The day we met as freshmen in college, our room was invaded by girls telling us of parties taking place that day and the next. I went to two with Rachel and some of our dorm mates, and two were enough for me. Rachel rocked on with periodic stops back at our room, and on her first appearance to change outfits, we agreed to seek a roommate rearrangement, a frank and quick conversation. On her way out, she glanced at the book in my hands.
“I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s works,” she said, flipping back a mane of red hair. “I’d like to discuss some with you.” She left, her stilettos clicking down the hall, and I tried to imagine the party girl in them reading Austen. On her second appearance, she replaced the stilettos with green sandals, brushed her teeth, and refreshed her makeup, all the while imitating the speech of students from various regions of the United States. I couldn’t help but admire her facility. Both nights she made curfew, wasn’t boozed out, and gave me a wealth of inside information about campus and professors. Before sleeping the second night, we discussed Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, contemporized Austen’s dress and lifestyle, laughed at and praised our ingenuity in so doing, and decided we would balance out well as roommates, after all. Nine years later, in 1966, we would be roommates again in southern Turkey, a place that would disrupt my world, placidly academic as it had been.
Rachel now lived in Adana, Turkey, a city about 20 miles from the Mediterranean. She and her roommate Ellen taught for the American Department of Defense on nearby Incirlik Air Base. I lived 500 miles north in Istanbul doing research on the evolvement of Turkish women following Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s modernization of the country. The groundwork Atatürk laid in the 1920s had upgraded the lives of many Turkish women by 1966, and, for six months, I interviewed educated women, those being educated and not a few who were ambitious for more freedoms. With three months left of my sabbatical, it was time to address how those same 46 years had affected the lives of Turkish rural women. Their history would be far different and interviews difficult to arrange. I needed a versatile translator familiar with southern rural areas, someone who could open doors for me and provide insights I would otherwise not have, and Rachel told me about Aba, who sounded perfect. With Ellen’s approval, she also invited me to live in their apartment. Everything fell into place.
I drove the long distance south to Adana from Istanbul, stopping twice for a glass of çay, the Turkish sweet tea I enjoyed, but backed off of a third stop when I saw the coffeehouse had only men on the terrace, some sipping çay and playing board games, some puffing hookahs. It would not be accepted for an unescorted woman to sit amongst them, not in southern Turkey. Parking under a nearby tree, I drank water from a thermos and ate pistachios before returning to the highway and the remaining short drive to Adana. As I drove, I tried to remember what Rachel had written me about Incirlik Air Base — a strategic base shared by Turkish and American forces — rotations of American F-100 fighter squadrons — a “normal” woman’s paradise — the qualification for my benefit. I was not interested in anything military, hated that we were in Vietnam, and, grateful as I was for the present opportunity, dreaded the air base atmosphere that Rachel and Ellen so enjoyed, recent divorcées that they were.
The map Rachel drew was precise and took me without difficulty to their building. It fronted a vacant lot crossed by a well-trod path to Atatürk Boulevard where a base bus picked up and deposited those going to and coming from Incirlik. The pink-stuccoed building was attractive even with metal grates rising halfway up the downstairs windows, but the yard, like the vacant lot, had no grass or other greenery, except for two beautiful rosebushes, one on each side of the concrete steps leading to the door. Their large red flowers produced a scent that reached me on exiting the car and the perfume deepened as I climbed the walkway toward the steps.
At my knock, Ellen opened the door and I thought at first it was Rachel, so alike were they with their red hair, greenish eyes, freckled noses, and petite frames. Rachel quickly appeared snapping her fingers and gyrating, gave me a big hug, and pushed me back to arms’ length.
“Let’s look at Kelly. Hey! Libraries and classrooms haven’t yet sapped those bright brown eyes … slim as ever but still wears that damned ponytail. Your hair needs lightening, old friend. It’s turning brown.” She picked up one of my bags, Ellen another, led me to my room, and told me to look around the apartment. “We have to take showers, and then you can take one. Towels are on your bed.”
They were on the first level, and the Turkish doctor who owned the building lived on the upper one with his family. The apartment felt familiar, so accurately had Rachel depicted it in letters. The three bedrooms, large living room, and kitchen all had terraces. One bathroom was fitted out to accommodate Americans, the other typically Turkish — a hole in the floor with depressions for feet on either side — but Rachel and Ellen had turned it into a closet by blocking the hole with newspapers overlaid with plastic and topped with a rug. The floors were a mottled gray-white stone with areas covered by Turkish rugs being accumulated by Rachel and Ellen to sell in America at great profit. I could see the place lent itself to dancing and parties and knew the two redheads took good advantage.
“Okay if I shower now?” I asked at Rachel’s door. “I’d like to take one before I start unpacking.”
“Unpacking?” Rachel said, throwing open her door. “Go shower, Kelly, but be quick and put on makeup. We need to get to base. We don’t want to miss any of Happy Hour.”
“Not me. It’s been a long day.”
“Ellen, you hear this?” Ellen came out of her room and stood in the hallway with us, brushing her hair. “This is exactly what she did the first day I met her. Everyone going out and Kelly stayed in to read — a freshman in college who didn’t know anyone and she stayed in to read. We are not taking the bus. You’re going to drive us to base and back, Kelly. Take a book and a flashlight and stay in the car and read, but you’re going.” Taking my shoulders, she pushed me toward the bathroom.
I took a quick shower and dressed. Before we left, Rachel and Ellen dashed about the front windows, gingerly pulled back shades and peered about. “Always check for the bear, Kelly,” Rachel said. “This guy comes around with a big bear and makes him dance, then holds out a bucket for money.”
As we descended the steps, a man carrying a hose came from the corner of the building. He wore a snagged green pullover and ill-fitting brown pants. His thick black hair was neatly cut. With unwavering dark eyes, he looked at me and smiled broadly revealing a large gold tooth.
“This is Osman,” Rachel said. “He is why the rosebushes are so beautiful.” We acknowledged each other before he quickly bent to place the hose at the base of a rosebush and just as quickly stood to watch us descend to the car.
I was informed that Osman oversaw the outside of the apartment building, dealt with vendors, and handled a variety of other duties, and that Fatma, their masseuse, did not like him.
“Fatma said if he feels demeaned he will make lives miserable,” Rachel said, “and she warned us that Americans living in the sector sometimes had flat tires and undelivered messages. During Kurban Bayram, the feast of sacrifice, he had a male sheep slaughtered right in front of our living room terrace while we were having a party. Out of respect, we stayed on the terrace until the sheep was carved up and placed on large metal platters to deliver to the poor.” I made a note to periodically compliment the roses and Osman’s gold tooth, as Rachel and Ellen advised.
The redheads bounced from one subject to another on the drive to Incirlik Air Base. “Wait until Fatma gives you a massage,” Ellen said. “She’s great, and if you let hair grow on your legs for awhile, she’ll take it off and it will stay off for weeks. She mixes honey —”
“Not honey,” Rachel said. “It’s lemon and sugar and water. It’s like taffy, and she slaps it on your legs and rips it off. Hair stays off — hurts though … Changing the subject, are you and Tim ever going to seal the deal?”
Tim was a university colleague I’d been dating for a year when my sabbatical came through. “Not in the foreseeable future. We agreed it wasn’t reasonable to be committed until I return to the university.”
“Oh, my God. See what I mean, Ellen? Reasonable! And, oh, Ellen, she was once engaged to a geologist and they broke up over oil slicks.”
“Rachel, you know that isn’t —”
“It certainly is. That’s what it came down to when Ron dumped academia and took his Ph.D. to Exxon … I can just hear you and Tim, ‘Let’s postpone any commitment until the sabbatical ends. It’s the reasonable thing to do,’ she said.
“By the way, what did you and Tim do when he came to visit you in Istanbul — go on archaeological digs? Did you leave time for any sex? Have you ever even had sex, Kelly?”
I looked in the rearview mirror at Ellen who had her lips pressed together. “It’s okay, Ellen. Go ahead and laugh. Rachel and I go back a long time.”
We showed identification at the gate, and then went directly to the Officers’ Club.
“They’re here,” Ellen said, showing me all the fighter pilots’ red bicycles parked in front of the OC. “That’s how they get around base — so irresistible in their green flight suits pedaling their red bicycles.”
“Now, Kelly, you’d better play along and not spoil our fun. Remember, we’re your landlords and can unhouse you. And fighter pilots are the best good time ever,” Rachel said, “for normal women.”
“I already feel like a misfit.”
“You are a misfit,” Rachel said, giving me a playful nudge.
It was Friday. The OC was packed, and a group of pilots in their olive-green flight suits with name and rank patched on were just sitting down at a table. When we approached they hopped back up, pulling up another table to theirs, rearranging dinnerware, grabbing chairs — a lightning display that quickly had all of us seated and ordering drinks. Their banter momentarily stopped while I was introduced, then erupted again, fighter-pilot-lexicon banter that engaged Rachel and Ellen and the pilots themselves and that I found overdone but amusing. As soon as the drinks arrived, the pilot Allan on my left, with whom I had exchanged some inanities, was replaced by Lt. Brian Gannon, and when I glanced at him and his patch with surprise, he grinned. Music and dancing began after dinner, and even though exhausted, I was stimulated by an environment completely foreign to me. Rachel and Ellen introduced me to Red Cross workers, contractors, engineers, teachers — a spectrum of Americans attached to Incirlik Air Base who enjoyed the right to socialize and eat at the Officers’ Club.
I had just sat down from dancing with the pilot Allan when the grinning blond aviator on my left who had stolen Allan’s seat said, “Are you related to Kate Tippett?”
“I don’t know who that is.”
“Well, then you’re not related to her, but your eyes are just like hers, brows, too. Excuse me.” He took the drink from my hand and set it on the table. “Let me just …” With an index finger not quite touching my brows, he traced them. “Yeah … the same, a little lift and straight out again, and let me see …” He brought his face close to mine, and looked into my eyes, “no mistake, same eyes — wide set, dark, dark irises, white, white surrounds. Just like Kate Tippett’s. Could also be Jacqueline Kennedy’s. You do know her? Oh, by the way, Brian Gannon.” He pointed to the patch with his name.
The usurped pilot Allan asked me to dance again and when I returned to the table, my drink had been replaced with a fresh one and so had the grinning Lt. Gannon’s. “Heads or tails?” he said, repeatedly flipping a coin. “Heads,” I said. The coin shot up and back to his hand, and turned tails on the table. “Sorry, you lose, so you owe me a dance.” He stood and held out his hand. Taking it and rising, I said, “And who is Kate Tippett?”
“Never heard of her,” he said.
He led me to the dance floor, gently pulled me to him and didn’t speak throughout the dance. I don’t remember that song we first danced to, only the nearness of Lt. Brian Gannon and the way his arms held me.
Rachel had arranged for me to meet Aba the next day on base. She was striking. Her eyes were a turquoise blue, like the Mediterranean and appeared lined with black, but she wore no makeup. Her lips had an apricot sheen, and her black hair was gathered and anchored with large silver hairpins to the back of her head. She was not wearing a headscarf, but I soon learned she put one on the moment she left base, even though Atatürk had banned them decades before. In southern Turkey, covering was not uncommon, but Aba did it only because her father required it of his daughters. Aba’s English was fluent and she was intelligent, but had little formal education. She was a translator and interpreter for Turks and Americans at Incirlik and also did work for the American Consulate in Adana. We had an immediate rapport, and Aba proved to be indispensable in arranging interviews through people she knew who knew other people and on down the line, all of which gave me quick access to women in rural villages. We cut through our shared reserve and different cultures and talked at length on car trips about our families, our backgrounds, our countries, and, of course, women.
“I have a brother at the University of Istanbul. I envy him, but I am proud of him.”
“Why can’t you go, Aba? I interviewed many women there.”
“My father will not permit it for me and my sister,” Aba said. “Kelly, when you meet my father, I must ask you please to … I don’t know how to say … to let him decide the questions, the conversation.”
“Of course, I fully understand, Aba,” and I did, but I immediately resented the man.
She told me her father considered Americans “unholy” but let her work for them until he found a suitable husband for her because Americans paid her well. I could not accept that Aba would go along with her father choosing her husband, not someone with Aba’s abilities, not in the Turkey of 1966. Her smile indicated a naiveté on my part.
“Decades of reforms cannot overcome centuries of traditions, Kelly. This you know.” She told me she feared that those who would “turn the face of Turkey to the past” were emerging. “I have hope,” Aba said, patting her heart. “I have hope for all Turkish women of the future, but for me and my sister, it is still our father who decides.”
Lt. Brian Gannon was from Denver, Colorado. He had an engineering degree, would eventually be a commercial airline pilot and return to Denver to live near the Rockies. He had a lean frame and straight features, marred by two creases between his brown eyebrows that made him look older than his 29 years. His smile flashed when bantering but unfolded warmly when he was in sincere mode. He read a variety of literature, at present Capote’s recently published In Cold Blood, liked to watch football, and liked to ski. He enjoyed “looking at me.” I had a “steady gaze” and “wonderful smile.” He thought my hair should be “set free.” He had little tolerance for fawning women and machismo pilots. His mischievous blue eyes had a demeanor to go with them but into our fourth week of seeing each other, I knew those eyes could instantly turn steely and by the sixth week had no doubt that beneath it all lay a no-nonsense person. I also knew that I had never felt about another man the way I felt about Lt. Brian Gannon.
The only time we had alone was when we drove to the coast for dinner, and, even then, we would run into someone from base. My apartment was always occupied with one or both roommates and their dates or friends or being used for a party, but one weekend Rachel and Ellen took a trip to Aleppo, Syria. In 1966, Americans living in Turkey frequently traveled to Syria, Iraq, and Iran to take in ancient sites and buy rugs and other niceties at prices unheard of in the U.S. The redheads left early Saturday morning, and I left right after them to go to the market to shop for dinner. In my excitement, I forgot to check for the bear.
I locked the apartment door and turned to descend the steps, and there he was. Trying to appear rushed, I ran down the steps, but the keeper moved in front of me, holding a chain that went to a metal collar around the bear’s neck. “See … see the bear dance,” he said and put a stick under the animal’s belly. The bear rose, the keeper giving more slack to the chain.
I looked into the creature’s eyes and twisted up inside. They were the vacant eyes of some of the women I had seen in southern Turkey, women whose lives and bodies were controlled, who moved in another’s sphere at another’s will, women who had no recourse. The bear turned around, awkwardly moving in a small circle, his large paws stirring the grassless yard, causing eddies of dirt and dust to rise like smoke leaking from his feet. The keeper poked him to move him faster, and I grabbed some Turkish lira from my purse, slammed it, not in his out-held bucket, but on a concrete step and dashed to my car.
“Teşekkür ederim,” the keeper hollered to my back to thank me. As I drove away, I glanced toward the building and saw Osman in his green top and brown pants standing next to the bear and his keeper, his gold tooth beaming in the sun.
It seemed strange to have dinner alone with Brian in an apartment. I grilled shish kebabs and drank wine on the kitchen terrace, and he stood by with a glass of Scotch, quietly watching me. He seemed preoccupied, and I sensed he felt the strangeness, too. Over dinner, he asked about my book and future career plans, and I felt a sudden and terrible loneliness talking about them. Afterward, I served coffee and Fatma’s fried cookies, their centers filled with pine honey, a delicacy from the port town of Marmaris, and then we went into the living room and had a cognac and coffee. We sat on a red sofa placed on one of Rachel’s large Turkish rugs, and to fill the silence between us, I told him about some of the women and girls I had seen making such rugs and how sorry I felt for them. He swirled his cognac and said nothing. Then I told him about the bear, its empty eyes, the empty eyes of some of the rural women. I told him about the fate awaiting Aba and said there must be some way she could escape it. He looked up at me with hard blue eyes.
“Can you do anything about it? Can you change the lives of the women or Aba or the bear?”
I don’t know what I expected him to say, but I felt dismissed, and I flared.
“Can you fighter pilots change lives … you change them for sure … but I mean change them for the better … with what you do?
“What brought that on? What’s your idea of what we do?”
“You know … Vietnam … bombing of —”
“I know the script. Any other idea about what we do? … Look, all I meant, Kelly, is that it’s better to put unpleasant things out of your mind if you can’t do a thing about them. You can’t help the bear. You can’t help the rural women. You can’t help Aba. This is not America.”
“Don’t talk down to me, Brian.”
He drank off the cognac and said he’d better catch the next bus to base. He had to fly early Sunday morning. I said I’d drive him, but he didn’t want me to drive back alone at night.
“I do it often.”
At the door, he slipped the tie-back off my ponytail. “I still like looking at you, Kelly.” He kissed me briefly and left without saying anything about Sunday evening. It was the first time we had not spoken of seeing each other the next day. As I lay in bed, I thought of Tim and how we talked of emotions causing people to lose focus in their lives … to derail. We agreed that emotions could and should be controlled. Yet I had been full of emotions for almost two months — fierce, disrupting emotions, and, except for appointments with Aba, had even manipulated my work to suit Brian’s schedule … me … derailed. It was not who I was, and with that realization, I finally found sleep.
The next morning, I picked up Aba and we headed for an area near Gaziantep for several interviews. These would be my last except for one with Aba herself. Neither one of us was inclined to talk, unusual for us, but to take my mind off Brian, I told her about the bear. I did not mention that his eyes were like those of women I had seen in the area, for that morning Aba’s own beautiful eyes seemed glazed, sad. I talked about the unkempt creature and his metal collar and his pitiful dance.
“I know him,” Aba said, “… the shackled bear.”
“I should have ignored them and walked away. I shouldn’t have left any money at all,” I said.
“If you did not, it would not help the bear, and the man would have no lira until he found another American. Some Americans like to see the bear dance. Do you not go to … the chir, the cirshus —”
“Circus. No, I don’t. I understand your meaning. But there’s oversight of the animals. It doesn’t make a circus right, but animals are better cared for, they …”
Aba sat staring out at the road. “Is something wrong, Aba?” She held up her finger for me to wait. She put her head down and then raised it to the road again. “I am betrothed. My father informed me last night.”
Over the course of our ride, she told me about Ahmet, often stopping to take a deep breath. I wanted to stop and hug her but knew she would not want that. I knew of Ahmet. Americans often ate at the restaurant where he worked in Adana. He was in charge of the staff and well paid by Turkish standards, and Americans tipped him to arrange special dinners or to see to other requests. Ahmet also owned land and was ambitious to own more. His wife had been dead six months leaving him with a 6-year-old that his sister presently cared for, and he was anxious to remarry. I asked, already knowing the answer, “Will you be able to continue working?”
“What do you think?” Aba said, “And, … there is a thing more.” She took a staggering breath. “He has … a hump.” She reached over her shoulder and outlined an area with her finger.
I could only mutter that it was a slight one and felt foolish as I said it.
“I am … shackled,” Aba said.
It was a hard day with one difficult interview and two cancelled because husbands refused to let their wives see us, in spite of their previous approval. On the drive back, we made no attempt to talk, but as we neared her home, Aba said, “I believe the life beyond will not have shackled bears. All will be free to follow their heart.”
“Do you, Aba?”
When I returned to the apartment, Rachel and Ellen were back from Aleppo.
“Have you heard, Kelly?”
“Brian’s squadron is rotating out next week. They just found out officially today.”
I sat down. I had made up my mind to tell him our situation would not work. He might even have been ready to tell me the same thing last night — his silence, the strangeness of the evening … but rotating out — so suddenly. I became aware of breathing rapidly.
“I thought Brian might have hinted at it last night,” Rachel said. “They usually have a clue.”
“No, he didn’t, but it’s for the best.”
“For the best! Does everyone but you know you love this man? Is this the oil-slick mindset again? You’ve gone with your heart here, Kelly, maybe because you’ve felt protected here from all those intellectuals who would point fingers at this relationship. Don’t be a fool and mess it up.”
Pointedly ignoring her effort to engage me, I told her about Aba’s betrothal and her reference to the shackled bear, and I urged Rachel to help me think of some way Aba could convince Ahmet to let her continue with her work. Rachel knew Ahmet and, ever able, suggested an approach that would set him thinking. “He admires Americans and hungers for recognition,” Rachel said. “I think it will work. The thought of Aba being shut down sickens me, too.”
“After interviewing her tomorrow morning, I’ll present it to her. Then I’m done here. … I’m going to bed. I’m exhausted.”
I went to my room and shut the door and soon heard a soft rapping. Rachel came in drinking a cognac and sat on the edge of my bed. “Kelly, old roomie, you are tied into a culture — I’d say an ideology — and it’s confining you more each year. It has been beautiful to see you break through it with Brian. Make room for love, Kelly. Otherwise, you’re as shackled as Aba and the bear.” She reached over and gave me a hug. “Good-night.”
After my morning interview with Aba, I took her to the Officers’ Club for lunch and told her there might be a way Ahmet would let her continue working. She would be, after all, very difficult to replace and her position brought status to her and her family. I told her she had to convince Ahmet he was a superior man, a man with foresight, a modern Turk who needed a modern, respected wife, a wife like some of the northern men had. “And, Aba, Rachel will see that images are created in Ahmet’s head of the status such a wife would bring him and his ambitions. Trust Rachel. He will never know she’s doing it.”
“And the child? And more children?”
“Together you and Ahmet will have more money than you ever dreamed of. With money, you have the freedom to arrange things, and Ahmet will revel in status and money, and, Aba, you know your father secretly enjoys your status. Please try. Just try, Aba.”
“Yes, … maybe … teşekkür ederim, Kelly.”
After lunch with Aba, I went to the base commissary for some wine before driving back to the apartment. The sun was blinding, my mind was in turmoil, and I felt physically ill. As I took my purse and commissary bag from the car, I picked up the scent of the roses that welcomed me to the apartment all those weeks ago. Now, the perfume stirred painful emotions. I kept my head down from the sun as I climbed the path and hoped I would not run into Osman, but a glance toward the steps revealed a hint of green wavering in the sunlight. I would tell him I had to hurry to get things to the refrigerator and add that his roses were more beautiful each day before rushing in to lie down.
I adjusted the shoulder strap of my purse and looked up, prepared to confront Osman when a green flight suit unfolded from the steps and Lt. Brian Gannon stood before me. He took my commissary bag and my hand. In silence, we mounted the steps.