Even before our clothes were off and we were
in the full steam of the bathhouse, my sweat had
begun to rise.
Yasemin disrobed in a second—for all their public
modesty, in the cloister of the hamam, village
women seemed especially quick with getting their
I took my time. She didn’t seem to care. This was
not a hurrying place.
My American clothes, piled on the bench.
My light skin, beading with sweat.
The first room was crowded with lockers. There
were several other women around, a few small
girls with them. They did not look at me or at
Yasemin, just towel-dried their hair and chatted.
“None of these women like me,” she said.
I was surprised at her frankness.
“They don’t speak English,” she said. “Don’t
worry. I know them.”
I followed her into the rooms of the hamam. I’d
been in health-club saunas before and it wasn’t
that different, though the light was brighter and
the steam hotter. The rooms were tiled in stone
and all fanned out around the center, like the
petals of a daisy. Water ran through channels cut
in the stone, and there were some basins that
collected water from open spigots before it ran
onto the floor and back down the brass drains.
I wondered, in this arid place, where it all went
and came from. River water diverted from
irrigation ditches? And then back to the fields?
We sat near a basin. My hair was already soaked
from humidity, and my lungs were beginning to
feel suppler. Deep breaths came easier and easier.
Yasemin was my employer. She ran a small
boardinghouse in central Turkey, and she’d been
kind enough to take me in. I had come for a
vacation after losing my job—it had been months
and I still hadn’t managed to go home. I had
called my husband once, but he didn’t know yet
that I had taken a job, nor that my visa had run
I wondered how long I would stay.
We sat in the hamam. So much waiting.
“What do we do now?” I asked Yasemin.
“You should sit with your thoughts. Later we will
wash. Traditionally people are coming to the
hamam before they pray.”
“I don’t pray,” I said.
“Everyone prays,” said Yasemin, “even if they do
not pray to a god.”
It was rare that I saw her without her scarf, and I
was always surprised at how much hair she had.
My own hair was thin and if there was one
American convenience that I really missed, it was
ready access to a blow dryer. They were not hard
to find, but the electricity went out so often, and
the breakers were so ready to fail, that the vanity
hardly seemed worth it.
As we sat longer I could feel my skin softening
under the teeth of the heat. I wondered how I
looked. Other women filed in and they greeted
each other, but no one said a word to Yasemin.
She didn’t seem to care and she sat with her head
tilted back against the stone with her eyes closed
and her brown curls dripping over her shoulders
and across her chest.
I wondered about her and her past life as a
chemistry student and as the lover of other men’s
I wondered why she stayed in the village, when
clearly the village women did not like her. For the
first time I realized that the boardinghouse
probably suffered too, because Yasemin did not
tip the barkers at the bus stops to point tourists in
her direction, and the restaurant proprietors likely
did not recommend her either.
Yet she was calm.
Yasemin was rooted. It was something deeper
than having a community around, because she
didn’t. It was the place, I thought, that held her—
Yasemin cradled in the valley, with the mountains
rising toward the sky. The peaks punctured the
sky and brought on violent weather, and Yasemin
stayed still, her loop of chores and routines
orbiting around her. I liked her gravity and I liked
how she refused to leave this small town where
her parents were buried and where she’d been
Her hair pooled around her and steam rose from
the crown of her head like an aura.
I wished I could read it.
* * * * *
The person I missed from home most was Anne,
our daughter; leaving her made the least sense.
Sometimes when I would hear about women
giving up custody or sending their children to live
with relatives, I would wonder what was wrong
with them. I would think, This child came from
your body. I would think, It’s like cutting off an
arm. It felt the same way now, and I wondered
what was wrong with me, though at the same
time I could also imagine scenarios where I might
cut off my own arm—pinned beneath a boulder,
trapped in a snarl of rope that was being tugged
out to sea—and then the thought that while there
would be some permanent loss, with enough
nurture and rehabilitation, my shoulder would not
hang empty forever.
My own parents were still together legally, but it
would be a lie to say I felt the pull of the family. It
had been so long since I had lived with them in
my everyday life that each year ticking forward
seemed to erase one off the back. I had thought
when I had my own child that things would
change—I was a little bit right. I understood my
brothers better. They were younger than I but
had both married early, and when Anne came I
got, suddenly, why they’d dropped off. I hadn’t
been that close with them anyway and a little one
takes so much time that the choice of what to do
with any spare moment suddenly seems precious.
The last time I’d see my brother Glen, it hadn’t
gone that well.
Glen was the younger, the last of our parents’
three children, and he lived in Bismarck. A buddy
of his whom he’d played with in a fledgling band
had moved there from Washington State after
high school because of some relatives and the
promise of a job. Glen had always loved music
and he followed his friend, packing his guitar into
the back of a rotten Celica, and headed in the
opposite direction as the pioneers. Not that their
westward wagon tracks had ever done much for
They tried to perform for awhile. When I spoke to
him by phone, then, Glen was working as a
dishwasher and drinking a lot, it sounded like.
Sometimes he’d put down the phone and strum
me something on his guitar, singing self-
consciously in the kitchen of his studio apartment.
I could never really hear him well, but I’d close
my eyes and listen hard for what I thought he
might be trying to say.
It turned out that Bismarck was not the best place
to launch from, and I don’t think they were ever
very good to begin with. A couple years later Glen
was working as a custodian at the state capital
and engaged. I went to their small wedding in the
park and toasted our beer cans to them. Glen
looked nice in a navy sport coat and khakis; his
bride wore a simple summer dress. At the time I
was dating Julian, the man who would become my
husband, but I wasn’t sure of where we were
going. That night I had sex with my brother’s best
friend in the back of a pickup—it was thrilling and
country and the flannel shirt he put under my
head smelled like home. Glen was very angry
with me when he found out, and I wished I could
tell him that he actually had what I wanted.
Surrounded by the golden grass of the plains and
men with strong arms and ragged boots, Glen’s
life seemed simple, like our childhood.
It seemed clean.
After their first baby came, they drove to eastern
Washington to see our parents and made the
extra drive across the state to see us in Seattle.
They’d been on the road with a four-month-old,
and I wanted it to be nice for them. Julian and I
were married by then, but Anne had not yet
I made up the guest room, and I thought it looked
very neat. I put the good guest sheets on the bed,
yellow linen. Julian cooked dinner and I thought
Glen’s wife insisted on doing the dishes. I tried to
chat with my brother. He was tired from driving
and visiting, but we made our way through
several beers. The baby slept.
“How’s Mom?” I asked him. It was summer and
we were on the front porch, smoking. We both
still pretended that we didn’t smoke to our
spouses, but sneaking cigarettes with Glen
seemed like one of the only things we might still
have in common.
“They seem old,” he said.
The next day we went out through Seattle—to the
market and to Alki beach, and we picked our way
along the waterfront. We had lunch at Julian’s
favorite restaurant and went for espresso
Maybe I was smug.
Maybe I was so unhappy even then that I was
pretending to Glen. I should have tried to talk
more to his wife, Lisa. She might have been able
to tell me something. She’d been working before
but now she stayed home with their boy. I
thought the trip was a financial stretch for them,
so Julian and I insisted on paying for everything.
I thought we’d all had a good time.
They spent one more night before packing up for
their twenty-four hours back to Bismarck. Lisa
was lying down and Glen was packing the car.
“It was good to see you,” I told him. “I’m glad
Glen looked like he was thinking.
“You know, Laura,” he said, “you don’t got it
made. You’re living out here with a fancy house
and eat fancy food, and I don’t see nothing here
that seems like you.”
His best man, all those years ago, had been
tender when he laid me out. His truck had a
canopy on it, and he’d unrolled a sleeping bag for
me and then crawled out to help me in. He had
rough hands but was tender with them.
“Okay,” I said to Glen. The best man had said
something funny to me; he said, “Glen didn’t think
you would be here. He thought your other brother
and your folks would come, but not you. Turned
out to be the opposite.”
“They don’t like to travel. And it’s summer, so
they always worry about leaving the house
because there might be fires.”
“People are funny,” he said.
“I mean it,” Glen was saying. “I think you turned
out to be a liar.”
“Glen,” I told him, “I think I’ve always been a
He thought about this. “Remember when Shelly
Gonsalves’ parents had that party, and she
pushed me over the bank into the reservoir?”
“Yes,” I said.
“You were the first person in the water after me.
There were people all over the banks, but it was
you who came in. You didn’t even get your shoes
off. I remember because your feet were wet the
rest of the day.”
“That was stupid of me,” I said. “Shoes are hard
to swim in.”
“I would have died if you hadn’t jumped after me.”
“Someone else would have,” I said.
“I don’t know,” Glen said. In fact, that was the
second time that Glen had almost drowned. He
was a good swimmer—we all were—but easily
startled. The first time we’d been on a motorized
boat and he’d leaned too far over the edge. When
he hit the water, I screamed and the driver
turned around directly. Glen was wearing a life
vest, but he’d landed face down. It was I who
plucked him from the water, choking on
pondwater and fear.
I also didn’t know if the second time it had to be
me. I do remember hearing the thunk of a dead
weight against liquid, I do remember looking to
see who else had heard. The sun was already
shining but it got brighter, so bright, like the
contrast on a television screen turned so far up
the faces are only white blur. I remember Glen
thrashing. I remember calling to him. I
remember that he did not call back and I dove.
“You didn’t have to do nothing, Laura. No one else
did nothing,” Glen said.
There was commotion by the time we’d gotten
back to the edge of the reservoir; the side he’d
been pushed from was a blasted-out rock, and I’d
had to drag him across the length of it where
there was a low, grassy bank we could get out on.
Our parents were there. Shelly Gonsalves was
there, looking sheepish. I wanted to punch her in
the face, but I was too tired from swimming with
one arm looped around Glen and my waterlogged
“I was scared too,” I told him.
“No, you weren’t,” he said. “You were pissed.”
“You’re right,” I said.
“I don’t get why you aren’t pissed now. Don’t get
me wrong; Julian is an okay dude, but if I’d
thrown him off the docks yesterday you wouldn’t
have gone in.”
“You wouldn’t throw him off the docks.”
“I might’ve. I didn’t think you’d be the kind of
woman who stays with some guy because he has
a little money or a few nice things. My sister
hated people like that,” he said.
When he took off his shirt, the best man looked
fragile. I opened to him.
When I was underwater, air meant nothing to me,
only Glen, and I swam hard toward him, surfacing
at his back and then lacing my arm around him.
Lisa was at the car now, and I hugged her
awkwardly, trying not to bump the car seat.
Julian waved from the porch.
If I reached now, who would reach back?
* * * * *
Yasemin had brought soap and cloths to wash
with; it’s a special kind of washing called kese
where the cloth is coarse and the rubbing is hard
enough to actually slough off the first, dead layer
of skin. She showed me how to do it, and she
then she did my back and the other places I
Soaking in the wet air of the haman, the skin
softens and peels away easily in little white rolls.
Kese looks a little gruesome but it doesn’t hurt at
What hurts is after, when the new, pink skin is
exposed. When Yasemin tossed a dipper of hot
water on me to rinse, there was a sting like deep
sunburn. I tried not to let her see me wince, but
my whole body flinched.
“Now me,” she said and turned her back toward
I took the cloth and scrubbed her hard, like she
had told me.
I rinsed her and then we washed again, this time
with gentle, foaming soap.
We sat for awhile longer and then headed back to
the lockers. The other women still avoided
Yasemin’s eyes and they avoided mine also. We
dried and changed into fresh clothes.
I covered my wet hair and when we stepped into
the brisk air, I felt glad for this new, clean skin.
Wendy Fox taught literature at a government-run university in
Turkey and at Spokane-area community colleges. Her work has
appeared or is forthcoming in The Expatriate Harem: Foreign
Women in Modern Turkey (Seal Press, 2005), Painted Bride
Quarterly, Quiddity International Literary Journal, ZYZZYVA, and
elsewhere. "Before They Pray" is an excerpt from her recently