Kerem was four years older than I was; in the beginning he was my champion, my protector. In the stories I told myself, which were largely plagiarized from J. R. R. Tolkien and Lloyd Alexander, Kerem was the prince and I was the squire. I trudged across the wilderness in his footsteps, because even my most fantastic daydreams involved a fair amount of trudging, and when the imaginary wind froze me, Kerem loaned me his cloak and I was warm. This went on until puberty stripped Kerem of his princely qualities. One summer he went away to a soccer camp and returned with formidable legs, a slouch, and a new way of talking, or, more precisely, of not talking. I had no claim on his attention; the most I could get from him was, “Unh,” as he noodled past on his way to some incomprehensible teenage activity. That summer I was friends only with Yesim, who was just my age. She was willing to try my games, but with her for a companion all our quests got muddled. We trudged across the landscape, but I didn’t know what we were trudging toward or what we’d do when we go there. Then it became clear that we were headed toward Yesim’s bedroom.
“You are Prince Charming,” she said, “and I am Sleeping Beauty.” She threw herself onto her twin bed and closed her eyes. For a long time neither of us moved. Then Yesim looked at me and said, “What are you waiting for?”
“I don’t know. What happens now?”
“You kiss me, and I wake up.”
She returned to her slumber. I leaned forward and kissed her forehead. Yesim burst out laughing. “That’s not how you do it.”
“You’re awake,” I pointed out.
“If you can’t do better than that,” she said, “I’m going to make you a dwarf.”
I didn’t have anything against dwarves, who were, in Tolkien’s work at least, noble and tough, dwarves who had their own runic alphabet and their kingdom underground, but I didn’t want Yesim to be unhappy. “OK,” I said. I leaned toward her.
Yesim recoiled. “What are you doing? You have to wait for me to go to sleep.”
We tried the whole thing again. I leaned in and kissed her lips. Yesim opened her eyes. “Finally,” she said. “Now, go out, and come back in.”
“Narcolepsy,” Yesim hissed, a word I didn’t understand.
I knew we were playing a strange game, but I didn’t know what was strange about it until Mrs. Regenzeit caught me coming down the stairs and said, “You are a leetle beet in love with my daughter. That is all right. Just you do not try to marry her.”
“I’m not in love with her,” I said. “Besides, I’m too young to be married.”
“This is true, fortunately for us all.”
I asked if Yesim was engaged, which sent Mrs. Regenzeit into a coughing fit of malicious amusement. “No,” she said, “She is too young, also. But when the time comes, she will marry a Turkish boy.”
I accepted her proclamation dutifully. Besides, I knew for a fact that there were no Turkish boys in Thebes but her brother. I had time. So I played along with Yesim’s stories, which only got stranger as the summer went on. I sat for an afternoon at the foot of the forbidden tower (or bed), listening to the princess read aloud from Nancy Drew’s Dos and Don’ts for Girls; I stumbled around in the enchanted forest (Yesim’s bedroom, with the lights off) and was thwacked with cushions by spiteful forest creatures. Yesim and I drank “poison,” actually grape soda with a St. Joseph’s baby aspirin crumbled into it, and lay side by side on her bed, feigning eternal sleep. Even then I knew that something was wrong with Yesim’s imagination: it stored its kisses too close to its tears. But I had no idea how to tell her so, and would not have spoken if I could. I loved Yesim a leetle beet too much for that.
Earlier that year, I had stolen a book called Man and Woman from my mothers’ shelves, at least, I thought I’d stolen it. In retrospect I think they must have left it out for me, as no book like that existed during the era when my mothers could have learned anything from it. Man and Woman was written in simple, direct language, and illustrated with pencil line drawings, carefully shaded, of men and women who were supposed to look ordinary, but in fact, because of the changes of hairstyle that had taken place since the book was published, seemed to have come straight out of the 1960s. For the first time, I saw clearly the difference between the sexes: the woman’s arms were crossed over her stomach, while the man rested a confident hand on his buttock. Late that summer I shared this information with Yesim. I told her solemnly that she had a uterus, as though I were a scout returning from a mission to a forbidden city.
Yesim nodded regally. “Let’s see,” she said, and we did.
Our bodies looked nothing like the illustrations in Man and Woman, so I put my hand on my buttock and told Yesim to cross her arms over her stomach. The likeness wasn’t even approximate; I thought it would be better if Yesim wore her hair in a braid, but it was cut too short. Still we touched, and retreated, neither of us certain what had happened. Yesim pulled her pants up and we sat on the floor, not talking, because Man and Woman didn’t say what we were supposed to do in that moment, although it had a certain amount of information about what would come later, not all of it incorrect, as it turned out. And that was all. We didn’t take off our clothes again. The game of men and women ended and another began, I don’t remember which, maybe it was the game of Life, which Yesim liked, or Uno, which she also liked, but which I liked less than Life because it had no finely molded pieces.
For years afterward Yesim came to see me at night. She touched my imaginary hair, and in time she learned to do other things as well, but by then she wasn’t Yesim any more, or not only Yesim; she had put on other faces and become general, a warm weight by my hip, a hand on my chest, she could have been anybody. I didn’t even remember what she looked like with her clothes off, I thought. But apparently I was wrong. As I lay on my grandparents’ sofa, drunk, my knuckles rubbing against the waistband of my underwear, I thought of Yesim again, not the woman but the girl, standing with her arms crossed over her stomach. I imagined myself placing my hands on her shoulders, kissing her, moving her arms out of the way, pressing myself to her flat chest. Was I grown up in this scene, or was I a child? We were both soft, I know.