New Years Day
By Ezgi Üstündağ
Dilara had only just recovered from tripping over the corner of the dining room area rug when her phone started buzzing and chiming. Yonca’s call was a surprise, not because Dilara had not heard from her in more than a year, but because no one ever called on January first, not even her mother, who was in the habit of rolling her daughter’s birthday wishes and more general ones for a happy New Year into a single December thirty-first conversation. And for the past ten January firsts, Dilara, who hated the fanfare around aging another year, had been the one giving gifts—her twin sons wanted to receive presents in the winter like the rest of their classmates, and it was an effective means of deflecting attention away from her own birthday.
Dilara’s rug incident happened just after she’d finished disposing of the wrapping paper that had concealed her sons’ new remote-controlled cars, which were presently being test-driven under the unseasonably warm Carolina sun.
“Ah, merhaba Dilara’cığım! Happy birthday!”
Dilara recognized her friend’s voice immediately, but the sight of a piece of wrapping paper slowly un-wadding itself and dropping from the wastebasket delayed her reaction long enough to allow Yonca to clear her throat with some hesitation. “Merhaba Yonca. Thank you. Thanks for calling.”
“Is this a bad time? Can you talk?”
She assured Yonca she could. It was a holiday, after all, which reminded her: “Happy New Year!”
“Thank you, Dilara’cığım. Have Cenk and Mert already opened their presents?”
“Yes, we had our Turkish Christmas this morning,” Dilara said with a short, polite laugh.
“Those two should be getting their mother presents, not the other way around.”
They permitted themselves a few quiet chuckles before Yonca cleared her throat again and inhaled deeply. “Can you believe it’s 2017?”
Dilara shook her head until she remembered that Yonca couldn’t see her. “No,” she said, anticipating that her friend had more to say on the matter.
Yonca continued, “I had hoped 2017 would be better than 2016 but it looks like it’s going to be much worse.”
It was common practice in phone calls between long-separated friends and relatives, especially between current and former Istanbulites: a cheerful exchange of greetings followed by several minutes of lamentation. Without the merry opening, the Turk living abroad might assume something terrible and personal, like a death in the family, had befallen her friend. But a happy greeting followed by talk of death on a national scale was more routine. No, the caller had not been affected. This latest headline had not entered into her life. How could she have brought it up so nonchalantly if it had?
Dilara had read about the National Tragedy in the waning hours of the preceding year. Scrolling through notifications from Turkish news applications on her phone while only half-listening to her husband or sons was a relatively new habit that, by now, seemed old. Ismail had objected to her clinging to her smart phone the day after the first in the recent wave of National Tragedies, but adopted it himself after the fourth or fifth.
“The attack last night,” Dilara said with resignation, as she knew the next several minutes would focus on this latest bloody episode. “We heard after dinner. It was on CNN all night.” She had first seen it after rinsing the dishes, the horrific result of an absentminded tap on the BBC News icon on her phone screen. The boys had trudged to bed just before nine o’clock and allowed her and Ismail to silently observe the foreign correspondents reporting live from Ortaköy until North Carolina’s first few minutes of 2017. The flashing blue and red lights against the black waters of the Bosphorus had clung to her all morning. Still, the routine from prior New Year’s Days had survived: good morning kisses, presents, breakfast—there was no reason for the children to know—and finally sweeping away the plates abandoned on the table and the gift wrap littering the living room floor.
Remembering the sequence felt important. Dilara worried it would repeat should she ever forget that she had already grieved and grown anxious. Better an ugly scar than a bleeding wound.
“Kerem and I didn’t hear about it until this morning. We sat there all night watching The Voice New Year’s Eve special and went to sleep. God damn it. You said you heard about it around dinnertime?” she asked.
“Well, it was probably on the news earlier. We’re seven hours behind you—”
“Eight,” Yonca said.
“Right, now it’s eight. We ate dinner around six.”
“Hep ölüm, hep ölüm, hep ölüm. My God, all we hear about is death!”
Dilara agreed and wanted to demonstrate the extent of her agreement. For a moment, it seemed appropriate to tell her former roommate that, every morning, she checked the headlines as soon as she opened her eyes (first Hürriyet then the BBC), to make sure nothing had stolen away her loved ones while she was asleep. Sometimes she couldn’t wait and scrolled through them in the middle of the night. She considered tracing the cycle of anxiety and anger that ensued following an overnight National Tragedy: quietly telling her husband, phone in hand, while he shaved; watching him sigh and shake his head and curse softly; not telling her sons; directing Cenk and Mert to the kitchen, while tapping on Turkish news bulletins and English-language think pieces on her country’s “democratic death spiral” (words that must have felt so inconsequential to the Anglophone journalist who typed them); trying to forget on her way to work as she listened to some Sezen Aksu album, an auditory safety blanket, for the thousandth time; remembering again as soon as she logged into her computer, rereading the same think pieces, swearing she was too exhausted to read another word, hitting “refresh” in the hope that Hürriyet had published a transcript of the government’s attempt to explain the loss of life.
It all seemed so relevant to the conversation but Dilara remained silent. She didn’t live just up the hill from the site of the National Tragedy, nor had she been anywhere near her city’s other ground zeroes in the past two years. A moment later, she sighed to demonstrate solidarity: she, too, was exasperated but could not have expressed the sentiment better than her friend, who still lived in the epicenter.
“Fuck. Dilara, it’s your birthday. Look at what we’re talking about.”
“It’s fine. I already know thirty-eight is going to be shitty.”
They paused again, this time without laughter, as Dilara waited for her friend, whom she knew was also reliving the hours since first learning of the National Tragedy, to change the subject. Something ordinary would be welcome, she thought.
“When were you last in Istanbul?” Yonca asked.
“Three years ago next month,” Dilara said, remembering that Yonca had recommended a restaurant in Etiler to her and Ismail for Valentine’s Day. The boys had stayed with Yonca and Kerem, who insisted, politely but unconvincingly, that they attached no special meaning to February fourteenth. “But my mother stayed with us this summer.”
“Sedef teyze is doing well?”
“Her knees are giving her some trouble. Calcification, the doctor says. At least she doesn’t have to be alone for half the year.”
“It gets so hot in Izmir after June. She’s smart to stay with you.”
“It gets warm here, too, but the whole house has air conditioning.”
“And her grandsons.”
“Of course. She loves being with them.”
“I can imagine,” Yonca said. “So it’s pretty warm over there, where you all live?” “Over there” didn’t need a proper name. Yonca wasn’t in the habit of thinking in states.
“Yes, it’s been warm here lately,” Dilara said.
“It’s twenty-two degrees today. Cenk and Mert are playing on the street like they do in the spring.”
“Twenty-two! Just like spring weather. It’s supposed to snow here,” Yonca said, pausing. “My cousin went to New York for business last week. He said it was cold there.” She sounded happy to have made another connection.
“I’m sure. But we’re about nine hours south, by car.”
“That’s right. You had mentioned you were closer to DC.”
Dilara mumbled in affirmation as she paced between the kitchen and living room.
“DC,” Yonca repeated. “Where your new president will be, right? In how many days now?” Her election reference carried a less-than-subtle undertone of amusement.
“Later this month. That’s another nightmare.”
“It sounds like it. He’s an idiot.”
“A complete idiot.”
Her friend laughed sincerely, maybe for the first time since the night before. “I’m sorry. Don’t be too upset though. Things over there can’t be as bad as what’s happening here.”
Yonca meant well, Dilara was sure. “He said some terrible things during the election, and the people advising him. They are racists, sexists . . . the worst people.”
“I’m not saying things will be good in America. I’m saying they won’t ever be quite as bad.” As evidence she offered reassuring remarks about America’s peaceful neighbors, the independent judiciary, the journalists and comedians who could take aim at politicians as they pleased. She sensed the tension in her friend’s voice melt away with each sentence, as Yonca was confident she was right and that Dilara would soon agree.
The street visible from the kitchen window was silent, not a sound from the rows of identical townhouses, scrawny saplings and yellowed grass. Huzur, an all-encompassing peace of mind—it seemed ironic that her native language had such a simple word for it—was just outside, if only Dilara could accept everything Yonca had said about her adopted home.
As she rehearsed her response, something crashed into the front of the house.
“Pardon, Yonca’cığım, I think Cenk and Mert are making a mess outside.” She threw open the front door. The small blue Mustang that Cenk, older by seventeen minutes, had claimed had left a mark of the same color on the garage door. “Oğlum! One second, Yonca’cığım.”
“Is everything alright?”
“The boys hit the garage door with one of their toy cars. Left a mark but it’s nothing serious, thank goodness.”
“If you need to go—”
“Ismail!” she cried. “No, it’s okay. Ismail can watch them.” She called her husband’s name again and pointed at the front door without further instructions. He nodded and proceeded to scold Cenk and Mert; Dilara could only partially make out his muffled blend of Turkish and English words, and their sons’ indistinct English objections, on the other side of the door. “He’s handling it.”
“They scratched the door?”
“The garage door. Looks like some paint from their toy got on it.”
“Just let me know if you need to go. I could never talk on the phone for more than ten minutes when Nil was Cenk and Mert’s age.”
“Nil must be in middle school now.”
“She took her first round of high school placement exams in November.”
“How the years have gone by,” Dilara said reflectively.
“Do you think you’ll come to Istanbul this year?”
She had not seriously considered the trip, though Yonca had not been the first person to pose the question. Nor had Dilara prepared an evasive answer, since she felt guilty for not having seen her country in three years nor particularly wanting to end her absence this year.
“The boys want to,” Dilara said. “They miss their cousins. And my mother wants us to stay with her in Izmir. She says she’s getting too old to fly every six months. I don’t know how long I can be away from work, but Ismail may be able to take the twins to Istanbul for a couple weeks.”
Yonca was silent. Perhaps Dilara needed to elaborate further. “Then I’ll meet them in Istanbul and fly the boys to Izmir. He can fly back to America afterwards, and we’d join him in Raleigh a couple weeks later, if I can come to some sort of agreement with my boss. The office is always busy over the summer, as I think I’ve told you.”
“Yes, I remember,” Yonca answered, a response as underwhelming as Dilara’s improvised explanation. She exhaled forcefully. “Hayırlısı.” Ordinarily, this was a mundane word, an expression of cautious hope spoken countless times after every National Tragedy, but the apparent frustration in Yonca’s voice undermined its blandness.
Dilara remembered the morning she heard her mother say it for the first time, before it had become a permanent, unexceptional fixture in her lexicon. Its root seemed to be hayır, or “no,” and her mother had been sad, so Dilara had concluded her mother had rejected the news she had received on the phone. Still she had felt the need to confirm her theory as soon as her mother’s call had ended. “It means we hope for the best,” her mother had explained while wiping away a tear. Someone in the family must have died. Dilara could remember the next few sentences but not a single strand of their context. “Hayır is ‘no,’” Dilara had protested, to her mother’s amusement. “Hayır and haa-yır,” she continued, dragging out the “A” the second time to illustrate her point, “are two different words. Hayır is good; it comes from God. Haa-yır is, you know, what we say when we don’t want something. But a lot of times they sound exactly the same.”
Perhaps the meanings really were interchangeable, and Yonca had quietly rejected her friend’s long-winded string of excuses and maybes instead of claiming to hope for better days. After all, this hadn’t been Yonca’s first hayırlısı that day. Could it be that, long before she had picked up the phone, her prayers had dried up and replaced by denial: hayır—haa-yır—“no?”
“Öyle,” Dilara agreed. “Hayırlısı.” The words were not the same, she reminded herself. The two women had no choice but to pray for the best.
The front door creaked open, allowing Ismail and a thin beam of light to pass inside. It was still warm on the street. The sun shined on her sons’ backs and the right side of her husband’s face. It shined on the same street, with the bare trees and discolored grass, she could see from the window just above the sink. Ismail nodded and moved past Dilara into the kitchen, where she heard him pull something out of the refrigerator.
“How’s everything else going, Yonca’cığım?” Dilara sensed the conversation’s early enthusiasm withering.
“Everything else? It’s all fine. I told you that Nil is studying for her second round of high school placement tests. Kerem and I are trying to be supportive. Things will be a lot better once it’s behind us.”
“She’ll do great. When is it?”
“April,” Yonca said
"Hadi bakalım. Hayırlısı,” another involuntary prayer.
The goodbyes came as naturally as each remembered just how far she was from the other. They probably would not speak again until Yonca’s birthday—Dilara certainly had to return today’s gesture—but maybe Dilara really would visit that summer. At the very least, they would “like” one another’s social media posts. They didn’t consider the possibilities that carefully, of course, but took comfort in the small miracle that each had listened to the other.
Cenk and Mert entered the foyer and climbed the stairs in silence. The blue Mustang had been impounded, which was just as well. Dilara had never wanted Ismail to buy the boys such an unpredictable present.
In the kitchen, Ismail was pulling apart a stack of frozen lahmacun. He looked up briefly to smile at his wife. “I thought we could heat a few of these up later. Less work for you.”
Dilara nodded and set her phone on the raised countertop across from her husband and his mass of pitas.
“How is Yonca?”
“She says hi and happy New Year. She is doing fine.”
A year ago they would have cried more, and for longer. This morning they had exchanged presents. It occurred to Dilara that she knew exactly how she would respond to alarmed coworkers in two days’ time, how she would have to assure them she was doing fine because it was impolite to suggest otherwise.
Ezgi Üstündağ is a writer based in Durham, North Carolina. She has contributed pieces on Turkish music to Reorient and Cornucopia magazines. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in the Turkish literary journals 'YKY Kitap-lık,'‘Kaybolan Defterler’ and ‘Lemur.’ She is also a co-organizer of the annual Nâzım Hikmet Poetry Festival.