I planted a flower yesterday and, before I'd finished smoothing the dirt back under its leaves, a yellow butterfly fluttered down onto the blossom. To me, the beautiful ‘flying flower’ is the quintessential symbol of transition. I thought of Cecil, fighting his way through the course of a stem cell transplant, transitioning to something so much more at peace than where he has been.
Out came the phone from my muddy pocket. I looked at the sleek gadgetry, lying in my filthy glove, and dialed Cecil, eager to share the butterfly with him.
A week ago, Cecil was discharged from the hospital, a month into his transplant. A few days later, he spiked a fever and his blood pressure dropped, so they readmitted him back into the same room we had so eagerly cleared out upon his discharge.
When he answered my butterfly call, I asked if the hospital room was depressing for him now, having been denuded of the beauty we’d force-fed it earlier in the process. “It’s okay. We forgot the dragonfly,” Cecil said, as though he’d discovered an old friend in the room when they put him back in it. I’d taped a colorful glass dragonfly to the window in front of his bed, so the morning sun would catch it up and bring glittering beauty with each new day of the journey that faced him. Apparently, we’d left the dragonfly behind.
In Native American folklore, dragonfly magic crosses with that of the butterfly to show change. I thought it a perfect combination of message. The dragonfly symbolizes the sense of self that comes with maturity. The butterfly emerges in better form after having made its transition.
For most of us, transition is not so brilliant or suddenly dramatic as with the butterfly; it tends to be nuanced over time. One day you turn around and look at where you started and wonder how you ever got from there to here in a single lifetime.
Back in the day, I had every expectation that I would become an actress. After college, I moved to New York City, waited tables, and went to every audition that would have me. I just knew my big break was waiting for me in some obscure off-Broadway theater, as a big movie producer held his breath in the back row, stunned by the depth of my talent, eager to set me on my way.
I got an agent who, one day, called to tell me she had booked me for the summer as a dancer and back-up singer in a big hotel in Puerto Rico. I tore my suitcase from the closet and filled it with my prettiest things. At her office the next day, the agent handed me a one-way ticket to San Juan with little-to-no additional information. I would learn the details once I got there.
As I made my way off the plane in San Juan, a middle-aged woman stepped from the crowd to greet me. “I’m Jane,” she said. Let’s get your suitcase and head over to the club.”
Thirty minutes later, we pulled into an alley and stopped behind a sketchy, windowless building that looked like an old, dilapidated warehouse. “Let’s go,” Jane said.
The bright Puerto Rican sun gave way to a dark one-room bar, where three or four drunken letches sat about talking loudly. Relentless cigarette smoke singed its way into my lungs. In the corner, a barefoot girl in pasties and a G-string jiggled about seductively on a small wooden platform. She held a long scarf in her hand and, from time to time, ran it through her crotch, then twirled it around the neck of some guy in the audience, just before she hopped on his lap in her quest to secure another coin for the jukebox.
“Go on back and get into your costume,” Jane directed me, as she gestured toward some hanging beads that covered a doorway behind the bar. I could only imagine what lurked beyond the beads, when what I could see out front made me want to turn and run. I glanced around and realized everyone was looking at me. It sank in. This is the job. The woman expects me to hop up on that platform and give it a whirl right now. I knew I needed to say something, but I was quite sure “Get me the hell out of here” was not what Jane expected.
I made up some excuse about being tired from my trip and asked to be taken to my hotel. As it turned out, my summer accommodations were located in what looked, generously speaking, like a maid’s room at Jane’s house. Or slave’s quarters. Or the place you would lock up a hostage. There were bars on the one dirty window. Various creatures, mostly of the reptile species, clung to the screen. In the corner was something that resembled a mat, which I gathered was to be my bed. The door locked from the outside.
“I have to get back to the club,” Jane said. “Don’t go outside. Blonde white girls get taken from the street here.” And she was gone. I briefly considered what would be worse, being hauled off the street by a gang of hoodlums, or a summer of sleazy sex with as many toothless codgers as would slap a five-spot on the bar for a shot of booze.
“I think I’ll take my chances on the street,” I said. I was talking out loud to myself by then. Thoughts of running aimlessly flashed through my mind. I wondered how many times I would have to fight off abduction. Those images were interrupted by a telephone ringing in the house next door. I grabbed my purse and ran from the bedroom, down the dark hallway to the front door. I threw it open, relieved it hadn’t been padlocked, and tripped my way across the empty swath of dirt between the buildings.
The neighbor’s front door was open, so I banged on the frame of the screen. A woman scuffed down the hall in a frumpy housedress and fuzzy slippers, saying something in Spanish.
“Telefono?” I pleaded. It was probably my look of desperation that caused the lady to open the screen and let me in. I called my mother. When she answered, I spoke in hushed tones. She did what she could to hide the panic in her voice, and saved all her ‘I told you so’s’ till much later. All she said was, “Get to the airport. A ticket will be waiting for you.”
I turned to the woman. “Telephono taxi, por favor?” I was now plucking words out of seventh-grade Spanish. She took the phone and called someone. I hoped it wasn’t Jane.
The car that stopped at the curb was unmarked. I climbed into the back seat and said, almost wishfully, “Aeropuerto, por favor.” Without a word, the driver pulled away. We drove down dirt roads and back streets. My fingers grasped the door handle. I was ready to open and leap, if need be. When I saw the runway, I dared to think the ride would actually end at the airport and not in the dark basement of a boarded-up house. At the terminal, I tossed a twenty over the seat and ran inside, where I hid until my plane was ready to board.
I’m pretty sure the Puerto Rico Experience, as my family likes to call it, was just yesterday, but when I woke up this morning, I was married with two kids, living in the Shenandoah Valley, practicing law and advocating on behalf of POW/MIAs. When did all that happen? Somewhere along the way, when I wasn’t paying attention, a dragonfly must have snuck up on me with its friend the butterfly in tow and, poof, I became someone else. It was great having all those dreams, with years ahead in which to live them, but it’s also been an amazing ride since I put on my big-girl panties. And I definitely wouldn’t want to go back to Puerto Rico again to dance on a wooden platform.