The Private Lives of Mermaids
Updated: Nov 1, 2020
Published Voiceworks Issue 99; Runner-Up QUT Creative Writing Prize (2013)
When Mrs McDonald called to ask if I’d be able to help Lisa with her schoolwork I was surprised. In the whole time we’d attended the same school, Lisa and I had spoken twice. Once, when she’d been drunk after the semi-formal; the other, when she’d asked to borrow my pencil because hers had broken.
It wasn’t that Lisa wasn’t nice. She was, especially at the party, although I don’t think that counted because at the time she was cross-eyed. I didn't think it was because I was a pariah, either. We just didn’t have much to do with each other.
The other thing was Lisa wasn't dumb. You could tell because she rolled her eyes every time one of her friends gave a stupid answer in class.
She’d missed a couple of weeks of school at that point, not enough to be noticeable compared to the career truants. I was embarrassed my reputation as a nerd had extended to the parental community, but Mrs McDonald had said she’d pay me, and besides, it’s not like I could claim I was busy. So at three-thirty on Monday afternoon I found myself on their doorstep, and because I was nervous I kept tucking my hair behind my ear.
Mrs McDonald answered the door and led me into the kitchen, repeatedly thanking me for coming as if I were a visiting dignitary or something.
‘You want a soft drink, Henry?’
‘I’m fine, thanks, Mrs McDonald.’
‘You sure?’ she asked. ‘Coffee? What about a beer?’
I realised Mrs McDonald was nervous, too, because she kept looking at her reflection in the window and patting her mouth, as if to see if her lipstick was still intact. Also because, as far as I could discern, she wasn’t wearing any lipstick.
‘Henry, you should probably know…’ she said, at the same as I mumbled ‘Maybe we should get started.’ She broke off with an embarrassed laugh.
‘Henry, Lisa hasn’t been well lately. Not sick,’ she added, quickly, ‘Really, just a bit…I mean…I understand that this is uncomfortable, but honestly, I tried to catch her up on her work myself and it was hopeless…and you seem like such a nice boy and such a good student and maybe if she could just spend some time with someone, well, normal, it would help her, you know…’
Mrs McDonald was crying. I was standing in Lisa McDonald’s kitchen with her mother on a Monday afternoon and she was in tears. It was worse because she had this big motherly smile on her face and she kept checking her lipstick that she wasn’t wearing but her eyes were wet and shiny, and her voice kept cracking but she didn’t stop.
‘Lisa thinks she’s a mermaid.’
I stared at her. She was shaking her head with her lips pressed tight together, the way people do in soap operas when they say someone has died, or is dying.
‘Sorry,' I said, 'What?’
‘She…’ Mrs McDonald’s head dipped into her chest. I couldn’t tell whether it would make things better or worse if I laughed.
‘I’ll just show you, shall I?’
So she led me to the bathroom.
Lisa was in the bathtub and she was naked. Not only was she naked, but she was brushing her hair, and singing some kind of warbling aria that sounded like Enya or something even though I knew she listened to The Strokes and The Jesus and Mary Chain. But, also, she was naked. I’d never seen a naked girl before, not in real life, and now I was in the same room as one and it was Lisa McDonald.
‘I did ask her to put a shirt on,’ Mrs McDonald muttered. ‘Lisa?’
She turned slowly to face us, wearing a dreamy expression that split into a smile when she saw me.
She continued to smile at me for a few long seconds, before drifting back into her strange, wordless song.
‘Lisa! Will you stop howling for five…for five minutes.’
Lisa thrust her bottom lip forward. I became acutely aware that I had an erection.
‘Henry’s here to help you with your schoolwork.’
Lisa tossed her head and her eyes rolled, the way I’d noticed they did in class.
‘I told you, Mum. There’s no point getting me a tutor. I'm not going back. What use could a mermaid have for school?’
‘Fish travel in schools,' I offered. Lisa and her mother both stared at me, trying to figure out if I was being funny. I guess that means we're all in the same boat, I thought, and cringed.
‘Sweetheart, please. Henry’s taken all the trouble to come over here today.’
Lisa’s eyes had wandered back to the window, her face masklike and translucent. It seemed that, if she noticed we were still there, she wasn’t concerned by our presence. I noticed that her legs were pressed tightly together, and her feet were turned outwards, with all the toes splayed.
‘I guess that’s okay,’ she sighed.
The next time I came to see Lisa I had to wait outside the bathroom, because a psychiatrist or someone had come to talk to her. I could hear him speaking through the door in a smooth, radio announcer voice.
‘Lisa…you must be aware that you don’t have a tail.’
Through the door I could imagine that practiced eye roll.
‘Don’t be silly, Dr Schmitz. Of course I have a tail. I can see it.’
There was silence for a moment and I leaned closer.
‘Can you describe your tail to me, Lisa?’
It seemed she was considering his question.
‘Well…It’s long,’ she began. ‘Very long. Too long for the tub. That’s why my fins are propped up on the edge, see? And the scales are shiny. Look! See how they glitter when they move. And it’s strong, really strong, like there’s all these muscles and they're a bit sore, from being stuck in the tub all day. And my fins catch the light from the sun and turn it colours you probably couldn’t see, because I don't know what the words for them are. I don’t remember there being colours like them, before.’
It was strange because, when Lisa spoke about it, I didn’t think she was making it up. And she didn’t sound crazy, either, although I supposed most crazy people didn't. In spite of myself I pictured her lying there, and she was a mermaid like she said she was.
‘That’s funny, Lisa. All I can see is your legs.’
There was a small, strangled screaming sound, though it might have been just another movement of Lisa’s eerie song.
‘Could you please bring me some salt from the kitchen?’ she said. ‘You must be aware that mermaids are native to the sea. Fresh water makes me itch.’
Neither of them said anything else. After a while she started singing in earnest. When the psychiatrist left the bathroom and saw me in the kitchen holding the almost empty salt-shaker he sighed.
‘What are you, then,’ he asked, ‘A sea cucumber?’
Lisa and I were doing our history homework. It was feudal Japan, and neither of us was particularly interested, except for the brief paragraph about mythological fish-women. It was clear Lisa’s world had no room for books, and before long I’d closed mine and placed it on the sink.
‘When did you…you know…?’ I was mumbling, and she raised a smirking eyebrow at me. ‘When did you realise you were a mermaid?’
Lisa shrugged, as though I’d asked if blonde were her real hair colour.
‘Couple of weeks ago. Not long. It was kind of sudden. Kind of like puberty, actually.’
‘How did it…’
Her eyes floated back to the window, her face arranged in its usual inscrutable attitude.
‘I woke up. I realised I had a tail. So I got out of my bed and dragged myself to the bathroom and I’ve been here ever since. Could you grab some salt from the kitchen?’ she added, wiping her hair over her shoulder. ‘My scales are itchy.’
So I said ‘Sure,’ and did.
It had stopped being weird with Lisa, by which I mean I’d stopped getting a boner as soon as I walked into the room. Even Mrs McDonald seemed be making the best of her predicament, and when I came through the kitchen door, I saw her arranging seashells along the windowsill.
We began to talk for longer each visit. We’d race through the homework we had to do, and I’d sit on the edge of the bathtub and watch as she combed her hair.
‘I wish you’d come back to school.’
Lisa laughed. ‘You know I can’t, Henry. I’d have to take all of my classes in the swimming pool.’
‘Don't you miss your friends?’
Her forehead crinkled into a frown, but the bottom half of her face was smiling. She took a fistful of water from the tub and it seeped through her fingers.
‘Plenty of fish in the sea!’ she replied.
Tom Chapman came up to me at school the next morning. He was a footy guy who always looked and smelled like he’d come from the set of an aftershave commercial. We'd never spoken.
'I heard you’ve been seeing Lisa.’
I didn’t say anything, but it hadn’t really been a question. He rammed his shoulder between my ribs, hard.
‘Fuck off, faggot,’ he said.
I thought I was starting to understand why Lisa didn’t miss her friends.
‘Did you ever want to be anything other than a mermaid?’
Lisa glanced at me from the corner of her eye, dragging the brush through her hair automatically. Because it was damp it came out in golden clumps.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Like…’ I rapped my fingers on the edge of the tub, not sure what I was trying to say, or why I was addressing this question to a girl who lived in a shower. ‘After school, I suppose. As a job.’
‘Ew, no.’ Lisa laughed, placed her brush on the damp tiles, and turned to face me with her arms folded. ‘How come?’
‘I need to pick something. Like soon.’
Lisa smiled, shook her head. I noticed how pale she had become; how her hair had grown thin, and for all her brushing was in constant tangles.
‘They’re obsessed with that stuff, aren’t they?’ she said. ‘What job you should do, based on what ‘marketable qualities’ you have, according to like, Myers-Briggs. As if labour is anything other than cold and extractive, not to mention fundamentally racist.’
She shook her head, and the crinkles spread across her forehead, like she was suddenly sad.
‘Nobody’s really interested in what you want,’ she said. She shrugged and sank deeper in the bathtub.
‘You’re smart, Henry. You'll figure out something.’
I watched her, my elbows resting on the textbook in my lap, and she stared out the window, and sang. Nothing came to me, my mind was empty except for the girl who lay there combing her hair, turning the colour of sand. She was dying, probably. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to kiss her or shake her or leave the room and never come back.
‘I think I wanted to be a vet, once,’ Lisa announced.
Nobody answered the door the next time I came, and after standing there knocking I slipped through the back gate. In the garden, I could hear raised voices—Mrs McDonald, shouting, and Lisa singing over the top of her.
‘I can’t do this anymore, Lisa.’
I crept towards the bathroom window.
‘All day you're in that bloody tub…You pee in the tub…Our water bill is through the roof…The checkout chick at Woolies must think I’m insane, I’ve been buying so much salt.’
It was quiet for a bit, and I bent down, peering inside the window. Mrs McDonald had started to cry.
‘I don’t understand what I’ve done.’
I saw Lisa’s hand floating, her fingers bluish white. I watched them stretch and uncurl, reaching out for her mother.
‘It isn’t anything you did Mum. I’m sorry.’
They stayed like that for a while. Eventually Mrs McDonald picked herself up, and turned for the bathroom door.
‘Grow up, Lisa.’
She left. I crouched there, watching Lisa, until she turned to look out the window. She stared straight at me.
A few days later I saw Tom again, talking loudly with a group of his mates. I heard them mention Lisa’s name.
‘I heard rehab. Ice or some shit.’
‘I heard she got an abortion.’
‘I heard she was still pregnant.’
‘I mean if she is, congratulations. Right, Daddy?’
The speaker nudged Tom in the arm.
‘Maybe Chappy broke her in half with his monster cock, hey bro?’
‘Shut up, Sam,’ his friend said. ‘We all know Chappy has a pindick.’
I’m not sure what happened next, but I think I punched someone.
‘What the fuck?’ Lisa cried. ‘Henry, your face!’
She grabbed my hands as I approached the bathtub, pulling me down to inspect my mangled head. It was the first time since I’d started coming over that she hadn’t seemed lost in her mermaid dreams.
‘You should see the other guy,’ I said, weakly. Her eyes narrowed and she asked who the other guy was.
'Just someone from school,’ I lied, but for once it seemed she was really paying attention to me.
‘You don’t care about anyone from school. You don’t remember them.’
She stared up at me suspiciously, turning my chin with her fingertips, so my eyes sunk into hers.
‘Tom Chapman did it,’ I said.
Lisa held my gaze for another second, then shook her head.
‘You’re right,’ she agreed. ‘I don’t remember anything from back then.’
That week it was our final photo day. We queued up, our hair slicked back to reveal oily foreheads, and smiled awkwardly as the photographer made what he could of his subjects. I passed Tom as I made my way in front of the grey-blue curtains, my eye still weeping and sore, and watched as he smiled and puffed his chest forward and posed.
After my picture was taken I went to the ledger, where we were supposed to write some cheesy line we wanted beneath our face in the yearbook. I searched for Lisa’s name and saw it was still there—a reminder her world had once been one of concealer and detention, and not the subterranean light of imaginary oceans. For a moment I felt like I should write something underneath her name, to prove she was still there, or that she had been. But I couldn't even think of any words for myself.
‘Are you going to stay in here forever?’
Lisa gave me a hard look. I looked away, at the wispy hair floating across the bathtub. Little icebergs of soap described arabesques in the water's oily surface, and I remembered, then, what happened to the little mermaid in the children's story. She didn't marry the prince, or win back her voice, or her tail. She turned into seafoam.
Since the black eye our conversations had lost their intimacy. I intoned dull passages from our physics textbook, she stared at whatever she was staring at, and neither of us mentioned Tom Chapman or that my face remained a distinctly purple hue.
‘I don’t want to,’ Lisa finally said.
‘But you’ll have to. You can’t go anywhere else.’
‘I’ll go to the sea. I can breathe underwater, look...’ and she took a deep breath.
‘Are you fucked in the head?’
She looked at me, and for once it was no mystery what she was thinking. In all the times I had been there it was the first time she really seemed naked, stripped of the armour of certainty, or the certainty of delusion. Until then she'd only been unclothed.
‘I’m so sorry.’
I buried my face in my hands. I didn’t want to see her crying, as I sensed that she probably was. I didn’t want her to see me cry, either.
‘It’s just…’ Just what? Nothing about the situation, which had long since graduated to the bizarre, could be described as just anything.
‘You don’t know any other mermaids,’ I sobbed. ‘What if there aren’t any? What if there's no one in the ocean? What if they’re all stuck in bathtubs? How do you know how this is supposed to work?’
Lisa's hand closed over the back of mine. Her fingers were cold, and skinny, and cracked, so that the broken skin ran up her hand, like scales. ‘I don't really,’ she admitted. ‘I don’t know how anything works. Do you?’
I couldn’t think of anything to say to that.