La Familia

Luke Dumas

USA

 

Even before Andres asked if he could use my bed to have sex with a Turkish woman, I had the feeling our friendship was headed down a tenuous path.

“Come on, man, pleeease,” he begged, as we rode the ski lift up the mountain.

I deflected, hoping eventually he would just stop asking. “Do you even like her?”

“What the fuck, man. Who cares about that?”

 “It just seems fast.”

“We’re only in Turkey five days. Of course it’s fast. What the fuck.”

“Please, man,” he said, when I still wouldn’t budge. “Just gimme thirty minutes. La familia!

I shot him a look out of the corner of my eye, daring him to say it again.

*****

They had not even invited me to join them on the trip—not really. In fact, it was only by accident I had found out they were going. 

It was November 2012, and one of those rare nights when the four of us came together for dinner. We sat around the kitchen table in our sterile university flat in Edinburgh, Scotland, where the four of us were graduate students pursuing master’s degrees in different fields. The wind howled outside the window as we ate: me, a prepackaged sandwich from the Tesco Express below our flat; them, a shared meal of pesto chicken pasta. Curtis, Emir, and Andres bought their groceries together each week. Cooked together, too. Every evening around this time they could be heard laughing and drinking and catching each other up on their days. For a few minutes our freezing flat sweltered with the warmth of their banquet, beckoning me—usually unsuccessfully—out of the solitude of my bedroom. Today, I hadn’t been able to resist.

Quietly I ate as they sat around me, practically shouting in their excitement. Sketching out the fine details of their vacation plans like the blueprints of a house built for three.

“Where are you guys going?” I interjected.

They looked at me as if having just realized I was there.

As it happened, Emir had invited Curtis and Andres to spend a week at his family home in Istanbul. A destination I could care less about, frankly, and yet it chafed me, having been so actively excluded. 

Not that it came as a surprise. I had always been the odd one out in our group. The gay one. The “serious” one. The one who disapproved of everything. The one who made a big deal about the fist-shaped hole in the hallway wall, and who balked when Curtis said things like, “I don’t care how drunk I am, I would never fuck a fat chick.” Of course they hadn’t invited me, like all the times they had gone out without asking if I wanted to come. All the times they had filled our flat with strangers and cheap booze while I sat reading in my room, exiled by my own social anxiety and the feeling that I wasn’t missed.

At 27 years old, Emir was the bearded papa bear of the group, and the most attentive to the tiny swings of emotion that were my primary form of communication. He must have clocked my expression because he said, “Luke, you want to come?”

The room fell silent.

“I mean . . . yeah,” I said. “If you want me to.”

My flatmates consulted each other with darting, crisscrossing eyes.

Finally Curtis spoke, his voice uncertain but his head bobbing. “Yeah. Okay. Cool.”

“Fuck yeah, man,” said Andres. “La familia!”

*****

There really is nothing like travelling overseas, particularly as an American, to make you realize what an ignorant asshole you are. Perhaps the biggest reason I’d never wanted to visit Istanbul before was because, before touching down at Ataturk Airport, the city existed in my head as a primitive, desert market town filled with pickpockets and camels—a sort of real-life version of Agrabah from Disney’s Aladdin. However, the Istanbul I found waiting for me outside the terminal was a vibrant, modern city, thronging with cars and nightlife and culture. Charming ramshackle houses sat piled atop hills overlooking the Bosphorus, the wide central river that separates the Asian and European sides of the city. In Emir’s hatchback, we weaved through narrow streets lined with shops and fast-food restaurants, as a minaret suffused the city with the rhythmic cadences of the Call to Prayer and stray dogs ran wild in the falling snow.

We arrived at our temporary home, a small, one-bedroom apartment above Emir’s parents’ house. With Emir staying downstairs, two of us would have to share a pull-out in the living room. But what the apartment lacked in size, it made up for with its expansive view of the Bosphorus Bridge. It was like the river was wrapping its arms around the whole neighborhood. Standing at the edge of the terrace in the cold January air, I couldn’t believe where I was. I almost felt proud of myself, knowing how easy it would have been not to open my mouth that night around the dinner table. To watch this opportunity pass me by, like I had so many others. How many times had I found myself standing at the edge of a group looking in, too afraid to jump in, only to become bitter and hurt when I wasn’t missed, when they became a family and I still felt like a stranger.

La familia: that was Andres’ name for our group—or more often, the three of them. Even now, I wondered if I was really one of them.

Before long, it became necessary to discuss the sleeping arrangements. “I’ll take the bedroom since I need to Skype Sarah in the morning,” Curtis announced. He said it like he was doing the rest of us a favor, then carried his stuff into the bedroom with no further discussion.

Both being from Southern California, Curtis and I had the most in common, and yet we were perhaps the least alike. An international relations student from Lake Arrowhead, Curtis met the brief of an entitled, materialistic American as if he had been written as a walk-on character in a daytime British soap opera. He talked constantly about money—how much he deserved to earn out of grad school, how much he needed to make by age 30—and an ex-girlfriend who had cheated on him despite being only “kind of hot,” an injury which seemed to have left a deep emotional scar.

“Hey, Curtis,” I called after him, laboring to keep my tone conversational. “Can we talk about the sleeping arrangements for a second?”

“Uh—okay,” he said, with a whiff of confusion, as if the matter had already been fully discussed.

“I know Skyping Sarah is important to you, but I’m sure we’d all like to have a private room, and I don’t think because you have a girlfriend you’re just automatically entitled to it.”

“Are you serious?” he said.

Before I could answer, Andres appeared at my side. “Yes, we’re serious!” he exploded. “You can’t just take it without asking. It doesn’t just belong to you.”

“I was being considerate. I need to Skype Sarah at six in the morning and I offered to take the room so I didn’t wake everyone up.”

When Andres pointed out that Curtis didn’t “need” to Skype his girlfriend every morning and evening of our trip, Curtis recoiled with a little twitch of his head, as if his self-entitlement had finally short-circuited. “You know what, just take the room. I don’t fucking care.” He grabbed his stuff out of the bedroom, threw it on the floor, and stormed out onto the terrace.

I thanked Andres for his support, and he said, “Of course, man. Curtis is an asshole.”

It was hard to imagine that back home in Panama, with just a bachelor’s degree, Andres was a fully qualified and practicing lawyer. Our roles would almost have made more sense in reverse: me an incisive, no-nonsense law student, him a laid-back, free-spirited creative. Whereas I pursued a boyfriend with laser focus and a rigorous dedication to research, Andres was a natural romantic. He had already fallen in love with two girls since moving to Scotland, including a stripper named Molly whose flirtations from the stage, he had avowed, were more than just showmanship. It wasn’t hard to sit up with him half the night, swapping stories, complaining about Curtis, never once feeling like I didn’t fit in.

“So about the room—”

“You take it, man,” Andres said, with an approving pat on my shoulder. It sent an unexpected tingle through my body, followed by a familiar pang of disappointment.

*****

That night, Emir took us to a trendy bar by the water to meet a few of his friends, including one he had been telling Andres about all day.

“What does she look like?”

“She cute. Very cute.”

“What’s her name, man?”

“Yara. You’ll like her.”

Emir’s friends were waiting for us when we got there, half a dozen attractive twenty-somethings dressed for the club. They shook my hand and pelted me with introductions: Halim. Ekrem. Ipek. A volley of beautiful syllables that ran together in my mind almost at once. One of them was speaking to me, her English not so good. I strained to understand. “Sorry?” I shouted, that familiar cold panic growing in my chest. “Sorry, say that again?” Where was Andres? He said he wouldn’t leave me: the way he had my back confronting Curtis was as good as a promise. But he was busy across the room, talking to her.

Neither the prettiest girl there nor the best dressed: just a tiny little thing with streaky hair and a squeaky laugh. But who cared, right? As long as she was keen. What did I matter compared to a fuck?

*****

The next morning, I found it impossible to stay mad as we embarked on a whirlwind tour of the most incredible sights and experiences. Ten-dollar feasts of doner and bread capped off with steaming pots of Turkish tea. Grand bazaars filled with endless spices, sweets, and decorative tat. We met the ferry as it landed at Karakoy Pier, standing back as the locals leapt off the still-moving boat onto the dock to get a head start on their commute. Felt the icy spray of the Bosphorus against our faces as we traversed the river, a flock of seagulls wheeling and screeching in our wake. Even battled a blizzard to bask in the splendor of the city’s ancient mosques, and stopped for roadside cups of salep, a traditional hot drink of milk and cinnamon.

But the more connected I became to this place, the more I felt myself disconnecting from the others. An invisible wall had gone up between us. A subtle splitting of the group along the lines of my reserve. They made plans to visit a spa in Taksim Square, and I came up with an excuse to stay home. Nights were filled with outings to bars and clubs with yet more of Emir’s friends, a constant influx of strangers; I let them go without me, knowing my discomfort would be a burden to them, a burden they would not even attempt to bear. Was it just me or was Andres barely speaking to me? All he seemed to care about was Yara, texting her when she wasn’t around, cozying up to her when she was. He would say something to make her laugh, and I would wonder if they were talking about me. 

The one comfort I had was that tiny bedroom at the back of the apartment, that place all my own I could retreat to when the world was too crowded and my emotions were too much. Somehow, I felt less alone there than in a room full of people.

*****

Soon it was the last morning of our trip. We piled into Emir’s car once again and set off into the Anatolian countryside. There was a buzz of excitement, even from me. After two hours’ drive, we entered a small village, Emir helped us rent our gear—skis, poles, snow pants, and jackets—and we boarded a bus heading up Kartepe Mountain, a staggering monolith of white slopes and frosted trees.

It was a crisp, bright morning. The snow plush and dry, a welcome cushion for my inexperience. After half an hour of handholding, Emir and Curtis, who were seasoned skiers, went up the mountain, leaving Andres and me to get our snow legs on the beginner slopes. Unlike Andres, who took to the ice like a baby giraffe, I found I had a natural talent for it. After more than a dozen runs, I was wearied and jovial and high on the thin mountain air as we boarded the ski lift and rode it back up the mountain. Perhaps Andres was banking on this.

“I need a favor, man,” he said.

*****

It was dark by the time we got back to the house, and almost immediately Yara and a few other girls showed up. I was exhausted from the day’s exertions, and we had to be up at five the next morning to catch our flight back to the UK, and once again I floundered in a sea of unfamiliar faces. Andres hadn’t even looked at me all night.

And he wanted me to give up my room for her?

Something inside me finally broke: when no one was looking I slipped into the bedroom and shut the door. I read in bed, but it was hard to focus on the words. My nervous energy kept me awake, kept me listening to what was happening outside the bedroom door. But the intrusion I was half expecting never came. Around midnight I heard the girls leave, and the apartment went dark.

*****

Andres did not speak to me the entire trip home. This I could accept. He would be mad for a day or two and then it would all blow over.

But it didn’t blow over. Four days later, he still wanted nothing to do with me. He moved around me like a piece of furniture. If I asked how his day was, he’d drop a “Fine” on the floor and leave. It began to tear away at me. I felt so isolated, I actually confided in Curtis, who confirmed that Andres was really pissed. “Wouldn’t you be?” he said.

“I never would have asked him to give up his room.”

If the roles were reversed, I thought, maybe I wouldn’t have needed to.

One day I was eating my lunch at the kitchen table when Andres walked in, without even the faintest acknowledgement I was there.

The words were out of my mouth before I even knew they were coming.

“Are you gonna talk to me?”

“No,” he said.

“How can you still be this mad?”

Just as Andres had exploded on Curtis that day in Istanbul, now he unleashed his anger on me. “What do you mean how can I be mad? You act like an asshole. I told you I wanted the room to be with Yara, and you just went to bed. You fucked me.”

“You barely knew her,” I said, as if that mattered.

“I liked her, man. I really liked her, and now I don’t have another chance. We didn’t even want you to come with us, Luke, and this is why. You act like you’re not one of us. You’re not la familia.”

His words stung. The instinct to hit back was overwhelming.

“Why should I give up my bed just so you can go fuck in the corner like dogs?”

The insult landed with a resounding silence. Andres said nothing, just walked out.

*****

A week later, we were still not speaking. The longer it went on, the guiltier I felt—not just about what I’d said, but also about not giving him the room. If I was honest, I had known he had real feelings for Yara. And for all the good reasons I’d had to say no, there was no denying I’d been equally motivated by a couple selfish ones.

I wanted to apologize, but something stopped me.

I was afraid to say sorry, just like I had always been afraid. Afraid to come out of my room and join the party. To ask if I could tag along for drinks. To go all in on a once-in-a-lifetime Turkish adventure, trusting these guys I called friends had my back. I was afraid to expose the most vulnerable part of me—the part that just wanted to be wanted.

But I didn’t want to be afraid anymore.

The next time I heard Andres in the kitchen, I walked in. “Andres, can we talk?”

He waited for me to go on.

“I’m sorry about what I said the other day. And what I did in Istanbul. I should have just given you the room. It was selfish of me.”

His expression was impassive for a moment. Then he nodded. “Okay.”

“Okay?”

He shrugged. “You were an asshole but if you’re sorry, it’s okay. That’s la familia, man. We fight but we get over it.”

It was like releasing a breath I had been holding for weeks. I smiled. “La familia.”

Luke Dumas is a Contributor at Panorama.

Luke Dumas is the author of the novel A History of Fear, forthcoming from Atria Books in December 2022. Born and raised in San Diego, California, Luke received his master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Edinburgh. His work has appeared in Hobart, Last Exit, and the queer anthology The Whole Alphabet: The Light and the Dark.