BY MINA SEÇKIN
Your father was a fantastic man, she says. Please, what do you remember of him. I can hear her breathing on the other end of the phone.
I don’t know, I say.
Please, I don’t know.
I am angry. Which I am told is not rare these days. But my boyfriend is coming over because my mother and brother are at a movie theater across the river in Manhattan.
You want to remember your father, no? The nurse says. I can hear her voice go sharp like a knife.
Yes, I say. Sure, I say. My cheek sweats on the receiver. The nurse says she wants to help me like she helped my father. She says she held my father in the white walls of the hospital. She says she learned Arabic prayers with him, the words foreign to her, familiar to him, but they met in the middle. She sliced apples for him in the hospital cafeteria, the slices like wide green smiles.
Nobody listens these days, the nurse weeps, to the man in pain. He was your father.
I have to go now, I say. I hold the telephone with no clothing on. I want to surprise Tristan naked. I want to make use of my empty house. Our house is hot in the summer. So hot we can swim through it. I hang up.
Tristan is my lover and I lotioned for hours this morning so when he feels me I’ll be perfect. First I lotioned when I woke up. Then I ate breakfast, and lotioned again right there in the kitchen, among the forks and knives and breakfast smells. Then I took the subway to the hospital instead of to school and then I came back. Finally I took a shower, because lotion absorbs into the skin especially when skin is slick with water.
That was the first time Nurse phoned me on our landline. I met Nurse outside of the hospital the day before. By the hospital, there is a designated smoking area where people go to die. The smoking area is in the shape of a square, and has three clear walls made of plastic. When it rains, it is the worst, and the five to six people inside smoke and look at the people who pass by on the busy sidewalk. While they have their umbrellas, we smokers have our awning, and our cigarettes we smoke unfashionably. We don’t hold them like slim wands, but rather like extra hands we refuse to amputate.
Who wouldn’t amputate an extra hand?
I spend a lot of time in this rain cube, and I always stare back at the passersby. They look at me for the longest seconds, like I am already burning in hell on the concrete. Nurse was different. Nurse wore a red jacket with her hood up. Nurse spoke to me slowly, and used her lips and touched my wrist. Are you skipping school? she asked. Are you going home soon?
Nurse has long blond hair that billows like a mermaid underwater. I couldn’t tell whether her face looked tired or alive. Nurse gently took the cigarette from my hand. She said, Enough.
Tristan is surprised by my nakedness, like I planned. Tristan means sad in Latin, which he learned in Latin class today. He is excited to tell me because he wants to be the sad one. He wants to tug sad out from my throat so I will limp over and rise again, something new. I am on the bed and his hand climbs inside me. The telephone rings again. Tristan has his whole hand in me. It won’t take much more to reach up into my ribs and hold my wet organs in his hard fist.
Hello? I say. I answer the phone that rings in my head.
And why can’t I speak about him? It’s a fair question. We’re watching a movie, Children of Men, in the living room with the lights off.
I can’t believe you, my younger brother says. His name is Suleiman. He peels oranges in the armchair across from me, his legs slung over the arm. You didn’t cry at Baba’s funeral, but now you are crying because of some baby and Clive Owen scrambling around.
It’s true, I’m crying. The last baby on earth matters to me.
That’s so unhuman, Sully says, meaning inhuman. Inhuman, I say, and he throws an orange he just peeled at my head.
Anne turns up the volume of the television and hands Sully another orange to peel.
I went inside the hospital only once that summer, and he lay on his side like a landlocked merman. Wires were taped to his chest and pressed his dark hairs in place. His nipples were so dark I was startled.
See, he said proudly, how little medicine I’m on.
You look like a merman, I said. He laughed. The wires moved with him.
I only went inside to establish a speaking line between my Baba’s hospital room, and me, standing outside the hospital, smoking. Now it is fall, but we send ideas back and forth between our brains. Like there is a tightrope between my brain and his brain, and a tiny man who crosses the thin wire in between the empty white space, the city space. I go to the hospital instead of school. I stand outside until the sun sets. When I come home, I can’t say hello to my remaining family because Nurse calls me.
Hello? I say to the phone that rings in my mind.
Baba is not buried here in New York. The day after he died, they waxed his body and sent it on a plane to Bolu, Turkey, so he could be lowered into the dirt and lie next to his mother who is next to his father. It is confusing to me whether they have special planes to transport bodies, or whether each time I’m on an airplane, they place the tightly sealed plastic cocoons holding the dead among the expensive baggage below us. I thought about this for the ten hours we flew to Turkey for his funeral. They must keep it cool down there, so the bodies won’t sweat, get ripe. I smelled my luggage once we landed and pulled it off the luggage belt. I hoped to find a trace. At the funeral, everyone kissed me with a language I didn’t know but have inherited. Sully and I held hands for ten minutes. Now it confuses me where I will be buried. Next to my Anne and Baba in Turkey, or in America, with the American children I will have?
I come home from the hospital after having listened for Baba’s voice on the street. I also went to Starbucks to pee, and to a halal truck to eat a hotdog. I only wanted the hotdog for something to eat with ketchup. I come home, and Tristan calls me. He wants to go to a yoga session. He wants to meditate with me. You are so stupid, I tell him. I’m not a Buddhist. What’re you talking about he says, and he knows what I’m talking about, but wants me to communicate. I haven’t spoken to him for three days, because Nurse and I, we’ve made our 8 p.m. phone dates a regularity, and handling two different feelings with two different phone calls is remarkably difficult. It’s not like that, Tristan offers. It doesn’t have to be a Buddhist thing.
I’ve pretended to have a sore throat for many days now. I’ve told friends from school it’s strep. Tristan knows it is not, but he does not know everything. He does not know about Nurse.
Last chance, Leyla.
Are we fighting, Leyla?
Minus the strep, my passageways are otherwise clear. I pull cigs into my lungs better than I breathe. Sometimes I am convinced my lungs and heart are connected. I press my hand to my chest cage, dig beneath it, and name each of my heartbeats: Eos, Persephone, Umay, al-Lat. I’ve made my own prayer, because like Nurse, I can’t speak Arabic prayers, the ones all Turks have inherited.
After the funeral, we came back to New York and I went to the doctor with Anne. We listened to my heart together. It’s going to be okay, my heart told me in the ocean noises the machine translated. Eos, Persephone, Umay, al-Lat.
I hang up Tristan’s call and phone Nurse this time.
I’m doing all right, thank you, I say.
Good, she says. I’m glad to hear it.
Will I get sick, too? I ask.
Maybe, Nurse says. You have four chambers in your heart. Also, make sure you drink lots of fluids, she adds. When she hangs up, I look in the mirror on the wall of my bedroom. I open my mouth and find my throat. I will do anything to look down there, into the long red tube of esophagus. The stomach into which it empties.
Before Baba died, he boiled leeks and onions to stave away disease. There is garlic in here too, he said. He grinned towards the boiling thing. He held a hard clove out for me to swallow. That way it will grow in your belly like a bud, he said. Thank you, I said. You are so kind.
He made five more batches. He worked from early morning to night. I sat at the kitchen table with my feet up. I told him what I would do with the day instead of sitting there, and what I would do in my last year of high school, and he nodded and nodded. He checked his pulse every time the heat from the stove stirred the spitting animal inside him.
By the end of the night, he fell to the floor. We moved him together into the ambulance. Anne prayed, her palms up like bowls. Allah’aşükür, allah’aşükür. We are blessed then bandaged. I wanted to beat my fists at the wall of his heart, open the door and sit in there for hours to watch the sun of his body rise.
It takes time to get through things in my head, I tell Nurse. I am still trying to understand the fact that oranges are pre-sliced by nature then secured in their bright-colored shell. Interesting, she says. I hear her tap a pen on a table twice, three times. I say, Tristan makes me feel more lonely, like maybe I am in a swimming pool full of water and he is on the concrete edge drinking a fruity drink with a straw. God, says Nurse, what is his problem? I know, I say. I bring the telephone to the kitchen floor and arrange myself cross-legged on the rug.
We can speak to one another forever. Bur Nurse cares for other people, too.
Anne and Sully leave again for soccer practice. Sully needs to engage in sports with friends to let his feelings out. You should too, baby, says Anne. She holds my face in her hands. I say, okay, and she releases. She drags the door shut and leaves.
Tristan comes over. I talk to him on my bed. I’ve been thinking about Nurse, the way she’s presented herself to me in such illusionary forms. I’m lying on my side like a woman in an oil painting, and I say, I think art is like magic. It transports.
What? He says. Transports who?
I don’t know, I say, getting annoyed. Me. You?
Since when are you interested in art? He asks. He puts his hand on the edge of my mouth and pulls.
When I am not at the hospital I spend some full days lying in bed. On the wall, there are no pictures or anything, just one evil eye hammered and dangling loose. When my window is open, the wind knocks the eye against the wall.
I wake to Anne shaking me. We must go to the hospital now. Baba needs to talk to you.
This memory, her shaking me, it happens every day now. Every day she wakes me. Every day the evil eye smacks against the wall like it wants to break it, like it wants to force the house to fall apart from the inside. Every day, I go to the hospital and smoke outside, like an idiot.
Okay, I said. I’m coming. But I never went inside that day.
Okay, I say each day. I’m coming.
I’m coming, I say, even though no one is at the hospital anymore but Nurse. Anne follows me around the house in socks asking me, who are you speaking to? There is no one on the phone, baby. No one but you.
Last night Tristan came over. He stood in the doorway and made to hug me, and I put my hands over my face and said, No thanks, I have Nurse. Anne and Sully stood behind. They saw me shut the door in Tristan’s face. Sully dragged Anne into the next room, and cried. The leaves are going red. The city has gotten emptier. I believe the tightrope is still there, the tightrope Baba and I use to speak. I stand inside the smoker’s cage, listening. Sometimes it’s so silent, I can hear my aorta open.