In The Sunflower Girl, the guilt-ridden husband of a woman with breast cancer reluctantly rearranges his work calendar to meet his wife at a new clinic. Once there, he has an unexpected encounter with the patients in the waiting room.
About the Author
Oren Shafir is an American-Israeli author, playwright, and poet. Oren wrote an essay about baby chicks in his first-grade class, and he has never stopped writing.
Oren has lived in Denmark for 28 years, where, despite having experienced as many dark winters, he still wants to stay.
Oren’s collection of short stories Small Truths and Other Lies is available on Amazon and Smashwords. Aside from short stories, Oren has dabbled in flash fiction, poetry, film and musical theatre. You can learn more about Oren’s works at his website: www.orenshafir.com
The Sunflower Girl by Oren Shafir
Nothing, not the reprint of Van Gogh's vibrant yellow sunflowers, not the real flowers on the receptionist's desk, not even the sun shining in the open windows of the exit door, could disguise the fact that this was a hospital. There was that sterile smell, those pale white walls, that somber mood—especially here in the cancer clinic. It wasn't a standard clinic. It was some kind of a special clinic. You had to have a referral. Normally, they wouldn't even take breast cancer patients, but Sam had used one of his clients to pull some strings. He glanced nervously at his watch. He wasn't supposed to have been here at all. He'd been at work, but he couldn't get the stupid conversation he'd had with Jeannie, which had nothing to do with anything, out of his mind. It happened in the middle of the night. She'd come out of the bedroom to find him sitting in their little kitchen.
“Honey, what are you doing?” she had asked.
“Getting a late-night snack,” he said, although up until then he'd just been sitting at the table.
“I'll have whatever you’re having,” she said, as if she hadn't a care in the world. Then out of the blue, she'd said, “I'd like a house with a garden.”
“I'd like a house with a garden,” she repeated. “I mean, not right now, but maybe in a year or two.”
“I don't know if I want a house,” Sam said.
“Well, you know, the mortgage and everything.”
“So, you're making good money now. Is it better to pay rent that goes into a vacuum?” Jeannie threw her hands in the air.
“Besides,” Sam said. “You know me. I'm like the Laurel and Hardy handyman service. And what do you know about gardens?”
“We can learn. I want to grow corn and peas and red peppers and green peppers and yellow peppers. And daffodils and tulips and sunflowers.”
“Sunflowers?” he said. “Where's this coming from?”
“What do you mean? You don't like sunflowers?”
“Well, yeah, but . . .”
“And little kids need a garden to play in,” she had said.
“What little kids?”
“You always said you wanted kids.”
“Yeah, but . . . ” Sam paused. He almost said I think it requires that we have sex first, but he bit his tongue and said, “someday.”
“Sam,” she said, “that someday's gotta come some day. I'm not getting any younger.”
“I'm finished,” he had said, throwing half his sandwich in the trash. “I'm going to bed. I gotta get up early tomorrow.”
And he'd left. That was it. It wasn't even an argument. But throughout the conversation, and again when he replayed it in his head all the next morning, Sam kept thinking: How do you know you'll even be alive in two years? The thought riddled him with guilt. At the office, he kept thinking he should be with her, but how could he take off work? He had meetings. He had deadlines. He should be with her now, at the new clinic. But, how could they think about houses and the future if he blew off work? Finally, after juggling some meetings and using his lunch hour, he found he could squeeze in a visit to the hospital. He’d given the number of the clinic to his receptionist and left. It had felt good to get outside on such a beautiful day. He smelled spring flowers and clean cut grass as he walked a few blocks through a residential area on his way to the hospital. But his stomach wound up as he entered the building.
Actually, the clinic wasn't as bad as Sam had expected. The woman across from him had a scarf around her bald head. Sitting there flipping through Vogue, she could have been waiting to have a tooth pulled. She wore a yellow sleeveless shirt with black buttons tucked into a loose-flowing sheer skirt. She had on bright red lipstick and dangling glass earrings that changed color as they caught the sunlight. Her toenails were a shiny red, and the thin leather straps of her sandals slithered up her ankles, leading Sam’s eyes to her long slender legs. If she were walking on the street instead of sitting in this clinic, her bald head might be mistaken for a fashion statement.
The elderly couple next to the woman didn't appear to be sick either, but they were more like what he expected. They huddled together and spoke with a European accent, the wife doing most of the talking. Sam thought the man must be the patient. He was balding and gray and gaunt. His wife looked younger, maybe sixty years old. She had long yellow hair and was round-faced, full-figured, and stout like a peasant. But her movements were jerky and nervous, and her eyes were filled with a doubtful, almost pathetic lack of hope.
Then there was the little girl, the little bald-headed girl. Even here, she stood out. Sam tried not to stare, but with her white, almost luminous skin, huge gray eyes, little bow-shaped red mouth, and shaven head, she was striking. She wore a pretty dress with an abstract pattern of wild swirling yellow flowers that matched Van Gogh's sunflowers on the wall quite nicely. It reminded him of the conversation about the garden he'd had with Jeannie the night before. Sam had once read a book by Simon Wiesenthal about his experiences in a concentration camp. Every day on their way to labor, he and the other prisoners had marched by a cemetery where German soldiers were buried. Each gravesite had its own sunflower, and Wiesenthal had longed for a grave of his own with a tombstone identifying him and a sunflower peering out like a connection between the two worlds. A sunflower was a strange kind of flower, and she was a strange looking girl. Sam was thinking she looked like some kind of alien, a beautiful alien, when she leaned toward him and whispered, “I'm a Martian.”
He almost gasped. Had she read his mind?
“What?” he asked. “Where are your mommy and daddy?”
“My daddy's working,” she said. Then she lowered her voice to a confidential level. “He's not my real daddy, though. I'm an alien, and my real parents live in outer space. They're coming to get me soon, maybe on Saturday.”
“Oh,” Sam said, bemused. “Won't you miss your daddy here on Earth?”
“Yes,” she confided with genuine sadness, and he wanted to kick himself in the shins for asking an eight or nine-year-old cancer patient if she would miss her daddy when she was gone. Then she smiled and said, “But it'll be nice to be with people who look like me.”
The lady sitting across from them with the scarf around her head said, “I'm sure your daddy thinks you're pretty.”
“No,” said the girl matter-of-factly, “he thinks I'm goofy.”
“He doesn't think you're goofy,” the woman said, taken aback.
“Yes, he does. That's what he calls me—goofy.”
“Well then, I guess that makes me goofy, too,” said the woman, touching her head through the scarf.
“I think you're pretty,” the girl said with the unmistakable honesty of a child.
“Well, thank you,” the woman said. “You're just beautiful.”
“That's what my daddy thinks, too,” said the girl, “goofy and beautiful.”
“Which daddy are we talking about?” Sam said. He couldn't resist clarifying the point, although it earned him a distasteful snort from the woman with the scarf.
“My daddy here on Earth,” the girl said.
“A beautiful child with cancer,” the middle-aged woman said to her husband, loud enough for everyone to hear. “It's ironic.”
“No, it isn't,” the girl said. “There were eighty-seven hundred new cases of children with cancer this year.” Then she wistfully added, “It's just unlucky.”
Sam wondered if she knew the definition of irony.
The girl smiled again and said, “The children's hospital's nice, though. That's where I stay. I'm not a patient here. I just visit the doctor sometimes. He's handsome and brilliant. He's helped lots of people recover.”
“Is that a fact?” said the middle-aged woman, leaning forward, impressed, as if the little girl were the spokesperson for the American Cancer Society.
“Oh, yes. You're lucky to be here. I'm sure he can help you.” The little girl looked right into the woman's eyes as if she knew the woman needed encouragement more than her husband. The woman leaned back and took her husband's arm with a new air of confidence. He smiled at her.
Sam glanced at his watch again.
“What are you doing here?” the little girl asked Sam as if she could tell he didn't belong.
“I'm here to pick up my wife.”
“Hmm, that's too bad,” the girl said.
“Yes,” he said.
“What kind of cancer does she have?”
He paused. Should he share this information with strangers? The girl waited patiently for an answer.
“Breast,” he said, finally.
“Oh, good rate of recovery,” the girl said. “She’s lucky to get in here.”
Sam suppressed a chuckle. “Are you supposed to be walking around the hospital alone?” he asked.
“I'm not alone.”
“Really? Where are your parents?”
“There's my daddy,” the girl said, pointing.
Sam, along with everyone else in the waiting room, looked to where the girl pointed. But it was only Jeannie. Jeannie and the doctor shaking hands and smiling. He looked like a TV doctor: young, blond and blue-eyed with straight white teeth and thick straw-colored hair.
“My daddy's the most brilliant cancer doctor in the whole world, and his own daughter has cancer. Now, that's ironic,” the girl said, glancing at the middle-aged woman.
“Hi, goofy,” the doctor said. He beamed with pride. He turned to introduce the girl to Jeannie. “My daughter. Isn't she beautiful?”
“Yes, yes she is,” Jeannie said. “And that's my husband, Sam. What are you doing here, honey?”
Sam stood and shook the doctor's hand. “I wanted to meet your new doctor.”
“How long have you been here?” she said. “Don't you have to get back to work?”
He took her arm, and they turned to the door.
“No,” he said, and they exited into the sun.
About the Story
The Sunflower Girl was written by Oren Shafir and first appeared in Eclectica Magazine in October 1999.
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