I survived twenty-nine years without having ever seen fireflies.
That’s not to sound ungrateful. Some things I have seen: the ruins of Ayutthaya, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the raw majesty of southeast Asian monsoons. Other things I have not seen: the northern or southern lights, the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Statue of Liberty.
Before reaching age eighteen, I’d encountered king cobras and tokay geckos and weaver ants in their native habitats, which I realized not everyone had done. So I never felt particularly put out about the fireflies until it came to my attention that some people reach adulthood without ever having seen cockroaches.
And suddenly it all seemed incandescently unfair.
Cockroaches were such a constant presence in my Bangkok childhood that I’d taken it for granted that everyone had dealt with them. As kids, we were often tasked with dispatching any cockroaches spotted in the house, and we used to drive my father crazy by using his wingtips to do the job (they were the largest shoes at hand). I’m loath to walk around in the dark because at age five I once crushed a cockroach beneath my bare foot in the wee hours of the morning. On another occasion my parents awoke to me shrieking like a slasher movie cheerleader—I’d closed myself in the bathroom with an enormous flying cockroach and was so undone by terror that I could not get the door open again. But at least, I thought, my experience was universal.
Then one of my grad school friends moved from Utah to Georgia to pursue her PhD. She’d grown up in New England and had spoken a few times about missing the fireflies in the early summer, and when I’d mentioned that I’d never seen them before, she reacted with dismay—but, as I’ve said, I’d never felt deprived about the array of insect life I’d been exposed to. But a few months after her arrival in Georgia, this friend started writing social media posts about cockroaches. She wrote as though striving to comprehend an eldritch horror.
It transpired that she had never, ever seen a cockroach.
“Well,” she allowed, “I mean, I’ve seen them on display at the zoo.”
And so it was that I began to feel deprived about the fireflies.
Several years later, I was living in northern California and my life was unraveling. Divorce is a wretched ordeal, and for multiple reasons, mine strode deep into trauma territory. Turns out your brain does surreal things in response to trauma—at times it feels as though your vault of memories has been ransacked. For months, random snippets of songs from middle school popped into my head for no reason. Long-lost inside jokes from high school suddenly shone with hilarity. My mind leapt from dizzy thought to dizzy thought so quickly that even I couldn’t follow the connections it was making.
One summer day, before the culminating events that would take me away from California, I was on the phone with a best friend living in Wisconsin, asking him to tell me what he was up to these days.
“Not much,” he said. “I rode my bike to the library this evening. It was really pretty riding back—I took some forested paths and there were fireflies everywhere.”
I brightened—or maybe flickered is the better word. I wasn’t doing well at all. But the sensation was intoxicating. “Fireflies?”
“Yeah, everywhere,” he said. “Flying over the path, in the trees, everywhere.”
I imagined my friend bicycling through a green sparkling fairyland. I liked this thought very much. “I didn’t know there were fireflies there.”
“No?” He sounded surprised. “Yeah. Every summer. They’re all over the place in the Midwest.”
“I didn’t know that.” I repeated myself a lot, in cycles, during this part of my life. I paused. “I’ve never seen fireflies before.”
“No?” Stricken disbelief.
“I mean, I’ve seen them in movies. I know what they look like. There are fake ones at Disneyland, in the pirates ride.”
“But—” he protested. Then, “Well, you should visit Wisconsin some summer. They’re all over the place.”
“I didn’t know,” I said. Then I started yammering about cockroaches on display at the zoo. (I mean, really. The zoo! Somebody’s feeding them and everything! On purpose!)
Over the next months, I glommed onto the fireflies. Something about the way everyone took them for granted was finally getting to me, particularly when laid side-by-side with the way I took cockroaches for granted. My writer’s brain was chewing on this, making it a metaphor. I’d always been fond of metaphors. My trauma-brain was obsessed.
I’d moved to Madison, Wisconsin by the beginning of October. It wasn’t just about the fireflies—the afore-mentioned best friend lived there, the job market was strong, the cost of living was reasonable, and it was far enough from California that I doubted I’d be followed.
But the fireflies were a part of it. They were a manageable bucket list item—something new, something worth seeing. Maybe someday I’d get my life together enough to see the Great Pyramid of Giza, but first, I’d see fireflies. By the time my birthday rolled around in the late spring, they’d be everywhere.
I reworked my life while waiting out the long Wisconsin winter. Trauma-brain was still spitting out references at random, generally from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods, which I hadn’t read since 1997, but which at least takes place in Wisconsin. I kept imagining the scene where Ma mistakes a bear for a cow in the darkness. She yells at it and slaps its rump, only then realizing her error. I kept imagining a bear appearing outside my studio apartment’s sliding glass door. Poor trauma-brain. My building was just off a major city intersection. There would never be a bear to smack.
Friendship warmed and was transfigured in the long dark. Moving to Wisconsin, I decided, was one of the best decisions I’d ever made. The ground thawed.
“I haven’t seen any fireflies yet,” I told Andrew at some point in April.
“It’s still too cold,” he said. I peeked through the curtains anyway, scrutinizing the new spring foliage as though I could will the fireflies into being.
“It’s still too cold,” I decided, as though the pronouncement were my own.
Through most of May, the evenings were chilly, though the daytimes were warm and sunny and fragrant with greenery. I obsessed while pretending I was too mature to obsess.
A couple days before my twenty-ninth birthday, as Andrew and I sat across from each other in the posh Cajun restaurant he’d chosen for my surprise birthday dinner, I closed my eyes, savoring the best crawfish étouffée I’d had since 2001. “This is amazing,” I said. “Seriously amazing.”
“I’m glad,” Andrew said, grinning at me. He listened to me rhapsodize for a moment longer. Then, “I considered scheduling this for your actual birthday-birthday, but I’m hoping to go for a walk along some of the bike paths that night. I’m hoping there will finally be fireflies.”
That’s how I know for certain that cartoon hearts can’t really come out of a person’s eyes—because if they could’ve come out of mine, they would’ve.
And so a couple nights later, we drove out to some wooded trails at dusk and set off on foot.
“I feel like I’m on a snipe hunt,” I said, peering into the shoulder-height tall grasses on either side of the trail. I wished I could look everywhere at once, certain that the moment I took my eyes from one spot, the fireflies would appear there.
Andrew squeezed my hand. “It’s still pretty chilly,” he said. “We might not see them tonight.”
“This is a nice walk anyway,” I said. “It’s a pretty night.” The moon was bright in the darkening sky, the stars only occasionally obscured by passing clouds. Cool breezes swayed the tall grasses and rustled the nearby trees. The air smelled lush and moist and green, and swelled easily in my lungs, flowed comfortably over my face.
Still we saw no fireflies.
When night had truly fallen, we gave up on the idea of the birthday fireflies. “It’ll be soon,” Andrew promised. I looked at him to nod.
Something twinkled warmly in the grasses just behind him. Just one twinkle, blinking up and up, breaching the grasses and twinkling against the starry sky.
I had frozen, so Andrew turned to see what I was seeing.
“Oh, yes,” he said.
Several other twinkles had responded to the first one, and were blinking awake in the tall grasses.
“Oh!” I kept saying, pointing helplessly. Andrew was grinning. “Oh!” I’d started spinning on the spot, trying to point to each of the fireflies individually, with one exclamation each. “Oh!” Point. “Oh!” Point. “Oh!”
The fireflies were nothing like what I’d expected. I thought I knew what they were like—I’d read about them, seen them represented in movies, heard them described, and seen the fake ones on the pirates ride at Disneyland. They were like LED fairy lights, like sentient campfire sparks, like teensy light bulbs not quite screwed in tightly enough. They were the symbol of a cool twilight summer childhood, eternally captured in jars in some halcyon suburb.
Everything I thought I knew was nonsense. Plato knew what was up, I thought, falling back on my intellectualization habit. Mimesis is a farce.
“Oh!” I was still saying, pointing. “Oh!” My voice had started reverent, but it was getting louder. “Look!” I said. “Look at them, Andrew!”
“I see them,” he laughed.
“Look, look, look!”
There had never been so much air in my lungs. It felt like I might’ve inhaled a star. The fireflies were winking everywhere, and I had no words for what they were like. They were like nothing except themselves. How were they doing this? One moment, Andrew and I had been alone, and now the quiet night was aglow with living baubles bobbing among the grasses.
“Wow!” I finally bellowed, and started jumping up and down like a child. “Wow! Fireflies! Fireflies, Andrew! Look at them! Look at them go! Wow! Wow! Wow!”
Andrew was still laughing. I threw my arms around him, bouncing with joy. I imagined the fireflies, too, were laughing. Their pulsing glow is friendly in a way that suggests laughter. I know they’re only looking for mates—but still.
We turned back towards the car once I’d winded myself. I was still trying to point out each firefly individually. “Look! There’s one! There’s another one! Wow! Wow! Look!”
Once in the car, I seat-belted myself in, craning my neck to peer back towards the flickering bike trail. I watched until we’d left the early dominion of the fireflies and could see no more of them.
“So what did you think?” Andrew said.
“Well,” I said, trying to be dignified. I paused. “Well—well—” I said, indignant. “Well, those are way better than cockroaches!”