The summer before we went to high school, my best friend Celena and I both had this strange feeling in our stomachs. It was sort of like a giant butterfly that never fluttered, but we were sure all our nerves and sadness, wonder and excitement would ignite once those wings spread.
It was the scariest sort of crush. That’s the only way I can describe it, and to exacerbate it, we listened to the “Say Anything” soundtrack every day from June through August of 1990. The moment Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality” came on, we’d gasp and grab hold of our stomachs. “There it is!” we’d say, a mixture of fear and joy on our faces because the butterfly was there. We’d sit together on Celena’s bedroom floor and listen to The Replacements, Munchener Freiheit, and of course, Peter Gabriel and wonder about going to high school. What would be different? How will we change? Will a boy hold a boombox over his head outside our bedroom windows someday? (Gosh, I hope so.)
We loved the movie “Say Anything” because it was (in part) about a boy and a girl who had just fallen in love and also, had just graduated from high school. While the fourteen year old Celena and Callie would’ve passionately declared we had been in love, what resonated as we watched Lloyd and Diane in the Lake Street movie theatre, was that pulling away of what we knew, and the leaning toward what we do not know. Junior High was over, and high school loomed down the street. At times I would pull at my stomach, hoping the butterfly would do something – either be afraid and run, be sad and cry, be happy and laugh – something, but not bits of everything. It was getting hard to stand.
But stand we did, and we walked those butterflies into high school. (I’m quite certain I wore a pair of Mickey Mouse boxer shorts that first day.) Celena and I studied, we danced, we fell in love, got our hearts broken, and we laughed. My parents used to say they always knew when I was on the phone with Celena because of the way I laughed.
Eventually, the fall of 1993 rolled around and we applied to colleges. The butterfly came back, this time it felt stronger, and scarier.
The night before she left for the University of Wisconsin, we were at a party at a friend’s house drinking Boone’s and Milwaukee’s Best (we called it “The Beast”), listening to Prince, Boyz II Men, and Salt-N-Pepa. I remember I was wearing cut-offs, a red and white striped tank top, and red hoop earrings I’d bought with Celena at The Icing (we decided Claire’s was for little girls). When it was time to go, Celena and I walked up to me and said, “OK.”
I felt like I was bracing myself for an immunization. I nodded. “OK.” Then the both of us collapsed into each other, sobbing.
“I don’t want to leave you. I don’t want to go. I’m so scared.” I bawled into her shoulder.
“I know, I know. I’m scared, too.”
About a week later, she called me. I had yet to leave for Calvin, where I would attend, and I was sitting on my bed surrounded by bath products, linens, notebooks, and clothes I needed to pack.
“It’s not so bad,” Celena told me. She explained about the community showers, how she had to take a bus to get her classes, that her roommates seemed nice. I listened as she talked, holding my stomach.
“I guess it’s just something we have to do,” Celena said.
This year marks 22 years since we had that conversation, 26 since we saw “Say Anything,” and felt the butterfly for the first time.
Recently, I was sitting in Celena’s kitchen sipping coffee while she checked her email.
“There’s a flood in Louisiana,” Celena said, and her brow was furrowed. “I wonder if I’ll need to go.” Celena’s CEO of the Chicago Red Cross.
Last night, we were dancing like a couple of 16 year olds until one in the morning. We only left because we were hungry.
“I feel like if we didn’t talk for two years,” Celena said over French fries and Italian beef, “we’d be able to pick up right where we left off.”
I nodded enthusiastically because I was shoving a handful of fries into my mouth. “Totally,” I said, once I had swallowed most of them.
“Let’s not do that, though,” Celena said. We saluted with the cups of ice water we were holding. Twenty years ago it would’ve been Diet Coke, about the only thing that’s changed since then.
I watched Celena as she surveyed each email that came in. She alternately was texting, jotting down notes, and typing emails. Laundry was going. Fruit, cheese, and donuts were laid out for breakfast and small plates were stacked next to napkins. Three or four large pictures of Celena and her son took up one wall; both of them smiling and holding hands. He has her eyes and smile.
I’m thinking of these memories of me and Celena, and this metaphorical butterfly as I begin a new job this month. It’ll be the first time in thirteen years I will work full-time. I said I would never again work full-time. Not because I have that luxury, but because I don’t think I can handle it. Teaching consumes me. I am terrified I will have nothing left at the end of the day: no time to write, no time for my husband and my kids. Still, my heart races when I think of an idea to try, a story to tell, a project to pursue with my students. I began diagramming different ways to set up my classroom: where to put my desk, a little reading corner, extra pens and pencils and erasers. The butterfly is as large as she’s ever been. She terrified and excited and just sitting there. I need her to try to fly.
I am wondering now, if this is what developing and eventually using a gift feels like. I’m not saying I’m the world’s greatest teacher, or Celena is the world’s greatest Red Cross CEO (although, she probably is). I’m saying learning something new about yourself and the world, trying something new, offering some of yourself is scary and wonderful, sorrowful and joyful, but I think that until we do, that butterfly won’t fly.
In the last scene of “Say Anything,” Lloyd and Diane are on an airplane. Diane is terrified and Lloyd is visibly scared too, but won’t admit it. He tells her to watch the seatbelt sign. As soon as it goes off, it’s safe; nothing more to worry about. So we watch the two of them holding hands and anxiously waiting for the light. When it does, the film goes black, and we are left with the memory of Diane and Lloyd’s scared faces, watching for the light, flying into the unknown.
“I guess it’s just something we have to do,” Celena said twenty-two years ago. I knew she was right then, and she’s right now. Offering ourselves no matter how afraid we are, no matter how many mistakes we make, is the only way to tame those emotions that have the ability to paralyze us. Thank God for friends who understand this. Thank God for friends who hold our hands and keep looking out for the light as we fly into the unknown.