There’s nothing to being a man but flying. Alex and his friends were in Cappadocia to fly in the hot air balloons; most of his friends were cooks turned travel bloggers.
Everyone was a travel blogger now. And somehow they see themselves as men? Alexander the Great would never have filmed himself conquering Persia and could you imagine Hemingway making a vlog of himself in Paris?
Maybe I’m just making excuses, Alex thought. Alex, himself a chef, had a crippling fear of heights.
No, it wasn’t heights he was afraid of; it was the lack of safety. If he were somewhere up high surrounded by a high wall, he wouldn’t mind. But he refused to go up the Eiffel Tower and the spires of the Sagrada Familia because of the lack of secure barriers. He felt dizzy just thinking about it.
His friends often teased him about it. But in truth, they needed him; thanks to him all their escapades felt that much more macho.
“Of course you don’t feel safe, that’s the whole point! You can’t put a condom on everything, mate.”
It’s alright, Alex would think, of all of us here, I’m the only one who ever ran with bulls, so I’m secure in my manliness.
Running with bulls, Eiffel Tower, Sagrada Familia; maybe it wasn’t heights that made Alex feel insecure? It was the stream of his own life.
He’d never thought about that before until he drank coffee on the terrace of his hotel in Cappadocia as the sun gently dipped beneath the peaceful horizon.
Looking out on the fairytale landscape of white buildings, their facades radiating a gentle timber of orange light he awed at the diffused, blue-black plains.
Alex and his friends were staying in one of the cave suites. For the few days they’d lived there they felt like living in another era. For his blogger friends, that tagline was enough. But the ghosts of that other era played on Alex’s mind.
Today we are here, and most people come here, for adventure, Alex thought. But the people who lived in the safety of these caves lived a secure life of safe routine. And now, that was the only thing Alex could think of: security and beauty.
Night fell and the stars began pupating into life above him. His friends went to bed, excited about the next day’s balloon ride. They left Alex with an air of smug superiority. We’re men and you’re not. Tomorrow we fly like gods whilst you linger on in the safety of the earth.
When they left a waitress came to clear their glasses. Alex saw her and caught his breath.
With his friends around, he hadn’t noticed her. But now, just like the stars that wait for the sun to set before they feel comfortable revealing their beauty, she glided around him with a pale, youthful elegance.
She was a fair-skinned Turkish girl with jet-black hair, a healthy thin face and big grey eyes. She must have been nineteen or twenty-years-old.
“Would you like something else?” She asked him in a light Turkish accent. Alex still couldn’t get used to the accent’s rarity.
Alex replied in a whisper. “Do you have some Raki?” He asked with a sly smile.
She laughed with surprising candour. “Sure, sure.” She winked at him and disappeared inside.
With a renewed serenity Alex turned his sights on the horizon. This really is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen, he thought. I don’t know for sure – who can? – if there is a heaven, but if there is, I know it would be jealous of Cappadocia.
In the street below he saw pink flowers on the facades of buildings closing up for the night. What kind of agreement did stars and flowers have, as if they were taking turns for bearing the torch of beauty, day and night.
When the waitress arrived with the Raki, Alex bravely said, “what time do you finish your shift, if I may ask?”
“Why don’t you get some Raki for yourself and join me? I’d love to get to know more about Cappadocia from a local.” He said as a quick after-thought.
“I’m not much of a guide.”
“You live here, don’t you?”
Alex smiled in reply.
Around fifteen minutes later, the waitress, whose name was Elif, pulled up a chair next to Alex. She poured herself some Raki and they raised a toast to nothing and everything.
“So, Mr. Tourist, what do you want to know?”
“Well, first thing, have you ever been on the hot air balloon?”
“No!” She laughed her unreserved laugh, consciously covering her mouth.
“I don’t know, I just don’t want to see my home from above. It can’t be as beautiful as this, can it?”
“You’re afraid of being disappointed?”
“Yes! Maybe I will do it one day, when I’m old.”
“The fantasy is more attractive than the actual thing.”
“Something like that.”
She took a delicate sip of Raki.
“Are you going, tomorrow?” She asked.
“No. I’d rather stay here, safe.”
“The balloons are safe.”
“Flying is never safe.”
“But it’s beautiful, no?”
“More beautiful than this?”
She smiled sweetly. “Maybe not.”
Alex and Elif went for a walk around the town. The white, breezy streets were deathly and luminous all at once. Mosquitoes hung in the heavy air. The cobblestones amplified their footsteps and the sound rose to the naked stars.
They talked about their lives and their past. Alex, the wayfarer, was thirty-two, had never been in a serious relationship – not because he didn’t want to, he just preferred to be alone – whilst Elif had only ever lived in Cappadocia, with her parents, and dreamed of one day marrying a man who would take her away from her hometown.
The two were on different paths. At no point was their talk flirtatious or loaded. But their night walk was the most Romantic thing either of them had ever done.
By dawn, they had returned to the café. Elif started putting the chairs down and opening up. Alex began helping her but she insisted he sat down. She got him coffee and went inside to start cleaning.
He drank his coffee and watched as the sun banished the stars and bathed the horizon with its carpet of crimson hues.
A strange, cool peace fell over Alex. He always felt that way whenever he watched the sunrise in foreign countries. But this time, something was different. He didn’t just feel the glow of a traveller; he felt something like belonging.
I never want to leave this place, Alex found himself thinking. Not just Cappadocia, but this café, Elif, this landscape.
He remembered when, as a child, he would ‘emigrate’ to the corridor between his bedroom and his parents. He would lock himself in that tiny, windowless room, take sheets, toys, food and drink and once settled say to himself, ‘this is where I belong’.
And when once he began going out with a girl in his teens and she suggested they go abroad together, he panicked and made the excuse that his grandfather had died. He hadn’t. And soon after he claimed his grandfather’s death had gotten him to rethink his priorities. And being in a relationship wasn’t one of them.
Back then, he was lying about his grandfather, but he was also being profoundly truthful. Alex valued freedom and solitude above all else. But he just never found the right place for it.
One can’t be freely alone in a small city; that’s something drunks did. Nor can one be freely alone somewhere in the countryside; that’s something old people in tweed did.
But I can be truly free and alone in Cappadocia, he thought fiercely! And Elif, well, she’s just as beautiful as this sunrise. But if I get too close, will I burn? I don’t want to burn here.
His friends came to see him in the café before they went for the balloon ride.
“One last chance to change your mind, you sissy.” They said jokingly.
Alex calmly shook his head.
“It’s alright, we’ll send you a selfie while we’re up there. Wish you were here.”
Alex smiled, reluctant to speak.
As they left he stayed on in the café and Elif joined him for some Raki during her break. It was a warm early afternoon. The sun felt oppressive, but still a gentle breeze occasionally blew as if from nowhere. The jagged landscape was arid and dry, nothing like the cool, glowering nightscape.
Soon after the sky filled with what looked like thousands of balloons. They all soared into the sky, in perfect symmetry, like new stars rising to take their seat in the heavens.
It was the most beautiful sight Alex had ever seen. Without him knowing it, he placed his hand on Elif’s.
She didn’t remove his hand. She didn’t pull hers away either.
Elif must have seen that sight an endless number of times in her lifetime. But the young woman yearned for beauty.
The sky was now blanketed by the colours of the balloons. Their faint flames flickered in the wind and their slow movements were as graceful as a ballet dancer’s.
Alex was mesmerised. “I’m sure,” he said to Elif. “It’s far more beautiful to watch the balloons from down here than from the balloons themselves.”
“I think,” she said moving her hand comfortably under his. “The most beautiful thing is the thing you’re doing at the time, no?”
“I think you’re right.” He turned to look at her and he smiled as if he was kissing her. He ran his thumb along her hand.
Then he got a call on his mobile and he had to let go of Elif’s hand. He answered and heard his friend’s voice shouting over the wind.
“Alex, you son-of-a-bitch, this is better than sex!”
Alex smiled and nodded. He didn’t know what to say.
“I don’t know about that.” He said and gently turned towards Elif, who was politely looking away, not wishing to intrude on his phone call.
“You have to do this, man! I feel like – shit!”
“Oh my God, Alex, look!”
Alex turned his gaze towards the balloons and saw one of them crash into its neighbour. As slow as the balloons rose, the two fell like shooting stars; as soon as they hit the ground a pillar of fire erupted into the sky.
As the balloons fell silently, Alex could hear his friends screaming on his phone. Their screeches were those of the dying; louder than any noise on earth. Tom screamed oh my God over and over again, Matthew wept I don’t want to die, and Juan screamed this can’t be happening.
Alex leaned over, his head touching his knees, his body shaking all over. Elif rubbed his shoulder. When he stood back up, she offered him Raki. He took a sip, his hand struggling to hold the glass.
“You want to go over there?”
“He was going to say.” Alex said in a low voice.
“He, was going, to say. I feel like Icarus.”
Suddenly, inexplicably, Alex erupted into laughter. His body shook with laughter now rather than horror. The flames from his friends’ balloon was still billowing skywards, and Alex was laughing.
Elif didn’t know what to do. She knew this was how some people react in shock. She remembered the story her father used to tell her, how, when he was young, and he walked in on his dead grandfather who had just died of a heart-attack, he burst out laughing. So maybe it’s normal in men.
But it didn’t feel normal for Alex. He wanted to stop but he couldn’t. It was hurting his sides. His vision was clouded by tears. Tears of joy. Tears of joy?
He was going to say, I feel like Icarus. The irony was unbearable. You can’t make that shit up, Alex thought still crippled by the unceasing waves of laughter.
And yet, hell, what did he expect? Alex thought. Icarus, full of the eagerness of youth, wasn’t content merely with flying; he had to rise as close to the sun as he can. So did his friends. And they both burned.
Why didn’t they just stay here, with me, drinking Raki, watching the changing colours of the landscape as the day aged, withered and was reborn.
I don’t want to touch the sun, I just want to gaze upon it, safely, down here, under the canopy of beauty.
“I think it’s passing. I’m sorry, you must think I’m horrible.”
“No, no, it’s normal, I, I think.”
“I’m going over.”
“Can you have some Raki ready for me, please?”
“I want to watch the sunset with you again.”
“I’m going to have to inform their family. It’s going to be a long night.”
“Do you need me to do anything?”
“Just don’t go away. I want tonight to be just like last night. I want every night to be like last night.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I want to live the rest of my life by the lights of Cappadocia.”
“If I don’t, I’ll burn.”