“To be a mermaid you have to be able to swim. Or at least float with grace,” said Mr. Beekman.
Of all the girls, only three of us—Millie, Francie, and I—felt confident in our swimming skills, and Junebug said she could float beautifully, for she had learned off the Rockaways. The other girls all tried to get behind each other for fear they might be picked.
“I will absolutely drown,” declared Doris.
We were, all twelve of us, part of Mr. Beekman’s dance troupe. Weeknights we worked at the dance hall, and on Saturdays we did a revue at the Starlight Theatre. Usually we came on before the main act, but sometimes, around Christmas, we got to do a whole show on our own. The money wasn’t bad but it wasn’t good either. Rhinestones don’t pay for themselves, and Mr. Beekman made us buy our own costumes. Luckily, at any one time, most of us had sweethearts to help us with the bills, and we’d share our spoils with the others, giving them our extra feathers and letting them borrow our mascara cakes and rouge.
A few years ago I was a front-row girl. I’d be there, right in the middle, the lights hot and blinding, legs scything in unison with the other dancers. We were like a single perfect thing, a fronded sea-creature swaying left and right with the tide. But when the new mode came in, Mr. Beekman stuck me at the back.
“We gotta switch it up, baby,” he told me, “keep it fresh,” but what he really meant was that I was carrying too much. Too much in the bust and too much on the derrière.
I did try to shift it, the weight. I took to smoking, which I find abominable for the smell it leaves in my hair, and I read up all about the Inuit diet, but Lord knows it is difficult to find caribou and whale blubber in Rhode Island. I gave it a go for one whole week and nearly perished from hunger.
When the call came for the mermaids, I was in a bit of a dry spell on the boyfriend front. My last daddy, Mr. Tanner, had dumped me like a hot potato after Mrs. Tanner found out, and I had to tell the girls that the bank was closed. The problem was I am a lady of ex‑pen‑sive taste and soon realized that Mr. Beekman’s inhuman wages were not going to keep me in the style to which I was accustomed.
“I would be most de‑lighted to be a mermaid at the birthday ball,” I told him.
Mr. Beekman was very pleased. Apparently curves were still attractive on aquatic creatures.
The ball was being hosted at the Biltmore, the grandest hotel in town, by Mr. Cornelius van Dijk in honor of his daughter, Miranda. Miranda was turning twenty-one and her papa wanted to throw her a shindig, but not at home, for that might have dented his election chances. So he chose the hotel, where a few connections in town would take care of the bubbly. Keep it private. Keep it on the down-low. And Miranda, being supposedly a great beauty and also studying at Wellesley, wanted something Shakespearean. I have never bothered with Shakespeare myself, but in case you are interested, she chose the play with the mermaids in it.
Of course I had been inside the Biltmore several times, with several different boyfriends, and I had had the privilege of seeing several different bedrooms, but this time I was to go in officially. We were all to change at the hotel, which made sense, for who has ever seen a mermaid ride a streetcar? I wore my best day dress of violet silk and a little stole of squirrel fur, and I carried all my cosmetics in a carpet bag. It was a warm spring afternoon, and by the time I met the girls, I glowed like I’d been dancing for a good hour. To our mutual disappointment, we were ushered around the back of the hotel to the service entrance. “This is horsefeathers,” said Francie. “They shoulda rolled out the red carpet for us.”
We were going to be mermaids! Marvelous, magical, mythical maidens.
Inside the hotel we were directed to a locker room that the housekeepers used. We didn’t get to admire the foyer or the famous chandelier or the grand staircase. We soon recovered ourselves, though, when we saw our outfits—the most mag‑ni‑fi‑cent costumes of glittering scales stitched on nude stockings, and tails of silver fabric and rubber. There were real painted oyster shells for covering our nubs, and porcelain pearl necklaces and diamanté clips for our hair. The only hitch was that you had to lie down to get into your suit for it was hard to balance on your tiptoes once you were zipped in. At seven o’clock a Mr. Brandeis entered to inspect us. He was obviously very important for he did not bother knocking, but we all warmed to him when he helped Francie adjust her brassiere straps.
“You all look swell,” said Mr. Brandeis. He told us we would be carried out by the luggage porters at 7:45 p.m. so we would be in position when the revelers swarmed in.
“Are we to be in the water the whole time?” asked Millie.
“Indeed,” said Mr. Brandeis, “the pool is waiting. We have warmed the water to make it more comfortable for you lovely ladies.” He smiled with teeth the color of whiskey.
Junebug, I noticed, had gone rather green. I felt a wave of sympathy for her. Dental hygiene is really so important.
Forty-five minutes later four young men appeared at the door, all wearing matching burgundy jackets with epaulettes and black hats. They looked a bit confused when they saw us lying on the tiles like gigantic sardines, but then the leader, a strapping fellow, said, “Hullo, girls,” and he bent down, picked up Francie, and threw her over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift. Francie’s face went as pink as a piece of smoked ham, but I could see she was enjoying it.
“My turn,” I shouted and a bimbo called Bobby hoisted me off the floor like I was a rolled-up carpet. It was a little uncomfortable hanging over his shoulder, but Bobby showed the most impeccable manners and told me all about his sister and her marvelous singing talent.
The men portered us along a back corridor, and by the time we reached the ballroom, we unanimously decided we would all prefer the luggage trolley next time. Bobby swung me into his arms and carried me over the threshold, and it felt so romantic I almost pressed a kiss against the corner of his mouth.
The ballroom was a sight to behold. For a moment I actually clutched Bobby’s lapel for I could not believe what I was seeing. There were banana trees with actual bananas growing on them, and beach sand and flamingoes and parrots and a beach bar with a palm roof and a swing of bougainvillea flowers. It was as though we had been transported to a tropical island. A grand piano stood on the sand, and the band was setting up. And in the center of the room, right in the middle of the enormous dance floor, was a huge glass pool, maybe six feet deep and thirty feet in diameter. Lights glimmered from beneath and tropical fish swam around in the limpid blue.
“Oh, shit,” said Junebug.
The porters put us straight into the water, and we discovered that Mr. Brandeis was a big, fat liar. It was cold. Not frigid but not warm either. I was thankful for the oyster shells and their strategic placement. We also realized that swimming was quite challenging in our suits. I have always been comfortable with the breaststroke and front crawl, both of which require a separation of the legs, but with some vigorous belly thrusting and wading arms, we were able to stay afloat and move across the pool somewhat gracefully. All of us, that is, bar Junebug, who clung to the side, crying.
“Oh, don’t be a Dumb Dora,” we chided her. “Think of the cash. Now get your sequined ass up and start floating.”
The guests started arriving around nine. We were blue by then and covered in goosebumps, but the sight of those fine folk already on the toot cheered us right up. They came roaring in, in their penguin suits and flapper dresses, the ladies with coronets of tropical flowers. There was so much ice dazzling the room, my eyes hurt. The band started up and the bubbly flowed, and within a few minutes even the pool felt warm as all these people hopped and jiggered around us. We cavorted in the water for them, waggling our tails and gliding on our backs from one side to another. One of us had to help Junebug at all times because, it turned out, she was a sinker but it was no matter. The gentlemen seemed to like this a great deal. “Can you rescue me next time, sweetheart?” they kept asking.
At ten o’clock the band played the first notes of “Happy Birthday.” I was so excited to see Miss Miranda van Dijk, I swam to the side and hoisted myself up onto my elbows. The crowd parted, the doors swung open, and a young woman swanned in with two Ivies on her arms, a dapper dark hair on the left and a big, blond, buff fellow on the right. Everyone shrieked and clapped and Miranda nodded her cropped black bob at her friends. She was spackled in diamonds from crown to toe—collar, tiara, earbobs, and even a bracelet of square-cut brilliants—but no amount of sparkle can make an ugly girl a pretty one. Any of us in the pool beat her hands-down on the looks front, but that is not how the world works. The whole room was dazzled by her, even yours truly, if I am honest. I hung on the edge of the pool and watched her parade through the crowd like the Queen of Sheba.
Well, now that Miranda was here, the party really took off. The band members played until sweat poured down their foreheads, and the dance floor grew more and more animated. Men started perching on the edge of the pool and feeding us olives, but what I really wanted was a cocktail. I was in the drink, wet through to the bone but as thirsty as can be, and I didn’t dare sip the water because we all knew what a teensy bladder Millie had. We had forgotten the cold by now, or maybe the excitement of the party had gotten to us. We were like stars floating in a universe of old money and it was exhilarating. I swam around and around the pool, pinching Junebug sometimes to keep her concentrating, but mainly just to take it all in. I felt enchanted, as if the mermaid skin were my real skin. I kept watching out for Miranda. I found it rum that a girl like her, rich as she was, could have two beaux on the go. She had a pinched, mean little face under all that glitter. The beaux followed her everywhere she went, lighting her cigarette or bringing her another flute of bubbly. The big blond one seemed to be her favorite; she kept touching his sleeve, but I liked the other, with his little black mustache and gleaming, oiled hair. He looked like a very expensive animal, a mink coat of a man.
At 1 a.m. a huge cake was wheeled into the ballroom. I could no longer feel my toes. Or my legs. Or my torso. None of us mermaids had any more vigor for swimming. We clung to the sides of the pool like glimmering barnacles. Francie was kissing some Ivy, and Junebug had positioned her nubs over the glass wall as ballast so she could comfortably drink champagne. I set off on a final lazy circuit of the pool on my back when a hand reached into the water and squeezed my…my…my upper tail.
“Excusez-moi!” I cried over the music.
It was the mink man, still looking splendid.
“You’re a doll,” he yelled. “What’s your name?”
“Edith,” I told him.
He smiled. A funny smile that was really just a baring of his two front teeth.
“That ain’t a mermaid name. Shouldn’t it be, I dunno, something sea-like.” He dangled his long fingers in the water. “Like Pearl. Or Octopus.”
“Octopus?” That was the dumbest idea I had ever heard. I swam in a little closer, tried to see him more carefully, but the lights were in my eyes.
“Yeah. Not Edith. You are too darned pretty for that.”
The party went on and on. My fingers shriveled and my bladder filled to bursting. I was water outside and in except for the places that needed it most, like my eyes. Finally, when it seemed the night would never end, the band played a conga, and all the guests gyrated out of the ballroom in a long snake to the banquet room, where breakfast was being served.
“Thank the Lady Mary Mother of God,” said Junebug. With the electric lights now back on full, she did not look her best, and I suspect we were all the same. My pancake was running and my mascara was rubbed, and my hair was damp right up the back for it was hard to keep my head up that high. We pulled ourselves up the side of the pool and sat on the glass lip. I was so desperate to get out of that wet suit, I considered plunging down to the floor and unzipping myself to my undergarments right there and then, but the door opened and in came the quartet of porters, pushing two bellhop trolleys. We shouted in joy and they lifted us out and sat us, dripping, on the wooden slats like we were the catch of the day.
“You broads were great,” they said. “Like real mermaids.” And we laughed and told ’em to move it like a couple of bangtails because we sure needed to get dry.
We left our mermaid suits in shiny mounds on the locker room floor and put on our day dresses. We were all buzzing with excitement; we could not stop talking. My hands looked like wrinkled ocean corals. I rubbed a towel through my hair and brushed it straight and took off my makeup with cleansing cream. The mirror above the basin was small and we had to take turns, but we all looked the same anyway, bright eyes like glittering pennies in pale, tired faces. Millie, Francie, and Junebug all reapplied their Maybelline, for the porters (except Bobby, who was picking up his sis from her nightshift) were taking them out for powdered donuts and coffee, but I wanted to be alone. I needed a little time to let my brain stop jittering and flashing. Even the air felt thin around me, like I was a sea creature crawled up on land.
It was a beautiful morning, cool but not cold, the darkness just touched with light, as if the dawn was a big, white dandelion head and someone had puffed it through the sky. I walked down to the canal and along the cobbled path, the birds chirruping and whistling and cooing and squawking like a regular jazz band in the lilac trees on the other bank. My arms ached but my legs felt they could step right into that air and waltz through it.
When I reached the bridge, I stopped. The water was glowing pink.
“Hey,” I said to myself, “the sun must be coming up out of the sea.” Swirls of gasoline on the canal surface shimmered iridescent. I watched the colors shift between mother-of-pearl and rainbow, but the sky was still the bruised purple of night. The city was waking up, though. A tram hissed down Broad, and I could hear the clang of the port, the cranes stretching their necks.
I was just standing there, staring at the water and thinking how lucky I was, when I heard the hard slap of a step behind me. I swung around. It was mink-coat man, still polished, a cigarette glowing in his mouth. He had come down the steps and was right near me, near enough I could smell him: the oily, boozy stink of him. He eyed me through a plume of cigarette smoke. I took a step back.
“Edith, right? The entertainment.”
His accent was New York, all closed-up vowels like smacking fists. I could hear it properly now. A fakeloo, I guessed, no two dandies about it. Why else would Miranda and all those dumb gilded eggs be hanging around him?
“Yeah,” I said. “What of it? Job’s over.”
He moved toward me, so close now I could see the yellow sag of his skin. Definitely not a college boy.
Behind him the towpath was empty. The road above was empty.
Now look here. I’m not going to pretend I am a saint. I’ve had a lot of beaux for my years. I know men well. You could say I’ve made a study of them. I know when they want some hotsy-totsy on their arm, or a mother’s love, or to feel bigger in their boots than they are. And I also know when they are up to no good. When what they want is beyond what I want to give, and right then, with Mink, I knew exactly which category he fell into. I began to feel afraid.
“It ain’t over till I say it is,” he hissed and he lunged at me. I tried to shove my carpet bag at him, but my arms were too tired, and he grabbed me by the neck, his hard fingers sliding right under my stole. I felt something cold and sharp pressed on my flesh, and it was most definitely not a diamond collar.
“Now listen, you cheap broad,” he said. “You gonna do what I want, or this blade is going to slice right into this warm little throat. You hear me?”
I nodded. I heard him. My heart was flapping and my skin felt thick and chilled, like I had been spread in butter. I figured I had two choices: fight and die, or try to live. The sky above was now the color of the softest rose. I wanted to fly up and wrap myself up in it.
He shoved me to the ground. I tried not to think about my best dress on the cobbles, or my torn stockings, or what was happening to half of me. I thought instead about the pool, about my mermaid body, my sparkling arms, the long length of my tail. I thought about how the water had become light and the light water. I thought about it so deeply, I submerged myself in it so I was almost surprised when he stood up again, buckling his pants. Right behind him, only inches away from his heels, was the canal, as bright as a smear of sunlight.
“You’re just a fucking little bitch,” he said.
But I was not, I realized, a fucking little bitch. I was a mermaid, made of foam, and wave, and storm. I was song and surf and shipwreck. I was sailor bone, I was giant squid, I was five fucking fathoms deep. I stared up him from my dank bed on the cobbles, and then I lifted my tail, that beautiful, fused, glittering thing, and with the power of every high kick I had ever done for a man’s gratification, I slammed my finned feet into his knees.
How was I to know he could not swim?
Back at the dance hall, Mr. Beekman counted out the cabbage, fifty bucks in all. Eight bucks for each of us and eighteen for him. The girls were almost sick with excitement. They all wanted vanishing cream and white satin shoes. But I had other ideas. As soon as I had a day off, I went down to Tiffany and bought myself a hand mirror, silver backed, and the most darling little comb you have ever seen.