I used to date a mermaid, though our dates were more like lectures. She told me things she wouldn’t say near the ocean in case the waves might pull her words into the deep.
For instance, mermaids are a proud people, though the ocean lost its sparkling majesty centuries ago. With overfishing and pollution, they are starved and angry. They lack education, and half of them are illiterate, which they overcompensate for with swollen muscles and push-up bikini tops. If you find yourself on the coasts where mermaids come up for their part-time jobs as fry cooks and beauticians, they will treat you with gruff hostility. After all, the last time they trusted too freely, land-dwellers built cargo ships and submarines, dumped chemicals in rivers, and tossed plastic bottles just to see how they would float.
But I am a land-dweller, I said.
I know, she said, putting a dry hand on mine.
She called me land-dweller, but with sweetness. She wasn’t fond of pet names, so that was the closest to a term of endearment. When I asked her to explain things like El Niño or how the moon controlled the tides, she gave me the most pitiful look. You land-dweller, she said.
She liked to say mermaids swim with their heads screwed backwards. They are uninsured but will vote Republican; they think immigration laws are too strict but will yank at divers’ feet to warn them away from mermaid territory. They stumble on land but will belly-laugh at land-dwellers who gasp and flail in public pools. Fucking shit, she said, sometimes out of the blue. Fucking mermaids.
I once asked her what one good thing about mermaids was; the cynicism was beginning to tarnish and dim. She was silent for a few minutes, checking her phone as if she hadn’t heard my question. Eventually, she said Vin Diesel. I laughed, which made her frown. Oh, come on, I said. He’s not a mermaid. Yes, she said. Yes, he is. Why do you think nobody knows his heritage? That was another thing that filled her with smoke; that people assume mermaids are blue-eyed and pale-skinned. In reality, mermaids are varying shades of brown, and when they are on land, their hair dries big and messy with dark curls. I remember not being able to place her when we met at a gay bar. I remember kissing her skin, expecting saccharine but tasting salt.
On a camping date, we told ghost stories, and her laughter rang through the trees. She couldn’t believe how feeble my ghosts were if their best effort was turning door knobs and slamming kitchen cabinets. The ocean is the biggest graveyard, she said, opening her arms to hold the night sky. Had I heard about the bodies thrown overboard, how the water sometimes vibrates with gargled screams? And the vengeful volcano goddesses that burn through villages on land but graciously spare the ones in the sea? What about the spirits of sea creatures, how swimming through the ghost of a blue whale is like listening to a familiar song too far away to decipher?
Don’t you dare tell anyone, she said more than once. I mean it. I hadn’t realized these stories were secrets. If you tell anyone, they’ll come onto shore and find you. They’ll find you and flood your car and your house. Her arms were crossed, iron bars.
Mermaids take themselves so seriously, I said, hoping for a smile.
After we broke up, I drove down the Pacific Coast Highway and found the emptiest beach. At the water’s edge, I whispered three of her secrets, the smallest ones, the ones I could repeat without her getting angry. The silver corner of a granola bar wrapper winked at me, so I plucked it out of the sand and put it in my pocket. Then, I sat down and watched the waves rush and roar only to softly retreat.
Nancy Nguyen is originally from Orange County, and she now resides in Baltimore. She was a 2019 Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellow, and she has received support and scholarships from the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. A selection of her work can be found in NANO Fiction and Pidgeonholes. She writes about women, environmentalism, and the ways in which capitalism stands at odds with family bond and loyalty.
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