While watching I Am Legend, in the scene where Will Smith’s on-screen daughter holds up her hands and says, “Daddy, it’s a butterfly,” Katie Jo immediately recognized the gesture—years ago, her mother had used a similar motion to describe her vagina. Except her mother was tipped over on the short end of a bottle of Stoli’s while comparing the fluttering insect to the “special and private parts” all girls shared. That day stood out in Katie Jo’s memory because that same afternoon her mother would wade into the Illinois and drown in the undertow. The weeks and months after her mother’s death were a fogged window. But the hours before the accident, her mother lightly tracing her fingers over a giant yellow swallowtail, were unchanged, crisp, and precise in every detail. Earlier at the dentist’s office, her mother tore the swallowtail image out of a National Geographic marked with a sticker “office use only” which had gotten them both a sharp reprimand from the receptionist. Her mother stared back until the woman looked away. Her mother was as good at breaking the rules as Katie Jo would become at following them.
“The wings, see,” her mother was saying, “function like…” she held her hands up to indicate the delicate appendages and then swiftly snapped them together.
“Just like the butterfly, darling, and the center. The center is where it’s at…” her mother slurred her words and trailed off.
“What is, mama?” Katie Jo said interested but not at all understanding. “Well, the heart of our womanhood, darling,” her mother held the sweating vodka bottle to her forehead, voice teetering between joy and tears, “the heart is, let’s just say…where it feels the best. We have to be very…very,” she pointed the tip of the bottle in Katie’s direction, “careful…with our hearts. Understand, sweetie?”
Her mother pushed the image of the butterfly across the table to her and Katie Jo took it and smiled. She didn’t understand at all, but what she wanted more than anything was to be her mother’s confidant. Connection bested understanding on any day, besides her mother wouldn’t remember the conversation. She never did.
So Katie Jo smiled and said, “Ok, mama. Ok. I do.”
“You’re such a good girl,” her mother said, “such a good, good girl.”
Thirty years later, Katie was still a good girl. It’s why she had not protested, but stood quietly by, when Wade left her for a girl half her age, a girl he met at the firing range, or the nights she knew he was not on fishing trips or at dart tournaments. It’s why she had not said no to the principal when he asked her to take over the sex-ed talk for the 5th grade girls, known cryptically to all the teachers as, the Pink Book Lecture. The dreaded two hour session meant some unfortunate educator had to go through the antiquated rose colored pamphlet that diagramed and named the female genitalia, a brief discussion of the menstrual cycle, followed by the sexual intercourse diagram which suggested what female and male genitalia could produce if they connected, like disembodied spaceships finding each other in an otherwise vast universe. Because the genitalia was not connected to bodies in the pictures, just parts and the havoc they might wreak. The teacher was then expected to end with venereal disease, the one result which was worse than a baby.
No one wanted to do it and only the female teachers were allowed. One colleague had called out sick to avoid it. Katie taught third grade, but the fourth grade teacher claimed her IBS was too unpredictable to even consider it, and the fifth grade teacher had gone into labor a month before her due date and was on bedrest. Mr. Nicolson, the principal said, “It’s a very delicate age, as you know, I am sure. It just needs to be handled swiftly, efficiently, uh, bring treats. Cover the bases. It’s only two hours.”
“What about consent?” Katie said, flipping through the slim booklet. “Do you realize this is the same book I was given at this age. I’m 45.”
“Katie, just help me here, ok? I know this is not ideal. But I trust your judgement. Keep to the curriculum. It was written to educate not to empower.”
Thankfully, her first attempt at the Pink Book Lecture ended almost before it began, when 30 minutes after cookies and an uncomfortable menstrual cycle explanation, one of the girls had an asthma attack and a student roaming the halls pulled the fire alarm. By the time the firemen cleared the building the half day was called and the students were allowed to go home.
But what had been most upsetting to Katie was realizing there were at least a few parts of the female genitalia, her own body, that she couldn’t identify without the cheat sheet. The only sex talk besides what her mother had offered to her in regards to the butterfly occurred twice with her father where he said, “Katie Jo, if you ever have any questions about your body, or boys, or how you feel about the aforementioned, I will take you to the doctor.” The conversation had ended there. And that’s about the time she met Imaginary Mother.
All those years ago, a little girl with her own pink book and no one to bring it home to. Imaginary Mother had never let her down, and while she didn’t seem to know much more about the subject than Katie Jo did, at least she sat with her and tried to figure it out while her father watched Hill Street Blues. He never moved except on the commercial breaks, so Katie Jo and Imaginary Mother had all the time they needed to thumb through the pages and ponder the diagrams.
Imaginary Mother showed up that gloomy wet fall. The first clear memory Katie could recall after her mother’s death. Imaginary Mother was quick to step in after Freddy Tunesman put her hand between Katie Jo’s legs on the schoolbus. Imaginary Mother encouraged Katie Jo to take a sharp honed fish fork in her backpack, to jab it hard into the boy’s rib cage while saying, Move it, jackass. Katie Jo didn’t care that Imaginary Mother was repeating the lines her father often said while waiting at a stop and go light. Because it actually worked. Katie Jo would never have considered it on her own. Ima, that was Imaginary Mother’s sweet name, said that boys like Freddy only needed to be forked hard once to understand you meant business.
“What if he tells?” Katie Jo had asked. Because the idea of being in trouble was almost worse to her than Freddy.
“He won’t,” Ima said, “bullies are cowards.” And Katie Jo knew this was true because her own mother used to say it too. Katie Jo knew that Ima was not her actual mother because she didn’t hurt as much or soothe as much, but she was better than nothing because nothing was unbearable. Her own mother had been given to extremes in temperament, very funny, very charming, and very sad with little warning as to when the mood might change. But Ima like Katie Jo herself was steady, practiced, and careful first beyond all things.
It wasn’t until Katie’s husband, Wade, left her that Imaginary Mother began changing. In the early years with Wade, Ima seemed almost to fade completely. Showing up mostly to help Katie move through the terrible June anniversaries of her mother’s death, or to reassure Katie after her first miscarriage. Once Wade was gone, Ima got sharper and angrier. Not at Katie, but at everything else. It was Ima’s idea that Katie buy, not just new clothes, but get a new look, and to get her own attorney instead of using the mediator that Wade suggested.
“He can go fuck himself if he thinks you’re gonna rollover on 13 years of marriage and his new girlfriend,” Ima said. And it was Ima who suggested that Katie adopt the husky mix from the shelter. “He was the one supposedly allergic to dogs, honey, not you. You can do whatever you want now. Anything…” Funny thing about Ima, she was almost always right.
Katie had learned as a child to never tell anyone about Ima or she’d be accused of being crazy like her father used to accuse her mother. Crazy women broke the rules and broke off parts of you with them in process. A woman like that reduced you to splinters.
But now that Wade was gone, Ima and Katie talked all the time, filling the empty house with their conversation and laughter. Even though her marriage was over, Katie had never felt better, more loved. When she was in public she would just put on her headphones so no one knew it was really Ima’s advice she was asking about the pink sneakers or the emerald silk dress. Sometimes, Ima even used her credit card to send Katie flowers or little gifts to cheer her on during a rough week. She hadn’t wanted to tell Ima how badly the Pink Book talk had gone but she only had two days before she had to meet with the girls again, and she needed help.
“Listen, you think most of the girls are any different than you were at that age?” Ima said.
“They have the internet.” Katie said. “I just had…”
“Me?” Ima said.
“I didn’t mean that.”
“You weren’t ready, honey, I did the best I could with what you knew.”
“I know, I’m not blaming you, I just wish…”
“You can’t change the past, my sweet, or anything that’s happened. But what you can be is yourself, right now, in all your glory. You’re a grown ass woman. Explore the world if you like. Don’t be afraid of those girls. You think they’re going to ask you something you don’t know? Well, good, then you’ll learn something. They respect you, give them room to explore and ask questions. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“I think you’re right,” Katie said.
“And anyway, I have a present for you.”
“Another one,” Katie laughed.
But she was delighted. Ima had really taken to internet shopping and weekly packages arrived with everything from Swiss chocolates to a silver sparkling dildo with batteries included. Katie didn’t mind at all that she used her credit card.
Ima pointed to the bench by the front door where Katie sat her deliveries before opening them. The medium sized brown box contained another box, a lavender box with a sticker logo that read, The Whip-Smarter Set. Inside nestled in more lavender and seafoam tissue paper was a book, Biometric Bullwhippery: a Woman’s Guide to Sexual Freedom and Spirituality, underneath the glossy book was a supple black whip that unfurled with the smell of rich leather and serpentined in her hand at slightest motion.
“Oh, gorgeous,” said Katie. Surprised by her own pleasure.
“Hear me out,” Ima said. “Like any tool for transformation, that which is pleasurable also can be painful. Not so different from how a relationship works. Isn’t that what you want to teach those girls. Their bodies are a place to explore? Not to be afraid?”
Katie started to protest then stopped. “Yes, I actually do.” She looked down at the whip. “I read that you can break the speed of sound with these.”
“Break the speed of sound with your own hands, split a snake or the skin on whatever it touches if you aren’t careful. But used right, with the right amount of pressure…just consider this an introduction to many things you never considered before. And I signed you up for class at the community center. But you can start with the book. You’re the educator, girl.”
Katie gave the whip another twist. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
The morning of the presentation, Katie wore the green silk dress and heels that made her feel like she was standing in the doorway of her new self. For once she took a long look at herself in the mirror. She ran a hand through her hair.
Hello, Butterfly, she and Ima said at the same time.
When she got to class that morning, even the girls noticed there was something different about her.
“Pretty dress, Ms Everly,” a girl in the front row said.
“Thank you,” Katie replied, not shying away from the compliment. That too was a new habit.
She stood in front of them like she had the mirror. Them looking long at her and her at them. She smiled, “Let’s start everything again.” The girls perked up as 10 year-old girls have a nose for drama and felt energy of a universe exploding to create another.
“It’s like good sex,” Ima counseled in her ear, “Just start from the outside and work your way in.”
“Ladies,” Katie said, “Who can tell me about the labia? What is it? Where is it? All questions welcome.”
She hit the first slide and several hands shot up in answer.