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A young boy overheard his father talking about a road that led to success.
“Please, Father, point me in the right direction,” he said. “I want to be a success!”
“The road is a day’s walk past the forest. It is steep, my son. It has cliffs and sharp edges. You must wait until you are ready.”
The boy retreated to his room, undeterred. During the night, he searched his legs and found the strength to walk. In his hands he found a strong grip. By morning he had grown in size. He packed bread, cheese and water and set off on his journey.
It took the boy a day to reach the forest but no road crossed his path. He pushed on for three days and nights until his legs shrunk back to their normal size and his hands shook with fatigue, thirst and hunger. He felt as small as the pebbles that grazed his feet. I must return before I starve, he thought. He turned back the way he came, drinking from streams and feasting on berries that hardly quenched his appetite. Anger tared at him and he cursed at the lie that was success. It doesn’t exist, he thought. The whole thing is a sham.
When the boy arrived home, he found his father seated beside the window.
“It’s a lie, Father. There is no road that leads to success. All there is is the blisters on my feet.”
His father turned to the boy. “You are sure, my son?”
“Tell me about your journey.”
“It was a flat, dusty path, Father. No steep road, no dangerous cliffs. I turned back as soon as I realised success did not exist.”
The boy’s father got up with a small smile. “You were on the right road.”
“But it can’t be! You said there would be cliffs!”
“Your doubts are the cliffs in your mind, my son.”
The boy nodded, trying to understand.
“The road to success begins when you overcome them.”
Her lips are fat, crooked, as if they’re stuck on. They shine like a red light. She looks too big in our lounge; her hands long and thin, her boobs like the melons my dad loved.
He’d bring one home every day, small and green, as shiny as a bald skull. He’d cut halfway with a knife; rip the rest open with his hands, feed Mum with wet fingers until red juice dripped down her chin. She’d grab his face then, wipe her chin on his beard, kiss his lips.
Maybe that’s why he left. Maybe this woman’s melons are sweeter.
Mum’s sitting next to me, kneading her hands that have wrinkled from cleaning. She smells of white king and scrubbing. Her breathing is slow, mouth open, filling her insides with air as if to keep words in. She stares at her lap while the thief on the opposite couch surveys the room, eyes darting past the pink carnations on the coffee table where the family photo used to be.
I pat Mum’s knee, and she rests her hand on mine. The smell of chlorine clouds the room.
“I’m sorry,” says the thief, her fat lips barely moving. “So sorry.” Her head hangs low, eyes rest on Mum’s green slippers.
I want to grab her words, throw them at her like arrows. “Sorry isn’t good enough. Isn’t that what you people say? Too little, too late?”
Mum’s hand stiffens, her palm wet on top of mine. She talks in Turkish, her voice haunted by him and his promises that died on this woman’s fat lips.
“What did you say? Please,” says the thief, her ghostlike face finding Mum’s. Her voice is small, each word light, without meaning.
Mum’s voice still heavy in the air, like an angry song. I hope it shatters this foreigner’s ears, curls around her throat. In here she makes no sense, her hair too yellow, skin too white, her language without passion. She belongs outside where everything is bland, without spice.
“Tell me why you’re here or leave.”
Her face is pale like I’ve sucked out her oxygen. “I promise,” she wheezes, taking a breath. “I didn’t know he was married.”
“This isn’t church. We’re not interested in your confessions. What do you want? You haven’t taken enough?”
Mum elbows me, shakes her head, tries to keep her features still but I see her chin tremble, know how it must hurt her to see this woman in the lounge that once sheltered her marriage, kept it safe from the unknown.
The thief doesn’t know where to look; her hands massage her chest, her painted fingers dig into her skin. I imagine them wiping my father’s brow, erasing Mum’s fingerprints.
“Please…just listen,” she says, breathing heavy as if our air is suddenly thick. She opens her bag, fingers fluttering like Mum’s on the dance floor, when her hips used to shimmy with life before my father left her and the heart attack slowed down her legs.
The woman sucks on an asthma pump, taking deep breaths. “He lied to me too.” She looks at Mum’s walking cane near the couch. “I left him as soon as I found out. I swear it.”
“Huh.” Mum’s sigh is throaty, like gurgling spit. Her finger circles the air slowly the way it did when she made Dad’s favourite köfte. She used to fry the meatballs for him, making music in her kitchen with crackling oil, clinking plates. She’d cry dicing the onions and Dad would joke that he could taste the tears in the meatballs, that they made it so much better. I wonder what he tastes now at this woman’s table where there is no flavour.
“I…I…” she sniffles, wipes at tears with the tip of a tissue. Is that how she touches him, with the tips of her fingers, poking the dark hairy man with an accent? No doubt she expects him to shower before he touches her so the sweat that sticks to him at the end of each day does not blemish her skin. She’d never breathe him in like Mum used to. “He kept coming back, said you were getting a divorce,” she says.
Her words fill me with hate—it bubbles in my arms, my stomach. I want to poke her eyes out with her pointy shoes, break the woman that stole my mother’s smile.
“I just want to explain.”
I stand, walk to the coffee table. The crystal vase separates us. It is empty like this house full of halves. I see her reflection change shape around the glass, and my fingers twitch. “We are not interested. Do you understand? Two years have passed; we’ve had enough. Leave.” I wipe that vase every day; know how it feels against my palm; smooth, cool like the crisp shell of a watermelon.
She looks small with her wet eyes dripping. “No please, I’m sorry. I have to tell you—”
“I said leave. Or I will make you.” The vase twinkles like the diamonds on her ears.
“No, kizim…” Mum’s words heavy behind me.
The woman shakes her head, chest heaving, her mouth chasing breath. She reaches for her pump, sucks until her cheeks cave in. “I lost…too. I came here,” she chokes, “to…tell you…I’ve been punished. I…he, I lost my baby. I can never have children.”
Her sobs anger me more. I have heard them on actors in old Turkish movies, faking grief. I see my father’s face in this lounge, laughing at the bad acting, his strong arms around me and Mum. There is nothing where his arm used to be. “I hope you both never find happiness,” I say, watching my father dissolve into this woman, watching a part of me go with him.
She’s sweating now, eyeing me in shock. She gets up and her bag scatters to the floor. Her perfume, lipstick, tampons vomit out of her handbag onto our carpet. She crouches down to clean her dirt, her head bent.
I see the grey glint of her pump a foot away.
I pick it up; feel its pulse in my palm, her secondary heart.
She’s on her knees, surveying the floor, the couch. “Where is it?” Her hand on her chest. “My pump,” she says, trying to steady her breathing. She looks up, eyes glazed. “I’ve lost—”
Happiness arrived on a day when the sun lit up the world. She saw it approach from her lounge room window.
“Where have you been?” she said. Her hair was the white of winter and years had weathered her hands.
Happiness buzzed and flickered above her head and she tried to catch it with her cane.
It laughed, and the sound made her insides tremble with joy.
“You’ve come to stay?” she said.
Happiness shone from her ceiling like stars. “My dear,” it said, “I never left.”