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Chlorine Mermaid by Rachel Steiger-Meister

 

Rachel Steiger-Meister is a queer femme fiction writer and PhD student in the doctoral program in creative writing at the University of Cincinnati, where she also studies Irish language and folklore. Rachel recently served as the guest fiction editor for the Fairy Tales issue of the online publication Lavender Review.

1st place - 2013 Million Writers Award

 

I walked midnight streets with Rose. Hand in hand we ambled down the wet alleys, rain dripping from the rooftops. She moved her hand to my ass, over the back pocket of my short denim skirt. This way, baby doll, she said, guiding me to a brick wall. Baby. She pinned me, leg pressing into my center. My back soaked up the rainwater. Baby doll.

.  .  .

The sun shone brightly on Provincetown. It was late August. I was here to celebrate my thirtieth birthday with my childhood best friend, Lotte. I’d arrived the day before and spent the night with the baby dyke who was sitting at the bar next to me. Now I was hung over and my head ached. Too lazy to go back to the B&B to change clothes, I surveyed the busy scene on Commercial Street from the bench where I sat. Large rainbow flags were blowing triumphantly in the breeze. Cars were inching along through the herd of pedestrians and cyclists. Everything and everyone looked scrubbed and shiny: tan, bare-chested men, women in sunscreen and sun-hats, glimmery black fabric on tight cyclist outfits, and glinting storefront windows. There were more lesbians, and straight people, with babies than I remembered from years past. The strollers practically formed their own parade. Across the street, beyond the storefronts, the blue water sparked in the sun.

I wondered what Lotte was going to look like. It had been more than a year since I’d seen her. She was pregnant, seven months along. I squinted and saw her coming towards me, a whale of a creature, wearing a bright blue maternity top, stomach bobbing in front of her like a buoy out at sea. I blinked and the mirage disappeared. Instead there were two men walking toward me, hand in hand, in bathing trunks and flip-flops. The younger one was bare-chested; both sported goatees. The older, taller one nodded his head at me as they walked past. A few bold, white-silver strands gleamed in his otherwise raven dark facial hair. What were they—late thirties, early forties? Further down the street they stopped to kiss.

I started to feel nauseous; the sun was too bright. The glare in a window across the street momentarily vanished, and I saw a display with bathing suits, beach hats, and rainbow splashed P-town sweatshirts. Bingo. I carefully navigated across the busy street, taking small steps in my cheap platform flip-flops. Bells jangled as I entered; the store was cool and dimly lit compared to the sun-struck world outside.

I found the sunglasses near the back of the store, behind the register. After a few twirls of the display, I noticed a collection of heart shaped glasses with plastic frames in red, orange, yellow, green, and blue. I picked red. Everything in the store became suffused with a deep pink. On a discount shelf above me, some chintzy angels and grotesque Santa-in-a-thong figurines appeared to blush. Santa’s butt cheeks looked like they’d been slapped. I wandered a few minutes in this blossom-colored world.

Deciding that pink wasn’t it, I headed back to the glasses display. Passing by a rack of swimsuits, I noticed two men in quiet consultation; one was older, lanky, and black, the other, white and wearing a blue Red Sox hat, looked young enough to need a fake ID. They were fingering the material of the men’s bikini bottoms: smooth blues, reds, and gold. The young guy kept looking out from under his hat furtively, in this and that direction, as if deciding when would be the most opportune time to swipe the whole display and make a run for it. Eventually, the older man made his way to the register counter. Not ready yet, he said to the clerk, who was adding teddy bears to the display window.

I was back at the sunglasses display. The man’s nails were long and filed into ovals, and he tapped them on the counter in a quiet rhythm. Sagging pockets under his eyes were underscored by a fanned pattern of wrinkles. A strange noise, like a pup’s yelp, came from the vicinity of the swimsuit rack. Then, a gruff cough.

“Baby boy?” said the man.  He left the counter.

I heard a loud, deep “Shove it,” and the young guy barreled through the store, past me, a blush the color of bruised beets on his fair cheeks. His circuitous route finally took him to the door, and the bells chimed pleasantly upon his departure. The old man returned to the register and put a pack of gum on the counter. I snatched a green pair of heart sunglasses and got behind him in line.

“Kids these days,” I said.

He gave a small smile. His eyes looked tired. “Kids,” he replied.

Leaving the store, his steps were fluid and slow.

Outside, I armed myself against the sun with the green glasses, and the world turned to puke. I thought about the older man as I walked. His gentle demeanor reminded me of my first lover, Rose. Preoccupied, I bumped into a street vendor the color of Oscar the Grouch, knocking him off balance. I bought one of his sweet berry drinks to make good, then came to rest on the nearest bench. It was across from Viva, the glossy women’s bar where I’d spent the previous night.

.  .  .

I met Rose the first night that I ever went to a lesbian bar. The club was a little place, tucked away in a grey, industrial corner of the city where I went to college. It was Halloween, and I was wearing a short denim skirt and clunky Doc Marten boots. The boots weren’t high fashion anymore—the nineties were almost out the door, and the new millennium was fast approaching—but I figured they weren’t totally unacceptable. It turned out that style at the bar wasn’t what I was used to anyway. There were women with eighties haircuts, short bangs hanging forward, longer bangs puffed up, skulking against the walls in flannel shirts and tight jeans over thin frames. They weren’t dressed up for the holiday. There were a few college kids I didn’t recognize dressed up like Smurfs, painted blue.

Seated at the bar were two women with short, slicked back hair, dressed in dapper black suits. Sitting in-between them was a woman in a red dress. She had dark curls piled high on top of her head; the dress was tight and faded. The moving lights from the small dance floor occasionally illuminated the trio. In those moments, I could see the gleam of her wine-colored lipstick, the lift of her cleavage, the angles of her red, high-heeled shoes. She wore heavy eyeliner and held her drink cautiously, as though waiting for someone to try to knock it from her hand. Every so often, she offered a smile to one of her masculine looking companions. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.

.  .  .

Lotte arrived right on time. I was sitting at the appointed spot, contemplating my bedraggled appearance. The black and white polka dot dress I’d worn the night before was crumpled. My hair needed a wash. It was dyed black in an attempted Bettie Page hairdo—which I’d heard was all the rage in San Francisco seven years ago—but my bangs had grown out and my hair was limp. Not to mention, I was too skinny to be a Bettie.

Then, there she was, a green Lotte, not as big as I’d imagined, but big nonetheless. I took off my glasses. A red linen shirt flowed over her pregnant stomach. Her blond hair was super short and stylish, as usual. She was wearing those trendy sunglasses that are huge and round and make the wearer look bug-eyed. When she realized it was me walking toward her, she pushed them up onto her head.

We met on the sidewalk and squinted in the sunlight.

“Silly Syl,” she grinned.

“Lottey-lot.”

“Looks like you had fun last night,” she said and took my hands in hers and swung them. The giant diamond on her left hand sparkled, light radiating in its depths.

.  .  .

When we were little, Lotte’s mom took us to Baskin Robbins to get ice cream. Lotte always picked the bubble gum flavor. Half the time, I did, too, to copy her. As Lotte ate, she carefully carved the little chunks of gum out of the pale, pink ice cream with her spoon, piling them onto a soggy napkin, making a little mountain of red, blue, pink, yellow, orange, and green. After draining the last drop of ice cream from the cup, she jammed all of the bubble gum into her mouth at once, chomping furiously.

One day, she started talking to me while her mouth was very full, and gum stuck to her lips. She put her fingers to her mouth and tried to pull the gum away. Silly Syl, look what you made me do! The gum only stretched; it wouldn’t detach from her mouth. Lotte giggled and kept pulling. The gum dangled down her chin; it looked like mutant-colored drool. Then, Lotte was pulling the gum from her mouth, attaching strands to her nose and cheeks, trying to make each pull stretch out longer than the last. I desperately wished I’d picked bubble gum, to be able to partake in the same trick, but that day I’d gone with mint chocolate chip. Lotte tried to contain her giggles; the web sprouting from her small red mouth was getting bigger and bigger. She had successfully reached her ears, when her mother, who had left to go to the bathroom, came back to the table. What are you doing? Nothing, giggle. Lotte swiped a hand across her face, and through her hair. The web was pulled sideways—its center, yanked from her mouth, trailed behind her hand to her long hair. Yuck, Charlotte, you’re a mess. Lotte smiled widely like the Chesire Cat, showing lots of red and blue teeth.

After I finished my mint chocolate chip, Lotte’s mom took us to the beauty parlor next store. All of Lotte’s long blond hair got chopped off. I got a trim. Lotte had short hair after that. Sometimes it shone so brightly in the sun that it was hard to look at.

.  .  .

Lotte and I had dinner at a cozy Italian restaurant, on a deck overlooking the beach. Sun slanted across the water in burnished orange rays. She filled me in on the details of her life: Charles’s promotion, the new house, painting the baby’s room. Lotte and Charles lived in a hippie, liberal, small college town in Ohio. I always envisioned Lotte’s life there as being composed of yoga classes and soy latte dates with other mothers-to-be. It turned out that wasn’t far from the truth: she’d quit her office job in the spring.

“How are you?” she asked.

“I’m thirty.”

The last rays of the sun glowed on Lotte’s freckled face as she crinkled her nose. Later, after we’d finished our meal, the waiter brought out a small chocolate cupcake with a single candle.

Viva was dead that night. There was a couple with matching pink polos and ponytails playing pool in the front room. On the dance floor, under green and white strobe lights, a few women were doing a wavy, hippy dance.

“Lame and tame,” I said to Lotte.

“It is the end of the season,” she replied. “And a Tuesday.”

.  .  .

Rose took me by surprise. I was hovering near the small stage where my friends, scantily clad, were dancing and grinding away, trying to be audacious and receiving a few grateful hollers and whoops from the dance floor. I was staring at the woman in red. There was a gentle tap on my shoulder.

Rose was dressed in a white button-up shirt and white baseball cap. The lights made her glow a little.

“What are you supposed to be, girl?” she asked.

“A box of chocolates.”

“No kidding.”

She reached out and touched the big red bow I had stuck to my headband. Looked me up and down, nice and fast: brown leotard, short skirt, big boots.

“How do you like that. I’m Rose. I don’t look like a flower though, so I guess we’re even.”

I laughed.

“I’m sweet though, some real chocolate right here.”

She gave me a wink.

.  .  .

Down the street, the boy club Below Deck was hopping. Sweaty men, their shirts unbuttoned, smoked outside the entrance. Inside, the club was steamy with body heat. Under the low ceiling, a hive of men was throbbing on the dance floor, moving rapidly to the beat of the techno music.

“Can you handle this?” I shouted at Lotte.

“Why not?” She shrugged and took a seat at the bar.

I joined the hive at its fringe. An older man offered me his hand and twirled me around. I glimpsed the dance floor’s inner sanctum, where a group of bare-chested, toned men were dancing, admirers whistling their approval. Spun again, I noticed a couple up against the wall, pressed to each other. It was the white boy in the Red Sox hat and a black guy with dreads. Red Sox had dreads guy pinned; they were locked in a kiss that looked half like a struggle. Dreads pushed his hands to the other’s chest, as if to avoid suffocation. I stopped dancing and watched. Dreads pushed harder. Their lips were parted, but the black man was not released. I was on the verge of shouting when the white guy relaxed and let go, his shoulders slumping. The other man broke free, and as he moved away, through the crowd on the dance floor, I saw he was jailbait young. He bounced to the beat, as though in rhythmic contemplation, a dark, long-haired beauty in a tight sea of white bees.

Red Sox boy slunk into a corner, back to the wall, on his knees. He took his hat off and wiped the sweat from his forehead. A strobe light shone on his fair, damp hair, then moved and left him in darkness.

When I was sweaty and tired, Lotte and I turned in for the night.

On the ride to Harwich the next morning, we were quiet. I had known we were going there for Lotte’s cousin Billy’s birthday; he was two years—minus a day—older than me. What I’d forgotten was that Billy’s step-brother Martin was going to be there. I’d never met him. I’d heard that he had a confederate flag sticker on his car and said something creepy at Lotte’s wedding, about her husband Charles being black.

The summer sun seemed to die as we drove away from P-town. Lotte was driving, even though it was my car. A gentle haze turned the sky a dull, graying white. The smell of sand and sea came in through the rolled down windows, making me think of margaritas and dirty martinis. A big green olive to munch on would be perfect. I was a mermaid and liked the salt. I was also hung over again.

“Water?” offered Lotte.

“Yeah, thanks.”

She handed me her plastic bottle, still looking forward, a dreamy expression on her face. I wondered if she was lost in baby land, imagining packaged crib sets from Ikea that you took home and put together. No, her baby would have a fancier crib: something artisan, something sturdy. I still hadn’t asked her whether it was a boy or a girl, or if they even knew.

“Hey, Syl?” Lotte turned toward me.

“Yeah?”

“Martin—he’s a jerk.”

“I know. You’ve said.”

“He knows you’re gay.”

“So?”

I returned my gaze to the sky, now a full-fledged gray. Lotte started humming a low, sweet tune. She hummed the rest of the drive to Harwich, which was almost an hour. Sunglasses on top of her head, she peered into the veil of rain that began to fall. Her legs sprung, limber and toned, from under her huge belly; her feet, well-supported in expensive, strappy sandals, rode the pedals with ease.

We picked up a birthday cake for Billy on our way. It was cheesecake, his favorite. When we arrived at the house, a rambling collection of dark-wooded, connecting rooms, the rain was coming down in a thin glass sheet. Billy must have seen us coming down the long, gravel drive through the trees, because he was waiting, with the main door open, to usher us inside. He hugged us, damp though we were, and grinned widely.

“Welcome, my dear madams! Sylvia, it’s so good to see you! How long has it been—two, three years?”

“Three, I think.”

“Good to see you too, Billy,” said Lotte, with a smirk.

“I was not ignoring you darling, it’s just that I saw you—when was it? Just the other month?”

“Last summer,” Lotte said, smiling.

“Well, welcome all,” said Billy, looking back and forth between us, beaming. “Are you hungry?”

“Starving,” I said.

Billy was a fantastic chef. He bustled around the kitchen, making a few last minute touches to the meal. He had gained weight since I’d last seen him; he was always round, but now his stomach was large enough to rival Lotte’s. In his bright yellow polo, he resembled an energetic Tele-tubby.

We changed into dry clothes while he set out the meal; then we allowed ourselves to be stuffed. There were mozzarella paninis with sun dried tomatoes, a fruit salad with pomegranate and peaches, blue-cheese stuffed olives, fresh bread, and olive oil. And to top it all off, ridiculously, because we were already full, the cheesecake for dessert.

By the time we were finished gorging ourselves, the rain outside had stopped. We lounged, drinking coffee, in the central room of the house, which had a tall, arched ceiling, a couch, a small round table, and a fireplace. The family called it the center room.

“Ladies, what should we do this afternoon?” asked Billy.

“It’s your birthday,” I replied. “What are you in the mood for?”

“Tricky,” said Billy, “but it was yours yesterday. That counts for something.” He winked.

“Let’s go for a cruise on the pond,” suggested Lotte.

.  .  .

On my twenty-first birthday, Rose took me out to a fancy dinner. I knew she had saved up to be able to do it. She wore her favorite suit, it was deep brown, and a green tie I’d given her. I had on a dress I’d found at a thrift store. It was green and strapless, with a little lace on the top that was a bit frayed. Long and tight, it fanned open at the bottom, showing my calves. It was cut like an outfit I’d had for my Barbie when I was seven.

The other patrons stared at us. Our waiter, tall and skinny and a bit flamboyant, smiled at us knowingly. It was so expensive that I didn’t feel right about getting anything. Rose wanted me to order an appetizer, entrée, and dessert. My quick mental tally put that at a hundred dollars. That didn’t even include wine or Rose’s dinner.

.  .  .

It was late afternoon by the time we got out on the water. The sky was somber, the sun still muted by a gray covering of clouds that left the empty pond a dull silver. Billy took us around in the motorboat at a gentle pace. The steady hum of the motor merged with the quiet and seemed to disappear. Billy stopped the boat along a shoreline diagonally across the pond from the house. The land and the water curved into what felt like a secret alcove, so we were hidden from view. I leaned and dangled my fingers in. Billy remained at the boat’s prow, which was pointed toward the pond’s wide middle, a serene and dignified sea captain contemplating his domain. Lotte sat at the boat’s stern, gazing at the water. She was looking dreamy again. Trees on the nearby shore hung over the water, branches sloping gracefully, green leaves fanned in artful displays. I reached out to touch them, but my fingers only met air.

.  .  .

During the summer, when Lotte and I were kids, we’d spend whole afternoons in the tree house in my backyard. It was our secret hideaway, where we’d plot our future. We vowed to never marry and to raise a brood of ruffians. Together we would take over the high seas, merciless toward all those we came upon. The leaves were plentiful and the tree house shady. Occasionally, a shaft of light would break through, splitting across Lotte’s face, giving her bright sparkling scars that befitted a rogue pirate.

I never wanted to kiss her. I only wanted us to live together, on a rollicking boat or in a tall, fancy house, looking out over imaginary shores and cities strung with lights. Sun pirates, illuminated.

.  .  .

It was dusk by the time we returned to the house. There was a deep pink glow along the horizon. A shadow moved on the dock and grunted.

“It’s about time you got back,” came a gruff voice. “Don’t tie her up, I’m gonna go out.”

“It’s too late, Martin,” called Billy.

“It’ll be fine.”

I hopped onto the dock and found myself face to face with the boy in the Red Sox hat from P-town. He was without his hat, but there was no mistaking him: pale skin, blond hair, a pencil line of a mustache, nose a bit crooked at the end. He looked older in the fading light, early twenties at least.

“What are you looking at?”

“Nothing. I’m Sylvia.”

“Right, the lez, I heard. If you don’t mind—” He pushed past me to the boat.

“Out, Lotte,” he said.

“Hi to you too, Martin.”

Later that night, in the velvet dark, Lotte and I went skinny dipping in the pond, just like we had when we came out to Harwich together at the age of fifteen. We giggled and whispered as if there were still aunts and uncles who might come outside and catch us. The sky was cloudy, unlike my teenage memories, when the stars had shone in bright, hard pinpricks. Tonight, the water wrapped around me in a smooth, cold squeeze, and I could barely distinguish Lotte from the dark.

“Bet you can’t float with that monster of a tummy,” I said.

“Oh, yeah, how much do you want to bet?”

“A dollar.”

“You are so on.”

“Doesn’t count if I can’t see you.”

“You are such a cheat, Syl.”

“Tough luck.”

I heard a few splashes. Then the clouds passed and the moon came out. Lotte was on her back, a great white fish, her belly a dome that reflected the moonlight. If we were still pirates, we would have reeled her in and carefully split her open, in her order to grab up the treasure that was surely waiting inside such a beast.

.  .  .

I dreamed I was mermaid. The surface of the water was gilded and smooth, a deep silver in the moonlight. I dove underneath. Cross-sectioned, the water was like a Rothko painting, a thick depth of jade, followed by a thick depth of even darker green. Very dark, but I knew where I was going. It was my ocean, after all. I moved elegantly, my hands and arms cutting through the depths, my tail following in rhythmic waves. Was I looking for something? I don’t think so. I glittered in the darkness.

Ahead there was a fortress. Or a shadow in the jade. It was hard to tell.

.  .  .

In the morning, Lotte was bright eyed and bushy tailed, just like our sixth grade teacher used to say. I was drawn to the kitchen by the gurgle of the coffee pot, and she and Billy were standing there, gulping their last swigs of caffeine.

“Morning, Syl,” said Lotte.

“Hello, darling, are you coming party shopping with us?” asked Billy.

“I’m afraid not,” I said. “I’m not even awake.”

“Sleepy Syl,” Lotte laughed.

“Well, the sun’s out,” said Billy. “Have some fun.”

When they left, I stretched out with my coffee on the couch in the center room. The two were preparing for the baby shower that was planned for Saturday. Lotte’s friends from Boston University, where she went to college, and her mom were all coming to the pond. Charles was going to fly in, too. This was her Massachusetts shower; she was going to have another one in Ohio.

“Did they ditch you?” Martin’s voice sounded like curled autumn leaves in the wind, scraping against pavement. “I heard the car.”

“Not exactly.”

“Get off the couch, I’ll take you out in the boat.”

“What?”

“You heard me. I’m not gonna stay inside all day.”

“Maybe, I guess.”

“Ever water skied?

“No, not my style.”

“Well, now’s your chance.”

The pond was jade in the sun. I felt like a fish with its fins cut off, floundering in the water. The ugly yellow life jacket tugged me in the opposite direction of where I wanted to go, as I fumbled to grab onto the bright red skis. Once I got the skis on my feet, I couldn’t keep them straight. They were clunky and difficult to manage.

The rope floated like a dead snake in the water. I picked up its handle. After I finally got the skis parallel, Martin took off with the boat.

When the rope tightened and pulled the pressure was too much for me, and I let go. Martin came back around and tossed me the rope again. This time I readied myself, anticipating the jolt of force, clutching the handle tightly. He powered away, and I started to make it up, out of the water. Then an ache split across my ankles and traveled up my body, spreading to my heart, a surge of panic and fear. I thought I would snap in two. I dropped the handle.

Martin came back and told me it wasn’t my fault; he couldn’t get the boat going at a fast enough speed.

“Nice try, lez,” he said.

He gripped my arms firmly, helping me pull myself aboard.

“My name is Sylvia.”

“Whatever.”

“You can cut the lezzie crap. I know you’re a fag.”

Martin’s expression went blank. He was quiet until we got back to the dock.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Thanks for the ski trip,” I said and hopped out of the boat.

.  .  .

The fortress was made of seaweed. It was dark tangles and leafy turrets. I reached a hand out, but as I did, the flowing, swaying mass seemed to move away.

There was motion above me. Rose was there, in a snorkel mask, reaching her hand down to me. I held out my hand, but my fingers turned into fins; Rose couldn’t grab on—they were too slippery. I turned to reach for the fortress, but there were only a few remnants of seaweed left. Crying, my tears disappeared into the sea.

.  .  .

It had started raining again by the time Lotte and Billy got back. First that light rain, when the sun is still out in half the sky, then it went all gray. The three of us decided that we would play cards. Billy cajoled Martin into joining. I had a beer. Martin wouldn’t make eye contact with me. I had a few more beers. The fridge was stocked.

.  .  .

My fins turned back into fingers, but it was too late. High above me, Rose was swimming away, wearing only her plaid men’s boxers, her back smooth and darker than chocolate in the shadows. She turned her head around for a second, to give me a wink. Then she swam up, up, and up, until I couldn’t see her anymore. A piece of seaweed floated by me. It was soft and disintegrated in my fingers.

.  .  .

“Sylvia.”

Martin pulled me down onto the dock so hard that it felt like my head might have cracked open against the wet wood, spilling brain matter and guts.

“What the fuck, asshole, that hurt.”

“Shut up, or they’ll hear you.”

Martin leaned over me, and I slapped one of his cheeks and then the other. Two radiant blossoms emerged.

“What do you think—”

“Shut up.”

His left ear was pinker than his cheeks and looked like a small baby sea creature, squishy and adorable and off-putting, all at once. I wanted to smack it hard. I wrapped my legs tight around his torso, and, grabbing ahold of his tee-shirt, pulled his face close to mine.

“Was there something you wanted to show me, fag?”

“Fuck you.”

His weight felt heavier than I had expected, his tongue thick and warm. Lotte and Billy were in the kitchen making dinner. I closed my eyes and saw Lotte dropping pasta into a steaming pot, while Billy stood at the counter cutting up fresh greens.

Martin started making strange grunting and groaning noises, like a big medieval boar being stabbed. He yanked down my shirt and moved his mouth to my right nipple, sucking hard. He grabbed hold of my other breast and squeezed like I was one of those stress release balls with smiley faces that can be clenched and squished and played with till their gelatinous innards pop out. I bit my lip, groaned. Martin fumbled for his zipper.

The wet dock was cold against my back. Behind closed lids, moving dots, white and bright, filled my vision. They coalesced into Lotte’s big diamond, glittering, huge, then exploded, swirling out into blackness. I saw Rose’s eyes, rich and brown. With Rose, there was always light.

I could roll away from Martin. Slither out from under him, across the dock, and into the pond. It was fresh water, but I would find a secret current, a special tunnel, to take me to the wild sea. I’d make a watery bed up, for Lotte and me, soft coral for a frame, sponges for cushions. Rose would come. We could all take care of the baby. Except that my heart, smooth as glass and full of rain, might get lost in the seaweed sheets . . .

I woke up early. The dawn light illuminated Lotte in her twin bed, her blond hair sticking up like a baby chick’s feathers, hands folded neatly under her cheek in the same position she’d slept in since I’d met her, when we were five.

Billy was making coffee in the kitchen.

“Good morning. You’re up early,” he said.

“Don’t I know it.”

“Must be a trend this morning.”

“What?”

“Martin—he left ten minutes ago.”

“He did?”

“I know, it’s a pleasant surprise. He said he’d be gone for a week or two.”

.  .  .

Easy, sweet thing, said Rose, the first time she laid me down on her bed, my heart pounding. She could see my tail, shining and beautiful, glittering and green.

.  .  .

Lotte found me outside as I was packing up my car.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m leaving.”

“What do you mean? There’s the baby shower. And the beach—we were planning on going to the beach today.”

“I know, but I have to go. I’m sorry, Charlotte.”

.  .  .

When Lotte and I were kids, we played mermaid. It was the one thing I could do better than her. She’d hold her breath and look at me underwater, arms at my sides, legs pressed together firmly as I waved my tail in powerful strokes that propelled me across the town pool. When we came up for air, Lotte always cheered and applauded. You are so elegant. Lotte had just learned that word from her ballet teacher. So elegant, Sylvia. I would grin widely and dive down to amuse her again.

When we came out of the turquoise water, eyes red from the chlorine, Lotte’s mom called us water monsters. Not Syl, Lotte would say. She’s a mermaid.

Then we’d sit in the sun, eat potato chips, and lick the salt from our fingers.