The cabin was not in the back of the woods, as she’d imagined, but was on the edge of the road. There was a boxy car in the driveway. The cabin wasn’t really a cabin—or at least, wasn’t made from wood and mud, but white painted brick. Inside the cabin were kerosene lamps that didn’t work and regular lamps that did, a wood-burning stove inside of which were piles of old TV guides, and a greasy electric stove. She noticed an old-fashioned coffee grinder by the defunct stove, and a new-fangled coffee pot by the functional stove. There were antlers on the coffee table, brown and white woven blankets on the rocking chair, and framed cloth flour sacks hung on the wood-paneled walls, the brown burlap like deflated balloons. The bedroom had a single army cot covered with afghans that looked like they had been made by knotting yarn. The whole place had a medicinal mothball smell.
Clara took inventory: two stoves, a fireplace, and no smoke detector.
On her first day of work, she tried to Rollerblade to the lepidopterist’s lab, but forty yards in to her two-mile trip along Buttonwood Trail, the chattering of her teeth caused by the wheels of her rollerblades running over stray bits of gravel made her feel a bit like the victim of shaken baby syndrome. She changed into ballet flats in the middle of the empty road and walked the rest of the way. When she reached the address she had been given, a two-and-a-half spilt level house built in the seventies, she wondered if this was the lepidopterist’s home instead of his lab. On the front porch, she rang the doorbell like some sort of Girl Scout. A middle-aged man in a plaid shirt answered. She immediately learned that his name was Marc, she soon learned that he was her boss, and she much later learned that she would sleep with him. At the time, she just thought that he was somebody’s father—which he was, actually.
“Clara,” Marc stated, not asked, and extended his hand.
Unlike the white, sterile laboratory she had envisioned, the walls were paneled with imitation wood and the floors were checkered in tiny mustard and orange terra cotta tiles. Marc led her into the employee lounge, a former kitchen, with a vending machine in place of the refrigerator, and they sat in metal folding chairs at a wooden table.
Marc’s hair wasn’t thinning, but his lips were, as if with age, gravity caused his lips to collapse into each other, permanently narrowed and pursed. The pursed lip syndrome, Clara noticed, was always exacerbated when one had the misfortune of crooked teeth and learned at an early age how to tauten one’s lips over one’s smile.
When Marc asked her why she had decided to work for him, she told him, proud of her poetry, that butterflies look like airborne stained-glass windows. He smiled his tight-lipped smile, and told her that moths were his area of study, not butterflies.
“You’ll soon discover that moths are exquisite insects, every bit as beautiful as butterflies,” he said.
Clara wished she were working with butterflies. And living in Vermont.
“Your main responsibility,” Marc explained, “is to photograph, and organize the archives of photographs, of the various specimens I am studying. I trust you are familiar with close-range photographic techniques, including photomicrosopy?”
She counted the syllables in the word.
“In a few weeks, you’ll assist me with my field research,” he continued. “You’ll accompany me to sites inhabited by the species I’m surveying. Your duties will include logging my observations, taking long-range photographs, sometimes apprehending specimens. Stuff like that.”
Marc left her in the kitchen/employee lounge to fill out some paperwork. Because there wasn’t a grocery store within Rollerblading distance, she hadn’t eaten anything since Norton’s cough drops the day before. She bought three granola bars from the vending machine.
For the next two weeks, everything she consumed came from the vending machine. To Clara, this limited diet felt like subsistence farming—a sole food source, harvested steps from where she lived, or at least, where she spent most of her time.
Clara and Marc were the only ones who worked in the lab five days a week. A janitor, or a housekeeper—Clara wasn’t sure which term was more appropriate—came Tuesday mornings. One weekend, a graduate student named Bekah visited the lab to share some statistics about the population distribution of Sphinx moths. Bekah worked in Marc’s lab two summers ago, and for the first time, Bekah realized that the lab was not always a two-person operation.
Clara was proud of herself for learning many of the names of the moths in just two weeks, distinguishing between a lichen moth and a tiger moth. But Bekah referred to all the species in their Latinate names. Clara hated Latin and felt that any language that demanded its words be italicized was too self-important. She started to feel like a toddler and Bekah was an adult spelling out all the S-C-A-N-D-A-L-O-U-S words. But, when Bekah mentioned a Sesia apiformis and Marc muttered, “Yeah, a hornet moth,” Clara began to fall in love with Marc.
She rarely used the brown car in the driveway of her cabin, and preferred walking to and from work, but on rainy days, Marc insisted on driving her back to the cabin. She began to keep her cabin cleaner, in case he might come inside after work someday, removing the clothing she hung from the deer antlers and straightening the afghans on her bed every morning.
Her contact with Marc remained professional during the first month at work. Only twice did his voice betray sentiment, which exhilarated her, the same feeling she imagined Marc had when discovering a new specimen. She witnessed Marc’s first emotional response after he had read a copy of a letter she had drafted to University of Maine, requesting a grant for a considerable sum of money.
“Jesus, Clara, are you dense?” he asked her as she was standing at the vending machine, trying to decide between salt and vinegar chips and Raisinettes.
Clara was inclined to answer no, but didn’t reply.
“Did you send this letter already?”
“Yes, I sent it early this morning,” she explained, momentarily relieved. “That’s a duplicate of the letter I sent.”
“Do you know that you spelled insect as INCEST? INCEST! Do you know what that means? Do you have any idea how important this grant is?”
“I’m sorry, it was an typo.”
Marc put his hand over his mouth, as if to withhold the horrible things he wanted to shout, and left her in the employee lounge-cum-kitchen, clutching her handful of dimes. Her coin collection was dwindling; she might have to use one of her Buffalo nickels if she didn’t make a trip to the bank soon.
DUMB AND DUMBER, she wrote to herself in her journal.
The second incident occurred when she asked Marc about a poster-sized photograph of a white moth hanging in his personal office on the 1.5 floor of the split-level laboratory. His office was entirely unadorned, except for this silver gelatin print. The moth was perfectly symmetrical, white as the Taj Mahal, with a dark pattern inlayed upon its upper wings, flourishing in tight, delicate arabesques, like a marble flower. As she placed a folder full of photographs on Marc’s desk, she pointed to the print hovering above them, and said, “That’s pretty.”
“It’s a Clemensia albata,” Marc said. “That’s my daughter’s name.”
“I didn’t know you had a daughter.”
“I call her Clem,” he said, without making eye contact. “She lives with her mother.”
“How old is she?”
“Seventeen.” His lips were pursed so tight that Clara thought he looked like a monkey. For the first time, she felt as though a shutter had opened a narrow aperture exposing this man’s sad life.
MOTH AND MOTHER.
After six weeks of filing, photographing dead moths, grant writing, checking and rechecking her spelling very carefully, Marc decided that Clara was ready to accompany him to the field. They were to begin the expedition at 10:00 p.m, when the nocturnal moths began to emerge. She packed the equipment in a knapsack: a DSLR, a thermos of tea, a voice recorder for Marc’s observations, a fluorescent lantern to attract the moths, and butterfly nets and glass jars to catch and contain specimens.
Clara felt New Hampshirean in her oversized wool sweater, with the thick weave shielding her from the October air. She followed Marc into the woods, staring at the upturned cuff of his jeans and the soft flannel lining sewn into the coarse denim.
They sat on a fallen tree and began to unload the equipment. Marc took a picture of Clara with the lab’s camera while she was sipping tea.
“Your turn, Christy Turlington,” she said, and took a photograph of him.
When he smiled, his teeth hidden beneath his upper lip, two creases appeared on either side of his mouth, as if when God was poking dimples into Marc’s face, he slipped, and left gashes instead.
Marc lit a cigarette, and offered one to Clara.
“I’ve never seen you smoke.”
“My ex-wife used to smoke. She always tasted like an ashtray, but after I picked it up, I didn’t notice anymore. Smoking—it’s contagious, it spreads faster than the common cold in a dorm room.”
“I never lived in a dorm,” she said. Clara had gone to a junior college, which ironically enough, had no juniors, being a two-year school.
He smiled, and Clara realized that he was staring not at her, but at her face. He is going to kiss me, she realized. Synapses fired like a defensive battalion, and Clara knew she had to say something—anything!—or else Marc would kiss her.
There was nothing she could tell him.
Where were the words to fill her mouth?
She was thinking faster than words, beyond words.
So she pretended to sneeze.
Her nose was crinkled and her eyes were squeezed shut, but before she could open them, his thin lips were pressed up against hers.
“Bless you,” Marc said, as unbeknownst to him, he possibly contracted oral herpes.
Clara liked Marc’s dark sunken eyes, and the way that Marc tasted after he smoked, his tongue like venison, whereas the tongues of other men had been like raw chicken. After they slept together for the first time, on the couch in the cabin, with the local NBC affiliate blaring apocalyptic weather warnings in the background, Marc convinced Clara to smoke her first cigarette.
There were no witnesses to this relationship, no one to whom Marc could introduce Clara, saying “Clara, my second half, because she’s half my age.” He told her that they weren’t to treat the laboratory like it was a house, even though it was a house, and that they would have a strictly professional relationship while on the premises. But they fucked until the friction from the shag carpeting in Marc’s office wore away the skin on their knees and elbows, as Marc whispered words into her ear that Clara thought were Portuguese, until Marc murmured, “Bella, Bella, Bella,” and she realized he was speaking Italian.
Clara no longer had to subsist off the vending machine, which she had almost singlehandedly emptied. A few times a week, they drove down to the local farmer’s market, where they bought brown eggs, cinnamon sticks, figs, nectarines, hand churned butter, and maple syrup to make brunch. Marc’s Dutch Colonial House had no furniture in the living room or dining room. She wore one of Marc’s plaid shirts while they ate in the breakfast nook.
Marc’s house was sparse, no rugs, no wall hangings, but he had a collection of kitchen appliances that would make Julia Child jealous. A fondue pot, a crock-pot, a deep-fryer, a Cuisinart, industrial mixing bowls, and dozens of ceramic knives. The entire eight months Clara was with him, they ate only one meal outside of his kitchen, when Marc was craving Szechwan and drove them down the mountain to eat at a Chinese restaurant owned and operated by white people.
Two months into the relationship, Marc gave Clara a one-day advance notice that his daughter, Clem, was coming to visit.
“I am picking her up from Phillips Exeter on Wednesday,” he said, pronouncing Phillips Exeter as if it were a Latin word. “You should come over for dinner on Saturday,” he said. I do not want to see you before then was left unsaid.
“And,” Marc added, “you can have Thursday and Friday off.”
Clara was nervous to meet Clemensia Albata Furman, whom she imagined as poised and angular with horn-rimmed glasses and a sleek, neat haircut.
On Saturday, after Clara trimmed her bangs, she walked along the bruised dirt road scarred by red leaves, to Marc’s house. She thought she saw a quarter impressed into the dirt road, but it turned out to be a bottle cap, a Miller Lite logo where George Washington’s face might’ve been.
As she rang the doorbell, clutching her homemade pico de gallo, she imagined how distorted and convex her face looked in the peephole. Marc answered the door, led her into the breakfast nook, and to her relief, Clem had messy hair and soft features. She was a redhead, which surprised Clara, who then realized that this meant her mother was probably a redhead as well. As she shook Clem’s hand, she studied her face closely, searching for the features in her face that were missing from Marc’s. Like a sketch artist, forming a composite of her mother through absences. Just like Marc, Clem had deep indentations bracketing her lips, but the bridge of her nose was broad, whereas Marc’s was cinched.
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