Sometimes, she thinks her parents can mute the world. Everything—car horns; radios; the dog barking down the street; the grill spitting grease and the tíos standing over it, drunk but stone faced, with their beer bottles and button-down shirts—absolutely everything goes quiet when her parents start to fight. It happens all the time. In the car. At the dinner table. During family picnics in her abuela’s backyard, while her primos snicker and elbow each other. She tries to ignore this. She sits in the old kiddie pool, pruning. When her father says, “Mija, go play with your cousins,” like it’s an order, she flaps the sequined tailfin of the mermaid costume Tía Roselia made for her fifth birthday and says, “I’m a mermaid now. Mermaids don’t have families.”
“Oh yeah? What about Ariel’s father in The Little Mermaid? Remember him?”
“That’s just a kids movie. Real mermaids are made out of magic and sea foam.”
“More like free food and sass,” he snaps, loud enough for his mother to say, “Cuidado.”
But her father is not a careful man. Everyone knows he’s cheating on his wife.
On the drive home, they sit with this knowledge, with this shame.
In the driveway, her mother’s voice startles her. “Ready for your bath?”
“Mermaids don’t need to take baths,” she says, but trudges upstairs just the same.
In the bathroom, her mother helps her undress. “Tsk, you got mud on your costume.”
There: a dark smudge where her mother rubs her thumb. “It’ll wash out,” she shrugs, both hands already gripping the edge of the tub, pulling herself forward. For her, the tub is an ocean—turbulent and foul-smelling and populated by all manner of plastic creatures, including the black-and-white squirt gun shaped like an orca whale and the insipid yellow ducks her mother seems to adore. Her bedazzled tailfin looks bright and magical next to their dull, lifeless eyes. Once alone, she traces that nacreous line where her human half merges with the marine. She practices breathing underwater. First thirty seconds, then a minute.
Half an hour passes. Her mother comes to check on her.
“Ay, you let the water get cold and didn’t even wash your hair.”
While her mother scrubs, she makes up a story about a girl lost at sea. Underneath her life raft, the girl says, the silhouettes of predators gather like nightmares threatening to lash out at her in her sleep. When she wakes, it’s to a gray and merciless sky: morning, with a mist rising off the ocean like a broken promise. Lightning scratches the horizon—too dull and distant to concern her—and a furtive blue flashes in the corner of her eye, near enough to leave her curious. Its beats quicken as she paddles toward it: a frail, luminous creature, the pale blue ventricles of its heart clearly visible through its skin. It does a little flip when it spots her. Says in its strange, telepathic language, Go back to sleep. You never saw me, okay?
Her mother stops scrubbing. “I’m going to give you a few minutes, then it’s bedtime.”
With the bathroom door cracked, she can hear her mother’s footsteps, the flip of a switch, the dull suck of the refrigerator opening and closing, and then: nothing. Nothing at all. Her father has already made a bed on the couch. Now, her mother is just waiting for her to get out of the tub before beginning her nightly skincare routine. Soon, she knows, her mother will tuck her into bed and pad across the carpet, turning off all the lights in the house, one by one. She shuts her eyes to imagine the darkness that will fall. She pictures her half-human form descending to the bottom of the ocean, settling safely between the ribs of a whale long picked clean.
She wonders if this is how mermaids drown: in the absence of sound.
Rumpus original art by Leesa Travis