(A chapter from a memoir I started years ago about my time teaching in Turkey in 1992. I often think about that experience and the incredible people I met in that strange job. Maybe one day I will finish the book. Recently, the subject of this piece contacted me and it has been wonderful to reconnect with her. Oh, what a time we had together.)
Mila’s brown fingers untie the knot of the braided purple cord. She pours out the contents of a black velvet pouch and tiny yellow pebbles tumble across the kitchen table of her Istanbul apartment.
A light snow falls beyond the window. It barely defeats the soot from the city’s millions of coal-fired furnaces.
What’s happening here?
“I’m going to sell my gold so I can travel with you,” she says. “I’ve been saving these for a long time.”
My Turkish girlfriend just told me she wants to sell her life savings, gold nuggets, her only hedge against insidious triple-digit inflation, so she can afford to accompany me on my trip. I’ll leave in two weeks after I quit my teaching job, tour her country’s Aegean and Mediterranean coastlines for two weeks, then catch a ferry to Israel. And from there, somehow make it back to Oregon.
We never discussed her going with me although I did roll out a map and describe my proposed journey after we had sex in her bathtub.
Outside of a museum and jewelry I would never wear or buy, I’ve never seen gold before. It looks rougher than I ever imagined. These nuggets have dark folds and stained ridges. But they shine too, though a different kind of sparkle.
I look at her and touch the nuggets. Then I palm them. For a moment, I don’t know what to say.
“Mila, are you sure? It’s going to be incredibly cold.”
She stands up from the table and comes over to kiss me. I’ve still got the gold in my hand.
“I want to go with you and show you Turkey. The real Turkey.”
Three days later, I helped her pick out a backpack.
Four weeks later, that frigid morning on the dock, the palm trees stood at attention. My ferry idled, ready to depart. Mila and I said goodbye and I kissed her deeply while Muslim men and women glared. I told her I loved her and I did.
I didn’t ask Mila to marry me. If I had, I would have seen my question float toward her in the cold air and her response float back to me. I think I might have swallowed it.