Hunting for Sunflowers

 
Sunflower.jpeg

“Excuse me, do you speak English?”

A mother asks dragging an oversized suitcase through the narrow train aisle with her daughter in tow who is struggling with the same sort of excessive luggage. It’s a question I’ve been asked frequently during my summer traveling Europe alone and leads me to conversations with American tourists more than anyone else. When I reply yes, they ask for help finding their seats on the train. I take a look at their tickets and tell them it’s a couple cars down and we’re actually sitting next to each other. So, I take one of their heavy bags and pave the way through the train cars.

Once settled on our journey from Milan to Lake Como, I learn they’re spending ten days in Italy together before the daughter heads off to college. They’re fascinated by my “courage” to travel alone.

“Doesn’t your mother worry? I’d be so worried…”

“No, not really. She’s used to it.”

I spare them the truth that my mother died over ten years ago, but I lost her far before then due to an eight-year divorce that ran the course of my childhood. They couldn’t understand that because of that, I was conditioned for this independence. It would be too hard to explain how navigating bra shopping, first periods, and crushes without her has lead me to this.

Instead, I tell them I didn’t want to wait for someone else to start seeing the world.

A couple days later, I’m in Tuscany, hunting for sunflowers since my mother was obsessed with them. She had curtains, kitchen towels, clocks – if they sold it at Wal Mart, and there was a sunflower on it, she owned it. My mother, Mary Ann Fullerton, was even cremated in a denim vest with sunflowers embroidered on it.

I take the bus through the Chianti region through the hills and valleys to a small farm for a cooking class. I ask advice from my instructor, a sweet woman who may have sympathy for me.

I say delicately, “I’m looking because they were my mom’s favorite flowers.”

“Does your mother cook a lot? Is that where you get it?” she asks. My subtle past-tense is lost in the language barrier.

“Not really, no, she doesn’t cook much.” I reply, kneading dough with my palms, falling into my usual lies.

Later, as I combat terrible WIFI and the relentless July heat in my AirBnB, I resort to Googling, “How to find sunflowers in Tuscany 2018.” I find some blogs discussing different areas that have sunflowers, agreeing on one point only – you need a car.

So naturally, I look into renting a car. I pool my friends who have driven in Europe and they all say go for it, even when I remind them I don’t know the language. When the Hertz page finally loads, it turns out to rent a car with an automatic transmission will put me out over hundred Euros plus double that with all the insurance tacked on. I still persist, I plan to try and hunt them down as best I can via public transportation. Then on my last day, if I’m still coming up short, I’ll rent the car.

Referring back to the blogs, I plan to take a day trip to San Gimignano since that’s where all of the “post card pictures” are taken in a valley outside of town. Before I depart, I head to the market for a café and am distracted by the sellers with their small batch Tuscany balsamic, olive oils and lemoncello among other goods. I get pulled in by a charming Italian man selling on behalf of his farm between Florence and Siena. He’s a charismatic salesman, flirting a bit, but I’m onto him.

“I’m actually heading that way this afternoon. I’m hoping to stumble across some sunflowers.” I lean in, trying to give him a dose of his own medicine. “Have you seen any?”

He winces. “No, not there. Further, south of Siena. Then maybe.”

He goes on to say that the fields are hard to find. They’re small and you never know which are in bloom. I tell him I don’t have a car.

“Maybe next time,” he shrugs.

Even knowing I have my last-ditch effort of renting a car, I’m deflated and roam around the rest of the market in a haze, anxiety building in my chest, a feeling I haven’t had for years, like someone’s piling cinder blocks on my chest, crushing me.

For my thirteenth birthday, my mom let me get fake acrylic nails. She sits next to me and doesn’t say a word as I chose a horrible design with brown and navy nail polish then a row of small white flowers, a clumsy attempt in femininity.

When my dad’s girlfriend sees my nails, she gasps, appalled. Then without asking, she gets out a bottle of solution, pours it into a bowl and pushes my nails into it. I remain there, watching the acrylic become soft and melt off my fingernails into the solution. She berates my mother under her breath, but I remain silent.

As the bus travels at seventy kilometers an hour through the windy fields to San Gimignano, my gaze scans the rounded mountains. My eyes are exhausted from darting around, searching desperately, just wanting the hunt to be over as much as anything. Then I see it – a green field that when I strain my eyes I realize are un-bloomed sunflowers. I watch in awe waiting for some sort of feeling, but there’s nothing there, this is not enough. The rest of the day, I roam the old town, filled with shops pushing souvenirs painted and patterned in sunflowers, taunting me.

That night, I’m back at the computer fighting the spotty internet. Seeming inevitable, I now search, “Tips for Americans renting a car in Italy who don’t know the language.” There are travel forums debating the issue. It’s not the language issue they’re as concerned about as the special permit you must get from the States before you leave called a “IDL” aka International Driver’s License. I don’t have that. I can’t get that. Some of them debate going without it, but others warn profusely that if you drive without one it’s illegal and even if you get into a minor scrape or a ticket of any kind you’re screwed. I’m screwed.

I cry.

The kind you know is coming but it surprises you anyway.

Alone in my AirBnB, I pull my knees close to my chest, wrap my arms around them, holding myself. I think of her, memories and details rushing through me: of the holidays spent in hospitals, of her diabetes, of her amputated legs, of her dialysis, of her horses that starved, of the divorce, of our horrible phone calls, of her never leaving Natrona Heights, Pennsylvania, of her shitty life.

Then one emerges.

We’re watching Gilmore Girls in the earlier days before our relationship rotted. She looked at me as Luke grabbed Lorelai and kissed her so passionately that their bodies bent together. She said, “People don’t kiss like that in real life.”

I give up.

I’m a sophomore in high school, I walk out of basketball practice and expect to wait the fifteen minutes my dad was always late picking me up. Except, our mini-van is already there, the passenger seat empty, my twin brother in the back seat.

As I got into the car, I see an unusual expression on my brother’s face as he already knows and is watching, waiting for my reaction. My dad tells me that my mother had died. That something she ate caused kidney failure and she is gone. He is very neutral about it and so is my reaction.

There are no tears, we simply go home, and wait for my older brother to come home from college.

The summer leading up to her death, she has two heart attacks. After the second, she is in the ICU and my brothers and I are told to say goodbye. She is in the bed, so weak she is unable to speak and scribbles on a piece of paper to communicate with us. Her hand shakes so violently we can barely make out the words. She writes something illegible and points to my leg asking about my physical therapy for an ACL reconstruction surgery earlier that year after a basketball injury. I show her the purple scar, she gestures, and scrawls, launching us back into a game of charades. She tells me not to worry, that it will be gone by the time I get married.

Having abandoned my quest, I head to the sea side to Cinque Terre. On the train there, between Pisa and La Spezia, in the distance, I see a highlight of yellow as the train travels through the terrain. Then a little closer but still in the distance, I can tell that they’re rows and rows of fully bloomed sunflowers. They’re out of reach.

What was I expecting?

In my imagination, I was stunned by the sight of canary yellow fields. Then I wade into them and have their faces smiling down on me. Their leaves brush my shoulders as I walk, embracing me as my mother never can again.

Sunflowers aren’t going to change anything.

She’s still dead. I’m still motherless. I’m still on my own.

I watch them rush by.

“It’s a shame, you never knew your mother.” My aunt whispers during my mother’s funeral. I stare ahead at the reverend giving a eulogy hiding how gutted I feel about what I perceive as an accusation for our turbulent relationship in the end. When I would hang up on her during our infrequent phone calls in the months leading up to her death.

Years later, I’m living in California during my early-twenties my aunt’s name appears in my email inbox. She reaches out regarding a detail in my mother’s last wishes that were entrusted with her. My head swims as I am just coming into myself as a woman, craving my mother’s spirit. I write back taking this opportunity to confess my regrets about letting the divorce tarnish my relationship with my mother and ask for insight into her life that I knew almost nothing about.

Days later, my aunt’s voice is tentative on the phone. I pace around my first Los Angeles apartment. Having changed my diapers, her hesitation was understandable as I ask about my mother’s abusive marriages and my own father’s possible infidelity. But I also ask about her dreams, her first kiss, what she was like, discovering what qualities I may have gotten from her.

After Italy, I venture to a small village in the south of France called Pernes-les-Fontaines that a colleague recommended. The bus from the airport nearing town cuts through farmland that reminds me of my childhood in Pennsylvania. I watch as one round mountain folds into the next with their soft peaks. Then I’m in a tunnel of yellow as two fields of fully bloomed sunflowers surround the bus on either side of the road. I sit up in my seat. Not in the distance, right there. I can’t believe it, after all that, there they are.

In Pernes, I’m staying with a mother who is ninety-six and her daughter. The next morning, without knowing my recent plight, they serve me breakfast on a platter in a garden, on a sunflower placemat and I begin writing this essay.

I can’t shake the fields I saw coming into town. So that afternoon, I head out.

I trek along the bus route. I pass a cemetery and cut through the aisles of raised cement graves.

I keep going until there is no sidewalk but only a bike path and a dirt medium. Cars thunder by and I will them to ignore me, to just let me do this. A few honk but I forge ahead. Then, I hear the slowing of tires behind me as one kind man does what I fear most, lowers his window asking me what I can only assume in French is if I want a lift into the next town. I don’t know how to even begin to explain what I’m doing and not because I only know a handful of French phrases.

“Parlez vous Anglais?”

“No…”

“No, Merci.”

The driver looks at me skeptically. A sunburnt woman in her late twenties wearing dirty sandals and a dress on the side of a busy road. I try my best to be polite and reassuring.

“Merci.”

He drives off, leaving me there.

I look on, now doubting how far outside of town I saw them. I’m certain it was between the stop before mine. I keep on telling myself after this bend I’ll stop, then after the next and the next. I’ve gone five kilometers by now and have passed the next town.

Finally, after fields of apple trees, cantaloupe, and grapes, I spot a lone yellow head poking out of brush and wildflowers in a field that is unused for the season. I make my way to it, scrapping my calves and filling my sandals with briers.

I stand before the lone sunflower taking in its stalk firmly rooted in the soil. Well past the prime of full bloom, its heavy head hangs. The petals have begun to wilt.

I remember her the same way, always sick, fading. I want to reach out and touch the flower as if it was her face. I want to apologize for how I must have hurt her. I want to ask how she forgave me. I want to tell her I understand now how much she sacrificed for me, what it means to be a mother, a woman. I want her to know it was worth it, that I am strong. I want to thank her for the woman she made me into, somehow, despite everything.

A breeze picks up, and like her ashes I never got the chance to spread, the petals drift off into the wind.

Originally Published on The Real Story

https://therealstory.org/2019/06/21/hunting-for-sunflowers-by-sarah-nolen/


To Whom It May Concern

 

I want to catch your eye across a room and just know. I want your hand to feel electric in mine. I want you to break me. I want you to fight for me. I want to marry you in a courthouse. I want you to be mine. I want to surprise you with that vintage car that’s bound to break down. I want to help get you everything you’ve ever wanted. I want to be there if you fail. I want to see the world with you and through you. I want to live in a tiny apartment with you. I want to watch the morning light pan over your back. I want to make you coffee. I want to drink whiskey with you. I want to tell you to quit your job to do something you give a fuck about. I want to have your children. I want to see how my features fuse with yours. I want to sneak cigarettes in the backyard and talk shit about our teenagers. I want to care for you when you get that horrible disease. I want to hold your hand when you die. I want to miss you. Where are you?

Originally published January 22, 2015 on Dogzplothttp://dogzplot.blogspot.com/2014/12/to-whom-it-may-concern-sarah-nolen.html


Into Your Skin

 

He pulled on the base of his neck until he found the seam of his skin. Then he slipped it over his head, and peeled his body away. She watched, mirroring his actions, shedding herself as well. When they were only flesh and bone, they exchanged their pelts. As they stepped into each other, they were careful not to rip or stretch each other’s forms.

Once they were inside one another, they had the insight of the other’s perspective. Behind her eyes, he saw himself looking back at her with the warmth he denied. Through his lens, she recognized the desperation in her gaze that she failed to hide. They looked up as they soaked in the alternate version of each other’s memories, but they were looking back at themselves.

When there was nothing else to know, they shed each other’s skin. Now in flesh and bone, they were full of clarity. They stood motionless, since there was still no solution, even in light of their new knowledge. So they slipped back into their own skin and forgot again.


Mountains

 

In the West, they are majestic sculptures chiseled from raw rock that cut into the sky. The sun burns them amber red until they dissolve for a time in the desert of Nevada and Utah. They rise again in Wyoming, now with streaks of jade, which seep to the surface and sprout into brush. They push away the horizon until Colorado where the snow buries them, but through the ice, an armor of evergreens emerges. They’ll disappear for a time in Iowa, Indiana and Ohio where there will be only endless fields. When they return in Pennsylvania, new trees will blanket them concealing the truth that they have become worn and round underneath in the East.


Paperback

 

Your cover is starting to fray and pages curl from the time I’ve carried you with me. I remember the first day I spotted you on the shelf, that smell as I fanned through your pages. Every time I revisit the story, the characters seem to change. I again crack open your spine, but single pages fall and drift away. I pick up the pieces, and place them back where they belong. The cover tears away, I tape it back in place. Whole chunks, entire chapters come loose from the binding. A rubber band has to hold everything together. But some day... I’ll take out a lighter, and burn every page. 


The Alternate Reality of Us

 

I recognized you from a different life we had nearly six decades ago. You already have a son with another woman, and I’ve never really loved anyone yet. Tonight, we are just friends who talk about the possibility of past lives, parallel realities, where the world is headed, and how we won’t fit in it. You reference the decades where we had a life together. A time that better suits us, but you don’t mention the details like how we met sneaking cigarettes in the stairwell of that movie theater. It’s still enough for me to know that you’ve realized too.

Now, you ask to kiss me, and I say yes, because we’re both failing at doing our best in this life, at least, in this reality. You already know how to kiss me, how to touch me. I know how to navigate the curve of your neck, how tracing your ribs will bend you. As you push into me, I’m back in our kitchen, making love to you both on the floor then and in a bed now. That was before our daughter was born, before I got cancer, before you lost me.

You hold me until the morning light cuts between us. Before it reaches your eyes, I watch your shoulders rise and fall with each easy breath. I remember the weight of your eyes in the hospital as you waited for me to drift out of that life and into this one. I remember my hand going limp in yours. Maybe in this life, there’s another version of reality where you’re mine again.


The Cowboy & The Gypsy

 

Once upon a time, a Cowboy drove a herd of mustangs from Idaho through the Wasatch Mountains into Utah. He was weary from his travels and the horses were restless. The Cowboy came upon a lake to make his camp for the night, and found a tame mare grazing near the water. The mare lifted its head as his boots snapped twigs beneath them, nearing the steed. He reached out an open palm to the creature.

The metallic sound of approaching spurs caused his other hand to find its way to the six-shooter on his hip. He turned, drawing on a barefoot Gypsy woman wearing silver bracelets. The Cowboy was stunned at the sight of her. He dropped his pistol, and instead reached into his breast pocket to retrieve a folded piece of paper. He handed it to the Gypsy. She unfolded the paper revealing a drawn portrait of her face.

The Gypsy looked up at the Cowboy. He asked her where she had been all this time. He was looking for her. She said, I’ve been right here, waiting for you. What took you so long? The Cowboy answered, I guess I got a little lost along the way, but I’m here now. The Gypsy took a step toward him, weaved her fingers into the Cowboy’s hand.

The Cowboy and the Gypsy rode off into the sunset, starting their journey into the unknown frontier venturing West.

*This flash fiction is inspired by the rare love between Zach and Mo James. 


An Obituary 

 

After a long struggle with cancer, she died on December fifteenth. She had only thirty-nine years, but they held no regrets. Of those, the husband had sixteen, and felt robbed of many more.

Their son was more like the mother. When the diagnosis was confirmed, he didn’t search for an experimental treatment like the husband. Instead, their son started going to the skate park after school, gliding over the concrete covered in graffiti.  A thousand layers of paint were buried in every inch.

The husband mourned the mother by compiling and editing her short stories into a collection. Then he managed to get a meeting with a publisher who sympathized, told the husband that the stories had promise, but they weren’t the right fit. Meanwhile, their son’s elbows and knees where scrapped raw from failures of his own.

When the husband couldn’t get a meeting, he still went to the office, begged the receptionist to let him through. Then he loitered outside, waiting for the right executive to take lunch. Their son knew the husband would be relentless, so he stayed away, and by now his cuts were scabs.

Around the time their son’s wounds finally turned to scars, he came home to find the husband holding his head in his hands after security escorted him away. There was no one left to hound. Pitying the husband, their son mentioned self-publishing. Soon all the local bookstores had copies of the mother’s stories.

As the books collected dust, their son could no longer deny how much the husband began to resemble the mother right before she started loosing her hair. Before their son and the husband were not allowed near her, when the husband would sit with his back against the closed door, reading to her.

So one night, not long after the sun had given in to the moon, their son came home with two plastic bags and sat them before the husband who reached inside and found canisters of paint. Then their son took the husband to the skate park. There, the son and his father scrawled the mother’s words on to the concrete. 


Swimming in the Rain

 

He watched her every morning from his window. He guessed she thought this morning ritual was a secret. The way she stripped off her swimsuit under the water and did laps in the lake. Naked with the fish. His favorite days are when it rained. The drops of water creating ripples all around her. Some dotted her skin. They made her shimmer when the sun broke through the clouds. He wanted her. His body ached for her. The tips of his fingers went white as they gripped the counter. The thought of having her flooded his mind in the day and the nights. Even when he wasn’t looking at her through the window. He was insane with craving her. But still, the fear of losing her, of having her and then losing her, was far greater that what his imagination was capable of. The fantasy of her in his arms was never enough to take the risk. To make the attempt to make her his. So he drank his morning coffee and watched her swim in the rain.


Into the Wild

 

Take me to the place where the air cuts through me. Where I can scream, and only you will hear. My cries will tumble off the cliffs. They will echo through the pines. My breath will become a mist that drifts into yours. The leaves of towering trees will consume our words. Our voices will surrender to the silence. The hunt for stillness will be over.  

Then, we will shed our clothes at the bank of the stream. I will remember what my skin feels like. It will rise in the chill air, craving your touch. I will wade first into the water. Then you will follow, beckoned by the moonlight. And in the current, we will loose the noise left behind.  


Rules for Wearing Red Lipstick

 

1. adventure

2. love big dogs

3. drink coffee black

4. rock out shamelessly

5. repair hearts of broken men

6. swear constructively

7. howl at the moon

8. show warmth

9. defy odds

10. create