The Exit

I almost slammed into a guiderail while riding a motorcycle in Turkey. It was galvanized steel with a W-beam, and a rub rail, and large rivets darkened by rain. There was a white grocery bag flashing across the road and the pitter patter of raindrops on my helmet.

Breathe … I told myself, don’t hit the brakes … breathe.

I had read an article in the paper recently about a motorcycle rider chopped in half by a guiderail. But, I knew a man who, after hitting a guiderail, had skidded down the asphalt on his back and survived. A panicked thought crossed brain: what about my children?

I had just sped under the green highway sign, saying Duzce. This was a small crossroads town, a gateway to the Black Sea, about 200 kilometers east of Istanbul and about the same distance west of Ankara. A mid-point. When I leaned the bike into the exit a little too fast, I had been distracted by using a gloved hand like a windshield wiper.

Duzce always reminded me of death and despair. It was leveled in an earthquake, in 1999. I had volunteered to help. By the third day, the stench of death had penetrated through my mask. Even the Vicks Vapor Rub under my nose couldn’t get rid of it. Another panicked thought flashed through my head: would my insurance pay to airlift me to Ankara?

Ankara was where I worked. The pay was good; the perks better. My kids got to go to private school. Besides I was familiar with the city, since I had spent part of my childhood there. We had lived on a steep, tree-lined hill where I used to race a bicycle in the summer and a sled in the winter. It was a magical life. Friendly stray cats and dogs everywhere and mysterious empty lots covered with barley grass that turned golden in August. But most of the time, we took cold baths because of the energy crisis, and there were people standing in long lines for basic goods like bread, cooking oil, and butane gas. This was because of the American Embargo. I did not understand the word back then, but I saw pictures of slain civilians in Cyprus in the papers and gathered, from the talks of adults, the embargo had something to do with the Greeks and the Turks killing each other and America not wanting the Turkish army involved. My father said, America was Turkey’s friend. Sometimes friends had disagreements, he said, and the embargo was politics.

I had friends too. Sometimes we fought, but we never stayed mad long. My best friends owned a German-made state-of-the-art sled with steering. It was red and brown and we would pile on it, four kids at a time, in winters. That sled never failed us; it was trustworthy. Politics, I decided, was not.

My motorcycle was also German-made. A BMW 1200 GS, a dual-sport machine with a two-cylinder boxer engine and a weight of about 450 pounds. Earlier in my motorcycle career, I had once tipped it over, trapping my leg. It had taken two men to lift it off me. I knew, the weight and the speed it was going at could rip off my leg. Another thought flashed through my head: how could I possibly fling myself free?

In my childhood, there had not been many motorcycles on the road. There had not been many guiderails either. Just red and white mile-posts. It used to take eight hours to drive between Ankara and Istanbul, not including pit stops for throwing up. You couldn’t help get car sick from dark-diesel clouds trucks spewed out. But in the city, to get around, we mostly used buses and shared-taxis. We used to sit hip-to hip with strangers and pass the fare from hand to hand.

Twenty years later, the time to travel between Ankara and Istanbul was reduced to five hours on a sleek highway, and the large colorful American cars for shared taxis had been replaced by locally produced blue minibuses. The empty lots had been developed into sprawling shopping malls. Supermarket shelves were stocked with rows of different brands of cooking oil. Gas was not cheap but plentiful. All this was because the governments after the 1980 military coup cooperated with America and Europe. Getting into the European Union was a prime goal for Turkey. I can’t say I was upset at this new shiny Turkey. At least, everything was plentiful and accessible, and the promise of Turkey in the European Union seemed to unfold opportunity as never before. The stray cats and dogs and patches of barley grass were perhaps the only things that weaved past and present together.

But if I had known when I had accepted the job in Turkey that all this surface progress had only fueled inequality and the growing social discontent, so that in 2002, voters would bring in the Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) and that Turkey would never be the same again, it would have at least softened the terrible blow of loss, the sense of disillusionment. As it turned out, I was slowly worn down by the tensions between the ruling Islamists and the secularist. Each day, there was another unpalatable affront to democratic values. Military officers were humiliated. Academic friends looked to flee. Journalists worked with their ear to the doorbell. At work, too, I felt claustrophobic, questioning meaning and purpose. I could no longer believe that my presence in a flawed system was better than my absence. On another track, my personal life seemed to be spinning out of orbit. For years, I had been struggling with relationship commitment issues, a condition that had finally been diagnosed as a type of attachment disorder. It was not possible for me to establish a deep, meaningful connection with a partner, because apparently the synapses my brain was supposed to have formed in infancy were stunted by life in an institutional setting without parenting at a crucial time. To top it off, I was scheduled for a hysterectomy. The looming procedure had become a symbol of incapacitation, paralysis, entrapment—circumstance beyond my control.

Even before I reached the Duzce exit, there had been warnings that I should not continue on my impromptu ride down the highway toward destination unknown. The first warning had come when I had just passed the tollbooths and saw dark clouds ahead. But I only stopped to zip up the vents of my riding jacket. Tightening my grip on the handlebars, I rode into the rainstorm, feeling raindrops through the tiny gap between my helmet and the collar of my jacket. From time to time, I eased off the throttle to coast through puddles as the bike wobbled from the tailwind of eighteen-wheelers splashing my legs. One truck driver flicked a cigarette out the window. Sparks flickered briefly before the butt was swept up in the water.

I trusted myself on the bike. Technically, I had been on bikes since I was five. That summer, we had lived in Germany, near Cologne, in a rented three-story furnished house surrounded by brambles and roses. The strangest room was on the top floor. A loft with red velvet curtains and a king-size bed placed diagonal to a full wet bar. Even as a child, I understood the things this room must be for—drinking, parties, and stuff grown-ups did to each other behind closed doors that would make them screech and all flush in the face afterwards. But still, I liked to rummage through the cupboards and twirl around on the bar stools. I searched but found no clues on our landlady’s ancient, wrinkly face about that room. She lived next door to us and had a grandson, Manny. Long dark hair and kind eyes.

Manny had a motorcycle—a black BMW, just like the one I would end up riding toward the Duzce exit. He used to take me for a spin almost daily. The wind in my hair, the speed across my cheeks—I was hooked.

“Don’t tell your mother,” he said one day.

“I won’t,” I said, but I did anyway.

“Did he touch you?” my mother said.

I kind of knew what she meant, but since she seemed to have momentarily forgotten about the bike, I quickly shook my head and ran off. And since she didn’t say anything about the bike, I continued riding with Manny.

—–

Another warning before the Duzce exit was a suddenly narrowing lane. Orange highway barrels cutting off my space. I barely whizzed by. The windshield parted rainwater. My grip on the handlebars was cold and numb. In the distance, the highway curved under a gray-blue hill.

Soon after, a green exit sign saying, Duzce, flashed above, and when I saw it, I impulsively decided to drive further into the mountains, to the canopy of green to be reached beyond Duzce. I leaned into the exit a little too fast. The tires searched for a grip. I shifted down just in time, before I hit the meat of the bend.

Breathe … don’t use the brakes … breathe, I repeated like a mantra.

No one else was on the road. Garbage littered the foot of the guiderail. The truth was, I had had a big child-crush on Manny and when he wrapped an arm around my waist and held me tight against his stomach so I wouldn’t fall off the bike, I wasn’t sure if it was the riding that excited me or Manny. And when he died that summer in a motorcycle accident, I crawled into that ginormous bed in that weird room with the red velvet curtains and the bar, and tried to understand life.

My knee almost scraped the asphalt when I thrust the bike into the center of the bend practically on its side. But I didn’t dare look, except toward where I was going between the two galvanized-metal guiderails. For a few seconds decision-making was suspended. But then, the bend came to an end and the BMW righted itself, leaving my heart pounding in my head. As I coasted onward, toward Duzce, vestiges of panic still clung to my shaky thighs. I had squeezed my thighs so tight around the bike that my hips ached. But I didn’t even want to shift my weight for fear of wobbling. I had to stop somewhere.

I drove past a few stray dogs huddled in front of a butcher. The rain carried the smell of wet cow hide mingled with chimney smoke. I sliced through a puddle in which the green light of the mosque was reflected. It reminded me, it was the month of Ramadan. And since it was just about sunset, the streets were empty. The townsfolk were probably gathered with friends and family to break the fast. Exactly then, the muezzin announced the sunset, and with a trace of panic still in me, I felt an acute sense of loneliness, like I was a separate and disconnected reality. I didn’t know why I should feel that way, except that I had just narrowly escaped something horrible, alone.

Grimy storefronts crammed into each other, sharing walls and a narrow strip of broken pavement. One store was brightly lit, and I parked the bike in front of it. The sign above the concrete façade said, The Tripe Store. After I climbed off the bike, I placed my hand above the gas tank to silently thank him for saving us back there. I thought of the bike as a he. Raindrops glistened on his black silhouette in the light of a streetlamp, quiet, stoic.

—–

When I entered the Tripe Store, a tiny copper bell tinkled; a sound lost in the clatter of knives and forks. A sound that reminded me of life moving on. In the cramped space, a few wooden tables sat closely spaced on a cement-mosaic floor. I noticed, each table was set with porcelain plates, a water carafe, and a bread basket. I saw an open kitchen in the back. Rows of steaming plates lined the long counter between the kitchen and the dining-room. The place was filled with men. No women. That’s why I did not take off my helmet right away, but when I finally did, because my visor was steaming, the buzz of talk died immediately.

I tried to see myself as they saw me. A woman dressed like an astronaut. A rip in the fabric of normalcy. When I registered all the tables were occupied, I turned to go—dismayed. But outside, I saw a table I had not noticed before. It was under the weather-beaten awning. I decided to take it, if only for a few minutes until I collected myself. The men in there would have to deal, I told myself, feeling a bit defiant.

As I sat down, the scent of freshly-baked pide, a special type of Ramadan bread with sesame seeds, wafted from down the street. I was surprised at how quickly an attentive waiter approached me. I asked for pide, also for butter and goat cheese. Bread and cheese had always been my comfort food.

The waiter seemed apologetic. “We serve bread and butter. But you can get pide and cheese next door.” He pointed to the bakery and a market. His gaze on me was curious but not disrespectful. I decided to accept the suggestion. Leaving my helmet on the table, I went to the bakery. No one would touch the helmet here; it wasn’t that kind of town.

The bakery was hot. Instantly, steam rose from my sleeves. I called out several times before an old man came out from the back, wiping his long white beard with the back of his hand in a terse gesture. I had obviously interrupted his meal. Silently, he handed me steaming pide and retreated.

I felt like I was in a place between being judged and barely tolerated and wondered whether this was because I was a woman outside the accepted cultural mold, or because I was simply rude enough to interrupt the ritual of breaking the fast. Before the rule of AKP normalized religious pressure, I might have leaned toward the latter, but since the rule of AKP, I had witnessed outright enmity against the other. Eating, smoking or drinking at day-time during Ramadan, for instance, was punished in subtle ways, such as terse looks or even warnings. At the same time, I could not help but think about the ways in which religious expression had been suppressed by law in modern Turkey, such as prohibiting the headscarf in government institutions and universities. It was true this suppression had been part of a necessary strategy to reach secularism, but it was also true it bred a resentment that caused a wide rift in society. Now with the AKP, the tables were turned.

I was thinking of the judgmental eyes of the old man with the white beard when I went into the market and called out again. This time, a young man stuck his head around the back.

“Cut your own cheese and leave the money on the counter,” he said. He too was eating in the back, but his voice was friendly, even trusting, considering what he had just asked me.

The small market looked just like the markets of my childhood, crammed with produce, but also things like dusters, pens, hairpins, and plastic pitchers. As children, we used to walk into a market and pick sweets and chocolate off the counter. The shopkeeper would always offer us a banana too, peeling it first.

I cut myself a chunk of feta cheese and left more than enough on the counter.

When I got back to my table, the waiter had already brought a steaming hot tripe soup, salad, a bowl of yogurt, and honey—and a few dates I had not asked for. The rain had finally settled into fine mist. The warmth and the light from the Tripe Store spilled out on the pavement and cast soft shadows. Once in a while, the occasional, lone car splashed down the road.

I sat there for a long time, savoring each bite, drinking tea, and smoking a cigarette. Gradually, TV screens flickered in windows, headlights multiplied, and, despite the damp night, sounds of children filled the air.

When I left Turkey, I would miss these fleeting interactions which left me full of love and care for the land and the people. But my instincts told me that the barley grass patches were losing their innocence and that a whole new cadre growing up under the AKP regime would break the country. The danger was like a guiderail to a motorcyclist’s tiny slip of judgement. But for the moment, my goal was not to think, not to feel, just to ride through the familiar empty fields, the clusters of poplar trees, gas stations, half-finished squat brick constructions, roadside restaurants, and the occasional industrial park with tires piled out front and waiting trucks. Beyond that, there was a non-specificity in my mission just like the distant low hills were hardly visible in the night flecked with distant lights.

 

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