Portuguese Man of War

Stephanie Dickinson

Bandages of Fire
My date Pete spread out our beach towels near the water where the sand wasn't pebbly but fine as cake flour. "I love that bikini." He pointed out a brown girl in an orange bikini. If you squinted the girl's body disappeared and all you saw was the orange bikini like bandages of fire. "Would you like one of those? I know I would," he asked.

I chose not to listen when he talked about wanting to dress in women's things; I chose to hear the seagulls. Sand dunes rose up in a dune mountain range. Fifteen-foot dunes spiked with sea oats and panic grass, brown sand, pounded by the white surf.

He continued, "See, I'm not looking at women with lust. I'm studying how they dress, woman to woman. What I would wear if I was a woman." He stood up and took off his beige shorts. "Here I am. The Italian stallion," he sang out, pirouetting. His swim thong was red and tiny, the size of a cracker. On his wrists he wore black bracelets.

I rolled my eyes. "You're going to wear that?" You could see the outline of his sex, prominent like the head of a goose.

"I call this my marble bag," he laughed, cupping himself.

"Unbelievable," I said, rolling my eyes again. About a month ago we'd met in Dallas in an elevator. Since then he'd flown me down three weekends in a row to Corpus Christi. He was rich, good-looking, and occasionally enjoyed wearing women's clothing. Complicated people interested me and I found Pete to be very out of the ordinary.

"These barrier islands used to be inhabited by the Karankawa Indians. They were cannibals. They called it Wild Horse Island," he informed me in a tour guide's voice.

He had brought two super ice chests and an enormous black duffel bag he called his beach kit. I carried my purse and book, The Hungry Ghosts, about the starvation of Chinese peasants during the Great Leap Forward.

"See that thong?" he pointed at a girl with long bronze haunches. "There's another swim suit I wouldn't seeing on you or me."

"I think if would look better on you," I said, looking everywhere but where he was pointing. Couples littered the sand, their bodies appearing dropped and partially broken, greased with coconut oil and ready to be eaten. Near the life guard chairs were portable toilets and a sign that read Danger Jellyfish.

He smiled, showing his dimples. "I don't have your hip-to-waist ratio." Besides having an hourglass figure, I was rather amazing, certainly my deformity was. A limp left arm. If men accepted that I allowed them their idiosyncratic behaviors. But so what? I was the beach and that was all that mattered. The waves frolicked, the blue muscles of jellyfish bobbed. Moon jelly washed up between sunbathers like waxen exploded cabbages. Not wanting to miss these last crumbs of sun I hurriedly unfolded the air mattress and clamped my lips on the air button.

"Claudette, would you settle down." Pete lifted a bicycle air pump from the beach bag and blew the float up. He picked up my right foot. "You've got tar all over the bottoms of your feet. Luckily, I brought Tar-Off." He peeled a towelettes from his pack wiped them. "Hold it, hold it," he commanded, lifting the lid of his ice chest.

I was never going to get into the water. He had promised me the beach and even now he wasn't letting me have it. It had taken hours to get here. He had stopped at Island Yachts to look at the cigarette boats. I was Pete's human ruler. He stood on the starboard and aft side of the boat while he snapped pictures, then he took out his tape measure, making me responsible for holding the end as he measured the bow and port and stern, width and height, stopping to make notations in a leather Daytimer.

He held up a squat can. "These are the best-kept secret on the Gulf Coast. A portable margarita."

The can was ice cold when Pete popped it, pushing in a sectioned lime. He thought of everything. I slipped a piece of Percodan into my mouth that I had snugged inside the elastic of my bikini bottom. Ready, when he lifted the margarita can to my mouth for me to swallow. The margarita tasted like a slushy. After a few sips, I felt content.

"You're self-destructive. Do you think I don't see you slip those pieces of pills into your mouth? Christ; you must eat them like candy. You should start thinking about your future. You could have a future with me, but I need to see you display a little teamwork."

I took another drink of the tequila.

His goggle glasses were staring my way. "I like the way you never complain of being in pain, but your head tips forward, your chin almost touches your neck. What does your arm do-drag your head down?"

"Something like that," I said, looking away. I had been shot in the neck when I was eighteen and the nerves that controlled my left arm were shattered. My left hand was paralyzed, smaller than my right, but I had decided I would live anyway. I wouldn't haunt doctor's offices and hospitals. I would eat and drink experience because I'd tasted some of the darkness. But still it hurt being maimed. It was indescribable.

"Your mouth pinches like..."

"Leave me alone about it," I snapped. I grabbed my float and headed for the water.

I was drifting farther out into the Gulf, not intending to paddle back in. Let the waves take me. On shore Pete grew tiny, a Diana butterfly in a beach chair wearing a speck of red. I closed my eyes, letting my left arm fall into the waves. It felt the ebb and flow, the mildness. Did the fingers remember their last gesture? I trusted Percodan. Half of a pill made things balmy inside me. Everything was soaked in a glow like I'd swallowed pieces of sun.

When I opened my eyes the beach was even farther away, but there was Pete in his goggle glasses swimming toward me using a strong Australian crawl.

He was pissed off, I could tell it by his brisk flutter kick.

"Christ, where were you going, Claudette? To Mexico? Your survival skills are the worst I've ever seen." His elbows rested on the air mattress while his legs entwined my waist.

"How can you see? Those are the blackest sunglasses," I laughed, lazily staring into his goggles-holes pulling all light into them and not letting anything escape. "They're so ugly."

"For maximum privacy." He pushed a strand of wet hair off my face.

"You look like a baby duck. The cutest ever." Pete chuckled, opening so wide I got a bird's eye view of his mouth. His tonsils had been taken out; silver fillings glinted from left molars. His gums looked ruddy and healthy. I was investigating him. A couple glided by on a double raft, the girl baring her breasts. Pete hardly glanced. He was inspecting me. How good being almost naked was when you had the whole Gulf of Mexico to cover you.

Then I saw long tentacles sparkling in the waves. Strands of pink and blue, a resting Portuguese Man-of-War with its sail collapsed like a lung.

Ravishing currant jelly and tendrils of gelatinous lavender. How dreamy and lovely it was. Taffy and bubblegum from another world. I wanted to ask a thousand questions. What is it like where you come from? Is there any joy? Or is it constant fishing, dragging through the waves? Like a statistical typist. I dropped my hand into the water. I was entering its world.

"Look, Pete, isn't it pretty?" I cupped the tentacles, holding them out to him. I was offering him sea hair.

"Drop it! Throw it, throw it," he screamed, grabbing the goggles off his face.

He had frightened it. The tentacles stiffened and exploded, the purple streamers snapped. They swarmed up my right arm. "Oh, no," Pete cried out. I heard my grandma say, "Claudette always wants to touch." The tentacles whipped like strings of cold mucous spreading over my shoulders, slithering around my rib cage. The water around me went cloudy.

"Pete," I whispered. I was about to slide into them, the tentacles were stinging, pulling me under. My arm was slipping off the air mattress. Maybe I liked this feeling of going under. Bad Claudette, bad girl.

He ripped off his shirt, exploding in the same way as the Man-of-War. Rising out of the water, he lurched over me, picking the tentacles off my back with the shirt. "Stupid, stupid," I thought I heard him say as he lifted his hands over his head and threw the shirt with the Portuguese Man-of-War into the waves. "Christ, are you okay?"

Urine & Bleach
I clung to him as he swam me in. We reached the shore and I doubled up on the sand. Pete was raising an alarm. "She's been stung."

I watched one of his foot prints fill with water then wash away.

"Get meat tenderizer on her," a man shouted. "It'll neutralize the poison."

"Urine, rub urine on her."

"Bleach, use bleach. Do it quick." Another man yelled from farther away.

"Here, I've got some."

"Over here. We have bleach too."

How strange that someone on the beach would bring bleach. I curled up, shivering. The ocean ran down to the crooked horizon where shrieking seagulls trailed a shrimp boat. I felt detached, like looking at a picture I had been removed from. Sun chilled the sand. A few feet from me the sunbathers blackened. I was chest deep in a snowdrift. I thought of my book again and the Chinese peasants buried alive in the snow. A peasant soaked in water and sent outside to freeze. I was a person wearing glass clothes, like in the book I was reading. Certain books drew me almost as seductively as pain killers. Some of the titles in my own personal library: Theory and Practice of Hell, The Nazi Doctors, The Siege of Leningrad, Robert Carr: Seven Years of Rape and Murder, The Killer Clown.

"Stand up, Claudette, come on." Pete stood over me, a towel around his neck.

It was hard to stand up inside the shivers. When I did he poured bleach over me, wrapped me in the beach towel, and led me to the car. No warmer in the Thunderbird. My teeth chattered. The sun was icing over the silver hood. I huddled in the bucket seat. Washday, a winter washday, and sheets on the line. I reeked of bleach.

"Hang on, I'm going to buy meat tenderizer. I'm not sure bleach neutralizes the poison," he said, turning the key in the ignition.

We roared up the beach road to the Seven Eleven and parked in front of the door. Pete raced inside. A long line of people waited at the counter to buy twelve-packs of beer. The cashier must be slow. Pete stood at the end of the line. My eyes closed, when they opened he was still in the same place, pointing toward the car, waving something. It's all right, I wanted to tell him, I'm fine, only cold.

Whip-like red stringy welts were rising on my stomach and chest. They appeared on my shoulder. The welts had a prettiness to them. I stared at the squiggly one above my belly button. Pete was still inside the Seven-Eleven. The man ahead of him set a Styrofoam ice chest onto the counter. Pete broke from the line. He threw something at the cashier. I was getting used to this funny way of breathing, this less air in my lungs. I liked my skin stinging, the welts. This was the euphoria of just escaped danger. I pictured Grandma shaking her finger at me, "Naughty girl."

His face appeared longer than I remembered. He pulled me out of the car. "That cashier should be arrested for being slow." He shook Knorr meat tenderizer over my chest, then opened the bottle and poured it into his hands, rubbing tenderizer on every bit of exposed skin. His hands smelled of sage and thyme.

"Stupid, stupid, why did you pick that thing up? Claudette, didn't you know it was poison? Christ, there were signs all over..."

"No," I said, wondering what it was I thought when I saw the sign, Danger Jellyfish. It hadn't registered at all.

"A guy inside told me the Portuguese-Man-of War has eighty percent more venom than a cobra. See how pretty! You need someone to take care of you, Claudette. Should I take you to the hospital?"

My body foamed when he rubbed meat tenderizer on. White blossoms of foam fizzed. I was being seasoned. I was parsley. Pete was taking care of me.

"I feel better. I really do."

He led me back to the car, spreading a towel over the seat. "How are you doing? Okay, huh?" his blue eyes were serious. "Do you know the respiratory system can collapse? You could go into a coma. You can't beat a Man-of-War. If one of their tentacles gets damaged it regenerates. Now get in. Damn, I just had my car cleaned."

The welts were gone. I closed myself in Pete's guest bathroom, smoked two cigarettes. I watched the long Benson & Hedges ash fall into the sink.

"Claudette, Claudette," he knocked. "I went to Eckerds and asked the pharmacist to recommend a salve for your Man-of-War sting. Do you want to try it?"

Twenty minutes later he was back at the bathroom door. "Dinner is served, madam."

The salve was in its box next to my plate. Candles flickered from the middle of the table. The chandelier was glittering too, giving off a different kind of light, not fluorescent and sterile, but Eastern European light, Strauss waltzes, linden tree gloom, Anna Akhmatova songs, swans and long white gloves, kisses and eye glances. I could see the table reflected in the sliding glass windows. This room was the bottom of the pond. The chandelier created hidden worlds. He lit candles and served my plate-a light supper of spinach tortellini and red sauce, a bottle of red wine, and Hagan Daz Rum Raisin ice cream for dessert, melted in the microwave.

After we ate he began to talk. "You know my Mom caught me once in grandmother's dress," Pete took my ice cream bowl away. "I remember it was pink with purple flowers and smelled of face powder. Very old powder. Mom made me wear the dress to dinner. I remember it was chicken pot pie on the table. The crust at the bottom was raw dough and I choked."

"Your grandmother's dress. That doesn't sound very sexy," I said, lightly.

"I used to steal bras and slips from J.C. Penny. I had a sack full of them. "

"Do you tell this to all your girlfriends?"

"You're the first one."

He was telling me his secrets. I was the first one. In a peculiar way I felt honored.

The sheets were satin, floating sheets, a cool black river in a lacquer frame. A Japanese music box. Pete applied salve to me. When the lights went out he felt his way toward sleep. How cleanly he slumbered, no snoring, just sweet even breathing.

I stared at the ceiling. How passionate and fierce the Portuguese Man-of-War had been. Its tentacles grew back if one was damaged. I was jealous. The wild forest fire inside my arm would never burn out. Once an X-Ray had been taken of it. "See how thin the bone is? It's like glass," the doctor had said. "It's shrinking."

I encircled my left wrist with my fingers, marveling at the bone inside turning to glass. By the time the silence comes for me, all the bone would be gone. My arm, an invertebrate, a Man-of-War, my fingers, jelly-like tentacles of violet and pink.

I turned over and rolled against Pete. I rubbed his shoulders, then let my hand feel the rise and fall of his slumbering back. I loved his intensity. He was abnormal and remarkable like me. Perhaps I could love him. Restless still, I imagined Pete in a Victorian corset, satin-bowed, fancy with black crepe lace. Cinched in with whalebone stays, his waist the size of a wasp's. Lipstick smeared on his lips, blood-red only in the center, corners, pale as cut bait. Stupid, he hissed, gardenia seeping through his sweat. I fantasized his stays working into my ribs. I lay under him, breathless.

© Stephanie Dickinson

Stephanie Dickinson's poetry and fiction appear in Mudfish, Cream City Review, Chelsea, Nimrod, Fourteen Hills, Washington Square, Iron Horse Review, among others. She has recently finished Shot, an autobiographical novel, and is walking across hot coals trying to find an agent.

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