On Jellyfish

— Nina Li Coomes

I. ​Ocelli

The first time I saw a beached jelly, it was on the wet-sand of the Japanese Pacific in winter. The eyeless jelly glistened on the sand, apathetic and opaque, slumped as if to say ​dead or alive, who cares? Can something with such a thin will be alive? A jellyfish washed up on a clouded beach reflects the gray and granite of both sand and sky. Its invertebrate, gut-less flop is a gelatinous shrug, as if to render its own existence unimportant.

On bad days, I yearn to be a jellyfish. Half submerged in my cooling bath, I watch clouds pass in an ushering wind through the window. The water fills my open eyes. I imagine that I am reflecting the pink bath-bottom, the milk-blue sky. That I too am a fragile column, my body a glassy swimming pout. Something that is all outline and no substance. I linger, forcing my eyelids closed. The ropey tentacles of my hair curl and undulate around my face. I will them to nest around me. To pull my head gently from my neck. To swish water through the vessel of my skin. To sigh and sigh and sigh, propelled forward by each exhale. To be hollow. An underwater lantern, glowing a soft pink, neither existing or not existing, only passing through.

In my ear cocoons the lulling tide of hushed breath. Kietai​, I think. Incorrectly, I translate, ​I want to die​. Later, fresh from my ineffectual therapy appointment, I will laugh bravely, gamely, teeth bared in a smiling grimace, chattering about how hard it is to translate the sentiment: ​kietai​. To disappear, to wink out, to become something transparent, imbued in non-being, only observing, barely existing. You say this to an American therapist and they can not comprehend. English rushes us headlong into extremes. ​Are you saying you want to die​? they ask. It is a puzzling question. What must I do to disappear? How do I say: ​I do not want to die, but I do not want to exist. Or ​I am overwhelmed by jealousy for invertebrate zooplankton. For blind blossoms in water. ​Jellyfish are not fish, but we call them so. Death is not disappearing, but in these cushioned rooms I call it so. And so I settle for the next best approximation: ​yes, yes, the thing I am drifting toward, perhaps on purpose, perhaps not, is death. Yes, the thing I want is death. Yes, I suppose, if you say it that way, I want to die.

Back in the bathtub, I think to myself again, ​kietai​. Above me, the sun breaks through the frosted glass, a slow slice of light filtering through the watery bleak. I turn my face towards the column in unthinking motion. My eyes are briefly primordial, the multiple ocelli that dot the dome of a jelly fixating slowly towards something brighter. Flickering, patterned, rectangular cells of sun: an invitation to stay.


II​. ​Cnidocyte

When I turned twenty-three, something strange began to happen to me. The natural anxieties of everyday life began to shift, twisting into shadows more sinister. I was used to small aches. I could handle my self-directed microaggressions. I could palm the brief spear of obsessive dislike at the spread of my thigh, the minute lurching doom of mortality inspired by a car scraping past me on the sidewalk. All this I could tolerate. But in February of my twenty-third year, I found myself completely hollow. I was invaded month after month by an emptiness that felt foreign and uncalled for. Half of the month, I was happy. Half of the month, I was in love. Half of the month, I woke up every day enamored by the automatic pull of the world on my body. And yet, for the other half of the month joy emptied out of me, leaving only a body yearning to disappear—why?

Of course, jellyfish are not simply beautiful manifestations of apathy. Some are very dangerous. Arguably the most dangerous of all jellyfish is the ​Chironex fleckeri​. Sometimes known as the sea wasp, this highly venomous box jellyfish is utterly lovely and wholly lethal. It stretches ten feet of ghostly lace, its bell a transparent net of starry blue configurations. In water the sea wasp is nearly invisible. It drags a train of tentacles through the water, a treacherous bride dressed in venom. One box jellyfish is said to carry enough poison to kill sixty human adults. But the sea wasp is not a killing machine. It is discerning. Unlike other jellyfish, it has four clusters of twenty four primordial eyes. It is capable of detecting light, perhaps even color. It does not drift, but hunts, propelling itself towards prey, refusing to rely on the nonchalant tangle of its cousins. Even its name, ​cheiro for the Greek word “hand” and ​nex for the Latin word meaning “murderer”, is purposeful. ​Chironex​, ​hand-murderer​: the sea wasp will embrace you glove-like, tentacles zipping, a hand-picked death.

And yet—how strange—the venom of the ​Chironex is not even its own. In the tips of its tentacles live cnidocytes, dependent single cellular not-quite-organisms that pay bodily rent by existing as the ​Chironex’s stings. Without the cnidocytes, ​Chironex would simply be a box jellyfish of above-average intelligence. Its entire being has been colored by its foreign inhabitants’ propensity for death.

The next year, I go to the doctor’s office for an annual check up. After the weighing and blood pressure checking, I lie back on the paper-covered surface and briefly gloss over the newly constant bi-weekly depression. ​Probably just PMS​, I laugh. I am sure that wanting not to exist is simply part of what it means to exist in a woman’s body. I tell the doctor, ​Don’t worry, it goes away as soon as my period comes​. The doctor shakes her head. She asks me to explain what I am enduring, this time with more detail. By the end of the appointment, she has given me a name for the darkness.

And at first, I am relieved. I indulge in a childhood ritual, stopping at a bakery for a freshly baked pita, creamy with labneh and zaatar. I am proud of myself for enduring the blood draws, the speculum, the scrape of the pap smear. I am a seven year old with a lollipop again. But then, I begin to read about my diagnosis. I read about a reality TV show star, her smile dense and saturated, who one day tangled herself in a noose. I read of women relegated to taking drugs that cause cysts to break deep and wide across their faces, their bodies swelling beyond recognition, expanding and contracting with fluid. I read of women who weep and laugh in terrifying syncopation. I read the reports of medical professionals who say no such diagnosis exists—that it is a culture bound phenomena, and I wonder to myself what they mean. Culture-bound, as in our culture causes this toxicity to well in our bodies so we cannot help but become poisonous? Culture-bound, as in I can recognize the depression now and call it by name but still, there is no guarantee it will abate? Culture-bound, as in body-bound, as in the wanton trail of the cnidocyte? The bind of a hand named Murder, though it has no choice in being such? As if we cannot escape the skin or space we are in, no matter how much we wish to empty ourselves of it?


III. Nerve Net

I want to stay.

I will say it again: I want to stay.

I want to stay. And that is why I do not let myself think of the specifics of the darkness, though I have been given its name.

Instead I abstract it, comparing myself to an invertebrate to cope. I watch the lopsided frill of a nettle jelly, a field of waning clovers decorating the moon jellyfish. I think of their primitive eyes, their stings, their general lack of a central nervous system, relying instead on a nerve net, neurons scattershot like constellations through their forms, feeling everything at once, but nothing specifically. I imagine the nudge of water against a body of film. I imagine spores of sun puncturing a jelly’s bell. I imagine unfurling my own nerve net.

Consider: the funky salt of shoyu poured into an avocado’s verdant hollow; the pink-tiled bathroom and its window of clouds; the percussion of the elevated train at night; the Gaugin palette of open air vegetable markets in Queens; the smell of warm dirt; the smell of new morning; the feeling of good cinema, how it pushes your heart just slightly wider; your adult sister still wanting to lie in a pile with you on winter afternoons; kerosene stoves; friend-dates; regular dates; last night you turned to your lover and said ​Make me forget all of this and he did; and later, weeping into his gray waffle-knit shirt; my friends, their laughter slack jawed and honking across the table at; Big Wong; swimming in Lake Michigan at night; the voice of friends now piped through the radio; butter on thick-cut toast; white rice and oily seaweed; the hiss of the radiator; a hymn out of vogue; wood burning; the way summer sidles up flirtatiously and suddenly you are bare-armed and dancing; walking home; your mother; mama; the slow swivel of your faces towards the light; every morning your father prays ​Thank you God, for fresh air and blue sky​; a preponderance of evidence; a totality flush against your skin; everything specifically and nothing at all ; a command; an invitation; a prayer; ​Stay.


Read more from Issue No. 14 or share on Facebook and Twitter.