By Merve Pehlivan
My bladder taut as a drum, my left pinkie wrapped inside the fist of Nil, I am unable to turn in bed. We spend the nights like this; she needs to attach herself to me before she can doze off. This is not entirely surprising, considering that she dropped her umbilical cord on the twentieth day of her life, no complication whatsoever, simply because she was completely oblivious to her new place of residence. Anyway, I don’t know what to do with my pelvis now. I had mastered Kegel exercises, practicing every morning for three months up to our wedding day, skipping only the first days of my period; but I feel hopeless right now, at two a.m. in the morning, unable to unclasp these vermicular fingers. Sometimes during her sleep, she suddenly gasps and tightens her grip on my pinkie. That’s how I woke up tonight. She is a light sleeper like me; a part of her is always wakeful, always on the watch in case you might change something in her life when she is at her most useless.
But sometimes I lose sleep completely, like the night and several more nights after my purchase of a designer purse for seven hundred and eighty liras. I was dumb enough to pay it in just two installments but I felt worse for not using the bag more than once. I went on a date in a figure-hugging blue frock and this matching purse. I tried to walk towards the taxi after dinner, my thighs pressing against each other like bruised eggplants, stuck my stiletto heel in a pave and tripped. I never saw him again. I hated both the shoes and the purse but I kept its cotton drawstring bag to stuff Nil’s socks and napkins into.
When the nurse placed Nil inside my lap for the first time after she was born, well, after I restored my consciousness, my grandmother in the corner of the room was thunderously blowing her nose into her blue mitered-corner napkin and wiped her tears with it too. My mom was smiling at me like I deserved all the pity on earth.
Two days after she left my womb, the baby was diagnosed with jaundice and was placed in a cot for phototherapy. I think it is perfectly easy to mix up babies in those cots. They look exactly the same: excess skin on their bodies like rumpled cloth, faces bright red, mouths opening into toothless little caverns, eye colors undecided, so much hair on the head for such a handful of a human being. Nil is seven months old now. Her eyes grow into a notch toward her tear glands, like her father’s; her cheeks are so plump that squeeze her lips into a tiny button, also like her father’s. She has my hair. Black.
We were in our second year as a married couple and sixth as lovers. I had just been entitled to use my annual leave from the event-planning agency I worked for when Asım surprised me with a weekend trip to Vienna. The day we arrived in December, we walked by a Swarovski store under a soft, white sky, jewels scintillating from around icicles and on snow-powdered pine trees. I pulled Asım closer to me and said: “You are one lucky bastard. Your bride never asked for any diamonds.” Then we entered a large souvenir shop. I found this cute little magnet, a baby tortoise cupped on the back of a mother tortoise. Asım snuck behind me and put his chin on my shoulder: “Let’s dye your hair red and buy you stilettos. I’ll take you to dinner tonight.” I immediately scanned the shop to spot a porcelain-skinned redhead, hair glowing on her back like a hayfield on fire. She was nowhere around. He must have seen her elsewhere before we entered. I said no, paid for the magnet and rushed out.
When he yelled my name in the street, I turned around and warned him against following me. I spent the next two hours in Café Leopold Hawelka, the only place where I knew he could find me. I perched into a nook and ordered hot chocolate. I played with the magnet and warmed my hands around the cup. It must have been a tourist, probably a Nordic one, hot-blooded and careless. Austrian women looked more regular. But we were leaving in two days and he would be back in Ümraniye among swarthy women with saggy breasts, cloth over cloth draping down their heels. I wondered how I would look like in red hair. Paint them red, blue or platinum; curls always remain curls.
Not long after, Asım appeared at the door, nose red and breathing out white air. I slid down in my couch. I always loved the way he looked fearful and nervous. When he found me, my bust rather, he took off his gloves and rubbed the soft skin between my thumb and my index finger. I let him pay for my hot chocolate and then we left. We took a longer route and walked through the park and passed by the river covered with patches of brittle ice. The mist of the air seemed to cast a silence on all motion in life; the buildings far ahead looked like crinkle-edged, pale postcards of Istanbul from the times when the empire was falling. Just before we walked past the gilded statue of a composer, clumps of snow on his violin; Asım stopped and touched the locks fluffing from under my knit cap: “Snowflakes look good only on black curls. What a fool I was today. Forgive me.”
My heart no firmer than the slush under my feet, I pulled my scarf down to feel his warm breath. We grabbed a fast schnitzel on our way back and then headed to the hotel when the day was turning blue on the streets. When we were up in our room, he didn’t let me turn the lights on and left my face in shade. He pulled me against him towards the window and kissed me; a slow, savoring kiss that he gave me when he wanted me so much. Behind us, the city was just wearing its nocturnal glitter. Two months later, I had found out that I was pregnant.
Back at university years ago, I hardly allowed myself such recklessness. On a leaden morning in our south campus office, the humming teapot and tall windows wiped in steam, board members of the Leftist Ideology Club had presented their best arguments to wring a yes out of me, but I vetoed their every decision and caused an impasse at a crucial time before we set the yearly plan. Asım said that we needed to shift our attention to current philosophical trends and insisted that we read more Žižek.
I looked right into his eyes: “He might be the sexiest philosopher on earth, but he spends millions in yacht clubs in Dubai while still insolently calling himself a Marxist.” And someone else mentioned Sunay Akın. A loveable poet in his own right, nostalgic about toys and rain drains, but how the hell was he entitled to make a speech on national identity? The meeting ended, but the bickering went on into the evening. When we finally decided to hold an extra meeting the next day, I scuttled to the canteen to buy something to eat.
Asım called my name. “I know you went to Žižek’s conference at Bilgi University.”
I tried little to hide my satisfaction.
“Well of course I did. He’s really good to look at. But that doesn’t make his works eligible for discussion at our meetings.” When my sandwich arrived, thin slices of chicken lost between wilted greens, I remembered that I had barely eaten anything that day.
“I see. Do you want a little bit of mustard?”
Did he really know how much I loved mustard? I wanted to reach for it myself but Asım was quicker than me.
“Yes, thank you.”
“So tell me, Miss President, would you give me the exact same answer if I asked you to let me buy you this late dinner?”
I studied his face for a moment. Waiting in that space of indecision felt like freedom, a sense of lightness I wish I had retained longer. His eyes moved away from mine only to catch them again in a few seconds. I wanted to touch his stubbly Adam’s apple.
“I can pay for myself.”
I found all the coins I needed in the bottom of my backpack and walked away.
The day after I threw the bouquet of rosebuds he gave to me into the dumpster and charged towards the library, I spent hours hanging posters and distributing fliers for the seminar on national identity. I was just about to step down to the fine arts atelier and finish with the south campus. I was pushing the heavy glass door when I heard hurried steps down the slope behind me. It was him. He halted abruptly under the locust trees that bowered the winding road and rustled leaves under his feet. He told me that he had stood behind the taxi rank the previous day and watched me, and the rosebuds, disappear.
“Why are you doing this to me?” he said. I never wanted to upset him, not then, not later. I just hate roses -and all flower bouquets for that matter- tied with cheesy ribbons, exuding cheap perfume.
“Will you help me sort out these fliers?” I asked, touching his shoulder. He turned his head around and I let him kiss my hand.
He loved me. He loved my gait, he loved me when I frowned; he loved me when I laughed. He loved me when I jumped on the chair after downing my third glass of rakı and joined the singers at the meyhane on our Friday night outs. He always made sure the chair was steady. He loved my hair. He loved my hair most when I tossed my braid back and put my elbows on the fat, pirated textbooks, palms on my temples, ahead of a white night in the study hall. He loved me when I lied to my mom about the Labor Day march; he wiped my eyes first with cotton balls dabbed in apple vinegar when we got tear-gassed and held my hand so tight when I was gasping back to normal breath that I thought my finger bones were crushing. I had snot and slobber copiously running down my chin onto my t-shirt; he was only red in the eyes, a redness I had seen before when he told me he loved me so much and that when I threw that bouquet into the dumpster I had splintered his heart like tender glass.
Perhaps there is only so much pain you can take. When you feel so close to death, it loses all horror. There is a ceiling of some sort you hit where pain dissolves into a silly concussion and goes away. The morning Nil was born, I woke up with intermittent contractions and went to the bathroom to find that my water had broken. I sat down by the window. Rain seemed to have cleared the thick air from yesterday and the grass glinted in early dew. When I was about twenty, I had found out why I was always at least half an hour early to any appointment. My grandfather died from an asthma attack and the doctors said that he could have been saved if he had come ten minutes earlier. Asım never quite realized this. I would say to him “Find me at the Üsküdar terminal at six.” He would arrive early and start looking for me through the turnstiles. He would squint as if to spot me faster but he squinted also when he wanted to appear nonchalant. When he saw that I was nowhere among the passengers of the latest ferry, he would start fidgeting about the sidewalk. At precisely six, he would walk away towards the maritime museum, sit and pretend to read the newspaper he’d rolled up inside his jacket. Throughout the entire time, I would watch him from among the whirring busses right across the terminal and carefully disappear. There was beauty in waiting for him, but beauty was also in knowing that he would wait. That he would eventually do anything to find me.
My back felt stiff. I got up and took out the mother and baby tortoise magnet from inside a cloth bag that I had tucked away in the wardrobe. I put it in front of the windowsill and walked back to bed to pat on my mother’s shoulder: “Mom, it’s time.”
She was startled like she was awake just a second ago, mumbled a few prayers into the sky, hurried to tidy up the living room while grumbling about not finding her slippers. I told her that she had shoved them back under the bed when she rose up in haste and I was half-frustrated that I couldn’t kneel to help her out. I had to tour the house about five times before she swept the rooms and polished the tables because flocks of relatives would care about fingering furniture to spot dust and not about the mother or the baby. By the time we got to the hospital, the contractions had become more frequent. I wasn’t supposed to eat or drink anything, they fed me intravenously and when they wetted my mouth with cotton balls, I licked my lips like a thirsty cat. The doctor told me that my cervix was dilating one centimeter every hour and the birthing would start when it reached ten centimeters. I ambled up and down the room for the following three hours; chill of sterility tightened around my body like winter air. A huge, hard something kept pushing down inside between my legs, so unable to get out and making me suffer so bestially that all I could feel was a foul constipation.
On the fifth hourly examination, I lied down on the delivery bed; they placed my feet on these stirrups and snapped my ankles. The doctor said that my cervix was now eight centimeters open and asked me if I consented to let her slit the rest. I said: “Do whatever the fuck you want.” She numbed my groins and the birthing began. From then on, I have only fluid sensations – those that I don’t remember having felt but were told by the doctor when it was all over. She told me that at some point she dug her nails into my palms because poking on that acupunctural treatment area would help my cervix dilate more. I vaguely remember the nurse jumping upon my upper body to help push further.
Then a lot of blood, but when I think of blood, I think of gallons of it. I think of gallons of blood wiped on all the pictures of that day, from the cloth bag to the slow, few steps at the hospital gate, my hand in my mother’s tremble, Asım’s sudden face at the emergency desk that made me tremble more, the umbilical cord that seemed to roll out forever, my mom counting the toes of the baby, the IV pole that I wheeled with me when I kept rotating in the room.
Just a few minutes after I bellowed “Kill me!” in plain honesty, the doctor was holding the purple, little thing in her hand and I said “What! She’s hairy like a seal!” Her hair was stuck together in clot and her forehead looked squeezed towards her eyebrows. It disappeared only last month. Apparently, she gravitated downward and crushed her soft head against my cervix while I was constantly on my feet during the last few hours she spent inside me.
The doctor said, with a fulfilled smile that she probably thought would reassure me that she had to “clean up the mess down there”. She would anesthetize me again, now blocking my consciousness too because that would help me relax. After a while, or so it seemed, as I was recovering my senses unsteadily, feeling a hand on my forehead, but hearing her voice as if it blew through a tunnel, my eyelids fell again.
I was in the green hills of Rize. I was in the waves of dewy tea my grandmother was about to pick. I was five and no longer fit inside the wicker basket she strapped on her back; so we now carried a large, canvas sack along with a smaller one attached to a hand shear. When my grandmother shrank into a hunch and vanished among the leaves, leaving the large sack behind to fill it up gradually, I spread it over the shrub and sprung upon it face-up. All the buds broke and I fell into a puddle on the dirt road. Then it started raining. I coiled up and laid the sack on my body. By the time my grandmother could climb up, dig my head under her breasts and take me home, I had shivered long enough to catch fever. That night, she folded a white napkin, soaked it in water and put it on my forehead. She occasionally cupped her palm over my head and stroked my hair. “My lovely honeycomb, your baby will be here soon. Washed clean of blood and all.” I touched my deflated belly. I was feeling weightless; perched safe on the shrub, able to fly anytime into the smoking hills. Up there was a pine tree, my tree; I rode on the swing back and forth and clouds passed under my feet.
My grandmother was gently clearing my still moist nape off my hair when I opened my eyes and said: “Where is the baby? Did they show it to her father first? Didn’t you tell him to go home?” Just then mom appeared at the doorway, radiating, and pushed the door back to let the nurse in. She was shushing the baby with soft pats on its back; a wriggly little thing enveloped in an oversized pink blanket. Mom scampered toward my bedside and said “She’ll recognize your heartbeat.” Indeed, when the nurse nestled the baby in my arms, her head against my left breast, she stopped crying. When I looked at my mom, I nudged myself into a smile. I didn’t know what to feel.
Later I did. I learned, rather. I learned to worry, I learned to love. My mom said that a mother’s instinct is the only lighthouse that will guide her ship in black storms. I think I had to fumble my way through the storm before the lighthouse started beaming. Here she was, going red in spasms of tearless cries, flinging her head back from my ugly, browned nipples; scratching my face with her impossibly fast-growing nails, crying and crying and not knowing any less miserable way of communicating herself to me- what does she need now? Poop, burp, milk, sleep?
Around the time she talked about that lighthouse, I still needed her. Nil’s poop had become too runny for some reason and I’d panicked. After the lace thong incident though, I told her to pack her stuff and go back to Rize.
I was checking out these online dating websites -not checking out actually, just a random click on the side-bar ad- and got curious. A thirty-year-old loner living in Ulus, trimmed beard, pointed chin and pilot glasses that say I spin girls on my fingers and I want you to know it. Even though I had no plans of getting laid or anything, I wanted to feel how those fashion models and ordinary Western girls sashayed in thongs and stilettos. The first time I had bought a thong was when Asım implied his interest in lacy underwear. Wedged inside my buttocks, I’d felt so self-conscious in it that I kept squirming on the sofa, nuzzling his face randomly like I was trying to locate his lips. But I was determined to give it a full chance this time. I bought this purple lace thong matched with my purple satin bra. I told mom that I was going to a wedding reception and would be back in three hours. I laid my navy blue frock, the designer purse and those damn stilettos on my bed, thong slipped under the dress. I heard mom’s huffing over the hair dryer’s sound before she dashed into the bathroom waving the thong into my face. I told her that I had missed wearing lingerie and that it was just a complementary garment, but she kept fussing about why I was lying to her and what on earth I was going to do with it if I had no plans of getting under someone’s sheets, which of course was a one-way ticket to hell. Nil woke up, whimpering and shifting in her crib, her loosely fitting sock pulled out with impatient kicks on the blanket. I put the sock back on her foot, took her in my arms and started rocking her gently. Her sobs diminished with broken and then regular sighs. In the mirror, my belly was protruding. I had to find my corset to fit into that dress.
The color was slightly different though. The woman in the Vogue magazine had a fluid, azure blue blue dress with a long slit that started just under the bump of her hipbone and bore long, slender legs daubed in baby oil. They looked flawless under profuse studio lights. And they were airbrushed. Definitely airbrushed. Asım had left the magazine on the coffee table, spine almost cracked open to reveal page eighty-five. I’d pulled off the page carefully, tore it into discernible pieces and sandwiched them between his boxers in the drawer.
I once read in a health & wellness website that our navels had this chakra that worked on the matters of the ego. Perhaps that’s why I developed reflux. It’s impossible to not hate yourself when you are punched in the gut. You start to crumble inside, trying so hard to keep a firm belly.
It was an unusually clear, dry afternoon in February. Half-raised shutters formed pores of light on the curtains and on the wall. Cars droned and vanished into the street. The shower tap was dripping in a persistent rhythm. Asım always left it loose.
“You never try. You never even try. You only shave regularly. Well, thank you for that.”
Suddenly, it was too cold inside the room. It was also too bright. I stepped back to hold on to the radiator but I didn’t know how to hide, how to run away from all light. In half breath, I said I was pregnant. He got up from the chair, grabbed the water pitcher and dropped it before smashing it on the floor. He collapsed into a squat against the wall and his stare softened into tears. I had never seen him so lonely. His eyelids fluttered and closed like a dying bird.
“Don’t worry, we’ll take care of that. Don’t worry.” he kept saying to himself.
In a few hours, I packed up and went to my grandmother’s to make him panic and draw me, and our baby, back into his heart. He didn't. I left the shower tap loose every night until Nil was born.
I used to believe that my life was love-locked. When it slackened in the joints, I didn’t hear the squeaks. Or I thought they came from elsewhere. Everything caved in, my lungs were still full of dust, but someone started to grab me by my pinkie at night.
Merve is a translator and interpreter based in Istanbul. She writes short stories. She is also the founder and host of Spoken Word Istanbul and Spoken Word Türkçe. You can find out about Spoken Word here