All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians [...] can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them.
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
At one time or another we have all thought how our life would have been if at a certain point in the past we had taken a decision different from the one we took. Who could we have been? Would've we been the same? Different?
What would we be doing right now if we had taken a different path at that very moment years ago? Is it ever possible to go back and change one's life? Most say no. Some say yes.
The woman steps outside the door visibly anxious. She carries a small suitcase and holds a mobile phone in her hand. She looks at it in earnest. Maybe she called the wrong number. Maybe her plane arrived too early. She looks around her. A couple is helping an old woman with a humped back, dressed in black from head to toe. The three of them are walking very slowly. A few taxi drivers are talking to each other without paying any attention to her.
She should call again. She knows that yesterday, while they were arguing, she said she would not be coming to Istanbul. But in the end, they had made up. Or so she thought.
She's already been waiting for ten minutes. Should she let go of the suitcase? It hardly weighs anything. She had planned on staying just three days. She gives the phone another look. Maybe something happened. Maybe the taxi or the bus got into an accident. She imagines him hurt, trying to find the phone. In the midst of people that does not understand him. She feels tears coming to her eyes. No, she cannot cry now. Now is not the time.
Fifteen minutes. Maybe she should try calling back. What if someone else answers? Perhaps he asked her to come only to take revenge. To laugh at her. To abandon her in front of everyone. Perhaps he's a bad person. She closes her eyes and considers going back into the airport to rest a while.
Twenty-five minutes. She switches her suitcase to her other hand. She holds on tight to her mobile phone. A group of Japanese tourists pass by like a flock of happy sparrows. Her nails hurt her. Her head spins. She made a mistake. He is not the man she thought he was.
And suddenly, like a summer shower, the heat makes her legs give way, her eyes blur, her hands loosen and she lets the suitcase fall to the ground. He steps out of the taxi with his tie askew and a huge bouquet of yellow tulips.
The driver swears under his breath while he dodges the black-clad old woman, who looks like she's just about to pass out. He's in a hurry, trying to get home, where he knows he'll face an argument. He steps on the accelerator as he tries to find his mobile phone in his pockets. You never find these modern pieces of junk when you need them!
He stops at a red light and finally finds his phone under the passenger seat. He tries to ring home but has trouble seeing the numbers on the small screen. The glasses are less help than hindrance, and he never wears them. The car behind him honks, urging him to move on. He looks at his rear mirror and sees a blond girl in sunglasses. She's impatient. A little piece and quiet, gees, he thinks. This is not end the world. He starts the car again. There's a lot of traffic at this time and he proceeds slowly. He hears the melodic voice of the muezzin calling to prayer, and he knows it must be seven o'clock. What will Nadia say? What will she say? He strokes his still thick white hair. He well knows what she'll say. Where were you, Dad? I should've been in class an hour ago! I can't go on, Dad! I can't. Can you hear me? I spend twenty hours a day with him, Dad. I can't go on. Since the day he was born you made me take care of him. But I never wanted to. Never, Dad! I hate him! I hate him because he's a vegetable. I hate him because he can't talk. I hate him for the way he looks at me. I hate him because he's your son!
Let me go, Dad. Let me leave this house. I'll never ask you for anything else, ever. I'm thirty-five years old. And I want to be free. I want to fall in love and have children and cook for my husband and finish school and be a lawyer, and I want to be with normal people and do normal things and speak normal words. Let me go, Dad. I beg you in mother's name!
This is what Nadia will say. And his heart will break seeing her small and thin, like her mother, her eyes intensely black, immensely sad, while she scratches her white neck, a neck as soft as a little girl's. He strokes his hair again, looks back and sees that the blond girl is still behind him. She seems okay, now, with her phone to her ear. She seems happier now. She's going to have an accident, if she's not careful. The young always are in such a hurry. Always doing ten things at once.
The guy on the green bike is lying on the ground. People stop and look. Some approach him. The driver gets out of his car in shock, with one hand grabbing his head. It hurts. He must have hit it. He sees the young man, blue eyes open, not moving. Something light flows from under his head. More people approach him. They talk to him, but he does not understand. He looks bewildered, lost. He understands nothing. The young man remains in the same place. Still looking at the sky with his blue eyes. Still not moving. The bike is untouched. Close to the sidewalk. Green.
He looks at her surreptitiously while drinking his coffee--cold, as always--slowly. Every morning the same ritual: take the child to school, make the bed, tea for her, coffee for him, the little table by the window, just as she wanted it, bread with butter. Today she has her eyes encircled by blue shadows. The corners of her lips are slightly turned down, but this is normal for her: even when she laughs wholeheartedly it looks like she's laughing sadly, because of the natural shape of her mouth. Her hair covers her face. She hasn't combed it yet. She'll do it later, when she goes to work. She doesn't speak. Perhaps she's tired. Perhaps she didn't sleep well. He went to bed late, and she pretended to be asleep.
The woman is young and her hair is long and black. She looks pensively out the window. And sips her tea. Cold again. She doesn't bring it up or reproach him. She doesn't want him more withdrawn. Everything she says, he takes it the wrong way. She doesn't feel like arguing today. She's tired. She slept little and badly. Like almost always. She stares outside and sees the Bosporus, looming in the horizon, gray and silent, a lonely minaret slicing it in two. It's been so long since they strolled by the sea. She's tried to tell him she needs tenderness like she needs oxygen. She does not know how to be without tenderness. Without giving and receiving. Feelings. Sensations. Gazes. Embraces. Words. She needs all of that. She doesn't understand him. Some days she asks herself who is this man, this man she lives with. Yes, he loves her and she knows it. Her life is full: the hotel is working, their child is healthy and smart, their parents are still strong and fit, their new apartment is beautiful. Everyone envies her. She looks at him from under her bangs. What is he thinking about? How can she get inside him? Know what he is really thinking? Know what he really wants? . . . Does he know it himself? Does he know why for so many nights they have been sleeping in the same bed but dreaming their own dreams? What could he be thinking?...Her tea is cold, and she feels her hands, freezing on the white porcelain cup.
"I had a bad dream last night," he starts to say in a low voice, unsure, not knowing if Selma wants to hear it. "I don't remember all the details. I don't know if it was us or another couple. She had short hair. It was my birthday. We had argued. I don't know why. I was tired. The night before had ended late. I left the room slamming the door. I couldn't bear to see your eyes full of tears. Not that day. It was my birthday. I wanted to be happy. I didn't want to think about the money that was running out or your mother who was not answering the phone. That day I didn't want to think about anything. I just wanted to see your face happy. But I left. I grabbed my bicycle, the green one I had for so many years. I wanted to leave. Far from you. Desperate I could not make you happy...And, I don't know how, this taxi ran over me. I remember the face of the man, getting out of the car. Looking from one side to the other like a crazy person. He had his hand on his head, as if it was hurt. White hair. A gray mustache covered his large mouth. He seemed lost. I wanted to help him but couldn't move. It seemed like I was nailed to the ground. I wanted to yell at him, I was upset, but I couldn't open my mouth. Every time everything was moving more rapidly around me. I woke up with a dry mouth and clenched fists. Covered in sweat and shaking. Everything seemed so real. I was not sure if I was dead or alive. You were still sleeping. It didn't look like you. I sprang out of bed, afraid to infect you with the fear."
Every evening, when Nadia leaves to go to school and Father, tired, with a cup of apple tea and a piece of borek pastry, sits in front of the television, Amin knows that he has at least one hour to himself. One hour to be free, without having to pretend to be the good boy who always minds his father and sister. His blue eyes, usually subdued, lighten up. One hour to live.
Most days, he walks to the beach, where he can see the tiny boats that carry the tourists for their night outings. He likes to sit still and watch the gray seagulls flying through a sky with bold traces of aged gold. On the facing shoreline, across the Bosporus, the Topkapi minarets rise, weaving delicate filigrees in the twilight. Here, no one sees him, no one talks to him. He doesn't have to listen to her sister's complaints nor his father's grunts, nor the shrieks of the children who harass him whenever he steps out of the house. No one looks at his face with pity or disgust. Here, there is only the sea and the sky.
The last few days, however, there was an intruder. A young woman, blonde, with big sunglasses that covered half her face. She would come and sit beside him, pulling out a cigarette and smoking it slowly, without looking at him. She seemed sad. She looked beautiful.
Today she is late. Amin knows that someday the woman will stop coming. He isn't sure whether that will make him feel better or worse. Perhaps she will no longer come.
When she arrives, he sees that her face, what can be seen under her glasses, seems happy. Her lips, slightly open, seem fuller than on other days. When she leaves, he follows her. He's never done this before. But today he doesn't want to go home. He needs the fresh air. He wants to punch the mirror. He is not a mongoloid, he is not a vegetable. He is a man. He feels trapped at home. No matter how much he cries out, no one pays attention. No one hears him.
The blonde girl stops in front of the tower. It's almost time to close and there are only a couple of oblivious tourists lingering around. At the gate the guard lets him in without paying. He must think they are together. They take the elevator. It goes up so fast, it seems to fly. She is so pretty. And smiles. Maybe she is smiling at him? When they step out on the terrace, the cool air hits him hard. Far away, looking small, stand the Topkapi minarets. He's on top of the world. He feels his heart beating fast. He's happy. He's free.
The girl lights a cigarette as she leans on the railing. On the other side of the terrace, a man is embracing a woman with her arms full of yellow tulips. They are watching the lights glimmer in the water. Amin feels the wings of the seagulls rushing by. When he climbs the railing and lets himself fall with his arms open, no one screams.
Selma looks at the photograph she just found under one of the cushions. Her favorite place is the corner with the red ones. There are many others piled next to it, green, blue, yellow, brown, with vegetable or geometric designs. Many are printed with red tulips against a gold background. From the ceiling hang exactly seventy-seven colored lights. This place has the most colored lights she has ever seen, aside from the busy shops downtown. She stops here after work every day for a cup of fresh mint tea. At this hour, there are only three or four people, watching TV, each smoking shisha from a hookah, also the young couple who are always playing backgammon, and the waiter, who is lazily people-watching. No one's talking. Selma feels more relaxed here than at her own home.
The photograph is a snapshot of a young man riding a green bicycle. The image is faded. It must be quite old. The guy on the bike looks happy. He's laughing. You can see the elongated shadow of a woman in front of him. She must be the one taking the shot. Her shadow stretches like a trail from the laughing man to Selma's hand.
“Oh... How silly of me!” She has accidentally dropped some tea on the picture, and now the image is even more faded. She looks at it remorsefully.
“I'm so sorry.” A fair-skin woman, with short hair, had just entered the tea-house. Her smile resembles an open pomegranate. She seats down beside her with a surprising gesture of relief.
“Oh, I knew I had left it here!” She takes the picture that Selma was holding gently, and her smile lights up even more the red cushions’ corner. “ When I was very young, I lived with my father and my brother. My brother was sick. I had to take care of him. My father forced me to do itand my mother was dead. She could not say anything. The day I turned eighteen, I ran away from home. This man,” and she points at the guy riding the green bicycle, “he found me on the street in the middle of the night, half dead of hunger, cold and fear. He took me to his house and let me sleep in his bed, while he slept on the floor. One day he went out and did not return. Later that day a policeman came knocking on the door. I did not open it. I was afraid that my father had finally found me. I fled from that house full of colored lights and books. I ran until I reached the edge of town. I never returned. I never knew what happened to him. I just have this picture. I've been carrying it with me for seven years."
She holds the picture tightly with a happy-girl look. After a long while, she places it on the table and turns to Selma. She covers her hand with hers, warm hands, and looks straight into her eyes. This girl, this girl ... why does she seem so familiar? Why does she feel the heat rising to her cheeks?
Selma touches her face with her left hand and finds a strand of black long hair that has escaped from under her silk scarf. She tucks it back in but it falls again. Her other hand is still resting, quiet and ashamed, in Nadia's hands.
They walk quickly, without looking at each other. It's been a difficult day. Emin holds the woman's hand in his pocket, cold and still. Her hands is what he likes most in her: soft as snowflakes that turn into moist caresses when we touch them.
They arrive at the hotel and go up the narrow stairs. Inside, the room is warm. Too warm. There's always a pungent sweet aroma. Whenever she comes to visit, Emin fills the place with flowers. Sometimes she gets drunk with the intensity of their perfume. Suddenly, her face changes: wrinkles disappear, cheeks light up, lips open in a playful smile, and her eyes begin to dance. Every time he sees this transformation, never predictable, never the same, he's left speechless. That's the reason he fell in love with her the first night they spent together, by the sea. Emin eagerly awaits the wonderful instant when the transformation will happen, unforeseen, perchance when she happens upon a rare flower, or at the sight of a golden cloud, or as she feels the softness of a silk cushion, when she will let go of her every day mask and emerge as a Greek goddess, dazzling and unique. His desire for her has not diminished in the seven months they've known each other. Even now, although both are frighten and tired, seeing the yellow light emanating from the tulips she's still holding and reflecting on her lips, he feels the mad desire of loosing himself in her warmth, of letting go of the fear and replace it with the safety that emanates from every pore of her skin. He takes the tulips from her, leaves them on the floor, and his hands feverishly search for her breasts.
She looks at him without stopping him. She still feels ill. She felt like throwing up after seeing the man jump from the top of the Galata Tower. The incident has brought back all her dark memories, fracturing the fragile layer of calm that had been with her for the last three days. The guilt that she tried so hard to ignore--the working husband, the crying kids, the boring job, and all the rest she left behind to be with him in Istanbul--leaps at her suddenly, like a wounded animal. He leads her to the bed and she does not resist. After a while that seems to last forever, she whispers in his ear that she's tired. She knows that he needs her physically close, especially now, when he's so scared. She's not angry, but she needs rest. She must rest.
The rough morning light hurts her eyes at the same moment she opens them, startled by the voice of the muezzin. What time is it? Is it time to go? Where is Emin? She cannot hear him in the room. She jumps off he bed. Looks in the bathroom. Looks out the window. It's early; there's no one yet on the street. Only the silhouettes of the minarets, standing like watching ghosts. Where is he? Tears come rolling down, her legs fail her and she drops to the floor, beside the already fading yellow tulips. She covers her head with her arms. It's over.
Two hours later she gets into a taxi. He left his phone at the hotel. His Skype account has been closed. There is no way of knowing where he is or get in touch with him. She knew this would happen since the day they met.
She holds nothing from him: no children, no address, no ring, no phone number. She has nothing. Only memories. Only the open wound of not knowing whether he's dead or alive, whether he's being tortured or whether he left because he got bored. What hurts the most is not knowing why, or where, or how. Vanished like a dream. Leaving no open door. The gray minarets look at her with indifference, as she climbs the taxi on her way to the airport.
She walks past the old woman covered in black from head to toe. She looks familiar, but there are so many old women in Istanbul dressed in black who follow everybody with their curious eyes. The taxi driver had deducted three lira from her total fare. She doesn't know if he did it because he saw how sad she was or because that was his nature. Never before had she been in a taxi where the driver reduced his fare, however small. The Turks do these things. They haggle as a game, not to get into an argument. They are affable and kind. How she's going to miss Istanbul!... Coffee houses where no alcohol is served, where no one is loud, colorful carpets and cushions, lights framing the mosques with soft curves, fresh mint tea, borek pastry and baklava, light-skinned people with black eyes, the sea and minarets, life lived freely and intensely, and especially...especially the tulips. She closes her eyes tightly and tries to retain under her eyelids all the smells and colors of this time and place. She takes a deep breath. She will always have these memories. They already are a part of her.
On the airplane she sits next to another woman, young, blonde, with a face that speaks of having received an unexpected gift. She wears large sunglasses but, when they start talking, she takes them off and places them in her red handbag.
"I know you. You were in the Tower when that guy jumped off," she says, and seems pleased to see her. "He was a friend of mine, you know? We saw each other every day and shared our fear. It helps to share your fear with others. He finally found a way out. I'm glad he did. Life was not kind to him. Surely, he's found a better one." And she smiles, as if apologizing for being so cheerful. Or for believing in hard-to-prove facts. "I'm going to meet my husband," she continues, and her voice is like a moist cloth on a recent wound. Can you imagine what it's like when they tell you your husband has disappeared? Not knowing whether he's dead or alive. Waking up every day paralyzed by fear. Turning everything off, the car radio, the television. Escaping from people, from noise. Holding the phone tight, always afraid of missing his call. Because you can't lose hope. Ever. You can't ever stop hoping that you will hear his voice telling you, 'It's all right, it was only a nightmare.'"
While talking, she's overwhelmed with emotion, and her eyes fill with tears. She turns her head and looks out the window at the golden clouds. When she turns back to her, her smile seems even brighter. "Yesterday, I got the phone call," she says. "He's alive."
Seven rows ahead in the same cabin, Selma is holding Nadia's hand. In her coat's pocket she has the photo of the young man riding the green bicycle. Nadia gave it to her when they decided to fly together to Rome. The past no longer exists. The future even less. With each decision we take, we profoundly change the people we will become in the next second. And maybe much more.
Translated by Lina Strenio