Published by The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society (August 2014).
Gleaming like a Bluebottle Among the Waves
When Kevin thinks of Jason – of his curly brown hair and burning blue eyes, of the cute upturn in his voice and the way he would reach over and squeeze Kevin’s hand or thigh no matter who was watching – he also thinks of those goddamn leggings that Jason wore basically all summer the last year they were together, the ones that almost glowed from the purple and hot pink crests of the man-o-wars printed on them – and then of the marine biology professor Kevin had for “Principles of Hydrozoan Adaptation” the year he and Jason met, who taught an entire lesson about the “jellyfish that isn’t a jellyfish,” the Portuguese man-o-war, which is “actually a siphonophore,” he could hear Dr. Casings saying, “a collection of four different entities so evolutionarily tied together that they can’t live on their own: they are adapted specifically and solely to a life of companionship.”
Kevin figured he really only remembered this specific lecture because of the time he saw his tio stung by a man-o-war in Brazil while visiting his mother’s family – during an excited trip to the beach on a bright-hot day in December that was cut through by sudden shrieks as his tio lunged for shore, kicking like mad. “The stings hurt much worse than a jellyfish’s,” Dr. Casings had told the class, “and if the victim – be it fish or human – thrashes, the tentacles move about and the man-o-war’s nematocysts envenom the victim further.” Before being pulled away and cocooned in a towel by his tias, Kevin had seen fat tears rush down his tio‘s face as he cursed in three languages, his legs laced with red welts. “They float on the surface, after all, though they can deflate to drop below,” the memory of Dr. Casings chimes, face awash in light from a projector, “and the pneumatophore, or the sail, is perhaps their most recognizable feature.”
In Brazil, the delicate tentacles beaded with sand as they tugged along the bright blue air bladder like a deflated balloon that Kevin saw was already drying, the Atlantic leaving behind a thin layer of opaque minerals. As muscular twenty-somethings in little red shorts and large black sunglasses cleared everyone from the water, the slender woman who brought over thick gloves from the lifeguard hut to help treat his wailing tio‘s leg said that it was probably dead, that sometimes they float for a while after they die, but dying doesn’t make their poison any less painful. Now, Kevin imagines that: wind and sun battering the gas bladder that crowns the colonial being; the luminous colors of the man-o-war painted along the delicate bubble of the sail; the twenty, thirty, fifty foot long tendrils spiraling down to where the water gets cooler, the man-o-war’s venom still potent though all the life connected to it is gone.
The vision of those coiled tentacles always gives Kevin a sensation of cold water down his back as his mind submerges into the cooler depths he loved to secretly visit on those family vacations – out further than his tias told him he was allowed to go, past the lagoon’s sandy peninsulas, where the bright green turned to blue and darkened as you looked toward the horizon, and then under, where the bottom turned to rough coral and the current pulled at his thin limbs like a spirit, a lemanjá beckoning him onward, deeper, onward – except now he sees Jason floating there in those fucking leggings, gleaming eerie blues and purples like colored glass in the gloom as he reaches out for Kevin, tentacles drifting forward. “And inside their venomous arms are muscles that contract after a sting, pulling paralyzed fishes up to the man-o-war’s gastrozooids to be digested,” Dr. Casings reminds him.
Each time, despite everything, Jason looks somehow ethereal and inviting and familiar, even as Kevin struggles toward the wavering circle of the sun shining through the watery haze, his eyes burning and lungs shuddering as he beats his limp arms against the current, feels Jason stinging along his legs, searing across his skin as the muscles underneath tremble and seize, as he looks down through the pitch at stingers anchoring, tying themselves into knots around his ankles and thighs, binding Kevin as close to another living thing as he can be, then the scorching yanks and jolts of tentacles contracting like needles tearing his skin, pulling him further from the dimming spot of sun and into the gaping cold of green-black water below, dragging him deeper, closer, onward.