The day the supreme court legalized gay marriage I went to the Butterfly Pavilion with my nephew. I missed the fireworks on Facebook, the rainbow profile pics and the exclamations, the sudden rush of love pouring out of all the computers I’m connected to. Instead I spent the day with a five year old wandering around the Natural History Museum looking for dinosaurs and beetles and cocoons.
We had half an hour with the butterflies, shaded from the heat of the day by the mesh netting blanketing the small square of flowering shrubs and vines. We wandered amongst them, spying bright green wings and patterned fliers, caterpillars and ladybugs. My nephew crouched down low to get close to a butterfly near the ground, his hands clasped carefully on his knees, his eyes watching its every move. He was so absorbed he didn’t budge when an older child knelt close beside him.
The kid was jumpy, scanning the scene like he was looking for an opening. Finding it, he leaned in and pressed the butterfly’s wing between his fingers, crushing the velvety hairs underneath.
“Hey!” I said, harshly. “Don’t touch the butterflies!” The kid started, glaring at me, but he released the butterfly’s wing. My nephew looked from me to the kid and then back to the butterfly, never leaving his crouched perch.
The butterfly, surprisingly, mirrored my nephew, remaining quite still on its leaf, fanning its wings tentatively but with success.
A butterfly is everyone’s favorite metaphor for transformation, going from caterpillar to butterfly, from legged and squirmy to winged and graceful. It was my friend, Austin, who pointed out to me that the process isn’t all glitter and unicorns. A few years ago he and I were talking about Saturn going into Scorpio and he mentioned how before a caterpillar turns into a butterfly it enters a cocoon. The legs give way to a viscous gel and the skeletal structure of the creature melts to make way for the wings. “Change,” Austin wryly observed, is “gross.”
Driving home that night I listened to the news I’d missed in the day. Interviews with the man who brought the case to the Supreme Court, sound bites from people opposed to the verdict, and bunches of stuff in between. I kept the car running after I’d parked to hear it all. Sitting there in my garage, the reception spotty and the voices veiled by a thin layer of white noise, my mind drifted. My hand, lying in my lap, remembered what it was to hold the hand of my ex inside it. Ten years after the last time I saw her and it’s like nothing to the surface of my palm.
For the first time in years I marveled over how her fingers were the same length as her palm, how small her pinky was, and how warm and dry her hands always were. The silent communication passing back and forth between us walking down the street together, the open proclamation of our commitment, braver than any ring. Listening to the radio, alone in my car, I remembered the totality of her. I remembered our love.
For ten years I’ve described our split as a “bad break-up,” because dissolving a civil union just doesn’t seem to capture it. But when I’ve said divorce I’ve always been uncomfortably aware that I lied. It’s what I meant, but it wasn’t the truth. It was the truth of my heart, but it was never going to be the truth of the state. We couldn’t get a divorce, because we were never married. Gay people couldn’t get married. Couldn’t. Past tense. As of Friday, June 26th, 2015 gay people can get married. Sitting there in my car I realized that we can get divorced too.
Tears streamed down my face. My hand opened and closed around the air inside it.
My nephew refused to say goodbye earlier that night. Wrapping his little arms around my neck he squeezed me, begging me to stay. We giggled and rolled around on the floor whispering secrets to each other. He wanted to talk about that kid, older than him but unable to sit still with the butterfly.
“He was mean,” T said, putting it plainly.
“Yeah, he was,” I agreed. I sighed. “Maybe someone is mean to him and no one is there to stop it, so this is how he deals with it.”
Maybe someone is pinching his wings between their thumbs. Maybe there’s no one to say, that’s not OK! Maybe he doesn’t know he can still fly, missing bits of his wing. Maybe he’ll never know. I hope someone tells him someday, though. I hope he knows the relief of it, of knowing his grief is shared, the weight of his loss is something we all bear. We all bear together.