An elderly couple disputes over their yearly vacation to a crisis-torn country
She is sitting in the salon, alone, on her favorite sofa in the house: the classic one, black, heavy and made from genuine leather, pleasantly cool even on scorching days like this. In front of her the big coffee table that is meticulously aligned with the fireplace, which is mantled in the same black marble tile as the table. The whole room — the whole house — is emanating an aura of antiquatedness. She likes it that way. There had been people who called her style stifling, who proposed modernization, but first, she had never been one to give anything about other people’s talk, and second, some of the old pieces were sort of hulking, admittedly, but it was the utterly sophisticated beauty of them which she found so alluring. You couldn’t find anything so awe-inspiring anymore, today. People had lost their eye for detail. Everything was replaceable, sterile, soulless.
On the coffee table, however, sits incongruously a spawn of the modern world. She opens the laptop reluctantly, shaking her head in an unsympathetic manner as the fan starts droning. You might think she doesn’t know how to make use of the thing, but while she doesn’t like it, or not particularly, she knows very well about the advantages of modern technology and the Internet especially. She has participated in a Computer Basics course for senior citizens recently, shortly after she’d turned sixty, and she felt like a prodigy among the old dodderers who needed six or seven attempts until they finally understood how to turn the damn thing on or what the mouse was or why the teacher didn’t stop talking about windows.
She has opened the Browser now and the little cursor hovers above the address bar like a praying mantis waiting for the tiniest movement of its prey. She is ready to get the daily supply of atrocities, ready to gather the data she’ll need to persuade her husband John. But nothing is happening. Your computer is not connected to the Internet, the machine tells her after a handful of seconds. Sober font, bold and essential; Sorry Mam, but there’s nothing we can do. And this is exactly what she detests about all this modern bric-a-brac. So much sophistication, this sleek device in front of her capable of operations unthought of, all the knowledge of the world available in your very living room, in your bed if you liked, but only if you got up from your seat and bent down to the small space beneath the Chippendale flame grain dresser that sat in the corner of the room to plug in the router which the maid inevitably plugged out every second day when she came to vacuum the place. Insufficiently, incidentally. She cursed her more than a little as she tinkered with the plug, wondering how many times she has told her already to plug in the router again after she was done, calculating the ramifications of hiring a new maid and dispensing with the old one — Hosa —, and hadn’t she told John that those wetbacks weren’t worth the air they breathed, hadn’t she?
Fifteen minutes later she is sitting again in front of the computer, connected now and gathering evidence. This is when John descends the stairs. He looks like an awfully aged Charlie Sheen, sporting shorts and a tacky polo shirt. In his hand dangles a tattered suitcase plastered with decade-old stickers proclaiming long lapsed vacations.
“Look what I found!” he shouts before he is even down the stairs. “My old suitcase! Do you remember?”
She does. “Yes, dear,” she says, not looking up from the screen. “Your shabby old suitcase, the one you bought before our first trip to Greece, the one that looks as if you have lived out of it on the street for ten years or so.”
He feigns a pout, wielding a dismissive hand, and drifts across the room, his steps soft and muted on the vast Persian rug. He places the suitcase amidst the congregation of bags and trolley cases in the niche next to the oaken hallway table in the corridor. When he starts back towards the stairs to haul down even more stuff, she intercepts him. “John, we have to talk. Would you come over for a minute? Please?”
“Sure,” he says. “What are you doing?” His tone is nonchalant, but after almost forty years she is able to track down the ever so faint hint of suspicion in it without effort.
“John, I will stay home this year.”
He is next to her now, gazing at the dullness of the screen, trying to decipher the blur of letters on it without his glasses because he is too vain to wear them.
“What do you mean you stay home?” he finally manages to say. “We have talked about this, haven’t we?”
She says they had. Ample.
“So why pick it up again?” he asks her now as if this hadn’t been part of the whole debate, as if she hadn’t made herself clear. As if you had to do something else than open your eyes and acknowledge the fact that only a fool would take the risk.
“Because your arguments are invalid. You’re blind, John. Come. Look at this!”
She pats the empty space next to her on the sofa, inviting him to share the horror with her. He comes around the sofa languidly, sits down, shaking his head all the while in a disapproving manner. The screen is divided into four parts, four headlines to back her. And she has more, he can see that because every window has several more tabs. He skims the screen, words leaping at him. He reads Terrorist attacks and Islamists, he reads Suicide bomber and Threat. Names of foreign countries and cities. Tourists kidnapped, mugged, abused.
“Martha —“ He looks at her sympathetically. Her lips are thin and pale, her mouth a sharp line carved into her lithic face. He scours this face for a weak spot, somewhere to pry with his words, but there is none. She won’t have it.
“No!” she commands. “Look!”
Switching tabs, reorganizing windows, loading pages. Legions of numbers scrolling past him, endless rows of buzzwords. Each piece of news the billionth iteration of some calamity. He shuts his eyes, cups his head in his hand.
“These are from the past two weeks, only,” she says. “Sixty-eight articles, and I could have found more if I had wanted to. And I know what you are going to say. And I know we aren’t flying to Iraq, or to Africa, or to Syria.”
She fumbles with the mouse again, moving windows, clicking. John still doesn’t look at the screen.
“Have a look. Hey! Stop pretending this isn’t real. Look!”
He raises his head and looks.
The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens of increased threats from terrorist groups throughout Turkey and to avoid travel to southeastern Turkey, he reads. Martha glaring eyes bore into him while he does. She is gauging him. Then, when he is done and trying to find words, she reads the next paragraph aloud to him: “Foreign and U.S. tourists have been explicitly targeted by international and indigenous terrorist organizations. As stated in the Worldwide Caution dated March 3, 2016, throughout Europe extremists have targeted large sporting events, theaters, open markets, aviation services, transportation systems, and public venues where people congregate as well as religious sites and high-profile events. U.S. citizens are reminded to review personal security plans and remain vigilant at all times.”
When she is done, she shuts the laptop with too much force and reaches for the innocent-looking envelope on the far end of the table placing it in front of John. Inside the envelope are two first-class flight tickets to Adana, Turkey.
“John, I’m not sure anymore that I know what your idea of recreation, of fun and relaxation is, anymore. For my part, I don’t want to remain vigilant at all times during my holidays to avoid getting bombed into pieces by some fanatic. I remain at home, rather.”
She doesn’t wait for his answer. Just springs up from the sofa and bolts off, out of the room and up the stairs, into the safe and familiar accommodation of her house, the depths of her den.
Twelve hours later. The sun is settling down in the gap between the pair of pine trees that tower behind her back, making her shadow reach out for the backdoor like a dog straining at its leash. She is willing to follow it after four hours of garden work. She is calm now. If she had felt irritated that morning when she made herself clear before John, maybe even a little enraged, she didn’t exactly repent of her rudeness now because he was naïve and the only way to show him was by what would have been called determination by her and harshness by him. But as she slashed at the invasive weeds, ripped dead leaves off her ferns and made devastating onslaughts on all the various pests and vermin that dared to gorge on her beloved ornamental plants, she quieted down to a point where she even had felt a pang of guilt. She is thinking of reconciliation now and so she strips off her gardening gloves and gets rid of the cumbersome apron and enters the house to explain to him, calmly, how she had spent lots and lots of hours brooding over the whole affair and came up with what she thought to be the only right conclusion. And maybe, just maybe, she will offer an apology for storming out on him. The only problem is, where is he? It comes to her only now, in the moment of placation, that she hasn’t seen him since morning, when she, stomping up the stairs, had thrown a quick glance over her shoulder to see him slumped there on the couch, the envelope dangling from his hand like something dead. Had she felt disdain for him in that moment? Or had it been something else, something on the verge of a revelation, because after all these years in which they had fought side by side, built a business, outwitted contestants, that he struck her as foolish? How many years had passed without a single day going by where you didn’t hear about assaults, about mass-murders, about religiously motivated fanatics who blew up innocent citizens almost all over the world? And it wasn’t as if this decision came easily to her. She had loved their travels to Turkey and all the other exotic countries. But the people there had always struck her as, well, let’s say idiosyncratic.
Anyway, twenty-four hours earlier John had announced that he was going to cook his famous Beef Stew the next day, and that is why she’s crossing the expanse of the main hallway now, on her way to the kitchen, to see if he’s there, actually cooking in spite of their dispute (He’s more than just a hobby chef; a true aficionado who conjures up culinary wonders if he’s in the right mood, but won’t touch even so much as an instant soup if he’s not). The kitchen, though, is deserted and there’s no evidence of recent usage. So she turns again, all the way back to the parlor and beyond, to the recreation room because maybe he’s shooting pool to clear his mind, distract himself from his wife’s nagging as he often did when they bought the house twenty-five years earlier and things were tense. She can’t hear any collisions as she approaches the room which lies on the far end of the house, but still, she wants to make sure. No John here, as well, and why on earth is this house so tremendously big she wonders as she walks back yet again to climb the stairs to the upper level. She is a little vexed again now, from having to march through the whole house as if this was some sort of juvenile tag game and she curses mutely, striding across the narrow hallway which functions as an extension of the house gallery, old masters ranked on both sides. Then she nears the study, inside from which she can hear a bustle of papers and John’s cheerful baritone voice, telephoning. The classic desk —Boulle-style, mahogany — is littered with papers. John is sitting in the matching red-leathered Captain’s chair, swiveling to and fro, his left arm hanging limply from the armrest, his right pressing his cellphone to his ear. He sounds jovial and excited.
“That’s great,” he says, “thank you. Thank you so much,” and then he swivels round and throws the lance of his finger at her, grinning, as if he’d expected her to appear in the doorway all along.
“What?” she hears herself asking. She is a little dumbfounded because she had expected to find him depressed and brooding, a tumbler of whiskey consoling him in his solitude. Instead, he’s rocketing up from his chair now, coming towards her, and this strange crooked mischievous grin won’t come off his face.
“What are you doing?” she asks him. The confidence is back in her voice; she has recovered, she is alert.
“Well, I’m canceling the hotel room, and the flight, and the rental car too.”
“So why are you so happy? After today’s morning I thought you were, well, a little bugged?”
“I was!” There comes the finger again, only now it is poking imaginary holes in the ceiling. “But then I came up with a solution!”
She can feel her desire for reconciliation die on this instant, suffocated by one of her husbands’ attempts to ignore her decisions.
“What solution, John?”
“Well, you don’t want to share your plane with other people because one of them could detonate a bomb on it? Something which, incidentally, never happens, or when was the last time you hear about a bomb actually exploding on a plane? They strip you of everything now, even your water if it’s more than a mouthful, don’t they? Anyway, I’ll charter a private. And then —“
“No, wait, listen to me. You don’t want to stay in a hotel because you think your hotel might be scene to a mass shooting? No problem. I’ve found some enchanting bungalows to rent —”
(did he just say enchanting?)
“— in close proximity to the beach, so we can —“
“John! Christ! Don’t you ever listen to me? Huh? This is not something you can solve with your god-awful money! This is for real! Can’t you see that you fool?”
Her barking voice hangs in the air like toxic gas. She can see the energy — the happiness — that had propelled him moments before drain off him as his eyes lose their sheen and his whole posture seems to collapse. Beaten, that’s what he looks. But then his face hardens and he turns his back on her, fetches his phone from the table.
“What are you doing?” she asks him.
“I’m chartering my plane. And my bungalow, too.”
She is cursing. She curses a lot when she is alone, and sometimes she thinks she has to make up for all the years in which she had to efface herself, all the occasions on which she would have wanted to cuss, but couldn’t, because it would have been inadequate. She is cursing about the snails that eat her salad, even though she never has actually used the salad she grew (or any salad else, for that matter, because when John didn’t cook it was Hosa or some fancy places’ chef who did). She is cursing at the sun that burns her eyes when she bends down to the rosebushes to trim them. And every once in a while, she curses at John, for ignoring her warnings.
It has been a week now. After he left, before he even had arrived at the airport where the little jet he’d chartered stood to swallow him and fly him off to some small airport in southern Turkey which was frequented mostly by business travelers, she had checked the news online two times, had turned on the radio and let it broadcast across all the house. She had bought a newspaper, just in case the online-guys missed something. That routine she held for four days. There had been tragic news, of course there had, but none of them concerned Turkey, or private jets, or even so much as a US citizen. She wondered why he didn’t call.
Then, this morning, she had received his letter.
‘Martha’, he wrote, “I want you to know that it is grand here and that I miss you. I understand that you are fearful of the world, but I do not understand where your fear has been hiding all those years, when we treated the time that was given us as something valuable, something that becomes even greater when shared. Something that’s worth taking risks for. Our world has always been a place full of risks. If I could, I would take them all again. I hope you’re well and safe, whatever you are doing.’
When she is done with her gardening she goes back into the house with the intention of fixing herself a little refreshment and maybe go into town after, clear off the cobwebs, blow things off her mind. But the house. Suddenly the way to the kitchen, all the long way through the back of the house and across the distending swell of the hallway, it just seems so improbable far. She doesn’t want to go up the stairs either, doesn’t want to hear her heavy steps reverberating through the emptiness of her home, doesn’t want to pass by all the stolid faces and vistas that crawl out from the gallery. She feels old all of a sudden, and all she seems to be capable of doing is sitting down on the bed in one of the many, many guestrooms that never get used these days, and just look at all the cumbrous furniture. And sometime, when the room and the whole house have shrunken to a small speck that finally seems tangible, she lies down on the bed, wrapping herself in the protective smoothness of the dusty reeking blanket, and there, without quite realizing it, she drifts off to sleep.