A Low-Rent ‘Little Mermaid’

by Heather Candon

The aughts weren’t my decade. My father died suddenly in 2007, leaving behind a Florida condo in a senior community that I inherited, but was, by law, too young to live in. With no choice but to put it on the market, I watched from the rented attic apartment I shared with my boyfriend in Maine as the housing bubble burst. When the condo sold a year later for half of its original listing price, I was left with just enough to pay off the mortgage. By then, I had replaced my boyfriend with a serious running habit, and no sooner had I been freed from the burden of a rapidly depreciating property then another challenge emerged: nagging pain that I’d been trying to ignore turned out to be my hip bones rubbing against one another, and at the age of 33, I needed both hips replaced. The doctors didn’t offer much in the way of explanation; only that all of my cartilage had worn away. Titanium steel was implanted first into my left and then my right sides, and I was sent home with a walker and a painkiller given to end-stage cancer patients.

Maine was in the clutches of winter when I had to return to work, navigating my walker through several feet of snow to shovel out my car. My employer only granted two weeks of paid sick leave, and I couldn’t afford to take more time off. I was far from what little family I had left and I lived alone. Most of my free time was spent on my couch, staring out the window.

I hadn’t been thinking about anything in particular when I heard the voice. Just watching somber clouds slowly drifting in the sky and the man across the street dragging on his cigarette, bracing against the biting wind.

“If you stay here, you will die.”

The voice was as clear as if someone had spoken it aloud, but I was alone.

If you stay here you will die, it echoed.

The moment I heard it, I knew it was the truth. It wasn’t offered as advice or opinion, it was a statement of faith, up to me to make of it what I would. I didn’t know where it came from, but I knew I had to believe it. I gave my notice at work, sold all of my things and bought a one-way ticket across the Atlantic.

At the invitation of an old friend, I moved to a Spanish island in the Mediterranean. I reasoned that living somewhere nicknamed “sunshine island” was better for my bones than Maine. Nonplussed by Spain’s high unemployment rate, I stubbornly believed my plan to work as an ESL teacher was ironclad.

I was already on my third teaching job by my one-year anniversary landing in Spain. Language schools weren’t able to retain students and didn’t always pay their staff, and for several months I hadn’t been earning enough to eat properly. I had come to covet the complimentary cookies and sugar packets that accompanied a cheap cup of coffee at a cafe. I’d wrap the small cookies in napkins, squirreling them and the sugar away in the pockets of my backpack. I often made a pit stop at Tres Banderas, a family-owned asado joint, because it was on the route I walked between my private students’ houses. Each time I entered, Veronica, the matriarch, called out Mi hija! explaining to anyone within earshot Ella es como mi hija!, slowly annunciating each word so that I’d understand. Her husband, Miguel, a kind-faced man, waved to me with his tongs from behind the grill. Although I only ordered coffee, Veronica and Miguel always made sure I never left hungry, filling white paper bags with pastries for me to take on my way.

For a time, I dated a man who took me out to a lavish dinner each weekend. It was my big and often only substantial meal of the week. I’d fall asleep in his four poster canopy bed with a satisfyingly full stomach, half-drunk on fine red wine, and wake to a view of the Mediterranean. It would be an understatement to say my life at the time was a study in contrasts.

By late August, my bank account was dangerously lean, and I had no work other than my two private students. In the heat of the summer, many businesses and schools close for a month or more and the island goes on holiday. I held out hope that work would come through in the fall, but in the meantime I needed to figure out a way to get some cash.

On my way home from a private English lesson, I walked into one of the half-dozen Chinese shops on my street in search of a long red wig. Commonly referred to simply as ‘chinos’ by Spaniards and expats alike, the ubiquitous Chinese-owned stores featured every imaginable domestic good and, to my amusement, more exotic sundries like feather boas and wigs.

“Estoy buscando para una…una…” I explained to the man at the counter, my voice trailing off when I realized I didn’t know the word for “wig” in Spanish or Chinese. I switched to pantomime, bringing both hands up to either side of my head and rubbing my hair. Miraculously, the man seemed to understand and directed me to an aisle crowded with bathrobes, underwear, kites and wigs. There in technicolor display hung a drag queen’s delight: a pink wig with bangs, a Betty Page black wig, rainbow afros for aspiring clowns, and a long, red wavy wig with bangs.

It was perfect. And for five euros, it was mine.

My predicament shouldn’t have shocked me, as I had moved to Spain while the country was in the grip of La Crisis (pronounced CREE-sees)- a financial crisis that saw unemployment rates soar. Roughly 26 percent of the country was without a job, and a staggering 55 percent of Spain’s youth were unemployed. Those who had jobs were sometimes no more fortunate, working month after month without pay. I had finally relented to the suggestion a friend had made several months ago. The plan was to dress up as Ariel from The Little Mermaid and sing her hallmark songs down by the Cathedral, where the tourists passed by all day like lemmings.

Bolstered by years of high school musicals and community theater and motivated by growing desperation, I fashioned a mermaid bottom out of my turquoise bedsheet. The color was a perfect match to my bikini top. I bobby-pinned the red wig to my head and began singing to my reflection in my bathroom mirror:

Look at this stuff, isn’t it neat? / Wouldn’t ya think my collection’s complete? / Wouldn’t ya think I’m a girl, a girl who has…everything!

I flung my arms wide with the last word, the irony not lost on me. I wondered what my neighbors would make of the sudden burst of live performance from my normally silent apartment. I figured I was giving the tenant upstairs a run for (his? her?) money, as he or she was in the habit of playing “Careless Whisper” a dozen times in a row on Saturday mornings. I didn’t mind this anachronistic display on repeat because I love George Michael, but it saddened me not to have anyone to share this with. It’s the little things that make you homesick.

With my Little Mermaid lyrics memorized and my voice warmed up, I stowed my costume in my backpack and biked down to the Cathedral. A grand display of gothic architecture more than four centuries in the making, the cathedral was built on the site of a razed mosque and rises high above the city walls, lined with palm trees. Gargoyles adorn the flying buttresses and gaze out at the neighboring seafront. A vaulted, historic landmark, and an unlikely backdrop for my cheap rendition of an outdated Disney tune.

But I wasn’t alone, thankfully. The grounds immediately outside the cathedral are flanked daily by street artists and buskers, selling sketches and baubles and sleight of hand. There was a simple homespun contraption I’d seen on the streets of the city that offered the illusion of levitation — a person dressed as a swami, sitting in lotus position and suspended in mid-air.

When I arrived, I was greeted enthusiastically by a well-dressed gladiator, bronzed and armed for battle. He had built himself a small platform on which to stand, cleverly rising several feet above his competitors. For two euros, he offered to pose for a picture with me. I explained I was there for the same reason he was, to earn some money, and politely asked the gladiator if he wouldn’t mind a mermaid for a neighbor. He agreed, I disrobed, and without a second thought began to sing.

Standing between a perched swami and the bronzed gladiator, I soon realized I couldn’t only sing “Part of Your World” ad nauseum. A lightning-fast mental scan of other songs I knew in entirety led me into a soulful rendition of “Amazing Grace,” which gave way to “Castle on a Cloud” from Les Miserables. It occurred to me that I knew several John Denver songs by heart, but I had to draw a line. The notion of a mermaid singing about country roads and rocky mountain highs seemed too ridiculous, even for me.

I made eye contact with a little girl wearing a Little Mermaid T-shirt and began, again, singing my trademark song. Her parents ushered her and her little sister over, and I sang my heart out and posed for a picture. Three Englishmen made my acquaintance and excitedly asked for pictures. As a guided tour group wound past, two Irish women lingered behind and struck up a conversation with me. “Ahh, god bless ye, darlin. And best o’ luck to ya!” they offered. I shuddered to think of how my low-rent Ariel looked immortalized in their photos.

Sheepish gawkers hid behind the trunk of a nearby palm and snapped pictures, which made little sense to me. I was the one sweating under a September sun in a garish red wig and a bedsheet, shamelessly singing sacred hymns and show tunes for spare change. I suppose they reasoned that taking my picture in plain sight would obligate them to leave some change.

Buzzing from adrenalin after an hour of singing, I packed up my show and said goodbye to the gladiator. I was 12 euros richer and comforted with the knowledge that if push came to shove, I could eke out a survival until more teaching work came through. I biked home, washed off my mermaid makeup, and went to a student’s house to give another private lesson, my teaching voice suffused with lilt and melody that evening. The following week I had two more jobs, which meant just enough to survive.

Thankfully I never again had to wear a wig and a bed sheet to busk, though my employment remained tenuous. After two years abroad, I gave up thinking I’d make a better life for myself. I returned to the U.S. 30 pounds thinner and started my life all over, again.

Heather Candon is a writer living in Cold Spring, New York.