"Death of a Sunflower"
Young love, bad haircuts, and Fibonacci numbers: An essay by a Scholastic Writing Award–winning high schooler.
April 9th, 2013
The sunflower on my desk finally died. Each tiny stoma flared and inhaled one last time—inhaled the whole apartment: the heady scent of tired books, the spicy lunch meat Mom was unwrapping for dinner, and Dad’s hair a-burning as he worked at his computer. Then the flower shuddered, exhaled a puff of golden pollen all over my keyboard and phone, and was dead.
My gold-smeared paper towel stops midswipe. Hello?
I’ve never heard your voice over the phone before. I’m almost afraid to switch ears, afraid that in that tiny fraction of a second you’ll say, Oops, wrong number, and I’ll be left alone with the dial tone.
The phone is slippery with pollen and I almost drop it. My hands are streaked with gold where your voice has touched them.
Now even the tips of my fingers look happy.
I fall in love on a Wednesday.
Summer sizzles up from the halal cart on the corner. It leaves greasy smudges on the windows of Starbucks and steams the leaves on the trees.
You run ahead of the group and stop where the sidewalk does. One black All-Star dangles boyishly off the curb. Your white tee beams at us. My gaze snags on the slant of your shoulder blade—follows it upward—I never knew you had so many freckles on the back of your neck. Like someone sprinkled cinnamon under that russet mop of curls.
I’ve known you—what is it?—six years now. I’ve known you longer than I’ve known about deodorant. Since the days when I swore I’d never wear a bra or shave my legs, when I still had two crooked braids and teeth. Unbearably brown braids, thick and long enough for a boy to pull. Although, of course, you didn’t.
Chopping off that hair was so easy—snip, snip, snip. I thought it would be that simple. Snip, snip—let my girlish, futile interest in you fall away, sweep it into a sealed envelope with the date of the haircut.
You turn and my stomach flips. I flick my gaze away, back to Lana next to me.
We join you on the curb—Lana, Noah, Jake, and I. The light changes, but no one moves. After all, we have the whole afternoon to cross the street. Lana lights a Newport. The paper browns crisp like the edges of a pancake.
I’ve never seen your eyes this blue.
I should know by now to bring a picture to the hairdresser. Show him exactly what I want. I’ve only once walked out of the salon feeling better than when I walked in. The last time I went, I desperately wanted tousled layers—waves breaking on my shoulders, swirling down my back in rivulets. “Beachy waves,” I said. It was June.
Maybe what I really wanted was to be blond.
The hair was shorn, scattered across the floor like an Etch A Sketch had broken. The haircutter reached for the blow-dryer and brush, and I looked at myself in the mirror. This is it.
I kept looking in the mirror as I watched him pull the brush through. Watched the shiny red blow-dryer nuzzle my hair. I watched as he straightened it—straightened my beachy waves—and I said nothing.
“Volume,” I had said. “But not too big on top,” he had said. I had nodded. I had let him talk me out of what I wanted.
I keep telling myself it’ll grow out. But it’ll take months. Months of living with this straight-across cut, timidly short in the front. Hair that says, This girl wanted to be edgy but didn’t quite have the courage. Hair that says, This girl didn’t speak up. Hair that isn’t who I want to be.
You’ve begun to develop a way of walking so close to me on the street that we’re touching all down our sides. I can feel your ribs expand when you laugh—the flutter of your T-shirt against my skin. When you look at me, you look at my eyes, my lips—my whole face, as if you’re capturing the moment—maybe you’re listening intently and sometimes it seems you’re not listening at all.
I catch sight of our reflection in a shop window and try to memorize this. Your laugh fluttering and electric against my skin.
The glass is warped and our reflection is stretched like saltwater taffy. As we walk, our legs condense in thick gobs, then pull and pull until they are only connected to the rest of us by a tiny strand of jean.
I’ve never seen us together before.
You catch me looking and ask what I see. Quickly, I notice the green paint, the florist sign, the flowers behind the glass. They are small and their stalks are still pale green. They are tightly shrouded in petals and will not blossom for a while yet. They are not much to look at, so I say, “Nothing,” and your legs gob up and pull and pull and we walk out of the warped glass.
Mr. Grey stands at the front of the classroom in his shirt that looks like graph paper. His paunch presses against the fabric and I can make out the outline of a belly button—his point of origin.
His mouth is moving but his words are flat as a function with no slope. I rest my head in my hand and look to my left. Noah and Jenny are playing a hormone-fueled game of tic-tac-toe. Parker’s mouth is slack and his eyes are unfocused. But Lana has stopped mid-doodle—I see the makings of a dinosaur, or maybe a giraffe—and she is staring intently at Mr. Grey.
Am I missing something? Has Algebra 2 suddenly become fascinating? I tune in—something something, “ … golden mean. The pattern is everywhere.”
Mr. Grey rubs his hands together in what might be excitement and picks up a piece of chalk. 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 ... “Take any two consecutive Fibonacci numbers,” he says, “and the higher they are, the closer their quotient will be to the golden mean. Everything in nature arranges itself mathematically.”
The way rabbits reproduce. Seeds on a strawberry. Petals on a flower.
“The number of petals on any flower is a Fibonacci number, and they spiral out from the center according to the golden mean. Sunflowers, for instance, always have a Fibonacci number of petals. Typically, a small sunflower will have 34.”
I remember the game we used to play, back when I had those two long braids—he loves me, he loves me not—and how everything hung on that last petal. The question that seemed to determine the course of our whole lives, that question of romance and happiness, was really just a math question. It all boiled down to a Fibonacci number.
My hair is longer now. I coil a lock around a finger and check the black clock on the white wall. Twenty minutes before English.
The cafeteria is gray and the food in it is grayer. Your hair is the only color—I see it from across the room. You’re in the lunch line and I wonder what would happen if I joined you, but then I see you are talking to someone else. The line moves forward and I catch a glimpse of her yellow hair.
You lean forward and rest your hand against the white wall. Your eyes do not leave her face. You laugh and your T-shirt flutters.
That night I get home and turn on the shower. Hot water pours over me, hot as a summer sidewalk, hot as the steam from a halal cart in August, hot as the crisp brown edges of a cigarette.
For the first time, I read the back of the shampoo bottle. It says “massage vigorously.” I close my eyes and there are no colors at all, just the rush of hot water and the fragrant steam and my fingers digging into my scalp.
I pull my hands away and there are still hairs coiled around my fingers. The water hits them, and they fall to the bottom of the tub. They contort in hieroglyphic curlicues, curl and wave meaninglessly on the plastic mat. Finally they slither toward the drain and little bits of me disappear into the pipework.
I love Lana’s house. The kitchen counter is granite, cool to the touch, and just the right amount of shiny. The art on the walls is edgy in a soothing, familiar way. But tonight there is music and the living room is filled with people I only half-know, so I perch on this bar stool and run my fingers over the stone. In my head, I make an inventory of the countertop: used birthday candles, a bowl of strawberries, assorted wax drips, a pink cupcake tower, someone’s empty glass.
A hand reaches for the glass, long and square with nails that need to be cut. I look up to see whose it is—you catch me looking through the tower of pink frosting, forget about the glass and beckon me over.
You are unsteady, and you use my arm for balance. My hair falls in my face and I move to push it away, but suddenly you are very close and before I can think your mouth is on mine and the whole world tilts 30 degrees and I find myself hoping the art doesn’t fall off the walls.
I’ve never paid close attention to this section of wall before. There’s a print of a flower with bright yellow petals and a dark center. Heavy dark lines strike through the picture—there is rain and thunder in the flower’s world. Then I realize those are my eyelashes. I put on mascara because I knew you would be here, and I hated myself for doing it.
Your tongue, your lips, your teeth, your slobber—the whole inside of your mouth is suddenly no longer a mystery to me. Will never be a mystery again. I try to taste you but I taste nothing. I try to feel you, but you are too busy feeling me. I try to smell you but there is nothing to smell.
I remember my eyes are supposed to be closed. I shut them tight and imprinted on my retinas are bright yellow petals. A golden number of petals. A Fibonacci number.
My phone buzzes and I am surprised to see your name. We haven’t spoken since Lana’s party. Months ago. We pass in the black and white hallways and your blue eyes look straight through me.
It’s a text. You want me to have dinner with you at your house. Your parents will be out.
I coil a brown lock around a finger. You must want to reconnect. I remember our reflection in the warped glass and I smile. Yes. I’d like to be friends again.
That night we eat steaming pasta with lots of yellow parmesan. When we are full we go up on your roof and look out over the city. Your eyes sparkle in the lights and the delicious cold. I lean over the edge and when I turn around, you are directly behind me.
Your hands are soft as they cup my face. You smile into me, confident. The night is beautiful and the food was good. “Can I kiss you?”
My stomach flutters like a T-shirt in the breeze. Like your T-shirt, leaning against the white wall of the cafeteria, smiling into the girl with yellow hair.
Another time, another white wall behind you. A sunflower in a storm, petals trembling. Rain slashes them. One by one, they tear away from the dark brown center, fly off into the howling wind. Only one petal is left. Only one golden answer to the math question.
I smile back into your clear blue eyes, just as confident as you are. “No.”
This time when I sit in the barber’s chair, I look the stylist in the mirror and tell him exactly what I want. This time, there is no mistake.
I walk out of the salon and the sunshine is golden. I catch sight of myself in a shop window. The glass is smooth and in it I see my new hair that says, This girl had the courage. Hair that says, This girl spoke up. Hair that is who I want to be.
"The Culture of Secrets"
An alphabet of Italian food, family, and pride: An essay by a Scholastic Writing Award–winning high schooler.
April 9th, 2013
From the Latin Antonius. I never believe Papa Nicki, my great-grandfather, when he tells me that my name means “worthy of praise.” I tell him too many people are named Anthony for it to mean anything special, and yet, he has a way of saying the word that’s different than when he calls any of the other Anthonys in our family by their name. This is especially true now that we both knew that he’s dying.
“Anthony,” he says to me from his hospital bed. My great-grandmother cries in the corner, but only he and I exist in that cramped room. He grabs a limp hold of my arm and tells me to have many children—preferably sons. My family has told me this all my life. “We need you to continue the family line,” Papa Nicki says, “to not let it wither away in this country.” I only bring myself to tell him I love him.
An Italian dessert, also what I think of when I think of marriage. Grandma Della puts two of her homemade chocolate biscotti on a plate for me alongside a glass of milk. My grandparents’ house is quiet enough for me to hear the rigid cookie crunch in my mouth as I chew. I eat my biscotti with my grandfather as Grandma Della cleans the kitchen. He tells her what she could have done to make dinner better and asks her to pour him more coffee. When I fall in love, this isn’t what I want it to be like.
First boyfriend. He has rich, Charlestonian blood in his veins and so I make room for one more in the closet. “Please, my family will love us both even more when we come out,” I say. He asks me when I think that’s going to happen. “Soon,” I say, “real soon.”
Grandma Della tells me that the Vietnam War hadn’t even lasted a week before she and my grandfather rushed to a courthouse somewhere in Brooklyn to get their marriage license. She now loves him so much that she cooks perfect meals for him, does his laundry with precision, and cleans his house with the knowledge that he won’t always say thank you.
One day while we shop through the cleaning supplies aisle of Publix, my sister asks our parents why they’ve never taught us to speak Italian. They explain that they never learned it themselves. Our grandparents can’t speak it, either. Their parents could, but only because they had to serve as translators for their parents, the first of our family in America. I realize howtrapped I feel in three generations of English.
Soon after, I purchase a book of Italian grammar and begin to flip through the pages. A boy I’ve had a crush on since grade school sees me conjugate the verb “negare” and asks me why I feel I have to teach myself Italian. I don’t answer. They he asks me what “negare” means and I say, “To deny.”
I have it all figured out once. I will marry my preschool sweetheart, Catalina Bernadini. We will have 10 children, all sons, and name them all Anthony. That would please Papa Nicki. After my parents pull me out of Catholic school and dump me into a public school, though, plans change. Thank God.
Gay (An obvious choice, but hear me out.)
“So at that art school you’re going to,” my grandfather says over Sunday dinner one summer afternoon, “what are you going to do if, you know, one of those gay guys comes up and asks to see your salsice?” Because clearly gay men are only after thesalsice.
I tell my grandfather that I’ll say, “Sorry—not interested,” and he laughs.
“Hey that’s my guy,” my grandfather says, “My guy’s not a faggot.” I don’t sleep that night.
H is silent in Italian.
Francesco Gaggi came to America with $7 in his pocket and spoke no English. How he became one of the most prominent barbers in Long Island is a mystery. Francesco’s son is my Papa Nicki, and he tells me about how his father regularly took his whole family to see operas in Manhattan. Each of the five children received private piano lessons, prided themselves on the fine quality of their clothes, and never questioned the process of Americanization. “That’s how we got to where we are now,” Papa Nicki says. I regret never asking him, “Where exactly do you think we are?”
J, K, W, X, Y
In Italian, none of these letters exist.
One of the first things I learn while trying to teach myself Italian is that love is a difficult word to translate. The concept itself is usually referred to as l’amore, but the action can either be amare or volere bene, which literally means, “to like well.” I sometimes spend long and pointless nights in an F-150 with a boy I know will later call what we did “unclean in God’s eyes.” The Italian word for such a thing is still unknown to me.
She’s a confident Irish woman who says Connor is her favorite of my friends after the three of us and my father go out to eat one night. I think that obviously, she didn’t see us hold hands under the table. One day Connor forces me to come out to her. I curl up in a corner of my mother’s bedroom and try to stop myself from crying while she and Connor sit on the bed and laugh at how overdramatic I can be.
My third cousin. Among those who testify against him in court in the late ‘80s is his nephew, Dominick. A fatal heart attack prevents him from leaving prison within five years of his conviction. At least that’s the way police reports and other public documents record his life. My family says everything happened a little differently, but it depends on who tells the story. Everyone agrees, though, that Nino is a nickname. The misnomer that means “worthy of praise” is something Anthony ”Nino” Gaggi and I share—even if for entirely different reasons.
Grandma Della always makes the same noise to show she’s in pain. When she grips the scalding hot handles of a pot of spaghetti as she drains out the water, she says, “Ooh-fah!” When she lifts a huge basket of laundry over her head, she says, “Ooh-fah!” When she’s uncomfortably perched in a small chair at the doctor’s office and they tell her she’s strained her shoulder so badly that she needs surgery, all she can say is, “Ooh-fah.”
Pancetta and Prosciutto
I have to thank America for allowing the tradition of men being the family cooks to survive generation after generation. The kitchen is the only place in the world where my father and I can bond. Other than that we just don’t seem to quite get each other. The two of us examine the meat as we cook Panini sandwiches for dinner one night, both trying to take as much time as possible. To make them appear less foreign, these meats have been assigned American counterparts. Pancetta is Italian bacon. Prosciutto is Italian ham. The only difference, really, is that pancetta and prosciutto taste better than bacon and ham. Something holds me back from asking my father, “Why can’t things be different?”
“Que Sera, Sera” by Doris Day
The backseat of my great-aunt’s small Honda sedan swallows my sister and me because we’re so small in those days. Our great-grandmother’s sandwiched between us when she shouts to my great-aunt and Grandma Della in the front seat. “Why don’t you play the lullaby?” she asks. Already we can sing it forwards and backwards from memory, but my grandmother still puts the cassette into the player. Doris Day’s voice sounds young, refreshing. The three old women in the car know they sound terrible as they coo along with the song. I think our voices could carry us all the way to Broadway. I pinch my sister to make her join in as we all belt out the chorus.
My older sister can’t stop crying, so we leave our grandparents’ house early. When we discussed the upcoming election over eggplant parmesan, she voiced the wrong opinion. My grandfather’s conservatism is relentless, unable to cope with my sister’s liberal thinking. My mother broods in the front seat of the car and takes an opportunity to talk about respect. She says it isn’t the undying obedience of a woman to her husband. It isn’t the clear cut gender-roles. It isn’t voicing the opinion that won’t offend the man of the house. “Modern society’s antiquated that bullshit,” she says. My mother explains that respect is, however, when people value other people’s feelings, make others feel important, and above everything else, don’t expect all women to wash the dishes after a meal while men lounge at the table. This is when I think everything’s going to turn out fine.
The meat sauce is traditionally prepared before sunrise—left to simmer while the family goes to mass. Four generations later, my family’s lucky if we make it to church once or twice a year. The Sunday Dinner has survived, though, and we never ignore the weekly devotion to food. The sauce cooks all day and deepens in redness each hour. My father rolls the meatballs and asks if I like any of the girls at school. I brown the sausage in a pan and put it in the sauce half-raw. It has the entire day to finish cooking.
In a few years, my family will have been in America for a century.
I’m sorry. With me, bloodline and tradition will wither away in this country in a matter of decades. I am not so worthy of praise.
I grow up in Confraternity of Christian Doctrine classes where we discuss the differences between worship and veneration. Worship is distinguished as solely for God. Veneration, however, is a term used to mean “giving the highest level of respect” to the sacred, but not the divine. To venerate is to honor the important. In those classes, we’re taught to venerate the Virgin Mary and all of the saints. Students are told that veneration means holding something so close that it becomes part of your essence.
Both the sun and the dough in the bowl on our kitchen counter have risen for a while. This is the day I wake up to see my father looking over me, letting me see him cry for the first time. “She told me,” he says, “It doesn’t change much.” We creep down the stairs and go to work, not saying a word to each other. He touches every CD on our rack before he picks one to put in the DVD player while I take the pasty-colored bundle out of the bowl and begin to slice it into strips. My father then heats a pan full of oil until it has ripples that run over the golden surface. I get out a plate and cover it in the sugar we’ll put on the dough once it’s fried, and then I finally set the table.
That’s when I hear a familiar noise. Over the cackling of the hot oil, “Que Sera, Sera” starts to play. My father hums along as he places the first strip of dough into the pan. The sounds of cooking intensify, but so does the music. It isn’t until I flip the piece of dough over and cook the other side that I chime in with the chorus.
Alliance for Young Artists & Writers [Wikipedia]