My Life As a Mermaid, and Other Stores
by Jen Grow
2015, Dzanc Books
216 Pages, $14.95
Heart beating in your ears, hidden away from the world, sinking until the cement bottom scrapes your knees. Then your arms rise up and you are flying, exploding into the sunlight. This sensation is as simple as the molecules of water that splash across Jen Grow’s words in her debut collection of stories, My Life as a Mermaid, winner of the the Dzanc Books Short Story Competition. Grow writes, “I love the thick silence water makes so sound can’t touch me…we were all muscle then and we could sink” (87). Water allows for escape—escape from the babbling of lovers that you don’t really love anymore, escape from failing to be like your perfect sister, escape from the mundane of squeaky carts at air-conditioned grocery stores.
However, Grow’s stories do not pretend to be an escape for lives crushed by bills and loveless marriages. In fact, they shine a microscopic light on all of our insecurities and regrets. And this is how it should be. In “Joe Blow,” we are left with the image of a homeless man living in his truck: “Larry is quiet. Stooped over his crutches, he stands as straight as he ever will…Larry waits. His bottle is firm in his hand” (19). Grow intimates that sometimes we are left with nothing and we won’t be able to pick ourselves back up. “Fixed” suggests that we all become the cat with “it’s balloon of a body floating in the river” as “I watch the shit roll through, slow and steady”—“he’s puffed up, except for his tail; his ears are pointed down into the water like he’s listening to faint voices, to the call of something deep below” (75). Grow pokes and prods at us, her readers, adding salt to the wounds of our missed opportunities. And her stories resonate with us because they terrify us—they expose us to ourselves and they capture us so that we cannot run and hide.
Although some of the stories seem to have the same voice, so that each protagonist is interchangeable with the next, this is not without a purpose. The voice, a universal us, a voice that could be you or me, is a strong one that pulls us through the stories so that things we have long since buried, things that we want to stay buried, are forced to come into the light. “What Girls Leave Behind” presents a mother, with a glass of scotch in her hand, who finds “pink plastic pearls from a broken elastic bracelet…pretend jewels, or princess dreams fallen apart. I still find them, left over from years ago, pill-sized shocks of truth” (21). The truth of what we cannot say and the truth of what we don’t want to feel. Furthermore, “Still at War” depicts a woman with laryngitis, but who the reader suspects to have been choked by her husband returned from war, wishes she could tell of the horrors that her husband has seen, wishes she could tell of her own horrors: “if I had a voice, I’d tell them the war is not over” (45). The war will never be over; we will, all of us, be beaten.
These stories are not happy—they bear witness to real life. To pictures of “an old prostitute who’s seen better days…a woman who has no one to talk to, so she talks to everyone” (101-2). But Grow does not leave us stranded in despair because she suggests that it is only through our pain and through our willingness to lose everything, because we have nothing left to lose, that we are connected to each other: “She’s taking Betty’s picture, and by doing so, she’s saying something to Betty that she would never say out loud…The continental drift has begun, changing the shape of the world in incremental movements, in moments impossible to take back once they’re started” (121). These moments, as fleeting as they may be, are all we can count on, are the only certainties on which to place our hopes so that the “brown water stain on the ceiling almost looked like billowing clouds” (99).