It’s not easy, asking you out. You’re fleeting, like a firefly flitting through a sticky evening, refusing to be caught. I give chase anyway because I want to open the palms of my hands one day to find you glowing there, bright and ethereal, a flame on wings.
At first, I don’t know what to make of you. Your eyes are downcast when you shuffle to the front of the class, as if the floor is more interesting than the eager faces waiting to learn more about you. The teacher tells you to speak louder, to enunciate those two syllables that sound as beautiful as you look. You don’t have to, not really, not when I’m studying every movement of your half-moon lips. Your glances around the room are furtive, forced, as if making eye contact with another soul might burn yours to a crisp. I have an inkling that you are different somehow, that this is something more than garden-variety stage fright. Not that it stops me. You glow a different color to the other fireflies, something curious and otherworldly in a sea of plain yellow dots, and it’s only your light that I am drawn to.
Silence hangs over you like icicles; you don’t say a word during class, unless the teacher picks on you when no one else can answer the question. And every single time, you get the answer right. Not only that, but you tend to ramble, going on about how Louis Pasteur died on September 28, 1895 in Marnes-la-Coquette, France when all the teacher wanted was the name of the scientist that showed the world how to pasteurize milk. There are groans from across the classroom whenever you do this, but I am enamored by this facet of you. My friends tell me being attracted to intelligence isn’t the same as being attracted to a person, but that intelligence is you.
Every lunch, you sit by yourself, quietly whittling down a crust-free sandwich while a picture book lies face up on the bench. I muster the courage to sit beside you, much to the amusement, and perhaps incredulity, of my circle of friends. It hurts at first, moreso for you than for me, maybe, it’s hard to tell; my smiles are met with silence, my warmth with shards of ice, especially when you shirk away at my outstretched hand. It will be some time before I realize why you are this way, but right now, while I am still young and eager to impress, I chalk it up to shyness and nothing more.
It’s not until I ask what it’s about that you pause, as if you hadn’t expected those words to leave my lips.
You ask what I’m referring to.
Your book, of course, the one you carry tucked under your arm wherever you go.
Dinosaurs. Three syllables that come to you naturally, unlike the smile that stumbles across your mouth.
You’re not sure what to make of my approach, because you’ve made countless people trip and fall trying to figure you out, haven’t you? I can see it in the way you tense, as if I’m about to slap you. They say someone your age ought to be more interested in a nice car or baring your midriff to get your crush’s attention, and they try to press these values upon you, expecting them to stick like a waxen seal. Maybe it leaves scratch marks, scuffs your titanium hide, but you’ve never splintered under the pressure, not once.
I ask if I can see your book because I’m trying my best not to leave scratch marks, and because I want to be a part of your world.
You shake your head and hold it open for me at an arm’s length; can’t risk stains, you explain, even if I’m not eating with my hands. Years later I will look back on this and realize you mean you don’t want people stains on those pages, as if another soul leaving their mark on your life might cause you to shrivel up and die.
I point at one with crocodile-like jaws and a ridge-like sail running down its back.
No, you correct me, that’s not a T-rex. That’s a Spinosaurus, a piscivorous theropod from the Cretaceous period. I don’t know what these words mean, but they’re coming from you, and they’re directed at me, an idiot that only knows so much about dinosaurs as Jurassic Park will allow, and in that moment, it’s all that matters.
This is the first time you let me into your world, and the first time I feel like I’m getting anywhere in this strange journey we call adolescence. My friends tell me I’m desperate because I’m pursuing you of all people, the quiet outcast, the one nobody wants to try to understand. Still, it’s thanks to their encouragement that I approach you one day with anxiety in my veins and a request on my tongue. I steel my heart for the worst, but instead you pull out a plushie from your backpack and ask whether it’s okay for Wilhelm to come with us to the cinema.
Of course it’s okay. I’m just worried that, being a Spinosaurus, Wilhelm might get hungry for fish during the movie, when all we’ll have is popcorn.
You’re not the first girl I’ve tried my luck on, but you’re the first that I can’t stop thinking about. We agree to watch a movie that starts at 6:30 pm on Friday, and it’s such a surreal feeling, knowing I’ll get to see the facets of you that a classroom won’t allow, where I might get to see you eat something other than crust-free sandwiches.
You don’t show up.
I sit there, quietly munching popcorn with barren seats on both sides while flashing images are seared into my eyes. Maybe you’ve forgotten. Maybe… maybe it was a mistake, thinking someone like you could do something as conventional as going on a date. All my fault, of course. I’ve never felt more pathetic, slicking back my hair with too much gel and borrowing Dad’s cologne, thinking they’ll get me somewhere with you, the girl whose world is too beautiful and pristine to be tainted by anything outside of it.
Half an hour is all I can take. I trudge outside and sit in the hallway, back against the wall while I shed tears into the velvet carpet. Idiot. Idiot. Idiot.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see someone leave the same auditorium. I look up and my heart leaps. I never would’ve thought you’d look that good in something other than a school uniform, even if it’s just a casual shirt and shorts. Wilhelm is tucked under your arm, here as promised with his toothy reptilian grin.
You’re wondering why I’d left the auditorium before the movie’s finished; your head is titled like you’re the one that can’t understand the other, and not the other way around.
I had no idea you were there, with your own carton of popcorn. If you knew I was, why didn’t you sit next to me?
Your head tilts even more. We’d agreed to watch a movie together, right? What difference does it make, whether we sit next to each other or not?
Knowing you, you’re not doing this to spite me; it’s just your way of going on a date, after processing my request through that filter of yours and incorporating it into your world. The relief that washes over me is so great that I laugh until my tears have dried.
What’s so funny? you wonder.
Oh, nothing. I take your hand—which stiffens for a heartbeat before relaxing—and lead you back inside. We sit next to each other, with Wilhelm perched on the armrest in between.
I don’t know how we’ve managed to stay together all these years. I must be the luckiest person on the planet, managing to catch the one firefly that glows a color different from the rest. Maybe that’s stupid of me to say, because your track record with guys hasn’t exactly been promising; it’s not like I’ve had to fight off a horde of men for your hand, and it’s not like you’ve had to fight off a horde of women for mine. Still, I’m not about to take you for granted. Not now, not ever.
We part ways after high school, though not entirely. I have no hope of following you to the university you’ve chosen, where you’ll get a prestigious degree in a STEM subject and stay for as many years as it’ll take to turn it into a PhD. So, I spend all my savings renting a flat nearby, where you’ll always have warm arms to fall into after long days spent pipetting strange things into glass tubes. I flit from one ephemeral job to another, making ends meet for us both, though it’s mainly for you, the dreamer between us; more than anything I want you to close your fingers around those stars you’ve been reaching for since forever, hopefully without getting burnt in the process. Don’t worry about me; all my dreams came true the day you said yes.
We wait until you graduate before the wedding. Your parents weep, not only because they’re overcome with joy, but also because they’ve been fearing the worst, that you would never get to wear a gown and have your veil peeled away by loving fingers. It’s on this day that they tell me how you’d been bullied for bringing a dinosaur plushie to school before transferring to mine, how I’m the first person you’ve shown Wilhelm to in years. It all adds up, but my heart aches to hear it anyway.
We go to a tropical paradise for our honeymoon. Well, not exactly; it’s only a trip to the coast, but neither of us have ever been big on traveling, prefering to keep our roots firmly planted in the soil close to home. The beach is already a paradise for you, anyway; while every other lady there spreads out towels and soaks the sun’s rays for a nice tan, you wade in a rock pool, tying the hem of your sundress into a knot as you grope around for little critters.
What did you find, sweetness?
A brittle star. Look how long its arms are!
Wow, that’s crazy. Is it a type of starfish?
No, but it’s a close relative. They’re both echinoderms, like sea urchins and crinoids and…
As I sit there drinking in the tang of the sea breeze, I wonder what everyone else makes of you, a grown woman carrying a doll as she splashes around barefoot like a little kid. I smile from the warm depths of my heart. Everytime I think I’ve worked you out, arranged all your facets into a neat rectangle, a new jigsaw piece appears with tabs that won’t fit in, and then I realize it’s foolish of me to try to make a rectangle out of you when you’re a shape that doesn’t exist, something wild and inconceivable and beautiful.
It’s not until you get diagnosed that I start to see what that shape really is. Only a week after we move into our first house, you convince me to come with you to see a doctor for a “checkup.” I’ve never seen this man before, yet he knows your name, and there is a look on his face that suggests he knows more than that. You twine your fingers around mine and tell me to trust you. I nod.
Instead of a stethoscope and a white coat, the doctor has a soft, waxen face that molds itself into a smile that could part rainclouds. Yet the way he talks is condescending, as if he is addressing children. You don’t seem to mind. I do. He asks questions that don’t make sense, that must be aimed at a different husband, yet his always-smiling eyes are trained on me, so I answer them reluctantly, with exasperated sighs and nervous foot-tapping. This is a man that studies humans, that much I can gather, though not in an anatomical sense. By the time I am forced to shake his hand I feel like an uprooted tree, ripped from the earth I thought I’d known in the wake of a hurricane.
The man’s questions become more intrusive with each session; you show him your academic record, any remarks your teachers have made about your… idiosyncrasies. You divulge details about your childhood, our first date, things further back I had no idea about. When that isn’t enough, you drag your parents into the clinic and make them answer his endless stream of questions, too. Afterwards, the man takes you into a separate room for a “final screening,” after which you emerge with tears in your eyes. Again, you wrap your fingers around mine, and again, you tell me to trust you.
I nod. Tentatively, but I nod.
The man explains to me what you really are, but it feels like he is speaking from a monitor, his voice garbled and his face slurred by static. He tells me how people with your syndrome process information differently, how certain conditions need to be met to live a fulfilling life, as if you’re a plant on a windowsill. He takes out a chart and points to one end of a spectrum, calling you “high-functioning,” which means you’re adept enough to live independently but struggle with social interaction.
I know all this. I’ve always respected your eccentricities, and I love you for them. We’ll go on living like nothing’s changed, because nothing has.
Except… you’re supposed to be the one firefly that glows a different color to the rest. But that man and his shit-eating grin had the audacity to slap a label on you, like you’re a newly-discovered species sitting in a vial of alcohol, condemned to a cupboard in a research lab somewhere with all the other ten-legged curiosities. One of many exotic specimens, existing only to be catalogued and taken apart with scathing scientific remarks. Nothing special. Nothing normal either.
Sweetness, what have I fallen in love with?
You get confused when I grow distant. You don’t pry, opting instead to wait out the storm. Good choice.
I find myself sprawled on our living room couch in front of the TV one evening, absently flipping through channels while you work overtime. I can’t blame you for wanting to know more about yourself, but now I’m left wondering whether I’ve ever known you. I put the remote down when I stumble across a documentary about fireflies. Neon-yellow lights dancing against a shadowy evening backdrop. The narrator, in a honeyed voice, explains firefly courtship. The males fly around and emit light, generated by bioluminescent compounds in their abdomens. The females are wingless and must flash a response so that the males can come find them.
The front door opens and you join me on the couch, cuddling that plushie like its your son. I find myself staring at the seams bursting with fluff, at the stains that have accumulated over the years. You’ve never once patched it up since you were a kid, and I don’t know why. You don’t notice me seething with a barely-suppressed rage because you’re fixated on the fireflies.
Why do you bring that thing everywhere you go?
What thing? Oh, you mean Wilhelm. That thing has a name, you know.
If you say so. Sweetness, aren’t you a bit too old to be playing with dolls?
I’ll never forget the look you give me now. Surprise and confusion and anger, mixed into a manic deluge that threatens to burst from your eye sockets.
And what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with doing what I usually do?
You leave me to finish the documentary on my own. The couch is looking like the comfiest place in the house, anyway.
I’m not sure how much time passes before you twine your fingers around mine and pull me into the bedroom. We can’t be doing it now, can we? Not like this. Please. I can only take so much salt in the wound.
You lock eyes with me and I freeze. You’re good at that. We perch on the side of the bed; you talk, I listen. You tell me what it’s like to be a firefly; not one that glows bright yellow, but one that doesn’t glow at all. Oddly, I find myself in agreement. You tell me that no matter how hard you try to cast a light into the sprawling darkness, you can’t. No response from a male, not even a flicker. All your life, you’ve watched other fireflies glowing around you, being noticed by anyone they reach out to. You wish people would notice you that easily, would hear the melody of your beating heart, would respond when you call out. But the only thing that answers is darkness.
Then I notice the tears in your eyes, the way your hands shake as I hold onto them. You tell me how, to this day, you’re still grateful for the one person that noticed you, that responded when you called out, even though your voice goes unheard, even though you can’t form a glow. And you sob the whole way through, salty rivulets dripping onto our interlocking fingers. I pull you in and hold you because it hurts to see you this way, and because it hurts to know what I’ve put you through the last few weeks.
I realize now it’s foolish to let the world tell us what we are. What’s the point, when you’ve already let me into yours, the only one that matters?
Wilhelm lies between us on the bed, his seams patched up and his body spotless. It’d been a simple enough task to mend him, but you’d been waiting for me to notice, haven’t you? That even dinosaur plushies need love and attention, and two nurturing souls on either side.
In any case, I was grievously mistaken. You don’t glow a different color to the other fireflies. And it’s not that you don’t glow, either. I think you’ve always shone the brightest, and it’s taken some time for my eyes to adjust. Now I see you for what you are.
Always have been.
Always will be.