“Is that glitter in your hair?”
“No, it’s hair tinsel. I got it at mermaid camp.”
“Mermaid camp? You must have children.”
Nope. Just me and my “what do I want to be when I grow up” girlhood dreams that have followed me well into adulthood.
Do your dreams grow up? My dreams stay put – always on the alert to the potential for fulfillment.
Like the morning of July 10th, 2016, I spotted a flyer offering a Sirenalia Mermaid Retreat in San Marcos, Texas, the former site of Aquarena Springs and the legendary Aquamaids of yesteryear. The image of a mermaid stood out among the standard issue coffee shop bulletin board selection hawking yoga classes and composting workshops. I was ready to sign up before the last sip of my latte despite the absence of details or qualifications I might need to attend. Justifying the desire to become a mermaid was not necessary in my mind. Justifying the expense as an advance on my birthday was my only concern.
My childhood career goals leaned heavily towards accessory-laden professions where wardrobe was part of the job description. Early role models included the lady perched on the red velvet swing at the Old San Francisco Steak House, who propelled herself towards the ceiling to ding the bell with a dainty tap of her toe. I sat mesmerized by her feather boa and fishnet stockings with a ruffly garter encircling one leg. The ragtime tunes of the piano player accompanied her as she swung higher and higher while diners feasted on surf and turf below. I marched up after every meal to take my place of honor on the swing for a ceremonial push and certificate declaring that I too was “a swinger at the Old San Francisco Steak House.”
Later, the Radio City Rockettes’ kick line would inspire visions of a life spent synchronized in sequins. A few years ago, a flight on Singapore Airlines enticed me with the sarong kebaya and slippers ensemble worn by the effortlessly elegant cabin crew.
As for mermaids, I didn’t come of age with Disney’s red-headed Ariel. I was firmly planted on Team Darryl Hannah thanks to the 1984 film, Splash. On land and sans tail, Mermaid Madison awkwardly maneuvered Manhattan, manhandling lobster dinners and shattering tv sets with her high-pitched native tongue. But her clandestine tail-on transformation in the bathtub attested to the sheer luxury and exuberance of being comfortable in your own skin.
And the mermaid’s tail is what caught my eye when I spied that flyer on the bulletin board. Pastel layers of scales scalloping down to the fishtail, bursting with color like an “It Bag” for my bottom half. The mermaid tail possessed the finishing touch superpower of a well-placed accessory. I had appendage envy.
However, my mermaid cred was limited to long, blonde hair and the ability to “hold a mirror and brush hair,” skills that my pre-retreat studies revealed were essential to mermaiding. I adopted a “fake it until you make it” attitude in anticipation of the four-day mermaid immersion program which included an underwater photo shoot, entry to the Mermaid Society Ball, and a seat on a float in the Mermaid Parade. Confident that mermaids were a welcoming bunch, I shelved my fears of uncertainty and focused on packing mermaid-appropriate attire which included strands of tiny conch shells, plumeria hair clips, waterproof mascara, swimsuits, pajamas sewn by my mother-in-law with the advice to “Be a mermaid in a sea of fish,” printed on them, and a plastic lobster as my mascot.
My rookie status was apparent upon meeting pro mermaids with their very own custom-made tails, seashell-embellished bikini tops and palettes of eye shadows, bronzers and blushes. The mermaid makeover crew quickly moved into action, my hair tinseled with sparkly strands and my arm expertly embossed with an intricate henna design. Their talents humbled me and the generosity of spirit and glitter reassured me that despite my lack of experience, I now at least looked the part.
The Sirenalia glam squad of do-gooders cares deeply about the mermaid’s natural habitat, the water. The location for our underwater photo shoot was the San Marcos River where we would later pick up litter left behind by picnickers and careless convoys of tubing revelers in the less pristine parts of the riverbed. Although I knew how to swim, I spent most of my adult life landlocked or on a chaise lounge where the ocean served as a backdrop to sunbathing. That a lifeguard would be present alternatively comforted and terrified me as I was convinced that my star turn as an enchanting sea creature would end with me swept away by the river current, desperately grabbing for the banks as my underwater rescue ended up with a million views on YouTube as a #MermaidFail.
Relief set in when I saw that our stretch of the river ran through the campus of Texas State University with carefree students paddle boarding to class. The pros took to the water with ease, bobbing their colorful tails to the delight of bystanders, rapidly filling their Instagram feed with photos of mermaids taking over the campus. Cautiously, I first tried out the monofin, my dolphin kick more akin to a bucking bronco. I felt like Houdini trying to break out of a pair of hard rubber shackles. Cursing myself for spending more time studying books than developing my core muscles, I channeled costume designer Edith Head: “You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it.” It was time to let go of the training wheels and suit up.
Mermaid Elona lent me her tail tinted with the hues of a perfect sunset. Hair and makeup mastermind, Rose, acted as my midwife, guiding me through the laborious process of shimmying and scooting my lower half inside the 30-pound, 100% platinum-cured DragonSilicone tail. In the river, I still struggled to glide with the natural grace of the mermaids surrounding me but I swooned with pride to be in their presence and swim alongside them.
For the retreat’s grand finale, we would ride as live mermaids in the San Marcos Mermaid Parade, celebrating the community’s dedication to river conservation and all things mermaid. Parading was my comfort zone. Years living in New Orleans had schooled me in the roles of spectator and float rider. But no amount of bead throwing and catching had prepared me for the unhinged glee of little girls glimpsing a flatbed of mermaids. Their faces registered amazement, ambition and recognition. Mermaids are real.
As I brush my hair, as all good mermaids do, I carefully protect the two remaining strands of hair tinsel. These shimmery locks are a touchstone – a symbol of achievement, a reminder of the goodness of people who help you pursue your dreams, and an inspiration to others.
Don’t give up. Suit up. #MermaidsAreReal