I spent the rest of the day on the sofa, reading . When it got dark I thought about going over to the Regenzeits’. I had promised Kerem I would visit soon, that I would consider myself a part of the family, just like I had been in the old days, but no one was home. They must be working late, I thought, getting Snowbird ready for the winter. I imagined Yesim at her desk, a pencil stuck in her hair. I imagined a brilliant blue day, the ground crackling with golden leaves, Yesim and I sitting on the Regenzeits’ porch, wearing bulky sweaters, holding mugs of hot cider. Then, in my imagination, one of my hands unpeeled itself from the side of the cup and settled on Yesim’s shoulder. In no time my tongue was in her mouth, my hands were in her black hair. In my imagination.
It was raining in gray sheets when I woke up the next morning, and with the rain came the autumn cold. I didn’t know how to turn on the heat; finally I went to the basement and looked at the furnace. It had gone out, and I couldn’t get it to start. I called the furnace company; they said they’d send someone as soon as they could. Looking out the kitchen window, I determined that Yesim drove a Subaru Outback, and Kerem a Ford Explorer. I went up to the attic bedroom and discovered that the boxes that filled the room were full of questionnaires left over from my grandfather’s lawsuit. Put a check next to every statement you agree with: 1. Morning is the time when I feel best. 2. My weight stays the same all year round. 3. I rarely cry for no reason. 4. I consider myself a “social person.” I sat on the bed and spent a long time thinking about I don’t know what. At five o’clock I called the furnace people again. A woman explained to me that they were waiting for a shipment of heating oil, which had not arrived because of a late-season hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. You want heat, talk to ExxonMobil, she said. I told her that I didn’t think ExxonMobil would take my call. Maybe not, she said, her voice weary and stiff.
Around six-thirty, I drove to town and bought a six-pack of Genesee Cream Ale and a box of chocolate donuts. Two teenage girls stood outside the gas station, in the shelter by the pumps, wearing more makeup than I would have expected girls at a gas station to wear.
“Hey, mister,” one of them said as I passed, “will you get us some beer?” She was prettier than she looked at first; I wanted to tell her not to wear so much makeup. I said I’d give each of them a beer if they wanted, but I didn’t feel comfortable buying them more than that. The girl said they needed it for a party, it wasn’t like they were going to drink it all. I said no, really, I couldn’t, and the girl sighed and said, “OK, give us each a beer.”
I wondered whose daughter she was, where she lived, whether she had grown up in Thebes. For a moment I thought of asking if I could go to the party, if only so that I would have something to do on Saturday night. But the thought of being at a party, any party, was unpleasant, and in any case I doubted the girls would agree to take me. I pulled two beers out of the six-pack and handed them to the girls, with a warning not to drink in public. They rolled their eyes and made complicated hand gestures, as if communicating how uptight I was to a deaf observer.
When I got home, the Outback was alone in the Regenzeits’ driveway. I watched a martial-arts film on television. “You will be punished,” said the hero, or the hero’s dubber. “All of you. Punished!” I wanted to correct his use of the passive voice, I wanted there to be heat, I wanted to be done with the packing, which I hadn’t even begun. Instead I showered, washed my hair and shaved under the hot water, which, thankfully, still worked. I put on a clean shirt, found a bottle of wine in my grandparents’ pantry, and went across to the Regenzeits’ house.
Yesim was wearing a big shapeless sweater; her hair was tied back in a squiggly ponytail. I held up my bottle of wine and said I was afraid we’d drunk their entire supply the other night.
“Oh, no,” Yesim said, “Kerem always has more hiding somewhere.”
I thought that would be the end of our conversation, but Yesim, after hesitating for a moment, asked if I wanted to come in. I said I didn’t want to interrupt her, it was late, I was sure she had things to do.
“You wouldn’t say that if you knew me,” Yesim said.
We sat in the kitchen, which hadn’t changed much since I was a child. The olive-green tin canisters that said flour and coffee and sugar in orange faux-woodblock lettering still stood on their rack; the same red-and-white checked tablecloth still covered the round kitchen table. The old white curtains printed with blue game birds hung before the window; the same clock counted off Coca-Cola time over the massive olive-green refrigerator. Now that Mrs. Regenzeit had returned with her husband to Turkey, I wondered whether she missed the Populuxe splendor of her kitchen, the streamlined mixer, the color-coded fondue forks she sometimes used to twist her long black hair into a bun. Yesim made us tea. I asked whether her parents liked living in Akbez, and Yesim said she didn’t know, she hardly spoke to them any more. “The truth is,” she said, “I can’t talk to my father now that he’s found religion.”
“He’s found religion?” I remembered Joe Regenzeit as having been religious already. Hadn’t he thanked the god whose name I misheard as Olaf for nearly everything?
“Yes, he’s become a fanatic. It’s his way of saying fuck you to secular America.” The Yesim I remembered would not have said something like this. She did not curse; in fact, despite her sexual curiosity, she had always seemed to me somehow innocent. She told me that Joe Regenzeit had joined a medrese, that every third word out of his mouth was obscene or whore. Referring to America sometimes, and sometimes to Yesim.
“It sounds like he’s gone off the deep end.”
“Yes,” Yesim said, “and the really strange thing is, he wants me to come live with him. It’s the only thing that will save me, he says.”
“Save you from what?”
“Myself, I think he means, but probably America, too.”
“It doesn’t sound like a hard decision. Don’t go.”
“What if he’s right?” Yesim asked.
I wanted to ask what he might be right about, but Yesim didn’t look as if she wanted to be questioned. Instead I asked how Snowbird was doing, and Yesim told me they were building a terrain park for snowboarders, basically, a place for them to break their arms and legs.
“It’s all right with me as long as they don’t sue,” she said.
Some Coca-Cola time passed silently.
“I’m glad we’re still friends,” I said.
Yesim smiled. “Were we friends? I thought you were friends with my brother.”
“What about the summer when Kerem went to soccer camp? What about Man and Woman?”
“You don’t remember?”
“Oh, that,” Yesim said finally. “I’d forgotten what it was called.”
“I used to think about it all the time.”
“Is that so?”
“Never mind,” I said, blushing. “I’m babbling. My grandfather’s house doesn’t have heat, and the cold must have affected my brain. I’m used to San Francisco weather, although it gets cold there too…”
“If you don’t have any heat, you should stay here,” Yesim said. It was as though she were telling me that if I touched the stove I would burn myself.
She offered to make up a bed for me in the study. I protested, I’d be in Kerem’s way, and anyway there were plenty of blankets at my grandparents’ house. Yesim said Kerem was visiting Kathy and Max in Philadelphia and it was really no trouble. “Just stay there. I’ll get things ready.”
I studied my reflection in the toaster: I was elongated, bent beyond all recognition. My hands were enormous and unusable. Yesim came back. She didn’t know where Kerem kept his pajamas, would I be all right? I would give a lot to know what Yesim was thinking as she led me upstairs to Kerem’s study, where she’d made up a bed on her brother’s black leather sofa. Did she feel sorry for me? Did what I told her set some idea in motion, some desire? All I know is that she smiled, or seemed to be smiling.
At some time in the night I woke up, and Yesim was sitting on the edge of the sofa. She was wearing a white t-shirt and flannel pajama bottoms. I pressed her hand to my face. It smelled of soap; the skin along the side of her index finger was dry. I opened my mouth and Yesim put her finger between my lips. I sucked on her finger; it had no taste beyond the smell of soap. Yesim made a small happy noise. I squeezed her flannel thigh just above the knee and let my hand travel upward. Yesim wasn’t wearing a bra; I put my hand under her shirt and confirmed my suspicion: almost imperceptible hairs covered her back. Yesim leaned toward me. The tips of her breasts brushed my chest. My hand moved farther up her back, to the space between her shoulder blades, and then down to the waistband of her pajamas.
“Don’t,” Yesim sighed, after a while. “Sleep.”
When I woke up again, Yesim was in the living room, drinking coffee and watching the news. “I’m engaged,” She said. “Did you know that? I’m supposed to get married next June.”
“Congratulations,” I mumbled.
She told me that her fiancé was someone she had worked with in Albany, at an employment agency that staffed construction jobs. They had gone out for years, on and off, and had just become engaged when her father got sick and she returned to Thebes. Since then they had put off the wedding twice. Her fiancé, Mark, was very patient.
“Yesim,” I began.
“I know. It’s a little late to be telling you this, but Mark isn’t the most important thing about me. He’s not always the first thing I talk about. But I owe him a lot. I can’t tell you what a mess I was when I met him.”
“You can tell me. I complained to you last night, didn’t I?”
“This is worse,” Yesim said. She told me that she had gone through a hard time after she graduated from college, a very hard time. It began when she moved to Cambridge to work as the personal assistant to a famous poet whom she’d call Professor X. Yesim herself was writing poems, which was something she’d always done, though it was only in college, when she won a prize offered by a real literary journal with nationwide distribution, that she began to think of writing as something she might do instead of other things, rather than along with them. Anyway she was living in Cambridge, and spending most of her time in the car, because Professor X suffered from chronic weakness in her legs, which was almost certainly psychosomatic, but nonetheless prevented her from driving or walking any distance, so that the work of being her assistant turned out mostly to involve driving Professor X around and waiting for her to emerge from buildings that Yesim wasn’t allowed to enter. After a few months of this vehicle-bound life Yesim abruptly and stormily left Professor X. She got a job waiting tables at a restaurant called Casablanca, where her Middle Eastern looks compensated for her lack of experience, and sat up late in her studio apartment on Mt. Auburn Street, writing poems that came slowly and turned out to be ill-formed. One night, while she was writing, she had the sensation that a hand was closing on her throat. The feeling went away, then returned; it got so bad that black stars with green coronas appeared in her field of vision, as though she were asphyxiating.
Yesim thought it might be strep throat, or asthma, or maybe the city air had found some latent flaw in her lungs. She went to a doctor; the doctor found nothing. She thought that if only she knew whose hand was grabbing her by the throat, she might be able to do something about it, which was, she admitted, a ridiculous way of thinking, but at the time it really was as though someone had cast a spell on her, as though someone’s hand were seizing the throat of a doll as someone’s voice muttered a spell. Whose hand was it, whose voice? Yesim suspected the jilted Professor X, who was witchy, if not literally a witch. Her condition worsened. She quit her job, and she wanted to leave Cambridge but couldn’t think of anywhere she wanted to go, or what she would do once she got there. It was as though the crooked streets, the plan of which she had never been able to master, were keeping her in, like the walls of a maze. She left her apartment on Mt. Auburn Street less and less often, only to get food, then not even to get food. If her father hadn’t come for her, she didn’t know what would have happened, but he did come. She weighed ninety-eight pounds. Her father, not a large man, carried her downstairs and drove her out of Cambridge, although, she noted with satisfaction, he got lost on his way to the Mass Pike. The city’s evil influence affected everyone.
Joe Regenzeit took her to the Pines, a clinic near Albany. She wouldn’t say too much about it, except that it wasn’t a malign place, just quiet. It was so quiet, sometimes she imagined that she had died and no sound that came from the world could reach her any longer, as though the hand had let go of her throat too late; now she could speak but there was no one left to listen. Eventually, Yesim moved to an apartment that she shared with other women who had graduated from the Pines, and in time she took a job at the staffing agency. The work was not demanding and she enjoyed the compactness of the lives that passed through her hands, file-sized lives, on their way to file-sized jobs. They were almost like poems, but with the advantage that they never had to be revised or read aloud. She met Mark, a large, competent person, who had been a construction worker in an earlier life. He was a decade older than she was; his first question, after they kissed for the first time, was whether she wanted children, and her answer was yes, of course. If only her father hadn’t got sick, they would have gone ahead with all the plans they’d made with natural, heartening quickness: to marry, to buy a house that Mark would fix up, to have a child, children. Yesim really did want children, she’d always wanted them. She could have been happy forever after. Only Joe Regenzeit did get sick, and because he had saved Yesim’s life—seriously, she was certain she would have died on Mt. Auburn Street, that Cambridge would have let her die—she owed him the effort to save his life in return. There wasn’t much more to tell, Yesim said. Her father got better and left for Akbez, while she stayed on in Thebes.
As I listened to her story, I thought about how much Yesim and I had in common. We had both fucked up, or maybe we were both fucked up, and we’d both come to Thebes to start over. What if we could start over together? Of course I didn’t say anything about that. I nodded and tried to look grave. But inside, I was thinking about the future.
Meanwhile, Yesim was talking about Mark again. “He used to come up here,” she said, “but the visits went so badly, he said he’d wait in Albany until I’m through figuring out what I need to figure out.”
“Whether I’m going back.”
Yesim said she had to go; as she climbed into the Outback I took her hand. She left her hand in mine for just a second, then took it back. She attached no importance to the gesture; it was as though she were about to leave her hand behind then remembered that she would need it after all.