by Meaghan Hackinen
Already I can see sharks. Blacktip reef sharks, tawny nurse sharks with suction lips, and sleek-spotted leopard sharks. They glide between twinned boulders inside the glass tank of the Aquatheatre, oblivious to the rainbow of reef fish. On steps leading into the tank from an off-stage area, at the far corner and out of sight from visitors, I adjust my snorkel and mask. Fins already underwater. The tank smells of salt but not of the ocean, sterile without the tang of beach-dried seaweed or disemboweled fish. A filter spurts bubbles nearby.
I drop in and begin to swim toward the floor-to-ceiling glass viewing area. Air comes through my snorkel in panicked bursts, and I remind myself to slow. Breathe. I’m approaching the boulders now, fish everywhere. I take a breath and go under, my whole body thrusting in otter-stride as I burst through a shimmering veil of yellowtail fusiliers. It’s as if I’ve stepped into a flash mob—I don’t know where to look. My friend Tristan’s words hover in front of me: “Pick a point to focus; don’t think about breathing.”
An eagle ray with white-on-black spots like a pinup girl’s dress sails past, silky underbelly against my thigh. My chest relaxes as I watch the ray purl around one of the boulders. Then I see him: a three-metre-long blade of muscle and cartilage, black-marble eyes. The tiger shark.
“Don’t worry,” Francis, the Chief Operating Officer of Kuala Lumpur’s aquarium had reassured me. “The sharks have just been fed.”
Now, Francis watches from the other side of the glass. Beside him, another man, also Chinese Malay. Both have close-snipped black hair and white button-down shirts. Francis wears glasses. A crowd gathers in front of them and I realize that they’re all watching me, the girl with the sharks. The mermaid.
White noise of the filters and fans whirr like plane engines before takeoff as I break the surface, drowning the voices below. I take three sharp inhales and one long breath before I duck under again, scattering blue-yellow angelfish in iridescent ripples. It’s six or seven metres to the bottom; I’ve been down as deep as twenty on a single breath. When I reach the sand I toss a fistful overhead, yank my snorkel out and smile. Tiny bubbles hiss past my incisors toward the surface.
In the viewing area, a woman in jeans and a pink headscarf poses her daughter against the glass and snaps a photo. I wave, estimate that I can suppress the want for oxygen another twenty, twenty-five seconds. More camera flashes.
Francis lifts his chin and turns to the man beside him. The man nods, like he understands or already knows what Francis is saying. A woman I recognize as my friend Valarie joins them. Her dark hair fans wet over a towel wrapping her shoulders. She’s dressed in business casual. I meet her gaze just before I kick for the surface. She had her turn in the tank a half hour ago and though we haven’t had a chance to speak about it, I think we both recognize this as the most bizarre job interview ever.
A childhood of summer vacations can be summed up in re-runs of The Price is Right and the pool. My sister and I didn’t make plans. We hollered over the fence to the neighbour kids and they turned up in swimsuits and t-shirts, barefoot. My mother complained about the path of wet footprints from the backdoor to the bathroom, so we threw down towels and shimmied across the linoleum. It was more fun than wiping our feet.
In our Surrey, British Columbia, suburb of realtor and physician parents, a pool didn’t feel like a status symbol. It was the absence of one that set you apart. My parents built ours with the help of an uncle or two, shovelling earth until they struck bedrock. I remember soaking imaginary blazes with fire trucks in the dip that would become the deep end. Even now, the ground under the liner is crenellated, uneven. It never bothered me. I was proud of the pool my parents built, the hemlock deck my father stained every two years.
They say newborns have an instinct for water, and for a long time I assumed that I’ve always known how to swim. But my mother says she taught me. I remember, her waist-deep in water, singing an upbeat disco tune. Hips swinging aerobically and arms pumping the air: “Hands up, baby hands up.”
It was performed by Ottawan, I learned later. Though that doesn’t matter. It was catchy and delivered a lifesaving message: if you’re choking, raise your hands overhead. I’ll always associate that song with my mother and pool safety, just like I connect the thump of towels in the dryer with summer.
After twenty minutes in the tank my turn is nearly over, my final dive spent in Buddha-like stillness. A fang-toothed moray oscillates through a tornado of big-eyed barracudas, and a blacktip passes close enough for me to hitch a ride. The tiger shark’s tail arcs behind a coral head as my goggles break the surface.
Another woman fins past me as I kick toward the hidden steps around the corner. We don’t make eye contact. She must be starting her audition interview. Tremors of adrenaline pulse through my hands as I tug the fins off and collect my towel. Francis and his colleague will be waiting in the viewing area.
Val catches me first. “How was it?”
“Incredible,” I say.
She laughs and begins to towel me dry.
The crowd is not the same. Those present for my performance already moved on to other exhibits, to see electric catfish or a sunken ship. We’re surrounded by families with strollers and pinballing children, shy couples holding hands. Their eyes on me, my body, the body that was moments ago in the shark tank and now on display again as Val pats me dry. This is inappropriate, I realize: people do not just walk around in bathing suits in Kuala Lumpur. A few days ago I went to a water park where everyone was fully dressed. I rushed to the change room to cover up, and later rode the bus, dripping, back to the hostel. Now, I wrap the towel around my chest and ask Val where my clothes are.
Every guidebook I picked up advised to dress modestly. Malaysia is primarily Muslim Malay, but Chinese, Indigenous, and Malaysian Indian add to the cultural diversity. I was never comfortable in loose shirts and long pants. The folds of fabric irritated my skin, trapped the heat, and failed to prevent men, especially in smaller towns, from trailing me through the streets until I slipped into a café.
But then, after realizing I’d need to settle down and earn some cash if I wanted to keep travelling, I moved to the Perhentian Islands and things were different. A popular dive and snorkel destination for backpackers and mainlanders, the Perhentians, made up of Pulau Besar, the Big Island, along with Pulau Kecil, the Small Island, are located off the eastern shore of Peninsular Malaysia, a half-hour to an hour-and-a-half from the mainland, depending on which boat you take. I spent a season on Pulau Besar as a Divemaster.
On the island, even Malay tourists let their hair down, female visitors often folding up their hijabs and men behaving like the boys I knew in high school. In the unofficial uniform of dive-shop employees everywhere—board shorts and shop t-shirt—I finally felt at home.
Despite its name, Pulau Besar isn’t so big. I worked for a smaller dive shop on the mile-long sickle of sand that comprised the southern beach. Ari, the lawyer from Kuala Lumpur who owned the shop, came down every month or so to check up. She had dark, cropped hair and the kind of bold confidence I imagine in members of the U.S. Senate. If she came by herself, she slept on the bunk below mine, directly above the dive shop.
Instead of roadways there were paths scribbled through the jungle with monkeys in papaya trees and fire ants. Four dive shops and a few dozen monitor lizards shared the beach with us. At sunset the guys—boat drivers and cooks and foreign (mostly European) dive staff—drew lines in the sand to play soccer. I remember how the ball threatened toward surf, but someone always managed to kick it infield.
When days were slow I’d swim to the end of the boat lane with Tristan, a perpetually-shirtless instructor from England, and we’d compete to bring sand from the deepest point.
“The key is to trick your body,” he’d told me during one of our first sessions, “into thinking it doesn’t need air.”
The bay was murky that day and I jetted for the surface before reaching sand.
“Try to think of something else while you’re down there,” he said. “Follow the fish or concentrate on the bottom. Just don’t think about breathing.”
“Breathing is all I think about,” I said, heaving inhalations like there wasn’t enough air in the sky to replenish my lungs.
“That’s your problem.”
Before the season peaked we spent hours at the picnic table out in front of the dive shop, waiting for tourists to walk by so we could give them our spiel. Such self-promotion typically made me uncomfortable, but with Tristan, I felt confident. I felt I could learn to fit in.
Val worked for a bank in Kuala Lumpur whose staff were regulars at our dive shop. A group came every couple of weeks, either by night bus or in vehicles with dive equipment and Jack Daniel’s tetrised floor to ceiling. When a rash blistered my stomach after brushing against table coral, Val brought me vials of sea-cucumber jelly. There were no doctors on Pulau Besar.
Jelly didn’t heal the rash, but Val and I became friends. She was the first person I called once I arrived in Kuala Lumpur after the dive shop closed down at the onset of monsoon season in early October. I had to wait in Kuala Lumpur while the Canadian Embassy processed my passport, which I’d foolishly let expire while on island. Perhaps I would go to Thailand, to the west coast where the monsoon was clearing. I had friends in Ko Phi Phi, and figured I could get a job there.
Val mentioned her call back from the aquarium while we were catching up in an all-hours cafeteria.
“It’s always been my dream to be a mermaid,” I said. It sounded silly but that was the truth, going back to when I learned to dogpaddle in our backyard pool.
After eating, I took the light rail back to my downtown hostel, the same place our dive shop housekeeper, an aging hippie named Zional who wore the same stained undershirt every day, worked in the off-season. I think his aunt owned the place.
The next morning I woke up to a call on the hostel front-desk phone from someone named Francis.
“Val mentioned you were interested in the position,” he said, his voice soft but eager. “We have an opening for audition at three this afternoon.”
“Underwater Entertainer” was the official title of the position, but I preferred mermaid. “Bring your mask and fins,” he added.
Once everyone has towelled off, Francis and the other man whose name I can’t seem to remember walk the interview candidates to an outdoor café and we order Coca-Cola in glass bottles. The sky is heavier than a mass of boulders and the air is so thick I could be treading water. Aside from Val and the woman I encountered in the tank, there are three other candidates. Everyone but me is Chinese Malay. Val speaks Mandarin while we walk, but once we’re seated in a circle of plastic red chairs everyone converses in English, for my benefit.
Two of the women are models but I’m not certain about the other two, something to do with promotions. With their slim necks and perfect kneecaps, all four remind me of dolls. Francis explains there are four positions available. There’s six of us.
The server brings a basket of fried chicken that no one but Francis, his colleague, and I pick at. These men, I realize, are trying to sell us on the job. The gig involves three twenty-minute performances a day. The pay is an above-average wage in ringgit per hour, but in ringgit per day it’s hardly enough to live. Less than I earned on the island and there I had food and board covered.
“After you complete the training,” Francis says, “you’ll get your own monofin.”
“Can we choose the colour?” I ask.
Francis offers another round of chicken and cola but no one seems keen, the models tired of feigning interest. At this point Francis offers Val and I, as well as the two models, positions. To the pair who don’t make it he says to keep practicing, “I’ll call you in a few months.”
He arranges to meet the rest of us for training within the next two weeks, and I depart from the table with his business card in my back pocket.
An absence of street vendors foretells rain, but luckily the light rail is only blocks away. The downpour coincides with rush hour, at least that’s been the pattern over the last few days. I lengthen my stride, flip-flops snapping between heel and cement. But the deluge comes all at once, briefly flooding the avenue before waterfalling into storm drains. I slip under the awning of a pharmacy and listen to the pitched thunder of moped engines. Underneath their clear plastic ponchos, the moped drivers wear suits. Even in the city I find myself shipwrecked, marooned on a dry rectangle of sidewalk outside the pharmacy as I wait for the cloudburst to pass.
For the next week I attempt to situate my future-self within this contradictory landscape of street-corner cafeterias and office buildings towering futuristically into the overhead mist. I wander, fill pages of my journal on a park bench under blooming red curtains of Semarak api, Flame of the Forest trees, while a fracas of bird calls competes with the din of construction that marks every block. I call Val from a payphone but she’s busy with work until the weekend.
The hostel is noisy and the toilets stalls are practically in the kitchen, but it’s cheap and I enjoy visiting with Zional. At the dive shop, I’d find him with a hand-rolled cigarette humming “Buffalo Soldier” on the top of the stairs. Here, I find him talking philosophy with backpackers on the rooftop. He still wears that stained undershirt.
I share a room with a barely-twenty French traveller who works as an actor. I ask him if he has a work permit.
“No, but that’s not an issue so long as you don’t overstay your tourist visa.”
It was the same for the foreign dive staff on the Perhentians. Every ninety days we made the half-day trip to Thailand to have our passports stamped for re-entry. I’d done the trip twice so far, both times grateful to leave the island. The rest of the staff filed their requests for candy, whiskey, sleeping pills, or a certain brand of cologne, and I brought back what I could fit in my backpack.
“People turn crazy on the island,” Tristan warned when I had first arrived.
But of course, I’d brushed it off. I could live on an island. I was independent; I had a stack of books and was learning Malay. Steamed rice with breakfast, lunch, and dinner didn’t bore me. Neither did the fact that the state of Terengganu was officially dry. Chinese Malays were somehow exempt, and foreigners, but you still had to travel north to Kelantan on the mainland to buy liquor.
Pulau Besar wasn’t like the party beaches of Thailand, and I liked that. Nights were quiet; our generator shut down an hour after sunset and we lit candles, the staff and whoever happened to be diving with us that week congregating around a double-wide picnic table painted sunflower-yellow. Sometimes it was only Tristan and I, paging through fish identification books and last season’s copies of SportDiver magazine. Later, stars glistened like wet fragments of shell between slats in the roof over my bunk.
But by July, mid-season, I was sick of rice, sick of nearly everyone and stuck for over a month with a terrible ear infection, picked up on one of my border runs that kept me on antibiotics. If I had just stayed out of the water, the infection would have cleared in a week or two. Instead it crawled into the back of my jaw and made sleep impossible. Adding to my misery, another Divemaster dropped a dive tank on my phone and cracked the case; after a week the moisture caused it to short-circuit and I lost contact with my parents. They left messages for me at the only dive shop on the beach with a landline. I hiked across the island to send an email.
It was around this time I realized that some of the staff, not only at our shop but all down the beach, were buying speed from the fishermen. At night we saw their boats lit like overturned chandeliers, rocking in the surf. No one seemed sane. Users didn’t sleep for nights on end: I’d see the firefly tips of their cigarettes on the beach from my window, no matter how late.
Then Tristan fell out with Ari, the owner, and moved across island to work for a competitor. Suddenly I was alone, miserable with my earache, no longer sure who was or wasn’t using.
I started smoking speed. It was easy to be happy when I was high; I liked the numb contentment. But all-too-soon morning would come and I’d slog down the stairs for work, red-eyed from no sleep, wondering what the hell was wrong with me. What was I doing here?
We were at each other’s throats—the beach one step away from Lord of the Flies—when the weather turned and resorts cleared out. By then I had quit speed but taken to quarantining myself in my bunk when I didn’t have to be down in the shop. A few of the boat drivers went back to their homes in the village on Pulau Kecil; some of the foreigners and Malay staff planned to return next spring. I knew I wouldn’t survive another season.
My passport arrives the same day Francis calls to confirm the time of our first training session. I flip through the crisp blank pages as he goes over terms of my employment.
“Val and you would train together,” he says. “But she’s only going to be working part-time, on weekends.”
“I’m having second thoughts,” I say.
“Is it the salary?” he asks.
“Yes.” But there’s more.
It’s been ten days since my interview, two weeks since I left Pulau Besar for Kuala Lumpur and I’m still not used to the evening cloudburst, the confinement brought on by rain and cement. During working hours everyone I know is busy with office jobs, but Ramadan has started and every few days I visit someone’s home to break fast with their extended relatives. Seeing families together, comfortably familiar and forgiving of each other’s coffee breath, has forced me to face my own longing for home.
How long have I felt like this? Since Tristan left, I realize. With him I felt a sense of belonging, his friendship close enough to make the dive shop feel like home.
“I’ll make up my mind by tomorrow,” I promise. I don’t want to let Val down.
“You’d make a great mermaid,” he says.
I returned to Surrey shortly after that, home for the peak of ski season. I was hired to do rentals at one ski hill, but after a few weeks moved to Grouse Mountain so I could work in lift ops. I preferred to be outside. We called ourselves lifties and worked in teams of two, three if it was a busy chair. Sometimes, after dark, we peed in the woods. The washrooms were down in the lodge and there was no one to relieve us.
Working at Grouse was almost like travelling. The gondola climbed a vertical mile from the parking lot, but the span between snow-puffed Doug-firs and the city below could have been measured in oceans. Most of my co-workers were from somewhere else.
On icy nights after all but the most devoted skiers had packed it in, we traded stories. I mentioned my year backpacking Southeast Asia, the overnight bus rides and seven months I spent working on a tiny island off the coast of Peninsular Malaysia and how I was almost a professional mermaid. I had only been home a month or so, memories still fresh with lime juice or the turmeric powder we used to season everything from fried fish to eggplant.
“For real,” my co-workers said, “a mermaid? Why didn’t you do it?”
I explained the terrible pay, that I was tired of working under the table and how I suffocated in the city’s humidity, couldn’t escape the stench of sewage and grease. But after a lousy day on the lifts—maybe my boss reamed me out for texting in the hut or messing around with ski patrol when I was supposed to be digging out a picnic table—I’d drive home to my parents’ house wishing I had stayed. Imagining life as a mermaid.
After the phone conversation with Francis I feel an urge to move, to walk across the city and on until I reach the shore of the peninsula. Let water shelter me in silence. Instead I wander to the rooftop, find Zional sweeping leaves and cigarette butts and into a dustbin. He stoops to pick candy wrappers from puddles.
There’s nowhere dry to sit, so I lean against a the ledge and look out at the city, socked in by cloud, lit up windows of adjacent apartment buildings the closest I come to seeing stars.
Zional puts the dustbin near the staircase and joins me. He pulls rolling papers and loose tobacco from his back pocket and begins to shape a cigarette in the palm of one hand. I ask him how his day went.
“Oh good, it was good,” he says. “Same as every day. Now it’s time to relax.”
I nod. He’s been cleaning since before most of the guests rolled out of bed. I tell him about the job and how I need to make a decision.
“You really want to live in this city?” he says.
“You like it here, don’t you?”
“It’s fine. When I tire of this place it’s usually time to move to the island. When I tire of the island, I move to the city.” He pauses to lights his smoke. “But if I had the money, I’d travel. Go back to India. That’s what I’d do.”
He talks about India, but I think of home. I can’t imagine myself here. I have my passport again and enough money to buy a plane ticket anywhere. Surrey has been on my mind, my parents’ house, the chance of snow for Christmas, relatives with coffee breath.