As two years passed, Sibel asked the same questions about her missing son. Where was Fikret? What terrible thing had happened to him? It terrified her to think of it, and it had tired her out. It was worse, in some ways, than actually knowing he had died would have been. She could the sell the sole possession she had, their apartment just south of a well-to-do neighborhood in Istanbul. She could start a new life, whichever kind of life would be possible for a forty-one-year-old woman who had lost the two important people in her life, her husband and now son, but Sibel kept the apartment in case Fikret should search for it.
Two long years had passed, and he was still missing. Sibel searched in her own memory of the day he had left, for missing clues, and what she couldn’t find only made his whereabouts more uncertain.
One day, as Sibel was watching television in her apartment’s kitchen, a woman in a commercial, Ayse hanim, said, Is something troubling you in your life? Do you have problems with money, relationships or family?
Sibel couldn’t help but listen. The woman was a psychic, and Sibel figured that if there was an advertisement for one, she wasn’t getting into something that didn’t have some foundation, somewhere in possibility. There were so many inexplicable things in the universe, so much human beings didn’t know. And if it was a fluke, so what? There was no harm in it.
The woman in the commercial was older, about Sibel’s age. She wore a yellow scarf to hold back her brown hair. Her make-up was heavy, but beyond the make-up, there was nothing but confidence.
Do you need to get in touch with someone? Are you at a critical point in your life when you have to make a decision about something important? said Ay§e hanim.
Sibel took down the phone number flashing at the bottom of the nineteen-inch television screen on a free table calendar she had received from the state utility company.
“We have helped hundreds of thousands of people around the world with problems similar to yours.” The camera turned to an interview of an older gentleman recounting his experience receiving advice to see a doctor about prostrate cancer he didn’t know he had and the cure to rid it. This was followed with a woman telling her story of meeting the love of her life. They were all positive stories, fodder for Sibel’s imagination. Impossible, thought Sibel.
Sibel turned off the television and sat there with her elbows on her tiny kitchen table. She looked at the number. She thought. She remembered. She believed in possibilities despite the exhaustion of the years. She believed when no one else would. The tiles behind the countertops of her kitchen were cracking. Beside the tile, penciled into the wall, was a line marking Fikret’s height when he had been six. He would have been sixteen today.
Do you need to get in touch with someone? Are you at a critical point in your life when you have to make a decision about something important? Ay§e hanim’s voice echoed in her ears.
On the last day Sibel had seen Fikret, she had woken at seven in the morning and set the breakfast table for an Italian exchange student; Sibel rented out her old bedroom, which she had shared with her late husband, to foreign students who wanted a homestay experience. She put down an extra plate for Fikret.
Even though many students skipped the last few weeks up to the country’s OSS exams, Sibel had insisted that Fikret should go. That, somehow, it would make a difference in the final score he would receive. She wanted him to eat well everyday. She wanted him to have mental energy for the test.
Even though he was only fourteen, now wasn’t the time he could squander his life, she had told him. The exams determined which high school, and even college, he could go to, essentially the rest of his life. She had to push him, force him hard to, if necessary, even though she, herself, had only finished grade school. She had to step in because there wasn’t a father who could.
“Get up,” she said through Fikret’s closed bedrom door. “You’re leaving before I go to work. You’ll make me late.” She cursed in a lower voice, “Goddamn it.”
The Italian exchange student getting herself ready for her own day heard Sibel.
Sibel wasn’t sure if the Italian understood her, but shook her head and said, “He never listens.” She tried her best to explain in Turkish that it was no big deal, even though the Italian was just learning the language.
The young Italian woman, hair cropped on her head like a boy, smiled. Sibel didn’t like that she wore shorts as low cut as she did. It was inappropriate around Fikret, she thought. Yet tolerating others was something that came with the territory of strangers, an economic necessity, in her house.
“Fikret, open the door,” said Sibel. “You’ll make me late.”
Fikret neither opened the door nor answered his mother.
“Fikret,” said Sibel louder.
“I’ll get myself to school,” said Fikret, his voice muffled through the door.
Now that he was a teenager, she had found it almost impossible to control him.
In the evening, Fikret never showed up. He never went to school that day.
Two days after Fikret had disappeared, almost everyone Sibel knew had made at least one visit to her apartment. The same assurances were made. He’s probably with a friend or relative. He ‘II turn up any moment. Young boys do these kinds of stupid things.
She had contacted everyone who, she could think of, knew her son. She had called the mothers of her son’s friends. She had called the school and family in and out of Istanbul. A neighbor two floors above her had recruited several people to canvas the neighborhood with his photographs. One was of Fikret smiling after his circumcision ceremony. It was four years old. The other was of him in a New York Mets cap Ahmet, once a student living in Sibel’s apartment, had brought him as a present. In another, some boys at an Internet cafe surrounded Fikret. The picture showed a smiling thin boy, who appeared shy before the camera at the center of all these older boys Sibel didn’t know.
By the second week, it was only Sibel canvassing.
She looked around for the faces of the older boys in the picture with her son. They made her think of gangs. Sibel thought of drug dealing. Istanbul was turning into the most dangerous city in the world. Everyday, something crazy seemed to happen. Sibel stopped taking in new exchange students. She even stopped eating as much.
By the third week, she was crying herself to sleep almost every night. By the fourth week, the posters Sibel had stapled to telephone poles and taped to the windows of abandoned storefronts had been ripped or removed.
Do you need to get in touch with someone? The question wouldn’t leave Sibel alone.
The first time she called Ayse hanim she hung up. She had no reason to believe such things, but after two years and kneeling on the rugs of mosques with her forehead to the Earth, nothing had happened. No clue surfaced. No older teenage boy with wild, tousled dark hair approached her door.
What could a complete stranger on the other end of the telephone tell her? Everything, thought Sibel. Nothing. If a mother did anything, however, she didn’t stop looking.
A postcard from Ahmet was on the table. Sibel fingered it. On the topside of the postcard was a black-and-white picture of the great Sphinx outside of Cairo.
Ahmet, an Egyptian who taught English in various parts of the world and knew almost seven languages by Sibel’s count, had talked with her almost every night after Fikret’s disappearance, sometimes as little as ten minutes, sometimes as long as several hours. He had listened to her cry. He had listened to her speculate.
Sibel had never known his true feelings for her. At thirty-nine with a son, she had been happy to have any man interested in her. Ahmet had paid for Fikret’s English lessons. He had bought Sibel a dress and gold bracelet. She had joked that he threw around money as if he were a pasha or sultan. Money, he had said, meant nothing to him.
When he’d come to Istanbul, he’d stay with them in the rented-out room, the first room he ever stayed in when he had come himself to Istanbul to improve the accent of his English because he had said the English schools in Turkey were better than anywhere in Egypt. Sibel and Ahmet were friendly to each other. They flirted. Yet, a kiss had never even passed between them. He loved Fikret, she thought, as if he were his own child.
“How well did he know your son?” one of the detectives had asked.
“Well,” she had said.
“How would you describe their relationship?”
“Like father and son.”
“Where is he now?”
The entire interview had been clipped. She had already answered ten minutes of questions.
“Did they spend time together without you?”
“Why are you asking me these questions?”
She had denied any possibility of Ahmet’s involvement in Fikret’s disappearance.
Her son’s case was open. Everywhere people disappeared for one reason or another, they had said. People who weren’t even known of or accounted for in the city or national records disappeared every hour. The margin of error for how many people resided in Istanbul was always plus or minus several million.
“Who are these boys in the photograph?” the same detective had asked when looking at a photograph of Fikret with his friends. “Can you think of any reason why he didn’t come home?”
Sibel thought of many.
The detective had changed his line of questioning. “He’s a charming boy, isn’t he?”
“He was,” she said and realized she was using him in the past tense.
The second time Sibel called the number, a woman’s voice answered.
“Hello, this is Ayse hanim’s hotline,” she said. “I am Ayse. How are you this evening?”
Sibel didn’t even know where to really begin with an answer. She felt stunted. “Fine,” she said, for a lack of anything else to say. She didn’t even notice that the woman’s voice was nothing like the voice of the light-skinned, mature woman from the commercial—the real Ayse hanim.
A pause passed before Sibel answered the woman.
“Fine,” she said, again. She stared into the grain of the white kitchen table, what was left of it, at least, after having been painted over several times, once by she and Fikret together. “No, I’m calling for a reason.”
“We help people, whatever they’re reason may be for calling. We’ve helped thousands with answers they have been looking for. It isn’t perfect, yet everyone is always surprised. I am happy you called.”
One possibility that had surprised her was the appearance of Ahmet only three months ago.
Sibel thought of possibilities. She thought of abilities impossible for the police.
The man she had had the strongest attachment to after her long-dead husband had shown up, at a moment when she was up and down emotionally, elated one moment in front of others but depressed alone, when no one it seemed could understand, even though she put the phrase God willing, almost after everything she now said, particularly in front of the new exchange students, whom she had started to take in again out of economic necessity.
Ahmet appeared without any more warning than when Fikret had vanished. He had visited several times since Fikret had been missing over the two years. Sometimes, he had called for days in a row. Sometimes, months had passed with no call from him.
Sibel couldn’t believe that Ahmet was before her. She had wanted to dig her finger nails into her eyes to make sure that what she was seeing wasn’t a figment of her imagination. She had been praying for something like this to have happened.
He had left a message on her cell phone and then just showed up. Ahmet and she sat together at the small table of her narrow kitchen. She warmed leftovers she had made for a German girl staying with her for three weeks He seemed so comfortable in her place, she noticed, as if it was only last night and every night before that he’d been there. She forgot, as she often did, the long stretches of time when he had been gone. She talked and talked about her part-time work at an upholstery shop and other things—excited, elated and nervous.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, after she’d said so much, so surprised she was of his visit.
“I came to see you,” he said. He was on his way from St. Petersburg, where he had been teaching English, back to Cairo.
“But why here?” She had one lucid moment. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”
“I changed my ticket at the last moment. I came to see you, I said. I wanted to make sure you are okay.”
“Why wouldn’t I be okay? Does it matter?”
“No.” It didn’t take a genius to figure out what he was talking about.
Sibel smiled anyway.
Ahmet was quiet for a moment. She asked him about St. Petersburg to reignite the conversation.
Ahmet talked of the weather, the cold streets, and the remarkable monuments. She liked to hear of foreign places, always had. She almost put it out of her mind that Fikret was gone in her excitement at seeing Ahmet. She also put it out of her mind that Ahmet probably had a girlfriend in Russia or somewhere.
“You like my cooking?” she asked.
“I love your cooking.” Ahmet’s appetite was voracious, as if he hadn’t eaten in days. He smiled. She watched him pick up the spoon, as if it were a shovel, and dip it into his bowl of chickpea soup. He was broad-shouldered and stout, strong.
She smiled back. They’d managed to not talk about Fikret. Then Ahmet took out a gold necklace for her—he playing the part she had ascribed to him of the sultan. He, spreading gold, as if it were no object.
Sometimes, it was almost as if Fikret had disappeared yesterday. Sometimes, however, as if she had never had son, as used to living alone as she had become. The cell phone’s receiver was to her ear. She was ashamed that she could forget Fikret. She thought there was fundamentally something wrong with her, a lack of love, or maybe too much love. She even thought, for a moment, that there was something wrong with her if she had to go to a psychic.
Sibel and Ayse hanim talked of trivialities, where Sibel lived and such, as if they were old friends, catching up after a long time apart.
“What do you know about sixth sense?” asked Ayse hanim. “An alternative way of understanding? Did you ever just know something that someone didn’t have to tell you for you to know? Almost as if you were reading his or her mind?”
The wireless phone service Sibel had used almost dropped the call.
“Sibel hanim” said Ayse, “are you there?”
“Yes, I know, I know exactly what you are talking about,” said Sibel.
The young German woman, Sibel’s new boarder, was about in the city late when Ahmet had come, as she was most nights. Ahmet had been at Sibel’s almost twenty-four hours. Still, sometimes, Sibel couldn’t believe that he was, really, here with her. They had walked along the Bosphorus in Tophane at mid-morning and lunched at a kebab place he liked. They had even gone shopping. They did the things they had done in the past.
Along the walk, as they were shopping, Sibel said, “If Fikret was only here.”
“I tried to not mention him at all,” Ahmet said. “I know it must hurt. I can’t imagine. It’s been years, and I still can’t imagine. Haven’t the police uncovered anything?”
She said nothing. They paused on the sidewalk full of pedestrians.
“Here, take this,” he said. It was a napkin he had saved over from lunch.
She dried her nose and wiped her eyes.
“Come on, it’s okay,” he said, enfolding her in his arms and cooing her. “Everything is fine. Everything is going to be okay.”
“Please. Let’s not talk about him.” She thought it would be okay as long as he stayed. “Okay, okay.” He reassured her.
In the late evening, she and Ahmet watched television together in her living room. They had both been lying on their sides on a thick rug on the floor. They had been watching a show called Asi, or rebel, in the dark, a soap opera gone prime time.
Sibel fiddled with the necklace Ahmet had given her. She recalled crying earlier and couldn’t concentrate on the show. Was she crying for Fikret or herself? Who? She had put on an emotional display. She imagined what it would have been like if Fikret, she and Ahmet had a life together, the way she had dreamt years earlier.
Ahmet let his arm fall on Sibel’s waist. She didn’t remove his arm, but was completely aware of its presence. She was nervous and lost complete track of what was happening in the plot of the show, which she would have, otherwise, followed closely to every detail.
“Let’s,” he said. That’s all he said.
As dating teenagers do when they come to a romantic scene in a movie, he methodically pressed his body closer to her. He started kissing her cheek.
She couldn’t believe it. She could feel the mass of his large body, its warmth. She turned on her back to face him. His cologne was heavy.
They made out in the static glow of the television. His face was almost invisible in the dark. He was a man. He was Ahmet, the sultan. He was also Fikret’s good friend. He was a member of the human race interested in her. He had acted like a father for Fikret. He had made it a point to stop in Istanbul to see her on his way to Cairo.
After hours had passed, when it was over, Ahmet’s arm was still around Sibel’s waist. Sibel’s sweater was on, her bra undone. Her jeans were piled on top of his at her feet. She’d draped a blanket off the couch to cover them. She turned off the television with the remote. They were in the dark, almost pitch black. Sibel rested her chin on her hand. She couldn’t sleep.
Instead of bliss or joy, a certain anxiety filled the space of relaxation being with him was supposed to create.
“What is it?” he asked.
Her answer didn’t come quickly.
“I can’t believe we did it.” Sibel hadn’t slept with another man since her husband had passed away, many years earlier, and didn’t know what to make of what had happened.
“You were here.”
“I am here.”
“But you’ll leave soon.”
“Enjoy,” he said finally, “the moment.” He held her closely to his chest, and over the next few hours, she slept.
In the morning, he left. Sibel didn’t protest. Later, when she slept that night, she felt a great pressure on her chest as she grasped his absence, coupled to that of everyone else. It overwhelmed her. He had said that he needed time to think about everything that had happened, but he had to do this in Cairo.
The postcard two weeks later from Ahmet did not say much. Teaching is great, he had written in Turkish. I am glad to be home. I hope you are well. The pressure of the handwriting was poor and heavy. / miss you very much. Kisses, he wrote. There had been no mention about the night they had slept together, unless the omission was itself the answer.
“Are you calling about a man in your life?” asked the psychic Ayse now. “Love?”
“No,” said Sibel.
“What is it that I can help you with? Is this about someone in your family?”
“It’s about my son. I need to find him.” Sibel imagined the woman had a sixth sense. She didn’t know that the woman was actually twenty-three, overweight and doing this until she got back into school again. Sibel fiddled with the calendar on which she had written Ayse hanim’s number.
The day before Fikret had gone missing two years earlier, Sibel had stopped by the utility company to pay her monthly water and electric bills. The money had been wired and lent to her by Ahmet. When she had found the envelope empty of the money she’d withdrawn from the bank the prior day, she searched through every nook and cranny of her black purse. She held up a line at the counter. “It’s here,” she had said aloud with futility.
At home, she couldn’t find the money. She had gone through Fikret’s bedroom, even though Fikret had never wanted her to enter it. Still, the money, Ahmet’s money, never turned up.
When Fikret came home five hours after school would have ended, she had stopped him as he was taking off his shoes to come in. “Where’s the money?” she asked.
“What?” said Fikret, Met’s cap back far on his head.
“Where’s the money?” Sibel had accepted every cent Ahmet had given them.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about? What’s for dinner?” Fikret put his shoes away.
“I’m hungry.” He took off his hat. She was determined that only he could have taken it.
“You want dinner. You come home when it’s ready.”
Fikret walked past her into the kitchen. He was impossible to control now that he was a teenager, without a father.
“Where’s the money?” she asked, following him. “It’s Ahmet’s.” She put her face right before his, even though he was now taller than her. His insolence was too much. “Where’s the money?” Her voice was emphatic. Her nose almost touched his.
A shouting match ensued. Fikret denied taking the money. Fikret pushed her off when she grabbed him by the arm and reached for his pockets. He walked toward the front door.
“I hate you,” he said.
“How dare you?” She slapped him.
He touched his chin. He turned from her and walked away.
“You hate it here?” she said, shouting now down the short hall of their apartment.
“I hate it all.” Fikret reached into the pockets of his jacket by the door above the shoe rack. “Here’s your money.” He threw what was left of what he’d taken onto the floor. “I hate it here,” he said, putting on his shoes.
Sibel picked up of what was left of the money.
“I’m your mother. Is this how you treat your mother?” She couldn’t believe he’d stolen it. She couldn’t even count the cash and change, but she could see it wasn’t all there. Maybe, she just knew.
“I hate living here. I hate everything, but most of all, I hate you. If my dad hadn’t died, he would have left anyway because you would have made him. Why do you think Ahmet always leaves?”
“You little shit,” she said, unable to believe what he had said and done. “Where’s the rest of it?” She slapped him again.
Fikret touched his cheek and then said something else under his breath, but Sibel couldn’t hear him.
“Where are you going? Where’s the rest of the money?” She couldn’t believe her own flesh and blood had stolen from her. She was shouting and could even hear how hysterical she sounded.
Fikret slammed the door behind him. Then he just disappeared the next day. She felt guilty later for what had happened. He had his important exams to take. He didn’t need this kind of stress.
Sibel told Ayse hanim what had happened the night before Fikret had disappeared. A long silence followed on the other end of the line when Sibel finished telling her.
Sibel broke the silence.
“Where do you think my son might be?” she asked. The woman’s name on the other end of the phone might not have even been Ay§e, but Sibel didn’t care.
“Those who are missing,” the young woman said, her words slow, surprisingly confident, “are not always far away from us. We can feel them. Do you ever feel him?”
“Yes,” said Sibel. “Yes.”
Months after Ahmet had slept with her, Sibel had wanted to believe it was even possible he had gotten her pregnant, that she would have a second son, Fikret a new sibling, that Ahmet would now have to come back to Istanbul. She had even gotten a pregnancy test, but the test had been negative. She felt foolish and thought she was losing her mind.
Sibel got off the phone with Ay§e hanim, who had raised her hopes up. She called her on subsequent days, and they had long conversations about Fikret, even though the women she talked to changed with each conversation. A better part of her told her that all she’d thought about Ahmet was right. His not calling only confirmed that he just went around giving women jewelry and sleeping with them. Two years and the apartment had only been filled with her and the strangers.
When Sibel went out in the evening several days from her first conversation with Ayse hanim to look about for her son, and the ghosts of her son, the shopkeepers, everyone, recognized her. She was a fixture now in the neighborhood. The shopkeepers and neighbors knew what she was doing, for she had been about her routine so often. But for months, she hadn’t been out, which made her appearance a bit of a surprise. They made brief salutations.
Sometimes, she suspected Ahmet in some way in her son’s disappearance. It was almost, but not quite, beyond her imagination. Still, she thought, impossible. Every night, almost, she thought of what she’d said to Ahmet. She tried calling, leaving almost four messages on his voice mail. The first message was only her crying. The second message was an apology; the third, an accusation; the fourth, a final apology and her pouring her heart out and telling him about her conversations with Ayse hanim.
Untold possibilities, she continued to think.
Her son was alive somewhere. She could feel him close. The necklace around her neck from Ahmet, even, could still mean something. She held onto it as a good luck charm. Everyone she came across who’d seen her on every evening cast sullen glances and sometimes spoke in hushed tones or strained greetings.
The call to prayer came from a close-by minaret, one of the over two thousand in Istanbul. She remembered how Ahmet, she and Fikret were out on this same street when he had taken them out for ice cream. She could almost picture them. She did picture them. She was there now. Ahmet ruffled his tousled hair, the way he did when he always kidded with him.
She had started to think Fikret was always close by. She only had to be aware of his presence, as the psychic had told her.
“It’s a quiet evening,” said the new clerk of the mobile store she sometimes went to when her cell phone gave her trouble. He was probably about the same age Fikret would have been. “How are you?” His manner was energetic.
The man was not her son, but she marveled anyway at the possible resemblance between him and Fikret.
“Madam,” he said, “are you okay?”
She believed that anything was possible, even after two years, despite how hard it was to wait. Couldn ‘t it still be? Wouldn ‘t he appear when she least expected as they had said? She walked up to the boy and grabbed his face between the palms of her hands. She was glad she had kept her hope alive. That was what mothers did. She couldn’t believe that it was him. She looked over his face twice, three times. She was afraid she wouldn’t recognize him. More than two years would have changed the way he looked.
“Fikret, son, is that you?” she asked. “I can’t believe it.” Close by.
“Madam,” said the boy, freeing himself. “Madam, please. I’m not who you think I am.”
There her son was before her, after all these years. Sibel couldn’t believe it. He had returned half of the money he had taken. She touched the boy’s left cheek with her right hand. An indescribable desperation swelled up inside of her. She couldn’t breathe.
“Fikret,” she said, “isn’t it you? What are you doing here? Where have you been? Is it really you?”