Lives were changing overnight. Everything was so rotten that people’s roots in the past could no longer hold their present-day existence firmly in place. Like ducks in a shooting gallery, everyone lived with the possibility of being knocked over and disappearing with a single shot.
My own life changed overnight. Or rather, my father’s life. As a result of events that didn’t make much sense to me, a major country announced that it would be stopping the import of tomatoes, and just like that thousands of acres of land turned into a scarlet-colored dump. My father, with the foolhardiness one sometimes sees in people who resent their work, had invested all his money in a single crop, and so one sentence was enough to knock him over and drive him bankrupt. In the morning of a troubled night my father had a stroke.
We had fallen so hard that we couldn’t even find the time to mourn him. As if suffering from a severe case of vertigo, we were able to see everything around us, including his death, but were unable to make any sense of it. A life we had thought would never change crumbled with a terrifying ease. We were free-falling in an unfamiliar void, and I didn’t know what I was falling toward. That I would find out later.
We were left with the money in my mother’s bank account and the one-acre flower greenhouse my father had bought for her amusement. “I will find a way to keep you at school, but gone are the days of luxury,” she said. Studying literature on that vast, luminous campus had in fact become a luxury, but she wouldn’t even hear of me dropping out.
My poor father had wanted me to become an agricultural engineer, but I insisted on majoring in literature. I suppose what determined my decision, as much as my fondness for the adventurous solitude within a fortress of novels, was my confidence that no choice could jeopardize my secure future life. A week after my father’s funeral I took the bus back to the city where my university was. The next morning I applied for student aid. I was a good student. They agreed to give me a scholarship. Even so, I would no longer be able to pay the rent on the spacious three-bedroom house I shared with a friend. I found a room for rent on a street of dive bars where my schoolmates and I used to hang out. The room was in a six-story building from the nineteenth century, with purple wisteria covering its facade and small balconies with ornamental black wrought-iron railings. A wooden elevator still stood in its antique cage, but it didn’t work. The place must have been built as a han; now it was used as a boardinghouse they rented out room by room.
Before I moved in, I put aside a few things to wear and, in a senseless act of fury, as if I was taking revenge for what had happened to us, sold all my clothes and books, my mobile phone, and computer to junk dealers at a very cheap price.
In the room there was a bed with a brass headboard, an old-style wooden nightstand, a tiny round table with a crack right in its middle that stood next to the balcony, a chair, and a mirror on the wall near the door. There was a toilet and a shower; together, they were the size of a small closet. There was no kitchen. A large room on the second floor was used as the communal kitchen. A long table made of rough-cut wood stood in the center, with two long benches on either side. A Frigidaire, at least fifty years old, grunted and growled, and shook at times. A white-tiled countertop, a sink with nineteenth-century bronze faucets with porcelain handles bearing the words chaud and froid, a samovar that mysteriously always had tea on the boil, and a television set: these were the things we shared in our shared kitchen.
The room’s small balcony was very nice. I would take out the chair, sit, and survey the cobblestone street. After seven at night, it started filling up. By nine you couldn’t see the cobblestones anymore; a colorful crowd that breathed in and out as one surged and grew to cover the whole street. A cloud of anise, tobacco, and fried fish drifted up. There were sounds of laughter, whistles, joyful whoops. It was as if once you entered that scene, anything that happened outside was forgotten, and a transient bliss enveloped everyone. I watched from afar that fleeting vivacity in which I could no longer take part.
Tenants cooked their meals in the communal kitchen. They labeled their food before putting it in the fridge. No one touched anyone else’s. In this building of penniless students, cross-dressers, Africans who produced and sold counterfeit luxury goods, young day laborers from the provinces, bouncers, and busboys who worked in nearby restaurants, there was a puzzling sense of order and peace. There was no manager to be seen, but everyone felt secure. Everyone guessed that some of the residents were involved in shady dealings outside the building, but that darkness never seeped in.
I didn’t know how to cook. I didn’t have enough money to buy proper meat or vegetables anyway, and I was too lazy to try to prepare food. I usually bought half a loaf of bread and cheese from the corner grocery and ate it at mealtimes. I suppose I resembled the rest of the “new poor” in the exaggerated and ridiculously inept way I tried to live through what had just happened.
I usually went down to the kitchen to have tea with my “meal.” I had discovered that a bouncer with tattooed biceps who always went about in a black tank top cooked exotic dishes and served them to whoever was in the kitchen at the time. He made strange things like steak with pineapple and ginger-braised sea bass.
The building had an intelligence network as incomprehensible as its security system: everyone knew things about everyone else. I learned, without knowing how, that Gülsüm, the cross-dresser who lived next door to me, was in love with a married cook; the young man two doors down was called “Poet” by all the others; the portly black guy nicknamed “Mogambo” sold handbags during the day and worked as an escort at night; and one of the country boys had shot his cousin. It was as if the kitchen walls were whispering to keep us informed.
I greeted and exchanged a few words with everybody there, but befriended no one. The only person I enjoyed talking to was Tevhide. She was five, the only child in the building. With her short, roughly cut hair and deep-green eyes that looked at everything with curiosity, she shone like a drop of water.
The first time we met she gestured to me with her tiny finger to come closer and spoke into my ear as if she were sharing an astonishing secret. “Do you know,” she asked, “that there is a number called one thousand five hundred?” “Really?” I acted surprised. “I swear. My friend told me today.”
When I didn’t see Tevhide and her father in the kitchen I would usually eat my bread and cheese, drink a few glasses of tea, and then go back upstairs to my room. I watched the street from the balcony for a while, then read a dictionary of mythology that I hadn’t been able to bring myself to sell. An imagination spanning thousands of years that had given us gods worse than people, never-ending wars, romances, evils, envy and greed—it helped me forget the world in which I lived.
Fall, with its utter inevitability and glory, had been settling on the city. The weather was cooler, and classes had begun.
One evening, while I was eating in the kitchen, someone whose name I didn’t know asked me if I wanted to work part-time after class. It didn’t pay much, but the job was easy. I said yes without blinking. I needed every penny. He gave me a card that read friendly casting. The next day I went to the address on it.
That was a year ago. I didn’t know then that life was so devoid of a hidden will, so subject to coincidence, that a single word, a mere suggestion, or a business card could change its course completely.