Samuel Snoek-Brown once split his sister's pinky toe with a five-pound barbell weight. She was two, but it took six adults to hold her down while...read more they sewed together the little grape of her toe. The author often wishes for that kind of strength. Instead, he hides himself online at http://snoekbrown.com/.
I WENT TO INSTANBUL to smoke the narghiles, the tall hookahs of brass and glass, their thick clouds in my hair like wet static and the color of my eyes going bruised, the irises yellow and the whites rouged and the lids purple. I’d been sent there by my grandmother.
I’d grown up in America with her stories of Istanbul, her obsidian eyes alive in all those wrinkles, her withered hand on her heart like a young girl whenever she mentioned my grandfather’s carpet shop or her beloved President Ataturk. She said my grandfather loved his smoke and I should learn the habit in the country of my ancestors. She insisted I stick to the apple tobacco, because it goes well with the tea and because only teenagers and foreigners smoke the mint. I didn’t want to be marked a foreigner.
I planned to skip the tea and get straight to the rakı, that licorice liquor she kept in her cabinet for special occasions. The burn faded white in the water. My grandmother said they called it the lion’s milk, said one sip made you roar but two sips made you purr. I wanted to purr.
The flight took fourteen hours. I sat in the back of a mostly empty plane and sipped vodka in Sprite as I watched the cloud-cover over the Atlantic ghost beneath the wing. The setting sun spread out like a hand splayed in sleep. I didn’t dream in images; I dreamed in scent, the brick dust and carbon exhaust of narrow streets, the heady odor of men in crowded cafés.
That first day I dropped off my bags and left immediately for the heart of the city. I skipped the landmarks—my grandmother said the Hagia Sophia was built for tourists, even in its first days, and the Blue Mosque was just an echo chamber. So many sites Roman, so few the Turkey she knew. Instead, I walked the perimeter of the Sultan Ahmet Square, ducking into boutiques and carpet shops just to put my hands on junk toys, silk shirts, machined carpets. I found a café and pushed my way inside, searched the tables along the walls. I wormed up to the counter and browsed a menu I couldn’t read, my mind searching the words my grandmother tried to teach me but the meanings tangled in a spiderweb of associations. The barista stepped over and I leaned into his ear, asked about the narghiles. They are banned, he said. New order. Conservative government. He tried to direct me to a smoke shop where I could buy my own pipe and packet of molasses tobacco to smoke when I got back to the States, but I couldn’t follow him and I held up my hands. I let the other customers squeeze me away from the bar, thought the café, back into the street. The air was cold and heavy with diesel fumes.
That night in my hotel, I rode the narrow elevator to the basement to steam in the little sauna down there, and I saw two American girls in the wide hot tub. One was blonde, the other dirty blonde. Teenagers the both of them, or maybe one was twenty, but they were young. The girls were boiling pink in the hot tub, and they both were naked, their breasts floating in the water. They were drunk, not on rakı but on dry Turkish wine, three bottles beside them on the tile floor. They were laughing at something, I never knew what. I stood there wondering whether I should turn toward the steam closet or go back to my room or call the front desk or be ridiculous and try to join them. All these options.
Then one of the Turkish clerks walked in, thick white towels stacked in his dark arms, and he, too, stopped to stare. To consider their flush breasts and blonde hair. They were laughing harder now, the dirty blonde with a small hand trying to cover her wide lips. The lighter blonde stood up, her breasts collapsing into gravity and the water pearling in her little hairs down there, and she pointed at the both of us while she wrapped her other arm across her soft stomach, laughing and laughing so hard. The clerk dropped his eyes and turned to the towel closet. The girl standing slipped, one leg sideways and her elbow cracked on the porcelain edge. A pink stitching of blood and water down the tub. But both girls laughed still, spilling the last of their wine into the bubbling water with them. And I rode the elevator to my floor.
I tried to read my guidebook but eyed the same page four times before I set it aside. I lay and watched the ceiling, the plaster white with new paint but the old cracks showing through in patterns I couldn’t decipher. I thought I would dream but I didn’t.
In the morning, the purple of dawn capping the narrow airshaft between wings of the hotel, the muezzin called the wide city to prayer through my open window. I thought the city might halt in the song, even the birds listening, but those predawn hours echoed with bicycle bells and garbage trucks. Still the song went on, tinny heart-thrust rills pushed over the city on impossible breaths. Then I heard another window open in the shaft, and from somewhere below me, an American girl shouted, “Shut up! God, just shut up!” A glass shattered in the shaft. A moment later the song ended and then the window slammed shut. I lay in bed with my eyes open. The bricks in the airshaft turned from blue to gray to red to gold.
I took my shower, then I rode down to the lobby to eat boiled eggs from a porcelain egg cup. Afterward I sipped a tiny cup of thick Turkish coffee that smelled like smoke but tasted like syrup. I had hoped the smoke from the hookahs would have tasted the same. I could see one in the corner of the lobby, just a decoration in brass and pearl but the braided hose looked so beautiful coiled on its post.
I spotted the clerk I’d seen the night before. He leaned against the front desk, his eyelids heavy as his moustache. I offered a weak smile and he raised his lids, looked at the ceiling. The girls were above, sleeping it off or shouting out the window again or maybe something worse. I looked away, downed the coffee, caught a swallow of the muddy grounds from the bottom. I chewed them, ran them over my teeth with my tongue.
I stopped at the front desk to study the neighborhood map there while a woman in a pressed purple jacket and flat-ironed hair showed me her teeth. The top corners of the paper map were guarded by animals. A hairy dromedary with a carpet between its humps on the right. A seated lion on the left. I pointed at the lion and asked where I could buy rakı. She kept smiling and pointed to a street corner.
The little shop was crowded with people shouting at the counter. In the narrow doorway a man waved fliers in the faces of people on the sidewalk. I took one but couldn’t read it. He pointed to a cartoon of a liquor bottle with an X penned over it and spit as he yelled at me in Turkish. His breath was so singed with cardamom I could taste it. No one else paid attention to him but he had latched onto me and when I tried to push into the store he followed me. I could feel his words burning my right earlobe. Someone pushed him away and the whole shop swayed like a disturbed dinghy. My stomach swam with boiled eggs and coffee. I closed my eyes. When I opened them again I was back on the sidewalk.
I looked into the low clouds and the brown smoke from the countless chimneys. I held tight to a signpost and tried to catch my breath but my tongue and my throat felt like I’d swallowed a sock.
Along the jagged rim of the skyline I found the landmark of the Blue Mosque’s minarets. Then the big obelisk in the Sultan Ahmet Square, then the narrow street of my hotel. In the lobby I passed the two blondes from the night before. They were leaving the hotel and as they went they scowled at everyone. A man sitting on one of the lobby’s low couches rose and followed them, calling Beautiful girls, beautiful girls in some thick accent I couldn’t place. Out the front door, the three of them. I could still hear him on the sidewalk. Then I rode the tiny elevator up to my room to pack my things.
When I had arrived, the airport had smelled exotic, the air heavy with saffron and pepper and cologne. Now all I could smell was cigarettes, leather, bleach. I stared at my new boarding pass for several minutes, the letters of my destination a code I could barely understand. I wandered through the terminal, into a section of marble-veneered walls and wide archways opening on little shops, a glossy imitation of the Grand Bazaar. One shop had nesting dolls painted with traditional Turkish clothes; another sold white tiles scrolled in fine blue glaze, images of flowers and geometric patterns, words like Turkey! and Iznik! machine-scrawled across the tops. I found a shop of glass hookahs, red and green and silver-plated fittings. I asked if they had any in brass and the man said, “You don’t want to smoke brass. For the tourists. These, glass, you want to smoke glass.” I asked if he sold the tobacco too, and he leaned across the counter. “Sure. Tobacco. Or, you like hash?” His forearms rippled on the countertop like a snake and I backed out of the store, saying, “No thank you, no thank you.”
I found the duty free shop and from the first shelf I picked a tall bottle of rakı, white label and blue block letters. I expected the cashier to nod and smile or shake her head and click her tongue—then I would know if I had bought the right bottle or the wrong bottle—but she only asked to see my passport and then she slipped the bottle into a white paper bag, her face flat as glass. I stowed the bottle in my carry-on, then I stopped in a magazine shop and took a postcard showing the Golden Horn, the bend in the Bosphorus photoshopped to shimmer.
The plane’s back section held only a dozen people, and once we were in the air I moved my bags to the next-to-last row. In the dark, a thin moon on the wrong side of the plane and the flight attendants taking last calls, I asked for a cup of water. I drank half the water, then I sneaked out the rakı and filled the plastic cup. The water swirled with fog then settled white, the cup translucent and aglow in the dim airplane. One of the attendants settled into a folding seat at the back and she saw my cup, the bottle on the set beside me, but she only closed her eyes and leaned her head against the seatback. The scent of licorice was softer than I’d expected, and the drink tasted vaguely of raisins. After a moment, a warm blister in the hollow of my chest, just below my sternum, like I’d swallowed a dying coal. When I was eleven, I’d stood on a chair in my grandmother’s kitchen and pulled down her bottle and poured two inches into a juice glass. I’d choked on it till I’d thrown up, and my grandmother had flayed my ass with a willow branch. I shifted in my seat on the plane at the memory of it. But now, a man, I’d had the milk of the lion. I wanted to roar at the first sip, but when I looked over at the sleeping attendant, I swallowed the breath I’d taken. Then I topped up the cup. The licorice was stronger without the water, but I drank it anyway. Then I poured a third.
When I landed I would stink of rakı. And maybe of the shisha, the molasses tobacco, too. The diesel exhaust, the heavy grease scent of kebabs, the soot in the street. Everything clinging to me, and when I hugged my grandmother in the airport, it would cling to her as well. And it would have to be enough.
I held the plastic cup under my chin, the liquor mostly clear now, and I pressed my forehead against the little oval of glass and watched the winglights blink. The tiny flashes illuminating in pulses a thin contrail, like the ghost of smoke, spiraling white from the wingtips into the vast surrounding blackness.