There are days when I think I must be an Abductee; kidnapped as a child and subjected to butt probes that reached all the way into my brain to scramble my synapses. Other times I think maybe I just don’t have access to some parts of my brain, like a department store without a directory or maybe with hidden escalators. Having secret levels in my brain that I’m not really aware of would explain a lot. Like why I find life so confusing. Like why I spend so much time trying to figure out What the Deal Is with things. Things like butterflies.
Once in a while we get a lot of rain, causing a population boom in “painted lady” butterflies. This year is particularly bad. I’ve been scraping them off my windshield for days. It seems like they’re everywhere: little clouds of them stepping off airway corners into the middle of busy freeways, ending their jaunty days as smears of yellow orange on glass and chrome. Kamikaze abstracts.
For most of the time I’ve been out here in the boonies of the Inland Empire in Southern California, I’ve annually hosed and scraped off butterfly remains and believed I thought nothing of it. But not this year. What is the deal? I asked myself. And I realized that on some secret level I had always been bothered by the way the butterflies died, killing themselves without knowing it; just flapping their wings one second and yellow dust on the windshield the next. And I realized that every year until now, I had killed butterflies with my car while on that secret level of my brain, I remembered Julia and wondered if she had ever forgiven me.
This year, before dead butterfly season began, I went to see Citizen Kane. I’ve seen it a dozen times, but never in a theatre, so when I saw it was playing at an art theatre downtown, I decided to go. Then I decided not to go. Then I picked up my keys and went.
When I arrived, there was a good-sized line of ticket holders, mostly university film students and literary types. I scanned them as I walked up to the booth, because I always seem to find somebody I know in a theatre line. This time, I found Julia.
She didn’t look the same as she had in high school, but not all that different. Then she had been very thin, with black hair straight to her waist. Now she was less thin and her hair was a lot shorter, but it was her. I think I would have recognized her even if I’d suddenly been struck blind. Overstated and pathetic, maybe, but in essence, true.
The first time I had seen her was in International Relations. She took the seat to my right and I glanced at her long enough to see she was female and no one I knew, then I went back to sketching a schematic for something Tom Petrovich and I were building. Then someone touched my shoulder.
It was Skip Taylor. I only had him in a couple of classes and wasn’t in the habit of checking other guys out, so I don’t remember much about him, now. Just kind of a vague impression that he was pudgy and had some fuzz on his upper lip. He probably called it a moustache, but I’d had more facial hair in the 8th grade.
“Trade seats with me, Fiamengo,” he said.
He jerked his head at Julia and I started to get up, I liked the seat, but if I didn’t move, I figured I’d end up passing notes. Class was about to start and the only other empty seat now was next to Kent Muir, who was a self-labeled Communist and liked to argue about everything. I was halfway up when the bell rang and Mr. Shawn shut the door and told Taylor to take the seat next to Muir. So I ended up sitting next to Julia all semester and fell in love with her.
It just happened to me like getting older happens. I didn’t even realize it until the next semester. Julia didn’t do anything. She didn’t pretend to be smart or pretend not to be. I heard her opinions in class and we talked about them afterward and I invited her to Mr. Clark’s room, where a bunch of us met for lunch, and she became part of the group. A nerd clique, the overachiever’s group. Most of us had parents who were in the PTA, the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary or Lions or Elks, last names seen in advertisements in the local paper or in the business section. Because of this, most of us were invited to a lot of “social” events like the yearly pool party for the foreign exchange students. I almost never went to any of these because my parents wanted me to, but I started going the second semester after I met Julia because she wanted to go. Julia’s dad was a factory worker and her mom didn’t speak English, and Julia was proud and happy to be invited to these things. Her dad, she said, wanted her to have a good education, but her mom thought “middle class” was a synonym for Paradise and she wanted to see Julia associating with kids whose folks were professional people and business owners. I guess she hoped that association would somehow create a climate for a transformation that would make Julia part of the middle class. I told Julia that she had us confused with some other people: most of us had grandparents who had also been immigrants, that my grandfather had sold fish in Croatia. But Julia just smiled. I think she was also hoping for a transformation. I just didn’t know what kind.
In any case, we went to the parties and during the Summer we got together as a group a few times a week to see movies or go to concerts or ball games, argued politics, books and religion and generally questioned Authority from within the safety of our privileged circle. That year – my sophomore year and the Summer following it – now make up some of the best memories of my life.
By the time we started our senior year, I knew I was in love with Julia, but I didn’t know if or how I would ever tell her. I didn’t even know what Julia felt about me. And while I turned these questions over and over in my mind, starting letters to her and conversations I never finished, Julia took a drama class and met Skip Taylor again.
Finally, I found out what Julia felt about me. I was her friend. I was her confidant, I was the one who would understand and be glad for her, because I wasn’t like the other guys. She was right about that. Another guy probably would have asked her out on a date a long time ago instead going everywhere with her in a group. Another guy probably would have told her he loved her. And another guy had.
Notes in French. Skip Taylor sent Julia notes in high school French. Something I never would have thought of. J’taime. Je t’adore. He walked her to class, he walked her home. She told me he called her and they said pretty much nothing for minutes at a time. He made her feel special, different, important. He did wonders for me, too. Every time I was alone with her, she talked about him. But that didn’t happen often because she usually wasn’t alone. She was usually with him. Or with him and the Drama Club crowd. She stopped going to the achievement oriented parties and school functions – they weren’t cool. They were an authoritarian symbol of the white ruling elite. Like Taylor’s dad, who was a senior vice-president at one of the local defense contractors and always headed up the Republican Party fundraising committee. But Taylor repudiated him. Right. He repudiated his folks so much he was overweight from it. He probably had plans to keep on repudiating them as they put him through college and then use their money to fund anti-establishment activities.
I didn’t like him. But Julia did and I saw less and less of her because of it. The rest of the group and I missed her. I missed her. But slowly I created new routines and got used to them.
The last half of our senior year, I had Julia in a class again. I was surprised to find out I still loved her and idiotic enough to be glad just to sit near her and be happy she was happy. That only lasted a couple of weeks, though. One day she came into class, her brown skin bleached out as if she was sick or someone had died. When I passed her a note asking what was wrong, I got back one that read:
“Skip told me last night he doesn’t want to see me any more. That he doesn’t love me any more.”
Her handwriting looked like my grandmother’s, shaky and scrawly.
“Go slow,” I wrote back. “We’ll talk.”
And we did. After school, we walked to the athletic field and sat on the bleachers and talked until dusk. Julia cried through most of the conversation and repeated that she couldn’t understand what had happened. He had never acted differently, never avoided her, never told her anything was changed. Just one day he loved her, the next he didn’t.
I flailed around for something to comfort her with, and came up with, “Well, you know his parents are kind of conservative, maybe they put pressure on him –“ I couldn’t believe I was trying to make excuses for the asshole.
“Oh, no!” she said. “They were wonderful to me. They asked me to dinner once a week and invited me to the theatre with them. They were always telling me how much they liked me. They really did. I know they did. I just don’t understand it. Everything was fine, yesterday. I just don’t understand –“
I thought I might, though. Skip Taylor was having his cake – a beautiful, intelligent girlfriend – and eating it, too – wearing his relationship with a blue-collar, non-white, immigrant’s daughter like a big “screw you” sign to his parents. Only his plan backfired because they liked her. And when he realized she wasn’t getting their goat, he dumped her. What a guy. A real champion of the people.
Julia said she felt better for talking to me. But she didn’t look better. And in the next few days, she looked even worse. She lost weight. Her eyes and hair were dull. She walked around like she was wrapped in a cocoon. She was wilted and I got pretty scruffy myself from worrying about her. I knew it was hard. She didn’t have any classes with Taylor, and she had stopped hanging with the Drama Club, but a high school is a very small town and she was bound to see him once in a while. Having everybody know he was the one who ended things made it worse. I spent as much time with her as I could, but the improvement I hoped for didn’t come. Finally, she forced me to betray her.
We’d been bussed out to see a play downtown. Both Julia and I had forgotten about it, or she probably would have stayed home, sick. As it was, we managed to hang back until we saw Taylor board the first bus with the Drama Club and we got on the second.
The play was a disaster. It might have been good. Maybe it was, but neither one of us gave it much attention. It was a love story with a sad ending, which is all I remember about it. I held Julia’s hand throughout, her fingernails cut into my palm and I could feel her tremble. At the end, the curtain came up again and the actors all assembled on the apron and took questions. One of the actors had a big nose and Taylor asked him how long it took for him to get into makeup. The actor was really ticked and I really wanted to laugh my head off at Taylor exposing himself for the fool he was. But Julia turned her head away when he asked his stupid question and I saw tears in her eyes.
On the bus ride home, she whispered to me about how seeing him there had been nearly too much for her. That she was having a hard time going on. Then she looked away from me and said, “I took out my father’s gun last night.”
I thought my heart had frozen inside my chest. I had to gulp in air to start breathing again. But I said nothing. I didn’t know what to say. Instead, I squeezed her hand and she went on:
“My father keeps this gun in the closet of their bedroom because the neighborhood is so bad. Last night I sneaked it into my room. I shut the door. I put the gun to my head and I put my finger on the trigger. I could hear the television downstairs. My father laughed. And I thought about how they would hear the shot and come upstairs and find me and how much it would hurt them.” She started to cry again. “So I didn’t do it. But, Frank,” she looked at me. “I didn’t put the gun back.”
When we got back to school, I asked to be excused from class and I went to the Girls Vice-Principal’s office. And I told Mrs. Duncan what Julia had told me. She sent for Julia and when she came in, I was still in the office. The look she gave me – I wished I’d never said anything.
“People who care about you are very worried, Julia,” Mrs. Duncan told her. “Your friend Frank is afraid you’ll harm yourself. Are you thinking about harming yourself, Julia?”
That woman is like a blur in my mind, now. A soft blur in a brown suit whose voice sounded more accusing than comforting. I knew Julia was humiliated and I wished again I’d never said anything, but it was too late. Mrs. Duncan would call her parents and there would be a discussion and tomorrow, somehow, everyone in school would know that Julia had tried to kill herself over Skip Taylor and that I had told Mrs. Duncan. I looked at my hands and feet, wanting to look at Julia, but afraid of what I would see in her face. Then Mrs. Duncan told me I was excused.
I tried to call Julia a week after that day. I dreaded what she might say, but I felt like I had to talk to her, anyway. But her mother wouldn’t let me. Or maybe Julia didn’t want to. I tried again a few days after that, and got a recording saying the number had been disconnected. I walked to her house, and it was empty. I went home and didn’t see Julia again until the night of “Citizen Kane.”
Like I said, she filled out some. Her figure’s still good though, especially for a woman with two kids. She dresses well, and her hair’s shorter. She is and she isn’t anything like the picture settled in the secret level of my brain, the picture I saw sometimes during the butterfly killing season. She recognized me, too, and we skipped the movie to have dinner and talk.
Her husband, she said, was home with the girls. He was a salesman and drove so many miles during the week he had no interest in driving downtown for a movie, regardless of how classic it was. Julia was an employment consultant, specializing in IBM application developers. Her eyes were bright, the way I remembered them and she was lively and animated. It was almost like we were the same people we’d been in high school, fast-forwarded into older lives instead of having lived through them year by year.
After dinner we walked out together, nearly touching, like a married couple or people with a common history. As we dawdled, unwilling to separate just yet, she suddenly grasped my arm.
“See that guy on the corner?” she asked. “The one with the green jacket? Doesn’t he look like that guy in Drama Club – ohhhh, whatisname – they guy that asked the actor that stupid question about his nose?”
I stared at him and then at her. “You mean Skip Taylor?”
She laughed, still watching the guy, who was crossing the street, going away from us. “Yeah. That’s him. Skip Taylor. I couldn’t think of his name.”
I shook my head. I needed to clear it of all the painted lady butterflies smashed against the inside of it. “Julia,” I said. “You almost killed yourself over Skip Taylor and now you can’t remember his name?”
She threw her head back and laughed even harder, then she shrugged. “I guess life is like that.”
This year, when the end of the heavy rains introduced the butterfly killing season, I built an escalator down to the level of my brain that had been holding that image of Julia all these years, and saw her face was covered with golden orange smears. The bodies of countless painted butterflies lay broken underneath, and every one of them had my face.