This journey. This transformation, started one cold, dark morning nine years ago.
She was only 8. Because her mom worked late and her dad? Well, her dad was just a photo she kept by her bedside. Just in case he ever came back, she might recognize him. But, by this point she couldn’t care less.
Anyway. She had to walk to school by herself. 9 blocks. 9 city blocks. The first few times were horrible. Mariposa could not believe all that went on between her apartment and her school. But it did. And she had never known it. She tried to block it out. The gunshots. The trash. The people she had to pass everyday on her walk to school. But she couldn’t! So she decided at the age of 8, that she was going to read on the way to school. If she couldn’t block out the world around her, she would immerse herself in new ones.
She stumbled the first couple times she tried this. But after a few weeks she had the route memorized. She didn’t even need to look up. This was a good thing. All that went on around her became background noise. She knew it was there. But could ignore it. Because she had her own worlds to worry about now. Hogwarts was her favorite. Her escape plan was working.
One day in December. When the days began to get shorter. And seeing the words became more difficult. She was almost finished reading Harry Potter and the Chamber Of Secrets. She was at the part where Harry was almost killed. When all of the sudden she ran head first into a crowd of girls. Girls she never made eye contact with. Girls she knew existed. But girls she always steered clear of. Until today.
Not only did she run into the girls. She knocked three of them off the curb and into the road. By the time the girls were done with her she had a bloody nose and the contents of her book bag were strewn all over the block. She didn’t bother to collect them. What was the use?
But while she was lying on the sidewalk. In pain and too scared to move, she saw it. A triangular-shaped shard of red glass. It wasn’t supposed to be there. But then again, her path to school was littered with things that weren’t supposed to be there.
She picked it up. Turned around and went home. School was not happening that day. But something else was. She didn’t know it yet though. Her mom was still asleep when she got home, so she was able to clean herself up and hide until her mom left for work. Her mom never knew that Mariposa skipped school that day.
Once her mom left work she found an old mason jar that she had been using to collect change. She rinsed it out and dropped the red piece of glass in and heard it hit the bottom.
That night she decided that she would no longer read on her walk to school. Not because she was afraid of who she might bump into. But because she was tired of blocking out the world around her. The nine blocks she had to walk to school each day weren’t perfect. But neither was she.
And as the years went by the collection she kept in her jar began to grow. No longer did the glass hit the bottom. Each piece she chose to place in the jar represented a struggle, an event that while unpleasant, made her stronger.
She remembers the first day her mom ever let her wear a mini-skirt to school. She was in fifth grade and she was no longer a little girl. She was taller than her mother and she had begun to attract the attention of the boys. And to her horrifying surprise. The men she passed each day.
She had passed by him every day for the past 3 years. Never once had they exchanged words or even glances. Or so she thought. But on this day. When it was still dark. She noticed that he began to look at her just a little bit differently. Still, she thought nothing of it.
On the way home that afternoon all she could think about was the new Harry Potter book that she had just checked out. The last one ended on a cliffhanger and she couldn’t wait to curl up on her sofa and…
All of the sudden someone grabbed her and pulled her in the alley. When she looked up, she realized it was the man who was staring at her this morning. He smelled like beer and sweat. As he knocked her to the ground she noticed that within her reach was a large brown beer bottle. She grabbed the neck tightly and smashed it over his head.
Mariposa never looked back. She sprinted all the way home. Once again her mom was asleep, so she showered as quickly and quietly as she could. But as she looked down at her leg she noticed that she was still bleeding. But why? It was then that she realized that she had never let go of the bottle. Not after smashing it over the man’s head. Not after reaching her apartment. Not even after getting out of the shower.
She was still gripping what was left of the bottle with her right hand. This must have been what was causing the drops of blood to trickle down her leg. As she peeled her own fingers off of the bottle, she began to sob uncontrollably. She fell asleep that night without dinner and without speaking to her mom.
When she woke up the next morning her eyes went straight to the neck of the brown beer bottle. And then she dropped it in the jar. By now it was about half full.
Middle school was a tough time. Not for the usual reasons. Puberty. Boys. Her first period. No, middle school was tough because that was when her dad returned. At first she thought that things would be better. That the three of them would be able to do things like the families she read about in books or saw on tv. But that wasn’t to be.
Up until middle school, Mariposa was considered by all of her friends to be Hispanic. Her name was Hispanic. Her mom was Hispanic. And whenever the teacher needed a translator, Mariposa was always there to assist.
Then one day Mariposa accidentally took the wrong set of keys to school. In the middle of third period. The principal entered the room with the darkest black man the class had ever seen. It was Mariposa’s dad. He was disheveled. He was angry. And he needed his keys. Now!
Mariposa rushed to the door to prevent her dad from causing a scene. But it was too late. Her classmates no longer considered her Hispanic and they definitely didn’t consider her black. They simply stopped considering her at all. She was confused. Why did the race and ethnicity of her parents matter so much?
She took her time walking home that afternoon because she wanted to calm down. She knew she couldn’t say what she wanted to say to her dad. She was not ashamed that her father was black. She was ashamed of him. He had made a fool of her and now she would never live it down. As she went to her room she knelt down to tie her brand new shoes, the ones that her dad had just bought her, a piece of the sole peeled right off.
These shoes weren’t new after all. Typical. He probably spent the money he saved on himself. Maybe she could glue it back on and nobody would notice. Who was she kidding? Kids get teased for everything these days. She threw the piece of rubber across the room. And when she did, it split again. Cheap sh#$ she thought. She threw one piece away and the other she dropped in her jar. No, she jammed it in her jar! Still mad at her dad for what he had done.
High school couldn’t come soon enough. New friends. New classes. And the chance to run cross-country?! Every since she was attacked by the man on the street, she began running to school. After several years of running to and from school she had gotten in pretty good shape. So the day she signed up for the team was one of the happiest days of her life.
By the time she was a sophomore, she had made the top five. This was impressive, considering her team was ranked number three in the state. The day of the State Finals she was a nervous wreck. She didn’t sleep the night before because her father had come home drunk and slept in her bed. Which meant that she had to sleep on the couch. The one that they had had for ten years.
Her team finished in second place and Mariposa placed in the top twenty in the state. Not bad for a sophomore. She was proud of her finish and already had her sights set on the top ten next year. But something that took place after she crossed the finish line suddenly consumed her full attention and concern.
Once she crossed the finish line and her teammates congratulated her, she threw up. While this may have been a common occurrence for many runners, it was not for Mariposa. She had never thrown up after running. Why today?
Then it hit her all at once. That night she went to the party. And stayed too late. It was the first and last party she ever attended in high school. She now knew why her mom had warned her about parties. About older boys. About alcohol.
All she could do was fall to the ground and sob. She couldn’t believe that one stupid night was going to reverse all that she had worked so hard to accomplish. As she lay on the ground she couldn’t help but notice the smell of the fresh grass. Then she snapped. She kept ripping handfuls of grass and throwing them all around her.
At that moment her teammates had no idea what was wrong with Mariposa. But they soon figured it out. First her times began to suffer. Then she began wearing baggy tee shirts to practice. Finally, Mariposa found the courage to tell her teammates what they had suspected for weeks. She was pregnant.
No more running to school. No more cross-country team. As she sat in her closet. Because she just wanted to hide. Even from her own reflection. She noticed her running shoes, that she hadn’t worn in months, were still covered in grass. This time. Instead of throwing it. She collected it. And placed it gently in her jar that was now almost full. She slept in her closet that night. Like she had many nights before.
She woke the next morning in total darkness. For a moment, she wasn’t quite sure where she was. And then she felt it. A soft flutter. Could it be, she thought? There it was again. The gentle kicks of her future son were what made her decide she would never sleep in her closet again.
William was born the summer before Mariposa’s junior year. Healthy and happy, she looked just like his father. Mariposa was fine with that. Steven was a good man. Once he found out that she was pregnant he enlisted in the Navy. He wasn’t around as much as he’d liked to be. But whenever he wasn’t deployed he was with them. Even when he was out of the country, he was with them.
Three nights a week he would Facetime them for as long as he could afford. And each call would always end with him reading Guess How Much I Love You to the two of them. Happy tears. Sad tears. And even a few giggles would always follow.
Mariposa’s senior year came faster than she’d imagined. William was now walking and Steven was working his way up the ranks. Mariposa was actually graduating in the top ten percent of her class. Quite impressive, considering that for the last two years, she spent her days caring for William and her nights taking classes and studying for exams.
She was so excited the day of her graduation was almost here and Steven had received special permission to fly home from Germany. Just for the day. As she looked up into the crowd, she could see her mom sitting with William in her lap. But she did not see Steven anywhere. Her row was being called next and he still wasn’t there.
Her life had been full of many disappointments. But Steven not showing up on this important day? She’s not sure she could handle this. Time to stand and walk to the stage. Still no Steven. There were now only five people ahead of her. 4…3…2..
Just as she was about to step to receive her diploma she saw him. Standing in his uniform next to her mom. Not concerned that he was blocking everyone behind him. And he was holding something, but she couldn’t tell what.
And then her heart stopped. She saw what he was holding. It was a collage made of everything she had put in her jar. The piece of red glass and the brown bottle neck. The small piece of black rubber sole that had come from her shoe and the grass that she had ripped the day she realized she was pregnant. (This was actually why he was late. He thought of the idea on the long flight and had rushed to have it made.)
But in the center was something she couldn’t quite recognize. It was sparkly, but she couldn’t recall having ever seen it before.
It was now her turn to shake her principal’s hand and receive her diploma. She exited the stage and went to return to her seat. But as she went to sit down, she noticed that the William had placed the collage he had made in her chair.
And she was now able to see very clearly what it was that she could not identify from the stage. It was an engagement ring. With the most beautiful diamond she had ever seen. Tears ran down her cheeks as she mouthed yes to Steven who couldn’t take his eyes off her.
Steven was so happy he hollered. Forcing the principal to have to call for silence. He didn’t care. He had just received confirmation that he was going to spend the rest of his life with Mariposa. A woman who was stronger than anyone he had ever known. A woman who never once quit on life even though life sometimes appeared as if it had quit on her.
They bought their first house together a year later when Steven was permanently stationed stateside. And the last box they unpacked contained the collage Steven had made for Mariposa. She had replaced the engagement ring with a photo of the three of them on their wedding day. It hung in the family room where everyone could see it. And once they hung it, they never took it down.
It was time to start a new collection.
Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, she became a butterfly.
Barbara Haines Howett