When my mother tells this story, she tries to tell it through my father's eyes:
The mermaid girl rode the F train standing up, one glittery hand wrapped around a steel pole at the end of the car. She was tiny, child-sized except for the curve of her finny body, her shiny green hips and the way her breasts pointed up inside their mermaid bra. The top was crocheted out of violet yarn with tinsel strung through it. The yarn was fine and knit loose, and when she moved the tinsel sparked and he swore he could see her nipples, the darker pale at the tips of her body.
Her lower half was a long tight skirt, spangled fabric printed with scales. Her feet poked through but the tail kept going, training out behind her into the harp-shape of fins, held with a bent hanger, one wire end poking out. She held a black trash bag pinched at the neck, ballooning with a bulk so light she held it hip-level. At Coney Island/Stillwell Ave she got off, her walk strange and underwater with her legs held together. He got off after her, though he hadn't intended to, though he'd had someone waiting for him four stops earlier, a girl he would apologize to, and who would forgive him, and then dump him two months later because she could see in his eyes that he'd swum far off, that he'd drunk in salt and siren-song, and his heart now lay elsewhere.
He followed the mermaid down the steps of the elevated platform--stairs, she took the stairs, hampered as she was, crippled outside her native element. She held onto the black iron handrail and her tail bumped along after her from two steps up, the bent hanger clicking on the cement. On the sidewalk outside she took two giant styrofoam blocks out of the garbage bag and tied them to her feet with beige string, softer than twine, scratchier than yarn. She let the crowds part around her, ignored the glares, and when she noticed he'd been standing beside her so still the crowds had to part for him, too, she just smiled and said, "Short as I am, you have to get creative. Can't see the parade otherwise." She straightened up and swayed and stood six inches taller than she should.
"What?" he asked.
"The Coney Island Mermaid Parade," she said, and he realized she'd assumed that's what he was there for, too, because why else would he get off alone at Coney Island?
"Just didn't hear you," he said, because he certainly couldn't tell her he'd only been following her, and knew nothing about any other merpeople.
"I was supposed to march. But I'm running late."
"I'm just here to watch."
"Watching is good. I'd rather watch than march."
He asked who she was supposed to be marching with, and she said she worked for a magazine in Manhattan staffed entirely by angry merwomen, who wrote angry articles for other angry merwomen about life in the angry ocean. She said it just like that, so he felt he could joke about it, too, and that even if she were an angry merwoman at least she had a sense of humor about it.
She wadded up the garbage bag and stuffed it down the hatch of a trash can. She'd carried nothing else, and started down the sidewalk empty-handed, unburdened but unsteady. She wavered on the blocks and he caught her upper arm. It was thin and cold and she turned her head to look up at him. Looked up at him, even on her stilts. The parade route passed along the end of the street, and as they stood at the intersection a squad of Electric Eels did the Electric Slide past them. "I'm late," she said. "It's started."
There were two-legged Jellyfish walking under clear plastic umbrellas hung with streamers, an alligator, an Elvis in a scuba diver's clear helmet, several pirates, but mostly mermaids. Mermaids dancing on impossible legs, riding in classic cars and towed sitting on thrones. Mermaids painted, sprayed with glitter, their hair threaded with seaweed and plastic vines. Mermaids with laddered ribs and mermaids with soft bellies falling over the waistband of their tails. Mermaids with bikini tops, mermaids with sea shells glued to their breasts, mermaids with only seashells glued to their breasts, the two halves of an oyster or clam or souvenir shop change purse. His own mermaid seemed modest in comparison but he still liked her best. When the Angry Merwomen marched by, she ducked behind him and pocket-sized as she was, he hid her completely.
They followed King Neptune and Queen Mermaid down to the beach, past the shuttered sideshows and hot dog booths, past Shoot the Freak: Live Human Target, and Dunk the Creep. They passed by murals of corn dogs and clam bakes and soft serve ice cream, following the parade across the boardwalk to the sand, where with oversized scissors the parade royalty cut a ribbon for each season, autumn, winter, spring, and finally summer. The King turned the cardboard Key to Open the Ocean. The Queen threw fruit into the waves to appease the Sea Gods, and the swimming season was officially opened.
The styrofoam-shod mermaid and her human prince watched cantaloupes and bananas bob past and she told him that sea creatures, divine or otherwise, didn't eat fruit. That in fact, mermaids secretly strained plankton through their teeth like baleen whales, even though it was an unsexy way to eat, and she was breaking the mermaid code by telling him. Mermaids liked algae and diatoms and krill. Some seasons the diatoms bred wildly and would stain the sea red, and the whole world looked bloody. She told him her name was Minniver, which was not true, and which she would always regret.
"Do mermaids ever eat corn dogs?" he asked her.
"They eat curly fries," she said. "In a pinch."
He ordered at a booth just off the boardwalk while she untied her feet from the blocks. The fries, when they came, weren't a plate or a box but a brick, an entire fryer-cage filled with spiraling fries and lifted out solid and rectangular, dripping oil into layers of wax paper. She looked embarrassed by the size, and he said he'd help her eat it. They walked towards the beach and found an empty bench looking out on the water. They set the brick of curly fries between them and slowly unraveled it into a tangle of oily Medusa hair.
They walked all the way past the housing projects on Surf Avenue to Little Odessa, and the Russian cafes. She suggested a drink but all she wanted was lemonade. He bought some for her and she slurped on her straw. They talked about the pollution in New York and how a beach where almost nobody swam was a tragic thing. She told him about her life off the Azores, where she had a palace made out of coral, and he talked about his apartment in Prospect Heights. Her tail dragged behind her as they walked, and turned her footsteps into a smooth streak of sand. They walked along the water, and without saying it, knew that they were waiting for dark.
He bought a fake Guatamalan blanket from a fake Guatamalan at a souvenir stand, and again, without speaking, they looked for somewhere secret. He would wince in his head years later at this, and have to remind himself that at the time this story happened, it didn't seem like such a very dangerous thing to do. They found a place that would serve, and in the dark he stripped off her tail and exposed her human legs. She stretched and they split and she was a being then he could love and make love to, with a sea at her center.
She complained that her tail when she put it back on was gritty, sanding the skin of her thighs, and he found out there was a pocket inside where she had stashed her Metrocard, some money. They walked each other to the subway, and when his stop came up she followed him out and stood kissing him so long that the train doors closed. He waited with her for the next one, and as she got on he put a note in the waistband of her tail, a slip of paper she assumed was his phone number and would not find out until the next day was blank. He was a human, after all, who had already found a tail-less human girl who liked the same movies and television shows, who from certain angles looked like a movie star. A girl who hadn't been afraid to tell him her real name the first night they met, in a crowded bar he wouldn't have blamed her for lying to him in, and whom he had realized, in the arms of the mermaid girl, that he might love.
When my mother ends the story here, it is because the man could not know, as he walked to his apartment and the mermaid rode the subway, that the train was rocking a minnow, a fishy life they'd spawned, mermaid and human and disinherited, now, forever. It is because she wants to pretend he never knew about the calls she made, the letters she sent, to numbers and addresses she'd hunted up knowing only his first name, a common one, the subway stop he left at, and a vague idea of what he did for a living. She signed her real name, Rachel, and sometimes she got apologetic responses from the wrong men, sometimes got no responses at all. She was never sure enough of her targets to know whether her human was ignoring her, or had just disappeared.
The other part of the story my mother never tells is where she must have thought me over, weighed me in her mind while I started to weigh down her body, held the idea of me in her hand like a smooth pebble, until by the time I had traded in my tail for the beginnings of legs, appendages that would serve me better for a life on earth, she could not imagine doing without me. She has never suggested she didn't want me, finny and fatherless and exiled from that coral palace off the Azores. Even when I turned out thoroughly human, even when I screamed with fear at being splashed in the bathtub, when I couldn't seem to not get soap in my eyes, when I failed Medium-Beginner swim lessons at the Y two summer sessions in a row. It is a story she told only because I begged three Halloweens in a row to be a mermaid. After she told it we compromised. I was a princess, a giant M&M, a witch, a flapper with long, skinny pale legs under a short, bead-rattling skirt.
One Saturday when I was twelve my mother took me to a beach on Long Island and we watched a father throw his child into the waves to make her swim. The girl screamed and her father told her that fear would make her sink. I could tell my mother wanted to say something to the father and I was too embarrassed to let her. She gripped my arm with one hand and a palmful of sand with another. The child didn't drown and my mother let herself subside.
"It's not so heavy as all that," she said. "Fear. How would anything swim?"
About the author:
Caitlin Horrocks lives in Tempe, Arizona, and has met very few mermaids since moving to the desert. She is the 2005 winner of the Atlantic Monthly Student Writing Contest and has work forthcoming in The Cincinnati Review. She is co-fiction editor for the print journal Hayden's Ferry Review.