The Butterfly Nebula 10 – Sad Laura

March 8, 2014

Sad Laura may have been my best worker at the Brainchild Scientific warehouse store, but in the three years I’d been working with her I knew little about her, about what she did with her free time besides reading, and I mostly couldn’t talk to her. I understood Sad Laura’s need and craving for solitude because I had it myself. That part of me which always sought time alone with my telescopes was not unlike Laura’s breaks in the lunchroom, or outside at the picnic table, with a novel of George Eliot or Thomas Hardy; perhaps Hawthorne, Dickens, Dostoevsky, or Dumas. Although I hardly knew her, I knew that Laura and I had in common this desire for privacy, to close ourselves off from everyone and concentrate on feeding the mind and spirit. I was a big reader too, though much of my reading tended toward applied science and modern history, science fiction, Carlos Castaneda, and some Beat Literature. The difference between us was that I enjoyed socializing and being in the world, whereas Laura retreated from the world out of shyness, extreme introversion and a pathological avoidance of other people, especially people in groups. She had black hair cut in bangs and blue eyes. She was thin and by no means unattractive, and she was kind and intelligent. But I occasionally wondered how Sad Laura would ever meet anyone if she couldn’t open her mouth or talk about herself, show a little ego. The very traits that made her likable—reticence, unselfish, an absence of obnoxious behavior—also worked against her at times.

I did know one other thing about Sad Laura: she occasionally expressed a romantic nostalgia regarding The Past, particularly the Middle Ages and 19th Century America—both epochs of rampant disease and high mortality rates—and she believed that we were living in the “end times” and that the world would cease to exist (or mankind would) before the year 2000. When Kyle played his radio in the lunchroom, I would hear a song, “Rock and Roll Radio” by this band The Ramones, and was struck by the lyrics: “It’s the end, the end of the 70s; it’s the end, the end of the century.”

One day in the lunchroom Laura and I discussed the coming apocalypse.

“Are you a born-again?”

“Of course not,” she said emphatically.

“Have you ever read ‘The Late Great Planet Earth’?”

“No, can’t say that I have.”

“Heard of it?”

“I am not born again.

I poured some coffee, stirred in powdered creamer, and sat across the table from her.

“Then why do you believe these are the last days?”

“Just take a look around you,” Laura said, her tone a bit louder, slightly angered and impassioned. “Can’t you see that the world or the entire human race is sinking? Acid rain? Cambodia? Hostages in Iran?”

“Things have always been bad,” I reminded her. “Poverty, starvation, wars and plagues. Why are these times any different?”

“I’ll tell you why. They’re different because of our so-called good intentions to eliminate war and disease, and to rape and spoil the planet, to control human behavior, to control nature.”
“My belief in intelligent life on other planets makes me more optimistic about the fate of our own world,” I said a bit pompously.

Sad Laura frowned.

“Right, so we’ll just leave Earth and head out into space to foul up some other world. That is definitely how we do things.”

I would not see Beatrice again for two and a half weeks, and though I was grateful for our nativity and moments of transcendence, I could not understand the void of contact that followed. The week after Christmas was ecstasy and torture. I went through the motions of work and home and star watching but mostly lived with this insanely potent memory of her and of the two of us. I had no idea what she thought of me, and what she’d thought of Christmas Eve, and if she even bothered to think of me at all. I wondered how Beatrice might be spending her time over Christmas break, and most importantly why she hadn’t bothered to stop by the store to see me. I couldn’t call her—we had forgotten to exchange phone numbers! I was probably too old for her anyway. I considered driving to her house but always resisted because I didn’t want to appear as if I were stalking her. I realized with some pain and disappointment that if Beatrice wanted to see me she could have easily driven to Brainchild Scientific. She knew where to find me if she needed to find me. And she loved the store.

In the waning days of the year I spent time each morning at dawn observing Venus. I could see the phases clearly in my Cassegrain Reflector. Venus is brightest during crescent phase, and at maximum elongation from the sun it is a platinum coal. I find it hard to imagine the mythological connection with Love or Eros to this planet of extreme heat, volcanoes, and greenhouse gases (an atmosphere 96% carbon dioxide), unless you imagine love as always hot, sultry and suffocating. Astrologically, Venus in relation to medicine, to healing, possesses the attributes of warm and moist, which is sexy. . . . In these early morning observations of Venus I was trying to understand the planet metaphorically, wishing for a revelation on romance and sex and a nascent relationship. I thought about the transit of Venus, a rare astronomical event last seen in 1882 that would occur again in 2004, 25 years from now, and I hoped
I would be alive to see it. I have this capacity for waiting when it comes to stars and love.

The third sphere was Venus. Venus, who “rayed down love madness, leaving men distraught.”

From her with whom my song began just now
They took the name of the star that woos the Sun,
Now shining at its nape, now at its brow.

I reached it unaware of my ascent,
But my lady made me certain I was there
Because I saw her grow more radiant.*

And I thought of Beatrice every day as I watched the morning star and she became more radiant in my mind’s eye, in the wake of our night following winter solstice, in those first days of waxing sunlight and the promise of spring and early planting. Her absence alone swelled her radiance, like a bulging supernova, that whenever I saw her next I believed she would simply burst with light. With Christmas I’d traversed from one fire to another, from the craving for sex, communion and intimacy, to the lust for more, and yet my love for Beatrice superseded the bluntly carnal, ascended to the realm of caritas and the eternal seraphim, the Souls of the Amorous. In the sleepy solstice dawn the Souls of the Amorous were radiant and Beatrice was radiant. Everywhere I looked I saw boundless love and radiance.

On New Year’s Eve I drank with a neighbor couple at the Starlight Tavern. I had no idea where Gladys had disappeared to, and I’d left her a note asking her to join me at the Starlight along with Frank and Claudia. The three of us had a low-key celebration and I left the tavern an hour before midnight. I entered the house slightly drunk, and found Gladys slightly drunk too, standing and leaning against the living room archway. Something felt out of place. Normally Gladys would be asleep by now, even if it was New Year’s Eve, but she was quite awake and in her panties, knee socks and sweat shirt. She was wearing eyeliner and lipstick and her aura emanated a desire and passion that I had not seen from her in well over a decade. It was as if Gladys had somehow held secret commerce with Beatrice, in which Beatrice had touched Gladys, and I briefly dreamt the two of them enmeshed in a series of erotic poses. What was going on?

“Happy New Year,” I muttered, slurring the word “year.”

Gladys didn’t return my greeting, an unfamiliar alien heat in her eyes. Her hands were behind her lower back, pressed to the wall, and she soon used them to push off the wall, propelling her towards me with a graceful and gliding step despite her intoxication. Did she conceal a knife again behind her back? A little Happy New Year surprise? But no, she reached out and held both my arms, searched my eyes and smiled.

“I want you,” was all she said.

Ten days later a heavy snow storm descended on our region. I decided to close the store early, about an hour-and-a-half before dark. Kyle jokingly called it a “brain drain” as all store and warehouse employees hurried out the doors and began turning on their car engines and scraping windshields. I stayed behind to work on closing out the registers and resetting the alarm system. I owned a Chevy pickup which I often drove to the store to use as an alternate vehicle, and I was glad that I’d brought the pickup today. Although the radio weather reports were predictably dire and sensational, I didn’t need to hear them, I had proof enough. The view from Brainchild’s front window was of an ash colored sky with ice and snow racing and gusting into the glass.

I thought everyone had left when Sad Laura approached me and asked for a ride home. It was already dusk and the street lamps had just come on, eddies of spinning snowflakes in cones of fluorescent light. Sad Laura’s car was at her house with a dead battery. She had gotten a ride to work that morning from a friend but the friend wouldn’t be able to pick her up now because of the snow. I agreed to drive Laura home. I didn’t think the snow would be a problem for my pickup. I knew the direction to Laura’s house because I’d given her a ride once a couple years ago, but when I began taking that route, she corrected me.

“When did you move?” I asked her.

“About a year ago.”

“To where?”

“Take Somerset Road. You’ll see.”

The streets were blanketed in moguls. People dressed in parkas and winter coats were shoveling ahead of the storm’s end so they’d have less to shovel later. Leaving town I drove the county roads and then turned onto more quiet residential streets, a feeling of creeping dread, uneasy with the route we now followed. Sad Laura talked out of necessity to give me directions. She appeared relieved not to be driving in this weather.

“Make a left at the next street,” she said.

“Still reading Thomas Hardy?”

She nodded.

“Do you ever read any contemporary or ‘living’ authors? You know, best sellers? Popular novels?”

“Rita-Mae Brown”

“Don’t know who that is,” I said.

“I didn’t think you would . . . make one more left and then a sharp right.”

I knew these streets; the route seemed more than a coincidence. The snow fell harder, nebula bursts in the keening wind. Porch and front lawn lights were haloed globes in the January darkness. And yet I was certain of where we were, there was no getting around it. I had been here before . . . and not that long ago.

“Next house on the right,” Sad Laura pointed, but I’d already
started easing the pickup into her driveway.

“Are you psychic? How did you know I lived here?”

Two cars were parked in the driveway ahead of me. The Impala-6 with the dead battery was Laura’s. The other was a red Honda Civic.

There were layers between us—car, snow, house, nightfall. Her figure stood behind the bay window, the curtains slightly drawn and parted, her oval face lovely, ethereal in shining glass. Against the house a wedge of new snow glittered in the pickup’s headlight beams and crystals fastened on the windshield between rhythmic sweeps of the wiper blades. The figure in the window waited.

Sad Laura sensed my sudden agitation. She was hesitant, uncertain, and a bit afraid of me in the moment.

“Thank you so much,” she said warily, not fully comprehending.

“Don’t mention it, any time. . .”

“Would you like to come in for a hot drink?”

With my hand clenched on the steering wheel, I turned and stared at her.

“Does Beatrice live here?”

The question sounded like an accusation.

“Yes, she does,” Laura said, as stunned and confused as me. “This is our house. We live here together,” she added, nearly whispered.

The figure in the window still waited for us, a warm beacon in the snow and winter light, as if Laura and I were sailors coming into harbor.

“Ah, I see . . . are you two friends? Housemates?” I tried sounding casual and politely inquisitive, but my voice quavered and cracked, skidding off the normal baritone.

Sad Laura watched me and said nothing for close to a minute. I didn’t know her really. She wasn’t one of the squeaky wheels at Brainchild forever brown-nosing or whining to get my attention. She simply did her job and did it well and read her musty old novels and enjoyed her privacy and solitude. I had largely ignored her for the past three years, and it had been a pure, unwitting ignorance on my part, completely unlike the deliberate ignorance I had needed and adopted in order to navigate living with Gladys. Who was this woman? I knew she would answer my question honestly. A kindred and mysterious compassion swept over us as our suspended stares dissolved into one another. The snow continued to fall and Beatrice waited at the window.

“More than friends,” she said.

End of First Draft Part I
*The Paradiso, Dante’s Divine Comedy
translated by John Ciardi


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