I’ve always been secretly jealous of mermaids. Their grace, beauty and agility became a constant source of envy and fantasy when I was a girl. Mermaids glide under the weight of the ocean and transport themselves effortlessly from shore to shore, ocean to ocean, and continent to continent the way I go from room to room cutting off lights in my house.
I’m jealous of mermaids because they can swim. I can’t swim. Neither could my mother or my grandmother. Like them, I am also afraid of big bodies of water. As a girl, I deduced our inability to swim and fear of water was some sort of evolutionary hold-over from our ancestors' first encounter with the ocean.
I am jealous of mermaids because they have freedom. Mermaids only emerge from the ocean if they want to sun themselves or enjoy the smell of testosterone when their “mer-dar” signals the approach of a naval ship filled with ab-rocking sailors. Mermaids are badass enough to swim with sharks and humble enough to blow kisses at starfish. Mermaids can do whatever the hell they want—except walk.
As a girl, I would write fantastic (not good fantastic, just “out there” fantastic) stories about myself as a mermaid. I had long, bouncy, onyx Donna Summer hair that would sweep my lower back in aquatic slow motion. As a 13-year-old writer, my Donna Summer “mer-mane” would hide the injustice that was the set of DD boobs that were a constant source of unkind words by the girls in my class, and a constant source of inappropriate words by teenage boys and predatory old men in my neighborhood, as well. It would take nursing three children and turning forty to realize how glorious those boobs were. In my mermaid stories, I was confident and sure of my place in the world. I still haven’t quite figured this out, but turning forty sure helped me to figure out where I didn’t belong. In my stories, I belonged to the ocean and the ocean belonged to me. In my stories, I was the woman I wanted to be with a fin instead of feet.
These days, I only feel like a mermaid when I write. Words are my ocean. I have the same relationship with writing that I have with big bodies of water. I fear the water, but I love the beach. There is no sand, if there is no violent crashing of water against the sediment. I fear the loneliness and rejection that comes with writing, but I love when I finish. I hate the process, the nakedness of baring your innermost thoughts (even if under the thinly veiled guise of fiction or as part of a series of jokes for a comedy performance), and I hate wondering if I’m doing it right. I do love if someone, anyone reads something I wrote or laughs at a joke. The validation is priceless. I find myself blowing mermaid kisses in my head as a sign of gratitude.
Sometimes, I will write one good sentence that makes me feel proud and satisfied; and I long to keep pushing against the current of words to come up with just one more.
Then, my “mer-dar” goes off, and I have to come up from the ocean. I don’t come up to ogle a ship filled with shirtless, tanned merchant marines. I come up because I am a domesticated mermaid. I bob to the surface when I hear, “Mama, I need some juice” or “Baby, what’s for dinner.” My perfectly sausage-curled, wet, Donna Summer hair disappears, and the graying, wind-blown crinkles re-appear. I grudgingly throw my faded, fuzzy lavender robe over my PERFECT 13-year-old boobs covered by my mother-of-pearl bikini top, and the mama boobs flop back down to my ankles. I retract my eel-slapping fin (as a mermaid, I am a straight-up badass) and my glimmery, shimmery, pastel scales give way to skin that thirsts for a good moisturizer against the Oklahoma wind.
I am a domesticated mermaid. I am landlocked by geography and circumstance. At night I swim from shore to shore, ocean to ocean, continent to continent, while my family sleeps. The agony and the ecstasy of writing the perfect sentence, or one just good enough keeps me alive. The words in my head echo and call out to me as waves crashing against the beach call to a real mermaid. The words wear me down into fine, soft sand. I search for a more perfect union of writing and family life. I long for the day when I can swim freely, gracefully from shore to shore, ocean to ocean, continent to continent as the sun shines over my head like a real mermaid. Until then, I will remain a nocturnal, domesticated mermaid.
I realize mermaids are not real, neither was Donna Summer’s hair, but that doesn’t stop me from being jealous.