low tide

The tide was high and the mermaid was hovering in the water by the shore. She floated lightly, tail parallel to the surface of the water, forehead raised slightly above. She waited like this for hours. It wasn’t always hours. Sometimes the waiting was just minutes, and once she had missed it entirely. That was a hard day.

She did not know why the girl appeared every night on the shore, but she was the only person the mermaid had ever been able to see from such a close distance. The mermaid could not come near the shore when the sun was out- it burned her pale skin, and the clear water would not hide her from the people who frequented the shore during the day. Anyway, the tide would be low, and she could not get close enough to the shore to see a person.

She had touched one once. She was very young and fought her fear with curiosity. The tide was out, but the waves were high and people were standing on planks, coasting through the water like she did further out at sea on clear days, riding cool waves high into the air with shoals of fish. A person had come close to her, far out where the water was less clear and she was concealed by the swirling sand in the water. Her muddy green tail blended into the green water, so the person did not notice her when he fell from his board into the sea. She brushed across his chest with her tail and saw his panicked bubbles, which frightened her. She did not know that people could breathe air into the water like small whales.

After that, she had to know how people could drink the air and brave the water, while she could not raise her neck above the surface for more than a few moments. She did not frequent the land; instead, she clung to the sandy floor of the sea and imagined what it would be like in the air instead of in water.

The girl never entered the water. The mermaid wished she would. She wanted to understand how people drank air, but her fascination with the girl was something else. She was filled with a yearning to touch her dry, smooth skin, so unlike her wet scales. Her hair, long and flowing in the sea of air, was unlike anything the mermaid had ever seen. Her own head was smooth, and she never imagined anything growing from it like a forest of sea-grass, but she wanted to touch the girl’s.

The girl sang sometimes, and the mermaid was bewitched and confused. Whales sang, and the deep water of the ocean had currents that sang. How could people, drinking nothing but air, far from the sea, make such sounds? She craved the knowledge of their bodies deeply, wanting to know how their mouths were used for more than eating.

The mermaid was accustomed to the girl’s movements on shore. Her legs lifted alternately; her feet pressed into the sand. The mermaid had memorized walking. She knew the theory very well. Bend the knee up, then put the foot down. However, she did not understand how this moved the person forward, or how they could steer without a tail to guide them.

The outline of the girl appeared against the sky and the mermaid exhaled through her gills. The girl moved to the shoreline and stood, arms twisted around her torso, staring at the moon as it drew the ocean back and forth. This, too, was usual. The mermaid watched her for minutes, occasionally refreshing herself with water, until the girl turned away from the water. The mermaid never watched her figure disappear over the dock- the first time she had done it, the pit in her stomach hurt like eating an unhusked crab.

A second figure broke the skyline. Immediately, the mermaid slammed her body down against the floor of the ocean. Her gills pulsed. She had never known the girl to have a companion, and here was a second person, flowing through the stand with those mystifying legs, drinking the same air that the girl drank.

The girl and her companion stayed for a long time. The mermaid felt the pit in her stomach again as she watched the two break the edge of the waves with their feet. Of all the times she had imagined feeling the movement, the distant warmth, of the girl’s feet in the water, she had never imagined that the moment would be polluted by another person. She watched the companion’s dry hands become wet as they reached into the water for a seashell. The girl smiled and laughed, a sound the mermaid had never heard her make. The two made many noises, but the noises the companion made were not like singing. They broke the smooth air and she could feel the reverberations in the water. The girl lips touched those of her companion, and the mermaid felt the pain in her stomach twist, like the time she had swallowed a fish alive and whole, just to see what it felt like.

She watched the two as they walked away from the water and onto the shore, loathing the way she craved the girl’s warmth and the sound of her voice. This time, she watched their figures cross the banks of sand. She floated in the gentle waves until the sun warmed the edge of the ocean.

The next night, the girl came alone. The mermaid had briefly considered staying away, fearing the gnawing sensation the companion had brought out in her body, but knew in the end that she had to see the girl regardless of how much she touched the companion.

The girl was singing this time, softly, and the sounds carried over the water. Her feet touched the cresting waves and the mermaid thrilled at the untainted sensation of the girl’s movement. The happiness was quickly followed by alarm as she realized that the girl was walking further out into the water than she had the night before.

The waves brushed around the girl’s knees, stroking the backs of her legs with a freedom the mermaid craved. She watched the girl’s eyes close and her chest expand. She was drinking air, the air that fed her singing. The mermaid could feel every motion of the girl’s feet in the swirling sand. She understood walking, which was remarkable because, listening to the girl’s voice and feeling the heat radiating from her skin, she was moonstruck. The mermaid, in a dreamy haze, released herself from the floor of the ocean. She gently undulated her tail as she moved toward the girl. Just a touch would soothe the yearning in her chest. Just a moment to understand the girl, to understand how she could turn the harsh air into a sound like the deep sea.

The girl made bubbles too as the mermaid pulled her into the dark water. The mermaid was intoxicated with happiness. She could feel the silkiness of the girl’s hair, like the soft silt of the beach, and her skin, smooth and tender as the flesh of a mollusk pulled from its shell.

The bubbles stopped long before the mermaid reached the outcrop of rock that jutted between the shallow and deep sea. She converged upon the girl’s chest, seeking answers that were not there. Her body was filled with blood like a common fish, and there was no air hidden inside.

The next night, the mermaid swam to the shore out of habit, longing for the past, when there was the possibility of understanding these people. To her surprise, there were many people on the beach. They carried with them lights like small moons and called loudly in strident voices. The mermaid burrowed her tail into the still-warm sand and felt the pain in her stomach subside, the way it had when the fish she had eaten finally died. She could try again tonight, and tomorrow night, and maybe under the light of some moon she would find the answers she sought.

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it’s something

Before she figured out that she was gay, Elizabeth dreamed of a boy. He was always the same boy, his hair dark and skin tan but face slightly blurred. She could never remember his name when she woke up, but he was different from every boy she knew, and she felt like she was in love.

Thinking back on it, she realized that the reason his uniqueness appealed to her was because she did not like men. A very simple solution to a three-year-long problem.

For those three years, Elizabeth dreamed of him intermittently. In her favorite dream, he tapped on her window on a summer afternoon when the world was quiet and lay on the hardwood floor. She sat above him on her bed and they talked for hours. They never touched in these dreams, which should also have been a significant clue.

Elizabeth couldn’t help but think of him as she pushed through the frosted bushes outside Mel’s dorm. There were obvious differences- this was the middle of the night, for one, and her feelings for Mel were much more complicated than her feelings for the nameless boy. Still, as she counted windows and double checked the room number, she was struck with a faint longing for those imagined summer afternoons.

Mel’s face appeared through the blinds and Elizabeth jumped.

“Elizabeth? What the hell are you doing- it’s freezing out there.”

“Shh, I wanted to talk. Does this screen pop out?”

“Why didn’t you just come to the door?” Mel’s face twisted strangely as she pulled at the screen, trying hard not to laugh. Behind her, Clara shifted in her bed.

“Okay, don’t worry about that. Can you meet me by the front door?” Elizabeth’s eyes were fixed on Clara’s darkened outline.

Minutes later, Elizabeth was standing by the entrance to the dorms pushing the balls of her feet against the ground to combat the cold in her toes. Mel pushed the glass door open and Elizabeth felt a warmth in her stomach as she noted her flannel pajama pants.

“It’s a beautiful night out. Do you want to go look at the stars with me?” Elizabeth felt ridiculous saying the words. A fluorescent light above them flickered as an insect buzzed inside.

“Ah.” Mel’s face had the tautness of a person trying to politely refuse. “It’s super cold out and I’m in pajamas. What’s going on? Why are you here so late?”

“I wanted to see you.” The words hung in the air with the fog of her breath. “Do you want to go back inside then?”

Mel’s eyes seemed to stare just short of her eyes, somewhere around the cheekbone region. “No. Let’s walk, though, I’m freezing.”

Clara made to pull off her jacket but Mel stopped her frantically, redness rushing to her cheeks. “I have a sweatshirt, I’m fine.”

They turned and walked along the cobblestone sidewalk, and Elizabeth tried hard not to match her steps with Mel’s. The quiet felt heavy on her ears. She turned to Mel to say something, anything, and stopped.

Mel’s eyes were closed and her breath clouded in the air just beyond her slightly chapped lips. She was paused by the drooping magnolia tree that crested the sidewalk, smelling a flower, and Elizabeth hurt with how perfectly framed the scene before her was, the moonlight washing away the harshness of the lamps and the fog in the air. Mel’s eyes opened again, and Elizabeth abruptly felt like an intruder of a private moment.

As Mel beckoned Elizabeth to smell the flowers and began to talk about a similar tree that had grown in her yard as a child, Elizabeth focused on the warmth that Mel’s body radiated. It felt like an unbearable privilege to stand next to her in the moonlight, like the dream she was chasing was suddenly too much.

“Mel.” Elizabeth cut through her sentence. “You know why I’m here.”

Mel focused on the flower she cupped in her hand, tracing the browned edge of a petal. “I’m not sure.”

Elizabeth could not understand how Mel couldn’t sense the longing in Elizabeth’s throat, heavy as an overly ambitious bite of a sinewy meat, equally hesitant to work its way away from her airways.

Finally, Mel spoke. “Elizabeth, Clara is my roommate. I don’t want to assume anything, but you know that we can’t- I can’t- it just wouldn’t be a good thing, you know?”

“You can’t tell me you don’t feel anything, Mel. The beach-” Mel flinched “-was important to me, and you wouldn’t have said the things you said if you didn’t feel it too.” Elizabeth coughed against the cold. “Look, you don’t have to say anything back, but I like you a lot. I want you to know that. I’m tired of playing games, Mel.”

The silence felt colder now, the air thin. “It’s late,” said Mel.

“Yeah,” said Elizabeth.

“I’m going to go back in. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Okay.”

She watched Mel turn and stumble over a raised bit of cobblestone before making her way back to the dorm. Elizabeth smiled slightly- they hadn’t even made it out of the courtyard before she was rejected. But the sky was still beautiful, and her waking dreams wandered to her nameless boy as she walked stiffly back to her dorm, the tears on her face cold in the night.

 

A little more, a little less.

Saying I love you for the first time isn’t about what’s come before. I think that’s why people are scared to say it. They think they need a quantifiable amount of — what? shared experiences? smiles? mornings waking up with limbs tangled together? — in order to deserve the word.

I think I love you means something else. It means that, yes, the past was good, and you have affection for that person, but when you say it, it’s about the future. It means you want more of those mornings and that your love will continue to grow, because you never stop falling in love.

When I’m 80, I want to say “I love you” and mean “I’m not finished loving you and I never will be”.

Navin

When Navin was seven, the Potters next door had a black poodle named Charlotte. Not a toy poodle, one of those tiny yappy things that you see in movies, but a real one, large and intimidating to a boy who hadn’t quite grown into his new sneakers.

It was the sneakers’ fault more than anything else, in hindsight.

On a Monday afternoon, Navin was in the driveway dribbling an underinflated basketball. The ball struck the ground with more of a thump than a bounce, and hit the backboard with the same sound. Navin followed the ball down the driveway and into the street, lunging and missing. His shoes were loose around his ankles and he tripped, colliding with Charlotte, who was unleashed and very excited about it.

It was never clear why the Potters thought walking Charlotte without a leash was a good idea. She wasn’t a bad dog, but she was very self-absorbed in the way that intelligent dogs are, and she had a tendency to follow her passions (cars, small children, etc.) with a single-minded intensity. It was not her intention to hurt Navin that day, but intentions matter little to a boy with bite marks around his wrist.

In short, Navin was afraid of dogs.

the skin of his neck is soft

when I press kisses to it in the dim of the morning. His palms are rough from weights but his feet are soft from a lifetime of socks. His voice on the phone is hard, his words peppered with sighs and grating with lies, but his lips on the back of my shoulder are soft as he listens to his mother worry.

Yes, Ma, I’m at home.

My voice shakes when I’m with him sometimes, choked with words I ache to speak, aching with fear that this is too unfairly good, fearing that I’ll lose him, losing faith that he won’t choke on my weight.

But his eyes are soft when he opens them in the morning, unfocused and staring, and I let myself be.

aureate

When I was 15, I fell in love with a girl. I didn’t realize it at the time because I’d only known her for a week, and up until that point, I’d assumed I was straight. Her nose was very straight and her hair was very long but what struck me was the gold, gold everywhere, like she had been blessed by a Greek goddess- golden sun streaks in her hair, a gold speck in her left eye, her skin like a lake at sunset, gold and smooth and pure. I walked behind her on the way to lunch and marveled at the sun against the back of her calves. She left after that week and I thought of her often, the gold in her eyes blinking in my dreams, and I longed for sleep.

When I was 16, we sang a song called Ballade to the Moon, filled with strange harmonies and a note a third below soaring. I never learned the end of the song that summer because I couldn’t help but listen to her voice, crisp like starlight, the only voice never off pitch. I was late one day and the look of disappointment in those eyes woke me up three hours early the next day. Her mouth pulled up at one side when she saw the seat I saved her and my stomach leapt and I was afraid.

When I was 17, she cut her hair short but it only condensed the gold. Her hair was brown, I should clarify- her eyes green, her skin white, nothing actually gold- but the gold never stopped surprising me. I couldn’t deny her presence in my dreams, now in the light of day, her voice on that note that still gave me chills through the fog of memory, the gold, the gold. I knew her for three weeks and I was in love; she was unreal, her starlight voice and her laugh like the curve of abalone.

I fell in love in the summertime. 

The days were hot and the nights were long and filled with words from the boy I once loved. We slipped around each other in our young confusion, convincing ourselves that we could never be in love, that we were happy in platonic stasis; we obfuscated our feelings for one another in our constant terror that we would be revealed, flatly, as sunstruck. The summer made it all so much worse, the way it turns allergies to hay fever, because when he pressed his back against mine as we sat under the arch, I could feel his sweat through our shirts. I smelled the sun in his hair when I looped my legs around his waist and I fell asleep each night tasting the smiles he gave me. 

I’m restless for him, and when I see the lush of the grass after a violent summer rain I long for the peaks of his ears and the tan of his skin, for the rush and the thrill of being in love in the summertime. 

racial ramblings; balancing my characters

Li Hua/ Elizabeth has always been a struggle for me. She’s my main character, and she’s always been Chinese, and I honestly can not picture how this story would play out with a white main character.

Elizabeth has always been Chinese, but I’m worried that I’m basing her entire character off of the idea of her being quiet and submissive and studious. Which, of course, she is, and I’m not going to make her aggressive just to avoid the stereotype. I think I can avoid this problem by fleshing her out a bit more. She plays the piano and she’s quiet, yes, but she isn’t in STEM. I had her as a civil engineer, but now I’m thinking architect. Maybe dyslexic? How does dyslexia work with reading music? Liz has always been a bit of a self-insert character (hence why I can’t make her Indian- we’re walking a tight line here), and she feels like the person I was when I was young and fuzzy and not yet panicked about the fact that I was only halfway in the world. But Liz isn’t a kid, and she should be more than that feeling. She doesn’t think much when I’ve written her so far. She feels a lot. That’s not really enough.

Strictly from a racial standpoint, I’m afraid of misrepresenting the Chinese-American experience. I originally had her as an international student, but then I would have to talk about life in China and her relationship with her mother and she would speak Chinese and it isn’t my place to write a main character with such a present cultural conflict that I know nothing about. I think the balance is that I can write a Chinese main character, and I shouldn’t whitewash her, but the story can’t be about being Chinese.

To achieve this, I’m introducing degrees of separation. Her name has been Li Hua forever but I am in no way confident that that works as a name. I might just do away with the Chinese name and name her Elizabeth from the beginning- certainly would do away with the confusion of referring to her as Hua/ Elizabeth/ Liz interchangeably- which works well if she’s born in America. I’m toying with the idea of one of her parents being white. I was assuming her mom would be Chinese, but I really like the idea of it being her dad. That draws those relationships away from the Joy Luck Club idea of a distant confused American father and the mystical Chinese mom who doesn’t fit into America. It gives the father dynamic a bit more depth, since he’s the link back to that aspect of her life, and introduces a different conflict with her mom- can her mom really understand the added difficulties that come with being viewed as Chinese in America? She doesn’t really look like her mom- how does makeup and hair advice work when her mother has to figure out how eyeliner works with a monolid? Does her mom feel left out when it comes to Chinese cultural events? Does her dad push to teach Elizabeth Chinese, or did she never learn because he wanted to keep the peace with her mom?

I like this Elizabeth a lot. My real concern with this is that at this point the story is pretty white. Elizabeth isn’t white, I know, but she’s American and not super in touch with her Chinese culture. So besides her, we have Melanie and Clara, both white, and Navin (just invented this name, I’m psyched), who’s Indian. Also Antoine is black, theoretically, but I’m not super pumped about that. I think Clara could be black. I like that a lot, actually. It does bring us into a bit of a dangerous territory of falling into stereotypes, but I’m much more comfortable pushing that envelope. Clara was already meant to play with the slutty bisexual stereotype, since she hooks up with Liz and then Navin and ends up pregnant, but would the blackness be too much? Is it wrong to have the one good black character in this book be a wreck? I don’t think so, because none of that happens because she’s black. Also, black bisexual femme is definitely good. I can see this Clara so clearly. Should her name still be Clara? It fits with the way I see her, as this ridiculously tall gorgeous kind of rich person who’s a lot of everything. Also Navin and Clara sound so good together.

So the racial rundown is this. Elizabeth is half white/ half Chinese. Melanie is white. Clara is black. Navin is Indian. Antoine is white now- maybe a French exchange student, because who else would be named Antoine?

Elizabeth doesn’t need to change, she just needs to be rounded out. This is good.