"Oh, please. She still worships you," he says. "She's just a teenager, she's individuating. Keep trying, she'll come around soon. And it's good for her to know you care." As Jonathan watches Billie, he thinks that the person it 'really' would be good for is his wife, who perhaps needs to feel needed by their daughter again. You don't realize how much you'll miss the asphyxiating intimacy of early parenthood until you can finally breathe again.
"Always the optimist, my Jonathan." She says this as she's looking out to sea, her words swallowed up by the pounding surf, so that for a moment he's not sure he's heard her right.
He blinks, a flush of gratitude. "Billie? I still think—"
But she cuts him off, her words cooling quickly: "I can tell by your tone of voice where you're going, and don't. Just don't. I don't want to talk about it."
Down at the other end of the beach, the group of surfers has emerged from the sea, and they strip their wetsuits back like banana peels, bare flesh emerging from black neoprene. The boys jostle up against the girls, crowding their space, grabbing at their towels while the girls pretend to be indignant. Billie carefully wipes the sand from her hands as she stares at the surfers, the muscles in her back going taut under the thin cotton of her T-shirt. Jonathan wonders if she's seeing a former version of herself in the girls, in their loose-limbed freedom, in the way they demand that the entire beach notice them. He remembers that Billie—the girl he fell in love with sixteen years earlier, and honestly, not so much changed—and he reaches out to massage the tenseness away, but she shrugs him off.
They sit there like that for a while, silently watching the surfers collect their towels and then disappear in the opposite direction. Once they're out of sight, Billie's shoulders go slack. She stretches, lets out a muffled sound that's a cross between a sigh and a groan. "You know, I might do a backpacking trip one of these
weekends soon. Maybe up the Pacific Crest Trail."
"Again? With Rita?"
"No, by myself." She gives a little laugh. "You know, just me alone with my thoughts."
"Sounds nice. But is that such a good idea?" he says, hiding a small hiccup of anxiety: Alone with what thoughts?
Billie ignores this and stands up, crumpling the waxed paper from her sandwich with efficient finality. She beckons to Olive, who walks toward her mother with her hands full of some algae-covered flotsam that she's plucked from the sea. "If we're going to see those butterflies before it gets too late, we should head up,"
Billie announces. She turns and jogs up the dunes without checking to see if her husband and child are following her.
The monarch preserve is crowded, but not with butterflies. The arrival of the annual migration was announced in the local news earlier that week, and apparently Billie wasn't the only one to flag the story, because the tourists are out in force. Olive trails after her parents as they wander up and down the wooden walk-ways, craning her neck to scan the trees. The occasional butterfly flutters by overhead, an orange fleck backlit by the sun. The place is loud with the squeals of kids and shouting parents, unlike the reverent,
hushed temple to nature that Olive had imagined. She dodges a woman now, followed by another, all of them busily Instagramming any old insect that flits by, as their children lunge at the butterflies with sticky hands. Alarmed, Olive wants to shout: Don't they know that if they touch the butterflies' wings, they'll die? Did no one teach them to Leave No Trace? She looks around at the overflowing trash cans, the parents wielding aerosol sunscreens, and worries that this is why there aren't more butterflies here today. Or is it
global warming, pesticides? So many potential reasons why the monarch population is declining precipitously; she should really get her mother to plant milkweed in the garden.
Her mother disappears for a while, wandering off without warning, as she sometimes does. But as Olive turns back along the path, she hears Billie calling her name. Olive follows the sound of her mother's voice and finds her lying on her back in a little hidden corner of the wooden walkway. She has her hands crossed over her belly, the collar of her fleece zip-up spread underneath her head as a pillow.
Olive lies down beside her mother on the sun-warmed wood. She follows Billie's finger to where she is pointing. There, directly above them, the eucalyptus trees are pulsing. Hundreds of monarch butterflies are clinging to the branches, their wings moving in syncopation. The leaves droop under their weight, swinging heavily in the breeze.