by Meghan Maciver
When I saw Mina again, it was almost the first thing we talked about – that summer twelve years ago in Istanbul, and all the drama that had happened with Darren. I was surprised how quickly she brought it up, but I didn’t miss a beat.
“It was Darren’s fault,” I pointed out immediately.
“I know,” Mina replied, with an exasperated sigh.
Of course, I had been telling this story for years. I’d just never thought Mina had been thinking about it for the past decade as well. I picked up my tiny glass of tea but paused before taking a sip. We were supposed to have passed though our lives, but had found each other again, like so many people do nowadays, through social media. A warm breeze came off the water and it felt good to be together again. I smiled to myself, as I remembered everything like it hadn’t been so long ago.
Darren had tried to remain inconspicuous, but he’d stood out nonetheless amongst the other travelers, ex-pats, working-holiday folks and Turks who made up the cast of characters and social misfits who hung out in the travel scene of Turkey in the sticky, hot summer of 2001. Darren was a tall, blonde Kiwi with a hard, muscular body, Maori tattoos, pierced nipples and a perpetual tan, which in the concrete interior of Istanbul was hard to achieve. He had also stretched out one earlobe, which held, at different times of the month, a pencil, an eraser, or dirty money. Despite his attempts to disfigure himself however, Darren was unstoppably attractive, not only because he was confident, but because he was clean. He smelled good. The fact that he was into sex, motorcycles and anti-American politics only made him more appealing.
It seemed that everything Darren did was different from other people. He talked about traveling over-land from India – infamously invading a full moon party on the back of a yak – then doing the work/party/drug/rave thing in England before making his way to Turkey before anyone else was here. One time, he told me about the quiet beauty of stepping out alone at night on the beach at Olympos and watching the phosphorus under the water, before the days of it being overrun in the park. I remembered how he told all of his stories openly, in his sharp, Kiwi accent, inviting you into it, and never coming across as if he was bragging. In fact, it genuinely seemed like he was trying to connect with you, on some level of risk and adventure. I had been traveling for a while at that point, in India and Costa Rica, but I hadn’t met someone like Darren before. It was hard not to be somewhat infatuated.
Not only did Darren like to do things differently, however, he was also known for his brutal honesty – to the point of being offensive. Our friend Dawn once told me that she had walked in on him shagging a girl in the dirty dorm room that she sometimes used to crash in on her way through Istanbul. It was a rank room, with clothes and food lying around everywhere. One night, plucking her way through the debris to get to an empty cot, she walked in on him having sex with a girl who was face down on a bunk bed. He was wearing Mickey Mouse ears and goggles. He looked up at her mid-thrust, lifted up the goggles and said matter-of-factly, “I can’t look at her eye, mate!” then put them back on and kept going. As she was backing out, the girl lifted her head up and Dawn caught her eye. Sure enough, it was lazy, which threw Dawn into a fit of laughter before she closed the door behind her. Dawn thought Darren was dead sexy and said she would be up for a shag with him any time, but privately I thought she didn’t have a chance. A guy like Darren was going to end up with some model, or no one at all.
Currently though, Darren was staying in Istanbul because he had recently moved in with his Turkish girlfriend, Sima Gul. Gul means rose in English, and Sima was certainly that. She was the most unique looking Turk I’d ever seen with big, black dreadlocks, large earrings in extended earlobes, a tiny frame and clear blue eyes. I only saw her once, when I spied her from the upstairs patio of the hostel where I worked. I couldn’t help but notice her visit to Darren, the whole street paused at her presence as she strutted her way into the travel agency where he worked. It was official, I thought to myself, Darren was king.
Although Darren wasn’t travelling, he said he didn’t mind because of all the money he was making. Darren worked the front desk at the biggest backpacking travel agency in Turkey, just next door to the hostel I worked at in the old city of Sultanahmet. Back then, it was just a street with two hostels, a bar and a few travel agencies, unlike now, with its hotels and restaurants straddling each other side by side as far as the eye can see. At the time, it was mostly housing, with conservative families living inside. But in the summer it got busy and it was common to see old women walking to their houses with long coats and headscarves, alongside young foreigners wearing short shorts and carrying backpacks.
Darren could be intimidating to some, but in general he was well liked, especially by the Turks. He was a good salesman and had deals with everyone in the neighborhood to take a commission, Turkish-style. While he worked the front desk, other young Westerners would show up for the season to work as tour guides for the agency. They arrived slightly prior to Anzac Day, when thousands of young Aussies and Kiwis descended upon Istanbul and jumped on tour buses to head down to Gallipoli to mark the fall of the ANZAC troops in WWI. I knew nothing about Anzac Day, but I learned all about it from Mina and Yasamin, the two small and well-known Iranian girls who also spent their summers in Turkey on the backpacking circuit learning English, working at the hostels and having all the fun in the world, especially compared to their boring and stifling winters in Tehran. They loved it here, they said and backpacking had changed their lives. Turkey was like a fun version of their own country, while meeting so many travelers had exposed them to a way of life they wouldn’t have had access to in Iran. Neither of them had much money though, so they worked in the hostels to make ends meet.
Mina and I were the breakfast girls at the hostel. I had been on my way to get a nanny job in Spain earlier that summer, but I’d landed a job at the hostel within the first few days of arriving in Istanbul, and it looked more and more like I wasn’t going anywhere else. Everyday, we’d wake up early, go out and buy fresh bread from the bakery and then walk up the seven flights of stairs to prepare food each morning. Breakfast consisted of boiled eggs, fresh cucumber, tomatoes, feta cheese and bread served with bottomless glasses of tea. Our patio faced the Marmara sea, so even if we were hungover, the process of making breakfast was always somewhat of a magical experience for which we were both grateful.
“Gorgeous,” Mina would say, sucking in her breath as the sky lightened around us, and I’d nod back in approval.
Mina was very short, with dark skin, dark eyes and even darker hair. She had a round face, nose and eyes, round hips and breasts. She’d picked up a lot of English from Aussie and Kiwi travelers, so even her words sounded round to me, saying things like “roight” and “noice”. Her hair curled up in a round bob and she had a small rasta hat that she’d gotten from a fellow traveler that she wore like a beret. She always had a smile on her face and perpetually appeared to be laughing at something. When I asked her what made her so happy, she attributed it to the fact that she (and Yasamin) had gotten out of Iran.
“Really,” she said rolling her eyes, “we don’t do one thing there.”
We’d serve breakfast, being careful to select only the mellowest of musical tunes for atmosphere, then clean up and play endless rounds of backgammon with each other. It was never that busy, despite the spectacular views of the sea.
One morning, Darren came in with flowers and a small gift. Looking across the patio, I saw Mina smile and blush with excitement and while he bowed in front of her and I walked over to find out what was going on. It turned out that it had been Mina’s birthday recently, and we’d all missed it. Yass had informed Darren that morning and he had come straight over, he said.
I could tell that he had given the gift a bit of thought, but I was surprised to see him so intent on making things right with Mina for missing her birthday. We discussed that we should re-try a party for her sometime in the week and Mina looked so happy.
“Yes, yes we should make a party,” she said, exuberantly.
A few nights later, when I walked into the hostel’s downstairs patio Darren and Mina were already at a table chatting. If Darren hadn’t left yet to go home, I knew it meant that he would stay all night as he sometimes did, in the dirty dorm room above the offices of the travel agency that were meant for the guides to sleep in during their stays in Istanbul. As we sat there, I noticed what appeared to be a small ball of light in Darren’s mouth. Then I noticed Mina had the same thing. I squealed in delight.
“What is that?” I cried.
They both stuck their tongues out at me, revealing miniature glow sticks. Not the big ones that people decorate their bodies with or hang around their necks, but small, thin, perfect tubes about two inches long. I’d never seen anything like them. The key was to crack them in your mouth and leave them in there while talking to someone to startle them with the color. A backpacker in the hostel had plenty and soon we had a table full of guides and random tourists popping them in our mouths.
As the night wore on, we reveled in how silly these gadgets were, and laughed at the absurdity of all of us having them in our mouths. The Turkish barmen looked at us like we were crazy, which made us order even more rounds of beer and drink at a maddening pace. We spent most of the night outside, but eventually we made our way into the tiny bar and started dancing wildly, while sharing the tiny tubes of light between ourselves. I was suddenly kissing one of the bar boys and other random people. I even kissed Mina, passing her the wand of light with my tongue. There must have been over 50 people packed into the small cramped bar, but no one seemed to mind. The booze was flowing, while everyone was dancing and laughing, singing and hooting in ecstasy.
“Well, this was good, yah?” Darren said, coming up to me with a big grin on his face.
I lifted my arms up and embraced him as he twirled me around.
Suddenly, Mina was beside us and I grabbed hold of her.
“Happy Birthday to you!” shouted Darren to her face, and we both squealed.
“I did alroigt,” she said proudly. I hugged her tightly before I went off to dance, leaving her and Darren behind.
It was shortly thereafter then, that I began to notice that Mina was gone when I awoke in our shared dorm at the hostel. Acting out of discretion, I kept any questions to myself. It was only when she smiled at me one morning on the patio and said softly how she loved the way the stars looked at night from the roof of the travel agency that I understood what had happened.
She was positively beaming. She told me Darren had dragged a couple of mattresses out of the dirty dorm room onto the upstairs roof so they could sleep under the stars. She said Darren would tell her about camping in New Zealand, how sleeping under the stars reminded him of home, and he explained to her how the stars looked different in New Zealand. Then, in a lower whisper, she asked me how many people I’d slept with. I smiled and replied, not that many. She smiled secretly back at me and told me she only had slept with one person, and began humming a private tune to herself.
Mina seemed almost in a dream. I couldn’t tell if she was entertaining notions that Darren would carry her away to New Zealand, but I hoped she had enough sense to not be doing so. She turned to me again.
“Darren says to just have fun this summer,” she smiled happily. She suggested we throw a party on the roof of the travel agency and I nodded in agreement that it would be fun.
A part of me was concerned, however, for Mina. In terms of the relationship, she was the one who was going to have her heart broken. As an inexperienced woman from Iran, I wasn’t sure if she understood what kind of man Darren was. I commiserated with some of the female guides and we agreed that the whole situation was bad news. Mina simply couldn’t handle Darren, we decided. Really, it was a cultural thing, we said. Mina just wouldn’t understand that he was only looking for something casual. Did ‘casual’ even exist in Iran?
In the world we inhabited that summer, ‘casual’ seemed like an understated word to describe the sexual encounters of our scene. Random female tourists were always sleeping with any of the eager Turkish bar boys around, Dawn had “boyfriends” in every town nearby and several in Istanbul, and the backpackers were notorious for hooking up with one another for one night stands.
“We’re just so free here,” Dawn remarked once, after recounting yet another sexual escapade with a young guy she’d picked up the night before. I nodded, but kept my mouth shut. It just seemed so meaningless, but I didn’t want to seem like I didn’t get it. It was the travel scene after all, not exactly a place of firm commitment. But as fun as it was supposed to be, it always seemed so lonely.
Sitting out behind the terrace on the back fire escape one day, Dawn and Lori, another guide at the agency, and I discussed in hushed tones about warning Mina about Darren. Mina was washing up the dishes and I kept poking my head around the corner to make sure she didn’t hear us. But we decided it might lead to drama between the two or anger Darren if it got back to him. And without speaking it, we all knew why we didn’t want to say anything. In the travel world, it was considered poor taste to meddle in anyone’s business; especially in these places where we were all unlikely to have met in the first place – and were more unlikely to ever meet again. I felt guilty though. After all, I worked with her every day, and it was becoming increasingly clear that she was falling head over heels in love with him. And Darren was no one to fall in love with.
Still, when they had their barbeque on the rooftop of the travel agency, it was wonderful to see them together. Somehow, it made everything seem more real. We had a great dinner with drinks and music and watched the bats fly around the minarets of the Blue Mosque, while the lights twinkled from the boats on the Marmara. The air was soft and warm, and it was good to feel like we were at a private party with real friends, especially after being so long on the road.
Near the end of the night, Mina had drunk too much and ended up vomiting in the dirty bathroom. Darren didn’t leave her side, and rubbed her back, scolding her gently with “Canim, canim,” meaning darling in Turkish. It was obvious that he cared for her. But would it be enough? Darren seemed like someone who could never have enough. I remember looking worriedly at him when I came down to check on Mina’s and asking, “You’re going to take care of her, right?” I don’t remember him giving me an answer; he just turned to Mina and kept rubbing her back.
It was shortly after the party then, that I noticed Mina back in our room when I woke up. Quiet. After weeks of being absent, morning after morning she was there, until one day I found her weeping in front of the eggs and cucumber. I didn’t say anything. I felt horrible. And I was pissed off. I knew Darren was ruining everything, and really hurting Mina. Unlike other girls I knew, who brushed off these kind of rejections with “Well, I don’t know if I was that into him anyway”, or “It’s not like we’re really together” that week was positively solemn around the hostel, with Mina pouring herself vodka orange juices at the beginning of our shifts and stumbling around the hostel like a teary, wounded animal for the rest of the day. Fuck you Darren, I thought privately. Not that he was anywhere to be found, or that I would have said anything anyway. I had always known that nothing could have ever come from this arrangement.
Finally, after three or four days of this, Darren appeared on the patio. The sun was blaring and he squinted hard before jumping under the awning where the tiles wouldn’t scorch his feet. One moment, he seemed defensive, with a puffed out chest, the next he was hesitant, like he really didn’t want to be up there. I never thought Darren would be scared of something, but it certainly seemed like he was now. I went over to the sink, where Mina was facing the wall. When she finally looked at me, she had tears rolling down her cheeks.
“Do you think it is possible for him to be sleeping with someone else?” she asked in a shallow, ragged voice. I paused. Darren was the kind of person who did exactly what he wanted, and I certainly didn’t want to be the one to call him out on this. I tried to look at her squarely and say yes, but I choked hard instead and ended up standing there lamely, shaking my head as if I didn’t know what was going on.
I felt so awful I was shaking as she headed for the table where Darren had sat down. From the corner of my eye, I could see them speaking as the harsh sunlight glared down on their heads. I could see Mina, the tears still streaming down her face. It looked like Darren was half trying to explain something to her, half trying to plead with her. Mina was shaking her head slowly back and forth, until she finally tilted it down and uttered some final words. All of a sudden, she got up and walked downstairs. For a while, Darren sat there looking out at the rooftops of the buildings that surrounded our hostel, ignoring the beautiful view of the water behind him and suffering in the hot sun. Finally, he got up and walked over to me. I could see that his eyes were bloodshot, like he’d been crying, too. His face was red and beading with sweat. “Do you think I’ve lost her?” he stammered.
Was it actually possible that Mina had broken up with Darren? I had assumed that he was going to smooth things over somehow, and convince Mina to continue on with him. A guy like Darren, I didn’t think it would be hard. I bit my lip and replied, “It’s possible.”
Darren turned away and sniveled. Then, without another word, he headed back down stairs. A few minutes later I heard the rumble of his engine and I watched him drive away down the road. It was early morning; prime tour-selling time. Where was he going? I poured myself some tea and changed the music.
When Mina came back upstairs, she walked towards me with sad but determined eyes.
“I told him that he could sleep with me, or he could sleep with other girls,” she said with a shrug, “but he cannot do both.”
I stepped back. I would never forget that moment. I was twenty-two, and I’d never seen anyone do that before. Here was this small woman standing in front of me, her chin slightly raised, her little hat hanging off her head, telling me as if it was the most matter of fact thing in the world to ask for a little honor – from Darren of all people. It was so fiercely empowering, it changed everything for me in an instant. Being true to herself, she was just so strong. I felt sad for her, but not sorry for her, and there was a difference, I realized.
“Thank you,” I said finally. I’d been holding my breath and finally exhaled. She looked up at me and I paused again. I wanted to say more, like how I felt vindicated for something I never knew I’d needed, but I just tucked all the information into the back of my head to use at a later time.
“You’ve given us a good excuse to have a drink early,” I said, managing a crooked smile.
“Roight,” she said, shrugging again and then moved with a resignation towards the bar.
“Well,” she said turning, “C’mon then”. She grinned back at me, faintly.
So it must have been hours later, while I was sitting downstairs on the street playing backgammon with some visiting travelers, when Darren rode back up to the travel agency, balancing boxes behind him on his motorcycle and carrying a massive backpack on his back. With his head down and a strained look on his face, he moved quickly, carrying the boxes in and out and I realized he was moving into the travel agency, permanently. My world was turning upside down, or maybe right side up. He didn’t seem big or cool or anything in that moment, in fact, I don’t think that anyone besides me even noticed him as he brushed himself off before heading into the hostel. I knew the front desk would direct him to Mina, who’d been resting in our room since the end of our shift. Later in the evening, after I finished up at the bar, I headed to bed. When I got there, Mina’s cot was empty. In the morning, I found her on the rooftop, setting up our kitchen and humming to herself.
“Really,” she said, turning to me. “Sleeping under the stars is so beautiful, mate.” She laughed and I laughed with her.
Now, sitting at a tea shop in a small town on the south coast of Turkey, it felt surreal to be sitting in front of her again. That day had given me a reference point to cut through so much bullshit in my own relationships; a way to feel okay when I was being authentic to myself. I’d happily pointed to it as one of my big lessons from my days of traveling. I started to talk about that morning on the roof but she interrupted me before I could say anything.
“She contacted Darren, you know,” she said. I noticed her Kiwi accent so much stronger than back then. “On Facebook,” she continued. “She wants to see him this summer.”
“Who?” I asked, truly puzzled.
“Sima,” Mina replied shortly, and obviously annoyed.
I paused at this. Sima had been such a small part of the story. It was strange to hear her name, and think of her as a real person in the present.
“So I wrote her an email back,” Mina continued. “I told her how we could all meet, and her kids could meet our kids.” She stopped and looked at the sea wall, meters away, and her children playing with each other.
“Do you know what she did?” Mina said turning back at me. “She wrote to Darren and said I shouldn’t be contacting her. That it was none of my business about her, that she had asked him, not me, to meet up,” Mina looked outraged.
“That, canim,” I said, “is strange.” Not about Sima’s reaction, I thought to myself, but about meeting up again. Why would she want to meet up with Darren after all these years? Especially after that parting.
“She’s a bitch,” Mina said, disdainfully. I looked up. I didn’t think that I’d ever heard Mina swear before. “Other women wouldn’t be this patient if another woman was writing their husbands,” she added, defending her outburst.
“I . . .” I paused. “Then why are you being so polite?” I hadn’t seen Mina in twelve years and it felt strange to be asking such intimate question.
Mina looked at me and frowned miserably. I realized that she was sharing this with me because I was the only other person who knew the story. And suddenly, it wasn’t like some travel story anymore. It had real people involved, and more complicated endings.
“Do you remember,” I started, “how Darren just moved that day?” I had always wrapped this part up in a neat bow, but now it was being unraveled by a frayed edge. “It probably wasn’t nice,” I finished.
She looked at me, with a perturbed look on her face. Either she was annoyed, or she didn’t know what I was talking about. I felt a bit sick at the thought that maybe I’d been remembering everything wrong all these years.
I tried again, “Do you remember that morning-” Thankfully this time, I didn’t have to continue.
“Of course!” she said almost gasping, catching on finally.
I felt myself relax. The recognition felt like talking with the only other astronaut who has been to the moon. I wanted to melt into the details of that morning, relive that moment again with someone who had been there.
“I knew what I had to do,” she added quickly. “Yass and I saw what was happening that summer, and,” she paused, “it wasn’t for us,” she finished.
I nodded, but I felt myself flush before I could say anything else. Hearing Yass’ name had thrown me off. We’d all shared that hostel room together, the three of us, with the orange carpet. Even on the hottest days it remained cool, and Yass and Mina would lie on their beds quietly talking back and forth to each other in their lush Farsi. It surprised me to find out what they had been talking about. While I’d whispered with Dawn and Lori about the challenges posed by the casual sex scene on the street, I’d avoided sharing my concerns with them, because I was embarrassed by my culture. Now, my mind was struggling to put together what Mina had known about, and hadn’t.
“Shityah,” I said, in English-Turkish slang, “It was Darren’s fault,” I pointed out again, resisting the urge to enquire about Yass and how she liked living in Melbourne nowadays.
“I didn’t know about Darren and her,” she insisted, “I didn’t know!”
“It’s okay,” I reassured her. I knew I certainly hadn’t said anything. I felt my face grow red from the thought and took a sip out of my tea in an attempt to cool down.
“I just didn’t want to be like the other girls,” she said, shaking her head at the whole memory of it all. It was a vague statement but I stopped myself from trying to figure out what she meant. Whatever Mina had known or hadn’t, it was clear we’d all been acting on the idea that there would be no consequences for any of our behavior. No one had imagined something like Facebook would ever happen, and I gave a fleeting thought to whether it disrupted or had changed travel from back when we were doing it. My small guilt subsided after that, but Mina still looked trapped in something she couldn’t get out of and suddenly I felt sorry for her.
“But,” I said gently, “you were the other girls.”
The words sounded so strange coming out, it’s like they broke a spell. As a travel writer, all of my friends had become mythical figures in my stories–Mina, my heroine. But just like that, my story didn’t seem so great anymore. It seemed as small as gossip.
“I never thought of it that way,” she replied, carefully. Neither had I, I thought to myself.
“It must have been hard for her,” I continued, slowly, “and then you know, the wedding, down here.” I looked out at the sparkling water. The air was filled with jasmine, and the sea.
“Oh God,” she put her head in her hands, “Yass says not to worry, but you just never know about these women.” She seemed so flustered compared to my memory of her, I felt frustrated all of a sudden.
“Mina!” I exclaimed, “this is Darren’s fault,” I pointed out for the third time. She seemed so reluctant to confront this that I wondered what it’d been like to have been married to Darren all this time – what he looked like now and if he was still as selfish and irresistible. Then, I wondered if Sima had been wondering about all that as well.
Mina looked up. “He still drives me crazy, I swear Meghan,” she said sighing, “but, I love him,” she added helplessly.
“Oh God, Mina,” I groaned, “only you.”
She looked down, and slowly smoothed out the rumples in her shirt. Despite having two children, she was leaner than she had been years ago, I noticed. She was thinking about something when I saw her faint, grin spread across her face.
“Exactly,” she said to herself. Then she grasped her tea glass in her hand and looked at me with a familiar determination, “only me.”