mermaids!

I learn how to steal cable from watching YouTube videos at the public library. I’m supposed to be playing math games to swing some sense into my head before school starts in a few weeks, but I learn this instead. I show Him out back behind our apartment complex. We’re both going into the seventh grade but he’s still small enough to get away with anything. Bony. Me, I carry all my growing in my chest and legs. I’m stretched out into suspicious. I show Him how to twist the last cord. We crouch down together, caught up in a mess of wires. I catch our reflection in the window glass beside us, and there we are, the slick brown heart of a tumbleweed. We try it for His apartment first, but it doesn’t work. So, we go with mine. 

When my parents are around (rare), we sit on the couch with a stack of throw pillows between us, their frayed borders coming off like skin dying. When they’re not home, I sit as close to Him as I can. Except for my family, nobody down this block has papers, and every friend I’ve made has gotten sent back. I need thick proof that he’s here, our bodies tucked close in conversation, thighs talking, arms babbling. I’d knot us at our joints if I could. There is a month-long mermaid documentary on the Discovery Channel and it’s all we watch. The tail is the part they really need, the one that lets them swim. I am jealous of the mermaids. What it would be like if what you need the most was always half of you. He tells me He doesn’t like it. But whenever His mom comes around with her cigarette hanging out her mouth, calls Him by the name we killed together, the one He still had when she could force Him into dresses, His face scrunches up at the TV screen and He watches it harder than I’ve ever seen Him do anything. We split everything: Ding Dongs and even our thoughts. That’s why when His mama comes around, I know He’s mermaid-jealous too. 

We both know that the government can send you back for not having papers. But the grown-ups send kids back too sometimes for being bad. It happens a lot at the top of break, in June. It happens to the boys who steal ice and Arizona Teas from the Kwik stop fridge and to the girls who roll up their shirts to show their stomachs and roll up their pants to show their thighs, then do it again, then do it again. The last time, it happened to a girl in my grade who got her tongue pierced behind the Beauty Supply. I brought my arm close to my mouth, whispered so my marrow could hear, and told my body to be good.

There’s one day after school when an episode of the show says that everybody out here living, walking around on two feet, came from the mermaids. Here’s the proof, they say: if you look down at your belly button, you’ll see two itty bitty scars on either side of the button (it’s easier for somebody else to notice it). My parents aren’t home, so we pull up our shirts right there in front of the TV. I think I can see His two itty bitty scars, but He can’t really see mine. He gets closer, puts His hand on my stomach. That’s how my parents find us when they come in from work bone tired.

He can’t come to my house anymore. At night, my mom greases me up with cleansing castor oil and prays over me so long I’m asleep by the time she finishes. Sometimes I stay awake long enough to correct her prayers, to remind her that He’s a boy (she keeps getting it wrong), and she’ll cough like I’m choking her. I see Him in the mornings before school and I tell Him about the episodes He missed. The most recent one talked all about what mermaids eat—the sun, like flowers do. 

We’re standing at the bus stop next to tiny ripped-up Reeboks and Nikes nobody can come back for. “The sun, huh?” He says. 

We’re at the end of the summer, August, so the sun’s still so messy it pours down everywhere. He opens His mouth up to the sky to let it spill in. I open my mouth too. The light drops down into us. Our stomachs become emergency flares so bright their light is sound is taste is touch. Mermaids! So full you can’t miss us.

It’s harder for us to see each other now because most days my mama calls off early to watch me after school. But a lot of people say I’m only smart when there’s tricks in it, so I trick her. Mermaids get away from predators, sharks mostly, by finding rocks their own size and using them as distractions. I have no rocks big like me, so that night while the whole complex is sleeping, I roll up all my blankets and some pillows and beat them out into the shape of my body. I pull a quilt over my pillow-shoulder. I go to His apartment and knock on the door, loud because His mama works most nights as a nurse and His daddy’s hearing is shot from loading ships at the dock. He opens the door and He’s coming out already, grabbing my hand like He’s got something to show me. He tugs me down the hall, down the steps, out back. We’re next to the dumpster in the dark, where landlords throw out all the furniture for the people that don’t come home. There’s a couch stuck crooked and whole inside the dumpster raised up above us. It looks like somebody big spat it up. He holds onto my shoulder in the dark, and I know He’s there. My knowing calms me. 

There’s a sound I can barely hear because of the cars on the street and the old heads playing dominos out front. But in the next second I see the lit lighter, see His face, and He lets go to get something else. He takes out a cigarette, one of the long ones always hanging out His mama’s mouth. He smiles at me and lights it. “The sun,” He says. The sun, between his fingers and in the dark with us. He coughs when He starts pulling from the cigarette, but He doesn’t stop. My lungs sop up His smoke and I wonder out loud if anybody’s ever tried to split papers before. 

I say it out loud. “You wanna marry me?” 

He laughs. I’m trying to figure out what kinda yes my yes would be when we hear somebody coming up behind us. I turn and it’s my mama, in her robe with her head wrapped. “You unbelievable, girl,” she says. And if her voice didn’t sound so mad when she said it, I’d take it like a compliment and tell her, “Thank you.”

I don’t see Him no more, but it’s for real this time. We barely have any classes together already because I’m only smart when there’s tricks in it. And my mama follows me everywhere: drives me to school, watches me do homework. At night, she comes into my room, touches my back to make sure I’m not pillows. She’s been asking her friends to cover her housekeeping shifts at the Best Western. But there’s a Friday that comes in September. The Best Western is overbooked and understaffed and nobody cleans like an islander really, so they need her need her. She leaves and I run down to His apartment. It’s been too long since He could enjoy the mermaid show too. He comes and we sit to watch. 

When mermaids sleep, their human part tries to drag them to the land. They bury themselves deep in the sand for any real rest. The whole of them is a fight. I don’t like what this episode makes me think so I lean against Him. And He lets me. He leans against me too till we’re laying down, till we’re gathered together like fingers in a fist. The TV goes to a Nissan commercial that leaves the screen mostly black and I see it. Us. Spitting up a mountain of ourselves. That is how my mama finds us. She comes back because I’d given her the wrong pair of shoes. The Sketchers that pinch her toes instead of the Payless no-names she likes. She yells in the Creole she told me she forgot. 

My daddy’s home from roofing that night. His work’s been real busy ’cause the summer’s been pulled long, September hot like July, and all the construction happens in the summer. But he’s off tonight. He makes my favorite—the baked Mac and Cheese I like even though it always makes me a little sad. It’s the one that he cooked when he told me my friend Deaven got sent back to Jamaica. Later that night, I hear them talking through my wall. “It would be good for her,” my mama says. “Discipline.” My daddy says, “Is Haiti a punishment?” And she says nothing. 

I’m going to spend the next six months with my auntie in Gonaïves. Good for me. Discipline. My mama sees the world in flips, good on the other side of bad, Haiti on the other side of here. The other side of the wrong thing I did, she thinks it’s cleaner. Better than the castor oil. 

For the days that we pack, I don’t talk to anyone in that house, not even myself. She watches me even harder now, and I can’t see Him. I don’t watch the mermaid show because my eyes get hot and weird. My mama must’ve told the school that she’s homeschooling me, because that’s all the kids there wanna ask me about. 

He finds me by the vending machines at lunch. 

Or that’s not right. 

We find each other. 

We sit down on the cement with our backs against the machine. I know that if we talk about my leaving, it will god us, force us to rule over our own hurt. I don’t want nothing to hurt between us. It’s the one thing we’ve never shared. That day at lunch, we eat from the same bag of Hot Cheetos. Our hands brown and red.

We don’t go to our last class of the day—He’s good enough to be forgiven, and it doesn’t matter for me anyway. We take the 96 bus to the aquarium, shaking cold in our seats, then shaking close till we’re propped against each other and warm. 

The aquarium smells like salt and empty. There are no mermaids here, but manatees are a little similar. I’ve always liked their people-eyes. There’s a display screen at the manatee exhibit, one that spins the earth around and around and tells you all about the water on this planet. He holds my hand. His palm is damp, and He smells like Downy. On the display screen, they mark the earth’s axis with a dashed line, from up to down. I wish it was solid. I wish it was so solid and me so big that I could grip it like the handle of a knife. Shake everything loose. The countries, then the water. And at the wet root of the universe, we would swim.

— Juliana Lamy (from Split Lip Magazine)