Big cities always look warm. They look like this glowing, molten heap of golden treasure, all those hot lights condensed into one bright, immense star, giving heat to all those lucky enough to dwell under the surface.
The lights are magnificent. But they don’t keep the city warm. The city is coldly indifferent. Your mom died? Your sister’s on drugs? Someone you thought you trusted is suddenly completely different? The industrial concrete walls are deaf to your misery, blocking you in everywhere you turn, marching over you without a second thought. Without any thought at all.
I love this city, but it has no soul.
The subway tunnels thunder past the grimy window like so much constant murky water, one infinite and thunderous roar. It’s more peaceful than I’m making it sound. Really.
Only two more stops, and I’ll be at the apartment. I don’t know how late it is. Midnight? If anyone’s awake, they’ll be sitting in the living room watching TV. They’ll irritably acknowledge the glacial air attacking the living room when I open the door, ask halfheartedly what I brought home this time, ask if it’s food, then go back to their neverending movie. No one really feels like hanging out or talking these days, unless everyone’s in the living room, letting the television talk for them. I don’t blame them, but TV has never held much comfort for me. I’ll sit in my room and stare out the window at all the little ant-sized cars, so many people with so many stories, until I fall asleep sitting there. My sister will be in her room, out cold.
It’s been like this every Friday night for the last two months. If it weren’t for the circumstances, it might actually be kind of fun, going out as late as I wanted every weekend. Especially on my birthday, with my hundred bucks in gift money, Mom not caring.
It’s different when the person isn’t around to care at all.
The subway screeches to a stop; I put my knees against the seat in front of me to keep from falling off. One girl, in shabby clothes, a few years younger than me, stares openly at my shopping bags as she gets off. She probably thinks I’m some girl from some enormously wealthy family who goes out with everyone she knows and buys whatever she wants. She probably didn’t wonder why I was wearing sunglasses at night.
The subway has just talked itself into moving again when it slows and stops once more. We all sit, waiting—this happens every now and then.
Just as one man is standing up, the lights flicker and die.
I sigh, resigned, and wait as a few people, obviously from out of town, make startled noises and ask loudly what’s going on. I lean my head back and close my eyes. We’re not going anywhere for a little while, but waiting is better than walking.
I try to tune them out, drifting off and dreaming about the days when my mom and I watched birds in the park. Giving them dialogue. Turning it into a soap opera. We were devastated when Robin left his wife to take care of the eggs and maintain the nest, but he came crawling back a few hours later. We also used to—
A sudden shriek rips me awake. Stupid tourists.
Instead of the voices dying down, they’ve gotten more and more frightened. I try to tune them out, but it’s everyone on the train now. Is something actually happening? I open my eyes to see…
Butterflies. I’m not kidding.
Holy frack, there must be a thousand of them! I can easily make them out; they're glowing like copper in the sun. A fluttering mass of amber and black swells and rolls like a wave in the ocean, passing intricately through the subway train, heading for the back entrance. They pour right over my head, multitudes settling for a second on my head and arms, jumping up and delicately flying off, spiraling like so many pieces of paper someone has thrown to the floor. I’m drowning in butterflies, terrified to move for crushing the fragile things. The strange thing is, I barely even feel them at all. I mean, that makes sense, but there are so many of them. I can’t see anything else on the train. I can’t see myself. I can’t breathe.
The lights sputter on.
There’s silence for a long second. And then…
“What were y’all just freaking out about?”
“What do you mean, what? Are you that afraid of the dark? There were at least ten of y’all, screaming like Jesus had returned or something.”
“You didn’t see all those things?”
The conversation is being shouted across the train now, by various people. After a second it pushes together like stones in a pit and I lose track of who’s saying what.
I turn to the old man seated behind me.
“Did you see them?”
“The butterflies? Yes, I did. And they were lovely.”
I nod, not knowing what else to say. Some people saw them, some didn’t; I’m too tired to think about it right now. They were nice, they were a break from the ordinary, they were bizarre; I'm sure there's some disappointing explanation for them. Let’s be happy and move on. Anyway…what was it I dreamed about? Right, the birds. And…the other thing I used to do with Mom in the park? I pause. Oh. That’s a weird coincidence.
I laugh a little. “I used to count butterflies in the park with my mom. Monarchs like those. I just remembered.”
The old man nods seriously. “I used to do that too, with my wife. God bless her.”
This weird feeling comes to me as I stare at the old man. I decide not to mention it. I smile to myself.