I could see myself in the reflection of his sunglasses as he walked down the aisle towards the back of the bus, towards us. Michelle slept a contortionist’s sleep, one leg bent up on the seat and the other hooked below. Somewhere during the night the chaos of Istanbul vanished, lost beneath a tide of traffic and salt-water air and swirls of rich tobacco smoke. A car had burst into flames on the outbound freeway and instead of putting it out or continuing by we all parked and watched the brilliant orange lap wildly at the cooling blackness of the Anatolian night.
He lit up and the clicking of his polished shoes rose above the idling bus, keeping sync with the seconds of the new day. From one seat to the next, as the sun rose and the bus’s shadow stretched way out onto the warming plain, he inspected the tickets of the early morning riders who had just boarded.
Their eyes had gazed into ours sympathetically, knowing the route we’d begun 16 hours ago; one that began in the anarchic expressionism of 14 million. In a city where only two bridges can cast you out, millions park on a freeway simply to observe the time go by.
He exhaled and the smoke wafted through the hazy air of the bus and the sun grabbed it and played beautifully. Soon all of Istanbul’s eccentricities became memories, remembered as dreams are remembered, but my blood sugars seemed to hold on to the cities peculiarities.
Perhaps it was the truck stops. Vibrantly glowing oases of red and green and silver neon, painted every few hundred kilometers on the side of the highway. My cramped body, my painfully tingling toes, my restless legs anticipating the ten minutes of refuge, warming to the thoughts of stretching and moving.
Perhaps it was as it is with Pavlov’s Law; my taste buds swelling, my olfactory memory playing tricks, creating scents of the poppy seed candies and baklava I had purchased at the other dream infused stops so many kilometers ago. Perhaps there is nothing peculiar about eating junk and sitting for hours and having your blood sugar rise and rise and rise and then, feeling ill, dousing yourself with insulin only to drop too fast so that you are forced to place one of those delicious, golden candies onto your tongue and let the hardness dissolve into a sweet gel.
It was like this; my blood sugar in full pendulum, as I watched the long, tan fingers tufted with hair reach out and grab the passes that jutted from the little metal slits above each seat. Click. Click. Click. I heard his approaching shoes as I reached down for my bag of supplies; a slew of syringes and test strip bottles, a letter from the Multnomah County Health Department, another from the OHSU Endocrinology Clinic, used test strips, extra lancets, vials, everything loose and hectic. I drew out 10 units, enough to keep me healthy, enough to bring me down and react with the candies.
Maybe I was too hunched. Maybe I was acting too sneaky. I tended to be shifty when I injected in foreign countries (from Africa, to Europe, to Central America, places you don’t want to be accused of using or transporting drugs, I have always hunched and looked over my shoulder before injecting). Then the clicking of his steps stopped. A speck of grey ash slowly floated down and settled on to the neatly shined shoes; that amazingly sweet smell of Turkish tobacco filled the air.
“You can’t do that on here!” That was the limit of his English. The rest was in Turkish, but he explained with his expressions and resonance and by pointing to my syringe and leaning closer and saying again, “You can’t do that on here!” Is there an international sign for diabetic? Some sort of hand gesture? But, what good would it be? I mean, how could I sign with one hand pinching my stomach and the other injecting the drug?
My face bloomed in his glasses as he bent towards me. Blood shot eyes, bags beneath, my oily skin…for him, these were sure signs of a junkie. No matter the smoke filled bus, or the hours of sleeplessness, or the foot wide seats. No matter the erratic blood sugars. He had caught me.
Here, with all the other passengers looking on, with Michelle startled awake and uncertain to what was happening, I had to explain my disease to him. I needed to somehow get across genetics and gene mutation and science and drug usage in a few words.
“I’m sick,” I said and it sounded absurd. “Sick,” but not sick. Somewhere down the line, on my mother’s side, evolution occurred. Sometimes it’s not for the best.
“Di-a-bet-ic,” I said, sounding out the word as if he could understand English if it were spoken slowly, as if I could understand Turkish if he would just sit down and say, “Türkçe biliyor musunuz?”
But “di-a-bet-ic” is a foreign word to most, drastically simplified with sentences like, “oh, you just have to watch what you eat.” I grabbed my medical note, my permission slip for diabetes, and held it up. It explained nothing.
Outside, the soft, grassy plain stretched golden brown beneath the faded denim sky. In the distance, in every direction, mountains rose like teeth, forming a long, sea-less archipelago. How many millennia cycled by to create this? How much ice, thickening and fading and then thickening again, flowed between each mountain top island, isolating species to create this landscape’s unique evolution? Plant endemism. Human uniqueness. Individuals. The idling bus coughed and a plume of exhaust ribboned through a group of fig trees that bordered the terminal.
A man picked at the fruit and rolled it around in his hand. Fig mosaic disease, it prevails throughout Turkey, an endemic characteristic that has evolved in this region. You must spray the trees infected with it—treat them in order for them to become healthy. That’s all. Similarly, somewhere along the chaos of my genetic lineage, changes occurred that have become uniquely mine, changes that need mending, and I must take shots in order to hold everything together. That’s some of it.
“Seker hastası,” an elderly lady sitting across from us said. The man turned to her for a moment and they spoke. A beautifully intricate headscarf wove around her head, its smooth lines contrasted with the deep etched wrinkles of her face. She smiled toothlessly and nodded to the man who then turned back to me. “Sorry,” he said. “Sick.” That’s all. Then, he continued down the aisle, reaching out and checking each passenger’s ticket stub. Up front, the driver closed the door and slowly began to pull back out onto the highway.
I looked out the window and saw the mountains that kept watch over Antalya and Geyikbayiri. We would arrive soon to the climber’s camp that was settled in these mountains, nestled beneath towering limestone walls where tufas crawled upwards like enormous serpents. Michelle turned to me wide eyed and I shrugged my shoulders. “Seker hastası,” I said, smiling.
Later I found out it means, “having diabetes,” and at times it is chaotic. But it’s manageable. I’m adaptable. I bent down to my bag and pulled out a small plastic pouch. As I unrolled the top and the sweet aroma of candied poppy seeds engulfed me. Closing my eyes, I placed the last candy on my tongue and let everything melt away.