and purchased a bus ticket that sent me spinning twelve hours east into West Asia.

In the morning I clomped off the bus. I was still pretending some. I had chosen the small town in Cappadocia from my guidebook for its scenery and for its quality as a destination for sightseers. As the others tripped out of their seats, I was grateful, when I saw the weight of their suitcases and travel bags, that I had only my blue daypack. I weaved my way out of the small crowd that had formed around us—hotel owners and taxi drivers petitioning a new crop of vacationers—and into the shelter of a stone building. I smoked a cigarette. It was still cold, the first of March. The cigarette offered me no warmth, and after a few drags I stomped it out.

I looked for a kiosk and purchased a postcard.

In the weeks I had been away from home, I had mailed my daughter every day, like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs.

The landscape was like nothing I’d ever seen—columns of red, yellow, tan, pink rock with caps of gray. It was like being in a cave except there was wide, open sky. I’d read in my guidebook that villagers had carved out the columns and lived in them, a castle for one.

I wasn’t sure I could actually stay. It was exactly the sort of place to look for a missing tourist. There must have been caches of them like the Piper’s children, somewhere in the farther reaches, in the places missed by preservation societies, holed up in the dark with a store of dried apricots and oranges. I imagined there had to be, there must be a band of the disappeared—but for the time being, I needed a bed.

~

It was my husband, Julian, who suggested a vacation. Though I’d already been at our Seattle home for several months after losing my job, since we were savers, we had a little contingency fund that hadn’t been touched in year­s.

“Just take a few weeks,” he said. It was just after the New Year, and he reminded me that at the party we’d gone to, before the gin ran out, and before I’d been complacent and standing outside obsessed with the host’s dog, I’d gotten rowdy and arranged penis shapes from baby carrots and radishes in the hummus dip, and then, after I had tired of it, I’d eaten every last crudité.

“That was a joke,” I told him. It was from the years I worked in a grocery in college. “When I was at the store by campus, someone would come through at night and do up a zucchini and some kiwi in the ice case. It was funny.”

“I know this story,” Julian had said. I could tell he did not think this was funny at all. “But maybe you need a break.”

“What about Anne?” I had asked. Anastasia, our daughter, was seven.

“We can figure it out. I’ll get a sitter, and I can work from home some days if I need to.”

We looked online for cheap tickets. If I was going to do this, I wanted to go somewhere far, I wanted some distance from Seattle, so I researched and checked the consular warning pages. I narrowed my choices to Istanbul, 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.

It was silly, mean even, but that’s how I decided.

With something happening, instead of my slow and jobless days, time started to move very quickly. I made casseroles to freeze. I packed and unpacked my bag several times. I called my friends and asked them to drop by and check in on Anne and Julian. I talked to my mother frequently. I doted on Anne even more, to the point that she would push away from me sometimes, reminding me that I wasn’t going to be gone forever. She was at the age where she had learned to roll her eyes. I rolled mine back.

“I’ll miss you,” I said.

“I know,” she said. “I know.”

I left in mid-February on a long, multi-stop flight. Seattle, Chicago, Milan, Istanbul.

Each leg was a little more thrilling as I flew east. I had a sandwich in the Chicago airport, a double espresso in Milan. Breakfast was served on the flight as we zoomed toward Istanbul, a tiny plate of cheese and bread and cured sausage with a flyer that guaranteed the meat was free of pork.

By the time we touched down, I had been traveling for twenty-four hours and was dizzy with speed and pressurized air.

When I got off the plane and through the easy customs, I called Julian, and I called my mother. 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.

~

With Julian and I, I refused to believe it was something about mar­riage. It was something about us and the everyday: the longer we were coupled, the more I devel­oped an indifference to the body. We’d been passionate once, but increasingly, I thought of intimacy like the messes that were accumulating in more and more corners of our house. When we had first moved in together, the immediacy of any kind of clutter was unbearable to me; later, it be­came inconvenient; finally, there was a settling.

We became like any other piece of household effluvia.

Here is the stove.

Here is the laundry.

Here is my breast.

It was almost like a miracle that we’d conceived Anne, not a sacred one, but one of statistics. I felt a kind of guilt about it, with so many people who struggled, who timed their copulations around ovulation, and injected themselves with the urine of a woman already with child.

Early in the pregnancy, I took down a framed painting from one wall in our office and leaned it against the opposite wall. I was only going to move it—it was too heavy in the original space and made the room feel like it was tilting. When Julian asked me what I was doing, he said that it was just me, that the room was certainly not tilting.

“I said it feels like it is tilting,” I told him, “not that it is actually tilting.”

“I don’t see it,” he said. “But I don’t care if it gets moved.”

“Maybe you’re used to it,” I said. “Like people who have one leg longer than the other and they never really know until they go to a chiropractor because their back hurts.”

Julian gave me a blank look.

“They think it’s their back because they’re used to the leg,” I said, trying to explain.

“If one of my legs were longer than the other, I would know,” Julian said.

I gave him this. He was scientific like that; he might have been right. He might have already measured.

“I’ll let it sit for a few days,” I said.

“Great,” he said. “We can see how it feels.”

Years later, though, the painting remained un-hung. His mother had given it to us. It had been in her house for many years and had been bequeathed to us with much ceremony. A landscape in a gold laminate frame, it was the kind of thing that gets thrown out when people pass, but for now it was with us.

Occasionally I would vacuum underneath and behind it, where it was making an ever-deeper groove against the plush. Sometimes I would even clean the glass, but I got used to the way it looked in the office, and finally, Julian stacked a box of files in front of it.

Our collections, our dust in the atria.

Even after Julian’s mother died we did not throw it out, as by then it had become another layer in our unsteady foundation, a sediment of glass and old shoes and dirty sheets, held together by nothing but static.

There were times that I thought having more regular sex with Julian would be like exercise or healthy eating or reading the classics or driving a stick-shift—things that can be hard to get started on but become easier with practice, stimulating even. Or like growing a vegetable patch; once the long wait for spring is over and the seeds have been started, the transplanting complete, the frequency of watering gauged, the garden is sustain­ing. The memory of crisp lettuce propels a whole host of other activities, like changing the design of the plot or contemplating the reproductive life of aphids.

Before I met him, I’d spent a year feeling either despondent or predatory. It wasn’t that I pursued anyone relentlessly or illegally or was especially horrible toward men, but I would meet them and I would sleep with them. I had so much energy for this and no energy for anything beyond it. Beyond the excitement of the casual, it was also the pitch of it: one clear note that did not sustain.

I bumped into Julian in line at a coffee shop. He was wearing the same university sweatshirt that I was.

We greeted. He nodded at my shirt. He said, “Hey, didn’t we take an astronomy class together?”  

“Yes,” I said, though I did not actually know if this was true. It seemed so long ago, even if I was still in the garb.

So we hung out in the place for a while and because the day was so pretty we thought it might be worth it to go to a rocky Seattle beach. My car, a hatchback with the rear seats perpetually down, was parked nearby, and after we’d had enough of walking through the cold sand, and after we’d stopped into a local place for a few cocktails, we ended up fucking in the back of my car.

“I didn’t really mean to go that far,” Julian said to me when we were done.

“Me neither,” I said, but I had. I was young then, but I wasn’t an idiot—I’d grown up on a farm, so I didn’t believe these things just happened. I mean that I knew the pure pull of biology, because that even an old milk cow will dance around a little for the aging bulls if she is open, whether she can really carry a calf or not.

“Hey,” I said. “It’s not like it was my first time.” I smiled.

By then I’d already had many of these kinds of lovers—these easy, couple-of-dates men. They were not difficult to find, especially because I was like them. Julian was different. He wasn’t looking for just a screw.

As I saw more and more of him, he calmed me.

He was level.

Indeed, his legs were perfectly plumb.

Even though there was passion early on, our courtship still felt habitual before habit even had time to form.

When we said our vows quietly, at the courthouse, with no one but the state-appointed witnesses in attendance, I took it all to be a sign of love—the inward turn, the lack of declaration in the smell of the clerk’s triplicate papers, the understated legality. I thought this was the other side of all those uncomplicated fucks—an uncomplicated husband made with a simple signature.

I held Julian’s hand on our way to a late lunch. The April was misty.

I was a damp bride in bad shoes. The dim light of the afternoon fell onto Julian from the side, and the light off of him was just as dim, like a prism without enough angles to refract.

~

The morning in Istanbul that I decided to miss my flight back to America, I felt it was only fair to at least make an attempt. To ensure that I was sure.

I took my daypack 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 three hours, at 9:57 a.m.

But I did not get off, couldn’t get off, so instead I rode the length of the tracks, back to the starting point at Sirkeci, and then back to the airport, where again I watched the passengers file in and out while 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 crossed the train platform and navigated the cobbles the my hotel. I hadn’t even bothered to check out, though I didn’t process it until I returned, and the proprietor looked me up and down but didn’t comment. I talked with him and negotiated one more night’s stay and then walked around the corner to a payphone to call my youngest brother in Bismarck. It was extremely early in the morning in North Dakota, and he didn’t even know I was in Istanbul, 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.”

He must have been wondering why I didn’t call Julian myself, but he didn’t ask.

“Okay, Laura,” he said. “Hey, are you okay?”

“I think so,” I said. The telephone had a digital counter on it. I wasn’t sure if it was calculating the time or the cost of the call.

“Do you need me to come get you?” he asked. “Are you getting on the next flight?”

“Do you even have a passport?” I asked.

“Do I need one?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “You need one.”

“I could get one,” he said. “I would get one.”

“I know you would.”

For the rest of the day, I wandered. I wasn’t sure what I was doing, but it felt important. I bought another postcard and wrote a note to Anastasia. You are an amazing daughter and I love you. I gave it to the same young man I had given other postcards. I wondered what other people wrote, and I wondered how many of the messages he read.

I had lunch in a pretty café on the water, meatballs and peppers and tomatoes, and I thought about the money I had. I thought about my credit card in the payphone, time stamping me. Julian would see it on the statement.

When my brother called my husband—maybe he had already called—Julian would ring my hotel. He had the information.

Then, he would send me an email, which I could decide to read or not read. I didn’t have a mobile.

I thought of my family, my tidy life. It had become only a little unraveled by losing my job, but I felt it fraying now, like one thread picked from a seam.

My mother used to tell me to snip those, instead of tugging.

I promised myself I would go back. I promised myself I would keep writing postcards, for now. I promised myself I would call Julian, soon, but I felt drawn, and like nothing I’d ever experienced before, a clear feeling that there was something I needed to find out.

I closed my eyes.

I pulled.

When I got back to my room, the man at the desk said there had been a phone call.

“Urgent, miss,” he said, and handed me a folded scrap of paper. My home phone line was written on it, and my husband’s name, spelled the Turkish way, Culian.

I wasn’t sure what I was doing, but I knew my money wouldn’t last in a city, so I checked out of the hotel for good. 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.

“One?” he asked me.

“Yes,” I said.

“One?” he asked again.

“Yes,” I said.

“One woman,” he said. He pecked at an ancient computer and a ticket growled from his printer.

He gave me an assignment in front, directly behind the driver. I kept my daypack with me instead of putting it into the cargo space in the low belly of the vehicle, 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 millworker’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’d had that decided something. I liked that about him. So I couldn’t call.

I boarded the bus, seat one. One.