There is a scar on my back in the shape of a butterfly. I never look at it. But if it’s summertime, and depending on what I’m wearing, when I sit down I know others can see the tips of its wings—poised but never taking flight. Stuck. Frozen in time from the moment it was created.
I dread when somebody asks about it. I’ve yet to come up with a truthful explanation. The truth is horrible, ridiculous really...and I don’t want to admit it to anyone. So I gloss it over.
They say butterflies are free, but this one is my captive, my prisoner, a self-inflicted wound that reminds me of my own captivity. A silent testament to my naivete, my weakness, my blindness, my blinding mistake.
I hate the scar. Yet it is part of me. I ignore the scar. So I ignore that part of me. One day I’ll find a way to see it as beautiful, but I fear that day is a long, long time coming. I’m grateful that I don’t see it; I never turn around and look behind me in the mirror. Out of sight, out of mind. Mostly. Mostly.
The scar is born seven years ago, on a sunny late-August day, though it had been hatching out in my brain for a while. See, in December I met a man—a savior, a counselor—who makes me believe I’m like a butterfly. That all I need is to dry my wings in the sunshine and then I’d really soar. He says he’s the sunshine, and I believe him because it feels that way. Everything is warming up under the warm glow of his attention.
My wings needed drying. Wet with tears and battered from the strong winds of change, I barely feel anything except confusion and a sort of despair. It had been two years since my long-term marriage broke up, and several months since the so-called “relationship” I fell into later dissolved when the “man” skulked back to his newly widowed (and therefore newly quite wealthy) ex-wife, with whom he reconnected after 20-plus years. Keeping up with the five wooded acres and the 1950s era home on my own had become daunting and consumes most of my time off of work. The financial struggles are endless and depressing. The gentlemanly man is a blissful diversion from all of that.
I’m not the least bit attracted to him physically. In fact, at our initial meeting in my office I walk away from the conversation thinking he’s somewhat strange. He shows up without an appointment—on deadline day no less—to discuss an issue with his police job he thinks I should know about. During the course of our half-hour visit, he speaks a foreign language to me and. I don’t know what to make of this. I tell I’m not familiar with the language and he laughs, saying that it is the language of his ancestors and that’s why everyone in the small town he works in spread viscious rumors about his political leanings. The shaved head doesn’t help any, as far as I’m concerned, but never being one to stereotype, I sympathize with what he insists is a misconception. As a single, motorcycle riding woman who shows up for social and job-related functions alone—and being of advanced age—I’m often labeled as gay. I know what it’s liked to be pigeonholed.
He tells me he is the subject of a witch hunt simply because he’s “different,” that I should know the allegations being made by his chief are false. He reads my column, he says, so he knows I’m a proponent of honesty and justice. I’m a bit surprised. My writing is where I live, so I find this flattering.
He says he’s the product of foreign education, alludes to an exclusive prep boys school he was shipped off to by his folks as if this somehow explains things. I’m watching the clock, only mildly engaged.
As he’s leaving, he compliments me on my outfit. He says it’s different, and he likes that. I say “thanks,” and offer a weak smile. I’m in a hurry to get back to the task at hand.
I don’t think too much about it. Along with all the controversy and rumors, I heard he was recently separated, that his wife moved way up north to another part of the state. Of course I know all about his job troubles. I’ve had to report about them. When he calls a week later he tells me so and so asked him, “What do you think of Spinning?” and he said “She’s the hottest of the hotties.” This of course sticks with me. I’m 47. He’s 38. I was feeling anything but “hot” at the time. This lifts me up. I am flattered.
He begins calling weekly, then a couple of times a week. My gut knows what he’s up to and I’m not into it. I actually write in my journal that “I would rather puke than have sex with XX” and I mean it. I’m not attracted. And he’s a cop. I’m not a fan.
However, he persists. He calls. A lot. After normal chit chat he asks questions. I answer honestly, and he gives me his take. Or his pep talk. Or his counseling. Or his humor. Always, always making me laugh. And laughing feels so much better than crying.
This court-jester savior engages me for hours and listens to my disjointed thoughts, which he pries out of me like a therapist. “You are a gem in this sea of detritus, and you just don’t know it,” he says. Pretty soon I began to believe him. We are two “misunderstood rebels” in this little hick berg. I look forward to his calls. And then the lunch “dates” we have during the work week. One day when we’re driving back to the office, he pulls the car over on the expressway on ramp and cups my face in his hands and says “I love you! You. You. I. Love. You.” We kiss.
It is now June. Six months since I met Mr. Wonderful. I am now attracted to him. To his kindness. His quirky outlook. His total acceptance of me. He makes me feel special and safe. Convinces me the age difference is nothing. Tells me his wife was older and in his college days he lived with an older woman. He says he’s like a lion, watchful and strong. The king of my jungle. He actually says “I wish I could go back and punch everyone who ever hurt you in your entire life.” He says “I can’t wait to meet your parents to thank them for having you.” I have never, ever heard such things. I feel like I love him, too. I am amazed at his seemingly selfless nature. He asks me for nothing except my time. He respects my wish to avoid “just another roll in the hay” and doesn’t press me.” I now feel “safe” enough to go that route. We conspire for a big plan—it’s been six months in the making— and go for it.
The connection is strong, but the experience is strange. He never really gets that hard. I chalk it up to my aging body; to the tears that leak out as my wounded self is being lovingly touched. I easily take on the thought that it’s something wrong with me, or that it’s the strange, first-time nervousness. I don’t regret it, but I don’t feel great, either.
A few hours later he calls while on duty and says “I left something at your house....my heart.” My spirit soars.
That’s the day the butterfly takes shape. It flies into my head when we’re in the shower. He’s making a big show of washing every part of my body. It feels ritualistic in its loving tenderness. Years of bottled up wounds pour out of me like lava, hot tears flow and blend with the cleansing water. I am baptized again by his “love.” I don’t know at the time that this is a baptism by fire, and soon enough I’ll again find myself in a realm where love equals pain. Mere ashes will remain.
I get out my drawing pad and begin to sketch a butterfly, but no ordinary butterfly. It has to have the face of a lion. Not a fierce, scary looking lion...but a wise, sagely, observant king of the jungle. It takes shape. In the wings are the eyes and mane. The butterfly’s body is perfect for shaping the lion’s nose, the curve of it’s mouth the bottom curve of the wings. It is beautiful to me. A melding of soul-nature of this “soulmate” relationship. The gentle and the strong. The flighty and the wise. Delicate power all in one picture.
I want to make this a part of me. And so I do. I’ve never had a tattoo before. Never ever thought I’d ever get one, either. Not attracted to tattoos, I thought I’d never feel compelled to permanently mark my body with anything and often didn’t understand why so many others did so. But this epic rescue love affair was huge. Monumental. Life-changing for this aging idealist. Worthy of permanent note and a reflection of my undying gratitude and awe. My sister tries to warn me against this. She sees something that I do not. I tell myself, and insist to her, that regardless of what happens in the future, I will always be grateful for his kindness, his guidance, his belief in and acceptance of me. I even work his initials into the design—his signature, so to speak, and my little secret. My little secret. His grand victory. When I show it to him he is speechless.
Within a week he runs out and gets a tattoo. When he shows it to me, I’m dashed and an alarm bell goes off. He tells me he was “thinking of me the whole time” and I struggle to find the connection. It is one of six Nordic rune symbols he will mark his body with. All just so happen to have well-known, negative connotations. Of course, he insists there is no connection—that his Scandinavian roots, and his motive, are pure. It is the rune for “noble or nobility,” and is linked to ancestry and homeland. Oh. Okay. Perfect.
Going through the tattoo process is irritating, but not too painful. Not half as painful, it turns out, as going through a six-year stint in hell with the one who “inspired” it. And now, well, it’s both irritating and painful. And a part of me.
In the ensuing months and years I will discover there is nothing noble about him; that he is no gentleman, no counselor, no thing. Nothing. Personnas flash through him like slides on a movie screen. I begin to understand that all the rumors about him were likely true and his interest was in my position, my reputation, my passion, my ability to make him “legitimate” and look good. He wanted the genuine things I had—things that within him were like little bits of coal.
In reality, he is a master of disguise and is the king of destruction. A mean little boy who pulls wings off of butterflies. A frightened child who sees nothing when he looks in the mirror. A cowardly lion who has no teeth. And I’m not in Oz any more.
Still, I keep my back turned. Ahh, the cosmic irony; turning my back on myself. On that naive, trusting, lonely little girl who was “grateful” to be used by the devil disguised as a saint. At least now, this moment, this day 21 months out, I no longer turn away from this truth. I have a scar on my back in the shape of a butterfly...but now at least the secret is set free.
Dear fellow Path Forward forgers:
This tattoo situation has bugged me for a while. I have told almost no one about it. The ridiculousness and permanence of it haunts me. It is among my greatest regrets and a silent testament to the idiocy of the fake soulmate “love” and gratitude I thought was real. To the extreme need within me to be validated by a man and paid attention to. To my eagerness to express appreciation for exploitation. He held up a mirror. I should have been grateful for being myself—something I work on now every single day.
How many red flags do you see in the story? I don’t like to count. But count, I do. We all must. Had I listened to my gut at the initial meeting, the scar wouldn’t exist. This, I suppose, is the redeeming moral of the story.
Never, ever again will I allow my instincts to be whittled away at by anyone.
Thank you Lisa, the Mod Squad and all who land here for reading, for providing this outlet for sharing. For being like family on this Path Forward.
(determined to never ever again be) spinning. AND TO BE ALWAYS SO VERY GRATEFUL FOR THAT.