Defending the City
A warm June day, on the Bosphorus. Alex McElvoy rests beefy forearms on the formica table before him. The sun on the upper deck had become too hot for him before the boat even left its berth. A group of Germans, wearing sunglasses and slathered with white sunscreen, line the upper deck, but down below it is quiet and shaded. The boat motors slowly out into the harbor, the water choppy and dark blue. The tour guide points out the Blue Mosque, which Alex had visited the day before, by himself. “The Sultan Ahmet Mosque, or the Blue Mosque, was built in the early 1600’s. It is the only mosque that was built with six minarets.” Alex cranes his neck to see the rounded shapes of the building, surrounded by the pointed phallic minarets. Istanbul is beautiful from the water, the mosque domes reflecting the shape of the hills, the minarets spearing up into the deep blue of the sky.
The only other people on the lower level are the guide, resting one foot up on a chair while he speaks into a microphone, and a young couple sitting across from him. Through the window he sees bare female legs below a flowered skirt descending the stairs from the upper deck. A pleasant-looking woman with shoulder-length brown hair looks around the room, smiles at him slightly, and takes the booth next to his. She leans her elbows on the table in front of her, staring out the window.
Alex is aware of a spark of interest rising in him, a sense of possibility. His faint reflection in the glass shows a man in his late 60s, with white hair combed back from a full face. Still, traveling alone is hard, and people need to talk. He’d guess she is American, like him. He is debating strolling by her booth, stopping to comment about something on shore—what? The extravagance of the hotel they are passing, a former castle?—when more footsteps descend the stairs. A man roughly the woman’s age, his early 50’s, Alex would guess, enters the room with his hands in his pockets, and slides in next to the woman. They both sit on the same side of the booth, with their backs to Alex. The woman leans her head against the man’s shoulder.
“On your left,” the man says into the microphone, “is Europe. On the shore to your right—Asia.” The droning of the boat, the warm air blowing against his face, are soporific. In Maine when he’d left the air still had the freshness of spring, but suddenly he is in the midst of full, warm summer. It seems as if the summer has always been here, is a summer without end, one he has just stepped into, as one steps into a river. He is tired from travel, still jet-lagged, though he’d slept late the past two mornings, or tried to, tossing by himself in the hotel bed with a pillow over his head to block out the light. Round crocheted balls dangle from a scalloped curtain at the top of the boat windows, moving in the breeze, and Alex thinks of women—exotic women, Turkish women. Women in elaborate robes, women in a harem, women sitting under curved, scalloped architecture, loosening their clothing in the hot, hot summer day. Women looking at him in a shadowed room.
The woman Alex is seeing behind his closed eyes is his ex-wife Natalie. She sits by a window like one he saw in the harem yesterday at Topkapi Palace, silhouetted against window panes that are patterned metal bars, a beautiful scrolled cage. Was it to keep men out, he wonders, or to keep the women in. He sees Natalie so clearly; there are the three freckles dotting her chest just below her collarbone, there is her smile, the dimple deeper on the right side than the left. On the Asian side, he thinks drowsily.
When he opens his eyes he is momentarily confused, then embarrassed. He had fallen asleep with his head leaning against the window frame. Only a few moments have passed, and no one is paying attention to him, or the way his mouth was hanging open. The woman sitting ahead of him, who reminds him somewhat of Natalie, still leans her head on the man’s shoulder, a strand of her hair blowing in the wind. They have passed under a bridge that looks like the Golden Gate, in San Francisco. San Francisco was where he and Natalie met, so long ago. Fog, and then sunshine, the two of them leaning together over a café table, half-drunk in the sunshine in the middle of the day.
Seagulls circle between the boat and the shore. They dip and swoop, their calls the same in any language. The boat slides by elegant houses at the water’s edge, every now and then a decrepit one in their midst, broken like a ruined tooth. The guide points out one pretty house with a small guest house next to it; “The 7th most expensive house in the world,” he says. The woman in the booth next to his lifts her head, looks at the house, then pulls a book from her bag and opens it.
This is the first trip he’s taken since the divorce, which was finalized several years ago. He’d imagined traveling with another woman, but of the women he knew, there was no one who was a remote possibility, no one he could imagine traveling with. So after reading some novels by Orhun Pamuk, he decided to go to Turkey by himself. It wasn’t hard to take the time off, as he has been easing himself out of his law practice for the past year. By himself in Istanbul he can get up when he wants, go where he wants, have dinner when and where he wants, drink as much as he wants with no one to watch him, no one whose disapproval he can either feel or imagine.
There is something about the blueness of the day, the cawing of the seagulls in the empty sky, which reminds him of being young in San Francisco. It isn’t just the bridge arching over the water; it’s the feeling of emptiness, the hours of the day stretching before him. His time was open then, after graduating from college and before he went to law school, and now he remembers how the blankness of the day had sometimes opened up a yawning hole inside him. No one was waiting then, and no one is waiting now for him to do something, to say something. He could disappear into the blueness of the sky or, more realistically, into the thick blue of the choppy water, and no one would even notice. The world would carry on in its contented, oblivious way, the hole of his disappearance smoothing over immediately, as if he’d never existed.
The man ahead of him stands up and walks out; Alex can see him through the large windows at the front of the boat. He stands on the prow, wind flattening his shirt. The woman lifts her head and looks around, glances back at him. She smiles. Alex tries to read her smile; friendly, distracted, a glancing smile before she turns back to her book. But is it the smile of a woman to a man, or the smile of a woman to an older man, a father figure? Or the smile of one tourist to another, acknowledging that they are both strangers to this place?
They are passing a hill, a large green uninhabited mound. At its top flies an enormous Turkish flag, the crescent and star on the stark red background. It is his first trip to Turkey, but he and Natalie had taken many trips together. He remembers their first trip, soon after their wedding, to Italy. Rome, Naples, Pompeii. They ended up in a fishing village, a small apartment with white long curtains that billowed inward from a sea breeze. A bed. It stayed rumpled all the time they were there. It seems now that the true purpose of travel then was to have sex in as many places as possible.
Surrounded by the droning of the boat’s engine and the faint smell of diesel fuel, Alex closes his eyes and leans his head against the padded back of the booth. Something troubling is nagging at him, just below his consciousness. An afternoon, hot like this one, with a breeze. A feeling of indolence on that bed in that room with billowing white curtains, with nothing to get up for. That woman beside him. A sweetness coursing through his body, his muscles tingling. He and Natalie were open to one another then, with none of the anger that came later. There were no walls between them then, just two bodies, lying naked on the bed next to one another, talking. He can almost hear their voices quiet in the room, flowing and blending into one another.
His eyes jerk open. The memory of him lying there defenseless alarms him. This was before the anger and bitterness that came later, the things that could have destroyed him, if he’d let them. He is a Legal Defender; defense has been his job, and he’s been good at it. He defended himself against his own anger as well as hers. He maintained; he survived.
Travel thoughts, silly travel thoughts. Alex pulls a water bottle from his shoulder bag and takes a drink. The woman has joined the man out on the prow of the boat, and he considers joining them, but doesn’t. Conversation would have to be made.
Other divorced men he knows are angry with their exes over money issues, or children, or both. Alex and Natalie had no children and Natalie had been easy-going about the money; it was clear that she was the one leaving him, and she didn’t battle him over the money. It was something else she’d wanted from him, something he couldn’t or wouldn’t give her. Why was he thinking of this now? It was water under the bridge, water under . . . . His eyes are closed again. They are heading back into Istanbul now, passing a fort on a hill overlooking the city. The guide, still speaking into the microphone, says the fortress was built by the Ottomans before they conquered the city, then called Constantinople. It was built to defend the city. The man says something about Greek Fire, fire which burns even on water.
Alex’s thoughts bump sluggishly around his head. He imagines the Turks, dressed in those funny outfits they used to wear, defending their city using magic flames . . . but wait, the guide said they were conquering the city. Yet they built the fortress to defend the city. How can they defend what they were conquering? Wouldn’t it be one or the other? He is confused, but too tired to open his eyes and figure things out. It’s all in the past, anyway; defend or conquer, he can’t help them now. He’s done all he could do. The fires are out now, the battles fought—some won and some lost, and he can no longer tell the difference.