Oktay, Heroin, and the Color Purple

Weekly Writing Challenge: Leave Your Shoes at the Door

Nice idea. NOT possible. No one can walk “a mile in another’s shoes” or moccasins as I was raised to say the saying. Still, though it is not possible, it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying. It’s very important to try.

Back in the early ‘90’s (I was in my 40’s) I had a crush on a guy, let’s call him Ali, who didn’t return my feelings. I am not even sure now if I actually DID have a crush on him or if I thought I should. He and I hung out together a lot, but this story isn’t about him, it’s about a friend of his, Oktay.

Ali had invited me for dinner. He had learned to cook (having gotten tired of paying incredible prices for Turkish food) and was making Kefta (meatballs). It was Hallowe’en so I showed up with my face painted like a vampire. When Ali answered the door, he screamed, thinking I was bloodied from being in a car accident.

“You gave me a heart attack,” he said.

“It’s Hallowe’en,” I reminded him.

“You Americans,” was his response. Yes. As he cooked and told me about a girl he was slowly falling in love with (he never rushed into anything; he was a non-impulsive man, a kind of vampire himself, who seemed [to me] to feed off the crashes and emotional highs and lows of his friends.) We ate and talked and I fought a sense of boredom spawned of the futility of the situation. The doorbell rang. Ali answered and a long loud conversation in Turkish ensued. I sat on the sofa and imagined how great it would be to walk into the rainy night and go home, taking the arrival of Ali’s friend as a reason for me to leave. I found my coat, put it on and headed for the door.

“Don’t go!” Ali protested. “You can’t go, this is Oktay. You will like him. You will want to talk all night.”

Oktay was very thin and very tall. He wore black Levis and motorcycle boots; he carried a helmet and he wore a leather jacket. I found him extremely attractive. There was a wild energy.

It turned out that Oktay was a photo-journalist and his assignment had been photos of the border war between the Turks and the Kurds. He told me his life story. He was raised by a single mom, hated school, hardly ever went, one day saw a camera in the window of a store in Istanbul and KNEW he wanted to be a photographer. He put all his energy into learning to take pictures and worked in the shop instead of going to school. After a while he was so good that he became a professional photographer and ended up taking horror photos of the war.

“No one, not even Turks, knows what’s going on there. No one. Babies with arms blown off you cannot imagine, any way, I hope you cannot imagine. And my country? It acts like it’s not really happening. I don’t know what is worse. The war or the lies about the war. But, now I’m here and this,” he gestured wrapping in air all of American culture, “does not seem real. At least that is real.”

I have long wondered why that is. For most of my life I believed that goodness, beauty, comfort, functionality were LESS real than pain, suffering and hopelessness. I believe it was growing up in my family that did this to me, growing up with an increasingly crippled father and a mentally disturbed mom. Something switched in my mind after my brother died, and I now find myself no longer drawn to the painful and sordid, but to anything that is NOT painful or sordid (without being facile or cliché).

So, I understood Oktay. Maybe I hadn’t seen one armed babies , but the darkness of life was part of my experience in ways I didn’t then understand completely.

“Now, I’m here because I have to get off the junk.”


“Heroin. But they don’t know what I have seen. And if they do know, if they have seen, how can they see as I have seen? How do you know if I say purple it is what you see as purple?” He held up his plastic cigarette lighter.

“That’s a stupid dispute,” I said. “We reach a consensus about that and it’s sufficient for us to communicate about the color. We cannot see the world through each others eyes, but we can agree your lighter is purple.”

Oktay laughed. “You are practical person, I see. I need more practical people around me, I think. You don’t take that seriously.”

“No, not that.”

“But no one can know another’s pain, that is what I mean.”

“I can know that you have felt pain. I can know that of everyone. I assume it to be true of everyone. It is my position.”

“You are unusual, then,” he said.

I did not know then that I had been raised by an addict and trained in the service of addiction. I did not know that an addict would be attractive to me because it would be familiar; it would feel like home. But I was drawn to Oktay in a mysterious way and it was mutual.

“You are fascinating woman, you know?” he said. “You are old but you are beautiful.” He was 23.

“Thanks,” I said.

“I would still want you, you know? Even you are old.”

Soon after, I got in my car and drove home. Oktay would soon be on his way to LA to work and later he would call me, tell me he was coming by, but he didn’t. Later, a friend of ours was stopped at customs. There were packets of heroin sewn into the coat she was wearing. Back in Istanbul, Oktay had given it to her as a gift. His plan was to take the heroin out of it later when they met up sometime. He failed completely at rehab, and his paper brought him back to Turkey. He lived a year longer before dying of an overdose.

Though we met only one time, Oktay turned out to be an important person in my life. As I learned more about my own family, struggled to save my brother from his addiction, faced the reality of my mother’s addiction, and saw my role in these family dramas I understood something about myself because of my strong, seemingly mystical, connection to Oktay.

He was right, perhaps, that we cannot know anothers pain. Perhaps he knew (but I doubt it) that we cannot save them from it, either.

Lion in an Iron Cage
Nazim Hikmet

Look at the lion in the iron cage,
look deep into his eyes:
like two naked steel daggers
they sparkle with anger.
But he never loses his dignity
although his anger
comes and goes
goes and comes.

You couldn’t find a place for a collar
round his thick, furry mane.
Although the scars of a whip
still burn on his yellow back
his long legs
stretch and end
in the shape of two copper claws.
The hairs on his mane rise one by one
around his proud head.

His hatred
comes and goes
goes and comes …
The shadow of my brother on the wall of the dungeon
up and down
up and down. (1928)



13 thoughts on “Oktay, Heroin, and the Color Purple

  1. I slipped right into this story and had to shake myself out of it… gosh, I love it when that happens. 😀 We can’t someone from their pain– so true, but I wonder if it matters so much that we can’t know it. Sometimes, most of the time, trying to know seems to be enough. Thanks for making me go all pensive, and thanks for participating in the challenge this week! 😀

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