Photo: Tressler.

Anna disembarked from the metrobus at Soğutluceşme in Kadıköy. Since it was the last stop, the remaining passengers also filed out onto the sidewalk in front of the municipal building and began flowing to catch the nearby buses or to walk into the neighborhood. It was always busy here, crowded, reflected Anna, much more so than her native Rostov.

With distaste, she recalled an incident on the metrobus a few minutes earlier. The bus had been overfilled as usual, everyone crammed like anchovies, pressed against the doors. At one of the stops, a few passengers were trying to get off, and they pushed anxiously against Anna, but she had been unable to let them pass because a broad-shouldered man in front of her either refused to move or was oblivious of the custom of temporarily getting off the bus to let others get off. A covered woman had shouted something rudely at Anna. Anna didn’t know more than a few phrases of Turkish, but the context and tone were enough. Somehow, after much pressing and more shouts from other passengers, the bodies had made their way past Anna and the broad-shouldered man and out into the street, the doors were closed and the bus continued to Kadıköy.

As she walked along, Anna still bristled at the thought of those unintelligible curses. She took her anger out on the man blocking the way. Some people, she thought! Why couldn’t he have simply got off the bus for a moment to clear the way? Did he really think the bus would leave without him? Some people – they behave as if … as if – they are the only people in the world. As if there were nobody else.

Anyway, she was tired. She had been up since six, and had taken a very long trip across the city to the distant neighborhood of Zeytinburnu. It was an industrial district, full of factories. She had gone there for a job interview, a customer service position. It was advertised as minimum wage, but being a foreigner, she had felt sure that the amount stated in the interview was lower than that. The interviewer, a Turkish manager, had obviously liked her (Turkish men had a thing for Russian women, she knew that), and had complimented her on her English and asked if she spoke any Turkish, which of course she did not, having been in the city for only a month. The interview had concluded with the manager indicating that he would be in touch “soon.” Soon! What does that word even mean?

She was thirty six, still with the attractive slimness of her youth. Her long red hair was like that of a fresh apple, and her pale complexion still rosy (in her youth, her friends had teasingly referred to her as “a Russian Kate Winslet,” ha! The film “Titanic” had been very popular in her hometown). Indeed, lots of men looked at her, noting her foreign-ness and pleasing features. Anna crossed the busy main street and walked up the hill to the neighborhood where she and her husband Alexei were staying. The trees were golden and red-colored, the streets beginning to flow with dry leaves. The autumn was warm and dry, pleasant. Out of habit she still checked the weather in Rostov – today it was about 6 degrees (Celsius), cloudy, so the winter had not really set in back home yet.

Home? It was still hard to process – the fact that she and Alexei were … refugees? She couldn’t accept this word, this condition. Yes, it was true that they had left Russia. And yes, because of the war. Alexei had feared conscription, so they had taken a bus to Istanbul. Anna shuddered at the memory of that horrible overnight journey. The trip itself wasn’t so long, only about ten hours, but it had been packed just like her recent metrobus, and everyone had been tired, anxious and rude. Again, everyone acting as if their situation alone was the only one that existed, the only one that mattered.

Since their arrival in Istanbul, everything had been a blur. She and Alexei, who was a train driver, had traveled to Istanbul a few years before on holiday. They had spent a pleasant week seeing the sights, the mosques, the underground network of cisterns, and taking the ferryboat rides along the Bosphorus. It was summer then, and tourists were everywhere – including lots of Russians and Ukrainians, she remembered. Not without some irony, she recalled how she and Alexei had entertained the idea of moving there. Why not? With its sea air, cosmopolitan vibe, ancient rhythms, would not Istanbul be a nice place to live?

And now here they were, under drastically different circumstances. With something between fear and sadness, Anna thought about how much their expectations were altered. The city, with its endless sprawling streaked grey horizons, scarcely registered. Now, visions like those of that vanished holiday were as thin and gone as ghosts, and their existence had shrunk to something pale and fragile. Only some savings and the generosity of Hakan was keeping them from the streets.

Hakan was their landlord. He was a stocky, hot-tempered kid in his early twenties. Generally he housed Erasmus students in the block of flats he either owned or managed, it wasn’t clear. By chance, a room was available. Due to hyperinflation, even such little rooms could be costly nowadays. But Hakan had taken a liking to them – to her, especially, and given the desperate couple something of a discount. “You are my friends!” he said, evincing the warm hospitality that Turks are well known for. “Don’t worry about anything, I will help you. I love Russian peoples!”

To be fair, they had encountered other evidences of such kindness since their arrival. Lots of her countrymen and women had purchased property in the south of the country, a spike had occurred in recent months. And Russians for years had made Turkey their summer vacation destination, so Turks in general were warmly disposed towards them, even nowadays. For instance, the other night they had been invited by a virtual stranger – a talkative, bearded man who spoke halting English – for fish and rakı at a restaurant near the iskele, and the man had insisted on paying for everything. Due to their limited funds, they had reluctantly accepted the man’s offer, but at the cost of having to give him their mobile number. He now called and left half a dozen messages a day, wanting to meet and hang out – especially with Anna. It got to the point where Anna had to turn her phone off for certain periods – which was a matter fraught with tension, since a phone call with a job offer could also come at any minute.

Anna arrived at their building. Their room was on the third floor, no lift, so she walked up the stairs and let herself in with a key. Alexei was sitting on the sofa, his face buried in a laptop (he was binging “Prison Break,” his favorite series, for the thousandth time, she thought with a sigh). He was still wearing the clothes he’d been sleeping in when she left early that morning. An empty pack of Camels sat on the coffee table, which meant he couldn’t be bothered to even go downstairs to the market. His face was unshaved, soft and sallow, as he had not been out much. Anna fought the urge to be annoyed – they really didn’t need arguments. Back in Rostov, he liked his job, and getting up and going to work. He was one of those who needs the regularity of work. Here in Istanbul, he was intimidated by the city, crushed by the crowds, and preferred to stay at home while his wife went out. Well, she could try to look after them both, at least for awhile. Maybe later he would start getting used to everything. After all, it was a lot to get used to.

The rest of the apartment was quiet. The other tenants, two young Erasmus students, were hardly ever there. Anna went to the common bathroom, undressed and showered, washing the smells of the city and the metrobus off. Wrapping her hair in a towel, and donning a worn, blue robe, she went back to the living room.

“I got a message from Pavel,” Alexei said. “He says he thinks he can help us.”

Not Pavel again, she thought wearily. They’d had this discussion. Pavel was a Russian living in Prague. They had met him at the train station in Rostov the day of their departure a month before, and over vodka and cigarettes commiserated together about the war, their situation. Pavel was a young man, early twenties, rather arrogant, Anna thought. No, just full of himself, young. She had a mature distrust of such young men. Pavel was heading to Prague, where he claimed to have some friends who would get him a job in one of the nightclubs. “You must come to Prague!” he insisted. “I have friends there, they can help you. Forget Istanbul! Czechia is much better.”

Alexei was keen on the idea, she knew that. She also was fond of Prague. In fact, they had spent their honeymoon in the Golden City ten years before, and made wonderful excursions to Cesky Krumlov and the vineyards of Moravia. She still smiled at a memory of walking hand in hand with her new husband across the Charles Bridge near dawn, and seeing a pair of swans dozing in the placid waters of the Vltava. “Look, they are like us,” she had said, tenderly.

The thing was, Pavel evidently had found a job at someplace called Club Paradise. He sent them the link to the club’s website. It was a strip club in the city’s red-light district. “Lots of Russian girls work here,” he messaged. “They make really good money! Easy money!” He even promised to get a job for Alexei as a doorman or at the bar.

Yes, they’d been over this before. To Alexei, it was an inspired plan. He reasoned with Anna: lots of women do it, he said. He even gave vague personal examples, acquaintances of so-and-so, stories of vague struggle, of sacrifices in the night, but ultimately of satisfaction and even triumph, financial of course. Anna resisted. It seemed that she was the one who would be doing the work, making the sacrifices, enduring the struggles. That was if they were even able to get to Prague. With the war, and the many people jamming the borders, the restrictions were getting tighter. How do they know that they wouldn’t be turned away? And then what would they do? Where would they go?

Alexei had already dreamed though all of these eventualities, and arrived at the notion that without risk there is no reward, and that anyway, it was a very little risk. They were coming from Istanbul, not from Russia. If asked, they could simply present themselves as tourists, hoping to pass a few days in Prague. With tourist visas in hand, they would then be free to take their chances in the city.

When it came to the Paradise Club, her husband was willing to concede her reservations. “Of course my love, I am not crazy about the idea of you dancing either,” he had said. “But from what Pavel says, it really is easy money, good money. You could just do it for a little while, and I could be there to look after you at the door, keep an eye out. And then once we get enough money, we can try our luck at something else. Maybe you could even get back into design!”

He knew that was a selling point. Back home, Anna had a good career as a graphic designer. She worked for a tourist magazine and usually from home. She missed her job, missed using her talents. After they had left Russia, her employer had tried to give her some online work, but this had fallen though for some vague reasons related to sanctions and restrictions on credit. At any rate, she had not heard from her former employer since they left.

“Anyway, the dancing would be just to buy us some time,” Alexei insisted. “Come on, you dance a bit, flirt with the customers – Pavel says they are not bad, mostly British, Americans, stag parties. Pick up some nice money, and next thing you know –”

Anna had heard all this before. They had been over it. Now, Alexei wanted to talk about it again because of the message from Pavel. He was full of renewed enthusiasm for the project – he who had scarcely been out of doors in a week, while she had been getting up at dawn, cramming herself onto the metrobus and heading to godforsaken places like Zeytinburnu, reduced to applying for jobs that she would never even glance at back home in Rostov.

Some people – they act as if they are the only people in the world.

She was tired, still tired from the trip. She needed a rest. She would go to the bed, lay down for a while and stare at the walls. Then she would nap, and later get up and make some soup for dinner. Alexei would need some cigarettes, and probably some beer at least. She could use a drink herself. She would do all those things, and then maybe later, after she was rested, she would allow herself to relax and listen to her husband’s Prague proposal once more. After all, wasn’t he also trying, in his own way? She would try too. What else was there to do? It was a small apartment, too small for arguments, and their situation did not need any more complications.

And so, feeling very much alone, Anna laid down and for a long while, stared up at the walls.


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