A short story
I didn’t know by what accident the builders had managed it, but instead of a remodeled bathroom attached to my bedroom, they had installed Silivri Prison. No mistaking it. After the laborers had packed up their tools and cleaned up their mess (they had almost superstitiously prevented me from checking on their progress), I threw open the door and stepped to where my shower should be, but instead found a cell with a guard walking by. I asked him where I was in Italian. Confused, he asked me in Turkish what I wanted.
“Where am I?” I responded in Turkish.
“Are you sick? Silivri Prison.”
“That’s not right. This is supposed to be a grand shower with two heads and massaging jets and a marble bench.”
“Massaging jets, haha! No, this is the prison.”
“But what’s it doing in my bathroom?” I asked.
“It isn’t,” he said. I pointed behind me at the doorway I had just walked through to my bedroom beyond it. He looked into the cell and saw that indeed it led to my bedroom. “Now how did they mess up like that?”
“The builders just finished today. The plumber turned on the water a moment ago,” I said.
“Well, how do you know your bathroom isn’t in Silivri Prison instead of the other way round?” Frustrated with the oaf, I latched on to the cell bars and throttled myself against them, but they wouldn’t budge. “Keep this to yourself,” he said, as if talking about an elephant behind window drapes. “I don’t need the headache of explaining this to the warden. I have enough problems as it is without you stirring up trouble.”
As soon as he said “trouble,” I ran back to my bedroom, slammed the door shut, and used the plastic tarp to hide the renovation from my husband, who would be home any minute. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a very understanding man, sometimes too understanding, and though he would understand this—whatever this means—he has a very nervous disposition, and this is precisely the sort of thing to trigger his anxiety so that his stomach is nothing but ulcers and acids in flux, and on his tongue would be the refrain: “Dear me! Dear me! O, deary, deary me!”
I called the builder, but the phone rang without end. Then I called one of the plumbers, and one of the carpenters, and the tile guy, and anyone else whose number I had, but they all went to voicemail. This couldn’t be happening at a worse time. We had decided to remodel the bathroom (even though we didn’t have the money for it) because my father could no longer live on his own. In fact, he hadn’t been able to live on his own for some time now. When we’d moved to Italy, he’d insisted he wasn’t some invalid who needed to be doted on or else sealed up in a dank little hospice room, so he’d bought his own flat across the street from us, but he was, even then, already dependent on us. We kept saying to each other that he might get better as a way of convincing ourselves of its truth, but his condition was already very poor. The doctors didn’t say that. It’s not so bad right now—that’s what the doctors said, knowing it would get worse—but they didn’t ask my father or me, and that’s not what either of us would have said: It’s not so bad right now.
The first time we took him to the hospital was years ago, when we still lived in Istanbul, at the peak of the Gezi Park protests. The police had come in with their tanks and water cannons. Everywhere little clouds of tear gas sprang up, in bouquets of pain. We watched it all on the news. My husband was at his wits’ end (he had grown up in a certain era, in a certain household, where the state was the most fearful thing). I was impressed, I suppose, that so many people had gotten together without hurting one another. I was impressed that they had lasted so long in their barricades and camps, but I could not find any desire to join them. I tried to stir up a bit of something like courage to go to the park and join the protests—I knew it was what my father wanted to do, though he was too old—but I couldn’t find this ounce of grace in me. For his part, my father obsessed over following each development, with learning the demands of the fractious groups—the anarchists, the communists, the environmentalists, the Kemalists, the Turanists. Despite knowing the myriad factions, however, he started confusing simple things, like the names of political parties. Then he’d forget the day’s events entirely while watching the evening news. When an attempt by police to end the unrest came to a head, he started rambling about the 1980s, the upheavals and battles he’d listened to on the radio, the arrests and dismissals, the summary execution of 50 extremists. But these were the wrong events, the wrong names—ghosts of a coup that had happened more than 30 years ago. I asked him if he wanted to go and watch the demonstrations to help get his bearings. I didn’t know then that he was sick. I can’t imagine what I would have done if he’d said yes. Some gnawing desire for trouble cropped up in me.
I asked if he knew who the prime minister was. I asked if he knew the date. I asked if he knew whose house we were in. Instead of answering, my father kept shaking his head and saying no, no, no, no. I asked if he knew his own name. He shot out of his chair and told me to shut up—something he’d never said, even when I was a little girl too jealous of my parents’ time. He stomped to the television and tried to change the channel, but he’d grabbed the wrong remote and so only increased the volume. I kept repeating over and over: “Dad, you are not okay.” He pushed the television over. It thudded awkwardly without shattering. Then, sitting on the coffee table in the fresh silence, he admitted that he didn’t know where he was.
I calmed him down (my husband spent the whole of the protests huddled in the bathtub in case of bombings) and took him to his doctor, who then suggested a specialist who did some scans, told us they couldn’t identify the problem, and mentioned that if it had been an isolated incident, it would likely clear up on its own. “These are stressful times,” they said. “I’ve knew a patient who suddenly lose a finger from anxiety.” But they didn’t explain.
Pacing outside my renovated bathroom, I dialed my contractor once more. At last he answered. I demanded to hear a justification of this egregious mistake, but a loud buzz came through the wall I shared with the adjoining flat. My neighbor had started their coffee grinder and put the kettle on, which would soon whistle loudly. I asked the contractor to repeat himself but the grinder kept on buzzing. I could hardly hear the contractor’s explanation as I paced around, so I ducked back into the prison cell, where all was quiet. He told me that he always verified everything with the customer, that he required receipts with signatures to that effect, at which point he emailed me scans of my signature, indicating I had approved the installed materials and fixtures.
“Yes, materials and fixtures perhaps, but they put them to use all wrong! They’ve made some horrible amalgamation of them. I wanted a bidet, not a prison washbasin. It is a jail cell!”
“That is a rude exaggeration, though I can barely understand it with your accent.”
“No,” I insisted. “There is a prison and a guard where there should be a bathroom!”
“That seems highly unlikely to have happened in any case,” said the contractor, and he rang off.
Then, as if the notion of coffee (spurred by my neighbor’s grinder) had plopped out of my head and begun wandering the house on its own, a small cup of Turkish coffee appeared in the corner of the cell. I thought perhaps the guard had brought it for me while I was talking to the contractor. He must have heard the distress in my voice, even in Italian. No doubt I looked frantic and despairing. But I hadn’t seen him come by, nor had I heard the soft scrape of porcelain being set down on concrete. The coffee was there and the guard was not. I took a sip and felt awash in giddiness. It was the precise duplicate of the coffee served at Mandabatmaz, in Beyoğlu, with its thick foam the consistency of a luxurious dream, and I felt that all the time and distance that separated me from Istanbul was gone for the briefest of moments. I took the coffee inside to my father. I made him hold it, and I mimed drinking to get him to do so.
“Isn’t it just like at Mandabatmaz?” I asked.
He took a sip and made a face. “It isn’t correct,” he said. It was a phrase he was using lately to allude to thoughts he could no longer articulate.
“Isn’t it just how they used to make it?”
His disappointment was obvious. He looked ready to speak, but instead kept making the same small facial gestures. I interrupted his stupor and asked again if it tasted just like how he remembered. He only managed to raise his eyebrows and pout his lips and say nothing.
I took the cup from him to finish, but inexplicably it was empty: not just the coffee but the grounds too.
My front door rattled in its jamb. I ran to replace the tarp before my husband entered, then I flew down the hall and planted a kiss on his cheek. He gave my chin a pet, and I took his briefcase from him (he liked having a briefcase though he had absolutely no use for the thing). I told him that the plumber had made a mistake and that we would have to keep using the guest bathroom.
He sighed and asked me about my day as we settled into our happy if trite routine, but the only thing on my mind was the prison. I realized that if a guard hollered at someone or an alarm started blaring, there was no way I could convince my husband it was merely the sound of a defective toilet. Fortunately, however, the wing of the prison that had been installed was a quiet one, or by some other miracle the sounds did not carry through the door and tarp. We ate our dinner and took care of my father’s needs. We brushed our teeth and went to bed very early.
All my life I have been accused of an unwarranted optimism. In the morning, after my husband set out for work, I went down to the cellar of our building. Keeping only the most utilitarian objects in the flat, we had stuffed the rest of our personal belongings into boxes when my father moved in, abandoning them until we could repopulate our lives once more with our delighting possessions (where had I put that book? have you seen the flower vase? why is the potato peeler missing?). I lugged everything into the prison cell, which, for being a cramped prison cell, held all our effects quite well, and was certainly secure—more secure than a cellar in the Italian countryside. Yes, I suppose if I couldn’t have a new en suite bathroom, I’d at least now get free shelter. I pulled a few knickknacks out of a box and sorted them. In this box were happy books, in this box were glittering frames, in this box were my hiking boots and mittens and extra scarves that I’d worn when my husband and I went up to the mountains around Rize, and there at the bottom was a scrap of soil, a little plant that had managed to grow despite it quarters, stringent and fresh—a little tea bush, somehow.
The second time we took my father to the hospital, a few years had passed. The government had survived a corruption scandal. High-profile politicians had been implicated in a gold-smuggling ring. Then a witch hunt saw hundreds of police investigators, lawyers, judges, and journalists arrested. Not long after, a wave of bombings swept through Turkey—it seemed like one happened every month. Really, if you paid attention, you might have thought the country was being gobbled up by disaster, but catastrophe is a household staple in Turkey.
Smack in the middle of all this, my father had been attacked by a political fanatic who had mistaken him for a grave threat to the nation. In fact, my father was mostly an academic who had made a name for himself beyond lecture halls as a novelist of inspired if inconsistent ability—his greatest talent was antagonizing the government.
As my father was on his way home from one of his lectures, the fanatic tried to shoot him. The gun wouldn’t fire, so the man tackled my father and broke his nose and arm before the two were pulled apart by a number of faculty members.
Once again, we were recommended to a specialist, and booked scans and tests, and were taken to a little room where a different doctor told us that my father’s brain was shrinking. It was like a peeled orange left in the sun. The doctor said that the tussle hadn’t helped his condition. “In fact, if I may take an educated guess, maybe it was even detrimental.” My father had Alzheimer’s and for a while things might seem normal, but he would have problems forming new memories. Eventually he would start losing his old memories as well. “Though it isn’t always chronological,” the doctor said.
Outside we could hear the sirens of an emergency vehicle swimming up the thin streets of the city. “Better not to be making memories right now anyway,” my father said.
I became my father’s caretaker. Because I am a woman, because he is my father, because in Italy my husband found a job first, because I had two extra heaps of patience in me—yet the main reason, though it was never spoken, was because I had worked in a hospital back in Istanbul, but I’d been a specialized contractor, not a doctor or nurse in the system. I was a psychologist, which ironically was the last sort of doctor my father needed, though everyone always noted how lucky he was to have a brain expert for a daughter. I was never the lucky one in these statements. I never pointed out that he needed a neurologist and a physical therapist more than he needed me. At most, I could help the people around him process their emotional responses to his jarring temper changes—but I was the only person around him. And although I didn’t hold his fits against him, everything takes its toll. Now I am in a foreign country, crawling on the floor of the ocean without bones built for the pressure.
Some days, my father would muster up some normalcy and pretend all was well (or maybe, gruesomely, he wasn’t pretending at all and was just gone), trying to make himself a bit of lunch as I cleaned the flat. But he was childlike in the way he interacted with the objects around him. He sat me down and said “Lunch,” which made me happy because he was lucid and present. He gave me a big bowl of salad. I took a bite and spat it out, which didn’t bother him. He did the same, spitting it all over the table with a smile, though maybe he was only mimicking me. Instead of grabbing the bottle of oil to drizzle over it, he had grabbed a bottle of whiskey. A lot of salad was ruined, and I know it doesn’t cost much, but I was thinking of the waste in euros. I told him to clear the table so I could go back to cleaning. He grabbed the salt shaker, but upside down, and walked back to the kitchen and then to the toilet with it, putting it in the medicine cupboard and scattering a path of salt behind him. These were the worst days, because he was active; it was hard to ignore him when he got out of his chair and puttered about. When he sat still and watched television, though, he was more like a stuffed animal or delicate vase, and could do me no injury.
Today, after making sure he had a bowl of oatmeal and his medications, after taking him for a short walk around the apartment and tucking him into his big chair, I told him that I loved him.
“I believe you,” he whispered.
“I mean it.”
“I believe you.”
“You don’t recognize me,” I said.
“I believe you!” he shouted.
Before I realized, I was back under the tarp and in the prison and shaking as I talked to myself, bringing my voice out from its hiding place. I moved a few of the boxes around and the table and little chair that were part of a dining set. It was pleasing to be in this space, because it felt so full of air, so completely stuffed with air that I could swallow a big gulp, a never-ending gulp of it, and live somehow fresher and more complete with this infinite breath rattling around inside me.
Then the guard came by in his mustache. “What is happening here? Oh no, you can’t! I said don’t cause a ruckus, and what is this you are doing if not a bona fide ruckus, my God!”
“I haven’t done anything,” I said. “I’ve just rearranged the furniture.”
“There isn’t supposed to be any furniture. But don’t say anymore. I don’t want to know it. I want to be able to say: ‘I don’t know anything.’ All my life, this is all I wanted to say. All through my school years, I studied and worked so hard to be able to say ‘I don’t know anything,’ and look at you coming around to ruin it.”
Even just this little conversation in Turkish had the golden butterflies in my throat whirring with joy. Immediately I was warmed and comforted despite the concrete, and I realized I was breathing air that had come down from the steppes of Anatolia, swept in from over the Black Sea, and though we were securely trapped inside a prison, I felt I could taste the hints of brine and juniper trees, and I wanted to swallow up this sensation, eat it ungingerly. The guard stormed off, but I begged him to come back, to talk with me, to shout anything at me, to tell me where he was from. I pressed my face into the gap of two bars, squeezed my cheeks against them. I begged him to come back. I shouted down the hall, “Please, mister watchman, come back and tell me about your neighborhood”—whether it was one of those quiet squares on the fringes of the city; or if it was in an apartment complex on the high streets of Istanbul; or if it was provincial, with peasant faces flashing at the windows. North of the city, along the coast, there are tumbledown houses and sheds standing in their huddles. You can see them with binoculars during a pleasure cruise on the Bosporus. As you come in from the Black Sea, the city reveals itself in gradients of hills pouring into the water. Peel back this layer to see Bebek—now Arnavutköy, now Kuruçeşme—all green with white houses, like marble stairs down their hillsides. Some days the water is thick and dark as velvet; others days, it is flat and bright in the sun, and other days still it is silvery as an eel in a shallow inlet, and in the faltering dusk I have seen it burn like copper, and in the misty mornings it has vanished and the city feels on the cusp of infinity. I can almost see the hills of the old city, fat with ancient domes bubbling over them, and, closer, the slender, prickly tips of minarets—and now in my prison cell I feel cold and wet, and I am sucked out of my daydream to find the floor drowned in briny water. I laugh and the water gathers its skirts into two bunches and twirls its hem to lap at my ankles and I am terrified. I shout to the guard, “Help, I will drown!” And the water turns inscrutably dark and I can see a cloud bank gathering on the ceiling, and I can feel now the coarse, stony beach of Istanbul at my feet, my toes curling pebbles into their pockets. I must shout, I must shout to the guard, something is happening to my room, it is filling up now with more water, pike and seabream, eels and gulls, and now a fisherman’s pole and line, and the far-off peal of a ferry horn, and the scent of fresh expectancy, and the silver of Istanbul under a bracing and pleasant rain. I throw open my door and retreat to my bedroom, hurrying to close out everything in the prison cell, but when I retrieve my hair dryer for my wet clothes, I find everything is dry already and nothing as it should be.
I must have gone too long without food, or maybe I was dehydrated, and imagined everything. Well, yes, I had imagined everything, it was a daydream after all, but I did not know of any daydreams that were in the habit of slipping out of the mind and becoming real. I missed Istanbul. That was how I explained it. You’ll believe anything when you need comfort. But how then had my husband, that night as I tried very hard to fall asleep, without success, pulled a small seashell (still with a bit of gritty mud in its aperture) from my hair and held it up to the darkness like an answer?
For a long time, I thought I was a bad daughter because we didn’t leave. A good daughter would’ve forced their parents out of the country that had tried to kill them. Meanwhile, once a week, my husband pleaded that we go on a vacation to Germany or France or England, one from which he had no intention of returning. He was terrified, perhaps selfishly, of staying—more afraid for himself than for my father, but I should’ve been scared too. In truth, I had not ever considered leaving. Not once in all the mess that grew around us had I thought that we must escape, even when everything exploded in July 2016.
I knew someone who had been killed in the coup attempt. It was rare, despite the number of people out, despite the tanks, despite the jets and helicopters, despite all the soldiers nervous with guns. But I knew a young woman who had been shot 100 meters from the Bosporus Bridge. Six other people in the street with her also had been shot dead. Everyone ran away except the soldiers, who barricaded the bridge, but the people came back and pulled the soldiers down from their tanks and trucks and beat them. A few weeks later, I was fired from my contractor position in the hospital. I had attended a prep school with somewhat dubious ties to the putschists and their ideologues.
My father used to say they would arrest anyone. He had been arrested once before after all, but was let out a year later. He used to say they’d throw you in jail for a bad joke, and while that was true, it had happened before, it had never felt overwhelming. Then, after the coup attempt, they really were arresting everyone. It didn’t matter if you were a semi-famous writer, or a pop singer with too much flamboyance, or just a third-grade teacher. They arrested 50 journalists in the first two weeks after the coup attempt. Then the governmental decrees came out—a list of names of everyone who was now dismissed from their jobs as state officials, academics, journalists, teachers and doctors in state programs, and military cadets and officers. They’d post them on an outdated-looking website, and everyone would search to see if their name was on it. In less than three years, 150,348 people were dismissed. They shut down 3,192 schools, universities, and media outlets, and arrested 319 journalists; they are among 94,975 people who have now been arrested on charges of treason and terrorism. They were building endless prisons to keep up with it. They made people form long queues before judges for sentencing, before they arrested the judges and sentenced them too.
Inexplicably, we stayed in Turkey. I was unwilling to believe in freighted circumstances. My father was still, for the most part, his old self, which was a great comfort. The doctors had made it all sound rather bleak, yet here he was getting through his days without much trouble. Even his physical injuries had healed well, and he was back on his feet. It fills me with so much regret thinking back on it, because these were the times of posterity, or whatever you want to call it. I could have talked to him and made meaning of things with him. Then, one late summer day, with the heat stretched, rippling, over the sky, he came to visit me in our flat in Ortaköy. It had originally been his, and his father’s before that, but after Mom died, he couldn’t stand it anymore, and with a bit of his savings he’d squirreled away, he bought himself a small place in Üsküdar. He was having dinner with us and called into the kitchen for my mother. My husband and I were stunned. He called again into the silent kitchen, asking her to come out and eat with us. “Don’t you love us, darling?”
And suddenly I was terrified.
My father surprised me at the doorway as I was sneaking back out from under the tarp and into the bedroom.
“Why have you moved the chair?” he demanded.
“I didn’t move the chair. It’s where it has always been,” I said.
“It was never there. It was in the back room, not this one.”
I walked him to the chair and told him this was a different flat. We weren’t in Istanbul anymore. I said it like I wanted to hurt him with this information, and regretted it immediately because I could see his tangle of thoughts come loose and become organized for a moment.
“I know we’re not in Istanbul,” he shouted at me. “I know it every day, because I am miserable here. You have kidnapped me and taken away my family and for what? Why do you hate me, huh?”
“I don’t hate you,” I said.
“That’s why you have moved my chair. And you don’t listen. And you’ve changed the hallway now!” The spool came undone. He was in Istanbul again.
“Dad, you have to eat something.”
“I ate,” he said distrustfully.
“You must eat something more than a baked potato and some popcorn. Come on. That’s why you feel sick all the time.”
“I’m not sick.”
“Stop calling me that. I’m not your father. I don’t know who your father is.”
I sighed because we’d done this before. I had, in the past, tried to convince him it was me, his daughter. It never went anywhere. “You’re important to me.”
He thought for a while, or at least looked like he was thinking. Sometimes it was hard to tell what was going on in these pauses that felt like an actor getting into character, but then never delivering his lines.
“You’re someone who is important to me too, aren’t you?” he said at last.
“This is not correct.”
I sometimes think about the meaning of a soul. Not some poetic thing, but as close as one could get to a scientific description. I think whatever a soul is, it is the thing dementia takes away. It has left this vessel that is my father, that looks like him and smells like him, but he can’t interact with his surroundings anymore. He is digging and digging and digging to find a fragment of meaning, and I convince myself that so long as this is happening, he still has his soul and is still him, but what will it mean when the mine of his self is exhausted? When he is a corpse that still breathes, still sees—what will I do?
How much it hurts to watch someone dissolve beneath their own skin.
I find these puddles of happiness in the prison cell. Like entering a hallucination. Like taking a heady sip of ether, and the cell becomes glutted with light, and I am squeezed by thick panes of sunshine though there are no windows. The cell becomes a concert hall of street sounds: clay tavla discs slapping wooden boards, the tootling of small car horns, the winsome peals of white gulls in their gyres. Who wouldn’t wish to stay?
When we left, something about my dad’s memory, something about how he conflated things with the past, kept me feeling safe—like we were bringing a little of the old Istanbul with us. It wasn’t so bad to be leaving our homes, it wasn’t so bad to be entering a sort of exile, it wasn’t so bad that our homeland felt like it was in ruins, because we had a little old man carrying its halcyon days in a kerchief on a stick. His voice came from before all the loss. The way he talked was a bridge to our lives left behind. Maybe that is what we do—the children, I mean: We make our parents into portals.
Things are changing now, and they don’t affect him. They renamed the Bosporus Bridge a few days after the coup attempt. People think it is an act of remembering, of honoring. But it is a forgetting. The way a state orchestrates rememberings is the same way that it orchestrates forgettings. Possibilities are limited when a country organizes its memory. I had not noticed how easily state architecture conspires against the people. Indeed, I doubt I would recognize Istanbul at all anymore. I hear from friends I desperately wish had run away as I had that the government is building more and more skyscrapers, and uprooting ancient trees for greater swaths of steel-and-stucco malls, car parks, and sports clubs. Sometimes I think even the shoreline has betrayed me. I have a photo I revisit often, of my girlfriends and me on a café patio in the hills overlooking the water, but I can’t remember the name of the place, and have searched Google Street View for hours at a time only to find that the shoreline in the picture not only doesn’t exist, but is entirely impossible (an inlet where it shouldn’t be, Dolmabahçe on the wrong side of the strait).
The country is changing—quickly, quickly all the streets are shedding their shops, and the hills are obscured by malls, and the shore is gone behind a curtain of renovations and construction projects, and the newspapers and TV programs are dwindling, and the journalists and artists are going into their prisons with satisfied frowns, and the lira is plummeting, and refugees are growing in number and desperation, and the place names are shifting, hardly noticed as phases of the moon, and my father is immune to all of it now.
My father’s head is getting lighter. His brain is shrinking the way a sponge dries into a brittle form. Eventually, it will weigh so little, it might bounce off his body into the ceiling or an errant window and escape from us. What will be in it then? What parts of him have already evaporated? What is the weight of a memory?
This morning I found my father stripped naked save for his socks, sitting on the toilet with the door flung wide open. That must have been when the notion first struck me: Because he had already mastered the art of publicly defecating, the best place for him would be the prison cell in my room. But this thought wasn’t as clear as it sounds at first. It wasn’t until after I’d helped him clean himself, led him back to his room, and laid out his clothes that my reaction coalesced into a clear notion that truly, the best place for someone like my father, the best place for someone without any memories, is a prison.
Or rather, the person best suited for a prison is one without any memories. They will get their meals. They’ll get their medications. They don’t have rent due, or checks to remember to put in little envelopes and send to the utility companies. They can get air and exercise in the yard without getting lost (as long as you aren’t a violent criminal or a political prisoner, anyway). In fact, I realized that minimum-security prisons were a step above hospice care; they were largely the same thing, with the same expectations of mistreatment, but the prisons were free.
For the past few days, I have been growing this idea in me the way an oyster grows a pearl, that the worst aspect of prison is how each day becomes so monotonously remembered; each repetitive boredom becomes a heavy, heavy burden, so massive that its gravity starts to blot out other aspects of oneself, of other, happier memories. That’s the true torture of prison—how it replaces you from the inside out with the impossible weight of monotony, until you lose the person you were before, you lose their joys and sorrows and hopes, and you become a prison cell incarnate. Hollow yet heavy.
The prison started filling up. The guard was hardly ever around anymore, which allowed me some freedom to do as I wished with the things I brought into the cell. He must have been busy, what with all the new arrests they were making. I learned about it from the women walking by to their cells. Then, at night, when the prison lights went out, I asked the dark hallway what it was like in Turkey these days. I could read the paper, I wasn’t trapped in prison like these women, but life doesn’t happen in the news.
“Oh, sister, it is bad. I got three years for telling my neighbor I had to raise my prices for inflation. I should’ve kept it to myself.”
“That’s nothing,” a little girl said. “Aunties, I promise I wasn’t doing anything at all, and I was arrested for saying that I couldn’t afford tomatoes.”
I listened for a while, they were scared women after all, and I was just a few steps away from another country altogether, but I found it tiresome—more than that, boring. I didn’t want to hear these things; I really didn’t care about their misfortunes, which were like a hiccup in the heart. I wanted to hear about their neighborhoods, their cities and villages. I wanted them to tell me about the new restaurants in Bebek and the ones that had stayed afloat. I wanted them to tell me that they had smuggled in a piece of pistachio marzipan and would share it, morsel by indulgent morsel, with me. I wanted to hear that their relatives, when allowed visitations, would bring a few packs of Turkish cigarettes, tea from Rize, a bit of simit. I wanted these women to pick up old conversations with me, and reveal that they were my friends from my university days, friends who had made it through turbulent times unscathed and still aglow even as they were caged. I wanted these women to say, “Oh my, how we’ve missed you, but of course everything is fine now; please return at once, please return to your flat at the top of the street, and we’ll throw you a never-ending party with so much champagne it becomes us, golden and sparkling.”
Selfishly, I couldn’t be bothered for the minutiae of their tribulations, because I knew they would be the same as my own if I were ever to return to Turkey. Indeed, I was in Turkey now; I was in the very prison they would send me to as soon as I alighted from the plane and showed them my passport. At least in this cell I could leave. At least this cell was one of wonders and magic that, according to its merciful designs, brought Istanbul to me. Even now, as I was dreaming of the rich and so unbelievably fine marzipan from my favorite baker in Kuruçeşme, the prison cell produced in its corner a plate of five rolls of it, and I ate them up quickly, knowing they would disappear should I try to bring them home.
Maybe I was foolish, but it caught me by surprise when my husband found out about the prison in our bathroom. He became a whirlwind in the house, knocking over the lamps, a few little decorative dishes from their tables, all of my father’s medical apparatuses. He stuffed a few items into a hard-shell suitcase—a book he was reading, his crossword puzzles he never finished, the tea bags, his watch and trousers, but mostly loads of underwear, all his underwear. Before I could say a word to him, he fled the flat, crashing down the staircase with a bunch of thuds like an awkward drum roll.
A half hour or so later—after enough time had passed that my husband could have feasibly run to the train station, checked the timetables, waited in the queue, and bought a ticket, and could now be boarding a train bound for Milan or Turin and then one out of Italy altogether—I had just started to say to myself I was now husbandless and alone, when jumping through the door was my husband again, his face carved with dread, saying, “What are you doing? Aren’t you coming too?”
I laughed (perhaps from shame or some other deep feeling opaquely buried in my soil) and pulled him by the arm into the flat, though I didn’t embrace him.
“We can’t stay,” he insisted.
“Why not?” I asked.
“You’re being purposefully obtuse, I see.”
“Just sit down and listen for a minute.”
He refused. He said we were being driven out of the country, that Turkey wants us dead, or worse. He said the prison attached to our bedroom must be some new development by the Interior Ministry to hunt down political enemies. He said my father was in no condition to be in jail. He said I wouldn’t like it much either. He said these things as if I didn’t know them too.
“Please, just give it a little while. Everything will be fine.” Nothing about this felt like it would turn out well for me, and yet I couldn’t help wanting to stay.
My husband said, as if falling into the sky: “Wouldn’t it be nice if you could get away to where your father can’t hurt you anymore?” But it sounded like he was inviting me to my own funeral. Pain is life after all, along with its glittering treasures. Painlessness is death, and I have my very own father as evidence. “Oh no, no. I can’t do this. I have to leave, and quickly. What about my acids? I have to go before my ulcer …” And my husband was gone.
When your brain shrivels up and has finished erasing everything, there is no longer any weight atop you. There are no felicitous nostalgias eating my father’s body from the inside out, like corrosion. His wife is no longer dead. She hardly even existed now. Soon she will be gone entirely. The last thing left is the shape of these memories. And he will erase this by disentangling the words he used to know her by, the acts he used to love her by, from all their meaning. It is the same for his country. Soon his confusions will end. Looking out the window, he won’t see his old neighborhood anymore. He won’t see the hills of Ortaköy from our living room anymore. And he won’t see Italy either. He’ll be lost at last, and his memories will have popped out of his head and be left to wander on their own doomed journeys. I envy him, but do not, in truth, desire the same fate, even if Istanbul seems to desire it out from under me, the way the city conspired to change. But I have not been fidelitous toward my country, so why shouldn’t it change? “While my back is turned, you become someone else!” I accuse it, but it replies, “To say while your back is turned implies that it will turn round again.”
I don’t want to miss my country anymore. I don’t want to be afraid of becoming a tomb. I don’t want unrevisitable memories. I want a self-renovation of the soul. I want a cleansing wave like the controlled burns on the steppes, the immolations that remove the thistles and noxious weeds. I want to take up a drip torch and set fire to my insides until everything that is gold and glittering has turned to charcoal—an act of preservation, charred against rot and decay.
I piled a few provisions by the bathroom door, small things you might take on a hike if you weren’t the sort of person who normally hiked: a bag of chocolates, a bottle of soda water, a sleeve of crackers, a few blocks of white cheese, instant coffee. Next to these I folded up a bundle of clothes and my toiletries and some good books. In a huge bucket I mixed mortar. All prepared, I chucked my things into the prison cell and started stacking bricks and spreading mortar. From inside the prison, I built a wall sealing me off from my bedroom, sealing me in the cell, the prison, Turkey. Maybe they will let me out in a few years. Maybe, if the regime is ousted, there’ll be a general pardon like there used to be.
I slathered all the mortar, then mixed up some more and started the second wall of bricks covering the first. As I went, I could feel the breeze come off the Bosporus and the sun climb high overhead, where it stayed perched as I worked, but it was not unpleasant—in fact, the boughs of a few judas trees came to cover me and fill me with the sweet scent of their new leaves. When I reached for another brick, I saw that the floor around me was suddenly a cobblestone esplanade over the Bosporus, where jellyfish and little darting creatures bobbed about the surface. Behind me now was the gleaming Ortaköy Mosque, with the high, sweeping line of the bridge beyond it. Before me were the walled gardens and apartments of a palace, and deeper into the mist came the familiar rolling hills of the old city, flat as paper on my eyes. I could hear the fishmongers shout out their prices, and I watched the caïques and tankers lolling across the sea. As I placed the last brick, I could taste the brine and the flower buds and the spices from the bazaar. I could hear the gulls and the motorway. I saw fishermen fix their nets in the sun and lovers tear their hair out at the scope of their affections. All of it was crammed, crammed into the cell. All of the city was in there with me—all of the country. It swirled in a great and terrible form, as if everything I had ever loved and feared had been scooped out of me and thrown into a kaleidoscope. My body was in a cell in Silivri Prison, and it would now never leave.