Years later, when the first snow of the season began to fall, I put on my coat and went for a long walk in the early morning. This was something I began to do years earlier when I was living in Turkey. Since then, wherever I’ve lived, I always do this. Put on a coat, wrap a scarf around my neck, and go for a walk. Sometimes the snow will be coming down softly, flakes here and there, melting almost as soon as it touches the ground. Other times the snow will be abundant, falling on my coat, my head bent down, my scarf almost to my eyes. The clouds, heavy with snow, pouring everything out in the hopes of covering the ground, burying the earth and shrouding its secrets.
And that time, years later, when I went for a walk in the early morning, I found myself out in front of what used to be the Acapulco Karaoke Bar. A bar where I spent a winter falling for Elif while we listened to drunk construction workers sing sad songs to a largely empty space, and occasionally the owner, Haruki, a Japanese Peruvian, would step out onto the stage and belt out “Bésame mucho.” Standing there under the flickering lights, with the microphone in hand, he didn’t care that his bar was largely empty, that he was singing for a sparse crowd of Mexican construction workers and the occasional prostitute waiting for someone to buy her a drink. We were there too, Elif and me, sitting at a table in the corner, watching the owner sing, sing, sing, the night away.
“You can’t hold on to the past,” Elif once told me. “You don’t know how. You don’t know what to keep, what to throw away. So you keep it all. And you can’t do that. No one can.”
This is how these stories go.
There was a time when my family and friends were convinced that I was going to die in a bombing. I was living in Ankara then. It was my second extended trip to Turkey, but in the years since I’d last been, things had gone bad with a series of ISIS bombings across the country, the renewal of the war against the PKK, and spillover from the wars in neighboring countries. Everyone was worried about the security situation. I often received messages asking if I was okay. Sometimes they would ask why I had chosen to return to Turkey. A few of my Turkish friends even wondered why I had returned.
To everyone I responded the same thing: Because I was offered a visiting position at the university. What I never told anyone was that I was doing it because of Elif. Because this had been her city. Because in coming back I hoped to understand what it meant to let go without forgetting.
It was the beginning of my third year of teaching at the university and I met Elif at a house party hosted by an academic couple I didn’t particularly like. I was with Diana, a colleague from Design who I had been seeing off and on for a few months. Elif was with a boy she had recently started dating. We spoke briefly at the beginning, before returning to our respective dates. Bored and vaguely disgusted with the hosts—an arrogant couple from the German Department who organized house parties to demonstrate how cultured they were despite living in what they claimed was a rural Midwestern backwater full of uncultured hicks—I spent my time amusing myself by rearranging stuff around the house. I moved an artfully placed leafy potted plant a few inches to the left of a table so that the leaves fell upon it. On the mantle I shifted around some ceramic figures so that they appeared to be judging the guests. In the bathroom, I wrote, “Why are you looking in here?” inside a drawer. When I rejoined the party, after stealing three red paperclips from an office desk, I found out that Diana had left. Elif was in the corner, talking to one of my colleagues from landscape architecture. Clapping him on the back, I attached one of the paperclips to his shirt collar. He didn’t notice.
Elif did, but she kept quiet. She just smiled.
Big green eyes. Chunky glasses. Medium length, black wavy hair. Very skinny, I thought. She was leaning against the wall, wearing a skirt and with one leg tucked so far behind her it appeared she had one limb.
I was about to ask how she lost the leg. I was going to speculate either shark attack or younger brother with anger management issues and a love for shaping topiaries with a lawnmower. Instead, I simply nodded her way, greeted my colleague, and walked away.
Later, while on the porch talking to some grad students about the mall project that I was working on, she walked up. “I have a gift for you,” she said. She opened her hand to show me four red paperclips.
“I’ve heard you’re a collector of fine office supplies,” she said as she handed me her gift.
I ran into her a few weeks later at a café on campus. I was sitting at a booth grading papers when I heard a voice asking if the seat across from me was free. I nodded, then noticed that it was Elif.
“How goes the paperclip collection?” she asked.
“I almost have enough to complete the necklace I’ve been making,” I responded.
I woke up suddenly, thinking Elif had called me. I turned on the light and realized that I was alone. As alone as I’ve been for the last few years. I got out of bed and walked to the kitchen to pour a glass of water from the pitcher. It was snowing outside. I opened the kitchen door leading to the enclosed balcony and sat at the table. The snow fell lightly on the trees and the lawn. Across the street, there was a tiny streetlamp surrounded by trees, its light casting a circle on a bare patch of concrete. Before there used to be a park bench, but it was taken out when it became a favorite place for teenagers to smoke and drink. Back when I first lived here, Elif and I sometimes sat there after a night downtown. We would stop there before going up to my place. We’d sit awhile, her head resting on my shoulder, our hands entwined. The night surrounding us with all its possibilities in the light from the lamppost.
I pulled on some pants, threw on a sweater, and pulled out my scarf. The desire to go out struck me. It was three in the morning, and the neighborhood was quiet. I walked over to where the bench used to be, I saw where it had been bolted to the concrete. If it was still there, I would have sat down and let the snow pile up around me.
A year after she returned to Turkey, I was able to get a sabbatical for a semester. My plan was to spend it in Ankara with Elif. She was excited when I told her. “Tell me what date you arrive; I want to start a countdown.” Later she sent me a photo of a calendar she had on her wall, marking down the days to my arrival. She told me to be prepared; while she loved Ankara, it was not as exciting as Istanbul.
“But still,” she said, “I’m so excited to show you my city.”
About two months before I was supposed to fly out, there was a knock on my door. It was Elif with a large suitcase in hand. Hugging me as she came inside, she said she couldn’t wait for my arrival to Turkey, so she decided to fly to see me and then we would travel back together.
Before leaving for Ankara, we spent a month traveling around southern Mexico. We flew to Mexico City where we spent a week checking out the museums. From there we took an overnight bus to Chiapas where I booked us a week in a jungle resort outside the ruins of Palenque. As we walked to the bungalow where we were staying, we marveled at all of the iguanas. “Can we get one, please, please, please?” she pleaded. I suggested we adopt one and let it live in the jungle. She agreed and we spent the rest of the day trying to decide which one was going to be our iguana. We chose a very large, green one that was busy climbing a ceiba tree. We named it Haruki. We imagined it singing “Bésame mucho” from the top of the ceiba. Every day that we stayed at the resort we looked for Haruki in the trees and the foliage.
One afternoon, we had lunch at a small restaurant in town. A group of Mayan kids came in selling handicrafts. I bought a braided belt and a green bracelet for Elif. She bought a couple of bracelets and then told me to close my eyes and make a wish. When she said I could open them, she had tied a red and green bracelet to my wrist.
“Did you make a wish?” she asked.
I nodded and was about to tell her.
“Don’t tell me! Don’t tell anyone! You have to keep it on; when it falls off, your wish is completed. Okay, my yabancı?”
The bracelet remained on my wrist for almost six years.
I never told her that my wish was that if she were to leave, that she would come back. That my wish was for us to never let go.
She sometimes called me yabancı, foreigner. I pronounced it as well as I could, ya ban jah. It was her term of endearment for me. One morning, on the metro to campus, an older man asked me a question. I shrugged my shoulders and responded that I didn’t speak Turkish. He looked at me with disbelief. I looked Turkish to him. He considered the possibility that I might be an Alamancı, a German Turk, one who had never learned the language of his parents. Before he could say anything, I told him that I was Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano. He still couldn’t believe it. Nobody other than the carpet sellers in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul ever believed me. Whenever I passed through the bazaar, I would often be called out in Spanish. It always left me mystified as to how they knew. But I surmised that what they didn’t know was that by talking to me in Spanish, they were calling to me in a language in which I also felt like a yabancı: I grew up in California, Spanish was the language of my family, but English always surrounded me. To be honest, I felt like a yabancı in English too.
The man finally accepted that I wasn’t Turkish. He leaned back to his friends on the metro and said, “Yabancı.”
I smiled and said, “Yes, yabancı.”
Feeling out of place was my constant; maybe that’s why I became an architect who designed shopping malls. I designed spaces that evoked both placelessness and place at the same time.
Looking up at my building, I noticed a light on in the apartment next door. It was Derya, the schoolteacher who lived alone with her cat. I wondered why she was awake, but I also knew the reason. I met her soon after moving in. I was carrying a bag of fruit from the vendor on the corner and she was returning from work. We didn’t say anything other than Hi to each other. Most times when I open my mouth, it’s obvious I’m a yabancı and any potential conversation ends there. We got into the same elevator and when I pushed the button for my floor, she smiled. When we got out and went to our doors opposite each other, she turned and said in English: “Hi, I’m Derya.” She shook my hand. I smiled, mumbled my name, and shook hers. Then I unlocked my door and went inside feeling very much like a fool. About a week later, around one in the morning, there was a knock on my door. I was up with a friend of mine, drinking beer and listening to music. We had arrived a few minutes before after a night out in the city center. She was standing in the doorway in her pajamas, holding her cat. Her short hair disheveled, her big eyes sleepy, no makeup. She was stunning. She introduced me to her cat and told me that it had been trying to sleep but it couldn’t because of the music. With my boy Gordon standing behind me, Derya kept trying to look around us, to see if there was anyone else inside. I apologized and said I would turn it down. Before she could say anything, I closed the door. Gordon stared at me in disbelief. “Who was that? Why didn’t you invite her in?” he kept asking. “I would’ve left,” he finally said.
We were leaving a movie theatre in Chicago where we’d just seen Never Let Me Go. Though we had read the novel a few years earlier, we were both left wrecked by the film. We stepped out of the theatre in silence. It was snowing and we hugged each other tightly. We strolled hand in hand for a few blocks, without saying anything, just walked in the falling snow, lost in the moment, pretending that we were still together. Just like before. We grasped for what little remained of our relationship, striving to keep the final threads that bound us to each other from unraveling.
And when we got to where my car was parked, she took back her hand and looked at me with her green eyes. She told me she had to go, she was meeting someone else. I wanted to ask her if it was him, the other guy, the one she told me about who she met one afternoon while riding the shuttle bus from the airport. But all I said was, “Okay.”
“You don’t know how to hold on to the past,” she said.
“But the past is all I have,” I responded.
“One day you’ll have to let it go,” she said. Then she smiled, gave me a long embrace, and kissed me. “You’re going to have to let me go,” she said, before pulling away from me. “Just don’t forget me.”
I watched her walking down the street and wondered if that was ever going to be possible.
The snow fell heavier as I walked the streets my neighborhood at three in the morning. The world was quiet. The apartment buildings silent. I strolled over to the main street. The lighting was better, but it was just as empty. I was sauntering down the street when I noticed something come out of the darkness of an alley. A large dog, a yellow Labrador. I stopped and stared at it. A female. She looked back with sad eyes. Sensing she wasn’t going to hurt me, I started walking again. The dog followed. Together we ambled the streets of my neighborhood, past the empty shops and cafés, the quiet houses, the parks. Everything was slowly being covered by snow and I was walking the streets with my companion keeping pace by my side.
One night, as we were meandering back to my house, I told Elif I couldn’t wait for her to show me her Ankara.
“My Ankara?” she responded. “My Ankara is cold in the winter and boiling in the summer. It is a city of malls, parks, and hard people trying to find their way in the concrete jungle. My Ankara is one of heartbreak and loneliness. But my yabancı, she continued, it’s going to change once you are there. My Ankara will be one of light and movement and joy.”
We were having işkembe. Three in the morning, downtown Ankara. We sat at a corner booth, near a group of four friends who were busy tearing into their soup. I didn’t care for it, as I told her I didn’t even like it in Mexico. Menudo was never my thing.
But Elif loved it. Especially after a night of drinking. “It’s a great hangover cure,” she told me. “Yes, just as it is in Mexico,” I told her. I looked at her, at the way her black curly hair fell into her face, her smile as she dipped her spoon into the broth, an aspect of pure joy as she ate. I thought about the time my mom sent me to the butcher to pick up the menudo from the cow she had slaughtered. She handed me a bucket and said, “Go.” I drove over to the farm where the butcher had the carcass hanging off a large spike in the back of his truck. Told him what mom wanted, and he told me to wait, he hadn’t cut it off yet. Then he grabbed a giant knife and grabbed the carcass. He cut off the stomach lining, placed the steaming mess into my bucket, and handed it to me. I stood there in shock, frozen in place.
“Thanks,” I told her, after eating the bowl of işkembe. “Now you’ve made my nightmare complete; I’ve had tripe in three countries and in three languages. Menudo in Mexico, tripe in the US, and işkembe over here.”
“You’re welcome,” she said with a mischievous smile. “Next time we have kokoreç, intestine.”
We often met in the café off campus. After a couple of weeks, we moved on from the playful jokes and comments, and she began to tell me about her life. She talked about growing up in Ankara; how the city was growing; how every time she left, she would come back to more new buildings being built on the surrounding hills. She was worried that when she returned to Turkey, she wouldn’t recognize her city anymore. She told me about her classes, the students she had, and how small the campus seemed to her. I told her about growing up in California; how I grew up in a small farming town; how I worked in the olive orchards as a kid; how though I often dreamed of leaving small town life, after a life of living in cities in Europe and Latin America, I enjoyed living in rural Iowa. After about a month, we started meeting off campus for drinks, or a movie, or just simply to drive around. My on-and-off thing with Diana was over and I had time. Elif was seeing a local guy, someone as she described it, that one of the professors she was working with pressured her into seeing. He was okay, she said, but more often than not, they had fights.
One night, after a bad argument at a bar, she called me at home. She was sorry for bothering me in the middle of the night, but she needed to talk to someone. I listened to her for a while, then I said, “Listen, where are you? I can pick you up.”
It was snowing heavily as I drove carefully through the streets on my way downtown. She was standing on the corner near a burrito place overflowing with students. She got into the car and said, “Drive, just drive.” We drove up and down the city streets, through neighborhoods and past convenience stores in silence. We passed the Acapulco market, the mercado where I sometimes bought stuff to make Mexican food. She saw the bar next door, Acapulco Karaoke Bar.
“Let’s go there,” she said.
I found myself at the top of Maltepe, near the mosque. I looked out over the lit up minarets. The Labrador sat down by my side as I decided which way to go. I considered walking down the hill towards Kızılay. There would be open cafés and soup restaurants down there. There would be people out enjoying the night and the falling snow. As I started to make the way down the hill, she blocked me. I asked her what was the matter. She started to go back up the hill. I looked down the street and I noticed at the bottom two wild dogs stepping into the light, and I figured that there must be more. I looked at the Labrador who had stopped and was waiting for me. I followed. With the Labrador now leading the way, we wandered the streets and ended up at her building. Since my return to Ankara, I’ve avoided heading over there. If it hadn’t been because she stopped in front of her building, I would’ve walked on by. I looked up, wondering if her roommate Fulya still lived there. I wondered if she knew about Elif, and if she did, if she was also staying up late thinking about her.
As her building was closest to downtown, we always stopped there first after a night out. Her apartment was a two-bedroom walkup on the third floor. The front was a large window with a balcony all the way across. We would stand on the street looking up at the building and her apartment. Then she would sigh, shake my hand with seriousness, and pull out her keys before turning to me with a smile and saying, “Let’s watch TV at your place.” Other times she would crush me in an embrace, then rush to unlock her door and start to run up the stairs to her apartment. I would stand on the street, looking up at her balcony, and she would come outside and say, “Go, go quick before I call the police and say that there’s a yabancı stalking my house.”
Madrid. I had been given a fellowship to give a month-long series of architecture workshops at the university in late November. I stayed until the middle of January. Elif wanted me to go Ankara following the workshops, but I told her I needed to stay in Madrid to work on a mall project. As soon as she could take vacation, she joined me in Spain. At the end of her visit, before taking a taxi to the airport, we stopped into the café downstairs from my apartment. After a few years of crossing the Atlantic back and forth a few times a year to see each other, we were both tired. The visits were becoming more infrequent, the reasons why we couldn’t go becoming more elaborate. Work was our most common excuse.
Elif sat across from me with her green scarf wrapped around her neck. It was snowing outside. I noticed a clock on the wall; it ran backwards. I imagined that it was erasing time. I looked out the window and saw a car on the corner with a couple inside: the woman was at the wheel holding it tightly; the man had a firm expression. When we first got together, Elif and I would watch people and imagine what was going on with them. We created conversations, histories, lives; stories that would continue after the people were out of sight. Sometimes she would ask if I thought that other people did the same for us. “Nah,” I would respond. “They see us and they can tell our story immediately. We are a couple with flow. We are connected.”
I looked over at her to see if she saw the couple in the car and was about to ask what she envisioned would be their story. She was looking down into her coffee. I looked at the clock and imagined that it could really turn back time, that it would take us back, back, back. Back to a few minutes before we saw each other for the first time. Maybe then I would know what I needed to say so that we wouldn’t find ourselves a few years later in Madrid, at the end of us. I told her all this, and Elif looked at me with sad eyes. “My silly yabancı,” she said. “It wasn’t something you failed to say that brought us here.” Then she put her hand on mine, looked out at the taxi stand on the corner and said, “I have to go.”
Before she left, I pressed a small gift into her hand. She opened it; a bracelet made of red paperclips.
Haruki smiled at us as he always did when we arrived to the bar. We had been going for months, to drink beer and to listen to whoever went on stage to sing. One night, we saw two guys I had seen on campus do an amazing rendition of “My Heart Will Go On.” Another time, I saw a guy from a local band bust out Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades.” Later, he did “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid. Acapulco Karaoke Bar was best, however, after midnight, in the hour before last call when the bar was mostly empty. Haruki would step out onto the stage in the black suit he always wore. The lights would dim for a second, and then the lightshow—colored lights reflected off a spinning disco ball—and the opening strains of “Bésame mucho” would commence. The first time we saw him, Elif leaned in and rested her head on my shoulder. I didn’t know what to do; I sat there frozen, hoping that her boyfriend wouldn’t suddenly show up to kick my ass. By the end of that first long, cold, winter, we were together.
After that afternoon in Chicago, I never saw her again, though there was one final message. It arrived a few months later, a postcard from Spain sent to my home. It had gotten wet somewhere on the journey and the ink had smeared, leaving the words blended into one big blue stain. The only thing I could make out were the words, “I’ve saved everything you gave me.” Then there appeared to be a list, but it was illegible. Soon after that, I heard through a friend that she had been killed in a traffic accident in Spain. I looked at the stained postcard, and saw it as a sort of sign.
A few months later, I returned to Turkey to teach.
At the end of the walk, the Labrador and I arrived at where the bench used to be. I stared at the snow piling up in the pool of light. I remembered our nights spent sitting there. I remembered Haruki standing in the spotlight singing “Bésame mucho;” I remembered being lonely and sad in that winter when I first met her and we would go to the Acapulco Karaoke Bar to while away the night. I remembered Elif confessing her dreams and fears. I remembered her telling me about the places we would go, the adventures we would have. I remembered her showing me her Ankara and saying, “Now it’s our Ankara.” I remembered all our years of snow. I scratched at the bracelet on my wrist: I knew then what I had to do. I began to tug at it, trying to loosen it. Finally, I pulled off the bracelet and held it in my hand.
I then left it in the spot where our bench used to be.
This was how to let go, but to not forget. I had held on too tight, even though I knew that she was never coming back. This was peace with the past.
The Labrador stared at me. Then she stared at where I had shed the bracelet. She turned and headed back into the darkness.
Standing there, I remembered my last night in Ankara five years ago. After my books had been sent back, my stuff packed, and I was staying my last few days in a hotel over on Tunalı, we walked over to see my apartment building for one final time. Though my return flight was early in the morning, we spent the evening wandering from place to place in the city center. We ended up sitting at the park bench, exhausted. We were too tired to talk. Elif rested her head on my shoulder and closed her eyes. We sat like that until it was time to go.
I walked home. When I got to my floor, I heard a noise from next door. The cat, I thought. I listened, but I didn’t hear a thing. And yet, I sensed that Derya was standing on the other side of the door, perhaps holding her breath, perhaps staring through the peephole. I went over and stood outside, unsure of what to do.
Photographs provided courtesy of author.