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The Sea as Queer Liminal Space

Writing by Jessie Irvin Rose. Artwork by Yizhi Liu.

I am being held by the ocean. It’s September, and the last time I will go in until the spring.

I grew up on the coast, but I don’t swim often; I just feel strangely sentimental about it. I like coexisting with the sea, in places where it touches. Like I can wade in and close a chapter, baptise myself and start again, wash off everything that has touched me before and be salty and new. But for all its ability to hold us, the sea is rarely kind.

As a teenager, my body felt like the site of abstract anamorphic floating between binaries of sexuality. The feral corners of Instagram provided me with all the categorical terminology I might ever need, and the city I lived in boasted ‘Europe’s most important Pride event'. Yet everyone around me had more fluidity, more movement, than I.

I felt on the precipice, the borderlines. Here was the normative, the right angles and the cityscape with meticulously placed parks, pruned trees, ponds constructed from tarpaulin. Gay clubs and straight parents and Sex Ed classes that taught us the difference between the two. And then here was the sea – unruly, untameable. We don’t go on the beaches when the storms come – people try and swim every season, or go in after a dog, and then don’t come out again. Pebbles are vomited onto the promenade, the groyne and the breakwater overcome, submerged in geyser explosions of water. Sometimes it is still. Hyper-opaque and glassy. The satin surface licked with denim blue and pearl pink. Here, the borderlines fracture.

My mother taught me to respect the sea in the same way you’d respect an Olympic God–with awe and fear and uncertainty. ‘You have to remember you won’t be able to breathe, it won’t just be around you it will break the boundaries of you, it will be in you and on you. It will consume you. Eat you whole. It doesn’t mean to punish you, but it won’t forgive you.’

Together, liminal and tangled. My skin is still briney with it for hours after I get home. I can lick my nailbeds and taste it. Like the basorexic urge to taste someone else’s sweat, the eroticism of breaking the boundaries of bodies, the salt, the sea, the consumption. Where “the half-circle of blinding turquoise ocean is this love’s primal scene” (Maggie Nelson, Bluets).

In August, I read about Geppetto, Pinocchio’s father, being swallowed by the whale, finding a ship there in the dark, dreaming of his son and touching the decks, the wooden fabric his love was made from. I wondered about existence in the womb of a stomach, a space unfettered by light, full of micro-organisms that nobody had even named, the ones found at the bottom of the deepest parts of the sea. Unfound. New. Tiny, tiny teeth that had never touched a person before. Purity in the untouched. And when the stomach acid moved in, purity in rot.

I wondered about the tethering of finding the origin of the way you loved. He touched the wood, what if I could find something to hold onto? The way that desire moves through me. Can I sit in this fluidity without sacrificing my hinge on the world?

My anxiety dreams consist of a seawall or a cliff and a tide coming in that doesn’t leave any beach: we are trapped by the lapping water until we are under it and sharing it with the looming things it holds. Big fish. Big whale. Big shark. Me. I worked inner-city night shifts all summer.

Back home, when August was too hot, I had to open the windows at night. I kept the light on in my childhood bedroom, finding things to fix or boxes I’d taped up and put under my bed to cut into. I would see what was inside: old books I’d underlined as a teenager. I tried to remember why I cared. The moths that arrived had wingspans wider than my vocal chords, so I stayed very quiet. I trapped them under drinking glasses, which I left all over the floor. You could look through, like a glass zoo whilst they sputtered around and then sat still, and died. I kept them for 12 days, glasses filling my room. Danced around them whilst I kept my hands busy. Peered in occasionally to see the filmy wings, the way dust poured out of them, piles of ash collecting around their little heads. It felt like grasping at something.

In Genesis 19, Lot’s wife turns to see the city she has left behind, against God’s directions, and is turned to a pillar of salt. Preserved, statute, punished. Unruliness met with a denial of regeneration. Here – exist in this forever, between cities, between life and death.

There is something enticing about being preserved. About finding your prime and remaining in it. I often feel like the prime of my body won’t align with the prime of my mind. The movement in me will stay tidal, and I will be washed around until I am old and find something I can moor myself to. Like Hannah Gadsby’s rage when quoting Picasso–who said “It was perfect. I was in my prime, she was in her prime”, about his affair with a 17-year-old girl, aged 42–I feel similarly furious with the viciousness of the binaries of linear time and what it wants from me.

Maybe nobody will want to hear me anymore, there are rooms that won’t let me into them when I’m not young and exciting and look as much. There is so much dissonance in a politicised body. There is a concept in human geographies of the way people move through the world – when your internal aligns with your external, when you see yourself as exactly how you are seen by others, you don’t have to balance these expectations in the way you hold yourself. You move without challenge. Your primes align.

So if I was preserved, I could waste my time falling in love for 20 minutes with people I meet on the curb on Cowgate and maybe stop crying on my birthdays.

Between whale stomachs and salts, degenerative and preservative at once – the sea. José Muñoz’s ‘Take Ecstasy with Me’ talks imagine ways we can exist as queer potentiality – if we wrench ourselves outside of our bodies, in the way that an ecstasy high can, we can exist outside of linear time, seeing our futures as coexisting alongside our presents and pasts. Queerness becomes uncertainty: “we are not quite queer yet”. More simply, we have potential. The things we do now, the relationships we build, the spaces we occupy, the choices we make are building pathways for the future to exist, and queer past is reactivated to create this potential for future. And in this our bodies and experiences of time begin to blur. If we exist as descendants of queer cultures, and as the bearers of queer futurity then we are liminal, we are eternal.

If we understand ourselves generationally, in the people that have come before us and our place in queerness after ourselves then we are tethered to a heritage, a lineage, the found family.

Nikita Srivatsan describes waves as ‘disorienting us to time’. They leave as soon as they arrive, they pull, they move, they flow and overlap and exist as remnants of each other, revivals, interactions. So, how can the ever moving be defined in geometric lines. There is something innate, both about queerness and the ocean, that is compelled to be intangible and unconfined to the straight line of a horizon.

In this, queerness is freedom. If I stand with my shoulders under and don’t fight the wash of the tide then the surges don’t knock me like they could. I just sway slightly.

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