Why Can’t We Be Friends?
An impressively unscientific case for empathy, at a time when we need it the most. We’re all the same, guys.
We had been talking about getting a taxi home for at least the last two rounds of drinks. Barış glanced at his phone, and insisted there was still too much traffic on the bridge — time for another round.
“It’s practically magenta!” he yelled, as he revealed his phone displaying traffic patterns overlaid on a map that could have been of Siberia for all I knew.
It was 2am, I was in Istanbul, and none of this made sense to me.
To be honest, I wasn’t a complete stranger to the land. My parents had met and married in this city, and despite my American upbringing, I had spent most of my summers there as a kid. As I got older, and my American accent got thicker, so too did my emotional distance from the country and its people. My cousins — with whom I had spent entire months in the early 90s, putting on variety shows for our family and playing card games late into the night (well, at least passed 8pm, which was an enormous victory over our parents, who I only now realize were elated to be left alone for once with their drinks) — had grown up, gotten married, had children. They had lives of their own that I knew nothing about.
I see my cousins about once every two years. We have one, maybe two dinners together before I don’t see them again for another two years. During those meals, we catch up about adult things — how’s work, how are the kids (or for me, do you have a boyfriend, do you still even like men, will you please stop petting stray cats) — and inevitably, sprinkle in a few anecdotes about summers passed. Without them, we’d be just like any other strangers attempting small talk and pondering just how different our lives might be the next time we see each other.
Then one day, something happened. My cousin Sibel got divorced.
One year later, my live-in boyfriend and I broke up. I was devastated — checking my phone and email religiously, waiting for the message from him saying he was wrong and could I ever please forgive him, and come home already.
On one such inbox refresh, I saw a message from Sibel.
In 1983, we were born within 50 days of each other on opposite ends of the world. We were still 7000 miles apart today. But right then, she knew exactly what I was going through.
In the years since our breakups, we’ve kept in close contact. Last year, I took her strawberry picking off the Pacific Coast Highway. This year, she took me dancing in a Turkish gay bar (equally cool activities in my mind).
In her visit to SF, she spent two weeks sharing a bed with me, in a converted 1-bedroom apartment that I also share with a roommate. Normally, this sounds like a nightmare to anyone who hasn’t lived in SF/NYC/an extended-stay coffin. But the two weeks flew by, with not a single moment of small talk or awkward silence. We drank nightly bottles of wine, talking about love, love lost, family, family lost, and planned our inevitable early retirement to the Brahma Kumaris Meditation Center next door to my apartment, as long as they’d allow our family of cats we’d have undoubtedly acquired by then.
In the end, I wished she could have stayed longer. I couldn’t help but wonder how different things would have been, how distant we still would be if we hadn’t both experienced an all-too-universal sensation simultaneously: heartbreak.
I returned to Istanbul a year later during Pride week, which had effectively been outlawed in recent years. In what appeared to be unintentional protest, Sibel seemed to only have gay friends, with Barış at the helm.
I was eager to meet her friends, and ask all sorts of questions about how comfortable they felt being out, or whether they even were out at all given the country’s continued nosedive into right-wing ubiquity.
On my first night in town, my ignorance was made apparent the minute I met Ömer (who incidentally happened to be Barış’s ex). Dressed in a pair of daisy dukes and a fitted shirt, he greeted me with exuberant kisses, and then immediately insisted I take my glasses off and let my hair down. Normally, I’d have taken such a suggestion from a man to be some form of out-dated seduction tactic, but the scolding look on Ömer’s face, followed by his retort of “what are you, a secretary?!” told me I simply had styled myself poorly.
I loved him already.
Over the next few nights, I met and became fast friends with each member of her coterie. I asked Sibel why Barış and Ömer weren’t together anymore. She said one day, Barış just didn’t want him anymore. They had spent years living together, and just like that, he was done.
“How does that even happen?!” we both asked, rhetorically though, as we both knew all to well how exactly that does, in fact, happen.
Back at the bar, waiting for traffic to clear up, I saw Murat, another member of our group, dancing with a group of guys during what was supposed to be a trip to the bathroom. It could have been a scene from any of my hometowns — New York, San Francisco, even Baltimore or Pittsburgh — but I was surprised to see it here, in my parents’s hometown, in a blue city struggling to push against its encroaching red country counterparts, a pattern all too familiar.
Earlier that evening on the ferry ride over, I had asked Murat if he had a boyfriend.
“No,” he said in English, taking a swig of his beer. “I am finished with that.”
People liked practicing their English with me (especially when drunk), but in this case, I thought perhaps it helped him put even more distance between himself and whatever he was about to divulge.
“You’re finished with what?” I asked.
He paused, and then said “I had someone. Not anymore.” He went on to tell me in broken phrases rife with emotion, that he had a great love many years ago. And then one day, his love didn’t want him anymore. He moved to the Czech Republic and told him he didn’t want to see him again.
Murat was crushed. “Did you go there and try to win him back??” I said, watching his intense eyes looking down at his beer bottle.
“I went three times. He did not want me.”
He paused to look out onto the sea, and then continued. “I think if he comes back and says ‘I love you’, I will say ‘Ok.’ This is the part I hate. I hate that I can’t say ‘I’m big! I am big! Who are you?? Fuck you!’ But I can’t. I love him.” He paused. “I don’t have a family… he made me imagine a family.”
It was such a universal feeling, that anything I could say would’ve been perceived as cliche lines lifted from a romantic tragedy (how is this not a blockbuster genre at this point?)
Finally, Murat laughed. “Sometimes we talk. Not often. He says to me ‘I’m thinking of you.’ I say ‘I’m in therapy because of you!’”
I laughed so hard, imagining every conversation I’d had with girlfriends the day after our respective therapy sessions, where we had inevitably spent the entire time repeating woes of former relationships. “I love therapy,” was all I could say to him, as we continued laughing and drinking our beers, watching the land disappear into the distance, feeling more at home than ever before.
On my flight back to San Francisco, I sat next to a young man who offered some friendly small talk, asking me if I was going on vacation or returning home. He had an accent, and told me he was from Israel, and asked the inevitable question I’d become so accustomed to answering (and disappointing so many Jewish mothers): “Are you Israeli too?” No, I told him, but my parents are from Turkey, so you know, same thing.
“Is that right?” he asked, and for a moment I was afraid I’d offended him by essentially discounting the years of endless religious strife in the Middle East.
“Well… yeah. My family is neurotic, I will never look good in humidity, and most encounters deserve an eyeroll and constant second-guessing about how I acted, no?” He thought about it, and then we both started laughing out loud. We spent the rest of the flight agreeing that if Jews and Muslims could just eat together (the same cuisine, no less) and spend a night complaining about their mothers-in-law, there’d be world peace instantly.
“Actually, there is a cafe in the Middle East where if a Jewish and a Muslim person sit down at a table together, they are served free hummus,” he told me. I felt immense pride, which of course was immediately replaced by a Winkelvossian rage, as yet another one of my brilliant ideas had been brought to life by someone way more resourceful/better at life than me.
Any Jew or Muslim would understand the feeling.
He thought for a moment. “You know, I have a nice Jewish boy I could set you up with. Problem is your name… ‘Deniz’… hmm…”
“Definitely Old Testament,” I suggested. “You know, somewhere in the later sections, the parts that no one actually gets to.”
We were in stitches once again, imagining a date where I’d act over-the-top Jewish, using terms and customs long since abandoned by modern Israelis.
It’s now been a few months since my trip, and rather than embracing this newfound sense that the shared human experience will save the world, I’ve become so inured by the horrific state of social affairs that I’ve found myself complaining about business closures caused by the planned white supremacy rally a mile from my office.
What? What just happened?
I’m not sure. I still hear the occasional uplifting story of how having meaningful conversations can change the minds of the most hate-filled people. Which is enough to keep me hopeful. And also to invite any Trump supporter or white supremacist to sit down with me and discuss heartbreak, the latest issue of Cat Fancy, or why the existence cockroaches with wings is almost enough to make me believe in God (or at least the Devil).
I’ll bring the hummus.