Numbers: Write a poem or journal entry about numbers that have special meaning to you.
Baba was number twenty-three in the list the Turkish government put out, Babaanne and Dede called him early one morning to tell him. Years later, Mami would still remember what it was like, getting that call. For her, a confirmation, a relief, she wasn’t crazy, and Baba could finally start healing. Or so she thought. It had always been easier for her, all that “immigrant stuff.” You were practically born on a plane, Baba would always tell her. And it wasn’t necessarily false. Three months after her birth in England, where her mother was the cultural attaché at the Colombian embassy, her family had taken a plane to Paris, where she would spend the first five years of her life before heading to Brazil and then back to Colombia. For her, home was nowhere, or everywhere I am with you, as she’d always tell Baba. But this time, it was him who had to redefine his meaning of home.
I woke up in the middle of the call, it must’ve been close to two in the morning, and I remember following the light that was coming from the hallway. Our apartment was tiny, so you could virtually see and hear everything. And even if my Turkish was already fading, I could tell that what Baba was talking about was important. Mami caught me infraganti, right as I was tiptoeing to the door, she held me in her arms and brought me back to my mattress on the floor of our bedroom. We were moving soon, or at least that was the plan, so that was just a temporary arrangement.
“I love you, mami,” I told her, because at that age I knew better than to ask uncomfortable questions.
“Me, too, papi,” she said, resting her hand on my head, lovingly.
That was all Mami could do, keep us safe, shelter us from the outside world. The thing was that, at the time, even Baba needed that comfort. Only years later, when Mami was committed, in room 23 none other, I understood the depth of the sacrifice she had done. For a day, that turned into a month, that became years, she was a shelter for four different people, then five, but for that, she had to first become a shell of herself.
Twenty-three. That was how old I was when Mami called me saying that we could go back to Turkey, finally. She told me that Baba would probably start planning a big holiday trip together and that I had to say no. She wasn’t ready. None of us was. We had grown up knowing that a part of us was from Turkey, the part that came from Baba, but other than that nothing. We knew that we had fled, that we weren’t able to go back. We knew that Dede had died and Baba hadn’t been able to go to his funeral and that that had killed him a little. But I also knew what it had meant for Mami to start again from scratch, for the third time almost. This time she may not have had the pressure from Baba’s family, but his community in our city was quick to take the relay.
Twenty-three was also the number of students in Mami’s Spanish class at the Turkish center. It didn’t take much to convince her, because Mami always liked to feel useful, that she was part of something bigger. Apparently, practically being born on a plane wasn’t without consequences: sometimes you didn’t know where home was anymore. And if home was where she was with Baba, then that made his community her family, whether she wanted it or not, and she wanted to belong. What started as a class with 5 little Turkish-Americans, turned into a full-blown classroom with 23 kids. But she loved it, and she had fun, and she was able to do something different, find a purpose. That, of course, until the Turkish women started complaining about her, her loud voice, her laugher. It didn’t help her case that she was unapologetic, unafraid, like the time she got after Tuncer because he said a boy holding hands with another boy was disgusting, or that her favorite candies were Starbursts, or how she didn’t care when people called her gavur.
Twenty-three was the last anniversary Mami and Baba celebrated. After that, Caner was ready for college, and they finally signed the divorce papers. And I say finally because it was all we could hear them talk about since I was around eleven. They loved each other, and that never came into question, but they were so different that love alone wasn’t enough, and neither of them was willing to compromise anymore. They had agreed that they would end it, but they would wait for the best time. They set a deadline: when Caner, the youngest of us four, moved out for college, they would sit down and talk about it all the way to the smallest detail. They bought a piece of land and agreed to build two houses, once for each. It had been mostly Mami’s idea, but Baba had followed along. They moved to the new place a month before they started the divorce procedures, so there was no telling what was going on. And we didn’t give it too much thought either. They were old enough to make their own decisions, and we were old enough not to be caught in the middle of it all. It was clear, though, that they would still spend more time together than they did in their own house. The divorce, for some reason, was finalized a week earlier than expected, on November 23rd.
Twenty-three was also, curiously enough, how old Mami was when she’d gotten married to Baba, and how old Baba was when I was born. For some reason that number kept coming back, there was something about it was seemed to be bound to our family.
That’s why I laughed that day a little that night, when I brought Gaby to that Chinese restaurant, ready to propose. They brought us, with our menus, a couple of Chinese cookies. To my surprise, but not really, when I opened mine up and read the little paper. Lucky Number: 23.