A Romance Story, from the Back Seat of a Taxi

“Where are you from?” the young man asked. He adjusted the rear view mirror in time to witness me reach for the tissues in my purse. “San Francisco…California…” I replied to a mop of thick black curls and the big brown eyes in the mirror, my view of the driver from the back seat of the car. My voice came out as a squeak. I’d been feeling sorry for myself and verged on tears. Twenty-four hours without sleep, four airports, three flights, a handful of pitiful meals, who knows how many thousands of miles, and I’d arrived in Turkey without luggage. I tried not to be a baby about it. People deal with lost luggage all the time. But still, I felt an overwhelming amount of defeat. In two days, I was to leave Bodrum’s harbor aboard a boat for a weeklong excursion on the Aegean Sea with ten women I didn’t know. Traveling alone, I couldn’t share the burden of missing luggage and worried I’d be boarding that boat with nothing but a toothbrush in my back pocket. There was hardly any time to shop, and purchasing a week’s supply of sailing attire felt daunting. So I wasn’t feeling talkative in the car on the way to Bodrum, yet the driver persisted in a thick, brawny accent—a contrast to the soft manner in which he spoke. “California,” he parroted, and then asked another question. “I’m sorry, can you repeat that?” “What do you do?” he asked again. “I’m a designer. Websites mostly.” “Oh, websites,” he restated. After a bit of strained silence, the driver asked another question, barely audible. “Can you repeat that?” I leaned closer to the front seat to hear better, but that didn’t help. He’d had to ask the question several more times, and with each utterance, I leaned in closer and closer. “How long you stay?” he stammered. “Only 2 nights in Bodrum. Then I’m going on a gull-et for a week with a group of writers.” “Gull-et?” he asked, perplexed. “You know, a traditional Turkish boat. Is that the wrong pronunciation?” I felt a little embarrassed. “Goo-let,” he replied. The driver seemed especially interested in getting to know me. I assumed his attempts at small talk were to distract me from my visible anxiety. He’d had to wait for me outside the airport for an hour as I ran from one baggage carousel to another. I saw him peering in at me, face pressed against the window with cupped hands, as the hazard lights on his car blinked on and off in the passenger pickup zone while I filled out a lost luggage report. One minute! I mimed with my index finger. He looked impatient, and I didn’t want him to leave without me. There were no other taxis going to Bodrum at that late hour; I’d arranged the car service with my hotel before leaving San Francisco. The driver pulled over at a gas station. “Would you like water?” he asked. “No thanks,” I answered, mostly for having nothing smaller than a 50 lira bill—the equivalent of $40. “I am going to have water…please, have water,” he persisted with a smile. “OK, then. If it makes you happy.” I waited in the car, impressed by Turkish hospitality. The driver returned from the shop with two bottles, and before getting into the car, poked his head in my window to ask if I’d like to sit in the front seat. A little strange, I thought. But then again, I know a lot of people hate feeling like a chauffeur, even though in essence, that was his job. I gathered my things and got into the front seat—I’d been leaning in so close, I might as well have been sitting there in the first place. Plus, I figured there might be better views from up there and perhaps I could stop asking the driver to repeat himself. “What is your name?” he asked. “Cheryn. And yours?” “Ekmed,” he replied, “How old are you?” “Thirty-six. And you?” “Twenty-five,” Ekmed said. “You have nice eyes,” he added after a moment. “Thank you.” “Your boyfriend?” Ekmed asked, referring to the ring on my left hand. “Yes.” “Where is your boyfriend?” he wanted to know. “He’s at home.” “Is your boyfriend good?” Ekmed inquired. I wasn’t sure what he was asking, so I answered to cover all the bases, “Yes, he’s very healthy and wishes he could be here, but since I’m here for a workshop with other writers, he would be bored. And he is a great guy all around. I am glad he is my boyfriend. Yes, he is good.” Then Ekmed waved his hand obliquely, saying, “This is good.” I thought perhaps he was referring to a scenic view—although it was pitch black outside—or a tasty restaurant nestled in a cluster of buildings I could make out on the shore that ran parallel to the highway. I asked, “It’s good? What is good?” “This,” Ekmed replied, again waving his hand in a non-directional way that gave me the feeling he was referring to the interchange between us. Surely he could not have meant our conversation, difficult and limited as it was. But with English not being his native tongue, nor a fluent foreign tongue, perhaps it was a good conversation in his view, all things considered. “…Turkish boyfriend?” Ekmed asked. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you mean,” I replied, fearing I did. “…Turkish boyfriend?” he repeated. The thought dawned on me that he was asking if I’d like a Turkish boyfriend, but I didn’t want to respond to that sort of question just in case he wasn’t. I didn’t want to look presumptuous or interested or put the idea in his head if it hadn’t been there already. “My boyfriend is not Turkish,” I said, to be on the safe side. He accepted this as an answer, and—I presume—understanding he would have to change tactics, Ekmed put his hand out, palm up, and looked at me with an expectant expression. “What?” I asked. Ekmed grabbed my hand and held it in his, intimately, with fingers interlaced. There we were, driving down a deserted dark highway, halfway to Bodrum, holding hands like teenagers on a first date. I had to suppress a giggle as I thought to myself, somewhat flattered by his attention, really?!? And then I began to worry, is this that moment before things go really, really wrong for the woman traveling alone? We were in the middle of nowhere. All I could see were the black silhouettes of trees whizzing by the window and a few feet of pavement in front of us, lit by the car’s headlamps. “I think you should drive with both hands, ” I said, extricating my hand while placing his back on the wheel. Ekmed looked a little wounded, a tad embarrassed, but not enough to refrain from asking for a kiss while pointing at a place on his clean-shaven cheek very, very close to a pair of puckering lips. “I cannot kiss you,” I told him, “Remember? I have a boyfriend.” “But vacation is for relaxing,” Ekmed seemed honestly confused. “You’re right,” I said, measuring my words carefully, “and all I want to do right now is sleep.” There was silence after this. Awkward silence. But it was much better than awkward conversation and awkward come-ons. We arrived to the hotel and Ekmed politely walked me to the reception desk. Aside from being tired and irritable from all the hours of travel and the missing luggage, I was stunned at what had taken place. I couldn’t stop wondering if this was what traveling solo is like. Thinking about previous trips with my boyfriend, he and Ekmed would be halfway to drinking buddies by now, and I’d have been ignored in the back seat. Later at the hotel bar, I recounted my experience to the woman who organized the trip. She laughed and apologized for not warning me ahead of time; she’d been living in Turkey for a few years. “Don’t sit in the front of the taxi,” she said, “it’s a signal that you’re interested in sex.” Apparently, Turkey is a destination for lonely women who arrive seeking love and relaxation in the arms of temporary vacation boyfriends. Sitting in the front seat of a car is Turkish foreplay. A few weeks later, I again found myself in the back seat of a taxi on the way to the airport. My flight was leaving early, and I’d woken the driver at the taxi stand at 3:30 a.m. by knocking on the window of his car. On the way to the airport, I could see his drooping eyelids in the rear view mirror as his head bobbed to and fro with every bump in the pavement. He was dozing off at the wheel while speeding down the highway. I feared that should I talk to him, the driver would misconstrue my attention, but I feared more the ending of my life. “Excuse me,” I leaned in from the back seat, risking my betrothal to the Turkish driver, “what is your name?” ••• Silver Award winner for Destination Travel in Traveler's Tales 5th annual Solas Awards (2011) See travel photos from this trip to Turkey » •••