Starfish
by Sandi Sonnenfeld

On Monica’s last day in New York, we go to Jones Beach. Monica lives in St. Louis, where she runs an outpatient mental health clinic for the transient. I don’t live in St. Louis or New York, though I did when I was a child, before I moved to Boston and then San Francisco. Now I work as a journalist in Seattle, where Monica and I met five years ago during graduate school. I tell Monica when she talks about her job that I find it easy to understand transience. It is staying put that feels hard.

Monica squeezes my hand. She is here on vacation. I am here for the summer visiting my father, who is dying.

It is mid-August and I tell Monica we need to watch out for the jellyfish when we swim, the giant man-of-wars, which get carried along the currents of the Gulf Stream up from Florida. Like their name, the man-of-wars are killers; a single sting from the organism’s central control system, a dark red gelatinous eye, can mean death if not properly treated.

I am not sure why I tell her this, as we unload blankets and towels from the trunk of my rental car, because I know that the lifeguards will close the beach when the jellyfish get dangerously prolific. Perhaps I tell her because I haven’t seen her for two years and I know she will listen.

In the hospital room where my father lies in bed, he does not listen. He tries, has his hearing aid turned way up, the battery occasionally whistling as it struggles to keep sound pouring into his ear. But though the sound pours into his brain, the words seem to drain away almost at once. He was moved into intensive care last week, and already wears the empty disinterested look of the terminally ill.

I glance over at Monica as we search the beach for a spot to set up day camp, our feet sinking into the sticky white-hot sand. The noonday sun shoots streaks of light through Monica’s hair like a kaleidoscope.

We select a place between the two large green flags that define the guarded swimming areas. I look up and down the beach at the carefully spaced blankets and umbrellas which dot the sand with splashes of color. The seagulls hover gracefully overhead, then with the skill and fearlessness of kamikaze pilots, dive bomb at the wire trashcans and the coolers of those bathers foolish enough to leave them open. I tell Monica if I were a seagull flying overhead that the people and the blankets and the open coolers stocked with food must look like one giant patchwork quilt or maybe a Chinese restaurant menu. Choose one from column A…

Monica laughs.

The bright sun feels good. Monica stretches out on our blanket and sighs, a large one that drains all rigidity from her body. Then she sits up, and in a single step lifts her T-shirt over head and flings it onto her knapsack. Her one-piece bathing suit is metallic blue and cut in a style popular nine or ten years ago, but it suits her frame, her long white legs and wide generous hips. I admire Monica for dressing only for herself. I, of course, in my usual way of avoiding social conflict, which is perhaps why I am a journalist (merely a recorder of facts rather than a creator of them), am in a new black bikini with bright yellow piping that I picked up on sale at Macy’s between hospital visits to my father.

Out of shame, or guilt, I sit up and throw a bottle of tanning lotion her way.

“You better put some on,” I say. “You don’t want to burn.”

She pours some greasy solution onto her palm and then begins smearing it over her body. I pick up the bottle from where she dropped it on the blanket and do the same.

Then we both lie down again. The sun feels hot, concentrated. Its rays suck up the residual lotion on my flesh, trying to get at the skin underneath where grief lies. I have not yet cried for my father. But I feel the tears lurking beneath the surface, held in check merely by the flesh itself. When they come I wonder if they will rend my skin in two.

The air smells of salt.

“Let’s go to the water,” I say.

Monica and I stand up and begin maneuvering through the Chinese menu, zigzagging the some twelve feet of beach and shore, avoiding sand buckets, shovels, coolers, collapsed umbrellas, baking bodies. Even the beach feels like the city; everyone carefully establishes boundaries.

By contrast, at the water’s edge the world opens up like a paper fan. There is nothing but sea all the way to the horizon and beyond that.

“When I was a little girl,” I tell Monica, “my parents took me to Barbados on vacation. My mother had bought me a yellow cotton robe to wear over my bathing suit at the beach. I loved it, wore it wherever we went on the island. Then, our last day of vacation, I took the robe off to go play in the water. I must have played in the water for a long time, because when I came out, it was gone. I had left it too close to the shore, and when the tide came in, it took the cloth along with it.

“I cried a good ten minutes until my father told me that the ocean in Barbados and the ocean in New York were connected, and that the robe was even now floating back towards home.”

Monica says nothing, but I think I can hear the warm buzz of her blood as it courses through her body.

‘Will it be there when we get back?’ I asked my father.

‘No,’ he said. ‘Taylor, it will take a very long time for your clothing to travel all that way.’

‘Next week?’ I asked, that being the longest length of time my six-year-old mind could imagine.

‘Months, Taylor. Perhaps years. But all things move in circles, sweetheart.”

“I didn’t understand what my father meant. Still I scanned the ocean for years, waiting for that yellow robe’s return.”

We stare at the sea. It is murky gray, cloudy with sand and brown bubbly seaweed. As a child, I called it “snapdragon” because when the seaweed dries, the round seed pouches burst with a pop. I see a few globs of jelly-like protoplasm bobbing on the surface as well, but no trace of a red gelatinous eye. For a while at least, we are safe.

“It’s so cold,” Monica says, taking a step into the ocean. The water twirls around her ankles.

“Give it a moment,” I say, remembering that Mid-westerners aren’t quite used to ocean temperatures. “Your body will adjust.”

“I’d rather walk than swim.”

So we walk the shoreline, the white foam of the ocean lapping at our toes. We walk the length of the green safety flags, then the length of the red ones. When I look back from where we have come, the water has already erased our presence.

We walk at least a mile, and the beach here holds less people. A horseshoe crab, its steel-like tail poking out to the north like a compass needle, has washed up with the last tide. The crab has been dead a few hours; the seagulls have already picked the meat clean from its cracked heavy brown shell. A couple of the birds still stand near the site, as though surveying their work. They look fat, self-satisfied.

“Scavengers,” I whisper under my breath.

“Look, a starfish,” Monica says.

I look down. A perfectly formed starfish lies next to the crab carcass. Monica picks it up and holds it in her palm. Then she smiles.

“It’s still alive.”

She flips the creature over onto its back. Lined up in neat rows running along each of its five arms are tiny, cilia-like tube feet that ripple rhythmically with the waves.

She lays it back down on the sand, right side up. The ocean washes over it, but the starfish clings to its spot.

Suddenly a shadow looms over us.

An old woman, her silver hair bundled under a faded red kerchief, has walked up to us. Her bathing suit is also red, made of a heavy nylon. The material stretches tightly over her round potbelly stomach. It reminds me of the eye of a man-of-war.

“I saw the starfish,” she says. She looks up at us; her face is lit with excitement.

“Yes,” Monica says. “It’s alive.”

The old woman makes a face. “It won’t be much longer. It can’t survive out on the sand.”

“I think it will be okay as long as it stays wet,” I say, trying to reassure her. “It’ll be pulled out with the next high tide.”

“I found three starfish in a single spot last year in Florida,” the woman says. “I glued them onto this knit pocketbook I made. They looked gorgeous. I got a lot of compliments on that pocketbook. This year, I thought I’d knit a matching purse.”

It is only then that I understand what she is saying. She wants the starfish. She knows that we have seen it first and is trying to determine if we will give the prize up. She wants the starfish for a clasp on her purse. I think of a silver pin cutting into the delicate tube feet on the underside of the animal.

I look at Monica. Monica bends down, gently picks the starfish up and throws it far out into the water, far from the woman’s reach. I watch it sail through the sky, and then land into the sea, where the waves cover it up immediately. But for a moment, just a moment, I think I see a flash of yellow.

The old woman makes a noise from her throat, like a choked gasp. Overhead, the seagulls cry to one another.

“You know, Taylor,” Monica says. “Some day I would like to visit Barbados.”

I nod, and like a child, take Monica’s hand. We continue our walk. I tell Monica that I am going to miss my father.

An hour later, on the way back to our blanket, we pass by the same spot. The old woman combs the sand, still looking.

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