The Third Time
The door quietly opens, and Kumru Teyze slips out of the soft penumbra of the foyer into the landing. She places her husband’s black shoe on the threshold. She hoists up the skirts of her purple silk and perhaps too flashy night robe, squats and, biting the corner of her lip, most painstakingly, proceeds to peeing into the shoe.
Suppose you picked up a new book and randomly landed on this particular page with a full-color illustration. The image is enticing in its wealth of all that is yet unknown. Fearful of spoiling a surprise, you’ll gently cover the illustration with its translucent vellum, gaze at the scene one more time through this newly formed haze, anticipating the life soon to flow, and go back to the beginning.
And I’ll tell you, in the beginning, there was her husband’s cheating. A constant in their family life, reliable like a heartbeat, the unbroken string of lovers, hookers and Friday hook-ups weaving its way in and out of the fabric of their otherwise eventless days. She was a nurse, he was an electrical engineer. She lacked the practical, impenetrable exoskeleton of assertiveness that most nurses develop over time, and he belonged to the genus of man who, without much thought, mainly through the paleo-mammalian regions of the brain, regarded women’s adultery as a crime to be redressed by retaliatory homicide, and men’s adultery as a cheaper alternative to owning a sports car. He was a happy man. She was, for years now, hypertensive and able to sleep only with ample doses of trazodone.
I had heard the original—true—story from a friend years ago. I retold it many times, in many a drunken circle, and now I mean to tell it for the last time, with feeling. This time, I want its heart to shine, and that leaves little room for realism. Teyze means auntie, but Kumru wasn’t my friend’s real aunt. (Nor Kumru was her real name). Auntie is the familiar yet polite way to speak to or about an older female acquaintance in Turkish. Uncle works the same way for men; and if the age gap is smaller, then these are replaced by elder brother and sister. You see, even philologically speaking, we are one colossal family, ruled by love and mild to acute insanity.
I picture her with a certain unbearable, enraging softness in her light-brown, lustreless eyes, in the white, rolling opulence of her thighs and shoulders, in her chestnut hair with an elaborate cut sold to her as “young.” When she smiled, only the lower edge of her neat, tiny teeth could be seen, bracketed by deep dimples on both cheeks, thus imparting on her a toothless look. Like a bowl of ice-cream left too long on a table near the sun’s glare, she could’ve been but no longer was delectable.
Her home must be one of those three-bedroom flats in an old building in Istanbul with a façade of tiny blue mosaic tiles, flanked by other old buildings painted pale rose and dirty yellow, with pots of shimmying geraniums on the windowsills, all tightly packed on an old street twisting down a steep slope until it reaches the sea. Besiktas (cradle stone) is one such neighborhood that I love with a passion, filled with the bustle and spirited melancholy of centuries, and I believe Auntie Kumru had a small balcony there, with a narrow view of the sea. She kept it immaculate, girdled by her own colony of geraniums and carnations in hanging planters, and furnished modestly with two chairs and a folding table, at which she had, with indescribable zest and sorrow, her morning coffees and cigarettes.
Apart from the sea view, the flowers and the furniture, she also had two daughters, aged ten and twelve, noted mainly for their sloth and their silky mustachios. Neither of the girls could sense the tension building through their mother’s dovelike softness; yet, whatever they missed was sure to be caught by an entire network of friends and relatives who just loved to stir in the steady wind of gossip caused by Uncle Birol’s insatiable dick. Therefore, when the family returned in August from a week-long vacation at a four-star seaside hotel, it was observed almost instantly that Auntie Kumru hadn’t been even remotely kissed by the sun, and that, instead of the customary tan, she’d acquired a tic in her eye.
In the preliminary sounding over coffee and hazelnut cookies, her neighbour Adile discovered the details of the latest scandal: it turned out Birol had previously spent a sumptuous weekend with a call-girl at the same hotel. (The weekend of the vague and unconvincing annual convention in July.) He had decided to also take his family there just to give an extra boost to his manliness, so the hideous hotel staff had assumed that Kumru must be a whore with children, unlike the one without children paraded by the fellow in the previous month. The incident was no different than all the others in scope and substance, but it was one drop too much. Kumru was developing a detectible chemical reaction to the circumstances of her life.
Drinking in the sight with narrowed eyes, Adile proclaimed what her sort of friend is bound to proclaim sooner or later: “It’s your fault, Hayatim (my life, a term of endearment). You just don’t know how to bind the man to his home.”
At this point, Kumru anticipated a discourse on womanly manoeuvres to be executed unexpectedly, while the man was heading to the bathroom or trustingly grabbing a drink from the kitchen, or else, a catalogue of lingerie items delicate like seafoam and impractical like hell; to her surprise, Adile skipped the pinches and the panties and dove straight into giblets and offal. She was explaining—in the thick, wet, whispery voice that children use while exchanging secrets—the way to cast a love spell on Birol by cooking for him a special kind of meat.
Now, to gain insights into a nation’s spirit, it’s sometimes best to study its daily rituals. I’d say our coffee drinking, which typically concludes with a divinatory reading of the sediments left in the tiny porcelain cup, says a lot about the Turkish mindset. Strong like an espresso, our coffee must be enjoyed in small doses, and we like best to serve it over conversation after breakfast, in the accompaniment of ice-cold water, a bit of something sweet like chocolate or Turkish delight in an elegant bowl, and a small crystal glass filled with mint, almond or sour cherry liqueur.
There, so many contrasts, of a sensory and philosophical nature, harmonized in this simple presentation—hot and cold, bitter and sweet; pleasures of the palate sublimated to aesthetic ones; indulgence and moderation; the turning of the little one has into an abundance to share with the company; the profound, resonant gesture of choosing to face the day ahead with a light buzz, rather than saving that moment for later, “happier” hours, as is done in other countries; the recognition of time, transience and mortality that such a choice inevitably entails; and finally, the serene resolution of all these tensions in a loud slurp and sigh. Foretelling the future? Believing in such things? How about believing and not believing at the same time? Containing the contradiction in a dynamic, quivery balance, without tipping in either direction?
This was how Kumru, like many others in her world, would’ve normally approached all things oracular, superstitious and supernatural, but given the abnormal pressure she now felt, something caved inside, and she crossed the line, irrevocably. As in a heavy, pointlessly slow dream, she watched herself jotting down the ingredients of Adile’s recipe and stepping into the butcher’s the next day to ask about the magic meat.
Naturally, the butcher knew her well. “Sure thing, Sister!” he boomed in response to the tight-jawed order that she muttered. “It’s for a spell, right?” Of the three other patrons then waiting in line, all folk from the neighborhood, two elbowed each other and the eyebrows of the third seemed to come alive, undulating like caterpillars. It turned out all butchers knew, as she did not, that that particular cut of meat was never favoured for regular consumption, and if anyone ever ordered it, it would be for the strict purpose of casting a spell. Poor Kumru flapped helplessly, spluttering a lie about a relative’s dog that they were going to keep for a few days, snatched the package and fled the store with a beet-red face.
She cooked the meat, whispering a prescribed number of prayers, looking back over her right and left shoulders seven times, turning clockwise and counter-clockwise five times, visualizing Birol’s women every time she grabbed a knife, and spitting thrice upon a cinnamon stick that was to be burned and buried under a willow at the next waning crescent. She did it all stormily, breathlessly, working up a sweat. The girls were packed off to their grandparents for the night, and for a romantic dinner, Kumru and Birol were to enjoy yogurt soup, green salad, a traditional dish called Hunkar Begendi (bearing a radioactive glow in Kumru’s mind), and her famous caramel custard for dessert.
Hunkar Begendi translates into a sentence rather than a phrase: it means, the Sultan liked it, reportedly named as such in memory of the first time the dish was concocted and cautiously served to an Ottoman sovereign, securing a favourable response. It is a tender lamb stew spread over a bed of eggplant purée, which is made by first baking whole eggplants till their skin is burnt to a coal-black crisp and then disemboweling them (this is entirely Kumru’s violent imagination now), mixing up that steaming, aromatic mush with milk, butter, flour and seasonings. The combination of these flavours is simply superb, and any sultan would’ve been a fool not to like it—an entire dynasty of them did—and of course Birol, the fucker, didn’t.
Well, we may not even blame him entirely on the matter since Kumru, in her haste to escape from the butcher’s, had overlooked the obvious: that it would be a good idea to add some actual lamb bits to the dish. Her Hunkar Begendi was made entirely with the magic love meat and tasted, as Birol observed at the first bite, like shit. In fact, he only took one or two more bites before loudly questioning what manner of woman could manage to muck up something normally so delicious, and thereafter the night came to a close faster than ever, with some TV-watching, his snores and her tears.
Between this first attempt and the next, there was a brief period of inaction filled with the—let’s face it—unavoidable lingerie shopping that did nothing other than aggravating her problems. Birol yelled at her for a week for spending far too much money out of the blue, and nothing fit properly. For that, she bitterly blamed her bulging belly marbled with stretchmarks, and the varicose veins on her heavy thighs that were even a darker shade of purple than that frightfully expensive combo of silk slip and robe. It wasn’t yet time to realize how unbearably ugly all unloved flesh appears and that hers was betrayed by herself before anyone else. Before long, however, she was contacted by another helpful relative, the snow-white, bright-eyed, truly kind Aunt Ulviye, and her mind was once again directed at the search for a miracle.
Aunt Ulviye stated in excitement, nearly spilling some of her tea, that she was able to put Kumru in touch with a special priest; that is, the kind of Greek Orthodox priest who is infinitely valued by the Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities of the city alike for his ability to cast spells—healings and exorcisms, uniting and separating people, house purgation, the standard deeds. In the end, Kumru didn’t have a chance to speak with the priest directly; the line of communication was established through someone Ulviye knew, who knew someone who knew the priest well. Apparently, in the last few years, the priest had been growing tired of his reputation for working magic, so he only yielded to coaxing pleas from his immediate circle. For Kumru’s case, his advice was so curt it sounded like a dismissal: “Urine from a prepubescent boy,” he huffed. “She should smear the frame of her apartment’s door with it.” “And what if,” came the follow-up question, floating from mouth to cookie-filled mouth, from morning coffee to afternoon tea, “What if the lady has no easy access to any prepubescent boy?” “Then she herself should pee into the right pair of the shoe that the husband wears most days, after placing it over the threshold,” he barked. “Three drops only, at exactly sunrise. These things backfire all the time.”
And so it was, after being tossed around such oceanic waves, that Kumru was finally deposited at the shore of that quiet morning when we’d first met her in a furtive squat over Birol’s shoe. She already had two large glasses of water, her eyes were glued on her wristwatch to signal the exact moment of sunrise, and she was terrified, quite rightfully, that her neighbours living in the opposite flat could sleepily open their door at any moment to pick up the newspaper and the fresh loaf of bread that the janitor had already left, and catch Kumru in her very, so very compromised state. In fact, such was her relief at sunrise that she suddenly lost all control of her bladder and before she could do anything, the shoe was filled to the brim with pee.
The rest of the morning evolved in a predictable direction until a certain decisive moment. Though she instantly poured out the pee and frantically rubbed the shoe with the strongest cleaning agents at hand, the old leather was quicker to absorb a pungent, revolting smell. Birol, who was likewise quick to pick up on all faults and defects, especially those attributable to Kumru, noticed it the second he grabbed his black shoes to go to work. A brief stream of curses was followed by a closer sniff that made him fling the shoes at her defenseless feet. Reaching for a burgundy pair that he typically saved for his extramarital leisure, he delivered the deadly blow: “Seriously,” he hissed, “what manner of woman manages to be shit at everything?”
The moment I spoke of came as Birol banged the door after himself, and a warm, dusty beam of sunlight, crossing the length of the shady living room all the way to the foyer, lightly caressed the shoulder of the woman standing there with a twitchy eye.
The warmth made her look up, and she caught a glimpse of herself in the tall heirloom mirror flanking the door. Like an upset stomach, all the acid of her self-loathing surged to her throat as her eyes ruthlessly scanned the manner of woman she was. Those widened, liquid eyes, that sheen of lacy purple silk so incompatible with the pasty mounds it enshrouded… Who? Who indeed could be allured by, bound by a creature like this? There was a loud ringing in her ears because her spirit was shattering, and in the next minute, as the dust settled over the shards, the question continued to echo in the void: who could be content with her? Could a man be ever devoted to something so worn and insipid, especially a man like Birol who…
A man like Birol, who…
Who was bow-legged and pot-bellied, with abundant hair bursting out of his ears and nostrils, blanketing his back and every knuckle of his stubby fingers, when the same hair could not be found to cover his whole head, leaving an annually widening, shiny bald pate; a man who had an ugly smile and produced piggish snorts as he plopped morsels of bread dipped into the salad’s vinaigrette, who furthermore never offered the crunchy corners of bread loaves to Kumru or the girls even though they liked the corners as much as he did; a man who was a bad drunk and a worse conversationalist, who tended to become so garrulous over drinks as to drive the cheeriest gathering to a coma, with many a yawn politely crunched behind the teeth and many a telepathic dialogue between couples trying to find an excuse to leave the table; a man who genuinely had no interest other than watching soccer, who wasn’t particularly fond of either his parents or his siblings, and who was, needless to add, a lover as refined as any street cat in heat; a man, in brief, devoid of any quality—physical, intellectual or spiritual—that could justify the fuss she’d been making over him for all these years.
The girls were still asleep. Like an automaton, blinking slowly in the magnitude of the revelation that had descended upon her, she turned her steps to the kitchen to make herself a coffee, and then she went out to the balcony with the tray.
The late autumn sky was a deep sapphire, and an unusually warm breeze was blowing through the milky mist spread over the Bosporus. A lone seagull screamed, soaring over the nearby roofs, and a squad of maniacal sparrows zipped by. In the morning’s luminous glory, even her cigarette had an exquisite taste despite her empty, clenched stomach. Yes, life was good, and Birol was just another ox, a bear, an offspring of swine, a piece of timber, a cucumber (these all being authentic Turkish insults). Yes. He was there for the time being, a completely dispensable, disposable thing, and it was up to her to determine when he should cease to exist. She emitted a little crystalline chortle. Should she decide to work magic on him ever again, she would keep it very simple, relying on her professional knowledge rather than any advice from friends. A bit of trazodone in her famous caramel custard to induce sleep, and then an injection of insulin into a freckle on his hairy shoulder to deepen the sleep all the way to hell. Untraceable by autopsy. Clean like bleached linen. She sighed and, slurping her coffee, said yes for the third time.
Duru Gungor is a professor of English in London, Ontario. Her recent short stories appeared in Spadina Literary Review, Fudoki Magazine (the U.K.), and Leviathan (the U.S.); her haiku in The Wild Word (Berlin); and her artwork in BlankSpace. Along with short fiction and haiku experiments, she also dabbles in ink painting and photography, and she uses her website, https://durugungor15.wixsite.com/durugungor, as a platform to reflect upon their points of convergence.