Mermaid River

Alexia Arthurs

Spring 2018

The sign read, “welcome to mermaid river” and in smaller print, “no swimming, the rocks are sharp,” but my grandmother remembered when the river was just a river. Nobody called it any name or took photos in front of it, and the rocks were sharp but it wasn’t anything to keep anyone from swimming. When my grandmother was a girl, the river used to be fat. The day I sat with her across from Mermaid River, it was thinned down and half dried up. And the stones were sharper, angrier than my grandmother remembered, as if the river rebelled when the resort wanted to stretch and the surrounding land was bought up. The river became Mermaid River, and what wasn’t bush to be chopped down were houses where country people lived. The houses were torn down, replaced by vacation cottages. But I haven’t seen Mermaid River in years, not since I left Jamaica. I only have my memories to go on.

These days I ask for fried plantain between two pieces of bread for breakfast. Sometimes I ask for scrambled eggs on the side, or an egg sandwich with fried plantain on the side. I always drink tea. The cereal boxes sit on top of the fridge, barely touched. They are the sugary kind I see advertised on the television. My mother bought them four years ago as one of many introductions to America. Sometimes, after she’s put my breakfast in front of me and I sit eating alone, my eyes will catch on the boxes sitting on top of the fridge and it will occur to me to throw them out. They must be expired by now. But I never do, I always forget, and now they almost seem to belong in our kitchen.

My first morning in this country, I ate the bowl of cold cereal and drank the glass of orange juice my mother put in front of me, and my stomach cramped and pained and finally I vomited. The night before, sleeping in my new bed, all of it felt strange, as though I had stepped out of my skin and was watching myself from outside myself. When I was little I used to show off to my classmates that my mother was in America and would soon send for me. But the story began to seem far off, less true, almost as though it belonged to someone else, so I stopped telling it. That first night, the woman who resembled a woman I used to know—that’s how my mother seemed to me in the early days—showed me to my room. She opened a closet and showed me new clothes. She rubbed her hands against the dresser, pulling out drawers to reveal new socks and underwear. She explained that the entire bedroom set was new. In the woman’s face, I recognized the roundness of my grandmother’s face.

My second morning in this country, my mother asked what my grandmother usually gave me for breakfast. I didn’t tell her porridge, which my grandmother prepared every school day, ignoring my complaints. My grandmother believed porridge was “proper food” for learning, since it was the kind of meal that kept a belly full until lunchtime. But I hated how full cornmeal porridge left meI liked to run to school and it interfered with my speed. I also disliked the lumps and the fact that porridge always made me need to go to the bathroom in the middle of my morning classes. I hated shitting in school, because if you took too long somebody would always make notice of it and ask what you were doing, and then everyone in the class would start laughing.

So I told my mother what my grandmother made on weekends, and since then I’ve basically eaten the same meal every weekday morning. On weekends my mother prepares pancakes from a box—another “introduction to America.” I would prefer plantain and bread and eggs, but I don’t want her to feel bad. She already worries what I will eat when I start college next fall. She says if I can get a little hot pan in my dorm, she will ship me plantains if I end up someplace where I can’t find them. I tell her she doesn’t have to worry. I will eat American food when I have to.

Alexia Arthurs was born and raised in Jamaica, and moved with her family to Brooklyn when she was twelve. She has been published in Small Axe, VQR, Vice, and the Paris Review, which awarded her the Plimpton Prize in 2017. “Mermaid River” is part of her debut short story collection, How to Love a Jamaican, forthcoming in July 2018.

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