Selection from “Women Float”
“Win, okay, ready for the big test?” Sandra asks.
“No,” I say.
“It’ll be fun. Like deep sea divers.”
“Can’t we just be shallow sea divers?”
“Not today. Remember? Just trust the water.” Sandra scoops a handful of water and pours it over her shoulder, like an old woman in a bath. “Have we talked about buoyancy yet?”
“It’s like this.” She lays her hand on the surface of the water like a person floating. “Where we’re standing. Here. What do you feel? Light or heavy?”
“Neither, really. Light, I guess.”
“That’s because you are. Now watch. I’m gonna dunk down, and I bob right up.”
This question makes Sandra pause. “I don’t know. I just float up naturally. It’s actually hard to stay underwater. You have to force yourself to. Because our body, it wants to float, especially when our lungs, they are filled with air. And as women, it’s easier. Women float easier than men. More body fat. Some people, they have a harder time floating, but everyone can. Watch.” She takes a big breath and bobs under in a tight ball, and then her body rises up to the surface and floats like a jellyfish. In a second she flips her head up.
“See? Now this time, I’ll try really hard to sink.” She blows out all her air and flings herself down to the murky bottom of our pool. No air bubbles rise up this time. She sinks for a second, and then rises to the surface.
“Okay, now we’ll try together. First, take a big breath of air, then we go under. Uno, dos…” and on tres she dunks under.
My heart pumps fast, but I stay above the surface. I keep remembering film footage of those whales trapped under ice in the Arctic, with no air. I can tell I’m one of those people who can’t really float. When Sandra pops up again, she coaxes me, “I’m right here. Okay, Win? You’ll be fine. Ready? Hold my hands this time.”
“I’ll sink to the bottom like a lead weight. I’ll settle on the bottom.”
“No. Your body wants to float. Your legs, your arms, everything is light. You’re light. Think light. Enough talk. Let’s try. One, two…” and on three she sucks under in a big breath. I feel Sandra’s arms pull me under, but I resist and the water caves
in over her head. I look down at her from above the surface of the water and smile at the bubbles streaming from her nose and mouth. Her black hair wavers around her face, and she holds her body below her, and fans her hands back and forth exactly like a mermaid. I’m sure she lived underwater in a past life.
Underwater, she holds her hand up, makes a one, two, three with her fingers, then opens her mouth. Muffled, through the water I hear a sort of screaming noise that must be Sandra’s voice. I open my mouth and say “mermaid” out loud. A mermaid, but a failed mermaid because she keeps floating up to the surface. Where have I heard that before? My mom, Janie, told me a story once, one of her drunken bedtime ramblings. Before I can quite remember the whole thing, Sandra comes to the surface. She asks, “What happened?”
“I got scared at the last minute. You look exactly like a real mermaid. Mermaid Woman. Not like me…”
“People have said that before. But you’re wearing the green sirena suit, superwoman. You can do it!” She pulls herself out of the water, and stretches out onto a rock, her toes pointed out. She straightens her arms and arches her back. Water drips off her back into the pool. “I’m a mermaid now, too, see?” She laughs. “We gotta go. Lesson’s over. Good work today, Win. Time to get out.”
“Today wasn’t good. I’m a failure, a failed mermaid.” I lug myself up, over the rocks, careful not to skin my knees, and Sandra hands me a towel.
“Failed? No. Why?”
“’Cause I couldn’t dunk.”
“Don’t worry. Next time! Not a failure, no. We’ll try again.” We walk back down the trail towards her car, and as she starts the ignition and pulls away I say, “My mom once told me a bedtime story about mermaids. It was around this time of year. I remember my sheets were sweaty, and I couldn’t sleep. So my mom got out the rotary fan from the closet and set it next to my bed, turning, you know, like a sprinkler, so it hit the whole room.”
“Costa Rica is hot like that, too. Sticky hot,” says Sandra.
“So, my mom wet a washcloth for my forehead and told me a cool story so I could sleep. It was all about her being a mermaid. Actually, a mermaid who can’t…how did it go? Once there was a mermaid who keeps floating to the top of the ocean. She’s a failed mermaid. So, her family tries to hold her down, so she won’t float away. I can’t believe I still remember that.”
As I explain to Sandra that story, the memory rises inside my head. I see Janie sitting at the edge of my bed, a red headband tied around her head, my bedside light hitting half her face. Scent of alcohol and sweat, perfume and the sea. My mom’s voice, or how I imagine it was, telling the whole story using her name in third person, like a fairytale, and I can almost remember it.
Janie was a failed mermaid. She couldn’t stay under the water. As a baby, they tied her to rocks, and dead creatures fallen to the sea floor, and once the bloated corpse of an ex-Navy man who had been singing show tunes to cure insomnia, until someone pushed him over. But still she’d get loose. As her body would rise higher, she wouldn’t even fight, couldn’t fight buoyancy. She’d flip her tail, and when the surface became clear she’d watch her face reflect, grow closer, ripple, like the sifting of sand on the ocean floor.
One time she finally broke the water’s surface and felt a cold, cold, cold around her. Nose, ears, lips, chin, emerged, and she inhaled. She smiled, and her mouth filled with bright air, not the harsh salty water. She stretched her neck, laid her head back, and unfolded her arms, a lone body on top of the swells.
In one jerk, her body was seized from below. A lasso of seaweed tugged at her ankles. Janie heard her fiancé’s voice gurgle up in bellows. Fish ducked and darted as she sank and sank, until her body bumped against the spring-cushion floor, covered with sea urchins, starfish, holdfasts. Janie’s family had built her a giant rock necklace, laced with the rib bones of lazy fish, and lashed it to her with sponge thread and cement. Nothing more was said about the incident.
“So, why did your mom consider herself a failed mermaid?” Sandra asks. She’s been quiet for a while. As she parks the Camry, she folds her sunglasses and tucks them onto the top of her bathing suit.
“I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it that way. It’s just a story.”
We sit quiet for a second, staring at her doorway, and Sandra unties her scarf from around her head. As I get out, I notice we’ve dripped water onto the seat, and left wet butt marks on the vinyl. I pick up my bike from where it has tipped over on her front lawn.
“A sad story. What about the end?”
“That’s it. The mermaid just gets weights tied to her so she doesn’t float away.”
Maureen Foley is a writer and artist who lives on an avocado ranch by the sea in Southern California with her daughter, stepson and husband, writer James Claffey. She is the author of a chapbook of poems, Epileptic. Her writing has appeared in Wired, Caesura, The New York Times, Santa Barbara Magazine, Skanky Possum and elsewhere. She received a Master of Fine Arts in Prose from Naropa University and now teaches creativity, English, writing and more in Santa Barbara County. She is currently working on a new novel and developing a series of illustrations and text for a children’s book.
Beth Couture is an assistant editor with Sundress Publication and the secretary of the board of directors of SAFTA. She is also the fiction editor of Sundress’ newest imprint, Doubleback Books. Her own work can be found in Gargoyle, Drunken Boat, Yalobusha Review, the Thirty Under Thirtyanthology from Starcherone Books, Dirty, Dirty from Jaded Ibis Press, and other publications. Her first book, a novella titled Women Born with Fur, is due out in the fall from Jaded Ibis Press. She teaches at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA.