Pretext Series

by Rochelle Ratner



The fish tail's only painted on.
She's pretending to be a mermaid
but actually she folds her legs
beneath her,
half kneeling, half balancing
on her knees.

She's been sitting there
long enough to feel the muscles
harden into bones--
to move now would be dangerous.

The point is she's trapped there
and the walls of the trap
are closing in.
She doesn't want to be
like the people around her
and nobody's bothered to tell her
there are other people.
She'll never learn unless she moves
and won't move till she has to.

Sometimes she wakes from sleep
and tries to get away,
but her legs are so frail by now
she falls down.
Sometimes in the morning people tell her
and she doesn't remember falling.
It's no good to remember.


She wanted to make her stubbornness work for her.
Just as she sat there, refusing to move,
so she could make herself go into the world
with as much intensity.

She sat in her room, closed off to others;
whatever she was, she'd keep it to herself.
She kept the door locked, didn't answer the phone.
The point is what do you do
when you start to want to go out,
want to have people to talk to, but are ashamed
to admit they were right when they said
someday you'd want that.

People tried to help, that was the problem .
She was too proud to tell them what she really was,
it's pride that makes you stubborn. There,
she'd admitted that much.
She had to complete what she started,
the argument gives her something to say,
people get lost in the topic
and forget to look at her. She wants to hide
behind her words, the unmoving image of herself
put on land by some greed of her parents
when they were too old.
Her mother was so nervous it's a wonder
she stayed still long enough to let the seed in,
but she wanted a child, she wanted.



As a child she dug the tiny sand crabs up
and filled her bucket with them.
Every time the wave went back in
there would be three or four in the hole she'd dug --
iridescent colors, pearl-like white, pink, yellow,
crowded together till they died
from lack of air or water.
Even so she dug them up summer after summer,
the smaller the better, she was afraid of the large crabs.
They taught her she had to fear the large ones.
If she just makes herself small
no one will fear her. So she thinks. So she wishes.
Sometimes it's all tied up in her head
and her legs are hurting.


It was never death by drowning.
She'd thought of jumping off a building,
gas, slitting her wrists, slitting her throat,
and pills. But water never held that sort of fear.

She really thought the pills were strong enough
but it seems she was lied to once again.
Imagine how she felt after changing into pajamas,
taking the pills with an eight ounce glass of Scotch,
then lying down as if going to sleep,
only to wake and find herself still alive.
She felt frightened, that's what.
Scared enough to call a neighbor.

The nurse who stayed with Pearl's mother,
whose name she can't even remember,
shoved a finger down her throat to make her vomit
before the ambulance got there.
Some doctor she didn't know called her a baby
when she wouldn't let him take blood.

A year later Lee called to come visit him.
He called again two days later, from the hospital,
confessed he'd taken pills that night
and simply didn't want to die alone.
The next week he described every detail
of having his stomach pumped, just in case
she thought to try again.

So the pills were out,
she'd try a knife except she used to faint
at the sight of blood, there didn't seem
many buildings tall enough, and gas
well, she hated the smell of it.

Maybe if she could swim,
at least far enough to where she could drown,
but she'd never be able to walk that far, not undetected.
Maybe jumping off a bridge, but somehow she imagined
they'd stop her or else drag her out in time.
Water seemed too much a life force, no wonder for years
she simply blocked it from her thoughts.


She knows she can just get up and walk away,
creeping along the edges,
holding onto the wall for support.
Then simply plunging in, the way she did
when she first came to New York,
diving off the high board.

She remembers the sound of water
as it splashed around her, she remembers
how she finally gave up and learned to laugh
at the bubbles breaking on her face.
That's the only way not to notice how cold it is,
coming up all wet, her head thrown back,
finding it's all simpler than she thought.

The point is not to look back, not to notice
the tailpiece standing there, not to be tempted.
Everyone she meets tries to turn her head around,
pointing suddenly at something.
It's hard, open as she is, without any defenses.
But she can still walk slightly crouched,
pretending the tail's still there.

Most of the time she wears a long tight dress,
doesn't let them see her in slacks yet,
keeps her legs as loosely defined as possible.
The formalness gives an air of security.
She takes it a little slow-knowing she jumped in
doesn't mean she has to swim so fast
she's out of breath. Stops doing things on impulse.

If she can just let the rhythm take over
that will be as much a mask as the tail was,
another place where she can lose herself.
Long hair hanging wildly in her face, another mask.
There are all sorts of tricks she hasn't learned yet.



It's what you, are inside that counts,
what you are on the outside doesn't matter.
But even this she carries to the extreme
like not washing for weeks on end
or not keeping her hair combed.

All this messy outside
is just to make people look harder --
she's worth that much., She puts herself down
to hear others praise her, then thinks
she's fooling them.

She's so heavy she sinks in the make-believe water
and not secure enough to get in there and kick.
She's got it in her head that she can't swim,
no one's going to talk her out of that.

She's used to turning her strength against herself
and wouldn't know what else to do with it.
It's all from growing up alone --
she made her place and refused to leave it,
put all her power in those steadfast feet, so that
when they force her into shoes, within a week
she wears the heels down.

If she'd lose ten pounds
there wouldn't be so much weight on them,
but she remembers in the water things were lighter.
Slacks won't fit over her thighs, and she says
fish tails are always fat on top.
She can't forget what she was, won't accept
what's become of her.



She thought, why not be sexy?
After all, it's safe, half on her knees
with her thighs held close together.
Water has such a cleansing force to it,
why does she still think of sex as dirty?

She sits down in the sand,
piles up tiny castles with her hands,
and blames her parents.
She says they hugged and kissed but watching them
she thought love meant nothing more than that.
Her grandmother was the only one who told her
her feelings were natural, and that was when
she was too young to understand.

Subconsciously, she's always wanted to be half fish --
the symbol of fertility, spawning hundreds of eggs
without any real intercourse.
It would be simple.
But no matter how long she sits there
it doesn't seem there's going to be any change.
Damn it, she was supposed to be sexy, she was supposed
to lure men to their deaths. She sat there,
she sang to herself, but no one approached her.

She realizes she can't run away from it,
even in disguise she has to reach out to people.
Instead she tells herself she doesn't want a man,
is quite content by herself here. She has her writing
to take the place of love, she has these castles
she's erecting in the sand. Other people would give
their eye teeth for this.

Something went wrong with the whole plan,
and this piece of cardboard propped in front of her
is utterly useless, it doesn't even have real scales,
she can't amuse herself by peeling them off
as you'd peel a sunburn. And it still comes back
to the basic question: why not be sexy,
why the hell can't you be sexy?



Not scales but little red dots
all over her face and neck
as in a rash or measles,
but she's not allergic to anything
except her own fear, her body's wish
to remain secluded.

All the blood vessels have broken
from staying up all night, choking.
She prepared for this by not eating all day,
knowing if she ate she'd be too nauseous
to cope with anything. Instead now
there's this constant retching, safe at home,
with no food in her stomach to cough up.

She's willing to put up with this
because every two weeks it's important
that she go out, needing someone to talk to.
But if only she still had the scales,
itchy as they were, she was safe behind them.
Everyone looks at her and turns away,
no one believes she really had to go through this,
but just see how her face is broken out,
this is what she needs to convince herself
she's not pretending.


Copyright © 1979 by Rochelle Ratner.

From Combing the Waves by Rochelle Ratner, Hanging Loose Press.


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