1. Europe: When she’d graduated from Cooper Union in 2000, Ginger Lin decided to travel through Europe with her girl- friends after they catwalked through their graduation ceremonies. Chelsea and Meredith were yang guizi, but cool enough, or so she’d thought at the time. In retrospect, it’s so hard to nail anyone down in college since students are masters at shifting their identities depending on who they’re with, but Ginger thought her friends cared about her. As it turned out and as she’d feared all along, they only cared about themselves, centering their upper-class whiteness above all else.
2. Paris: Before the great split, they went out clubbing at glitzy boums (aka discothèques), sipping on delicate café au laits, the foam in their mugs forming hearts and arrows, portraits of le Pont Neuf, the Musée d’Orsay, and La Défense. During their last two days in the city of the golden apple, Meredith and Chelsea dragged her around town as they went on lavish shopping sprees on rue du Faubourg, Saint-Honoré, and l’Avenue Montaigne, a spendathon that started at Cartier and Chaumet and ended at Piaget and Van Cleef & Arpels, the 8eme and the 16eme arrondissements pillaged by her rich friends who were intent on taking Paris’s boutiques by storm like Navy SEALs decked out in leisure wear, platinum grey highlights, blood lotus red lipstick, and Jason Wu sunglasses. While Ginger looked on with embarrassment and unrepressed class envy, her friends bought identical animal print blouses, half-transparent harem pants, daffodil dresses, dad jeans, flesh-colored blazers, Burberry trenches, and matching yellow wedge sneakers, all delivered safely to their parents’ Long Island homes.
3. Paris & New York: It’s not that Ginger hadn’t planned on going shopping in Paris either, she just didn’t have a family credit card with a whopping $70,000 spending limit like Meredith and it’s not that Ginger didn’t have spending money to buy new clothes in Europe either because she’d busted her ass through college as a freelance graphic designer and had saved enough to buy her own airfare, pay for her own food when they ate out, and even splurge on a Louis Vuitton change purse, literally the cheapest thing they sold, but who’s counting and who fucking cares, anyway? The issue was that Ginger’s white mom was a public school teacher and spent most her money on an exorbitant mortgage and an extensive grocery list of charities she contributed to every month: the ASPCA, the UNHCR, Goats of Anarchy, Oxfam, the Humane Society, and Trees for Trollops, so she didn’t have money to give Ginger once she’d graduated, just a Starbucks gift card and a jade Buddha necklace, which Ginger loved and wore like an acolyte, even in the shower. Chelsea’s parents, on the other hand, gave her a check for $20,000 for her graduation, just a little chump change for her in case of an emergency. As the three of them took a car service to JFK, she watched Chelsea toss the check into her Gucci tote like it was an ATM receipt. Ginger just couldn’t relate with that kind of cash flow or that disregard for money.
4. Budapest: After Paris, the three of them took afternoon trains to Milan, Amsterdam, Vienna, and Madrid, five cities in twenty days, surely that was a record somewhere, but it was at the ever-so-hip and ever-so-gaudy Jack Rabbit Slims bar in Budapest that the three of them had their inevitable falling out. It was a pivotal moment in Ginger’s life because she’d been waiting for it since their friendship began at a crowded West Village party where a bunch of coked-up Tisch, Columbia, and Parsons students were speaking in obnoxious industry acronyms about the movie festivals they were entering and campaigns they were designing for. The three of them left together and walked to SoHo where they split two bottles of overpriced rosé and discovered they were all art students at NYU. Now, Meredith and Chelsea were preparing for adulthood as fashion interns, complaining about how dirty Budapest was, a comment Ginger found ironic coming from New Yorkers who lived in the dirtiest city in America, even dirtier than LA, which was hard to out-dirt. She stood there and sorta half-listened, stabbing her one-dollar rum and coke with a thin red straw, scanning the bar for pretty Hungarian boys, wondering why she felt so lonely in the company of her friends.
That’s when Chelsea cleared her throat. —So, um, Ginger?
—Okay, Chelsea said, giving Meredith a conspiratorial glance, so Meredith and I have been talking.
The hairs on Ginger’s neck stood up like a spiked neck collar.
—And, Chelsea continued, we decided we’re leaving tomorrow.
—What do you mean? Ginger asked. —We’re all going to Istanbul.
—Actually, we’re not going.
—What are you talking about? Ginger asked incredulously.
—We’re sick of Europe, Meredith said.
—Yeah, and we totally miss the city, Chelsea said.
—But we’re flying out of Istanbul, Ginger said.
—No . . . you are, Chelsea said, we already changed our tickets.
Ginger had never felt so betrayed like this and she’d been fucked over plenty by juice-fasting white fuckboys with dragon and maritime tattoos and affected melancholy who used to tell her how cute and exotic she was, by hot androgynous biracial rocker chicks who used to flick their stinky cigarette butts down the broken stairwells of their Lower East Side apartments and order terrible Chinese takeout before claiming she wasn’t really Asian anyway, by old-money, East Coast editorial assistants with unmanageable beards and perfect skin who tried to pay for everything with free softcover books and tote bags they’d snagged from the Take Shelf at their Big Five imprint until their monthly allowance kicked in. It was bad enough that Ginger always felt too poor to be friends with Meredith and Chelsea, always the hapa ghetto star with more intelligence, natural beauty, spunk, work ethic, and color in her blood line than their two pasty, flatulent, rosy-cheeked genealogies combined, but now she felt like she was too poor to travel with them. She’d known her social function from the very beginning, she’d always been their street cred, their token hip half-Asian friend every rich white girl on the Sound longed for and fought for in college, posturing urbanity, vague social liberalism, and anti-capitalism for the tacit approval of their intellectual classmates. In truth, Ginger had always been their link to the other side of hegemony, but now the field trip was over.
5. Budapest, Belgrade, & Sofia: When they’d left Ginger out of the travel logistics in Europe, she was devastated because logistics aren’t even a class thing, just spending habits. The Hungarian Divorce, as she later tagged it, merely proved her greatest and most primal fear, that she was on the outside of that country club looking in, that she’d always been on the outside of their friendship peering through the tiny plastic windows of another girl’s dollhouse. In college, they’d just given her a hall pass to the auditorium of the 1%, but college was done now and her class rejection in Budapest was absolute and final, leaving her only one choice to salvage her dignity: she took the train to Istanbul by herself. She felt a little badass doing it alone, even had the compartment all to herself. A few Italian guys knocked on the doors from the dark corridors of the train and gave her ehi, bambina eyes, insisting they had tickets, one even started singing a Verdi aria to her, which she found slightly romantic but also incredibly cheesy. Still, she didn’t budge. She didn’t make eye-contact either. Making a quick deduction inside her head, she calculated that the Italian pickup artists were lying both by context and facial expression. Chelsea and Meredith were rich, impatient, and brash, but they weren’t thorough, so there was no way in hell they’d canceled their train reservations because money didn’t matter to them, they were the kind of rich white people who threw five-digit checks into their purses like used Kleenex. Logistics were for the middle-class, something only people who weren’t rich had to deal with, that’s what she’d learned observing them every time they demanded something from the concierge and palmed a twenty to the Maitre D,’ so she locked the compartment door during the aria, skimmed through a shitty travelogue written by a white woman who “found” herself in Morocco that Suzanne had bought impulsively at JFK, and then she thought about her life. Really thought about it. As she looked through the window, her eyes couldn’t distinguish between Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Serbian villages, she didn’t know Belgrade from Sofia, but when the train finally creeped into the Haydarpaşa Station like a scene from Indiana Jones, she woke up from an empty and hollow sleep, her dreams all fallow and soggy. She just knew she’d arrived in Istanbul. As vividly as she’d visualized Meredith and Chelsea dumping her ass on the curb someday, she knew with the same before-the- moment-clarity that she’d arrived in Istanbul even before the first merhaba, before she could smell the Bosporus or taste her first chicken döner kebab. For the first time in her shifty life, she already knew where she was and why she was there, which was more than she could have said about her fake-ass friends from Long Island.
6. Istanbul: Ginger visited the Blue and Yeni Mosques, the confusing Aya Sofia, the Topkapı Palace Museum, the Palace Wall, the Harem, and the royal Spoon collection. She walked over the Attatürk Bridge every morning, got ripped off twice at the Spice Bazaar, and ate döner sandwiches obsessively. In İstiklal Caddesi, Ginger bought Europop CDs, kitschy T-shirts, and glass nazars to ward off the evil eye for her family, the good luck charms reminding her of blue sunny side eggs.
One day, as she was exploring the side streets of Taksim, a group of shoe polish boys harassed her, which is where she experienced her first real adult trauma. They smeared shoe polish on her shoe, apologized, and then said, we wipe for free, no charge, but then they did it again on her other shoe, giving her the same line, so sorry, no charge. Once they’d finished, the leader of the shoe polish runts, a small gangly boy with a snaggletooth and black shoe polish streaks on his cheeks pinched her T-shirt shirt with his finger and said, you pay me now or I hurt you. She laughed at first, but snaggletooth was dead serious. They closed in on her, grabbing her clothes with their dirty little paws that were caked in dried polish. They yelled into her face, Come on, you pay us now! This not free. Pay us you bitch, you steal from us, this not free! Her heart was a nuclear meltdown. She handed them a 1,000 Turkish Lira in a daze and they laughed in her face, their spit ricocheting on her cheeks as they held tightly to her T-shirt and made throat-cutting gestures and pulled their eyes back, You joke with us, they shouted, pay us now you Kung-Fu bitch, pay us or we stab you! Never in Ginger’s life had children treated her like garbage before and she was a teaching assistant, but here in Istanbul the shoe polish boys made throat slitting gestures and shouted at her, Give us your time, Kung-Fu bitch! Snaggle- tooth’s nostrils flared with every exclamation point. The other boys mirrored him, shouting at her, pulling their eyes back and outlining their bodies with their own hands as if to say, Look at her body, look at her eyes. Snaggletooth grabbed her watchstrap and wrapped the end of her T-shirt around his fists, exposing her blue bra strap to the world. She pushed him away and tugged at her T-shirt, her heart skipping frantically like scratched-to-hell vinyl. She tried to create separation for a second to give herself the room to breathe, but her breath was lost in her body. She saw their threats for what they were—the training wheels for racist misogyny—and she felt helpless and exposed in a country without the amulet of language.
But just as she felt a scream slipping out of her throat, just as she pictured her hand slapping five boys in perfect succession like a scene out of Enter the Dragon, her fave movie as a teenager, an old Turkish man placed his body between Ginger and the boys. He was almost bald with a few strands of entangled gray hair covering his brown scalp like malnourished vines. Dressed in grey pants, brown sandals, and a black button down, he carried a newspaper tucked underneath his arm. Ginger was a New Yorker and could take care of herself in New York because she knew the rules of her existence, but here in Istanbul the rules weren’t hers. The old man yelled at the shoe polish boys in Uzi-fire Turkish, wagging his finger in the air and shaking his head in disapproval. Their faces plummeted to the ground as the ringleader looked around for help, his eyes scanning the crowd, glaring at her defiantly out of the corner of his eye. When the old man was done berating them, he led Ginger to a nearby restaurant, looking over his shoulder until the baby gangsters had disappeared like a cloud of cicadas floating to another crop. Of course, she felt sudden loyalty for this Turkish grandfather, whoever the hell he was, but she worried that her gratitude could make her vulnerable, and that her vulnerability could make her disappear.
The old man paid for two chais, stirring a dissolved sugar cube inside the slender beak of his tea glass. He took a slow sip and then looked up at her. —Çinli mısın? he asked.
—I’m sorry, yok türkçe.
For an hour they talked in two broken languages using sentence fragments, botched infinitives, air sketches, regressive charades, moments of sympathetic listening, fill in the blanks, napkin illustrations, polite confusion, and sometimes blind intuition. It was a whole conversation of conclusion jumping. Ginger had never been good with foreign languages. Her Mandarin was for teenyboppers and her English grammar totally sucked, but somehow, she and the old Turkish man understood each other because they wanted to and the desire to understand is always a precondition for empathy. For one singular hour, they were two travelers trying to cross the great cultural divide, two human beings dialed into each other after spending their whole lives translating their feelings for people who didn’t listen and didn’t understand. It was only after he’d shaken her hand one last time and grinned, his crow’s feet crawling up his temples like enchanted ivy, carved into his leathery skin like Roman aqueducts in Foça’s streets, it was only after he’d walked towards Taksim Square that Ginger felt a sickness in her stomach. She suddenly noticed the polish stains on her favorite BKI T-shirt, the one she’d bought in Williamsburg one rainy spring day. She gazed into the bottom of her chai glass and noticed clumps of sugar like the ruins of Troy, or at least the postcards of them she’d spotted near the Pudding Shop. It was at that moment of averted crisis and sudden isolation that she felt a deep, almost spiritual debt to the old man for his kindness. Ginger walked around the city center until she got lost, the sun bowing its head in the call to prayer, honeycombed streetlamps shed soft and wan geometries on the cobblestone sidewalks across the street from the Blue Mosque.
7. New York: The next day, almost in a trance, she left Istanbul like a bullied teenager leaving an impenetrable high school. She felt relieved, regretful, ashamed, and longing all at once for all the things she didn’t do. How could a city make her feel so many complex emotions? How could this be the end of her trip? When she made her way through customs at JFK twenty-two hours later, New York had changed on her like an unfaithful mutation. Its streets were dirtier, brighter, and larger than she remembered. She felt like a stranger in her own city with a corrupted memory of her childhood and a narrated memory of her birth. Ginger remained in this daze for a couple weeks until the new pieces of her life fit into place. First, she got a full-time job at a fashion magazine she fucking detested, then she went to grad school for graphic design, and finally she began the flawed science of adulting. One day, she ran into Winnie at Astor Place just as the sun was setting, fireflies glowing around his head like a troupe of electric apostles preaching their incandescent gospel of love to the fallen city, their sermons floating above him like a tiny star map of salvation.
Amnesia of June Bugs can be ordered here.