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Sometimes to be who you really are, you have to pretend you're already who you want to be. At two, Delores's mother dropped her into the shallow end of a lake, trusting instinct would teach her daughter to swim. From then on, the water is where Delores Walker feels most at home. Now, nearly seventeen, she's boarding a Greyhound bus leaving the Bronx for sunny Weeki Wachee Springs, a tacky roadside attraction in the shadow of Walt Disney's new Florida phenomenon. With a hundred silver dollars left behind by her runaway dad, Delores is chasing her dream of being a mermaid with a group of other aquatic hopefulsgirls just as awkward and uncertain out of water as they are beautiful and graceful in it. And in this make-believe world of sequined tails and amphibious fantasy, Delores will learn some very real lessons about growing up and surviving in a world where everyone sometimes feels like a fish out of water. A heartfelt novel of coming-of-age no matter what age you are, populated with characters offbeat, outcast, and thoroughly lovable,Swim to Meis filled with the kind of wise magic that'll have you believing in the impossible before the final page.
Betsy Carter is the author of The Orange Blossom Specialand her memoir, Nothing to Fall Back On, which was a national bestseller. She is a contributing editor for O, The Oprah Magazine and writes for Good Housekeeping and New York magazine,among others. Carter formerly served as an editor at Esquire, Newsweek, and Harper’s Bazaar, and was the founding editor of New York Woman. She lives in New York City.
THE AIR IN THE BUS smelled like the inside of a suitcase: stale and used. Delores got on the bus early to make sure she had a window seat. Through the opaque windows she could see her mother waving. She didn't wave back, and when the bus pulled out from the station, she kept her eyes forward until she was on the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel. Alone in her seat, she pulled out her suitcase and unpacked Otto, who was wrapped carefully in a pair of her pajamas. Otto was a puppet with a white ceramic clown head that her father bought her the time they went to the Barnum & Bailey Circus in Madison Square Garden. It was one of the few times she and her father ever went anywhere alone.
At intermission, when he told her she could buy anything at the circus that didn't cost over five dollars, Delores chose the puppet with a bald white head because, even though he had a red dollop of paint on his nose, he also had a rhinestone teardrop under each eye and the sad demeanor of someone pleading, "Get me out of here." Delores recognized him as a kindred spirit, and she picked him with the intention that one day they would be able to help each other.
On days when she felt particularly lonely, she'd take Otto out of the shoebox where he lived and occupy his frumpy puppet's body with her fingers. She'd tell Otto things about school or her parents—things she wouldn't tell anyone else. Then she'd twist her voice into a high pitch and listen as Otto told her how pretty she was. "Someday, Delores," he'd say, "you and me, we'll live by the ocean. You'll swim all day. You'll be tan and beautiful and the most popular girl anyone ever knew."
She would have liked to keep Otto on her lap, liked to hold on to something that was hers, but it was weird enough being alone on the bus. A bald puppet with rhinestone teardrops would only call attention to her. So she packed up Otto again, this time between her suede fringed jacket and the satin green miniskirt her mother had given her. Delores had stuffed her money, along with a return ticket and the letter inviting her to Weeki Wachee, inside Otto's hollow head—a small comfort. His sad eyes were looking down on her. "We'll be okay," she wanted to call out to him. "This is what we've always wanted. You'll see." She tried to contain her thoughts, knowing that if she allowed herself to think about Westie she would cry. Better to stare straight ahead, holding on to the brown paper bag that her mother had packed with sandwiches and other food that she promised would keep overnight.
The world slid by, turning from the buds of early spring into the soothing green pines of Virginia and the Carolinas. She ate one of the sandwiches along with an apple and some Chips Ahoy! from the bag. The stack of sandwiches wrapped in wax paper and the individual packages of cookies, four to a packet, made her homesick. There was a dull tugging in her heart. She kept reminding herself that she wasn't doing to Westie what her father had done to them. She wasn't abandoning him. He'd always know where she was. She'd call him once a week. And one day he, too, would swim away.
The bag was heavy on her lap. It would be a long time until anyone else would know what her favorite foods were. As the bus put distance between them, Delores thought about her mother differently. She thought about how she'd hugged her tight at the bus stop. "Honestly, hon," she'd said, "I didn't think you'd have the nerve to go through with it." She'd smelled of cigarettes and Mum deodorant. Delores thought about how, when she was little, her mother would wash her hair, brush it, then wrap it around her fingers while it was wet to curl it. In her absence, her mother was becoming more of a mother than she had been at home. If Delores cried now, she'd reveal herself to be the frightened sixteen-year-old girl she was instead of the mermaid she was about to become. She pushed the sad thoughts out of her mind.
By leaving home now, Delores believed she wouldn't turn out like her mother, who had never left home or tried anything new. Her mother had been only a few years older than Delores was now when she'd had her. Her mother never talked much about her childhood, other than about her mother, Audra. Audra, she always said, "could have been an Olympic swimmer." Audra was thirty-four when she learned she had an untreatable blood disease. She left her two-year-old daughter and her husband to spend whatever time she had left with the man she'd begun having an affair with a year earlier. The man was rich, and they moved to a house in Westchester.
Audra was a beauty, judging from the one surviving photograph of her. Every now and then, her mother would say to Delores, as if for the first time: "Have I ever shown you a picture of your grandmother?" Delores would sit next to her on the bed and watch her mother pull a yellowing envelope from the back of her drawer. She'd open it carefully, as if the Constitution were inside. Then she'd pull out a fading photograph with serrated edges and hold it up with both hands. "That's her," she'd say, her voice lifting. Delores would look at the picture of a woman with a thick pageboy and high cheekbones. Her head was tilted to the side and she had a small smile on her face, as if the person taking the picture had just whispered something vaguely shocking. Each time, Delores studied the big almond-shaped eyes, hoping that this time they would give something away, but they were cast downward, and whatever they were trying to conceal remained locked there forever.
Delores thought how it must have been for her mom and her grandfather, the rejected ones, licking their wounds together after beautiful sloe-eyed Audra swam out of their lives. If your mother leaves you when you are two years old, there is a whole part of your story that will never be finished. A girl with no mother must learn to be her own mother. It made Delores sad to think of her that way.
Leaving certainly ran in the Walker family.
A little more than two years after their trip to Weeki Wachee, Delores's father had left the family.Now she was going, too.
Her mother was husbandless and daughterless.
Westie would always be a fatherless child.
No, that wouldn't have to be so.
Even though she was far away, Delores would try to be a father to him. She would support him and do for him all the things a father should do. She would be a good daughter and make her mother proud.
Alone on the bus now, Delores realized she had no witness to her vow, only herself. But this was a promise born in love and sadness, and they were witnesses enough.
Across the aisle, a young couple was making out. They were both long and slender, and their bodies moved together like wheat in a breeze. She had large blue doll-eyes and straight blond hair down to her waist. Her red, orange, and green striped bell-bottoms hung low on her hips, and, as her mother would say, they were so tight they looked as if they'd been painted on her. He had long, dirty black hair and hatchetlike sideburns. Occasionally, he'd lean over and plant feathery kisses on her forehead. They were whispering, so Delores couldn't hear what they were saying, only that they called each other "honey." Some_times she'd slap his arm and say, "You are too much." Every now and then they would sing. Her voice was like spun sugar, sweet and airy. His had more of a twang to it. They went in and out of song, and Delores closed her eyes, soothed by their happy sounds. She pretended that they were her parents and they were singing her a lullaby. She thought about how her life would be different with parents like that. Maybe they were in show business. Maybe she would be in show business, too. She'd be popular. They'd travel all over the world, a rich and famous happy family.
Delores knew that the Walkers were not really a happy family. She could spot happy families a mile away. They were always bumping against each other, like puppies in a crate. They told stories about each other that never added up to much, but were constant reminders that they all spoke the language of the family. The dads didn't slouch and snap, "Now what?" whenever the moms called their names. The moms didn't roll their eyes and say, "Ha-ha, so funny I forgot to laugh," when the dads made jokes. Happy moms didn't hold on too tightly to their daughters' arms and tell them, "When it comes your time, marry for money. There's nothing sexy about a man who can't afford to buy you a steak once a week." Happy dads didn't talk about feeling "like a trapped mutt."
Westie's family would be happy someday, she would certainly see to that.
The last thing Delores remembered before she fell asleep was thinking how Westie would like it if she would learn to play the guitar. When she awoke, the sky was misty lavender, as it is at sunrise. Instead of the pine trees, there were palms: the bold royal ones that always look as if their hands are on their hips and their chests are round and puffy. As the morning sunlight blazed its way into the afternoon, Delores grasped her situation. I am on my own now, she thought. If I eat, if I sleep, if I stay alive—it's all in my hands. The truth of those thoughts was strangely familiar to her. It mirrored the way she felt when she was underwater: alone, propelling herself forward, utterly unafraid.
Twenty-three hours earlier, when she'd stood at the Port Authority bus station in New York, there had been dozens of buses lined up, like horses in stalls. Now her bus pulled in to a small yellow building with only one other bus. The young man across the aisle pulled a guitar case from the overhead rack. Then he pointed to Delores's valise. "This belong to you?" She nodded yes, and he swung it over his head and put it by her feet. "All yours, little lady." He smiled. The girl in the striped pants smiled, too, and said, "Have a good time now, ya hear?"
"Thank you," said Delores, her lips sticking together from not having spoken for nearly a day. She got a good look at the man and woman. How ridiculous to fantasize that they could be her parents; they were only a year or two older than she was.
Delores waited until everyone left the bus station. She went into the ladies' room and opened her suitcase. She pulled out her suede jacket, then unwrapped Otto, running her fingers around his head. No cracks. What a relief. He would stay with her for a while. She reached inside his skull and pulled out the letter inviting her to audition at Weeki Wachee. She plucked a coin from the bathing cap in which she had stashed her treasured silver dollars and closed the suitcase. The man at the ticket counter seemed surprised when she asked for change, but handed her ten dimes, smiled, and said: "Anything else I can do for you?"
She wasn't used to people being this friendly: the man who lifted her suitcase, the girl who told her to have a good time, and now this man who wanted to know if he could do something else for her.
"Thank you, I'm fine," she said.
"You take care," he said, winking at Otto.
Delores found a phone booth. She closed the door and dialed the phone number on the letterhead.
"Weeki Wachee, how may I help you?" It hadn't even rung twice.
Delores asked for the director, Thelma Foote, the woman who had signed the letter.
"Hello, this is Delores Walker. You sent me a letter saying I could try out to be a mermaid if I came here," said Delores. "Well, I'm here."
"Delores, sweet thing," said Thelma Foote. "Where's 'here'?"
Delores read from the sign in front of her. "The Tampa bus depot."
"Are you by yourself?"
"Hang on a moment, will you?
"You stay right there," she said. "One of my girls will come get you. It'll take about an hour. How will we know you?"
"I'm tall with long, brown hair and I'll be carrying a fringed suede jacket."
Delores sat on the concrete bench outside the depot and started to reread her copy of Teen Girl magazine. The sun made her head pound. She moved inside the stuffy building and sat on a backless wooden bench, too distracted to read. She put her suitcase and the brown paper bag next to her. Otto flopped on her lap. She unwrapped the last of her sandwiches. It was cold sliced liver on Wonder bread with ketchup. And now, here Delores was, eleven hundred miles away from home, eating liver and already missing it. A little touch of France in Tampa. She polished off the sandwich and decided against buying a drink to go with it. Best to save her money. Who knew where she'd wind up sleeping tonight?
When she was sure no one was looking, she slipped her hand into Otto's flaccid body. "Hey, kiddo," he said in his squeaky voice. He cocked his head, then looked around in the darting way that pigeons do. "We're here. We made it."
"Otto," she whispered, staring at the return ticket in her other hand. "What am I going to do if they don't take me as a mermaid?"
Otto leaned his cool face against hers. Then he pulled back and looked her in the eye. "With your looks and talent? It's in the bag, kiddo. Would they drive an hour one-way to pick up just anyone? I don't think so." With Otto still alive on her right hand, Delores curled up on the bench and fell asleep. She awoke to the sound of a honking car horn. They were here. She gave Otto a quick peck on the cheek, wrapped her pajamas around his head, and shoved him into the suitcase. She ran her hands through her hair, squeezed her eyes open and shut a few times, then walked outside. There was a white pickup truck with the blue letters WEEKI WACHEE and a drawing of the two mermaids in front of the clamshell.
"You the girl from New York City?" asked the young woman who was driving.
"That's me," said Delores.
"C'mon then, let's go."
Excerpted from Swim to Me by Betsy Carter All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.