7.08 / August 2012

The Vivarium Monarchs

Years ago, for a spell that lasted only a few days, figurative speech confused Gretchen. The first time she noticed it, she was at the Museum of Natural History with her friend Mary. They had gone there to see the Butterfly Conservatory.

As they stood in the vivarium, Mary, yanking at a section of hair near the nape of her neck-a nervous habit-told Gretchen about an upcoming job interview. The interviewer would be a prominent psychologist, Mary said, one famous for her research about post-traumatic stress disorder in September 11 victims. If the interview went well, Mary would become the woman’s assistant.

“I’ve got butterflies in my stomach,” Mary said.

Gretchen looked at the Monarchs and Blue Morphos swirling around them and wondered if Mary meant she’d swallowed one. Mary was a little off sometimes. But then Gretchen caught on. Mary meant she had nerves. She was making a joke.

“You’ll be great,” Gretchen said, and smiled, and squeezed Mary’s hand. The two often held hands, and they liked doing so, although lately Gretchen had begun to secretly resent that Mary treated her in the same way she treated her many male admirers, giggling too cutely when Gretchen made jokes and putting too much effort into planning their excursions. Gretchen was also beginning to feel that they’d been friends for too long to carry on like this, petting one another. According to commonly held wisdom about female friendships, by now they should have been undermining each other with prickly jabs, letting their judgments hack away at one another’s self-esteem. History was dotted with tales of female friendships that had likewise soured, rotting into rivalries and sometimes even ending in bloodshed. But that had not been the case in their friendship. And Gretchen, at least, was in need of a wholesome friendship, something simple, pure, and easy.

The vivarium, the length of a subway car, had cost fourteen dollars admission on top of the museum’s regular fee, and so, being young and poor, they took their time perusing the placards and inching down the exhibit, even though the room was humid and they were wearing jackets. As they strolled, Gretchen hoped the butterflies would not land on her. They were beautiful, but she did not consider herself a nature person. When an Owl butterfly fluttered off a leaf and alighted on Mary’s soft, round shoulder, Mary asked to have her picture taken. Gretchen would have brushed it off.

Near the exit doors, the caterpillars were stored in a small display case. It was hard for Gretchen to see they were alive except for the fact that one leaf shook under the weight where several of them had bunched together, crawling toward the stem. A few of the butterfly larvae had become chrysalides; these hung from the branches like straightjacketed men. One had bound himself to the display’s windowsill and convulsed as the small children standing near Gretchen and Mary tapped their fingers against the glass. The children laughed loudly, oh yes-tyrannical little gods.

By five o’clock Gretchen and Mary had exhausted the museum. Mary had to leave for a date she’d found on the Internet. She worried he would be shorter than he claimed. Privately Gretchen thought that anything would be better than the man Mary had been seeing-her married boss. If Mary had been someone else, Gretchen would have said to her, “You should love yourself enough to find an emotionally available, unattached man.”  But you see, they weren’t in the stage of friendship where such remarks could be made, even masked by opaque wording. So instead, Gretchen wished Mary luck.

Mary kissed Gretchen on the cheek and said goodbye. Gretchen took the train back to Brooklyn, having no Saturday night plans herself, and found her roommate home. He was a friend she had known since college who slammed the cupboard drawers and stomped around the apartment.

“Where have you been?” he asked.

“With Mary,” she said, “at the Museum of Natural History.”

“Why go all the way up there?”

Gretchen tried to slam the fridge door, but it silently eased itself shut. “I don’t know,” she said angrily. “Intellectual curiosity.”

He raked his hand through his hair. “How is she, anyway?”

“She’s fine. Going on a date tonight.”

“Does she need a ride? Because I’d like to take her all the way.”

Gretchen’s ability to decode figurative speech failed again, and it took her a moment to figure out what he was implying. She stared blankly ahead at the plastic fruit lying on the kitchen counter. “No,” she finally said, and went to her room and shut the door. Later that night she looked up brain disorders on the Internet, wondering what had been causing her linguistic troubles. She looked at the peeling paint on her radiator. Lead, maybe. Still later she phoned the emotionally unavailable man in her own life and asked him to come over. But this isn’t a story about that.


            Mary called Gretchen the next day. “I don’t want to be small,” she said-which confused Gretchen, since Mary was rather small, barely five feet and at most one-ten-“but he’s short. Five-four, tops.”

Had Gretchen been more direct, she might have asked about the date’s character, whether he seemed like a man who might be worth getting to know better. “Good things come in small packages,” she might have joked, had her language facilities been sharp and had she felt comfortable enough with Mary.

“But let’s not talk about him,” Mary said, her voice tiny, the reception crackling. “I need help planning for the interview next week.”

“I’ll help,” Gretchen said, alacritous, always, for Mary.

So Mary invited Gretchen to come to Queens for the night. And since it was Sunday, when the train service between the boroughs was fickle-and because Gretchen could not afford to take car service home instead-Gretchen would commute from Mary’s place in the morning. Gretchen packed her overnight bag with a gray dress and a pair of ballet flats and traveled on the trains for over an hour to reach Mary’s apartment in Queens.

Mary’s apartment was much larger than anything a typical young person might rent in Brooklyn, and for as long as they had been friends, Gretchen had enjoyed a recurring dream about Mary’s apartment. In the dream, Gretchen walked through Mary’s bedroom and found a door that opened into secret, bigger rooms and hallways, ones that did not exist in waking life.  These empty rooms were sparsely decorated, sometimes containing only a chair or couch, and sometimes they were windowless with low, cage-like ceilings. In these dreams, Gretchen always knew the newfound spaces could be hers to fill, if she wanted them, and she woke up feeling ecstatic.

In real life, Mary kept all her books in the bedroom, stacked on the bookshelves haphazardly to fit-some vertically, some horizontally, and some tucked behind the rows because they could not fit on the three bookshelves otherwise. On the windowsill Mary kept a collection of plants, large and small, succulents nestled among the green and leafy. How she kept them alive, Gretchen could not understand. Gretchen had no talent with houseplants. She was not a nature person. She could barely keep alive her one zebrina plant, even though the man at the nursery with a tear drop tattoo had said it would be easy.

Gretchen sat on Mary’s futon, her legs crossed at the ankles, watching while Mary gave a preview of her interview outfit options. “I’ve been agonizing,” Mary said. “I need a fresh pair of eyes.”

Gretchen wondered for a moment how Mary would get these eyes.

On the bottom Mary wore a gray tweed skirt. On the top she was shirtless, displaying her barbell nipple piercings. Gretchen had known about them, but never seen them. To Gretchen they looked painful and deforming. Mary buttoned up a white chiffon blouse. “Of course I’d wear a bra,” Mary said. “But what do you think?”

Gretchen told her it was good, but in truth she thought the chiffon too frilly to be professional. Mary switched to a red sweater with a deeply plunging neckline.

“How about this one?” she asked.

Gretchen hesitated. “A bit low cut, maybe?”

Mary sighed. “You think?”

“Or maybe it’s the color,” Gretchen quickly added. “Maybe the cut and color together.”

The last option Mary tried on was a worsted wool pantsuit. Although the seat bagged a bit and the sleeves came short of Mary’s wrists, Gretchen thought it looked professional.

“The suit is most suitable,” Gretchen said. Mary laughed. Gretchen clarified. “You can’t overdress for a first interview.”

“So the best is worsted,” Mary said. She sighed again, and changed back into her jeans.  “Dinner?” she asked.

Before they left for the restaurant, Gretchen used Mary’s bathroom. There was a book on the tub’s ledge, a first edition of Veronica. It was Mary’s habit, Gretchen knew, to take the dust-jackets off while she read in the bath. This was one of the reasons Gretchen loved Mary.


Gretchen and Mary were drunk by the time they left the restaurant and stumbled down Roosevelt Avenue. The liquor store they found was shadowed by the elevated tracks. Its back walls were packed high with brown boxes and dark bottles. They wanted two bottles of cheap wine-they knew that much-but didn’t know how to pick, so they decided to choose bottles based on the animals on their labels.

Gretchen draped her arm around Mary’s shoulder, although the great difference in their height always made Gretchen, the taller, feel awkward, as if they represented different species: there was no way they could both represent the human female. The old man behind the counter leered at them, his gaze both sexual and disapproving. The first bottle they selected featured a lioness stalking. The second label showed a cheetah, ready to pounce. “Meow meow,” Mary said, pulling Gretchen close.

At the apartment Mary uncorked the bottles and filled their glasses once, then twice, then a third time. They changed into their stained and unraveling sleeping clothes and set the alarm. Mary’s small futon lay on the ground beneath her windowsill garden, and branches and leaves hung over them. They turned on the TV at the foot of the bed and listened to a gentle narrator speak about the forests of the northern hemisphere. Mary turned the volume low.

            “So this woman, my job interview,” Mary said. “Do you want to hear what she’s researching now?”

“Sure,” Gretchen said, loopy and taciturn. She sneezed into her hand.

“She’s researching postpartum depression in September 11 survivors. Some of them were pregnant at the time. That means the babies are what, two or three now? Shooting up like beanstalks.”

“I don’t understand,” Gretchen said, meaning beanstalks, for her problem lingered. She laid her face on the pillow.  Mary took a swig from her glass and went on.

“The question is whether the mothers are normal or not. Whether being in that type of trauma can affect these women long term, whether they’ll be overly clingy mothers or emotionally distant. Dr. Morrow checks the mothers. Later she’ll do the children too. To see how messed up they are.”

Gretchen’s eyelids grew heavy. “That’s intense,” she said, and she meant it.

“I was here, you know, in Queens. I should have been on the train, but I was hungover. So I’d slept in, really late. I didn’t hear anyone call. When I woke up I noticed the planes weren’t overhead. Usually I hear them every few minutes going into LaGuardia.”

Gretchen knew that Mary was saying something important and intimate. Gretchen knew she should say something back, but she was very tired. She wished Mary would stop talking.

But Mary spoke again. “I had one of those hangovers where you’d rather die than stay awake. When I turned on the TV and saw what happened, I thought, how useless am I?” Mary was quiet for a minute. “Were you here? When it happened?”

Gretchen had already drooled on the pillow, so close she was to passing out. “I was in Philadelphia,” she muttered, and closed her eyes.

The next time she stirred, Gretchen realized Mary had turned off the lamp. The television was still on, the program about forests running, with the camera panned high above the canopy, zooming out to show the forest’s great expanse. Mary was still drinking wine, still propped up on her pillow, leaning towards Gretchen. The program’s narrator said something about the Ukraine, and Gretchen dozed. When she awoke again the room was dark and Mary’s arm lay across her chest, her hand cupped under Gretchen’s breast. Gretchen figured Mary had groped her asleep, dreaming of someone else. She took Mary’s hand off her breast and moved it aside. Mary groaned and rolled onto her back.

Later Gretchen woke up again and felt the futon shaking. Mary was panting and rubbing herself. Gretchen shut her eyes, embarrassed for them both. But Mary’s panting grew louder and she began moaning. Gretchen felt Mary’s arm brush against her, and she realized Mary intended for her to know. No form of speech, figurative or not, could have made this less clear. As Mary’s mewling grew louder, Gretchen’s doubts disappeared. The sounds Mary made were arousing to Gretchen-although she never would have admitted it-and had it been a man beside her, she would have gotten out of bed, argued, slapped him, she was sure.  She would have demanded cab fare to get home. But it wasn’t a man. It was Mary. Suddenly Gretchen understood that Mary was forcing her to make a choice. Gretchen could speak now, and surrender herself to a change in their friendship, or she could stay silent, preserving an illusion of something she loved, though it would now be fake forever.  Gretchen closed her eyes and stayed still. When it was over, and Mary had lain silent for a while, Gretchen went to the bathroom, ran the tap cold, and splashed her face. She took the book from the tub’s ledge and ripped out the last page, then tore it into tiny pieces and flushed them down the toilet-a make-do act of passive vengeance.

Back on the futon, Gretchen kept herself contained near the edge, her back turned towards Mary, arms curled under her head. In the morning Mary served them cottage cheese mixed with blueberries and pretended nothing had happened. They sat at her kitchen table, beneath a big window.

“I slept like a log,” Mary said. “You?”

Logs don’t sleep, Gretchen thought. Nor do they masturbate next to their sleeping log friends.

“I was too drunk.” Gretchen shaded her eyes from the daggering sunbeams. The window above the kitchen table was enormous. Gretchen wondered what a giant, looking in the window of this Queens kitchen, would see. The apartment, so large to Gretchen, would seem miniscule to the giant, and she and Mary would both seem small and lifeless, like miniature dolls.


Back at her apartment that night, Gretchen’s roommate asked about Mary.  “How was your sleepover?” he said. “You ladies paint each others’ nails?”

Gretchen told him that yes, they did paint each other’s nails. That hers had been painted Yellow Rose. Mary’s, Sparkle Blue. That they had watched old episodes of I Love Lucy, laughed until they almost peed, ate brownies, and made crank calls. There were other things, too, Gretchen told him-secret girl things he could never know about.


Mary called the next day, sounding devastated. “I’m pretty sure I bombed it.”

“Bombed it?” Gretchen said, muddled. “You bombed something?”

“You know, the interview. I don’t think it went well. I doubt I’ll get the job.”

A minute sense of figurative language was starting to creep back into Gretchen. The little beast inside of her licked its paws. She rolled on her back and stared at the ceiling. “Did you wear the red sweater?”

Mary was quiet for a minute. “Why?”

Gretchen’s voice fluttered high. “It was a little, well.  To me, I guess-” Gretchen swallowed. She let her voice go cold. “It looked cheap.”

“What?  No, I didn’t wear it.” Mary’s voice wavered.

“What went wrong, then?” Gretchen paused. “Did you act professional? Were you hung over?  Sometimes you have a tendency to self-sabotage, you know.” When Mary didn’t say anything, Gretchen said, “Hello? Can you hear me?”

“I wore the worsted wool.” Mary’s voice sounded small and distant.

“Oh,” Gretchen said. “Then I’m sure you looked great, at least.” Her figurative speech clicked on fully right then. She was cutting someone down to size.

Gretchen hung up and remembered lying stunned and paralyzed next to Mary while Mary groaned and squirmed, and how much simpler their friendship had been earlier that same evening, playing dress-up for Mary’s interview. Now, with her language facilities restored, Gretchen better understood what had happened between them on the futon. To have acknowledged the situation would have been like opening the shutters in a rainstorm and letting the damaging gales whip inside a fragile home. Mary had held Gretchen in check like a chess Queen, cornering her there on the futon’s edge, but Gretchen had demanded a choice; Gretchen had played dead.


            The expression “to fall asleep” makes little sense, but perhaps has something to do with the common dream sensation, most often experienced in the first minutes of slumber, of tripping or dropping, freefall, several feet. “To fall in love” is a stranger one-more mysterious, too.  Surely it has something to do with the vulnerability of falling, of slipping, of surrendering control.

The two friends didn’t see each other for months-that was easy enough, having the excuse of living in such a big and messy city-and when they did see each other, they were at parties, hectic environments where they did not have to be alone. A little over a year later, Gretchen moved back to Philadelphia and made several trips to New York before she thought of calling Mary. When she did call, it was because she’d seen an ad for the Butterfly Conservatory and been reminded of their trip. Gretchen didn’t have much of a reason, but enough time had passed for the night in Queens to seem small. She still dreamt about Mary’s apartment and its secret rooms.

They met in Manhattan, at a small café on the Upper West Side. Mary was living in Englewood now, and had come to the city by bus. She was working for the psychologist. Gretchen asked about the job, and tried to listen, but in truth, Mary bored her now. Gretchen picked at her croissant as Mary spoke. They didn’t have much to say. Still Gretchen felt the rush of the familiar, sitting there across from Mary, and felt comforted by Mary’s presence and satisfied with herself for initiating their reunion. Gretchen left the cafe feeling dazed but ecstatic.

As Gretchen walked uptown, the wind whistled around the street corners. On her way to the subway, she saw another poster for the vivarium, with an illustration of a caterpillar. Butterflies, she remembered, were different from moths-unlike the moth caterpillars who became ensconced in cocoons, butterfly larvae became chrysalides, and completed their metamorphosis when they abandoned their hard shells.

Gretchen remembered then that after Mary and she had gone through the vivarium, they took turns showing each other their other favorite parts of the Natural History Museum. Mary had taken her to see the dinosaurs. The T-Rex fossil copy had been rearranged, though, since Mary had last seen it, due to new discoveries about the dinosaurs’ physiques. The scientists now believed that what they had initially assumed-a standing posture-would have been anatomically impossible. Now the dinosaur lunged forward, stalking. She and Mary had stood before the display, staring at the wires and bolts and cables suspending the bones. “It’s squatter, mounted this way,” Mary had said. She had folded her arms and sighed. “How do they know how it’s supposed to be, anyway?  It’s disappointing, really.”

And when it had come time for Gretchen to show Mary her favorite part, Gretchen had led her into the habitat rooms, which she had loved ever since she was a little girl. Perhaps that strange episode of not understanding figurative language had begun even then, she realized now, for as a child she had never enjoyed thinking about the actual flora and fauna represented in the dioramas. She had never imagined them coming to life, or fantasized about what life might have been like there, in those other, distant, extinct places; instead she had wished she could invade the museum at night and rearrange the exhibitions. There she could have full rein, you see, pretending to be a manager, a night guard, or perhaps even the taxidermist responsible for stuffing the creatures.

On the street corner Gretchen stopped walking and stood still, marveling at this.  To fantasize about being a taxidermist! Such a lack of imagination in a child was no doubt indicative of a greater problem. And why had she loved those old habitat rooms, anyway? She had really believed she loved them-yes-with their dead, sad, glass-eyed animals cornered in imaginary homes.

Emily Howorth has fiction forthcoming in Boulevard, and her stories have appeared recently in wigleaf, New Madrid, and other journals. More can be found at emilyhoworth.com. This story first appeared in Washington Square Review as the winner of that magazine's 2011 Fiction Award.
7.08 / August 2012