The shoulder bumps from strangers that make me shove back during the day go down easier at night. The power dynamic shifts when you hurry against the CBD’s foot traffic as a group, newly animated with the ability to break up other clusters of bodies with your increased speed and size. On the corner of Sydney’s George and Bathurst I glance up, diverted by some Big Four firm’s logo beaming down—its sedate, civilised, civilising weight. The building’s few lit office windows cut and blaze against the ones that have gone dark. I imagine being one of those floating Friday bodies shifting on an eighth floor, fiddling with my stationery, sipping from my mug of free pod coffee, looking out the window after dusk and realising that I should climb into my car-smelling car, return to my flat-smelling flat and kiss my cat-smelling cat. Then Ahmet falls onto his side.
‘Oh, shit,’ I say, coming down to my knees. I am reminded that he was the only one kind enough to help me finish off the bottle of red I’d stolen from work at the pre-drinks. ‘It’s a 2012 cab sav,’ I’d crowed, ‘it’s worth like 40 bucks. Pre-mark up. We can’t not finish it. Come on.’ I wave my arms in tipsy semaphore to redirect foot traffic around, rather than over, his body.
‘Milliyet, neler oluyor?’ shout his friends. Cosmopolitan Turks like him who also speak English and French and leave their country of birth to hook up, drink and/or come out. From a good 20 metres ahead they half-turn their heads. Registering that our absence signifies something, they hurry back in bouncing steps, wriggling to pull down their dresses. Suzan steps up and we haul Ahmet to his feet.
‘Ahmet?’ she says. ‘Ahmetcim? Iyimisin?’ He obviously isn’t—she speaks over his dry-heaves. ‘We have to arrive before 11 or it’s 30 dollars.’
‘He needs a cab,’ I say, locking eyes with Tomas, a Belgian with hair so blond and curled I suspect he’s a stained glass window baby, torn out of some European cathedral and brought to life. The son of a diplomat, he has tonight already dared a cop to fine him for jaywalking. The cop complied. Useless, but the only other man in the group in addition to Ahmet. I’m not doing the duty of taking Ahmet home because I’m not a millionaire and I don’t have the energy to care for so many. And the idea of sending out a girl to care for a dude. It defies the unidirectionality of this sort of protective labour between friends.
‘No, no, he’ll be okay,’ says Tomas, diplomatically. Dickhead. ‘He just needs to, how you say?’ He mimes sticking a finger down his throat. ‘Tactical …’
‘Chunder,’ I say, just as Tomas says ‘Tak-yak.’ Ahmet has slumped again to the ground as we’ve nutted this out, eyes closing and opening like windscreen wipers set to intermittent.
Suzan and the two girls from Ankara nod and commence a campaign of waking Ahmet up with gentle coaxing. In aggressive whispers, they ask him not to interrupt their evening: ‘you’ll feel so much better if you do it. Just try. Just give it one big try, I promise you will feel great. Kendini iyi hissedeceksin.’ I feel like vomiting, it is that persuasive.
Ahmet heaves in Tomas’s arms.
I mutter, ‘Jesus, this is like Guantánamo, Europeans are arses,’ and Tomas looks at me and says ‘Really?’ I had avoided wearing heels specifically for this purpose, and retreat to moral high ground. Ahmet’s vomit is left where it lands beside St Andrew’s Cathedral, becomes a monument to the resolve of Sydney’s party people; something that will stick for a moment to the sole of a brown dress-shoe as it tramps into church on Sunday morning.
• • •
There’s glitter in my hair and down my chest but in the mirror all I see glistening is my sweat. I miss the disinterested lighting of the dance floor now—here I can observe the segment of my stomach below the belly button that protrudes no matter if I speculate that I’m dieting or eating the same but feeling worse. My face, which normally passes muster with foundation and some mascara, compared now to the complexions of the girls around me, looks as uneven as a potholed street. I try to read their smoothness like a crystal ball, but cannot tell what it portends.
I pee out the 40 dollars I’ve spent on shots so far, faster than I downed them and with more relief. The more coloured things you drink the clearer your pee is. I wonder where the colours go. Staining my insides. In India during Holi they catapult you with paint. I wonder at the etymology of holiday. Which came first, holy or Holi? Probably neither. I’ve left my purse in the cubicle. So busy was I trying to focus my eyes in the dim and grey piss-box to track the unfolding of a cubicle-wall Sharpie argument about the politics of graffiti. Blue Sharpie had argued it was a way of marking the rebellion of women against the regulation of public spaces. ‘There’s no female Banksy.’ Black Sharpie had countered it was a slight against the working-class service staff who had to clean it up, and when I had rubbed the wall experimentally found she had used permanent
I wait by the toilet door, craving a drink, reminded of the time I’d put a set of three rings, a gift from my sister Gülin, which join up to make one, somewhat like a transformer, or perhaps co-dependence, down my bra for safekeeping. Sometimes I am afraid people will rob me. Fair appraisal. I had bent down in the bathroom and the centrepiece, the silver one with the pearl in the middle, plunged into the bowl and sank to the bottom. I stared, then thought, I can’t deal with this, and left. I thought, well, this is a form of robbery, and wandered back. A girl was in the cubicle by then so I knocked, as if that could prevent whatever was taking place from taking the whole damn place, and said, ‘Excuse me, my ring fell into the toilet.’ She flushed anyway.
I hope no-one has shat on my purse, plotting what to drink next as my elation wears off. I scoot into the cubicle almost as soon as the flush goes and a redhead in Ugg boots steps out. Her cushioned soles have probably soaked up a good half litre of piss for me. I retrieve the purse, doing my best not to touch any additional surfaces, unwilling to wash my hands a second time.
There’s an electronic remix of ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ playing when I emerge and make a beeline for the bar. The bass drops somewhere between ‘pack up all my care and woe …’ and ‘I’ll arrive late tonight …’ and the rhythmic pounding that follows makes me forget the original. I rifle through my wallet to the beat, wondering indistinctly if I’ve succeeded at tonight’s sums, which I have not. I’m down an unaccounted five, which is a good 20 minutes of dead-eyed waitressing I will have to perform to recoup the loss. I can’t ascertain why any thief with a face would take five dollars and not the rest of my cash, so I strike the Ugg girl off my list of suspects. I’m left with capitalism as the forerunner, as I watch it slake the thirst of a pair of men who, in identical pairs of sunnies that hide their blown pupils, chug from bottles of $6.95 San Pel in the roped-off section. Capitalism recognises the inadvisability of only stealing large sums. The hammer-and-trickle-up or some such shit.
All it means is that instead of a cocktail, I’m drinking beer. That’s good. Beer calms me down. I know alcohol is a depressant, but what isn’t, right? Lots of things. I mean that beer calms me down psychosomatically. It’s what I drink during the day; what, sometimes, I drink near family. It’s the missionary position of beverages.
I don’t think I’d hate waiting in lines so much if it weren’t for the people. Obviously. But I mean I could queue with a pack of dogs, for example. If bartenders at these sorts of places weren’t so wilfully slow, didn’t exercise such sweet, minimum-waged leisure in chatting to attractive patrons, I wouldn’t feel as if my time had been sliced clean off my wrist and gifted to the chick sitting at the bar. I feel my soul depreciating in these moments, these ones, right now, as the guy tending the bar takes a full ten minutes, as I time it, to create a martini with a lemon twist. What’s the twist? That you’re a cunt? Then I dwell on the tender speed with which he penetrates each olive, as if they are all demanding care, valid and solid; then I think I’m onto something.
Once your life goal is to be an olive, it’s time to abandon the whole thought process.
I stand as much like the Fearless Girl statue from Wall Street as I can—try to catch the bartender’s eye with my chest out, a little bit taking the piss—but I’ve got no bloody chance. Instead I’m jostled till I’m next to a gangly, laddish figure. I can only assume he’s at least 18 and merits my calling him a man, but I think it begrudgingly. He’s wearing a fedora. Of course he is. He’s alone so when he opens his mouth I cave and we talk shit like:
‘Hey, what’s your name?’
‘Oh, it’s … just pronounce it Ed-da. No, Ed … yeah, Eva will do. Cool, where are you from?’
‘I’m from the UK.’
‘I’m from the UK.’ He leans in for this proclamation and I lean away.
‘Cool. How does the bar service here compare to there? Shit, I bet.’ I’m un-Australian.
‘Oh, it’s fine. Already got a drink, actually; just waiting for that girl …’ he points, ‘behind the bar to notice me so I can get her number.’
‘Don’t harass people at work, man, it’s not cool. She literally can’t leave or tell you off. I can promise she just wants to finish her shift and go ho—’
‘But she is so hot.’
When I finish, my voice deepened by a night of reluctant shouting already, which may have made me sound more authoritative, less shrill, I’m conscious of him re-appraising me as someone worth conversing with rather than manipulating into bodily contact. I’m not a yes-no on a drop-down list, the fucking nerd. So I narrow my eyes, tell him ‘nice fedora,’ and move further up the bar. I cannot be kind all the time. But when it comes time to order I squeeze out a please in penance when asking for a tin of anything from the club’s reject-beer bin. The martini man’s service is so fast it means he doesn’t want to harass me sexually even a little. Such a bittersweet moment I wish ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ would come back on for it.
I hoist my beer, sip it until it’s too warm and the music too exhausting. It’s electronic stuff I wish I knew but don’t, and whose unfamiliarity comforts me not at all. And so I cave again, take my coat out of coat check and loiter on the stairs outside. By the time a third man has eye-fucked me to his fill, has asked what I’m doing, I recognise the need for a cigarette to construct for them a sense of purpose; a smokescreen, if you will.
Barely inhaling, I make sure to butt on the ground with a finger every half minute to seem like a smoker. I speculate that I could do this until I’ve built up around myself an ashy, salt-and-pepper crumbling cocoon or coffin. It’s only because I’m an alarmist about how much longer my acquaintances can bear to be in these environments than me; and lo, one emerges. Ahmet, holding his vomit-stained full-price camel-colour Zara coat. Who gives a shit, is what I feel when I see him. In truth I do care an okay amount about him and his coat. It’s a nice coat and he is a nice person. He helps me put on my hand-me-down once-was-black jacket. I help him put on his, with my fingertips.
‘What are you doing out here?’ I say. ‘You don’t smoke.’
‘I’m tired,’ he says, enunciating carefully, whether from the drink or the private schooling I’m not sure. ‘I was thinking I will just go to my flat, actually, to finish packing.’
‘Nice. I’ll come with you? Do you want to hit the Macca’s one last time?’
I reckon Ahmet might just be sufficiently worse for wear for me to finagle him and … there you go, I’m right. He nods.
I won’t speak to him again after he leaves. I know that only his wealth has enabled him to come to Australia on exchange, while it’s only by biological happenstance that I came to be birthed out in Sydney. And that’s what we in the business call a chasm.
I’m a chasm salesperson. I peddle distance. New ways to reconceive the world such that no-one is like you. I demur on speaking Turkish with Ahmet because his accent is refined, is exactly the type that my family mocks when the occasion presents. I worry I speak roughly or use outdated terminologies fed directly to me by having had only my parents to speak with, like a bird vomiting into its chicks. In my parents’ beaks—mouths—I worry Turkish is a coarse inheritance. Ahmet gestures at elegant recourse to be perceived as European.
It’s not, of course, particularly elegant that he has thrown up on a footpath today. I grab one of his hands to warm up in my pocket while we amble. It’s a foreign city after all, Sydney. She’ll make you sick.
• • •
During the walk across Pyrmont Bridge Ahmet tells me about how gay men are not allowed to be conscripted into the Turkish military. It reminds me of staring at the Bosphorus, which connects Europe to Asia, with Gülin. This was back in 2011, when she was still well. Seagulls that seemed the size of albatrosses had flown alongside the ferry, circling, as she’d explained, rapt, eyes welling, how the guru she’d found in İstanbul never ate or slept. How his disciples, in their all-white uniforms, occasionally with his name in Sanskrit tattooed across their chests or down their necks, fought over who should have the honour of tying his shoes or sitting on the floor by his side on the bus to the next retreat. The Jim Jones/David Koresh–inspired con artist has been tied up in legal scandals for years now. He’s gallantly defending himself by implying the women he abused liked to dress in tight clothing—to do yoga. It was a yoga cult. Sometimes I feel like cracking open my skull at the obviousness of everything.
I remember how one night I’d mentioned this ex-cult leader to Ahmet, Suzan and the girls from Ankara, thinking they might have heard the story break back home. One laughed and said, ‘Oh yeah, I read about him in the paper,’ and made a joke.
‘Sorry if I am boring you,’ says Ahmet, and I snap out of it. ‘Which of your parents is Turkish again?’
‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Both. My father was a major, actually. From Sivas. And my mother worked at the Population Office in the seventies and eighties in Izmir. When you were first allowed to change your gender identity. Sometimes Turkey seems so modern.’
‘Oh,’ he says. ‘Suzan said you’re only half-Turkish.’
We step into the Macca’s just behind three 2 a.m. girls who stumble like it’s their favoured mode of transport, holding each other and laughing, one trying to shake off her heel on the sly.
Every McDonald’s reminds me of my mother. In line I think about how when I take the train out west tomorrow she will chide me from her sickbed for not visiting her more, for being a slut like Gülin—which is not the right term for it—and how these sorts of things aren’t about culture or time but personal integrity. I will remind myself I mustn’t swipe back like I did at the boy in the fedora because the one time I did, when I said, ‘Why? You got pregnant at 17,’ she looked at me with her eyes brimming immediately with tears, ‘Don’t make me tell you why,’ and then she told me why.
That day I had left with the intention of returning to my other life—here in the off-centre, where our existence is furnished not only with things that are essential but also with martinis with lemon twists—and had instead made it as far as the walk from the inner-west sharehouse to Stanmore McDonald’s, had sat down bathed in the fucking fluorescence and, upon opening the brown paper bag and noticing I’d been given a cheeseburger, not a chicken burger, burst into tears. It’s the pickles what done it!
So you could say that I’m attached to this chain. I order and think I can make the wait for pick-up but the crush of midnight bodies and booze lowers my blood pressure and I’m too dizzy and exhausted not to stride outside onto Darling Drive and force the crisp air in and out; quietly, so I don’t seem like I’m panting. At the weight I feel I am, I’d be a sitting duck for fat jokes slid into my flesh by the tipsy hoard, like a pencil pushed down between two sweaty breasts. A chubby girl panting outside a McDonald’s. It’s a pickle freoccupation. Fickle preoccupation.
I step out after the girls, watching as they sustain themselves against the wind buffeting their hair into their sticky, glossy lips, resilient despite the hours. Ahmet waits patiently inside, because he is patient. I slide to the asphalt although I’m wearing a dress. I am a poor dresser in that I usually wear clothes for chairs and so sit on chairs.
A man approaches me. When I look back on it I’ll remember only that he had stubble and wore something yellow. Perhaps a large footpath French fry. I stand quickly before he can crouch.
‘What are you doing down there?’ he says. Summoning the preoccupation men have with female loitering, the perceived strangeness of actions that aren’t really that strange. My responding, ‘Just waiting for someone’ isn’t broad enough, I suppose, from a life of flattening my accent, rounding my Rs instead of letting them peter out, for comprehensibility to migrants, and so he next asks, ‘Where are you from?’
I say, ‘Here, but my parents are, you know, ethnic, I assume that’s what you want … mean.’
He takes up the ethnic custom of kissing me on both my cheeks. I let it slide. He asks my name and I say, ‘yeah, Ada is fine’, and he takes this information as being just as precious except his kisses devolve closer to my mouth, one almost snaring me. I know this game. Not a good sport, but I’ve played it. I wonder if he really considers that I might fall disoriented onto his flaccid, moist tongue. I want to say something like ‘I don’t fuck rapists’ but it’s needlessly inflammatory for when I repeat this story later. People will jibber jabber about my being harsh and forego sympathy, so I look around furiously until Ahmet appears. As he steps up the other man steps away, then recedes, I suppose surmising that I’ve already been claimed, like a seat on a bus.
I don’t mean to snatch the brown bag Ahmet holds out but I do. My hand is shaking so he takes it and puts it in his pocket. I roll my eyes, sick in my bones in these moments, these ones, right now, of men, and retract my hand. I slide down onto the stoop of a closed boutique store paying four grand a month in rent and carrying about four pieces of clothing inside. Ahmet sits down next to me.
‘I’m just hungry,’ I say. I press the fries into my mouth horizontally so more will go in at once. ‘Fuck, you wouldn’t believe what happened while you were inside.’
‘Hmm?’ he says, slanting his gaze sideways. I’m relieved I don’t have to worry about him trying to kiss me. A nice person with a nice coat, whom my mother wants me to marry but with whom I can barely share a Happy Meal.
I tell him about the other guy and he says, ‘Eek, why didn’t you kick him?’
I open the box in my lap, notice it’s a cheeseburger and not a chicken burger. I wish I had a reaction to offer Ahmet but am plain out. I feel about as bland and plastic as the cheeseburger I will eat anyway. This shit’s in my veins, or my arteries, like it isn’t in Ahmet’s. As he nibbles away beside me I think about how when I was seven years old my father took me to Macca’s every afternoon for two months, knocking off his worksite around six and beyond cooking, till I got big and round like my favourite McDonald’s mascot, Grimace. ‘I did not know any better,’ my father told me later, ‘I didn’t know, bilmiyordum.’ I think about how in Turkey they eat tripe soup (işkembe çorbası) after they’ve had a night out. That word, işkembe, always takes me a moment to recall, because it sounds to my second-gen ears too much like another word—işkence, torture. It’s at that point in the evening when every additional interaction feels like işkence, like it would take an epi-pen to the thigh to muster up the energy to form a complete sentence. But I can’t tell Ahmet this, can’t tell him much of anything.
All I can think to say to Ahmet is, ‘How would you feel if you saw a girl who looks like she’s just chatting really friendly to a man against a brick wall, then go from zero to a hundred and strike his dick?’ But I fear our English levels, or something else, have not converged on this point. We finish our meals and then our friendship. I go home and he goes home. Darling Harbour stays where it landed, not really a midpoint between Blacktown and the Bosphorus.
Eda Gunaydin is a Turkish-Australian writer. She has been a WestWords Western Sydney Emerging Writers’ Fellow and Neilma Sidney Literary Fund recipient. Her work has appeared in publications including Overland, Tincture and Voiceworks.