“Let’s pretend we’re mermaids!” I suggested to my sister. It is 1991, we had received The Little Mermaid video for Christmas, and we watched it any time mom would let us. Nene was two years younger, and thus agreeable to anything I suggested. Sometimes I think she was just happy I was being nice to her for a change, including her in my make-believe world.
“Okay. But how can we do that when we don’t have a swimming pool?” she asked.
“Mermaids don’t swim in pools,” I said, my impatience with her creeping into my voice. I reigned it in, though – I needed her. “We can pretend the hall closet is our grotto. We don’t need to swim, we can pretend,” I pointed out, downplaying my intense desire to really swim like a mermaid, to really be a mermaid.
We gathered supplies for our deep-sea expedition. This included a fork (for our hair), our stuffed toys (to be fish) and the sea shells from our mother’s collection. Her name was Michele, so she collected shells. We weren’t allowed to touch the coral, but we wouldn’t get in trouble if we just took a few of the more common shells, like the spirally ones and the snail shells, as long as we put them back.
We set up in the hall linen closet, the biggest one in the house. The shelves became natural rock formations, the folded sheets sponges and seaweed, and it was properly dark inside, so it was perfect for the setting of an oceanic cave.
It didn’t work though.
As we shut the doors and turned on our flashlight with the blue cellophane over the lens, I tried to make it enough. I jumped, willing that spot deep in my chest to pull me upward, allowing me to take flight and swim through the air. I jumped again, certain that if I wished it hard enough, of course I could do it.
It wasn’t enough.
“This is boring,” I announced. “Let’s do something else. Let’s play Barbies instead. Barbie can be a mermaid. I think that would be better.”
It was a little better. I could make Barbie do all the things I could not. She could flit about, unhindered by stupid gravity. She could have adventures I could not. She looked a lot better in a bikini top.
That night, I dreamed I was in the next-door neighbor’s backyard. They had a swimming pool, and I always thought it was unfair because they were old people and they didn’t have any grandkids to come swim in it, but they never invited us to do so either. In my dream, I dive off the diving board, even though I am eight years old and I don’t know how to dive, and as I splice into the water my legs transform into a tail. I become a woman with a tail like a fish, a mermaid, and I can breathe under the water. I swim the length of the pool, then fly out at the deep end and the air around me becomes an ocean.
I woke up crying. I would never be a mermaid, even though I wanted to so badly.
As I sit here writing this and recalling this dusty memory, the feeling deep in my chest is as strong as ever. That indescribable internal pull pierces through the haze of time, the constant through all events of my life.
I type my stories now, though. I live through them.
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