The Sunbathers

Friday, January 15, 2016

At fifty-two years old, Julian Swenson died on the roadside in his swim trunks. Traffic passed by without interruption along the four lanes of Cevdet Paşa Cadessi, which shouldered the Bosphorus, running through Istanbul’s posh Bebek quarter. Cut into this corniche was an alcove where one could dive into the waters. When the patrolmen arrived, the pen-length blade was still embedded in Mr. Swenson’s rib cage. Someone had covered his body with the Financial Times. Late-afternoon shadows cast by hillside condominiums fell across the windless pink pages. A clutch of people gathered round. There were no witnesses.

In the summer months Mr. Swenson sunbathed, keeping up his appearance like an old chapel burdened by too grand a ceiling. Handsome and neatly attired in the swim trunks he died in, he had regarded himself as a man of capital, though the markets had regarded him otherwise for nearly a decade. In the umbrellaed cafes, sipping thirty-lira Yeni Rakis, his expat acquaintances had considered him a man of leisure. When the police placed his body on a gurney, it was stiff with rigor mortis. His limbs, which still held the day’s warmth, were well muscled despite middling years, his skin a determined bronze. No wallet, no identification, his remaining estate a beach towel, a cellphone, tanning lotion, and the finest investment he’d ever made: a lavish apartment in Manhattan’s East 70s worth thirty million dollars.


Bebek Precinct, sweat and still air. Murat Subeçi arrives, his tie in his blazer pocket. His face glows from shaving. He has just canceled a dinner reservation: somewhere a tolerant woman makes other plans. The patrolmen busy themselves, their light-blue shirts soaked navy beneath the armpits. Murat switches on a fan no one else bothers with. He speaks above its hum: “Let me see the body first.”

A basement like a bank vault, cold air trapped in cement walls, steel tables and refrigeration. Mr. Swenson lies on his back, eyes shut, palms upturned, naked as a deposed monarch. He still wears the knife’s handle in his ribs. Murat reaches into his other blazer pocket, removing a small leather case.

“No one’s touched the blade?” he confirms.

His escort, a patrolman, shakes his head.

Murat unzips the case, setting out a pair of pliers, a rouge brush, a charcoal stick. He puts on a pair of turquoise rubber gloves. He steps toward the body. It’s like a piano he leans over to play. The patrolman turns away. A sound—the blade falling onto a sterile tray. Then sift, sift, sift—the brush taking prints.

Murat climbs upstairs, standing alone in an evidence booth. He has sent off the prints from the knife. Tomorrow he’ll know whether there are matches. A phone in a plastic bag, the soiled towel, torn pages from the Financial Times—all sit in a cardboard box—tanning lotion, too. He unlocks the phone, logging the last calls—a local number, then an international one: New York City. Mr. Swenson spoke with two people that day: Debra Swenson in the morning, Jessie Bell in the afternoon. He removes the phone’s SIM card, sending it to technical forensics. He calls Debra Swenson, reaching her voicemail. He leaves a message for her to call the precinct. The other number, the American one, exceeds his jurisdiction.

Murat takes the tie from his pocket. In front of a mirror, he knots it round his neck, wondering about Jessie Bell. Walking out of the precinct, he instructs the patrolmen to call him when Mrs. Swenson arrives. He checks his watch—the woman he had plans with. There may still be time. He goes to look for her.


“But I am calling you, Jessie.” Julian Swenson rolled from his stomach to his back, a touch of sunburn puckering his skin. He cradled his phone to his ear.

“Only after I emailed you to ask.”

“That’s how I know you’re up.”

"It’s almost ten a.m. here, of course I’m up.”


“I’m sorry.”

“Are you on the roof deck?”


“So we’re both laying out.” He became quiet. “I could look at you forever.”


“Which swimsuit are you wearing?”

“You know the one,” she said.

“The black one.” Julian sat up, casting a shadow against his beach towel. “Take your top off, I don’t want you to have all those tan lines.”

Jessie dabbed suntan lotion along her high cheekbones and then pulled her black hair back into a small tuft of a ponytail, flecks of gray showing at the roots. She’d begun to let it grow again after wearing it in a bob for a long-held hostess job she’d recently lost. Wiping the lotion from between her fingers, she spread them against her stomach. Her belly felt swollen, and she counted out the twenty-two years over which her flawless body and accommodating manner had earned her a living at the restaurant, and then the eight weeks since she had last been with him. But she did as she was told, reaching behind her back, loosing the string top. “I have to go to work.”

“They have you showing other properties?”

“Not until I sell yours.”

“If you sell it now, she’ll take all the value. And where would you stay?”

“If I don’t sell it soon, Charlie is going to take your listing from me. And maybe my job.” She sat up as well, casting a shadow against her towel.

“Stop it,” he said. “When I leave her, I’ll sell it.”

A pack of boys swarmed around Julian, tugging off their shoes, stripping down to their underpants. Clothes piled next to his towel, the boys running relays into the Bosphorus, cannonballs, arcing high dives, their voices wild as birds. Between their dips, they clustered above Julian, dripping seawater onto his bronzing skin, wilting his copy of the Financial Times.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Fucking kids.”

She looked at her legs, unable to tell if they’d swollen too. “I have to go.”

“Wait a second,” he said. “Why won’t you let me fly you out here? When we’re together we make better sense.”

The boys encircled him now. They hopped on pavement stones that were hot in the sun. They wrestled like laughing cubs. One boy climbed onto another’s shoulders, the two swaying as they approached the seawall, toppling together into the Bosphorus.

“I can’t come this time,” she said. “And I have to go.”

“Where are you going?”

“Jesus, to work!”

“Baby, take it easy.”

Then one of the boys stepped onto the edge of Julian’s towel to cool his feet, dripping all over him, calling after his friends in Turkish.

“Get off my towel,” grumbled Julian.

The boy looked down, a smile on his brown face, a large gap between his front teeth.

“What’d I say!” Julian stood, dwarfing the boy, who rose only to his chest.


“Hold on,” he answered, his shouts at the boy mixing with his words to her. He pointed to the hot pavement just off his towel. The boy shook his head, his mop of stringy hair flipping water against Julian, who took a step toward him. The boy ran, diving into the Bosphorus, perfect as a needle. Julian sat down again. “Just be patient,” he told her.

The line was silent.

“You there?” he asked.

He could hear her rapid breaths.

“Are you crying?”

“Do you remember what you told me?” she said. “Together we weren’t two people but an idea.

“Please stop.”

“I’m afraid. I’ve ruined it.”

The boy scampered across the hot stones, his feet quick as dance steps. He again planted himself on the towel’s corner. “I already told you,” said Julian, standing up. The boy smiled, his mouth tightly closed, filled with something. “Get off it.”

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“How have you ruined it?” he asked Jessie. The boy spouted a stream of water from between the gap in his two front teeth. It splashed against Julian’s chest. “Motherfucker!” With his shoulder, he pinned the phone to his ear and then used both hands to push the kid so hard that he took to the air, landing against the hot pavement, knocking his head. “This brat just squirted water out his teeth at me.”

“I’ve got to go, Julian.”

“Just wait a second,” he told her. The boy stood up from the paving stones, rubbing the back of his head, his eyes angry and bright as new coins. He lunged toward his clothes, rifling through them. “Where the hell are you going?” said Julian.

Jessie couldn’t tell if he was speaking to the boy or to her.

The boy came back over, his steps slow on the burning pavement. He carried something in his hand.


Debra Swenson doesn’t return the call, but arrives in Murat Subeçi’s office at nine the following morning. Pale gray eyes, red-rimmed without sleep, jeans worn with jean jacket, heels. She stands in front of his plate-glass door, waiting. Catching her reflection, she notices a dab of moisturizing cream on her cheek, one she neglected to massage into her skin, which drinks with an unquenchable thirst in these upper years of middle age. Faint as her image is on the plate glass, the laugh lines around her eyes and mouth are etched clear as a message in ink, one that robs her of confidence, causing her to look beyond her reflection, into the office. He’s on the phone, slouched in his chair. When her eyes meet his, he hangs up. She hopes he won’t make her do much explaining. He puts on his suit jacket.

“Mr. Subeçi,” she says as he opens his door.

“Mrs. Swenson.” She enters his office. He guides her to a pair of chairs in front of his desk. A patrolman brings chai. The oblong glasses rest in front of them, steaming on the edge of the desk. Neither drinks. She looks at her hands.

“I met him in my twenties,” she volunteers. “We worked in the same investment firm. He always said it wasn’t the money he loved, but realizing something’s value before anyone else did. He made his money, and then I stopped working, and then he stopped making money.”

She looks up from her hands. “Don’t make me identify the body.”

He takes a sip of tea. “We can do that with a photo.”

“I refuse to be in the same room as him.”

Murat sets his glass next to hers. “We have his phone.”

She sips her tea.

“Yesterday he made calls to you and a Jessie Bell. Do you know this person?”

“Our Realtor in New York.”

“You were selling your home?”

"It’s been on the market ever since we moved,” she says, “but he never thought the offers were enough.”

“What brought you here?”

“Living there had become too difficult.”

“Too expensive?”

She takes off her jean jacket, her slim arms delicately muscled, her skin darkly grained like sick wood, a lifetime of holiday sun exposing its imperfections. “His investments failed for years, but he owned the apartment and we lived off its value, refinancing then refinancing then refinancing.”

Murat stands from his chair, taking a few forms from his desk, while Debra Swenson searches the pockets of her jacket, finding a pack of Polo Slims. When she offers Murat one, he waves it away. Her lipstick smudges the filter, pink on white.

“We estimate the time of death to be between four-thirty and five p.m. He was on the phone with Jessie Bell around then.” He hands her the call records, a jumble of numbers printed on a sheet. “Because she’s in the United States,” he says, “there are limitations on us contacting her.”

“So you thought I might?” A worm of ash hangs from her cigarette. He lifts his glass of tea, placing its saucer in front of her hand. She thanks him, tapping the ash into it.

“This morning a match came in on a set of fingerprints,” he says, “but we have no witnesses. Perhaps you would convince Miss Bell to make a trip here?”

“What reason would I have to do that?”

“I wasn’t certain you needed a reason.”


Ground to ceiling filled with windows and light. Wood floors needing a new finish, the kitchen with its granite countertop, a single slab—its speckled pattern like a galaxy. Three Persian carpets rolled, leaning against white walls, the movers’ final pickup scheduled for the afternoon. Julian and Debra wandered their apartment, searching for anything forgotten.

“I wish you’d fly out with me,” she said, stepping from their empty bedroom.

He drank water from the tap, without a glass, hands cupped, his face wet as a dog’s muzzle. He looked for a towel. There was none. “I need another week.”

“I think it’s a mistake not to let Charlie list the property.” She reached into a high cupboard, handing him a dishrag.

“Charlie’s let himself go,” said Julian. “We’ll do much better with his new girl.”

“She’s hardly a girl, and Charlie sold three properties last month.”

“He’s put on twenty pounds this year alone. When investing in people, you look for the little indicators, Deb. It’s better to invest in someone who’s just starting out, getting her legs under her in something fresh, as opposed to a guy like Charlie. Do you want someone showing our place whose gut falls over his belt? You’re not just selling a property. You’re selling an idea.”

“And what’s that?”

"You’ve never known, have you?”

A key slotted into the deadbolt, giving both Debra and Julian a start. The vacant rooms, rolled-up carpets, barren floors, yet none of it made their apartment feel so empty as when a stranger put a key to their door. Jessie stepped into the foyer, crouching as she closed her Realtor’s lockbox, knees pressed together in a tight gray skirt. The light from the windows fell into her hair as she stood. Julian and Debra glanced at her from the center of the apartment. She came no further than the foyer.

“Good morning,” said Julian, leaving his wife to walk toward her.

Jessie took careful steps inside. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“No interruption,” he said. “We were just finishing.”

She laid a few listing forms on the granite counter for the Swensons to review, explaining each one with deliberation. Like a child sounding words out, she could be forgiven for stopping occasionally to correct herself. When it came time to sign, she didn’t have a pen. Debra stepped quickly into the bedroom, bringing her one. Julian told her how lovely the listing copy she’d put together looked. Then everyone signed.

A pair of movers arrived, shouldering the carpets rolled in the corner. With their truck loaded, they requested either Julian or Debra conduct a final inventory of their storage locker across town. “I’ll go with them,” said Debra.

“You’re certain?” Julian answered.

“I know you want to stay.”

He made no reply.

The movers headed down to the street while Debra took a last look into the apartment, her eyes holding on the windows and the light. Then she stepped into the hallway. Standing on the far side of the door, she listened for a moment.

“Let me walk you around,” Julian told Jessie. “I want to give you my vision of this place. You see, it’s not just an apartment, it’s an idea.”


Jessie can’t afford a room at the Çirağan Palace Hotel, let alone the ticket that brought her here. Sick as she had felt the past few weeks, it wasn’t safe to fly, but when Debra called the day before, explaining what had happened to Julian, her choice in the matter receded as quickly as if Julian himself had asked her.

Afternoon. She sets her luggage on the canopied bed, a single gym bag. The drapes shut across the windows. Tugging at the golden cloth, a whole bolt’s worth, she heaves open her view: floor to ceiling the Bosphorus, like another bolt’s worth of light and water. She looks to the north: a mile up Cevdet Paşa Cadessi is the cut where Julian once sunbathed. She steps back into her room. Lying across the bed, she pulls her knees to her chest. She reaches beneath the duvet, its down cased in golden fabric matching the drapes. The sheets, starched white cotton, fill her with an urge to slide naked between them, to return to a feeling. She hates and misses him.

Her eyes are shut. The phone rings—the front desk.

Tapestries hung from walls, marble columns, Debra waits for her in the lobby. “Have you eaten?” is all she asks. She doesn’t stand up or offer a hand.

They sit on plush sofas, balanced on the edge, lest they be swallowed in the cushions. High tea arrives on plates from recessed doors Jessie never noticed. A waiter pours their chai, adding sugar for them. The service disappears. They are alone.

“Thank you for making the trip,” says Debra.

Jessie stares at a white, crustless sandwich. “I’m so sorry,” she says. Her stomach turns over. She eats so she won’t need to speak. The sandwich is light, practically dissolving on her tongue. She has another, searching for an appetite.

“Yes, well … you’re going to do something for me. Do you understand?” Debra asks.

Jessie swallows. “I’m not certain that I do.”

“How is your room? They told me that Mr. Swenson usually books something on the water,” says Debra. “Of course, I’ve never stayed here with him.”

Jessie glances across the lobby, to the doorman with his easy smile, to the concierge fulfilling a guest’s whim. She knows them all. They know enough to ignore her. “Maybe I understand,” she says.

“Once you finish your sandwich, we’re going to see the authorities. You’re going to tell them whatever they need to hear to resolve Julian’s case.”

“You want the apartment?”

Debra nods. “Yes, and you’ll sell it and get your commission.”

Jessie sets her sandwich on her plate, wiping her mouth. “Okay.”

“Okay?” asks Debra. “I thought you’d ask, or else?”

“I can imagine your or else.”

They walk through the Çirağan toward the taxis lined up outside. “The police have prints on a boy from Eminönü,” says Debra, the pair of them standing curbside. “They picked him up off the street this morning. He says Julian attacked him, seems unlikely he’d do something as reckless as that.” Debra’s eyes dip, resting on Jessie’s bulging stomach.

A bellhop opens the taxi for them. “Nice to see you again, Mrs. Swenson,” he says.


Wood floors and empty rooms. Light. Plastic utensils in the kitchen, a pair of office chairs pulled up to a dining table. A mattress and sheets where the bed once was. Every object a lesser version of the object it replaced. Asleep in the day, he lay naked, Jessie’s head against his chest, her cheek resting on his swirl of hair, a few gray strands flicking up like whitewater.

She strummed her nails against the soft patch of his side. Still he didn’t wake. His unpacked suitcase sat in the corner, his clothes flung on top of it. Her clothes were hanging in the apartment’s barren closets. She pinched him. “Get up.”

He startled, blinking hard as her face came into focus, as if uncertain where he was and who he was with. “Jessie,” he said. “What time is it?”

She didn’t wear a watch, unable to find one that didn’t feel bulky around her wrist. She grabbed his wrist instead, turning it toward her. “Just after three.”

“Wake me for dinner,” he said.

She reached beneath the sheets, holding him in her hand. “You didn’t fly all the way here to sleep, baby.”

He rolled over, reaching up, pinning both her wrists above her head in a single grip. “Why do you think I came here?”

She locked her legs around his waist.

“God, you’re adorable.”


“Worthy of adoration?”

“Puppies are adorable.” She unwrapped her legs from him. “I’ll wake you for dinner,” she said, sitting up.

“Don’t be like that.”

“Like what?” she answered. “Worthy of adoration?”

He also sat up, placing his mouth on her shoulder as if considering a kiss. “You want to know why I made this trip back?”

Turning to face him, she noticed his eyes fall onto her bare breasts. She lay back in the bed, pulling up the sheets.

“I’m putting the apartment in a trust,” he said.

She rolled onto her side, coming up on her elbow. “You are?”

“For you,” he added. “When I leave her, she’ll likely come after it, so it needs to be protected. I plan on appointing you the trustee.”

This was more than Jessie wanted or hoped. For him to exceed expectations seemed unfair, like cheating at the rules of their relationship. “You don’t have to do that,” she said.

“You think I need you to tell me that?” He stood, walking across the vast room. The light fell favorably on his rounded shoulders, his shadow strolled beside him. From his luggage he snatched something, holding it behind his back.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Get up and I’ll show you.”

Standing naked in front of him, her confidence only grew. He held a black swimsuit, wrapping the top around her breasts, holding the bottoms to her legs. She snatched it from him, putting it on.

“God, it’s a perfect fit,” he said. “Do you like it?”

She didn’t answer but lay on her back, still wearing the bottoms as she brought him inside her. Facing the windows, all she could think of was the many ways she might one day cover them—curtains, drapes, blinds. Way too much light, she thought, and him, he was always doing this, breaking the rules—a gift when none was expected, flying in unannounced, and the apartment. He pulled away to finish, and as he did she held him inside. She looked at him while he smiled at her impulsiveness.

She tried to make the bed, but he rushed her up to the roof deck. The day had been beautiful, and he thought they might catch the last of it. As they lay next to each other, sharing the sun, she thanked him for the swimsuit.

“I bought it right off the mannequin,” he said, not looking at her but toward the sky. “I’ve always wanted to do that.”

Then he suggested she remove her top, no tan lines.


Murat takes the ladies into a room, steel door, cement walls, darkened glass. There are no chairs. They won’t be here that long. A patrolman stands in the corner, like furniture. Debra stands just in front of Jessie, as if eager to answer a question she hasn’t been asked. Murat looks at his watch. The same woman is waiting for him—he’ll likely be late to meet her again, and he will again ask for her forgiveness. A woman’s forgiveness, he knows, is a debt that compounds faster than any interest.

“She only heard him,” says Debra. “Why are we doing this line-up?”

Another patrolman pokes his head in the door. He tells Murat something quickly in Turkish. “They’re ready, please come toward the glass,” says Murat. Jessie steps forward. Debra hangs back. “Each of them is going to speak a few words,” Murat explains. “I want you to tell me if you recognize a voice.”

Four boys walk out in a line. Murat’s eyes don’t fix on the boys but on Jessie. He monitors her, wanting to see if her eyes react to any of them. A patrolman hands each a script to read from. It’s in Turkish, but Murat notices how intently Jessie listens. The ceiling lights burn white in the boys’ faces. They squint. Debra seems upset. Murat has seen this before, the youth of murders, and Debra skulks to the far side of the room, her shoulders pressed against the back wall, looking at the floor.

Murat’s eyes return to Jessie. The first two boys speak from their script. No change comes over her. Then the third, scrawny, dressed in tracksuit bottoms and t-shirt, opens his mouth. Before the words even come out, Jessie turns back to Murat. “That’s him.”

“You are certain?”

“When I was on the phone with Julian, he mentioned a boy with a gap between his teeth.”

“Let’s have him read,” says Murat.

The patrolman on the opposite side of the glass shouts some orders at the boy, who stares at the page in front of him, riveting his words together.

“That’s definitely him,” answers Jessie. She turns to the back of the room, gazing at Debra. Murat notices something between these women, a hate like sisters.

“How long will his sentence be?” Debra asks, her eyes holding on the ground.

Murat tells her he is a juvenile and, depending on the judge, will probably receive a couple of years. “He’s from a very poor part of the city,” Murat adds. “He will likely be treated better in a youth rehabilitation center than at home.” Debra asks to leave, and Jessie stays behind, filling out a few final witness forms.

Outside the precinct, the sun filters through the elms. Debra sits on a curb, smoking, waiting for Jessie, who after nearly half an hour comes and sits next to her. Debra stubs out her cigarette. “I probably shouldn’t be doing that around you?”

And then, “I’m sorry for what Julian did to you.”

Traffic streams by, relentless as the day, the heat. Soon they’ll pass into it, his departure from their lives becoming their departure from each other’s. “Where will you live?” Debra asks.

Jessie stands, glancing toward the street, her hand held up for a cab. “I’ll figure something out,” she says. A taxi pulls over. Jessie eases herself into the back seat. Before closing the door, she asks: “How come you never had any children?”

Debra fishes through her pockets, looking for another cigarette. She has none left. “Children?” she asks. “We would’ve killed each other if we’d had children.”


Two afternoons later, Jessie walks along Cevdet Paşa Cadessi. The sun beats down on her shoulders, forcing her to stop on a bench and rest as she covers the mile to where Julian used to sun himself. Sitting along the Bosphorus, she watches container ships and oil tankers head north to the Black Sea or south to the Mediterranean. She wonders what it would be like to stow away on such a ship. She knows it’s a crime, but a victimless one, it seems.

Her phone rings. Debra Swenson has been calling her since Julian’s estate was settled the evening before, leaving voicemails about the apartment, and accusations. There is no reason to answer. It had been his decision to invest all his trust in Jessie.

Sitting on the bench, Jessie thinks about that morning: she visited the boy’s family in Eminönü. They lived in a walkup, its staircase stinking like sour earth. The light was bad in the hallway. People kept stealing the bulbs, or it appeared such. When she knocked on the door, a woman answered. Her face matched the boy’s, a similar gap in her teeth. Jessie clutched a white envelope—Çirağan Palace stationery stuffed with the second half of what she owed him. She handed it to the gap-toothed woman. Instead of counting out its contents, she took a quick glance at Jessie’s stomach, placing a hand there. Then her face spread into a grin as she laughed, closing the door.

Thinking of the cruel, laughing woman, Jessie stands from the bench and returns to her walk. Soon she arrives at the alcove where Julian used to sunbathe. She sets out a beach towel. Stripping down to her swimsuit, she rests on her back. The sun is high overhead and feels good against her skin. Running her hands over her stomach, she relaxes. By living in his apartment, she thinks her child might know something of his father. She also remembers what Julian once told her: you’re not selling a place but an idea.

Through her towel she can feel the pavement stones hot against her shoulder blades and the backs of her legs. She shuts her eyes and can hear the voices of the boys jumping into the water. For a moment she thinks to take off her top, but instead she lays out, allowing the sun to burn into her skin the outline of the gift Julian gave her.

Friday, January 15, 2016