Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Kevin Canty’s “Mayfly” was originally published in the January 28, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
Though Kevin Canty has been around for a while (with four novels and three collections of short stories), I don’t think I’d ever heard of him until now. He currently lives in Montana and this story begins with a couple driving across Utah on I-70 (a particularly lovely drive through the desert mountains), so I was thrilled to find another author who set stories in this neglected terrain (neglected to the point that, even at The New Yorker, whoever was in charge of writing up the story abstract said “Mayfly” takes place in Utah, though no one in Utah can take a quick drive in and out of Denver in a day).
The couple driving across Utah to Colorado is James and Molly. In their mid-thirties, they are getting married in September. I don’t know how long they’ve been together, but it’s long enough they’ve already had plenty of ups and downs, most recently when Molly lost her job. In some ways, their relationship looks like a marriage that is about to end rather than one that is about to being.
This sense of an ending — of death, in fact — is present throughout the story and emphasized at the beginning when James and Molly end up travelling through a giant rabble of Monarch butterflies migrating north from Mexico. The beautiful orange and black swarm is so thick James can’t drive without killing dozens every second. Molly, for her part, is completely distressed and actually suggests they turn around, though they are much closer to their destination than their origin. James stops to see if she can calm down, and this is what he thinks:
He looked at the tangle of wings and bodies in the grille of the car. Some of them were still moving, or maybe it was just the wind. Butterflies landed on his arm, his face, his hair, creeping him out. But Molly’s eyes were wet. Let her sort it out, he thought. Let Molly figure it out for herself.
They eventually just drive through it, which doesn’t take long at all, but Molly is worried the whole time. James thinks, “To be honest, it was part of what he loved about her, just not now.”
The whole reason they are driving to Colorado is to see James’ old college roommate Sam. Sam lives with his wife Jenny and their three children somewhere in the mountains outside of Denver. As it happens, Sam has to go to Denver early the next morning, and Molly goes with him so she can visit an old friend, too.
James wakes up invigorated and goes fishing: “She was in Denver for the day, a day in which James could make his own choices.” Through the day, he feels alive, even though he periodically thinks back on his own parents who have died. He learns that Sam and Jenny are struggling to keep their marriage together, and he knows they are going to fail. Yet, here he is with her and Molly is with Sam. He feels jealous, yes, but more and more he just feels thrilled. It’s like he was born to a new life when he was wading in the water that morning.
He was done taking care of Molly. She’d find a way, or she wouldn’t. Hew as young and his body was a source of pleasure to him, supple and strong. It would carry him to many further adventures.
To be honest, I wasn’t much enjoying the story at this point. Water, sunlight, sex — it felt fairly typical. Fortunately, the story also follows the final and most notorious moment in the day of an adult mayfly: death (even if not death in the conventional sense). This day is ephemeral.
I read the story twice, each time not particularly loving (though not hating, either) the first 9/10s of the story, but each time finding that last 1/10 to be completely worth it.