LETTER TO A STRANGER: AEGEAN SEA, TURKEY
BY ANNEKE RAUTENBACH
I have such a clear picture of you now, swimming in the turquoise strip of Aegean sea. You wore, without embarrassment, a tiny Speedo and a pair of oversized goggles, and stood out among the other beachgoers—Turks with bloated bellies and board shorts. You floated your skinny body on the water like a pickle, casting about with your goggles.
The day I met you, I knew only that you were a friend of Okan, who was showing me and Lisa around Turkey—and I’m pretty sure even he didn’t know you well. But you seemed excited to host us in that small coastal town all the same. You picked us up in a Land Rover, wearing a shirt patterned with flowers and parrots. “Fear and loathing!” Okan shouted as you approached us, car windows rolled down. Your beard was thick and proud.
We had come from Istanbul—which in the weeks before had worn me out. The protests had flared up again; crowds gathered in the afternoons, thickening the avenues. The police wore gray gas masks that looked like monkey skulls. Sometimes the air would have a peppery quality, burning the throat—from gas canisters, if not from bombs. In a few short weeks, you would be stationed somewhere for mandatory military service. But where I met you—out by the sea—you were determined to make the most of your time.
You brought us to a house, where we drank cheap white wine in martini glasses after a sunset swim off the jetty. You told us that it belonged to a Norwegian woman, but you moved around it as though it were yours. The paintings were European, Expressionist, mostly portraits. There were framed posters for exhibitions in Oslo for which we were twenty years late; the furniture was a hodgepodge of dark wooden antiques; the books were a collection of crime novels; the cat: Siamese. You had brought her along in a kitty carrier.
I still remember the feast we had: fava beans and fennel, stuffed mussels, roast aubergine, the “fat herb”: velvety leaves of a succulent plant smothered in garlicky yogurt. And then there was the fresh grilled fish. You smiled and sighed contentedly, then raised your glass to toast us.
After dinner, you sang Turkish songs about loss and regret. I studied your underbite before fixing my eyes on the horizon, pleasantly drunk and full. “I am trembling for my future,” you gurgled in Turkish.
Do you remember the party you threw, the one for which you bought chips and fruit? “I really don’t think you have to serve food,” Okan had said, seeming a little exasperated at having to tag along to the grocery store after dinner. “Chips and fruit is not food,” you said. “It’s just nice.” Carefully you chopped watermelon, peaches and plums, placed them in fanciful compositions. You cut cucumbers into sticks and placed them in water glasses, like flower arrangements.
The party had a slow start, I remember: the first couple to arrive chain-smoked in silence. A wedding had been banned from Gezi Park, where police were trying to suppress the Occupy-style protests. Okan followed the news on Twitter, offering sporadic announcements when he managed to lift his face from his phone. The raucous soccer club Çarsihad arrived at the park carrying banners: Çarsi is against loneliness. People were pouring into the park, gate-crashing with large vats of pilav rice, traditionally offered at weddings. “I fucking love this country,” Okan had said.
I remember our last night, when we were visited by one of your theater club friends. After dinner, we wandered the ruins; a while later we sat on the beach. A stray dog kept me company as Lisa and Okan fell asleep in each other’s arms, and you rested your head in your friend’s lap. In a few weeks, he would start his Ph.D. in New York; Lisa and I would be on our way home; Okan would be back in Istanbul. None of us knew where you would be.
As it turned out, Lisa stayed on in Turkey with Okan. Months later she wrote to me, and said she had seen a photo of you in the army. She said your beard was gone, that you looked pale and thin. No flamboyant shirt—just something beige with a zip.
I am writing to tell you that I remember you as you were in your parroted shirt. I remember you at the crossroads of pleasure and pain; how you celebrated your freedom with the coordinated abandon of a sailor on shore-leave. And yet, seemed to live outside history.
I remember the moment I learned you belonged to a musical theater club. “Will you sing for us?” I asked, bobbing in the light blue water. I immediately regretted it; it was the kind of forced familiarity that might seem patronizing. “You don’t have to,” I said quickly.
But you just smiled and said, “After a few glasses of wine, why not?”
This letter is inspired by a piece originally published by the author in Prufrock Magazine in 2014.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anneke Rautenbach is a freelance writer and journalist currently living in Brooklyn. She writes for Guernica, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and New York Magazine's Bedford + Bowery, among others. Her favorite place on nobody else's list? Her childhood bedroom in Cape Town. Find her on Twitter @annekerauties.
Photo by Andrew Rowat