That night at the bar, I was doing this thing where I pick the residual mascara – last night’s mascara – off my eyelashes as I thought back to everything that’s happened these past few months.
I was thinking that The Crown Inn felt more like a wild, thrashing pirate ship than a bar that night; bellies filled with beer; sailors leering; a sinking feeling that maybe everyone there was drowning in booze in an attempt to stay afloat. Bar stools were filled by lonely spirits; chains clanking from nine-to-five-shackled ankles; dark corners reeked of day-old, sloppy hookups. The bouncer – an ancient, brooding tortoise – was tucked into the folds of his own neck, dreaming of clearer waters.
She was sitting next to me – Costa Mesa’s very own mermaid in the flesh – washed up on the shores of Brooklyn in a net filled with driftwood, secrets and sharp, sparkling sea glass. She’d be off on her next swim by the end of the summer, but for the moment, she was sipping rye whiskey and winking at all the pretty boys. She’s filling that hole in her soul with anything she can call her own, and I’ve been sunbathing right next to her. Two girls together are never alone.
Looking down at my hand, I noticed two faint cigarette burns – one in the middle, and one slightly to the right – two meteor reminders of nights spent in the dumb warmth of these neighborhood bars. We’ve been wrapped up in vapid, brilliant conversation, curled in smoke, sitting there in that haze. Two spots to remind me of these past few months; one for her and one for me; another affirmation that two girls together are never alone.
Then, we stepped out for a cigarette break, and directly into the path of this… man; more myth than earth; this beautiful creature I had been calling only in my candy siren dreams.
For months, he would walk past the open windows of the bar; dressed almost always in black; walking always west. He was a dark, glowing piece of fruit with diamond-studded flesh, and he was hanging from a branch I couldn’t quite reach. I would stare; I would salivate; I would wonder; I would stay out and drink more; sink more; I would stay where I was.
Then, the seasons changed, and I got brave. I took off a few layers and tried to reach that branch. I started cutting back ground-level weeds wrapping around my ankles and kicking away the dead, dry grass covering the sidewalks.
“Hey…you’re really pretty,” was what kept coming out of my mouth whenever I bumped into him on my way home from work.
“Hey… you’re way prettier,” was what he’d say back, tossing his head around as he passed.
And then I kept seeing him; our paths kept crossing; slowly we started swimming in the same direction of that tide instead of fighting against the current. A little bit of life; a little bit of a lift came into my windless sails.
When I finally reached him, I smelled salty, end-of-beach-day hair; I looked up from the ocean floor to see a heaven of pine treetops; I fell into a pair of deep jewel-eyes that sparkled brighter than pomegranate seeds. I felt his summer come; I felt my winter melt. My eyes got clearer; pollen season passed; I could see and smell and taste again; I surfaced.
In our family pool, my favorite time to go swimming was just after the sun went down, in late summer. Just me. All of the mosquitoes and dragonflies would descend on the water’s surface, seduced by the green pool lights glowing from below. From my vantage point – at the very bottom of the pool, with goggles on – I could lay down and hold my breath and slowly float to the top, joining my hands with the hundreds of tiny legs and wing tips of those fairies on the surface.
Meeting him was kind of as soothing; as simple; as sacred as that girlish memory-float.
One night, in the very beginning, he walked into the bar, sat down across from me quietly, lovely and fierce in his calm, steady gaze. In front of me, there was one perfect red rose for one imperfect me.
When I looked up, my eyes were met with equal force; rivaling passion; warmth and safety and danger and soft crimson velvet on my pale skin.
I was lost at sea, and he found me in my own little net; wet; washed up next to another mermaid; basking in a meadow starred with flowers; our fins glittering in the sunlight.
He cut me free, wrung out my dripping hair and brought me back to land.