Jenna stared at the fading orange and black tattoo on her ankle. It was poorly done with too-thick lines, and people often thought it was a bee, not a butterfly. The monarchs that inspired the tattoo had arrived thirty years before, on her fourteenth birthday. Jenna’s mother had insisted on going to the outlet mall at 7AM, to beat the weekend rush and buy Jenna a birthday dress. They were half-way there when bundles of the small butterflies began plunging into and swooping around the windshield of their mud-laced Volvo. Jenna thought they were tiny leaves at first, but her mother told her to look closer and when she did, she saw wings. She wanted to roll down the windows and let them fly in.
“It’s the migration. Most of those little butterflies won’t make it to Mexico,” her mom said, “but they’ll stop and have babies. Those babies might make it, and if they don’t, their babies will.”
“I hope they make it to Mexico before they have babies,” Jenna said.
The sheets felt softer last night when Mia bunched them between her fingers and kicked at them with bare feet. Now, they felt almost like paper. The man next to her was unshaven, thirty pounds overweight, and she appreciated him. He was real. He was snoring. She kissed his forehead for the first and last time.
Once dressed, she didn’t look back-this was a habit she’d perfected. She slid on her wrinkled blue dress, grabbed her sandals in one hand, bag in the other, and walked barefoot down the drive to the rental, a silver Jetta, and began to drum her fingers on the wheel to the quick, soft words of Regina Spektor.
When the peppy man at the rental agency popped her trunk, she felt remorse. The man talked for the duration of the ten minute drive to her house. Mia hadn’t been paying attention to him until, toward the end of the drive, he asked her to coffee. She knew she shouldn’t, but she accepted on the contingency that coffee become a martini and the martini be accompanied by sushi. He accepted. He might be a little too clean cut, what with his gelled spikes and well-pressed clothes, but he was what he was. She decided to give it a shot. She told him to drop her off a few houses short of home.
Mia knocked twice before retrieving the key from beneath the mat and unlocking the door to find her mother passed out on the floor with the vacuum on and next to her head. At least she had tried to clean up. Mia considered leaving the thing on and just going up to her room, but she thought again and flipped the switch.
“Ma!” she yelled, shaking her mother a little harder than felt appropriate. She helped Jenna up and into her chair. “I think it’s time for rehab again.”
Jenna had moved around non-stop, had been close to everything she’d ever wanted to be, but had never actually been. She had been almost tall enough to model when she was a teenager, almost pretty enough to do print ads. She had been a decent writer, but not good enough to get in the college literary journal. She still had the rejection letter: “Your submission showed promise. If you are not a senior, please try again next year.” She kept all of her close calls as reminders. When she finally found something she was good at, sales, she began raking in the kudos. And sales in small retail shops led to high commissions, which led to higher end stores and higher commissions. She really found her niche selling cars, which led to selling luxury cars to extremely well-off men and women. One of these men would ask for her hand in marriage after three dates.
This man, the husband-to-be, would never be. In fact, he would vanish two months before the wedding upon hearing that baby Mia was the reason Jenna’s hips and stomach were expanding-a thing he had welcomed before knowing the reason. Jenna had the name picked out long before she knew what it meant. She’d read later, when Mia first ran away from home at fifteen, that the name meant bitter.
“I’m not bitter, just restless,” Mia promised.
“You’re the only one that stays,” Jenna had slurred, or thought, the night before she crashed Mia’s car. “She’s the only one that stays,” she repeated, or thought again, when she woke up the next night, head bleeding against the steering wheel of her daughter’s car. It was the second car she’d crashed, the first being her own. And though this incident wouldn’t be the thing to sober Jenna up, some small thing would shift in her thought pattern that day. As she sat there, waiting for something to happen and someone to help, she reminded herself that Mia also means my.
Mia ate her sushi with sloppy grace. She was all confidence as she dropped yet another California roll on her silky white shirt. “So much for wearing white,” she said and shrugged.
Vince was far less chatty across the table than he had been driving her home. He had told her how beautiful she looked four times already, but it was all he could think to say again. Mia laughed generously when he did, and asked him about school. Vince was in school, but he didn’t yet know what to major in. He asked her in turn.
“I’m a prostitute,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I’d like to stop, but it just happened. I was basically a slut in high school, and I had the entrepreneurial spirit, so I decided to parlay my hobby into a career.
Vince dropped a piece of salmon in his lap. He watched her face for a sign that she was joking, and decided to laugh anyway, hoping she’d join in. Mia was stone faced.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m just bored by guys that are too nice, too perfect. I don’t think this is going to work.”
“You think I’m too perfect?” Vince asked. There was something loosened in is voice.
“You look it,” she said.
“I just know how to press a polo shirt. Dad was in the military-we had to look clean or he’d kick our asses.”
Mia noticed that Vince’s eyes were like brown suede, and she decided to order another drink.
“My daughter is bitter. She is the child-the one that’ll make it,” Jenna said to a room filled with haggard-looking people who, like herself, were detoxing. “I want my daughter to make it to Mexico. I want to buy her a car that will take her there.”
“You make no sense,” a young woman said. Her nails were painted black, and she’d said this not so much to Jenna but toward the floor. The young woman looked like a character sketch.
Jenna became a regular at Joiner Street and the one to always volunteer to bake or pick up the food for events. She never saw the girl with the black nail polish again. Through the meetings, Jenna had met a dealership owner who offered her a job selling trucks, and it was easy, and she liked the fact that the clientele was less demanding than she was used to.
She would slip up and begin drinking again, she knew. Any day now. But, because she knew this, she savored every moment of every day. It was on the day that her daughter called to announce her engagement to a handsome young man named Vince that Jenna began to finally believe she might make it after all.
Life was so incredibly hard, but there were those short times when it wasn’t and everything seemed okay. Jenna thought about her mother, how the butterflies came that day. How, that day, her mother had bought something called ice cream of the future, and how the small beads had melted slowly on their tongues.
Mia was all satin and creams. Jenna told the monarch story as she pinned a stray curl in place and admired her daughter’s image in the mirror. The girl was smooth, perfectly young lines and curves. Mia had chosen to not hire a photographer because, she said, she didn’t want to look anywhere but forward. It was as though the girl already knew the story. Jenna concluded with a tearful apology, and when she asked for forgiveness Mia said it had been granted long before her mother’s sobriety. After the wedding, Jenna watched as the newlyweds drove off.
The monarchs that migrate to Mexico and California in the autumn every year live for only a month. They lay eggs on the way toward their warm destination. The babies hatch and begin the same route, as though they have been born knowing the story that came before them and knowing that they were born to do nothing if not carry on.