Forum — From the December 2014 issue

Beeper World

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The jellyfish life cycle, we were taught in school, involves a sessile state and a period of radiant flight. As polyps, jellyfish are rooted to the seafloor by fleshy stalks. As medusae, they swim freely, contracting the bright umbrellas of their bodies to whoosh around the ocean, migrating by luminous conjunction: and and and. In this anchorless state, the jellies are labeled adults.

But there is also an intermediate stage: the ephyra. Ephyrae are goofy, adolescent beings. They develop at the tops of polyps; for a while, it looks as though the organism is dreaming of a baby jellyfish. Then they detach, like mutinous mushroom caps. Away they float, disk-shaped and aglow. This is sometimes referred to as “blooming.” Newborn zeros, they are tumid with light. They swarm into fleets — hundreds of thousands rising through the dark sea — but their movement is wobbly, desultory; their trajectory has a temporal, and not a spatial, destination: the future, when they will be old enough to mate with one another. Just by virtue of swimming forward through time — and avoiding the mouths of predators — they develop into medusae. They locomote in the dark via golden pulsations.

For my fourteenth birthday, I got a purple Motorola beeper. It was a twinkling cartridge, the trendy fluorescent model. It cost $60 at the Beeper World kiosk at South Florida’s Dadeland Mall. Other colors were played out, we were told by the persuasively disdainful concierge, a friend’s terrifying older brother, on whom we all had dutiful crushes. He wore silver jewelry on parts of his face that did not strike one as load-bearing — there was a green gem levitating on his chin scruff, for example. He didn’t have to work hard to convince us that we needed those beepers.

An untitled photograph by Curran Hatleberg, from his series The Crowded Edge

An untitled photograph by Curran Hatleberg, from his series The Crowded Edge

The beeper, for a certain kind of Miami teenager in the Nineties, was an essential evolutionary adaptation. You simply couldn’t survive, socially, without one. A visit to Beeper World became a retail rite of passage. It usually occurred around the time that your older friends obtained their driver’s licenses and thus achieved vehicular autonomy, budding off the polyp of a South Florida carport. Somewhat motile, you sought liberation from the terrible bondage of your parents’ landline. So you lassoed your eyes and your lips in spooky-dark pencil, you strapped on Miami’s regulation platform heels, with cork soles that added five inches to your height, and you queued up at Beeper World to receive your tiny occult device.

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is the author of the novel Swamplandia! (Knopf) and the story collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove (Vintage), now out in paperback.

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