She doesn’t remember what it’s like to swim, the mermaid tells you after she finishes the first bottle of wine by herself. The mermaid says it’s the only way she can feel underwater as she uncorks the second bottle. You’re not sure if you should reach across the table to hold her hand. You want to caress where you think her gills used to be. You think it’s the neck but you didn’t pay attention during sex ed about the biology of merpeople.
You cough up something oily and you’ve gotten used to this. You have always coughed up something oily for as long as you remember. You ignore the burn in your throat, in your lungs. Your parents barely remember what it was like for them to breathe tolerable air, drink tolerable water. You barely remember what it was like to be human, your body a greenhouse of cancer, like all the other non-mutated humans.
It is 9:03 pm. You try and get the mermaid’s attention. You want to point out a star that you think you can see through the haze of still wheezing smoke stacks. You hope after she sees the star that she’ll offer you at least a glass of wine. You like this mermaid. You hush the impatience on your tongue and in your hands.
You told everyone in second grade that you were really a mermaid. They believed you once you rolled up your pants and showed them your fused legs, the scaly psoriasis all over them. When your classmates asked what happened to your gills, you tell them how your father took them away when you decided to live with your mother on land. When your classmates asked you what it was like to live underwater, you tell them how your father took those memories away so you wouldn’t need to miss him. Your best friend, the one with the melting face, huggedyou and then everyone in class agreed that yes, you were really a mermaid.
Boys started paying attention to you more than the other girls who had two legs, or even one leg, under the full moon of their hormones. You discovered they were more interested in the mythology you made from your body than who you were when their hands wandered during slow dances at school district sanctioned dating events. You slapped their hands away, warned them how her father would curse them. Boys stopped paying attention to you after that, except the boy who coughed up oil.
You agreed to hang out with this boy, the one who coughed up oil, when he said he wanted to just talk and get to know you, when he promised to sit on his hands to prevent his impatience from getting to them. You steal two bottles of your mother’s wine, tell the boy how the only way you can remember what it was like to feel underwater is by drinking the wine. The boy sits on his hands even after you polish off the first bottle and open the second. The boy starts blurring. He takes his right hand out from beneath him, points at the sky, says, “Look at the scar,” but you think that’s impossible, because there are no scars in the sky.
J. Bradley is the author of The Adventures of Jesus Christ, Boy Detective (Pelekinesis, 2016) and the Yelp review prose poem collection Pick How You Will Revise A Memory (Robocup Press, 2016). He lives at jbradleywrites.com.