I don’t trust in the beauty of the butterfly. Too showy. Too easily acquired. If I wrap myself up in a cocoon for weeks on end and then emerge stunned and blinking, as is my wont, will you stand, rooted to the floor, bewitched by the sight of me?
I am not a siren, and I have no call.
When we used to lie together, long before there were children, I stared at the ceiling and thought I could see the stars. As if your apartment were our very own planetarium. We shared our quiet dreams. You wanted to be known for something. It seemed to matter less what the thing was than that it be yours. I did not understand, but I loved you for your earnestness as you set about planning to achieve it. That was our way then, to love generously, to spill powdered sugar all over the bed as we greedily gobbled up each other’s sweetness.
The ceiling was cracked, the people in the next apartment over fought low and mean. There was a coin laundry in the basement. You gathered up our clothes into a cheap nylon sack and took them down. When it was time, you changed them over. Later, you brought them up, and I folded them, put them to rights again. And again.
Remember Mr. Lee? Mr. Lee across the hall? He was up to something. All those night visitors. And then our suspicions confirmed when one night he up and left, taking his motley belongings and motley companions with him to parts unknown and ominous for it. The next day, the police came, and inquired of us. What was there to say? He’d been jovial whenever we’d run into him in the lobby. Persistently, awkwardly, jovial. We were suspicious long before we had any reason to be.
And next to our slightly seedy building the Italian restaurant we could ill afford. Months of watching the well-to-do enter and exit Va Pensiero with unstudied casualness convinced us that we, too, could dine there, if only once, on Valentine’s Day or on some other equally formal occasion. But when we did finally step across its threshold, we felt out of place. Not for the likes of us. Perhaps in ten or fifteen years, we thought.
So this is what it is. We watched the real estate shows on Sunday morning, and we coveted, though we had little idea of all the headaches that would end up accompanying such a peculiarly American dream. I pictured myself, cappuccino in hand, leaning up against the cool, clean Corian countertops of those sleek and fully functional kitchens. (Our own kitchen quite literally a closet.) Betty Draper to your Don. So stereotyped, my small and yes, earnest, fantasies.
The lion’s share of the fun was in the not knowing, wasn’t it?
Tonight I gaze up at a different ceiling, a ceiling without the cracks that might define it, and I find myself unable to spot any stars. Even Venus eludes me.
Yet our children sleep soundly, untroubled, a few rooms over. Surely there is something to be said for a life that fails to crease their foreheads, or to turn down the corners of their blossoming mouths.
One day we will return to the town where we spent time as poor students, and we will enter Va Pensiero with comfortable nonchalance. We will order appetizers, and dessert too. Wine, in abundance. While above us, late into the night, young lovers will sketch out their idiosyncratic dreams in their private planetaria.
The beauty that makes me gasp as I approach forty-two years of age isn’t in the butterfly but in the chrysalis.