Tonight Charlie’s stuck with the mermaid she likes least, Belinda. What Charlie dislikes about her is that she hopes she’ll never turn out like her – late forty-something, thick skinned, hair chopped to just above her ears to minimize the chlorine damage, and a wry, know-it-all, joylessness about the job. Belinda has a move that Charlie would like to copy or steal. A few moves, actually. She can spin the ten feet from the water’s surface to the bottom of the tank headfirst, straight down, like some kind of spiraling human drill, and lie there on the floor of the tank, just out of sight of the bar patrons, blowing bubble-rings from the tank floor for a full twenty seconds, all on one breath. Also, she can tread water upside down and spin, waving and blowing kisses at the people on the other side of the glass, and she can triple flip from one side of the tank to the other. Charlie’s inability to match any of this makes her dislike Belinda not just because she’s less acrobatic underwater, but because Belinda works so hard at pretending that she doesn’t care. Pretending she isn’t the best mermaid, the only one with years of synchronized swim-team training, most expert and eldest (also, therefore, the closest to proving herself somehow immune to the passage of time) – it’s all part of the joylessness Charlie dislikes but hasn’t yet found a way to ignore or address. I’m twenty-eight, she tells herself. I am not here to stay. I came home because things with Avram got so fucked up. So it’s a little temporary time out, because my step dad had an apartment I could crash in rent free for a few months and because once upon a time I really liked this job. I loved this job. As a teenager. I can leave any time I want. I will leave whenever I feel like it.
Belinda’s red-purple wig hair floats around her in a half-circle as she lies back and strokes with her arms to the other side of the tank. She reaches with both hands to secure it, tugging down hard on the rubberized elastic webbing, and snugs the cups of her goggles against her eye sockets. “Well,” she says. She’s doing one of her synchronized swimming wrist tricks now to keep herself afloat, flat on her back, toes inside her mermaid tail pointed straight out like a ballerina on point. “As my old man used to say, thank god we have arms and legs!” It’s the same thing she says at the start of every shift, like a form of invocation or prayer. “You ready?” she asks. And before Charlie can answer, Belinda falls backward, out of sight, the fabric of her fins disappearing with a little splash and sounds of water suction.
Charlie’s own personal prayer or invocation, if she had one, would have to involve something about water’s power to transform and elevate. Its power to make everything a little more beautiful. Because even though the costumes are fairly concealing – padded, black sports bikini tops that fit like armor and come almost to the neckline, and tails to sheath everything from the belly button down – each night, dropping under, it’s the thing she notices first and the thing that still most amazes and pleases her: that for the next four hours, she can cease being herself. She can be this other sexualized unsexual mythical creature with no nether regions whatsoever, only a bewitching fishtail and a strip of bare midriff like a tractor beam to pull every pair of eyes in the bar after her. And if she turns her back to show them the glorious tattoo of the Pagan sun god disappearing into the waistline of her mermaid tail, she’ll know, facing them again, which of them noticed – which of them will go home with this piece of her stuck in their imaginations.
She drops after Belinda, and is instantly delighted – lightened – the world silent now save for the water gushing at her head and the sound of air bubbling through her nose as she exhales to turn a somersault and dives for the bottom of the tank. Water trickles in through one of her earplugs and stings her sinuses. She sweeps her arms open and kicks with her tailfin, going deeper. Through the distorted sidewalls of her goggles she glimpses Belinda doing her upside down spiraling wave trick, hair hanging around her like a kelp jungle, and just past her the half-lit barroom beyond. Always her feeling, first seeing that room full of patrons, is that maybe they’re the unreal ones – the ones in some ensorcelled, amber-lit, timeless space – not her. At the bottom of the tank she turns and looks up to the broken, shifting brilliance of reflected light on the water’s surface. Another magical, underwater effect she loves. She crouches a second, and before pushing back across the tank, notices a red plastic scimitar probably left on the tank bottom by one of the mermen from last night. She floats up brandishing it, pushing herself sideways along the viewing area, the pane of glass backing the bar. There they are, her people, her audience, all the usual customers for a Thursday night – couples and a table of girls-night-out friends who look vaguely familiar (but everyone’s familiar in this town), two guys in Griz football sweatshirts at the end of the bar returning her wave, tables of tourists and visitors with oversized drinks in colored glasses like goblets, an older couple who look so giddy it’s like they’re on a ride at the carnival. She slashes at the glass with the scimitar and blows kisses. If only she didn’t have to breathe. You could stay under forever. Just float around, blowing kisses in the blue, being not-Charlie. And as her air expires, floating up, always that feeling, like in her dreams, that she’s soaring above them in space to some transcendent perspective, lightheaded from the lack of oxygen, but more than that. Be right back, she thinks. Don’t go anywhere!
Her notion of water as transformative probably began somewhere in early high school or even junior high when she first realized she had underwater superpowers – that she could swim: that in fact, she had a body made for flying crazy distances underwater, crushing the yards with her arms and shoulders, kicking past everyone with a backstroke and a freestyle so wicked that sometimes, flipping and stroking her way back into her own wake, she was amazed at how far it went, like she was a turbo-charged motorboat. And then how the hours of practice began transforming her from a big-nosed nerd, popular in exactly no circles whatsoever and unnoticed in every regard, to one of those land-bound aquatic gods of the high school hallways with her green-tinged hair, too sleek and nimble for the air, the velveted underlayer of her muscles suggesting almost inconceivable grace and strength in her every movement. But you were sure the ugly duckling, her mother would say to her those days, shaking her head. Not anymore. Look at you now! None of which had felt like a sexual or erotic power until her first summer working at the Dip and Sip when she began seeing how that worked. Which is why she’s here again, she supposes – at home in Great Falls and going back over old ground: trying to reclaim some of that former power and glory. Where else can you get a paid gig playing at being a mermaid a few nights a week, and have the rest of the time to yourself?
Above water, there’s the cool air on her head and shoulders, the hum of the filtration system and the splash of Belinda diving down again. Two separate worlds, above and below she thinks, briefly flashing back to her mother’s second husband, step-dad number one, the zealot (stuck around just long enough to make her change out her entire sixth grade wardrobe) – on earth as it is in heaven. No, three separate worlds really, counting the bar on the other side of the glass. Actually, infinite worlds, considering all the impressions and misimpressions and mixed up histories of those people watching her swim and waiting for a slip-up, costume failure, whatever it was they most wished for, hoped to see embodied in her, sipping their drinks and talking…each of them wanting to forget something, probably. Or remember something? Or just longing to find a diversion from all the disappointment of a life in which mermaids don’t exist.
She goes for the far side of the tank this time, back beside the cash register, framing her hands around her eyes to really see through the glass, and when she’s sure she’s locked eyes with one of them – a mopey-looking red-headed guy at the bar, or maybe it’s a boyish girl in a feed cap and snap shirt, hard to say exactly, plate of fries in front of her, one dipped in ketchup and raised chin-level like a floppy baton – she mashes her lips to the glass. Waits until the patron meets her eyes again and waves, and then she pushes away, blowing bubble-rings to explode against the glass, erasing the patron’s face, turning it to a wavy impressionistic watercolor painting. She flips and dives a little deeper, turns and flipper-kicks up again with her ass to the glass, tattoo on display, arms upstretched. Avram, she thinks. Then, No, that person is so not Avram. He’d never wear a feed cap or snap shirt. Not in the past and certainly not now. And yet… And almost before she can identify this as the hope that taunts her at the start of nearly every shift – that somewhere in the crowd she’ll spot him, Avram in a ragged turtleneck, unshaven, decrepit shoes with the soles falling off (the look he favored when she first met him), or maybe his Captain Nemo costume from Halloweens past, come all the way from Seattle to find her, watch her swim, because he couldn’t go another day – she blocks and stuffs this thought down. Sure! Never! She thrashes her tail for the surface.
No surprise, when she goes down again there he is – she? – the girl in the snap shirt, waving and beaming, cap off now so Charlie sees the crimped ring of its imprint going around her shiny copper-yellow hair. Even harder to tell, with the cap off – boy or girl? – until he gets up from his barstool, and then it’s clear: the swagger as he crosses the bar to the shelf where the mermaid tip jars sit. Something in his eyes. A kind of excitement, too much self-assuredness about whatever he imagines passed between them when she drew him in and blew him kisses, or when she swam away showing him the sun god on her back. He waves at her with a five dollar bill folded lengthwise, still beaming. Slips it meaningfully into the tip jar and bows like an old time courtier. Pulls another bill from his shirt pocket and holds it as high as he can, flat against the glass – looks like another five. Swimming away, she glimpses something written there, a name or number or message in raspberry pink hi-lighter, maybe for her, maybe not (guys are always passing them notes and jokes and suggestions on dollar bills – once even, if you could believe the mermaid-lore, a marriage proposal – hey what did the mermaid say to the sea lion…why do mermaids like music so much…loved watching you swim…do you ever do a junior league show…ever give any swim lessons…call me!). She blows him more kisses, bigger kisses, throwing her arms as wide as she can, this is a pretty generous tip after all, and sputters for the surface again. And for the next few dives, until he vanishes, she avoids all eye contact in that direction; keeps her attention focused anywhere else in the bar. The old couple. The girls-night-out table. Does a camera pose with the Griz guys throwing fake gang signs. She’s not worried. Not annoyed or angry exactly either. Something. Sad for him? Worn out? But this is why they wear such big, dorky wigs and leave through an unmarked exit when shifts are done, and why they only rarely sit around afterhours, drinking: all the stalkery, pushy, drunk dudes. Come on guys. It’s a job. I’m glad you liked the show, but seriously.
Break time, resting at the side of the tank with their arms out, Belinda pokes her lightly under the shoulder blade. “You’re looking a little rashy,” she says.
“Just a few red bumps. Here and here. And here. Probably the chlorine. Does it itch?”
She remembers waking up, that other self alone at night, so heavy with dreams of swimming. The stink of chlorine everywhere and the itching skin that won’t leave her alone, won’t let her forget, the itching that makes her wish she could shed herself entirely. Seeing her dimly lit reflection in the bathroom mirror and smearing lotion everywhere she can reach, into her hair, the bottoms of her feet. Her sheets all damp and clammy with that vanilla scented lotion and chlorine. “Not really,” she says.
“You need a good vitamin C soak. Have I not told you?”
Charlie shakes her head no. “Told me?” The first time she saw Belinda out of the water, dressed and buying wine coolers and frozen pizzas at the Super One, she almost didn’t recognize her – the clothes, the makeup, the heels. So put together. Now, with her goggles up and her naked baby-bird eyelashes exposed, chlorine-reddened eyes, water clinging in the down outlining her cheeks and shining through all the folds and wrinkles on her chin and neck, here’s the real Belinda. The Belinda Charlie knows and has known since she was a kid. She reminds herself that this woman has been in the job long enough to remember when it catered mainly to airmen and engineers. Crewcut guys in fatigues who spent their days trekking back and forth across Montana and the Dakotas servicing Minuteman silos, checking and updating the latest launch technology in case of a nuclear attack, hardly speaking to anyone all day. The horniest men alive, she’s called them, and the most loyal…one guy I remember drove over three hundred miles just to see me swim, just because it was my night! Also, long enough to remember when a five dollar tip meant you showed your tits or you were done. Whatever wisdom she’s about to drop, Charlie’s sure it’s legit.
“Just plain vitamin C crystals, like a half cup or so, in the tub. Soak as long as you want. Add some Dead Sea salts or Epsom salts. Whatever floats your boat. Main thing is the C. Totally counteracts the chlorine. Don’t ask me how or why. It’s a scientific fact. A chemical fact. It works.”
Charlie nods and deadpans, trying not to give away how glad she is for this advice. “Really. C. I’ll have to try. If it turns into like a thing. Thanks!”
Belinda laughs. “Oh, it will.” She lowers her goggles, splashes her tail. “It’ll be a thing. Trust me. Good long soak. You’ll be all right. Ready for more mermaid fun?”
The first time she saw Avram in one of his padded gaffs, she knew it was over. She didn’t say so aloud. She watched in a way she hoped was supportive without being too specifically encouraging – A surprise for you! I’m so excited. You’ll love it, he said, steering her upstairs to their bedroom – a way that didn’t entirely reveal her shock, but which also might let him know that no, in fact, she didn’t love it at all.
“It doesn’t hurt,” he assured her, hopping foot to foot and tugging the gaff panties higher. “At least, it didn’t before. When I tried them at Alyssa’s.” Alyssa was a friend from the theater where Avram helped with lighting and tech part time; she’d announced her decision to transition not quite a year ago and changed her name from Brad to Alyssa. And once, before all that, before the padded bras and hormone replacement therapy, one very drunken night Alyssa tried to talk both of them, her and Avram, into a threesome. She couldn’t remember who declined more emphatically, her or Avram, but there’d been a moment, a slippery drunken gap like standing outside of time, wherein she hadn’t been able to read the look in Avram’s eyes or to understand his intentions and had felt suddenly, weirdly unsure of everything in the world. Drunk, she thought then, and whenever the moment resurfaced in her memory. We were so drunk.
There were grooves or indentations of some kind in the gel-foam of the gaff underwear to accommodate Avram’s testicles. “To help push them back into the sockets that would be my ovaries, if I had any,” he said, helpfully, by way of instruction, as he pressed and wiggled – the idea being total erasure: pull the junk in, tuck it back, make it vanish. She tried not to wince or show anything too overt in her expression seeing this, the tugging and snapping, but it hurt to watch. The purplish tip of his penis peeped at her a second like some forlorn pet, old friend, a little aggrieved and apologetic for the fact of its existence maybe, tired of being so manhandled but still willing, balls sliding one way and the other and then all of it was gone, folded over itself and pressed back between his legs. Why she wanted to yell. Why are you doing this? Why on earth do you think I’d like it? But she knew. The time to have said something more direct was weeks ago now. Months ago, when he first slid a pair of her underwear around his too-skinny hips in the middle of lovemaking, and said, Just pretend, just this once. Humor me. Come on! And then the next time, and the next, and more recently, karaoke nights together, Avram always in drag… Now he faced her, grinning fondly, in what she realized was an attempt to mimic some exaggerated (and very male) notion of femininity, cocked his hips and spun in a circle like an old time dancehall girl. He hadn’t shaved his legs or belly yet, so the effect was fairly bizarre: man-woman in a partial body stocking with padding – padded ass and hips and “vulva.” No penis. Maybe the tiniest bit sexy in a way that twisted something in her gut if it wasn’t also so fake and strange and a little bit like a football uniform gone awry.
“What do you think?” he asked. And before she could answer he was sliding a plaid miniskirt of hers around his waist and wriggling a favorite camisole over his head.
What did she think? Now she was numb from somewhere in the pit of her stomach to the base of her larynx, blinking to keep the tears back, and also on the verge of giddy laughter. She wasn’t sure she knew how to use words anymore.
“What?” he asked. “Am I hot or what? Smoking.” He touched a finger to his hip and made a sizzling sound. “Right?” And before she could stop herself or correct course, before realizing that all of his bravado and teasing self-assuredness was only a cover for profoundest insecurity; before understanding that it was not just blindness or self-absorption but total trust in her that had led him to share this most intimate moment; before any of this had occurred to her, or the shift in his eyes and the immediate downward tumble into despair and self-debasement had quite registered, she’d said it: “Are you fucking kidding me?”
That was one turning point. She doesn’t much like to remember what came next, how it blew up, how bitter and petty she became, the rest of what she said, and then the dissembling apologies and tears as she tried to unsay it all, talk her way back from calling him a freak and a crazy person for having misread her. No I never said I liked it! No I never said I wished you were a girl! Never! How can we be standing here after all these years – seven years! – and understand so little about each other? What happened? Or how he convinced her that he could keep his whole transition out of their bedroom, manage it alone, keep it to one side of the relationship, for now – give her the space to process and prepare. To grow with him. She could hardly believe they were saying these things to each other. She tried to remember who she’d been an hour ago, earlier that day at work in the bookstore, even minutes ago heading up the stairs with a bottle of their favorite zin and a container of chocolate gelato, nothing in mind but an evening alone with him binge-watching Netflix. So long as you realize, though, that this is me now, he concluded. The real me, right here. To which she could only say, I can’t. I really can’t! I mean, intellectually, of course. I’ll try. I will. It’s the best I can say, and it’s not because I don’t love you! I will always love you. I can’t stop that. I just…I need time to get my mind around it. Please try to understand.
Another turning point was dinner with his mother a week or two after that first night with the padded gaff – ham and potato latkes with blintzes and bacon at his mom’s annual anti-Passover Passover Seder, a running family joke and semi-ritualistic tradition Charlie had been to every spring for the past few years – and the voice echoing over and over in her head throughout the dinner, no matter how hard she tried to switch it off. Mrs. Sherrey. He thinks he’s Mrs. Sherrey! He’s another Mrs. Sherrey! Look at that. Mrs. Sherrey and Mrs. Sherrey the second…that’s what he thinks! “Thank you, Mrs. Sherrey. I’d love some more,” she said, heaping her plate with tzimmes and peppery spiced cabbage, ham, latkes, dal, looking back and forth between Avram and his mom to see if either of them noticed that they both were being addressed. The woman across the table from Charlie – Avram’s mom’s latest project or special friend from some dance class, Anaya, in a pink sari and silk wraps, black dot on her forehead – continued in her entrancingly accented east Indian lilt about birth and re-birth and life’s only transformative force: “Love! It is love! Always love. And birth and death too, yes, but these we can never know directly whereas we can know about love every minute of every day if we just open ourselves. And it is the same! Its power. All connected through birth and death like the goddess Parvati, and also part of your tradition’s wonderful celebration of life and renewal today.” Still, every time she looked back at Avram or his mom, there it was again. The voice reducing it all, saying, Mrs. Sherrey. He’s Mrs. Sherrey too. He’s Mrs. Sherrey II! The bright pink haze high on his mom’s cheeks, florid eye makeup, black hair dye in her feathered curls, claw-like red fingernails. So this was where Avram got his ideas about femininity and how to be a woman – from his fat, privileged, liberal, white mother. No, it couldn’t possibly be that stupid and simple, and yet, for minutes at a time it really seemed like it was. He wanted to become his mom. As much as possible, she tried to keep all of her attention on Avram’s younger brother Dillon in his yarmulke, trading funny looks and eye-rolls, trying to make him laugh.
“Sure, but I don’t know about the mom part. I mean… Anyway, it’s Ms. Sherrey,” Avram said, later, on the drive back to their apartment. He seemed happy about this – more misreading – happy to hear that Charlie identified him so strongly with his mother. It was what she later learned he thought of as an affirmation. “But don’t be dissing my mom!” This he said in a half-joking ironic-serious way. “She’s a good person. In fact, she’s pretty rad and cool. You know she hung out with Bernie back in the day.” Never said she wasn’t, Charlie thought. But the thing is, even if I liked girls – which I mostly don’t – but even if I did, your mom would be about dead last among choices for a romantic partner. I mean dead last, like over my dead body.
If the end of their relationship were a movie montage, she thinks – if things had progressed that neatly and efficiently with some semi-poignant background music to smooth over the passage of time as freeze-frame images streamed by – those would be some of the closing scenes she’d zoom in on, followed with a goodbye note in her own scrawl and maybe a scene or two of her in her packed car, driving away, north and east, skis and bike on the roof, over the Cascades. The high desert of eastern and central Washington in late summer, the Rockies, further east, halogen floor lamp and rolled carpet on top of crates of books and clothes in the rear seat. Back home again. But it wasn’t a movie and she knows that the impulse to imagine it one, try to imagine it anyway, is really only a way of looking for closure. A way of wishing to speed past all the confusion and hurt and mess to a nice neat finish and fresh start. Because of course, between the cutaway montage snapshots were fights and more fights. Two that ended with him holding her wrists together, to keep her from hitting him or clawing her own face to shreds, his grip on her so fierce that later bruises in the exact shape of his fingers encircled her wrists, clustered like little black-red blossoms under the skin, an incontrovertible reminder and signifier of everything wrong between them and an embarrassment to hide at the bookstore and Yoga. But you’re still you, she’d yell. You’re not a lie! How can you be a lie? If you’re a lie then I am too, I mean everything about me, about us, is a lie…so what am I even supposed to do with that. How am I supposed to think about it? I don’t accept it! And even as she heard herself, the words, the insupportable, horrible braying tone in her voice, the treachery and villainy, being opposed to this change, the one thing he wanted above all else, still, she couldn’t stop. I know it’s small-minded, I know, I know, and it’s unaccepting. But I can’t help it. Attraction is like a real thing for me. In a relationship anyway, it’s real. It’s important. Maybe it’s not the most important thing. So I’m shallow. But the thing is, I don’t really like girls. I mean, once or twice, whatever, but even if I did, I just…so what am I supposed to do now? What would you even have me do? She didn’t say anything about their being engaged to be engaged or all the stuff they’d accumulated together over the years – toaster oven, fish tank, vintage sewing machine, oriental rug, kitchen table – all fallen by the wayside with that imaginary future wherein she’d always been “Charlie” and he “Avram.” Mermaid, she began thinking in the middle of fights, and more and more often the closer she came to leaving. A lifeline of sorts, she supposed; her own brand of transition, or just a way out. I want to be a mermaid again.
She imagines a sizzle as she slips into the murky tub water. A tingle through her pores with it, sliding down, working the spigot for “hot” with one foot and then stirring with the other to disperse the heat more evenly before closing the spout again. She lies back and listens to the drip from the faucet, water on water, point, point, point, overlaying bass notes from a TV or CD player somewhere in a neighboring unit thumping like a heartbeat. The distant whistle of a train. Driving home, tunneling through the dark and snow, bumping over fresh snow ruts in the road and stopping at the all-night pharmacy for a bottle of citric acid (they were out of regular C crystals and the exhausted night pharmacist assured her it was pretty much the same thing, though she was mum on its magical properties with regard to over-chlorination – Could be. I’ve never heard of that particular application. Anyway, shouldn’t hurt anything. You work at the Dip and Sip? Really? I’ve always wondered what that job’s like!) and a carton of Epsom salts, Charlie’s sense of imminent relief anticipating just this – the freshly scrubbed tub in her step-dad’s apartment, lights lowered, heat cranked, snow blowing hard against the exterior wall of the apartment and wind whistling in the window casement up there where her shampoos and conditioners and razor sit in a soapy film of their own residue, her skin drinking this brew, this factually, chemically proven anodyne, longest night of the year alone, no one to bother her, no one to explain anything for her or correct her perceptions, the earth beginning its elliptical trip back into the light starting now – it had given her an almost embarrassing, intoxicating pleasure. A giddy, delirious pleasure precisely because there is no one with whom she’d even think of sharing it. Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble, she thinks and then says it aloud, sliding lower so the water covers her chin and touches the corners of her eyes stingingly. There’s a smell to it – the citric acid – its astringent properties kind of mineral and acrid, maybe almost sulfuric. This is pleasing because it gives a palpable assurance, a tangible measure of efficacy. Already she can feel how her skin is becoming slipperier, renewed, itself again, stinging through every pore and especially in the itchiest, abraded spots on her back and shoulders and legs and spots she didn’t even know were abraded. She closes her eyes against the burn and goes under. Scrubs fingers through her damaged hair. Raises herself on her elbows and again submerges, eyes really burning now until she can find a towel from beside the tub and scrub her eyelids dry.
Blinking them open the world seems remade somehow. Clearer. Closer. C-burned. The metal transition bar between the bathroom’s linoleum and the rest of the apartment’s dull brown shag, its bronze polished to silver in the middle from so many years being stepped on; soapy, dusty grime on the crooked baseboard, some of it hers, some of it probably not… Anyway. Not permanent. Nothing here is. She’s not staying.
She straightens her legs and flexes her feet, all the muscles tensed, imagining them fused to a fish’s tail. The thing people never understand about being a mermaid is how difficult it is, swimming without the use of your legs. All arms and shoulders. All core muscles. And yet the end of each shift is also accompanied by this weird stiffness and tension through her calves and thighs – like she’s been really working out with her legs, which makes no sense. Another mystery. She slides her hands along her hips imagining the transition from skin to fish scales, the sleek smoothness that would be her tail, if it were a tail, the fins at either side to pluck at and tweak and the dorsal fin crushed into the small of her back. Again she submerges and this time when she raises herself on her elbows the world is indeed remade because the lights have gone out. With them the hum of the furnace and the fridge are gone. The bass notes from downstairs and pretty much all sound except the rat-tat-tat of wind in the bathroom vent and a distant police siren and the hollow scrubbing of her skin against the tub bottom as she pulls herself up a little higher. Also wind in the trees and thudding against the side of the building, like the sea’s come ashore and blown over mountains, desert, prairies, all for the sake of grabbing a piece of awning somewhere out there and whacking it repeatedly against the bricks. A power outage. How this used to excite her when she was a kid! Special time set apart from normal time by candlelight and quiet, sleeping by the fire, extra blankets for everyone. She splashes a hand in and out of water and flexes her imaginary tail. “Well,” she says, but the fun’s gone, she’s not a kid, she has no tail, and in a distant way she’s sort of worried about freezing to death. Not right away of course. There’s at least a little insulation in these walls. Anyway, she’s half-pickled and sick to death of being in water.
She feels for her towel in the dark. Steps out of the tub and turns back to pull the drain plug, and as her eyes adjust to the darkness she catches her reflection in the mirror. In its ancient, scarred foil backing she’s like some ghost or antique daguerreotype, the hollows around her eyes accentuated by a shadowy discoloration that makes a double T from her chin to her forehead and across her cheeks. “Well that’s weird,” she says, leaning closer until she begins seeing that, no, it’s not just the dark and it’s not some weird shadow effect. She’s actually burned herself. Either the water was too hot or she was a little too enthusiastic with that citric acid, or she’s having some kind of allergic reaction. Or Belinda was wrong, or the pharmacist was and vitamin C and citric acid are not entirely the same. She leans closer. Or Belinda was having fun and pulling some kind of mermaid practical joke. She follows the outline with her fingertips, up the bridge of her nose, under her eyes, across her brow, back again. So she’s like a skunk now, a raccoon! Not funny, Belinda! She touches fingertips along her forearm. The skin here is puffy and tenderized too, raised feeling—stinging, everywhere stinging—like when she used to get hives or that time she was attacked by a ground nest of wasps. She runs for her phone, for a light, to find out how bad it is.
Dead-naming. Of all the new words and terms she’d learned in the months before she fled Seattle, and then in the first several weeks of her time in Great Falls, on line and on the phone, which was both easier and in some ways more damaging to her sanity than seeing him every day because his voice was exactly the same as ever, unchanged really, and so the temptation to slip back into old ways together and forget was strong, dead-naming was the one she disliked most. Dead-name. Dead man’s float. Deadhead. Dead-in-the-water. She understood, of course. It wasn’t his name or who he was anymore. Avram. He was Linda. He wanted every aspect of his identity associated with Avram to be changed or erased. But calling himself dead while his voice went on the same as ever, and their shared past and the jokes they’d told each other, food they liked together, cooked together, associations, while all of this continued in her dreaming and waking life daily and in some of their conversations…still she was supposed to consider him and everything they’d shared dead. It was more than she could handle. Their last phone conversation she messed up enough times that he had to ask her to stop. Please, he said. It’s Linda. Don’t dead-name me anymore. It’s the least you can do. And later, when she saw the status update on his Facebook profile, those blunt words to all their mutual friends and family and acquaintances and school contacts underneath the picture of him in a wig and mascara, about how there’s nothing worse in the universe than an ex who won’t stop dead-naming you, and the strings of comments and comments on comments righteously supporting him…she’d totally cut off. Unfriended, stopped calling him, stopped texting or returning texts, and deleted him from her contacts. You want to see dead? she thought. I’ll show you dead.
That had been just over a month ago now.
All of which has played its part in how she comes to be standing outside her apartment building in nothing but a bathrobe and a pair of foamy slippers, wet hair in freezing hanks stuck to her cheeks, watching the snow blown up in gusts and swirls through the dark, like it has some power to defy gravity or as if she’s entered an alternate world where gravity no longer has any practical application. She’d thought the text was from Avram: Outside here! Where are you. And because she was still apparently that hopeful or hooked on him or because her eyes were that blurred and burned from the citric acid and because she’d deleted all their previous conversation threads along with his contact info, so there was no context for it, or because of residual guilt about her choice to leave him, she didn’t fully register the number. Seattle area code and just a few digits flipped around from Avram’s, a 5 and two 2’s transposed. This, she didn’t notice until later.
Heart racing, she’d texted back, Outside where? coming to find u, and gone out and down the dimly lit hallways, all the way to the front door where she stood a few minutes enjoying how the cool drafts from around the front door soothed her overheated, acid-burned skin – practicing in her mind her, her, she, she, Linda, not-Avram, she, Linda, no dead-names – before peeking around the open door and finally stepping right out for a good full body chill and to see if maybe she was stuck at the end of the drive, and then realizing, too late, as the door clicked shut behind her, that the weight in her bathrobe pocket was her phone only and not her phone and keys together because, of course, she’d left her goddamned keys on the goddamned table upstairs. The transposed phone number is not one she recognizes. Could be anyone. Maybe the red-haired guy from the bar earlier. Sure. Maybe he came back after her shift was done and pried her contact info from the bartender with tips, or found out just enough, possibly only her name, to realize that he knows someone who knows her, put two and two together.
There are no lights on anywhere as far as she can see. Only a dull amber from the one lamppost in the middle of the tenant parking lot down two flights of snow topped stairs where her car is parked, already fully scabbed over in icy snow; it must be on another city circuit or else wired to the same emergency backup generator as the interior halls of the apartment building with their flickering, apocalyptic spotlights shining down from ceiling-mounted brackets every fifty feet or so. She turns and again pounds a hand on the locked metal door. Grabs and pushes down on the lever to open it and pulls back. Nothing. Looks hatefully at the piece of awning flapping against the side of the building and waits for the moment between gusts when it will stop clanging so someone inside might differentiate from it the sound of her frozen fist beating on the door. Pounds and pounds with all her might. The exterior door is always locked, she remembers her step-dad telling her when he helped move her in. A little added security for you. But there’s no intercom. So people come by, you gotta know enough in advance, or just have them call on the cell phone.
She’s tried her step-dad and her mom a few times by now but neither of them is answering. 2:15 in the morning. They’ll be sound asleep. Every night, they put on their CPAP machines and vanish from the earth. She’s seen it and heard it from the guest room down the hall any number of times. Can picture it exactly. She tries again. No answer. You’ve reached the mailbox…
Well, she thinks. Shit. She goes out and down the front steps thinking she’ll break into her car maybe, try to sleep there. But as the snow touches her around the bare ankles, icy at first and then numbing, blown snow and ice stinging against her face and bare calves, she thinks better of this plan. No, instead she’ll head down the two blocks from here to the closest arterial where she hears a snowplow scraping along – that, or the silence is causing the siren song of snowplows everywhere around the city to carry on the wind to her, tricking her ears, because now she doesn’t hear it anymore – anyway, a road. A main road where she’ll more likely encounter someone, anyone. As she walks, she touches open her phone screen and lets her fingers hover momentarily over the keypad, bringing back Avram’s number in her head and trying to key in the digits, but her fingers are too frozen or wet now to work the screen – and anyway, what would she say? Instead she dials back the person who’d texted. Tries to hear through the wind buffeting around her as the ring tones swell in and out of audibility. Looks at the screen again to be sure she actually dialed. “Hello!” she yells. “Hello? Who is this? You sent me a message?” Wrong number. Did he really say that, wrong number? But she can’t make out anything else the person is saying, only the wind, so she stuffs the phone back in her robe pocket, keeps walking, and on third thought ditches her plan to head out to the main road. This is ridiculous. Too far, too cold. Instead she turns back and with the wind behind her now, makes her way around the apartment building toward where she remembers her step-dad once told her he keeps a spare key to the outside storage locker where her bike and skis are already stowed. That’s the plan. If she can get out of the wind and snow for a minute, anywhere at all sheltered, she’ll be able to think clearly. Make another call or two and figure something out. Worst case, dial 9-1-1. This is so completely stupid and embarrassing and ridiculous. Never again! she thinks. Never again will I make such stupid idiotic choices. She imagines in the fury and finality of her thoughts that she might somehow undo all the wrong turns that have gotten her to where she is right now.
And then salvation itself. The lights of her step-dad’s truck tunneling into view from the end of the drive. She waves with her arms. Yells his name. “Drew! Drew!” So he heard her phone calls after all! Or the power went out at their place too and he’s come to check on her, make sure everything’s OK. Or…wait. Is it him? She leans with her hands on her knees a second and straightens up, waving again, shouting. But the lights have swiveled away to illuminate the whitewashed brick of the apartment building and some evergreen shrubs and rhododendrons whipped and battered in the wind, shiny with ice and bright as if the sun were on them. He’s backing up. Turning around. He’s not here for her. There’s the sound of his muffler and the rich red of his brake lights on snow as his backup lights go off and then the tail lights fading to pink as he gears forward and starts pulling away. “Hey!” she yells and begins to run, waving her arms. “Hey! Drew! Stop! Over here!” The brakes light up again and she can almost see him in silhouette behind the glass – the ball cap and the collar of his Carhartt coat pulled up, cigarette cherry illuminating the hollows of his cheeks – and then she knows it’s not him at all. Not her step-dad. Wrong truck, wrong license plate, wrong guy. And she knows too that it doesn’t make any difference who he is so long as he can take her to her mom’s house or anywhere warm, a gas station or convenience store, doesn’t matter, and keeps running after him.
In the days that follow, she’s surprised, though she knows she shouldn’t be, that the one to come to her aid most is Belinda. Every afternoon she’s at Charlie’s apartment with poultices and skin masks, creams and herbal infusions for inflammation, an African stew of root vegetables and Ayurvedic spices she insists will help boost energy to Charlie’s core.
“Honey,” she says, “you’re not the first one to lose her mind over a little tail. You can tell me all about it.” Charlie pictures Avram’s padded gaff and the plasticky, chlorinated cloth of her tailfin (not even hers really) hanging in the locker at work. A little tail, she thinks. The word is so much more accurate and inadequate than Belinda can possibly know, Charlie’s first impulse is to laugh. And then like flip-turning, feet against the wall of the swimming pool, the lock through your feet and calves as you exhale and push off, she gets a kind of confidence and buoyancy she hasn’t felt for long enough she didn’t even realize she’d been missing it. “The main point here is you didn’t freeze to death, right?” Belinda asks. Not the main point at all, Charlie thinks. “So what was his name? Tell.”
“Linda,” she says. She shrugs. “Not a guy.”
They’re on the couch in her step-dad’s apartment when she says this, Charlie with her feet in a tub of hot water and some kind of skin softening blend of salts and chemicals that smells like bad weed and mold. More ensorcellment, she thinks, breathing the fumes. Or maybe it’s an un-ensorcellment. She meets and holds Belinda’s eyes, but of course this information hasn’t fazed her in the least.
“Nice name,” Belinda says, winking. “Two letters off being a really great name. Close but no cigar. Anyhoo, takes all types as I always say. Not that I had you pegged for a lezbo, but that’s OK too.”
In response to which Charlie surprisingly finds herself siding with Avram and their various friends who were neither one thing or another. “I’m not. I’m not anything. It was just the once. For now. I don’t really like putting labels on love…putting love in a binary, if you know what I mean. I don’t think you should do that.” And from here she finds herself making up an entire fake history for her and Linda that is, in its way, not very fake at all. The plans to get married, grow a big garden, raise chickens. Linda’s work at the theater and Charlie’s bookstore job. The marine biology class where they met and the trips together to BC, camping, and the gulf islands – the morning they woke up together for the sunrise on Lopez and swore they’d never be apart for the rest of their lives. She allows herself a little license picturing Avram as Linda, mixing together some of her own and Avram’s better features with a character from a show they both liked – the actress’s eyes and freckles, Charlie’s wide shoulders, Avram’s smile – and gives the composite a way cooler attitude about breaking up than either she or Avram ever had. “We grew up, we grew away from each other,” she concludes. “Nothing all that weird. Just…I wasn’t ready is all.” She rips skin from the ends of her fingers and bites her nails and eats another few spoons of Belinda’s amazing stew.
“To each his own,” Belinda says.
“Or her own.”
“Or her. Exactly.” She pats Charlie on the leg. “You’ll be all right.”
Charlie’s first summer as a mermaid, almost ten years ago now, ended with Belinda organizing a mermaid strike against management for shorter shifts (four hours instead of six), higher pay, and a saline purification system rather than chlorine. Not that the mermaids were part of any organized labor union or even informally allied or affiliated, but the job was just difficult and weird enough that finding replacements for them was next to impossible. If they joined forces they could usually get what they wanted. In this case, the pay raise and shorter hours, and the promise of a saline purification system that never materialized. None of which Charlie had been around to benefit from since she’d had to leave for her first year of college mid-strike, minus her last two weeks of pay. In some way, she supposes she’s never forgiven Belinda for this and also for her whole bullshit mermaid-solidarity-for-life tenacity. You break ranks, she’d threatened Charlie at the time, You swim without us, you’ll never swim here again. We’ll cut your feet off. Now she thinks maybe it isn’t such a bad trait, this solidarity.
“You’ll be all right,” Belinda says again, nodding, and Charlie agrees with her.
“I will,” she says.
The third night after the storm, she’s back at work. A solo, Sunday shift, early so the kids can come – her favorite – plus, no one to split tips with. She tries Belinda’s upside down spinning wave and her spiraling human drill to the bottom of the tank. The first move leaves her with a burning weight of chlorinated water in her sinuses that she has to spend a minute or two snorting and horking out onto the tile beside the tank. The second, she aborts midway, turning it into a lame half-cartwheel and a dead-man flop to the bottom of the tank where she lies just long enough to make the kids get really excited before rising again, smiling and waving and blowing them all kisses. There they all are on the other side of the glass: her crowd, her people, her friends, her fans and family, right where she left them, all so happy to see her decked out in her tailfin and wig! The fake mermaid lives again! She waves and bows and does a somersault before turning to the side and showing them her tattoo as she heads for the surface.
She hasn’t thought much about the actual fact of being saved or any of the details surrounding how it happened. Too embarrassed, she supposes. Too much in the throes of exhaustion or hypothermia to really register it. But when she sees him there at the far side of the barroom, crewcut guy about the same age as her step-dad Drew and driver of a nearly identical F-250, wife in a blue sweatshirt with a decal of a cartoon cat on it beside him, both of them sharing a basket of pretzels and pitcher of pale ale, it all comes back. He looks up to wave and smile and raises his glass in a toast, nudging his wife with an elbow to do likewise, and Charlie remembers: the heat of his truck cab so dense and cottony with cigarette smoke, blower on full, radio playing softly; the percussive rasp of exhaust in his tailpipe, the engine noise and also her own amusement at how her fingers wouldn’t work, too numb to grab onto the door handle or open the door at all, the weird hard weight of her frozen hair around her face and neck, melting under her collar and making her cheeks sting. In the end he’d had to get out, come around, yank the door open, let her in. Some of their conversation, too, she remembers – his bewilderment and concern, the good fortune that he was there at all, took a wrong turn on his way home from a shift plowing, got turned around in the weather, no street lights. Here, have a little coffee. Let’s get you someplace warm. Jesus god you’re soaked. Say you lost your keys? You live here? Let’s figure out what we can do. Where’d you say your folks were at…hey stay with me now! Don’t go to sleep yet. Looks like you got a little touch of the hypothermia. Maybe more than a little touch. Where’d you say again? Drink some more of that coffee. Get you warmed up. Hey, wait, you’re one of them mermaid gals from over the bar! I recognize you now! The one with the sun tattoo. Goddam. How do you like that. Saving a mermaid on a winter night. On the winter solstice! Come on, keep drinking that coffee, OK? Here, use this to cover up. Tell me again? What’s the address? You’re all right there? Stay with me a little longer…and finally dozing off against the window of the truck door, waking at the end of her mom’s driveway what felt like seconds later. All of this comes back to her as she sees him. Water rushes through her tail, binding the fabric against her, and seeps under the elastic of her wig, soothing all those places she knows later will itch like crazy. Whatever is next for her, post-Avram, who can say. Now she is a mermaid. She rolls onto her back and flipper kicks closer, arms upstretched, turns a somersault and waves until they wave back again. Thank you so much, she mouths at him. She flings kisses at the glass. And you! And you! And you!
Gregory Spatz’s short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, New England Review, Kenyon Review, Santa Monica Review, Glimmer Train Stories, Epoch, and in many other publications. His most recent book is a collection of connected stories and novellas What Could Be Saved. He’s the recipient of a Washington State Book Award and a 2012 Literature Fellowship from the NEA. For more info: www.gregoryspatz.com.