LETTER TO A STRANGER:
TO THE RUG SELLER IN ISTANBUL
BY DIANA SPECHLER
You tried to sell me a rug in 2000, a year one hundred times my age. I was traveling with a guy who expected me to sleep with him, whose company I enjoyed. He did a lot of posturing, dressed well because his parents didn’t, but his smile gave him away. I’d remember him years later upon learning the Spanish word for smile. Sonrisa. He had a smile as frank as a sunrise.
Paperweighted by dozens of rugs, you were different. Your hair was shiny black, your collar so nicely folded. It had been decades since life was flung open to you. You didn’t smile. You took me seriously. “You can sell rugs with me,” you said, handing me your business card. I laughed because you had a business card, and because you assumed I did business.
Earlier, standing in the Basilica Cistern with my travel companion, our tour guide had pointed to the big Medusa head. “Also women can be monsters,” he’d said. I’d laughed at that, too. I didn’t yet understand business or misogyny, how the deck is stacked against certain people. Tragedy and injustice still seemed funny sometimes. Back then, I could laugh at someone falling down the stairs.
That night the guy and I went to a strip club where the strippers left their underwear on, didn’t even remove their bras.
“Really?” he said, disgusted.
Later, when I wouldn’t let him into my bed, he said it again.
Soon he was snoring across the aisle. I’d intentionally booked a room with two doubles instead of one queen. The window curtain was slit down the middle, letting through a silver strip of light. It wasn’t that I didn’t want him; I just hadn’t decided. I couldn’t understand men, how their goals were always so clear to them, how they were always in such a hurry.
The next day we walked through an outdoor bazaar, popping Turkish delight like speed, sugar powdering our faces. We were so American, so young and dumb and hungry. We decided that Turkish was a pretend language. A woman squatted on a checkered blanket, selling alarm clocks that all chimed at once. “Wouldn’t it be funny,” I said, “if this were a dream? If that’s our alarm clock?”
This was the era when clichés kept making sense to me. The grass is always greener on the other side! I would think, astonished by the wisdom. I liked pot back then, was open to religious fundamentalism, gained twenty pounds in four months because I was always ravenous, though I never knew for what.
It wasn’t until we sat in the airport the next day, chatting with a European family of three—the young son fluent in seven languages, the parents so chic and relaxed, they made me fantasize about having children—that I realized I wanted to sleep with the guy who expected me to sleep with him. Already I could see where he’d later go soft: around the nipples, above the belt. And yet, I thought, I could love that body forever.
Why did I think that? It wasn’t true. He was just no longer trying to sleep with me, focused instead on boarding our plane. For years, my life would be like this—I would realize too late that I knew what I wanted: whatever was about to fly away.
I still have your card in a photo album. I’ve imagined us selling rugs on the streets. By now, you’d be like a father to me. I’d be fluent in Turkish. The minarets would stand tall against sunsets. I’d want for nothing. I’d be good at it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Diana Spechler is the author of two novels, Trial by Fire and Skinny, as well as the New York Times column "Going Off." She felt out of her depth in New Delhi—but she almost died in Baggs, Colorado.
Photo by Colleen Kinder