Driving across the Utah desert on I-70, James hit a butterfly with his car. Then another. Then a shower of them, tapping the windshield like hail, wings trapped in the wipers, orange and black. The noise of them, muted but steady, woke Molly from her trance, and she looked out the windshield, at broken wings and yellow smears.
“Oh, God,” she said. “We have to stop.”
“We can’t stop.”
“We have to,” Molly said. “Look at them.”
Like a butterfly, this story seemed to change as I read it, and between first and second readings. I suspect it also reads very differently depending on with which character the reader identifies.
James and Molly are driving across Utah to visit friends in Colorado. Initially, there’s a lot of Beckett-esque what can, can’t, and must be done, particularly around the butterflies. I found the opening sentence, with its notion of James hitting a butterfly with his car, arresting. I’d never thought of it that way, of hitting an insect with a car, as I would, say, a deer or a squirrel. It seemed odd to me, and thus important: insect fly into cars all the time; in Florida, love bugs are a driver’s nightmare. But to think of the driver as having the action – hitting a butterfly – somehow seems very strange to me. And what’s strange, in stories, usually significant. I had to read the first few paragraphs several times to realize that Molly was upset because the butterflies were being harmed; I’d thought at first she was afraid of them.
The heart of the story, to me, seems to be the relationship between James and Molly, whose wedding will take place in October. James doesn’t seem to like Molly very much.
Molly bundled into herself, knees up, arms wrapped around them, forming an obstinate lump of Molly. She wasn’t being dramatic, or faking anything. She hated this. To be honest, it was part of what he loved about her, just not now. They had got into this and now they had to get out. And he was the one driving, the one to blame.
They had planned this trip in better times. Then Molly had lost her job. It wasn’t all that much of the job, but it was hard for James to imagine her getting another.… James didn’t see how someone would hire her, with her smudgy eyes, her so-so record.
At first, I thought Molly had some kind of, well, problem. Mental illness, mild retardation, Asperger’s, something along those lines. But as I kept reading, I decided it was James who had the problem. Maybe both, or neither, has a problem. Maybe he’s just reacting to their impending marriage. And maybe he just resents that Molly won’t be bankrolling his own dreams:
He wanted nothing more than an escape to graduate school, a few years on the PhD gravy train. He had been assured by his former teachers that he would have no problem getting in, getting funding. But someone had to pay the bills. It wasn’t going to be Molly.
They reach Sam and Jenny’s house for their visit, but Sam has an unavoidable appointment the next day in Denver. For whatever reason, Molly goes with him, and James, though agreeable with the plan, has suspicions once they’ve left. When they don’t return that evening – a possibility they acknowledged when they left – his paranoia grows. But then he thinks that might not be such a bad thing:
A small pleasant thought begin to take shape inside him. Molly and Sam would not come back. They would run off together, into whatever hazy future they imagined. They were meant for each other, runaway souls.
James left himself rest in the thought for a few minutes. When had Molly become a problem?… James tried to find the place where he loved her, too, but all he could come up with this jealousy, and a feeling of ownership.
James and Jenny, mother of four, manage to have a pretty good time for themselves in the meantime. He steals her panties as a souvenir, tucking them into his overnight bag. When Sam and Molly return the next day, James is let down, as one more escape hatch closes.
There’s a lot of detailed nuance in the story that doesn’t quite scan for me, including a fly-fishing scene. I’m a bit tired of stories including fly-fishing scenes. It seems they’ve become almost obligatory, like the musical montages in romantic movies: guy in the river, solitude, clarity. I’m sure there’s a reason this is included in the story, but I don’t know what it is. As Jenny is telling James about a car accident Sam had – “he killed somebody” – he comes to the conclusion that Sam and Jenny won’t be staying married. This seems terribly important to him, possibly due to his own impending marriage. If Sam and Jenny aren’t going to make it, what chance does he have? I’m more interested, however, in the narcissism; he just found out his best friend from college accidentally killed someone, and he’s thinking of it in terms of himself. Another note I can’t quite place: He’s also thinking about the recent death of his parents, which may be feeding into his frustrated desire to have Molly put him through grad school.
The story closes with an abrupt flash-forward to October. We don’t know if James and Molly have married or not; it’s another odd writer’s choice. Whether immediately pre- or post-nuptials, I’d think it would be mentioned. Or, for that matter, if the wedding had been postponed. But it’s the most interesting moment in the story:
And afterward, only once in a while did he remember, as on the October morning, months later, and he was grading papers at his desk in the bedroom and Molly came to kiss him, fresh out of the shower, wearing nothing but a white cotton tank top and a pair of purple-and-white striped panties.
“The weird thing,” she said, “I don’t even remember when I bought these. Do you?”
“No idea,” James said
“Oh, well,” she said, and kissed him again, and dressed and got her satchel and went off to the coffee shop to work on her play.
Paul Debrasky of I Just Read About That points out how implausible this is: “Nobody suddenly starts wearing new underpants that they find in their drawer.” I have to agree. I once found a strange pair of socks in my drawer – most likely they were left in the dryer by the previous user – and not only threw them out but re-laundered all my socks. For underwear, I might throw out everything in the drawer. But what’s fascinating about this scene is the disrespect, the passive-aggressive hostility, James shows for Molly.
I was surprised to find Molly working on a play; this was the first mention of anything creative on her part, and it made me wonder: is this part of James’ hostility towards her? She’s writing, and he isn’t? Is he just another blocked writer, blaming whatever is handy? It seems an odd detail to leave out accidentally, so I think it must have significance, emphasized by placing it at the very end.
So what about the butterflies? Is James a butterfly, mowed down by Molly? I don’t see it that way – there’s no reason he has to stay with her – but he might. Which raises his creep quotient even higher. Or is it more general – butterflies are the dreams that get mowed down by life, as we’re trying to get from point A to point B?
In the end, I have no idea what to make of this story, and I suspect others might read it completely differently and feel far more sympathetic to James. For that matter, I might read it completely differently a year from now.