Kimberly Sheridan shares this beautiful essay about her trip to New Zealand, where she considers the lifespan of glowworms against the lifespan of her luminous affair.
Depending on how you measure a glowworm’s life, it’s either nine months or three days long.
For nine months, this species of gnats also known as arachnocampa luminosa are in the larval stage, which is also the longest stage of their lives. Ceilings and walls of damp caves in New Zealand glow an ethereal blue and points of light twinkle and radiate against the near-black. There are also strands of delicate dewy beads dangling from the ceiling like pearls from a queen’s wrist. A larva builds a silk nest on the ceiling of a cave and, to catch prey, drops up to thirty silk threads with small sticky droplets that shimmer like wet diamonds. The Māori name for glowworms is titiwai, which means “projected over water.”
Larvae, the form before metamorphosis into adulthood, are mostly-clear worms only about an inch long with captivating lights on their tails. Bioluminescence occurs when a luciferase enzyme acts upon a molecule of luciferin: both words come from the Latin lucifer, meaning “lightbringer.” The glittering turquoise network is breathtaking. Like Maggie Nelson writes in her ode to the color, “That this blue exists makes my life a remarkable one, just to have seen it.” This whole elaborate evolution is preparation for short-lived adult flies to lay eggs, which hatch into more glowworms that will perpetuate the light.
On the first night of my ten-day trip to Wellington, I met Adrian, a local Māori man. I met him just eight days before I glimpsed glowworms myself for the first time. Depending on how you measure the luminous affair that ensued, it was either ten days or a few hours long. Our mutual friend connected us over a small group dinner a few hours after I arrived from Los Angeles. We’d messaged for weeks before my arrival and in-person we hit it off quickly. Adrian was an artist-turned-personal-trainer like me. He had lost over 160 pounds and had transformed from morbidly obese to competitive bodybuilder. I was used to feeling powerful and muscular, but I felt petite next to him. He was tall, thick, and had a wide smile with a small gap between his front teeth. He’d faced adversities but retained a playful sense of humor and had an ease with expletives. He dressed casually, wore shorts and sneakers, and was polite to the waitstaff. After dinner, when everyone else had scattered and gone to bed, we roamed downtown for a late-night coffee.
The 6,700 miles traversed, we sat at a small table in the middle of the night, eagerly learning about each other and attentive to every detail and gesture. After seeing only photos of me with barbells and weights, Adrian noticed that I was more elegant than he expected. I noticed his kind eyes and explosive laugh. Also, I noticed myself differently in his presence. I was less tough lifter-of-heavy-things and more effortless, soft, present. All the work ethic and ambition that defined my efforts to thrive in Los Angeles dissolved.
I spent the next morning walking around the windy city alone and felt changed, my core blazing. Following the path that ran along the water, a sculpture of a naked man caught my attention: the bronze man stood on the edge of the waterfront, leaning out over the bay, into the elements, eyes closed, mouth slightly agape, and hands behind him like he had no need to worry about what would happen next. “Solace in the Wind is an emotional portrait,” says sculptor Max Patte, a piece that echoes his own moment of contemplation at the edge of the world. Most of the time, we just have to lean into what’s to come.
I’d go on to spend the rest of my weekday mornings, from nine to noon, with Adrian. He was a single devoted father of two, and his time was limited, but he committed his few free hours to showing me around. We were exploring in these daylight hours, not hooking up, so it was a week of ever-present tension and yearning. We climbed to Victoria Lookout for an aerial view of the city and the bay. We ran up and down a long set of outdoor stairs and sweated it out at his gym. We saw the Wellington sign in Miramar, which mimics the Hollywood sign, on a high shrubby hill with blocky white letters. But the T, O, and N are being carried up and away on a few wisps of carved white wind. I told him he needed to visit Los Angeles, not for the Hollywood sign, but because Venice and Gold’s Gym are legendary for a bodybuilder. Mainly, we just walked and talked, in the process of becoming, and burning brightly.
Mainly, we just walked and talked, in the process of becoming, and burning brightly.
Every morning, we’d start with coffee. We’d get the table closest to the window, often tucked away from others, that overlooked the stunningly blue Oriental Bay. He was unlike any man in America I’d ever met—open, gracious, easily and fundamentally spiritual. One morning, as we sat sipping lattes in an empty backroom of a café, “Let Her Go” by Passenger floated through the speakers: Only know you’ve been high when you’re feeling low / Only hate the road when you’re missing home / Only know you love her when you let her go / And you let her go. The blinding intensity of the moment made us both look away.
Glowworms have five instars, developmental stages that require a casting off of an exoskeleton to grow. About instars, the writer Rebecca Solnit says, “We have not much language to appreciate this phase of decay, this withdrawal, this era of ending that must precede beginning.” Even the word instar is poetic—each larva in a star, and in this species, shining like one too, but undergoing the necessary brutality of transformation. The last stage before adulthood is the pupal stage, which lasts about two weeks, where the larval structures collapse and the adult structures are formed.
While in Wellington, I got a tattoo to commemorate the trip and to carry it into the future. I got a jackalope with flowers and a text-banner that wrapped around my right wrist. The text in the banner reads Naci Lista, or Born Ready. The kitchen staff at my second job asked at the start of every shift, “Ready?” And I’d always reply, “BORN READY.” So, they taught me to say it in Spanish. This exuberance and hope for unknown tomorrows despite my painful yesterdays characterized my actions. Now, readiness would bloom on my skin through all my incarnations. On my desk back home, I kept a framed Joan of Arc quote: “I am not afraid. I was born to do this.” It gut-punched me every time I read it. Born to do what? “This” was a moving target—things were always ending and beginning—but I held faith it all adds up to something enduring.
It was the day before I’d head out to see glowworms and Adrian canceled his midday client so we could spend a few more hours together. I had only been there for seven days, but it took only a few heartbeats before sunny California seemed a distant place, my accent a remnant from a far-off land. We drove to an outlet mall, tried on cheap athletic clothing, and ate in the food court. We walked in the rain, laughing. We took the train, laughing. Mundane things became joyous and fun. He led me through the town without telling me where we were going. We ended up in the graphic-novel section of a library I mentioned I wanted to go to once, although I don’t recall either of us paying any attention to books. This was our last morning—there would only be one night left to see each other after my trip to the gleaming Waitomo Caves.
Adrian and I snapped one photo of ourselves together outside on the steps of the library—grinning and golden as stars. Later, he texted the photo to our mutual friend with the message, “Look, we are behaving.” She replied, “Life is too short to behave.”
The imago—plural, imagines—is the last stage of the arachnocampa luminosa. The delicate adult fly hatches from the pupa casing and gets its wings. After nine full months of being in-process, they die after three days. When our guide told us this, I thought it tragic and unfair: such a refined, evolved means of development only to be born mouthless, with two days to mate, lay eggs, and then die of starvation. Wistful, I contemplated growth, two bodies, and hunger.
I returned to Wellington the night before I was to fly back to Los Angeles and met up with Adrian at 11:00 p.m. Downtown, we ate Chinese food and then walked the streets as people stumbled out of bars. Smiling and giddy, we probably looked like tall, muscular, happy drunks, but we were completely sober. He said he had something for me but had to give it to me by the water. He drove us to the bay we overlooked during our coffees, at the edge of this universe. Adrian handed me a small, velvet, blue bag. Inside was a large teardrop of New Zealand jade on a black rope. He told me he was looking at two but this one chose him. It was blessed by the local makers, and he had to do his own Māori blessing by the water. He took the jade, hopped out of the car, and spent a few minutes by the water in the wind and the dark. When Adrian got back in, he put it around my neck and adjusted it. For him and his kids, I had the more ordinary gift of T-shirts from Venice’s Muscle Beach. I wish I knew what blessing he imbued the necklace with, but I knew it was the most meaningful gift I’d received. We lingered in the car, inches apart, and finally addressed the undeniable energy of the last ten days—his charming Kiwi voice explained he had tried to exercise manners right before he held my face with his large hand and kissed me for a long time.
Alone together at his apartment, at last, we didn’t race straight to the bedroom. For hours, I straddled his lap on the living-room couch and we talked and didn’t talk, synchronized our breathing, and savored each minute. He traced my tattoos dozens of times like it would help him remember. Here, in the very final moments of my trip, he became overwhelmed and whispered, “Why are you here??” It was a big rhetorical question I couldn’t answer then, although I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. I told him I trusted the process, but I think I trusted that we were too magical not to work out—mileage, parenting, and finances be damned. We believed he’d be visiting the City of Angels next. Of course, it would have been devastating to think of this as a final stage. To know our time together was mostly pupal and becoming, and at this stunning peak, the end was imminent and swiftly approaching. Even with thoughts of reunion, it was hard to let go and, the next morning, we loitered as long as possible in the bedroom, the apartment, and the car.
I had grappled with the injustice of the flies’ rapid demise, and yet knew if it wasn’t for the exact and perfected process, there wouldn’t have been a cathedral of blue light surrounding me. The poet Jack Gilbert writes, “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil. If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down, we should give thanks that the end had magnitude. We must admit there will be music despite everything.”
If you were to qualify our affair by length of time, no measurement would be sufficient—the language of hours and days cannot capture the magnitude of moments and the future that unfolds from them. After a profoundly brief period of mating, a fly lays over 100 eggs, and twenty days later there’s a new galaxy of glowworms. The adults die off so swiftly but the whole life cycle exists to eternalize the light. With an expanded and aching heart, I boarded my seventeen-hour flight to Los Angeles. Within a year, I’d be able to appreciate our short but radiant lifespan for what it was; I’d understand that beauty begets more beauty.