My M. Butterfly.

15 Mar

I’m not even sure on which floor M. Butterfly lives, which is rather unobservant of me as I seem to be perpetually locked in the confines of the elevator with him. Regardless of the time of day or night, he is forever lurking in the vicinity of the three-by-five cell, and yet miles and continents away in his head, in a world all his own. Whenever he presses the number to his corresponding floor, I am too busy pushing a thumbtack into the palm of my hand to keep from chortling and snorting snot all over the four walls around us.

I know absolutely nothing of M. Butterfly, his past or his present, with the one profound exception: He is never not singing to himself, in his native tongue, either forgetful of his surroundings or assuming we would all be better off with a primer on Beijing Opera in our repertoire of things remembered. His voice bounces off the top of his skull in a yearning, admirably acrobatic falsetto. Pitch is not a priority, but the glissandos of a shattered heart or a dream deferred as she buries her child or awaits her warlord and master to return home from the battlefield are all there, every note stabbed at but slightly missed.

M. Butterfly dresses for the day everyday, with a button-down shirt of some forgettable color and a pair of semi-formal coordinating and equally forgettable trousers. I imagine the uniform appears somewhere on page 57 of the little red book everyone was handed in the 1960s. He takes some unauthorized liberties after that. He is always wearing an American baseball cap. No team logo to give away his illegal allegiances, he just seems to favor the style. And he wears sandals. Modern, velcro-strapped sandals that take him everywhere in the neighborhood in every kind of clement or inclement weather. How his toes haven’t fallen off is beyond me. Because the sandals are silent, you might not ever know M. Butterfly was walking behind you up the steps of the subway station, or on line with you at the deli, or one aisle over in the Duane Reade. But as soon as you heard a loopy lyric soprano launch into one of the “four levels of song,” rest assured M. Butterfly has entered your air space.

M. Butterfly is a bit of a night-owl, as am I. So he will stroll the empty block in the emptiest hour of the darkest nights and wind up back in the lobby at 4AM on a regular basis. I see him often as I hurry back after desperately purchasing a TylenolPM. Our night doorman plays host to the inscrutable characters of the other world. His name is Angelo and he has been working the graveyard shift for twenty years. I have watched him grow up before my eyes. In 1990, he was a wild-haired rebel who strummed the night away on his muted electric guitar. Now, neighborhood ne’er-do-wells keep him company. Or he listens to the radio. I was stunned to find him in spectacles reading a novel one night. (Everyone is getting so old around here anymore!) But more often than not, M. Butterfly is there and not there, singing aloud, but to himself, a sad song of yesteryear, perhaps a particular favorite Dan role of his from his gloried dusty past on a stage half a world away where the sun is shining now, the light sparkling in her eyes, and the villagers would well remember him they would and the legendary pathos she effortlessly brought to each performance and they would slowly gather round him as if their exotic jewel had returned home and they would beg her to bring to life a lost aria of the all-but forgotten qingyi, the huashan, please, the huashan and gather slowly but surely and urgently gather round her they would, they will, and sit enraptured, enthralled for long and lovely minutes as the earth slowly stops its spinning and her sorrow spins exquisite sadness and finally as the last pure and purely painful note bounces off her skull and into the universe, as it floats into forever a young boy in the front row will look down to discover that his hands have started applauding spontaneously and all the others soon follow with affection and elation and the ovation is soon swelling and it’s urgent and flower-strewn and fierce and the adoration is complete and full and M. Butterfly pauses on the precipice of perfection to take it all in, a tear welling in the corner of her dimming dying eye, her costumes reflecting all the frenzied Prisms of Heaven and then.

His sandaled feet quietly take him to the elevator. And Angelo rolls his eyes.


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