Fred called the police twice. The strangers in the apartment just stared as he dialed. When Fred tried to explain in English, the police hung up. The second time, he tried saying “There are strangers in our apartment” in Turkish. After conferring with one another, the police said yes, there are. It wasn’t the first time his phrasebook had failed him. Only later did he learn that the word he used simply described those “not from here.”
The people in the apartment seemed relaxed. They had not been caught in the middle of anything. Virginia and Fred, with their sacks of smuggled care-package goods, were the ones stealing in from the darkened hallway. There were three strangers. The man had rosy puckering lips surrounded by a dark goatee. The woman and her infant came in from the kitchen. The whole place smelled of cabbage, and all the lights were on. The man stood doughily, unthreatening as Fred slammed the receiver on the vintage rotary phone. Their few Turkish friends loved that phone. As children they had used the same model to dial up fairy tales, read slowly to them by a famous actress at thousands of lira a minute. It had been a phone company scam to run up their parents’ bill. Knowing that now, they were nostalgic for it all the same.
Virginia’s hand found the neck of the Jack Daniel’s protruding from one of the sacks. Wielding the square bottle like a mace, she demanded that the strangers remove themselves. She was like the one animatron in a wax museum, sloshing the liquor in small but sincere strokes while everyone else froze.
“Isn’t that, like, an eighty-dollar bottle?” the man said, unperturbed. “Are you sure you want to waste it on me?”
“No,” Fred blurted. He knew just how much he missed home: less than the eighty dollars it took to buy the Jack at the local shop, but more than seeing his smuggled bottle smashed to deliver a less than lethal blow. He muttered something weakly outraged like, “There’s plenty of cheap Turkish wine in the house to kick your ass with.” But an impasse had clearly settled, in the same way that stale air settled in the apartment’s central corridor.
Dropping the phrasebook, Fred walked to the kitchen and took the middle knife from the magnet strip. It was not the largest knife they had, but for being neither precise nor forceful it was underused and still sharp. Returning, he said, “What the fuck do you want?”
The knife was loose in his hand, as he’d heard it ought to be when you really meant something by it.
“Er,” the man said with an air of cautious self-assurance, “this is our apartment.”
Fred and Virginia had floated home that evening a half-inch above the winding, broken pavements that lead to their building. They’d had one of those perfect City days. Their friend Jake was passing through laid over on the way to work with refugees in “the real Middle East.” They’d taken a brisk ferry ride across the Strait to Asia, where they’d sat eating grilled fish and drinking aniseed liquor, gazing back at the dome and spire silhouette of the City’s ancient heart. From there, you could imagine the City as it had been, a place of such wealth and maritime power that distant Vikings simply referred to it as “the important city.” The three of them did their best to ignore the triad of skyscrapers that loomed just in the background, by the airport.
They’d traveled back across with a nice buzz. On their way to Jake’s hotel to pick up the suitcase-worth of American comforts he’d brought, they stopped off at a gallery opening on Independence Avenue. Independence Avenue ran along the spine of the promontory that defined the City’s old, but not ancient, quarter. It ran a half-mile starting from the Hilton and Ceylan InterContinental hotels of the Watering Square. It ended at the underground funicular that took passengers down to the banks of the inlet and the pontoon bridge across to the ancient heart. Virtually the whole length of the Avenue was fronted by decrepit nineteenth-century arcades. They were like dusty layer cakes left in a shuttered cake shop. Though in decline, each was still a hive of activity, concealing behind its façade cobblers, watch menders, shipping companies, dealers in black-market cigarettes, shops full of clothing fallen off the back of the truck, gypsy-themed dance halls, movie palaces, and, in at least two cases, churches. The brothels and beer bars were kept to the alleys just off the Avenue, and further down were the old neighborhoods, among them High Field where Fred and Virginia lived. There were also the few galleries, mostly frequented by foreigners and Nightmakers, a class of Turkish hipsters who’d picked up a taste for urban decay in Berlin.
The show featured photos taken by a notable French performance artist. Visiting the City, she’d become fascinated by one of its modern myths: that, though the City was comprised of two peninsulas set in the water like Sistine fingers, there were people in the sprawling suburbs who had never seen the sea—migrants from the rural East who’d come to work in the vast textile mills that lined the transcontinental highway. The artist claimed to have tracked some of these people down. They lived in the infamous “built-overnight” slums that spilled off hillsides into dusty gullies. She described her process as being like Ulysses’ final journey, where he is condemned to travel far enough from home that his oar is mistaken for a dowser’s wand. She then piled these folk into a rented van and drove them the half hour from their homes to the water’s edge.
Fred and Jake were openly skeptical—these people had to know there was water all around them. What were the chances they never took a bus to see for themselves? But Virginia thought there was something there, in the way, say, an elderly man was pictured with his eyes closed against the hazy blue open sky. Couldn’t they see there was a breeze in his mustache that seemed both a surprise and a relief? The men said perhaps they hadn’t had enough aniseed liquor to make it out.
They’d gone back to Jake’s hotel room, where he loaded them up with black beans and Mexican hot sauce and organic almond butter and vanilla extract and, most importantly, tax-free liquor. “Happy Valentines Day,” he had said, though that was a few days past. It felt more like Christmas, the one they’d just missed because their new Turkish employers didn’t believe in it. Christmas Day they’d both been holding class, College Writing in English, for their Turkish pupils up at the Castle.
Needless to say, on their way home Fred and Virginia had been thinking about an apple with almond butter and a nightcap, and not the bizarre facet of Turkish property law that had come up months ago when they signed their lease. Their landlord was a British journalist named Marvin, with a boarding-school haircut and a tendency for digressions. His new Turkish wife had poured the tulip glasses of tea and neatly presented each of them with a cookie. “Now the thing is,” Marvin had said, “there are laws about foreigners buying property here in the neighborhoods in the old part of the City. Just like there are laws against foreigners buying antiques. You have to understand it from the Turkish perspective. They’ve been burned before—foreigners making off with valuable things, the Elgin Marbles and so forth. Those belonged to the Turks at the time, though I think the Greeks would be sore to admit it. Regardless we have them now, and possession is nine-tenths as we say. But as for this place, in order to buy it, I had to have a Turkish proxy. An old man. He was sanctioned by the government to buy here, so I gave him the money to buy it. As far as I know, he and the money went back to the village in the east where his family had first come from. He’s likely dead. I haven’t heard from him in three years. When the laws change, we have the documents to prove we own the flat. But in the meantime, keep all the bills in his name. Everyone does this.”
Fred and Virginia had been so new they didn’t even expect the cookies to be salty. Of course they’d signed the lease, accepting this as normal. They did ask why the neighborhood was called High Field. Marvin didn’t really know.
“Maybe it was once where the fields began? Honestly, the names don’t necessarily make sense. No one knows why Friday Gully is named Friday. The neighborhood just north of here was called Horse Stables—that is, until the Greeks were driven out, then they changed the name to Good Riddance. That one makes sense.”
“You don’t really own this apartment,” Fred said with none of the conviction he wanted. The knife felt insincere, its plastic handle sweaty in his hand.
“No, we really do.” The man was smiling.
Clearly Virginia had remembered the lease signing too. She now clutched the Jack Daniel’s bottle like she was going to take a drink.
“It was just a proxy thing,” Fred said slowly, working through possibilities. “Just because only people from here have the right to own property here, for now. Doesn’t mean you really own it own it.”
The man spat, “The people who live here aren’t from here, and they sure as hell don’t have any rights to these buildings. Squatters from the east. They can’t even heat these places, keep the plaster on the walls or glass in the windows. They just live here because the generals that stole it from us told them they could. So don’t talk to us about own it own it.”
Things didn’t always add up in the City. The apartment was right in its center, a stone’s throw from the ramshackle grandeur of the Orient Express hotels. But most of their non-foreign neighbors spent their days scrounging firewood or trading old pots and carpet scraps with the rag and bone man like it was the post-apocalypse.
The man’s mouth naturally settled back into a smile. None of the sarcasm of his statement remained on his face. The woman came forward. She was fishlike, all cheeks with a thin, drawn mouth and dark hair held back with a hair band. She had a kind of afflicted prettiness, Fred thought, with curves evident beneath her grey sweat suit. With her free hand, she presented Virginia with a few delicate sheets of paper.
“That’s the deed,” the man said. “A copy.”
Virginia held the pages to the light as if they were inked in lemon juice. “A bunch of Arabic,” she concluded.
“It’s Ottoman,” the woman corrected. The child squirmed in her arms. Giving the man a look, she receded into the room that had served as Virginia’s studio.
“What are we supposed to do with this?” Virginia asked.
“There’s a translation on the third page. It says that Nikolas Tourvpoulos owns unit five in the World Apartments. This is unit five, and I am Nikolas Tourvpoulos, the third.”
“The apartment belongs to a British journalist, Marvin Cooke. He bought it from some Turkish guy years ago, and we rent it from him. The lease is somewhere, in Turkish and English. Maybe your uncle sold it and just didn’t tell you.” Fred was as powerless and as self righteous as an old woman in the Social Security office. “Whatever. This is our apartment, and we’d really appreciate it if you left.”
“I’m sorry,” the man said. “I’m sorry for Marvin Cooke and for whatever money he gave to the squatter he found here. Guy’s probably gone back to where he came from, some godforsaken hamlet just this side of the desert. Probably bought the whole town up with Marvin Cooke’s English pounds. That’s the world we live in. When I take this deed down to the General Directorate of Foundations, it will all be sorted out and we’ll have our home back. In the meantime, you can stay here as our guests.”
“We pay rent,” Virginia snapped. The guy might have been unflappable, but he was between Virginia and the private relief of her paints.
“Well, I suggest you stop paying,” the man said, “until we get this sorted out. If you could get me in touch with your landlord?”
“He’s in Burma,” Virginia cut in, “on assignment, with his wife. No phone, probably no email. They aren’t supposed to be there.”
“They aren’t the only people who aren’t where they’re supposed to be,” the man said heavy with irony. “Anyway, we’ve set up in this room, and it’s all we need for now. We’ll stay out of your way. And unlike the people who drove my dad’s family out of this place, we’ll give you plenty of time to find somewhere else. But you might want to keep your ear out, if you know what I mean.”
He almost bowed, maybe just bobbed his head, still smiling. He shut the door to the studio behind him. A solid floor-to-ceiling wooden door with an ornate handle, in style the same as separated all rooms of the apartment from the central hallway, and the same that separated the apartment from the building’s shopworn stairwell. They were one of the things Fred and Virginia most liked about the apartment. The doors had been sanded to their original pine, and when open they gave the place a great sense of airiness and light. When closed, they could be locked. It was an apartment in the Ottoman style: a windowless central space for the public, and vast spaces fit for a harem behind closed doors. The bolt on Virginia’s studio door turned from the inside.
When they came home from work most days, the hour of jostling through the metro and the minibuses behind them, Virginia would strip entirely: dropping sacks of unmarked student work and empty Tupperware, then stepping out of whatever modest dress she’d spent the day teaching in. She’d stand there a minute, and it was as if the tattoos on her back reclaimed their color. Then she’d slip into her studio for an hour or two before dinner, emerging enrobed and careless. Fred found himself besotted with her each time this happened. For all they sneered and struggled with their job, they kept it apart from their home life. The doglegging alleyways of their High Field neighborhood, its antique fruit stands and obscure wine houses couldn’t have been more different than the Castle where they taught, with majestic view across a parking lot bejeweled by new Audis to the Black Sea beyond. To travel between these opposite ends of the City was to travel through time and wealth.
Virginia looked at Fred. They were in the hallway, their hallway, with their American joys lying inert at their feet. Fred wondered if it was worth calling their friends April and Ata to get the cops over and the invaders expelled. But he had a gut-twisting feel for how it might go: he and Virginia unarmed against a deed they couldn’t read, their landlord beyond reach. They could go to the consulate, but that might embroil them in a legal dispute. Fred hadn’t even registered their presence here with the authorities and the local cops or filed the appropriate tax forms. The stifling small offices of the bureaucracy with their ironically cloudless blue walls, it was too much for him. He hadn’t left his own well-tamed country to play by rules abroad. They would just have to figure this out on their own. It might be as simple as changing the locks when the strangers stepped out.
Virginia was welling up. In the fluorescence of the hall light, the one they never turned on, her eyes turned to mirrors.
“It’s okay, baby,” Fred said. “It’s no worse than when we had bedbugs.”
Virginia shook her head. “It’s not that,” she said. “It’s just that we have to go to work tomorrow.” She sucked in a little sob, catching it and shuddering. Fred shuddered too, in spite of himself.
From Not Constantinople. Used with permission of Dzanc Books. Copyright © 2017 by Nick Bredie.