She was 10. She saw him sitting alone on the sea shore staring at nothing in particular, seeming lost. She could see sadness in his brown eyes and worry on his forehead creases. This was the third time this week that she saw him and the look of despair and worry on his face only seemed to be increasing. “It made him look older”, she thought.
He was 28. He gazed at the distant horizon. He always came back to the sea when he was feeling lonely or sad. He sat there for what felt like hours listening to the sound of water splashing on the rocks. The sound of the water helped block the voices in his head. But the voices seemed to be getting steadily louder. When he couldn’t ignore them any longer, he gave in. His thoughts drifted back to Sabia. Sabia, it means beautiful. She had told him with a smile when they first met. They had come a long way since that day. He had come to depend upon her. She made him happy. But now she had left him. It had been three months since she had to go. ‘I have to go to USA to get my Masters degree’, she had told him. She was the only friend he had. “How could you leave me, Sabia?”, he thought.
Her parents were construction workers and went to the site nearby every morning to work, leaving her on the beach to play on the sand. It would be another hour or two before they came to fetch her. They had warned her not to talk to strangers. But everyone around her was a stranger. She did not have any friends. But the more she looked at him, the more she wanted to talk to him. Finally, mustering all the courage a 10 year old could, she walked up to him, not knowing what she was going to say.
All his efforts of trying to block the thoughts that once were comforting to him were useless. He could feel himself losing control and succumbing to his emotions and feelings. He had always been an introvert, shy and reserved. After a while, even his own family learned to leave him alone. Until Sabia had come into his life. Sabia, with her cheerful demeanor and zest for life. He got drawn to her like a moth to a flame. With her, he was different. He laughed until he cried. He talked until the phone died. He began to live life. He was happy.
Deep in thoughts, he did not notice the little girl walk up to him. He felt a tug on his left sleeve when he lost his train of thoughts and looked at her in the dim light of the setting sun. She stood there, dressed in a dirty short dress that hardly covered her bruised knee, looking at him with her deep dark eyes. The expressions on her olive skin ranged from innocence to compassion to fear. Before he could say anything she spoke, ”I’m Sana. Can I sing for you?” And her face lit up with a shy smile. He hesitated for a second but couldn’t resist smiling back at the bright charming face looking at him with big hopeful eyes. “Sure, go ahead”, he said which made the eyes grow bigger, if that was even possible.
She sang for the next five minutes, not taking her eyes off him. Her voice had a ring of honesty and innocence to it that he had never heard before. It soothed him from inside. On finishing, she asked, ”Are you feeling better?”
He gave her a confused look.
“Father says he always feels better when I sing. I thought you looked sad”, she explained.
He smiled at her and said, “Your father is right. You do have a beautiful voice.”
Her face again lit up with a smile, this time showing her perfectly aligned teeth.
“Will you come back tomorrow?” She was jumping now.
“I don’t know.”
“Oh please do! I’ll sing you another song”, she pleaded.
How could he refuse those big expressive eyes that went from happy to sad in a fleeting moment?
“Ok, I’ll see you tomorrow evening. But you should promise to sing another song for me”, He slowly stood up to leave.
And then she said something that would bring the two closer than ever in the next few days, a 10 year old girl and a 28 year old man.
“I have never had any friends. You are my first friend. May I know your name?”
He felt sad for her and yet he could relate to her in a way he couldn’t explain. “My name is Samar. Nice to meet you, Sana”, he said and extended his hand.
She shook his hand without hesitation and beamed. “Nice to meet you”.
Over the next few weeks, their friendship blossomed as they met in the evenings on the beach under the fading sun and the orange sky. Every time they met, they followed a ritual. She would sing him a song that she practiced the whole day and he would give her a yellow rose that he picked up at the florist on his way to see her. Then they would sit on the sand and she would tell him everything about her day, her family and her life and he would smile and listen.
Just sitting with her on the shore watching the waves approach and recede at a steady pace and listening to her refreshingly innocent stories brought a sense of calm in him. She never failed to surprise him. It sometimes saddened him to hear her talk about her life, her lonely friendless life. But what amazed him was that while her stories seemed to be melting his heart, she seemed completely oblivious to it. She had an aura of carefree innocence and positivity around her that only a child can have. He realized that the two of them had two completely different ways of looking at life. While he had always felt distressed and desolated by his loneliness, she seemed content with her own self.
He learned that her parents were construction workers and so they had to keep moving from place to place, that she loved seeing different places, that this was her favorite so far and that she did not want to move to a new place. He learned that she had no siblings, that she was once going to have a little brother but God said he was too special and wanted to keep him with Himself. He learned that when she couldn’t sleep, she would sometimes hear her parents talk about ‘school’ and teaching her to read and write. He learned that she loved to draw and made beautiful pictures for her mother on sheets of newspaper, which her mother treasured and kept safely. His heart went out to her.
And then, he found himself telling her things that he hadn’t told anyone else. He spoke about his lonely childhood, his disconnection with his family and about Sabia. She listened without saying a word and let him talk with a look that said she understood. As he opened up to her, he felt a heavy weight lift off his chest. He started sleeping again at night.
“Close your eyes. I have something for you”, he said with a smile as he gave her the yellow rose one day.
Her eyes widened for a moment before she shut them obediently with outstretched hands.
When she opened her eyes, her smile faded. “A book? But I cannot read.”
“That’s what I’m here for”, he said proudly. “It is an alphabet book and I’m going to teach you how to read and write.”
He felt her arms wrap tightly around his waist and when she slowly broke apart, he could see tears in her eyes. He went down on his knees so he could look straight at her. He wiped her eyes and smiled at her. She smiled back.
She was a fast learner. She was determined to make him proud of her and practiced all day long, scribbling on sand and newspaper. They spent the next few days learning the letters of the English alphabet.
It was the 5th of April, his birthday. To him, it was like any other day. He did his usual chores, went to work and was on his way to the beach in the evening. They had already reached the letter ‘S’ and it had only been a week since they had started, he thought as he paid for the yellow rose. She never failed to impress him. As he walked, lost in thoughts, a doll in a small shop caught his eye. The doll had dark big eyes and wore a short white dress. He paid the shopkeeper and bought the doll. He could already see the excitement on her face when he would give her the doll. He smiled to himself and walked to their usual spot.
He looked at his watch as the sun slowly set behind the ocean. She was never late, he thought as he waited for her. Ten minutes turned to thirty. He was getting restless. As he got up to leave, a man who appeared to be a balloon seller, came up to him and asked, ”Are you Samar? A little girl wanted to give this to you. She was in a hurry and couldn’t wait.”
Samar thanked him and took the paper and the plastic bag from his hand. He sat down on the sand and opened the bag. It was filled with yellow roses, most of them dry and withered. He sat there speechless. As he took the roses out of the bag, he counted 65 of them, the number of the days that they had spent together. The number of yellow roses that he had given her. She had kept them safely. He then opened the sheet of paper and saw a hand-drawn picture of a man and a girl, holding hands. Next to it was written, in a scrawny scribble, Samar and Sana.
He didn’t know what to think. The only explanation that he could come up with was that her parents had to move. He was grief-stricken. He slowly put all the roses back inside the bag and added the fresh yellow rose that he had bought that day to it. He saw the doll he had bought for her and had a lump in his throat. With the paper and doll in one hand and the plastic bag in another, he forced himself to get up and ploughed his way home.
As he walked back, he thought of her and their unique friendship. Although he was filled with sorrow, there were also other emotions that he could feel. He felt pride when he saw the card that she had written for him, how fast she had learned. He felt a sense of joy and tranquil when he thought of Sana and their last two months together. He felt like he had learned more from a 10 year old girl than he had all his life. He smiled to himself sadly as he entered home.
He checked his phone for messages. His mother had left a birthday wish on his voice mail in the morning like she did every year. He had never replied back to her all these years. But this year was different. He called her back. She sobbed on the phone and told her son that she loved him and missed him. He promised his mother he would stop by to see her very soon. They had not had a conversation like this in years. He came to realize that it was he who had shut his family out and not the other way around. “I love you mother”, he said and kept the phone.
Next, he checked his email and found a handful of birthday wishes from long lost friends, work colleagues and Sabia. He clicked on her name and the mail opened. He read through it twice. To his surprise, he didn’t feel the anger that he had until a couple of months back. He understood. He replied to the mails as he thought, ‘Expressing his feelings and saying things that he felt made him feel free’. Strong relationships cannot be broken easily, he realized. It’s not distance that breaks a relationship; it’s taking the other for granted and not expressing that does.
He thought of Sana and their friendship and knew, it’s not distance that breaks relationships. He got up and placed the doll and the card beside his family photo on the table. He put the bag of yellow roses next to it and thought of Sana, the little girl with dark big eyes.