blessings in translation

Anyone who has ever attempted to mold a sentence in a foreign language knows that talk is not cheap. Each clause is stitched together with effort. A blessing like that honeymoon benediction is a truly careful gift. It seems unjust that it is wasted on the roving Abbot-and-Costello act of Evan and me.

We have been treating the customers of the Hagia Sophia Museum shop to the Vaudevillian slapstick ménage a deux that is our friendship. The act, as always, consists of the latest round of inside jokes, swiftly ratcheting up their speed as they accumulate throughout the days, doubled back on each other, stacked up, strung together, mixed in with old standards. Its intended audience are its participants: entertaining the forced witnesses in the vicinity is of secondary—if not tertiary—concern.

The partnership whose material concerns are usually food, bonhomie, and wit probably looks more marital as, this week, it has consisted of: 1/ Evan speaking for me l(I know!) because I am mostly helpless in Turkish—as a visit to the ladies’ side of a Turkish bath quickly proved; 2/ carrying one backpack between us each day to reduce overall amounts of back sweat per person; and 3/ generally not leaving each other’s sides unless designated meet-up spots were judiciously set, due to then aforementioned Turkish helplessness and no cellphone coverage/my cellphone broke within the first hour, carrying on a six-year strong tradition of my cellphones mixing with overseas travel like oil and water.

So it’s not surprising that the museum employee mistook our shenanigans for marriage. Most good friendships probably can be mistaken for marriage rather than romance. Because what is more foundational to a life than holding a mock-dialogue together in your best fifty-year-old-chainsmoker voices while storing your joint possessions in one backpack? It’s the foundation of all intimacy, I’ll tell you that much for free.

We laughed in response to the man’s words: both a polite and universally comprehensible response, and one that could easily be interpreted as continued laughter of shy newlyweds, but also served as a vent for our own responses to his words. I was slightly embarrassed. Not so much for being mistaken for a couple—although of course first: the seeing of a particular brand of intimacy where it is not always summons up the ghosts of one’s embarrassed eighth-grade self.

Eighth grade is such a fraught season of storms, as you, each day, nearly drown in the sea of erotic energy newly discovered in the world. Once sex is revealed as the plane of adult erotic desire, once you discover the symbolism you had been missing as a child, the world, for a few years, becomes less transparent and wildly confusing. For several years, sex becomes the chief plane of interpretation. I suppose this is what adolescence is. Extended adolescence means you haven’t yet put this plane of meaning into perspective. Everything is interpreted as an erotic moment at age thirteen, because everything might be and you’re not at all sure what is and able to discern for yourself what isn’t. Being new to adult eroticism, adolescents have yet to discover what it is and what it isn’t. So, even in the deeply rational twilight of our late twenties, the “hey you two like each other don’t you?” playground call still resonates on a primal level.

And, second, naming has a real power. Reality bends itself to naming. When a friend says: “You seem mad at me,” they’ve suddenly made it impossible for you to say: “No, I was just sitting here forgetting to listen to you and thinking about if there was enough money in my checking account to pay my ConEd bill.” Because, well, once you (as in, Chatty Cathy from the above example) expose the fragile thread of reality that is your own personal experience and perspective, then you and your compatriots in that reality sort of have to acknowledge it as such. It’s now a real part of the narrative, even if one that you (ConEd Contemplative) are not directly responsible for creating.

So when someone calls you a happy couple, do you not in some sense now react against that name?: the referent that has no reference in reality somehow shapes reality. It seems to me to be so, but maybe I am too positive about the power of words.

But, ultimately, what I felt, I think, was not embarrassment about either of those moments. I felt sort of stunned, guilty, as though we had jointly covered ourselves in Esau’s hair, and conned a blessing that wasn’t ours to take. How could we receive something so beautiful that wasn’t meant for us? In a chaotic world, words that possess such palpable weight of meaning like those from this man cannot be left hanging. You can’t pull your hands away once someone begins to offer gold you never meant to receive.

Some comments are not worth holding, there’s not really anything there. You laugh off the mistake of categories. It’s nothing more than a charming faux pas of a member of a culture poorly-versed in the time-honored tradition of symbiotic affection between gay men and straight women. This wasn’t that. There was something in his benediction, in that blessing going-forth, that was ours. It was meant for us, even if it’s delivery was lost in translation. Even if the titular nomenclature was flawed, it was actually a true, real response to the tilt-a-whirl of banter and laughter, discovery and disclosure, disagreement and interruption that was us. It was meant for the mutual life present in the gift shop of the two friends making the twelfth variation of the same joke for the twentieth time before breakfast and still finding it unfailingly hilarious.

His words walked around inside me all day. What an affirmation of the goodness of the enterprise of travel, of the luxury of a vacation halfway across the world. Keep this happiness for the rest of your lives—the happiness that looks at the lover, the friend, and the city with the responsible, tender care of the mother for the child. The love that chalks up grouchy silence to lack of sleep, that recognizes one’s own displeasure as stress and sweat, that remembers the love is primary, even when other concerns appear on the immediate horizon. The happiness that comes from pursuing a project together, climbing a mountain, or tackling a travel itinerary, but delights most in the shared routines and rituals of humor and affection created along the way.

Keep this happiness—the happiness of a good vacation, the happiness of tender care, the happiness of two or three gathered in one name—with you for the rest of your lives.

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