Butterfly by Charles David Taylor

College student Dan strikes up a relationship with a rich Korean woman that leads to dependency, obsession and death; by Charles David Taylor.

You can never find a bus stop in Houston when you need one. I'd walked a few blocks from the cemetery through a misting rain, with no luck. I was about to splurge on an Uber when I finally saw one of the familiar kiosks, complete with cracked plastic walls covered in graffiti and an overflowing trash can. All it lacked was a snoozing homeless guy. I brushed the beer cans off the scummy bench and sat. I was soaked. Of course, my thoughts were on poor Dan, my best friend, whom I'd just left in the sodden earth. As a poet, he would have appreciated the atmospherics.

I could have gotten a ride back with the family, but I wasn't ready for their questions. I'd see them later and supply the answers. For now, I just wanted to be alone with my misery. And my anger.

It all started at a pre-semester gin & grinder at the Alpha house, as relayed to me by Dan. It was the kind of party I never got invited to, being a nerdy econ major on scholarship and overweight (though only a little, at that point). Dan was poor too, also on scholarship, but he had cachet: editor of the campus lit magazine, with the Brad-Pitt-bad-boy good looks the sorority girls ached over. He and I had been roommates all three years, and he dutifully kept me informed on how the other crust lived. No matter how envious it made me.

This particular g&g was memorable because some of the attending sisters thought it would be fun to bring along their cute new suite-mate from South Korea, a rich kid just off the plane from the old country. She was shy and totally jet-lagged, but they figured she needed a fast-track, total-immersion intro to American college culture. And boy, did she get it.

It only took a few tequila shots before she was waving her arms in the air and shaking her booty alongside her new American girlfriends. What she wasn't ready for was the actual grinding, i.e., guys coming up behind her and rubbing their crotches into her ass. After she'd fled the first few come-ons and drowned her disgust in whatever was in the big bowl, she got pretty unsteady. Dan, the sensitive saint, the white knight, picked up on her vulnerability and swooped in for the rescue.

Just in time too, because this big football dude was stumbling in her direction, intending to carry her upstairs for another of the night's anonymous hook-ups. Dan intercepted her mid-stumble and managed to elude the lineman's tackle (our football team really sucked that year), then hauled her, fireman-style, back to our room.

That's when I got involved.

I'd been wrestling with Lord Keynes, losing round after round and about to throw in the towel, when Dan banged through the door and dropped her on the nearest bed, which happened to be mine.

"What are you gonna do with her?" I said, as though the wrong item had just emerged from a vending machine.

"She passed out at the party. A football player was about to use her as a fuck dummy. What else could I do?"

"What else, of course." I shook my head. "I'm sure you'll get your reward in heaven. Now would you kindly move the rescue kitty to your side of the room?"

"You sleep in my bed, okay?" He arched his back and leaned against the wall, groaning. "She's heavier than she looks." As I retrieved my pillow, I took a moment to examine his prize. She was strikingly pretty. A delicate little flower, I thought. How wrong I was.

I crawled between Dan's unwashed sheets while he collapsed onto our dusty old couch.

I woke to a godawful scream, followed by a torrent of gibberish that we took to be Korean profanity. Funny how you can recognize that you're being accused of heinous crimes, even in a foreign language. Dan tried to soothe her outrage while defending himself. Eventually her English returned, but the pouting accusations never let up. I felt sorry for her and tried to be a good character witness for my roomie, but she was a master at assuming the high ground and keeping us peons below.

Only later did it seem strange that she never made any move to leave. She just sat there on my bed with those nice legs crossed at the ankles, reigning over our messy room with her haughty self-righteousness. I made instant coffee in the microwave, and she accepted a cup without thanking me. She sniffed and made a face, then just set it down on my clean sheets. I jumped to grab it because it could easily have spilled. I think that's when I started to dislike her.

After an hour of this nonsense, she allowed my fawning roommate to escort her to her apartment. They stopped at a Starbucks to get some real coffee, and when he came back four hours later, Dan was in love.

About a week later, in our room, Dan and I had The Conversation.

He feigned a casual tone. "Y'know, I read in Forbes..."

"You? Read Forbes?" I had to laugh. Dan, the literary giant, studying the capitalist manifesto?

"Don't interrupt, it was in the doctor's office. Anyway, back in the old days, Yale guys used to hang a tie over the doorknob to alert their roommate not to barge in."

"How quaint. You're telling me this because..."

"Why do you think? Boo Tae-seo and I are, y'know, on the verge."

"Have you got a tie? I don't."

"Okay, shoots down that idea. Maybe..."

"How about a condom?" I bellowed my horsiest guffaw.

"A little obvious, even for you." Dan glanced around the room. "Maybe a sock? Or a sticky note."

"Sticky note's a good idea."

"Yeah, for you I'd probably have to explain things."

"Sure, you're the poet. I'd prefer a sonnet, but if you're in a hurry, just make it a haiku."

Dan was getting disgusted. "Okay, okay, let's just go with a sock."

"But you can't write on a sock."

Only one of us laughed.

"Boo Tae-seo" was unpronounceable for us rubes, so it was my tasteless idea to start calling her Butterfly. The year before, we'd been to a campus production of Madama Butterfly, the opera by Puccini - hey, it was free entertainment for us poor boys. Ignoring the music, we groaned over the story of an American naval officer marrying a fifteen-year-old Japanese girl for "convenience", intending all along to abandon her and find a proper wife back in the states. After three years, he returns with said blonde wife to claim the child. Butterfly graciously agrees, prays, then does that seppuku thing with her Dad's knife. Outrage and faux guilt follows.

Afterwards, fueled by a box of cheap wine, I railed about American imperialism and economic disparities, while Dan deconstructed it from the perspective of Marxist literary criticism - with a heavy dose of neocolonialism and feminist theory thrown in. We outdid ourselves in pointing out the other's latent racism.

In other words, we completely missed the point. Eventually, the irony hammered us on the head with the subtlety of a Mickey Spillane novel.

Butterfly liked the nickname. "Butterflies are so pretty," she said.

"Many things are pretty, but you are truly beautiful," Dan said, and they smiled so lovingly at each other I almost retched.

That led to a poem Dan published in the campus lit magazine, and which won second place in some literary contest. It was the high point of the whole affair, in my opinion.

The unravelling began soon enough.

Maybe a month after The Conversation, I came back to the room to retrieve a book and found a sock on the doorknob. I really needed that book, so I quietly opened the door and slipped into the near darkness. I knew exactly where the book was on my desk, and I vowed not to look in their direction.

Of course, I couldn't help sneaking a tiny peek.

She was on top and going at it real slow, examining his face for signs of imminent climax, I suppose. The kinky thing was, she had tied her panty hose across his eyes for a blindfold, and groaning Dan never knew I was there.

I'd never seen two people actively conjoined in vivo, and I stared like a true dumbass. She saw me, and after the initial shock for both of us, she smiled, never missing a beat. The second shock came when I realized she was studying my reaction, to gauge how the show was affecting me.

Attempting to recover my aplomb, I played it casual. I found my book, made a show of studying the spine to be sure it was the right one, fingered through the pens in the cup to find the perfect implement, then ever-so-purposely turned to leave.

The next glance was my undoing. She still had that Mona Lisa smirk, but now she sat bolt upright, rocking in slow-mo cowgirl mode. As her impressive little breasts swayed this way and that, her eyes locked on mine and I realized she was performing. For me. I'd been drawn into her menage against my will, and it creeped me out that she was getting off on my dumbstruck stupefaction.

As I was going down the stairs, I kicked a hole in the wall, right through the sheetrock. I didn't know why at the time, but I think I do now.

Dan and I were two poor boys on a campus swarming with rich kids, and that fact - ok, that resentment - had bonded us immediately. As a budding economist, I was highly sensitive to how rich folk thought differently from the rest of us. It wasn't long before those differences became evident between Butterfly and Dan, and by extension, me.

Take the meal plan, which every student was required to buy into. Dan and I always ate at the student dining hall because it came with our scholarships, but Butterfly turned up her nose at the food and the atmosphere. She began commuting to a pricey Asian place across town, always taking a luxury Uber there and back. Eventually, when the proprietors learned about her family background, they would call her about special dishes. Sometimes they even sent a car to pick her up.

Dan, ever the protector, went with her, though at first he only ordered hot tea. I went with them once, and when I saw the prices, I also had tea. Butterfly's habit was to order several dishes, way more than she could eat, then pick at the food, a little from this plate and a little from that. I found this practice disgustingly wasteful, and when Dan took a bite and invited me to do the same, I dug in. I'd never had anything like it, or any food so damned good - Shrimp with Vermicelli and Garlic, Braised Pork Balls in Gravy, Sichuan Pork - there was so much more, but that's all I can remember. We were both gorging ravenously on her leavings, when I looked up to see her laughing at us.

"You guys eat like starving dogs. I think the word is gluttony."

Dan was chagrined. "No, it's y'know, with gusto. You know how the school food is," he whined.

I admit it, I was embarrassed. "Yeah, well, you'll never understand," I said defiantly.

I never went with them again.

She bought him clothes, shoes and expensive haircuts. I suspect she also made more than a few deposits in his checking account, which had always hovered near zero. Dan let her do it, reluctantly at first, later saying he'd evolved beyond foolish pride, that he loved her and didn't want to hurt her feelings. I saw what was happening even if he didn't: his emotional dependency had led to an economic dependency. I'm sure there are studies along those lines, how the two tendencies interleave. I don't know, I just hated to see it happen to my best friend.

She paid his phone bill because neither could live without texting. It was like a leash, a snare around his mind and balls. She had to know where he was at all times, not just whether he might be with another girl - a legit concern, I guess - but everything about how he spent his time. I scrolled through his phone once, and it was nothing but thousands and thousands of texts with her, going back to when they first got together.

She was always clinging and clasping, hanging all over him. When they sat together, him manspreading like guys do, she'd sit so close it was like they had merged. Both her arms would be wrapped around his arm, her leg would be draped over his, and her hand would now and then casually brush his crotch. She was always trying to raise a hard on - not that it was such a difficult task.

Oh, to be a poet and drowning in love. Judging from the effect on Dan, they were two afflictions I could do without.

Then one fine spring day, after about eight months of this nonsense, Dan banged into the room with such force that I tipped over in my chair.

"She's gone! Butterfly's gone!" His eyes were wide, face white.

"What do you mean, gone?" I said this while heaving myself off the floor.

He'd grown concerned after no text from her for several hours, so he went by her apartment.

"Kailee said she'd just packed up and left. I've been texting and calling and there's nothing." He sat on the bed - my bed - and just stared like a man in a trance.

What could I say? Nothing. Her disappearance hit him like a lightning bolt out of a blue sky.

Then just as suddenly, about a week later, the mystery cleared up with a flood of texts and apologies and expressions of undying love. "Family emergency" was how she explained it, though she was purposely vague about the nature of that emergency. The old Dan was back, still sad but out of his coma.

Over the next few months, into the spring of our final year, the texting actually increased. Dozens, maybe a hundred or more per day. It was like the further away she was, the greater was her need for control. Dan didn't see anything wrong with it. Just a way of staying in touch, he said. But ten times an hour, day in day out, is more than "in touch", right?

I jokingly suggested he livestream with a GoPro camera on his head, and I think he seriously considered it. I know she would have paid for it. But he would have wanted to see video from her side, and as we found out later, the reality was far from what she was portraying. It was smarter for her to stick with the novelized version, the princess held captive in her castle, and all that.

"She's going through absolute hell," Dan said. He kept me updated, and out of morbid curiosity I listened. It was a distraction from my senior thesis on discounting time horizons in health care (don't ask).

"Today her father told her she couldn't leave the house anymore. She can't go out, can't see her friends. Horrible! You know how social she is."

"Why'd he do that?"

"Because he's a domineering bastard!" His voice was rising, he was getting red-faced. "He wants to control every part of her life. She's afraid he might take away her phone, so she has to hide it. Her mother acts sympathetic, but she's just a spy for the old fart. Her sisters won't talk to her. She doesn't have anyone to confide in, except me."

"Confiding" meant spewing her pent-up anger at my best friend, saying he didn't understand or care, running him down. With my skeptical nature, I hadn't trusted her from the beginning. I wanted to defend him from this spoiled brat, who thought that being confined to her mansion with personal servants was the harshest form of suffering.

"I don't get it, man. Why are they punishing her? I mean, they trusted her enough to let her come here..."

"That's just it. She came to America and freed herself from the shackles of her culture. It's such a patriarchy, y'know. You gotta do what the family says, and family means Big Daddy."

That sounded like stereotypical racist bullshit to me, but I let it slide. Anyway, Dan was in full rant now.

"But you know what her worst sin was? Falling in love."

I tried to deconstruct this Romeo and Juliet soap opera. "So they know all about you? And they're blaming you for seducing their sweet little daughter and leading her into a life of sin in the nasty, decadent U.S. of A?"

He studied his shoes for a while. When he spoke, he was much quieter.

"I don't think she's told them about me. She's very protective..." His voice trailed off, and I got more suspicious. Something else was going on.

"I don't get it, man," I said. "She falls in love with a poor gringo, which I can understand is a capital crime for a rich, elitist family. But then she won't tell them who you are? That you exist? I'm no literary genius like you, but doesn't that sound like a big hole in the plot line?" I'd intended to lighten the mood, but maybe I was grinning too much when I said it. His reaction blew me away.

"Fuck you! I thought you were a friend, someone I could talk to. I guess I got it wrong." He shoved his phone in his pocket and slammed the door behind him.

He wouldn't talk to me for days. We both felt bad, and the spat eventually faded away. After all, we were best friends. And he had too much bottled up inside with no one else to talk to.

I went to sleep with him tapping away on his phone and woke to the same thing. He looked like he hadn't slept at all. I asked him what was going on.

"They took her to the hospital. Bad stomach pains. She misses me."

Later, when I put the timeline together, I figured out about those pains.

This went on throughout the spring of our last semester. In March, I scored big: a fellowship at Rice University in Houston to do graduate work in health economics. The Rice campus is literally across the street from the Texas Medical Center, the largest medical center in the world, with forty-plus institutions, two major medical schools and several huge hospitals, including the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, all crammed into a space the size of lower Manhattan. I couldn't have been in a better place for my field.

Dan was another story. His work had slipped, and he lost his editorship of the literary journal. Worse, he stopped writing and submitting poems, and when he graduated, all he could get was an instructor's job teaching freshman comp at some dinky upstate college. As we economists say, poets are in heavy oversupply with chronically low demand. With his romantic ideals, Dan pooh-poohed all economic reality and took up membership in the intellectual underclass. I'd heard stories of Ph.D.s in medieval literature and art history who cobbled together several adjunct teaching jobs and still had to live out of their cars. His creative writing degree qualified him for that roster of the desperate.

It was a sad day when I left for Texas, all my junk packed into my old Toyota, hoping that sagging heap would last the fourteen hundred miles to my new campus (it did, just barely). So much junk filled the back seat that I had to shove aside boxes to make a viewing port for my rearview mirror. Dan helped me pack, and when the time came he gave me a big bro hug.

"Stay in touch, ok?" He looked deadly serious. "You're the only one who gets it."

I admit it, I choked up. I got it, all right, but it didn't feel good. Driving off, my last sight through the porthole was Dan standing there, staring at his screen. No doubt another text from Butterfly.

We did stay in touch. Ever glued to his phone, he either responded instantly or not at all, though I remained a distant number two in his list of text buddies. Not that I had much idle time. As a newbie health economist, I was suddenly immersed in the reality of our screwed-up medical system. I'd studied scarcity, supply and demand, opportunity cost, efficiency and equity, but only as abstract concepts. Now I was seeing the harsh reality.

After undergoing a tedious process of vetting, I was allowed to penetrate the bureaucracy. For my study projects I often went on excursions to interview a nurse or administrator and examine their data. I had to walk through overcrowded halls where patients were stashed on gurneys, waiting in packed waiting rooms that were like window displays of suffering. It reminded me of the faces lining the fence at Auschwitz, waiting to be liberated. The deeper I dug into how the system worked, the more thoroughly my natural-born cynicism was reinforced.

Sometimes I tried to tell Dan about it, but it didn't make much of an impression. Butterfly still dominated his conscious life with the sheer volume of her texting. Like the time I was in in a waiting room, surrounded by the lame and the halt, waiting to talk with a head nurse about her workload. I'd just finished a newspaper article about the luxury private suite in that same hospital, which had been reserved for a local oilman and his hernia operation. I needed to soothe my ire, so I checked in with Dan.

Me: Howz it going?

Dan: Got a gig at coffee shop. Better pay than adjunct.

Me: Good for you I guess.

Dan: Boo says I don't get it. Her pain.

Me: Servant problems again?

Dan: Come on. House arrest sucks. Can only see certain people.

Me: Like who?

Dan: They push her at one guy. Son of rich family.

Me: No kidding? Big merger in the works?

Dan: No worries. Says he's fat and ugly.

Me: So she says...

Dan: Repulsed. But they let her out of the house with him. Clubs mainly.

Me: Uh oh.

Dan: Yeah. He just stands around and drinks, acts bored. She dances, sees friends.

I typed in "sounds like a match made in heaven," but thought better of it. I erased and sent a non-committal "Ok."

Dan: Glad she's getting out finally. She needs it.

Oh Dan. I'd never realized before there was such a fine line between saint and fool. My unease got worse.

A year went by, with Dan skewered like a pig on a spit over a slow fire. According to him, Butterfly's suffering never let up. The biggest event was when the fat guy proposed - not to her but to her father. Did that still happen in the twenty-first century?

Saint Dan's only complaint was that her texting seemed to be tapering off. When I said maybe that was a good thing, he blew up again and cut me off for a week.

He started up again with a few perfunctory texts: he'd started working at another coffee shop, had writer's block, roommate snored. Then he got to the crux of it: Butterfly was flipping out with anxiety. Think of it, the pressure of planning a wedding for a thousand high-flying guests. She called Dan an unsympathetic bastard and said he couldn't possibly imagine her stress.

Goodness me, I couldn't imagine it either.

Two o'clock in the morning, and my phone sang out. A couple hours earlier, at 11:57pm, I'd pushed the "send" button to turn in a paper I'd been working on for six weeks, due at midnight. I was deep in the sleep of the righteous dead, and I answered instinctively, not glancing at the screen.

It was Dan. I almost didn't recognize his voice, it was so strained and desperate.

"She's there, man! In Houston, where you are. Texas Medical Center - that's close to you, right?"

I yawned. "Across the street, yeah. What's she there for?" Last I'd heard, she was healthy as a horse, and not the type for medical or nursing school. Or anything that involved helping other people.

"Not her, the husband. He's a doctor, on a one-year gig. Fellowship."

"Okay. Where?"

He sounded exasperated. "I told you. The medical center, Houston."

"Yeah, but which hospital? There's forty-odd major institutions over there, a dozen hospitals..."

"She didn't say. Can you find out?"

That was Butterfly. What did she care about the details of her husband's occupation?

"Sure, I'll try. Does she want to meet up?"

There was a long silence.


It came out in barely a whisper. "She said not to. Wouldn't be good for either of us."

It was 2am and the words slipped out before I could stop myself. "That bitch."

All I heard was a choking sound that I finally recognized as a man sobbing.

I'd had enough of this crap. "Dan, just blow her off, goddammit. You're killing yourself. It's time, don't you get it?"

There was another long silence. I was so tired, I almost dozed off. When he spoke, his voice had a hard edge, barely controlled.

"Can I stay with you, or not? Yes or no?"

This was going to play out to the bitter, ugly end.

"Sure, it'll be like old times."

Of course, it was nothing like old times. More like the end of times.

Turned out it wasn't so hard to find Dr. Gim Dong-wook, her husband. He had a fellowship with M.D. Anderson, the big cancer center. I did a little more background research - good old Google - and found an article from a few months back in an English-language South Korean newspaper. After the fellowship, the plan was for him to return home to set up a hospital that would eventually rival the major U.S. cancer centers. Nice work if you can get it, and with family backing, no problem. I was wondering if he might need a health care economist, when I saw this paragraph:

The distinguished Dr. Gim shall soon to relocate in Houston with his burgeoning family, which include his esteemed wife, former Boo Tae-seo of that illustrious family. Together they shall reside close to the aforementioned and world-famous Texas Medical Center. Dr. Gim is most serene that he has good fortune in such big city: he requires only short walk from his luxuriate high-rise residence to his work at renowned M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

So I picked up one additional clue. In my own walks around the med center, I'd noticed a luxury high-rise that dominated the skyline, called The Pinnacle. It appeared to be about a five-minute walk from M.D. Anderson.

But what really took me back was the phrase "burgeoning family". Was that just more awkward English? Or a real child - already? Another Google search brought up an article with pictures of the wedding, including a crowd shot of a thousand of their closest friends. Unfortunately, the text was in Korean and my translation app couldn't handle it. But there she was, the petite, pretty Butterfly I knew all too well, standing next to a portly guy with a crooked grin. I hated to think how much that gorgeous dress cost - a lot more than my two-year grad fellowship, for sure.

I was in full detective mode now, unable to turn off my analytical mind. I'd been constructing timelines for my seminar in economic forecasting, and now I automatically built one for Dan's and Butterfly's affair. Scrolling through Dan's texts, I dated all their key events, from the grinder party and first love, through "family emergency", to "burgeoning family".

My data looked pretty convincing, but I'd wait to show it to Dan and maybe he could clear it up.

No detective work would be complete without a sneaky interview. In my role as a data-gathering sleuth-economist, I'd come to know a head nurse at M.D. Anderson, a good old Texas gal who loved to talk. I took her to lunch and got more gossip than I needed. In her opinion, Dr. Gim was a mediocre oncologist, though good enough for a fellowship. Fair English, and except for being cheerfully goofy, no bedside manner what-so-ever.

I angled the conversation around to his wife. Did the nurse know her?

Yes, she'd come by his office a few times, and each time was an event.

"I swear, she acted like she owned the damned place. I felt like a servant girl offering her coffee, and did she thank me? Hell no! She took one sniff and never touched it. What a snoot. From the way she dresses, I think she spends most of her time at Neiman-Marcus. Brought the bag in with her, just to show it off. I wouldn't be surprised if that bunch put their labels on the outside of the clothes. Someone said they'd seen her get out of a big red Lexus. I guess the young man following her around was her chauffeur. Or bodyguard. Why, she even had a nanny."

"A nanny?" I said. "As in, for a child?" Yes, I was still capable of asking dumb questions.

"She brought him in once, cutest little thing," said the nurse. "He's maybe two. Black hair but his eyes weren't quite right."

"What, wearing glasses?"

She laughed. "No, they were beautiful Asian-type eyes, but blue. Can you believe it?"

Everything was falling into place.

Four days after we talked, late at night, Dan showed up at my door. He looked bad. Windblasted and sunburned, dirty clothes, unshaven and not in a fashionable way. I sat him at my little table and fed him what I had, which was leftover pizza and beer. He ate like a starving man.

I made him talk, but it was hard to look at him. Somewhere inside that ragged hobo was the old Dan, but it was hard to see beyond the beat-up exterior. When I told him how close we were to her condo, in that luxury high-rise next to the medical center, he wanted to go right over. I had some trouble convincing him that wasn't a good idea because (a) he looked like shit, and (b) it was two o'clock in the morning. We could both use a good night's sleep.

The next morning, I skipped my class and walked him over to the fancy high rise. Under the watchful eyes of the desk clerks, he used the house phone to call her. The woman who answered put him on hold for a long time, then came back to say she wasn't there. Not even hiding the lie. He left a message with his phone number, then wrote a long note that the concierge reluctantly promised to deliver.

No response. For the next three days, he doggedly repeated the same fruitless attempt. On the fourth morning, he was stopped by a rent-a-cop who would not let him enter the lobby. They did allow him one more note.

He came back to my apartment while I was having coffee. He flopped on the couch and sat staring at his phone. When I asked what happened, he told me about the cop, and his note.

"Why's it going to be different this time?"

Quite solemnly, he said, "I put everything I had into that note, man. I used to be a poet, remember?"

Thinking back on it now, I suspect his message was bone simple: if she didn't call, he would do something to himself. And name her as a co-respondent.

Whatever he wrote, it worked. As soon as he heard her voice, he started crying. I gave him a thumbs up and left the apartment to give him some space. When I came back a couple hours later, he was lying on the couch facing its back. I'd brought him a burger and fries, but he wouldn't talk, much less eat. I had to go to another seminar, and when I got back around seven, he was in the same position. The burger was untouched on the table.

I tried everything to get him to talk. Cajoling, joking, being silly - nothing seemed to work. Finally I got mad and yelled at him.

"Quit feeling so fucking sorry for yourself, Dan! What did she say, God dammit!"

I was always the unemotional one, the smirking cynic who never got upset, and my outburst took him by surprise. Seems like shock treatment was the only intervention that would work.

I opened a couple beers, then a few more, and we stayed up late talking. We tiptoed around the main subject, but finally around two or three, he divulged. It was brutal.

"She flat out told me to go away, man. She said I didn't know her. She'd grown up, and it was time I grew up too. The girl I'd called Butterfly no longer existed. College was all about fun, but that was over and done with. This life, now, is the real life. She and her husband are destined for great things back in South Korea. First they'd start this big clinic, and if he didn't screw that up, she'd push him into politics."

Dan looked at me with the saddest smile I'd ever seen. "Listen to this: she wants to go back as soon as possible. She despises America with its silly pretensions that people are all equal."

Wow. She had me there. So much for American exceptionalism. I popped the tops on the last two beers and handed Dan one while I tried to think of something to say.

"Let's toast to... what? Honesty?" We clinked our longnecks and took big swallows. His smile faded. He was about to lapse into a morose silence again, and I couldn't let that happen.

"Talk to me Dan. What else did she say?"

"I guess that's when I lost it. I started begging to let me see her. I know I was pathetic, but I had to keep her from hanging up. She got mean, really mean. What she said was..."

He started sobbing. I was out of tissues, so I brought him a roll of toilet paper. Then I did something I'd never done in all the time I'd known him. I sat next to my best friend and hugged him. He made a massive effort to choke out the last of it.

"She said I was a loser. I never had anything, and I never would have anything. Which meant... I was nothing. It wouldn't matter if I lived or died. Why would she want to be with someone who was nothing?"

"God damn it, Dan, don't you see what a heartless, elitist bitch she is? Just a fucking opportunist. It has nothing to do with you."

By now it was after four and we were both pretty woozy and way beyond niceties.

"What about the kid, Dan?" I must have had some semblance of good grace remaining because I didn't say, "your kid".

"Yeah, I finally got around to asking about the little boy. She didn't say much, just that it was none of my business. He was their child and they had legal papers to prove it. Like I had nothing to do with him, with any of it. She wouldn't even tell me his name. I was begging to see him, just once. I was crying pretty bad, and... she just hung up."

We sat there for a while, more or less in a stupor. I was past sleeping. By sheer bad luck, I had a morning seminar. I don't remember walking to class, much less anything the prof said. He never called on me, and I'll always be grateful for that. When I got back, Dan was gone.

I needed to sleep more than eat, but food's always been my escape valve. I started walking all the way across the medical center toward a cafeteria I liked. There were closer places, but my darker instincts were directing me toward the high-rise.

You hear sirens all the time around here, what with a dozen emergency rooms in the med center, and I'd learned to tune them out. Anyway, it wasn't sirens but the flashing blue lights reflecting off the base of the high-rise that made me start running. I was gasping for air by the time I got to the sweeping drive, and I was stumbling toward a line of yellow tape when a cop stepped out and told me to get back. I collapsed onto the manicured lawn next to a fountain and tried to catch my breath. The TV news vans were already there, and in my second bit of dubious good luck that morning, no one pointed a camera at me. The local reporters missed their chance to cap off their cliché news stories with a true-to-life distraught eyewitness.

I stumbled home and crashed hard, waking just in time for the evening news. The lead-off story confirmed it: an unidentified man had somehow slipped into a back door of a luxury high-rise, climbed thirty-three stories to the roof, and jumped. They interviewed the doorman, who was baffled as to how the man had gained entrance. There were reports that a man matching the suspect's description had been stalking a resident of the high rise, but officials refused to identify the resident. A talkative, elderly woman who lived in the building said she'd seen something like a bundle of rags fly past her window. She also supplied the requisite TV cliché, "Things like that don't happen here."

The reporter closed by saying that if anyone had any information about this unknown man, they should contact the police. Numbly, I did as I was told. The detective asked me to come downtown, and when I told them I didn't have a car, they sent one for me.

I'd never ridden in a police car. I'd had so many firsts with Dan and Butterfly that I had to remind myself not all of them were bad. A bored guy in designer jeans ushered me into a barren room and took my statement. He was fairly gentle, for a cop. But when he asked me to be in on the call to Dan's mother, that's when I broke down, real bad.

I guess they knew better than to ask me to identify the body. Small favors, right?

The bus stop was leaky and did not offer much in the way of shelter. To complete the tableau, a homeless man came shuffling along and collapsed on the bench beside me. He stretched out, forcing me to inch down to the end of the bench. He needed a nap, not to mention a bath, more than I needed the space.

I was staring back in the direction of the cemetery, wishing for a bus and some unscented air, when I saw the big Lexus approaching. Bright red with heavily tinted windows, just like the nurse said. I know she saw me, because it slowed down and angled to pull over. She must have watched the graveside ceremony in air-conditioned seclusion, with no risk of being asked why she was there. Now she was going to offer me a ride and some phony grief. No, no, no. I had no room in my life for her bullshit.

The car slowed to a crawl right in front of me. I wanted to erase all doubt, so I lifted my right hand and did the crudest thing I could think of. I raised a single finger toward the dark back window. That did the trick. The car sped off leaving behind me and my fellow traveler, each to his own private misery.

1 comment:

  1. I was very absorbed by this story, which speaks of truths we don't acknowledge much these days, and are nuanced rather than black and white. Writing the story from the perspective of the faithful friend worked well, great characterzation of both the machiavellian, yet practical Butterfly and the obsessed romantic Dan.