The left eye of a dead baby seal was still looking at the world. I wanted to breathe a little and get lost in my thought, while looking at the ocean. But that dead eye put an end to all that hoping. A few busy flies were sucking the juice from the periphery of that eye, yet it still looked alive and was as cute as a puppy’s. My great-uncle, Mr. Shawkat Khan, had never seen a seal before, dead or alive, so the introduction wasn’t a good one for him. I promised to take him to the pier nearby and show him a few resting and playful seals later that day.
They say never begin an essay at the beginning; but this one truly began at the beginning. When I was about to leave with my great-uncle for a day in Santa Cruz, California, one of the front tires of my car exploded, without explanation, less than two-inches away from the main gate of my apartment. If I were a superstitious person, I might have cancelled the tour; but I wasn’t. I got the tire fixed, and in less than an hour we were on our way. With that single act of an exploding tire the destruction of a perfectly good day had began.
I once visited the Cox’s Bazaar beach, in Bangladesh, the longest beach in the world. By comparison, Santa Cruz, California, is wilder. I always liked the vastness and mild anger of Santa Cruz, and that is what brought me back to it often. My great-uncle was calm, looking at the ocean. Under their parents’ watchful eyes, kids everywhere were busy building abstract sandcastles, playing with the seaweed, or digging the shore furiously with their tiny buckets—perhaps dreaming of going through to the other side of the world. As a child, I was obsessed with seeing the edges of the rain. I reasoned that there must be a place where rain stopped. Perhaps, for those digging kids, their sand was like my rain.
Surprisingly, no one seemed to notice the dead baby seal, not even the nearby coast guard tower or the two cops that walked by. We stood there for a long time, and then continued walking.
I’d seen my great-uncle, in all, maybe four times in my life. He once told me about his adventures as a boy in the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world, which made me wrongly assume he was a fairly open-minded person. After all, I didn’t know him that well. What I failed to notice was this: Fifty years had passed since his youth, and now he was a dying, religious, and scared man. Late, but on that shore, I realized that it was a mistake to bring him to Santa Cruz. According to him, the place was full of naked women, which bothered him very much.
As we walked toward the boardwalk, I noticed he was not looking up or around. For the first few minutes, I tried not to be critical; I was enjoying the view of old decaying buildings, cracked and narrow streets, and excited people. He was almost seventy years old, and walked with a cane, but I was sure that he was not tired, because he still walked six miles a day as part of his daily exercises. Then it occurred to me that maybe he was trying to avoid looking. Girls in their bikinis crossed and walked along the streets, but didn’t appear to be part of anything that could upset anyone in any way.
The day was sunny and mild, but windy, so most of the streets far from the boardwalk were empty. Everyone was going somewhere in a hurry; no one stayed around to linger in front of a store or on a street corner. Santa Cruz always appeared to me as an old person, falling apart, yet trying to stay cool and hip. But on that day, it was lonely except along the boardwalk and beach.
We parked far from the boardwalk and walked toward it slowly. Wearing all whites, with white beard and hair, my great-uncle looked Biblical, a Moses-like figure on the move. He was over six feet tall, but, because of his age, couldn’t stand straight any longer. How would he look without the beard? How had he looked in his youth? I tried to imagine. He was probably as thin as me, but much taller. One day I would be as old as him, or even older, I thought. I wanted to avoid those thoughts, so I tried to pay attention to the streets and the destination ahead. There, people were having fun, and I was hoping to be part of it, to enjoy the day.
My uncle grew up in a tropical forest, and had never seen an ocean up close. The seagulls that flew in a circle overhead in silence, he mistook for vultures. He didn’t see or hear well anymore, but smelled the ocean from far away, and said, “I smell salt in the air. Is it the ocean?”
“Yes, we are very close, just another hundred yards or so from the boardwalk, and then the ocean,” I said.
When we got closer to the boardwalk, I was sure he was having hard time looking at the girls. One girl, in her thong, bent over right in front of him to pick up a fallen towel. All you could see from behind her was a thin yellow string. It was more skin than he could possibly be comfortable with.
I tried to turn his attention to the roaring rides above us and said, “Those are like modern-day ferris wheels. People of all ages like to ride them. Do you want to ride one, a slow one?” He said he was afraid of the height, and was trying to understand why those people did not seem afraid too.
While walking on the boardwalk, I explained each ride in great detail to him and he was awed. The boardwalk was full of people walking in every direction. Perhaps everyone had a plan in their minds, but the crowed didn’t show it; it was chaotic. Everyone talked and screamed, but no one seemed to pay any attention. I told him how, years earlier, I’d gotten on that roller coaster, Hurricane, and after my third ride wasn’t afraid of the terror anymore. He looked at me for a few seconds, thinking, and then said, “Can we ride those baskets hanging from the cable? I think I can manage that.” We were on it immediately, and rode it twice. He enjoyed the view from above, and was pleased to see the flying seagulls from that height, and so close, too. The whole area looked like a Jackson Pollack painting; each person was a dot of color, spattered, it seemed, without a plan.
It was time for him to eat—my great-uncle was diabetic—so I took him to a hotdog stand. He asked in a shock, “Is it dog meat?” It was just beef, I assured him, and explained that in old days there was a rumor it was made out of dog meat, and the name stuck. But he refused to eat meat because it wasn’t Halal, meaning prepared through religious ritual. I bought him a vegetarian corndog instead, which he enjoyed, even having seconds.
While he chewed, he looked at the ground, his face dark and depressed. I tried to imagine his pain. From his point of view, it was a sin for any woman to expose so much skin and he was a sinner, too, since he saw it. His wife had died when he was sixty, and within a month he had married a twenty-four year-old woman. What was his reasoning? How could it make sense for him to go to bed with a very young woman, but not look at one of them on the boardwalk?
He played a few games, hoping to win something, but he didn’t. I won a tiny frog, a third prize, and gave it to him. I remembered my first visit to the boardwalk, when I’d won everything there was to win: By the time I won my fifth first prize, I had a crowd of my own. They followed me from stall-to-stall, shouting, wanting me to win one more. An old man even wanted to know whether I practiced it at home.
My uncle said, “You are almost as bad as I am.”
I knew, eventually, he would ask me about the girls on the beach. He came close and asked, “Why are they so naked?”
I didn’t know what to say. I tried to make a joke, “They are not naked, perhaps half-naked.” Then I explained, “But they are not considered naked here. It is the custom. It is different from Bangladesh in many ways. If you take a look, men also are dressed that way; some of them are just in their underwear.”
It didn’t go so well. A girl went by, carried on the shoulders of two men. I guess he saw it, and remembered some biblical stories. He didn’t want to be part of any sudden annihilation. He said, “Take me away from here. I don’t want to be close to these sinners.” But I knew he wanted to see the ocean. I told him this was the only spot; we had to go through. He agreed to stay and walk with me beyond the boardwalk.
There were two guys kissing, right where the drop-zone was. To myself, I said, “Shit!” We had to pass them to get closer to the ocean. I pretended not to see anything. I looked up at the ferris wheel and said, “You see those children? They learn to do this from a young age, so when they grow up, they are not afraid of the height anymore.”
He didn’t pay attention to any of that, but asked, “They are shomokamis (homosexuals)?”
“Yes, let’s go,” I said.
He was not satisfied with my idea of going, but wanted to know, “Why no one or the government stops them? How could anyone allow it? This is not allowed in any religion, including Christianity.” I didn’t want to start a long philosophical dissuasion, so said nothing.
By then we were walking on the sand, more than halfway to the ocean. There were countless girls soaking in the sun, exposing as much of their skin as possible.
He asked, “Where are their parents? They have no shame? No sense of honor?” Beyond his questions, Santa Cruz was just being Santa Cruz; ahead of us, the ocean was still trying to be fierce by falling on the shore with big waves. Young and half-naked people played volleyball, a few were reading books (I never understood reading books on the beach), and most were just doing things as the moment required. Every single one of those people looked happy.
I kept on walking on the beach without a word. I wanted to reach the ocean as fast as I could, and so did he. At last, we reached the cool, pretending-to-be-gentle waves and soaked our feet. He looked happy to be part of the ocean at last. He said, “Can you believe this! This ocean is washing my feet. So big! Compared to it, we are nothing. This same ocean touches Bangladesh, too! Such is Allah’s wonder.”
He touched the ocean and collected a fistful of wet sand to take with him. A wave was raging inside of me, but I didn’t allow it to come out and take on the world. We were looking far into the empty ocean. He said, “Could you please hold my hand and walk me to the car? I don’t want to see any of it anymore on the way back. I will close my eyes, and you can tell me if the area is free of naked women, and then I will look.” I imagined that on the way back, I will have to say, “Open your eyes. Close your eyes,” perhaps a hundred times. A hundred times? Really? Yes, actually I said it more than that (toward the end, it was at its minimum: “Open. Close.” I wanted to play with him a bit, too.). He was one of those ancient Muslim men who still believed that Allah will punish you if you look at any naked woman other than your wife. He didn’t want to collect any more sins; therefore, I had to agree to say, “open” every time the area was clear of half-naked women, so he could see the beauty of Allah’s world. I agreed, not with his belief, but because I wanted him to go home with as little sins in his heart and pockets as possible. Amen.
Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.