Everyone knows this can happen. People travel and they find places they like so much they think they’ve risen to their best selves just by being there. They feel distant from everyone at home who can’t begin to understand. They take up with beautiful locals of the opposite sex, they settle in, they get used to how everything works, they make homes. But maybe not forever.
I had an aunt who was such a person. She went to Istanbul when she was in her twenties. She met a good-looking carpet seller from Cappadocia. She’d been a classics major in college and had many questions to ask him, many observations to offer. He was a gentle and intelligent man who spent his days talking to travelers. He’d come to think he no longer knew what to say to Turkish girls, and he loved my aunt’s airy conversation. When her girlfriends went back to Greece, she stayed behind and moved in with him. This was in 1970.
His shop was in Sultanahmet, where tourists went, and he lived in Fener, an old and jumbled neighborhood. Kiki, my aunt, liked having people over, and their apartment was always filled with men from her husband’s region and ex-pats of various ages. She was happy to cook big semi-Turkish meals and make up the couch for anyone passing through. She helped out in the store, explained carpet motifs to anyone who walked in—those were stars for happiness, scorpion designs to keep real scorpions away. In her letters home, she sounded enormously pleased with herself–she dropped Turkish phrases into her sentences, reported days spent sipping çay and kahve. All this became lore in my family.
She wrote to her father, who suffered from considerable awkwardness in dealing with his children (her mother had died some six years before), and to her kid brother, who was busy hating high school. The family was Jewish, from a forward-thinking leftist strain; Kiki had gone to camps where they sang songs about children of all nations, so no one had any bigoted objections to her Turkish boyfriend. Kiki sent home to Brooklyn a carpet she said was from the Taurus Mountains. Her father said, “Very handsome colors. I see you are a connoisseur. No one is walking on it, I promise.”
Then Kiki’s boyfriend’s business took a turn for the worse. There was a flood in the basement of his store and a bill someone never paid and a new shop nearby that was getting all the business. Or something. The store had to close. Her family thought this meant that Kiki was coming home at last. But, no. Osman, her guy, had decided to move back to the village he was from, to help his father, who raised pumpkins for their seed-oil. Also tomatoes, green squash, and eggplant. Kiki was up for the move, she wanted to see the real Turkey. Istanbul was really so Western now. Cappadocia was very ancient and she couldn’t wait to see the volcanic rock. She was getting married! Her family in Brooklyn was surprised about that part. Were they invited to the wedding? Apparently not. In fact, it had already happened by the time they got the letter. “I get to wear a beaded hat and a glitzy headscarf, the whole shebang,” Kiki wrote. “I still can’t believe it.”
Neither could any of her relatives. But they sent presents, once they had an address. A microwave oven, a Mister Coffee, an electric blanket for the cold mountains. They were a practical and liberal family, they wanted to be helpful. They didn’t hear from Kiki for a while and her father worried that the gifts had been stolen in the mail. “I know it’s hard for you to imagine,” Kiki wrote, “but we do very well without electricity here. Every morning I make a wood fire in the stove. Very good-smelling smoke. I make a little fire at the bottom of the water heater too.”
Kiki built fires? No one could imagine her as the pioneer wife. Her brother, Alan (who later became my father), asked what kind of music she listened to there and if she had a radio. She sent him cassette tapes of favorite Turkish singers—first a crappy male crooner and then a coolly plaintive woman singer who was really very good. Alan was always hoping to visit, but first he was in college and working as a house painter in the summers and then he had a real job in advertising that he couldn’t leave. Kiki said not a word about making any visits home. Her father offered to pay for two tickets to New York so they could all meet her husband, but Kiki wrote, “Oh, Dad. Spend your money on better things.” No one nagged her; she’d been a touchy teenager, given to sullen outbursts, and everyone was afraid of that Kiki appearing again.
She stayed for eight years. Her letters said, “My husband thinks I sew as well as his sisters,” and “I’m re-reading my copy of Ovid in Latin. It’s not bad!” and “Winter sooo long this year, I hate it. Osman has already taught me all he knows about the stars.” No one could make sense of who she was now or put the parts together. There were no children and no pregnancies that anyone heard about, and the family avoided asking.
Her brother was just about to finally get himself over for a visit, when Kiki wrote to say, “Guess what? I’m coming back at last. For good. Cannot wait to see you all.”
“Cannot wait, my ass,” her brother said. “She waited fine. What’s so irresistible now?”
No, the husband was not coming with her. “My life here has reached its natural conclusion,” Kiki wrote. “Osman will be my dear friend forever but we’ve come to the end of our road.”
“So who ran around on who?” the relatives kept asking. “She’ll never say, will she?”
Everybody wondered what she would look like when she arrived. Would she be sun-dried and weather-beaten, would she wear billowing silk trousers like a belly dancer, would the newer buildings of New York amaze her? None of the above. She looked like the same old Kiki, thirty-one with very good skin, and she was wearing jeans and a turtleneck, possibly the same ones she’d left home with. She said, “God! Look at YOU!” when she saw her brother, grown from a scrawny teenager to a man in a sports jacket. She said, “Been a while, hasn’t it?” to her dad.
Her luggage was a mess, very third-world, woven plastic valises baled up with string, and there were a lot of them. She had brought back nine carpets! What was she thinking? She wanted to sell them. To someone or other.
Her brother always remembered that when they ate their first meal together, Kiki held her knife and fork like a European. She laughed at things lightly, as if the absurdity of it all wasn’t worth shrieking over. She teased Alan about his eyeglasses (“you look like a genius in them”) and his large appetite (“has not changed since you were eight”). She certainly sounded like herself. Wasn’t she tired from her flight? “No big deal,” she said.
She’d had a crappy job in a bookstore before going off on her travels, so what was she going to do now? Did she have any friends left from before? It seemed that she did. Before very long, she moved in with someone named Marcy she’d known at Brooklyn College. Marcy’s mother bought the biggest of the rugs, and Kiki used the proceeds to start renting a storefront in the East Village, where she displayed her carpets and other items she had brought back—a brass tea set and turquoise beads and cotton pants with gathered hems that she herself had once worn.
The store stayed afloat for a while. Her brother sort of wondered if she was dealing drugs—hashish was all over Istanbul in the movie Midnight Express, which came out just before her return. Kiki refused to see such a film, with its lurid scenes of mean Turkish prisons. “Who has nice prisons?” she said. “Name me one single country in the world. Just one.”
When her store began to fail and she had to give it up, Kiki supported herself by cleaning houses. She evidently did this with a good spirit; the family was much more embarrassed about it than she was. “People here don’t know how to clean their houses,” she would say. “It’s sort of remarkable, isn’t it?”
By the time I was a little kid, Kiki had become the assistant director of a small agency that booked housekeepers and nannies. She was the one you got on the phone, the one who didn’t take any nonsense from clients or workers either. She was friendly but strict and kept people on point.
I was only a teeny bit afraid of her as a child. She could be very withering if I was acting up and getting crazy and knocking over chairs. But when my parents took me to visit, Kiki had special cookies for me (I loved Mallomars) and for a while she had a boyfriend named Hernando who would play airplane with me and go buzzing around the room. I loved visiting her.
My father told me later that Hernando had wanted to marry Kiki. “But she wasn’t made for marriage,” he said. “It’s not all roses, you know.” He and my mother had a history of having, as they say, their differences.
“Kiki was always like a bird,” my father said. “Flying here and there.”
What a corny thing to say.
I grew up outside Boston, in a small suburban town whose leafy safety I spurned once I was old enough for hip disdain. I moved to New York as soon I finished high school, which I barely did. My parents and I were not on good terms in my early years in the city, but Kiki made a point of keeping in touch. She’d call on the phone and say, “I’m thirsty, let’s go have a drink. Okay?” At first I was up in Inwood, as far north in Manhattan as you can get, so it was a long subway ride to see her in the East Village, but once I moved to Harlem it wasn’t quite so bad. When my son was born, four years ago, Kiki brought me the most useful layette of baby stuff, things a person couldn’t even know she needed. Oliver would calm down and sleep when she walked him around. He grew up calling her Aunt Great Kiki.
The two of us lived in a housing project, one of the nicer ones, in an apartment illegally passed on to me by a boyfriend. It was a decent size, with good light, and I liked my neighbors. In late October of the year that the TV kept telling us to get prepared for Hurricane Sandy, Oliver had a great time flicking the flashlight on and off (a really annoying game) and watching me tape giant x’s on the window glass. All the kids on our hallway were hyped up and excited, running around and yelling. We kept looking out the windows as the sky turned a sepia tint. When the rains broke and began to come down hard, we could hear the moaning of the winds and everything clattering and banging in the night, awnings and trees getting the hell beaten out of them. I kept switching to different channels on TV so we wouldn’t miss any of it. The television had better coverage than my view out the window. Through the screen a newscaster in a suit told us the Con Ed substation on Fourteenth Street had exploded! The lights in the bottom of Manhattan had gone out! I made efforts to explain to Oliver about electricity, as if I knew. Never, never put your finger in a socket. Oliver wanted to watch a better program.
At nine-thirty my father called on the phone to say, “Your aunt Kiki doesn’t have power, you know. She’s probably sitting in the dark.” I had forgotten about her entirely. She was on East Fifth Street, in the no-electricity zone. I promised I’d check on Kiki in the morning.
“I might have to walk there,” I said. “It’s like a hundred twenty blocks. You’re not going to ask about my neighborhood? It’s fine.”
“Don’t forget about her, okay? Tell me that.”
“I just told you,” I said.
The weather outside was shockingly pleasant the next day, mild with a white sky. We walked for half an hour, which Oliver really did not like, past some downed trees and tossed branches, and then a cab miraculously stopped and we shared it with an old guy all the way downtown. No traffic lights, no stores open—how strange the streets were. In Kiki’s building, I led Oliver up four flights of dark tenement stairs while he drove me nuts flicking the flashlight on and off.
When Kiki opened the door onto her pitch-black hallway, she said, “Reyna! What are you doing here?”
Kiki, of course, was fine. She had plenty of vegetables and canned food and rice—who needed a fridge?–and she could light the stove with a match. She had daylight now and candles for later. She had pots of water she could boil to wash with. The tub had been filled the night before. How was I? “Oliver, isn’t this fun?” she said.
Oh, New Yorkers were making such a big fuss, she thought. She had a transistor radio so the fussing came through. “I myself am enjoying the day off from work,” she said. She was re-reading The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton–had I ever read it? I didn’t read much, did I?–and she planned to finish it tonight by candlelight.
“Come stay with us,” I said. “Wouldn’t you like that, Oliver?”
Oliver crowed on cue.
Kiki said she always preferred being in her own home. “Oliver, I bet you would like some of the chocolate ice cream that’s turning into a lovely milk shake.”
We followed her into the kitchen, with its painted cabinets and old linoleum. When I took off my jacket to settle in, Kiki said, “Oh, no. Did you get a new tattoo?”
“No. You always say that. You’re phobic about my arms.”
“I’ll never get used to them.”
I had a dove and a sparrow and a tiger lily and a branch with leaves. They all stood for things. The dove was to settle a fight, the sparrow was the true New York bird, the tiger lily meant boldness, and the branch was an olive tree in honor of Oliver. I used to try to tell Kiki they were no different from the patterns on rugs. “Are you a floor?” she said.
JOAN SILBER is the author of the story collection Fools, which was long-listed for the National Book Award and nominated for the PEN/Faulker Award. Her first novel, Household Words, won the PEN/Hemingway Award. She has published five other books of fiction, including Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories, a finalist for the National Book Award and the Story Prize, and The Size of the World, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Prize in Fiction and one of the Seattle Times’ 10 Best Books of Fiction. She’s been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and her work has appeared in the Paris Review, the New Yorker, Agni, Ploughshares, Boulevard, and Epoch, among other publications. The beginning of Improvement was published in Tin House, nominated for an O. Henry Prize, and included in The Best American Short Stories 2015.
Adapted from Improvement, by Joan Silber, Copyright © 2017 by Joan Silber. With the permission of the publisher, Counterpoint.