Sunflower Sick

By

My mom calls in March, just as COVID begins shutting everything down, to offer me a flat of plants. I tend to starve flower bouquets, to blacken basil in the fridge. But my mom’s customers have dried up along with the farmer’s market where she’s sold for the last thirty years, so she brings a flat over, mask knotted severely around her head. My son M and I parse through the offerings, taking lettuce and cilantro, oregano and tomatoes and peppers and a spindly sunflower in a corner of the flat—destined to die, I think, though I don’t tell my mom.

M’s dad, J, is optimistic. “We need pots! And tomato stakes! What kind of soil? I think we should go all in, get the expensive organic kind.”

J and I have never lived together, not until two weeks ago. Now his clothes are stacked in piles and his sneakers—how are they so big? Are all men’s sneakers this big?—form a straight line down the hall. He keeps trying to line the rest of our shoes up as neatly as his, but M and I are unfamiliar with this method and lack the commitment for it; we abandon our shoes in the middle of the hallway or fling them off our feet in the living room.

“Okay, flaca?” says J. He’s called me this since we met—flaca, skinny—although in the thirty-six months since I had M, the nickname has become somewhat less accurate.

“Okay, flaca?” M mimics, eyes wide.

“Okay,” I say. “Pots, tomato stakes, and organic soil.”

 

I grew up on my family’s farm in North Carolina, with parents who were very well-off but lived austerely: thrift store clothes, Food Lion-brand everything, an intense dedication to keeping doors shut and lights turned off for the sake of the energy bill. Our wealth became apparent to me only when my parents sent me on high school exchange to Ecuador, and then to a liberal arts college in Minnesota, determined that I should “escape provincialism” and “see the world.” I developed rapid romances with both these places, and later with Ghana, where I lived for a college semester. I could make my life here, I thought in each new city. It was my favorite thing about traveling—the possibility that I could stop now, that I could stay.

I followed this impulse back to Ecuador after graduating, but I returned to the States a year later to pursue my first source of inspiration, the one I’d discovered before ever getting on a plane—writing. I moved to a city up north and took a bunch of jobs: poetry teacher, translator, night school receptionist. That’s where I met J.

J grew up in a Puerto Rican housing project with a well-connected father. He spent his childhood racing dirt bikes and cruising around the Caribbean on private jets, a kind of cash- and adrenaline-drenched freedom. Then his mom moved to the urban Northeast, and J’s focus shifted necessarily to street survival and English, in that order. When we met five years ago, J was printing T-shirts, cleaning the office building where I worked nights, and picking up the pieces of a life that had fallen apart when he went to prison several years before. We went on hikes, ate bowls of his mom’s rice and chicken, and talked for hours in parked cars before getting around to inviting each other in. But then J lost one of his jobs, and the fragile financial progress he’d made collapsed. The house where I was staying got a sanity-crushing case of bedbugs. Then, I discovered I was pregnant.

By the time I gave birth, I was back home in North Carolina and J was back in jail. “I guess I dodged a bullet,” I told my friends, trying to whip my grief into something tougher, more forward-facing. He got out a year later, but by then we had accepted the bitter logic that I was better off with someone more “stable,” and that he was better off with someone who didn’t think she was better off without him. With help from my parents, I bought a small townhouse in Greensboro and started the MFA program I’d applied to before I knew I’d be a mother. J took a landscaping job that paid well as long as the sun was shining; he sent me occasional grainy pictures of the animals he encountered on suburban lawns, with captions like: What IS this, flaca?! Yo, I think I saw a REINDEER today!

It might have been his first encounter with tristate wildlife, but J had always understood plants. He talked about them like they were human. When he came down to North Carolina for a visit, in early March of 2020, he was awed by the kudzu draped from the trees behind my house. “Look at that vine. She’s a fighter,” he said.

The morning he was supposed to fly back, I drank coffee with him on the patio and said, “The way things are going, I don’t know when you’ll see M again.”

“I’m worried about that, too,” he said. “But, you know, since I don’t have a job here, there’s nothing we can do. Right?”

I knew what he was asking. I looked from my patio at the lavender townhouses across the parking lot. J staying would plant a red bull’s eye on our door—he would have to work outside the house, and that would be it for quarantining. But if he went home, he and M might not see each other for months. And, what if we got sick anyway and he wasn’t here to help? Or, what if he got sick and the roads closed, and the only way to reach him was on foot, and M and I had to hike up the Appalachian trail and thumb a ride to the hospital where he lay on a ventilator, comatose?

“Flaca,” said J. “What are you thinking?”

My logic had felt feverish ever since I started reading about COVID. I abandoned the mountain imagery and pictured the virus as a bullet approaching. One choice dodged it, the other took it in the chest. Even with the help of this dark metaphor, I didn’t know which outcome I was choosing when I said, “Well, everything’s blowing up, and company would be nice. Stay?”

J smoked a cigarette. I cooked a pot of chili. He put his toothbrush in my bathroom and started scouring Craigslist for a job. We cleaned the counters with Clorox, searched online for masks—already sold out—and sat on the sofa, watching the numbers in New York rise.

 

Now, J washes eighteen-wheelers at a truck stop while I stay home with M, whose daycare closed. The broken crayons, skinned knees, popsicle stains, and other various detritus of stay-at-home motherhood are moderately fulfilling to me when I’m not thinking about my MFA thesis, or the class I’m teaching online, or the admin job I’m starting at the end of the month. When M takes a nap, I pull my laptop across my legs and feel like gasping—there’s not enough time. Half an hour, I learn, is worse than nothing. It’s just enough to glimpse the enormity of a hole from which I’ve got no hope of escaping. My classmates send group texts about new stories they’re writing; they start fiction groups online and invite me to join. Let me just get situated, I reply, afraid that this is code for: I will never write again.

J comes home so tired he sprawls out on the rug until I remind him to get up, get up, he’s got to change clothes the second he walks in, remember? He tells me the boss is okay—an old, Southern man battling cancer. The manager, he’s the problem. “He’s at our necks all day: ‘You missed a spot! What’s wrong with you? Come on! Work faster!’”

“Is he white?”

“Yeah. Him and the boss. They’re the only ones.”

After his shower he inspects the plants that M and I have repotted, with M mirroring his cocked head, his occasional patting of soil. They share a quiet, observant quality; when J takes the trash out, M’s eyes track his departure and await his return. When M lugs his excavator to the top of the green mound behind our patio, J corrects his stiff legs, his tendency to tip forward when he hits a root. “This way, papi. You fall this way, so you only hit your arm, not your head.”

Eating rice and beans on the picnic table, the sun sinking quietly over the townhouses, the three of us together feels like a fierce blessing. Maybe, I think furtively, it will be. Maybe this pandemic will make us a family.

J rubs my hair and I think he’s thinking the same thing.

“We need more pots,” he says a minute later, vacating the patio to smoke under a tree, away from M. “The oregano and thyme are angry. And the sunflower needs her space.”

I feel comically irritated at the sunflower, how serenely she manages to petition for her needs. I have peanut butter on my cheek, the hard edge of a Hess pickup truck under my heel, dirty plates beneath my elbow and on the counter and in the sink. There are still two hours before bedtime. J does the laundry on weekends and vacuums sometimes and he’s exhausted, more exhausted than I can imagine, I know. But I find myself envying the meticulous tending he gives our plants; I resent his cigarette breaks, when he stares across the parking lot with parted lips like a monk on the cusp of a religious revelation, M clambering into my lap—as he is right now—to read Llama, Llama, Mess Mess Mess for the hundred thousandth time.

 

”Oh my gracious!” is M’s new favorite phrase. It’s a phrase he picked up—nowhere. I don’t know. He hasn’t seen anyone but J and me in a month.

Other words he’s learning: sick, dangerous, and wash big trucks.

“Is Daddy at work?” he asks me several times each day.

“Yeah.”

“Is Daddy washing big trucks?”

“Yeah.”

“Can M wash big trucks?”

“Um, you can wash your trucks. Not Daddy’s trucks.”

“Can M go to daycare?”

“No, baby, M can’t go to daycare.”

“Because people are sick?”

“Yes. Because people are sick.”

His Spanish vocabulary is expanding, too. Mamao: J’s joking nickname for him. “I’m not a mamao, you’re a mamao,” they spar at bath time. Sángano: J’s  probation officer, who doesn’t know he’s left the state. Los chavos: the money he gives me for the house, folding the rest into his pocket to spend on gas, hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, Red Bulls, weed, a last-minute box of diapers. Payday is Thursday. Every week by Monday or Tuesday, the money’s gone. Those aren’t the nights to talk about my deadlines but I talk anyway: “Twenty essays to grade, thirty pages to revise, my whole thesis to format. How am I supposed to get this done?”

J moves among the plants. “I don’t know, but you’ll find a way.”

“If I could get, maybe, a little help with M. A few evenings a week, or weekends.”

J sighs. “I work all day, flaca. You’re his mom.

And you’re his dad, I think furiously, but the words don’t come out. He’s looking at the basil now, a browning leaf. In my mother’s brand of farming, rough edges are proof that the operation is organic. J brings his urban hygiene to the garden. He wants his plants as fresh as his Nike sneakers. I remember his mom’s row house with its polished floorboards, the scent of Fabuloso emanating from every room. She worked long hours at a bomb factory until her shoulder gave out. She also raised four kids, a lot of the time on her own.

J’s lack of sympathy for me—it kind of makes sense.

But I was okay by myself, I think. I juggled work and school and daycare and ER visits and teething and house repairs. It’s just I thought that with him here, I might get—

I know your job is awful, I want to say, I just got this hope inside me that I could get a break. I’m sorry. It’s not your fault, but I wish you could say you’re sorry, too.

He doesn’t say sorry, and I don’t get a break. But on Mother’s Day, he brings me AirPods and an Apple watch, impossibly clean in their snow-white boxes. The AirPods become a treasure to me: slipping them in makes stroller rides shorter and early-morning grocery runs a thrilling masked escape. The watch sits on my dresser, the way I’d warned J, before he bought it, that it would. “I don’t need it. M will spill stuff on it,” I’d told him. “You should save that money.” At the time, J had replied, “Save the money? For what? It’s just money,” but passing the watch’s blank face on his way to bed, he shakes his head. “That was forty-five hours of muscle. You know that, right?”

“I know.”

“It’s not about the money. I used to spend ten times that on Mother’s Day for my mom. But I didn’t work as hard for my money back then, you see what I’m saying? You can get it dirty, you can even break it, I don’t care. But I sweat and strained my back and fucked my shoulders up for it, and it’s just sitting there.”

“Right—I know. I’m sorry.”

While he goes to sleep, I lie with my head in the crook of his shoulder, picturing the wrecked dirt bikes of his youth, all the name-brand clothes and sneakers he lost when he went to jail, his dad’s gold chains that he left years back in Puerto Rico—worth enough to fund a year of M’s daycare, but not worth the drama of getting them back from relatives. I see his point. A watch meant to be used and stained and broken is a point of pride, a tiny gifted freedom. To forget to make use of such a gift is an insult.

But none of that changes what I want, which is not a watch but time: a weekend day to myself, a job that lets J miss a day without firing him. Forty-five hours of muscle.

I try to remember, each morning, to put on the watch.

 

We spot the first tomato just before his probation officer calls. “Mamao! Look!”

“Mamao, look!” M’s repeating, touching the green skin, when J picks up the phone.

“Yeah,” he says, widening his eyes at me. “A home visit? Well, I work long hours—also, my son’s in North Carolina and I want to visit him. Could I—”

A pause.

“Come by the office? So, I have to get that urine test before I can travel? Okay. I’ll see what I can do.”

He hangs up the phone and we stare at each other. I’m thinking about the Appalachian Trail again. Okay, J, you hike north, you hitch a ride into the city, you hitch a ride back to the mountains, you subsist off dry noodles and granola bars, we’ll pick you up on the Blue Ridge Parkway and bring you right back here. Right, M? You won’t catch anything. We’ll be safe—as safe as we can—we’ll be okay.

“Flaca, did you hear me?”

“No.”

“I’ll just stay. It’s an empty threat,” J says. “He won’t come see me. It’ll be okay.”

Out of nowhere, in M’s palm, the silky-smooth green tomato.

“Shit,” I say.

“Shit!” M repeats.

“Mamao,” J says, “it’s dead now. Do you hear me? You killed it.”

“I killed it,” M agrees.

“Don’t do that again,” says J.

The cilantro is flowering, past its prime. J pulls it out of its pot and tosses it over the fence, and starts scooping out a hole to put the sunflower in. “Please,” he says to M, after he’s packed fresh dirt around the listless stem. “Don’t do that again.”

 

One day J catches a ride to work with W—masks on, windows down—and the cops pull them over for going fifty in a thirty-five. W hands over his license, but the cop wants them to get out and put their hands against the car. “Then,” J tells me, “he asks if we’ve got a gun.”

“A gun?

“That’s what W said: ‘A gun? You see a couple Black guys and assume we’ve got a gun?’ Flaca, I’m thinking come on, W, come on, W, shut your mouth. I’m on probation. Shut your mouth.”

“What did the cop do?”

“He gave W a ticket and let us go.”

“Thank God.” He’s in the shower before I realize that he almost didn’t come home tonight. He almost got locked up for another year, on the oppressive logic that he’d violated his probation by getting himself arrested.

The next night, we’re putting M to bed when J skirts out the front door. We find him sitting in someone’s car, buying weed. “What are you doing?” I demand from the sidewalk. “You don’t even have a mask!”

He follows me in the house, seething. “You had to drag me out of the car like I’m five years old?”

“You were sitting in his car with the windows rolled up with no mask.”

“I’m human! I forgot! Come on, flaca! I break my back all day at work. I water the plants. I wash clothes every Sunday. But I’m not good enough for you!”

“J

“I’m doing the best I can.”

“Okay, but. Your bosses don’t wear masks, and you keep saying you don’t get near them, but you buy chips every day which are in the vending machine which is inside the building where they sit, all day, without masks. Every day you go to the gas station. Sometimes twice a day. You’ve got to start buying enough cigarettes and Red Bulls and CBD oil and Gatorade and whatever else to last you a month, because every time you go, it’s an exposure for all of us. Don’t you see, J, that doing the best you can doesn’t mean anything if we all get sick anyway?”

J sighs, a long, low sigh. “Flaca, if I want money I have to go to work. I can’t work from home like you. I can’t buy enough cigarettes to last me a month because I don’t have the money, los chavos, no tengo los chavos pa eso. I’m getting really fucking tired of this.”

He goes outside. I read books to M, watching J sit on the hood of my car, head in his hands. If that bullet that I pictured back in March is still angling its way across the parking lot, J’s in line for it. Given a choice, he’ll take it before he’ll let it reach us; I know this.

But I’m starting to wonder if the bullet isn’t COVID, if it’s not coming from outside, if it’s already here. If the bullet is a home shared by people so different that love barely matters, where one person’s needs will always hamper the other’s freedom and these things will come to feel like oxygen over time, less and less of it required to start a fire.

That night, J thrashes on the mattress, his back in spasms. I dream I’m trying to do his job and failing, the manager yelling at me, my soapy brush crashing over my head.

The next morning, I’m guilt-ridden. I’m thinking about the almost-arrest. I wish I hadn’t said anything last night. “Is the job worse than landscaping?” I ask. “Are you okay? Are you glad you stayed? Is this—?”

He rubs his eyes and looks at me strangely, like he’s forgotten we fought at all. “My body hurts, that’s all, flaca. That’s nothing. That’s life.”

 

From one day to the next, the sunflower is wilting. “What happened?” I cry. “I give it water every day!”

“Oh my gracious,” M says with interest. “Oh my shit!”

J squats beside the sunflower. “She’s drowning.”

“What?”

“We never took the bottom off the pot. She’s drowning in her own water. I’ll fix it.”

I stare at the limp leaves, then at M, who’s picking something out of his belly button. He doesn’t talk about his daycare friends anymore. He doesn’t call my mom on FaceTime. The first thing he asks in the morning is when he gets to watch TV. He eats peanut butter and cinnamon raisin sandwiches at all hours of the day, and half the time he walks around with no pants on. I used to think I was a kick-ass single mom, but now I’m starting to think I just had daycare and my mom’s help to cover up the truth, which is that I’m a basket case; I lack some fundamental nurturing DNA because I don’t want to glue glitter to construction paper with M, I don’t want to push him on the excavator, I want to go to my room and write. The not-writing is hollowing out my insides. They say to put your oxygen mask on first because every decent mother needs just one gasp of air in order to care for her child, but not meI also need sleep and food and my laptop and long hours of solitude every day and M deserves so much better, he deserves so much better than this.

J’s arms wrap suddenly around my waist. M is ambling innocently among the plants. My tensed back muscles meet J’s tensed shoulders, both of us ready to dash over and prevent another assault. But M doesn’t reach for a tomato, and neither of us move. Maybe this is happiness, the kind of happiness J has settled for, the kind he wants me to accept as good enough. This constant precipice of harm, this constant, flailing gratitude of but we’re still here, but we’re okay for now.

 

June. The sunflower stalk is slender green. We admire her as we sit at the picnic table on a cool Saturday morning.

M’s hand shoots up.

J says, “No!”

I say, “M, remember, be gentle.”

J says, “He already killed it. It’s already dead.”

The sunflower stalk hangs broken. The tissue still connected, the bone snapped.

J goes inside and shuts the door.

Without warning, I’m remembering the day that I sat looking out at the parking lot, deciding on a whim that he should stay. I thought, that day, about the risks he posed to me and M and how to mitigate them, a worry that spiraled naturally into my interrogation (policing?) of his gas station stops and mask-wearing habits, my demand that he eradicate every ounce of risk he carries with him. I didn’t consider then that this demand was impossible—that by asking him to stay, I was committing not to a desired sequence of events but to a person. That people give food and water and sunlight and also snap things in half, and that trying to control what a person does next doesn’t leave anyone feeling free.

I didn’t consider, that day in March, what I was really asking of J: to build a life of utter vulnerability, in which he controls nearly nothing. His boss is racist. The paychecks are bad. The house is mine. He’s violating probation. Every day that he wakes up here, he risks being arrested again.

Staring at the broken sunflower, I feel the weight of our commitment to each other. The hope that drove us, despite the risks, to come together, and the long months we’ve shouldered this unwieldy load—like maneuvering a table into a house too small to hold it, while beyond our tiny squares of existence, the horizon continues to darken.

The sunflower’s leaves have wilted. Destined, I think, to die.

The door opens and J comes out again, holding a roll of Saran wrap, a tape dispenser, and a plastic tube that was once attached to M’s fire engine.

“What are you doing?”

His jaw is set. “Whatever I can.”

He stands the sunflower stem straight and sets it in a cast against the blue plastic. Then he winds Saran wrap around the whole thing, tight enough that it might stay, loose enough to give it a shot at not suffocating.

“Daddy fixed the sunflower?”

“Maybe. Daddy tried.”

“Cause M broke it?”

“Yes.”

“But Daddy fixed it?”

“Maybe.”

“The sunflower sick?”

My eyes sting. “Probably, yes.”

“Probably, yes,” M agrees, curling up in my lap.

 

We pitch a tent in the mountains, hoping to take a break from the news which shows cases spiking across the South. We build a campfire and swim in a cold creek. After putting M to bed—an hour-long ordeal in which he tries to convince us multiple times to “just drive home, I’m tired of camping, okay?”—we roast marshmallows, staring from the campfire to the dark green around us, the reeds, the arching trees, the grassy field, the shadowy mountains.

“It seems so easy, out here,” I say, “to grow things.”

A bullfrog croaks.

“But it’s not,” says J.

I tell him about traveling in Ghana, how I rode down dusty highways on the backs of motorcycles and fed monkeys out of my palm. Usually J can beat me at this genre of storytelling, but tonight he’s rapt, so I keep going, describing canopy walkways across tropical forest, markets that stretched for miles, and the time my host sister and I went to the beach, my sister throwing herself, fully clothed, shrieking, into the glistening surf. “Maybe we can go one day,” I say.

“Once I’m off probation.”

“And we have money.”

The marshmallows turn brown and crispy. We tip them hot into our mouths.

There’s a thunderstorm later that night. The next morning we discover M’s books soaked on the picnic table, leaves plastered to branches, the world fresh and cold and dripping. I feel pride, packing up to go home—M’s first camping trip! We survived it! We’re still here!—and also a strange sense of loss, which I think about for most of the drive. Getting back into town, I try to explain it to J, how my trips used to be about motorcycles and monkeys and conversations with strangers in thatched huts over foreign beers. Now travel involves washing the sand off M’s feet and coaxing him to sleep, and I love him more than anything, and I also desperately miss the other thing. The freedom.

J sighs. “I don’t really get it.”

I feel my nerves start to wind up. “You don’t have to get it. I’m just telling you.”

“I thought we had a good time.”

“We did have a good time.”

“I don’t know, flaca. It’s like, you’re just really complicated sometimes.”

I pull into a gas station around the corner from home and jam the car into park. “Why can’t you just listen? Why can’t you just say you understand?”

“But I don’t understand. Freedom? You’re free.

I can swear I see the bullet, unleashed from our house, tearing down the hazy highway toward our windshield. Fuck this, I think. I don’t want to go home. I don’t want to unpack the car and run the bathwater and figure out cheerily what’s for dinner. I want to give up. I want to lie down and give up on the spot.

J says, very quietly, “It hurts the shit out of me to say this, flaca. But I don’t think I’m ever going to be the person you really want.”

He goes inside while I pump gas. I watch him come out with a pack of cigarettes. He takes off his mask, applies hand sanitizer. Opens the pack again, applies sanitizer again. Lights one.

I think: even if I didn’t have to love him, after all this, I would. I will.

I think: he’s right. This isn’t going to work.

We pull up at the house and spread the sandy tarp across the grass. I go to the patio for the hose. Then I freeze. “J!” I say. “M!”

We crowd in the doorway, staring. The sunflower’s stem is absurdly, rapturously straight. The blue plastic holds steady, the Saran wrap ties her in place. Her leaves are green and fresh and open. Nestled among the greenery, tiny gold petals spread open.

“Mamao,” M breathes. “Sunflower mamao.”

A breeze begins, and she sways a little, alone in her big pot. She’s trying to peer past the patio wall but she can’t, not yet. J’s hot shoulder pressed to mine, our fingers tangled in M’s hair, I want to ask her, Can you breathe? Is it worth it? Is it enough?

She eyes me gently, her world-weary face, her small yellow crown. I’m still here, I think she says, or that’s all I can hear. I’m okay for now.

***

Rumpus original art by Lisa Marie Forde.


Sara Heise Graybeal received an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she is currently an English lecturer. She was the 2018 recipient of the Randall Jarrell fellowship and was most recently published in Philadelphia Stories and Moon City Review. Sara writes fiction and nonfiction. More from this author →