A Mermaid in the Shark Tunnel

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“Chad, it’s Meg. Look, you know how I was getting married next summer? Turns out I’m getting married next Friday night. At the aquarium. And no, I’m not pregnant. It’s a small invite, family and a few friends, and I need you there. Will you be there?”

“Hell yes I’ll be there!”

And so, the following Friday, the boyfriend and I arrived at the Aquarium at closing time for a very Meg wedding. She wore a beautiful form-fitting white dress, cowboy boots, and a tiara that she made herself out of seashells. Her children, his children, their parents, and selected loved ones lined the walls of a narrow shark tunnel. Sharks, sea turtles, stingrays, and colorful fish swam on both sides and above us as Meg’s father played guitar, and Meg’s daughter sang “First Day of My Life” by Bright Eyes.

“This is the first day of my life. I’m glad I didn’t die before I met you. But now I don’t care, I could go anywhere with you, and I’d probably be happy.”

Meg’s new step-daughter officiated, using the words that Meg wrote, perfect and authentic, in the voice that only Meg has. Then she and her husband pledged their commitments to each other. The crowd took sips of sparkling cider from plastic cups. And then it was done. Five brief, life-altering minutes.

In the time leading up to the wedding, Mike and I walked through the sleepy aquarium. I’ve been there many times before, but never so late. The otters were all curled up on each others tummies and tails in a woody corner near the window, and I could see their breath in their stomachs. The penguins were all perfectly spaced across their tank, as if they each had an assigned space to stand during the evening hours, with heads tucked into wings. The light was different. It was magical.

In the shark tunnel, a giant sea turtle looked as if he’d crashed into the ground. His head was on the floor, and his giant shell rose up into the air, like he had a balloon tied to the back of his body. I asked the attendant about it, and he informed me this was a medical condition that they jokingly called the “bubble butt syndrome”; the turtle was fine, the back of his shell just floated like that. I watched the majestic sea life flowing around we mere human spectators, and thought, “This is the perfect place for a mermaid to marry.”

Meg is half-fish, half-human. She doesn’t dwell in one place, or in one form. She gracefully flows through multiple worlds, seamlessly existing in both. She is both elegant and white-trash, mother and lover, ethereal and grounded, confidence and confusion, writer and dreamer, wisher and hoper. Meg both buys and sells magic beans, both tells and receives the stories. She’s a true original. She’s the mother who volunteers to help judge the poetry slam at her kid’s school, and she’s the woman who places snarky comments on certain forums under the pseudonym Tits MacIntonsh.

She’s a mermaid.

I’ve known Meg less than a year. As part of a New Year’s resolution at the beginning of 2017, I set a goal to do more reading performances, to share my stories and hone my skills and talents as a writer. I created an event called “Voices Heard”, and established a format of me, with two other writers, sharing two stories each on a particular topic. I wanted to keep a steady influx of writers passing through, and I saw Meg’s name, at random, in an online group dedicated to local writers. I sent her a message about the program, asked if she might like to be involved, and she responded with an elegant and enthusiastic, “I would love to share! I am so on board!”

And so I drove to her home on a random evening to share stories on betrayal, a topic we would explore in readings just days later. Her home was decorated with a bizarre assortment of knickknacks, collected from thrift shop shelves and eclectic galleries. She had a food tray of fruits and meats ready when I arrived. We became acquainted, laughed a bit, and then read about raw painful stories from our pasts in a way that made us both want to laugh and shed tears at the same time. I read about being mugged, punched, and left unconscious as a closeted gay Mormon missionary; she read about losing a child to stillbirth and making the decision to end an unhealthy marriage while eating a meat sandwich. It was a match. Meg and I have been reading together ever since.

After her wedding, I gave Meg a huge hug. “You’re married!”

She gripped my shoulder, almost scandalously, and leaned in for a whisper. “Did you notice that the bubble-butt turtle got up and started swimming the second my husband and I were walking down the aisle?”

“Well that is a god-damned miracle,” I laughed.

After more hugs, greetings, and handshakes, Meg, in her dress, boots, and seashell tiara, left the sharks behind and gathered her family for a celebratory dinner. At the Old Spaghetti Factory.

And I drove home, thinking how fortunate I am to be friends with a mermaid.

Mr. Karen Carpenter

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Just days before her wedding, Karen Carpenter discovered her fiancee was a liar.

Karen had been dating high profile men for years, sometimes casually and sometimes seriously. Alan Osmond and Steve Martin and Tony Danza. She was 5’4”, petite and small with an enormous smile. She looked healthy and strong at around 115 lbs, but she was hard on herself, often starving herself while using laxatives to empty her system and uppers to boost her metabolism and energy, and her weight would sometimes drop to 90, 85, or even 80 pounds, giving her the look of a skeleton covered in skin.

Her voice, though, her voice was unchanging. She kept an impossible schedule, touring the world and making music with her smoky and sultry voice in its lower register, somehow conveying the emotional weight of every word, whether she sang of falling in love or of being desperately lonely or of being heartbroken.

Talking to myself and feeling old, sometimes I’d like to quit, nothin’ ever seems to fit, hanging around, nothing to do but frown, rainy days and Mondays always get me down

and

why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near? just like me, they long to be close to you

and

what to say to make you come again, come back to me again and play your sad guitar, don’t you remember you told me you loved me, baby?

Karen’s mother, Agnes, ruled the household with strong words and harsh expectations. She saw her son, Richard, as a musical prodigy who would have a successful career playing the piano, and she saw Karen as a talented young woman who could support Richard in his rise to fame and then perhaps Karen could become the wife and mother she was meant to be. Karen started her music career behind a set of drums, playing for her brother’s band, but when they heard her sing, she was moved out in front as the lead singer. She was the one everyone saw and heard and remembered.

Karen and Richard were dubbed the squeaky-clean rock stars, full of innocence and virginity, during their era, and their personal lives matched that at first; they even lived at home with their parents until they were in their mid-20s, for years after they had become famous. In time, Richard struggled through drug addiction while Karen fell in and out of love, hoping to find a unicorn of a man, who could love her, give her a family, be independent and devoted, and be able to handle her fame.

Karen met Tom Burris during a difficult time in her life. She had just tried launching her own musical career, her own solo album. She had smiled and beamed through the hard work of making her disco album, but after a year of hard work, her family and friends had discouraged her from releasing it, hearing the tracks and telling her it would be unsuccessful. And so she shelved the album, and it would only be released years after her death.

Tom had appeared perfect, and he came at just the right time. He was handsome with a flashy smile and a nice career and stories of vast wealth, and he was blonde and blue-eyed and seemingly devoted to Karen. He claimed he had never heard of her, though she was world famous. A decade older, Tom rushed a divorce with his current wife and proposed to Karen, promising to give her everything she ever wanted, and Karen, hesitant at first, said yes. Then, weeks before the wedding, Tom told her that he had had a vasectomy and that he couldn’t give her children. Karen was heartbroken and furious. He had lied to her. She called off the wedding, but her mother had already sent out the invitations and Karen was pressured into continuing.

And so, Karen Carpenter married Tom Burris married on August 31, 1980. She cut the honeymoon short, immediately unhappy, and then Tom began asking for money, having lied about his personal fortunes. He bought her a car, but they later repossessed it for missing payments. After months of unhappiness, Karen began working on the divorce proceedings, changing her will to keep Tom mostly out of it.

Karen’s health was failing, her body unable to operate without food and sustenance, abused by pills and laxatives. She started treatment and wanted fast results. The therapist was rough on her and Karen began facing harsh truths, especially in a therapy session where her mother could admit love for Richard but not for Karen, not out loud at least.

And so Karen was 32 when she woke up one morning, started a cup of coffee, and then collapsed naked on the floor in her room in her mother’s basement, her heart giving out on her. She died minutes later. It was 1983.

I was five when Karen died. I grew up listening to her amazing voice. It was heavenly, and it made me feel all the feelings. And now, I’m 38, older than she was at the time of her death, and I’m learning about her life. I’ve played her music for the week while I’ve read about her, and I’ve watched her old interviews as she denied having an eating disorder late in her career. I’ve watched her awkward singing behind a set of drums early in her career, and her extreme confidence as she flirted with the audience masterfully in the middle of her career. And this morning, I sit and type about her sad story, one talented and beautiful young woman who wanted love and happiness just like anyone else. And  I realize, it’s a rainy day and a Monday, and I’m feeling down.

But good Lord, that voice…