The Nepanthia belcheri starfish’s offspring are always male, and three quarters of my body are in chlorinated water, up to my breasts, where the word is planted even if they’re still flat. The rest of me floats, and I think how I will look back on myself like an angel when I am older and smile down upon my fat little body in the ugly, gray Speedo swimsuit that no one likes, including me, and think, oh, those were the days. I know many things, but the starfish and my future angel face are real.
The starfish changes into a female when it grows large enough, according to my copy of AquaLife, a subscription I got for my eleventh birthday along with a DVD on growing girl bodies and how to keep them clean. I tell my friend who is not my friend but a girl from school whose mother knows my mother all about the starfish. We’re at the community pool, the bad one not by the Dairy Queen. We float in the shallow end because I can’t pass the front crawl test to get us into the deep end and her mother says she must stay with me, but she didn’t say the girl had to groan. I tell the girl-who-is-not-my-friend that the deep end is lame and try to show her how sophisticated I am by knowing things beyond long division, things women who flip their hair upside-down know, like how the starfish’s scientific name Asteroidea is from the Greek words eidos meaning likeness and aster, star.
“Can you hold your breath under water?” she asks. I can’t, but she’s smiling and even though my stomach is all cat’s cradle and it feels like I’m going to make pennies in the pool, as dad used to say, I tell her I’m really good at it. The lie sparks on my tongue.
“I bet you’re a liar,” she says, and I hate her and want to tell her she’s ugly. She kicks closer to me, and the pool gets quiet though the pool is loud with kids cannon-balling and lifeguards yelling “no running on the diving board” and parents rubbing on body oil and yelling that we’ll get arrested if we swim too far, and this girl gets in real close so I can feel the water from her bangs hit my shoulder and says, “I’m going to tell everyone in class you’re a big, fat liar because I don’t lie. Unless you’re just going to keep lying about it.”
“You’re a liar,” I say, and my comeback is lame even before she rolls her eyes. “I bet your dad knew you were a liar, too,” she says, cocking her head to the side and jutting her hip in the water. Starfish are beautiful because they are a disc with five arms, most of the time. I look at her and I see branches of arms and legs that make no sense. My body in the water looks like lettuce shreds and the surface is not a mirror at all. Dad was a liar. “My mom told me so,” she adds, “and she said you’ll get pregnant cause you don’t have a dad.”
I splash water like I’m angry, but it’s so the waves will cover my crying. Starfish can reproduce asexually: fission. Dad is gone, and my stomach is cherry soda swishing and there are always two of me now. I fight the tears and say, “I can hold my breath way longer than you, you bitch.” The word tastes like Pop Rocks, and I think how the starfish never speaks and feel slightly smarter and then better for knowing why.
She tears up. It’s not real; we all fake cry even when it’s to cover up for the real crying, but that won’t matter in school on Monday. She’s shouting, “I’m telling everyone you’re a mean elephant,” before I can say the first I’m sorry in a never-ending series of apologies.
“No,” I say, trying to pull her arm. She’s slippery and gets away, going toward the deep end, kicking back and hitting me in the stomach with her foot so I curl over in the water. I’m swimming hard after her, and I will hear the word “elephant” swim behind me for years every time I slog through water, and I will look back on this moment and see the orange scrunchie of this girl’s head bob under the rope into the deep end, and angel me will see my mother sneaking a cigarette outside the changing room with this girl’s mother, both saying how fat they’ve gotten, and none of us will see what comes next when an older boy runs and slips off the diving board, hurtling onto a girl whose only thought is to get away from me, a thought that will occur to me, too, at the hospital that day and twenty years later when I’m bent over a bar bathroom toilet, hiding from my boyfriend whose dog I stole and whose mouth tastes like sandbox grit and teeth.
I am Jell-O drunk tracing bathroom stall art with one finger as I look up her name in my phone and find a photo of her: forever seventeen, a car accident, sliding forward.
We were in AP math together three years after the pool day, after her cast signings of hearts turned to yearbook signings of slut, after my breasts grew alongside my time spent near toilets. Love you whore is scratched on the bathroom walls and one out of three women cry in bathrooms, but I don’t know if I read that somewhere or if the pounding on the women’s door is a secret code telling me. She loaned me her fuzzy pencil. I said her one-shoulder top was “adorable,” a word I don’t say. There are dozens of legs under stalls without heads or faces, all of us limbs of the same body unfolding.