by Mary B. Sellers
A week after her mother died, Alice bought a jellyfish.
The one she chose was called a Moon Jellyfish, an Aurelia aurita, or as the website called them “pet jellies”, and they came in small, medium, and large. This struck her as funny, as if she were buying a sweater, and not a see-through creature from under the sea. She picked medium, since that was her shirt size, and because it just seemed appropriate. Alice chose expedited shipping, and the confirmation email guaranteed her that the thing would be FedEx’ed overnight.
She liked the sound of its name, especially—something astrological, a little ancient. She browsed the slideshow of pictures, all showing dark water that looked like velvet, with the jellyfish suspended in this kind of internal illumination that reminded her of the Milky Way.
That night as she lay in bed, Alice thought about her lonely jellyfish, packaged away in some sort of box, placed in the back of a big, black truck and speeding towards her in the night. Her boyfriend, Max, had called her earlier to check in; he had worked the late shift at the restaurant where he waited. He’d asked her how she was, and she’d said fine, just tired, and she could hear laughter and drinks clinking on the other end of the phone, a human static that annoyed her. She hadn’t told him about the jellyfish because she wanted to see it first and have it all to herself for a few hours. This wasn’t his place.
She heard the FedEx truck outside of her apartment around 11 a.m. Fighting the urge to jump up and greet the delivery man at the door, she steadied herself and waited for the doorbell. She avoided meeting the man’s eyes as she took the package from him. It was in a larger box than she had expected, but she then remembered that a starter aquarium was included, along with a starter supply of food. Alice signed the receipt, and in one swift whoosh, closed the door and set the box down. She felt like it was Christmas.
First came the aquarium—called an Orbit 220. It sounded like a broom’s name in Harry Potter. It was a perfect circle, and came with a primary-colored remote control. The buttons looked like candy pills. Then came the jellyfish itself, packed in a perishable box, which was airbag-lined. She opened this smaller box and found the thing in a bag filled with water. Alice was surprised by its smallness, the delicacy of the thing that waited quietly, pulsing ever so slightly as if it were sighing, already bored with her. Her hands shook as she fumbled for the carefully folded directions.
1. Float bag in tank filled with water for ~10 minutes.
2. Open bag and remove half of water.
3. Add tank water to the bag.
4. Wait ~10 minutes to release your jellyfish into the tank.
After twenty minutes, her jellyfish was in the tank, newly acclimated to its circular home. She placed the tank on the kitchen counter, pulling an island chair up to it, and sitting down to rest her face on her hands. Her nose barely touched the tank’s exterior. He was beautiful—or rather, it was beautiful, since she wasn’t quite sure about gender in jellies—but she’d already decided that she would call him Robert. He was about 2 or 3 inches, and his bell was a cloudy white, a clear that wasn’t altogether pure. Alice could make out four horseshoe-shaped gonads in the center of it. He had tentacles, but very small ones, that looked more like electricity than body parts, and he floated in a dreamy state that was almost hypnotizing, nearly ethereal.
Robert was serene, and Alice was nervous. Checking the instructions again, she opened up the packet of food that resembled fish food—just bits and pieces of flakes that didn’t look very appetizing. The instructions warned against over-feeding, so she sprinkled a small amount on the surface of the water, and put the rest in a Ziploc bag. It was anticlimactic, then, sitting there and waiting for him to eat. She wondered if he was bored; it felt as if she had guests over, and she’d always been nervous about entertaining. Space got too crowded, expectations too high. Then, she had an idea. She turned on some jazz.
Listening to Billie Holiday’s deep croon with the shades pulled down from an afternoon that seemed too bright and everlasting, Alice turned off her phone, grabbed a beer, and settled into the seat next to a silent Robert.
When nighttime came, and pools of shade began forming under the curtains that were still pulled to, Alice got up to make herself dinner. She had plans that night with Max, and a curious dread had now misplaced any excitement she’d previously felt. Leaning against the counter, she picked at her sandwich—nibbling around the edges so that she ate the entirety of the crust first. It was something she’d always done; it drove Max crazy when they were out together. No more sandwiches, he’d said one time, after a particularly grueling session of watching Alice neatly pick apart an expensive sourdough, leaving the softer middle exposed and jagged like a torn sponge on her plate.
Robert was still, nearer towards the bottom of the tank than he’d been earlier. Do jellies dream? Alice tried to imagine the murky, moonstone landscape of sea creatures’ dreams. She’d heard of people dreaming in different languages, but to dream an underwater dream—that, she was curious about.
Robert wouldn’t care how she ate her sandwiches, Alice thought.
Alice called Max and told him she wasn’t going to make it to the movies that night. He wasn’t happy, and he asked why in a tone that made Alice very glad of her decision. She told him she didn’t feel well, that she felt odd. It wasn’t an untruth—Alice did feel strange, and had felt that way since Robert had arrived. Max hung up on her, and she tossed her phone onto the sofa. There were pill bottles on the coffee table and she grimaced at them. Orange was her least favorite color. Why were they always in orange?
A week before her mother died, Alice had stopped taking her medicine. She’d been on a mild cocktail of pills—Paxil for anxiety, as well as for the dips and bumps in mood she felt two or three times a year. She called them her Dark Ages, an attempt at humor but also a sly glancing at truth. This was her way of not being serious, and it worked and it charmed. During those weeks, things fell to gray scale, as if she’d stepped into a color movie that only maintained the faintest of pigment, all washed out by an editor’s clumsy mishandlings. Those were the weeks that she stopped remembering things like brushing her teeth and washing her hair. Alice also had Xanax for the rare times her heart bounded out of her chest late at night when a worry wouldn’t go away, despite silent wishings into her pillow. It was a sort of ardent drumming–each time Alice bracing herself to witness her heart exploding straight through the skin and bone and out into the air above her–a pulsing, ugly thing, a monster born of muscle and ache. She felt the hole in her chest that it would make, the heartstrings that would be torn and loose—a spaghetti of a mess. Her heart would be angry and red.
But the pills didn’t seem necessary any longer, and she enjoyed the slight zaps that spun and trilled through her head at times. They felt like tinsel, and she imagined these bright, live strings connecting the synapses of her mind like constellations. Sometimes, she wished that she could open up her head, peek inside, and see what all the fuss was about.
Around midnight, when Alice realized that sleep was somewhere else for the moment, she visited Robert. The lights were out, but he shone enough so that there was a dim, circular glow. She thought that this must be what a pixie looked like, if they existed at all. It bothered her that she couldn’t tell when he was asleep. She felt rude for interrupting, like a mild stranger, but she went forwards anyways and sat next to him on the counter stool.
Her mother would probably have hated him. Her mother wasn’t the sort to buy pets, and Alice imagined her calling Robert unnecessary, an impulse buy that was just like Alice to go and do. One time Alice had won a fish at the fair. She’d brought the fish home, having named him Rainbow, and her mother had made her flush him down the toilet. She hadn’t wanted to. She’d pleaded with her mother to do it for her when she realized that there was no point in arguing for him to stay. But her mother had simply taken her by the arm, pulled her into the bathroom, and pointed at the toilet. It was a terrible feeling to tip the plastic bag forwards and see Rainbow’s water start to spill. He had fought, though, and through her tears, Alice wished him well and said that he was a very brave little fish. Finally, he’d plopped into the bowl, maddened with the force of gravity, the rude splash, puzzled by the turn of events that he’d experienced in a half-hour’s time. And then her mother struck the lever and there was that same whirlpool as always, but taking Alice’s pet with it this time.
Her mother hadn’t been a happy person, but with the right lipstick and social calendar, she passed as human. Her bitterness, she hid, with a practiced smirk and the impeccable social status that seemed to define her more than any other feature. While most of her friends wouldn’t have called her sweet, they would have claimed her to be a vibrant woman, full of spunk instead of spitefulness, quite the dominant force than merely a monster hidden in plain sight. She hadn’t liked Alice much, and while Alice had loved her mother, as daughters are taught to do, like also wasn’t quite the word to describe her feelings for her, either.
Her mother had been an alcoholic, and by the time of her death, she was all white bone. She wore her jewels on fingers that had begun to claw inwards, and while her face was still made up, it was far more mask—a horrific, Halloween sort of mask—with its thin, red-toothed mouth, and alabaster skin that was streaked with blush that looked more like the plum color of a bruise. The room had been heady with her scent that final week. It was the scent that Alice would always, always, associate with childhood and dark rooms and the very real things that went bump in the night: a shattered champagne fluke, a weeping that broke night’s silence like a sharp rap on a windowpane, the things that happened behind her mother’s closed door.
But, regardless, Robert was with her now. That strange hum in her head was a notch higher tonight, and with each sharp zap, she felt a pleasure, a thrum that began in her head and traveled to her fingertips; an invisible lacing of nerves. She went to her cabinet and searched far back with her hand until she found a dusty bottle that Max had left months back. It was a dark liquor, he had gotten drunk on it the night he’d left it there, bored with the lackadaisical sex that Alice had to offer. In the morning, she’d pushed it to the farthest recesses of the cabinet, but now, in Robert’s nighttime glow, in the gloom of her darkened apartment, she craved a taste of it. And so she poured herself a glass, ran the faucet a few seconds over it, and stirred in a handful of ice cubes from the freezer. It looked like a witch’s brew. She took a tentative first sip. It gave a violent sting to her throat.
It was later, now, sometime past two. Alice had drank the drink and found the rest to pour into her emptied glass. She didn’t bother with the ice cubes or the water because that pleasant thrum had become even more pressing, and the slight, violent pressure it made on the insides of her skull was alarming, seductive to Alice. She caught her reflection in the mirror across the room, which told of her flushed cheeks, the blonde knob of a bun; a wishing glass that had always told her something slightly askew from the truth.
Alice hadn’t felt this alive in some time. There were firecrackers in her veins.
She sat back at the counter and looked at Robert, wishing him an entire well’s worth of dreams, and hoping he had no need for a wishing glass who told him lies. He was incomprehensibly adorable, anyways. His tentacles were lazy tonight; she imagined them straight and taught like a guitar’s strings, making the same vicious thrum that made her head feel so wonderful, so lovely.
Do you dream, Robert? I’ve been meaning to ask you this. He quivered, a robin’s blue against his water that had at some point absorbed the night into it, turning a blue-black that reminded her of the time she’d melted her crayons in the microwave. His quivers looked like shivers, Alice thought, juxtaposed against his usual friendly pulse. They echoed a heart’s beat, one of a lover’s in its constant, quickened, drum. And then she wondered if he also had a heart somewhere, hidden in the folds of his soft body. He was, she realized, almost electrical in hue. His bell looked like a long heave and slow sigh; she suddenly felt quite hungry for a heart.
There was little else to do at this point. She tried to push it down, but the hunger was something that felt, in the oddest way, like a happy ending.
Alice fished through a kitchen drawer until she found the large ladling spoon she used for her spaghetti sauce. Turning back towards Robert, she looked over and into his tank so that she got a bird’s eye view of him.
This is what Alice remembers. She is sorry; because a year later, her mind isn’t the exquisite thing it used to be:
He was so quiet, a thing so at peace with himself that it was almost religious in nature. A sea-monk of sorts, ever absorbed in a beyond that wasn’t privy to the rest of them. There was fire in her veins, though, and her head felt like a top that spun and spun. She was cold, and Robert looked so content—he was an entire universe, a tiny, cataclysmic thing that merely needed the small nudge of water, flakes of food, to be a precious sort of resilient. And for that, Alice felt a loving hate.
She kissed the surface of the water, wetting her lips so that a small amount drained down her chin. Alice took up the spoon and dipped it into Robert’s bowl.
Robert had tasted of the ocean at Her most intimate. He was mostly slush—a thickened water pieced together of brine and salt and the slight firmness of his body; equal parts tough and tender, just as she’d expected. Alice wondered in her vague state if this was the mermaid’s equivalent of caviar. Robert was quick to dissolve, and she was quick to swallow, only mildly choking as she felt the swift tickle of something soft and stringy slide past her tonsils.
There was no sting, because Robert was the sweetest of fellows. Alice burped once, reclining onto the hardwood floor of her apartment in southern Louisiana, and felt for the first time in many years, the kick of life on her insides.
You’ve picked up the habit of slipping messages between the pages of random books at the library. Which question will you write on your next note?
How many frogs went belly-up in the half-drained pool last night?
Where can we make out?
What is it you think we’re doing here?
What if every song is two songs?
Whose hand held the knife? Who did the cutting?