Sunflowers by Sevde Kaldiroglu

I decided not to publish the book I wrote about him. I know you want me to, Eymen, but he wouldn’t forgive me for it. Not when he’s trying so hard to get better, to be better. Not when he’s cooking me eggs with the sunny side up, the yolk just the perfect consistency of a semi-ripe apricot.  

He’s approaching me now, his circular, friendly belly leading the way. He’s cut up pears for us. I don’t like pears, but I take a slice anyway. I smile. “Fresh from the trees?” I ask.  

Dad smiles. “You got it.” In his squinted eyes, I see two shelled sunflower seeds. That’s not how I described him in the book. Instead, I wrote that he had pupils like large black grapes, right before he hit us, after which they turned into wet raisins floating in water, looking for a place to belong.  

It’s a warm September evening. You wouldn’t know how humid summers get in this town; September is the best time here. The best selection of fruits. A refreshing breeze at just the right temperature around five or six in the evening. The sky a cold blue, warm gray. Every year, I take the first week of September off and visit Dad. It’s a four-hour flight from where I live, so it’s hard to come here often. That’s what I tell relatives. Dad never asks. But if he did, that’s the answer I’d give him. I know you wouldn’t ask, Eymen. You understand.  

“I talked to Grandma yesterday,” I tell him. “She sounded a lot better.”  

“That woman will bury us all!” He laughs. The laughter makes his eyes disappear. For a second, they become thin lines between his puffy eye bags and veiny lids. As a kid, I used to be scared when I couldn’t see his eyes. “Always look me in the eye,” he used to tell my sister Şule and me. You haven’t met my sister. She’s two years younger than me. She’s lovely. When we were kids, she used to be more afraid of him than I was. When Dad told us that avoiding eye contact was a sign of disrespect, Şule’s fingers used to twitch, as I stood still and sucked my stomach in, my breath trapped in the depths of my abdomen.  

“I hope Grandpa is reminding her of the pills, though,” I tell Dad now. “She often forgets them.”  

Dad looks out at the sunflower field across the road. I shouldn’t have mentioned Grandpa. I hold my breath. I think about what I could do if he jumps up from his chair, brushes the entire table off with his left arm, and throws the table upside down. I eye the short knife by the pear plate and the glass vase with artificial flowers sitting on the coffee table, a mere two-meter distance.  

The difference between now and then is that I now know how to defend myself. I can spot potential weapons in a room in a matter of seconds. The worst thing about PCA (that’s what we call parental child abuse in the office) is that you’re defenseless—there’s no one to save you, and oftentimes, no one to witness. You asked why I chose this profession. That’s why I do what I do now.  

When Dad pulls a cigarette out of the black paper box, I exhale. He smokes when he’s relaxed.  

“How are the kids?” he asks after he takes a long puff in. His voice sounds muffled and I wonder if one could choke from holding in too big a puff of burnt tobacco.  

I don’t have kids of my own; he’s asking about the ones I work with. “They’re not doing well, but they will be all right. That’s why we work with them.”

“Poor kids,” he says, his gaze stuck on the sunflower field that’s slowly darkening as remnants of light from the amber sunset fade away from the sky.  

A lit cigarette drops in my stomach, burning the inner lining of the organ. Disingenuous pity hangs in the gray air while the smoke begins to choke every organism inside my body. This is not a metaphor for past abuse; burning was never one of his methods, unlike what some of these kids I work with have experienced. I swallow rage and my stomach burns more.  

Post-traumatic stress disorder and marathons have one thing in common—they both require breath training. If you can’t control your breath, you can’t complete forty-two kilometers of nonstop running.  

I’ve never run a marathon. I am not a runner. Ada is. You’ll know Ada once you read the book. She’s one of my characters. I’ve spent nineteen months with her now; she feels like a close friend. PTSD—that, I do have. Or had, at some point. Though it wasn’t diagnosed until I saw a psychiatrist for the first time when I was thirty. Thirty is a pivotal age, you know, it makes you do things you’ve never done before. You wouldn’t know, you’re not there yet.  

I kiss Dad goodnight—a forehead kiss, the kind he likes. I feel weird about it after I do it. It’s hard to let go of things I no longer have to do, things I was required to do growing up. I go to the guest room, change into my pajamas, and start revising the book again in bed.  

I know I said I decided not to publish it, but I can’t let it go easily. Even after I settled on calling it fiction, it still feels too similar to my life. He’d know. The rest of the family would know. I added fictional characters and details throughout, but the key events are there. Nineteen months and I’m still editing in vain.  

I go out of the room, pass the long, narrow hallway, and find myself alone in the kitchen. Dad must be in his bedroom or study—both doors are closed. I open the refrigerator and bend down to reach the produce drawer. Tiny ants are crawling on its plastic walls. There’s more than a few dozen of them.  

I don’t know where the ants came from. Don’t ask me, Eymen. I’m just telling you what I see.  

I grab the plastic bag of apples—these ones are green and shiny. They aren’t from the garden; with no holes, no marks, they’re too pretty. I pick out one and close the refrigerator. I grab a metal tray and a medium-sized sharp knife, and head back to the guest room.  

I like peeling apples before eating them. Sitting on the bed with the tray on my lap, I hold the apple and dive the knife into its skin. Peeling it without losing too much fruit is a skill. No, that’s not something Dad taught me. Şule and I would cut his fruits without peeling them, slicing each into four quarters, lining them up on a plate. Dad used to tell us stories as he ate them. No story books, just stories he knew—or perhaps, stories he wrote in his head, who knows. I don’t recall what they were about, just his facial expressions as he told them: the animated frown, the big smile with arcs of dimples on his golden cheeks, the open mouth shouting in ecstasy. He always said he’d have wanted to be an actor if his parents let him. Instead, he’d ended up with us.

No stories of Mom, not even once. He didn’t like us asking about her, so we didn’t. Until that night when I was fifteen. The only time I ever confronted Dad. I’d thought I was old enough by then, but he was still physically stronger than me.  

In the guest room, I eat my apple quarters as I edit Chapter Five. I skipped Chapters Three and Four. Don’t ask me why. I couldn’t bring myself to reread them after writing them. I know I haven’t yet healed. I don’t know if this book is the answer to healing.  

Fiction based on imagination is easier to write. The same can’t be said for fiction based on real suffering. Readers never want the truth. They want a version of the truth that they can swallow with ease, that they can digest after lunch. If you add too much fiber or too much spice, they’ll complain. Real life doesn’t have recipes—it’s not made for sensitive stomachs.  

Of course, this book has many fictional elements—it has to. For one, I created Ada as a character to witness my childhood, a witness I never had. Şule had me; I had no one. Now you hear some folks say, “I had no one but God.” Let me tell you, no, I didn’t even have him. Dad didn’t teach us about God. Even though he never openly called himself an atheist, I always thought he felt abandoned—abandoned by everyone including God, by everyone but especially God, who’d taken Mom away from him.  

After I finish eating the apple, I place the tray on the floor next to the bed. I get up, pick up the core and seeds of the apple with a napkin, and throw them in the trash in the bathroom at the end of the hallway. I wash the stickiness from the fruit off my hands. Thankfully Dad keeps the bathroom clean. A lilac-flavored spray sits on top of the toilet tank, the hand soap container is full, and a purple, rectangular hand towel is left for me on top of the laundry bin. I use it to dry my hands and fold it back.  

When I’m out in the hallway, it hits me. You won’t understand how this feels, Eymen, you need to live it first. The hallway gets longer and narrower. The gray walls brightened by the dim yellow light crawl towards my body on both sides, like veins constricting, barring the entry of oxygen. My throat parallels the hallway, choking itself.  

Then I lose it. I lose the sense of myself. The sense of the hallway. Of an external reality, or an internal one. For a moment, and one moment alone, my vision leaves my body. The feet move, the arms swing on the sides, the mouth breathes, the heart beats, but there is no sense. My vision sees without perceiving. There’s no consciousness.  

The psychiatrist I told you about calls this dissociation. There are some other fancy terms related to it, as well, but I can’t remember them now. In the hallway, I do what he told me to do when this happens. I make my right hand a fist and press the tips of my nails against my palm. No, I don’t hurt myself; it just feels like a pinch on four different spots to remind my brain of my corporeal existence. I name three objects I see: the generic nature poster framed on the wall, the long brown hallway rug, the metal doorknob of the guest room. I listen for any sound: crow caws coming from outside, the sewer water going down the pipes beneath the walls. Then the smell of lilacs coming from the bathroom. The light sweat on my armpits stinging my nose. And I’m here, in the hallway again.  

The terrifying (and enchanting) thing about dissociation is that no one needs to know about it. No one can know. You can spend a lifetime dissociated, outside your body, beyond your awareness, simply acting out the fate you were given. If you believe in that sort of thing.  

I enter the guest room and lie on the bed. The book emerges in my head again. In fact, it never leaves me. It’s like a tattoo I got on a whim and regretted shortly after the fact. Once I started it, there was no turning back. I should have never begun writing it.  

At times, I find myself lost along the blurry line between factual memory and fiction. When Ada is made up and Dad is real, when Mom is made up and Şule is real, but they’re all real characters in the book, how do I tell one from the other?  

If a character breathes like we humans do, whose place is it to judge its reality? When sensory perception is one’s anchor in this world, where do you go when it leaves you?  

When the soul of my narrator leaves momentarily, what happens to the narrative?  

I put my laptop away, take off my glasses, and get under the covers. I turn left, reach down to the fruit tray on the floor, and pick up the knife. I place it on the bed next to my pillow on my right side and close my eyes.  

The sound wakes me up. A creaking sound, I think at first. Is there a storm? I pull the sheet off my body and sit up in bed. I listen to see if the sound is continuous—or was it in my dream? It’s a human voice—my father? I get up, wear the brown guest slippers, and open the door slightly.  

Across from the room, by the bathroom door on the right side at the end of the hallway, I see him. I first notice the bathroom light on, then my eyes catch him sitting on the floor, his face wrinkled in agony, wailing. His hands are fists, which makes me alert at once, but I see them shaking, shivering. Their lack of stability portrays him vulnerably. As though he can be harmed, be hurt.  

Dad doesn’t notice me. I try to control my breathing, so I can continue my voyeurism in silence.  

I have seen him cry before. Many times. He would make my sister and I watch him cry, usually after punishing us—that’s what he’d called it, though we often didn’t know the crimes we’d committed. He would say he’d made a mistake, that he wouldn’t do it again.  

You might not want to hear this, Eymen, so cover your ears if you don’t.   He would come into our room, pull up one of the chairs to sit down, and tell us to stand up from our beds we’d be crying on. Then he would pull our shoulders closer to him, embracing us on each side, teaching us disgust with every touch. He’d start with slow streams of tears, then he’d cry loudly, unashamedly. We’d stand in silence until he was done with his apology, knowing it would happen again, knowing we’d feel guilty again without understanding why, knowing Şule would actually believe his excuses. And sometimes, when I actually thought I did something wrong to deserve his punishments, I would believe them, too.  

It was strange, the way Dad used to cry. It would stop our crying because he’d be louder than us, more forceful. As though his pain—the unexplained pain because we’d never hit him back or used his tools on him—was much more valuable than ours, his tears somehow sacred, while ours were made of dirty water and salt.  

Some days, if we didn’t comfort him when he was crying, he’d get violent again and storm out of the room. Then he wouldn’t talk to us for days. Şule would be the first to apologize, forcing me to apologize as well. We always had to stick together; I couldn’t risk losing her to him.  

Yes, I watch him from the guest room door now. It’s gratifying to see him suffer without a witness. There’s no one to prove his innocence to; his tears don’t make sense. His face is a canvas of a million lines. Forehead layers, cheek layers, nose wrinkles; it’s a familiar image. I feel my eyes fill up. No, I am in my body, I haven’t left it. Yes, I am okay. My face just needs a bath. Like a cat licking its fur after it gets dirty, my skin needs to wash itself off the image before my eyes.  

Seated in the corner of the hallway next to the bathroom door, hugging his knees with his arms, Dad has shrunk. He’s a ball of crumpled tissue paper one wipes their face with. He breathes deep breaths, one, two, three. Dad: one, two, three. Breathe, Dad, one, two, three. From the way his chin is shaking, I can tell he’s grinding his teeth. Relax your jaw, Dad. One, two, three. Get up, Dad. Get up.  

I close the room door and lean back against it. I pray to a God I’ve never known.  

In the morning, I get dressed in my airport clothes—beige culottes, black T-shirt—before I go to the sitting room.  

“Good morning, dear.” Dad turns towards me, placing the cucumber salad on the table. “You slept in today.” He smirks. I search for last night in his eyes. Red cracks on the whites of his eyes. Swollen eye bags. There’s no trace. His demeanor is unscathed. He should have been an actor.  

He comes back from the kitchen with a pan and serves the sunny side up eggs, one for each plate, yolk intact.  

“Did you get a good night’s sleep?” I ask him, holding my breath. He nods as he chews a piece of bread.  

“I slept like a dead body!” He laughs.  

I tear a piece of bread from the loaf like he does and press it onto the runny yolk. The orange colors the white, dripping over onto the dark plate. I stare at the orange—the hue of bloomed sunflowers—not daring to look in his direction, as guilt washes over me.  

Now, tell me, Eymen, can you help me? Can you help me, now?

Sevde Kaldiroglu is a creative writer from Istanbul, with a B.A. in English and a minor in Psychology from Stanford University. She founded Bereket, a diverse writing program centering marginalized writers and known for its long-term peer workshops. Her short story, “Sunflowers,” was a finalist for the Pleiades 2021 Kinder/Crump Award for Short Fiction. Find her sipping a flat white at a Manhattan coffee shop or running the full loop in Central Park.