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The Butterflies of Night - Christine Kwon

When everyone began shopping online, Alice found herself doing it a lot. The hours she wasted this way—not buying but browsing, clicking page after page—heaved under the feeling she was wasting her life.

At the present moment, she was infatuated with a necklace. She had first seen it in an ad on her Instagram. It cost $300, or a few dollars more, $319 or something like that. It was the algorithm’s fault.


Alice checked on this necklace nightly. She was sure that it would go on sale by September, to make room for fall things. But September, even October, came and passed and still the price had not dropped, even though the store now pushed jewels adorned with acorns and ladybugs.


I still like it, she thought, so I should buy it so I can stop thinking about it. But she was a teacher, and $300 was a fourth of her paycheck. She would wait a few more days, until the 15th of November, to get paid. Then she would make a grocery list to mitigate the damage. No more London fogs from the café on the way to school, though they gave her such pleasure at the start of the day.


When the 15th came, she scrolled down to the necklace, hoping to find that it had finally gone on sale.


And though the matching ring and bracelet did drop in price, the necklace remained where it was, at $324. Furthermore, there was a new warning, in red italics, below her necklace. Only a few remaining, it said.


She bought it. After Alice had clicked the buttons and gone through the mechanical actions of typing her address and card number, she wondered if she had really done any of that at all. It was something she had done so often and so thoughtlessly—like shampooing her hair—that she could not remember if she had done it or had done it sometime in the past, or in her dreams, or merely in her thoughts.


When she had forgotten about the necklace, it arrived. For some reason, she was afraid to open it, and she held off until after she returned from her hip-hop dance class. Dancing exhilarated her, and feeling good about herself, she opened her package from France and found another box, this one of study, thick, lavender cardboard. Inside this box was a pink velvet pouch. Nestled in gold and pink tissue paper was the necklace.


She put it on and went over to the mirror. The butterfly was suspended above her collarbone, its tiny wings hovering. The flowers dangled between her breasts. The last flower got caught between them if she spread her shoulders and closed them, leaning seductively forward. She imagined a hand coming forward to set it free. Then she took off the necklace and turned from the mirror.


It was more beautiful in her hand than around her neck. On, it looked like any other fake gold trinket that girls like to wear; it looked inadequate above her large breasts, like nothing at all. But in her hand, it was a beautiful object. She gently wiped her dancing-sweat off the necklace and put it back into its velvet pouch. Then she forgot about it.


It was only when spring break arrived that she remembered her handful of golden flowers. When she took out the necklace, she was happy, because it was more beautiful than she remembered. She put it on over a yellow blouse that she bought for her date.


It was her first date in a year. To exacerbate things, she had her period and could not pair her yellow blouse with her favorite white jean skirt, which accentuated her small waist (she had an hourglass figure). She decided on her favorite, frayed, pale blue jeans. The girly necklace, she thought, did not go so well with so casual an outfit. So she took it off and put on some gold hoops instead.


The earrings gave her a fresh, younger look, and after walking back and forth in the mirror, she lay on her bed with her phone, waiting for Michael to contact her. He was also a teacher, at another school. They had met at a district potluck picnic. He had liked her meatloaf. It was never difficult to talk to other teachers, because they all shared a certain fate, she felt.


With ten minutes left until Michael came to pick her up, however, she was beginning to feel nervous. Michael, in a manner uncharacteristic of the times, had insisted on picking her up. She realized, playing a game of ping pong on her phone, that she had expected to hear from him by now, if it was only an On my way or a Can’t wait or Almost there. But she had learned her lesson about texting first, or too often, and she threw her phone across the bed. Then she picked it up again to look at the time. To distract herself, she went on the French jewelry site, to see if any of their new spring jewelry was any good. As she scrolled down, she was threatened by a sense of foreboding. Everything was on a flash sale. As she feared, she saw it, her necklace, on sale for $45. And though she couldn’t say exactly why, it made her want to die. She vowed to never buy anything again. Fifteen minutes after Michael was supposed to pick her up, she texted him.

 

Christine Kwon writes poetry and fiction in her little New Orleans yellow shotgun house. She is the 2022 winner of the Cowles Poetry Book Prize. Her first book of poems, “A Ribbon the Most Perfect Blue,” will be published in late 2023 from Southeast Missouri State University Press.

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