They hadn’t seen each other in months, ever since the schools were shut down in early March. One had only to consider the lockdowns on the weekends, plus the government decree that kept minors and the elderly at home – and their parents on top of that. It was a desperate time to be young. It was a desperate time for everyone.

Even in late spring, when the government had relaxed the stay at home orders, allowing seniors and the youth to go out for a few hours one day a week, most parents had still cautiously forbidden their children from venturing out in to the land of the virus.

Of course, the course of true young love never did run smooth. Haven’t we all, at some vanished point in our lives, faced such obstacles (not of the pandemic variety, but still — ) and been forced to use our resourcefulness, our guile, even our deceit? Well, this is such a time.

It was Gül’s birthday. She was 17. Her beau, a well-built lad, a basketball player, by the name of Barlas, had resolved to see her. They both lived in Uskudar, a conservative old neighborhood on the Asian shores of Istanbul. Both came from traditional families – the girl wore the long skirts and headscarves commonly seen in the more conservative parts of the city.

During the lockdowns, they had kept in touch through social media, and chatted all the time on What’sApp. But there are the obvious limitations – young love needs to have touch, smell, kisses to reassure itself, and at a certain point, Barlas especially was finding online romance to be harder every day. It was agonizing. He had to see her.

Then there was this: Just the other day, Gül had posted a photo on Instagram showing her having tea with a girlfriend at a well-known cafe near the iskele. Yes, her parents had started to relax their restrictions a bit. In the photo she looks radiant, she and the friend, as they raise their tea glasses in the bright sunlight. The photo had thrown Barlas’ heart into a panic, a whirlwind of worry and jealousy.

As the birthday had approached, they (well, mostly he) had discussed various covert strategies, ways to get both of them out of their parents’ view for a time, an hour even. He had even approached his parents on the subject. He had employed logic, invective. He had used the oldest approach in any kid’s book. “But annem, the other kids —-“

“Well, you are not one of the other kids,” was the time-honored response of his mother. “If their parents want their kids to catch corona, it is none of your business!”

You know what happened next? A miracle!

The water pipe began leaking. Yes, that’s right – it was as if an invisible hand had intervened. Barlas’ father had gone into work that day – he went into the office a couple of times a week, just to do some printing mainly – so he was unavailable to take care of the problem. The pipe was in the wall, and you could see a watermark beginning to creep through the paint on the walls in the foyer. The mother called the plumber, who said he was busy but would try to make it over sometime after lunch.

After hanging up, the mother checked her purse. In the bedroom, Barlas was unaware of the situation. He was resigned to having a miserable day, and was blotting out his depression by watching “The Last Dance” for the hundredth time on Netflix.

His mother called him.

“I need you to run to the cash machine,” she instructed. She was a weary, but extremely practical woman in her early forties. “I would go myself, but I have to stay here just in case the plumber arrives early. Withdraw 100 liras from the machine and come right back! Here, take your mask and some lemon cologne. Don’t touch anything or anyone! Be safe, son!”

“Of course, anne.” Barlas nodded earnestly, his heart racing. He was going outside! Already, the template of a desperate plan had set in his head. She handed him the bank card, reminded him of the PIN number, and he set off.

Outside, it was very warm, early July Istanbul weather. It felt odd being outside. He called Gül. “Where are you?” her voice sounded different now that he was outside, and there was the possiblity of seeing her. His heart beat faster.

“Can you meet?” he nearly shouted. “When?”


“I don’t know. Let me ask. I mean, where do you want to meet?”

“Our usual place. You know, the steps. Our steps.”

“Oh, right! Hold on, I’ll call you back in a minute.”

All this time, Barlas was walking like a mad man through the neighborhood, his mask draped around his neck. There were not that many people out, and the few he passed he dutifully kept a distance from by crossing the street like a commando caught in urban warfare.

Reaching the first staircase, he bounded down the steps to the bottom of the hill. Taxis and light traffic crept along the shoreline avenue. He crossed the street. The Bosphorus looked a bright blue and his eyes took in the sight of the ferry boats crossing over to Besiktas. It felt weird seeing all these things again, he thought.

Near the ferryboat entrance stood some ATMs. He quickly withdrew the 100 liras. As the fresh bill reached his hand, it suddenly hit him, a flash. He inserted the card again and withdrew – how much? 50 would cover it. Maybe his mother wouldn’t miss it. He was sure she wouldn’t.

Just as he was shoving the money into his wallet, his phone rang.

“I am waiting at the steps,” Gül’s voice – her voice! sang into his mobile. He even imagined she sounded very near.

“Five minutes!”

Putting the phone in his pocket, Barlas conscientiously took out the spray bottle of lemon cologne and gave his hands a thorough absolution. He wiped them together, feeling the reassuring sting of the cologne, the healthy scent of lemons in his nostrils. He had taken thorough precautions.

Their rendezvous point was at the top of a steep staircase near a famous mosque that looked out at the main plaza. As he crossed the busy intersection, Barlas heroically noted a gypsy woman selling flowers. He pointed to some fresh-cut roses.

Ne kadar?” he asked, breathlessly. “How much?”

Seeing he was a youth and obviously in love, the gypsy woman said, “Two for 50 lira.

Fifty lira! That was all he had!

“I’ll take just one,” he said nervously. With his mother’s money burning a hole in his wallet, Barlas felt almost as if he were in fact stealing the rose. But what could he do? Why a rose, by the way? Well, in Turkish, the name “Gül” means “rose.” So that’s why. The gypsy woman offered to wrap it, but Barlas thought it would look more romantic if he just held the rose in his hand.

On his way to the staircase, brandishing the rose like a torch, carefully keeping his social distance (the multi-tasking loverboy that he was), Barlas passed a well-known chocolate shop. A few people were sitting outside, having tea and coffee and enjoying the view. On an inspiration, Barlas went in.

The counter display was a rich cornucopia of sweets – from baklava and other Turkish specialities, to traditional chocolate cakes and fresh cookies with strawberries peeking from the top.

Hoşgeldiniz,” the clerk said briskly. “Welcome.” He looked Barlas up and down a bit skeptically. The place was not cheap.

“What’s the least expensive thing?” Barlas asked. He was tapping his foot, eyeing the door. He knew Gül was waiting at the top of the stairs, and who knows? Back home, the plumber could arrive any time? His phone could ring any minute with the lamentable words “Where are you?” issuing from his dear mother’s lips.

Excruciatingly, the clerk took his time, as though lost in thought, as though employing Einsteinian-level mathematics. Finally, he pointed to the strawberry cupcakes. They were cheesecake pieces with fresh strawberries on top.

“How much for 25 liras?” Barlas asked.

Again, the cool mathematical contemplation.

“You can have two pieces,” he said at last.

There was no time to protest. Barlas agreed to the price and asked if the man could wrap them. The clerk reached in the counter, grabbed two cupcakes – then, with a kind of pitying smile, added two more, winked at Barlas – and handed them over to a young boy behind him.

Teşekkür ederim,” Barlas said.

Rica ederim,” the clerk winked again. “Give her my regards.”

He took the money from Barlas outstretched hand. A minute or so later, the boy gave Barlas the white package with the shop’s famous emblem on the front. Barlas raced out the door and up the stairs. It was a very long climb (he had once counted the number of steps – 115 to be exact – and from the top of the steps you had a nice romantic view of the mosque and the Bosphorus. That is why he and Gül always met there. More than a few young couples met there, in fact.

He saw Gül sitting at the top. She was looking at something on her phone. When he was almost up the steps, she looked up, squinting into the bright sun. When she saw him, she smiled.

“Sorry I took so long!” Barlas said. He was proud that he was not really out of breath from the sprint. She stood, and after a moment’s hesitation, gave each other kisses on the cheek. After all, they both intuited that they still had to be careful. Actually, Gül took a spray bottle of lemon cologne out, and they each had a spot to freshen up, to feel properly cleansed.

He felt like a hero, which is by the way what his name “Barlas” means. Brave, heroic, a warrior.

“My prince,” Gül said, her eyes happy and gleaming.

Gül had already noticed the presents, had let out a delighted “Oooh!” when he presented them, but then allowed him to set them down on the step until they had cleaned up. Now, they sat on the steps and Barlas represented the gifts. He handed her the rose, “For you, my darling!” he said. She had small, pale features beneath her headscarf, and she offered him a puckish kiss as she accepted it.

“And these –“ Barlas handed her the box with the strawberry cupcakes. Gül was impressed by the famous logo, and stopped for a second to look at it. She carefully opened the box, and let out another gushing cry as she saw what was inside. She took one out, inspected it, and then offered a bite to Barlas.

“No, they’re for you!” he insisted.

“Take one,” she whispered.

“We’ll both take one,” he said. “Then you can have the rest. It’s your birthday!”

They each took one, like lovers offering the other’s wine glass, and they bit into the cupcakes. They were very sweet and fresh.

Afterward, they sat for awhile, Gül clutching her birthday rose and Barlas, having nothing else to do, pulled off the mask from his neck and just dangled it from the tip of his index finger, spinning it almost as if it were a basketball. Masked, heavily-breathing shoppers from the market, a few stray cats, passed them, but paid them no mind.

They wanted to kiss, but were still feeling a bit shy around each other. The pandemic notwithstanding, the reality of each other’s physical presence was a bit awkward. For months, each had existed in the other’s mind as that ghostly ectoplasm on the video chat. Their screen presences had almost become more real to them than their actual ones.

So they just sat, neither of them saying very much, looking down the steps at the people in the cafes and markets. They took a couple of selfies, holding up the rose, the sweets, smiling in the sunlight and looking young and totally absorbed in each other. At one point, an old homeless woman climbed haggardly up the steps, stopped and asked for change with a scrawny, outstretched hand.

“Maalesef,” the couple said, shaking their heads. The woman wearily continued climbing the steps.

Inevitably, Barlas’ phone rang. “Where are you?” his mother demanded. “The plumber called. He is coming in fifteen minutes!”

“I am coming, anne!” Barlas said, reflexively jumping to his feet. “Sorry, the bankomat wasn’t working. I had to go up the street to find another one, and then there was a long queue. I am coming! Ten minutes!” He rang off before his mother could make any further inquiries.

“Is everything OK?” Gül asked.

“Oh, yes, no problem,” Barlas replied, playing it cool. “I just need to get home. The plumber is coming. I have to give my mother this money for the repairs.”

“Well, thank you for remembering my birthday,” Gül said. Her wan, round face looked up, her eyes disappointed but understanding. “See you soon, I hope?”

“Insallah,” Barlas said. “God willing.” She was still standing, looking at him expectantly, so he leaned forward and they kissed at the top of the steps. “Take care,” they both said, shyly, and all but ran in opposite directions, like thieves who’d just divided up the loot on a score.

Barlas beat a double time back through the neighborhood. Despite the circumstances, he couldn’t help but admire his athleticism as he jogged. Four months … You can’t keep a good man down, even during lockdown! Still, as he got closer, his heart felt a mixture of relief and dread. He’d have to find a way to explain the 50 liras at some point. He realized now that his mother would miss the money. Of course she would.

He could say he’d been mugged. That a man had aggressively confronted him at the cash machine, demanded he hand over the money. He could say it was a yabanci, a foreigner. A Syrian refugee, or a gypsy or perhaps a Kurd. That could work. He could tell his mother that he didn’t have time to think twice, he was afraid. The man could have had coronavirus. After all, she wouldn’t have wanted him to get sick. Actually, no. He didn’t like that angle. Barlas was a conscientious enough young man that he had followed the BLM movement on social media. He was no racist. He would have to think of something else.

“So where have you been?” his mother asked, when Barlas got home. “Wait! Wash your hands and face first! Give me that mask!” She went to hang it on the balcony while Barlas washed up in the bathroom.

As he was drying his face, Barlas’ suddenly knew what to say. Of course! He marveled at his mental powers, and felt good going back into the living room.

“Where’s the plumber?” he asked casually.

“He just called. Said he will come tomorrow.”

“Oh, typical!” Feeling really confident now, Barlas let it drop:

“By the way, anne. I have something to tell you. When I was withdrawing money from the ATM, something happened.”

His mother’s face grew alert, watchful.

“You see, this homeless woman came up and begged me to help her. She was really, really poor. I felt sorry for her, so I gave her some money.”

“Tsk! Tsk! You gave her money. OK. How much did you give?”

“Fifty lira. I took it from your account. I just wanted to let you know in case you saw something missing.”

His mother’s head dropped, except her eyes, which seemed to look through him.

“Your homeless lady, may I ask, what did she look like?”

“What?” Suddenly Barlas knew something was wrong with the story, or maybe it was the way he had told it. “She looked … really poor. Old and poor.”

“Are you sure she didn’t look like this?” His mother had picked up her phone, clicked on Instagram. She flashed it in front of her son’s face.

It was a photo, posted ten minutes before, of he and Gül sitting on the steps. She was holding the rose and they were each holding a strawberry cupcake. “Thank you, my darling, for making my birthday wonderful!” Gül had written. Not that it’s relevant, but there were 15 “likes,” 2 comments.

The selfie! Busted by a selfie! Why did she have to post it? Oh frailty, thy name is woman!

“If it was her birthday, why didn’t you just ask me for the money?” his mother went on. “Maybe we could have invited her for tea. Well, go to your room. We will see what your father says when he gets home.”

Barlas had a feeling he would probably not be seeing Gül, or anyone else, for a very long time.

As a coda, it should be noted that the plumber did arrive the next day. As you would expect, the repair ended up costing a lot more – the bill came to 150 lira, ironically enough.

Oh, and one day while Barlas was at home – now grounded for the remainder of the summer – he noticed on Instagram his beloved Gül was out with some schoolfriends at a cafe along the coast near Sariyer. There was a boy he knew sitting very close beside her. They were both smiling.

Ah, indeed, the course of true young love never did run smooth!


James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.