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SAND IS NOT GOOD FOR SUNFLOWERS

/ Sanjana Dhamankar (Writer), Geraldine Wambersie (Illustrator)

Fiction — 17 min reading time


A view from the La Jolla, San Diego beach cliffs. A silhouetted man smokes and looks ahead. The sky is replaced by a field of giant sunflower heads.

This was a bad idea.

If there was anything Zoya was sure of, it was that this was a bad idea. Her mom was going to kill her. So was Nana [Hindi word for Grandfather]. And Uncle Dan. You didn’t just do this kind of thing and expect to get away with it.

“Do we have any more Milky Ways, Zo-Chan?”

Zoya took her eyes off the road for a moment to frown pointedly at the wrinkled old man in her passenger seat. He was digging around in her glove compartment, the blanket covering his knees forgotten as his slightly trembling hands scrabbled for more chocolate.

“I thought I warned you not to eat them all back in Santa Ana, Gramps.”

Gramps pouted, a little uncertain, and then leaned back again in his seat. “I was sure I saved one…” he mumbled, staring out the window, watching the Pacific glitter in the afternoon sun.

Zoya sighed. He was suddenly smaller in the seat, clutching at his ratty blanket again for comfort.

“We can stop for some at the next gas station if you want.”

“Really?” he chirped, his eyes lighting up. “You’re sure it’s not too much trouble?”

That startled a laugh out of Zoya.

“I’m already in trouble, Gramps,” she said, trying for a reassuring smile. “Another pit stop isn’t going to make it any worse.”

That was a lie. Uncle Dan had said that he was going to come by the hospital at six-thirty. He was going to come, and find Gramps missing, put two-and-two together, and tell her mother what she’d done. She could almost hear her voice in her head.

‘You’ve only had your license for two months, Zoya! How could you be so irresponsible? Why didn’t you call us? What if something had happened to him on your way there? What if something happened to you?’

The longer they stayed out, the more weeks would be added to her sentence. Maybe Ammi would be kind and just ground her till the end of May. She’d made plans for the summer.

“Oh, please, it’s not like you kidnapped me,” Gramps giggled, giving her a toothy grin. “I wanted to go!”

“You explain it to Ammi then!” Zoya huffed. “You’re a bad influence, Gramps.”

“A bad influence, huh?” he mused, smiling a secret sort of smile, like he was sharing a private joke with himself. “My Sunflower would be so disappointed in me.”

******

“Here you go, Gramps. One Budweiser pint.”

“I asked for two.”

“You’re eighty-seven.”

“And I’m going to die next month.”

“Yes, of liver cancer.”

“What’s your point?”

“Gramps!”

“Fine, fine. Killjoy.”

Zoya smiled with smug satisfaction. It wasn’t everyday that someone got Gramps to listen to them. Her Nana was always saying so.

“Kaito does what he wants. All the best decisions of his life have been unreasonable, so he takes everything with a grain of salt. Makes him a good time, and a colossal baby. You decide which.”

She settled crossed-legged in the sand even as Gramps sank into his chair, humming contentedly. He had insisted he didn’t need a chair, but Zoya had brought one anyway. Even if he somehow managed to sit on the ground, there was no way he’d be able to get up again. And Zoya didn’t need any more complications on this trip.

“I want to go down to La Jolla. Please, Zo-chan. I want to go home.”

“Your home is here, Gramps.”

“Home is Sunflower, and Sunflower is La Jolla, so La Jolla is home.”

Zoya let the whistling sea breeze drown out the noise in her head. As tense as she was that her phone was going to ring any second and pour out the hurt voices of any number of the infuriated adults in her life, it was rather nice to be here. She had the soft jazz music leaking from Gramps’ dinky old radio, the gentle waves lapping at her feet and a cold beer of her own. The sky was bursting in blooms of rose-pink and daffodil-yellow, mirrored in an endless sea while a lonely gull shrieked its frustrations into the air.

What a lovely place.

“So, what do you think of my home, Zo-Chan?”

She considered the question. From what she’d seen, La Jolla seemed to be luxury, whether that was in its beautiful homes or fancy shopping outlets, or in its expansive beaches and open sky broken up by palm trees. The city seemed to be bursting, with art, culture, beauty and all the rest of it, yet at the same time, it was guarded, distinct from San Diego by something Zoya couldn’t define beyond the air just being different in La Jolla; cosy and calming and scented somehow, with ocean and comfort. She could imagine the life in La Jolla being slow, leisurely, complacent, cyclical.

“Seems like the type of place you build a summer villa in,” she said, measured and careful. “If you make bank or are a senator or something.”

Gramps laughed, loud and lilting. “Yes, I suppose that is not entirely inaccurate.”

“What do you think of your home, Gramps?”

“I think,” and he paused here, just to have Zoya lean in, just to make himself really clear, “that it has the most beautiful facade I’ve ever seen.”

Well, then.

Needless to say, Zoya didn’t know what to do with that.

It was odd; she’d initially thought he liked it here, and maybe he did, but now she was beginning to notice something else in his eyes as he looked out at the sea, a simmering sort of disillusionment stirred in with unbridled joy, forming a brand of bittersweetness that Zoya had no idea how to wrap her head around.

“How’s your beer, Zo-chan? Do you like it?” Gramps asked, making eye contact once again and forcing Zoya to pretend like she hadn’t just been scrutinizing him.

She took another sip to confirm her opinion. “Not really,” she replied. “It’s kind of bland.”

Gramps seemed to find this rather amusing. “Yeah, I hate the stuff too,” he laughed airily, taking another determined swig right after.

“Well then, why the hell are we drinking it?!”

“It was the only thing we could find back then. For whatever reason, the store didn’t have any others,” Gramps replied fondly, closing his eyes.

Zoya had seen him get like that sometimes, purposefully exchanging ‘now’, no matter if it was exciting or mundane, for one scrap, one snapshot, one second of ‘then’. ‘Then’ seemed to be a higher plane of existence, painted in brighter colours and infused with far more life. It had always made Gramps happier to do this, so much so that she often wondered about just what he was reliving that had been so earth-shattering that it’d carved a permanent place into his mind.

“How old were you, then?” she asked carefully.

“Nineteen years and four months.”

“And Sunflower?”

A special smile crept onto his face; Zoya had known it to appear only when Sunflower was made the topic of discussion. It was a delicate thing, saturated with tenderness and yearning and resignation.

“He was seventeen. We’d known each other for only a couple of months at that point.”

From what little Nana had told her, Zoya had gathered that Sunflower had been in his and Gramps’ life for all of two years. All the details of what had transpired were firmly bolted inside Gramps’ head; Nana was his best friend and still had only half the story. Then again, even if he’d known all of it, Zoya wouldn’t have asked.

Some stuff hurt to talk about. And people needed their privacy. She could respect that.

“Did you come down for a vacation?”

“No, no, not at all,” Gramps said with a scoff, as if the mere suggestion was ridiculous. “He didn’t like it here.”

“Why not? Sun, sea, sand. What’s not to like?”

“Sand is not good for sunflowers,” Gramps said knowingly, his expression sharpening with painful recollection. “They don’t grow here by the sea.”

Zoya nodded quietly, deciding that Gramps’ eyes were a little too bright with unshed tears to push that particular subject.

“Then why come back?”

“He needed to take care of some things,” Gramps gestured vaguely with his beer. “And we needed a place to hide for a while.”

“Define ‘things’.”

“Illegal things.”

“That’s not a definition; that’s a qualification.”

“You don’t get to wring my secrets out of me on a technicality.”

“And why not?”

Gramps blinked at her in mild shock, then chuckled dryly. “It’s a love story, Zo-chan. The telling is more romantic after both parties are dead, no? If it wasn’t, no one would care about Romeo and Juliet.”

“Please, people hate the double-suicide aspect of that story,” Zoya countered with a smirk. “People like Romeo and Juliet because their love story has the murder of elitist jackasses, Mercutio and altogether too many pick-up lines. What does your love story have?”

“Arguments about pancakes mostly,” Gramps replied with a quiet laugh that quickly waned into a wistful smile. “There was an orange motorcycle, some slow dancing and lots of beach bonfires. There was also this really narrow alley behind a jazz bar, and a fair bit of poker. We used to bet with watermelon candy.”

“Sounds like a fun time.”

“It was more than that.”

Gramps shifted his gaze away from her and focused on something on the horizon, something only he could see. Evidently, he was done talking for a while. Zoya was left to mull over his words as the sun dipped almost completely into the water. It was an intriguing idea––boiling a life down to the people and experiences that had splashed an otherwise grayscale existence with glorious technicolour. What a hyperbolic picture it was, whether tragic or blissful, and how devoid of nuance.

Like Romeo and Juliet.

“Hey, Zo-Chan?”

“Yes?”

“Do you think I’ll see Sunflower again? After I go?”

Zoya watched Gramps carefully. He had a hopeful gleam in his eyes, but still looked so very ready to have those hopes dashed against the wall.

“Of course, you will. He’ll be waiting for you at the gates of the afterlife.”

Gramps sucked in a breath in bewilderment and gave her a bemused smile. “And what if there’s no afterlife?”

“Then you’ll meet again in your next life and fall in love over again. You’ll be one of those people who feel that instant-soulmate-connection-thingy.”

Gramps hummed like he’d liked the idea of that, but he still looked upon her like she’d suggested something incredibly naïve. There was no malice there, more like an exasperation. For some reason, it irked Zoya to be looked at like that; to be seen as an inexperienced child.

“And what if souls aren’t real?” he suggested slowly, purposefully, almost as if he were making someone else’s point. “What if the universe has no investment whatsoever in human relationships and there’s nowhere to go after you die? What if we’re just bags of chemicals and electricity?”

“Ever heard of the first law of thermodynamics, Gramps?” Zoya snapped, fixing him with her worst glare. “No energy in the universe is created, and none is destroyed. It only moves from one form to another. So even if you both are just clouds of atoms and charge, then you are clouds of atoms and charge that will one day build an angelfish, or fall to earth in a torrent of rain, or burn together in a supernova. Point is, you’ll get to be together again.”

Gramps simply returned her outburst with a calm, impressed smile, and she immediately felt guilty for getting irritated. “You really have all the answers, don’t you?” he said mischievously.

“No, I don’t. You know I don’t,” she grumbled with no real ire in her voice. “I just…like the idea of something like that. The universe may not care about us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t care about it, and it has far too much to offer for us to waste our time with mortality.”

“I suppose that’s one way of looking at it,” Gramps murmured, his eyes slightly wide like he’d noticed something for the first time. “I’ll tell him you said that, if…no, when I see him again.”

“Oh, God, please don’t,” Zoya said hastily, feeling a little self-conscious. “It’s probably stupidly idealistic of me anyway, to try to be immortal; to make human death pretty. We’re not flowers, after all.”

Gramps leaned back almost comically in his chair, looking her up and down in mock-awe. “Look at you. So grown up. And to think you used to be in middle school three years ago.”

Zoya guffawed, dispelling the gloom that had settled upon them both. “The hell is that supposed to mean?!”

“What? Everyone knows kids thirteen and younger are terrible human beings,” he replied, holding his arms up defensively. “They don’t know how to read social cues, and they think everything is funny. Insensitive little gremlins.”

Zoya cracked a dubious half-smile.

“You know, I’m starting to think people have the wrong idea about you, Gramps. Everyone says you’re such a sweet cinnamon roll. But you have a real mean streak. What would your Sunflower say?”

“He wouldn’t have room to talk,” Gramps said with an impish wink. “I’ll bet he thought it was rather hot anyway.”

“Ew, gross, forget I asked,” Zoya said, scrunching her nose and rolling her eyes.

They sat in companionable silence for a few more minutes after that. The sky was periwinkle-blue now; the vibrant warmth of the sunset had all but disappeared. They’d finished their beers too, and the wind was picking up. Zoya shivered involuntarily, and looked over at Gramps, who pulled his blanket closer around himself. She checked her phone.

Six-twenty-three. The calls would start soon. The traffic too.

“How about we head back now, Gramps?”

“Yes, Zo-chan, I think you should.”

Zoya froze. Less with surprise and more with the realization. In all honesty, she should’ve seen it coming.

“Do you-is there somewhere you can stay?”

“Sunflower’s old place,” he replied nonchalantly. “It went on the market when his old man croaked a while back so I bought it. We crashed there when we first came here. It was the happiest two weeks of my life.”

Crashed.

Yes, that seemed like an accurate way to describe whatever had gone on between Gramps and Sunflower. Zoya could see it in his shattered eyes and splintered skin, littered with old scars and the ghost of passion.

“Everyone will worry, Gramps. They care about you.”

“I know they do,” Gramps said, in his resolute, resigned way. “Dan, your Ammi and Nana; they are all irreplaceable and precious to me. But they are not my Sunflower. I have lived my entire life with them. They will forgive me for wanting to die with him, in this town where I first fell in love.”

Oh. That’s what it is about La Jolla.

It’s not the city you’re attached to. It’s the way you felt when you were here.

The way you never felt again, anywhere else.

It was a bad idea; it’d been one from the start.

Her mom was going to kill them. So was Nana. And Uncle Dan. You didn’t just do this kind of thing and expect to get away with it.

But it occurred to Zoya, as she walked back to her car by herself, explaining everything patiently to a hysteric Uncle Dan, that Gramps wasn’t looking to get away with it.

He was okay with consequences; he always had been.

He just wanted, consequences be damned, to feel alive again; to recapture a fraction of the magic of ‘then’ in a ‘now’ that was rapidly slipping away from him.

And there was something childishly obstinate, but heartbreakingly beautiful about that.

Like Romeo and Juliet.

******

In the end, Gramps did not die next month.

He passed exactly ten weeks, two days and eleven hours after Zoya left him on the beach, staring into the sea as twilight blanketed the city and the first street lights blinked on.

She liked to think that it’d been the move to La Jolla that had prolonged his life.

And what a life it had been if the boxes were to be believed.

There were so many of them; Zoya had somehow managed to fill fourteen. Gramps had always seemed like a man of few possessions, and yet here she was, helping to pack box upon box of his things into the very same car she’d driven him here in.

Zoya smiled to herself as she began emptying the back of his closet into Box Number 15.

A five-foot-nine man with a life more than fifteen boxes tall.

If ever there was a way to measure the cavernous nature of human sentimentality, this would be it.

It was as she was thinking this, that her palms closed around a leather-bound journal, wrapped with red string and bursting with scraps of paper and photographs.

‘Miyazaki Kaito’, it said on the cover, embossed in capital letters. It looked like it’d been a gift.

Opening it felt like opening a time capsule; a barrage of memories spilled from it like water from a dam that was begging to burst: pages upon pages of journal entries, dog-eared photographs and pressed leaves that hadn’t seen the light of day for decades.

Gramps had always written rather illegibly, but that was okay; Zoya wasn’t interested in the writing anyway.

No, she was interested in the pictures. One picture in specific.

A picture of a teenage boy under a cloudless blue sky, pale skin slightly reddened by the sun. His hair was bright like polished gold and his intelligent green eyes cut through the afternoon haze like jagged jade stones. He had a brittle sort of beauty, the kind that sought to break you before you broke it. And where was he standing, but in the midst of a field of sunflowers?

Now that Zoya thought about it, she’d seen his face before, cold and detached on a faded mugshot in a famous expose about drug mules and a human trafficking network. It had made the career of the reporter who’d broken it. It had forced the politicians that had been implicated in it out of public life. It had held the horrified attention of the general public for two whole months. They used it as a case study in journalism classes now.

Yeesh. No wonder Gramps used a nickname.

She took him in, the plain white t-shirt and jean shorts, the megawatt smile infused with shyness, the hands that reached for the photographer. She saw him then, as nineteen-year-old Miyazaki Kaito had seen him and understood.

Sand was not good for sunflowers, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t bloom in La Jolla.

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