Life Vest Under Your Seat – Chelsea Harris
I work at Aqua Wonderland as a mermaid. When Mr. Babcock interviewed me he made me take my shirt off, said it was protocol, said he had to see if my tits were big enough, said the park had a reputation to uphold, so I slid my tube top down to hips and he stared so hard I thought he was going to make my nipples pop with his eyes, and then he rubbed his face and looked up and said The job is yours, sweetie.
I’ve been growing out my hair since the sixth grade, it’s past my ass now, almost down to my toes. It’s like a trophy, or a prized deer head up above my fireplace. It’s my biggest accomplishment. Chickie told me I’d be good for the job because of it. She’s a whale trainer and on the weekends and evenings after eight she’s also a cock sucker in the alleyway between the rest stop and Davey’s Diner. She told me she likes the way they feel against her tongue, heavy and warm, like tapioca pudding. We met at Davey’s when I worked there as a waitress, when she’d come in after swallowing a batch and ask for a shot of whiskey and blueberry pancakes, when she’d finger my hair as I set down her plate, when she’d say Honey, you like getting wet?
I’ve got this habit of soliciting. I’ve got a bad case of l’appel du vide. I spend a lot of time in the morning wondering if I should burn my fingers off instead of de-frizzing my hair and I like standing in parking lots, between the yellow lines, I like standing in parking lots and food courts and outside the post office and I don’t know why. I think it’s for the people, I think I’m waiting for my soulmate. I think maybe he’ll show up in a black chevy or he’ll be sitting there eating mall Chinese food or maybe he’ll be sending a care package to the troops because he’s like that, this man, my soulmate, he’s thoughtful and caring and supportive of everyone. So I solicit in my free time, standing there in my gingham dress with the ruby red pumps like I’m Dorothy, like this whole world is Oz, like I’m trying to find my way back home.
When I was fourteen I lost my virginity on a shag rug in the basement to my mom’s boyfriend. She was a crossing guard on Main Street and was probably helping little boys and little girls with their too big backpacks and their slobby smiles make it to their mommy’s without getting rammed by a semi while I was letting Richard ram me across the floor like a rag doll. She didn’t find out for a few weeks, not until she caught us making out on the porch one day when she came home early, Richard’s hands on my chest, Richard pushing me up against the screen, Richard breathing out long Baby’s and Sweetheart’s, Richard saying I think I like you more than your Momma little lady. Sometimes I have dreams about him, about us fucking between the yellow lines in a parking lot, it’s Richard but it’s somebody else, it’s my soulmate and he’s bending me over and whispering where I should meet him, but I always, always, wake up.
On my first day they teach me how to pose, with my chest puffed out so my boobs are two blowfish, with my head titled to the side, with my hair falling over my shoulder, one half in the front and one in the back. They tell me to sit like this for at least twenty minutes every hour. They say I can spend the other forty swimming and combing my locks and pressing my palms against the glass sides of the tank, the visitors love that. They give me a fin with a remote so I can make the tail swish and the sides light up and they tell me I can’t take it off until the end of my shift. So they put me in the tank and show me my rock and tell me to sit there until I hear the alarm and then I can wiggle myself into the pool water, so I wait and I hear it and I close my eyes and slide in and it feels like I’m not underwater at all, it feels like I’m up in space, up by the moon, just me in a seashell top and a turquoise fin flitting around the universe looking for the things that no one can ever find.
I had a miscarriage at Disney World, right next to It’s a Small World, in a bathroom stall with Suck my Cock etched into the door, ruby red mucus slingshotting into the toilet bowl, and all I could think was Hey, at least my kid made it to the most popular theme park in the world and I deserve a fucking mother of the year award. We were there on vacation, me and Pete, and I knew I should have skipped out on Space Mountain, I especially shouldn’t have ridden it twice, and I probably should have told him that I was carrying around my dead mother’s ex-boyfriend’s baby before I even agreed to go. He was a nice guy, that Pete, always pulling out my chair and rubbing my shoulders and saying God you’re such a gem, how did I get a girl like you? I didn’t want to tell him that there were a lot of girls like me. A lot of girls that knew how to suck a good dick and do their hair up like a ‘50s housewife in the morning, a lot of girls willing to meet your parents and your gorgeous baby sister with her soft golden curls and her plum cheeks, a lot of girls that would pretend to love you and tell you the baby is yours if it meant you’d give them a place to stay and a weekly allowance and a diamond ring every now and then. Pete didn’t know about these kind of girls. He went to Disney when he was in fifth grade, like every other white middle-class suburban family. They ate corn dogs and met Mickey Mouse and rode Splash Mountain until they got to sit in the front and all Pete wanted to do was share it with me, with someone, so one day he packed up two bags and blindfolded me and brought me to the airport and when we got there, me still in my sweatpants because he didn’t give me time to change, him with his dorky toothy smile, with his fanny-pack, with his visor and his polo shirt and his serious case of joie de vivre, he took me to security and handed me a folder covered in plastic sticker stars and swooshes of purple and blue and he said, We’re going to Disney World, baby! in a voice that made my ears unzip the way his letterman jacket did. I flushed it down, flushed down the terrible two’s, high school graduation, fifty-dollar corsages and a first kiss and heartbreak and a driver’s license and one million dollars, all of it swirling like lava down a porcelain drain.
Pete works at Aqua Wonderland in the projection booth. He screens the movies about endangered manatees and Archie the whale and how smart dolphins actually are. We’ve done it in there a couple of times, in the projection booth, my ass pushed up against the glass, his mouth on my neck huffing in my Britney Spears perfume. Pete calls me his Little Cupcake a lot. Like I’m some kind of dessert he’s saving for when he can actually finish his dinner, and I only let him because he takes me out on weekends and rubs my feet and let’s me use his credit card whenever I want. On his lunch breaks he sits at my tank with his hand up to the glass like all the other visitors, like he can’t believe I’m real, like he’s buying it, the fin and the clam shells and my creamy swirls of hair, like I’m a mermaid off the coast of Israel and I’m never going anywhere.
My mom got struck by lightning and died on our front lawn a few years back. Everyone laughs when I tell them, everyone’s always waiting for the punchline, their smiles falling flat when I tell them she’s buried over at St. Mary’s cemetery, that she’s still wearing the string of beads I made her in the fourth grade. It was for mother’s day, Richard helped me, Richard in his ripped-up Harley tank tying knots at the kitchen table, Richard telling me to use more blue ones because my momma loved blue, she loved the ocean, me hiding my smirk because Richard didn’t know that the ocean had no color, that it was as clear as air, Richard tucking me in later and kissing me on the top of the head harder than anyone’s ever kissed me because that’s what people in love do, and Richard and I, we’ve been in love since he taught me how to tie my shoes, since he took me out for ice cream after my first softball game, since that day in the basement, Richard pounding into me the way he pounded into her.
Richard isn’t my soulmate. Pete isn’t either. They’re just men who know how to love me. Richard bought me a bikini for my thirteenth birthday. It was pink and black with sequins stitched all over the top, with two strings to tie the bottoms together, Richard smiling tell me to try it on, telling me he thought it would look good with my hair, especially when it’s wet, my hair the color of chocolate buttercream cake. Momma knew. I saw it in her eyes when I came out of the bathroom, the humps on my chest sparkling, Momma looking at him, looking down to the floor, Momma running her hands down her sides, Momma probably thinking cherchez la femme. Momma sighing as he bent down to tie the bottoms tighter, as he dropped one of the strings, as the fabric folded over like the corner on a page, his face proud, not like a father, but like someone who thought they had the most beautiful girl in the world.
I met my soulmate on a Thursday afternoon. He strolled up to my tank with his polaroid camera and his aquarium map and planted his hand right on the glass. He mouthed I love you in a way I’ve never heard it before he disappeared in a electric cloud of stringy seaweed and broken bottles and metal lobster cages and I never saw him again. When I tell my therapist this she tells me it was a dream, she says You’re focusing too much on finding the right one, let him come to you, she says, You’ve got a lot going for you, tell me what you have going for you, say it out loud. So I say there are three things I’ve got going against me, and that’s collecting supermarket recipes and Richard and always thinking I should swerve left. She frowns. My therapist once told me she took acid at the zoo and tried to climb into the lion exhibit. She thought he was the tabby cat she had in middle school, the one she watched her brother’s best friend tie a mini noose around and hang from a tree above their tire swing. He was practicing, that Timothy Miller, because two weeks later he tied his own nose and hung himself from his father’s pull-up bar in the garage. She said, See honey, we’re all fucked up, she said, We’ve all got problems, she said, You might think you’ve got the best sob story in town but I promise you someone will outdo it, they will. So, after awhile, I stopped going to Dr. O’Reilly for advice and started going to her for stories. I paid eighty bucks a week to hear tales of girls pushing their mother’s off of speedboats, girls who cut their fingertips open and paint the walls red, people who rape people and stab people who choke people out just for fun, and it made me think that maybe I wasn’t so bad for fucking my mom’s long-term boyfriend, for initiating an abortion and sending my unborn child to the septic tank under Disney World, for taking advantage of a guy who doesn’t know how to do anything but love, for spending all my time waiting, waiting and wishing I’d die so I didn’t have to wait anymore, for putting on a costume and sitting in a tank and pretending to be someone else, pretending to be something that doesn’t even exist, and maybe, just maybe, I don’t.