Seven thousand feet in the air, a drunk butterfly teaches me to waltz. The Flagstaff Walmart shouldn’t be his natural habitat, but it is, stumbling around his plastic cup with two sips of liquor left to nurse, he tells the parking lot about Paris; the six months he stepped out of the closet and into Baldwin’s streets. J'étais un papillon, mouth overturned, tears on his cheeks. He is crystallizing. Un papillon at altitude. Un papillon up, arms as wide as papillon wings. He is high as can be.
Deep in the ground paleontologists uncovered the oldest couple in history and named it the Triassic Embrace. 250 million years ago, a handicapped amphibian—handicapped as in blunt force trauma to the ribcage, as in so little room left for the heart—shuffled into another creature’s burrow, snuggled around the stranger, and fell asleep. A flash flood swept in and gave us something to study. A most unlikely pair, drowned and fossilized. This was during the wake of a mass extinction event, an ecosystem in recovery. Soft tissue tells researchers both creatures were alive when the water trapped them. Pointed teeth reveal the burrow’s owner to be a mammal-like reptile: binaries converging, an organism that is two organisms without ever knowing.
Huffing, I unclasp from Papillon and slide to the curb where my groceries wait, forgotten the moment Papillon intercepted me and refused my money, begging only for an ear and a hand to hold. Now frost blooms on the bags. I cannot feel the snowfall. I am three years away from having my body back, but tonight I can remember it: not soft, never open, but mammal enough. Earlier that day at the pool, a blazing red and white sign greeted my team: Catch Your Breath. It was a half-joke, one we all gave the anxious laugh it deserved until we could barely drag ourselves from the water and were heckled by a lifeguard for lying asthmatic and belly up on the deck.
Papillon is native to this unforgiving elevation. He is hiding from his sister who would hit him again if she saw him like this. At three in the morning, when Papillon and I have long departed and it is cold enough to kill, the thin air will wake me and I’ll hope his sister is as thorough as he swears she is, that she found him before the flurries could stop his tissue from ever bruising again. I will spend the rest of my trip half-expecting to see his navy sweater in the side street snow ditches. I will check the local obits and let their silence drip dread under my skin. He is handicapped and very good at hiding, and I will always wonder.
I will learn about the Triassic Embrace while loving a girl one summer on the gulf coast where the parking lots have been known to boil. There the heat will turn us out of our dens. Make us itch. Eventually, she will save enough to afford that controversial surgery they call confirming, as if it can tell us something we don’t already know, and I will stop swimming, move inland, start petrifying someplace new. But first, I am coaxing Papillon back to the pavement. I am trading a cinnamon roll from the pack I bought just twenty minutes earlier for one last fluttering dance. The mountain, the low stars, the chlorine on my parka, his scruff accented with dribble, a fresh soreness in my chest—yes, we make one fine specimen.
Kate Nezelek is a writer from Richmond, Virginia. She holds a BA in English from Rice University and is currently a Fiction MFA candidate at Western Kentucky University.