All day long Abbott and his wife have been arguing. By evening there is a frangible truce. The daughter has been put to bed, though her singing and babbling are audible on the staticky monitor. “I forgot to even ask you about the butterflies,” Abbott’s wife says, conciliatory in word if not tone. They are sitting together in the family room, a designation they actually use. They are sitting as far apart as possible on the devastated couch, purchased years ago at a furniture warehouse when Abbott was in graduate school and now draped like a corpse by a mail-order cover. Besides Abbott’s cocktail, the couch is the only adult item in the family room, which this and every evening looks as though robbers have ransacked it in an urgent search for a small and valuable item. Books, toys, coins, buttons, beads, and costume jewelry lie strewn across the stained carpeting. It’s almost impossible not to fight with your life partner in this room. Abbott’s wife has asked, sort of, about Abbott’s trip to the butterfly conservatory, an outing that he took this morning with their daughter but that he did not discuss afterward with his wife because she was too busy reminding him of things about which he did not need to be reminded. Today was Abbott’s first trip to the butterfly conservatory; his wife has been twice before with their daughter. Previously his wife has reported that the conservatory is “neat” and “kind of peaceful,” that it’s an “an interesting place . . . [located] in the middle of nowhere.” One potential response to his wife’s current inquiry is that the butterfly conservatory is a hideous travesty, a transparent example of everything that is wrong with everything. The twelve dollar admission, accepted joylessly by a woman talking on the telephone to someone she pretty clearly does not want in her life anymore; the cruel trap of the over-stocked gift shop, selling stuffed butterflies, real butterflies, butterfly magnets and puzzles, butterfly nightlights and kites, along with entire aisles of bright toys that are thematically irrelevant but wildly attractive to children; the imprisonment of thousands of butterflies, not to mention finches, turtles, lizards, and a parrot, all in the name of appreciation and education and preservation; the heat, not unlike a small bathroom after a long hot shower; the horrific music—hyperactive, flute-driven renditions of “Edelweiss” and “On Broadway,” engineered to overpower visitors and create in them a stupor that might be mistaken for deep relaxation; the weird smell; the chipper, ecologically ignorant staff members, who are in all seriousness referred to as flight attendants, and who spend their days trying to get children to pet a sleepy lizard—Abbott ponders this truce-obliterating response. He knows, however, that this answer would have more to do with his argument with his wife than with his genuine response to the conservatory. He had actually had a pretty good time. There were so many butterflies. Some even landed on people’s hands or shoulders. The large proboscises were really easy to see. Butterflies are astonishing when you really look at them, and when else would you ever really look at them? The flight attendants had helpfully led Abbott and his daughter to a mounted board of cocoons, where they saw butterflies emerging, drying their wings, then flying off into the world. Or at least into the conservatory. Abbott’s daughter had never seemed so animated, so truly stimulated. Her brain no doubt grew and reorganized. The conservatory is, in addition to a hideous travesty, something like a spiritual center, operated by a dedicated team of citizen-workers. Who else cares about butterflies? Who else would attempt to mend their broken wings with a special wing glue? The pop of the ice in Abbott’s glass reminds him—and probably his wife, as well—that he has not, as a courtesy, desisted or at least curtailed his drinking during her pregnancy. This is a courtesy extended by quite a few Pioneer Valley men to their pregnant soulmates. Abbott has still not said a word in response to his wife’s question, which, come to think of it, was not so much a question as a statement about forgetting to ask a question. He’s just staring at a section of sub-toy carpet that is in the shape of what Abbott thinks is called a rhombus. Either a rhombus or a parallelogram. He knows he would just be criticizing the butterfly conservatory to irk his wife and renew the fight. This is what a married person can do, mount a mean-spirited tirade against a nature conservatory in order to injure his beloved. But he does not deride the conservatory or its workers. His decision not to strikes him as exceedingly mature, though he knows that congratulating oneself on one’s own maturity is probably immature. Also, it comes as a tremendous disappointment to Abbott that his wife cannot know his restraint. If she could know, she would be touched. But he can’t very well tell her how mature and restrained he’s acting, for the maturity and restraint would evaporate upon utterance. Abbott and his wife can hear their daughter, through the monitor, singing an Australian folk song about a swagman who drowns himself in the billabong. She’s waiting for an answer, his wife is. She’s been waiting this whole time. Abbott clenches his jaw, stares at the dirty rhombus. When it comes down to it, he just cannot bring himself to say that the butterfly conservatory was amazing, or even that it was pretty neat, even though it would be at least partially true and it would help salvage the evening. This is another small failure of spirit, and he knows it. The knowing of it might make things better, but probably just makes things much, much worse. “It was fine,” he says of his outing with their daughter. And then he repeats it: “It was fine.” This is either an act of aggression or diplomacy, he’s not even sure which at this point. His wife is a separate person, large on the inside, capable of a very broad range of responses. She folds her thin fingers across her belly and gets ready to say something.
CHRIS BACHELDER is the author of the novels Bear v. Shark (Scribner) and U.S.!(Bloomsbury). He teaches fiction at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where he lives with his wife and two daughters.