Butterfly Girl and Mirage Boy
BEING A PLAYWRIGHT PAID FOR MY COFFEE. BEING A STAFF reporter for The Omen paid my rent. I lived paycheck to paycheck. Friends asked why I settled in upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains right after college. “No poison ivy,” I’d tell them. Or, “Writers work wherever there’s a corner desk.” But it wasn’t that. It was Sylvia.
Ever since I was a teenager, Sylvia distressed my dreams. A few weeks might‘ve gone by without a nocturnal visit. But sooner or later, she’d be back. No matter where the labyrinths of sleep took me, two nights out of seven she’d show up—undulating against my stomach on an elephant as we shambled down WalMart’s housewares aisle. Then, a week later, she’s next to me in the car’s passenger seat. I’m white-knuckle-driving down a steep and twisty mountain road without guardrails. The Honda sails off the road’s edge. Sylvia screams, and I’m flung into wakefulness.
Actually, the infatuation began before I was a teenager, during my first year at summer camp. Even at the awkward age of twelve, I could tell this new girl, Sylvia—fourteen, lanky and just beginning to bloom—was different. When you’re twelve, “different” is conditional. My biological maturity was just beginning, but I wasn’t emotionally ready for the change. What young boy is? And I certainly wasn’t ready for Sylvia. The following year she was back at camp.
“Weren’t you here last year?” she asked me after breakfast the first day.
“You remember me?” I said.
“Uh huh.” She looked me up and down, a halting appraisal. Throughout our four summers together, she grew from a rather scrawny kid into a striking young woman. I grew from a boy on the cusp of desire to a young man in the grip of it. The girls in my junior high and high school classes seemed ordinary, like canned green beans. Sylvia was seasonal and exotic—mango ice cream with sprinkles.
I knew when I returned to camp on the last weekend of June, Sylvia would be there with ironic quips about my physical or mental qualifications.
After four years, she didn’t return to camp. She sent me a post card on my sixteenth birthday. “Happy Birthday,” it said. “You’re at camp. I’m in London. Cheerio.” The following year, my last at camp, she sent a postcard from Paris. “En’chante,” it read followed by three exclamation marks, no return address—as usual—never anything more specific than a city. I wasn’t able to write her a witty reply.
Postcards followed, two or three a year while I was in college. I never had the nerve to call her up. The closest I ever came to rekindling my obsession was after I got my English degree and moved into the forested hills we shared in upstate New York. Post-adolescent chump, at twenty-two, that was me.
When she phoned me two weeks ago on Friday night—actually spoke to me after, what had it been, six months since calling about her split-up with the I-got-married-too-soon husband—I realized her latest postcard from Rome at the new Pope’s inauguration was just a continuation of the original tease.
“Blast from the past, Doug. This is Sylvia, your summer camp girl friend. How’s life?” she had said.
The lilt in her voice, the raspy edge to her consonants, made my scrotum clench. I don’t remember what I answered to “How’s life,” probably something brainless. I sat down at my computer and circled the mouse on its pad. “Long time no see,” I said into the cellphone.
“Yeah,” she said. “My boyfriend showed me that piece you wrote for the paper about the bears that trashed Camp Pittman’s kitchen. My boyfriend grew up around there, actually. We’re getting married next month after my divorce comes through. I’ll send a wedding invitation with an RSVP card. Guess who my fiancé is. It’s Brad,” she gushed without waiting for a reply, “your Camp Pittman counselor for goodness sake. How’s that for a coincidence?”
❧ ❧ ❧
My life as a bachelor was jelling. Even after my Trenton, New Jersey mother married my Poughkeepsie, New York father, Mom never lost her Jersey attitude. She wanted another grandchild ASAP. I tried hard to persuade her that my two previous and inconclusive college relationships had made me a wiser, if not happier, man. Maybe I’d find true love at twenty-three, I told her. Then it was twenty-four. Then, when I turned twenty-five last month, she began the cross examinations.
“You sit around all day at your computer. How can you find a nice girl when you sit around all day at your computer?”
“I’m a writer, Mom. It’s what I do.”
“Why can’t you be a husband and a father, too?”
She wasn’t finished. I waited.
“Betty’s nice. You know Betty O’Keefe. She’s pretty—in her own way. Nice, big Betty Boop eyes. Sincere, you know? You can tell sincere from the eyes. She works at the cafeteria, a manager no less. You met Betty when you took time out from your busy schedule to visit me over Thanksgiving. She lives down the street. Betty’s–”
“She’s a nice girl Mom, but she’s plain as Spam.”
“You want caviar, Doug? Caviar’s for men who drive a Lexus, have houses with his and her closets, and live on a beachfront.”
“Betty has bad teeth, Mom.”
“Ha! What do you know? She’s got braces now. The adult kind you have to get in close to see.”
I could almost hear the gears shifting in my mother’s head. “You know what the favorite meat in Hawaii is?” she asked.
Favorite meat? “Uh, Bluefin tuna?” I said.
“Spam, wise guy. Yeah, Simple Simon Spam. It was good enough to keep your grandfather fightin’ against Hitler in Europe. Don’t underestimate Betty Boop Spam, Doug.”
❧ ❧ ❧
I lived in a tourist town. Winters were quiet, summer vacationers bled money, and the locals appreciated local art. The high school production of Socks, my latest play, wasn’t bad—for high school. The novel’s third draft was done and my agent rejection letters were beginning to roll in. Someday, I thought, I’ll go to Paris and all the other places Sylvia’s postcards waved in my face, rent a three-floor walk up with a knock-out lover, and write a Tony Award winner. Sylvia would be in the audience, of course, watching me give my acceptance speech. After the hugs and congratulatory praise settled down, she’d wait for me outside the back stage door.
DOUG: (Exiting back stage and laughing lightly) Sylvia, I can’t believe it’s you. How did you find me?
SYLVIA: I saw Socks at St. Marks Place. I loved it, Doug. The director gave me your contact info. He told me you were up for a Tony.
Did you recognize yourself What did you think of the play?
SYLVIA: The language was so . . . rich. The character development so . . . subtle, but strong.
I was hoping you I’m grateful the audience understood why Socks had to leave his jealous lovers and escape to Katmandu.
I’ve been told you can never stamp out the flames of unrequited first love. The hurt smolders like a fire at the city dump. You can’t see the hot core under all the trash and oily rags, but it’s there.
❧ ❧ ❧
Camp Pittman, where Sylvia and I first met, is a still-functioning fine arts camp twenty minutes up the road from my townhouse. The Omen assigned me to review their production of the American Indian legend, Butterfly Girl and Mirage Boy, written by somebody who’d been dead for a hundred years and probably never met a Native American, but I liked the play’s name immediately: supernatural schmaltz.
That afternoon, Bryn McNeal, the camp’s drama coach, had introduced me to the players over a hasty reception of Kool-Aid and Girl Scout cookies. He cast my too-shy nephew, Stewart, as Mirage Boy—a small part despite the play’s title. This was Stewart’s first Camp Pittman summer. Intense, geeky, my older sister’s thirteen-year-old son kneaded his knuckles and contemplated tall, thin, fifteen-year-old Adele Dunn, who was playing Butterfly Girl, the lead. Earlier in the week, Adele had punched Stewart in the stomach when he suggested they do the nasty. I think Stewart thought it was new dance step. I could tell by the boy’s spaniel look he thought Adele was the icing on the Halloween cake—succulent, but with a one-in-ten chance of hidden razorblades.
“Tonight,” McNeal told his cast and crew, “the press will be watching. Let’s impress Doug with our theatrical rrrr-resonance.” He had obscenely rolled the “r.”
In the shuttered half-light, the barn theater’s seats filled with campers and parents like a rising flood. McNeal had reserved a seat for me up front and far house left where I’d be pretty much alone. The theater hadn’t changed much since Sylvia and I were campers. And neither had I—inside. Outside, my paint was thinning and my teenage timbers were beginning to warp.
I turned to where the senior campers sat at the back of the theater and imagined Sylvia with them in the last row. The years that once separated the kid from the young woman wouldn’t matter, so I conjured her up, twenty-seven now with silver earrings that flashed through a curtain of straight hair. She looked right at me.
DOUG: (Calling) I knew you’d come. You’ve grown even prettier.
SYLVIA: (Calling back) I’m not here, really.
DOUG: Of course not, but stay a while.
I left my windbreaker on the chair back, strolled down the aisle and took the wing stairs two at a time. Backstage, the play’s butterflies were hovering everywhere, a dozen or so little tykes with droopy wings and bent antennas, their seven- and eight-year-old faces streaked with gaudy makeup.
“I’m a Swallowtail,” a little girl said to me. “My brother’s a Monarch.” They fluttered away.
Adele quietly rehearsed her lines. She gestured in ankle leggings, an open lab coat, and body tights that hugged every inch of her. Construction paper butterflies spotted the coat inside and out. The twins, Macy and Mora, kibitzed each other like an old married couple. Mora fumbled an attempt to safety-pin her sister’s hem. Macy paced and snapped the waist band that peeked above a multicolored Guatemalan skirt. On her brow, two feathers crossed one another in an X behind a rhinestone headband. I made a note on my writing pad: The costumes, artfully crafted by fourteen-year-old Mora Lott—sister of Macy Lott, who played Butterfly Girl’s sidekick, Burden Maiden—leapt off the stage into the appreciative eyes of the audience.
SYLVIA: Leapt? Cute!
DOUG: Why did you leave your husband?
SYLVIA: (Sighing) He never really knew me, not the real me. I was lookin’ for love in all the wrong places.
DOUG: (A beat) Go on.
SYLVIA: It was you I loved all along, Doug. I didn’t know it at the time. You were so much younger–
DOUG: Do you have regrets?
SYLVIA: (Beginning to cry) Yes. I was so stupid!
When McNeal bounded onto the creaking stage, I headed back to my seat. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “Camp Pittman is proud to present the American Indian legend, Butterfly Girl and Mirage Boy, an allegory of love’s power to transcend the earthly sphere through unceasing devotion.”
DOUG: Don’t cry, Sylvia. The past is kaput. We gotta move on.
SYLVIA: (Drying her tears) Did you ever learn to swim?
DOUG: Sure—the side-stroke.
SYLVIA: You were so cute in your bathing suit.
DOUG: You never told me that before.
SYLVIA: I could tell every time you got a boner–
DOUG: Holy crap!
SYLVIA: –which was a lot.
DOUG: Where am I going with this script?
McNeal waited for the crowd’s attention and then swept to stage left. “Are we settled in?” He glared at his audience, daring them to misbehave. “Good,” he said and retreated backwards into the wings. “And now Camp Pittman presents, Butterfly Girl and Mirage Boy.”
SYLVIA: Remember the year we did As You Like It?
DOUG: On this very stage. You were a terrific Rosalind. I think that’s when I fell for you. Was the play our beginning, Sylvia? The awakening of our hearts?
SYLVIA: (Tapping her chin in thought) You played one of the merry men in The Forest of Arden. Or were you the wrestler that got beat up?
DOUG: I was both. (Singing) Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly, then heigh-ho the holly. This life is most jolly!
SYLVIA: Shut up . . . Who knew?
DOUG: (Smiling) What?
SYLVIA: You’ve got a great voice. Sing some more.
I was humming as the house lights blinked out. The stage-hand hauled the squeaking curtain apart. A flute melody sounded backstage. I scribbled on my tablet: Daphne Tipps’ flute added an unearthly musical glow to the evening’s drama.
Adele glided out with a large jug on her shoulder and four butterflies at her heels. “Yea, but I do hear thee, O flute-musician mine.” She cupped her hands along an imaginary flute, bobbled, and nearly dropped the pot. “Answer,” she said, “so I’ll answer thee back.” As the flute answered, Adele set the earthenware down. She scratched her left calf with the toe of her right shoe. Those leggings must have itched like hell.
“So each rosy morn, each fragrant eve, Butterfly Girl to the water comes.” She eased the jug sideways with her foot and pulled her coat open. “See my butterflies?” The remaining squadron of butterflies swooped in from stage left and flapped around her in frantic circles. As Adele sashayed left and right, cape spread to display her butterfly cutouts, the insect-children scurried underfoot.
In the wings, I caught Stewart staring hard at Adele. She did project a kind of sinuous invitation.
“Oh, I have butterflies that I caught from Earth’s six regions.” One of the pinned butterflies fluttered to the floor. She scooted it away with her foot. “Butterfly Girl they call me, girl of the butterfly spirit, all because the white, winged-ones hover about me with light.”
DOUG: There was a kind of light around you in that two-piece you never got wet. What was that?
SYLVIA: Your adolescent longing.
DOUG: (Deep in thought) I projected my aching adolescence onto you like Phoebe’s misguided love for the imposter Ganymede.
SYLVIA: I was Rosalind and Ganymede.
DOUG: Yeah, you had it both ways.
SYLVIA: I could have had anyone at camp I wanted. And did, including Brad, your counselor, my soon-to-be second husband.
Butterfly Girl was pouting. “The village maidens mock me. They touch their brows as if to say featherbrains and fancies. Senses flown away!” She clasped her hands to her chest. “But they do not know what Butterfly Girl can see over the edges of the morning.” Adele gestured to the butcher-paper pool and stamped her foot. “I do hear him,” she said. Her entourage of Lepidoptera flogged the air.
“I do see him.” She stamped her foot again, and her moccasin skidded in a wet patch the stage-hand had failed to mop dry. Her moist heel tore off the pool’s shoreline. Butterfly Girl hopped one-legged, thrashing the scrap stuck to the bottom of her shoe. “I am Butterfly Girl and Mirage Boy is my lover!” She tossed the soggy shred into the audience. A kid in the front row caught the prize and held it up in triumph.
I noted: Butterfly Girl, played by Adele Dunn, covered the only obvious technical error of the evening with theatrical poise. Her performance illuminated the purity of Butterfly Girl’s spirit. Her butterfly minions, with expertise well beyond their young years, floated attentively at her side.
Adele blew a kiss house right where Stewart, the play’s Mirage Boy, waited in the wings for his entrance. My nephew snatched the kiss from the air and held it to his throat. I made a note: Butterfly Girl’s devotion to her idealized lover was palpable with every word and gesture.
SYLVIA: You don’t get it, Doug. I was seventeen our last year together–
DOUG: How many others were there?
SYLVIA (Laughing): You never knew, did you? You were just a kid.
DOUG: I was old enough to love you.
SYLVIA: You loved the idea of an older woman.
DOUG: You’re wrong. You were my Butterfly Girl.
SYLVIA: And you, Slug-Doug, were a mirage.
I made a mental note this time: With theatrical poise, Mirage Boy wrapped his hands around Butterfly Girl’s throat and squeezed until her eyes bulged and her tongue lolled from her purple lips like an undercooked sausage.
To summon Mirage Boy, Burden Maiden had joined Butterfly Girl on stage. The actors danced to the flute in klutzy circles. I noted on my pad:
The choreography, an odd pastiche of Stanky Legg and Cat Daddy The choreography valiantly attempted to adapt to the magical spirit of the evening. When the music ended, Burden Maiden pattered across the proscenium, looked at Butterfly Girl, and, sounding like my New York City aunt, said, “Heah? Listnin’?”
“Nay, Burden Maiden, harkening.”
“What hear you besides the pool, a lover’s flute or somethin?” She mugged to the audience; they enjoyed the ad-lib.
“Yes, my lover’s flute–”
DOUG: (Annoyed) Mirages don’t sing, Sylvia. (Singing) Though thou the waters warp, thy sting is not so sharp as friend remember’d not.
SYLVIA: (Feigning concern) Oh, Doug. I remembered you. I sent postcards. I even called you—twice—the first time six months ago after my turd of a husband . . .
DOUG: (Interrupting) You taunted me. Why couldn’t you just let it go?
Adele clasped her hands to her heart. “Oh, Burden Maiden, Mirage Boy is no specter. Hear his song. Now, and now–” The flute trilled.
Burden Maiden expelled all the air from her chest with theatric overkill. She turned upstage, back to the audience, adjusting her costume, I think. “What ears cannot hear, you hear,” and turned back to face the house. “Featherbrains and fancies. You are droll and quite useless, Butterfly Girl.” I made a note: The actors’ vocal projections,
while spotty, while uneven, while sporadically delicate, could easily be heard.
DOUG: Even back then my basso profundo voice thrilled you. Piccolo to bassoon by the end of tenth grade. Admit it. You were impressed.
SYLVIA: (Using her hands in mock sign language) Mirage Boy stupid like . . . bow without arrow . . . like . . . wrestler . . . with tiny . . . pecker . . .
DOUG: This is the real you, isn’t it? You didn’t leave your husband; he couldn’t stand it, so he left you, didn’t he?
SYLVIA: (Caught) He did nothing of the sort.
DOUG: That’s why you called me six months ago and cried on my shoulder.
SYLVIA: You didn’t have a clue, Slug-Doug. Six months ago, you were still half-baked, a twenty-four-year-old child.
“Ah, Burden Maiden, could you but hear and see as I, lighter would be your heart, swifter your feet.” Butterfly Girl scrubbed at her leggings. “Hark! But I hear him. Come and see.” The flapping insects disbursed in all directions.
Burden Maiden drew her head back in affected surprise. “So like to the eyes of truth, almost you made me see!” She pointed to the closed double doors at the theater’s exit. Several younger audience members turned. Were they hoping to catch a glimpse of Mirage Boy?
Hands jointed, the two girls prowled forward. “Look, Burden Maiden, Mirage Boy comes hither to dance. Join us, Mirage Boy!” Backstage, somebody began rapidly thumping a tom-tom in four-four time. The frantic downbeat sounded like rear-ended traffic piling-up on the interstate. The girls struggled to synchronize McNeal’s Native American version of the Mexican hat dance. I scribbled on my pad: The play’s director, Bryn McNeal, brought ample evidence of multiculturalism to the performance.
When would this play end?
DOUG: Not a kid anymore, Sylvia.
SYLVIA: So, what have you learned in your pitifully sluggish rise to semi- and locally-restricted fame?
DOUG: To paraphrase Burden Maiden, So like to the eyes of truth, now you make me see.
SYLVIA: (Her image is beginning to pixelate) You’re a five-pound catfish in a farm pond, Doug.
DOUG: Better than a spring minnow in Lake Erie.
My nephew, awaiting his cue, sneezed. He dragged his sleeve across his nose. The explosiveness of his breath startled me. As though slapped awake, I realized the counterfeit exuberance of the review I was writing. Stewart’s pathetic infatuation, which mirrored my own for Sylvia, wobbled off its axis. The past was unspooling before me. I had been living my life backwards.
“Oh, the sweet music! Burden Maiden,” Butterfly Girl was saying. “Was it not wonderful?”
“Nay, I saw and heard nothin’. You have made a fool of me, Butterfly Girl. I am ashamed of myself. How the others will laugh!” Burden Maiden threw her head down and thumped the back of her fist against her forehead.
“I am sorry,” Butterfly Girl said. “Me you see. Me you hear and answer. But him, the brightest one, never.”
Burden Maiden encircled her ear with a finger. “Featherbrains and fancies. We came for water, Butterfly Girl. Let us fill our jars.” The girls bent down to the butcher-paper’s flat blue pool and dipped their water jugs.
DOUG: I gave you the best part of my summers, Sylvia.
SYLVIA: (Her image is fading) Summer’s over, Doug.
DOUG: The summers of my discontent. (Suddenly remembering) Wait! That was the first summer I had Spam. Spam on white bread with mayo. Spam chowder.
“How the living water is made beautiful with reflections, Burden Maiden. Visions are in it. And ripples of sweet song.” Both actors froze in position. The butterflies staggered to a halt.
Mirage Boy traipsed onstage to the largest boulder. My nephew placed an anointing hand on the paper mache prop. “Such are the,” he took a shuddering breath and continued, “natures of men.” He turned to Burden Maiden and gestured at the pond with wooden arms, “For the one, life is but a” (breath) “pool of chill and heavy water, a burden” (breath) “to be borne.” His pathetic delivery reminded me of a horse ridden too hard that needed water and a good currying.
The boy crossed to the pool’s other side where Adele hunched over the puckered paper. “For the other,” he curled his fingers into a claw, “like this pool,” and then the digits softened into benediction, “life mirrors the beauty of Heaven’s glow!” The lights came down on the motionless cluster of butterflies, boulders, waterfall pillars, and the three leads. Enthusiastic applause and whistling.
As previously invited, I headed backstage through the moldering curtain. While the props and insects peeled off their wings and assorted brown or green pajama bottoms, I sat down next to Stewart at the rickety table and clapped the boy on the shoulder, “Good job,” I said. Adele glanced at him; he tried not to smile. Best to just look cool, nod. “Forget the caviar,” I whispered in Stewart’s ear. “Check out the Spam.” His questioning look made me want to hug him.
While the director debriefed, I took a few notes as a courtesy. Stewart kept stealing peeks at Adele and then ducking his head. Gawking and ducking. She looked past him, regally mute. McNeal droned on to the cast and crew.
DOUG: All the world’s a stage, Sylvia.
McNeal’s patter and his players’ replies were incomprehensible to me, like radio news through floorboards.
SYLVIA: And all the men and women merely players.
I watched my nephew’s body language yearn for recognition. Adele’s silent, dismissive response.
DOUG: Whining school boys with their satchels.
SYLVIA: The lover sighing like a furnace.
I pulled Sylvia’s RSVP from my back pocket, smiled at her disappearing image, and ripped it up.
DOUG: And so we play our parts.