How to Hold Your Breath

By Meredith Schwartz

The summer I was eleven, my hair was the color of corn silk. Not the tawny cat color that Clairol calls corn silk at the Rite Aid; it actually looked like the kind on real corn, where each strand is white-gold and see-through, but together they're kinda almost green. As soon as I realized, I knew I had to join the swim team. Mom thought it was the chlorine. She got me Neutrogena shampoo, which stripped all the leftover conditioner out and made my wet hair squeak between my wrinkled fingers.

When I was twelve, we had a pool in the backyard and me and my friends spent a lot of time lying next to it with baby oil on our skin and Sun-In on our hair. We didn't really swim much; no matter how much chlorine my dad dumped in, the algae kept coming back thicker and thicker on the side near our lounge chairs, choking the pump until it burned out and died. Like having a heart attack, Dad said. It looked like invasion of the alien slime monsters to me, but Mom says they call it "bloom."

In eighth grade, two of the guys started whispering "smells like fish" to each other whenever I came near them, especially if I uncrossed my legs or bent over. I snatched the glasses off Jason and stomped on them, and punched his buddy in the ribs. Since I was an honor-roll kid and I'd never been caught fighting before, they let me off with a week of detention and writing a paper on the fighting-words doctrine. I got a B.

In ninth grade, I started poking holes in the webbing between my fingers with a safety pin in math class. They called my mom in to the guidance office and she came out stuffing a bunch of Xeroxes into her purse. I thought I was grounded for sure, but she kept talking about emotional pain until I asked her if she and Dad were getting a divorce. After that we went to Carvel. Then she took me to the salon and said I could get anything I wanted. I got blue highlights, which Mom thought was sort of okay because she read in the New York Times how all the girls are doing it. I don't even like Hannah Montana.

Mom likes talking in the car about serious stuff because then she doesn't have to look at me or figure out what to do with her hands. She said I know it's hard for you, becoming a woman. I said that's not the problem. She said I hope you're not blaming me. I said no but I don't think she believed me.

I know it's not her fault. I'm not a retard, and I had a whole semester of bio already. Mom is clearly not a fish. I know it's got to be one of my grandmothers' fault, or maybe great-grandmothers'. I can't tell who because Dad's mom is dead and Mom doesn't talk to her folks and in all the really old pictures they had long skirts. Jimmy Hoffa could be under there.

I'm pretty sure it isn't going to happen to my sister Allie too. At least, Mrs. Krupinski says it doesn't work like that with blue eyes. But she's only eight, so I kept the Sun-In, just in case.

I don't know how long the total mermaidification of me is going to take. Maybe not till college. Mom always says don't hold your breath about waiting for things to change, but I do, at night with my mouth smushed against the pillow, or in the school pool with my hair making a big jellyfish cloud in front of my face. I can do it for three minutes now. My knees and elbows are getting scaly already, but I got this great seaweed lotion from The Body Shop that keeps it under control. When it comes, I'll be ready. I'm doing my science project on coral reefs. I stole my mom's pearls that she never wears anyway. I sent half my birthday money to Greenpeace. And I'm making myself learn to eat sushi.


Meredith Schwartz's short stories have appeared in Reflection's Edge and in the Torquere Press anthology Sleeping Beauty, Indeed. She edited Alleys & Doorways, an anthology of homoerotic urban fantasy, for Torquere, and reviews science fiction and fantasy for Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. To contact her, send her email at mschwartz@earthling.net.