When I was twelve, I was stung by a Portuguese man o’war. I was just swimming in the ocean with my aunt when it wrapped around both of my legs. At first, I had no idea what was happening. It felt like someone had taken hundreds of burning hot needles and stuck them in my thighs. It didn’t even register in my head that I was screaming at the top of my lungs.
My aunt realized what was happening (she had a small sting on her shoulder as well) and grabbed me. She ran through the water with me and dragged me onto the beach.
My screams turned into pained sobs. A lifeguard rushed over. Already, my legs were swelling and angry purple welts marked my skin.
“What happened?” he asked. He was blonde and tanned, like most lifeguards on our strip of beach in South Carolina.
“It must’ve been a jellyfish,” some passerby behind us drawled.
The lifeguard grabbed handfuls of sand and vigorously rubbed my legs. “This will take all of the stingers and leftover tentacles away,” he explained.
When he was done, he sent me on my way. It took a few weeks before my legs were back to normal.
The removal of the tentacles and stingers with sand is instrumental to the healing process. If left alone, they will continue to release venom for an indefinite amount of time.
Ben* was my own personal emotional jellyfish.
I met Ben through a mutual friend in the beginning of my senior year of high school. We first ran into each other at a football game, then at the ACT’s the next day. He was cute and I was bored so I talked to him. Our love story was off to the nerdiest start possible.
I am not insinuating that this is a love story. It’s not. The truth is that he was perfect for me at the time. He was handsome and brilliant and talented and athletic. The kid was sort of a genius. Soccer captain, all-state musician, top of his class, and with the voice of an angel.
He was perfect and I fell in love with him far too quickly, as you do when you are in your senior year of high school.
Our relationship was the best of my life at that point. He called when he said he would. He introduced me to his friends and took me out. I didn’t have the best self-esteem when I was younger, so it was basically all I could’ve asked for.
Our time together was filled with memorable one-shot moments. It was like the universe conspired to give us the perfect romance. There was our first date, which ended on the park bench by the river. The time we went to a football game in the city, and how the snow fell around us in great cottony puffs. The afternoon at the museum and how he held my hand and marveled over Amar Kanwar’s A Love Story. But the thing about being stung is you bear it alone. I’ve relayed the memories to close friends and found that there is no possible way that there is no way to capture the perfect simplicity of two people in love, just as no words can capture the pain of the sting. I’ve tried to share the feelings, the moments, but it was a pointless endeavor. He was the only other person who knew the truth and depth of the feelings. When he left, he forgot his half. He threw the memories away like he was tossing a bag of feathers into the wind. When you are stung, you are stung alone.
I was being honest when I said this wasn’t a love story.
Little by little, Ben was trapping me. He was planting stingers in every millimeter of my heart. The pain was not pain; it was the intense teenage joy of loving, and being loved in return.
Except, there was one glitch in my perceptions.
Ben didn’t love me. He never loved me, in fact, as he informed me by text message while I was surrounded by two hundred strangers at a chorus festival.
It was another girl, a previous girl. Ben left the hardest sting on the very same park bench where we’d had our first date. The January wind froze the tears I refused to cry as he walked up the path without looking back.
I stayed on that bench long after he left.
When someone tells you they no longer love you, there isn’t a loss of feeling. In fact, I’m not sure if there’s ever a loss of feeling. It’s substitution. The love becomes guilt, or pain, or insecurity – but the amount of feeling never truly diminishes. If anything, the feeling grows.
If not removed, the stingers continue to release venom for an indefinite amount of time.
I didn’t want to give up on him. For a long time, I tried to convince him that he was wrong. It didn’t work. Finally, I chose to ignore him, sure that the distance would give me closure.
The funny thing about venom is it spreads. You don’t even have to know it’s in your bloodstream. Then one day you wake up and out of the blue, the venom has overtaken you.
In most cases, the only way to remove stingers is with sand. Sand doesn’t have to be another person. Most times, it isn’t. Making your sand another person just gets you into a cycle of jellyfish that never breaks. There will always be new stings. Sand could be a really good song on the radio that you download and play on repeat. It could be crying with your best friend until you just don’t feel the stings anymore. Sand could be a movie, the passage of time, making out with random people until you don’t remember how the stings felt.
I thought it was my fault for a long time, as if I was the one stuck on him. But that’s not the way stingers work. You don’t choose to get stung. Nobody chooses the venom, or the man o’ war, or the boy.
This isn’t a love story and it’s not a loss story. In truth, it’s barely even a story. The venom spread but then, so did the sand. I went to college far away and came back and met a great guy (looking at you, M) that I started dating even though I told myself that I should never date anyone again.
Jellyfish happen. Soon enough, though, something comes along to make it sting a little bit less. Sometimes, the healing process teaches you more about yourself than the hurting ever could, and I think that is what makes jellyfish beautiful.