Missy paid $3,000 for her tail. It was an expenditure that left her parents gasping. She thought it was worth cleaning out her savings account to be the owner of an iridescent, scaly, surprisingly realistic silicone fish tail. It was an important step toward her goal of becoming a professional mermaid.
“Water shows are always looking for good mermaid swimmers,” she explained to her mother, who was weeping. “I’m learning so much in mermaid school, and owning a tail of this quality puts me ahead of the pack.”
“What kind of pack could there be for such a job?” her mother asked through her tears. “What about college? What about training for a job you can still do when you get older?”
“We won’t be around to support you forever,” her father added.
“I can teach adults and kids who want to swim in fishtails, I can perform in water shows, appear at events – .”
“Yes, and make pennies,” her mom interrupted, “with no health insurance or benefits.”
Missy hugged them both and continued to do exactly as she pleased.
Mermaid school was tough. Classes started at 6 a.m. in a foggy, chlorine-redolent indoor pool that their teacher, who insisted they call her Ariel, rented under the table from the motel night manager. The girls had to whisper so as not to disturb the guests. There Missy swam in a beginner’s tail made of swimsuit-fabric, learned to hold her breath for minutes at a time, to defy buoyancy and sink at will, to slow her heartbeat and respiration when every cell in her body screamed, AIR, AIR!
But the hard work was worth it. It was magic, pure and simple, to flip her fish tail and dive and somersault. Although she knew she had a long way to go, in her imagination she performed before a mesmerized audience and heard their applause.
“You’ll be a mermaid” Ariel said solemnly, “when you believe it yourself.”
Fellow students Patty and Donna became her friends. They practiced endlessly in Patty’s parents’ pool, honing the moves they felt sure would make them stars. When they weren’t swimming, they were sewing sequins on their costumes and while they worked, they dreamed. The Number One Dream was to be hired by Mermaid World to swim in the huge transparent tank and tour from city to city.
In fact, Missy was on her way to audition for Mermaid World when her car was T-boned by a driver who ran a red light. When she woke up, she couldn’t move her body below the waist.
Depression was just a word to Missy before the accident. Afterward, it became a watchword. She was only nineteen. Now she not only couldn’t be a mermaid, she couldn’t even walk across the room. Her stay in rehab didn’t produce any miracles. Somehow she just couldn’t put her heart into the exercises. What did it matter, anyway? Her dream was dead. Finally the doctor released her, begging her to keep working at home.
“You’re young,” the doctor said, “your body wants to heal, it wants to make new neural pathways and recapture what it has lost. Don’t give up.”
Missy stared silently over his head until he left.
Her parents rigged up a pulley with which she could lift herself between wheelchair and bed. They modified the bathroom so she could roll her chair right into the shower.
“I appreciate it, I do,” she said, hearing how flat her voice sounded as she looked into their hopeful faces.
She couldn’t share their hope because she knew her life was over. All day she sat in her wheelchair gazing out the window.
That’s where she was when Patty and Donna arrived. Even the sight of their car crunching up the gravel driveway did nothing to elevate her spirits. She greeted them listlessly when they entered her room.
“Up and at ‘em,” Patty said, grabbing her wheelchair and starting for the door.
“Where are you taking me? I don’t feel well enough to go anywhere.”
“Tough,” Donna said briefly.
Over her protests, she was bundled into the car. Her parents didn’t seem to be anywhere around to stop this kidnapping, which was strange. Usually they were hovering. Missy subsided into a corner of the backseat, not even bothering to look at the passing scenery. Sooner or later, they’d have to take her home. She’d just wait it out.
Their destination was the pool at Patty’s house, where the smell of chlorine hit her brain like a drug. Ariel was waiting. The three women stuffed Missy’s limp legs into her beautiful mermaid tail and propped her on the pool’s edge. After they’d slipped into their own tails, they took her hands and pulled her into the water. Patty and Donna supported her on either side, their strong legs working like flippers. As one, they rose and fell, dived and rolled. Missy gave herself up to the freedom of the water, allowing herself to recapture her old dream, if only for a moment.
That’s when she felt the first electric tingling of nerves and muscles in legs long dormant. She flipped her fish tail ever so slightly and Patty and Donna moved away. Missy floated, buoyed by hope, her hair drifting in the water like seaweed.
And in that moment, she passed the final exam of mermaid school. She believed.