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Mustafa’s Letters

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He was laid to rest in the crowded little graveyard adjacent to the small Anglican church on the fringes of the Kyrenia Harbor in Cyprus. My mother had shown no interest in interring him in the States—or even in attending the burial ceremonial in Cyprus. But I thought that, in any event, this was a fitting place for him to be buried. This was where he belonged. He had taken his stand here and lived the last decade of his life here. I just wished I had been part of that last decade. Of course, that was as much my fault as it was his.

There was nothing simple about being the son of the novelist Malcolm Stephenson, who simultaneously was the most reclusive of men and the most revealed of men. Ten years ago I was living here too. And then my father made his decision of the life he wished to live openly, and my mother and her children were suddenly on a plane to New York, never to return again.

The world had been forgiving of my father—or, more likely, had embraced his notoriety—and his novels had skyrocketed in popularity thereafter. I never quite understood why, because this was when he entered his melancholy period, a period in which he was incapable of ending a novel with any sense of satisfaction or resolution—at least as far as I could see. It’s as if my father was more popular for not being able to gain happiness and stability in life—and, of course, for his lifestyle.

There were only four other people at the funeral service other than me. The rector of the church was wearing a confused look, not quite able to know what to say about my father’s life. My father was a renowned novelist, with an international following, so I guess the clergyman felt duty bound to say something significant—but given the life my father had chosen to lead, I’m sure he felt uncomfortable in whatever he said. I was just grateful that my father was well known enough not to be denied burial here. Then there was the landlady, the woman who had responsibility for renting out the hillside villa up in Bellapais that my family had occupied for five years and that my father now had lived in for an additional ten. It was the villa that my father claimed was his inspiration and that he refused ever to leave. And he didn’t leave it until the day after he died.

And there was me, of course, attending out of duty and out of curiosity, and, yes, in a last-ditch effort to try to understand my father—to try to grasp why he had thrown it all over for the life of a hermit and writer of dissolution and sadness.

I could understand his lifestyle choice—the radical change he had made—because I had chosen that myself. What I couldn’t understand was why it was so hollow. He declared the change, and he cut himself off from his wife and children, but then he seemed not to have done anything about it. He had moved on to an empty life of casual sexual encounters, and, if his reviewers were to be believed, he didn’t get the solace out of his subsequent books that the popularity of them should have brought him.

The third person attending the internment wasn’t really there at all. A not-young, but equally not old, handsome and trim Turkish gentleman, who looked vaguely familiar to me and who was elegantly dressed and of a sad demeanor was hovering on the fringes of the graveyard. He quite evidently was here for this funeral—but he kept back to the walkway beside the small chapel and seemed torn between coming forward and leaving. He obviously wasn’t comfortable with attending an Anglican ceremony. And he looked far too sophisticated in bearing to be any part of the local Turkish Cypriot scene at all.

The fourth person present brought an irony to the proceedings that my father would have loved and surely would have used to good effect in one of his novels. An impatient and bored Turkish Cypriot workman, the man who would fill in the grave as soon as the rector’s rambling and disjointed homily ended, was standing next to me, in the spot my mother would have occupied if she’d ever forgiven my father enough to appear in Cyprus again, and was muttering to himself in guttural Turkish—no doubt trying to jolly the rector into getting on with it so he could fill in the grave and be home in time for his supper.

When the clergyman had at last worn down in midsentence and on a rising tone that made it seem that nothing had been resolved—yet another image that my father, I think, would have found appropriate and amusing—I turned to depart and saw, somewhat to my surprise—but not for any reason I could assign to it—that the Turkish gentleman who had been holding back was gone altogether.

At the gate, after the rector had given me more-or-less empty words of solace that made him more comforted than they made me, I stopped and talked briefly with the ancient landlady of my father’s villa, Layla Ergun, who lived down in Kyrenia. She told me that my father had seen his impending death and had not railed against it—which was more comforting to me than anything the rector had said—and that his rent was paid up until the end of the month. And she said that, of course, I was welcome to stay in his villa until then and to put his things, such as they were, in order and to take away anything of his that I wanted.

I hadn’t thought until then that I’d want anything that was his, but as she spoke to me, I realized that I did, indeed, want to connect with my father again, if only in death. That otherwise I would not have come. I realized that I could not separate from the hurt and pain he had inflicted on the family ten years ago, just as my mother and sisters couldn’t, but that I could not put him out of my mind as they so conveniently had done. Perhaps it was because I had made a similar decision to his—or perhaps it was because I felt in that final period of his writing—the period that brought him fame after so many years of writing in obscurity—he was searching for me just as I was searching for him. That, knowing the direction I had taken, he was trying to reach out to me and prevent me from making some mistake he had made. All of his final books were based on a mistake, a missed connection—and they all included a father and an unreconciled son. And always there was the father’s regret—which gave me hope. I needed, if I could, to find out what my father might have been trying to say to me. And I felt that the answer to that must be up there in that villa on the mountainside above the village of Bellapais.

Even when we’d lived in the villa, I had felt that it was a living, breathing organism and that it gave life to the muse of anyone living there. That was a logical conclusion. It had been the villa where the English novelist Lawrence Durrell had penned the classic Alexandria Quartet series, and later the portraitist Valery Cramner and novelist Mark Amalfi, famously doomed lovers, had lived there as well. It was why my father had brought us to Cyprus and had let the villa. And, in some way, he was right about the villa’s influence on the creative spirit, because my father’s writing had not come into international acclaim before the books he wrote while in residence here.

It was dusk before I ascended the narrow country road up into the Kyrenia Mountains hovering about the ancient Cypriot harbor town of the same name. Fairy lights in the trees surrounding the outdoor café in the Bellapais square had already twinkled on and the men of the village were gathering for their evening of sitting and watching when I reached the lower square in my father’s battered Triumph convertible and made the hairpin curve up to the upper village where my father’s villa teetered on the edge of a precipice overlooking Kyrenia and the Mediterranean.

The heads of the men lingering in the café and drinking coffee and beer and discussing the same topics they had done for twelve centuries all came up in surprise as I passed in the car. And I could understand this. For the briefest of moments I could understand that they had visions of my father—dead for a week—returning to the villa. The villa had somewhat of a “haunted” reputation I knew from having lived in it previously, and, with its connection with international authors and artists—not to mention a long train of residents who had lived a somewhat notorious and dissolute lifestyle—the villa and its occupants over the past century no doubt constituted the most excitement this traditional Mediterranean mountain village had known since Richard the Lionhearted sliced through it with his sword.

When I reached the villa, I turned on lights, all of which suffered from an inadequate wattage that, rather than irritating, gave a soft glow to the interior and flickered in a manner that gave the impression that the walls were breathing. After placing my bags in the master bedroom and taking a quick familiarization tour around and finding that it had changed little since I was last here as a teenager, I settled myself at my father’s desk in the main room, which served as living room, study, and formal dining room.

Across from where I was sitting, I could see through the French doors to the terrace overhanging the Mediterranean down the tumbling, steep hillside and see the lights from the terrace spots dancing in the water of the small swimming pool. I was feeling quite mellow, partially thanks to the Cankaya wine I had found in bulk in the kitchen. I had loved this house. And much of my resentment of my father a decade earlier had been for not giving a thought that his family enjoyed living here as much as he did.

The original manuscripts for the books he had written here were set on the desk between bookends—and I would most surely take those with me—and there were piles of papers strewn around from what had already been published and what he was working on when he died. Digging under the piles, I found a small packet of letters, encircled with a red silk ribbon, and I was about to investigate them when I heard the music coming up from the tavern in the square.

In my father’s books, he had written much about the siren song of the music drifting up from the Tree of Idleness café in the square, and hearing it now reminded me how central it was to his later writing. I found myself becoming absorbed in the sounds coming up from the square—not just the sound of stringed Turkish instruments and the soft, nasal singing of a tenor, but the sounds of the male voices in discussion too. And then I became aware of the atmosphere of the villa itself—the soft lights, the dancing water of the swimming pool on the terrace, the cool breeze coming up through the open French doors to the terrace. It was as if the villa was speaking to me, telling me to go down to the square—that I would find what I was seeking there. This, even though I didn’t fully comprehend what I was seeking by coming back here. If it was closure, that should have come from the globs of dirt dropping on my father’s coffin down in the Anglican cemetery in Kyrenia. But that didn’t seem to be it.

I let the packet of letters fall out of my hands, and I rose and left the villa and carefully made my way down the steep upper village street—not much more than an alley between the compound walls of other villas holding precariously onto the side of the mountain—watching my every step on the uneven cobblestones.

Like the villa itself, the central square of Bellapais, bordered on the downslope by the ruins of a twelfth-century Byzantine monastery and on the upslope by the indoor section of the Tree of Idleness café, had a mysterious glow about it from the soft lights in the trees and the candles burning on the tables.

All of the eyes of those gathered there settled on me as I entered the circle of soft light, and the conversations were suspended. Only the music of the stringed instruments continued. Even the tenor had broken off in mid lyric of his song. But I didn’t feel like an intruder—I felt like I was coming home. I found an empty table and sat at it and ordered an Efes beer, and the activity in the square resumed to the level that it no doubt had maintained for centuries of the village men meeting to gossip and speculate and to smoke their pipes and cigarettes and drink their evening sluggish coffee or beer.

There were only men in the square, and many of them were young, some younger than me. The younger men looked fit and strong and handsome. They were dark, with black, curly hair, and musculature that bespoke of honest labor. The older men were mere shells of the younger. Somewhere in one of my father’s books he had remarked that Turkish men were formed as gods and started deteriorating into old men by the time they hit their thirties. He went on to say that the Turkish men, therefore, should be plucked and used before they departed their twenties. But perhaps the less said about that the better.

I remained the center of attention and of whisperings at the tables surrounding me, and I had the sensation that the younger men were moving closer—that they somehow were in a dance of speculation on which of them would first come to me. And I found that sensation arousing, and I found myself taking furtive glances around and setting wishes on who it might be. I could well understand how my father had melted to this siren call.

I was on familiar ground here—not because I had engaged in this courtship process when we had lived here before, but because it was a central theme in the books my father wrote while he lived in separation from his former world here. And not just his books either. I had found the same motif in the books of the earlier novelist who followed in Lawrence Durrell’s footsteps in writing here, the Englishman Mark Amalfi. What went on here with the residents of the villa in the upper town had always been, in fact, a type of courtship, a mating dance—a primeval sexual choosing. A certain type of man lived in the villa and a certain type of young Turkish Cypriot man could be found in abundance at the Tree of Idleness café. I didn’t find this threatening in the least. I was that certain kind of man myself. I found all of this familiar, and comfortable, and, yes, arousing.

I was lifted out of my reverie on these thoughts by a sudden hush across the café, one that matched the greeting of my entrance nearly an hour earlier. I looked up and saw, just at the edge of the light where the road descended from the square down to Kyrenia the figure of a man. It took me a second to place him, but I slowly realized that he was the man who had come—but not quite come—to my father’s interment earlier that day. He had been moving into the circle of light and had captured the attention of all the men present, and I sensed that his presence had set them on edge somehow. He was Turkish and seemed as one with the rest of the men here but not really. His elegant dress and sophisticated demeanor set him apart, and somehow the reaction of the men at the café gave me the sense that he had once been with them but was now apart—not fully wanted in the square.

His movement was arrested when his eyes fell on me. He hesitated and then I thought perhaps he was going to come to me. I found him appealing—and arousing—and something inside me wanted him to come to me—and to take me away and possess me. But just at the moment, the question had been resolved of which of the young men in the square was going to come and sit at my table, and, seeing the young man approach me, the mysterious man turned and faded outside the circle of light.

“May I sit?” The young man was saying. “My name is Sami. You are perhaps from the villa? You have come because of Malcolm perhaps?”

“Yes. Yes, I’m Richard Stephenson, Malcom’s son. Come to settle his business.”

“You are staying at the villa, no?” Sami asked.

“Yes, until the end of the month,” I said.

“You look like Malcom,” he said. “But younger. Better body.” He said it as if it had been a condition of him approaching my table. I could see that if he hadn’t, there were several other young men hovering around who might have.

“I am thirsty. You buy me beer? Yes?”

“Yes, why not?” I said with a laugh. I liked his open, straightforward manner; I certainly liked his sensual looks.

When they arrived, we drank our beers almost in silence, although I could tell he was looking me over very closely.

“You like Malcolm?” Sami asked.

I was confused and took a minute to answer. “I’m not sure what you mean. He was my father. I’m not sure if ‘like’ was a word to use.”

“No, no,” Sami said, giving me a piercing stare. “I mean you like fuck men like him? Like all of them at villa?”

I blushed and remained silent, nonplused by his directness. He didn’t misinterpret the blush, though.

“I give good fuck. Not same old same old. Interesting fuck. You take me to villa?”

Sami, in fact, did give an interesting fuck. We made love on the terrace, at first in the pool, where I lay on the still-warm stone edge, my legs resting on his shoulders as he stood in the water and sucked my cock in inventive ways and ate out my asshole until I begged him to take me. Then he bounded out of the pool and rolled me up onto my shoulders, with my ass waving in the air and legs spread and, in a maneuver I’d never experienced before, crouched over my pelvis with his hips, facing away from me and fucked down into me at an angle that moved his cock inside my channel in a movement that was new—and totally arousing to me.

When he was finished with that, he fairly carried me through the French doors into the master bedroom that occupied the wing jutting out beside the terrace and toward the precipice, lowered me to the bed, and vigorously fucked me almost to dawn. I loved what he was doing to me and spent as much time straddling his hips and riding his erect tool as I did spreading my legs and digging my nails into his undulating butt cheeks as he plowed me deeply.

When I was totally exhausted and nearly had drifted off to sleep—but wondering in the back of my mind why Sami was so familiar with the layout of the villa, he murmured to me that I was a very nice fuck—that I was young and capable of positions he liked—and he had enjoyed himself so much that he would take no money—that my father had paid him and the other young men but that I need not pay him whenever I wanted him to fuck me.

I took that as a compliment, while being slightly melancholy about what that told me of my father’s later sex life, and drifted off to sleep smiling. When I awoke, Sami was gone.

Satiated and content for the first time in some weeks, I padded naked into the kitchen and boiled water for coffee. Then I went out onto the sun-streaked terrace, coffee in one hand and the small packet of letters I’d found in the desk in the other.

There were four letters held together by the red ribbon. Three from Izmir and one from Istanbul on the Turkish mainland. The top one, at least, was written in a strong, elegant hand.

They were from someone named Mustafa, and the mere presence of the name on the creamy envelope surfaced all of the old hurts in me from the decade earlier. I had heard that name in the context of my parents’ bitter fighting while their marriage was dissolving.

The surfacing of the name distressed me so that I almost tore the letters up and tossed the shreds over the low retaining wall and down toward the Mediterranean. But something stopped me. I had come for answers. I couldn’t let what was past get in the way of any chance of finding closure on understanding my father and why it had all happened.

He had left us for Mustafa. The big question was why there was no Mustafa here—and apparently never was. I could understand and accept if Mustafa and he had been lovers—I had no trouble accepting one man loving another one in all of the physical as well as emotional senses—but if my father hadn’t left us for a lover, why had we just been discarded? Were we intruding on his writing—and was his writing more important than my mother and my sisters and I were to him? I could not even begin to accept his acclaimed books with the thought that they were more important to him than his own flesh and blood. It was a perpetual sore that had been reopened each and every time someone asked me if I was the son of the author of the Bellapais Quintet.

I extracted the first letter and opened it and started to read:

When you receive this, you will know that I am gone. I took the morning ferry to the mainland. I can understand your dilemma, your inability to come to me and only to me, and were I in your place I might be frozen in incapability to decide and to commit to one or the other as well. Family is everything to we Turks as much—no, maybe more—than it is to your kind. And that is why I must leave. I still love you with all I have to give, but I cannot live with lies. I cannot live with your lies. You told me you had made a choice and I closed my life in commitment to you. But you have done nothing. You still want me inside you, but you cannot bring yourself to come to me forever. I am dead to my family now. And yet you continue to vacillate. I cannot live without you. And I have lost you. But I have no one here anymore except you. And if I do not have you either, I cannot be here.

I laid that letter aside and rose and walked over to the wall and gazed down into the Mediterranean. The choice. I could blame my father for his vacillation, just as this Mustafa did. But I now knew that the choice had been one that was not easily made. And that thought alone lifted a burden of hurt from my shoulders. I knew what it was to love a man and the sacrifices and forced choices that raised in the world—and my world was a much more sophisticated and forgiving world than the traditional Turkish world of the Mediterranean was. I ached for what this must have done to Mustafa. It wasn’t just my own family that had suffered.

It was no longer as easy to condemn my father either and to resent what he had done to his family. But that didn’t explain why he had done it. Mustafa had left, and yet my father had still sent us away.

I went back and pulled out the second letter, dated only two weeks after the first.

I cursed the fates to learn that you were carrying out your decision even as the ferry was taking me away from the land—and the man—I loved. It will take me a month or a bit more to come to you—as soon as I arrived here I was taken on as a journalist in a liberal activist paper and I have promised to cover a series of rallies in the capital. But I feel so free. And you are free now. I know that you love me because I know it was not easy; I know you worship your children. We can make it work somehow, though. I know we can. Save yourself for me and only me. I come.

So, it worked out after all, I thought. But then, no. There were two more letters. The same handwriting. Both from Turkey.

I never knew why you would not answer my letters from prison. That is I did not know until someone brought me copies of your two recent books. I see that you answered the call of the Bellapais square. That you could not resist the young men there. I told you the villa would do that to you. The villa’s song is well known in the village. But was I so easy to forget—and to ignore when I was arrested and could not come to you? But perhaps that is best not pursued. I love you still, but I cannot compete with the call of the men in the Bellapais square. And perhaps it is for the best. I have a position with the government television now—as a national commentator. The new government has tried to compensate for the years in prison before the changes came. And there is a man at the station—Amil. He is older and he says he needs me. And he is a gentle lover. And I have learned that one cannot have all one wants in life and must live with reality. I hope that you . . .

I felt no need to read further into that letter. Fate indeed was fickle. I could understand the underlying sadness and feeling of incompleteness of my father’s later novels now. But I hoped that was not the end. I hoped that before he died my father had, by some miracle, found the happiness that had eluded him for the initial years after we were sent away.

And for this, my hope rested in the fourth letter in the packet.

The handwriting was the same, but not nearly as bold and strong as on the earlier letters and it was postmarked not more than two months ago—from Istanbul. With trembling hands I pulled it out of the envelope and unfolded it and read.

I am mortified. I had not considered that the letters I had written from prison might be held back. As you always said, I was too trusting, always the idealist. I had no concept that anyone could be that cruel. That we could become lost, nonpersons, told we could write loved ones but the letters never delivered. And if you had not sent your condolences, if you had not seen the obituary in the Istanbul paper and known that it was my Amil, I would have never known. Thank you for your kind words about the loss of Amil. It was a loss, certainly—but nothing compared to my loss of you.

Oh the life we have missed. Or have we missed it completely? Is there yet a chance for us? I loved Amil—but never as I have always loved you. And now, what about you? You sound so sad. Are you not well? Is there something you are not telling me that prompted you to write after all of this time?

I must know. I will come. A month. No more. I have responsibilities to the media, but a month, no more than six weeks. I come. I cannot expect you still to want me. But I come nonetheless. I can do no less. My love. Always.

I had the sudden urge to rise and go down to the square. It was not that I felt the square—or the villa—calling me to go to the square as it had done last evening—and as my father’s books said the call had come to him. I felt that there was some other reason, something else calling me to the square. And somehow I knew what that was.

He was sitting at the table I had occupied the previous night—the stranger in the graveyard. But, of course, no longer a stranger to me.

“Mustafa?” I asked in a gentle voice as I approached the table.

“Richard? Malcolm’s son, Richard?” He answered.

I sat and he reached out and almost touched me. But he withdrew his hand. He was achingly beautiful to me. I could see why my father had fallen in love with him—and had pined for him for a decade of frustrated crossings.

“I saw you at the grave,” I said. “You came. You returned.”

“Yes. But I thought I was coming for the living, not to mourn the dead.” he murmured. His voice was so sad. I didn’t want to see him sad. I wanted to see him as my father had seen him. And, I blush, I wanted to see him as my father did when they were making love.

“You look so much like him,” he said, and he lifted his hand again and it just hovered there above the table, unable to come forward, unwilling to drop away.

“You can touch me,” I said. “I am real. I am here.”

He slowly brought his fingertips to my forehead and let the tips move down my cheek to my chin, and then his hand dropped to the tabletop again.

I picked his hand up in both of mine and brought his fingertips to my lips.

“Shall we go somewhere . . . private?” I asked. “Do you wish to come up to the villa?” I held my breath, not knowing where this might lead. Being presumptuous but not daring to hope.

“Not the villa,” he answered. “Oh, god, not the villa. But . . . but . . . I have a hotel room down in Kyrenia.”

“Yes, I’d like that,” I whispered. I opened my mouth and sucked his fingers in—and Mustafa shuddered.

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