There it is right outside my back door. I almost don’t see it mixed in with the leaves and the bramble. It is month four of COVID, and I am unemployed. I lost my profitable PR job after months of working long hours managing crisis communications for the company.
It’s a huge dead moth with eyes on its wings, both beautiful and gruesome. It washes up on my back door perfectly preserved. I manage to clip a piece of its wing in the mounting process because I am too freaked out to touch it with my fingers. It has a brownish-orange with eyes on each of its wings. It has a five-inch wingspan. It has a thick furry beige body and feathery antennae. It’s making me queasy to look at it. The eyes on its wings seem real, as though they are staring at me. I know that it isn’t just a dead bug. It holds a secret for me. I place the moth on the thick cement ledge by our back door.
The moth lands on my doorstep on the first real day of summer. Teddy and Bo, our little dogs, are restless, pulling on their leashes with the strength of racehorses at the gate, ready for the gun to go off. The air, mixed with the fresh, damp dirt, smells green. The sun makes me hopeful. During our walk, as Bo makes eye contact with me after handling her morning business, I blurt out, “I’m thinking of applying to grad school.”
With the poop bag in hand, just as he bent over to scoop up Bo’s morning constitution, my husband Eric freezes. He stands up straight, all six feet of him. He looks at me, and he gives me the look. I am breaking my promise. A cross-my-heart and hope-to-die promise.“I mean, I’ll just apply and see what happens. It’s more than likely I won’t get in.”
“With your experience, you'll get in.”
His voice trails off as he returns to the task at hand. “Good girl, Bo. MFAs are expensive. At this point, do you even really need one? You have produced films and published work. Will it help you get a job? Or get published?”
This is a monumental gambit to even float this by him the day after I lost a paycheck with lots of nice round juicy zeros. What I don’t say out loud is that getting a master’s in writing is my secret little dream that I keep hidden away. Long ago, I wrote it down in my diary; after I had locked it uptight, I tossed the key into the winds. Now, we were finally living in the black. I had promised him that we’d never worry about money ever again. My husband grew up with a pool in the backyard, and I grew up with my Dad, living at the YMCA with a pool. Eric has had enough of this artistic struggle.
When we get back from the walk, I decide to mount the moth in a shadow box I usually use for the ironic “Feminist as AF” or “Not, Today Satan” cross stitch projects I make for friends.
The moth is perfect. Once it is mounted, I place it on the dining room table.
“Now we’re keeping dead bugs in the house?” Eric asks, adjusting his beat-up University of Iowa baseball cap and crossing his arms across his chest.
I shrug. The disapproval is rolling off him like steam off a boiling pot of water. In recent years, he’d put up with crystals and cupping. Now it’s mounted dead bugs.
“It’s creepy-looking,” he says, as he bends down to inspect the deceased moth in the shadow box.
“It’s a Polyphemus Moth. The Antheraea polyphemus is one of our largest and most beautiful silk moths,” I read out loud from Google.
This ugly weird moth feels like it is a sign, a sign that everything will be alright.
In Greek mythology, the Cyclops had only one eye after making a deal with Hades, god of the underworld. The Cyclops traded one eye for the ability to see the future and predict the day he would die. According to the Internet, this moth is called the Polyphemus Moth because its large eyespots in the middle of its hind wings are named after the giant Cyclops.
It is winter. The long gray days all roll into one another like slow waves washing in and out of the shoreline.
I am off-course and adrift. But I am writing again. Writing had become my shitty boyfriend that kept getting my hopes up only to leave me disappointed in the end. Yes, you should create because you have to get it out, but you want to share your work with people. You want to make another film. You want to get published. After a while, year over year, creating just for the sake of creating feels like insanity. I can’t tell if it was grief or depression or if I had outgrown my dreams.
Has life finally ground me down?
I used to be so ambitious. Now ambition is like a pair of high heels; I like how they look but wearing them only brings about more pain.
During COVID, I bake bread, make recipes from my YiaYia’s cookbook, and paint adult color-by-numbers. After my mom dies, I realize that life is in fact short. It goes fast. You don’t get a do over. I didn’t want to have any regrets when my time comes. At this point, the key from my diary finds its way into my hand; I unlock it and reread it. The next day, I apply to one grad school. I don’t tell my husband or my daughter. I send it in without second or third eyes to catch any mistakes or hiccups in my story or work.
I look at the moth. sitting on my desk, I don’t know what it all means or what it would mean. Unlike the Cyclops, I can’t see into the future.
“A moth represents tremendous change, but it also seeks the light. Thus, the moth’s spiritual meaning is to trust the changes that are happening, and that freedom and liberation are around the corner,” explained the website Crystal Clear Intuition.
— Crystal Clear Intuition website
It is February. The winter darkness feels expansive, like an infinite black hole. The Polyphemus Moth only lives for four days and doesn’t eat. I am currently, a member of homo sapiens; I don’t know how long I’ll live for, but I’m sick to death of death. I’ve spent the last four years living and waiting for death to come, while parts of me atrophy and die until I no longer recognize myself. I lose myself to my mother’s death. It consumes me as much as motherhood had after my daughter, Alena, was born.
It’s the end of February and my mom dies. It is a liberation for her and for me. During our last conversation, I say to her, “Mom, I do believe in heaven. We never talked about death and the afterlife, but I believe you go to a place without any pain. When you want to let me know how you're doing on the other side or want to say hello, send me a moth or a butterfly with eyes on its wings. That's our sign.”
The next day, a healer friend posts a tarot card in her Instagram feed with an image of the Polyphemus Moth.
I take it as a sign.
Weeks later, I receive an email. The subject line reads, “Congratulations.” The body of the email is decorated with happy confetti. I slow-walk into the living room, my husband’s makeshift office. He’s hunched over his laptop on a tiny metal portable computer desk, like a work-from-home Incredible Hulk, jamming his fingers on his keyboard like they offended his honor.
“I got in,” I say.
He looks up at me. His eyes try to refocus on me and my voice. He is unshowered and his wavy black hair, highlighted with silver streaks, is puffy. I caught him mid-work. I’ve interrupted his flow.
“I was accepted. Grad school, my application.”
I can see the thoughts flying—what he wants to say and what he should say. I know we’re at a time in life when people are supposed to save for their retirement or save to send their children off to school. It seems like investing in my education, instead of my daughter’s, is completely selfish. This is the time of life to build your nest egg, not throw it out of the tree and stomp on it.
He smiles. “Of course you were accepted.”
He stands up and hugs me. “It’s just how much will it cost? And how will we pay for it? We need to save for retirement.”
“I’ll apply for loans.”
“We’ll die before the loans are paid off.”
“Only If we’re super lucky.”
“As a tattoo, a moth serves as a harbinger of change and an omen of regeneration."
It is the night of the Sturgeon Moon, a signal the summer days will soon drift away, leaving us to the wintering, forcing us to go deep inside ourselves. I enter the small studio. Jared, the tattoo artist, has arresting blue eyes and salt-and-pepper hair. He’s wearing the artist’s uniform—a dark t-shirt, chinos, and Chucks. His slender arms are decorated with artwork.
I find him handsome. And that surprises me because I’m at an age where I no longer blush because of boys. I feel young and silly, and I start to ramble.
“My husband doesn’t like tattoos,” I blurt out.
Jared stops and tilts his head. “Does he know that you’re here?”
“I mean, you’re a grown woman who can do what you want with your body,” he explains while he sets up his equipment. “But you should tell him that you’re getting a tattoo. Right?”
“Oh, yeah, he knows. I mean, I waited until the last minute to tell him, but he knows I’m here.”
Jared pulls out the sketch of my tattoo. We had been communicating for a few months about it via email. It is bigger than I had imagined.
“It’s big,” I say as he places it on my thigh so I can see what it will look like.
His eyes smile at me. “Yep. But for the detail, you want it bigger so you can see it. I can re-sketch it smaller?”
“No, let’s go for it.”
“Yes,” I say.
“I think we should place it on an angle, so it looks like it landed on your thigh.
He’s done filling the needle with ink. He turns it on. He presses the needle into my skin. The buzz of the needle works its way into my skin. It’s a constant dull pain that surprises me and makes every part of my body stand on edge.
“Do you need a break?" he asks.
I show him a picture of my mom. It’s her high school portrait, I think, and it may be her engagement portrait. She’s young with her entire life spread out, ready for her, there for the taking. In it, there’s a sharp resemblance to my daughter, Alena.
As he starts again, I find myself confessing to him. “All my childhood and family photos were lost when we cleaned out my mom’s condo. My cousins have been finding photos and sending them to me. There's this picture of my eldest cousin with my dad. They tried to have kids for so long, and my cousin was like their surrogate kid."
At this, I start to cry. I imagine lots of people cry on Jared’s table, but I don’t ask him. After everything that happened, the photos were the most traumatic. It was like someone stole memories from me.
Memories that I’d never get back.
Finally, Jared is finished, and I look down. I’m in a punch-drunk post-pain haze. I feel like Sleeping Beauty. But instead of a kiss, I’m shaken from my slumber with a tattoo. It’s so beautiful that I can’t put words to it.
When I get home, my thigh is throbbing from the needle. The tape is slick from sweat and no longer sticky. I need a Tylenol.
“If you would’ve told me that twenty years ago that I’d be married to a woman with tattoos,” Eric says as he crosses his arms over his chest and shakes his head.
“What?” I ask as I mirror him, crossing my arms over my chest. I notice that this is a thing we do. We mirror each other’s body language.
“I mean, it’s just when I married you, you didn’t seem like the type of person who’d want a tattoo,” he says, trying but not trying to backpedal.
“I’m supposed to stay the same person you met two decades ago?”
“No, I mean yes, you’re supposed to change.”
“Just not get a tattoo.”
“I just don’t like tattoos.”
“Well, I don’t much like you right now.”
Right then, I decide it’s one of those moments in our marriage when it’s best to stop the conversation. I call a time-out; I go to the bathroom to start the shower, and I need to rinse off my tattoo before I go to bed. I want to say the girl-woman you married was so worried about what everyone thought of her she would’ve never had the courage to get a tattoo. The woman-woman you are now married to doesn’t care so much about what people and that’s what she finds powerful about getting a tattoo. But he’s my person, and I do really care what he thinks. Deep down, I want him to be proud of me.
As I’m drying my leg off with a paper towel, my daughter walks in.
“That’s huge. You said it was going on your hip. That’s your thigh,” Alena says, pointing to my leg.
I look at her.
“Why do you always get big tattoos? Like you say, you’re going to get a small tattoo and come home with big ones.”
I’m outnumbered. It’s always two against one. They share the same brain. I thought having a daughter would be like me, but no, she's like her Dad. I take my Lexapro and brush my teeth. Then I retreat to the safety of my bed and my books.
At least from now on, I’ll have my moth to keep me company.
“Some entomologists believe moths zoom toward unnatural light sources because the lights throw off their internal navigation systems.”
There’s a tiny white moth caught in the light beside my bed. I watch as she flutters her wings, trying to leave but unable to fly away. Instead, she’s caught up in the light. For weeks after my mom passed, I felt her spirit with me.
This tattoo is a marker of her life and my death. And for some reason, I can’t articulate this to the person closest to me. I wonder if the little white moth is my mom. I need to set her free. First, I yank the window open and tug on the screen. I take her in my hands and hold her gently. For a moment, I don’t want to let her go. I place my hands outside and open them, and she flies away.
I settle into the bed. Teddy, my white dog, curls up into a tight ball next to me. I pat his back, and he lets out a low, long satisfied moan. It’s the two of us against the world.
“What’s going on?” Eric asks as he sits on the edge of the bed.
“Let me see it,” he asks as he places a hand on my hip.
“Nope.” I know that he’s trying to extend an olive branch, but I am not going to let him off that easy.
I take the spine of my book and stretch it back. I know this is bad for the binding, but there’s something so satisfying about stretching out a paperback, and it’s like breaking in a new pair of shoes.
He gently lifts the sheet and folds it as he bends down to inspect the tattoo. Now, he’s tender and sweet to me, and I feel like a fragile toy. Bo, our livewire perennial puppy, tries to lick and clean my tattoo, and I gently swat her away.
“Wow, the detail. It looks exactly like the moth you found. The eyes on the wings, the antennae, the furry body. It’s so delicate.”
“I know, right?”
He kisses my leg. “I just think it’s like spray-painting the Mona Lisa or something. Why ruin a work of art?”
I shake my head and try not to roll my eyes. “You’re so stupid.”
He brushes my mouth, and his urgent lips catch my laughing teeth.
“Good night,” I say. I’m so tired, and I want to be left alone with my book and my dogs.
“I’ve been thinking,” he says. “The cost of grad school, it’s what people spend on home renovation.”
I pause. I take this in. Money, it’s what all couples fight about. And it’s not about the money. It’s never about the money. It’s such a cliché. I am asking him to invest our future security in me and in my writing. It’s a gigantic ask.
“So, what you are saying is I’m worth as much as a new kitchen?”
“You are worth at least two kitchens, with real marble countertops, not the fake quartz stuff that looks like marble,” he says.
He places his hands on either side of me. I look into Eric’s eyes. They’re a kaleidoscopic of blues, breaking apart and coming back together again just for me. These are my blue eyes, and I can see myself through them. Right now, in my coffee ground-colored eyes, I can only see the broken and ugly parts, the roadkill remnants of a lifetime of hurt left behind by my mother’s death and my tired, busted-up dreams. But in his eyes, I see something more. I am the ugly beautiful moth with eyes on its wings ready to take flight.
Finally, my eyes are open.
I can see my future.
I spread my wings.
I take flight.