Nikki Dekker – deepdeepblue
I love taxidermy, stuffed animals, especially when the details are not realistic. A lion with the bulging eyeballs of a doll, its lips drawn into a curve meant to look like a smile. A fox sitting in a chair, its rear legs crossed like a lady’s, in the very same style that Anne Hathaway learns from her grandma in The Princess Diaries. They don’t even have to be botched jobs. There’s a white mouse for sale on Etsy, wearing a turban and holding up the Magician card from a Tarot deck. Its tail makes a stylized curl. Next to its paw are a crystal ball and a Ouija board. Add to cart.
I follow Vicky along damp brick walls through the murky darkness. We’re in London, in the deserted tunnels beneath Waterloo Station. People call them tunnels, but they’re more like halls with arched ceilings, lit by red and purple spotlights. They’ve been deserted for years, but tonight they’re the site of a festival. We make our way through a cramped half pipe to the bar, a stack of empty beer crates with a sheet of wood on top. Vicky strides up to the two women who are leaning against it, deep in conversation, martinis in their hands. One woman has her face hidden by a basketball cap. The other is wearing a man’s suit, without a shirt. I can see her reddish-brown bra. Vicky runs her index finger along the edge of the jacket, then along the décolletage. “Hello, sweetheart,” she says in a low voice. “What a delicious surprise to see you here.” One of Vicky’s exes. One of the many.
We order two glasses of white and move on. Popcorn is being sold from huge dispensers. A couple of girls in the corner are twirling a hula hoop. This is how I pictured the big city as a small-town teenager, hanging out next to the car factory to listen in for free to the echoes of the annual pop festival. I run my hand along the bricks. They feel damp like cave walls that conceal smaller corridors around every corner. The next time a corridor branches off to one side, I follow it. A man is seated on a high stool, or leaning on it, really, one foot still on the floor. He gestures at the PowerPoint slide projected on the bricks.
“What is this?” he asks. Someone shouts, “A mermaid!” The audience laughs. The man nods. “Believe it or not, this is my specialty. I study mermaids.”
The man’s name is Paolo Viscardi, and he’s brought a variety of mermaids with him. They’re smaller than I had imagined, the size of a chihuahua or a small dachshund. One is lifting up her arms and has her mouth wide open as if she’s screaming. Another appears to be holding herself up on her forearms, dragging her tail behind her. The last one is balancing on her tail and holding a shriveled, mummified hand to her bun of flaxen hair. Once Viscardi has put his mermaids on display, he begins his story.
A human slices off the upper half of a monkey’s skeleton and attaches the backbone to the tail of a large fish. Look: a mermaid. Now the mythical being can be admired even by the landlubbers who have never set foot on a ship. It’s not entirely clear where the tradition of the Fiji mermaid began, but it seems to have come from the Japanese. They molded little creatures out of clay, twigs, and the tails and teeth of fish and sold them to visiting Western merchants, who took them home as souvenirs, as tangible evidence of their great overseas adventures.
I rummage in the pocket of my trousers for loose change for the copy machine. As soon I stop feeding it coins, it will stop working, and I have at least thirty pages to go. Already I’m having doubts about the title—despite all the thought I put into it, all the time I spent cutting each letter from the newspaper. Not everything is lined up perfectly straight, but maybe that makes it more compelling, more authentic. I pick up a page and hold it to the light. The other side shines through.
Someone comes up behind me, very close, and puts her hands over my eyes. “How does it look now?” she whispers in my ear.
Vicky lets go of me and steps back, laughing. I can feel my face turn red. We sit next to each other in philosophy of science, but we’ve never really talked, aside from last week when all of us went out for drinks after class, and there she was, perched on the arm of my chair. She made it look effortless.
The mood that night was strange. We went around the circle, and each of my classmates named their favorite Great Author. Dostoevsky, Proust, Kundera.
“I’m kind of going through a Young Adult phase,” I said.
Someone rose his eyebrows. Someone looked away to make eye contact with someone else.
“Uh,” I continued, “John Green, for example. It’s really pretty interesting how his work relates to the stereotypes in teen series.”
“OK,” Mart said next to me. “My turn. I can’t believe no one’s mentioned William Blake yet.”
Vicky poked me gently in the side and whispered, “DFTBA.”’
“Cool,” she says now, pointing at the stack of pages next to the copier. Collages, pamphlets, cryptic poetry. Little zines I leave behind in cafés and libraries. This time, the old Titanic movie poster is lying on top: Kate and Leo at the top, with the prow of a ship threatening to drive them apart. It has the same shape as the shark in the Jaws poster, rising menacingly from the deep.
“My ex-girlfriend read tons of John Green,” she says. “What matters to you defines your mattering.”
It’s the same quote I’ve put up over my desk, in colored marker on a sheet of printer paper. I stare at her, astounded. She grins. “Hey, my parents have a little place outside the city. I go there a lot on weekends to get high and paint. I’m going on Friday. Why don’t you come along?”
It was my favorite movie as a child. I can still hear the exact melody in my head, right at the start, when the first seagulls break through the clouds and glide just above the surface of the sea on their way to the ship. Ariël, the red-headed mermaid, dwells between two worlds. She lives with her father and sister in a palace at the bottom of the sea, but she longs for the world above water, where the people are. I see her sitting on the rock like the bronze statue in Copenhagen as the waves break over her back, and I hear her singing, “I want more.”
At ten o’clock in the morning, I’m standing next to the sliding doors of the supermarket across the street from the station, carrying a full gym bag and a plastic bag. We buy baguettes, pasta, canned beans, and two large bags of chips. Laden like camels, we shuffle across the concourse. Vicky is wearing one backpack on her back and another on her belly. She has a bag full of stuff in each hand. As soon as we flop into our seats, she puts on her headphones: “Don’t worry, not about you.”
There’s nothing I like more than sitting across from someone on the train without talking, and staring outside while my music plays at the yellow and orange fields rushing by like strips of color. And then Vicky’s reflection layered over them in the window.
Vicky takes the key from the lockbox and points at a rocking chair on the porch. “You wait here,” she says. “I never know what I’ll find when I come here.”
I’ve just settled in when she brings me a glass of cola and a magazine. “I’ll just have a flit round the place with the feather duster. If you keep very quiet, Prince Charles might drop by. That’s what we call the stag who wanders around here. He has fangs.”
I look out over the wide lawn that sprawls all the way to the stream, bordered on either side by rosebushes and hydrangeas. I would never have suspected that Vicky, with her thin, grubby ponytail and her purple tie-dye T-shirt, was rich. And rich in such a very English way: a country house with a veranda, a solarium, and a feather duster for having a flit round the place.
When she points me to my room so that I can put down my bag and freshen up, there’s a glass of water with a slice of lemon on the nightstand, beside a chocolate bar and a large daisy in an old beer bottle. I think to myself, She’s really taking care of me. And I think, Why can’t I share her bedroom with her?
The author of the original fairy tale is a Dane from the nineteenth century: Hans Christian Andersen. His unhappy love life begins at an early age. Time after time, he is rejected.
“You’re like a brother to me,” girls tell him.
It doesn’t help that Hans is such a shy, retiring boy, who has a hard time relating to other people and prefers unattainable women. As if that isn’t bad enough, when he gets older, he starts falling in love with men too. He writes torrid letters to his friends.
“I long for you as if you were a magnificent Calabrian woman,” he writes.
“My feelings for you are those of a woman,” he writes.
Wanting what you can’t have, that’s the little mermaid’s story. In the Disney movie, her friends try to lead her back on the straight and narrow.
“Don’t you know what humans do?” they keep asking Ariël. “They eat fish! They’ll never understand you. Look how beautiful it is here, under the sea! Can’t you just be content with that?”
This is what countless children have heard from their parents: Why can’t you just be normal? You’re too young to learn about things like that! I want you to have a more comfortable life, here, with us.
Home isn’t enough. Ariël gives up her voice and her tail to win over the prince she loves.
From this point on, the two versions part ways. In the Disneyverse, which is all about individual freedom and meritocracy, everything ends well. In Andersen’s fairy tale, the little mermaid dies when her prince marries someone else and disintegrates like foam on the sea.
“I want to draw your portrait,” she says. “Will you do me?”
We sit opposite each other at the table with a disorderly pile of crayons and colored pencils between us and look each other straight in the eyes. She turns aside for a second to change the radio station. Cheesy music plays. “For inspiration,” she says with a laugh.
Maybe she presses her tongue between her lips as she sketches, maybe she stares out intently from under her brow, like Leonardo in Titanic. What I know for certain is that her face is moving way too much—every few seconds, the mood changes completely—but I don’t dare ask her to relax, because I want to capture her the way she is, not the face she puts on for the camera. As for me, I do my very best not to twist my mouth into a grimace. I know how I look when I draw. I’ve seen the photos.
Profane mumbling. “I just can’t find a style of my own,” she protests, sliding her drawing toward me. I can hardly recognize it as a person, let alone as myself.
“I’m searching for a kind of tonal quality, a… melody on paper. Or something.” She snatches back the drawing, crumples it, and tosses the wad into the wastepaper basket. Then she’s off, her sketchbook under her arm, through the open door out onto the grass. By the stream, she collapses in a heap and begins sketching furiously, as if she’d never stopped. I look at my drawing, I look at her, so far away.
“Hey,” I shout, “Think I’ll go for a run.”
She waves. “Say hi to Charles!”
The garden has no bounds, no fence or curb. It liberates something in my lungs. With every step I think of Vicky. Vicky, who isn’t afraid to ask the instructor critical questions. Vicky, who goes out on a Tuesday night and shows up for class on Wednesday. Vicky, who scribbles line drawings of clouds and frogs. Vicky, who has a girlfriend, an older woman with red lipstick who waits for her at the exit after class. Vicky’s arm around her waist. The rhythmic slap of my old sneakers on the mucky soil.
Where does desire come from? Is it in you from birth, just waiting to surface, like a predator’s hunting instinct? Whenever I see water, even if it’s only a brown, unsightly urban waterway, I feel a twinge in my belly—that’s where I’m supposed to be.
The weekend repeats itself and repeats itself and repeats itself. In the summer we hunt mosquitoes, in the winter we stoke the fire, wrap ourselves in blankets, and drink mulled wine. As time passes, the weekends move to other cities and countries: we eat ice cream in an Amsterdam alley, we draw the bridge with all the padlocks in Cologne, we smoke a joint on the sidewalk in front of Notre-Dame. Every place feels familiar when she’s there. But she is never mine. There are tourists we meet, distant acquaintances she wants to visit, people who are nothing more to me than the extras on the fringes of a painting. They stand there, filling up the canvas, but I don’t even glance at them, because I’m in the center with her. To Vicky, each one is a friend she has yet to meet. I wish she could see that all those other people are just distractions, that this is about us, that the two of us together are the real work of art.
But for now we’re still here in the solarium, eating pasta with cream cheese and cherry tomatoes, drinking expensive wine from the cabinet stocked by her parents.
“One bottle,” Vicky says. “They won’t notice a thing.” And later, “One more, they’ll never know.”
We drink until she starts rolling the blunt. After that, we laugh at the garden gnome, the train trip, our own social awkwardness. We laugh until we get hungry and polish off our second course: Jaffa Cakes. Then she looks at me with twinkling eyes:
“Time for a dip. You heard me, girl. We’re going skinny-dipping. Get those clothes off.”
In the fleeting light of the cars driving by in the distance, I follow her, her chubby butt, naked, her back, naked, her shoulders, and those bare legs in high boots. I curl my toes. The boots she gave me are one size too small. They’re sucked into the soil, deeper and deeper, as we near the stream.
Her breasts bob in the black water, glowing in the dark.
Hans Christian Andersen has fallen head over heels in love with a prince of his own: Edvard Collin. It’s to him that Hans writes his most heartfelt letters, for him that he aches and hungers. Hans describes at length how he took a rose to bed with him, kissed the bud passionately, and hid it away under his cushion. Edvard ignores most of Hans’s letters, replying now and then that Hans would be better off putting all that energy into his plays and stories. When Hans receives a letter from Edvard telling him he values his friendship, he boils over with rage:
Why do you call me your “esteemed friend”? I don’t want to be esteemed! That’s the most boring, insipid word you could use. Any idiot can be esteemed!
Four times I declared my love to her.
The first time she sighed, clasped my hand, reassured me, said it didn’t matter, that unfortunately she didn’t feel the same way about me, but it didn’t have to get in the way of our friendship, don’t be absurd, of course not, the two of us will go away for another weekend soon.
The second time she knitted her eyebrows and asked if I was sure, if by any chance I was clinging to her because I felt alone and insecure, and because she brought out a side of me that I could be proud of—in other words, if I wasn’t really more in love with myself.
The third time she shook her head, wrapped her arms around me, and whispered in my ear, “Darling, we’ve already been over this.”
“Not that again,” she said the last time. She laughed and poked me in the side. “Come on, cut it out. Want to light up?”
Vicky knew then what I figured out only years and years later: it’s not about the prince, it’s about his life. The dancing hair and the unbuttoned white shirt are appealing, but what you really want is to leap inside the prince’s carriage, dangle upside down through the door to watch the hooves hitting the sandy path, ride to market to see the cackling chickens, clap at the Punch and Judy show, and dance in the square. Not to be stuck in the water anymore but to glide across the surface in a rowboat, paddling through a weeping willow’s leaf-green curtain as the sun goes down and the birds sing. To make it there, you need the prince, and to be allowed to stay, you need his kiss.
Translated by David McKay