BEFORE THEY PRAY
by Wendy Fox
Even before our clothes were off and we were in the full steam of the bathhouse, my sweat had begun to rise.
Yasemin disrobed in a second—for all their public modesty, in the cloister of the hamam, village women seemed especially quick with getting their clothes off.
I took my time. She didn’t seem to care. This was not a hurrying place.
My American clothes, piled on the bench.
My light skin, beading with sweat.
The first room was crowded with lockers. There were several other women around, a few small girls with them. They did not look at me or at Yasemin, just towel-dried their hair and chatted.
“None of these women like me,” she said.
I was surprised at her frankness.
“They don’t speak English,” she said. “Don’t worry. I know them.”
I followed her into the rooms of the hamam. I’d been in health-club saunas before and it wasn’t that different, though the light was brighter and the steam hotter. The rooms were tiled in stone and all fanned out around the center, like the petals of a daisy. Water ran through channels cut in the stone, and there were some basins that collected water from open spigots before it ran onto the floor and back down the brass drains.
I wondered, in this arid place, where it all went and came from. River water diverted from irrigation ditches? And then back to the fields?
We sat near a basin. My hair was already soaked from humidity, and my lungs were beginning to feel suppler. Deep breaths came easier and easier.
Yasemin was my employer. She ran a small boardinghouse in central Turkey, and she’d been kind enough to take me in. I had come for a vacation after losing my job—it had been months and I still hadn’t managed to go home. I had called my husband once, but he didn’t know yet that I had taken a job, nor that my visa had run out.
I wondered how long I would stay.
We sat in the hamam. So much waiting.
“What do we do now?” I asked Yasemin.
“You should sit with your thoughts. Later we will wash. Traditionally people are coming to the hamam before they pray.”
“I don’t pray,” I said.
“Everyone prays,” said Yasemin, “even if they do not pray to a god.”
It was rare that I saw her without her scarf, and I was always surprised at how much hair she had. My own hair was thin and if there was one American convenience that I really missed, it was ready access to a blow dryer. They were not hard to find, but the electricity went out so often, and the breakers were so ready to fail, that the vanity hardly seemed worth it.
As we sat longer I could feel my skin softening under the teeth of the heat. I wondered how I looked. Other women filed in and they greeted each other, but no one said a word to Yasemin. She didn’t seem to care and she sat with her head tilted back against the stone with her eyes closed and her brown curls dripping over her shoulders and across her chest.
I wondered about her and her past life as a chemistry student and as the lover of other men’s wives.
I wondered why she stayed in the village, when clearly the village women did not like her. For the first time I realized that the boardinghouse probably suffered too, because Yasemin did not tip the barkers at the bus stops to point tourists in her direction, and the restaurant proprietors likely did not recommend her either.
Yet she was calm.
Yasemin was rooted. It was something deeper than having a community around, because she didn’t. It was the place, I thought, that held her— Yasemin cradled in the valley, with the mountains rising toward the sky. The peaks punctured the sky and brought on violent weather, and Yasemin stayed still, her loop of chores and routines orbiting around her. I liked her gravity and I liked how she refused to leave this small town where her parents were buried and where she’d been born.
Her hair pooled around her and steam rose from the crown of her head like an aura.
I wished I could read it.
* * * * *
The person I missed from home most was Anne, our daughter; leaving her made the least sense. Sometimes when I would hear about women giving up custody or sending their children to live with relatives, I would wonder what was wrong with them. I would think, This child came from your body. I would think, It’s like cutting off an arm. It felt the same way now, and I wondered what was wrong with me, though at the same time I could also imagine scenarios where I might cut off my own arm—pinned beneath a boulder, trapped in a snarl of rope that was being tugged out to sea—and then the thought that while there would be some permanent loss, with enough nurture and rehabilitation, my shoulder would not hang empty forever.
My own parents were still together legally, but it would be a lie to say I felt the pull of the family. It had been so long since I had lived with them in my everyday life that each year ticking forward seemed to erase one off the back. I had thought when I had my own child that things would change—I was a little bit right. I understood my brothers better. They were younger than I but had both married early, and when Anne came I got, suddenly, why they’d dropped off. I hadn’t been that close with them anyway and a little one takes so much time that the choice of what to do with any spare moment suddenly seems precious.
The last time I’d see my brother Glen, it hadn’t gone that well.
Glen was the younger, the last of our parents’ three children, and he lived in Bismarck. A buddy of his whom he’d played with in a fledgling band had moved there from Washington State after high school because of some relatives and the promise of a job. Glen had always loved music and he followed his friend, packing his guitar into the back of a rotten Celica, and headed in the opposite direction as the pioneers. Not that their westward wagon tracks had ever done much for him.
They tried to perform for awhile. When I spoke to him by phone, then, Glen was working as a dishwasher and drinking a lot, it sounded like. Sometimes he’d put down the phone and strum me something on his guitar, singing self- consciously in the kitchen of his studio apartment. I could never really hear him well, but I’d close my eyes and listen hard for what I thought he might be trying to say.
It turned out that Bismarck was not the best place to launch from, and I don’t think they were ever very good to begin with. A couple years later Glen was working as a custodian at the state capital and engaged. I went to their small wedding in the park and toasted our beer cans to them. Glen looked nice in a navy sport coat and khakis; his bride wore a simple summer dress. At the time I was dating Julian, the man who would become my husband, but I wasn’t sure of where we were going. That night I had sex with my brother’s best friend in the back of a pickup—it was thrilling and country and the flannel shirt he put under my head smelled like home. Glen was very angry with me when he found out, and I wished I could tell him that he actually had what I wanted. Surrounded by the golden grass of the plains and men with strong arms and ragged boots, Glen’s life seemed simple, like our childhood.
It seemed clean.
After their first baby came, they drove to eastern Washington to see our parents and made the extra drive across the state to see us in Seattle.
They’d been on the road with a four-month-old, and I wanted it to be nice for them. Julian and I were married by then, but Anne had not yet arrived.
I made up the guest room, and I thought it looked very neat. I put the good guest sheets on the bed, yellow linen. Julian cooked dinner and I thought Glen’s wife insisted on doing the dishes. I tried to chat with my brother. He was tired from driving and visiting, but we made our way through several beers. The baby slept.
“How’s Mom?” I asked him. It was summer and we were on the front porch, smoking. We both still pretended that we didn’t smoke to our spouses, but sneaking cigarettes with Glen seemed like one of the only things we might still have in common.
“They seem old,” he said.
The next day we went out through Seattle—to the market and to Alki beach, and we picked our way along the waterfront. We had lunch at Julian’s favorite restaurant and went for espresso afterward.
Maybe I was smug.
Maybe I was so unhappy even then that I was pretending to Glen. I should have tried to talk more to his wife, Lisa. She might have been able to tell me something. She’d been working before but now she stayed home with their boy. I thought the trip was a financial stretch for them, so Julian and I insisted on paying for everything.
I thought we’d all had a good time.
They spent one more night before packing up for their twenty-four hours back to Bismarck. Lisa was lying down and Glen was packing the car.
“It was good to see you,” I told him. “I’m glad you came.”
Glen looked like he was thinking.
“You know, Laura,” he said, “you don’t got it made. You’re living out here with a fancy house and eat fancy food, and I don’t see nothing here that seems like you.”
His best man, all those years ago, had been tender when he laid me out. His truck had a canopy on it, and he’d unrolled a sleeping bag for me and then crawled out to help me in. He had rough hands but was tender with them.
“Okay,” I said to Glen. The best man had said something funny to me; he said, “Glen didn’t think you would be here. He thought your other brother and your folks would come, but not you. Turned out to be the opposite.”
“They don’t like to travel. And it’s summer, so they always worry about leaving the house because there might be fires.”
“People are funny,” he said.
“I mean it,” Glen was saying. “I think you turned out to be a liar.”
“Glen,” I told him, “I think I’ve always been a liar.”
He thought about this. “Remember when Shelly Gonsalves’ parents had that party, and she pushed me over the bank into the reservoir?”
“Yes,” I said.
“You were the first person in the water after me. There were people all over the banks, but it was you who came in. You didn’t even get your shoes off. I remember because your feet were wet the rest of the day.”
“That was stupid of me,” I said. “Shoes are hard to swim in.”
“I would have died if you hadn’t jumped after me.”
“Someone else would have,” I said.
“I don’t know,” Glen said. In fact, that was the second time that Glen had almost drowned. He was a good swimmer—we all were—but easily startled. The first time we’d been on a motorized boat and he’d leaned too far over the edge. When he hit the water, I screamed and the driver turned around directly. Glen was wearing a life vest, but he’d landed face down. It was I who plucked him from the water, choking on pondwater and fear.
I also didn’t know if the second time it had to be me. I do remember hearing the thunk of a dead weight against liquid, I do remember looking to see who else had heard. The sun was already shining but it got brighter, so bright, like the contrast on a television screen turned so far up the faces are only white blur. I remember Glen thrashing. I remember calling to him. I remember that he did not call back and I dove.
“You didn’t have to do nothing, Laura. No one else did nothing,” Glen said.
There was commotion by the time we’d gotten back to the edge of the reservoir; the side he’d been pushed from was a blasted-out rock, and I’d had to drag him across the length of it where there was a low, grassy bank we could get out on. Our parents were there. Shelly Gonsalves was there, looking sheepish. I wanted to punch her in the face, but I was too tired from swimming with one arm looped around Glen and my waterlogged shoes.
“I was scared too,” I told him.
“No, you weren’t,” he said. “You were pissed.”
“You’re right,” I said.
“I don’t get why you aren’t pissed now. Don’t get me wrong; Julian is an okay dude, but if I’d thrown him off the docks yesterday you wouldn’t have gone in.”
“You wouldn’t throw him off the docks.”
“I might’ve. I didn’t think you’d be the kind of woman who stays with some guy because he has a little money or a few nice things. My sister hated people like that,” he said.
When he took off his shirt, the best man looked fragile. I opened to him.
When I was underwater, air meant nothing to me, only Glen, and I swam hard toward him, surfacing at his back and then lacing my arm around him.
Lisa was at the car now, and I hugged her awkwardly, trying not to bump the car seat. Julian waved from the porch.
If I reached now, who would reach back?
* * * * *
Yasemin had brought soap and cloths to wash with; it’s a special kind of washing called kese where the cloth is coarse and the rubbing is hard enough to actually slough off the first, dead layer of skin. She showed me how to do it, and she then she did my back and the other places I couldn’t reach.
Soaking in the wet air of the haman, the skin softens and peels away easily in little white rolls. Kese looks a little gruesome but it doesn’t hurt at all.
What hurts is after, when the new, pink skin is exposed. When Yasemin tossed a dipper of hot water on me to rinse, there was a sting like deep sunburn. I tried not to let her see me wince, but my whole body flinched.
“Now me,” she said and turned her back toward me.
I took the cloth and scrubbed her hard, like she had told me.
I rinsed her and then we washed again, this time with gentle, foaming soap.
We sat for awhile longer and then headed back to the lockers. The other women still avoided Yasemin’s eyes and they avoided mine also. We dried and changed into fresh clothes.
I covered my wet hair and when we stepped into the brisk air, I felt glad for this new, clean skin.
Wendy Fox taught literature at a government-run university in Turkey and at Spokane-area community colleges. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Expatriate Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey (Seal Press, 2005), Painted Bride Quarterly, Quiddity International Literary Journal, ZYZZYVA, and elsewhere. “Before They Pray” is an excerpt from her recently completed novel.