Sun. Sand. Margaritas on the beach. Our golden brown skin a shade deeper every day, like the stress burning its way out. Sky and ocean so blue their reflections reflect off each other into infinity. And we would swim, lost somewhere between the two, feet like fins, arms grasping both worlds.
Nudity and nights steaming with our heat in the cool ocean breezes. The two of us alone, finding the intricate patterns that made each of us beautiful like the streaks and spots inside the lily blossom in your short, brown hair.
That is how we dreamt it: Vacation—a holy word not to be used in vain. We held it up like a magic wand to reverse everything that was us in everyday life.
You had a tantrum when the luggage didn’t fit in the new M3 and I gave you two Percocet and told you they were aspirin, just to keep my sanity. At the airport you called the office and assaulted them with a tirade about their incompetence. So I had to get a drink and take some “aspirin” myself. Then we almost missed our plane. And somehow you didn’t notice all the dirty looks as you screamed into your cell phone while we sat on the tarmac. Can I help it if I had a few too many? Wouldn’t anyone? Then, like we had vexed the gods with our distemper in the face of so much sunny fun, the rain started on the cab ride from the airport. Miles passed in the gloom. Strange glum trees bent over the road in the overcast afternoon, their long slick leaves waving slowly. The driver, James, his skin like a black hole emerging from his pressed white shirt, said a storm was a-coming, don’t ya know. It doesn’t storm in the islands, you said, hands rummaging through your carry-on. James nodded, exposing a sliver of bright white teeth and I laughed—that was when we realized I had accidentally left your phone stuffed way down between the seat cushions on the plane.
You shouted and crammed everything back into your carry-on. The storm can’t be as bad as this, I said to James, and he coughed out a laugh between those teeth like pearly suns. The office will go under in days without me, you screamed. As if I was responsible for your office’s incompetence.
The house was tiny. But the shingles and siding were new and it stood straight and solid, raised off the sand by wooden stilts in the curvy windswept landscape. And the glorious beach, white and wide and deep with mounds of untrodden sand. Ridges of blissful, perfect slopes stretching for fifty yards at least. It could have been perfect.
But then the thunder started, and the lightning. I know how much you hate lightning. Have a drink, I said, to calm your nerves. Some of us don’t need to be alcoholics, you said, and told me to give you my phone. But my phone didn’t work. Probably the storm, I said.
There were ants in the bathroom, as your high pitched squealing let me know, and I found some kind of bug dead behind the fully stocked bar in the living room, but I felt it best to say nothing, you were close to the edge already.
The sky roiled a sickening purple yellow, and the thunder shook everything in the house, including me. I decided to go out and close the shutters and you had to say how “handy” I was. But you had relaxed somewhat when I came back in.
I was soaked and cold and bleeding where a nail had scratched my arm. But you put a gauze pad on it and joined me for a vodka. We huddled on the sofa and watched our reflection where a spectacular ocean view should have been. You didn’t dare use the hot tub with all the lightning, and I agreed. Somehow we continued to not argue as the storm attacked and I could hardly believe it when you started kissing me, placing my hand on your breast. We had sex beneath the quilted throw. But soon after, the rattling and random thunks of debris against the walls frightened you too much to just lay there.
What if it’s a tornado, you said. What if the sea washes the house away? How can we be sure, you asked? Your eyes held a softness I honestly can’t remember being there. I could go to the main house and see if there was some emergency evacuation or some news. You nodded. As if we were the kind of couple who didn’t need words. I told you to wait in the bathroom, in the door jamb.
I suited up in my heaviest windbreaker and slid into my beach shoes. When I opened the door, the wind nearly tore the knob from my hand. Rainwater splattered on the floor and I regretted ever wanting to go on vacation. Rain pelted my exposed skin and plastered the jacket to my body and created frantic rhythms against the fabric of my thin hood. I navigated up the shore like a captain besieged at sea.There was no information posted, no one around. Who would be foolish enough to go out in that weather?
When I returned, I told you everything would be fine. I told you the people at the main house assured me it was no big deal. You hugged me. Hugged me.
Maybe this vacation could work out, I thought.
But then, in the morning, the beach was gone and we found her.
When we opened the door to layered watercolor clouds and wet sand spilled onto the hallway tile, we laughed. When we stepped out onto the cold sand instead of the wooden steps, our smiles faded. But seeing the exposed rocks and packed earth just a hundred feet from our door, and not seeing the beach that had been there when we arrived is what ruined it all.
And of course, her.
I walked down to where the luxurious sand had been. Sand neither of us had got to touch. Never would touch. The water was warm on my bare feet but still a turbulent dark grey. You only stood at the ledge of land, pale shoulders slumped, hands tensed into fists. A cold wind rushed past, twisting your short curls. I walked along the water, trying to imagine where the beach had gone. Things like that don’t just disappear. Do they?
At the bend where our little cove curved toward someone else’s little cove, dark rocks jutted high like broken ribs. A giant dune of wet sand rose to the tops of some of the black, sharp peaks. The smooth new hill filled in where a row of waxy green bushes had squatted in the windbreak of the rocks the day before.
I noticed a spill of seaweed farther out along the curve, long brown leaves cascading down the slope. It was the only color besides the black rocks and white sand and heavy grey ocean.
As I neared it, I realized it was not seaweed. A girl lay half buried in the wet, thick sand, her whole right side submerged, her beautiful long hair rippled down toward the water.
I say a girl but she was not.
Her long neck, small exposed breast, thin arm and exquisite, delicate fingers all shone and sparkled with what at first I thought were grains of sand. But at her waist, where the curve of her hip rose from the new ground, scales began. And where her legs should have been, lean tapered muscle stretched beneath shining metallic scales before disappearing from view. Only a spiny-edged fin where toes should have pointed.
Her arm was bent at the elbow, her hand across her waist, the nails on the long fingers hooked and sharp and filled with beach, except for one broken off at her fingertip. From beneath her arm and all along to where she dipped under the sand, an opalescent stripe gleamed, the rainbow colors muted in the air, but still reflective against the cloudy sky.
Her huge black eyes were open. They stared up into the tumultuous clouds from sockets rimmed by dried blood. Her mouth too, open: a small dark oval where I dared not look too long for fear of something coming out. Her ears were small and pressed against her head, almost covered by hair. Just below, a curved slit on her neck, like a cut, where a red fringe of gill leaked out.
I realized I wasn’t breathing, but holding my breath in stunned awe. Your white sneakers appeared near her head, each step sinking into the unbroken stretch of smooth wet beach. I scanned up your body from hips to crossed arms to face. Your mouth was twisted and bunched in an angry knot.
“Is this another of your little fucking whores?” Your foot connected with her hip in a terrible thud, a smudge of grainy sand and dislodged scales marking where you kicked her. The sand around her opened in a mermaid-shaped black outline.
“She is a mermaid,” I said, trying to make the obvious slap you into reality.
“What, does she work on a cruise ship or something? Some costumed prostitute for the guests?”
“She’s dead.” I couldn’t think of what else to say or how to stop what I could see building beneath your splotchy skin. You kicked her again, just below her exposed breast, a dry weak crack sounded from inside.
“Is this why you had to leave last night? Sex with me was just a warm-up?” Your words echoed off the jagged rocks, splintering into the dull morning air. “Doesn’t my life mean anything to you? I could’ve been swept out to sea while you were out….out fucking some freak.”
You managed to dislodge her from the sand mold, dark pink water spilling from her mouth as you pulled her out.
“I had hair like this before! I have a flat stomach. And I have bigger tits.” Your fists smacked onto her dead flesh. Your nails scratched blue-grey welts. “I even have legs! What good is a whore who has no legs—no cunt?” You dragged her down the slope toward the ocean, the waves crashing and pulling on the beach.
At my feet lay a sand casting of her right side, the impression exact down to the scales. Almost beautiful even without her in it. If I squinted I could still see her. My brain filling in the colors that no longer shone, like it always does.
Down at the waterline, your ankle twisted and dumped you into the surf. Enraged, you leapt back up and dragged her by the arms out into the water, the fins of her tail fluttering in the churning waves.
When you returned, sneakers ruddy, face one big sob, and reflective grains of sand and scales splotched across your clothes and skin, I didn’t know what to say.
Your mouth opening barely enough to let out a quiet “Is that really what you want?”
“She was dead, Margaret.” I tried to emphasize my point, hands pleading with your blinking, shifting eyes to see the reality of it. “I never saw her alive. She was already dead.” Still no recognition. “Margaret, Meg. She was a mermaid. How could I—”
“Is that what you want? Really?” Stripping off your clothes, tossing the blouse into the wind, stretch pants tumbling down the slope, underwear a small flag from your hand then snatched away toward the cottage in a gust. Your skin luminous white and goose pimpled as you crawled into the casting left in the sand.
“I can be that.” Tears now. Drops streaming into the salty sand, your cheeks flushing red. “I can grow my hair long again,” you pulled at your short curls, trying to make them long.
Kneeling, I said, “You don’t have to be anything else.” I took off my shirt and wrapped it around your skinny frame as I lifted you from her mold. You had ruined what was left of the mermaid, smudging the impression and leaving your features imprinted on the malleable sand.
You always ruin everything
When James arrived that afternoon to check on us, we had everything packed. He tried to explain that the storm was over. No more rain, he said—his onyx arms gesturing at the clearing sky. You smiled at him but said nothing, just placed the bags one by one at his feet. And soon enough we were on our way out of paradise, the sun chasing us to the airport.
Your phone was there, held with our return reservations. Soon enough you were yelling into it, pacing and twisting ruthlessly on your hair, telling them how you knew they would fuck it all up. They couldn’t be trusted—with a long glare in my direction.
James stood by a set sliding glass doors waiting for the next plane to land, for some other happy couple, I thought. I asked him if he had ever seen a mermaid. He cocked a fuzzy eyebrow at me and shook his shaved head.
“We don’t need mermaids,” he said. “We got our own beauties here on land,” and nodded toward the woman working the ticket counter.
I sauntered to her workstation and smiled. She smiled back, her teeth glaring white and straight amid her soft brown skin.
“Do you like to swim in the ocean,” I asked.