By Michelle Rogge Gannon
Once upon a time, a young college woman dated a man who bought her a back brace, so she could improve upon her rounded shoulders and generally poor posture. She explained that her kindergarten teacher had made her walk with books on her head, to no avail, and that she had likely inherited this condition from her father, but the man insisted.
“You’re beautiful, my darling girl,” he said. “Aside from the posture problem—which I’m sure we can fix—you’ve got a great figure.” He adored the red bikini with heart cut-outs that she sometimes wore, as it showed off her body, especially her shapely legs that seemed to fascinate him. The two had, in fact, met at the beach when she was wearing that bikini.
She recalled first seeing him when she woke up from a nap to find him standing over her. Startled, she sat up and stared. He was tall, slim, and freckled, with a tangle of long, carroty red hair and bright blue eyes.
He wobbled as he sat down next to her in the sand, and she couldn’t help thinking he was clumsy on his feet, which she found endearing. They chatted. He was a college student like her, double majoring in marine biology and underwater basket weaving.
“What?” she asked. “Are you joking about the basket weaving?”
His eyes sparkled like stars. “Well, yes. But I do like to weave baskets out of sea kelp. I’ll weave one for you!”
The next thing she knew, she was dating him.
“If…we get married,” he said, tightening the straps of her back brace, “you will float down the aisle in a strapless gown, your shoulders so perfect.”
She didn’t know what to say. He often talked about marriage, which made her both happy and uneasy.
One day, they drove to the beach where they had met, but a downpour started. They sat inside the cab of her pickup, watching the rain cascade into the ocean. He taught her a song part Gaelic, part Norwegian. He listened to her sing the entire song.
“You could be a siren,” he said.
She recalled mythology class. “The creatures that lured men to wreck their ships?”
He kissed her. “I’ll crash on your shore, my darling girl.” He sighed. “I wish we could go in the water, but—” he looked at her, his voice soft “—we’ll wait.”
She blurted, “Does this mean you want to have sex in the water?” She blushed, but couldn’t help being curious.
“Yes.” He smiled. “Water will make it special. You’ll see.” He asked, “Do you have on your back brace?”
“I do,” she said. Faithfully wearing her back brace seemed a sign of her commitment as well as his. They both wanted her to have perfect shoulders rising out of the ocean, like a sea nymph.
One day, the university they attended held a beauty contest. He told her that he had nominated her in two categories, prettiest eyes and sexiest legs. “No one else can compare,” he said.
Flattered, she patted him awkwardly on the shoulder. She didn’t tell him but growing up, she had been an ugly duckling with acne, glasses, and crooked teeth that her parents couldn’t afford to get straightened.
Nothing came of the contest. She found him in the student union, staring sullenly at the pictures of the women who had won. For days afterward, she sensed him scrutinizing her. Reassessing. Recalibrating. One evening, while they were studying together, he said unexpectedly, “Have you ever noticed that your face is not perfectly symmetrical? Do you think you’ve had a stroke on one side?”
“I don’t think so,” she said. She changed the subject abruptly to talk about a book she had read, trying to hide her hurt feelings, wondering if this was the beginning of the end. But he was the same as before an hour later, as he if had never said those words.
One day, the sun came out and the temperature rose. He said, “Let’s go to the beach.” She thought excitedly that this might be the moment. As always, she wore her back brace to please him.
She was surprised to see that he had a sailboat, a small, gray schooner. She joined him in the boat, which he expertly sailed towards deeper waters. He seemed more sure-footed now. Only after the shore vanished did she realize there was no lifejacket.
“You don’t need one,” he said when she asked about it. He threw an anchor in the water and smiled. “It’s time, my darling girl.”
Before she could object, he grabbed her and jumped overboard.
“What are you doing?” she cried, clinging to him. Strangely, the ocean felt warm.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “As long as you hang onto me, nothing will happen to you. We will marry below and I will care for you. At least, until you’re older.”
Her mouth fell open. “What?”
“You can’t expect it to last forever,” he said. “Maybe ten years. I’ve never heard of one of our kind staying with a human longer than that.”
As she clung to him, she felt something slimy against her legs. Glancing down, she saw, starting at his waist and disappearing into the water, what appeared to be the silver scales of a big fish.
“Then, what will you do?” she asked, dazed.
He shrugged. “Human lives are fragile.”
At that moment, a harpoon plunged into his body. Blood spread, and he let go of her, sinking. She flailed in the water, but found herself lifted partly by the sturdy straps of her back brace into a fishing boat.
The gray-haired fisherman, who vaguely resembled her father, hauled her in and cut the back brace straps. He shook his head, saying only, “Every time. Damned, shallow mermen.”
All the way to shore, shoulders hunched, she sang the Gaelic-Norwegian song, weeping in spite of herself, not sure what she was mourning.