The swinging singles of a bygone era had nicknamed the beach Horny Corner, but I knew I certainly wasn’t turning anyone on as I struggled to shrug the lifejacket over my meaty upper arms.
“X-LARGE!” exclaimed the block capitals hand-lettered on the salt-stained fabric with a permanent marker. The sun had already put the lie to the manufacturer’s claims of permanence, fading the black ink into the sickly purple of severe sunburns, and now my exertions were calling the writer’s honesty into question, as well.
“Extra large, my ass,” I grumbled.
“It does look awfully big, dude,” Nathanael chuckled as he folded his own lifejacket and secured it under the bungee cords that crossed over the storage area in the stern of his kayak.
“Hey, just because you’ve been practically living at the gym since…,” I trailed off. I looked down, crossed my arms over my chest, and tugged the two sides of the lifejacket toward each other.
“Since, well … you know.”
“Way to believe the stereotypes, dude.”
“Way to perpetuate them, dude.”
Nathanael sighed. “You don’t have to do this.”
“Do what? Wear the life jacket?”
“No. Pick a fight now so it’ll be easier on both of us when I get on that redeye tonight.”
“Why don’t you come over here and say that, cocksucker?” I challenged. I kicked a token toeful of sand in the general direction of Nathanael’s feet.
Both of us laughed.
“Seriously, man,” Nathanael said. “Why do you insist on wearing that sorry-ass lifejacket? You can swim, right?”
My eyes panned across the placid waters of Alamitos Bay before fixating on a far-off spot somewhere past the Second Street Bridge.
“It gets deep in some places out there,” I said, dragging my kayak toward the waterline.
Nathanael had already discontinued electrical service to his Belmont Shore apartment, and by the time I had retrieved him from the center of a shadowy maze of stacked cardboard boxes, all that had been left at the rental place was a pair of yellow Ocean Kayak Drifters.
“Get on the boat, yeah, Banana Boat,” I sang softly as we paddled the 13-footers past the gondoliers in striped shirts and straw hats easing passengers into the Venetian vessels moored to a nearby jetty.
Nathanael lingered dockside to watch a broad-shouldered gondolier adjust the red sash around his waist before fitting his oar into a gondola’s forcola.
I cleared my throat theatrically as I passed through the gap in the buoy line and angled toward the leeward side of Naples Island. Nathanael’s eyes remained riveted to the gondolier. I cleared my throat again, louder.
“What?” Nathanael asked.
I ducked my head, pretended to concentrate on my paddle strokes. I teased my companion about becoming a born-again gym rat, but I lifted at least three times a week myself. Although I hadn’t played a down in almost ten years, I still blamed my high school football coaches for indoctrinating me into a workout routine that stressed bulk over definition.
“Curls are for the girls,” they had sneered. “But the lineman who benches can hold his own in the trenches.”
Leaning forward in the kayak’s cockpit, I exploded off the line, using long, plunging strokes to distance myself from Nathanael. As the blades emerged from the water, they sprinkled my arms with sheets of spray that would leave trails of salt on my skin. I imagined a tongue lightly tracing those wavy lines as if licking the crystals from rim of a margarita glass.
I was single at the moment, so exactly whose tongue it would have been was entirely a matter of speculation. My eyelids closed for an instant as a procession of ex-girlfriends’ faces flashed by in rapid succession. When Nathanael’s popped into the lineup, I almost dropped my paddle.
It was one of the questions I had been puzzling over since Nathanael had come out earlier that year: Even before Nathanael had admitted to himself that he was gay, had he been drawn to me as a friend because he was subconsciously attracted to me? I had never had an openly gay friend before, so I didn’t know if that’s how things worked.
In the months since Nathanael’s announcement, I had caught myself more than once replaying certain moments from our past to determine if Nathanael had ever made a pass at me. But that wasn’t the most fundamental re-evaluation I had undertaken. I knew it would have been overstating things to say that our relationship had been based on a lie, but I often wondered how well I had ever really known the guy I considered one of my closest friends if I hadn’t even realized Nathanael liked men instead of women.
I finally gave Nathanael a chance to catch up by coasting through the concrete pilings of the Second Street Bridge, its underside decorated with the graffiti spray-painted as an initiation ritual by the novices on the Cal State Long Beach crew team. The tires of luxury sedans whispered shameful secrets to the roadway above as they carried their wealthy owners toward the upscale boutiques and sidewalk cafes of Belmont Shore.
“Where are these things you want me to see?” Nathanael gasped as he pulled up behind me.
“So, where is this Spinnaker Cove, exactly?”
“Right here?” Nathanael surveyed the unremarkable expanse of water with an exaggerated swivel of his head.
“Well, left here, actually,” I corrected myself, pointing to another channel. The tide was out, exposing the rough-edged black shells of the barnacles that blanketed its concrete walls. Duffy Electric Boats, those canopied harbor cruisers, were parallel-parked along the docks with the regularity of Mercedes on Rodeo Drive.
“Watt’s Up, Dock?” Nathanael scoffed as they paddled past the first boat. “Isn’t there a limit on the number of puns in a single boat name?”
“I think the only limit is a practical one. You can only fit so many words on the stern,” I observed.
“Watt a concept,” Nathanael deadpanned. “Seriously, though. Some of these names are ridiculous.”
“Definitely. I mean, ‘Knotty Buoys’?”
“Actually, I kind of like the sound of that.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing,” I said, suddenly very interested in the amount of saltwater bubbling up from the twin self-bailing scupper holes that flanked my seat.
We paddled on in silence for a while.
“What do these Duffy Boats cost, anyway?” Nathanael finally asked.
“Start at about $120,000, I think.”
“That much? Shit,” said Nathanael, looking at the identical Mission Revival townhouses lining both sides of the channel with a newfound respect. “Where are we, anyway?”
“I told you: Spinnaker Cove.”
“Right, but where’s Spinnaker Cove? I mean, if I wanted to drive here, what streets would I take?”
I frowned. “You know, I have no idea. Maybe it’s only accessible by yacht.”
“That’s what I mean, dude. It’s hard to believe this is Long Beach, too.”
“Well, yeah. I doubt V.I.P. Records is going to open a second location down here, or anything.”
“Why not? Snoop Dogg’s always shouting out the Eastside.”
“Somehow, I don’t think Naples Island and Belmont Shore are quite the ‘Eastside’ he has in mind,” I said with a snort.
“Seriously, man. I thought I knew Long Beach.”
“I thought I knew you,” I whispered.
“What did you say?”
“I said, ‘We’re here.’”
“So what am I looking for?” Nathanael asked, squinting down at the calm water filling the nautical equivalent of a cul-de-sac.
“Love, in all the wrong places?”
“Seriously,” Nathanael growled. “What am I looking for?”
“Moon jellies,” I said. I laid my paddle across my lap and peered over the starboard side of my Drifter. “There’s a huge colony of miniature jellyfish living at this dead-end.”
“And what, exactly, does a moon jelly look like?”
“It’s kind of hard to describe. Sort of like the ghost of a sand dollar – a translucent saucer with four round pouches in it.”
“Gee, sounds fascinating.”
With few shallow strokes of the right blade of his paddle, Nathanael sent his kayak into a slow spiral. “Shit! I’m surrounded,” he yelped, staring down at the wraithlike forms beginning to drift upward from the murky depths. “Goddamn, they’re creepy, like alien blobs from some B horror movie.”
“It Came From Spinnaker Cove!” I rumbled with the practiced profundity of a movie trailer announcer.
“Do they sting?” Nathanael asked without taking his eyes off the moon jellies clustering around his boat.
“Sure,” I said. I reached forward to stroke the lavender-tinged bell of the nearest jelly.
After a bit of coaxing, Nathanael followed suit. We agreed it was surprising that something that seemed so ethereal should be so substantial to the touch.
As I attempted, without any success, to lift one of the slippery enigmas out of the water with one blunt blade, my companion looked around the little cove, a growing puzzlement evident on his face.
“How did they get here?” Nathanael asked.
“What do you mean?” I mumbled, engrossed in the deliberate delicacy required to extricate the indistinct thing from the only slightly more transparent waters around it.
“What do I mean? Look at them. They’re basically just drifting bags of gas. Can they really communicate with each other? Can they really even see each other? And if they can’t, how did they wind up together in this obscure corner of Southern California?”
I looked up at my friend. “I don’t know.”
“How about sex?”
“Excuse me?” I sputtered.
“How do they mate?” Nathanael asked. “I mean, moon jelly is a very hippie name. I bet they’re all about free love down there, all those slippery bodies sliding over each other ….”
I cleared my throat loudly. “Aren’t jellyfish one of those animals with a weird lifecycle, where they’re one thing for the first phase and something else for the second? Like, they have to start out as a polyp attached to a rock before floating free.”
“Transformation,” Nathanael said. “I can relate.”
I didn’t say anything. I was sure the appropriate response was sliding around somewhere inside me, but I just didn’t have the right tool to lift it out.
As Nathanael and I floated there in silence, I spied a pair of moon jellies drifting through the edge of my peripheral vision. I lurched toward them, and my kayak capsized.
“Charlie!” Nathanael yelled.
As my unfastened lifejacket floated to the surface, I sank below my upended boat. The salt stung my eyes. Even as I blinked them furiously, though, I saw the ethereal entity sailing toward me – amorphous, androgynous. I reached out with both hands to seize it, to hold it tight against my chest, before kicking my way back up to the surface. Just as the bubbles my nose had left behind to mark the trail threatened to become too few and too far between to follow, my head burst back into the air.
Momentarily blinded by the saltwater in my eyes, I flailed my arms in an attempt to grasp something solid. One of my wrists cracked against the hull of Nathanael’s kayak, causing me to drop the moon jelly. It landed on the bow with an audible plop.
“Take my hand,” Nathanael said, reaching forward.
“I can’t see you,” I protested. As I treaded water, my blinking eyes, like a film projector cranked at the wrong speed, created a blurred image of Nathanael. “I … I guess I haven’t really been able to see you clearly for a while now.”
Nathanael didn’t say anything. He looked down at the moon jelly, already starting to dry out in the hot sun. He leaned forward and shaded it with his hands.
As my vision finally cleared, I watched my friend cup the delicate thing in both hands and drop it back into the water. Then Nathanael wiped his right on his trunks, and offered it to me.
And, in the absence of all the distracting chatter, all I could see with my burning eyes was the concern evident on Nathanael’s face and how the outstretched hand didn’t waver.
I accepted it.
“Moon Jelly” was originally published in RipRap in 2013.