Kirsten Voris tells stories to challenge her judgements, divine her motivation, and practice laughing at herself, in that order. Her work has appeared in Magic Magazine and Hippocampus. She has performed at Odyssey Tucson and her essay Zamzam will appear in the forthcoming Sofra: A Gathering of Foreign Voices Around the Turkish Table. She lives and writes and grows radishes in Tucson, Arizona. Sometimes, she wishes she was still in Turkey.
Standing in the middle of my empty apartment in Ankara, I re-finger the final collection; all the keys I could locate. The walk through with my landlord, Aykut Bey, is today. And the key to the balcony is missing. There is no mailbox key. There never was a mailbox key.
I picture Aykut at the door; my stomach tenses.
Aykut Bey interrupts. He ignores direct questions or answers them with a koan. He will ask: “What would you like to do?” And then tell you what is going to happen.
“Stop picking fights with him,” my boyfriend Zach said.
Aykut had called to ask why we hadn’t sent in a rent increase. I said he never told us it was going up. He said we should have known it was going up.
“Okay,” I said. “How much?”
And Aykut said, “Well, what do you think?”
Because of his stable and loving upbringing, Zach is not triggered by this behavior. So I invited him to take over. For the past 2 years Zach has been in charge of all landlord-related business. Unfortunately, Zach flew to the US with our cat a month ago. Today, I am in charge of Aykut Bey. I don’t want to be in charge.
Maybe he won’t notice the missing keys. I take in the vacant expanse of floor, the curtain-less windows. The apartment is empty. Spotless.
Because Aykut Bey said: The apartment must be returned empty.
The unspoken threat: You won’t get your $500 deposit back.
That’s dollars, not Turkish lira. It’s a lot of money.
Do I need it? I say that I do. Not getting the money equals defeat at the hands of Aykut Bey. Losing the battle of wills I imagine we’re waging. I need those dollars. On principle.
As I wait, I rehearse worst case scenarios. Plan my defense. I have been cleaning the apartment since early this morning. I look down at my hands. They are balled into fists, raw from scrubbing. They ache. I relax my fingers and check my watch. Five minutes.
As I head to the window ledge to sit down, the doorbell rings.
My stomach leaps. The deposit. Will I get it? I have done everything right. Except replace the missing keys.
Be nice to Aykut, I think as I cross the now-gleaming parquet expanse to the door. This is your only remaining task.
The bell to the apartment building is four floors up, at street level. From a security screen in my apartment, I have spied on the unsuspecting as they wait to enter the building. I catch the mailman checking his hair, the building manager picking his nose. Sometimes, a bird will pass.
I depress the button and peer at the screen. A pixilated man materializes. Aykut? The man pushes on the door. Nothing happens. I press the button. The man pulls on the door. Don’t make me go up there. Hope fading, I press again. The door resists. My muscles go limp. I sigh audibly. Asking God for patience, I hike up four flights to let him in. Our 60-year-old building has no elevator.
As the door clicks open a man looks up and smiles at me. Under his nose, a mustache quivers. Aykut? I’m not sure. He’s more child-sized than I remember. He seems desiccated.
When we last met, four years ago at the real estate office, the force named Aykut expanded beyond its physical form. It filled the room with its majestic largeness. As we signed the lease, Aykut turned in his chair. His back to us, he addressed the real estate agent.
“I want you as a witness to what I am going to tell the renters,” he said. “The apartment is to be returned to me empty. Anything that needs to be repaired inside the apartment is their responsibility. They are not to bother me with it.”
Speech over, Aykut folded his hands and looked out the window.
Today, Aykut looks into my face. He meets my eyes. “Merhaba, Kristin Hanım,” he says, getting my name wrong. Presenting it on a cloud of ashtray breath.
His teeth are startlingly white. Like his smile, his clothes seem too fresh. Didn’t he just drive from Istanbul? In his hand, a plastic shopping bag. My money?
To be polite, I smile back, then gesture for Aykut to go ahead. His gait is creaky. The words I’ve wasted on this man, I think, the curses, the complaints. All behind his back, of course. Now, he seems unwell. I feel the first tingle of remorse.
Until I remember yesterday.
As the last stick of furniture departed and I initiated the cleaning tsunami Aykut called. “Kristin Hanım, someone is coming to look at the apartment today.”
“I am going out,” I lied.
“You have to be there to let them in.”
“No,” I said.
“Bak, Kristin,” he said. “This is very important.”
“I’m sorry. I am very busy.”
“Okay,” Aykut said. “Should I send them over at 2 or 3?”
“Aykut Bey, I’m leaving Turkey in two days. Can you wait two days?”
“Okay, 3:00. Thank you Kristin. Thank you very much for understanding.”
Dead phone in one hand, dirty mop in the other, I felt indignant. Then enraged. I cursed him. I stepped into the hall to dump the trash and locked myself out of the apartment.
Today, as Aykut steps over the threshold, I see the door. The locksmith cracked the frame trying to get me in. I am hovering, fretting.
Aykut is oblivious. He leans his plastic bag against a radiator and begins the inspection.
As he circulates through what is soon to be my former place, I appreciate the big windows. The mulberry tree. The light.
“Why did you move this cabinet?” Aykut calls from the kitchen. “This is not where it was.”
“I moved it so I could clean.” If I hadn’t moved it you would have said 'why is the wall dirty?' I fume.
"Kristin,” Aykut calls from the salon “do you have the keys?”
The keys. Tentatively, I walk them over to Aykut.
He looks at the collection. It seems to tax him. Please don’t try them. I inhale. Ready myself.
Aykut leaves the keys in a heap on the marble-topped radiator. Hands behind his back, he walks to the salon windows and stares towards the mulberry tree.
I won’t see it leaf out this year, I think.
Instead of feeling what this brings up, I consider the leaving-the-country tasks I have to complete. I want to get out of here. I’m trying not to think about the tree. What is he doing?
I take a step. The parquet creaks, and Aykut turns. He smiles at me. Again. “You know,” he says “it’s been 10 years since I’ve lived here.”
“Hmmm,” I say. Two pending tasks: my suitcases. They wait at a friend’s. They still exceed the airline weight limit.
“I moved in after I retired.”
I can ditch the hairdryer. Books in the carry-on? Without disturbing the keys, I pluck my purse from the radiator.
“Were you happy with the place?” Aykut asks.
I hang my purse from my shoulder.
“Did you enjoy living here?”
He’s looking at me. Waiting. Did I enjoy living here? I feel petulant. No, I want to say.
My filmstrip of unpleasant events begins rolling. The missing mail key. Extracting letters and flyers with tweezers. My bloodied knuckles. The sewage leaking from upstairs. The moth infestation.
And Hasan. The maintenance guy who hacked up the mulberry. Taking our green-dappled light. Robbing us of our privacy. Making me cry.
And Aykut Bey, who answered my tearful phone call and said: “I will take care of Hasan.”
Moments later I watched Hasan, still balanced in the tree, take a call. He twisted his body, swiveled his head. Up. Then down. Hunting. I backed away from my window.
Aykut threatened to turn him in to the municipality. For tree murder. There are fines for that.
“I planted the mulberry with my own hands,” Aykut told me that day. “It’s for everyone.”
I study the caramel-colored tangle of branches. The last tree to leaf out in summer, the last to lose its leaves.
Did you enjoy living here? Aykut asked. The truth is, I don’t want to think about it.
“I did enjoy living here,” I say.
I’m not sure Aykut heard. He is already pulling documents from the inner pockets of his coat. One by one he removes them from their plastic sleeves and places them on the radiator. He produces a pen. On the top of the pile, a copy of my rental agreement. The same one I Xerox each year to take to the Ministry of Security. To renew my residence permit. As I note the sadness this dislodges, Aykut hands me the pen.
He points. “Now, you will write here that you received the $500 deposit back from me.”
My stomach cramps.
“Have I received the money yet?” I blurt.
Aykut blinks. The words seem to hum. Expand.
Before I can breathe, or stuff my gaffe back into the bag of fear it fell out of, Aykut clears his throat.
“Kristin Hanım,” he says, “bak.” This translates roughly as: “Look here, Miss Kristin.”
Forget that my name isn’t Kristin. As soon I hear these words, I puff like an aggrieved scorpion fish. Because these words usually precede something I don’t want to hear. For example: “Böyle olmaz (That is impossible).” Or, “Yapmam (I won’t do it).” Or, “Siz çözeceksiniz (You will solve it).”
Or, “I am required by law to raise your rent each year.” A lie!
Today he says: “Kristin Hanım, bak: I’m a Muslim and you’re a Christian.”
“Am I a Christian?” Why can’t I shut up?
“I don’t know what I am.”
Aykut looks confused. In the moment it takes him to regroup, I understand two things: One, I am acting like a five-year-old. Two, he will give me the money.
Get it together, I think. But he is the problem. Isn’t he? Once I delete Aykut from my life, by moving, I’ll relax. Right?
Suddenly hot, I set my purse on the floor next to Aykut’s bag and remove my sweater.
“Bak,” he repeats “I was born in 1942 and I’m approaching the end of my life.” As I note the fact that he looks much older than he is, he delivers his point:
“Last year my wife and I went on the Umrah.”
Umrah. The discount Hajj, a friend calls it. So, not quite the Hajj, but still, a pilgrimage to Mecca.
I try to picture Aykut Bey, one among hundreds of pilgrims in flowy white Hajj garb waiting for flights out of Ankara Airport. Unable to heft their luggage, they are slow. They are old. Many have never flown before; I am willing to bet most will never fly again.
“I am a Muslim,” Aykut is telling me. “And as a Muslim, I always keep my word. It’s a sin not to keep your word. Don’t you agree?” Again he finds my eyes.
“Going on this trip filled me with peace.”
Dust motes laze as I search my memory for a formulaic phrase. Do I say something? Finally, Aykut speaks.
“Kristin Hanım, I’m sick.” He pauses to take a breath. “But I knew that you were going to America and I promised you I would be here today at 10:00. And so I got into my car and I drove all the way from Istanbul so that I could give you your deposit.”
Actually, you were early and changed the day at the last minute, I think. Reflexively.
“Because I promised."
Aykut takes another breath. “I hope you’ll forgive me for telling you this, but I got sick on the road coming here.”
“I had an accident,” Aykut says. “In my pants.”
He doesn’t look away as he tells me this. I hope my face conveys something appropriate. Supportive. Because, I have no idea how to proceed. I’d like to run out of the apartment, take the stairs two at a time, all the way up four flights.
“When I got to Ankara I drove straight to a men’s clothing store,” he says, gesturing towards the bag. “I couldn’t meet you like this.”
He brought the pants in! I sniff.
"I made them open up early. I bought a clean pair.”
Aykut’s new slacks are black and pressed. Neat.
I reach for my purse and begin playing with the strap. The early morning shopping, the long-haul driving, even though he’s sick. And all because Aykut made a promise that he would meet me at the apartment today, March 2, at 10:00.
I feel bad.
As I stand next to the small, sickly Aykut, a man I thought of as my biggest problem, I am forced to consider something: He might be human. Like everyone else I know.
Is he human?
I already knew Aykut liked trees. So I guess had my answer.
We both turn towards the windows that line the salon. With the winter sun weaving its way in through the mulberry branches, the room glows.
I pick Aykut’s bag off the floor, because I’m not sure he can bend to retrieve it. And I want to do something for him.
I hand him his pants.
Then I write, where Aykut indicated, that I received my $500 deposit. I date it and sign. Aykut reaches a shaking hand into his coat and pulls out a pile of bills. Although I feel sheepish about it, I count them. I hope he won’t see me doing it.
As I count, Aykut begins reciting phrases. Things you say when stuff is coming to an end. Or you want to wish someone well.
Slipping the money into my purse, I decide to try one I just learned. “May God increase your strength,” I say. I mean it.
“Thank you, Kristin.”
We shake hands.
“Are you driving back to Istanbul today?” I ask.
“I’m going to have a tea at Palet before I go home.”
Palet. The pastry shop at the end of the street. Zach and I drank so much tea there we earned free cookies. I wanted to stop in and say goodbye to everyone. Will I have to sit with Aykut Bey?
As I move towards the door, Aykut walks farther into the salon.
“You go ahead,” he says. “I need to rest first.”
“Can I get you anything?” I ask, hoping to do some last minute penance. “Water?”
“No thank you.”
As I walk out of my apartment for the last time, I look back. Aykut is turning in a slow circle. The front door, the door that I no longer have a key to, makes a click as it closes.