Former lovers meet unexpectedly and confront the truth of their breakup in this excerprt from Nazlı Karabıyıkoğlu's novel Elfiye.
As Elfiye opened the door she turned her head slowly to tell the one behind her how much of a mess the house was. “Sorry, hon,” she muttered once they were inside, and closed the door. They stepped right into the living room, since the apartment didn’t have a hallway, and her guest went to the window to open the curtains. He turned to Elfiye: “What a lovely walnut tree!” he said. Elfiye had already taken her jacket off and gone into the kitchen. “Ah, yes,” she said. “You have no idea the kind of fight I put up to keep the people in this building from having that tree cut down. Apparently, it blocks the view. It would be a sin to cut down a beautiful tree like that.” She took a deep breath and asked: “What are we drinking?”
They sat across from one another in two dark green velvet armchairs, staring wistfully, wine glasses in hand. Elfiye raised hers: “To you, then. We drink to Emir!” she said. He smiled. Elfiye knew that smile; the wry grin of someone who’s finally won after suffering a string of defeats. As the smile faded from Emir’s face, they fell silent for a time; the mutual anxiety of two friends who hadn’t seen each other in years. Eventually, Emir said, “I’ve been keeping up with your poetry. You’re pretty good.”
Elfiye stared at her glass. Emir continued: “But you were always good,” he said, “You always shined. I always believed in your talent. And you haven’t disappointed.”
Elfiye lifted her eyes from her glass and looked at the person across from her. How long had it been, fifteen years? Twelve? Or was it sixteen? The way he looked at her, his attitude and air, it was just the same. He’d gained some weight. But that’s normal, she thought. His voice is just a little deeper. It warmed her to realize that his facial expressions hadn’t changed. She stood up, replenished the wine glasses, and sat back down across from her guest. She lifted her glass again. “Once more to Emir!” she said. Now he smiled fully. “That’s right,” she said. “Emir deserves two of these!”
A few hours earlier, well before the afternoon changed to evening, Elfiye had been walking along the coast road in Yeniköy. The strong Bosphorus wind had disheveled her hair, her nose turned red because she’d been walking so fast, and she was thirsty. As the road veered inland, she noticed a small café up ahead with a green iron-framed storefront window and the word gelato written across it in small gilt lettering. She rushed toward the café and, handing her change over the top of the ice cream display, asked, “Can I get a water?” A silhouette stirred inside the darkness and stood there looking at Elfiye before extending a bottle of water to her. Taking it, Elfiye said, “Thank you,” then left her change on the counter and turned away. “Enjoy,” a voice said, and she spun back around at the sound of it. Her heart had jumped into her throat, and for a minute she stood there scanning her memory; she knew that voice, it was unforgettable. Its owner plunged back into the darkness and came out of a door somewhere behind the store, and when he stood in front of Elfiye she realized who it was.
“It’s been a while,” she said softly.
“Yeah,” he said. “It wasn’t exactly a pleasant breakup.”
She saw that he was still embarrassed and felt sorry for him. Without a second thought, she put her hand on his arm and asked when he was getting off work. Did he want to go somewhere to sit and talk? Her friend disappeared around the back of the café, then a few minutes later rejoined her. They didn’t talk until the taxi pulled up to her home.
Now, in her apartment, Elfiye knew she somehow had to broach the subject but she was afraid of offending him, so she asked about his mother and his siblings, and if there was any news about what their old mutual friends had been up to. Then she talked for a long time about her own life and explained her situation at the university. By the time the conversation turned to politics they realized they’d finished a bottle of wine, and they wound their way around the things they should have been discussing by talking instead about Turkey and the July 15 coup.
Untwisting the corkscrew from the cork of a new bottle of wine, Emir scowled. “Does this country do anything right?” he said, sticking the cork back. “You can cultivate a beautiful flower, dedicate your whole life to it, and the first night that flower blooms the state shows up and stomps on it. They’ll crush it just like they’ve crushed us.”
Taking the glass from Emir, Elfiye got up the nerve to break her silence. “I am so sorry for not being there for you when things got really difficult.”
Emir opened the window. The fresh Bosphorus air filled the room, urging her on a little more. “I know, it was all so ridiculous,” she said. “But I was a child. I mean, I had to be. I don’t know if the fact that I was only twenty-three changes anything, but I did my best at the time. Still, I shouldn’t have just left you all alone like that.” She went over to the window and stood beside her guest. She lit two cigarettes and gave him one.
“It took me years to figure out where I fit into things. To be able to look at everything from a distance, to forget what I’d gone through. And while I was paying the price for my sins—you remember that’s what my mother called it, a sin—I hung you out to dry. I abandoned you. I didn’t see that there was someone else inside you. I was clueless. You did this on your own, and for how many years?” She brought her cigarette to her lips and pulled it away. “What I want to say to you is that there are things I’ve collected over the years but none of them hold any meaning anymore. I always used to imagine that if we came across each other one day I’d turn my head and walk right past you. That’s how angry I was. What I’d imagined has come true, but I can’t be angry because I feel guilty about deserting you.” Elfiye took a deep breath and fell silent.
Emir sat back down in the armchair: “Slow down,” he said to Elfiye. “First of all, I also needed almost ten years to understand all this. I’m talking about the ten years after we broke up. You aren’t responsible there. Expecting you to understand me would have been a huge mistake because I was having trouble just understanding myself. These are long processes. Long and hard. In that respect, I wasn’t expecting anything from you at all. This was my issue.”
“Expecting or not, I needed to stay your friend somehow and be there for you.”
“I don’t think that sort of thing should be an obligation,” Emir said. “I’m sorry, but I can’t let you nitpick over a slight, not when it took me ten years just to prepare for the questions psychiatric services would ask me when I started an application.”
“I guess I just think that there needs to be a collective network of hope and support for these things, rather than an individual one. I mean, whether it’s this person or that, we have to support them, you know?”
“Whatever you do in Turkey, you do it alone. You really think that if you’d been there for me that would have made any difference? Wearing what the state wants you to wear is no one’s business but your own. Here, you don’t have anyone. Here, you’ll always be alone.”
Elfiye crushed her cigarette in the ashtray and sat on the floor with her back against Emir’s chair. It would be easier to talk to him that way, without looking at him. “So, it needs to be shattered, right? Changed? That isolation?”
“Look, darling,” Emir said, and when he said darling he became the lover that Elfiye remembered. “We’ve more or less always had the Other. Had. Physically, mentally, economically, socially, pick your category. We’ve always had the Other and we always will. You know how society defines the other—I mean the criteria it puts in place in order for someone to be declared the other. You’re dealing with this stuff too. With a no-win situation like that, is your war going to be with society or yourself? Who are you up against? And which comes first? What are we trying to defeat and who are we going to shout our victory cry at? It’s called breaking free from society, declaring yourself before they declare you the other. And it’s not just about going against society, but against your family and your friends . . . . But not standing up to them. I mean your attitude and demeanor, the anxiety of proving something . . . . On that point, you’re all alone. Even if you’ve got the world’s most beautiful woman on your arm. This isn’t just a social challenge, it’s a revolt against the established order.”
“This,” Elfiye said. “It’s a reconstruction of the world as you know it. Using nothing but your body.”
When people come together after all the years that separated them, are they hoping for the ability to embrace, to feel, to—perhaps—make love, to look each other in the eyes just as before? For Elfiye and Emir, that was it. After ten years without any contact, what they missed were the hugs they’d shared on the French balcony and the pleasure of reliving a tiny aspect of those embraces and experiencing that nostalgia—the sense that something that was good then can still be good now, while the bad things of the past aren’t bad anymore because it’s difficult to recollect them. Elfiye grabbed the arm of the chair she was leaning against, picked herself up from the floor, and buried her face in Emir’s chest. Beneath the hand that caressed her arched back she became the Elfiye on the French balcony again; in the excitement of fondling another woman, in the anxiety of being shamed and in the comfort of sheltering in one who knows her as she is. Her hands are still so small, Elfiye thought.
“If it doesn’t hurt you or make you uncomfortable, there’s something I want to ask,” Elfiye said. “And please, if you don’t want to answer, know that I won’t ever feel bad about it. But why did you choose the name Emir?”
The hands stroking her hair suddenly stopped; then, as they began to move again toward her neck, she heard Emir’s voice: “Ever since I was born, my mother would say that if I was born a boy she’d have named me Murat. But I’m not Murat. Right when I started my hormone treatment I met this woman at work; she was like a mentor to me, she’d teach me how to do my job but talk to me too. You remember that I continued at Starbucks after we broke up, right? She was a manager there. She saw how I was struggling to get myself out of a body that wasn’t my own. For two years she allowed me to run between hospitals, hormone treatments, and psychiatrists, I mean she took care of me. One day she said something like, ‘If there’s anything you need, give the command and relax, it’ll be granted.’ And I did relax. Someone had seen me, they saw me fighting; they saw that I was never Pelin, and that I was pushing back against the state so I could become the person I wanted to be. That’s why. Emir means command. But hey, it also sounds nice on my lips—Emir. I’m Emir, that’s me.”
Elfiye straightened herself up from off the floor. She took Emir’s face in her hands. “I love you so much,” she said. She no longer felt embarrassed to be in front of him; after breaking up they’d declared two separate wars. Which one had been harder? Can you even compare pain? Elfiye wondered.
“This is nothing more than a quest for a body that’s different from a male’s, and then turning into just that,” Elfiye said. “Looking at you, I’d always see more than a lesbian or a woman. The masculinity, the butchness, the macho attitude—like that possessive grip you had when we’d be walking down the street—it was too much for me. Even if I didn’t know what I wanted, I sort of knew what I didn’t want. I asked myself what kind of woman do you want to love, and I told you honestly. I want to love a woman like myself, I’d said. Maybe I didn’t, or I didn’t know what I was, but I was sure that I didn’t want to put up with masculinity anymore. You were like my solstice, because you recreated me as something else.”
Putting up with masculinity. From the moment she’d left her mother’s womb, masculinity was the chisel that had formed Elfiye. She couldn’t decide if being able to make sense of one’s own existence in a given gender was a blessing or a curse. Everywhere she looked, the traces of masculinity were there: school, the workplace, the cinema . . . the street. Society. The state. Even if she didn’t go out to socialize, and locked herself up and lived in seclusion, she still couldn’t escape masculinity. You had to read nothing, watch nothing, or for that matter just sit in the dark. Sometimes she thought this toxin might even be seeping through the walls. The things she felt and saw, what she was constantly fighting against, went so much deeper than phrases like don’t wear this, or don’t go there, or don’t look at other people. The fundamental issue that had shaped Elfiye’s choices, as she picked out her clothes, ate her food, drank her drinks and danced, was the inability to challenge things, like the presence of a button on a jacket, or the subtext in certain everyday conversations, or the shampoo ads on the billboards, or the pronouns one used without a second thought, the inability to question how they came to be and what purpose they served. Even though she was more than ready to make love to a woman, this was why she didn’t want masculinity to corrupt the intimacy of the act, its caresses and kisses. She imagined a fresh birth, a free birth where, at the very moment that she wriggled free from flesh and bone and met the air for the first time, the doctor wouldn’t pull her from the womb and identify baby Elfiye with the words, “Looks like it’s a girl!” A birth of her own accord, with only what her body required, that was fair, sincere, bloodless.
If there’s anything you need, give the command, relax, and it’ll be given to you. Elfiye wasn’t going to tell him about the command that she had been given about herself.
“If that’s the case,” Emir said, “then why did you leave me?”
“I thought that breaking up with you wouldn’t be like breaking up with a man. Men tend to drink, or they’ll insult you in order to hide their insecurities, or sometimes they threaten you. Even the most honorable ones can’t be mature about it and they’d generally try to take advantage of my self-confidence. But the moment I told you I wasn’t happy, you turned into one of them. Don’t you remember? If you ever come around with someone else, you said and made a fist, it won’t be good. I got scared.”
“Back then, I didn’t really know you, and I’m sorry for everything. Elfiye, I didn’t know either. To be a man, I had to be dominant. Otherwise I couldn’t have survived, like I was trying to will the pink color of my ID card to change . . . ”
Elfiye stood up. She took Emir’s hand and pulled him to his feet. She hugged him tightly.
“None of that is important anymore,” she said. “You fought for this name, and you did it alone.”
“So did you,” Emir said. “I’ve never seen anyone who was such a woman’s woman.”
Elfiye’s eyes brimmed with tears, which she wiped with the back of her hand. Me too, she thought. I fought for this name, and I did it alone.
From Elfiye. © 2021 by Nazlı Karabıyıkoğlu. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Ralph Hubbell. All rights reserved.