This originally appeared in February of 2011 for the erstwhile website of my French Canadian friend Marie Eve.
I first caught a glimpse of her in Cairo. Only a glimpse.
It was getting late, and my head was buzzing from the wine I had had with dinner, followed by puffs on a hooka. The cab driver I had befriended insisted on taking me to his cafe to hang out, talk, and smoke. For an instant she was there, across the busy street, perched on a street light, perfectly still – I caught a glimpse of her in between two passing buses, just for a moment; when the second one passed, she was gone.
Abdul – no, really, that was his name – noticed I was staring out at the street. The vacant lot used to be an open-air market, he said, but now developers had gotten a hold of the property and supposedly a high-rise hotel was going in. He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. “We are close to the airport,” he said in his accented English, by way of explanation.
I’ve never smoked much over the years, other than the occasional clove cigarette during my goth phase – I still crave them sometimes, especially whenever I hear Bauhaus or The Cure – and the odd bowl or joint, here and there, when I’m hanging around my stoner friends. I don’t recall what type of tobacco Abdul said that we were smoking, but the sun was high in that impossibly blue Egyptian sky the next morning before my head stopped buzzing and I could calm down enough to get some sleep.
I spent that time thinking about her. I had never seen her before, and I didn’t see her again for some time. But the thing was, I knew immediately what she was – just as I knew that she was a “she” — the instant I saw her, even though an instant was all there was. And I was glad that I had seen her, even as I wondered if she was ever coming back. But then I never really doubted that she was, sooner or later.
Furthermore I know that I actually saw her – that for that brief moment she was physically there, occupying space, and that she was no hallucination. I have never hallucinated before (well, once I did drop acid back in college, but that doesn’t really count), but I knew, just as sure as I knew that the sky is blue, that she was every bit as real as Abdul was, in that moment that she manifested.
I say this even as I readily acknowledge that there must be many, many people over the centuries who did hallucinate, who were as crazy as shit-house rats, who said the same thing I just did.
It really didn’t matter though. I just wondered when I would see her again. Looking back, I think I knew, instinctively, that I had to wait. Things were going to operate on her schedule, not mine – that’s the way it’s always been, and always would be, I supposed. And that was fine by me. I worked my away around the Mediterranean, in the meantime, until I reached Izmir, Turkey a few months later and decided to dawdle there a bit before going on to Istanbul.
I had originally planned to go straight to Istanbul and then on to Greece, but before I even got there I found myself making plans to take a side trip. I had met a beautiful Turkish girl – Vesile was her name — on the train from Adana to Istanbul and she convinced me that I had to see her beautiful hometown of Izmir, known historically as Smyrna. She was traveling to Istanbul to meet her girlfriend, a student who was coming home on break. I spent a lovely week exploring this ancient port city with my two lovely hosts. It was well worth it to put off Istanbul, and besides, I was in no particular hurry.
They were showing me the ruins of Smyrna’s Roman agora when I spotted her again. We were strolling down a 900-year-old colonnade when I happened to look up and see her perched on a free-standing column. She seemed to be oblivious to our presence, but I knew better. At one point she spread her wings – they nearly touched the edges of the adjacent columns — and ruffled her feathers before folding them again.
“Vasile – ladies, do you — ” I began to say, without taking my eyes off of her. She looked down at me then from her Roman perch, cocking her head to one side and glaring at me with one black, inscrutable eye. I smiled back at her for a moment before turning away to address the girls. “Are you two hungry? I think I’m ready for lunch.”
As we walked away I looked back over my shoulder. She was already gone.
But she appeared to me again just a few days later. And this time, she spoke — and laughed at me.
I was back in Istanbul, and thought that I might dawdle here even longer than I had in Izmir. Much as I enjoyed my week in Smyrna with Vesile and Sabriye, Istanbul was something else; it is hard not to love Istanbul if you love cities at all (even when you can’t get that damned They Might Be Giants song out of your head for days on end).
The city that was once Constantinople is cosmopolitan and modern, and yet layer and layer upon layer of history and culture is inextricably blended within; the dust in its streets is the dust of centuries and millennia. It’s not without its faults, as any large city is – its pushy peddlers rival any would-be street entrepreneur in Southeast Asia, let me tell you. But it is nevertheless an incredible place, this crossroads of East and West. It is Eastern and yet not, Western and yet not – Greek Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Sephardic Jews and every major ethnic group represented — like all great port cities, it is something unto itself.
It was here that I finally managed to shake the melancholy feeling that had been with me since I had embarked on this open-ended trip so many months before — a bid to escape the emotional aftermath in the wake of an old friend’s lingering death. I was in Istanbul for three days before I discovered a feeling that felt so good and yet so foreign: lightheartedness. I can’t say I felt happy – yet – but I realized that sometime over the last few weeks, I had started to enjoy life again.
And for the first time in many years, I thought about writing once more.
When I saw her again she was perched above the top shelf of a bar in a nightclub, of all places. Well, I took it for a nightclub, albeit with a weird vibe – where were the kids? – but then such perceived weirdness is commonplace when one travels abroad and out of one’s own cultural context; I didn’t give it much thought. But then it wasn’t just a Turkish nightclub, as a statuesque, expensively yet scantily clad woman had just informed me with a knowing grin; it was actually a brothel. Well, that explained all of the older, distinguished-looking gentleman in suits lounging about and smoking cigars.
Her quoted price seemed somewhat exorbitant, but then I really couldn’t say; I wasn’t in the habit of patronizing brothels. I won’t lie and claim to be completely ignorant of such matters; an ex girlfriend even once accused me of being an outright libertine one day when we confronted my past. I would contend that she was just prudish, however. In any event it is perfectly true that I wasn’t familiar with the going rate in brothels – Turkish ones, at least. My would-be companion politely and gracefully excused herself when I told here that I was intrigued by her offer, but that I would have to think about it.
I spent a few moments contemplating just that – actually I had been thinking about an article I had read some months back in Le Monde while wiling away an afternoon in a cafe in Casablanca. It was an exposé about sex trafficking and Eastern European girls, and I found myself at that moment wondering if the sophisticated, well-read, multilingual Turkish woman I had just met was actually here of her own accord.
It was then that I heard someone tsk me, as in “Tsk tsk.”
I looked around, mystified. Then I heard her voice coming from somewhere above me. “Becoming even more of a libertine isn’t a prerequisite, but perhaps in your case, it might help.” I knew it was her voice, of course. I looked up and there she was, perched above the glass bottles of expensive imported liquor behind the bar. The dim accent lights of the bar gave her feathers a glossy look, alternately changing from tawny to midnight blue in hue as she moved. She spread her wings and preened; she knew the lighting flattered her graceful lines.
Then she cocked her head at me and – I don’t know how to explain how something with a beak can smile – much less talk – but she smiled at me just the same; it was a knowing smile. Then she threw her head back and laughed. It wasn’t quite a human laugh, of course, but it was unmistakably belly laughter. I smiled up at her. Then I felt a light touch on my arm. It was my new friend.
“Contemplating a top-shelf drink?” she asked. I looked up again at the display of bottles, and her gaze followed mine. There was nothing there but a stray tawny feather clinging to the top of a bottle of single malt scotch that cost almost as much as what my companion commanded for her services.
At that moment I made up my mind about several things.
A week later I woke up in my bed at home in the States. It was 3:45 am. Over the droning white noise of the fan in the corner of my room, I could hear my housemate snoring away the wee hours on the other side of the house and wondered what he was doing in the Mediterranean. Then I remembered that I had indeed returned home a day before, having abruptly decided that Greece would have to wait for awhile.
Despite the fact that I had just slept for 11 hours, I felt tired still. My head had that thick, slaggy feel characteristic of interrupted circadian rhythms. Jetlag blows.
After stumbling to the bathroom I came back to my room and sat down at my desk. I scratched my head and looked around my room while contemplating whether I needed to go back to the bathroom and brush my teeth. Despite the mental fog I knew I was done sleeping for the time being. I reached down underneath the desk to turn on my computer. As I did so, a solitary feather floated softly onto my desk; in the dim lamp light the dark blue feather looked almost black.
I looked up and met her black eyes staring at me over the ridge of her beak. She was perched on my monitor, staring intently down at me; our faces were only a foot or so apart. She turned her head so one black eye could look directly into mine. After a moment she ruffled her feathers and made a sound that was somewhere between a crow’s caw and an eagle’s cry; I understood it to be a question. I smiled at her and raised an eyebrow. “You know, I never would have thought that you would appear so …” I paused, pretending to look for the words. “Bird-like, I guess.”
“You were expecting me to look like a leggy, raven haired, olive-skinned Turkish beauty?” she asked, in her avian-accented English, and smiled back at me.
I laughed. “Yes, I think I’m ready to get to work,” I said, in answer to her unasked question.
“Good. I think so too. That’s why I’m here.”
I pulled the keyboard out from underneath the monitor and together, we got to work.