I swam. I dove under, let go of the float and remembered my body. I’ve been obsessed with invertebrates and wanted to be spineless. I came back to the surface and swam to the concrete retaining wall at the edge of the lake to pull myself out of the water.

Photo by Serge Taeymans / Unsplash

by Joe Nasta

We went to the T-Dock on Lake Washington.

It’s a not-so-secret secret spot known for launching floats and suntanning while sipping White Claws mid-day, glancing through sunglasses at Mt. Rainier and the glinting downtown Bellevue towers that Amazon employees see in perfect Instagram pictures and are too lazy to spend a day searching for on foot. Luckily the not-so-secret was discovered by The Nudge and texted to thousands of people, finally becoming a definitive non-secret although it has always been on Google Maps.

The dock stretched out into the sunlit water in the shape of the letter with too many people planted on it. So, we did not go to the T-Dock on Lake Washington. We got as close to the water and as far from people as we could manage, down the edge of the water in a patch of yellowed grass.

We lay next to the lake on our backs under the willow tree. The wind moved more than the slender tips of the feather branches: the sway betrayed it. The vine growing on the East side of her where it could catch the most sun ended halfway up the willow’s trunk. When I closed my eyes, a bug or the grass shifted below my waist.

I swam. I dove under, let go of the float and remembered my body. I’ve been obsessed with invertebrates and wanted to be spineless. I came back to the surface and swam to the concrete retaining wall at the edge of the lake to pull myself out of the water.

One of my first memories is drowning. Literally, at Cedar Beach on the North Shore of Long Island when I was small for my age at five years old. Too far from the shore and alone somehow, the waves went over my head and swept me under. I opened my eyes and mouth, accidentally swallowed.

Cedar Beach is one of the worst beaches I’ve ever been to. It’s covered in rocks, the exposed sand clings to heat and burns every foot that touches it, and no one outside of the sister towns of Sound Beach or Miller Place would bother with it. It was an overcast day during the summer that cast the sky in the same ugly shade as the thinnest layers of the Long Island Sound.

When I drowned, I was frantic but not afraid. My arms and legs spread wide while my neck extended as if I was falling through the sky. The salt burned into me until my skin opened to it, absorbed it and the current pulsed me up and down under the surface. I fell into a natural rhythm with it and for the few seconds that unity lasted I became calm.

My father did not save me. The neighbor, Scott, saved me. When he pulled me up in his arms I wondered why.

During the fifth week of quarantine my feet were in terrible shape. Some days I walked aimlessly around the empty city. Thick blisters and callouses barnacled the edges of my toes. The flesh under my nails bruised bloody: I wanted them to fall off to expose that flesh until the small seeds of new keratin pushed forward, elongated claw-like and stronger.

I covered my fingernails with acrylic paint and now, chipped away, my nails are weak and ridged. I want the force of me to fracture. I want to bend forward and backwards from the waist until I can’t be broken any more, until I can inflate all corners of my body with wet air and sea salt. I want to break the brittle arms of a starfish, swallow their regeneration, claw my undernaval into small holes, place anything inside me that will grow into something sour and powerful.

“You’re spineless like a motherfucking jellyfish!” my sister’s ex-husband messaged me on Instagram.

The two of them in the house they built together in New Hampshire, me at my shared studio apartment in Seattle, my twin unable to hold the harm enacted on her body inside of it, my inability to act or do anything from the shore of a different ocean: my sister was breaking and there was nothing I could do. A part of me was breaking—

My sister and I have always held as still as we can, waited as long as possible before cracking hideously, extraordinarily. I wished my arms could glide me through the air.

“You’re supposed to be her brother, do something!” I was nothing like a jellyfish. I clung my arms around my pillow and didn’t respond.

On Bainbridge Island a starfish clung to the supports under Point White Pier just below the waterline. The tide rose and we didn’t think anything of it. They didn’t move, but I didn’t know how a starfish moves. It must stay there a while until the small muscles of its arms pulse and flex inch by inch to drag its fleshy body across the rocks of the Puget Sound, to grate its mouth against the sand. After gyrating up the wooden stanchions, it was no wonder they didn’t move.

In the filmmaker Jean Painlevé’s archive, the starfish dance. In ultrazoom they are a kaleidoscope of flesh, a lump of spines and tendrils, until they move too subtly to be monstrous but naturally enough to feel surreal. The magical intuition of imperceptible movement. The pores of their skin bloom, breathe. The feather-arms of a spineless animal carry it as if it flies.

The starfish was thick, pink and strong like a tongue. Of course, it can swim through the weight of water. It stayed where it did because it stubbornly clung to light, air, life.

The tide rose too high and murky above the starfish for me to see it, and to be honest I didn’t think about it for the rest of the day.

Joe (ze/zir) is a queer multimodal artist and writer who works in Seattle and writes love poems. Ze is one half of the art and poetry collective Eat Yr Manhood, engineer for The Boiler, and head curator of Stone Pacific Zine. "I want you to feel ugly, too" (2021) was Joe’s first book and was released as a limited handmade edition. Joe's work has recently been published or is forthcoming in dream boy book club, Ghost City Review, and Corporeal Lit Mag.