Too sick to leave home, I flop in my sheets like something beached and dying. After weeks of illness, I pine for fresh air. An apartment with a bathtub. Water. I need to swim.
I doze off and fall into a dream. Lipsticked water-chorines dog-paddle around me as I glide through clear waters. I’m a mermaid. A phoenix. I’m Esther Williams on a hydraulic lift adjusting my crown of sparklers. I wake refreshed and sweat-dappled. Something has shifted.
I walk to the window and notice leaves unfurling on the mulberry. The dream lingers. I need to swim–in a palm-fringed, Hollywood-musical-style pool.
But I live in Ankara, Turkey.
Most pools are in sports clubs on the outskirts of the city, multiple bus rides away, and they are expensive to access. I complain to others that I can’t afford to swim. Then, someone mentions a pool near my apartment. It’s women-only and practically free.
“I’m going to the Hanımlar Lokali!” I announce to women friends over tea.
“What business do you have there?” F asks.
T looks disgusted.
As the excitement drains out of me, T and F begin muttering. About headscarves. Mosque construction. The Islamification of Turkey. I crumple in my chair.
“That place is government-funded separation of women and men,” F says.
“Can’t you swim someplace else?” T adds.
Feeling attacked, I tune them out. I finally ditched my respiratory infection; I found a pool. Why can’t they just be happy for me?
These Turkish women, my friends, would never visit a Lokali. But I’m not Turkish: I’m intrepid. Isn’t this part of the overseas experience? Meeting new people?
I don’t know any women who wear the headscarf. According to T and F, I will find some at the Lokali.
I know how my friends feel about headscarf ladies. How should I feel? I can’t decide. I’ve felt sorry for them and ignored them. I’ve called them oppressed and oppressors. In fact, I claimed they oppressed me. In Turkey being honorable is not enough; I have to dress the part. And I resent this.
“There’s a tipping point,” I have said, echoing certain friends. Once the majority of women veil, the unveiled are harassed and threatened. Assaulted on the bus.
I’ve said this. Thought it. But who are these veiled women? Now, I’m curious.
I commit to the Hanimlar Lokali. First, I need a health report. I don’t know where to get
one, so I check in with a different friend.
“The Sağlık Ocağı,” she says. A health clinic.
I have never been to the Sağlık Ocağı. “Is there an examination?” I ask.
“They give you a health report without examining you?”
My friend smiles.
I’m suspicious. But, free?
Sympathetic friend directs me to the ground floor of an apartment block. A sign is wired to the fence around a forlorn garden: Sağlık Ocaği.
As I walk in I take inventory. No receptionist. One woman in a chair, a child on the floor. A table piled with numbered cards. The woman holds up her card. I pick a number. Second in line! I had planned to be here all day.
Five women walk in. Second in line! We hold up our numbers. The newcomers select their cards. A door opens.
“Doctor, doctor,” the cry goes out in a kaleidoscope of voices, as everyone rushes the door. The woman who’s next pushes through, dragging the child by his jacket hood.
She’s in and out—prescription refill. Before anyone can move, I slalom around them. Women crowd in behind me, filling the office–all of them talking, gesturing, trying to catch the eye of the man slumped behind a laptop.
I grab the chair across from him. He doesn’t move. Eventually, the line-cutters stop shifting. They fall silent. They stay put.
“I need a health report,” I announce in an exhale, stacking my residence permit, wallet-sized photos, and passport copies on the desk. I snap the number indicating my place in line onto the top and push the pile across the desk. I’m crackling with adrenaline.
To my left, a shuffling.
An elderly woman in a long coat and headscarf hovers over the chair beside me. She deposits herself with a sigh. I look around. There is only one women in the room with hair showing: me. I pull myself up taller in my chair.
“Doctor,” the woman croaks. “My legs don’t work. They’ve been hurting for days, and I can’t stand up.” She moans.
Another woman pipes up to endorse her story. Elderly, pious, backed by her fellows, I’m sure bad-leg lady will be first.
“Fine.” All heads turn towards the desk: The doctor speaks. “The rest of you wait outside.” He waves them towards the door.
As the rule breakers exit, I turn to the woman next to me. I raise my chin just high enough to let her know I’m onto her. She smiles and starts arranging packages around her hips.
“No,” the doctor says, dismissing my pile with a sweep of his hand. “I need your Turkish identification number.”
I hand it over, gratified that I came prepared. As he types, I begin to feel lighter. More comfortable. Mentally, I assess the condition of my swimsuit.
The doctor hits enter. Thonk.
The Microsoft reject noise. My heart revs. I suck in my breath. The thonk sounds four more times. Lifting his palms, the doctor gives me the international “it’s out of my hands” sign.
“I don’t have insurance,” I blurt, trying to contain my disappointment. The doctor blinks. My neighbor shifts, and a bag slips to the floor. She bends to retrieve it.
“Please try again,” I say. “I just want to swim.” Again, failure echoes through the room. The woman sighs, looks at her watch.
The doctor refuses to write out a report by hand. Instead he scribbles the name of a government hospital to try. He slides the paper towards me. My hand shakes as I jam it into my purse without thanking him. I shovel my documents in behind it. Tears of frustration mass. As I stand, bad-leg woman touches my arm.
“Child,” she says, “you need a husband to give you insurance. May God send you a good husband.” She smiles; it’s her turn now after all.
Walking to the bus stop, I fume. Of course, I think. Marriage will solve it. The doctor could have hand written a report for me. Why not? He would have, if I had been someone else; some pushy woman with a scarf on her head.
As I climb onto the bus to go home, I am a victim. I hone in on a headscarf lady who entered in front of me. In the split second it takes her to scan for a seat, I slip past and grab the last one. She clicks her tongue, then looks around to see if anyone saw what I did. I close my eyes and pretend to sleep.
Briefly, I feel better.
At home I examine the doctor’s note: I can’t read his writing. I decide to give up.
A few days later my boyfriend, Zach, returns from school with the news that a classmate got a health report from the campus doctor for 1 Lira. Not free. But close.
“How?” Too good to be true, I think.
“You just walk in and ask.”
From my spot on the couch, I want to feel sorry for myself. But hope is creeping in. I reexamine the facts. No health certificate, no pool. The paper is a formality: part of the game.
“Why don’t you come to school tomorrow,” Zach says.
“I have a better idea.”
The next day Zach presents me with a health report. It has his name on it. So we photograph it, load it into Photoshop, and erase his information.
“They did give me an EKG,” he says as I point out areas he missed with the Photoshop eraser. “I hope it doesn’t say anything about that.”
The next day I print out the certificate, write in my name and photocopy it 4 times. Certificates in hand, my enthusiasm returns. I’m going swimming with the headscarf ladies. I am intrepid, I think.
As I slide my forged documents into a plastic sleeve, I remember my friends. Their disapproval. And what about me?
If I am honest, I chose to live in Ankara because I thought there would be fewer headscarf ladies in the Turkish capital. I assumed that here, surrounded by diplomats and the lingering spirit of Atatürk, who unveiled the women of Anatolia, I would be in the majority.
Here, I’m the one who is different. Even as I congratulate myself, again, for choosing to try the Hanımlar Lokali I wonder: Do I belong there?
On the way to register at the Lokali, I re-inspect my documents. What if they ask why my name isn’t in the doctor’s handwriting? Well, I smile, rehearsing in Turkish, the doctor asked me to write it for him. What if they ask why I went to a campus clinic? As I walk up the stairs to the Lokali, I think up a course of study.
Inside, humidity enfolds me: the pool. As I breathe in chlorine, my grip on the documents eases. I approach the counter. A woman in a long coat and headscarf takes my application.
“Do you have a health certificate?” she asks.
I pause, then overwhelm her with items. “Residence permit, passport copies, permit copies. How many pictures did you need?”
Onto this pile, I toss the health certificate.
As I fill in my application I watch the counter woman. She is trimming the edges from my photo so it fits the outline on the application. She trims a second photo to fit my membership card. She ignores my documents. Things are going well. “Do you swim?” I ask.
“No,” she says. “We don’t have time. And when we’re off.…”
“You want to be someplace else.”
She smiles. I smile. Do we approve of each other?
I’m not sure, but she’s glue-sticking my face to the pink membership card. I want to snatch it out of her hands. Instead I reach into my purse and take out the Lira.
I pay the fee, she recites the rules, and I’m approved to swim. I dance down the front stairs. Outside, I text Zach: “Got it!”
“Are you swimming?”
It’s not time yet.
First, I need to imagine it. The diving into flower-strewn waters, the floating on chlorinated waves. Shouldn’t I savor this victory? Reflect on the journey?
What business do I have at their club? I decide I need to think about this. In case someone else asks.
At home, I set the card on my dresser where I can see it. A few days later, I visit a PVC wagon. Wagon operators do nothing but encase IDs in stinking, toxic PVC. While you wait. I’ve never had anything that needed encasing before.
Then, I shop for a new suit. Then goggles. “Did you go swimming?” Zach asks when he comes home each day.
Three weeks later, I finally go. It’s a club for women. I decide I qualify.
Suited up, I emerge from the shower and take a seat on a plastic chair. A woman in a black suit stands by the edge of the pool, waiting for the one hour session to start. From a distance I watch her do shoulder stretches. Then forward bends.
Four more women materialize. It’s 3:00 and we can’t get in until 3:15. The woman in black makes eye contact.
“What do you think?” She points at the clock.
“Come on.” She approaches the ladder.
I stand up. Everyone follows us into the water.
As I sink to my chin, my toes touch bottom. I look around. We’re all in the same uniform: suits and swim caps. It’s a rule. It’s the only rule.
Pool lanes are marked. Like lanes on the street outside, they are ignored. Fellow swimmers poke me with their limbs. They bisect my lane on their way to the edge. I can’t move in a straight line or maintain a pace.
It doesn’t seem fair to get uptight, considering how I got here. As I swim around dog paddlers, I try to see them as fellow chorines. My mood brightens.
I reach the far end and the women at the wall turn to me, their faces wet and smiling. I greet them: “Merhaba.”
And they all begin talking at once. Why do you speak Turkish? Are you married? How can you swim with your face in the water?
Why do you live here?
I hear this last question in a new way. I chose Turkey, I want to answer. Instead, I think about how that might sound to them. Today, I realize that I have a lot of choices. Different choices. But I don’t say it.
Toward the end of the hour our eyes move to the clock on the wall. Like children waiting to be called in by mom, we stall until the last possible second. When time is up, we have to get out, dry off, and cover up.
I want to be first out of the pool. I want to dress and leave without seeing how anyone else dresses. Without letting anyone see how I dress. All of our different shapes and sizes rendered similar in suits and swim caps: That is what I want to remember.
My hair is still damp as I stand at the bus stop, studying the woman next to me. Her head is wrapped in a shiny Chanel scarf. Her coat is long and black. I wonder if she was in the pool with me.
I wonder if covering her head with a scarf gives her more choices.
I decide that I can’t know that. I’m not Turkish. I just moved here.
When the bus arrives, I elbow my way on. Chanel woman is right in front of me. And I spot it: the last seat on the bus. I could squeeze past, sit down, and close my eyes. Instead, I reach for a stanchion. She sits down. The bus lurches as it pulls away from the stop.
Kirsten has been a cherry sorter, a layabout, and a temp hired to shrink-wrap things with a heat gun. She’s also been a storyteller for Odyssey Tucson and her essays have appeared in Hippocampus, The Knicknackery, and Superstition Review. Her writing is featured in the forthcoming, Expat Sofra; Recipes of Foreign Life In Turkey. Kirsten used to live in Turkey. Now, she lives in Tucson, Arizona with a Turkish cat.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/William Allen (scarf image) and ID image courtesy Kirsten Voris.