From the Archive: Paige Cooper (CAROUSEL 38)

Staff/ May 22, 2021/ Fiction


The Man from Atlantis

Ingrid is my mother’s name. The only reason I’d ever have a daughter would be to name her Ingrid and let her cry herself to sleep. I’m sorry, I’m a sulker. I was warned. When her boyfriend wouldn’t marry her, Ingrid took his last name anyway and became Ingrid Vivian. When she was twenty, Vivian gave Ingrid an ultimatum: change in six months, or it’s over. They were driving home from a party down dark roads on an island with no streetlights. By the next morning she couldn’t remember what he wanted her to change.
           Fantasy novels told me that because my parents weren’t married I was a bastard. I was the kid at school who taught the other kids what prostitutes and bastards are. Months passed. Ingrid still couldn’t remember what she was supposed to change. Stop sulking? She started fucking my father. At that time Stu was a lean, dark little man with a black beard that went down to his beautiful abs. He also brooded. Pictures of him in seventh grade show a forty-year-old man, brooding. His mother was maybe the worst sulker of all, an icy winter of a fish with slick algal scales. My mother had a pretty blonde mother who stamped her little foot at the last Christmas we invited her to. It’s like Alzheimer’s. I have it coming for me on both sides. I’ve been bleaching my hair back to infancy. I’m dating a two-hundred-and-five-year-old. It’s ok, though, because I’ve been forty since seventh grade. On TV I saw two prostitutes named Ingrid and Vivian. I think, to be honest, she just liked the name.
           Ingrid was sitting in the harbour park in her chambermaid uniform when she first saw Stu climbing down from the tugboat. Here was a man who’d seen suicides, storm wreckage, capsized sailboats with surviving parents or else surviving kids. Women in my family mark a man who takes care of things. He didn’t marry her, either. The way you could tell Stu was from Atlantis was his webbed fingers: blueish and natal, recently conceived. Swimming, he cut through the water like a motorized shark: definitely mammalian, with that black beard streaming. No gills. Nowadays all you hear about Atlantis is hot mermaid housewives and real estate bubbles and police brutality, but back then it was the dream. He’d only admit to growing up there if asked directly. He waged war on the cops then lied about his age to get into the Merchant Marines, but they kicked him out fast. So he cut through the Panama Canal and trailed a family of dolphins up the west coast till the water got too cold and he beached himself on a gravel strand. Cetaceans used to live on land, until they gave up on gravity and language.
           When I was married I liked having a bunch of people in love with me at once. Another thing I liked was when someone described me with a compelling adjective. I immatured at a terrible rate. At this age, it’s the things that people haven’t done with their lives that start to tell. Imagine my brooding fine-boned father fucking my tanned and coltish mother: it’s ungodly hot. Anyone could see the victim in her, with that long blonde braid. She was living with an undertow of a man on the edge of the continent and still she was mean to her friends. Dolphins have a whole extra lobe in their skulls, just for emotions and controlling them. I hope to god she didn’t cry while or after he fucked her. He’d seen so many bloodier accidents than the one she’d designed. I think of the brush-tip of the tail of her braid and I feel very tenderly towards her and her mistakes and mine.
           Suddenly, Ingrid’s six months were up, and she still hadn’t transformed into whatever she was supposed to transform into. Mermaids are compelled by their own beauty and work themselves out to perfection, and yet they are entirely unfuckable. Marry one and you’ll spend your evenings jerking off over her caviar. Have you ever heard one speak? Torn metal and munitions. A syntax of 100-proof emotion from the trench of their evolution. Of course everyone longs for a thinner more smiling version of me. Either Stu thought Ingrid laughed more than she did, or he didn’t mind her watery eyes. She hooked her arms around his shoulders and he swam her back to his raft, which was anchored in a secret inlet of a smaller island off the larger island. The raft had a hole in the middle of it with lights underneath to spot the saltwater life. The water at night was a horrible fathomless turquoise filled with fingerling ghosts and large, sliding bodies. Dolphin or human friends would tow them to the next inlet. Park rangers didn’t bother as much back then. Every inlet was a salted well. The days were spent fucking and doing little chores and swimming until friends came by, then drinking beer and smoking. I would’ve been intolerable. Blood sugar up and down, insecure. Lots of angry naps. Pretty soon, pregnant.
           Cetaceans can see everything growing in you. Love looks to them like a clot of seaweed stuck in your lungs. When in love you’d better manifest a proof of it. Is an infant superior to a ring, like, politically? To pay for the baby they moved up into the mountains. Stu drove tow trucks. Ingrid cleaned outhouses in the national park, climbing trails with her sleek human legs. All I ever saw of my father was his beer belly. Vivian lived with us handwritten on every form and cheque. When I was a short three-year-old they left me with another man with a beer belly and swam with a pod of friends to Mexico for six months. I wet the bed every night. The pregnant man hated me. When they came back I’d given up on language, too. Every morning Ingrid sobbed as she left the kindergarten where I screamed for her not to leave me. This morning the two-hundred-and-five-year-old told me he was leaving, and I went mute as a mermaid but did not piss the bed. I have been promised my conception was not an accident, but my sister’s was, and I told her so. When I was married I was a prostitute until I fell in love with a man like an undertow. Back then I owned the most beautiful house in Atlantis. The fantasy I’m writing is that a man is coming who will take care of you. Eventually, Ingrid and Stu got married on a beach. I wasn’t invited, but the dolphins saw what was happening, and hurled themselves onto the crystal sand to wait gleaming in the sun and eventually, yes, they were transformed.

Paige Cooper is the author of the short story collection Zolitude (Biblioasis, 2018), which was nominated for several prizes, including the Giller and the Governor General’s Award. She grew up in the Canadian Rockies, went to the University of British Columbia and got a Master of Library and Information Studies at Dalhousie. Her stories have appeared in magazines like West Branch, Canadian Notes & Queries, Michigan Quarterly Review and The Fiddlehead, among others. She is the editor of Best Canadian Stories 2020. More:

The Man from Atlantis
appears in CAROUSEL 38 (2017) — buy it here

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