by Naphisa Senanarong
The day my mother and her three sisters floated out to sea on an inflatable raft, the jellyfishes were on their annual, fatal pilgrimage to shore. A sea of white, she’d described. The storms parted, like in an animated children’s movie, revealing poison lotuses blooming as far as the eyes can see. I picture them: Ariel’s sisters, muted mermaids drifting onto a patch of hostile ocean—round eyes and naive parted lips, like posters of girls in the fifties congregating around some kitchen appliance. They were too young to register that afternoon as their first brush with mortality. No matter, because life had many more for them—at the hands of loved ones, behind doors too heavy for small fingers, Ohioan winter closing like cracks around frozen throats, in rooms with too many people, hospital beds with too few, restaurants that smell like chicken oil, bathrooms that smell like old blood—leftovers—fine mixtures of rust and self. Smells that linger—how they got used to those, always finding them in unexpected places: hair, collars, breaths.
A drizzle can be worse than a storm, my mother always said. We fell asleep with the windows open; I was sick for two weeks. Alex had lifted the motel’s windows so I could hear the waves. He is a mountain guy; I talk only of oceans. He says he’s never seen someone so happy to be near the ocean, smiles when I shift closer to the car window to steal glimpses of teal wrapped around Marblehead’s shoreline. We spend our summers exploring little beach towns along the New England coast, up and down the Essex scenic byway. He loves that the ocean, and, by extension, he could make me so predictably happy.
In college, I downloaded an app that allowed the moon to communicate with me. Ours was a one-sided conversation: the digital moon infrequently telling me its feelings. For someone who’s been in one relationship since eighteen, this was satisfying. Once every blue moon, I’d joke. I spin around unable to feel, the moon confessed. I was like the New York women who went to Fleet Week, all dry martinis and wet eyes, looking for shards of glass to step on, for someone to put in their locket, never knowing when they’d be drunk or angry enough to fling it at the waves.
Did you know, Alex says, jellyfish are ninety-five percent water? He held the remains of one in his hand once. A moon jelly, the harmless kind. Watched it disintegrate in the gaps between knuckles, seep back into Venice beach, where he’d tried to save it. Eight years old then, he’d cried over saline water, no blood, brain, or heart.
My mother held me over the waters as a baby. She wanted me to be a swimmer. More than that, she wanted me to have a swimmer’s build. Wide, manta-ray shoulders that spread beneath water and sat up straight at the dining table, braced.
Alex is wrong about how I am around oceans. Happiness is gross simplification. Besides, there are many sad things tied to the ocean. Like when the moon pulls the tide away, and the sand is silver with fishes and glasses and syringes. Or that blue planet documentary where the mother whale carries the body of her baby in a trash bag, asphyxiated, for thousands of miles. Or what my mother told me about jellyfishes: how they weren’t social creatures despite the fact that every year, between August and October, a swarm of them comes in from the South China Sea to the Gulf of Thailand to die in mass graves lining the shore of the beach town we vacation in.
I’ve seen entire streets in Gloucester boarding up. Hemingway would be astounded by the number of baby shoes—never worn—thrown in free for purchases of children’s books. I don’t know much about the old fishing town except that in 2008, eighteen teenage girls took a pregnancy pact that had news channels, first time in decades, flocking there to report on acrylic nails, sky-blue porches.
Turns out jellyfishes do feel waves. Translucent liquid bodies sense the drift. They actively fight it: contractions of water against water. It is the inevitability that gets me—propelled by changing currents—helplessness spanning generations.
The day we were in Gloucester, there was a parade of last hurrah pouring out onto the sidewalks—fortune-tellers putting up half-off tarot cards, chipped little fishermen figurines discarded in boxes outside antique stores, souvenirs of a seaside town, surrendering—the only way it knew how: quietly.
Naphisa Senanarong grew up in Bangkok, Thailand, but is residing in Boston. She received her B.A. in English with a concentration in Creative Writing at Boston College. Her work is published or forthcoming in Bennington Review and Oracle Fine Arts Review. She won the McCarthy award for best collection of creative writing at Boston College, and also received the Devers Fellowship: a grant awarded to the student who shows the most promise for a career in writing.