Carl is a bipolar orthopedic podiatrist, and he’s fussy at the nipple. He’s been on a nursing strike for the past several days, and Maddy is worried that she’s doing something wrong. She massages a breast, priming the milk for him. After a few false starts, he’s able to latch. “Gently, Carl,” she coos. “This isn’t a race.” Seung Hun rolls in wearing fuzzy slippers and some kind of kimono. He is multitalented. He’s got a trust fund back in Sydney in addition to being an asshole. He goes to town on Maddy’s unoccupied breast and finishes in under a minute, not too tough to satisfy. There are eight of us. Every morning, the buffet table is abundant with cheese, butter, olives, eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, bread, jam, honey, yogurt, and fresh coffee and tea, but the men prefer Maddy. It is a hostel in the biblical promised land, the promised hostel, but not for me. I am in love with her. And I am the only one not allowed to drink from her breasts.
I follow Maddy to her room after breakfast. We all have our own rooms after complaining long enough about Carl waking us up by jumping on the bed during his manic episodes. It’s the off-season, and the staff wants to ensure our happiness. Maddy swears she hasn’t been fucking any of the expat backpackers, but I don’t believe her.
“You know,” she shouts, “I can see you hiding out there in the bushes. Why don’t you come in and tell me what you want?”
“Maddy,” I say, standing in her doorway. “Madeline.” Maybe the extra syllables will help my case. “Can I have a taste?”
“I’m sorry, sugar,” she says, “but I’m all drained dry.”
At noon, Reginald and the Professor stand guard over the samovar, waiting for it to boil, while Maddy offers Liam his usual midday snack. It was Liam who started this whole mess. A few days after Maddy’s arrival, he began bawling as he related to her that he was traveling the world on the last of his dead mother’s savings. She laid his head against her nightgown and told him to hush. He dropped crocodile tears into her lacy décolletage, and she urged him to nurse. Pretty soon, all the backpackers had sob stories or problems of some sort, for which Maddy’s milk was the sweet elixir of relief. That was weeks ago.
Liam is a teenager from Quebec and he has disgusting ginger dreads and he doesn’t yet know what it means to be alive. Like clockwork, when Maddy’s milk runs out now, he buries his face between her cleavage and cries. He also gets the hiccups. He cries and hiccups at the same time. Reginald watches them with longing. Reginald is a speech pathologist from London who struggles with his own stutter, and he might even be more in love with Madeline than I am. The Professor, whose real name I have forgotten, has no family or friends or connection to any living person from what we can determine, as if he simply manifested here spontaneously as the archetype of lonely gentleman scholar. He’s an elderly fellow from South Africa with a cane and a limp and a wizard beard and he’s got a fancy Oxbridge doctorate and he teaches English literature at some university in Ankara. Madeline burps Liam and rubs his back. “There, there, sweet pea,” she says. She begins to sing a lullaby. The melody soothes him. “That’s better,” Maddy whispers. “Why don’t you go play with the other boys?”
Carl is a bipolar orthopedic podiatrist, and he’s fussy at the nipple.
Liam skips out the door in search of Seung Hun, whom he adores, though Seung Hun can only be bothered to toss him the occasional sardonic scrap. I close my leather journal and am hot in pursuit. I know they’re probably off to smoke more of Liam’s dead mom’s stash of medicinal marijuana in the ruins. As I walk toward the amphitheater, I tear at the words I’ve written and scatter them along the path. I’ve been shedding language since my arrival in Çirali—a sentence here, the inchoate jangle of a phrase there, though sometimes only the indiscriminate coughing up of solitary nouns and verbs is all I can manage.
“The big bunk room smells like lactic farts and low self-esteem.”
I hid that sentence beneath Carl’s pillow some months ago. He never found it, for all I know.
“The most intimate aspect of skin is its temperature,” I stashed in the empty bowels of a Roman sarcophagus.
As I wade through the riverbed toward the rubble, “jejune,” “belletristic,” and “estuary” fly into the wind from my fingertips. They bleed in the water.
Seung Hun lies stretched out on a grassy knoll at the center of the amphitheater, still in his fuzzy slippers and kimono, but with the front flaps flung open and his genitals exposed to open air.
“How’s the novel coming, mate?” he asks. “Here, have some weed.”
“It’s fine,” I say and pluck the blunt from his fingers. “Slow.”
“What’s it about, anyway?” Liam chimes in, lounging between one of the rows of stone seats. For some reason, he has also taken off his pants. Word has gotten out, it seems, that I am writing the next great American novel set on the Turkish coast.
“It’s about a man looking back on the choice he made as a youth, which he now realizes has defined the rest of his life, between an older woman with a lot of sexual experience and a young girl who was just as naïve as he was.”
“What female does he pick?” Liam asks.
“Sounds stupid,” Seung Hun replies, rolling over in the grass so his bare buttocks face the sun.
“Hey, I heard that Jørgen had sex with Maddy,” I offer.
“When?” Liam asks.
“Says who?” Seung Hun asks. They both sit up.
If Maddy is fucking one of the backpackers, the most likely candidate would be Jørgen, a Norwegian Tantric sex instructor. At dawn, we’ve seen him walking through the ruins to the beach with yoga mat in tow, his stride so long we could leapfrog from footprint to footprint. He will meditate and stretch there for hours and return to instruct us with phrases like, “Ja, you must run toward your fear, my friends,” and “Your pain is your finest teacher,” or he will fondly reminisce about all the women he’s trained in the art of spiritual love-making. His mother raised him to the age of twelve in an ashram, where everyone communally swapped fluids in a room of dirty mattresses and then went outside to experiment with punching each other in the face. Now he’s the head of the Northern European committee on eco-villages, as well as a fuck god. He is blond-haired and blue-eyed, with muscles so defined I feel like I should take gravestone rubbings of them, and he has a pecker the size of a fjord, and I hate his oversized Scandinavian guts.
“That’s just the rumor,” I reply.
“You’re full of it,” Liam says, after a while. “Maddy wouldn’t do that to us.”
“She’s still not letting you near her tits, is she?” Seung Hun asks. If they knew the ways I had been intimate with Maddy in years past, they might be less inclined to pity me. We haven’t bothered to tell them—something about her nouveau earth-mother mystique has turned it into a secret.
“What is it like?” I ask.
“It’s sweet,” Liam says.
“Richer than cow’s milk,” Seung Hun says.
“It depends on the day, too,” Liam says.
“That’s true,” Seung Hun says. “Like, if Maddy ate a lot of that döner kebab the night before, the milk will be more savory.”
“Meaty,” Liam says.
“That doesn’t sound appetizing,” I say.
“Her tits are perfect,” Liam says.
“Better than Soo Yeon’s bosom?” I ask Seung Hun.
“No woman’s tits will ever match Soo Yeon’s bosom,” he says, “or her coy smile, her hair so dark it’s almost indigo. When I see how she moves about a room, I want to take her in my arms. I go crazy watching her paint those adorable baby toes while tanning by the pool. Sometimes she takes off her top and asks me to apply lotion on her back. Lotion!”
Seung Hun stands up and he’s got a chubby. It tells the time of day in the amphitheater like a sundial. Bits of grass and dirt are stuck in the sweaty turf of his chest, his pubic hair, the fuzzy pink slippers.
“Soo Yeon!” he bellows to the cheap seats, spreading his arms wide. “You are a goddess! Hear me, one and all! I confess! I want to kill my father and marry my mother!”
Soo Yeon isn’t really Seung Hun’s mother, obviously. She’s a famous actress who walked into his father’s plastic surgery practice. Seung Hun’s father is perhaps the most sought-after cosmetic doctor in Seoul. After he opened Soo Yeon’s skin with a scalpel, he married her. Seung Hun’s real mother, fed up with being bombarded by the billboards of her husband’s new wife, moved to Australia with her little boy to live among relatives. Ever since, Seung Hun has flown back and forth between the two countries, slavishly doting on Soo Yeon with gifts and trinkets, emails and letters, perfumed odes that he hides among her things. That is, until he got banned from his father’s mansion for a reason that he won’t reveal.
It’s Jørgen’s turn for a ration from Maddy during dinner. We listen to him lapping as we pick at plates of eggplant and lamb. It makes us uncomfortable. He refuses to nurse like everybody else and feels compelled to plant delicate kisses around her areolae. I can tell by the way he breastfeeds that he thinks he’s so special. What exactly is he trying to prove? Does he imagine he’s doing this for Maddy’s benefit? For ours? Seung Hun sits like a sultan on a throne of tasseled pillows, sending text after text into the ether, until he steps outside in his robe and slippers to place a call. In the same corner Carl is on his laptop trying to video chat his daughter without the knowledge of his wife.
“Emily, honey,” he says, “do you remember what I taught you—to erase the history once we’re done talking?”
“Yes, Dad,” crackles through the speakers. Carl plugs in headphones and Emily’s words are lost to me.
“Good girl,” he says. “Now, if you hear Mom coming down the stairs, I don’t even want you to say goodbye. I want you to end the chat and erase the history. Do you understand? You never spoke to Dad.”
Madeline burps Liam and rubs his back. “There, there, sweet pea,” she says.
The Professor is playing backgammon with Liam on the ottoman. He recites lines by nineteenth century French poets while waiting for the kid to lose. I try to focus on their conversation instead of the moist smacks and swallows of Jørgen at the boob or Reginald masticating his lamb. Reginald always chooses a spot close to me, probably because the presence of the journal gives him the impression he doesn’t need to break his silence. Since he cannot help but mangle his morphemes, the use of language is occasioned by only the utmost necessity. For this reason, he seems to delight in mealtimes, his tongue and teeth and gullet at least a utility for digestion. I try to picture his lips on a woman. I bet he brings extra enthusiasm to that experience as well. “What a bizarre delta of desire the mouth is,” I write down in my journal, rip out, and pass to him. He smiles. The Professor rings out his words clear and true:
“Ah! Les oaristys! Les premières maîtresses!”
“What are you studying in school, doll?” Carl asks. “Last time we talked, you told me that your class was almost done reading J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.”
“Did you write that?” Liam asks.
“It’s by Verlaine,” the Professor says, “the contumacious lover of Rimbaud. He ended their relationship by smacking him with a wet fish.”
“Is that a metaphor for something?”
“Sont-elles assez loin toutes ces allégresses.”
“Why don’t you read a bit to your dad from the end?” Carl says. “I’ll read along with you.”
“I’m not done yet,” the Professor says.
“Sorry,” Liam says.
“Si que me voilà seul à présent, morne et seul.”
“As you look at Wendy, you may see her hair becoming white, and her figure little again, for all this happened long ago. Jane is now a common grown-up, with a daughter called Margaret.”
“Morne et désespéré, plus glacé qu’un aïeul.”
“Who was Rimbaud?”
“Another utterly bonkers poet.”
“Every spring cleaning time, except when he forgets, Peter comes for Margaret and takes her to the Neverland, where she tells him stories about himself, to which he listens eagerly.”
“O la femme à l’amour câlin et réchauffant.”
“What was his deal?”
“He took shits under the beds of friends and poisoned them with sulfuric acid. Not that Verlaine was much better, as he beat his wife. After Verlaine shot him, Rimbaud wrote Une Saison en Enfer.”
“When Margaret grows up she will have a daughter, who is to be Peter’s mother in turn; and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.”
“I thought Verlaine slapped him with a fish.”
“He did that, too. They were in love. They traveled through Europe together,” the Professor says. “You know, Liam, my dearest friend looked just like you. Unfortunately, he committed suicide.”
“Your friend or Rimbaud?”
“Et qui parfois vous baise au front, comme un enfant.”
“Wait! Emmy, come back!” Carl cries out. “I have the right to talk to my own daughter. Bring back Emmy. Damn it!”
“He was hurt horribly as a boy. We both were. A felted kind of sadness got the better of him. I feel it sometimes, too. It accumulates in the corners of rooms, like dust and hair. It’s the reason I find it difficult to return to my home country.”
“I don’t get it,” Liam says.
“There’s nothing to get,” the Professor says.
“I mean the poem,” Liam says.
Carl throws down his headphones and slams the laptop shut. He strides over to Jørgen and pushes him off Maddy.
“Not fair!” Jørgen shouts. “It is my turn to empty Madeline tonight.”
“I’ve had a rough day,” Carl says, dropping to his knees. “I need a pick-me-up. You can have one of my turns later.”
“I don’t want one of your turns,” Jørgen says. “I want to have my milk now!” Jørgen pushes back, and Carl falls on his ass. Immediately Carl is up again, grappling Jørgen by the waist in a wrestle hold.
“Stop it!” Maddy calls out. “No one is getting any more milk tonight!” They don’t listen. It takes me, Liam, Reginald, and Seung Hun, just returned from his phone call, to pull the two of them apart. Maddy departs without saying a word.
He refuses to nurse like everybody else and feels compelled to plant delicate kisses around her areolae.
Carl raises his fists to the rafters and screams. Next, he throws a temper tantrum by trashing the dining room: flinging food, ripping apart pillows and tapestries, smashing chairs until they splinter. This time, none of us dares to interfere. Tomorrow it will all be set right again by the invisible hands that cook our meals and clean our rooms. The walls will be washed. The broken chairs will be broken a second time with an ax and piled by the stove for kindling. Poor Carl. His wife has a restraining order and still calls the cops when she discovers him trying to sneak into the house to beg for forgiveness.
As soon as Carl’s tuckered himself out, I go to Maddy. She’s freshly showered, sitting on the bed with a towel wrapped around her waist.
“I hope you’re pleased with yourself,” I say.
“That’s right,” Maddy says. “Blame the woman.”
“You started it,” I say.
“They’re grown men,” she says. “They can choose whether they want to breastfeed or not.”
“Did those preschoolers have a choice?” I ask her.
“What are you saying I should do?” Maddy asks. “Pour it down the drain?”
“I’m saying everyone should get to drink the milk,” I say, “or no one should.”
“So this is really about you, is what this is about,” she says.
“Maddy,” I say, sitting down next to her. “Madeline. You’re never going to get him back. I’m sorry.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” she says. “You have your own children.”
“We both know that’s not exactly true,” I say.
She kisses me behind an earlobe, then rests her forehead on my shoulder. It comforts me that despite all of her loving and grieving of other men, this gesture hasn’t changed. The animal smell of her also hasn’t changed, and it has the same animal effect on me.
“Let me stay tonight,” I say.
“I can’t,” she says.
As I lie in bed with the leather journal propped against my thighs, I keep watch over the light from her window reflecting off the side of the building. When it goes dark, I feel a sense of loss. I mull upon what she looks like as she sleeps, if she still composes her face in the same way. I try writing a paragraph of the novel.
“He couldn’t stand the sound of her blowing bubbles with her bubble gum. He was trying to study, and with each irritating pop! he was reminded of her in that long pajama shirt and maybe no underwear underneath in the next bedroom. He decided he would give her five more pops before he went over there and did something. On the fifth, he sat at the edge of her bed, parted her lips, and pulled the gum from her mouth. However, the ensuing silence was even more distracting. He no longer knew what she was doing on the other side of the wall.”
Tomorrow it will all be set right again by the invisible hands that cook our meals and clean our rooms.
It’s no good. Like Seung Hun says, it’s stupid. What I want to express is how we had been in love for weeks and that when I took the gum from Maddy’s mouth, I did so with the utmost tenderness. Neither of us had thought much of the other when we were introduced by our parents. But with the gradual accumulation of days, I came to realize she was going to be important. Back in my own room, I put her warm gum in my mouth and thought of us together in a not-insignificant number of indecent positions. I can’t write any of this, however, without explaining too much. If only I could establish the right narrative distance, I know I could finish this novel. I share similar feelings when it comes to Maddy—if only I could establish the right distance from her, she would let me back in her bed.
The next day, I sleep until two—well past the morning feedings and snacks. I’m walking through the ruins when I hear laughter down at the beach. Maddy and Jørgen are frolicking like horny sea ponies in the water. There are splashes and giggles galore. From time to time, Maddy will pause and pull up the bikini top, which struggles to support her new ampleness, and that’s when Jørgen will swoop in and brush the hair from her face or slap her on the butt or in general remind her that he has a penis. Eventually, I notice that Reginald, bedecked in a withered pair of swim trunks, is here too, observing them intently from a towel. As I make my way toward him, a piece of glass wedges itself in my big toe.
“Fuck!” I cry.
I remove the glass, hobble the remaining distance, and flop down alongside Reggie. Bleeding into the sand, I can’t help but make note once again of Jørgen’s natural gifts: the hulking Nordic trunk and thighs, the golden coruscation of hairs on his chest and forearms. Even more impressive than his irrefutable physicality is the way he seems to move without thought. What a contrast he makes to Reginald, who can only watch sweating from the shore, unsure of what to do with his arms. I hate Reginald when I look at him, so I try not to look at him. I recognize myself even more than usual today as one of his ilk. Like me, I can tell, he has a voice in his head that questions every action, except that, unlike his regular voice, the voice in his head doesn’t have a stutter. He’s a pair of eyes without a body, except that he has a body. Are the Jørgens of the world made from such superior stock than us? Do they make sense of consciousness in sentences? Or is their existence always one of uncomplicated ease and purpose?
“Look at that proud torso!” I say. “You and I, Reg, we weren’t built for love.”
“The p-p-problem with being a man is that you’re not supposed to need anyone,” he says. “But we do.”
Maddy doesn’t appear entirely human as she stands up to her crotch in the Mediterranean. Jørgen catalyzes all the feminine glory of her into being. I could see a woman falling in love with him not only for himself, but for the woman she turns into when she’s with him. When she reties that god-forsaken bikini top for the thousandth time, Jørgen sneaks up and bites her on the back of the neck. This is no longer merely play, this is foreplay. They might as well fornicate right in front of us. I join them in the water.
“I see why you didn’t want me to stay last night,” I say.
“Stop stalking me,” Maddy whispers in my ear. I feel the hot burst of each consonant break against my cheek. I’ll be feeling her breath on me for the rest of the day. Let no one say that language isn’t made of matter.
“Don’t forget that you’re the one who followed me to Çirali,” I say.
“You’re acting like a spoiled brat,” she says. “You need to learn how to share.”
“No, I don’t,” I say. “I have nothing to share.”
I storm off and kick the surf to my favorite café, past the kayaks and skiffs chained up for the winter. When I arrive, the owner’s two dogs run out of the sea and greet me with sopping muzzles. She knows what I like here and brings me Turkish coffees and small plates of cold mezes without my having to ask. My foot hurts. I fail at more novel sentences. I’m only capable of writing permutations of Maddy’s name. As the day goes on, the pen marks become pronounced and angry. I start ripping my handiwork to pieces. Paper curls up underneath my cup. It burrows into the sand like old cigarette butts. I imagine the masses of summer tourists turning over warm handfuls and finding discarded syllables of her: Mad, line, addy, del. The owner comes with my fifth coffee and sees the sad state of the journal.
“That looks like it hurts,” she says.
“It does,” I say.
The owner is a ringer for Sofie. I guess I’ve been coming to this café all along because she looks like Sofie and I’ve been searching for someone like Sofie. An electrical current of grief or resignation would pass through her and into me during sex. It was sort of surreal to return to my stepsister’s tender handjobs after making love to Sofie every other weekend. Between the two of them, I got used to the public expression of a private touch. Years later, my father corrected my memories when he told me that Sofie wasn’t Turkish, like I’d thought, but Serbian—Sofie was short for Sofija. This was after he had moved across the country and divorced Sofie and remarried for the third time and I had no means to contact her, nor any reason to get in touch.
When her own baby was born, she faithfully mailed a picture of him, but I didn’t know about it until too late.
I miss my wife and kids. I even miss being rocked to sleep by the ocean on our yacht after she kicked me out of the house in Los Angeles. It wasn’t misery, after all, to spend those days reading books and throwing the ones I didn’t like overboard. Because of our romance as makeshift siblings, Maddy and I must have doomed ourselves to love only other people’s children. She still lived in the city, even though I hadn’t seen her in ten years, because she never failed to send cards to the kids on their birthdays. When her own baby was born, she faithfully mailed a picture of him, but I didn’t know about it until too late. By the time I found out, she had already been taken into custody for trying to breastfeed those toddlers on a public playground. As for me, I was never upset about the fact that my wife had children from a previous marriage and didn’t want more, until I was replaced by another replacement father and found myself with no rights of custody to the boy and girl, who, over the past decade, I had come to regard as mine.
I pay my bill and head back to the hostel. I don’t much feel like joining the group for dinner, but I also don’t want to navigate the ruins in the dark. A recent flood washed out many of the wood bridges and scattered stones in the middle of footpaths, so it’s not wise to go it alone.
In the dining room, none of the food is out yet, and the Professor is the only arrival. It’s Maddy night for him tonight, so I know what he is craving while pretending to be absorbed in a book.
“What are you reading?” I ask.
“It’s a collection of fairy tales,” he says. “A French translation of the Brothers Grimm. There’s something comforting to me in reading about a child afraid of being devoured by the adult world.”
“I don’t see where you’re getting that out of it,” I say.
“Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, Red Riding Hood,” he says. “They’re all stories about the fear of being orphaned or exiled from the family and left to the mercy of monsters. Nowadays it’s the opposite, isn’t it? We’ve got the adult world afraid of being devoured by the child.”
“I don’t like fairy tales,” I say. “They’re not honest. I think it’s the whole ‘And then they lived happily ever after’ bit that bothers me. Whenever I used to read them to my kids, I’d always end them with, ‘And then they lived happily ever after until everybody died.’”
“Maybe if you read more fairy tales you’d be able to write your novel,” the Professor says. He adds, “Speaking of which, I’ve been meaning to ask—are you planning on using any of what’s been happening here in Turkey as material?”
“I haven’t decided,” I say.
“I would highly advise that you consider it,” he says. “There’s quite a long tradition of lactation in literature, for what it’s worth. Leopold Bloom talked of squeezing off Molly into the tea after the death of their son. A starving man feeds from a woman who lost her infant at the end of The Grapes of Wrath. Mary Shelley, you know, was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, who died after giving birth to little Mary. The doctors brought in a pair of puppies to nurse from her breasts in the few days she was fighting for life, in hopes that it would reduce her puerperal fever. This incident is one of the rumored inspirations for Frankenstein. In a nice reversal of that, you have Romulus and Remus nourished by a she-wolf’s teats in the woods as babes before founding Rome.”
Maddy and Jørgen breeze into the dining room, smiling like jerks. Reginald isn’t far behind. It’s clear they’ve come straight from the beach, a patina of sand and salt water on unwashed limbs. The Professor thumps his book shut and sits with hands poised on the salacious knob of his cane until Maddy can no longer procrastinate in noticing him. She unbuttons her white cotton blouse with lethargic fingers and offers him a breast. “You smell like la mer,” he says, right before diving in. Two of the male staff members, Sertaç and Murat, start ferrying in steaming plates from the kitchen. They keep their eyes resolutely on the food in order to minimize the memory of whatever we may be doing. Jørgen, like the good vegan boy that he is, attacks helping after helping of puréed eggplant and hummus, acting like he isn’t pissed that the Professor took Maddy away from him. Halfway through the meal, Seung Hun and Liam show their faces, entering in a hazy stench of pot. They don’t particularly eat per se, but instead half-heartedly lob kebabs at one another, saying this is the best hostel meat they’ve ever had and how we should all walk up and see the Chimaera before sunset.
“Can we go see the Chimaera, Maddy?” they whine. “Please? Pretty please?”
“Oh, I guess so,” she says.
We stumble up the cliffside path to the top of Çirali, where the eternal flames burn. Seung Hun and Liam rush on ahead to maintain their high. As much as I’d like to smoke with them, I’m forced to lag behind with Reggie. Whenever I slip or misstep, I can feel the cut under my toe pull open. I bleed through my sock. Maddy and Jørgen hang even farther back, pausing to canoodle and laugh among the trees, which is perhaps the real reason why I slow my progress. Upon finally making it to the summit, the two of them are nowhere in sight or sound. I give it a full twenty minutes of watching Seung Hun and Liam try to light their farts on the Chimaera before I decide to hunt for the missing couple.
“But you just got here,” Liam says.
“My foot is going to fall off,” I say.
“Don’t be such a paranoid baby,” Seung Hun says. “They’re not fucking.”
“Yeah, you baby, they’re not fucking,” Liam says.
I explore the origin of each rustle, snap, and flash of seemingly luminous flesh along the trail but come up empty-handed. They’re not out here. At the hostel, I check the dining room, but find only Carl, tucked in a fetal ball in one of his crying jags. Jørgen’s room is empty. I crawl into the bushes in front of Maddy’s window. I peer up through the blinds, at the same time almost wishing that I weren’t doing this to myself.
She’s there with the strapping ass of Jørgen on top of her and he’s staring into her eyes without blinking in an attempt, I’m sure, to connect to her inner spirit animal or some New Agey crap. This could take a while. He’s boasted that he knows how to last for hours and have multiple orgasms without ejaculating. As much as I hate myself for it, I get hard. How does the saying go? The erection never lies. That was Freud, I think. Either Freud or the Marquis de Sade. I watch until I can’t take it anymore. I run in anger and disgust and shame back to the beach.
I pull out my dick and stroke frantically toward the horizon. I come on that wet lip of sand washed over by the tide, which, in a way, is like flushing it. Snot and hot tears run down my face.
“You bitch!” I cry. I bang my fists against the cradle of civilization, surf spurting up with every strike. “You bitch! Bitch! Bitch! Bitch! Bitch! I love you!” I stop when I hear the approach of footsteps. Someone has thrown himself down sniffling on the sand behind me. It’s Seung Hun, and his face is also scrunched up in a mucusy mess. I’m curious if he wandered down here with a rejection boner as well.
“I just talked to Soo Yeon,” he says, “and she told me she can’t talk to me until she figures out who she is and what she wants. On top of that, my dad has cut me off.”
“What did you do?” I ask.
“During my last visit, Soo Yeon was actually flirting with me,” he replies. “My dad walked into us fooling around. I just want to be with her forever and ever, but I know she will never choose me over him.”
Maddy and Jørgen are frolicking like horny sea ponies in the water.
I ponder telling him all about Maddy and me, to point out that his situation isn’t special and also unlikely to be the end. He’ll probably witness his father’s prolonged death in some hospital bed and find Soo Yeon’s charms diminished by the forces of familiarity and nostalgia. What ultimately lets us move on is not acceptance but boredom. Then again, why take away his grand sense of personal catastrophe—the narrative that might be his one consolation in the days ahead?
“I caught Maddy and Jørgen making the beast with two backs,” I say.
“Just now?” he says. “We should tell the others.”
We round up Carl from the dining room, the Professor from a nap, Liam and Reginald coming down from the Chimaera, and inform them of the recent developments. They all look as if they had been punished for infringing upon a rule they didn’t know they were supposed to obey.
“Do you think they’re still doing it?” Liam asks.
“Probably,” I say.
“I say we go check it out,” Carl says.
“Yes, let us investigate,” the Professor says.
The six of us tiptoe into the bushes in front of Maddy’s window. There’s some elbowing and shoving and jostling for a prime position until we’re all settled and ready to take a peek. Maddy and Jørgen are exactly where I left them. For several minutes, we can only speechlessly watch the hippie copulation. Liam breaks the silence by starting to cry. It occurs to me we all need to stop crying.
“I miss my mom,” he says.
“I can’t b-b-believe this is happening,” Reginald says.
“We should teach him a lesson,” I say, as it occurs to me.
“How?” Seung Hun asks.
“Make him face us and explain himself,” I reply. “Or we can beat him up.” I don’t really mean it, but there’s no way for them to know that.
“Come out here and fight us, Jørgen!” Carl shouts. “Unless you’re too big of a coward to accept the challenge?”
“We want justice!” Liam chimes in.
“We want blood,” the Professor adds, in a very refined fashion. Half of us start chanting, “Jør-gen, Jør-gen, Jør-gen,” while the other half chants, “Cow-ard, cow-ard, cow-ard,” and the choral effect is so muddled that it doesn’t sound like we are demanding anything in particular. Someone, likely Seung Hun or Liam, throws a kebab he has been saving for who knows what purpose, and it leaves a wet meat imprint shaped like a heart in the middle of Maddy’s door.
At last her door opens, revealing not Jørgen but Maddy wearing Jørgen’s robe. That she’s wearing his robe instead of hers is added insult. When she thrusts out her elbows in frustration and places her hands upon her hips, the impossibly large sleeves tumble and pool past her wrists. The effect is rather sweet, of a girl playing dress-up in adult clothing, and then she begins her admonishment.
“What the hell are you doing?” she asks. “I know I’ve given the group of you access to my body, but that doesn’t grant you a say in my choice of sexual partners. Not one of you has bothered to find out the reason I’m here. What happened was I gave birth to a little boy, and he was quiet. He was so quiet it woke me up, and when I went to check on him, he was cold. I stood in the same spot in my house for days, vagina still bleeding from the delivery of my son, breasts leaking into a disgusting sweater, eyes and nose leaking into my mouth, and my mouth open in a wail. If I could have held him one more time, I was sure I could manage, but he had already been set on fire, and he was gone. His ashes were buried in my garden. Fluids were leaking out of me from every orifice, and I was utterly, totally alone. Do you think you’re the only ones who need love? I’m done. Consider yourselves weaned. Now go to your rooms!”
Devout men and women are drawn to the metal domes in order to offer their silent thoughts to God.
She returns to Jørgen’s embraces and slams her door behind her, as we stand ashamed and shuffling from foot to foot. It doesn’t take long for the others to retreat to their private dens of guilt, beginning with Liam, but after a while, even I, too, make my departure. I had no idea her anguish was worse than mine.
The next morning, Maddy wakes me with relentless knocking. “Get up!” she shouts. “I know you’re in there!” I groggily go see what she wants.
“I’ve been enlisted to come talk to you,” she says.
“About what?” I ask.
“They don’t feel comfortable with you being here any longer,” she says. “They say they’ll give you a day to pack your things before you have to be out.”
“Who says that?” I ask. “Reggie and Carl and Seung Hun and Liam and the Professor? Because I find that hard to believe.”
“Well, it’s true,” she says. “But it’s also the staff.”
“Why me?” I ask. I sit down on my threshold. “I’ve been here for months just keeping to myself and working on my novel.”
“The others said they wanted to leave, too, but after some discussion it was revealed that you instigated the conflict yesterday with Jørgen. You encouraged them to become aggressive. They decided to tell management. If that’s how it happened, I don’t feel comfortable with you hanging around, either.
“For what it’s worth,” she adds, “I promise I’ll stay by your side until we figure out a plan.”
We’re walking through one of the citrus groves behind the hostel when Maddy stops to pluck an orange and asks, “How do you feel about Athens? Or one of the Greek islands? You could take a ferry from Antalya.”
“Too expensive,” I say. “Besides, I’m not sure how often they’ll be running at the beginning of March.”
She grinds her thumbnail into the rind. The smell of the fruit opens as if from beneath the lid of a jewelry box. There are oranges rotting all over the ground. I question such abundance, if the loss of plenty here shows up as a real lack elsewhere.
“I wish I had been able to see your little boy, Maddy,” I say.
“There was nothing you could have done,” she says.
“Does the father know?” I ask.
“I’m ignorant of the father’s identity,” she says. “I thought it would be for the best. That way, on seeing someone who wasn’t me show up in my son, I could imagine him as any man that I wanted.
“I’m sorry I followed you,” she continues. “I saw your posts, and I thought, ‘That looks like somewhere I can go.’ It was far away and so different from my life, but also safe because it had you.”
“I posted about my trip to try to make my wife jealous, but that was pure idiocy. I’m sure I wasn’t a good husband. Why would she be jealous?”
“Do you ever consider,” Maddy asks, “that what happened between you and me and between you and Sofie was actually pretty harmful?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
When we pass the rows of hothouses filled with perspiring vegetables on our way to view the silver mosque, she offers, “What about Cyprus? It’s so close, I’m sure you’d have no problem finding someone with a boat willing to take you.”
“I’m not doing an island,” I say. “I don’t want to be locked in.”
The muezzins call out for one of the five daily prayers, causing the local dogs to throw back their heads in unison and howl. For a lark, Maddy throws back her head and howls with them. Devout men and women are drawn to the metal domes in order to offer their silent thoughts to God.
“I’ve been trying to learn how to just enjoy myself in the present moment,” she says. “To not worry so much about the future and feel more of what they call ‘childlike wonder,’ I guess. To be happy in the way that an animal is happy.”
“I don’t think I’m a present moment kind of guy,” I say.
I take us to my café. I want to see her and Sofie—even if it isn’t the real Sofie—in the same room. We drink wine and eat stuffed dolma and pita while Maddy keeps suggesting countries.
“Italy,” she says.
“No,” I say.
“Morocco,” she says.
“No,” I say.
“Albania,” she says.
“Now you’re just naming places to name places,” I say.
“Well, where do you want to go?” she asks.
“How about I stay here?” I ask. “I can rent out a room in someone’s house or find another hostel close by and still come see you without you having to worry.”
The owner refills our glasses. I catch her by the wrist. “This is Maddy,” I say.
“Ah, you are his Madeline,” she says.
“I am,” Maddy says. “Who are you?”
“I’m Kubra,” she says. “The owner.”
“Nice to meet you,” Maddy says. They shake hands. That was far less exciting than I thought it would be.
“Where are you both from?” Kubra asks.
“Los Angeles,” I say.
“California!” she cries. “I lived there for twenty years. I still miss it sometimes.”
“What brought you here?” Maddy asks.
“My husband died,” she says, “so I decided to come home.”
“My baby died,” Maddy says.
How Maddy must have waited for such a simple gesture, and what it required was for her to encounter another woman at last, a complete stranger.
“Oh, my dear,” Kubra replies, at once embracing Maddy with her full self. “My dear dear dear dear dear.” Maddy receives it stiffly, but at last she gives way from the outside in, like an ancient crumbling façade. She sobs and when the sobbing abates, Kubra smooths away the tears and smeared makeup, neatens her hair back behind her ears as if performing a blessing. These were tears from comfort without motive, from emotional support provided without thought of recompense, and suddenly it’s so mortifyingly clear how selfish and oblivious the rest of us have been. How Maddy must have waited for such a simple gesture, and what it required was for her to encounter another woman at last, a complete stranger.
“I care,” I tell her after Kubra leaves.
She looks at me with some version of pity behind her eyes and says, “Maybe it’s time for you to return home, honey.”
“To what? The yacht?” I ask. “I don’t think so.”
We end up lingering so late that we have to borrow a lantern from Kubra to walk through the ruins. It’s tricky going, as the sickly circle of light struggles to illuminate even our own footsteps. When we get to the bridgeless banks, Maddy begs me to give her a piggyback ride. Just one of us, she says, should have to brave that freezing water.
“I dare you to put your head in a sarcophagus,” I say.
“In your dreams,” she says.
“I double dare you,” I say.
“I don’t want to risk waking the dead,” she says.
By the time we arrive at the hostel, we still haven’t figured out a plan. I rattle my keys outside our two doors. “I guess I should pack my things,” I say.
“Do you want to come in for a bit?” she asks.
“Are you sure?”
We sit on the bed. She looks like she wants me to kiss her, so I kiss her. Pretty soon, we’re caressing, undressing. When I remove her bra, the breasts are heavy from not being relieved of milk. I put my lips to her nipples and feel uncertain if I should suck.
“Maddy,” I say, “I hope we make a baby tonight.”
“I’d be happy with an orgasm,” she says.
As much as I want to, however, I can’t get ready. Maddy strokes me and sets her mouth to work on my goods, but it’s no use. If I haven’t gotten hard by now, it’s not going to happen, I say to myself. Maybe having sex with Maddy simply isn’t in the cards for me. Not anymore. Maybe I’m meant to be alone. To her credit, she keeps trying even after it’s clear I’ve given up. It’s generous of her.
“I don’t know what’s wrong,” I say.
“It’s okay,” she says. “Don’t worry about it.”
I lay my head on her chest and she rocks me back and forth, whispering, “Shh, my darling, rest now.” I fall asleep as I listen to the thumping of her heart, but before I do, I’m afraid that nothing will be adequate to quiet this pain I feel, a hungering alive in every cell.