(Originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2011 issue of Allegory Magazine, Volume 15/24.)
Aunt Matilda’s fork scraped against the edge of her plate, ostensibly chasing a wayward piece of dewy arugula but in truth dragging the prongs along the porcelain until every piece of dish ware shrieked in sympathy. At last she stabbed it, brought it to her mouth and put it out of its misery between her too-white dentures. She watched me as she did so, a laugh impatient behind her molar maneuvers, to see if I would squirm.
But not me. Not timid, little koi-girl, me in my goldfish colored dress, fins of fabric around every cuff and hemmed edge. I sunk into the wide scallop of the rattan chair at the head of the table that crowned the second floor of the two-storied steamboat-cum-restaurant, the dubious guest of honor, surrounded by the people I loathed most — my family.
“Darling, another drink?” Mother, to my left, raised her own glass, seeking permission rather than offering gifts. “You’re legal now, dear. You might as well enjoy it. No more having to sneak out with your friends to enjoy a bit of bubbly. You’re one of us now. An adult.”
The women surrounding the tabled chortled, eyes that dripped knowing winks and sly glances, all of them knobby jointed women with billowing bellies and breasts, swathed in cheap and garish polyesters, mother included. They imagined themselves as me, and couldn’t be more wrong.
I pushed aside my untouched plate of snapper, fried and unhappy and empty-eyed. Instead, I reached for my water. I drank as I always did, great gulps, draining the cup. A waiter, dressed up like a cabin boy from a turn of the century cruise liner, refilled my drink without asking or making eye contact. He then scuttled away, disappearing into the garish ocean-themed restaurant that had been chosen, not by me and not really for me, to celebrate the occasion of my unlikely birth.
My mother, it was said, was attractive only to small helpless dogs. She had been alone for thirteen years after her first husband left and, on a whim inspired by the instance of a friend who had put up a shingle as a travel agent, took off to Fiji one week for a cruise and came back flushed full of life and passion.
Then I was born.
So I was told by curious friends when I was younger, hoping to needle out of me the particulars of the event that Mother never shared. All I knew, from the time I was old enough to know anything, was that she cleaved me to her like I was the last life boat on the Titanic.
The waiter reappeared. He leaned forward to whisper something to my mother, whose eyes widened in some secret, wicked joy. She nodded to Aunt Matilda, and then her other crony friends, and then at last to the waiter, who offered a regretful look in my direction before he disappeared behind the palm once more.
I watched him go and wished I could follow.
Instead I watched the Hermit Crab ladies scuttle and clack their elaborate lacquered nails along at the table in anticipation. Mother grinned a gap-toothed Cheshire smile, and cooed, “Just you wait, darling. Special, just for you!” She clapped like a child, and soon they were all doing it, bangles and rings clanking together like pirate gold.
I sank into the rattan chair, wrenched my fingers into the crisp white linens of the table and looked from side to side. Other diners ate and drank unaware of the unnatural creatures beside me. They saw no threat, no perversion in the inside-out walls of the restaurant that overlooked the honest harbor below. They thought it only fun, only kitsch, to have a great mast wheel against the one wall, portraits of captains that never sailed the sea, a graveyard of sea creatures stuffed and mounted on the walls, and all swathed with coarse, smothering fishing nets that let no one escape.
I grabbed my water. Gulped so hard I swallowed air, didn’t care, drained the glass again. Water beaded at the corner of my mouth, perfect and cold and jewel-like. I drew my knuckle slowly across my lips, gathered it, and licked it away.
“Here! Here it is! Come on then, girls. For my darling Pearl!”
The double doors to the galley opened, and the quiet waiter appeared with a host of serving wenches and porters trailing behind. They carried a cake, gruesomely fish-shaped, a parody of life. It gaped, forever frozen in a twisted confectionary grin while its skin writhed with twisting sparklers, one for every year. All the table clutter in front me was swept away by efficient, warm hands, clearing a space for their offering. I reached for my disappearing glass of water but Mother swatted my hands.
Aunt Matilda’s goiter wobbled like a cock’s wattle while she gathered up the girls to join in the off-key chorus.
“We wish you a fishy birthday…”
They crowded close, stole the air with them. I gasped, I gulped. I held my throat.
“We wish you a fishy birthday…”
Closer still. I shook my head. All I could manage was a rasp-voiced cry. “Mother, I —”
“We wish you a fishy birthday…”
I would die here surely, and none of them would notice! I would be purpled and puffed, like one of the horror shows on the wall, and they would go on to dessert. I took the last great gulp of air the restaurant still held and shouted, “Stop it!”
Silence and daggers of accusation sharper than the fish monger’s knife pieced me as though for gutting. My mother’s friends looked to one another, outrage plain on their downturned mouths, like grotesque gulper eels. One by one they turned their predatory eyes to my Mother, waiting for satisfaction. The nerve, their glances said. The audacity.
The staff, meanwhile, relieved, disappeared with the speed of frightened anemones.
“Now, dear, this is all for you,” she reminded through gritted teeth. She clucked nervously, said to the others, “She’s just overwhelmed. She hates being fussed over, but some things should be. Darling, isn’t it fun having all your friends with you, celebrating your birthday? Don’t you want to be a grown up? Like us?” She patted my hand, fingers weighted down by too much jewelry.
“No. I don’t.”
Mother sputtered like a fountain whose water had just been cut. “But darling, what else could you possibly be?” And what had been silent outrage among her friends erupted into frog-like protests. “Ungrateful creature.” “Spoiled brat.” “Back when I was a girl —”
I looked over my shoulder, outside. Down at a crescent of developed waterfront, the tourists pointed to the rolling, churning crests of sea foam riding above the deeper current of darker waves, and I remembered. Back when I was a girl, just a little thing, I swam. Mother, preternaturally afraid of water, had never let me near anything bigger than a glass of water. Baths were forbidden; I showered as soon as I was old enough to stand. But one day as we walked close to shore, her hand clammy in mind as she looked out across the water with an odd expression on her face that I had no name for, I took my opportunity, broke free from her hand and ran. I crossed the sandy beach and waded out into the water, going deeper, the ocean rushing up to meet my ankles, joyous and frothy. I knew no fear. Deeper still, until the water tickled my nostrils, filled my eyes. My hair became the last, ethereal connection to the surface until it too broke ties with land and followed me deeper, becoming an octopus crown.
And then a hand, wrenching like the fisherman yanking at a crab’s claw, and I was in my mother’s arms as she wailed and cried and smothered me to her wet breasts, vowing she would never put me in such danger again.
Oh, I remember the sea.
They argued, and I turned away from the picture windows, back to the dusk-like gloom of the restaurant. They were trying to decide who was more right, in which way was I was the most horrible girl in the world. Unable to bear even looking at any of them, least of all my mother who with the insistence of the seagull without a scrap of food tried to tell them I was only a little bit horrid, I let my eyes slide over each indignity the walls offered.
Until at last my eyes fell upon a beauty I had never seen before.
She was glorious, carved from wood but even that could be forgiven. Gripping a triton in one hand and a starfish in the other, she serenely watched over the proceedings, bemused grace lighting up her features. They had covered her breasts with demure clamshells and her tail circled under her in an infinite and elegant and jewel-scaled figure eight.
I said, in the smallest, quietest way possible, “I’m going to be a mermaid.”
This of course, they heard as if it were the gong for the buffet. One by one they turned their heads, quite automatically, to me. My mother, face perfectly alabaster, leaned in, fingers wiggling like nervous little crab legs, and said, “A wha—a what, exactly?”
I smiled, gripped the table. “Mermaid!”
I pushed my chair back, the fever of the moment muted when my rattan chair meekly fell to the floor. I yanked the linens, toppled the wine glasses and heaved the damnable fish cake onto to the floor by my feet. The women shrieked and cursed fouler than any cord-muscled sailor. Other patrons turned, stared, pointed, but only Mother seemed to care.
“What are you doing? And what could you possible mean, a mermaid?”
“This is your party, Mother. Not mine. Goodbye!”
I kicked off my icing-smeared shoes — they landed in the remains of the cake alongside the smoldering sparklers — and hiked up my satin dress. Stocking-footed, I fled the restaurant, near throwing myself down the stairs the to the main level. It took a moment, from the sounds of it, for Mother and her clutch of old birds to find their feet and follow, but sure enough I could hear them squawking somewhere behind me in hot pursuit.
But they couldn’t stop me now. I grinned at the wide-eyed patrons and winked at the boy in the cabin wear. Something seized him then, and he opened the door, a gentleman after all, and I dashed through as fast as my awkward legs had ever run.
The beach opened up with maternal arms. And the waves — oh the waves! — they hungered for me as I did for them. I stopped when I hit the sand, peeled off my stockings. My dress, so lovingly picked out by Mother and beautiful at last in its destruction, came off in ribbons like clotted, sun-kissed ocean froth clinging to the driftwood of my limbs. The gulls above circled, whooping with joy. I laughed and didn’t recognize my own voice.
By then, Mother had reached the edge of the shore. She stopped, teetered at the dividing line between land and sea, and cried out to me, “Darling, no! You can’t swim!”
I didn’t answer her. Just smiled, mouthed the words I love you and raced into the water, where lips of sea foam opened up to gold-scaled feet.