Once again it was DoubleDeath™ Saturday which meant you could die twice for the price of one. I was captaining the ship on the second go-around and the crewmates—a group of 50-something men who’d never fully let go of their frat boy days—were dripping red dye all over my new sea boots, which I’d had to beg Mr. Peterson to buy even though everyone could see my socks through the holes in my old ones. Not much respect for me around these parts, but whatever, I had new boots. I asked Crewmate #1 or Crewmate #5 or whoever was standing closest to me if he could climb to the crow’s nest to “get a better view of the island.” He complied with a huff that said he was a paying customer who shouldn’t be bossed around, even if it was literally my job to boss him around. A job—I must admit—that was a source of pride! I’d been working at Siren Island for four years before I got promoted to Captain. Imagine, me, a captain!
I fixed my hat with one hand while I spun the helm left, then right, then another right. I didn’t have to steer—the boat was attached to a track—but I liked to play my role to the best of my ability. Why do something if you weren’t going to give it your all? The first note over the loud speaker signaled it was time to recite my lines.
“Do I hear singing? The most beautiful singing I’ve ever heard in all my terrible life?” I said, raising my voice so all the men could hear.
I signaled Lonely Lou to turn the wave machine up and soon waves were slapping against the side of the ship like an angry ex with liquid courage.
“Oh, fuck yeah,” said Crewmate #2, red dye dripping down the front of his shirt. He blocked the sun with his hand and peered at the rocks where the sirens sunbathed, their skin slick with sweat and chlorinated water.
“These bitches are hot and ready for us,” said Crewmate #5.
I didn’t like how these men were speaking about the sirens and not sure how to best handle the situation. These weren’t the usual clientele of submissive men in pleated slacks and ill-fitting glasses, men who secretly wished a woman would step on their necks but were so afraid of real pain they settled for a simulation. I didn’t think they’d respond to reprimands, so I tried redirecting them, once again pointing out the sirens’ beautiful, ethereal singing voices.
“We must go to them at once!” I announced, the boat pulling a quick left directly toward the island.
“Hey, whores!” Crewmate #1 called to the sirens. They busied themselves pretending to play their string instruments.
“Please refrain from using offensive or derogatory language!” I said, my voice chipper but fraught with fury.
“We’re only playing. It’s make-believe,” said Crewmate #2, approaching me. His defensiveness wafted off him like a fart.
I don’t know why they felt comfortable speaking about women that way in front of me. Maybe they thought I was a man. At the time I had a short 90s heartthrob cut and they kept pestering me to join the taunting. Instead, I yelled, “Ahoy, mates, I see enemies to the West!”
It was no use. Crewmate #2 turned to the West but merely shot a snot rocket onto the deck I’d literally just cleaned after the first go-around.
The sirens were really something, I’m not going to lie. Mr. Peterson had a knack for hiring. Sure, their outfits were only a step above a child’s homemade Halloween costume—a slip-on set of bird wings and beaks—but the women wearing them were real knockouts. Fat women, thin women, muscular women, all with this fierce look like they couldn’t wait to crush your skull. Out of all the sirens, though, Sara was the star. We’d hardly spoken during our years working together but rumor was she’d been an Olympic swimmer back in France. She had these big eyes and big lips and cheekbones you could cut your hand on. People hung pin-ups of her in their homes. She was our cash cow. It wasn’t a secret that she was keeping us afloat.
Spotting the boat, the sirens climbed down from their rocks onto the sand and waded into the sea, doing this seductive dance, limbs loose and wild. The men grabbed their crotches, gyrating so fast I thought their hips might break. Somewhere the ghosts of murdered sailors were watching this mockery.
Was nothing—not even being lured to death by mythical creatures—sacred?
The waves got rough at this point, so I said my next line: “Oh, no, a storms a’brewin’, don’t know if this baby will make it!”
My siren friend Gabriela got down on all fours and slithered toward the ship, hissing and spitting like something rabid. She winked at me. Our own private conversation. We’d been friends for quite a while. It was nice having someone to commiserate with.
The men ignored me and began to hoot and holler. Even though I wasn’t a real captain I still felt a sting in my heart. I wanted to be appreciated. Who didn’t?
Because of their carrying on, I got distracted and forgot to pull the brake that ensured we’d “crash” slowly and safely onto the island. We hit the beach hard, the jolt sending everyone flying forward onto their faces and hands. Me, I fell awkwardly into the helm, and was nursing quite a bruised sternum. Only then did I pull the emergency brake and turned the ship off.
“What the fuck, man?” Crewmate #2 said. “That didn’t happen the first time,” he said. At first, I thought he was upset, but he was giddy with adrenaline.
All the other guys agreed that was “fucking awesome” and that I was the best captain around. Me, the best captain around! I couldn’t wait to tell Mr. Peterson. He’d surely give me that raise I’d been gently nudging him about.
The sirens behaved as if nothing were out of the ordinary and descended upon the ship like always. I’d never known people’s bodies to move like that. They clawed at the side of the ship, lip-syncing to music playing over the loudspeakers. When I’d first been hired, as a janitor, Mr. Peterson had been determined to hire hot sirens who could also sing but he soon learned that hot women with even a lick of singing talent usually ended up famous, not working at Siren Island. We settled for Icelandic recordings from YouTube. We figured the foreign language would make the music sound more mysterious.
One by one, the men jumped into the water and threw themselves at the sirens. It was clear they each had a favorite. I was scripted to warn that these creatures were dangerous, that they couldn’t be trusted, but I didn’t. I was trying not to panic. The ship’s on switch wouldn’t work. We were stuck. I’d broken the ship.
Through tears I watched the sirens transform from seductresses into evil beasts. Red dye spilled everywhere as they “ripped” the men’s hearts out of their chests. The men were practically cumming in their pants which is great for customer reviews, but I was too busy imagining the cruel things Mr. Peterson would say when he discovered I’d broken his ship. I didn’t even notice that Sara had somehow evaded the men, climbed onto the ship, and was speaking to me.
“Marry me,” she said with the annoyance of someone who’d already repeated themselves.
Even then, I didn’t respond. I like to think I was coming up with a clever response, but I think I was in shock.
“I need a green card,” she said.
“What do I get?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, gesturing to her body. “This.”
That, I had trouble arguing with.
The next morning, Mr. Peterson called me to his office. He’d heard about my shipwreck blunder, about Sara’s proposal.
“You’re going to marry her, right?” he said.
“I mean, I don’t know?” I told him how my mom had always taught me to marry for love, that even a queer kid like me could achieve that. I sounded so pathetic but as I spoke of love, I thought of Gabriela which unsettled me. I needed to focus on my job and my well-being!
Mr. Peterson said, “What a beautiful story—” I started to say that my mom was one of the good ones but he bulldozed right over me. “—that I don’t give a rat’s ass about.”
“Understood,” I lied, thinking of Gabriela. She was stunning, of course, and she was also a bookworm, which I loved. She was kind and funny, too—generous even. One time she’d rescued my credit card after I’d forgotten it at Pacific Shores, drunk from too many shots celebrating Siren Island’s five-year anniversary. She was all I could think about since Sara proposed. But then I saw it. I was in love with her. Facing a marriage proposal is an inopportune time to realize you’re in love with someone else.
Mr. Peterson lit a cigarette. “If you don’t marry Sara, she’s going to get deported.” He took a drag and blew the smoke at the ceiling. “We will certainly go under without her. We’d lose all her regulars. You don’t want that, do you? Don’t you love your job here at Siren Island? Hell, I just promoted you to captain. Don’t you want to keep that job?”
I told him that yes indeed, I did want to keep this job.
“Which is why you’re going to marry her,” he said. “Right, Alicia?”
“Say it with me now,” he said.
I stared at him.
“I,” he said.
I kept staring. Where was Gabriela now? Probably ripping some poor bastard’s heart out.
“I,” he repeated several more times until I finally joined in.
“I. Will. Marry. Sara,” we said slowly, as if trying each word on for size.
“That’s what I thought,” he said. “Glad we cleared that up.”
I thought that was it but when I turned toward the door, he told me to wait. I turned around, hoping for I don’t know what.
“And happy engagement,” he said, raising his eyebrows.
I left his office feeling lower than I had in a long time.
Outside Mr. Peterson’s office, Sara was smoking a cigarette by the bathrooms. She looked effortlessly cool. I gave her a small wave and headed to the locker room to change into my captain costume. She followed me, although I didn’t realize it until I closed my locker to find her standing in front of me, ass naked.
“Told you this is what you get,” she said.
I tried not to look at the parts I very much wanted to look at. She seemed very confident but perhaps that was a front for her anxiety? Whether I would accept her proposal or not. Whether she’d have to go back to France. She must not have talked to Mr. Peterson yet.
Sara cupped her breasts in her strong, vascular hands. It struck me that she was performing for me in the same way she did our paying customers. A cool, slinky version of herself. I thanked her—not for anything specific—just the words thank you. She gave me this weird look.
“You remind me of a record played backward,” she said. “Like a secret message.”
Then she went down on one knee and proposed again. She told me she loved me and that she’d never met anyone like me. Not in the whole god-forsaken world.
I’m not stupid, I knew she didn’t love me, but I found myself softening with every word nonetheless. Stupid, stupid idiot.
I must have been smiling because she said, “So, you’ll do it then, yes?”
Sara had this way of finishing every sentence with a question that only had one correct answer. I asked her how long we’d have to stay married.
“A few years, at least. But we could stay together forever. Free to do whatever we want but always have someone nice to come home to,” she said. “You’re nice, aren’t you?”
“I’m probably not the best judge of that.”
“Well, you are,” she said. “You are.”
I asked her if this sort of thing was illegal.
“Only if we get caught,” she said.
“Only if we get caught,” I repeated.
As a pathological rule-follower, I couldn’t even bring myself to wear socks in the locker room on account of Mr. Peterson’s shoes only sign. The mere thought of breaking an actual law had me sweating straight through my shirt.
Sara and I left the locker room together and ran straight into Lonely Lou. All 6 ft. 7 in. of him. He said he heard the good news from Boss and already put a call in to Pacific Shores to let them know we’d be having a huge engagement party the following night.
“Come on in, folks. Let’s celebrate two lovely ladies in style. Love is love! And all that good stuff!” Lou waved his arms like an air traffic controller ushering everyone into an imaginary bar.
Even as it was all happening, it felt like this had always been my life and I had never known anything else.
After work, the night before my engagement party (my engagement party!), I called up my mom to tell her the news. We’re very close and I didn’t want her to hear it from anyone else. My cousin Rachelle worked in the marketing department and it would be so-Rachelle to tell my mom first. I’d never lied to my mom. She knew me in and out and knew I wouldn’t be into a showboat who sucked up all the oxygen in the room. A stud who knew she was a stud. Someone I’d previously described to my mother as callous and unapproachable. So I waited for her to answer her phone so I could tell her I was going to marry a callous, unapproachable, showboating stud who sucked up all the oxygen in the room. That said, my mother had never married and me marrying had always been one of her goals.
She answered on what seemed like the last ring. I guess it’s always the last ring.
I told her I had something to tell her, could she please balance on one leg (That was our thing; instead of sitting down for news, we pretended to be flamingos.)
“What is it, Leesh?” This poor woman.
I told her about Sara and the sudden engagement party. I waited for her to accuse me of something. Of lying, of withholding my dating life, of proposing to someone without telling her first. Something. Instead, she squealed the squeal of twenty-seven moms exploding into a chorus of, “I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS IS HAPPENING! OH MY GOD, MY BABY IS GETTING MARRIED!”
I’d yanked the phone away from my ear so I almost missed that she said she would leave as soon as possible. “I’ll drive through the night. It’s only nine hours from Monterey!”
“That’s not necessary, Mom. The party isn’t until tomorrow night.”
“You don’t have the faintest idea how parenthood works,” she yelled.
“You’re right about that,” I said.
We hung up and Sara texted me to come check out her apartment since I’d obviously be moving in there. She used words like spacious and modern and refined and curated. I only cared about the word spacious since I liked having room to dance. I wasn’t a particularly good dancer but something about moving my body soothed me. No one could tell you how to move, not even the music. This was especially true if you were white, which I am.
Only after I agreed to visit Sara’s did I realize that my apartment was also spacious and in a central location, walking distance to bars and restaurants and shops, and only a short drive to work. Why hadn’t I mentioned that? Out the door I went, a bottle of wine in tow. I kept finding myself pulled in a particular direction. This is what it must have felt like for sailors who were unwittingly lured to their deaths. Great, I was now method acting.
I first met Sara five years ago at Pride. I was freshly out of a relationship with a woman who’d been very good to me, who I regretted leaving every day. Sara was topless with heart-shaped rainbow pasties over her nipples, dozens of fans surrounding her with Sharpies requesting her to sign various parts of their bodies. Those without a Sharpie were pawing at her, desperate for a little skin-to-skin. She emerged from the sea of worshippers and was suddenly in front of me introducing herself. Maybe she wanted me to laugh and say that I, of course, already knew who she was, but the truth was—I didn’t—so I waited for her pitch.
“Come with me.” She grabbed my hand. “I want to show you something.” Everyone watched as she pulled me through the crowd. Someone reached out, touched my face, and yelled “I touched the face of the person touching Sara!”
Sara sat me in front of a tarot card reader. “Your life is out there waiting for you. If only you will acknowledge it.” She handed the tarot card reader some cash then sauntered to the bar where she took a shot that had been lit on fire. All those hands on her, yet she was untouchable. When my reading was done—the woman told me it was going to be a big year, that I should say yes to opportunity—Sara waved me over. She told me I looked like I needed a change. Then she offered me a shot and a job at Siren Island.
As far as I could tell, Sara’s apartment was all those words she’d used but I couldn’t get over the fact that I was going to be moving in with this person who was to become my wife. I handed Sara the bottle of red to open and she poured two generous glasses. On the wall hung a 36×48 photo of her in a swim cap and bathing suit in position on a starting block. The angle of the shot made it look like Sara was about to dive straight into you.
“Are you excited about our party?” She said it like we were really lovers taking the leap.
I didn’t answer.
“Did you tell your family?” she said. “Do you have family? I suppose that’s something I’ll need to know for the interview.”
I told her that I’d called my mother, that she was on cloud nine about the whole thing. I told Sara she better be good at acting because I wanted my mom to believe this, that I was deserving of love. Sara furrowed her brow then took a long drink.
“It’s not that big of a deal,” she said. “People do this all the time.”
“Okay,” I said.
“If you want to blame anyone, blame your country.”
“Okay. But—okay. But I am in love with Gabriela and now I’ve lost my chance to tell her!”
Sara blinked slowly, raised her hand to the stem of my glass and tipped it back, pouring the wine down my throat. When both glasses were gone, she refilled them and drank thoughtfully for a moment. “What does marriage have to do with love?”
I didn’t have an answer for that so instead I asked, “Why me? Out of all the people you could have chosen?”
“What do you mean? You’re one of my best friends,” she said.
This was news to me. We hadn’t had more than ten conversations in the four years since Pride. Sara must be lonelier than Lonely Lou lost at sea.
Pacific Shores was packed when my mom and I rolled up. Sara said she’d meet us there, which hadn’t instilled confidence that she could pull off pretending to love me for my mother’s sake. I imagined the immigration officer breathing down my throat.
“What you’re telling me is your own fiancée met you at your engagement party?” they’d say.
“My hands are tied,” they’d say.
“Do you see what kind of message you’re sending?” they’d say.
This conversation would inevitably end with me getting fined $10,000 and thrown in prison until my hair turned gray.
My mom must have been in cahoots with the imaginary officer because she asked what type of person meets their fiancée at their own engagement party. I told her a siren; a siren is just the type.
“What? Are you drunk already?”
“Sirens can’t be bargained with,” I said.
“Sirens aren’t real, honey.”
“Okay, Mom,” I said. “Okay, okay, okay.”
We squeezed through a crowd of older gay men clutching cocktails who’d been there since it was The Porch, a gay dive bar. Pacific Shores wasn’t much of a gay bar anymore, but the gays went there anyway, unwilling to let go. We took off our jackets and threw them over a high top. I was wearing my favorite button-down and a bow tie. They would later be ruined.
“Gosh, I’m just so happy you’re happy!” My mom’s cheeks flushed with emotion. Her earnestness was enough to make me cry. Any part of me that hadn’t already been broken shattered in that moment.
It was still early but people were already pretty toasty. A few were aiming popcorn into each other’s mouths, swaying on their stools as they dove. One man rubbed popcorn into his armpits. Pacific Shores didn’t sell real food, but you could eat as much popcorn as you wanted, but you’d only get one or two cups before the machine was empty. No one bothered to refill it. Pacific Shores must have liked people falling on their asses and having threesomes in the bathroom. It seemed to be a part of their branding.
Lonely Lou was standing on a small stage, microphone in hand. That’s what happens when you’re an old Porch regular; they let you bring your own laptop and speakers for karaoke. Say what you want about Lonely Lou, but he loved him some karaoke. It was about the only thing he’d talk about and he’d talk your ear off.
Sitting at a table with another siren was Gabriela. She gave me a little wave, but her mouth was a straight line, eyes big and questioning. My mom followed my gaze then raised her eyebrows at me.
“Just a friend from work,” I said defensively.
“She looks like someone who just missed the last train home.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” It wasn’t like me to be this snappy with my mom. I was floating further and further away from myself with each breath.
Thankfully she ignored me, scouting the room with her hand over her eyes like a visor. “I could be a sailor, too, you know. An important part of navigation is to block out all distract—oh, oh, I think I see your lover!” She shoved my shoulder like an excited schoolgirl.
We crossed the bar, peeling through drunk bodies until we were standing in front of Sara, chatting with Mr. Peterson. Some eager fans pointed and whispered nearby. I wasn’t sure what to do, how to greet her, but I figured touching would have to be involved. I didn’t realize how drunk she was until she turned to me. Her eyes were all squinty like she was trying to read the fine print on my face.
“Alicia,” she said, as if she’d just recently learned my name.
“Sara,” I said. “This is—”
Before I could finish introducing my mom, Sara grabbed my face with both hands and laid a big, sloppy kiss on my lips, saliva smearing all over my mouth in indiscriminate patterns like a kid’s splatter painting. When she finally pulled away, my mom was grinning with several years’ worth of serotonin flooding her synapses.
“We were just talking about you, weren’t we?” Sara said, glancing at Mr. Peterson.
“That we were,” he said, giving me a paternal smile. “All wonderful things.”
I introduced my mother.
“This is how we do it in France,” Sara said, giving my mother two quick pecks on the cheek.
It was a benign enough statement, but I felt as if Sara had slipped a leash over my head and given it a nice tug. A way of reminding me what’s at stake here.
“How cultured!” said my mom. Under normal circumstances, this would have embarrassed me but given my deceit, I lacked the capacity for embarrassment. Guilt though, I could do big, heaping mountains of guilt.
I excused myself to the bathroom. On the way, I ran into Gabriela, or rather she materialized in front of me. I felt like a captain who had been thrown overboard by disgruntled sailors. I was mutinied. I was floundering.
“Thank you for coming,” I said.
“Thank you for inviting me,” she said, even though it had been all Lonely Lou’s doing.
“Thank you for thanking me.” I was a crazed person.
“Thank you for thanking me for thanking you,” she grinned. She had this way of teasing you without coming off as cruel. I loved it and loved being the subject of her attention. I guessed that didn’t matter anymore. “Let me buy you a drink,” she said, grabbing my arm and guiding me toward the bar.
“The usual,” she said when the bartender Biggie finally noticed us. He returned with two Jameson shots and two whiskey gingers. We clinked the shots together and threw them back.
“You know what’s crazy? I didn’t even realize you and Sara were dating.” Gabriela searched my face.
I took a sip to buy some time. “We wanted to keep it hush-hush. Since we work together and all.”
“Smart.” She turned so her shoulders were no longer facing me. She scanned the bar.
“Sorry I didn’t tell you,” I said.
“I guess you’re a hot commodity,” she said, downing half her drink.
I told her I didn’t think that was true—I couldn’t think of a single other person who was interested in me.
“You’re such a fucking bonehead, I swear,” she said. Then she whispered, “My favorite fucking bonehead.”
Her favorite! It charmed me to think of myself as her favorite anything, even if that did make me a bonehead.
Nearby, someone dropped a glass, the shards flying every which way. “Sorry, sorry, so sorry,” said the culprit. I bent down and picked up a large piece, tossing it in the trash can.
“You should let Biggie clean it up. You don’t want to cut yourself at your anniversary party,” she said, as if cutting myself any other time would be perfectly fine.
I didn’t answer. My hands were trembling enough from the tension between us that I had to hold my whiskey ginger with both hands like a toddler. I could see my mom and Sara laughing, her hand resting on Sara’s forearm.
“There is such a thing as being too helpful,” Gabriela said, looking literally anywhere but at me. It occurred that I couldn’t remember a time in which my life had been a product of my own deliberate decisions. What was the word for a buoy without an anchor? Could it still be a buoy if it didn’t mark anything?
“I should be getting back.” I nodded toward Sara and my mother.
She finished her drink. “Yeah, you should.”
Sara didn’t give me a sloppy kiss this time but she did throw her arm around my waist in such a casual move I almost forgot we weren’t really together.
My mother leaned in close and whisper-shouted in my ear. “I love my daughter-in-law!”
Over the mic, Lonely Lou announced that it was karaoke time. “First up is Sara Bernard! World-famous siren, model, and soon-to-be-wife!”
Sara swaggered toward the stage, partially from drunkenness, partially because that’s the way she walked. Shoulders back, chest out, limbs loose and unworried. A full cup of red wine in hand.
Lonely Lou said, “Congratulations to the lovebirds. Equality is so, so great, right? Everyone better buy these two all the drinks they can stomach!”
Inexplicably, she chose to sing “How Will I Know” by Whitney Houston, a song with notes only three people in history can hit. The opening notes played and everyone’s heads started bobbing. Sara’s singing was way off key, her voice raspy and a little slurred.
“There’s a boy I know, he’s the one I dream of…” She danced a sort of two-step, chugging wine between lines. People were clapping. It was awful.
“Looks into my eyes, takes me to the clouds above…”
She even did the mmm-hmm, which somehow made the whole experience even worse.
When she reached the chorus, she beckoned me to join her on stage. Everyone turned to look for the lucky lady. Oh, god, I am the lucky lady. When I didn’t move, my mom gave me a healthy nudge in the back. I tripped over my toes but caught myself on a sweaty man’s back.
Against my will, my feet walked the rest of my body toward the stage. I didn’t know how to stop them. Left foot, right, pause for a second behind a swaying woman, then another right around her. I didn’t think about where I was going, who I would be when I got there.
“I’m asking you what you know about these things,” sang Sara. She’d squatted at the front of the stage, her arm outstretched, hand ready to receive me, ready to ruin me. I could give in to the inevitable. I could give her my hand; I could let that happen. I could run ashore.
I thought instead of Gabriela. I imagine her singing but a reverse siren, every note sending me back out to sea, away from the threats of the island, away from the seduction of destruction. Instead of grabbing Sara’s hand, I rip the wine from her fist and dump it down the front of my shirt. A delicious, red mess. She looks shocked but not surprised. I can’t explain the difference but I know it has something to do with the fact that the heart doesn’t need a body to keep on beating.
It can survive without you.