By T. Ecem Tosun, translated by Erica Eller
Though I’m a person of a hot coastal region, I had just left behind a day of 12 degrees below zero; I was walking towards my apartment. I had already finished my fifth month in this city. Feeling as if my hands were frozen, I took my keys from my purse and as I tried to open the outer door, I heard the girl from the next-door apartment, who I sometimes came across, say hello. After I opened the door and entered, we went out of our way to show the peak of our kindness towards one another. I watched her collect nearly a dozen envelopes that were waiting for her, before turning to face my own postbox. I had already known that there would be nothing inside. At most, there would be invitations to the parties of to the city, advertisements, and discount coupons. Continuing to chat with the girl at my side, I took out a single standing envelope that, in all its splendor, was waiting amidst the bills in my postbox. Without revealing even a touch of the excitement rising inside of me, I turned to the smiling girl who was waiting for me to go to the fifth floor where our flats were located. Promising to see each other again soon (though neither of us believed it) we said goodbye.
When I entered my small flat, my one and only castle in this city, I no longer needed to hide the excitement inside of me, so I took the envelope into my hand without even taking off my coat. The address on the envelope was mine, but there was no sender’s name written. If they were the sender’s name, just the initials J.W. filled the space. Moreover, the letter came from a city 1000 kilometers away, from Paris. Thinking that maybe it had come for the old tenant, I kept myself away from the letter at first. Yet, it only took me two seconds to lose my determination not to open the letter. After all, in the five months I had been living there, my postbox had received just one letter—and it was from the Turkish embassy. I could not let this exciting moment escape. I opened the letter with care, then started to read the letter written on Kraft paper.
Hello! How have you been since we last saw each other?
I hope everything’s fine. I realize that I’ve neglected you for a long time, but you know the reason is certainly not me—it’s life. Lately, I’ve been travelling constantly. At this moment, I’m writing these lines to you from a penthouse suite in Paris. The sun is about to set. Ella Fizgerald is playing in the background. I’ll be here a few more days. If you look at it this way, actually it’s very nice to be a person with this kind of job. I wish that you could be here, too, but the best time to be in Berlin is now. Go to a flea market for me on Saturday, wander around, enjoy the snow.
What have you been doing—could you tell me a little bit about it? I really miss hearing your voice.
Bundle up, see you soon . . .
I thought I had finally heard my heart beating for the first time in the last five months. When I finished the letter, the only thought in my head was this: J.W. was the man who brought back the beating of my heart; he was the very path to my heart from the postbox. Could it really be possible? After all, J.W. could be a woman. Otherwise, there was not a piece of evidence that the letter belonged to me. I was not getting anywhere. The writer said he missed my voice, but I doubted that he had even heard my voice. Then again, what if he had?
Wanting to hear Ella Fitzgerald’s voice immediately, I turned on my computer. Soon, the house’s atmosphere had completely filled with J.W. He was looking out at the world from that penthouse suite’s window, while I was in my tiny flat looking out from the window with my favorite view of some greenery. As I thought about how quickly I could lose myself to a letter, I had already taken a paper and pen in hand. I felt like I was like a film extra who was suddenly asked to star as the main role in a film I didn’t even know the plot of. As if we had already talked earlier, in total sincerity, I told him a little bit about my life here. I added that I would take his advice and go to the Saturday market. Then, adding a sentence from the book I was reading, I recommended this book to him. As I folded the letter, I dabbed it with perfume to let it be known that I’m a woman—as they did in the old days. Carefully, I set the letter down.
The following morning, I opened my eyes to the sound of Ella Fitzgerald. I had nodded off on the couch with the letter in my hand. On the way to work, I left the letter in the postbox. In my head, there was only one thought, and it was J.W.
That Saturday, thanks to J.W., I went with my closest friend here, Nina, to the market. Nina couldn’t make out why I had wanted to go to the marketplace. I, on the other hand, was irritated at Nina because in the five months I’d been here we hadn’t visited it yet. I thought of telling her about J.W., but I couldn’t find the courage. In the days following this lovely outing, my busy schedule passed as usual. Outside of work, these were the only things I did: --investigate among my German friends if there was anyone around them with a name starting with the initials J.W. and regularly check my postbox.
One evening, as I was returning from work, I found a letter from J.W. in my postbox. At first, I read it quickly. Then, I read a second time, immersing myself completely. He was in a town in Holland, and because of work, he had talked about spending a week there. From this news, I gleaned that I had to respond within a week. In the lines, he had recommended that I go to another museum and read a poetry book belonging to a German author. He didn’t let it pass without remarking that a woman like me would certainly enjoy it. This meant that he had known that I am a woman.
In the two months following my first reply to him, I continued to exchange letters with J.W. and wander through the streets of Berlin. J.W. was my invisible tour guide of the city. He helped me to move about and discover the city by portraying routes to me in letters. Not only satisfied by this, I became acquainted with artists and writers who were previously unknown to me. Sometimes Nina was even surprised by the places I went, because after spending thirty years in this city, even she didn’t know these places, yet. I was realizing that I, myself, was getting used to the city by now. As I wandered the city, I was imagining things. Sometimes I thought that men I saw, who had been smiling at me from far away, could be J.W. The city had become my best friend. In my letters to J.W., I mentioned the places I had gone and expressed my thoughts about them.
As I went on spending my days like this, I was always waiting for J.W.’s letters to come while being busy at work. I fantasized about what kind of a person he might be. Meanwhile, I started to go out with Nina and her friends from time to time. Everyone who knew me said that compared to the past, I looked happier. Even I was aware of this. Nina’s colleague, Jon, invited me to go out with him. I was alone, even though I wasn’t, but no one else knew of J.W.’s existence, so I accepted. That weekend, I got lost in the streets of Berlin with Jon. In this rapidly developing timeframe, my life orbited around Jon. Of course, it was not without my continuing to check my postbox.
As my relationship with Jon progressed, I couldn’t understand how the time flew by. Perhaps it was because of this that it hadn’t impacted me much when my postbox stayed empty for a month. And because Jon was the embodiment of J.W. for me, I substituted Jon for the figure of J.W. in my fantasy, but it did not take much time to face my self-deception.
Waiting for a letter that wasn’t likely to come had begun to pain me and the sense of being dragged from one suspicion to the next tired me. I needed a guide; I needed my guide. Day after day, I checked my postbox and waited in anticipation for the coming letter. I was continuing to send letters to J.W. assuming that I had persistently kept his last address in hand, but because he was constantly changing addresses, I wasn’t even sure if the letter would reach him.
A few days later, I encountered the postman in front of the incoming mail postboxes found in front of the apartment’s door. I asked him why my letters had not come and whether or not he had brought a letter from someone named J.W. The sentences that the man put forth at that moment had hit me like a slap in the face. In rude German, he said he had not left a single letter in my postbox for the last year. Seeing my facial expression turn rancid upon hearing his phrases, he tried to console me by saying that a postcard would be sent for the New Year.
I went to my street-corner coffeehouse that I go to on bad days and sat there. Without feeling [C2] anything, I tried to give meaning to the meaningless incident in my life. True, J.W. had never existed, but his spirit was always with me in this city. Without him, I didn’t know how I would go on. It could have been that someone had played a big trick on me and succeeded. Out of nowhere, they had inserted an imaginary hero into my life. Or else, I wondered, was J.W. a hero I had created myself? Could it be that loneliness had done this to me? When I laid the possibilities out on the table, I couldn’t see a reassuring side to the situation from any direction.
After that day, I didn’t go near my postbox until the New Year. I again constructed my life into a triangle of work, home, and the gym. Compared to the past, I had become a social person by now. I had made new friends and like a local of the city, I was always hanging out at my usual places. For me, the city had split onto two pages--before J.W., and after. I was continuing life by revising the part that had happened after J.W.
The holiday for New Year had come and I had decided to go to Paris with Jon. Because I had to be at the train station in the early hours of the morning, I spend the entire night preparing my suitcase and dreaming of the penthouse suite we rented. J.W. had exited from my life, but his projections were still in it.
When the morning sky hadn’t yet grown light, I had to set off on my trip. Checking my house the last time, I locked my door and flung myself into the elevator. Just as I was taking my small suitcase from the elevator, I happened upon the silhouette of a man reflected on the glass of the apartment door. I somehow felt like I should hide at that moment and I started to watch the man. This man in a green parka was slightly chubby with white, combed-back hair. He was stopping at every postbox and tossing the envelopes in his hand into the boxes without looking at the names. When he finished his work at the postboxes belonging to the apartment, he slowly proceeded to the next apartment. I continued to watch by going after him. After completing the same procedure at another apartment, in a peculiar manner, he opened the shared outgoing mail postbox, took one of the letters from within, and then shut it. At that moment, all of the stones had fallen into place. From behind, I shouted with my entire strength, “J.W.!”
The heavily lumbering steps of the man became even heavier and with an ironic smile, he turned to me and said, “Hello madame! I’m Johanes Wagner, and I don’t think we’ve met before.”
“Hello. Sure, we have never met before, but I shall introduce myself to you like this—my postbox is 4493,” I answered him with apprehension and annoyance.
The man’s face suddenly brightened and at that moment, an embarrassed expression escaped from his eyes.
“Why didn’t you answer my letters? Why did you suddenly disappear?” I continued to prod.
“Look madame, I have lived in this area for years. The renters of these apartments change very often. Usually they are newcomers to the city, alone, and trying to adapt to the city. By guiding these people in my letters and thereby making friends, I also make my loneliness go away. I don’t defend that what I’ve done is a good thing. Think of it as comfort for a loneliness of seventy years. Years earlier, I lived in different cities because my work required it. I’ve saved up a lot of memories and by sharing them with other people, I am keeping them fresh in my mind. Of course, not everyone has been as naïve as you. Some don’t reply at all. If I must say it openly, you are not the only one, but no one else has offered this many replies to my letters—this alarmed me. Ultimately, I’m enjoying being an imaginary protagonist named J.W. In the world I’ve created. I have done enough for you already and it would harm you if I intervened any more in your life. You needed to be alone for the rest of the time and I can see that it worked. Look, now you’re even about to leave on your way with a suitcase in hand,” saying this, J.W. completed his sentences.
In my life, there had never been such a difficult moment as this to express my emotions. With the outrage infused with tranquility inside of me, I was able to say, “Yes, I’m leaving for Paris, now. I’ve rented a top floor apartment as you had mentioned in your letters.”
J.W. smiled and said, “I knew it; in the end, Berlin has become your home. Now is the time to discover new cities.”
At that moment, the anger stored up inside of me flew out and had gone. In the end, the things I had been through were not normal, but what he had said was right. Maybe J.W. was a schizophrenic or maybe he was indeed lonely. I could not have ever been sure, but I also couldn’t deny that thanks to him, I had actually come to love this city.
“Farewell, madame! Bon voyage!” J.W. said, realizing that Jon had been watching us, and he added, “thanks for the short-lived friendship.”
I tried to smile. I struggled to suppress the words that I felt and just walked towards Jon, who was waiting for me. The feeling inside me signaled that, years later, I, too, could leave letters in postboxes marked with the initials T.E.
Ecem is an interior architect and designer based in İstanbul.Besides her profession, she is a junior writer, curious traveller, amateur photographer, beginner in lindy-hop, art-lover and full-time dreamer.