A dragonfly necklace on someone's neck.

There’s standing room only on the Red Line when a giant maggot, wearing a shiny suit and snot-green tie, slithers into my space. The buckle of his belt jabs my side. Excuse me, I try to say, but my lips, suddenly paralyzed, won’t part. My eyes flit around, searching for help, but no one looks up from their phones. The greasy grub slides in close, then gropes my ass. By the time I’m able to unbolt my mouth, the worm has slipped off the train and vanished into the crowd. I steady myself against the pole as specks of yellow and white caterpillars flash behind my closed eyelids.

#

Lewis is talking. He’s talking and sloshing the ice in his glass around, deafening clinks amid the subtle hum of the nearly empty restaurant. He’s talking and sloshing and clinking and saying nothing, and the midday sun is throwing spears in my eyes so that I only see blurs of him, the refraction and the glare. Spots like missiles, blotches of skin, Lewis distorts like he’s in a funhouse mirror. Here, Lewis says, I got you something. I know how much you like dragonflies. I blink and he disappears. Butterflies, I say, but he doesn’t hear me. I open his gift, a delicate dragonfly on a chain, a tag with “gold-plated” dangling from the clasp. I take a sip of my sangria, swallow hard.

#

Honey, my mother says, that color’s too orangey, makes you look sickly. Let’s make those brown eyes shine! She thrusts a loose green sweater, the color of a hairstreak butterfly, at me. Wear this instead. This will hide your bulges, too, but you should really be watching what you eat. I never weighed that much until after I had you. Certainly not in high school. Now, remember—God, your nails! It’s like you’re not even trying. My mother rushes off to get her cuticle oil and nail pouch. I open my mouth just to see if I can. And then I close it. 

#

Lewis is waiting for a response, for something. I’ve told you a hundred times. Butterflies, not dragonflies. Thank you, I say, forcing a smile. I feel a prickle in my throat, an odd sensation, lust, ice, tenderness. I didn’t know my pharynx could be so ticklish. I suppress a schoolgirl giggle, but not fast enough. I once read that swallowing involves 30 muscles; smiling, only 13. Giggling, 15. What’s so funny? Lewis says. Wings, petal-like, brush my esophagus. I feel like a flower. Oh! I say. The fluttering in my stomach, unexpected, reminds me of what I haven’t told Lewis, what I never will. I’m not bringing a child into this.

#

I float above my 16-year-old self, my body contracting, the wind lifting me into flight. Orson’s studying engineering. Make sure you show an interest in what he’s saying. Hold your stomach in. Flirt, but don’t be too easy. I smile at Orson. I smile hard like it’s a sport because I want him to like me. I smile until I can’t anymore, so when my mouth stops working, when there’s no sound, no feeling, nothing, I think I must have just worn my muscles out from all the smiling. I can’t talk, can’t protest, can’t explain. Frowning uses more muscles than smiling. Don’t let your face freeze that way. Orson tries to kiss me then, but my mouth won’t move, won’t dance with his the way it should, the way I almost want it to. No! I push him away, panicked, and he says, you could’ve just said something if you didn’t want to kiss me. Why doesn’t Orson call for you anymore? My mother’s voice rings in my ears. What did you do?

#

What? Lewis says again. Butterflies. Butterflies in my stomach. Thank you for the necklace, I say. Dragonflies. At night when we’re cocooned together, I pretend I still love him, pretend I still want to marry him. It’s not you, it’s me. I can’t tell him that I love the necklace because I don’t. I can’t tell him that I still want kids because I don’t. Start with a simple truth. Listen, I say. Lewis’s expectant eyes, still warm, still tender, still loving, stare at me until they’re not warm, tender, and loving anymore. Like when a word loses all meaning because you’ve gazed at it too long. Like love. Love. Listen, I say again, and then I laugh. A nervous cackle.

#

At Nordstrom, a sales clerk—flicky blonde hair, sparkling veneers, puffed-up plastic lips—looks me up and down, thrusts her engagement ring, the size of a baby’s fist, under my nose, and says, When’s your big day? I drop the bridal lingerie, the hangers clattering, crashing, spinning, spinning. I’m spinning around and around in my mother’s homemade wedding gown, gypsy skirt, laces, and pearls, on the perfect rectangle of green lawn in front of a freshly repainted split-level home. I can hear my mother’s chirpy voice, see her sky-blue dress with the white cabbage butterflies, and the way she glares at my father. Oh, baby girl, when you grow up, don’t settle, don’t ever settle. Find yourself a doctor, someone who will take care of you. Well? the clerk says. But my mouth has clamped shut again, immovable. I shake my head and shrug. She glances at me with disgust.

#

What is it? Lewis says. I hate when you do that, laugh and not tell me what you’re laughing at. He’s right next to me now—where did you come from?—and his breath smells like the crab cakes we’ve both just had for lunch, trying yet another caterer possibility. I start to say that I was thinking of that lady’s hat at the flower shop, but my mouth, my lips, have become motionless again, sealed shut. I can’t even smile. I can move my eyes, breathe through my nose, but my mouth has simply stopped working. Lewis must see the fear on my face. What is it? he says. What’s wrong? Help, I say with my eyes, but Lewis doesn’t understand. Seconds, maybe minutes, pass, while time simultaneously halts. I pull out my phone, but just as I type in 9-1-1, I feel a loosening, like someone undid a bolt, and my mouth reopens, normal. It was like my mouth just froze up, I say. That’s weird, Lewis says. Has that ever happened before?

#

My father says he’s proud of me. Heat rises to my cheeks. The navy suit skirt hugs my hips, and my armpits itch, tiny prickles from sweat. Body odor. My nose, like a butterfly’s antennae, is sensitive to stench. My ears, to sound. Your first professional job, he says, smiling. You’ll be the boss in no time. My mother crosses, uncrosses, crosses her arms. I hope you’re not just settling for the first job to come along because you’re not married yet. You can move back in with us, you know, until—my breath stops, and her voice comes to me in crashing waves—marry the right…doctor…won’t need to work…babies. I try try try to speak, try try try to form words, try try try to explain, but I can’t can’t can’t, can’t ever do anything right, can’t ever speak, can’t can’t can’t, even though a million tiny voices inside me are screaming.

#

No, I say to Lewis, it’s never happened before. A fib is not a lie. He dangles the necklace, holds it up around my neck, chokes me, fastens it, the clasp cold on my flesh. Gold specks flicker. Like a cloudless sulfur butterfly. Dragonfly. Suddenly, my mouth is sealed shut again. Lewis’s fingers fidget. They prod and pull on the skin of my neck. The chain is too tight. Choking. This doesn’t feel right. I don’t know what’s right. He fastens it, pulls his hands away, and I immediately unclasp it, pull it off. Lewis tilts his head, curious, hurt. You’ve been working too hard, Lewis says. Should we take a vacation? I want to shout, scream, recoil. Who’s going to pay? What about the wedding, our honeymoon? 

#

Lewis opens his mouth, closes it. Open and close. Open and close. Like eyes blinking. A pair of wings flapping. Florida white butterflies flickering in a blue sky. Hey, are you listening to me? His voice, exploding in my ear. His face all twisted, his breath reeking of fish, garlic, and frustration. Somewhere between his eyes, the shape of his flat nose, and rounded cheekbones is my father. That’s my girl, so proud of the way you’ve gotten yourself promoted—but no, it’s Lewis, and he’s shaking me and yelling. Come on, what’s wrong with you? He’s putting the necklace on me again, and I’m taking it off. On. Off. On. Tightening. I grab the chain with both my hands, yank it off, whip it across the restaurant. 

#

Lewis grabs the back of my head with one hand, his other hand’s fingers prying my lips open, jabbing between flesh and teeth. Talk to me, talk to me. Tears prick my eyes. His fingers are forcing themselves between my incapacitated lips. Just as his fingers rip me open, knock my front teeth—say something, say something—a force from somewhere buried deep flares up. My mother reeling, spinning, angry. I just wanted better for her. Kids should do better than their parents. My father protesting. I provided for us just fine. A slamming door. Our door is red. Like my mother’s lipstick, like Mexican postman butterflies. The click of the lock on the door. Locked. Unlocked. A jaw untightening. The popping of a stiff joint. The back of my throat snaps free, my larynx relaxes. I open wide, then clamp down, biting the violating fingers.

#

Lewis screams. His face is a mix of shock and scarlet wounded pride. My lips hurt, but the tightness is gone. A tingling sensation rushes forth from my womb. An electrifying current. A stream turning into a river, an avalanche of butterflies, monarchs, orange and black, yellow painted ladies, spring azures, swallowtails, crimson mourning cloaks. A cascade of tiny gentle wings growing larger and larger, beating louder and louder, larger, louder, until erupting through my lips, shrieking Enough! Enough! Enough!


Photo by Rusty Clark, used and adapted under CC.