Bonnie Chau

Medusa Jellyfish


Against the white sky, dozens of pigeons fly, tiny crosses turning into stars, then flattening, veering, tiny stars, tiny crosses, flicking, flickering, crossing and uncrossing, and then a stomach-dropping swoop.

There is a sudden movement by Rhiannon's feet. She sees first, in the odd shape of red, a small puddle of blood, before she realizes it's a roundish leaf that has blown down and pooled. More dry bit-edged leaves, crumbling and crisp, scrape-drag along the gray sidewalks. It is not yet the month to put on gloves, so Rhiannon's hands naturally fold into fists, half withdrawn into her jacket sleeves. Fists, ready. Fists, withdrawing. Everywhere she looks, people and plants have been sucked dry, fast-motion decay, flesh withering, fruit withering, gristle and fat slurped gone. The one last suck through the straw, quick, blinding, stinging of a whip, gone in a blink.

Her body is in a disequilibrium of cold and hot. Warm under her down jacket, cold legs, heated feet stuffed into wool socks (thin, not yet the month for thick), leather boots (thin, not yet the month for snow). Some people are wearing wool hats, some people are wearing knit gloves. Some people are wearing T-shirts, and wish they were not, wish they were hot.

She fixes her eyes straight ahead, she is deeper inside herself now, for fall. Her body is the same size, but she, herself, has shrunken small, curled fetal, a mere pea inside this body. This is the first fall. The first-ever fall of her life. When people talk about seasons, it’s not just the season, but the transition from the last one to the current one, that they are actually talking about. Spring is not spring, but the change from winter to spring. And fall, this is something else. She has never had this before, never seen it, never felt it like this. During her travels and years abroad, she had experienced seasons several times before, but only fall-winter-spring-summer. She had never done summer to fall.

It is the worst of them all. The biggest fall, descent into madness, startled at being yanked out of woozy warmth and sweat-dripping heat. It is like being slapped. The sudden burn of submersion into an ice-cold pool. But no water. An ice-cold vacuum. An ice-cold glass. Clear, translucent, nothing but air and wind.

The Jellyfish Appears

It is a Wednesday. She remembers this because Wednesdays are the most watery of days, suspended midweek. Bells somewhere were chiming 9:30 a.m. The M train rolls by, the bedroom window screen is pixelated from the rain outside, a smeary, near-sighted blur.

Rhiannon is holding her phone, not one of the flat heavy ones that can do everything, the ones that feel like you are holding a window pane of glass balanced in your palm, but a small plasticky one, that she squeezes in her right hand, as if it is a person, the one person whose calls and voicemails and text messages she wishes were the actual person, not just something to read or something to hear.

When the rain stops, she opens the door to her bedroom. It is also a door from her bedroom. The kitchen light is on. Not the stove one, which she and her roommates leave on when they are full of time and deliberation and can expend the mental and physical effort to be atmospheric. But the actual overhead light, which is less forgiving. It screams of emptiness. She slips her feet into her yellow flats, they make a flat slapping sound on the hardwood. She turns the brass doorknob of the front door. She walks down the hallway, which is jointed at several intervals, like walking the perimeter of an octagon. She walks in a straight line, watching the grain of the hardwood floors. They are worn, gentle.

She pushes the heavy metal door out into the stairwell, and pulls it clicked behind her. She walks up two more flights of stairs to the very top landing. She pushes that metal door out, and carefully steps over the raised part of the wall. The roof is empty. It is always empty. But above the ledges all around, the city stands, all around, it is everywhere.

She walks to the edge of one side, and lights her cigarette. She walks to another side. She walks along one entire side, looking out over the wall to see if there is anyone she knows walking down below on the sidewalks. There is nobody. There is something far off in the distance, on the far edge of the Manhattan skyline, that looks like the leftover blaze of an orange sunset, or like the afterglow of fireworks. No matter how much she squints or blinks, tries to refocus her eyes, she cannot make out what it is. She sits down on the ledge on the far corner, and looks at the city, mostly at the city on the other side of the river.

She goes back inside, and steps into her half bathroom. She turns on the faucet and a first squiggle of jelly comes out like water. Like one drop of water, that stretches itself, stretches itself into slow motion beyond-time goo. It is perfectly clear, perfectly crystalline and defined. A cartoon. Slowly, a jellyfish pours itself out, like a dainty woman’s leg and foot lowering onto the ground from behind an open car door. Rhiannon looks at it, does not wrap her head around any of it, looks and looks, synapses firing away, nothing hitting anything, nothing connecting with anything, nothing known in the known universe is familiar with this. She pulls the faucet handle closer to her, it gloops out faster.

She has eaten jellyfish before. At Chinese banquet dinners, sometimes it comes in a small compartment on a large cloisonné platter, soy-browned translucence in an unceremonious pile. Put a little bit of it on the plate, turn the lazy Susan, move on to the next dish, let it pass to the next person, rotate. It's cool on the tongue, slightly sweet, a soft crunch, like thin cartilage.

She has seen washed-up Portuguese man-of-wars before, faded blue and delicate as bubbles, emerging lifelessly from the sands of beaches on other continents. She has seen ghostly box jellyfish pumping in slow, graceful motion in circular aquarium tanks. She has never seen one come out of a sink faucet.

She walks into the kitchen and pulls out a big glass mason jar and a clinking metal lid and walks back into the bathroom. The jellyfish is still slinking itself out of the faucet spout, taking its sweet jelly time, lowering, lowering deliberately, the way she usually lowers herself into water, from air—here, into air, from water. The jellyfish is the color of a bruise. Rhiannon has only ever seen a bruise from the other side of skin, and tries to imagine how it must really be, on the inside of skin, inside the body, a blue planet suspended in flesh and fat, marble-clear. This jellyfish, it is blue like the inside of a bruise. Each layer is a transparency, edges fluttery like lace, the swirled hem of a ruffled skirt dipped in bloody blue ink.

She cannot bring herself to scoop it up and let it fall, trapped, into the glass jar, so instead she reaches her hand into the sink and brushes it to the side, while she plugs the drain and lets the water fill up. She needs to figure out what to wear to work, or she will be late. Last Thursday, she had showed up at work, muttered “morning” to the delivery guys outside fiddling with their bikes, and stepped carefully down the old stone stairs at the back of the restaurant. She had pulled locker doors open and slammed them shut, metal slamming, one after another, until she found the emptiest one, even then, with bunched-up dirty checkered pants at the bottom. She threw her purse in, shrugged off her sweater and jacket together in one piece, tossed that in, used her foot to kick the pile in further, and shut the door. When she got back upstairs, she swung the door into the kitchen to see what she could bring back out to the floor.

Rhiannon Tells Hank about Bo Shen

She saw Bo Shen in the kitchen, he was tall. He was standing on the other side of the counter, head bent down, chopping something.

Oh God, Hank says. They are sitting on the M train, going across the bridge.

No, listen. He was standing there, and did not look up. There were a few other cooks doing some prep work, or sitting, resting on industrial restaurant supply plastic pails. Bo Shen stood there, and she wanted him to look up. They had never exchanged any words before, what language would their words be in, if they did? Well, presumably, Chinese, since, like everyone else in the kitchen, he didn't speak English. She couldn’t even remember if she had ever said 謝謝 to him, which she did usually to the cooks, when she was waiting to run food out, and someone slid a plate onto the expediting counter.

Bo Shen had disappeared suddenly back in June, because he had been fired. He had started seeing the cute big-eyed ponytailed food packer girl, who was very sweet indeed, and who used to always guilelessly ask Rhiannon to translate newspaper job listings for her, and then it had turned out that he had a girlfriend, and this girlfriend had shown up at the restaurant one day, and started screaming at him, had stormed through the entire front of the restaurant, into the back kitchen, screaming, and then followed him downstairs, screaming, and then the food packer girl had shown up for work, and the girlfriend really lost it then, and dragged Bo Shen back upstairs and back onto the restaurant floor, and Rhiannon isn't sure what happened then, but she knows he disappeared after that.

She can see this scene very clearly. She can see him, within this scene, very clearly, hooded eyes, an insolence clearly set on his unyielding cheeks. She sees him standing there facing his girlfriend, taking it, her screams and pushes hitting him like hitting a wall, he takes it, is pushed back and back, he is almost, almost smirking, he almost finds this funny, this prissy girlfriend of his, throwing such a hysterical fit.

He is the kind of guy, sallow-skinned, looks like a butcher, like he isn’t outside too much, maybe just to play basketball once in a while, a 25-year old with dark-shadowed bags under his eyes. In the wet swelter of summer, his pant legs are messily rolled up, his white collared short-sleeved button-down dishwasher shirt barely even buttoned, his stare dead-on when she finally manages to catch its flicker. He is unsmiling, smokes cigarettes outside leaning against the door of the next building, his Chinese is slow and assured, low and full of profanities that sound only vaguely familiar to her. He is full of secrets that could fuck you up, but he was in no hurry. She couldn’t guess what his life might be like, at all. But he had a girlfriend. And a food-packing mistress. And now he had been fired. And now he had been rehired.

Rhiannon and Hank Were in Love, Once

Hank is shaking his head at her. What do you think of the concept, slumming it? he asks her. She looks at him. What? she says. He is nodding now, nodding at his own thoughts, at what he is about to say to her, even though she knows, she knows he has no right to say anything to her, they were in love once, and back then they had rights to say anything, and now nothing means much anymore.

Remember when you dated that frat boy, Thomas? he is saying, nodding. What do you call that? Slumming? she says, taking the bait. You think that was slumming? Yes, he says. You thought he was beneath you, we all thought he was beneath you, and you knew it, and you liked him because of it. He was a fucking beefcake. He was on so many intramural sports teams, which is fine, but it’s only fine if you do other shit too. It’s only fine if you’re not a fucking philistine. It’s only fine if you also like art and read books and listen to some music besides fucking Tom Petty.

I like Tom Petty, she says. She sounds like she's whining. Thomas had been amazing, he'd been a bartender, and had more social graces and skills of engagement, than all her other friends put together.

So what about you dating me? she says. She is not sure why she says this. It just comes out.

What do you mean? Hank says.

Well, she says. Don’t you think you were slumming it a little bit, she says. She doesn’t really know what she is saying.

Um. He waits for her.

On a more subconscious level, she says. Because I’m Asian. I bet on some level you were attracted to some sort of debasing ancestral stereotype, you know, poor Chinese village beauty, working out in the fields, subsumed by filial piety, living with these backwards traditions, who turns out to be really good at sucking cock.

Wow, Hank says.

What, she says. You started it. Why do we need to dissect my attraction to Bo Shen? Why did you have to call that slumming?

You're aligning yourself with rural poverty? And claiming that you're really good at sucking cock? he says.

Stop it, she says.

He raises his eyebrows halfway up. She looks away.

But at Some Point, Hank Moved Away from Rhiannon

I think I’m moving to New York, Hank said, and he said it right there, on that couch, that yellow couch on which they had done everything.

Rhiannon stared at him. She ran the tip of her tongue, pressing the pink wormy muscle, over the sharp hard edges of her upper front teeth, back and forth. Palate. Cleft. Gums. Soft. Hard. Her eyes were dry and still. Like they belonged to an unblinking doll. The couch, she didn’t have to look at it, she would remember forever that exact shade of yellow, mustardy, the faintest of designs on it, geometric, some acid green jagged lines and zigzags. She didn’t have to look at it, and she didn’t, she looked at him, she had not moved.

He was moving. Moving. Moving, moving, moving, putting his body, his self, away, taking it far from her, putting it in a city on the other side of the country. She thought about all the things she should say, that would allow her to preserve a sense of who she was, what person she had chosen to present herself as, to the world, how she was, who she was, mostly though, mostly, what she meant was: what kind of girl she was.

She would say, You should do whatever you need to do. We all do what we have to do. She would shrug. She would be a combination of things—a juxtaposition of things—to show the world that this was what she was, because this was what all people were: things that were the opposites of themselves, things that should not be next to each other, but were.

She would shrug her nonchalance, but stare directly into his eyes her fervor.

She said, You don’t owe me anything. You should move to New York. Good for you. It’s good to move.

That was the big one. It’s good to move.

I think that’s a really good idea. She said it, and as she said each word, as each word slipped from her lips like a gold coin, she believed it. She believed it, she believed it, it was good to move, move or die.

What she was interested in, was “escape.” That little button at the top corner of the computer keyboard. And also, especially, “shift.” They were magical words made technological and dull, magical words whose magic you could only see if you remembered to see.

Escape felt necessary, warranted, legitimate, while an escapist seemed blameworthy, seemed to be a character flaw. An escapist was a problem, an escape was a solution.


Stand clear of the closing doors please, the voice says. The doors stay open.

How, Hank wants to know, did it happen? How did he lose her? Years later, they both know he was the one who moved away, he made the move to leave her, but she had already done most of the work of removing herself.

Inch by inch, she says. And then, nothing. The end, my friend. She had been nineteen. They had taken turns scarring each other, and all she had wanted was more. What proof did she have of life, aside from this? What did she have, aside from her body, and what showed on her skin?

Rhiannon wants to change the subject. She wants to talk about something that is less interesting, less likely to blow up, requires less attention, because the jellyfish in the sink has started to take up all the space in her head. At first, she had been afraid it might turn out to be a huge creature, but by the time she was ready to leave for work, it had finished glooping out, and floated comfortably in the water-filled sink.

There Was Hank's Wedding Incident

Rhiannon had gone alone to Hank's wedding, at a winery-ranch-estate somewhere between Malibu and Santa Barbara. At the reception, Hank's best man was asking her why, again, she refused to date guys from Middle America. It’s like...Middle Earth, she explained drunkenly, despite her complete ignorance of anything about Tolkien or LOTR, which she was referring to as LOADER. It’s an alien planet, she continued. Or an alien stratum. Of earth. Or unearthly existence. All these people with no exposure to or interest in diversity. No Chinese food. Or avocados.

She paused. She took another sip of her watery whiskey. She was in bad shape, this was bad form, but she couldn't stop, she could go on for quite some time, this was one of her favorite topics, America. I know I make a big stink about being open-minded about accents, she began again, but I really don’t like it when they pronounce bags, begs. At this, Hank's sister gasped out a laugh, a hiccuping type of laugh with her eyes fluttering shut.

Because it was a wedding, and it was Hank's wedding, and because she was drunk and because there happened to be a moment when cornering was easy, she cornered him by the restrooms.

So, am I the last person you had sex with before you got married? she said. The last person you had sex with before you started having sex with the only person you’ll have sex with for the rest of your life? is what she meant. He looked at her. She had to say something more, because he said nothing. Do you think about that? she asked.

Well, I think we both know that you made sure I wouldn’t really care enough to think about that.

She gave him a look—she didn’t even have to make an effort, she didn’t even change her expression to be anything, really, it was not even a look, as much as it was just her turning her head to look at him, widely blank and blind, as if looking with the whites of her eyes—before turning back to her table and the poor excuse for a cake.

She knew what he was talking about. Still, she was surprised that he'd said it. If he had been able to say things like that when they were not-together, things might have been quite different.

There Was the Incident in which Rhiannon Had a Fling with Her 20-Year Old Intern

Someone was being flung against something, all right. A bird against a glass building. Who was doing the flinging?

In the middle of the coffee shop was an unusually large group of people standing. They were talking loudly, and looked as if they had been product-placed into the scene. Make a scene where young people in their twenties and thirties are really cool, make it a mixture of ragged-looking people with advanced degrees in philosophy and film studies and ragged-looking people who dropped out of high school to follow Animal Collective around the world.

Rhiannon stood to the side of the counter while three baristas and two sandwich-makers ignored her. They were busy. After she ordered, she stood to the other side of the counter. She poured herself a plastic cup of water from the small cooler that had several slices of cucumber floating at the top.

This had started because Chris, her intern, had wanted to be her friend. He had very urgently prescribed a necessary meeting, outside of this, this, he gestured to the workspace around them, and oh she had said, oh yes, frowning a little as if she, too, felt this urgency. And she thought she did. She, too, was frustrated, perturbed that all they had, so far, was this.

Oh, I'm pretty particular about my meat, he told her conspiratorially, from across the tiny table. Didn’t he know better. Couldn’t he control his smile, his warm sick happy eyes, whenever she said anything to him, whenever she relented her eyes to meet his eyes. In a comic strip, his smile, as he looked up at her, might have been illuminated with a blank white asterisk of movie star flash. Shhure, she said, smiling big back at him. All week while she had been unsmiling, she had been saving up for these hours of interminable goodwill.

In her imagined version of the scene, she said, Look, I know, or I think I know what it is you want from me, you want to be that kind of close. You want to share the mundane details and pleasantries and small talk and asking-after that are the tiny things that build up something that, even if it did disappear someday, wouldn’t be able to do so without a trace. And, she said, I know this, and maybe before I could be or give or do that, and maybe someday again, but not right now, right now my pockets are empty, don’t you see, my eyes are empty too.

In her imagined version, she said something like that. She explained, even if I want you to know me, even when I really want it and am trying, even then, I can’t not hold something back. And so what hope do you have here, if I don't even care for you to know me. What hope. None. I am not trying to give you any hope.

In the din of the coffee shop, in the din of his worried rambling about job prospects, she leaned forward and said, don't freak out. It's totally going to be fine.

In a Little While

They have on their hands a perfect morning. It starts out warm, then cools, dims. Surprisingly dark, as if the lights have been turned off. It is startling on the skin to feel such coolness, the wind whispering in through the window screen, the glass pushed all the way up.

She shows Hank the jellyfish in her sink, and then they sit next to each other in her room.

The bedroom door is wide open. The overcast light feels pure, clean, flooding the room with a forgiving glow, lean and tender soft shadows. Green things are watered, other things are straight, swept, in their places. All they have to do is lean back on the couch in the corner. Outside, her housemate is making coffee, talking on the phone, clomping around in his boots.

A flash of lightning, it starts to pour. She leans on the sill to look out the window. Outside the entrance of the daycare preschool across the corner, a boy in a red sweatshirt is turning around and around in the rain, with both of his arms stretched out. Thunder, the cool breeze, the sticky sound of tires on a rain-coated asphalt.

Basil and mint sit in the window. Faded sheer red curtains push with small graceful movements. The blood clot blister she had on her finger from getting it caught in the door at work has dried up, peeled away. The rain stops. She would like to show him the roof—they could have a cigarette up there. They could eat some salad, hard-boil some eggs and eat them salty, talk about the jellyfish.

They go up on the roof, it is like coming up from out of a warm bathwater, into oxygen, into air, into something manageable and free. They gulp it down, soak it in. They comment on how nice it is outside, up there, about how it feels like California. They say this numerous times, not even bothering to rephrase, or change their words in the slightest way or order.

Bonnie Chau

Bonnie Chau is from Southern California, where she studied art history and English literature at UCLA, and ran writing programs at the nonprofit, 826LA. She received her MFA in fiction and translation from Columbia University. She has received a Kundiman fellowship, and her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Flaunt, Columbia Journal Online, AAWW’s The Margins, and Timber. She works at Poets & Writers, and as a bookseller at an independent bookstore in Brooklyn.