Butterfly (Do You Remember Being the Worm?) (full text)

by Rajiv Moté (Fantasy-tinged fiction, 3,500 words)

Before we stopped talking, my best friend Davis saved my life three times from the Sirynz. It’s funny that I still call him that. “Best friend” is a concept I put away with other childish things when I left Marysville, but the obligation it carries lingers like a photograph standing in for a memory, a thing twice removed from the original. Still, it’s an idea that has pull. At least I owe him a call. But I keep coming up with excuses.

The first time Davis saved, they weren’t Sirynz yet. Tina, Jacqui, and Kayla had just started playing as a band called The Mantics. That afternoon at the Peony Park pool, they were three girls wearing two-piece bathing suits during a summer of great hormonal awakening. It was one of those summer days between fifth and sixth grade that you remember like a postcard picture: blue-skied, perfectly framed, hot only by implication–without the sweat, sunburn, bug bites, or grit at the bottom of the pool lacerating your bare feet. Idealized memory. 

I stood on the concrete-and-tile island in the middle of the “lagoon” trying to stare without getting caught when Tina sat up on her beach towel, lowered her mirrored shades, and looked straight at me.

The girls who would be Sirynz were a year ahead of Davis and me, and Tina was an unwitting crush of mine for years, at least as far as the idea of a crush seemed worth having. That day, her two-piece bathing suit in the hot summer sun revealed that you don’t choose crushes, they fall on you hard enough to earn the name. When I found myself in the sudden spotlight, it was like being caught naked, but instead of feeling ashamed, I felt… alive. Noticed. I knew I faced a choice that would set my future: I could be invisible, or bold.

I walked up to the platform’s edge, raised my arms above my head while giving a good flex, and executed my best swan dive into the water. The lagoon at Peony Park was not the diving pool. It was the pool where kids horsed around, and at its deepest, it was maybe four feet.

I’m told there was blood in the water. A scalp bleed, which looks scarier than it is. What I know is that Davis jumped in after me and pulled me out. I don’t remember if he actually gave me mouth-to-mouth, but I did clock a guy who claimed he did, and tried to make something of it. Not that Davis needed me to fight his battles–he was bigger than me–but I owed him. Like I said, he saved my life.

You’ve got that Vie En Rose look in your eye

Rose tinted glass looking backward through time

I wonder what you see

It’s not me

It’s not me

It takes more than a little blood and a near-drowning to lift a crush. The next school year, Tina, Jacqui, and Kayla moved on to junior high, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t see them. The Mantics got serious about learning their instruments, and they debuted as Sirynz in the Battle of the Bands. It was a contest judged by Scream-o-Meter–how loud the crowd yelled after each set. After Sirynz’s three songs, the yelling got so loud and went on so long, they just called the winner right there. The bands after them didn’t even get to play.

I remember standing in the middle of the crowd with my friends, looking up at them on the stage. The lights made them shine. Tina’s amplified voice came from everywhere. Holding her in my gaze was like completing the circuit from the pool, when she held me in hers. Electricity flowed from Tina to me and back, an intensifying loop, and I had a premonition that this is what love would feel like.

I can’t say much about their music in that first show. I couldn’t tell you the lyrics, or hum the melody to a single song. What I do remember was how the whole crowd got swept up in something, just like me. Feelings. Needs. Something without an outlet. Then everything drowned in a giant mosh pit. Kids ended up in the hospital that night.

Everyone said that Sirynz was going places. “Going places” meant success. The opposite of staying in Marysville.

Davis saved my life a second time, pulling me out of the pit. I don’t know how he kept his head. He took me to one of our hangouts to cool down, the Clocktower Village strip mall, where you could circle around back and climb onto the slopes of the A-shaped rooftops to watch the sky above our town deepen from blue to sunset purple. He’d swiped some Swisher Sweets cigars from his dad’s store, and we tried to smoke them while he talked me down. I can’t remember if he said anything wise or profound, but he listened to me rant about love and yearning, and how that meant I’d need to be “going places” too if I wanted to keep up. When we rode our bikes back home, I felt a lot better. And more determined.

The Ranch Bowl–the only all-ages venue in town–wouldn’t book Sirynz, and the parent network learned the band was something to forbid their children, which made them even more notorious. Marysville wasn’t big enough to have an underground scene, but we did have unannounced Sirynz shows out of the back of a pickup truck in random parking lots, until the cops broke them up. You had to be cool enough to be in the know, and Davis and I seldom were. The days after, those who were there got knocked around enough that they didn’t remember much. The amateur-hour cassette recordings didn’t flood your brainpan the same way. You had to be there. I wanted to be. I deserved to be. I knew them, sort of, since before they were The Mantics.

By our junior year, I had gone on a few dates with girls in our class, but never really dated. Davis didn’t date at all–I would have known. I told myself I was holding out for Tina. At this point, the best I could hope for was the dangerous business of seeing Sirynz live, one last time. They had a record contract, and would be moving out to L.A. after graduation. Going places.

A story, a myth, gave me the idea for how to see their last local show without winding up in the hospital. That story had Sirens too, and I’d pull an Odysseus. My plan took for granted that Davis would save me again. I carried that long-burning torch for Tina, after all, so of course I’d be Odysseus, and Davis would be my crew, because I was his best friend.

In Marysville, when you had a driver’s license but you couldn’t get into a bar yet, you had two choices. You could find someone to buy you beer and head out to the cornfields, or you could cruise Dodge Street and park near someone generous or drunk enough to share their beer. But on that summer night, the year Tina, Jacqui, and Kayla graduated, warm cans of Old Milwaukee were beside the point. It was the last night Sirynz would be only a local myth. It was the last time I could feel that electric circuit again, that premonition of a love too big for this town.

I twisted and pulled against the ropes holding me in the passenger’s seat while Davis turned his dad’s Oldsmobile down Dodge Street, earplugs and headphones in place, Walkman blasting. The ropes held. The crowd at the Indian Hills parking lot was already a brawl. In the middle, I could see Sirynz in the back of their pickup. Christmas lights twined around their microphone stands. The girls wore flowing dresses with studded leather corsets on the outside, and four Really Big Dudes stood between the amps ringing the flatbed, their arms folded, unmoved by the music. Maybe it was their orange earplugs, or maybe they were old enough that the stuff that got their blood pumping lurked back in the “classic” record bins.

My window was down, the night air was hot. Jacqui’s guitar ground out the chords to “Butterfly (Do You Remember Being the Worm?).” Tina’s voice wafted over them, candy-sweet.

      My insides


      Am I becoming?

      Or birthing someone new?

My heart raced with Kayla’s drums.

Davis silently mouthed “you OK?” as if I were the one who couldn’t hear. I nodded. If the ropes held, I’d be the only one besides the bouncers hearing this without flying into a frenzy, curling up in a ball, or wandering into traffic. That happened all around us. Davis slowed to avoid running over kids who’d lost their damn minds.

A part of me screamed. A part of me paid attention and tried to understand why. A part of me chased that connection I wasn’t strong enough to hold. Revelations washed through my brain like ocean surf.

      Back in Davis’s basement, I rubbed lotion into my rope burns. It was hard to think. The three parts of my mind, the screamer, the observer, and the yearner, wanted to crash together with violence, and I held them apart by sheer force of will. The basement’s cool quiet helped. I took deep breaths.

“Well?” Davis said.

      “I wish I had words.” I owed him more. He could have been the one listening. Instead, he volunteered to watch out for me. Always saving me from drowning.

      “Try,” he said. “I get they’re hot, spooky chicks who can rock out. But what’s with all the Hicksville Beatlemania?” That surprised me. I always thought Davis would be happier living someplace with more to offer him. San Francisco, maybe. I’d call our town “Hicksville,” “Podunk,” or “the sticks,” but Davis never did. That break from normal might have been the first time I noticed.

“It’s like tunnel vision. Just me and them. Like Tina tells me secrets that Jacqui and Kayla make me feel. Wise. Sad. Inevitable. And… It’s too much. I couldn’t take it.”

“Inevitable,” Davis repeated.

In junior high I came up with an excuse to talk with Tina. I walked right up and asked her why they’d called themselves The Mantics when none of their songs were about love.

“Not ro-mantic,” Tina said. “Mantic. It means prophetic.” 

I was supposed to be one of the smart kids, and that 800-verbal bomb caught me off guard. I had no idea how to save face, so I just said “oh” and beat a retreat. I would later learn, in a liberal arts distro requirement, that the word “mantic” applied to the Sirens in mythology. They brought terrible knowledge from the Underworld. We never did learn what Odysseus made of hearing their secrets.

      “I think they tell the future,” I said to Davis. “I don’t think we should know our future.”

Davis cracked a smile as if I made a joke, but when I didn’t join him, it died back into a thoughtful frown. “So what’s our future?”

      Paths diverge

      After they intersect

      The purest love

      Is always in retrospect

      “Everything’s gonna change.”

Davis waited for more, and when the silence stretched too long, he said “Of course it’s gonna change. What else would it do?” Ironic, coming from him.

My favorite class in college is physics, because the prof breaks from the lecture to drop mind-blowing ideas. Like in Einstein’s General Relativity, the faster you move through space, the less you move through time relative to everyone else. For me, the opposite happened. Sirynz sent my mind hurtling into the future, but now I felt like I was moving in slow motion, everything I saw tantalizingly out of reach. I was stuck.

I shrugged. “You’ve been my best friend since forever, man,” I said. “That’ll always mean something to me.” I didn’t say “that’ll never change.” I hated it, but I knew better now.

      Again, that almost-smile. “Yeah, dude. Me too.”

There’s another part of that memory I don’t like to think about. It makes me uncomfortable, and I know that maybe that’s wrong. I’m trying to untangle it. Davis and I hug, there in the basement, like we’re saying goodbye, and I say “You know it can’t be the way you want.”

Davis’s breath is hot on my ear. He says “I know that. It’s okay.”

The hug goes on for too long, but I don’t let go because Davis is my best friend, I don’t want to reject him, and I owe him three times over.

      Davis and I hadn’t had many classes together since freshman year, and by senior year we had none. I chased the AP classes, buffing up an application to any out-of-state school that would have me. Not Davis. He wasn’t dumb–not by a longshot–but his family owned a hardware store in town, and his future was preordained. Maybe he’d reconciled with his fate long ago. Next year, I’d be gone–I knew my fate now–and everything would change. With that knowledge, I started to let go. The streets, strip malls, arcades, pizza joints, ice cream shops, cornfields, parks, my friends’ basements, the Clocktower roof, and especially our high school, started to drain of color, like old, washed-out photographs. The future gleamed neon.

Sirynz moved to L.A. By then I was over Tina. The allure of out-of-state college girls–no, women–held enough mystery and potential for me. Life was on hold until then. I watched the cutover from past to future in agonizing slow motion. It was like their “Butterfly” song. Was I becoming someone else, or was that someone else going to replace me? And what was I while I waited for it to happen?

There’s a weird physics story–a thought experiment, they call it–about a scientist who puts a cat in a box rigged up with poison gas that releases under random, subatomic conditions. The point of the story is that until you look, there’s no way to predict if the cat is alive or dead. Until you do, it’s somehow both. And neither. A weird story, like I said.

I have a better thought experiment–what’s inside a butterfly cocoon? You know the caterpillar goes in, and the butterfly comes out. But what is it inside? Both? Neither? I know the answer, and it’s not for the faint of heart. 

When we were little, exploring the woods down by the quarry, Davis and I once found a cocoon under a leaf, and I had the Swiss army knife I’d gotten for my birthday, the kind with a tiny pair of scissors among its fold-out tools. It had a magnifying glass, too. Even back then, I had it in mind to become a scientist, and here was a chance to make some Observations.

I snipped the threads as if performing surgery, careful not to go deep, unraveling the white silk, first one layer, then the next. I gently pulled at the edges. Out wriggled a moth. Almost a moth. The head and thorax looked like you’d expect, but further down it was fat, bloated, and gelatinous. Unformed. I dropped the leaf, and we watched as it tried to drag itself out from under. Insect legs sticking out the wrong way. A half-made thing.

We ran away. I didn’t even think to put it out of its misery. I thought about it for days, though. Should I go back and stomp it? Bury it, if it were dead? (I was responsible, after all.) Maybe it was gone, picked off by some bird. Or maybe, and this chilled me most of all, it survived, that half-thing. Eating without a stomach. Spreading unfinished wings in a vain attempt to fly. Maybe it kept trying to become, in an environment that wouldn’t nurture its becoming.

In the spring I got the packet that confirmed I made it into Wash U in St. Louis. So did Kurt, another guy I knew from my AP classes. By then, senioritis set in pretty hard, and we started to cut class to see movies or play games at the arcade, school having slowed to an excruciating crawl.

On weekends sometimes I hung around the hardware store to keep Davis company when I had nothing better to do. Those days he moved constantly, doing more than working the register or stocking the shelves. He took inventory and phoned in orders to suppliers. He helped customers and even told employees what to do. He wasn’t the boss, but the employees treated him like it, whether his father was there or not. He seemed comfortable. Confident in ways nobody saw at school. Seeing him and his dad was another mantic experience, looking thirty years into the future. It made me sad. To me it felt too small.

I spent less time with him. More than that, I was pulling away. Knowing it would happen didn’t lessen the guilt. I made excuses that, in retrospect, we’d drifted apart for a long time, with fewer things in common. How much of friendship was born of convenience? Travelers on the same road? But for twelve years, Davis had been there for me. Three times he pulled me back from the Sirynz. I knew it wasn’t friendship that was a convenience, but my friendship. I was a lousy friend. I wish realizing it changed things, but the future was already written. Inevitable. So I let it happen.

I tried to build some bridges. I brought Davis along when I met Kurt and some of our other not-long-for-this-town friends for pizza at Godfather’s. I felt weirdly protective as Davis said hello to everyone, shook hands, and listened in on the conversation about getting ready to go away. I may have tried too hard to drag him into the conversation. He was learning the ropes to be a small business owner, after all. He told me he might take accounting classes at the community college. It wasn’t the same, but it wasn’t nothing. The more I tried, the quieter he got. Then, when our pitchers of Pepsi arrived, Kurt made a toast.

“To getting the hell out of this Podunk.”

Everyone laughed, and plinked together their red plastic glasses. Everyone but Davis. He froze in the middle of raising his glass, and then put it down. He didn’t make a scene. I don’t think anybody but me noticed. I’d like to say I put down my glass in solidarity. I’d like to say I spoke up for my friend and our hometown. I’d like to say I did anything but what happened: I laughed that much harder, because I was embarrassed. Not for Davis. Of him.

Sirynz had shown me Davis cocooned and stuck in this town where time didn’t move and there were no decent words spoken aloud for what I thought he would become. I couldn’t watch because I couldn’t help. Or wouldn’t. Because I was wrapped up in my own becoming. I didn’t want to get stuck with him.

In our sophomore year in college, some friends from the dorm and I drove up to Chicago for the weekend, and under shotgun seat rules, I controlled the music. I had a cassette copy of Sirynz’s first studio album. It hadn’t made the splash I’d thought it would, but it claimed my hometown loyalty. I told my friends it was a band from high school a year ahead of Kurt and me, who got a record deal and moved to L.A. Checking for a reaction from Sang-mi, I added “I had a crush on the lead singer back in middle school.” 

Nothing. Sang-mi wasn’t impressed by anyone’s hometown honey. She was above old ties, and it was attractive as hell.

A crowded car is not the way to introduce someone to music. You need the volume cranked, but Samir turned it down when he and Kurt debated whether to stop for food on the way, or wait to eat in the city. Sang-mi and Paige settled into an intense discussion about their agenda for Michigan Avenue. They’d listened for all of a minute before the conversation took over.

Listening to music with others forces you to hear it with new ears, and I had to admit, in the company of my college friends, Sirynz wasn’t all that interesting. Prophecies just feel obvious when you’re on the other side of them. When I swapped out Sirynz for another tape in the deck, nobody noticed.

Sirynz got me thinking about Davis, too, and what he might have become by now. If he hadn’t gotten stuck. I still had a lot of becoming ahead of me, but leaving our hometown made it easy. Inevitable.

There’s email now, more casual than a phone call, and less awkward coming out of the blue. “Hey man, I was just remembering…”

Remembering another life. Another person.

Rose tinted glass looking backward through time. 

It’s not me.

It’s not him.

Or maybe it is. I come up with excuses because I’m afraid to look.

Author’s Notes

I’m trunking this story because I’m not satisfied with it, but I don’t know what to do with it. It started as a flash fiction piece that was an 80’s kid’s retelling of Odysseus and the Sirens. Then, as I researched Sirens, I learned about their nature as mantic messengers from the Underworld, something that opened up possibilities. What if the reason Sirynz–the girl band in the small town of Marysville–caused such an uproar whenever they played is because they revealed futures? And what if one of those futures that was revealed was that best friends would become near-strangers in a matter of a few years? I remember watching the movie Stand By Me with my junior high friends in one of their basements. When the final scene came, where the friends drifted apart, we all swore to each other that we’d never let that happen. And, of course, it did. I have no contact with two of them anymore, and one, whom I still consider a good friend, lives on the other side of the country. We e-mail each other a couple of times a year.

So I read Stephen King’s “The Body,” on which Stand By Me was based, to catch the scent. I rewatched The Sandlot, which has a sunnier take. I revisited A Prayer For Owen Meany to remind myself of a narrator who mythologizes the past. But my attempt just didn’t come together. There are some passages I’m proud of, like when the protagonist describes cutting open a moth cocoon. (I stole that imagery from a Twitter thread.) But it’s not hanging together, and the ending is weak sauce.

The original end had Davis being victimized by a hate crime that the protagonist knew was coming, from the Sirynz’s prophecies. But it felt like I was copying the ending of “The Body,” and it also felt like that wasn’t a story worth telling. As it was, the reality of friendships that drift apart was being subsumed by the implication of homophobia. Not the story I set out to tell, and not an element the story fully commits to, but it just kind of emerged from that initial mouth-to-mouth detail at the pool.

Stephen King did it far better than I can at this point. I’ll put “Butterfly (Do You Remember Being the Worm?)” down as an exercise, and maybe sometime in the future I’ll find the right vehicle to tell a story of wistfulness over letting a friendship die.

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