The Butterfly Nebula – Chapter 20 Revised

August 3, 2016

 

Chapter 20 — Home

“I had an affair,” she said.

Gladys and I were seated in our living room facing one another. Monday afternoon. I had been home for all of 20 minutes which had allowed us enough time to talk excitedly about the coming baby. The segue from “baby” to “affair” was like a sweet melody crashing into a dissonant chord. And something in Gladys’s timing seemed grotesque, as much as she may have needed to get her announcement over with—to purge, atone, confess, release, wallow in catharsis, seek forgiveness? Couldn’t she have waited until tomorrow at least and given me a little more time to bask in the strange but euphoric glow of impending fatherhood? Gladys became frightened. The look on her face as she began telling me of the affair had been direct and honest in the wake of shared tenderness, but then my face must have darkened instantly because her expression instantly turned fearful, hesitant, mostly worried. She may have felt the need to soften the blow by calling me in Arizona with news of the pregnancy. I guess she believed we were closer now, which we undoubtedly were. Nature had already seen to that.

“Who?”

“You’re not going to like this . . . Bob Lane.”

Bob Lane? How was that even possible? I couldn’t wrap my mind around it, because if there were ever two people less likely to engage in a relationship it would have to have been those two. Where were Bob’s playmates? His bimbos? I could understand his eventually tiring of them and seeking out someone more intelligent, more mature, someone he could actually talk to and conduct a life with, but Gladys? What on Earth did he see in Gladys? And what did Gladys see in him? Possibly wealth (no small thing). At least we cared enough for each other despite all our problems. Occasionally I’d found it difficult to imagine Gladys having sex with anyone, but she and Lane rolling in the hay was beyond my comprehension.

“Bob Lane . . . Wow . . . I always thought you hated him.”

Gladys fidgeted.

“People change—“

“No, they don’t”

She possessed the information I needed and was going to take her time presenting it.

“He paid attention to me,” she said. “He was kind and I felt sorry for him. He’d been having a lot of regrets about his divorce. His kids don’t want to have anything to do with him. The mother has poisoned the kids against him; she’s brainwashed them even though everyone is well taken care of. Bob was really down, despondent over the bad decisions he’d made, the lifestyle he’d chosen that ultimately left him empty inside.”

“We’re talking about Bob Lane?”

I couldn’t tell whether or not I was seething with anger, inwardly laughing at the absurdity of it, or merely stunned and incredulous. Maybe all three.

“How did it happen? I mean, how did you two arrange things?”

“He showed up at the house one day and invited me out for coffee. It was great. We talked for a couple hours. Bob thinks very highly of you, by the way.”

“Of course he does,” I said, giving her a look.

Gladys shifted in the chair and scratched her stomach.

“Don’t be like that, please—“

“How am I supposed to be?”

“I don’t know . . . anyway, that’s how the whole thing started. He usually took me to his place. Sometimes we’d go to a motel. It lasted from June through October. I broke it off and he totally understood.”

“Then there’s no chance—“

“Of the baby being his? No, none whatsoever.”

The timeline seemed plausible. Bob had left for Mexico before Christmas. Gladys and I had made love New Year’s Eve. If she and Bob had stopped having sex in late October, as Gladys claimed, then Bob Lane’s paternity was out of the question. The timeline came as a bit of a relief. There was no way I would have raised his kid. I had already sacrificed enough for him.

“But if it hadn’t been for Bob,” Gladys continued, “we wouldn’t be having this baby.”

“How so?” I asked her.

“Wanting Bob made me want you all over again. He drove me back into your arms—literally. But it’s always so hard to pull you away from your telescopes, Soren. New Year’s looked perfect. You were out with Frank and Claudia and relaxed from a few drinks, so I seduced you as soon as you got home.”

A spate of not-too-pretty images and ideas were crowding in my head, but one idea persistently nagged above all others and Gladys read my mind: Bob rushing out of the Starlight Tavern the night before Easter.

“I lied about being at my mother’s that night. Bob sounded too alone so I made plans to see him. Believe me, nothing happened, there was no sex. In fact, during our affair there were a number of times that we skipped sex and instead just held each other and talked.”

I couldn’t decide which picture seemed worse: The sex and rush to sex? Or Gladys and Bob cuddling as they opened the sluice floodgates and tearfully mourned their regrets and longings, two lonely hearts conjoined in some sterile hotel room, somewhere.

 

My glass room observatory appeared smaller in scale and less significant after the grandeur of the Empyrean Observatory and its mammoth Cristallinum and Primum Mobile telescopes. I realized I might need some time to feel comfortable working in this room again, though I conceded my becoming a little spoiled on the summit of Blake’s Peak, in the world of “real” astronomers, I still loved my home observatory and my amateur astronomy work. I knew that available time for the glass room observatory was going to be shortened in the coming years, and I struggled internally with that sacrifice—foregoing a longstanding happiness for the sake of a new one. It seemed crazy to think I’d be able to carry on with my life as I’d always done, and Gladys would never allow it while we raised this child.

I hadn’t bothered with my routine of astronomy one I’d gotten home. At least not right away. The work I’d undertaken of following and cataloging multiple star systems (including Burns and Allen, Scorpius-429) had lost momentum, though for a more important reason. Instead, I would spend a random night or two observing Saturn or the Moons of Jupiter—faithful objects that were predictably compelling as the great familiar giants of our solar system. Still haunted by the expectation of twins, I’d made a cursory viewing of the Geminids.

I enjoyed returning to Brainchild Scientific. My co-workers, those I managed, appeared happy to have me back, which I took as a good sign. Amidst the generators and mineral collections, the fossilized insects and optics kits and sextants and star charts, the astrolabes, dinosaur displays and of course telescopes, I would see the jar containing the bird skeleton and Beatrice holding it, see her joy and child-like fascination, and I would feel a fleeting pang all the more remarkable because of everything I’d been through with her since that first moment. I knew I wasn’t going to see Beatrice for some time, but Laura would be my connection to her, and also to Wyatt Edwin or Tatiana once he or she arrived.

I spoke with Laura the second day after returning to the store. She had been out the first day and I asked her whether Beatrice had commented on the trip. Laura told me told she’d heard all about Adam and Eve, the Primum Mobile telescope and Butterfly Nebula, the canyon, magic mushrooms and alien hallucinations. She’d heard the story of the scorpion sting and of a Navajo jewelry maker named Virgil who’d given Beatrice an intricate, magnificently wrought bracelet. And apparently Beatrice said I had treated her pretty well and we’d had fun together. Then Laura abruptly stopped talking, not unusual for her, though I sensed she was keeping something from me. I searched Laura’s face for clues.

“Beatrice is having doubts about keeping the baby,” she said.

Those words cut deep.

“It’s a little late for that, isn’t it?”

Laura stared at me.

“Not entirely.”

“Shouldn’t I have a say in her decision?”
“It’s still her decision . . . to get the abortion, terminate the pregnancy . . . it’s her body.”

When I didn’t say anything, Laura added: “I begged her not to.”

“She’ll have the baby,” I said, thinking of how often Beatrice talked about the baby and her pregnancy on our trip, her worry after the scorpion sting. I recalled the smooth ivory mound of her belly with its sash of moonlight, a communion of salt seas and tides in that high dry canyon. There wasn’t anything more sacred on Earth.

“She’ll have the baby,” I said. “I’m sure of it.”

 

I drove to and from work each day as if nothing in my life had changed. But in the pale green of early Maple leaves and the white apple blossoms and Magnolia buds, and with the grass tall and slick from recent April rain, I kept recalling the desert and its geometry of shadows. The Chollo and Ocotillo in bloom, Saguarro cactus, but no Maples and no grass except artificial turf in some suburban developments. I could still feel the powdery soil beneath my feet moving across the ground of the reservoir, like the soil of another planet, devoid of things like lawns and meadows, mountain glades, more like Mars or the fictional Arrakis. The Hopi believed they could only inhabit such land in order to carry out the spiritual existence they’d chosen, and the southwest corner of desert states extended farther down through the latitudes into Mesoamerica and the great civilizations whose timeless gods I’d seen leering back at me on the frieze of the Empyrean as if to say: What do you really know in your puny suburban landscape? Your personal problems are trivial. The heavens in which we abide are just as real as yours. . . .

Although I’d greeted Laura’s news of Beatrice’s abortion with surprise, Beatrice had alluded to that subject the last night we were on the road. Too tired to drive further, we’d stopped at a motel in Ohio just across the Indiana border, and after checking in had dinner at a nearby T.G.I. Friday’s. The place had exuded a hyper neurosis that signaled we were definitely back East or getting very close. The patrons had looked either tense and bitchy, or sad and alienated, while our waiter scrambled among the tables because his job depended on it, and when taking our order I’d noticed a rapid tic in his cheekbone. Beatrice had been clearly depressed from lack of sleep and the dreadful ambience of the restaurant and I could read in her face the wish to return to a cantina. She hadn’t eaten anything but instead gulped a few cups of coffee and commenced a stream-of-consciousness litany about death and returning West and hallucinating and her dream and Virgil and Laura and her bracelet and a snippet on not having the baby among other clamoring thoughts. I had eaten a cheeseburger and fries and enjoyed a couple of beers. I’d mostly kept my mouth shut. . . after dinner I’d drifted off to a half sleep in my motel room with the TV still on, something more contemporary and vacuous than Burns and Allen. In my semi-conscious state I had argued violently with Beatrice until, yanking a lamp from the wall, I’d brought it crashing down onto her skull. I’d then donned the coyote mask, or I might have become Egyptian Set, and rolling her inanimate body into the plastic motel shower curtain with a tacky flower print, dropped it into the canyon abyss—a hazy illusion of leaf petal falling as if the canyon had been a weightless space. I’d held the fetus in the palm of my hand, an exact likeness of me, gazing into my eyes with innocent wonder. I’d then bolted upright in bed to the garish images and laugh track of a sitcom, heart racing. A small cry escaped my parched throat. And I immediately recalled two movies I’d seen the previous year: “Alien” and with Kyle, a midnight showing of “Eraserhead.”

“So, who is she then?” Eve Atwater had asked me when I’d told her that Beatrice was neither wife, nor girlfriend, and definitely not my daughter.  Eve had this blunt, direct way of questioning, which made me realize she lacked social boundaries, similar to me at times. Eve did not mince words, and I had been uneasy in her presence as much I had liked her. Her question regarding Beatrice had somehow probed deeper into my psyche as more than a mere statement of relationship. I didn’t know Beatrice any more than I knew myself. I knew that she would be having a child and that I was the child’s father—that was about it.

When the dome of the Empyrean gaped open to the miraculous night sky, it felt as though I was rising into Heaven, that I was as close as I would ever come to gaining Heaven while still anchored to this planet. I wanted to ascend like the Australian café’ owner in Beatrice’s dream, a genie wrapped in vortices of campfire smoke. Beatrice had told me of the child I’d thrown away trailed by the falling stars that turned into snowflakes sifting down through the canyon walls, and I remembered that night sitting in my truck with Laura as the snow made a glittering veil around the house and Beatrice stood in the white and silver radiance of her window like a patient saint. . . .

The day we returned she’d asked me to take her directly to her school. “I honestly don’t know if it’s good to be home or not,” she’d said. “I’m ambivalent.” And at the time I’d questioned my ambivalence too. In the moment I’d sensed a finality and deep loss that was sickening at the end of our great adventure, and as Beatrice angled her body toward the door, studying me, thinking of what to say, the scene reminded of a father dropping off his daughter at high school, though in the real world the daughter would have given her father a peck on the check and then hurry off to be with her friends. That was years away for me, but a second or two later, as if reading my mind, Beatrice had leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.

“I don’t want to get into a corny goodbye,” she’d said. “I will have this baby and you can see her—or him—whenever. Everything’s going to be fine.”

End of Part II

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