It was 10 a.m. on a deadly quiet summer Sunday in Istanbul, and the humidity was at 80 percent and climbing. I was sitting with my computer on a terrace at Starbucks, which had this gorgeous wood patio furniture and trees around the deck. I could spy on the ladies chain smoking at the restaurant next door.
A man in his 60s with a cut jaw and deep lines in his face sat facing me, one table over. We were the only two in the shop. He was reading a book in French through glasses of silver wire; they were perched under whispy white hair and over a dress shirt that was poorly cut but immaculately clean. He shifted nervously as I sat down and peered over his book at me. We made half a second of eye contact. I knew we would talk.
I cursed in French, because the wifi was being difficult, and because ‘putain’ just has more oomph than any of its English counterparts. He picked up on the cue.
“Vous êtes Français?” he asked.
“Oui, Monsieur. Et vous?”
The response was all it took. He launched into his background, that of a Georgian Jew, and told me about his family’s migration to Turkey. He listened with intent as I told him mine. We started talking about the conservative Turkish government, which he said made him feel alienated in his own country. I asked if I could join at his table. His face lit up and he motioned me over, but he never broke his flow, launching into a history lesson about how the Spanish Jews had sought asylum in Turkey during the Inquisition.
Then he asked me about college in America, and I told him about the application essays and the fraternities and the required classes outside of a major. He was in rapture, as if I was revealing a great new scientific discovery, and peppered me with questions about specifics. The man leaned so far over the table to listen that his rib cage burrowed into the edge. His glasses slid down with his sweat from the heat but he made no effort to reposition them.
The man was sweet, and it was an almost interesting conversation. It flowed easily, but it wasn’t enthralling; there was no debate, nor anything really new being said. His hearing had started to fail, and his French was rusty enough that I couldn’t use colloquialisms.
When he moved on to talk about his cousins in the United States and the cities they lived in, I started to zone. We’d been talking for almost an hour, and I told him I was on deadline for an article and that I had to write. It was a lie. I got up and sat back down at my computer, feeling guilty about the lie. He got up to leave.
As he did, he turned to me timidly. I looked up and smiled.
He told me that his wife was dead, his kids were gone, and so were most of his friends. He had no friends, really. He told me he reads all day to pass the time, that it felt like the world had left him behind. I looked past the deep lines to see the pain in his eyes, and the light cloud that formed over them, the numbness that comes to those who are alone too long. He wanted friends. He was so lonely his heart shook.
He talked for several minutes, then stopped and paused. His shoulders drooped a little. Then he looked me deep in the eye, this hard and pleading and vulnerable look.
“How can I make more friends?”
My smile dropped and I frowned and looked at the ground for a moment. His eyes were burned in the back of my skull. I tried to ignore them and come up with an answer that wasn’t pathetic. There was a sense of gravity to the moment.
I told him to be vulnerable, to be persistent in his outreach, to be willing to get hurt. But the answer seemed so prescriptive and invented it turned to ash on my tongue. I wanted more than anything to give him an antidote, to see him smile before he left. But my chest was tight. I stopped short of offering my friendship, the only real help I could give. The thought flashed through my mind for a second, and I considered spending an afternoon with him, just talking. But I didn’t want to. It felt like charity. And I thought I had better things to do with my time. So I stood in shock at the flood of emotion, and kept him at arm’s length.
The guilt of it would break me later. His eyes would stay with me.
He smiled and said thank you and pondered for a moment. He looked at the Turkish sun burning through the sad and lazy haze over the Bosporus. Then he turned and walked away, the slow walk of someone who has no one waiting. I never learned his name.