On 9 November 2016, a series of events occurred which shook my family to its core.
The antique vase in our living room shattered in a hail of crystal shards. Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. My sister left home.
The day had started like any other. As we sat down to breakfast, my sister, who was quite a few years older than me, took a deep breath, as people are wont to do when they are about to make an announcement of some importance, and said: “There’s something I would like to speak with you all about.” At that very moment, the sound of a terrific crash made us all jump in our seats, nearly sending my father toppling backwards in his chair. Still holding her fork, my mother dashed towards the living room. I’m not sure exactly why, but my sister, whose proclamation had been so inopportunely cut short, started pouring salt onto the tablecloth. As a son who had been trying to work his way into his mother’s good graces since the day he was born, there’s not much need for me to explain my reaction; suffice to say, I ran after my mother. What I saw when we stepped through the doorway sent a chill down my spine. The vase, which had been sitting on the coffee table in the living room since time immemorial, had exploded into a thousand pieces. Let there be no misunderstandings—the vase had not fallen to the floor. Rather, it had simply burst right where it was sitting. Frightened by that inexplicable occurrence, I almost swallowed the olive pit that was still in my mouth. “The vase!” I exclaimed. “Mom, look at the vase!” Her lower lip trembling, my mother stammered, “It was an engagement present from my father.” That was all she could manage to say. My sister walked up behind us, followed by our father. There we were, a portrait of a perfect family framed by the doorway of the living room, four people who had borne witness to the suicide of a crystal vase. The look of despair in my mother’s eyes was so profound that I couldn’t help but wonder if she might inflict some harm upon herself with the fork she was still clutching. You see, she was the kind of woman who was capable of such acts. If it hadn’t been for the cube of feta cheese still skewered on the tines of her fork, I think she really might have plunged it into her heart. That’s the way some people are.
I, however, would do nothing of the sort. Of course, I had my own flaws, such as a habit of gnawing on my fingernails, and, when no one was looking, rooting out any undesirable elements from my nose. And while my taste in music was highly refined, I found myself incapable of enjoying opera, no matter how much effort I put into trying to like it. That’s just how it goes. But don’t worry yourself about such matters; I don’t let them bother me either.
My name is Teoman. Teo, for short. the Other Teo.
I am the third child in my family. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I am one of two children who are still among the living. The Real Teo died three years before I was born.
My mother and father fell in love while they were studying at university. They first met at a summer camp. Both of them were studying political science, my mother in Ankara and my father in Istanbul. My mother would sigh, “Ah, if only that train could speak!” For two years they travelled by train back and forth between Istanbul and Ankara. In the end, my mother moved to Istanbul and they got married as soon as they finished their studies. My mother’s family hadn’t opposed the idea of them getting married, but my father’s mother took a firm stance against them marrying before they finished university. My mother would say, “My mother-in-law didn’t really care about him getting his diploma. No, her greatest fear was losing the authority she wielded over her son.” Anyways, let us move on, as it is not my intent to bore you with such trifling matters.
My brother, who was the oldest child, was born when my father was working on his doctorate. I’m told that my father would say things like, “My son is going to become a world-renowned academic. Since he’s going to pursue his higher education abroad, his name should be easy to pronounce. Teoman would work. They’ll call him Teo for short, easy enough.” As for my mother, she is said to have gushed with admiration for Theo van Gogh, who exhausted himself financially and spiritually for the sake of his brother’s genius. And that’s how my brother came into the world with a planned-out name steeped in the romance of artistic brilliance: Teo.
The birth of the Real Teo brought fortune to the household. My father quickly rose in the ranks of academia and my mother climbed the ladder of success all the way up to the rung of assistant director at a crisis management center. As you can see, all was going quite well—that is, until my sister was born, whereupon the exuberance of spring gave way to summer.
Frankly speaking, nothing worthy of mention happened in the history of my family until tragedy struck when the Real Teo was fifteen years old. The thrill and passion of my parents’ train escapades had worn down to the routine clickety-clack between two stops on the commuter railway. Mortgages, car payments, tuition for private school, holidays abroad, weekend brunches, minor arguments, major reconciliations... You get the idea. And then came the nightmare.
The Real Teo committed suicide when he was fifteen. He was a star student at one of the most prestigious schools in the country, not only because he excelled in his coursework but also because he was a model socialite. At that age he had already won two medals for advances in science, published a comprehensive study about the work of Alan Turing in an international student journal, and achieved acclaim at the national level as a fencer. He was good at everything. Very, very good.
Beneath the surface all of that success, however, there was a secret: The Real Teo had fallen in love. The individual who had captivated his heart was not a gifted student like himself, and in fact they hadn’t even known each other for very long. In the beginning, the Real Teo worked diligently to establish their friendship, doing everything in his power to create a world that could accommodate the both of them. And he succeeded in that, as with every endeavour he undertook. They went to the cinema and started taking long walks together. My brother even learned how to play billiards for the sake of his love. Naturally, his friends took notice of the fact that he was spending all of his time with his new companion, and his teachers were displeased by the fact that he had struck up such an intimate a friendship with the school deadbeat. A few of them even warned Teo: “Your studies are going to suffer as a result of this.” Even worse, however, was the behavior of the other students, who were supposedly from good families, as they played cruel jokes on my brother which cut him to the quick.
Little by little matters started spiralling out of control. The final straw was a poster that some students hung up on the wall of the gymnasium before physical education class one day. The poster was a photomontage of that scene from Titanic in which Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are standing on the bow of that ill-fated ship. The students had replaced Leonardo and Kate’s faces with those of my brother and his beloved: Two lovers proclaiming their passion to the world on a transatlantic journey into the sunset, my brother embracing the school troublemaker from behind.
When the Real Teo saw that poster, he snapped. First he hit an upperclassman in the face with a dumbbell, and when another student tried to break up the fight, my brother knocked out a few of his front teeth. The result: Disciplinary board meetings. Suspension. Our father shouting. Our mother suffering a nervous breakdown. The second sinking of the Titanic when it struck an iceberg of reality.
I would prefer not to drag you into the shadowy crevasses of my family’s past by describing in detail exactly what happened afterwards. All you need to know is that, in the end, the Real Teo hung himself in our bathroom. The only clue he left behind was a note in his pocket: “I did nothing wrong.”
So now you can better understand why my mother said, “The nightmare is back,” once she got over her initial shock at seeing that the vase had shattered. When my mother’s one and only son died, her heart shattered as well. For days she refused to leave her bed. She quit her job. Hour after hour she moaned deliriously, “This is a nightmare.”
The next two years went down in the history of our family like an epoch shrouded in the darkness of a cave. My mother would sit all day in her armchair, smoking cigarette after cigarette, and my father buried himself in his research. My sister, who was eleven years old at the time, suddenly acquired a speech impediment. An impenetrable silence reigned over our home.
A year after the Real Teo died, my mother thought she saw a light at the end of the tunnel. She believed that if she had another son, she could be saved from that nightmare. In her eyes, it was the only way out. As you may have guessed, the story now turns to me.
Six years ago, after the protestations of my father, countless sessions of family therapy, months of psychological treatment, and repeated appointments at fertility clinics, I came into the world.
When the nurse placed me in my mother’s arms in her room at a private hospital, a room which had a splendid view, the sun rose anew over our household. Stroking my hairless head, my mother cooed, “My son. My sweet, dear son.” Then she spoke those words which would shape my destiny: “You are my new Teoman. Now it is up to you to pick up where your unlucky brother left off in the unfolding of his life by transforming the dark stuff of nightmares into dreams as gentle as beds of roses. You will bring eternal peace to our home like the sheep of slumber that leap through boundless meadows under skies filled with billowing clouds. You, my son, will do all that. You, my son, you...”
Noticing that my mother’s mental state was heading for treacherous waters, the nurse said, “This handsome little man needs a bit of sleep now,” and then she took me from your arms, but you went on murmuring. Although my father objected quite vehemently, I was introduced to the world that day as Teoman the Second. From that point onward, I was living out the second half of a life cut short by suicide, a monstrosity condemned to bearing up with fifteen years of memories that already existed. I was the Teoman who would make a clean copy of the past. The Other Teoman.
That sums up the six years of my life and the burden I carried until that fateful day when the vase exploded, 9 November 2016 when my mother said, “The nightmare is back.” I acted like a six-year-old even though my mental capacity already exceeded that of someone ten years my elder. Imagine what it would be like to act like a kid licking chocolate spread from your fingers for the sole sake of appearances when, in fact, you had memorized the life story of Alan Turing.
My father and I never got along well, likely because he knew from the very beginning that I would never grow into the man he wanted me to be. As for my sister, she was a mystery to me, and it troubled me greatly that I would never truly understand her. But there was one problem that tormented me more than all the others, and that was a fundamental theory in psychology concerning the “desire to return to the womb.” For me, it meant something entirely different from what the textbooks had to say on the matter, as I wanted to go back and be reborn as someone else. Someone who was not the Other Teo.
As my mother was sweeping up the shards of the antique vase, I hugged her tightly. “Mom, everything is going to be okay. No matter what kind of person I turn out to be when I grow up, I am going to lavish you with the most exquisite love.” Well, that’s what I wanted to say. The words that actually came out of mouth were: “Want me to help?” She snapped, “Off with you now, you’ll cut yourself. As if my hands weren’t full enough already.” She glanced at the slivers of glass in the dustpan in the same way that she’d looked at me the day I was born.
In all that tumult, I missed the shuttle bus, which meant that someone would have to drop me off at school. At the university, my father had been accused of being a dissenter and he was subsequently fired from his position as a lecturer, so he started making appearances on a radio talk show that dealt solely with politics. “Don’t look at me,” he said, “I can’t take you to school. The radio station is going to call any minute. They want me to talk about the American elections.” My mother hadn’t yet recovered from the vase incident, as she was still in the clutches of another one of her famously Ankara-style breakdowns. Lighting yet another cigarette, she sobbed, “I swear, this city has chewed me up and spit me out.”
As for me, all I wanted was to escape from my family’s madness. I shot my sister a hopeful glance. “I can’t take you, either,” she said. “There’s something very important I have to tell you all.” Her eyes were twitching as she spoke.
I will never forgive myself for not asking her what was on her mind. Perhaps if I’d said, “Talk to me, you know I’m here for you,” she wouldn’t have left home. Instead, I threw a tantrum like any six-year-old would: “No one ever listens to me! You’re all so selfish!”
The phone rang and my father picked it up. When his voice filled the house with its saccharine seriosity, everyone shuffled off to hide. We were all now captive in temporary prisons of our own making.
“Dear listeners, today I’d like to tell you something in the plainest terms possible. The results of the American elections promise nothing but even harder times for years to come. We all know that the official tally hasn’t been announced yet, but it’s clear enough that Donald Trump is going to be the new president of the United States of America, and that is going to have a major impact on our lives. Trump has said some rather disturbing things about his ideas concerning foreigners in the US. Listen up folks, he believes that the nearly eleven million illegal immigrants in the US should be deported, and he has no qualms about saying he’s going to turn that into national policy on the ground. Now, this means that the children of illegal immigrants born in the US will no longer be granted the right to citizenship. Needless to say, his approach to immigration is nothing less than xenophobic. But there’s another problem here that is even more troubling, and that concerns how such xenophobia will be reflected at large in the world. From here on out, immigrants and refugees are going to suffer more than ever before. Let me draw a parallel for you. If the refugee problem was a rare and precious vase that the entire world had long held in the highest esteem, I can tell you this: The vase is broken. Imagine a home in which the most cherished item is such an antique vase. Now imagine that the vase suddenly breaks, peeling back the scab that has been concealing all that was rotten beneath for so long. The pus will start to flow, just as the pus of hypocrisy oozing around the matter of immigrants and refugees is going to start coursing around the world.”
I was not deaf to the fact that my father had just made a most preposterous comparison about global policy. He really did say that. You may not believe me but if you had seen how my mother bolted out of the kitchen screaming at the top of her lungs as he spoke those final words, I think you would reconsider your position. Ah mother, your never-ending trials and tribulations!
The first effect of the presidency of Donald Trump was to gouge open the wound lurking just beneath the surface in our home, setting the pus flowing.
I spent the rest of the day cloistered in my room, thinking that it would be better to curl up in bed and read some tales than get caught up in the middle of my family’s squabbles. They were making such a ruckus, however, that I couldn’t focus on what I was reading. People were coming and going all afternoon: my father’s friends, my mother’s cousin, others whom I couldn’t recognize from their voices. As they cursed and swore, I heard my brother’s name mentioned a few times, and I hid my head beneath my pillow.
My sister came to my room twice. The first time, she brought me a sandwich. The second time, she sat down on the edge of my bed and said, “Teoman, I’m going to tell you two things that I want you to always remember. Number one, don’t ever stop believing in the power of sisters. Number two, stop fiddling with your nose all the time!”
Those were the last words my sister ever spoke to me. That day, after my father slammed the door behind him on his way out and my cousin took my mother to the hospital after she had a spell of fainting, my sister left home for good.
Before leaving, she placed a note on the coffee table in precisely the same spot where the vase had once been. Choked up by sadness, I read the note, which was handwritten in her usual back-slanting script: “I’m leaving. The reason for my departure is simple: Before I fall asleep, I don’t count the same sheep as you.”
For hours I paced around the empty house, clenching the note in my fist. I had started the day with the mind of a fifteen-year-old trapped in the body of a six-year-old, and I was about to bring the day to a close as a world-weary adult. Who was my father really? What kind of a woman was my mother? Would everything have turned out differently if I’d listened to what my sister had wanted to say? If the Real Teoman hadn’t committed suicide, would he have shown up with his lover and helped me shake off my gloomy thoughts?
Who was I? Might there be another Other Teo in the world? More than one perhaps?
That night, I tossed and turned in bed. Desperate, I decided to summon the sheep that my mother had told us about when we were toddlers. I squeezed my eyes shut and imagined a quaint wooden fence in a green meadow that stretched out towards the horizon. Soon enough, white sheep started to appear, ambling in from the left. They were as fluffy as the clouds in the blue skies above. The sheep of slumber. The first one came trotting up and bounded over the fence as if its stubby legs were tightly coiled springs. I thought: One. Then came the second. Two. And then the third. Three... I was just about to doze off when that one showed up.
A black sheep. A cloud as dark as night. The other sheep of slumber.
It ran up to the fence but suddenly stopped.
The black sheep didn’t jump. It just stood there, poised like a sculpture.
Taking a deep breath, I sat up in bed.
I now understood what my sister had been trying to say in her farewell letter.
I still didn’t know, however, the answer to the most pressing question of all: Was it the black sheep itself which kept me from drifting off to sleep or its refusal to jump over the fence?