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Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

The Mermaid by Jaime Lowe

 OBJECT: Mermaid

BODY OF WATER: The Coral Room

 

The water, even though it’s dirty and tastes like bleach, washes them away. It’s better than a corner; it’s a tank. I’m not writhing against a pole or sitting on someone’s lap. I wear costumes with sequins and chiffon. Sometimes I don’t wear anything at all; that’s when I’m at my best, somersaulting and nosing my way into your wallet.

I know I look sad. I do it on purpose. You guys want to save me. I’m fulfilling some complex your therapist will never uncover. I just dance underwater, in a tank, ethereal and swirly. I bend in ways you wish you knew. You see my doe eyes and think every last drop in the tank is from my tear ducts. Get a clue. The water is from the faucet; the hangover eyes are from turbulent dreams. Obviously, those didn’t go so well. I was meant to be Desdemona, I was meant to cry in tragic proportion. Now, I’m a mermaid in Chelsea, making tips and on-the-sides, and I share a hotel room at the Liberty Inn with an almost woman formerly known as George.

Let me walk you through my nights. I walk to the bar. I wear extra baggy sweats like a Detroit gangster, no make-up, no fins. I like to be human before I am fish. I strap-on a backpack I got from a drunk who drank too much. It came with a Scorpions t-shirt that smells of construction site. I wear that all the time, until his scent was replaced with mine. I make my way into The Coral Room.

I say hi to Frank. All bartenders are named Frank.

I climb a makeshift ladder behind the bar where the tank leaks. There are always puddles and white tubs that would be better used as drums in subway stations. Here, they catch diseased moisture. No, seriously, I got chlamydia in my left eye from this water. I climb the ladder, strip to nothing on good days. Sometimes Frank screws me with the early shift and I have to wear an irridescent body suit. Tips suck when I wear that thing. I stand on the wooden planks and hope for no splinters

The water is always cold, keeps the nipples alive. I dip my toes in slowly, elegantly, like an actual mermaid, I feel my feet overtaken, my shins, my crotch, my arm pits, my chin, my closed eyes, and outstretched limbs reaching for something far away while sinking softly into the fluorescent plastic coral. I shimmy, I squirm, I elegantly arch. I try to make eye contact with gentlemen, most only have eyes for whiskey. Occasionally, they look up and see how meticulously groomed I am, how gracefully I tangle in the water, how the lights soften the crevices of my now amphibious body.

The ones who know ask and I take them to a private room. I make enough in tips from my water dancing that I only I have to pull one a night and I’m done.

Sometimes, I have dreams of Daryl Hannah. Sometimes, I think about the way fish move, their electric scales rippling against waves. Sometimes I think that each baptism by chlorine is another chance to burn out a layer of skin. And every time, I think, maybe that skin will reveal scales.


Jaime Lowe is the author of Digging for Dirt: The Life and Death of ODB (Faber & Faber). Her writing has appeared in the Village Voice, Interview, Radar, Penthouse, NY Observer, Bon Appetit, ESPN the Magazine and Sports Illustrated and the anthology Fathers & Daughters & Sports. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.