The tail was a joke, at first. Mom liked giving lavish gifts that no one would use, then got hurt when no one used them. Like the steam cleaner she gave my older brother when he was a college student who didn't even do his own laundry.
"Well, you said your roommate stained the couch!" she said in a huff, when we all burst out laughing.
"Mom, how would I even get this on the plane?" He gestured at the comically large box before him. "They're going to think I'm a terrorist."
"Sorry for trying to do something nice," she sniped before retreating to the kitchen to sulk. She wanted him to follow and placate her, but he didn't take the bait. The steamer collected dust in his closet until I spilled coffee on the area rug and Mom finally put it to use. "Now everyone's going to think I got this for myself," she muttered while setting it up. "Joke's on me, like always."
So, when I unwrapped my first mermaid tail a couple of years later, I didn't even have the heart to pull a face.
"The kids at the pool will love it," she gushed. "I guessed at the size. Try it on!" I ignored the chuckles from my brothers and gamely pulled the neoprene skin up over my leggings. "Oh, it's perfect. Let me grab my camera."
The longer I wore it, the more I suspected she was right. It was perfect. There I sat, under the mocking gaze of my gathered family, feeling complete for the first time. I was not human. I was 'other', mythical, with a firm reason to be out of place: I had a tail.
Mom still bragged about about it, usually at Christmas.
"Deena uses her tail all the time," she'd say, often after another disappointing reaction to an ill-considered gift. "She's made a whole career out of it, don'tcha know?"
I hated when she did that. Sometimes I wanted to tell her that the gift still sucked. It was a cheap sweatshop special, thick as a scuba suit. I wanted to remind her that I didn't even make the career, she did. She chatted up other moms at the pool, telling them about the tail and offering my services for their kids' birthday parties. Just as I got used to swimming in the tail, how it dragged in the water and threatened to pull away from my legs with every pump, it ripped. A birthday boy jumped on my back. His foot caught in my waistline and tore the seam all the way down. After that, I made rules: None of the kids were allowed to touch me.
But on Christmas, I'd just smile and nod, hoping no more questions came my way about how the career she started for me was going. I didn't think she'd be so proud if she knew.
Five times a week, I performed at the Clamshell in Miami. We rotated out who showed in the tanks, who sat on the rock, and who had to work the pool crowd. We all hated the pool. It was glorified bottle service, darting between cabanas and the swim-up bar with magnum bottles set precariously on floating lily pads. You made the most tip money, but all the men really wanted was a good feel. They were desperate to know where your skin started and your tail ended.
You got fired if you let them get too far. You got fired if you hurt them when you pushed back. I learned to be slippery and fast, minnow-quick as I dove to avoid their drunken fumbling. I felt safest in the tanks, with a wall of glass between the world and my body. I liked how the water muffled the dirty lyrics of the music but let its heavy beats shiver through, pulsing over my skin. I liked writhing and swaying there, teasing the men who stuck around to watch with the swish of my hair and the flick of my fingers.
Once, a man pressed himself up against the tank and licked it while I danced for him. I pressed right back and stroked the glass where his tongue lay flat. I went up for air. By the time I returned to my watery kingdom, security had shuffled him away from me. He left my manager a hefty tip. And his number, which Carl refused to give me.
"I got real bad vibes off him," he said. "I got the feeling he was trying to buy you."
I guess it all started to feel a little porny. My seashell bras showed more tit than they hid. I had to slather lube all over my legs before I slid my heavy silicone skin up. And the club's clientele was so horny that I sometimes wondered if it wouldn't be better for all of me to be rubber, not just my tail. I was still 'other,' but it wasn't magical anymore. It was fetishistic.
Really, the worst part was the end of my shift, when I had to take off my tail. For the first few minutes, it always felt like my legs were still stuck together, making it hard to walk evenly. I had constant yeast infections from the damp swim bottoms I wore underneath the tail. Wherever I went, I feared a haze of pool smell floated in the air around me. The club's filthy water was pumped so full of chlorine that no swimmers' shampoo could keep my blonde hair from turning a muddy, faded green. Six months in, I gave up and dyed it blue. When I was in the water it looked sleek and alien, undulating around me like a seaweed halo. In my bathroom at home, my split ends frizzed and jumped. Its brittle dryness reminded me of straw.
In my tail, I felt irresistible. Men stared at me, hypnotized, from across the pool. They promised me the world if I'd only flip up my seashells for them. But they ignored me on my nights off, when I wore a little black dress and pinchy heels to other neon-lit clubs. I wanted to touch and be touched and they kept their distance. They watched me from the corner of the crowded dance floor in a way that told me they'd bundle me into an Uber and take me home if I blacked out, but wouldn't approach me as I was.
It was all starting to get under my skin. Why did I have to change to make someone want me?
The end started at the private party. I had the afternoon off and spent too much money getting my nails done, hissing while the technician removed the old set of artificial nails. My left pinky nail was soft under the acrylic, throbbing with pain at her gentle touch.
"Too wet," she said. "Very bad."
"Well, it's my job," I said. "I'm a mermaid."
"Water gets trapped, can't get out. See how weak it is here?" She prodded at a spongy spot, slightly darker than the rest of my natural nail. I yelped. She shook her head. "Very bad," she repeated.
"Can you fix it? They need to look good for tonight." She tilted my hand this way and that, considering.
"For extra, yes." She looked me in my eyes. "But it will hurt."
I consented. She clipped the nail down, ignoring my whimpers. She filled a tiny bowl with a clear liquid, cut small shapes out of a paper towel, and dunked them. Using tweezers, she fished the transparent shreds out and draped them over my aching nail before turning on a fan. Even its whisper of air hurt, as though a raw nerve pulsed and screamed there. Before my eyes, the paper towel pieces hardened into a protective shell. The pain, the feeling of too much all at once, faded as it set, leaving only a dull tenderness.
"Better now," she said. "But keep your hands out of water."
Later, on the rock, I admired my pearlescent white talons. Small gems were set above the cuticles, glinting in the faux-moonlight glow of the spotlight trained on me. I flipped the edge of my tail in the water, stretched my arms out, tilted my chest this way and that. My toenails were painted blood red, like a little secret I kept tucked in my tail.
The party hummed around me. It was supposedly for a birthday, but it looked more like a business event. Chopin played over the speakers. The men wore suits with their shoes off, pants rolled up at the ankles to rest their feet in the groundwater of the cabanas. The women were tall and slender, so beautiful I had to wonder if they (like me) were being paid to attend. They collected in little clusters around the beach chairs, teetering in their high heels across the poolside paving stones. No one but the mermaids swam in the pool.
It stayed that way for hours. Another mermaid swam up to my rock.
"Girl, these tips are insane. I'm gonna make my rent tonight."
"Seems kinda boring. Why classical music?"
"If I don't have to deal with any creeps, they can play whatever the fuck they want." She swam off, leaving me to contemplate the gathering further.
A man stared at me across the pool. He sat alone under the shadow of the cabana's eaves. I started to flaunt for him. I dipped my hair in the water and tossed it over my back, knowing the arcing drops would catch the light. I stroked my tail, my waist, the rock around me.
He stood and stepped into the light, stripping off his suit. His shirt. His pants. A thill rippled in my spine. With long, bold steps he strode to the deep end and dove in. I waited for him to come up. He didn't. Panicked, I rolled off the rock to swim towards him, only for him to pop up just a foot away from me. He shook the water from his hair and grinned.
"Lady on the water," he called softly. "Long have I watched you. Will you tell me your name?"
I found myself suddenly speechless. I shook my head. I wanted it to look coy, but worried it read as dumb.
"Then I shall give you one. Undine." I coughed a frog from my throat.
"Deena," I said. I almost asked him how he knew, how his guess was so close to my real name, but I didn't want to ruin the magic of the moment. And it was magic. I felt it. The water between us was electrified, fizzing on my skin.
"Even better." He smiled. He reached out and touched my cheek, brushing away the pool water that slid down my cheeks like tears. "Are you real?" he whispered.
"No," I said. "Only a dream."
"Then don't wake me up."
I wanted him to kiss me, but he only stared and stroked my cheek. My collarbone. The string of my top. I thought I might combust at that, with his hand just barely brushing against the side of my breast. He looked at me as though we weren't just the only people in the water, but also the only people in the party. In the world.
His name was Milos. Every few weeks, he came back to the club. He rented a cabana and watched me, only me. If I was in the tank, he would pull over a chair and sit before me. His eyes never left mine. Mine never left his. It felt like the air we breathed sizzled, and the water between us boiled.
One Saturday night, a bachelor party came through while I worked the pool. The group horsed around in the water while I delivered endless whiskey sodas. Milos sat in his cabana, nursing a gin & tonic, smiling when I swam by with their latest order.
Hot hands seized me around my ankles. I twisted around to see the groom, eyes glazed and cheeks ruddy.
"Those cheapskates wouldn't even spring for a stripper," he said. The stinging smell of dark liquor accompanied his words. "Can you believe that?"
"Please don't pull on my tail," I said.
"What'll it take?" he asked. His grip didn't slacken as it moved up my legs. "You can't leave me hanging like this."
"I said, don't touch me." My words sounded reedy and far away even to my ears. I could feel his nails digging into the silicone over my thighs. I prayed he wouldn't rip through - the money for repair or replacement would come right out of my paycheck.
"Come on," he whined. "I just wanna -" Suddenly, he plunged into the pool. His hands released my legs. Behind him, holding his head and shoulders under the water, was Milos. He let the groom up.
"Are you ready to apologize to the lady?" Milos asked him.
"What the fu -" Into the water he went again. The rest of the bachelor party noticed what was going on and came over, ready to join the scrum. But the lifeguard's whistle came first, alerting security. Milos backed away, hands raised. He looked at me as he hoisted himself out of the pool.
"Monday night. Seven. Meet me at Polypi," he said. "Promise?"
I could only nod as security dragged him out, leaving me with the embarrassed, spluttering groom and his dumbfounded party.
I worried Milos might be disappointed when I walked into the restaurant on two legs, stripped of the tail he'd always seen me in. I'd taken three showers trying to rid myself of any trace of chlorine, scrubbing my skin until it turned pink. I gelled my dry hair back, praying it would hold through dinner. Still, I couldn't shake the feeling that without my tail, without my better half, there was nothing left of me.
But when he saw me, his face was kind. He kissed my forehead and complimented me profusely.
"The light glows on your skin," he said as we sat. "Do you ever see the sun?"
"Only with SPF 100," I laughed. He laughed, too.
"I'll take you to the Maldives. There's no escaping the sun there." I blushed.
"I don't really get a lot of time off." He looked thoughtful.
"I might have a solution for that." He swirled the wine in his glass, so dark it looked almost black. "How much do you make in a month at the club?" I told him. He whistled. "That much, really? Good for you. Well, I'll double it."
My jaw dropped. "For what?"
"You swim for me, and only me. My house has a saltwater pool. It's lonely. I don't like what I saw last night. They won't let me back in, and I can't imagine... I can't torture myself thinking about you in there, alone, too."
"Where is your house?" I asked.
"I live in Montecito, but I have a house here on Star Island. You can live there, too, if you want."
"Can I think about it?"
"Of course. I'm sorry. I meant to let you enjoy dinner first." The meal came in courses, all bizarre seafood rendered unrecognizable by gastronomical technique. Gelatins and foams shivered on chilled plates. Colors that screamed poison in nature were drizzled and pooled over the dishes. But I ate each bite, and the conversation between us flowed with more ease than the wine.
By the time we finished dessert, I made up my mind. "I would like a contract," I said. "But I would also like to accept your proposal."
His grin was broad and toothy. "Excellent."
When I gave notice at the club, Carl had concerns.
"Do you even know this guy? Can you trust him?"
"It's double pay. And he's hardly there. I think he wants to take care of me."
Carl's mouth twisted. "Look, you're a big girl. But you're also on your own. You know that, right? Like, you have to take care of yourself."
"That's what I'm doing," I said. "This is how I'm doing it." He sighed.
"You can always come back. Be safe." He turned back to his computer screen. The conversation was over. I was free.
The next day, I moved into the pool house on Star Island. Milos gave me a tour of the grounds. His house was massive, furnished in cool grays and neutrals. The art hung on the walls looked expensive and brutal, abstract images of concrete and steel. There were gardens packed with foliage, a green lawn that stretched to the sea, and the saltwater pool he'd promised me, complete with a shaded grotto.
"When I had this built, I didn't know it was for you," he said. He held one of my hands in his: so big and so gentle, I felt like a china doll beside him. "There are cameras facing the pool. Mostly for insurance reasons. Like I said, I'm usually not here. But I'd like it if I could text you and watch you swim through them when I'm away."
"Why?" I asked. I wanted a reason larger than money or pity for me to be here. I wanted him to tell me he loved me. He paused, rubbing the stucco side of the grotto.
"You look so natural when you swim like that," he finally said. "You look like you were born to do it. It gives me peace, knowing that someone is meeting their purpose. Living their dream."
"To see you happy. Come on, tell me what you need for the pool house. We'll change whatever you don't like."
Every morning and every evening, I donned my tail and swam for him. It didn't matter if he was there. I stared into the cameras like they were his eyes, and felt him staring back. Whenever I returned to my phone, a message was waiting to thank me for giving him peace.
I loved the saltwater pool. Without the risk of chlorine damage, I'd been brave enough to return to a salon and have my hair restored to its gleaming, golden glory. I spent less time in the water but made more of it: swimming for him felt like swimming for myself, swimming for pure joy.
Every few weeks he returned. He'd watch me swim, then sit with me in the grotto until his next meeting took him into town. Sometimes he took me with him to dinner. He held my hand, he kissed my cheek, he smiled and winked. But he never did more.
I wanted to tell him how I felt. I practiced what I'd say in the mirror. But every time we were near, my tongue tied itself in knots. I knew what people thought when they saw us out together. They saw him in his expensive suits, ordering the nicest bottles of wine and whispering to me over the candles on the table. They saw me nervous about which fork to use and made assumptions. I only wished they were right. When he drove us home, he walked me to the door of the pool house. He kissed me chastely, he wished me goodnight. He left me.
Alone each night in the sumptuous, silky bedding, I wanted to give him more than peace. I wanted to make him as desperate as I felt, I wanted him to pant and sweat and desire me. I wanted him to lick his phone screen while he watched me swim. Sometimes I imagined that he did.
Almost a full year passed. Milos gave me a dress, sea-foam green, that whispered over the floor as I walked. He also gave me a pair of Louboutin heels that cost more than my tail. They hurt my feet, digging into my heels so tightly that I feared they'd cut the skin. It was better once we sat down at dinner. I took them off under the table.
"I'm planning a big party for my birthday," he said over dessert. "Can you invite some of your other mermaid friends? I'll pay them. I want to fill the pool with magic. But I want you in the grotto. I have a special job for you." He winked. I glowed. He handed me a small box of crushed blue velvet. "Hang onto this for me, ok? When the time is right, I'll tell you what to do."
Back in the pool house, I opened the box. An oval diamond as big as a bird's egg twinkled there. I tried it on; a perfect fit. I laughed and twirled with the heavy rock on my finger, imagining myself as his wife. Maybe we would go to the Maldives for our honeymoon. I texted all my friends: Ready to meet my mystery benefactor? Big surprise in store!
On the night of the party, I pulled out all the stops. My nails were like the night we first met, pearly and gleaming in the party lights. I curled my hair so it tumbled down my back and made sure to keep it out of the water. I painted fishnet imprints over my neck and arms, dusted my body with waterproof glitter, and set myself in the grotto. The box was tucked in a nook behind me. I felt it like a glowing anchor at my back.
Beside it, I had placed my gift to him. I scoured antique shops, shuffling through cuff links, small statues, and books with no names. It revealed itself to me: a small letter opener with a mother-of-pearl base, carved like a mermaid's tail. I placed my finger at its tip and it bit me, drawing a small bead of blood. It cost me a week of pay. It was worth it.
At half past ten, Milos poked his head into the grotto. The same old electricity thrummed between us.
"Are you ready?" He smiled at me. I nodded eagerly. "Ok, when I leave, count to a hundred, then take the box and swim out to the ladder. Hand it to me and get ready."
My heart thundered in my chest. I counted slowly, savoring each moment. Finally, I thought, my long wait would end. He would take me in his arms and tell me he always saw my true feelings through my silence, and that he felt the same way. He would give me a kiss, a real one, and pledge himself to me. Ninety-nine, a hundred.
At the ladder, I reached my fishnet arm into the air and passed the box to him. I waited there, gripping the railing. He knelt.
But his back was to me.
"Willow," he said. A tall brunette on a lounge chair twisted herself towards him. "Look what the ocean brought me." He opened the box to reveal the ring, and she shrieked in delight. "Will you marry me?"
"Yes!" She jumped up and down before him, barefoot on the pool deck. "Oh my god, yes!"
I slid back into the water. I retreated to the grotto. No one noticed the tears that slid down my cheeks. I barely did, mingled as they were with the salt water of the pool. I held the letter opener in my hands, tracing its scales, considering its sharpness.
Sometime later, Willow swam clumsily up to the grotto. She had changed into a white bikini. I wondered if that meant she'd known this was coming, unlike me, who'd been so surprised. I tucked the letter opener back in its hollow.
"You're Deena, right?" I nodded, and she clambered out of the water to sit beside me. "Oh, thank god. You're like the third girl I've asked. Milos told me all about you. His live-in mermaid. I'm obsessed!"
"I haven't heard anything about you," I said. I wanted it to sound mean. It merely sounded weak.
"Don't worry, we're going to be great friends. So, tell me all about what you do. It seems so cool!"
The next day, she moved into the big house. I expected to hate her, but it was worse to discover I liked her. She was a painter. She was kind and thoughtful, beautiful in the effortless way of someone who'd never felt uncomfortable in her own skin. We ate breakfast together, the three of us. She wore paint-stained clothing and sat on his lap, letting him feed her berries from his fingers.
Sometimes she traveled with him. Sometimes she stayed behind and it was just the two of us. She turned the sunroom of the big house into her studio and painted there for hours. When he was home, he watched her paint. Sometimes he turned and waved at me in the pool. I always waved back, but he always turned away.
In the pool house, hidden in my bedside table drawer, the letter opener whispered to me. Late at night, when the whispers grew louder, I held it. I considered doing rash, terrible things with it. Hacking off my hair. Ripping Willow's paintings apart. Destroying my tail. Sneaking into their bedroom and painting the walls with their blood. Sometimes, I held its tip between my breasts and breathed. Always, I put it back in the drawer.
"Deena, get in here!" she shouted, the day before their wedding. Milos hadn't texted me for a few weeks, but I was still swimming just in case he watched. I pulled myself out of the pool and slipped off the tail. My legs felt coltish and stumbling on the grass. She ran out to greet me and pulled me by the arm into her studio. "I've got something to show you."
In the sun-drenched room, three canvases stood on easels, each covered by a white cloth. One by one, she exposed them. First, a self-portrait. The painting was exuberant, an explosion of color. Willow's delicate features and brilliant smile were smeared, daubed, splattered with all the colors of the rainbow. None of it diminished her. It only amplified her joy.
Next was a portrait of Milos, lying in a rumpled bed. A sheet was draped over his nakedness. The palette was muted - his favorite neutral grays danced hazily around him. His smile was lazy, secure in its naked affection. I knew this was a smile he reserved only for her. My heart ached. Willow paused before the third, shooting me a devilish grin.
"Are you ready for this one? It's my favorite." She whipped the cloth away and I was confronted with myself. I lounged in the grotto, staring off to the side. My tail had never looked so real, so much a part of myself. It faded into my belly seamlessly, its scales glittering through the grotto's shade. The painting was dark, melancholy and tender. The visible slice of my face was mournful. I could almost see what I was thinking. Who I was thinking of.
She could only have painted this with love, a love I did not deserve. Only I knew the poison of my thoughts, the sick desires that pulsed through me as the clock passed midnight. The secret plans I hatched to ruin their union.
"Do you like it?" she asked me, worry creasing her brow. "I wanted to give him a wedding present, and this is the only thing I knew to offer."
"I do. He will, too," I said. "They're all beautiful."
It was true. But looking at the triptych before me, all I could think was how one was not like the others. One did not belong there, was too 'other,' would never be like them. Could never stay with them. I drew her thin body against my damp one and kissed her warm cheek. I thanked her for her painting. I wished her and Milos every happiness, and peace beyond measure.
"Thanks, Deena," she said, with tears twinkling in her eyes. "Boy, he really knows how to find good people, doesn't he?"
I nodded but knew she was wrong. I was hardly a person, and I wasn't good. That night I gathered my things. I took the sea-foam dress, but I left the Louboutins and the letter opener behind.
I left Miami, and the wind took me where it would.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Original narrative & well developed characters
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Zero grammar & spelling mistakes
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme