If you were to plunge a knife into a starfish, it wouldn’t be blood that was spilled — it would be sea water. And you’d have to take the animal by surprise: if a starfish finds itself under attack, it’ll break off its own arms to escape. It’s less of a loss than it sounds. Within a year, it will regenerate new limbs to replace the ones it lost.
I imagine the way they might accomplish this—the breaking, the losing—is by stiffening. That there might be a snap, like a child bending a pretzel stick in two. But that’s not how it happens at all. It’s less a breaking than it is a detaching. The way they lose their arms, the way they save themselves, is by going soft.
My mother taught me how to swim. It was my seventh birthday; she’d been bringing my brother and me to the lake all summer. We’d wade with her waist-deep into the murky water, the cold mottling our thighs, and she’d take turns holding her hands underneath us as we floated, first on our backs and then on our stomachs, as we kicked our legs and swung our arms and pretended that we were really doing it, that we were swimming. That morning, she pulled her hands away from me and said look, you are. There’s a photo of me from that day. I’m sitting in her beach chair, wrapped in a purple and pink and blue striped towel, my dark hair dripping onto my shoulders. I’m looking at her, and I’m smiling.
Starfish have eyes on the tips of each arm, even those who live in the deepest waters of the Arctic. The scientists who discovered these starfish off the coast of Greenland were shocked by this. The pressure of the water is so high, the light, non-existent. But not totally non-existent: the starfish, they found, were bioluminescent; they created their own light. When stimulated, one scientist wrote, their bodies glowed.
My family spent a week on Cape Cod every August. It was the first place I ever really loved, which is why I brought my partner there for our first anniversary, and then every year after, why he proposed there, why we took our engagement photos there. Except I don’t want to write about Mike, now; I want to write about my mother, and how she took us to the Cape because she’d gone once, when she was about twelve, with an aunt and uncle, and she had never been anywhere before, and she fell in love with the place, and her uncle said, if you leave with sand in your shoes, you’ll always come back, and so she did, and so we did.
She took us to the Cape for the first time when I was four years old. I lost my first tooth on our first night there, in a crummy cottage off the highway, though I wouldn’t have known it was crummy if my mother hadn’t insisted, years later, when she could afford better places for us, that it was. I just remember the novelty of a different bed, and the nightstand next to it on which I placed my tooth, alongside the Barbie figurine from the McDonald’s Happy Meal she’d treated me to on the drive up. I remember the monkey bars in the playground she took me to, and how I taught myself how to do them by going one bar further each time than I thought I could, until one day I went all the way across, and then I did it over and over, on every playground we went to, until my palms were creased with calluses I picked at, the way I picked at my lips until my Disney-printed pillow cases were smeared with blood from me blotting them on the soft flannel. Eventually, I just stopped. The picking, and the monkey bars.
Maybe it was because I’d fallen. Not on the monkey bars, but off a sand pail that I’d stood on, at daycare, “when someone should have been watching you,” my mother said. I was trying to reach a leaf.
I don’t remember falling, or my arm breaking, or being buckled into the backseat of my parents’ beige Impala, or that I cradled my arm and chanted ice ice ice all the way to the hospital. Just the bright orange of the pail and the sunshine dappled on the packed dirt beneath me, and later, a fuchsia cast; when it was sawed off, I stared at my right arm, pale and soft and so much smaller than before.
Starfish belong to the Asteroidea family; their members are called asteroids.
In the 1950s, oyster farmers mailed lacquered starfish to every member of Congress. It was a gift borne out of rage: they wanted the authorization of a bill that would funnel funds into starfish extermination. Though that wasn’t the word they used—control, is what they said.
Fishermen used to dredge the seafloor to snag the starfish, plunge their bodies into hot water, boil them alive. They were desperate to eliminate them, because the starfish were eliminating the oysters those fishermen relied on.
One fisherman wrote about taking an ax to the pile of starfish he’d collected and then throwing the pieces overboard, only to find that the starfish had regenerated, that there were even more than there had been before. Like something out of a fairy tale. What happens when you try to kill a star? Well, an asteroid.
My little mermaid, my mother called me. Once I learned how to swim, I never wanted to come out of the water. And that was easy enough to avoid. I grew up in a beach town in Connecticut, and was rarely more than a ten-minute drive from the Sound or the lake or one of the many marshes that stretched along roadways and edged into fields. The water was where I’d go after school, and on long humid summer afternoons and empty winter ones; when I wanted to be with friends and when I wanted to be alone. For long walks and furtive make out sessions, fireworks displays and swing sets. I cut my foot once, badly, on a shell at low tide, and my best friend carried me half a mile on her back to where we had dropped our things in the sand. She played ice hockey, was strong and golden from hours spent working out in the sun. I was slight and pale and she had no trouble hoisting me onto her. I remember how good it felt, to be carried like that. How often the girls I knew carried each other.
It’s a hard life if you don’t bend, Mike’s grandmother used to say. We never agreed on what that meant. She’s saying you have to bend, I’d insist. Like a tree in the storm.
No, he’d counter. She’s saying you don’t back down, and you accept the consequences. You live a hard life, and you deal with it.
But who wants to live like that?
One summer, Mike and I went to Block Island for a few days. I’d found us a B&B on the water; gray-shingled, with a wide front porch. Our room was in the back, overlooking the sea. It was July, and so hot on the island, and we didn’t have a car with us, but I don’t know how to ride a bike, so we walked everywhere, sweating and slightly irritable. The island felt claustrophobic, overrun with tourists. And then I got sick. We’d gone to the beach; the water was clear and almost, as my mother would say, bathwater-warm. I’d coated myself in sunscreen; I burn easily and I have so many birthmarks, a higher risk of skin cancer. That night we went out to dinner; the restaurant was crowded like everywhere else, and we watched people play croquet on the lawn as we nursed Dark and Stormys.
In the morning I woke up covered in a rash. There was one clinic on the island, a mile or two away, but there was a shortcut through some fields, the B&B owner told us. What do you mean, you’ve never hopped a fence, my partner said, as I thought, staring at the llamas and alpacas surrounding us, this can’t possibly be right. It wasn’t; we should have been on a different path. He held out his hand, already on the other side, and I clambered over, wanting to trust that he was right, that he knew what he was doing, that my instincts were wrong.
The doctor looked me over, diagnosed me with sun poisoning, and sent us away with Benadryl and Zyrtec. That’s all? Mike said. Alternate the two, she’ll be fine, he said.
I spent the next day in a stupor, unable to get out of bed, watching boats sail into and out of the harbor from our bedroom window, Mike watching me. At one point he said this isn’t working, and at first I thought he meant the antihistamines—that was clear enough, the rash had gotten worse, blistering badly—and then I realized he meant us, the relationship, me. The thought that this was the conversation he wanted to have, as I lay almost catatonic, was so impossible that I immediately buried it. The following day, he walked back to the clinic and returned with prednisone. The blisters began to fade. The owner of the B&B brought me banana bread; she had asked Mike what I liked, and he remembered, once, me mentioning my mother’s. We didn’t speak much on the ferry back.
The 1920s film star Claudette Colbert (she won the Best Actress Academy Award for her role opposite Clark Gable in It Happened One Night) famously bought a starfish brooch that was renowned for its exquisite craftsmanship. The brooch was designed by the house of Boivin, a woman-owned Parisian atelier with a corps of female designers considered experts in their field. Colbert was the highest paid actress in Hollywood and the brooch became an instant style—and status—symbol, with the boldest and most extravagant (and wealthiest) women clamoring for one of their own. The starfish brooch was said to be especially remarkable as each of the starfish’s arms could move independently.
I spent a week with my mother and Mike one summer on Starfish Lane. Our bedroom looked out onto the harbor. My mother’s room was across the hall, and the beam from Chatham Light cut across her wall all night. She didn’t mind; she liked the novelty of being so close to the lighthouse. It was the first time she’d vacationed with us, and one morning, halfway through the trip, she cornered me in the kitchen. She’d heard him yelling at me the night before. Does he apologize to you, when he snaps like that, she’d asked. Or maybe she didn’t ask. Maybe she said, I hope he does. She already knew the answer.
My mother always liked to walk the beach on the morning we left the Cape. Anything to delay the long drive, the return home. Her one vacation for the year, she always reminded us, if my brother and I were fighting. Every moment was precious. Once, when I was little, five or six, I went with her. We had only been walking for a few minutes when we stopped. Hundreds of starfish were floating in the shallows and strewn across the sand. Some were the size of my palm; one was no bigger than a sliver of my nail, and as pale. I’m amazed you spotted that, my mother said. I had 20/10 vision then, though within a year it would deteriorate and double, especially at night or when I was tired. There would be an operation, my father carrying me up the stairs when we got home, an eye patch, a long recuperation. But in that moment, I was sharp enough to see that tiny starfish, and I was determined to bring it home with me. And not just that starfish, but dozens of others. I filled a sand pail with sea water, slid the starfish inside. Surely my mother must have known they wouldn’t survive the eight-hour drive home, that she would be the one who would have to deal with them, somehow. In the car, they smelled like low tide, but more fetid. Like seaweed roasting in the sun.
My mother took us to Bermuda one summer when I was eleven, a departure from our trips to the Cape. The sea there was so much warmer than any water I’d ever been in before. I got swamped by a wave on our first trip to the beach, pulled under and then slammed back onto the shore. I staggered out, crying, and my mother snuck me into the hotel’s private pool; after, we ate burgers in the hotel restaurant and even though I didn’t usually like burgers, a picky eater, always, I liked those. When we walked back to our cottage, the air was humid and heavy with jasmine. Later, we went to a perfumery. My mother bought two bottles of lily of the valley, her favorite scent. One for her, and one for me. I was still young enough to want to be just like her.
One species of starfish, the Sunflower, barely exists anymore. Its natural habitat is the waters off California and a few years ago, sea star wasting disease killed off eighty percent of the population—in other words, a starfish pandemic. Dissolved them, more exactly. Hence the name of the infection, like some kind of aquatic Victorian malady. The bodies of the starfish literally disappeared; only the spines were left. You’d think, if you could regenerate yourself from any body part, surely it would be the spine. But there it is again, the difference between being hard and being soft.
One night Mike got drunk and screamed at me in Grand Central; said if I took one more step towards him he would punch me. I don’t love you, he said. Then he took off, warning me not to follow him.
I sat on the terminal floor and sobbed until a cop asked me if I was okay and my mother’s neighbor passed right by me without seeing me on her way to my hometown. I took a cab to a friend’s apartment where I cried in her bed all night.
A G-chat conversation I found, from the morning after, with Mike’s best friend:
D: I think it would be a really bad idea to go to the apartment right now.
D: I am telling you, if you need some clothes, we can go and buy some and I’ll pay for it, because that is still a better idea than trying to go to the apartment.
I went back to the apartment anyway, against all advice. I slid my body next to Mike’s on the chaise in our living room and I wrapped my arms around him. I don’t remember what I told him—maybe I don’t want to remember what I told him—but I remember feeling desperate, I remember being willing to contort myself into any impossible configuration to convince myself that it was okay, that he was okay, that he hadn’t just crossed a line we were never going to be able to come back from.
That moment with Mike wasn’t just a fracture—there had been fractures before. It was a demarcation. A moment that asked, what kind of girl was I, why I kept fighting for this relationship. I wanted to make it untrue, what he said. I thought I could will it so.
I can’t wear perfume anymore. Mike used to buy me expensive bottles of the smoky, spicy vanilla scents I’d gravitated to since I was a teenager, so different from my mother’s florals, but my skin kept breaking out in itchy, tiny bumps, until finally I got allergy tested, which entailed dozens of patches glued to my back for a week, and meant that I couldn’t wash my hair, so Mike washed it for me, in our bathroom sink. It didn’t surprise me when I turned out to be allergic. To fragrance, and also to flowers—the sunflower family, specifically. He used to call me his sunflower. You need light, he’d say. You wilt in the dark. My friends used to call me Shell. Now, no one calls me anything other than my name.
Scientists are interested in the twenty percent of the starfish who did survive. They want to know what kept them alive.