I’ve spent the last two years underwater, but somehow I’m still not a mermaid. I suppose I never purposefully embarked on a journey to live in the water, didn’t consciously realize that I had been holding my breath for so long now that it has become second-nature, until that’s all I kept doing. At first, it was just me taking my sweet time to turn things over, muse, set them back down, and drift elsewhere along the sea bottom only to come back to reexamine them to see if I missed something, and this would occur again and again, and again. Of course, I’ve been holding my breath the entire time, so maybe I was never meant to be a fish anyway, since fish do indeed breathe through their gills, these ingenious biological contraptions fanning the sides of its head that allow oxygen to flow into its circulatory system while pushing carbon dioxide out. Or maybe it’s intent that has brought me here, here in my mermaid-less state, hands folded over each other, shoulders hunched over the public pool’s yellowing plastic edge as I let me heart rate come back down, coming to the reluctant acknowledgement that I had never really wanted to be a mermaid even though I checked off all the tacit requirements.
Spend time in water? Check.
Deem the state of underwater to be your home? Check.
A natural at swimming? Empty box, awaiting a check.
I was never a stellar swimmer, always too afraid to drown even when I could swim to wilfully allow myself to float, to relax. On the rare occasion I would let a friend convince me to jump off her dock into the lake, agree to play a game underwater after some prompting. Life in the water was never a choice made with time, made with purpose. Life in the water just happened, the slowest of epiphanies to ever be remarked, something that slowly seeps into your mind that you’ve been doing all along though you don’t know how.
I took my last breath when he left two years ago. Maybe the water in all the ways that it refracts, in my careful study of the way something looks in one angle doesn’t look quite the same way in another, made me unaware. Maybe the way my mind was always occupied and I went on this mission to forget went awry. I just held it, swept by the promise of lost treasures, prizes that may have been overlooked by the big skimmer on its first length across the ocean floor. You think no one’s dropped money down there? A gold ring? Some bauble that contains even the slightest precious metal? A love note that got side swept in the wind and into the water? A body? Did it come by accident? Who cares. It’s the end point that counts at the end, isn’t it? Especially when you’re down in the darkest crevices of the sea floor. At that point, there’s no way it’s not about the journey. There’s only you, the breath your holding, and all the evidence at your feet.
There are no mirrors down on this floor, especially because mirrors refract light in order to be useful. But alas, there is no light down in this trench. This bitch is Mariana. And that’s what makes it perfect: you can’t see yourself, you can’t get distracted with about-faces. You just have to keep going ahead, inspecting albeit blindly the artefacts for worth, collecting the promising candidates in your ever expanding mesh bag, and going on with the search. It never ends. The ocean’s not finite of course, but it takes time to turn over everything but good thing you have some time. And you get greedy, especially when there aren’t other people who can hold their breaths as long as you to nag you, remind you that if you slowly come back up (as to prevent your lungs from bursting from the sudden change in pressure), you can make it back to the surface, and at the surface you can breathe. It’s a fucking midnight kingdom here, and you don’t have to bask in disgust of yourself. It’s not particularly filthy down here, there’s just a lot of stuff. There’s a lot of stuff you want to see again, to search for. It’s addicting.
Sometimes I think about the way he grimaced when I told him that my favorite television character was Gina from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but then I just start looking at a different spot in the sand and the thought passes. I don’t like the feeling that comes over me… this life on the surface… this past on the surface. I can deal with the past, as long as its remnants are all underwater. Sometimes I can’t shake off the time we sat across from each other and he told me everything I didn’t want to hear, like how ridiculous I had been acting, like didn’t I know how much of an asshole I’d been? And I’ve thought about it, fleetingly. Then darted to a different thought. It’s dark down here, it feels dangerous at times, so it keeps me in the present, it doesn’t let me drift to the past. It doesn’t let me float up, I’m here to sink to the bottom with purpose, I’m here to find myself in memories that were abandoned.
I’m slowly starting to forget his smile. Isn’t that the saddest thing you’ve heard?
Bullshit. No it’s not. It’s just sad for me. It’s sad because I’ve spent so long at the bottom looking for something.
I don’t know what.
Maybe it’s his smile?
Maybe it’s closure?
Investigative journalism for all the things I’d done wrong.
Maybe it’s just waiting for time to pass until I gradually become a mermaid, an unintended consequence, a different type of obstacle to pass the time, to occupy my mind.
He walks, I swim.
I only came back up because I was caught off guard, getting myself tangled in a trawler as it combed the ocean. And don’t you bet they were surprised when they brought up their week’s catch on that Saturday, laid out their creatures to sort, weigh and count, and saw a mermaid –holy shit no, that’s a human girl… she’s got legs!– among the squirming fish and crustaceans trying to get back into the water for survival’s sake, to go back to their lives before this trawler came to collect its catch.
When they released me from that expansive net, also freed was my mesh bag with its various large shells caked in sea-floor sand, gummy fibres that must have been love notes a long time ago, a few coin-shaped pebbles, and a mollusk-infested anchor lined with gold.
Where’d you find this? One of the men ask, as five of them have their hands on the anchor, trying to discern on the spot whether or not it’s real gold and if that were true, whether it would be worth something.
I’m not sure where I found that, I say. But when I did, I kept looking for another one.