9 min read

Firefly Season

On channeling fireflies, cruising, and searching for psychic messages in eyes of strangers.

The Fireflies of Uji River - Tokuriki Tomikichiro, Japanese color woodblock print. 1950.

I love that fireflies only twinkle in July when it's hot and sweaty and they’re all desperate to breed. I can relate.

From afar, a swarm of fireflies look like stars that have come down to Earth to party. A bunch of twinkling lights dancing around each other, down here for the summer instead of up in the night sky. Their signature glowing butts communicate a lot of things, apparently. Sometimes it’s a warning signal to predators: hey, I taste bad, don’t eat me. Most of the time, it’s used as a mating signal - a way to communicate desire and sexual compatibility between adults. I’ve always been fascinated by their light, and I love that we’re not projecting romance onto them. Fireflies really use their lights as this nonverbal way to communicate their needs around sex.

But, a firefly is just a bug, a set of spindly legs, a fat thorax pulsating with bioluminescent liquid. They’re beetles actually, the same family as cockroaches, and they look like it.

I worry that I’m the same as a firefly. Look too closely and my shiny illusion dissipates. It’s obvious I’m just a fat little bug stretching its antennae out in search of something, shooting out spotlights and asking to be fucked.

I ask Autumn what she knows about fireflies, what might their mystical significance be. I’ve always been obsessed with them, and now that I live somewhere I can actually see them I’m more drawn to them than ever. I find myself hunting them down during summer and having prolonged daydreams about fireflies twinkling around the city.

She tells me that the fireflies might be a feminine ancestor calling out and asking me to follow her. Maybe my femme ancestor has some knowledge to bestow upon me or wants to help me deepen my intuition. She tells me to ritualize my beauty routine in her honor. I’m a dummy in my 20s and in desperate need of knowledge and intuition, so I’m eager to commune with this predecessor.

Despite their indisputable insectoid qualities, I find fireflies very glamorous – they come out at twilight to sparkle and twirl around and disappear right when it gets too dark. I tell Autumn that my beauty routine has felt distinctly un-ritualistic lately, kind of sad. I’ve neglected this practice that I love, the act of changing myself into someone new, painting my outer shell with skin-nourishing goops and shiny pigments – the daily ritual of looking alive. Instead, my skin has withered into a dull grey, like my mood. I hole up in my hot bedroom at the far back of our long apartment like a pupa in the brush. Now’s a good as good a time as any for a glow-up.

Last summer I spent many nights partying, drinking, bar-hopping around town. It being my first summer in Chicago, I was eager to go out in search of sexy hijinks, to shine my light and see what life in the city had to show me. I spent a couple of those nights at The Owl, the quirkiest and open-late-ingest bar in my neighborhood. It’s the only one still open at 2, 3 am so everyone who still wants to party makes the pilgrimage from whatever other bar they were drinking at.

My memories of this bar play back exactly like a montage from a late 90s sex drama, mostly because it’s obscured by booze and drugs and sleepy eyes. Running across the street, short skirts, unst unst unst unst, someone screaming in delight, someone screaming in despair, lots of glitter, a jar of poppers, a tiny bottle of rum, a can of hard seltzer, gogo boots, dancing, dancing, dancing.

At The Owl, an absolutely absurd DJ plays a set that flows from psychedelic disco to Russian techno to what I think is a song from a Bollywood movie to Bad Bunny and finally disarranging the entire composition into a loose assortment of noises that might qualify as a song. In most of my memories, I’m alone on the dance floor jumping and spinning to the beat of the music. The quality of the music doesn’t matter, just the volume and the BPM. I let the bassy waves from the subwoofer push me, push me, push me, push me until I can’t hear anymore. The sound pushes me so hard my soul is shoved right out of my body, forcing it to follow behind me like an echo.

Last summer I beat my face for the gods every day, but at night I’d turn up the volume. Layer on even more eyeshadow, more highlighter, so that even after dusk I’m radiating beauty. But it’s hard not to feel like a clown amongst the sea of normie finance bros and cottagecore marketing girls who’ve started to infest the neighborhood. Even at The Owl, where the crowd feels the most mixy-mixy in this increasingly white neighborhood, I feel like the odd one out. In this light, fireflies don’t look like stars, just bugs. Gnats. Roaches. Flies.

At a table near the front, away from the strange music of the dance floor, I nurse my best friend’s third free drink of the night.

Phylogeny of North American fireflies.

So many years ago I channeled the firefly in Vegas, a place where I’ve never actually seen a firefly. Most of the time, I did my channeling at the gay bath house, shaking my horny little thorax looking to find some fun.

Obviously, I was much younger when I crawled around Hawk’s, but I was something of a cruising prodigy. There’s a trick: give into the liminal spookiness of it all. Turn the endless walking into a trance-like meditation, turn endlessly in the dreamy maze of rooms and glory holes and dark corners. Tune into the ambience: steam, chlorine, lo-fi beats. Some dudes are fucking nearby, everyone can hear it, but it’s impossible to tell where.

At first, I’d repeatedly return to my locker to check my phone, wonder how much time had elapsed, see if anyone was messaging me. It took a while but eventually I let myself loose, let go of minutes and hours. The fee to enter has already been paid and there are no refunds, so might as well stay until something fun happens.

There’s another trick to cruising: pay attention to the eyes. We love to talk about the poignant, silent gaze between lesbians in cinema, but fags have their own silent language of looking. I was always searching, peering into the eyes of old white retirees, corporate regulars coming in after work, wayward blue collar gays of color, looking for something. A message. A returned glance. Flash of pupils. There’s an entire language contained within the shapes of sclerae. But what I was really looking for was something that would surprise me. Someone who’s not just down to fuck but to play.

There’s a dearth of conversation at a bathhouse, but it’s still possible to signal, to flash the eyes, and find someone looking back. I evoked a mystique, a glamour, see what playmates I could attract. At first I wore my towel politely, snug around my waist like a guest at a hotel pool. Then I’d let it slide down to show off my soft body, my pubes. Eventually, maybe by lap 6 or 7, the towel sat around my shoulders, damp from steam. It’s fun to walk around naked. I’d attracted a few eyes, strike up a conversation or two, but the spark wasn’t always there.

During one visit, on my 10th lap around, a new guy entered the maze and it was immediately clear that he was the sexiest person in the bath house. I first caught sight of him as he talked to an attendant. His smile was so handsome it struck fear in my heart. His skin was rich and dark and seemed to glimmer in the dim light. His body was totally ripped, ready to shoot the cover of Men’s Health or something. I didn’t have the nerve to shoot outside my league. Still don’t. I couldn’t – can’t – handle the rejection of being the third or fourth best option.

By my 17th or 18th lap around I was still coming up empty-handed – this was sad, even for me. I sat in the hot water with everyone, closed my eyes, and silently absorbed their idle conversation while the water scalded my skin.

Hottest Man waltzed into the wet room and joined the party in the jacuzzi, sitting himself perpendicularly to me. I was eager to hear the bears and twinks flirt with him, hoping to sustain myself off of the erotic energy I’m sure would ensue. But, after a short exchange, the bears and twink excused themselves to go fuck somewhere else. There’s no funny business allowed in the water – jizz being hard to clean out of a hot tub, I imagine.

Now it’s just me and The Hottest Man On Earth. Out of boredom and with nothing to lose, I talked to him.

First time in here?


He told me his life story, about moving to the city recently, about leaving the military. He was looking for the spots to have fun in town. He’s surprised at how slow the bath house was that night, that no one was feeling him. I’m surprised, too, since he’s the Hottest Man on Earth. He then said something to me that I carry with me to this day when I feel ugly, repeating it like a mantra: “I thought you were the hottest person in here. You look like the androgynous models on magazines.” He asked me if I’m trans, or if I did drag or anything. At this point, in my journey I had not yet come into my girlhood. But I do tell him about being nonbinary, that I kind of don’t care about being a man. He responded well. Chasers are sensitive to the blinking light of a tranny, even if that light is faint.

He reached out to touch my thigh, right by my knee. When I do the same, I’m surprised by his extremely hard erection.

After we fucked, I hit the shower. When I ran into him minutes later, he was fully clothed on the way out. We hug awkwardly. I try to find him again every time I visit the bath house.

Death, the Thoth deck.

This summer in Chicago is pointedly less sexy. I’m going through a breakup and a change in my meds. The political situation on Earth seems a bit worse for wear than last year. And for a week, smoke from Canadian wildfires blanketed the city in a throat-singeing haze. It was, mercifully, pushed out by a sudden and brutal storm system. But it didn’t really feel like relief, just like flooding the floor of an apartment with water while the roof was on fire.

Streets turn into rivers full of debris and crosswalks turn into unfriendly rapids. The rain comes down like God is angry with us for fucking her shit up.

Even though firefly season should be starting, they don’t want to come out in the pouring rain. The conditions are too harsh for their delicate lights.

My plans to hangout with a new friend I’ve met on Feeld rest precariously in the hands of this tempestuous weather. We met irl once before, about a month ago, also in the middle of a deluge. We walked for miles, increasingly itchy and wet from sideways rain.

Luckily for me, the rain does subside. After a stroll around the wet park and a meal at a very mediocre Vietnamese restaurant, the two of us sit on the bed of his truck and smoke the rest of a joint. The first firefly of the season blinks into existence right before us.

I try to read my new friend’s mind, looking into his eyes for some sort of message, but any psychic powers I might have had are completely gone. Autumn says the fireflies are signaling me, but I don't understand what they're saying. I can’t read his stare. Instead I feel stunned by the twinkle in his eye. I can’t tell what the look on his face is: pity, lust, confusion, boredom? Maybe the hang’s gone on too long. Maybe he regrets this new friendship. Maybe he wants to make a move. Nervously, I pivot the conversation to its end and head home.

The day's waning sunshine bursts through pink clouds, like a painting of heaven. A couple of puddles reflect pastel. The world has become all mirrors and light.

I walk home in this between-time, right after the rain at twilight, wondering where fireflies go when summer ends.