Butterflies in the Bronx

When I was ten, my grandparents took me and my brother to the Bronx zoo.

We were promised elephants and giraffes and tigers and so far we just got to see where the Jews all lived. Some crumbly old bakeries that sold good bread. An alley where Pop played some game with a stick and a baseball whose red stitches were coming undone, wearing something called knickers. What ugly names Pop’s friends had. A Skip and a Walter. A Peggy and a Bernice. With names like Warren and Joan, it’s a wonder they named my father and uncle something normal like John and James- “good, strong bible names.”

This trip was a disaster already. And it was hot. August-in-New-York-City hot.

City heat is the worst kind of heat. It’s the kind that slithers off the pavement and makes mirages in the distance. The kind that caused the leather seats to cling to the back of my thighs and half of my calves. Little sweat beads were forming on my freckled brown nose and my freshly-trimmed bangs were starting to stick to my forehead. (Pop always had a pocket comb though for instances like this when Grandma declared we were starting to look and smell ‘gamey’) Justin was probably in oblivion looking out the window. I still wonder what he thinks about.

Pop must have seen me pouting in the backseat, bored at seeing nothing but brick buildings and concrete sidewalks because I heard him croon out the first line of my favorite sailor song: “Jamie’s a corker.” Naturally, I liked it because it was about me and I believed in my ten-year-old heart that Pop had specifically written it just for me... and the words were easy enough:

Jamie’s a corker

She’s a New Yorker

I buy her everything to keep her in style

She’s got a pair of hips,

just like two battleships

Hey boys, that’s where my money goes.

Singing about my eyes like custard pies, my nose like a big red rose, and legs like whiskey kegs was a perpetually funny image for me and my brother. We giggled like lunatics and put specific emphasis on the comparative items.

Then finally we rolled into a most magical place- almost. The parking lot was a mile long, but once past that, there was a big dome full of trees and shrubs. My brother and I looked at this thing, this giant playground bubble, our eyes so wide that they might have fallen out of our heads if it weren’t for the smallest sliver of eyelid.

With his grubby little hand in my grubby little hand, we turned to look at our grandmother, whose nod gave us the go-ahead. We both fit into one section of the revolving door and it was like walking into a tropical Artic. It was cold and beautiful but there was nothing but trees in there. No giraffes. No hippos. What kind of zoo is this? What trickery!

In our slump of disappointment, a big red butterfly floated onto Justin’s head. I screamed so he, in a panic, threw his hands on top of his head- crushing the butterfly- its guts and red dust all over his hands, parts of its wings mingled in his messy brown hair. He wiped his hands on his jeans. It was not just the one butterfly, but hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions. Again, our eyes opened so wide that they almost really did fall out this time.

This is what it looks like when you step into the wardrobe.

Ten years later, I’m going to the academy of natural sciences. And I’ll be in a room full of butterflies, but this time I’m going to remember to occasionally blink. And I won’t so much mind if they land in my hair. I think they’ll look pretty there.

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