If Not This
If you weren’t dead, I’d tell you
the truth I’m just fine in Istanbul. I’m saving money, and I have a good, clean job. I work with kids. And soon I’ll have enough money for a ticket to the U.S. to visit you.
I’d say you were right about Hungary, and I should have left with you. That I was too young for that kind of work, and you were right, it did fuck me up, but I’m going to be okay now.
But you’re dead and I would never tell you that one morning, one ordinary day, I was in Efkan’s bedroom and I pulled down the neckline of my V-neck to expose the top of my too-pink bra. And downstairs the kids I au pair for were already yelling. Asli, their mother, Efkan’s wife, called “breakfast” for the fourth time. I wouldn’t tell you that I couldn’t resist the slight bulge at his crotch and I just placed my hand over it, if only to feel it. I wondered how far I was going to go. And I rubbed him, real slow, like I had all the time in the world, even though I thought then I had other places to go. Felt the need to flee so strongly I thought at times it would kill me.
But it was you who died.
Asli’s fifth call for “breakfast” saved me. I turned away from him, walked to the door and could still hear his ragged breath, which made me sing with the power of it. I loved it, this play.
“Until later,” I couldn’t resist saying.
If you weren’t dead I’d tell you about Sercan, only six and pouting already. How every morning was a fight to put on his tennis shoes.
“But you love tennis,” I said, and the kid shook his head. I’d tell you how strange it was that this family in Turkey looked more “American” than I do. How I always thought Turks would be dark skinned, dark haired, but Sercan’s hair is light brown, blond from the sun. It’s all that Greek, I guess. So many Istanbulis look nothing like I would have thought. I expected the burkas and the hijabs, but not the tank tops and short-shorts.
“I hate shoes,” Sercan said.
“But Nadal, but Federer,” I said, “your idols, they wear shoes.” This worked every morning.
He was as easy to manipulate as his father. He sat and allowed me to slip his shoes on his feet, tie the laces tightly.
“Now off to breakfast,” I said. In these moments I loved him fiercely and I understood the appeal of motherhood. To watch that little stubborn body leave the room, to imagine him slathering Nutella on toast.
I wouldn’t tell you that after Sercan went to breakfast I’d always sneak to my room, take two long pulls on the Raki I had there. That’d I’d go to breakfast with anise and liquor on my tongue and
I knew I didn’t know that maybe I should quit, stop going through my mornings part- numbed. If you weren’t dead I’d tell you I’m okay, just a little sad.
But you’re dead, and I’m trying to find some reason why I shouldn’t be too. You see, I had a plan. I’d leave Hungary, work in Istanbul where they love American au pairs, so I’d get some clean money. Be the type of person you’d approve of. All this was for you, so that when I called you after so many years, we could be sisters again. I know you said if I wanted to continue to live like I was, you wanted no part of it. But I don’t want to live like that anymore. I needed only to call. I knew you were in Iowa with distant family. I had found their number. But I waited.
If you weren’t dead, I’d tell you about the family I work for, how good and whole it is, like ours once was, before Mom died. I like the mother, Asli, well enough. I feel sorry for her though,
because it would be so easy to take Efkan from her because she doesn’t work or do much, so what purpose could she have? Then there’s Sercan, of course, and he’s my secret favorite, because he’s young enough that adults still seem like heroes. He stills needs us. There’s two kids: Sercan, a silly six, and Besta, a serious twelve.
That one morning, Besta was nervous for her swim meet. “Tell me about swimming,” I said, forcing my English upon them. That’s what I’m there for, to make sure they gain that second fluency, though they’re both already so good. Besta launched into an explanation of her competitors, which turned into her talking about the “unreal” record times made by twelve-year-olds in the U.S.
What she doesn’t understand is that the U.S. has the money, the trainers, the long arms, and the hutzpah to win far too many Olympic medals in swimming. She doesn’t believe the U.S. swimming times because they’re just too fast. I can’t believe the U.S. either. Did you feel that way while we were in Hungary? That you couldn’t believe we were American citizens born and raised, because that should have meant privilege?
I wouldn’t tell you about Efkan. I’ve had enough experience with men to know he’s only useful if he’s needy. I’ve been sentimental before, but that didn’t work out. I like seeing how weak I can make him, but mostly I string him along because
maybe I kinda like him I know I might need something from him. He has money.
I’d tell you how much I love this place, this artificial gated community, Kemer Country, in Kemerburgaz, with its many houses sharing walls, each a different color of a burnt rainbow. This should be rich suburbia, but it’s still technically Istanbul. I love this expansive city that creeps across two continents. But my favorite place here isn’t Hagia Sophia or the Bosphorus; it’s this artificial lake in Kemer Country, with this massive willow by it.
Most days, when the kids are off to swimming and tennis practice, I’d sit here, in the shade, which made time pass quickly, exquisitely. I’d think to myself, am I ready to contact you yet?
Have I fooled myself enough? Am I self-sufficient, a good-real adult?
If you weren’t dead:
But you are dead:
I’d tell you after
I ran away from the fucker I said goodbye to the duck, I wandered the clean streets and admired the houses. I walked and thought of where I was, where I was going. I’m actually twenty-six, though I had told the family I was twenty-two. Despite the years I’ve had, I look younger than I am. Remember how Mom always said that Americans and Hungarians had good skin, pale but with a glow? She said because we were American-Hungarian our skin would shine until we died.
Did yours? Her skin did. Though of course she died when she was only forty.
That was the sort of life I was heading toward in Budapest. One where I would be dead by forty.
Maybe I should have stayed.
I came to my favorite house, or on some days, my least favorite. It’s a pale, tangerine color, and in front of it, on the lawn, is this car. The first time I saw it, I thought it was some weird modern sculpture or something that was too risky and artsy for me to understand. But it’s actually a real car from a wreck. Its front end is crumpled and completely destroyed. And it’s all rusted now. It doesn’t even look real, only like something that’s been made to resemble what a wrecked car might look like.
“What is that?” I had asked Besta, many months ago when we walked past.
“Leyla lives there,” Besta said. “She’s strange. Anne says that a long time ago Leyla was in a car crash.” Anne means mother, one of the only Turkish words I know because the kids whine it so often.
“It was a serious wreck,” Besta said. “She died three times in the hospital. And that’s the car she crashed. She’s kept it ever since.”
“Why would she keep it?”
Besta shrugged. “Grownups are weird.”
As I walked past the rusted car house, two little back dogs came bounding out, yip-yap. I hate small dogs. “Shoo,” I said, but the dogs bounded to me with their
creepy, purebred faces and their hair swooping down their lips like mustaches. They barked and barked.
I liked standing there, taunting them. This moment of trivial power. “You can’t get me,” I whispered.
Usually it’s just the dogs, but that day, an old lady came out of the house. She said something that sounded like “Iz goo num,” and I just looked at her and shook my head and said, “excuse me?”
I’d say our meeting went like this:
“Yeah,” I said.
She frightened me, but I liked that. It was like I was back with anya, and Leyla was her all grown up. She made her own chai. No one was around, no help or anything. We were alone. What if she was crazy? What if she attacked? I could outrun her.
She boiled the water in a metal kettle with a large opening and put the glass teakettle above that. The Turks do a double boil, so no tea ever touches the flame. They say it burns it, turns the tea acidic. And wouldn’t they know? They discovered tea, all those years back. They brew their tea extra strong. Leyla poured me the almost black tea and then added water from the metal pot to dilute it.
“You work for the Bektasoglus,” she said. It didn’t seem like a question so I didn’t answer.
She seemed too nice. I wanted to uncover her strangeness. I asked, “Why do you keep a rusted car in your yard?”
I’d tell you about Leyla’s story. It took me quite some time
to understand her true, dark thoughts to get her to open up to me, to trust me. It went something like this.
Istanbul, thirteen million people, Europe’s largest city, and none of the drivers believe in traffic laws. The freeways don’t believe in lane lines either, but instead are stretching expanses of concrete, six or seven comfortable car-widths wide. Sercan had told me there are many accidents but no deaths, a statement I didn’t believe, and certainly didn’t believe after I heard about Efkan’s friend whose twin brother recently died in a crash.
Remember as kids how LA driving would scare us? Remember Dad’s driving after Mom’s death, when it seemed he wanted to crash, wanted to kill us all? Compared to Istanbul, LA is tame. LA is the kiddy lane.
Leyla drove with her husband, who had just cheated on her. She was three months pregnant. She knew about the affair, but he still thought he had kept it a secret. She hated him, a kind of hate that comes only from betrayal, only from love.
You see, she said she didn’t mean to.
She did. She was driving because their driver was sick and she was in the fast lane. Ahead, to the right, the cars started piling—who knows what mistake was made?—but she watched the car bodies crumple and form a mountain.
She thought about careening straight into that mess. This was only a thought, she said, a split-second hypothetical. “I would never do it,” she had said again and again.
She hit the brakes. But there was nothing she could do,
was there something? When she said this her perpetual half frown changed to a smile, her speed was too great, the cars around her skidding, trying to avoid the pile-up. She remembered nothing but a jolt, a metallic crash, and then, briefly, bright lights in a white room, again, again.
Her husband died that day, and she lost their child—or the child that could have been theirs.
I would tell you:
When I thought you were alive, it was hard to put off Efkan, to leave him wanting. But I did, because I wasn’t like that anymore. I tempted but didn’t provide. I wanted to be like Leyla, a woman with a bite.
I wouldn’t tell you that one night, when Asli was off downtown for a girl’s night and the kids were at a neighbor’s house, the cook made dinner for Efkan and I alone. When she had left, when Efkan had lit candles and never raised his gaze from my breasts, I took off my shirt, that I purposely was wearing a black lace push-up.
“Do you want me?” I asked, because I’ve found men love clichés. I didn’t know how I would get out of that one. Because at that moment I’d slipped. I wanted it. But I still thought you were alive then, and I still wanted you to be proud of me.
He sipped his wine, but his hands were shaking. His wife was attractive but slim on top, and she wasn’t as young as I was, as young as he thought I was.
“Let’s go upstairs,” he said. I had goose bumps on my breasts. I remember that, because I actually was aroused.
I stood, leaned over the table and said, “No. You have a wife.” My escape: to make him feel guilty. I walked away from him, but he was behind me so fast, and though he was only a little taller than me, he was strong. He pinned me to the wall, grabbed both of my wrists and held them to that flat surface.
“Enough,” he said, his face so close it tickled my lips. “I will fuck you.”
I would never tell you how much that phrase aroused me. I thought I was done being fucked.
I kneed him in the crotch, because I thought you were still alive. I didn’t do it hard, only enough so that he would let me go. He said something in Turkish, probably a curse, and I ran to my room.
I screamed, “Only on my terms,” and I locked the door and giggled. Oh, he was angry, but I had the upper hand because he was needy and I could always tell his wife. Sure I would lose my job, but his marriage was worth more than that. At least, I hoped so.
I would tell you that every day I walked by the rusted car. I loved how despite the crash and passing time, it still existed. Though Leyla never became like a mother to me, she reminded me of ours. She became a weak friend, and that was the closest relationship I had in a while. I loved the kids, especially Sercan, but that wasn’t quite friendship.
Every day Leyla and I would have tea. I liked her, even though getting her to talk about her real emotions was tricky. Once you knew her, she didn’t seem strange, but seemed so happy, would talk about her purpose now, her work with a nonprofit for women’s education.
But I broke that down. No one is happy all the time. Especially someone who had once wished her husband dead and kept a reminder of it.
Every day I would talk to the kids, and every day I would get paid a little more. It wasn’t much, but I had free room and board, so who was I to complain?
When I thought you were alive, I was content because I felt my purpose was to gather myself into good enough shape to call you.
And then one day, when I was
throwing stones at the Muscovy duck watching the Muscovy duck by the lake I decided that was it. I was as changed as I could be and I needed you for the next step. You were always the stronger one. You made our escape from LA to Hungary when Dad got too scary, and you left from Hungary when you realized that place was worse.
I realized how desperately I missed you, and I’d hit the point where no amount of fear or shame could keep me from speaking to you.
I hadn’t considered what other forces might keep us apart.
I returned to the family’s home. Efkan had told me if I ever needed to make a call to America, that was okay, I could use the home phone. It was one of his more desperate statements, though all it got him was a fleeting press on his groin.
It was three hours until the kids would be home, delivered by their drivers. It didn’t sound like Asli was home. So I took the phone in my hand and just stood there for a while. I wasn’t very courageous. Dialing those numbers seemed the most difficult thing. What would you say? Would you forgive me? I had said such awful things to you before you left. You were awful too. I thought I was the smart one and you were just jealous at how good I was with men. You were always proud and I was your little sister.
If you were alive, I would apologize.
I dialed. I talked to our distant cousin, who said he hadn’t heard from you in years, but he had a number, where he thought you would be.
And so there I was again with the phone in my hand. I breathed, a long inhale and a short exhale, like I used to do when I wanted my head to spin. I dialed the new number.
If you were alive, you would have answered. And I would be in America with you, instead of, well, instead of this.
A man answered, and I put on my nice voice, explained who I was.
“Her sister?” He said. “I didn’t know. She never mentioned you.” That made me wonder who it was you had become.
“Is she there?” I asked.
“Oh,” he said. “You don’t know.” Pause. “I’m so sorry.”
“A few months ago,” he said, his voice hitching to a whisper, “on our farm, there was, well, we think it was an accident.” A deep breath. “They said it was instant. That it should have been nearly painless.”
“She’s dead,” I said. And then he started crying. I thought it should’ve been me. I hated you for dying. Hated myself for waiting so long to call. Hatred and meanness boiling in me.
“Did you fuck her?” I asked.
Laughter. Silence. A cascading breath out. “That’s not the term I’d use.”
“Was she any good?”
“I loved her.”
“Yeah, I did too.” My legs buckled and I sat on the gleaming wood floor for a long time.
And then. “If you ever find yourself in Iowa,” he said, “We have some of her belongings. There was no will or anything, but I suppose they should be yours.”
Nothing. No tears, but no words either.
“You should come,” he said.
“Yeah, maybe,” I said and hung up. I hadn’t even learned his name.
I had never felt like this, sad and so angry I wanted to plunge my hand in my chest and rip a beating thing from me. You always said I was too melodramatic. I felt things too hard. But you did too, didn’t you? I sat on the floor. I thought about you for a long time. I wasn’t sure I could ever get up what would happen next, but I didn’t I did want to find out. I felt my lungs stop whatever happened would be the end exciting and I was not eager to get to it. And so.
Maybe—I go to Efkan’s room. I come in when he’s alone and reading the paper and I immediately strip down: satin pink bra, lacy thong. He puts down the paper, but though I can see he’s aroused already, he says, “No. Only on my terms.”
Maybe—I go to the pond by the willow. I have a bag of bread, only two slices, just the right amount. I throw some to the Muscovy duck and he gobbles, his red growth jiggling as he eats. And sure enough, he comes strutting to me. I scatter the breadcrumbs. He lowers his head and hisses. I thought only geese did that, but he’s as mean as one. He comes closer, both wanting the bread and to scare me off. He hates me as I hate him.
Maybe—I go to Leyla’s yard. I crawl into the rusted car—it’s hard because the doors are too crumpled to open, the windows, nearly gone except for fangs of glass. But I make it.
Michelle Donahue is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing & Literature at the University of Utah where she is fiction editor of Quarterly West. Her fiction has been previously published in Arts & Letters, Sycamore Review, CutBank, and others.