The Ex-Mermaid Buys Chocolate Milk
Claire Miye Stanford
The ex-mermaid is opening the door of the dairy case when she hears a voice she recognizes behind her, the voice of the ex-mermaid’s ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend. The ex-mermaid looks quickly at the image of herself that is reflected in the glass, a transparency superimposed on bottles of one and two percent. She looks okay. Not as good as the new girlfriend, who has a pert nose and pert breasts and is generally very pert, pert all over. But the ex-mermaid looks fine, and she registers this as she grabs a bottle of low-fat chocolate milk, which is what she came here for.
She turns, holding her gallon of chocolate milk. The ex-mermaid’s ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend is holding a bottle of kombucha in one hand and a bag of kale chips in the other. SYNERGY, the bottle says, in large block letters.
She looks okay. Not as good as the new girlfriend, who has a pert nose and pert breasts and is generally very pert, pert all over.
The ex-mermaid’s ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend is wearing skinny jeans and a clean, billowy top. The ex-mermaid is wearing sweatpants and a sweater that she only now realizes has a large stain near the hem. She was only going out for ten minutes. She didn’t think she would run into anyone she knew.
“__________?” the new girlfriend says, calling the ex-mermaid’s name, louder this time. “I thought that was you!”
The ex-mermaid met the new girlfriend for the first time at a party several weeks earlier. On that occasion, the ex-mermaid was overdressed, wearing a shirt that was covered in turquoise sequins like the scales that used to shimmer over her body. She had traded in those scales so that she could be her ex-boyfriend’s girlfriend, but now all that was left to her was this sequined shirt that cost a fortune to dry clean.
“How are you?” the new girlfriend asks, a wide smile on her face. “You know,” she says, leaning in confidentially, “I’ve been wanting to tell you that I loved the shirt you wore to that party the other week. It looked really amazing on you.”
She had traded in those scales so that she could be her ex-boyfriend’s girlfriend, but now all that was left to her was this sequined shirt that cost a fortune to dry clean.
The ex-mermaid nods, says thank you, can feel herself blushing under the new girlfriend’s surprising attentions. The new girlfriend is very charming. So charming that, somehow, the ex-mermaid finds herself sitting at a metal table outside the store with the new girlfriend, who sips her kombucha and nibbles on the chips. The ex-mermaid’s gallon of chocolate milk sits, unopened, between them.
“I’m so glad I ran into you,” the new girlfriend is saying. “I’m always telling ________ that I bet we would be great friends.” The ex-mermaid tries to smile. The new girlfriend is obviously operating under some kind of delusion about how the ex-mermaid and ________ broke up—that it was amicable, or even that it was the ex-mermaid’s doing, when it was neither of those things.
The ex-mermaid wishes she could drink her chocolate milk, but she doesn’t have a straw or a glass. If she were alone, she could drink it from the carton, but not only is she not alone, she is with the new girlfriend, who has begun talking about the ex-mermaid’s ex-boyfriend. They are supposed to bond, the ex-mermaid realizes, over his foibles, like his habit of going far too many weeks without trimming his toenails. The new girlfriend brings it up, and the ex-mermaid is supposed to agree, but she only nods her head vaguely because she actually always liked that foible, the feel of his toe-claws against her bare calves at night. Because of him, she thought this was the normal way to keep one’s toenails—protruding and sharp—until one day he looked at her with disgust and said she should get a pedicure. From then on, she kept her toenails short and strawberry pink, the color of bubblegum and tongues. His remained as they were, long and talon-like.
His remained as they were, long and talon-like.
The new girlfriend lists more of their mutually-shared boyfriend’s tics: his morning breath like pond water; the way he insists on pronouncing the word charade char-ahd, as if he is French, even though he is not. For a moment, the ex-mermaid feels caught up in the fun, and she almost contributes some observations of her own—his penchant for loud printed shirts, the curls of hair on his back—but she, of course, cannot say anything; she is the ex-girlfriend and so she does not own these foibles, not anymore.
It is as if the new girlfriend realizes this at the exact same moment, her laughter coming to an abrupt halt. She has finished her bottle of kombucha. The carton of chocolate milk remains unopened, droplets of water beginning to form on its sides as it sweats.
“Well,” the new girlfriend says after a moment, “that was fun. We should do it again.” The ex-mermaid nods. They both know they will not do it again. They both know which one of them is going home to the ex-mermaid’s ex-boyfriend, with his too-long toenails and his pond-water morning breath.
He will leave you too, the ex-mermaid thinks. Except maybe he will not. Maybe the ex-mermaid is leave-able in a way that the new girlfriend, with her fermented beverages and her charm, is not. The new girlfriend hugs the ex-mermaid as they part, and she smells like puppies and gardenias. The ex-mermaid smells like musk and firewood, like hers is a body that knows earthly pleasures and earthly pains.
Finally back at her apartment, the ex-mermaid takes a long drink of chocolate milk, the cardboard spout pressed against her mouth. She pulls the sequined shirt out of her hamper, where it is still waiting, these many weeks later, to be taken to the dry cleaners. She finds a knife in the kitchen drawer and uses the blade to shear the sequins, which pop off in a metallic spray. She watches them fall, one by one, into a shining pile at her feet.
Claire Miye Stanford’s fiction has appeared in Third Coast, Redivider, Tin House Flash Fridays, Booth online, and Front Porch, among other publications. She holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota and is currently a PhD student in the English Department at UCLA. She lives in Los Angeles.
Illustration by Jeremy Anderson.