Let’s say the first time she tries to walk out she loses her car keys in the front yard at night. She’s sassy, maybe a little drunk. She tosses her keys in the air but misses them on the way back down. The next thing she knows, she and her husband and the neighbors’ kids are on their hands and knees on the front lawn, feeling around for keys. Wet pieces of mowed grass stick to her legs as she crawls in the dark. She’s cussing to herself and dizzy and hungry. She’d like to stay angry enough to leave once she finds her car keys, but she’s also tired.
Then there’s the scene outside in which the neighbors are loading their truck to move. It’s a hot afternoon, and Vivie says, “You probably won’t be here when I get back, so I want to say goodbye now and tell you how nice it was to have you as neighbors. I mean it—we won’t ever get neighbors as good as you,” and she starts to tear up.
Everyone hugs. They laugh and say, “Keep in touch.”
“You keep in touch, too.”
Vivie gets in her car and pulls away. She drives slowly and waves. They wave, and she honks and waves some more. At the corner she turns to go to the store, and they’re out of sight.
Then, at the food store, something happens. Maybe she sees her husband’s girlfriend, overhears her talking, and Vivie pieces together the news that her husband never stopped screwing around. It’s a conversation she wasn’t supposed to hear. At the same time, she sees a bird fly overhead through the grocery store. It flies across the aisles close to the sky of fluorescent lights, and Vivie realizes she just saw two things she wasn’t supposed to see. Two apparitions, almost.
So when she comes home kind of dazed, knowing once again that her husband has lied to her, her neighbors are still moving. They’re trying to drive their car onto the tow trailer behind their U-Haul, aiming to line the wheels up exactly. The wife is in the car steering, going nowhere, just struggling to line up according to her husband’s direction. They wave to Vivie.
“We’re almost ready to go!” they exclaim.
“Oh, have a safe trip,” Vivie says. “Really, have a safe trip. And good luck in your new home.”
“We’ll miss you,” they say.
“Write,” Vivie says, “or call.”
“OK, we will.”
“OK. Goodbye!” They wave to each other as Vivie unloads her groceries and goes inside.
What she does is this: she puts her groceries away very neatly and becomes conscientious about the laundry or dusting or something that has to do with order. Then, as if in a dream, she grabs a brown paper bag and puts her belongings in it. Some oddities, because maybe she’s drinking lightly. She throws in some underwear and her eyeliner pencil and a couple of bathing suits. Maybe she finds an old pair cowgirl boots she hasn’t worn in years. She throws on a mini-skirt and blouse that fit well but don’t match. She brings vitamins. She doesn’t know where she’s going with her bag, exactly. She doesn’t know if she is leaving her husband or just going on vacation. Perhaps she’ll decide as she drives. She’ll go to a lake and rent a cheap cabin, a place to swim and sunbathe and think. That’s her plan.
When she walks out of her house at dusk with her bag in her hands, the neighbors are still there. “Just a few last-minute things!” they say. The wife is holding the screen door while the husband carries a coat rack and umbrella stand.
“Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?” the wife jokes like she’s kicking her husband out the door. They wave to Vivie.
“Well, have a safe trip,” Vivie says.
“And good luck.”
“Good luck to you, too,” the neighbors say, as if they know something.
“OK, goodbye,” Vivie says.
“OK,” they say, “goodbye.”
Then Vivie starts her car and drives around the corner again and waves. She doesn’t know where she’s headed, but she steers north on such-and-such boulevard and stops at a light. Maybe this is where someone walks by, a woman with pink hair or something. Does Vivie have an epiphany of sorts? Probably not.
She pulls away from the light, past the bank and the liquor store, through the residential section. She starts to accelerate, but her car won’t pick up speed. In fact, the car slows down. She pulls over on the side of the road.
Here’s a woman who’s stuck three miles away from her house with her hazard lights flashing. She sits in her car and waits, in case something more might happen. Maybe a stranger will stop to help her. Maybe she won’t have to make that phone call. No one stops. She bangs the steering wheel and cries and eventually walks to someone’s house to borrow their phone.
An hour later her father arrives with his pickup truck and cables and hooks her car to his. That’s where she finds herself at the end of the story: behind his truck with his red hazard lights flashing in her windshield. That’s all she can see. She glides behind him, not able to steer herself, and contemplates warnings and hindsight, twenty-twenty vision, etc.
It could be that her husband Don apologizes. “Well, fine, I’m sorry!” is how he puts it.
Vivie tries to leave anyway. She wants to storm out the screen door, get in her car and drive away. Very dramatic. She’s had two whiskey sours from the blender and is loopy. She wants to look sexy as she leaves—swing her hips, toss her hair, and fling her purse over her shoulder. She wants him to miss her, to not think of any other woman. But it’s too late for that.
Instead, she jams her hand on the door handle, which is stuck. When she finally gets the screen door open, she can’t slam it because the door is connected to the frame by a pump that closes slowly. The hiss from the hydraulic is the only sound.
And when she flings her purse over her shoulder, the contents fall out. So there she is on her hands and knees in the grass, grazing in the dark for her car keys. She finds lipstick, a pen, a bottle cap, but she can’t find the keys.
Kids are playing in the yard next door. “Miss Vivie?” they yell. “Did you lose something?” Pretty soon they are in the front yard too, browsing with their hands, pulling up clumps of grass. One child skims the lawn with his feet.
Don stands at the screen door and watches. He turns on the porch light, which blinds them briefly. The porch light does not help. It turns everything into shadow.
A few weeks later, when she tries to leave again, she sits in the dark and steers, turns the wheel blindly because she is being towed and cannot see anything except the red flashers of her father’s taillights in front of her. Two red lights flashing for an hour, for eternity, like a warning on the way to hell. Slow down. Caution. Beware.
Vivie feels herself getting tired as she’s pulled along. She’s mesmerized by the rhythm of the taillights, red, black, red, black, red, black, a drumbeat without sound.
What if she decides to turn her steering wheel in a direction sideways from her father’s truck? The fact is she’s still connected, unable to pull away.
Don had his hand on another woman’s knee. It’s captured in a photograph from a recent party. He tells Vivie she’s just imagining things, making them more tangled than they need to be.
“Vivie,” he says, “you get yourself too upset about these things.”
Usually she believes him, but this particular humid night, mosquitoes biting both of them, Vivie has a flash of clarity, despite the whiskey sours she’s been drinking. She stares into the refrigerator with the door wide open, and something about the bowl of moldy potato salad makes it apparent that everything has gone bad. So she grabs her purse and tries to storm out the front door. Which is when she drops the keys.
Let’s say there’s another scene in the grocery store when Vivie bumps into her husband’s girlfriend and pretends not to notice. She turns down a different aisle to hide, and when she wheels away, her back to the other woman, Vivie hears the girlfriend say, “That’s Don’s wife. He’s the one I was telling you about.”
“The guy you went out with the other night?” Vivie hears another voice say, but doesn’t catch the answer. She isn’t certain she’s heard anything correctly, but she grows determined while she stacks cans of frozen fruit juice in her cart.
At the register, in a bit of a triumphant haze, she smiles at the cashier. She’s not really aware of her surroundings, but is confident as she writes a check for her groceries. Then she pushes her cart out the door with her chin up, feeling beautiful and right for the first time in ages. [. . .]
When she gets home, Vivie can tell the neighbor’s wife is not happy. “I’m trying!” the wife fumes. She’s sweating inside the car, the windows rolled down, as she rocks the car forward and back several times. The husband is standing in front gesturing with his hands. “A little more to the left. OK, stop,” he says. “Now back up and turn a hair to the right. Just a hair.” The wife turns a hair, and Vivie hears the husband say, “No! That’s too much. You turned too much.” Vivie has her back to them as she leans across the trunk to unload her groceries.
“Why don’t you steer it yourself!” the wife says.
The husband sighs. “Try it one more time.”
“Why can’t we just drive this goddamn car up on the trailer ramp? It was fine before.”
“I thought we could make it better. Straighten it out some more.”
Vivie has both hands loaded with plastic grocery bags. They hang from her arms like a set of scales. She closes the door with her hip.
“You’re still here?” she calls to her neighbors.
“We’re on our way!” the husband yells back cheerfully.
“Once we get this goddamn car back on the trailer,” the wife says. “We’ve driven this car back and forth, back and forth, up and down the goddamn ramp.” The wife leans out the car window and waves.
“Well, have a safe trip,” Vivie says. She tries to wave, but her hands are full of groceries. She lifts one arm as if she’s doing an arm curl and moves her fingers in her neighbor’s direction, like a wave but not quite. “OK, bye,” she yells. But they’ve already returned to the business of aligning the car with the ramp.
The sky is beautiful, a shade of dark purple blue, and off in the distance is a giant moon. A large half pie. A wide apparition. A pink, pink moon. The world is OK. Vivie will be fine. She decides it. She has the doors and windows open, and there is a perfect, humid breeze.
The breeze reminds her of a time, years ago, on a night like this, when she left Don and drove eight hours to visit a friend from high school. She stayed a week before coming home again. Since then, she’s lost touch with her friend, but the mood of that evening returns every once in a while.
This is when Vivie decides to pack a paper bag full of bathing suits and vitamins. She puts on an old pair of boots.
“How many more times do I have to hear this?” Don says. “It wasn’t like I went home with someone else.”
“I’m just saying—” Vivie answers.
“What? So I had my hand on her goddamned knee, for Christ sake! It’s a photograph! We were posing for a fucking photograph.”
“Don, people will hear you, lower your voice. The kids across the street will hear you.”
And she’s right, she knows the neighborhood can hear them argue—maybe not all the specifics, but Don is loud and easy to understand. They can make out the words “Fuck!” and “Goddamn!” every so often.
The only way Vivie can quiet Don is by running the blender for her whiskey sours. She lets the motor whirl for longer than necessary to drown out his voice. When she thinks he’s through, she turns it off and pours herself a drink. But then Don starts up again, defending himself. So Vivie turns the blender on and takes comfort in the high-pitched wail of spinning blades. Just loud enough so she can no longer hear herself think. Loud enough to overpower every thought and bring a bit of peace. Loud, angry peace.
“Don’t think,” she says to herself while she stares into the refrigerator, the blender still screaming in the background. “Don’t think.” She reaches in the fridge for the bowl of potato salad, and when she notices mold growing around the sides of it she throws it in the trash, bowl and all. She throws away some runny lettuce and a ham carcass, too.
This doesn’t solve her immediate problem, though. The freezer is empty, and she’s hungry. She decides she’ll storm out of the house, pretend she’s leaving him, when really she’ll go to the store for ice cream.
So she grabs her purse and jams her hand on the screen door which doesn’t slam, and swings her hips as she walks out. The blender still whirls in the kitchen. The house is a circus of lights and sounds, and she’s ditching it.
Then Vivie spills her purse and loses her keys, and the circus continues outside on her front lawn. The neighborhood kids roam her yard in their bare feet, and Don stands at the screen door turning the porch light on and off like he’s signaling a warning or speaking in Morse code (Save Our Ship), the lights bright and dark, bright and dark in a weird arrhythmic strobe. Vivie sits in the grass, stunned. She’d like to disappear from this scene. Instead, she’s witness to the funhouse of her life, a disturbing world of dwarves and giants sorting themselves out in her front yard. “I found it!” one child says.
“No, that’s not it, you dork.”
“Hey, turn the lights back on, we can’t see!”
So it’s another night with a pink moon and a humid breeze when Vivie gets stuck by the side of the road with her hazards flashing. Her father, when he comes to get her, is older, a thin man with gray hair. He stretches on the ground to fiddle with the underside of her bumper, fastening things to other things Vivie will never understand. Her father works with the quiet sureness he has always had, and Vivie notices how they’ve both gotten older.
She stands by the side of the car, her shoulders drooped, her hands at her side and her feet slightly parted, just as she did when she was ten years old, watching her father shoot rabbits or cuss flat tires.
Or maybe she doesn’t remember this exactly. She just has the sensation of standing in the same posture as when she was ten, unable to understand, even years later, what she feels in her father’s presence.
While she’s being towed and red and black and red and black and red are the only things she sees, she thinks, “This is one more instance of I don’t know what.”
But let’s say, when her engine dies, she tries to think of a way to get out of this jam on her own. She imagines someone stopping to help her, someone handsome who’ll fix her car and wish her well as she drives away. But she’d rather not rely on a man to save her, especially not her husband—but any man, really, including the stranger in her head, or her father.
Maybe this is when she sees the girl with bright pink hair. Could be pink dreadlocks wrapped in an orange scarf, a lovely nest of matted hair. Could be the apparition of a beautiful girl with pink hair, or the combination of pink and orange that reminds Vivie of something exotic and free.
“Would a girl with pink hair have car troubles?” Vivie wonders. It seems a ridiculous question, but as she watches the girl with dark eyes and straight posture, she figures the answer is no. No, she wouldn’t have car troubles in quite the same way. Perhaps she’d get stuck leaving a husband one day, too. But Vivie doubts she’d sit inside her vehicle with the windows rolled up, wondering whom to call, husband or father. A girl with pink hair would get out of the car, grab her suitcase, and walk.
Vivie falls in love with the girl. She envies her as the girl crosses the intersection without waiting for the light. A car speeds by, just missing her, and honks. A crow caws overhead. Vivie bites her thumbnail and watches in case something more happens. The girl with pink hair doesn’t turn around. She walks past Vivie’s car, the hazard lights flashing, and doesn’t turn to look. Vivie glances in the rearview mirror to check her own hair and lipstick, and then looks back at the girl who’s walking away.
JEN GROW is the fiction editor of Little Patuxent Review. Her writings have appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, Other Voices, The Sun Magazine, Indiana Review and many others including the anthology City Sages: Baltimore. She’s received two Individual Artist Award from Maryland State Arts. She lives in Baltimore, MD.
Excerpted from My Life as a Mermaid by Jen Grow. Copyright © 2015 by Jen Grow. Excerpted with permission by Dzanc Books.