Excerpt from the novel “Once upon a Spring”
That spring, when I encountered Firuze, I had just turned thirty-eight. It was a year of endless cold. The pink color of cherry blossoms was as dull as the eyes of dead fish; daisies were pale and low; geraniums dried just after blossoming, and the color of the sea still hadn’t turned from gray to blue. Storks, cranes, swallows, swifts had not yet graced our skies; robins and nightingales had not turned up in the parks to watch people with curious eyes.
I, meanwhile, felt like I was hiding, hibernating discreetly inside a tree trunk. I neither had the power to wake up from a heavy and sluggish sleep, nor to clean the cobwebs spun upon me. I was stuck inside the eerie loneliness of the tree trunk. I thought I had gotten my slice of the cake long ago and was dreaming of dying in silence. My imagination was destroyed, shattered to pieces; all the roads I had taken were closed, for good. I was short of breath. All the dreams that could have functioned as a cushion between my reality and me were in tatters now. I was exhausted. The roaring and howling of my heavy mind and my tired heart left me sleepless at night. Most of the time I couldn’t breathe because of the weight on my chest. I had crying jags every now and then. I wept in deserted parks, narrow streets, subway stairs.
My mother had died a few months before I ran into Firuze. Thirty years had now passed since the murder of my father, which had been hidden from me until I was a teen. The secret that my mother had kept from me now showered me like the grains of a dust cloud that penetrated my skin, slowly and painfully spreading to my spirit. My doctor had once explained that all traumas triggered one other and that all the losses of the past became resurrected after your last one. I remember replying, “but I’m suffering so much.” He answered, “suffering is good, you have to suffer,” and at that very moment I lost all my faith in him, as well. It was as if he took pleasure in my suffering, or thought I didn’t even deserve to live this life. That was also the moment I realized that some pain in life could never be overcome. I felt like a seed in a world where everything was destined to end and everyone was destined to die. I sprouted, I grew, I decayed, and I lay on the soil to die again, until I sprouted and grew and decayed and died again and again and again. . . For a very long time I was stuck in between this cycle of life and death, and I asked myself one essential question: what made the pain bearable?
My youthful years had taught me to withdraw into my shell, move as far away as I could from people, and silently exit their pompous lives. When I found myself at a sufficient distance, I turned back to see my footsteps. Instead of being alone in huge crowds, I thought, I would rather be alone with my footsteps. A sweet wind of serenity surrounded me until I realized that those footsteps were not even mine. They belonged to other people and other lives. I dreamt of being born into a different life, I set up alternative scenarios in which I had entirely different problems. I acted out the roles that I wrote for myself.
“I’m a seagull, no, no, I’m not. . .”
Oh! How alienated I was, even to my own voice. While everyone around me kept saying that I was strong and robust, I was only a poor, miserable woman who dreamt of dying but couldn’t even manage that because of cowardice. I imagined my cold dead body collapsed over railroad tracks, or swollen up, floating on the surface of deep blue water, nibbled by fish. . . And maybe. . . maybe shrapnel pieces would pierce my body, those metal shards would sink into my thigh bone, my back, and my breasts and all my internal organs would be smashed to pieces. The forensic science expert would write in his report, “hemorrhage due to the severing of main veins in the amputated areas.”
Just as they wrote in my father’s autopsy report.
When I came across Firuze that day, I was sitting in a street café with all these ominous thoughts swarming in my brain. My hands were shaking, my fingers were freezing, but my palms were wet with sweat. The nape of my neck was throbbing violently, I was hardly breathing, my chest was heaving. My bowels were churning and nausea was mounting. It was as if someone had plunged a syringe into my vein and was extracting my blood. I was about to faint. I took my glasses off and held my head tightly between my sweaty palms. Seizures were old friends from my past. The brown bottle with the little pills that I had to take when these seizures struck was on the table. I couldn’t remember if I had taken the pill or not. Always the same question! Did I take the pill? My doctor told me to draw a notch on my hand every day after I took the pill, but I eventually forgot that, as well.
I craned around, trying to see the interior of the café. The girl who brewed my coffee every day and smiled at me every time she served me had her hair in a bun that day, her eyes were fixed on her phone. On the wall behind her was a design made from coffee beans. She stood up immediately when she sensed I was looking at her and asked if I needed anything. I politely asked if she could turn off the heater. No matter how cold it was, I always preferred to sit outside. I visited the coffee shop every day at the same hour and killed time watching people go by while waiting for my son to come out of school. It was an ordinary, simply designed café, there were only three round tables on the pavement and uncomfortable iron chairs that hurt your back if you sat for a long time. Although there were comfortable armchairs with cushions inside the café, I always preferred to sit outside because I loved eavesdropping on passersby: it felt like I was being invited into their lives for a few seconds.
On the right side of the café was a hair salon, and on the left was a birth center. I tried to predict the stories of the women by looking at their happy or sullen faces. Some couldn’t get pregnant no matter how hard they tried, some got pregnant accidentally and wanted to get rid of the baby, some were not sure who the father was. I created stories for each one of them. I once offered to write a series of articles for the newspaper I worked for, but the editor-in-chief turned me down, saying that “womanly nonsense” of this sort was worthless, and leaving me feeling empty.
The women emerging from the hair salon were usually fancy and fashionable. I witnessed their rush to get to their rendezvous or to their homes. I wondered whether their only problem was what to cook for their husbands, or did they have a life that belonged to them at all? Did they have worries, anxieties? Was the table of “their own” a kitchen table?
I especially observed the married women. Were they really happy? Had they given up on happiness? Maybe they were saving all the tears they hadn’t shed somewhere. My heart and my soul were calloused. Either I knew nothing about happiness, or I had never experienced the warmth of a family. Or maybe both. . .
I never made the bed; the dirty dishes remained in the sink. I never ironed the bed linen, never cleaned the hair blocking the drain of the washbasin. The laundry waited for days. My doctor strongly advised me to commit to a daily routine and even told me that I could regain the trust I had lost long ago. When he informed me that people who committed to an authority felt more secure, I was either too conscious to shut it out, or too numb to hear. “Freedom might be a scary dream but I stopped obeying the authorities a long time ago, doctor,” I retorted.
I was on the verge of craziness, I was suffering, blown around like autumn leaves. Again and again, I saw the same scene in my mind’s eye: I was sitting on the pavement, weeping, just like the day I’d wept when I read my father’s autopsy report. People were buzzing like flies on top of me, it was a slum, there were soda bottle caps, broken beer glasses, cigarette butts, and rubbish all over the ground. I couldn’t even raise my head and look up at the sky. Either the dazzling light hurt my eyes, or I no longer had any faith in life. I couldn’t even remember how long I’d been sitting there. The only thing I knew was that the pavement was at the bottom of a dark well, a dead end, a cul-de-sac. I myself had built that deep, dark well. It was deep, very deep. Some people approached me to learn who I was but I didn’t hear them. One asked me if I was a journalist, another asked if I was a secret police officer. A little girl asked me, “Have you lost your way? Why are you crying?” Of course, I didn’t say a word.
Behind the moving curtain of the apartment I was sitting in front of, there was something that belonged to me and something else holding it. I could neither get him back nor resist it. I sat on the pavement for hours and aimlessly went around in circles like a hopeless laboratory rat until finally I went home. I decided to tell my son that his father wouldn’t ever be coming back home again. It reminded me of the day when my mother sat in front of me with swollen eyes and told me that my father was never returning home. I was only eight years old. I had the same cold look in my eyes as I’d seen in my mother’s. Who knows, maybe right after this pained conversation, my mother shut herself in the bathroom, locked the door, and stayed there for hours. One year and seven months had passed since the day I cowered on the cold pavement stones like a sparrow. Nineteen months in all. I had come to terms neither with myself nor with life itself. Dying still seemed like a brilliant idea.
Just a minute before I saw Firuze, I was surrounded by a whirl of thoughts that had me under siege with my elbows resting stiffly on the table of the street café, still wondering if I had swallowed the pills or not. The water bottle on the table was half full and the glass empty but I always preferred to drink from the bottle. I stared at the dried ring of coffee on the bottom of my cup; I wondered when I had finished drinking it. The pills from the brown bottle? I couldn’t remember either of them. There was a pile of newspapers on the iron chair next to me, left behind by others sitting there before me. Apparently, there were still people who read newspapers. I leaned over to see what date it was and checked my wristwatch.
March 17, 2:55 p.m.
Derin will be out of school in twenty minutes.
Just that moment, I saw Firuze.
At first I wondered if it was her or not. She looked depressed, collapsed, worn out. She was only a year older than me but seemed like an elderly woman. She was dressed in bright colors, as if to hide her weariness. She was always fancy and chic. She had a purple jacket on and was wrapped in a purple and pink scarf. She was wearing tight jeans and shoes that matched her jacket. She had no accessories at all, no rings or bracelets. Her cheeks were sunken. There were dark circles under her eyes that she hadn’t bothered to cover with concealer. As a matter of fact, I recognized her from her walk, her very characteristic walk.
“Oh! Firuze, I knew it was you!”
I called out her name in excitement. At first she didn’t recognize me, as I understood from her bewildered look. “Don’t tell me you don’t recognize me,” I said. “Öykü, is that you?” she exclaimed in joy. I nodded in a burst of happiness. We rushed into each other’s arms and embraced tightly. My fear of not being recognized when she hesitated had vanished, I was relieved. I asked her what she was doing. She pointed at the bank on the corner, said that she had an appointment, and added that she could sit with me for ten minutes. She was holding the strap of her shoulder bag, as if she was trying to ease her burdens. As we sat at the table, both of us smiling, the astonishment and uneasiness between us was nearly gone. I told her that I was waiting for my son to come out of school. She was very surprised when she learned I had a son. She couldn’t say a word.
I had been searching for Firuze for such a long time! On the Internet, on the databases of the newspapers I worked for, but she was nowhere to be found. She straightened her shoulders and said:
“You couldn’t find me because I wasn’t here in Turkey, I lived in Canada and America for a very long time.”
Now it was my turn to be surprised. When we were high-school girls, we had all dreamed of studying and living abroad, all except Firuze. When I asked her what had changed her mind, she explained that it was a long story and that she couldn’t talk about it on the run. She asked for my number and saved it on her phone.
“It’s a miracle to find you again, I’ll tell you everything, let’s do dinner some time,” she offered.
I felt relieved of the heavy weight on my chest, my nausea was gone, but my palms were a little sweaty and I was still a bit dizzy. Despite all this, I forced myself to stay strong and feel better.
“Firuze, how on Earth have we lived each other’s dreams?”
She carefully avoided my question and asked my son’s age. We had been best friends, sitting around the same table, sleeping in the same bed when I lost track of her. Now I was very curious about her life and how she was keeping afloat. I told her my son was eleven, going to middle school. Then I blurted out the one question that upset her, “Do you have a child?” Once again she avoided my question.
“How about the girls? Do you know what they’re doing?”
We had all gone off in different directions; I only followed their lives online. Handan had a tourism agency and had become a traveler; she uploaded photos from all over the world while winning awards for excellence in her job. Yasemin was an associate professor at a university and gave seminars. She sent me some of her articles but we never had a chance to get together to talk about life’s problems. After this short summary, we decided to have a reunion.
“All those memories from the boarding school years. . . We have to get together to remember those days and catch up on the last twenty years. Let’s get the gang back together.”
The most important question was whether we were still those innocent little boarding school girls. Could we still care for the wounds that our families had inflicted on our bodies and souls?
“Welcome back to my life, Firuze,” I whispered into her ear as I touched her nose with my fingertip, just like I used to do.
“Welcome back to you as well,” she answered in a distant voice and walked away. I could see that she was smiling.