It is not “the thing” any more to be monogamous. It is seen as quaint, the last vestige of a time when segregation and oversized boat cars were the best ways Americans knew how to cope with post-World War Two life. But now, it’s post-Internet life–a time, Rialta felt, that had severely damaged monogamy’s cachet–for, suddenly, her generation realized how easily they could entertain themselves without the company of another. And yet, this wasn’t the reason for Steven’s rebuffing of her advances after “they” (meaning he) decided to “take a break”–Rachel Green and Ross Geller had also destroyed her generation’s chances for full-blown monogamy. Because Rialta did not want to lose him, she agreed, insisting she was all right with it. She was not. Steven, who was getting his Master’s in World Religions, had settled on Istanbul as his study abroad location. He was planning to stay for a full year in order to “collect data” on “the westernized version of Islam.” Three months had passed before Rialta finally mustered the courage to ask if she could visit him. Nonchalantly, he said, “Yeah.”
In the face of his take it or leave it attitude, Rialta told herself that he wanted to take it, her, that is, and perhaps rekindle whatever he felt had been missing from their so-called relationship to make him banish her.
Rialta was departing from London on Turkish Airlines, and decided it would be best to pack hastily the morning of. She gathered as many scarves and shawls as she could, fearing, in her naïveté, that she would be singled out for not looking Muslim (the media can have horrible effects on a person’s perception). In point of fact, Rialta could not help but remark inwardly on the irony of visiting Steven in a country that still whole-heartedly believed in marriage, ever after, the whole monogamous gamut–so much that it was ingrained in the culture’s every action. An unmarried man and woman couldn’t even live together without the harsh judgment of their family. Yes, it was a cruel place to have to rendezvous with Steven, but necessity made it so. And with that, she shoved the last floral print scarf into her suitcase and took a gamble on love, the sort of act that Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund in Casablanca was afraid to fully embrace–and if she was, surely all the rest of womankind should be too.
Steven had said he would be there when she exited from her gate at Ataturk. He was not. Twenty minutes passed before Rialta surrendered to panic and asked a flight attendant waiting outside who spoke English if she could use her phone to message Steven. Steven replied that the friend who was supposed to give him a ride hadn’t picked him up yet and that it would probably be another hour before he got there. Rialta sighed with heavy frustration when she responded back that she would take the metro and could he give her the address. Minutes went by without an answer. Before Steven could give her a destination, the flight attendant had to go, leaving Rialta with no information about how to proceed. She had known better than to expect an enthusiastic reaction, but this was even worse than she imagined. While, yes, Steven was somewhat notorious for being lax when it came to timeliness (it was part of his mad genius shtick), he at least usually made a point to warn someone of his lateness and apologize. But this–her having to reach out to him, yet again–was a new and innovative indication of his disinterest. Unsure of where to go, Rialta decided to take a shuttle to Taksim Square where, at least, she could find some adequate Wi-Fi. What she had yet to learn about Istanbul, however, was that its traffic scene made Los Angeles and New York look like free-flowing passageways in comparison. And it was because of this that she got to Taksim roughly two and a half hours later.
She rushed to the nearest cafe, where she ordered a Turkish coffee so as to be able to procure the password that would allow her entrance into the realm of communication, but not into the heart of Steven. When she accessed her messages, Steven had simply written back the address. No “Sorry I couldn’t make it,” no “Looking forward to seeing you.” Should she have loathed him for his aloofness or been thankful that at least he wasn’t putting on a veneer of keenness?
Matters worsened when she discovered his address was located on the part of the Bosphorus that she was not currently near–“the Asian side” of Istanbul, as it were.
The obstacles Steven continued to put between them made her want to cry, go back to the airport and forget that they had ever been together. But she had waited this long, come this far. She knew she would regret it even more if she didn’t see this through. Thus, she calmly informed Steven that she would be there in about another hour after taking the ferry. It was fortunate that she had bought into the advertising of her “lightweight, ergonomic” suitcase from Harrod’s, otherwise her physical pain might have been worse than her emotional.
Although Rialta was born in London, she was not a well-traveled woman. At the age of twenty-six, Istanbul was the farthest she had ever gone. As a teenager, her parents would take her to France or the English countryside, but this was the extent of her horizon expansion. Hence, seeing a city like this, especially from the vantage point of a ferry, was a much needed shock to her consciousness. A simultaneous blend of ancient and modern, Rialta told herself that even if this trip was a complete wash, she could at least take comfort in finally seeing something utterly different from all she had ever known.
As the boat docked at the edge of Kadıköy, the butterflies in Rialta’s stomach began to flutter with much more intensity. She was getting closer to the moment of truth–when, up until this point, she had been trying to sustain the lie that Steven loved her in a way that would permit them to be together forever. Or at least long enough to want a divorce. She disembarked from the ferry and followed the directions she had meticulously taken screen shots of back in Taksim. At last, she reached the alleyway that contained Steven’s apartment. She buzzed number three. There was a resounding silence in return. Just when Rialta was about to leave to find another cafe, there Steven was, opening the door for her.
He took her suitcase and greeted, “Hello Rialta,” as though no time at all had passed between them. He kissed her before she could respond and, in that instant, everything he had done, all the heartache he had caused, was erased. Until he stopped kissing her and said, “You might need to spend the night at a mate of mine’s. My flatmate’s mum showed up out of nowhere–you know the elderly take precedence when it comes to comfort.”
It was then that Rialta stood her ground by practically screaming, “Are you fucking putting me on right now? I’m not going anywhere. The journey alone from the airport was a goddamn pilgrimage.” Steven laughed at her “display,” as he often did when he thought she was being overly “womanly.” He motioned for her to come in. “It’s all right. We’ll figure something out.”
Upon entering the cramped confines of Steven’s apartment, Rialta understood his concern over the presence of two guests. “Where should I put my stuff then?”
He pointed to something that resembled a cubbyhole near the kitchen sink, which was about ten inches from her when she first got into the doorway. “Right, why don’t we go out?”
“I’d love to Rialta, but I have a bit more work to finish up before I can do anything.”
Rialta glared at him.
“But that shouldn’t stop you from going out and exploring on your own.”
Rialta had never felt like a bigger fool. She had made the mistake of believing that Steven could be affected to change by her physical presence, but here he was, more set in his impassive ways than ever. He couldn’t even be bothered to rip off her clothes and make up for three months of lost shagging. But then, Englishmen were not renowned for shows of physical ardor.
Steven stood staring at her, as though defying her to leave, to contradict his will to push her away. But she couldn’t. Instead, she relented, “Fine. Will you meet me at Walter’s later?”
He tittered. “Really? The Breaking Bad coffee shop? That’s where you want to go?”
“Yes. Can you come by in an hour?”
He pursed his lips. “Sure.”
Though one wouldn’t think it to look at her, Rialta was also in the thick of a graduate program for Comparative Literature and had been delaying work on it these past few weeks. Hence, the coffee shop environment was just what she needed to reinvigorate her studiousness. She took out a copy of the book she was basing her thesis on, The Red and the Black, Stendahl’s epic tale of love that was perhaps influencing Rialta’s already skewed (so society said) expectations of how a man should show he cared.
As she got lost in the world of Julien Sorel’s social climb, it occurred to her to check the time. Two hours had lapsed. No sign of Steven. She called him (thanks to the merciful Wi-Fi connection) and waited about five rings before he answered. “I’m leaving now.”
The phone clicked. Rialta, again, was left with the awful feeling of being the tireless chaser, pursuing an object of affection that had turned mythic in that she refused to see who he really was rather than the version she projected. This was precisely what Julien did to Mathilde de la Mole before having the epiphany that she could never love him in the pure way that Mme. de Rênal did. After making this notation, Steven appeared.
“I see that leaving you alone for awhile has done wonders for your productivity.”
Rialta snapped her book shut. “If that’s what you want to tell yourself to justify your rudeness.”
Steven shook his head at her as he sat down. “It’s not rude to put yourself first,” he asserted.
Rialta, pushed to her breaking point, finally mustered the strength to say what she had been wanting to. “I’ve put you first enough for both of us. I came all the way here for you. Can you please show a modicum of appreciation for that instead of trying to cast me out at every turn?”
Steven took a deep breath. “Look, I’ve had a lot of time to think while we’ve been apart and, honestly, I just prefer being alone. It’s not an affront against you. It’s just how I prefer to exist.”
“How can you say that when, if you loved me, you wouldn’t want to be alone?”
Steven chortled. “That’s such a warped statement. It’s like your entire mind is a conglomerate of love songs, romantic novels and films. But the formulas of those entities don’t translate to real life, least of all mine.”
“You don’t want it to translate. We’re good together, can’t you see that?”
“What makes us so good together? What do we even talk about? It’s all gone stale between us.”
“Well both of us have to agree for it to work. And I don’t.”
They spent several more minutes bickering before they decided to get a drink. Over glasses of Efes beer, Rialta’s reserve increasingly wore down to the point where tears were shed, which she hated, because she was already showing too much emotion as it was. But the tears couldn’t be stopped. Not when Steven told her that she needed to dispense with selling him on the notion of a soul mate and not when he said that the fever pitch of his love for her died out approximately two months after they had met at a costume party in the flat of a mutual friend. She came as Nancy, he as Sid–both with the intention of luring someone else in that way. From there, it was a whirlwind. They were inseparable, until, as Steven mentioned, about two months later when his passion tapered off, while hers merely augmented.
Steven, finally taking pity on her puckered face, gently offered, “Wouldn’t it be better to always be in each other’s lives as friends? Don’t you think that would be the happiest of all endings? We don’t have to stay together just to have someone to be sexual with every now and again, you know?”
Rialta took her hand out of his and hung her head in both palms. She was finished arguing, of trying to convince someone impervious not just of the worth of monogamy, but of the worth of herself.
That night, after Steven and Rialta had sex, she booked a flight back to London. She got what she needed rather than wanted, which was for Steven to admit that it was inane for her to hold out hope for their relationship.
She tiptoed out of his apartment the next morning, doing her best not to awaken the mother of Steven’s flatmate as she snored away in her far too revealing nightgown. Rialta didn’t attempt to tell Steven she was leaving, there was no need for gestures like that now. She accepted who he was–not necessarily a cold-hearted person, simply a victim of the new era–an epoch of anti-monogamy, of throwing in the towel and moving on to the next. That’s what Rialta had to do now. Adapt or die.
But Steven must have heard her as she closed the front door behind her. For, as she made her way downstairs and settled into the cab that was waiting at the curb, he watched her while she indulged in one final effusive sob. When she noticed him, he smiled and waved. Pain for pleasure, that is always the trade in monogamy.