S H O R T S T O R Y
THE MERMAID OF ORCHARD BEACH
b y j a n i c e e i d u s ~ n e w y o r k , n e w y o r k
IN SECOND grade, my secret fantasy was that one day I would be transformed into a mermaid. I would swim far, far away from the Gun Hill Projects, all the while singing silvery mermaid songs about the sea in an enchanting, melodic voice. In real life, however, I didn't know how to swim, and my singing voice was so off-key that I'd been turned down for the P.S. 41 Glee Club.
I was jealous when Mrs. Washburn, the music teacher who turned me down, accepted Lizzie and Rochelle, my two best friends. When second grade ended, and Lizzie and Rochelle were both sent by their parents to summer camps upstate, far away from the projects, I grew even more jealous.
On a rainy July morning, I stomped angrily into the kitchen where my mother was washing dishes and listening to Perry Como singing "Catch a Falling Star" on the radio.
"I want to go to camp like Lizzie and Rochelle," I announced.
"We can't afford it." Her voice was flat, and she didn't look up. "You know that."
She was right. I did know that. My father, who drank, had just been laid off again from his job as a TV repairman. This time, he wasn't even looking for another job.
She began to sing along -- badly -- with Perry Como, and I realized for the first time just whose lousy singing voice it was that I had inherited. This was the last straw: I stomped furiously out of the kitchen and into my bedroom. Throwing myself on my bed, I closed my eyes, fantasizing about the day when I would become a mermaid.
"Lizzie and Rochelle went to camp, so can I hang around with you this summer?" I asked my brother Mike. Mike had just turned fourteen. He was looking at himself in the mirror over his bureau, running his fingers through his brand-new crew cut. Sometimes he and I went to the movies together, or played handball in the playground across the street from the projects.
"Nah, not this summer," he answered, brusquely, surprising me. "I'm gonna go to Orchard Beach every day. You can't hang around with me on the beach." He rolled up the sleeves of his white T-shirt and flexed his muscles. "It ain't personal," he added, still gazing at his own reflection, not seeming to notice when I turned and walked out of his room.
Unlike Mike, my thirteen-year-old sister, Marlene, had never been friendly to me. Nevertheless, after Mike's rejection I approached her. "Forget it, Karen," she said. "I'm going to the beach, like I did last summer." Although Marlene's friends from the projects were all away, too -- mostly at bungalow colonies with their families -- she had a whole other set of friends at the beach. "You're not going to be my problem this summer."
My mother, however, complained that I was staying home too much. "You can't just mope around and daydream all summer long." She'd entered my bedroom without knocking -- the room I shared, against my will, with Marlene -- interrupting me as I lay in bed, picturing myself floating through the turquoise waters of the ocean, my mermaid hair long and golden, my fish-half sleek and gleaming.
"You need some fresh air, Karen," she went on, sitting on the edge of my bed.
I refused to look at her. Instead, I started to sing "Bless This House," one of the songs the P.S. 41 Glee Club sang at assemblies. I was hoping she'd feel guilty that I had inherited her lousy singing voice.
"I do insist upon one thing, Karen," she said, ignoring my singing." I insist that you start going to the beach with Mike and Marlene."
I shook my head no, still not looking at her. I had no desire to go to Orchard Beach. We'd gone there once together as a family, back when I'd been in kindergarten, during my father's still-sober days. I hadn't liked it: the sun was too hot; my father and mother had argued; and Mike and Marlene had gone off to play handball, telling me I was too little to join them.
"I want you to get some sun," my mother continued. "And I want you to meet other kids your own age. Lizzie and Rochelle aren't the only girls in the Bronx."
This was too much. I finally turned to look at her. "No!" I shouted. "Just because Daddy got fired, and we're poor and you can't send me to camp like normal parents, why should I do something I don't want to do? I don't want to go to the beach with Mike and Marlene!"
"Because," my mother rose from the bed and shouted back even louder, "I'll end up going mad if you don't get out of this apartment! Between you daydreaming in here, and your father passed out on the sofa, I don't have any room to breathe, that's why!"
I shrugged. I refused to shout any longer. My mother's madness wasn't my concern. And although obviously she didn't care, I was slowly going mad myself, ever since school had ended and my two best friends had gone away.
But my mother was adamant. The next morning, she woke me up and sat on my bed as I reluctantly put on the bathing suit she handed me. "Mike and Marlene are waiting for you in the living room," she said. "You stay with them when you get to the beach. Don't wander off, okay?"
I nodded, angrily. Mike and Marlene weren't going to be any happier about this than I was.
In order to get to Orchard Beach, we had to take one bus from Gun Hill Road to Pelham Parkway, and then stand on a long line and wait for a second bus, which was even hotter and more crowded than the first.
Mike, who didn't say a word to me, sat in the back of the bus next to Buddy Boy, a friend of his I'd seen around the projects. Buddy Boy, like Mike, was sporting a new crew cut, and they laughed and flexed their muscles for each other during the ride.
Marlene sat directly across from me. She studied her fingernails, tied and retied the white ribbon that held her bouncy blond ponytail in place, and began applying suntan lotion to her face and neck, even though we hadn't yet stepped out of the bus.
By the time the bus did finally pull into the beach depot, my head ached. In a rush, the passengers -- some of whom had been standing the whole way -- piled off. They milled around the depot in small groups: mothers counting heads; little kids shouting; babies crying; and everyone gathering up beach bags, towels, blankets, and radios.
Marlene, who was carrying two large terry-cloth bags -- both with illustrations of girls with bouncy blond ponytails just like her own -- spoke to me for the first time that morning. "Don't even think about following me, Karen," she said. "You're too young for my crowd."
Mike, who carried only a small white towel and a radio, left Buddy Boy for a moment and came over to me. "We'll meet up again right here at five o'clock," he said, beginning to look guilty. "You'll be able to find your way back, right?"
I nodded stiffly, staring at the ground.
"Don't be late, Karen," Marlene added. "We may not wait for you if you're late."
"Listen," Mike whispered, leaning over me and looking even guiltier, "if anyone bothers you, I mean, if some jerky guy says anything to you, you just come and get me. I'm at the section where all the bodybuilders hang out. Everyone knows where it is."
"Aay, Mike, come on!" Buddy Boy yelled.
I turned on my heel and began to walk away, although I had no idea where I was going. All I wanted was to get far away from Mike, Buddy Boy, and Marlene. I walked down the staircase leading to the beige-colored sand. I slipped off my white canvas Keds and threw them into my mother's shiny vinyl beach bag, which she'd given me that morning.
I walked barefoot on the sand, past teenaged girls sunbathing in bikinis and groups of boys playing catch. I passed noisy, large families -- sometimes two or three families all gathered together on blankets -- serving food and drinks to one another, playing cards, listening to music, all looking happier than I remembered my own family ever looking, even during my father's sober days. I didn't stop until I reached the very last section of the beach. Although I was skinny, my legs were strong, and they hadn't grown tired during the long, hot walk.
Unlike the other sections, which were lush with sand, this section was filled with sharp rocks. The water there seemed dangerous: deep and dark, with violent, crashing waves. It suited my mood. I stripped down from my shorts and T-shirt to my bathing suit. I spread my towel on a rock, and sat down.
I remained like that for hours, staring into the water and taking an occasional, reluctant bite of the dry-tasting peanut butter and jelly sandwich my mother had packed for me. Despite the hot sun, I refused to use the suntan lotion she'd also packed.
Finally, I looked at the skinny wristwatch that Lizzie and Rochelle had given me for my birthday. It was time to return to the bus to meet up with Mike and Marlene.
That night, my fair skin turned bright red. I was in so much pain that my mother didn't even yell at me for not using the lotion. Instead, as she rubbed a tingling ointment into my burning skin, she said to my relief, "Okay, no beach for you tomorrow."
But three days later, when my sunburn had healed, she appeared at my bedside, placing the tube of suntan lotion on my pillow.
After that, I took the two buses to Orchard Beach with Mike, Buddy Boy, and Marlene every single day. They ignored me during the ride, and we separated as soon as we arrived at the beach. Then I would walk by myself to that rocky section, which I came to think of as the Faraway Section.
Hardly anyone else ever went to the Faraway Section. Occasionally, there was a teenaged couple making out on one of the rocks. But we just ignored each other, and eventually they would leave, hand in hand, sometimes still kissing as they descended the rocks. Most of the time, though, I sat there all alone, staring out at the ocean, and feeling the heat from the sun on my now-tanned body.
One afternoon, about three o'clock, I was standing on top of a rock, nibbling on my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I was wearing the only bathing suit I had that summer, a one-piece, green tank suit which my mother had bought for me on sale, when I hadn't been with her to protest. The straps kept slipping off my shoulders, and I kept having to pull them back up.
As I stood there, I saw something way in the distance. I wasn't sure what it was. A large fish? A swimmer? It swam closer and closer, easily riding the big waves, alternating between a breaststroke and a sidestroke. Whatever it was, it swam delicately and yet with great strength. It also looked familiar in some way, as though I'd seen it before. Heart pounding, I climbed a bit farther down the rocks so that I could see it more clearly. By then I had guessed what it was, although I still didn't believe it.
She was fairly close to shore now. Her face shone, and her yellow hair was long and silky. She flipped over and floated on her back. Her tiny, undeveloped breasts glistened in the sunlight. It took me a moment to register that she was about my own age.
The mermaid and I stared at each other. She smiled at me. I managed to smile back. Still smiling, she did a graceful leap and dive, revealing almost in its entirety, her scaley, iridescent, fish-half, which I found just as beautiful as the rest of her. And then she was gone, disappearing somewhere beneath the violent waves of the Faraway Section.
I stood there for a long moment, rocking on the balls of my feet. When I felt steady enough, I climbed all the way down to the shoreline. That way, when she reappeared, I would be even closer to her. I was positive that she would come back, that she would want to see me again as much as I wanted to see her.
I waited, my feet planted firmly in the wet sand, and I took a few more bites of my sandwich, never taking my eyes off the water. I didn't blink or pull up my bathing suit straps when they fell. Then just as I'd known she would, she reappeared, her top half emerging from the water. I stared at her.
She tossed back her long, luxurious, glossy hair. Looking directly at me, she began to sing. Her voice was extraordinary, like some otherworldly, ethereal instrument: soft yet powerful; tremulous yet firm. At first the sound of her voice was so overwhelming that I didn't pay attention to the words of her song. Then I realized it was "Oh Susanna," the very song I'd failed my Glee Club audition by singing.
I took a deep breath, smiled shyly, and joined in, despite my embarrassment at my own out-of-tune voice. But the mermaid nodded encouragingly, and, somehow as we sang, our voices began to harmonize. When we were finished, she threw her head back and laughed, revealing white teeth that glittered like seashells. I laughed too. And then she dove beneath the waves, and was gone.
Although I felt exhilarated, I also felt disappointed. I had wanted to talk to her. I looked at my wristwatch. It was close to five o'clock. Walking the long distance back, I felt weak-kneed. I was over a half hour late.
"I fell asleep in the sun," I lied to Mike and Marlene.
"Well, don't let it happen again," Marlene said. "It's thirty minutes until the next bus."
Mike, standing on line with Buddy Boy, looked guiltier than ever.
My mother, who'd made spaghetti and meatballs for dinner, was annoyed that we were late. Since we'd never told her that I went off by myself, unsupervised, day after day, we couldn't very well say that I had fallen asleep.
"It was the bus, not us." It was Marlene's turn to lie. "It staged before we got to Pelham Parkway, and we all had to get off and it took forever for the new bus to come."
My mother didn't look convinced, but she didn't say anything else. My father was asleep and snoring loudly on the sofa in the living room. We were all silent as we ate the spaghetti, which my mother hadn't bothered to reheat. Marlene alternated between picking up the cold strands of spaghetti in her fingers and looking at them with distaste, and looking at me across the table with even greater distaste. Mike, who always ate seconds and sometimes thirds at dinner, barely finished his first serving. I finished my entire plate. I was so happy that I didn't care that the food was cold, or that everyone else at the table was angry at me.
The next day, I reached the Faraway Section around noon. I sat on the rock closest to the water. The mermaid appeared moments later. She smiled in greeting, and then immediately began to sing in her astonishing voice, flipping around in the water as she sang, her silver-and-aqua-colored fish-half wet and glowing in the sunlight.
I sat on the edge of the rock singing along with her, swinging my feet and snapping my fingers. We sang for hours: "Grandfather's Clock," "Scarlet Ribbons," "This Land Is Your Land," "Que Sera, Sera," "Silent Night," and "Home on the Range." Like me, she knew all the words to all of the P.S. 41 Glee Club songs, and we never grew tired or bored.
Over the weeks that followed, as I sang along with the mermaid -- who appeared every day, surfacing as soon as she was sure we were all alone - I could hear my own voice changing, growing stronger, more melodious and tuneful. She and I hadn't yet spoken; we hadn't even exchanged names. But that didn't matter. Much more important was the way she and I would sometimes try out something new, a variation on a song that was ours alone. So what if Lizzie and Rochelle had gotten into Glee Club, and so what if they were away at summer camp? I had something neither of them had: a new best friend, and she was a mermaid.
One morning a few weeks later, my mother came into my room. I'd just woken up, and was still beneath the covers. I was surprised to see her at that hour all dressed up, in a flowered, flared shirtdress, with her hair, which she'd recently dyed the same blond color as Marlene's, pinned into a movie star-like French knot. She looked pretty and young, and those things surprised me, too. "I'm liberating you, Karen," she announced, standing over my bed. "No beach today. We're going shopping, just the two of us." She sat on the edge of my bed. "You'll need new shoes for third grade, and I need a few things, too." She sounded almost happy.
Until that moment, I'd blocked out the fact that there were only two weeks left before school started, before my daily trips to the beach stopped. "I don't need new shoes," I said, trying not to reveal my sudden panic. Although I had complained to her more than once about the brown oxfords I'd worn all through second grade, I didn't want to miss a single, precious day with my mermaid, even for a pair of new shoes. "Karen, your old shoes are worn out. You've said so yourself. And despite the fact that your father isn't working, I'm planning on splurging today. So if I were you, I would take advantage of my rare generosity." She smiled and stood up, clearly pleased with herself. "Now go shower and get dressed." She left me alone in the bedroom.
There was no arguing with her. I felt miserable as I waited outside the bathroom until Marlene swept out, still wet from her shower, in her short white terry-cloth robe, with her hair pinned up in the mesh rollers she wore to bed every night.
"I don't want brown shoes this year," I said sullenly, as my mother and I walked up the Fordham Road hill to Alexander's. "I'm sick of brown shoes."
"Nobody said you had to have brown shoes again. You can get black or beige, too. They're both neutral colors."
"I want turquoise shoes." Turquoise for the ocean, I thought, although I wasn't going to tell her that.
As we walked, my mother held my hand and swung it, something she rarely did. "Oh, Karen, turquoise hardly goes with anything. You'll never wear turquoise shoes."
"I will so wear them. I'll wear them every single day, no matter what."
She didn't say anything more, but she continued to swing my hand. She also hummed tunelessly under her breath. I held my arm stiffly, growing increasingly sullen.
When we reached Alexander's, her first stop was the counter where ladies' scarves were displayed.
"I'm going for bright colors, a new look to cheer me up, not that my husband will even notice," she told the saleswoman, who nodded in sympathy and began placing what seemed like an endless number of long, silky scarves on the countertop. My mother began sorting through them, holding them up to the light, caressing them as though they were precious objects.
I leaned against the counter, shutting my eyes and wishing I were with my mermaid, singing our songs.
"Now it's your turn," my mother said, gaily, after she'd paid for at least five bright red and pink scarves.
Holding my hand again, she led me downstairs to the girls' shoe department. I followed, still feeling sullen, even as she led me to the rack of shoes in my size. And there, in the top row sat a pair of shiny, satinlike turquoise shoes with curled French heels and a T-strap. "Those," I said, pointing, jutting out my chin, preparing for an argument, and hardly believing my eyes.
"They're very pretty," my mother said, to my surprise.
"They are pretty," she said again, surprising me even more by taking out her purse and paying for them after I'd tried them on. "And you look so healthy with a tan, Karen," she added, as she led me back out into the street. "Now if only you'd gain a few pounds."
"Thank you for the shoes, really," I said, wondering what had come over her, as we walked back down the hill to the bus stop. She was swinging my hand again.
"You're welcome, really," she said. When we got to the bus stop, she took out the brightest of her bright new scarves and tied it into a pretty bow around her neck without even looking into a mirror, which amazed me as much as anything else she had done that day.
The next morning, I slipped the turquoise shoes into my beach bag. I wanted to show them to my mermaid. I knew she'd love them as much as I did. I waited all afternoon, scanning the water for some sign of her. I was all alone in the Faraway Section, so I couldn't understand why she didn't appear, unless she was angry at me for not showing up the day before. Once she saw the ocean-colored, turquoise shoes, I knew she would forgive me. But she didn't come.
That night, I sat up in bed, watching for the first signs of sunlight through the venetian blinds. "She'll come today," I whispered aloud, softly, so as not to wake Marlene.
"She'll come today," I whispered again, later that morning, after I'd positioned myself on one of the rocks in the Faraway Section. For the first time that summer, the muscles in my calves ached from my long walk on the hot sand. But again she didn't come.
Every day for the next two weeks, I carried the turquoise shoes to and from the Faraway Section with me. And everyday I sat there alone, my calves aching, straining to see her among the waves. Sometimes I stood and called out to her: "Hi, it's me, me, Karen! Where are you?" But she didn't reply, and she didn't appear.
The very last day of summer came, a hazy, humid day, and there was no sign of her. Perhaps her parents had taken her away to some other beach, I told myself -- Coney Island, maybe, or Far Rockaway -- and so she hadn't had a chance to say goodbye. That must be it, I decided. She couldn't have meant to hurt me. Best friends didn't do that to each other.
But the time had come for me to face facts: I wasn't going to see her again. I climbed up to one of the very highest rocks in the Faraway Section, and standing as close to the edge as I dared, with my legs apart, I gazed out into the deep water. I knew what I needed to do: Gathering all my courage, I rocked for a moment on the balls of my bare feet, taking a long, deep breath. At the same instant that a rough, black wave crashed loudly onto a jagged rock below, I began to sing "Scarlet Ribbons," which was her favorite of all our songs.
I sang at the top of my lungs, hoping that wherever she was, no matter how far away, she could hear me. When I finished, I sat down on the edge of the rock, trembling with excitement at the sound of my own voice, which had, over the summer, grown so strong and melodic, more beautiful than the voices of all the girls in Mrs. Washburn's Glee Club -- including Lizzie's and Rochelle's -- even more beautiful, perhaps, than the voice of my very own mermaid.
A fierce, noisy wind started up, and the sun disappeared behind mean-looking, dark clouds. It began to rain. I stared down at the churning waves below. The wind grew fiercer, the clouds darker, and the rain came down harder. I continued to stand there, letting the cold raindrops splatter on my skin.
I felt powerful and inviolate, understanding for the very first time all that I had accomplished that summer. I had created a mermaid, shiny, turquoise shoes, a powerful and stunning singing voice, and a lively, generous mother who'd taken me shopping and held my hand and laughed and sang. I had done all that, all by myself -- created so much from what was really so very little.
As suddenly as it started, the rain tapered off to a cool drizzle, and I walked slowly back to the bus depot to meet up with Mike and Marlene for the very last time that summer, knowing that nobody, but nobody, could take away from me these things that I had created. Not then, and not ever.
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