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ISSUE:  Summer 2017

Illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti

The ferry, tied still to the dock, pointed north, toward where the Bosporus opened into the Black Sea. The boat wasn’t headed there, but was bound for Istanbul, and it left in fifteen minutes, at three. 

“ ‘Nicely done, nicely done,’ ” Chris said, inspired by the sight of the Australians sitting a hundred feet away, not on the ferry yet but at one of the waterfront cafés.

Jo studied the guidebook. Or pretended to. Earlier, up at the castle ruins, she’d laughed at “Nicely done.” But that was before Chris had said he was glad the airport had been attacked. Since then, what words Jo had spoken to him had been licked with cold, and she hadn’t once looked at him. At least, not directly.

Feet pounded on the ferry’s metal roof. Then a splash. Another boy had dived. The boys were in constant motion, running onto the ferry and up through its lower deck to the open-air level, where Chris and Jo sat, then climbing onto the roof, leaping off its edge, and swimming to the dock to do it all again. When first they’d charged the ferry, Chris had been (only briefly!) scared. Then he’d wondered if the boys would beg for tips. But they dived for pleasure, he saw—the ferry, whenever it was in, being the best place for diving in the village. He was relieved that he hadn’t shared these initial fears and suspicions with Jo. She would have added them to what he’d said about the airport, and then he might never have a chance at getting her to admit that they both were still, as they’d always been, equal. 

It was Jo who’d brought up the airport. That in itself made the whole thing unfair. On their way back down from the castle, they’d stopped at a small, overgrown playground to eat the lunch they’d gathered beforehand in the village: sodas and chips from one shop, oranges from another, and the giant disc of anchovy corn bread recommended in the guidebook, which Chris had been so proud to find, the two of them the only ones from the ferry who’d bothered. In the playground, a pair of swings hung from the set’s metal frame, and Chris and Jo had sat in them and eaten quietly as they faced the path that curled down to the road, which itself led back to the village.

“It was good to get out,” Jo said when they were almost done.

“I’m glad to hear that,” Chris said. “I mean, we can’t let our vacation be ruined.”

Jo had stayed in yesterday. During their usual, pre-breakfast internet time, they’d both seen the news: suicide bombers had rushed the international terminal at Atatürk Airport late the night before. They’d argued over what they should do. Jo, frightened, couldn’t be convinced to leave the hotel, and so, after he had posted on Facebook that they were fine, and for good measure messaged his mother (she and his stepfather were keeping Chris and Jo’s son, Toby), Chris had gone on his own to the Chora Church and the city walls, their original plan for that day.

“And you know what? Honestly?” Chris said as he bobbed back and forth, arms hooked around the chains of the swing. “I’m glad they attacked the airport. Think about it. We were here, the worst actually fucking happened, and we were totally fine. It’s like”—here he pitched his voice to what he would admit, if challenged, was a secondhand imitation of an imagined urban youth—“bring it on, ISIS motherfuckers.” 

Jo didn’t answer at first. She had the chips—sour cream and onion, no different from back home—and was finishing them off. Chris thought that alone the reason for her delay. But after she crumpled the bag she said, “That’s horrible.”

“You know what I mean,” Chris said.

But Jo, who the day before had spent much of her time—as Chris well knew—looking at pictures of shattered glass and bodies zipped into vinyl bags, glanced away from him. They should get moving, she said as she reached for her empty soda bottle. She didn’t want to miss the ferry. 

An expanse of empty seats surrounded the Australians. Chris watched as a waiter cleared their plates. It would have helped if at some point he’d caught Moustache, the lead Australian, talking about the airport. The ferry, a public ferry, had been scattered with a motley bunch of day-trippers and all the way up the Bosporus Moustache had brayed—a know-it-all—to his three fellow Australians while Chris repeated choice lines to Jo. If Moustache had even once mentioned the airport, surely he would have said something ignorant or crass. But he hadn’t.

In fact, so far no one in Istanbul or on the ferry had talked about the attack, at least not to them. The hotel’s housekeeper, who doubled as the breakfast buffet’s monitor, bid them good morning as usual when they showed up for trays of
Turkish breads, rope cheese, and dried fruits, then returned to her phone, whose constant jingling suggested a game that involved the accumulation of coins or jewels. But they were tourists. Even before the bombing, no one had really talked to them, save the shopkeepers they passed whenever they walked up the slope of Sultanahmet, or, in the mosque of Süleyman the Magnificent, the thin-bearded, chubby young man who’d offered to answer questions about Islam.

The entire trip, the one person to speak to them at length was the Frenchman Chris had sat next to on the second of their three flights, from Atlanta to Paris. The Frenchman speculated about Brexit, asked if Trump really had a chance (“Technically, yes,” Chris told him; Jo had already put on her headphones), then advised Chris to order coffee with his brandy and to ask for it in French (the flight attendant, mishearing, gave him tea). He stayed with them at Charles de Gaulle, pointed to the glowing board of departures and said, “See, here you can find your flight,” at which point Chris, broken, replied, “Golly gee!” The Frenchman smiled uncertainly—a joke?—and then wished them a good journey and wheeled his luggage away. 

That same transfer, in a hurry, the terminals a maze, Chris and Jo had muscled their way onto a tiny elevator ahead of a flock of children and the lone airport worker tending to them. In the elevator, Jo had laughed with him. In the elevator, they were assholes together. 

“ ‘One layer right atop the other,’ ” Chris said, stretching his mouth around the ungainly vowels.

Nothing. Not even the hint of a grin. 

Up at the castle, before they’d lunched at the swing set and he’d said what he’d said, Chris had stayed near Moustache, eavesdropping. That was how he’d heard the man’s perfect stupidities, which he in turn gleefully whispered to Jo. “Nicely done, nicely done. One layer right atop the other,” Moustache had pronounced at the castle walls, and when Chris repeated this to Jo, he added, “I mean, let me go back to the tenth century or whatever and convey your compliments to the Byzantines.” 

Jo giggled, said, “Like, how else do you even build a wall?” 

They were staring at the Black Sea, waiting for the man who guarded the castle to open its iron door and let them back out. Next Chris recited Moustache’s empathizing with the Byzantine slaves: “ ‘Imagine, bringing each stone up, one at a time.’ ” Jo had laughed at that, too: What an idiot. They’d have donkey carts! Pulleys!

Now, Chris watched the Australians watch the divers and mourned the loss of that earlier harmony. All he wanted was to get it back, for he abhorred any conflict with Jo, counted those rare nights when they’d gone to bed divided among the worst in his life.

“Horrible,” Chris said. “You want horrible people?” He pointed to the Australians. “Those are horrible people. Sitting there like the world is just made for them. I mean, that’s pure Western entitlement.” A boy dived and splashed. One of the Australians, a woman in purple marathon gear, clapped. “If they miss the ferry,” Chris said, “I’m going to laugh.”

The ferry was the only one of the day, and Chris and Jo, both anxious travelers, had boarded it half an hour early and, before that, had lined up at the dock’s gate when they’d seen three other tourists clustered there, and, before that, had sat at a café—next to the one where the Australians now lingered—in order to keep both dock and ferry in view. Over their Turkish coffees and mineral water, they had waited without talking, except for a quick discussion of plans for Skyping that evening with their son.

Leaning against the ferry’s railing, eyes narrowed at the Australians, Chris made a show of crossing his fingers.

“Miss, miss, miss,” he said.

Jo looked out at them, too, and then, for the first time since they’d left the overgrown playground, she looked directly at Chris.

“I hope they make it,” she said. “Seriously, I think I like Moustache. I think I like him better than you.”

What the fuck? What he’d said required context. And that was the thing. Jo was there! She knew the context. By the time of the January bombing, at the German Fountain, they’d already planned the trip, and by the time of the March bombing, in ˙Istiklal Caddesi, they’d already booked their flights and their hotel. After both attacks, they’d marshaled arguments—Istanbul was a huge city, fear was overblown, nowhere was safe—but even so they’d been nervous, both before the trip and now whenever they’d gone out. Was it so horrible, then, to acknowledge relief that an attack had indeed happened, and that they’d survived, that they’d completely missed it? They were here for the worst, the lightning strike of lightning-strike odds, and the bolt had shot clean past them. Was it so horrible to be glad about that?

Besides, he wasn’t horrible. Case in point: The moment, just a little earlier, when an old Turkish man (with a cane) and an old Turkish woman boarded the ferry, sat near them, and Chris and the old man negotiated with easy gestures and smiles the placement of the old woman’s plastic bag. Human to human. Case in point: The day before yesterday, when Chris and Jo were walking alongside the docks at Eminönü and encountered a group of Turkish teenagers posing with sparklers and a pair of foil balloons shaped into a one and an eight. A wind from the Golden Horn snatched the eight from the teenagers’ grip, bumped it along the cement toward streaming traffic, and, despite an entire life’s lack of athleticism, Chris had sprinted for it, saved it, and presented the balloon to the girl who’d come after it, too, but would never have made it in time. Exchange of smiles. Human to human. Were those the actions of a horrible person?

This was supposed to be the deal: They could say anything to each other. And Jo was breaking the deal. Sure, since the swing set, she hadn’t actually brought up his putative horribleness. But Chris felt the cold in her voice, the way her eyes avoided him. He felt himself being judged. 

One of the ferry workers, a man in a white uniform who had the kind of long, dark beard that Chris, despite himself, associated only with people targeted by drones and the massive, winged bulls that smiled dazedly in museums, stood on the dock and alternated between crabbing and cheering at the diving boys in turns. “What do you think,” Chris said, “terrorist or not a terrorist?”

The trick, Chris thought, was to embrace jerkhood. It would be a homeopathic feint, a reminder of the deal. But he was also playing a deeper game. His question was a call back to a West Texas camping trip he and Jo had taken a decade ago with Chris’s mother and stepfather. At an outdoor lecture on Big Bend flora, Chris’s mother had become an enthused participant in the game Cactus/Not a Cactus, lifting up from her seat to shout, “Not a cactus!” Ever since then, at a random moment maybe once a year, one of them would pretend-shout, “Not a cactus!”

Jo, however, ignored him. Or perhaps she had missed this particular cue.

“He works for the ferry, so I’m hoping he wouldn’t blow up the ferry,” Chris went on. “And, honestly, he doesn’t have, like, a terrorist demeanor. Look at him. This is a guy who clocks in and clocks out and is thinking the whole day about what’s for dinner. Survey says: not a terrorist.”

The Family Feud reference was a clear sign of desperation. Lame, inaccurate (Family Feud employed lists, not specific, either-or questions), and faulty, too. Chris was the one who’d spent most of his childhood indoors, watching TV, not Jo. He didn’t even know if she’d ever seen an episode of Family Feud.

“Come on, you have to admit, that’s a hard beard to read.”

“Please shut up.”

“Okay, let’s revisit this issue of my horribleness.”

“Sure, let’s,” Jo said, though she did not turn to him but continued to monitor the Australians.

At last! Chris shifted closer, whipped out a hand so that he could enumerate his points, finger by finger, but then realized that Jo wasn’t listening to him at all, was instead watching Moustache as he rose from his chair, arm raised high, to summon the waiter. 

The Australians—these were horrible people, serenely self-assured and self-satisfied, assholes without the least qualm about being assholes. They needed to be humbled. Another boy dived. Chris checked his phone. Seven minutes until three. Please, he begged, let them miss the ferry.

So, okay, if Chris was going to be honest, his airport-related gladness was about more than relief. Years ago, in Croatia, he and Jo had stayed in a beach town south of Dubrovnik. North of their own cove, a giant, abandoned resort commanded an otherwise empty stretch of the Adriatic shore. The resort’s windows were gone, its cement cracked, its steps and patios overtaken by weeds. The place must have been bombed out, or shelled by tanks, and Chris had found it titillating to come upon this still-raw piece of the wars that had filled the news when he was in his last years of middle school, his first years of high school. More titillating, even, than the circle of topless girls he’d seen knitting at the beach one morning when he’d gone there to read while Jo, back at the hotel, rested her swollen leg.

To be in Istanbul for the bombing—this was so much better than stumbling on a destroyed resort. All the great events of his age, the wars, the terrorist attacks, had been elsewhere, always elsewhere. But he and Jo had flown in through the international terminal three days before the bombing, were flying out just four days after. That could never be taken from him.

“Oh fuck,” Jo said.

The waiter, upon returning to the Australians, had not brought the check but instead was distributing bowls of ice cream.

Radiating with delight, Chris checked his phone. Five minutes. The key here was not to gloat.

“How many hot dogs do you think Toby has eaten?” Chris asked. “Two dozen? Three? You think they’re letting him play with firecrackers? I bet he’s lost a finger. We’re going to go home, and his little hands will be all nubbed.”

Deploying the child was good strategy, Chris thought, an easy meeting ground. But Jo said nothing, refused to join him there. And the truth was, Chris suspected he’d worried more about Toby these last days than Jo did. All during their flights and their trip, he was visited with visions of Toby floating in a pool, Toby electrocuted by a socket, Toby concussed after rough play on cement.

“Just say you don’t think I’m a horrible person. Or, you know, that horrible.”

“I don’t think you’re a horrible person. Or, you know, that horrible.”

“Say it for real.”

She didn’t answer. Her attention fixed on the Australians, Jo was shaking her head at them. Chris, hopeful, read this as surrender. Yes: surrender and disgust.

Out beyond the ferry’s other side, in the middle of the Bosporus, shallow rocks rose above the water. These, the guidebook said, were the Clashing Rocks from Jason and the Argonauts. Chris had watched the 1960s movie version over and over as a child—basically, whenever he caught it on TV. He remembered the rocks as giant cubes—though whether this was from the movie or a kids’ book version of the story, he couldn’t be sure. To get through the rocks, the Argonauts released a bird. The rocks smashed together, pulled back again, and the Argonauts sailed through. Nobody seemed much bothered about that bird—didn’t the rocks crush it? Chris thought so. Still, it was just a bird.

Yesterday, after Chris had visited the Chora Church, had climbed the city walls and spotted the tower where a blinded Byzantine emperor had been imprisoned by his own brother, he’d returned to the hotel and found Jo still in bed with her laptop. She had eaten nothing except the packet of halvah she’d filched from the breakfast buffet the morning before, and so he’d walked her to nearby Akbıyık Caddesi, lined with its kitschy restaurants, and there, while they waited for their food, she had described the pictures of shattered glass and bagged bodies. And other pictures, too, of people with blood smeared across their foreheads, pictures where the victims weren’t pixilated. “It’s because we came here,” she’d said. “It’s because of us.”

Chris had needed all his rhetorical resources to calm her down, to get her to eat her food and drink her apple tea. By the time they’d walked back to the hotel, she had decided to go through with their original plan for the next day—the Bosporus ferry trip and the hike to Yoros Castle—and he’d thought they were past it, situation defused.

“Come on, come on,” Jo said.

Moustache was calling for the waiter again. Chris checked his phone: two minutes to go. The boys who’d climbed back onto the dock stayed there, hitched onto its side, feet dangling. The bearded ferry worker was doing something with ropes. The waiter appeared, and Moustache gave him some money. Then the Australians stood. Chris looked at his phone: one minute left. Miss, miss, miss. But the Australians reached the dock’s gate, then strode across the dock, then—still unhurried!—stepped onto the ferry. Jo clapped, and, seconds later, the engines churned, right on time. Chris felt a crumbling within him. Jesus, was he about to cry? He held it together.

“Look, if I’m a horrible person, you’re a horrible person,” he said. It was his last gamble. In victory, she could grant him this.

Jo sat forward again, and, for just the second time since the swing set, faced him directly. Wind came off the Black Sea, fierce and cold. The ferry was already crossing toward Europe, for the first stop along the route back to Istanbul. 

When Jo spoke, the chill was gone from her voice, replaced by an emptiness Chris instantly recognized as far more troubling, an emptiness that would remain through the rest of the trip and show itself again when, after they returned home, anybody asked about their week in Istanbul—for they would not talk about it. That emptiness, a sliver between them, could never be gotten rid of. He should have just sat through the afternoon, should have just shut the fuck up. But he didn’t. 

Looking at him, she said, simply, “I know.”


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