Best of the Net 2019 Nomination
The loveliest things I have ever seen are rainbow butterfly clips. The small plastic kind you buy at the dollar store and spin around your pinky finger, pinching the skin. When I was young and I would see them sitting there on the shelves among hair ties and clips, they always looked poised to take flight. Their wings beating against the cellophane, yearning to break free. The loveliest place by far I have seen them reside was in the hair of my first soul mate. We met the first day of first grade and she was missing her two front teeth. We were put at the same table and she looked something like an angel to seven-year-old me. Our Catholic school uniform looked ethereal when she wore it, she turned the dingy yellow into gold, the flat green into the color of plush pine trees. She wore her clips without shame, they were placed with no rhyme or reason as though they had just dropped from where they flew. All that loveliness drawn to her.
We became fast friends, giggling in class and jumping rope together. I learned everything I could about her. I spent more time listening in those first few weeks of companionship than I had in my entire life. She told me about her dad and her mom and her little brother; her mother, she said, built dental models in their home. She worked for hours out of a small bathroom on the third floor of their duplex at a collapsible art desk, perched on the toilet seat cover. They had a porcelain clawfoot bathtub that her supplies got washed in, one of the many things we dreamed up for our future home. Her brother’s bed was in the hallway in a closet that they had taken the doors off of. He slept in their parents room anyway, and all his toys were strewn about their living room. I still have no idea what her father did for a living; she made something up every time I asked.
She taught me half of all the meaningful things I learned that year. She taught me how to lie, she taught me how to give butterfly kisses hanging upside down, she taught me how to tell a story. That year our teacher read Anne of Green Gables out loud to us and after that my friend called me the Anne to her Diana. Her kindred spirit, her first love. We were hopscotch, jump rope, tag, reading lights, and school night sleepovers. We drank sparkling cider and waltzed around her room until we collapsed on her bed, a mess of knotted blond hair and elbows. She had piles of books in her room, most of them bought secondhand, most of them there to just take up space. Her dad read Harry Potter aloud to us and Hermione had piles of books in her room, so on Sundays after church my friend would have her mom take her to the secondhand bookstore downtown and buy the biggest, oldest books she could find. Nearly all were far above our reading level. When my friend’s mother pointed this out, she responded that it was an investment. She would sit, perched on a pile of encyclopedias she had and play the piano, I would listen and write. Messy big letters that spelled out our futures: a little white house with a sun porch, and a fat orange cat, and a room full of books. I wanted a garden to always smell sweet, and she wanted a willow tree to read under. She said we only needed two rooms: one for the books and the other for us. We wanted a big bed like her parents had, with a pink bed cover. That way, like when I slept over, we could read the most beautiful lines from our books out loud to one another. One bed meant we never had to be cold, or lonely and that the cat would never have to choose who to sleep with.
That year we learned how to count to one hundred in Spanish and what happens when a boy eats a worm. In first grade there was pretty blond boy in our class with glasses and a sparkling smile. He had asked me in October to marry him, and she had warned me against it. She said that we were still young, and that he wasn’t good enough. So I told him no, and then he cried and the teacher told me I was a bully. For the rest of the fall and into the spring everyday he pulled my braids so hard my head would snap back. Every day my cousin Nicholas would tell him to leave me alone and my teacher would tell me it was just because he liked me. Twice a week at least my friend would pour her milk in his lap, apologize, and shed a few tears. Every time she got away with it. Not that she cared, she was a brilliant kind of reckless, unabashed and maybe a little psychotic.
Then one day, in May after a long warm rain, we saw it. A pink, fat, wriggling worm. The blacktop was hot to the touch. So we poured some water out of her bottle on him and left him be. But a kid two years older than us dared my almost-husband to eat it, and he did. We watched, little hands, with matching blue-painted nails clamped over our mouths, as he lifted it up off the blacktop. He held it in air for a moment while it wiggled about until he put it on his fat, pink tongue, chewed once, and swallowed. He sputtered a bit like a beached fish and then walked away. Later, after we had all been herded back into the classroom, he went to the bathroom and threw up everywhere. My friend is the one that told the teacher what he had done and she was the one to bring his backpack to him in the nurse. She was also the one that told the school secretary she needed to talk to the principal and then informed the principal of his harassment. He never apologized, but he never pulled my braids again either.
The first thing we studied in science was the life cycle of butterflies, specifically the monarch butterfly . Our teacher told us that, like all butterflies, they begin their lives as tiny eggs. Laid by their mother on the soft, safe underbelly of a leaf.
She and I were born two months apart to the day, and upon our discovery of this fact, she twirled me around and declared us destined for each other. That year we decided to compromise and celebrate in February, on the 24th. We spent the night at her house, and sipped sparkling grape juice out of champagne glasses. We blew out the candles on the pin- frosted cupcakes we shared, and I kept my wish to myself. In truth I couldn’t tell you what I wished for, probably something fickle. While we drank our juice and ate our cupcakes, we watched Grease 2. Arguably a cinematic masterpiece, with a surprisingly strong feminist message and by far the better of the two Greases. We watched it all the time, singing the songs to one another and laughing at jokes flying far above our heads. We even tried to perform a song from the original for our school’s talent show. Which, while well done, was probably a little ahead of its time for the Catholic church. She asked me later that night, when we were tucked up in her bed under the covers with our new clip reading lights, if I believed in love. I told her that of course I believed in love; I love my family, I love her. From the shift in the blankets I knew she nodded and I knew she felt the same way by the tactile squeeze she gave my hand.
There is beauty in loving your best friend. I owe so much of who I am to her, and our endless devouring of biographies, and our book piles and future planning. She would dip me near the end of the song everytime we danced, digging her wrist into my back and say, as my hand tightened around the base of her neck, “I won’t drop you.”
And she never did.
The butterfly, before it can be a butterfly, must be a caterpillar, and long before I met her I had begun that journey. The first book I ever learned to read was The Very Hungry Caterpillar . My mother loved the book more than anything, she read it to me nearly every night with our caterpillar plush in her big empty bed.
By second grade, my friend and I had left the realm of picture books behind in favor of beginner biographies and tragic romances like Anne of Green Gables. Every week, we would be chastised for skipping down the hall hand in hand, old books ready to be exchanged for new ones. It was rare we ventured out of the biographies section. Only near the end of the year when we had exhausted all of the options that interested us did we leave. I remember only three things about that teeny tiny library. One, standing on my tiptoes next to her perusing the biographies, looking for two neither of us had read. Two, the room itself had one window on the back wall, and the door had none; it is still a mystery to me how the librarian sat in there all day with no sunlight. And three, when President Obama had his first inauguration, my second grade teacher and the third grade teacher led us all in. They crowded us around a boxy cart tv, that was old even then , to watch history. After, she asked us to write what we thought, and I said I was glad that President Obama could get the job he wanted but that I also felt bad that President Bush was losing his. My friend wrote that President Bush was a war criminal and that she was glad her parents would stop complaining about him. Caterpillars indeed.
It was by no means perfect. She lied like she breathed; nothing was real. It was all tall tales and make believe and imagining. I let her lie about a lot. It felt easy, we could hide all the hard parts about who we were. We could pretend our parents were different people and that we had done different things. In some ways I knew absolutely everything and nothing about her. I knew that she was afraid her mom would actually decide to move back to Poland and that her family would never be the same. I knew how she looked in that classroom in the early morning, with the sun drifting lazy and cool through the windows.
Once, we got there before everyone else and laid on the cold white tiles. The crowns of our heads touching, and I felt like that would be my life forever. I will die never knowing what her father does for a living and if she actually broke her elbow. She claimed it happened long before she met me, when she, like the rest of her large Polish family, lived in Michigan. She said they had been ice skating and she shattered it on the pond. She asked her mother to back her up once when I had presented my disbelief, and her mother, in the middle of perfectly crafting a upper left incisor simply nodded.
Her father wore dress pants and ties and carried a briefcase. I honestly think she just liked the mystery. That day he was an insurance broker I think, but in the end it really doesn’t matter. I know that she cried when her fish died, big sobs, clutching her hands to her chest like a sad, small actress, an early widow, as we watched him swirl around and around; the apple cinnamon candle we lit without permission flickered behind us. I know the patterns her breath formed in the cold afternoon air, and how she looked at books. Like the keys to everything, she looked at books like I looked at her, which was naive. Not because what I felt wasn’t real, but because she could never be my key. We were little girls then, with clips and butterflies and fluttering fingers dancing across the keys. We were fleeting and fast footed and magic. We were fairies one day, ballerinas the next, preachers and gods and holy men. We were plaid jumpers, knee-high navy socks, gap-toothed smiles, sticky kisses pressed to apples of sticky cheeks.
In second grade, our last year attending the same school, my mother, a kindergarten teacher, hatched monarch butterflies with her class. The day they began to spring forth into the world, shiny and new, her mom picked us up early and drove us over to watch the hatching. She held my hand in hers and squeezed on tempo with the steady beat of their drying wings against their plastic enclosure. We watched them all day for hours, until it was time to go home, and then we talked about them constantly. She said maybe they would make it to Mexico, and I reminded her that they were born at the wrong time of year. She rolled her eyes at me, picked up her mother's worn Polish bible, and in her best impression of the Wednesday morning mass lectors, told me, “You must have faith.”
The last day of second grade she pressed kisses to both my cheeks, and told me she would see me in a few weeks. We had time. We’d be back there in the fall, at Catholic Central after that. But in September I was across town making friends with a girl in jeans and she was in the parking lot in front of the church watching our friends play kickball. We saw each other often over the next few years, we still danced and sang to each other on the 24th. We watched Franklin with my brother and Indiana Jones with hers. We watched Grease all on our own, and she would swing me around and look at me all doe eyes and steely, singing me the lyrics to every song.
The last time I saw her, we were eleven and hugging each other in the backseat of her parents minivan. She told me she would call me when they got back; they were going to Poland for the summer to visit her mother and father’s families and she wouldn’t be able to call until August. She held my left hand as I climbed out, and she asked me if I would forget her while she was gone. I said I couldn’t even if I wanted to, which I didn’t, and I asked her if she would let me fall. She said no, and squeezed my hand one last time as my feet reached the ground.
I closed the door, and she pressed her hand up against the window like it was a movie. Her mom and my mom waved to one another and I sat on the porch and watched them drive off. I saw her hand reach out the window and just hang there. I watched the back of her head fade behind the tinted glass, and then the tinted glass slip around the corner: down Winthrop, onto Western, down past the old Madison theater, and then back to her packed-up duplex.
Later that winter, after her family moved to away, and I hadn’t heard from her since July, I would think of her again and it didn’t sting like it did in September. I watched from the porch of our new home as a maple key fell from the tree next to the garage and it looked to me from the corner of my eye like a butterfly. The last song we ever danced to came on the radio as I was getting ready for the first day of freshman year and I cried a little. But then I remembered the butterfly necklace she bought me for our birthday in third grade, and I laughed a little at our own dramatics. The monarch butterfly travels over 4,000 miles every year as part of it’s migration. Their lifespans, it could be argued, are not worth the pain and hardship they endure to make this journey. Only a select few, born at the correct time of year live long enough to start, they see nearly an entire year of life, compared to the usual 2-6 weeks. She promised me one day we would be there when they got to Mexico in the spring. Fields of them she said, bright orange, and black surrounded by wildflowers.
Last summer, just as the leaves were beginning to change, my favorite aunt and my darling mother took my cousins, my brother, and I to the Bronx Zoo. We saw the city, the best parts of the city, corner stores, and subway stations, libraries and laundromats. Once we made it in to the zoo, I headed right for butterfly house. A glass structure, filled with plants and fluttering butterflies, hundreds of them all different types. We walked through the corridor that led to it, and just before we opened the door, my breath caught. I was taken back to the house of our eight-year-old dreams. Plants and windows everywhere, all that was missing were the books and her. But to my left, my now best friend laughed at a bad joke my brother made, and my heart fluttered just like the butterflies beyond the gray door were. I opened it with care and the four of us stepped into the warm, sweet smelling air, the palm fronds and thick green bushes brushing our cheeks as we walked through. Just before we left, my best friend made a joke I can’t remember and I laughed so hard I doubled over. As I righted myself a light blue butterfly landed on the crown of my head. It stayed there for a moment before it flew away, back into the crowd. As we slipped out the door on the other side it felt like goodbye.
Once when we were still young and in love with our own internalized tragedy, I wrote her in a letter I left in a binder on her desk that if we ever parted we would meet there, in the field. That I would find her, that God would lead us back together, even though we both swore we didn’t believe in God. I vowed we would meet there again in April. Somewhere in Mexico among the monarchs and the flowers. Once they reach Mexico, those that live that long are nearing the end of their lives. They often arrive with faded and torn wings and spend their last few days basking in the Mexican sun, never to see where they were born again. They die in Mexico, having finished the journey chosen for them. Their life cycle complete and their small, limp winged bodies are returned to the earth. If we do find each other again in Mexico, surrounded by dying butterflies, I think it would be just. We are not the same girls that met that day, all those Septembers ago. If we do meet again, it will be years from now, when we are old and gray and faded. Our color a little washed out from the journey.
As of the Spring 2019 publication of this piece, Makayla Barnes was a senior at Shaker High School. She likes reading poetry, watching “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” wearing overalls, and singing to her cat.