Just off the shore of Comino, an arid islet in the Mediterranean, I come face-to-face with a purple jellyfish. It is a little pelagia noctiluca, or, as it is most popularly known, a mauve stinger, perhaps the signature jellyfish of the Maltese Islands, of which Comino—along with the larger islands of Malta and Gozo—is a small part. Just about the size of my hand, the jellyfish pulses in the soft current, its neon-purple body inflating and deflating like a clip of a balloon on loop.
I don’t know it at the time, but the mauve stinger is one of the few jellyfish to have stinging cells, or nematocysts, not just on its tentacles but on its bell, so I will be in pain if any part of it brushes me. Not that this fact would have stopped me from going in, mind you. I feel drawn to its alien strangeness, its in-your-face otherness as a life-form so distinct from me. And I’m drawn, too, for some reason, to the very fact that I’m not supposed to get too near to it.
Still, when I get into the water, I feel hyperaware of my limbs, glancing back every so often to see if anything is near my legs. My torso and arms are covered by a rash guard, but I know I can still be stung anywhere if I’m not careful.
And then it’s in front of me, just a few feet away, bobbing above some seagrass and sand. The pulse of its body is strangely hypnotic; I have the feeling I could float here half a second or half an hour alike, lost in the trance dance of its motion, time softened and slowed, as if I’ve drifted through a door of cannabis smoke.
Something brushes my leg. My body starts, the spell broken. I look back; it’s a piece of floating kelp. When I turn back to the jellyfish in front of me, it is closer to my goggles. I nudge myself away from it and motion to my wife, who is snorkeling behind me, toward the purple. Another one, I suddenly notice, is just behind her.
We are on the Maltese Islands for our honeymoon, just a week after our marriage in Queens in New York. It was a small but lovely event, the kind of thing an introvert in love like me cherished over, say, a glittering gala with hundreds of guests. (Not that we could afford a glittering gala anyway.) For me and my wife, even if some of our special guests couldn’t make it due to Covid or other reasons, and even if the run-up to the wedding had felt unimaginably stressful, it still felt pretty perfect when it happened. It felt Queens. It felt relaxed and idiosyncratic. It felt us.
We had the nerdy references we loved—a rendition of a lesbian love song from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, specially arranged by a local ensemble; a fun burger bar from one of our favorite New York franchises; a Spock-themed cake topper that said “Love Long and Prosper”; my favorite flowers, hanging heliconias, meant to conjure up Dominica, where I grew up; a DIY playlist of the silly songs we liked. It had been a maelstrom of madness worthy of Poe the week before, but on the day of the event—oh, Goddess. It just happened, and I was happy, so happy, and we got to share it with many of our family members, friends, and loved ones.
But I still felt one absence more than the others: my parents, who were in Dominica. I’d known they wouldn’t be there, couldn’t be there, really. This was a wedding of the new world I lived in after coming out as queer, a wedding conjuring up the city and borough I had put down new roots in. But I still needed Dominica to be there in some way, even if it was just for me. So I hung the heliconia flowers myself in the ceremonial room, even wore tiny heliconia earrings. I purchased a few bottles of limoncello, a drink my mother had made on special occasions in small batches, always pouring it, in my memories, into her little sherry glasses for me and my father with a smile.
Why did it hurt me that much, when their absence wasn’t a surprise and when their presence might actually have made things worse?
But much as these gestures made me smile, they also reminded me of who wasn’t there. They couldn’t have been, I reminded myself, for a plethora of reasons. But still. Why? Why did it hurt me that much, when their absence wasn’t a surprise and when their presence might actually have made things worse? I knew I needed to be far from them, my mother in particular, whose unhappiness about my queerness might have caused chaos during a special day, so why did I want to be near them, all the same, risks be damned?
Can you want and not want the same thing, all at once?
But I’ve gotten away from the real story. This was, I told myself when I started it, a story about jellyfish and Malta in the present tense. Not an absence from a wedding in the past. Right? So let’s return there. It’s important, you see, to keep a narrative going.
After that wedding, where my parents weren’t there—no, just “after that wedding,” dear reader, grazzi hafna—my wife and I journey to Malta. Neither of us has been there before. We had wanted a world where we could hold hands without worrying about homophobic looks, or worse; as one of the most LGBTQ-friendly countries in the world, Malta seemed a natural choice. We would start on the big island, Malta, and then spend a few days on the smaller island of Gozo and one checking out the islet of Comino, on which only two people live.
As someone who had grown up on a small island in the Caribbean that few Americans seem to know exists, I felt a kind of kinship with Malta, an archipelagic nation that, for all of its pivotal history, was similarly too-little-known by most Americans, except, in passing, by those familiar with Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 noir novel The Maltese Falcon or its film adaptations. But Hammett’s narrative, which features a legendary bejeweled statue of a bird that becomes the object of a byzantine international crime story, only briefly actually touches on Malta itself, and I found myself excited to visit a world that, like my former home, was overshadowed by its more famous neighbors.
Yet here was a world special in its own right, offering opportunities to walk through ancient structures predating Stonehenge, to stand against walls in Valletta and Mdina that had repelled the Ottoman Empire, to eat flaky pastizzi, to encounter a language that uniquely blends dialects of Arabic and Sicilian. Here was a world that, with its high vaccination rates and near-total lack of pandemic restrictions, felt like an escapist’s escape from the coronavirus for a bit, not because it wouldn’t be here—it’s everywhere—but because yearning for something like “normalcy” can be its own form of self-care. And, of course, as a lover of the blue depths, I hoped we would get to snorkel and scuba dive—if the jellyfish that Malta’s waters are famous for would permit it.
In June, though, the jellyfish are just about everywhere in Malta, pulsing purple clouds in the blue. You see them around the docks by the ferry terminal from the capital of Valletta to the pulsing city of Sliema, bobbing by bits of trash. You see a few in the celebrated Blue Hole in Dwejra in Gozo, poison blossoms in the crystalline water just feet from the European tourists floating and smoking cigarettes, who splash with a start when someone points out the surreptitious seafarers near their limbs. On the kayak journey to Comino from Hondoq Bay in Gozo, a girl dips her hand in the sea to feel its coolness and is stung immediately, after which she is rushed back to shore for treatment.
Early in the trip, the jellyfishes begin to take on the quality of metaphor. They are, I think, curiously like the coronavirus—something I must keep my distance from yet that paradoxically pushes me to crave closeness, proximity, even more. In my mind, they come to symbolize both beauty and uncertainty, if not outright danger—and, of course, the way that taking risks can sometimes lead to new, unexpected moments of wonder. Still, I don’t actually want to be in the water with them—but I also kind of do, absurd as that might be.
The jellyfish are here in higher numbers than normal this summer. When the mauve stinger’s bloom season has passed, which often peaks in April or May and then dips in the summer, the waters around Comino are usually dense with humanity: party boats blaring hits whose catholicity anyone can dance to, swimmers lounging in the preternaturally clear pools, snorkelers and scuba divers drifting through the shallow undersea caves of Santa Marija. This year, though, possibly due to climate change, the sea’s temperatures have shifted, prolonging the jellyfish’s normal cycles, and the normal ritual of summer for humans has, in turn, changed, with the partiers remaining on their boats, the swimsuit-clad on shore. My wife and I had hoped to snorkel the Santa Marija caverns, waving to the grinning morays and looking for a glimpse of an octopus or cuttlefishes under the limestone arches that had, centuries earlier, sheltered corsairs, an exiled Kabbalist prophet, and even perhaps some of the Knights of Malta who had once been imprisoned on Comino. But today, despite the desert intensity of the sun, there is no one swimming in the water.
My wife and I decide to wade in with our snorkels, anyway, knowing the jellies are there and hoping to see one up close, at least for a moment.
I turn, and there is another jellyfish a few feet away behind me, a minute medusa, its body at once floral and fungal, seeming as much of Earth as outer space. We stare for a bit, enrapt but tense, then begin our retreat.
We make it back without being stung. A few girls on the shore stare at us; one has tentatively dipped her toes in and another is holding her phone above her head, contorting her face for selfies with the grim intensity of an aspirational influencer.
As we clamber along the shore in our waterlogged dive boots, I think abstractly about the jellies and touch, about the beauty of something you can only appreciate from a distance and the curious way that something can hurt you from far away, even if you don’t see its tentacles. I don’t think about my parents just then. I’m enjoying the sun and sea and the spectacle of the mauve medusas dotting the blue.
Later, though, I think of my parents. Multiple things trigger it. We are in the Mediterranean, and I think about how my mother, who despite being West Indian instilled in me a love of Mediterranean cuisine, would have loved the food here. I think about her when we go looking for a Maltese liquor made from prickly pear called bajtra and see limoncello for sale. I think about my parents the most, unexpectedly, when, in a quiet moment, I ruminate on the jellyfishes we see everywhere.
I find myself thinking about how my mother did not congratulate me for getting engaged, did not say a word for months except call me once to talk about how to save money and how I need to be making more and how she prays for me. I find myself thinking about how I had to practically beg her to say anything about my engagement and how, when she finally did, it was terse, reflecting her unhappiness that I was now Gabrielle rather than the boy she thought she had raised, and I realized that she could never be happy at my wedding, might even cover her face with her hands and curl up in her seat as I had seen her do one of the first times I tried doing something together with her after coming out as transgender.
My father, who is more supportive, is ill and unsteady on his feet, requiring my mother to be there to help him. I didn’t know if he would be physically able to travel because of his injuries and the elevated threat of the coronavirus for someone older and unwell, but I still imagined him smiling at me from his chair as I walked down the aisle.
But I knew, I’ve said, that they couldn’t be there. After all, I didn’t want the wedding to be a day when someone might, like in a movie, object to our union—that person being my mother. I wanted to just marry the love of my life. I wanted to do the thing I had, for so many years, thought was near impossible for a trans girl like me, which was to find someone who loved me back, not in spite of my body but as it is, whatever form that might take, someone who never tells me I’m not woman enough. No, my mother couldn’t have been part of this memory.
And yet, and paradoxically yet. You can not desire, you see, and yet desire all the same, and, like Zeno’s paradoxes, or the question of what a jellyfish is (to get back to what this essay is supposed to be), the answer is not at all intuitive.
How to explain a jellyfish?
At first glance, you might be forgiven for thinking that it is simply another curious sort of marine life, like an octopus or a starfish—and you would be right, but also a little wrong. Jellyfish, along with the other creatures in their phylum, are remarkably bizarre, at least compared to the large life-forms that we land-dwelling primates tend to think of as “animals” sans second thoughts—and jellyfish deserve that second thought.
A member of the phylum of Cnidaria—which includes sea anemones, corals, and various aquatic colonies, among others—jellyfish, which you may also call medusas or cnidarians, are at once basic and byzantine, lacking many of the hallmarks of other phyla yet possessing an impressive evolutionary array in the parts they do have, like stinging cells and a simple stomach, which allow them to survive and even thrive in the vastness of the blue.
In some ways, a jellyfish is a perfect embodiment of what life can be when you strip it to its simplest parts. It moves through the water, ever in search of prey, yet it has no brain, heart, or central nervous system—aspects we tend to expect in such large organisms that move. Rather than thinking about its path, it simply pulses in one direction or another, a silent ceaseless urge, hunger given body but no more.
It does not reach out to touch; instead, its tentacles wait to be touched by those who unwittingly wander too near. Still, except for those who consume it, like some species of sea turtles and some humans, almost no organism who touches it wants to be too close, instead entering its embrace by accident or ignorance. It is an emblem of touch, then, that no one wishes to touch, a touchstone of strangeness. Without any capacity to know it, the jellyfish is a symbol of this pandemic if ever there was one. But it is a broader symbol, too, of boundary-breaking, a mélange of paradoxical philosophies. It is soft yet sharp, a ghost not yet dead. It is an example of how one may move through the world without needing to fit under an easy label.
In these ways, a jellyfish dissolves simplistic definitional binaries, eschews convention and categorization. But, of course, it only does this if our assumptions about what constitutes an “animal” or life more broadly are narrow and anthropocentric—and most of us indeed have such assumptions, despite the fact that life is far more nuanced. If jellyfishes seem extraordinary in their evolutionary concision, they are no less strange than, say, tardigrades, a near-indestructible microscopic life-form that faintly resembles a mutated bear, or the countless microbes that fill our bodies but which we rarely take into account when we use the word I or try to imagine the makeup of our bodies.
Life, the experience with the jellyfishes in Comino reminded me, is pretty psychedelic, patterns within inscrutable patterns, magic, really, if we take the time to slow down and consider how marvelous it is that we exist at all—and how complicated it is to even say what I or we means when we get down to the microscopic level. If a jellyfish seems odd to me, at first, I would seem no less inexplicable to it, if it could imagine me—and perhaps, at some as-yet-unknown level, it can.
As a multiracial trans person, it’s easy to smile at the idea of something not fitting into a binary or simple category on a form, but the jellyfish represents something more profound to me. It is a living emblem of alienness. It is the Other, at least to us, with our species’ obsession with dividing one thing from another and claiming that one is superior.
How much better the world might be if we took the time to pause, step back, and wonder what it would be like, truly be like, to step through the door of another and feel what they do, assume what they assume, live the numberless fullness of another—or, to take it a step further, to imagine what it would be like to live as something not human at all, to encounter and understand the world as it does, as the philosopher Thomas Nagel famously asked of bats in his 1979 paper “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”
Let me try. I was wrong, you see—this is what the essay was about all along.
Let me take my own advice. Let me imagine what it was like for my mother, in turn, to not be at my wedding.
I already have, many times. For years, I’ve let my mother’s rejections hurt me, yet I’ve tried to feel what she must be feeling—and that hurts too. I believe I understand why she has rejected me, even if I reject that rejection myself as narrow-minded and narrow-hearted.
The truth is, I know that my mother both wanted and didn’t want to be at the wedding, because we both cling to these emotional oxymorons. I know she would’ve liked to see me happy yet would also have felt an overwhelming shame at seeing me in a wedding dress rather than a man’s suit, would have felt a familiar sting at hearing my female name rather than the one she branded me with at birth. For her, it would’ve been too much to handle. And I have to accept that.
Many of my American friends have told me I should cut her out of my life because of how toxic our relationship is. I get it. And I know well how often I’ve written about her; somehow, even years after her initial rejection of me, it still returns like a familiar ache so often when I write. But it can be harder for people outside of this American cultural context to cut their families off, in part because this idea is often more foreign to us, and I’ve never felt comfortable fully severing my relationship with my mother, even if I’ve gradually given myself more space from her. There’s no simple right or wrong here.
Like a jellyfish, I want to dissolve binaries. Puritanical, morally certain people tend to like binaries—this is right, that is wrong, with nothing in between. I don’t. Life is almost always more intricate than binaries allow.
It’s hard, but I have to stop thinking of my parents’ absence as a moral binary and, instead, find the truth somewhere between those poles.
I’m thinking now of the night before the jellyfish. My wife—that word I still can’t believe I get to use—and I are in an Airbnb in Vittorija, the bustling capital of Gozo; the place we’ve been lucky to find is hidden down a labyrinth of quieter side streets. The street we are on, Triq Il-Madonna tal-Karmnu, is dotted with stray cats and sudden bursts of bougainvillea. That night, as we walk back home from dinner, a tabby tries to follow us into our temporary home; we can only get in by having one of us distract the determined cat with some petals, then dashing inside.
Like a jellyfish, I want to dissolve binaries.
There is a small open area up a flight of white stairs, and we sneak up there, where we find a cute little world of green ottomans and chairs. Look up, and you can see the edges of our neighbors’ rooftops and the green limbs of potted plants peeking over. The night is filled, incongruously, with the clamor of church bells, the whine of insects, and pools of warm, gentle silence in between.
It’s a risk, again, since we have no idea if the neighbors can see or hear us just yet, but we decide, giggling, to strip off our clothes in the musky heat of the Gozitan night. We lie down, grinning, and caress each other. I shift onto my back as we begin to do more, looking up.
The night has unrolled above us, a sheet of stars fluttering at its edges. I stare up at the world above as we make love: the arms of a prickly pear cactus in a pot; the taciturn face of a white-and-brown cat that has come to the rooftop; the winking stars. In the distance, suddenly, there is the august ringing of bells from the grand church nearby, for tintinnabulation, we have learned, is one of the foundational sounds of Vittorija. As we do naughty things I am aware at moments not only of the bells bells bells to putPoe’s poem to shame but the unceasing whir of a mosquito in the silences afterward. Even so, it doesn’t matter. It is touch, you see, connection, the rejection of distance, that most sacred and profane of things in a pandemic.
A man bursts out laughing from somewhere nearby. We freeze. I look up and around, wondering if one of our neighbors can see us. I imagine a man peering over the roof, like the cat, which begins to slink away. The man’s voice echoes through the night again in Maltese, punctuated by fits of laughter and the chatter of a woman in what sounds like another house. The neighbors might just be very audible, rather than responding to a free awkward sex scene on the upper level of an Airbnb, but we get up, anyway, trying to stifle our laughs, and look for our clothes quickly.
I smile as we hurry down, feeling vaguely risqué in the best of ways and also wondering what I would have done if we had been seen. But perhaps that is why this memory comes back to me now, the way that love and pleasure and risk can amplify one another.
Later, when our trip is over, I think about these times—the encounter with the jellyfish, love under the stars and the sonorous bells—the most. They aren’t the only memorable moments, or even the most memorable ones. We do get to scuba dive, exploring the remains of the HMS Maori, a shallow World War II wreck that appears suddenly from the murk, now a haven for fish and writhing white bristle worms and the occasional octopus. We ride a scarlet Vespa across Malta and a quad bike across Gozo. We walk through Ggantija, a vast stone temple from humanity’s early days. We splurge one night and have a special honeymoon dinner suspended many feet above Valletta—literally, at a marvelous restaurant where diners and tables alike are held aloft by a great crane. We care for each other when we each get tempestuous stomach flus; when I run out to get tea for my wife, a woman in a small store almost accidentally gives me a mysterious box of teabags she says she has reserved for her husband to keep him “occupied” at night. “Madonna!” she says over and over, laughing nervously and looking over the secret tea box I had almost taken.
But those two memories still linger, little emblems of touch and distance, of risk and reward. And I realize, finally, that they helped me understand that I needed to take the emotional risk of feeling what my mother must have felt, so as to understand why she couldn’t have been there, and why, in turn, that was probably for the best. It doesn’t matter what could have been, or what you’d always imagined a certain day would be like; what matters is what we do get to do, and who is there.
With this quiet witchery, I feel able, for the first time, to exorcise this anger and sadness at her absence, filling that void, instead, with the new memories I’ve made. Perhaps I needed those empty seats, that safe distance, to make everything that was in front me as wondrous as it deserved to be, so that my spouse and I could touch without worrying that someone would leave the room disgusted. Maybe absence isn’t a lost opportunity, or a blank spot in a memory, but a teacher, reminding us of the things that matter most to us. The nearness we do get to share, as the pandemic has reminded so many of us, and as the jellyfish reminded me anew, is sacrosanct, here or under another world’s stars.
Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub and the Head Instructor at Catapult. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Cut, Gay Magazine, Tin House, Guernica, The Paris Review Daily, them, and many other places. Her essays have been anthologized in Indelible in the Hippocampus (2019), Can We All Be Feminists? (2018), and elsewhere. She holds both an MFA and PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She lives in Queens.