The bars overflow. The drinkers are legion.
On a Friday night, they take their drinks to the sidewalk because there’s no room inside. Smokers add to the numbers. Teenagers and college students fill up whatever space remains, buying the cheapest beers at the tekels and then melding into the crowds that line the street. It eddies and gathers and builds, the crowd. Shoulders rub against the walls and against the cars pushing through and against each other. A yellow taxi nudges aside bodies as it slowly makes its way past the wooden mansions that once belonged to the long vanished Armenians and Greeks of Istanbul. Now they are all bars named after old Mesopotamian goddesses. Isis, Kybele, Inanna.
They stand around a table just outside of Hera. He leans against the window and smokes. Behind him the faces of the dancers and drinkers float in and out of the reflections of the glass.
“Sorry I was late,” she says and kisses him. “The traffic on the bridge was an absolute nightmare. I’ve never seen it so bad.”
“I doubt that.”
“I was on the bus for three hours. Three!”
“I read online that someone tried to kill themselves.”
“Is that what it was?”
“Or they did kill themselves. On Twitter there’s a rumor going around that some woman had climbed over the guardrail and was going to jump and there were these guys trying to talk her down.” He takes a drag of his cigarette. “And then some man shouted out his car window, ‘Just go ahead and jump already, you’re holding up traffic!’ And so she did.”
“There was an ambulance,” she says. “But I don’t know what…I mean it could have been a real ambulance or plain-clothes cops doing surveillance again. I couldn’t see a thing. I was standing in the back of bus jammed between two old men with their armpits in my face.”
A waiter comes out, muscular, wearing a black T. Half of his head is shaved and he has a tattoo of a shark on the side of his neck. He is shorter than her, with a fist of a nose. He hands her a beer and lingers, glancing disdainfully around at the people sitting on the stoops of the apartment buildings and in the doorways of the stores. Every spot is full, except one–the entrance of the building directly across from Hera, Sadıkoğlu Apartments, The Loyal Son. The waiter’s eyes never fall there, but skip suddenly over as if he had an electric short in his gaze. The tendons in his neck flex as he scans, making the shark move.
“Seems like there’s people killing themselves almost every week these days,” she says in a softer voice. “Wasn’t it just last week….”
“Yeah, but that was staged. That was…” He is silent for a moment. He eyes the waiter, waits until he turns and goes back inside. The door opens and music pours out then cuts off again. He continues in a whisper.
“I mean they set that whole thing up for the Leader to ride by in his limo and ‘save’ the guy in front of the conveniently placed news cameras. Fucking prick.”
“Real suicides are happening,” she says.
“But they don’t make the news.”
“Sure they do,” she says. “But as something else. A traffic accident. Emergency construction on the bridge. You have to know the code. Like with everything else.”
“Suicide means photo op. Accident means suicide. So what do they call an accident?”
He laughs. “You can’t even depend on the code to be consistent.”
She slides her arm around his waist, leans into him. She puts her chin on his chest and stands on her toes to kiss his neck. The stubble tickles her lips.
“Let’s not talk politics. Not tonight.”
It hurts her to stretch her ankle, so she rocks back on her heels, grabs his arm and puts it around her shoulders.
“That little maneuver hurt your leg?” he asks.
“No. It’s getting better.”
She still has nightmares though, of the protest in front of the bus station, of the women marching ahead of her starting to unfurl their flags. Red and yellow and green, bright, catching the wind like kites. She was chanting with the others, to live is to resist! She remembers the old teyze, the one who served tea at the meetings, turning to her to show her something, a new ring—just a silver band with a line of heart shaped turquoise stones. “I got myself a present,” she’d said. It looked kitschy, but she had nodded and said it was “absolutely stunning!” when the blast knocked her against a tree. The next thing she could remember was one of the high school girls carrying her toward an ambulance. No siren, no flashing lights. It waited silently like it had broken down. A line of riot police formed a wall against the injured. The high school girl was arguing with one of the cops, trying to get him to let them through. And she remembered the moment she understood the ambulance wasn’t an ambulance, and the numbness of her left leg. She kept looking down to make sure it was still there and then feeling sick at the sight of blood and meat. In the dreams, it’s the tea teyze who carries her. The explosions keep coming and the cops are driving her into the heart of them with billy clubs. They want her disappeared.
“There’s something next to the DJ booth that looks like a robot,” she says, pointing toward the window.
He turns to look, squinting. “I can’t see a thing from the reflection.”
“But not a modern one.”
He laughs, smells her hair. “Not a modern robot, huh?”
“No, it’s all square. Like one of those robots from Lost in Space or what was that American show?”
“Lost in Space.”
“With the robot with the vacuum cleaner arms?”
“Yeah yeah. Lost in Space.”
“It’s like that robot’s severed head just sitting on the DJ table staring at me.”
He grabs her beer and takes a drink, “That’s, I think, creepy somehow.”
The music from inside suddenly grows louder—Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”. A green light ignites in the window like a meteor. The DJ holds a glow stick. She’s a middle aged woman with witch black hair and is known for her eccentricities. She has put on a gigantic pair of costume glasses and a shaggy purple wig, and winds through the crowd tapping people on the shoulder with the glow stick. As each turns toward her, she dances, all hips, until her victim dances, too. It’s like she is activating them.
They watch her wand progress behind the window toward the door at which point she tangos outside and touches them. Her face is utter seriousness. Tapping first him on the shoulder and then her. The three of them start to dance together. He gives her that smile over the DJ’s head that tells her he is embarrassed but up for anything. She laughs, does the gypsy 9/8 step. The DJ moves on.
“It’s Women’s Day, I guess,” she says. “She whispered ‘Happy Women’s Day’ in my ear.”
“Is that why the volume suddenly went up?” he says. “But she’s done this every time we’ve been here. And always that song.”
“Really? I don’t remember.”
They dance silently for a second, he with his cigarette, she with her beer. She imagines the woman on the bridge, her hair whipped by the wind, panting down through great distances toward the dark water of the Bosporous. She sees the jump, the rush of the sea and then the impact. She clutches his arm suddenly, to steady herself.
Across the street from them is the apartment building the waiter didn’t scowl at. The streetlights hit it from the wrong direction—the windows black, the wall shadowed. There is a graffiti of a gigantic melting skull, psychedelic—purple and florescent green. The building’s door is a tooth in the grinning mouth, the second story windows are eye sockets. The sockets spill out things that look like computer chips, all prickly wires, each supporting a soldier and winding in formation like spider webs across the facade of the building. Across the cracked forehead, in sloppy black letters, clearly spray painted after the skull was long finished, someone has written in Turkish,
“Bir kuş olsa, mavilik derdi buna. If there were a bird, they’d call this blueness.”
Then in English, “Everything you know will be a lie.”
“Listen,” he says. “Can you hear that?” He’s looking at the mouth of the skull.
At first she hears only the noise of the crowd and the refrain of the song, “Respect when you talk to me baby. Respect when you talk to me baby.” But then it seeps up through the other sounds, something like feet scuffling on pavement, but hundreds of them, a plodding rhythm approaching. Like goose steps, like bomb ticks, like a metronome slicing off the seconds till the stars fall and the earth opens.
They squint at the graffiti soldiers, trying to bring into focus the blank faces, fearful of the moment they’ll see them move.
Jeff Gibbs is originally from rural Florida. He received his MFA from the University of Arizona and currently lives in Istanbul where he has been working on a series of dystopic short stories about the city, some of which have appeared in Word Riot, Eclectica, Opiate, A Minor and Little Truths Big Fictions.