Mirror Shock

My sister cycled through comments about my mom like beads on her tespih. "Mom is very sick, she’s starting to mix up who’s who." This was all she knew and all she said to me every time she called. I didn’t want to go back there. There. Childhood. The prayers read over me, the silver coins laid on my throat . . . The number-3 guard on the electric razor, the trachoma in my eyes, the empty lot where I was always chosen to play goalie. I particularly didn’t want to go back now that I was seventeen.

—You zoned out again, Abi, said the barber.

—I’m a little tired, I said.

I never go to a barber more than once. I won’t go back. I can’t stand it. I think this barber is going to talk the same way the others have. Tonight, if my sister hadn’t pushed me, if she hadn’t said, “Mom might not even recognize you,” I wouldn’t have come. Whichever barber I go to, it’s always the same. Six of one, half a dozen of the other—it’s all a done deal. As if they’re going to get so into this conversation that they’ll shutter the shop for you. Whatever—I’ll say all I’m going to only when it’s time for him to shave me: How’s the job, what’s happening to this country, do you think Galatasaray will win the cup this year? Even my answers are ready: It’s dead—small businesses are dead. Small-time shopkeepers are finished. I could ask my neighborhood’s new barber if old Razi the barber’s still alive, for instance.

—Abi, you zoned out again.

—No, no, I'm fine, I said.

A deep silence would fill the space before the scissors cut again; the barber, after a cough, saying in a hoarse voice,

—Abi, if it’s not inappropriate to ask, what do you do? (SEN! Why are you using the informal “you”?)

—Why would it be inappropriate to ask? I work, I said.

This “I work” is what I used to keep him quiet.

I know you, you’re both a stutterer and a chatterbox. You’re thinking you’ll get me going, keep me coming back to this barbershop, a customer forever. You’ve had your chance. After this curt answer it won’t be so easy to ask me questions. From time to time, “Abi, should I cut it a bit shorter in front, do you want the sideburns long, should I shave the stubble?” Even those questions are more than enough.

My hair has thinned. There’s a significant graying at the temples. Or was I like this in the eleventh grade? The second year of high school, the lovely age of seventeen! And didn’t everything happen that year? Today if someone told me seventeen was a great age, I’d tear their feet off. Let them see what pain really is. Everything was all right until seventeen. I had the feeling I could do anything. I was on the brink of all possibility. I could have learned to play the bağlama, speak English, could have gone to a far-off metropolis, shot a goal with a flashy bicycle-kick left-footer—I could have killed my father, for instance. But it didn’t happen, absolutely none of it happened.

They carried my father on four shoulders and lowered him into a hole. In secret. I cried like I did after my father slapped me so hard the smack resounded off my cheek. Sobbing. Couldn’t catch my breath. I would have whimpered. My moans went from the empty lot out to the world, no one heard. My mother couldn’t have heard me. My father—our father—loved us sloppily. He raised us like crap. Didn’t my older brother run away from home because of him? . . . The barber holds the scissors in his hand the way my father held his wineglass. My father was quietest at home. He was best while drinking rakı, Dad. His hands would wander through my hair while he drank. I said, this version is my father, as he stroked my face and eyes. But when he beat my mother—I never felt such rage. Even when he kicked me, punched me, beat me with a hose, that rage never welled up inside me. But after he beat my mother I’d go from the empty lot across the street, from one street to another, keeping my moaning from spilling over, making fists, saying, “one day I’ll kill him.” Unafraid of killing him. I thought I’d bury his face in a pillow and suffocate him. Impossible. He was stronger than I was. I’d dream of sticking a rusty knife in his heart as he slept and my own heart would beat fast, my palms sweating. But it didn’t happen. I couldn’t do it—couldn’t even be one of the ones who carried his coffin on my shoulder. The sound of the salâ funeral prayer in my ears and his tobacco-smelling rebukes were all that was left of the past. A pack of Samsun 216 cigarettes my only inheritance. I smoke Samsun 216s now. I hold them the same way, suck in the smoke and let it out bit by bit like him. My hands the same as his now, yellowed, smelling of tobacco. I ask the barber for an ashtray for my elongating ash. My face looks like his, I suppose. People who see me say I look like him. I tried a couple of times to change my brand of cigarettes but couldn’t. The others make me cough. When he coughed, my father would light another cigarette, say “Good for you.” My cough’s like his, can’t catch my breath, gasping, then suddenly it stops. Till death. This coughing doesn’t frighten me nor does it make me happy. He’d cough like he was suffocating—my heart would catch. A feeling like I’d killed him. Didn’t happen. That didn’t happen either, you see. He went when his time came in the end.

—You were gone again there, Abi, be careful, the barber said.

When my father coughed, my mother would bring him a glass of water. Then slap him on the back and say “Helal, helal.” My eyes were full of a thousand furies—would I say anything? I wouldn’t even lift a finger. I was a junior in high school. If I were a mirror, I’d be broken over and over, my literature teacher would say after he had read my essays. Me, too­—I’d be broken over and over, too, Dad. Smithereens. Father, you really broke me. I’m the most damaged.

Like a murmur:

—You’re sliding off the chair—be a bit more careful, the barber said.

—I’m fine, fine—just do your job, I said. I lit another cigarette.

—Just don’t look at the mirror too long, he said.

My mother would also say, “Don’t look too long at the mirror. There are spirits in the mirror, drive you crazy.” The mirror’s glass, Mom—take your soul! You were water for my father and how did that work out? You know, Mom, I also went there every Thursday. To that upright stone, to his grave. To see him about half-finished business. You, you’d go to read prayers at the head of his grave. I’d watch from far away. After you left, I’d creep over and sit where you’d sat. Your handprints still in the earth of my father’s grave. I’d be like your third hand. Like a hand. Come on, Mom, did you ever hold hands with Dad? That could only happen after he’d died, right? It was after my father died. The cry of agony that spilled off your tongue is still in my ears: “My door was locked, my door was locked, my door was locked . . .” Touching the earth that you had touched, I’m afraid of whose throat I’ll come to slit in time. But he’s dead you see, can’t kill him again. And he would be so quiet before me—it wasn’t like at home, Mom—he was completely different, as if he was screaming silence. The more he shut up, the more powerful he seemed to be, and I, the more damned for cursing; he grew endlessly bigger, his hands becoming larger and larger. As his eyes widened the throbbing in my lame foot suddenly came alive. He slapped and kicked me, Mom, my father made me lame. He turned me into the neighborhood goalie. My dad, my father, he was useless. I’m coming in a bit, Mom. We won’t speak of any of this, of all of it. We have no yesterdays to discuss. Let’s speak of tomorrow, Mom. Why not, Mom. You’ll recognize me, won’t you? Look, I’m getting a haircut so you can see my face, my eyes, to be handsome for you. You’re going to recognize me by my lame foot! Don’t, don’t do that to me. You’re no stranger to all this, Mom . . .

The door opened quietly. I felt the cold air on my ears all of a sudden. Chill. Smell of snow.

—Come here, Selim Abi, the barber said. Our guy needs a shave and no one else is in line.

His voice, OK, I’ll be there in a moment, warmed my ears. I couldn’t see the speaker in the mirror. I turned to the door, which was just closing after someone.

—Who was that, I said.

—Who, Selim Abi?

—Uh, whoever was just in here.

—There’s a kuşçu—a birdseller—next door. We’re neighbors.

—His voice seemed familiar.

—He’s a good abi, he said.

If my lame foot didn’t give me such a hard time, I would have kicked the crap out of him. Like my father did to me. Like I wanted to do to my father’s grave. Ask a useless question and you might get a paragraph-long answer. But ask something you really want to know and you get nothing, He’s a good abi!

My hair’s falling out, strand by strand. If I asked whether there isn’t a solution, he’d say “it’s hereditary” and move on. My father was bald, too, it’s true. It’s best not to ask. My phone’s ringing. I’ve really slipped down in the seat. The barber’s right. I straighten my bum foot and say “one second” to the barber. It’s my sister. “Are you coming?” she asks. “I’m coming, I’m coming—be there in a bit,” I say. “OK,” she says. “OK,” I say as I hang up.

I’m slouching.

Barber chairs really annoy me. That was the case when I was seven getting shaved with a number-3 guard on the electric razor and it’s still the case now. And if that’s the way I feel when my hair’s cut, you should see how freaked out I get when I’m being shaved. That’s when I fall into the deepest of my dark conversations with the barber. I’m worried that’s when I’ll space out and get cut. It’s not the razor, it’s the barber I’m afraid of.

—Usta, did you change the razor? (Usta! I only mouthed such flattery because the razor is pressed firmly below my ear.)

—Abi, they’ve got a new rule now—from now on, it’s a new razor and new towel for everyone.

—Why’s that?

—We’re getting into the European Union, right. A new towel every time. I just put in an order the other day.

—That’s good, more hygienic this way, I said.

—No argument here, Abi, but I’m not using fresh towels with everyone. Present company excepted, some people are as dirty as dogs and jackals…

As the razor comes closer to my throat, I try to get him talking. If he were to space out . . . My eyes fix on the Yılmaz Güney poster on the wall: Sitting like a dog, cigarette in his hand, forehead a mess of cracks. My father loved him. He wanted to name me “Cesi”—after Güney’s character in Racketeers—when I was born. Then, for whatever reason, he gave up. “The world’s most beautiful crying man,” my father used to say, raising his glass to his picture.

—The Ugly King died, I said.

He sighed.

—Man, what a man. This world doesn’t stop for anyone, he said.

If I go home. Kiss my mother's hand. Embrace her. If we have a beautiful cry. If the salt should gather on our eyelashes. How many years has it been since I've been in this neighborhood! And if what my sister says comes true. If my mother asks, “Whose son are you?” You see, it’s that—that’s what scares me most.

—Abi, you were out of it again, be careful. How many times have I said don’t space out—forgive me.

—No, no, it’s not important, dear. (DEAR! Knee-jerk response to “forgive me.”)

—Abi, forgive me, the barber said again.

I didn’t speak. Now, with the razor on my neck, wandering over my windpipe, for no reason:

—Ten years ago, said the barber, I’m shaving this guy and next thing I know, he’s sliding off the chair. He threw up. Fortunately my mentor—my usta—Uncle Razi was here and together we pulled him up, splashed water on his face. Took him outside for some fresh air. “It’s mirror shock,” Uncle Razi said. Happens sometimes. If you look in the mirror too long it hits you. When you were slipping and spacing out, my hands felt like feet, Abi. I was scared, Abi. Is it mirror shock, I asked myself. Forgive me for that, Abi.

© Murat Özyaşar. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Hardy Griffin. All rights reserved.