It took me tens of passenger flights to notice that there is no row thirteen. A silent sacrifice to a delusion many of us share. Omit a number, pretend it doesn’t exist, and there are fewer passengers fidgeting in their seats, fewer panic attacks, and fewer people trying to slyly swap places with strangers. Most don’t even notice the absence. In a world that favours rationality, the decision to erase the number thirteen from existence for the duration of a flight is paradoxically rational. In East Asia, buildings miss the fourth floor, as the number four sounds like “death” in Mandarin Chinese. A tall building can survive without both the fourth and the fourteenth floors. A small price to pay for everyone’s peace of mind.
In most cultures that have discovered the power of counting, numbers serve a dual purpose. Magic. Divination. Making sense of the world. And it would be wrong to think that it is man who holds power over numbers. Often, the equation goes both ways. Charged with meaning – personal and collective – numbers have power over us. Numbers guide and nudge us. Numbers trigger our memories, making them ring like strings on a Persian santour. They make us recall things from our past or participate in ritualistic communal acts of pointing out coincidences and commenting on repeating patterns. Even if you’re a non-believer, this makes for good small talk.
I’ve recently turned thirty-three, and now and again I have to stop myself from responding “The same age as Jesus” when asked how old I am. Many people died at that age, but it is the Nazarene that we associate with the number. The rule stops there, though, as we think of Porsche and not Methuselah when we hear nine-six-nine.
Thirteen, forty, seven, three, and twelve mean something to most people in most cultures. They bind us in symbolic ways and help us add another dimension to our speech and thought. Divine, primordial, celestial, astrological – everyone has their own angle of interpreting this layer. We also have our personal Kabbalah sets that contain incantations and ciphers forever linked with the numbers that mean something to us. Even if we wanted, we couldn’t shake off those meanings. So we embrace them as a benign form of intrusive thoughts, as we see glimpses of those meanings every time we come across our special numbers in the wild.
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My personal set contains one hundred sixty-six – the workhorse Pentium CPU that I, like many other nineties kids, started my сomputing journey with. Ursula K. Le Guin wrote about the power of one’s true name in the Wizard of Earthsea. The same was true for my old Pentium. Even if you overclocked it, increasing its clock speed by a few MHz, deep inside it would still be a one hundred sixty-six.
There are more computer-related numbers etched into my psyche. All the first n powers of two, for example, are related to storage capacity, first in megabytes and now in gigs. The floppy could store one point forty-four megs, being three point five inches in width. And I don’t even think about recounting all the numbers related to all the sound cards, Linux distros, and patches to obscure games. If I started, I’d get stuck in an endless loop.
But numbers go beyond obsolete motherboards and link me to more interesting times in my life than the years spent in front of a CRT screen. For instance, I cannot see the number thirty-four without thinking of Istanbul, the city whose streets I still roam in my mind when Vilnius becomes too small. There’s nothing Sufi about the number, thirty-four is simply the area vehicle registration code, seen on number plates, T-shirts, gangsta tattoos, and LED displays of rapid-transit buses transporting bodies across the Bosphorus.
The longest and most peculiar sequence in my personal Kabbalah numerology set is zero five four nine seven. It is the ending of my old phone number, and I use it to verify whether a number I’m given over the line has the correct number of digits. Even though I know my current phone number by heart, the one from ten years ago serves as my own little verification tool. Why? When I was a teenager, I had memorised my entire address book – which was admittedly thin – but the only number that stood the test of time is my own.
I’ve seen other people obsessed with numbers. Where some of them saw omens, others – mild annoyances. Some would wake up at the same odd time for days in a row. Others would fixate on the number of unread emails in their inboxes, trying to keep it the same at all times, as a signpost of sorts. Some would drop incoming calls at certain times, knowing there would be a telemarketer on the other end. Some of those people might have been me…
Numbers have power over us, and the only reason I used words to write numbers in this piece is to disarm them, even if only for a bit. Why was six afraid of seven again?