by Meagan Cass
My exes are all in love with the same mermaid singer-songwriter. They want it known: their love predates Pull Out the Hooks, the latest wildly popular release. In suburban teenage bedrooms, while less evolved boys postered their walls with Cyndi Crawford and Pamela Anderson, cranked up Blink 182 and Sum 41, they created their dark, complicated alters. A Doc Martin shoe box with a black candle and silver tissue paper inside. A cedar desk drawer filled with sketch books. A special shelf where sports trophies were supposed to go. In these sacred places they preserved Undertow, If the Prawn…(yes they have memorized the full hundred word title), and a host of bootleg concert recordings.
It isn’t her beauty they love, though of course she is beautiful. Those giant eyes in that thin, round face. That long, dirty blond hair she wears simply down her back. That emerald tail. What bullshit, how she’s been objectified by the music industry! they ranted on our early dates in a way I found charming. On her first tour, performing inside that ridiculous pink aquarium her dirtbag manager required! In the video for the first single, made to lie in a bathtub in only black mesh!
No, it isn’t her beauty, it’s her voice they can’t get enough of. That old sea witch voice inside that Ariel body, that raspy wisdom springing from a lush mouth. The way she sings what they cannot express, the harder emotions, the roiling combinations of self-loathing and desire and regret their fathers told them to swallow down or translate into goals and hip throws. The thick kelp forests of sadness they too have wandered, wander still. The despair of certain hadal zones that no one else in their life can reach.
Though they have to admit: they like her look on the cover of the third album, Incredible Organism. That white, gauzy dress swirling in midnight water. How she appears fierce and also fragile, a mermaid-girl-ghost who glows with benthic bioluminescence, haunts their dreams. She does not need electric lizard hair dye or medusa red lipstick or busy floral patterns like I do. She does not paint her nails bitter bitch blue. She lets her natural beauty and her art speak for itself. A pretty cryptid, it has to be said. A pretty, weird, brilliant cryptid. A pretty, weird, brilliant, fuckable cryptid and they wouldn’t mind if I lost some weight, they were dieting too, maybe from now on we could split single dishes at restaurants.
Maybe I could try her Lucite glasses instead of these tacky cat-eye frames. Maybe I could try plain linen shirts. Maybe I could wax my eyebrows thin like hers, it wouldn’t hurt. Maybe I could run every day, lose the belly fat that falls over the waist of my jeans, slide into a halved pair of American Apparel leggings, an almost-mermaid. Maybe I could only speak when I’m sure I have something insightful to say.
Maybe then he would talk to me after sex. Maybe then he would say, “I feel–” and keep going. Maybe then I could teach him how to love. Maybe then he would move with me in the mysterious sub-photic layers, the precious, shadowy, sensitive ecosystems beneath our topical conversations. Maybe then he’d envision a future together. Maybe he’d look at me like he did in the beginning, the way he still looks at her when we watch her videos late at night on his computer, curled around each other in the bed that is still not ours. Like I could be beautiful too.
“What a great feminist turn she takes on Pull out the Hooks!” my about-to-be exes were shouting. They were holding up the body of the mermaid singer-songwriter whose music I also love. They were holding her by her arms and swinging her emerald tail at me. They were using her to smack me backwards away from them. I was falling backwards, back into the sea, ugly and eel-skinned and aching and alone again.
It took a long time to regain my old form. Slowly, I remembered my appetite for greasy pizza and whole rare cheeseburgers and shouty fabrics. I remembered how to turn my brown hair flamingo pink, how to break in a new pair of boots, how to caress my thick thighs, how to stir my cunt to succulence, how to unfurl stories among the bristlemouths and lantern sharks of these depths, how to be the sequined, boisterous, oozy, bubbly, macraméd, mouthy, weepy, clunky, space grandma woman I do, most days, love.
After a while, the mermaid singer-songwriter swam up beside me. She was, of course, my same age, her face worn and tired and witchy like mine. We sang her songs, all my favorites, the ones full of grief and anger and longing, the ones to which I know all the words, the ones that give me the feeling we’ve dated the same kind of men. Cryptic, withholding, always already retreating. Men who sense you are too much. Men who don’t mean to muffle but do. Men in their thirties who are really seventeen, driving lonely country roads with their siren on the stereo, imagining how they suffer makes them deserving. Men who like you better in a box or up on a shelf. Men who would steal your rich, tender, salty, risking tentacled heart only because you are offering it, only because it is easier than learning to sing for themselves.
Meg Cass is a queer fiction writer, teacher, and editor who lives in St. Louis, MO. ActivAmerica, their first book, was selected by Claire Vaye Watkins for the 2017 Katherine Anne Porter Prize. Their stories have appeared in Mississippi Review, DIAGRAM, Puerto del Sol, Passages North, Joyland and other magazines. Meg’s flash fiction has appeared in the Wigleaf Top 50 (2012) and the SmokeLong Quarterly Best of the First 10 Years Anthology. They teach creative writing and publishing at the University of Illinois Springfield.
Photo: Daniel Bernard/Unsplash