I Would Move Like Silk When this Was Over
Separation isn’t time or distance
it’s the bridge between us
finer than silk thread sharper than swords
Crowded into the vestibule, we hand over our lira, currency we don’t understand. I was talked into this with assurances of cloud bubbles, euphoria, a drug like no other. “Drink me,” says this place. And I agree it’s for the best. Something to remember. A moment to reach for when all promises of wellness and ease have drifted, swallowed by the ripple of space-time, a pebble in the throat of an ancient city. A practice. A breath. A sip of black tea from a cup and saucer on a terrace overlooking a village I’d never heard of six months earlier. When it’s my turn, I point to care package number four. In two days, I will turn thirty-four in North Carolina. A birthday like all the others. A dinner. Too much wine. My husband’s hand reaching for mine across the table. Something sweet to share. Loneliness to ignore. Shoulders turned away from each other and into our dogs. This bath is for me from me. For making it to Istanbul. For traveling across the world with strangers. For showering cold and living off olives and lentils. For rinsing shirts and bras and panties in the shower and hanging them in tree branches to dry. For drinking too much bira and watching a girl get an evil eye tattoo in a parlor in Antalya, a version of Metallica’s Enter Sandman blaring in the street. For hiking Termessos slicked through with rain and cramps and blistered toes. For not moving again. For surviving thirty-four years of cold and fog, I allow myself to be led to a heated marble slab under a dome built a thousand years after the Aya Sofia and a more than a hundred years before the Blue Mosque. I have no concept of the year 1584 (when the bath was built) and very little of Constantinople outside of the past fourteen days. Hips on marble. Streetlight and noise sneak in through four-hundred-twenty-seven-year-old stars cut into a dome. There is no moonlight on this night nor do the lingering ghosts of stars shimmer. I am tucked into the heart of Istanbul, a rainstorm at my breastbone, a mountain in my throat.
I’m told I preferred being bathed in the kitchen sink as a baby. My sweet infant rolls must’ve liked being closer to my mother’s height or the cool stainless steel on my skin. Perhaps there was some kind of security in the smallness of the sink versus the vastness of the tub. But I cannot remember being bathed as a child with any clarity. A blurred body much bigger than mine. Reaching without hands. A Tupperware pitcher to rinse. Warmth without comfort. Fear. My own hands cupped, holding water, the wet wrinkle of fingertips, trying so hard to hold onto bathwater as it inevitably trickled back into a porcelain-encased sea. My brother at my back. A boat. A red barrel full of monkeys. Their raft filling with water, sinking. Purple and blue soap bubbles. We are, somehow, playing and becoming clean. My legs widened into a circle. I am four, lathered inches thick, drawing Wonder Woman’s costume into my chest. Towels dragging the ground, even when tucked tight like wings around and around. I brush my teeth with Miss Piggy and climb onto the toilet to spit. An orange counter at eye-level. A hall punched with holes. A Father gone. My shriveled fingers on Mom’s locked bedroom door.
I was warned my skin would come off dark gray, filthy. Sheets of dead skin wound up into bubbles, sloughed off with what I’d built up into my mind to be some form of brick. Part of me felt I deserved the pain this would bring. Part of me longed to be skinned. All traces of my past left, black and frothed in soap, puddled and washed away and drained. I would move like silk when this was over. I roll the Turkish word for bath, hamami, over in my head as the lemon-infused water soaks into my skin. It pools in the small of my back. Without a word, I feel mitted hands. She works soft at first as if she wonders how much I can take. She increases the pressure of her scrub until I think she might take the mole off the center of my back. If I could speak Turkish, I’d tell her to go ahead, take it off, turn me to marble. I am tender, but unyielding. When she gets to my feet, I feel her inspecting them. She washes around the blisters with her bare hands. When she’s finished, she pulls on my arm, gesturing for me to turn over. She takes my hands first. For a few moments, I feel the clouds dripping onto the rest of my body. She resumes scouring. There will be tiny specks of blood when she’s finished. I try to make myself smaller. She steps away, returns, and about the time I breathe into closed eyes, she splashes more water in my face. She pulls me up by both hands and seats me next to a marble sink. I notice the other women, some traveling companions, and some complete strangers, all drenched and red. Some are bewildered and grimacing, some calm. The only blonde has a closed-mouth smile. As my bather holds my hands down with one hand and scrubs my face with the other, I blink through the pain, searching her deep brown eyes as she looks back, unflinching. With her mouth closed, she is beautiful, but her buckteeth have never stopped her from smiling. Intimacy doesn’t always come from those it should. She works her hands through my long hair with a tenderness I’ve never felt. Maybe she can sense my depression. Maybe she knows from the way I react to her touch that I’ve thought about suicide. That I can’t remember being bathed as a child or the last time my husband and I bathed each other. As the last bowl of warm water washes over me, I begin to understand hamami. Hikes at dawn past fairy chimneys, wine-soaked evenings of song and poetry in Olympos, all the whiskers and noses of homeless cats and dogs, my hands reaching for chins and tails and some kind of quiet I would never find in the caves of Cappadocia, and the shopkeeper who grabbed my hand and asked me why I was so sad. Maybe she can read the future in soap patterns like the mystics with their coffee grounds. With her palm on my cheek, she says, “Very good. Yes.”
BETH GILSTRAP has spent most of her life in North Carolina, but she tends to wander whenever she gets the chance. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fwriction, Luna Luna Magazine, Quiddity, Pithead Chapel, and Superstition Review, among others. She’s attended residencies in the middle of nowhere, Oregon and Vermont, but her favorite road to travel is West 26 to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Apple stands. Weirdos. Long abandoned and sometimes still occupied roadside shacks. Artists. The River. Windows down to the wet, sweet smell of the woods. It damn near makes her heart burst.