was 19, a good-looking guy (he knew that). His light-brown hair, with
teasing bangs, fell over his forehead and in his soft brown eyes.
Girls said he had a sensitive face, which he emphasized by adopting
an aloof, quiet demeanor.
He was supposed to be at university, where he was enrolled in pre-med studies. But Haktan didn’t really like medicine. It was a family decision. What did he really want to do? He didn’t know.
So what he did do most days was just ride the metro around the city, picking up girls. It wasn’t that hard for Haktan to pick up girls. You could say it was a talent, and that’s not something you can easily dismiss. Lots of other boys – and even men, successful men, twice his age – would have done anything to possess such a gift.
As for himself, Haktan, was actually modest about it. He didn’t think about it, and maybe that was his secret. If you asked him, he would just give one of his characteristic shrugs, toss the bangs out of his eyes and twitch the light hairs of his young moustache.
Of course, it helped that he was young. Older women forgave and even adored him for his callowness, his naivete, his arrogance. Younger girls resented him, talked behind his back, but they too were attracted. Young women often like the bad boy, the one that treats them like shit because they seem to possess a certain savoir-faire.
One thing Haktan had figured out was that in a city as vast as Istanbul, people are a lot lonelier than they like to admit. They like to project an image of being successful, solid. But the truth is that most people just work, go home, binge-watch something on Netflix, (or even worse, do more work!) eat a hastily prepared meal, and fall into a resigned, dreamless sleep. They live their lives between weekends, between holidays.
Given this desperate state of affairs, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that there are those – many – who secretly long for someone like a Haktan to come into their lives. Someone who sees us, notices us (who ever “sees” us?). On the crowded metro, each day, Haktan could sooner or later pick out some woman dying to be picked up, to be seen. So on that basis, it was simply science – statistics, if you will. His talent, if anything, was the ability to wait, scan the crowds. Sooner or later, from the rushing anonymity of the commuting crowds, one particularly forlorn-looking individual was sure to emerge.
From there, it was purely academic: Take that, university professors!
Of course, there were certain routes that were better than others. Istanbul’s growing underground network has more options for passengers than in the past. You can now easily traverse the Bosphorus via the Marmaray, a metro that runs some 60 meters below the strait. The ten-minute journey from Üsküdar to Yenikapi takes millions of people each day across both sides of the continent.
From Yenikapı, you can either switch to the line that goes all the way out to Ataturk airport, or if you wish to head to the city center, you can take the Haciosman line, which goes past the Golden Horn and Şişhane. On the Asian side, from Üsküdar you can go to Kadıköy, and take another line out to the eastern points of the city.
Oh, and then there’s the Metrobus, an above-ground rapid transit train that travels in a wide arc past the skyscrapers of Levent, over the newly renamed Martyrs’ Bridge to the shopping centers near Altunizade. And don’t forget the tram that runs from the Grand Bazaar past the great mosques, and once more over the Bosphorus to Kabataş, which is just a stone’s throw from the shores of Beşiktaş.
I give this survey not for touristic reasons, but just to give the reader some idea of the extent of the city’s public transport network. For our footloose young Haktan, it was not such a disagreeable occupation, to just pass his days as a Romeo of the metro. If the crowds looked unpromising, as they did some days, he could always just close his eyes, listen to the sounds of the train, and let the city and the world at large pass by.
So how did he pick these women up then? And where did they go?
Well, before you let your imagination run wild with all sorts of X-rated thoughts, bear in mind that Haktan wasn’t as ruthless in his pursuits as you might think. Unlike other aspiring metro Romeos, Haktan did not sink to the level of staring at women commuters through their reflections in the windows, or “accidentally” grab certain parts of their anatomy when the train was jammed with people. Such moves were the work of creeps and amateurs. If anything, Haktan was discreet. Like his favorite X-Man character, Wolverine, Haktan was cool.
“Hakan çok çapkın!” proclaimed his envious schoolmates. If they were in America, they would have said Haktan was a “Mack Daddy” or whatever the kids say nowadays. These friends all envisaged great sultan-like conquests.
Actually Haktan’s mates might have been disillusioned to know that most often these metro hook-ups led to little more than a cup of coffee and flirty chats, phone numbers exchanged followed by a few racy texts. At most a make-out sesson in some cavernous bar. Especially with younger girls, who more often than not still lived with their parents and were not afforded many social liberties, or else were modest as a result of their upbringing. After school, they usually were expected to return home – and did.
Even with women in their mid- to late-twenties, and well into their thirties, this was the custom. Turkey – especially Istanbul – is generally more liberal than other Muslim countries, but it’s not Paris or Amsterdam we’re talking about. Women especially are still much more modest, and families tend to be protective until they are finally safely ensconced in marriage.
There were some encounters that went further than coffee. An American girl on holiday who was able to sneak him into her hotel for the night. A wild blonde from Izmir who was in town staying with friends for a few days (her friends were cool enough so that they didn’t care if Haktan stayed over). A recent divorcee who had kept the apartment in Nışantaşı, and who bought some new clothes for Haktan.
Haktan took these adventures as they came – he was not greedy by nature. It’s possible these encounters meant little to him, except as kicks – a relief from the ennui, the general restlessness, that he felt. It was better than sitting in school listening to lectures or writing essays.
Not surprisingly, he still lived with his parents. Again as most young people in Turkey do until they finish university and settle into either careers or marriage. His father owned a pharmacy in Fatih, a very conservative, old neighborhood. His mother was a housewife, and had raised Haktan, along with his two older brothers and his kid sister. Most of the mother’s energies were focused on the daughter nowadays, and of course the father was busy at the eczane (the two older brothers had already married and moved out), so Haktan was for the most part left alone, which he much preferred.
His parents were under the impression that he was busy with university. Point of fact is that he was on the verge of failing out. It was late spring, with final exams just a few weeks off. Not that it would have mattered to Haktan, who was already disqualified from taking the exams due to his excessive absences.
As far as these practical matters go, Haktan was indifferent. He knew that his day of reckoning was coming. A notice from the university would arrive in the mail, informing his parents of his failure. His father would be furious, would maybe even beat him (the university was not cheap). No doubt his father may even threaten him with his military service. As a university student, Haktan’s compulsory military service could be deferred as long as he was enrolled, but if he failed out, he could be called up.
Haktan had no desire at all to do his military service. He had no great wish to be sent off to Syria and join that mess. But if called up, Haktan would just go and do it. Some of his friends at university were really worried about it, and hoped to prolong their studies as long as possible – even get PhDs if necessary – to avoid their military service. Not Haktan. He just didn’t care one way or the other.
Maybe in some other countries, this attitude would be praised as poetic, even philosophical. Or maybe it was just a youthful pose. Who knew? Not even Haktan really knew what to make of himself.
Perhaps Haktan was in need of a shake-up. A reality check, if you will. Let’s give him one.
One afternoon this past May, Haktan was engaged in his usual occupation. The metro was headed across the Golden Horn. Coming out of the tunnel, across a bridge, the bright sunlight came through the windows of the metro. You could see all the way out to the Galata Tower and the mosques, and even the Bosphorus looked clear, meridian blue.
A guitarist began strumming somewhere further down the car from where Haktan was standing. It was early afternoon. Most of the schools were already finished for the day, so there were lots of students on the train.
The song was a popular Turkish song. Suddenly, Haktan heard a beautiful voice. It was a clear contralto, quivering with the melismatic melody. The charmed passengers smiled, tapped their toes and clapped their hands as the girl sang.
Haktan, along with the other passengers further down, craned his neck to see the girl. She was standing next to the guitarist, with a pürse in her hand. She was very pretty, with wavy chestnut hair, a slim figure. Her eyes lit up and she swayed a bit as she sang.
Haktan was instantly transfixed, enchanted. Who was this girl?
Metro stars were nothing new on the train. Every day, every hour, the city’s street musicians made their way through the train cars, performing songs, collecting whatever coins the passengers were willing to give, and then moving on to the next car. Most, if not all, of these musicians Haktan knew by face, if not by what songs they played. Turkish folk songs usually went over best, and occasionally Kurdish songs.
But this vision now, this girl, was a revelation. Who was she?
Haktan was caught off-balance. As noted before, his art of seduction relied heavily on spotting the lonely, the desperate, the needy. But this girl – why, everything radiated about her. She seemed to be standing on a revolving platform, turning this way and that before the world, the galaxy, the universe!
As the guitarist continued strumming, the girl began working her way through the crowded train. Still singing, she held out the opened purse. Captivated Istanbullus eagerly tossed coins into the purse – several even handed over 5-lira notes, and an Asian man and his wife donated 20 euros (worth five times their value in local currency).
Haktan’s eyes filled with admiration. What a pro, he sighed.
As the girl drew close, he hurriedly scrounged his jeans pockets and produced a gold 1-lira coin. At least it was brand new and shined brightly.
“Çok teşekkür ederim,” the girl said politely. “Thank you so much!” She gave him the same demure smile, the same averted eyes, as she did everybody else on the train.
“Thank you,” Haktan said, tossing his bangs back attractively, holding his shoulders up ready to shrug handsomely. It was his best trick.
But evidently the girl failed to see it, for she had already brushed passed him. A thrilling jolt shivered up Haktan as he felt the softness of her dress, the lightness of her figure. What class! What grace! He decided to follow her.
The metro arrived at Şişhane. The girl and the guitarist got off. They were in good spirits. The guitarist was long-haired, with a beard. Probably in his mid-twenties. Haktan felt a mixture of jealousy and fear. Maybe the guitarist was her brother, or boyfriend. He had to be careful, discreet.
They walked up the hill until presently they were on Istikklal Caddesi, the heart of the city’s entertainment district. Not so many tourists could be found there as in years past. Critics of the administration blamed terrorism, the economy, the country’s political woes for the decline.
At any rate, Haktan followed, as the girl and her companion reached the busy avenue. They stopped and had tea, and split the money from the purse. They talked for a while. Soon the guitarist stood and paid the bill. Slinging the guitar over his shoulder, he gave the girl a friendly hug (so Haktan assessed) and said “Görüşürüz!” and waved goodbye before disappearing down the street.
After her companion had gone, the girl sat alone at the table. She took out her mobile and checked her messages. The garson brought her another cup of tea. The cafe was not very busy at the moment. Several tables facing the street were empty.
His heart racing, Haktan approached.
“You sing very well!” he said shyly.
The girl looked up in alarm, startled by a stranger’s voice. But then she acknowledged the compliment.
“Thank you,” she said.
“I heard you on the train.”
“Yes, I remember you now. Thank you for your support!”
“May I sit?” Hakan smiled, dipping his shoulders in a way meant to suggest harmless intentions.
“Böyrun,” the girl said. “But I am leaving soon.”
“I’m Haktan,” he said, extending a hand.
“Şükran,” she replied.
“Memnum oldum. Nice to meet you.”
“Bende memnum oldum.”
The garson came and brought Haktan a tea. They made small talk. The girl was 21, in her last year at Boğazıcı University. She studied theater and dance, and in the fall was hoping to enroll in a master’s program at NYU.
“Where’s that?” Haktan asked.
“Where’s what? NYU? In New York.”
“America, oh!” Haktan was impressed.
“But I still have to pass my TOEFL exam,” the girl Şükran said, modestly.
“Inşallah,” Haktan said. “God willing.”
“Yes, inşallah. What about you? Are you a student?”
“Yes,” Haktan said. He told her the name of the university. “Medical faculty.”
“Do you want to be a doctor?”
“Yes,” he lied.
This girl was smart, he thought. More than kind, special. He knew about Boğazıcı University. It was one of the best universities in Turkey. She had to be smart. Probably rich, too. Still, her face was kind and unreserved. He felt that if he talked to her, she would actually listen.
Şukran must have intuited his interest by now, for she blushed.
“So is this what you do every day?” she asked suddenly.
“I mean – this.” She made a sweeping gesture with one of her well-shaped hands, arriving at their present condition.
“I don’t understand,” Haktan said, shaking his head. He let one of his easy smiles peak out from his light-colored bangs.
“I mean, what did you do today, Haktan?”
At a loss for words, Haktan shrugged. What did she mean by that?
“Did you go to school today?”
“Yes,” he lied. The girl regarded him, mirth in her wide blue eyes that were as blue as his own.
“OK, I mean, no,” he corrected.
“No. So what did you do?”
“Nothing. I …”
“You just rode around on the metro and then you met me.”
“Yes, like that.”
The girl stared at him for a long moment. Then she shook her head and laughed, a charming, bright laugh.
“You’re funny, Haktan! What kind of guy are you? Some kind of guy who rides around on the metro all day picking up girls? Çapkın musunuz? Are you some kind of womanizer?”
“No, ablam,” Hakan mumbled. He felt his face burning, and he wondered if the people at the other tables were listening. Could they sense his embarrassment?
“I’m just teasing you,” the girl Şukran said at last. “You don’t have to feel so humiliated. What’s wrong? Don’t you like school?”
“I don’t know.”
Haktan wished she would change the subject. He did not like people asking him about these things. The girl checked her mobile. Then she asked for the bill.
“I’ve got it,” Haktan insisted. He wanted to show that at least he was polite, not some maganda. She probably thought by now that he was just a maganda, what Americans might call a redneck, someone who lacks culture or refinement.
“Çok sağol,” the girl said, rising. “Thanks so much!” “Would you like to meet sometime?” Haktan asked. “I mean, for coffee?”
“Maybe sometime,” she replied. “But these days I am very busy.”
“Are you on Instagram?”
They added each other on Instagram, but then the girl said she really had to get going. She had an English lesson to study for her exam.
“Nice to meet you,” she said, before disappearing down the busy street. Haktan watched her, the girl Şükran, and her light dress, her slender figure retreating. By now it was late afternoon, mellow sunlight made all the people’s faces a dark gold. An instinct told him he would never see the girl again. He could follow her on Instagram. They could be Instagram friends.
They could follow each other. He could follow her as she graduated from Boğazıcı in June, and probably later when she passed her English exam, and later when she arrived in New York. His imagination could already see her there, travelling places where he would never go, places he suddenly realized that he too longed to see.
And she could follow him on Instagram. Follow him wherever he was going. Just where that would be, he did not know.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher. He lives in Istanbul.