Mermaids confuse me. Sexually. They're usually depicted as dreamy, topless blondes combing their hair with shells on a rock somewhere as sea water drips majestically down their naked bodies. But they're also half fish. What does it mean if I'm just unfazed by that? Where have I gone? It's not necessarily a bad thing; it's just sexually disorienting, so I generally avoid thinking about mermaids unless I have to.
That's why, when I heard about "mermaid classes" starting in Montreal, I was hit with equal parts curiosity and anxiety. All I knew was that it was called Aquasirene, and consisted of an hour-long class in a rec center pool where they dress you up and teach you how to swim like a mermaid. I couldn't tell if it was a joke, a bizarre fitness class, or an actual serious meet-up for people identifying as mermaids. At $80 a lesson, it had to have some degree of seriousness, but do I want to meet the type of adults who take mermaids that seriously? I decided I needed to know what this was, so I signed up for a class one Sunday and headed over to the pool to find out.Once there, I peered through the pool window on my way to the changing area and saw a fairly innocuous scene—20 or so women grazing on the deck in their bathing suits with brightly colored fabrics hanging off a rack to the side. I shuffled into the empty men's locker room and put my stuff into a rusty locker. As I looked over my shoulders, another guy walked in right after me and put his bag down on a bench."You taking the mermaid class too?" he asked nervously."Yeah," I answered. "Why did you decide to take it?"He laughed, "It's a long story. Did you bring your snorkel?""What? No. We had to bring a snorkel?""I dunno man, I really have no idea what's going on."He said his name was Mikael, and we shook hands. He looked as excited as he was scared, but our mutual confusion was comforting on some level. Mikael seemed like a good dude.
We followed the tunnel out to the deck where the woman I assume I'd been emailing greeted me with a clipboard in her arm. Marielle was slender and beautiful, and as she looked at me with her big brown eyes and toothpaste-commercial smile, I gulped and my palms started sweating.
"Just come with me and we'll pick out your tail," she said.I got to choose out of a small selection of man-tails that were bigger than their female counterparts. I chose a dark blue one with a white tip. I looked over at Mikael, who sat on the side with a similar tail and gave me a nod of affirmation.I was surrounded by a crowded deck of excited, chattering women in their early 20s.As I put on my tail and took in the whole scene, I realized how out of place I was. I didn't even like mermaids, or swimming really. The other people there REALLY liked mermaids. They kept shifting their gaze back to the sparkly mermaid tails and fixating on them with these wild, crazy eyes. They were happy and chatty on the surface, but beneath that they seemed to have this laser-like focus. It was as though they'd been waiting for this day for a while, and nothing and no one was going to fuck it up.
I slid my feet through the spandex fabric into the monofin at the bottom. Vicky, one of the instructors, helped strap me in. I watched a girl in a pink mermaid tail pose for photos and thought about how I wanted to approach this thing. Despite the ridiculous concept and slightly psychotic energy, part of me still wanted to take this seriously. I had signed up and come all the way there. There was no point in swimming around sarcastically for an hour. But with this commitment I risked the possibility of a new level of shame—one that comes from trying and failing at being a merman. As a normally competent athlete, I was convinced I would be fine, no matter what lay ahead.
Vickie waded into the shallow end to face the row of us sitting on the edge. She explained with large, animated movements how we were going to swim with our tails to the other side of the pool. She had a kind of comforting big-sister presence, like she could have been everyone's favorite babysitter, or a camp counsellor.We jumped in with flutterboards, and a few of the stronger swimmers flipped ahead gracefully. The rest of us splashed our tails in random directions and went more or less nowhere. I tried desperately to get some momentum going, but ended up writhing uselessly like a wounded worm on the sidewalk. Almost everyone had passed me at this point, so I gave up and paddled my motionless body forward with just my arms.
This wasn't off to a good start.When we got to the other wall, Vickie told me patiently that I needed to move my whole body together, and push my butt up and down. I was already being labeled the weak link, albeit kindly so. Next we had to try floating on our backs, and sculling lightly across the width of the pool. One by one everyone drifted across in a brightly colored cascade as I tried stubbornly to raise my fat tail off the bottom of the pool. With every attempt I just dunked my head back below the surface, and I rose and fell gasping for air like a convulsing otter. Vickie came over to hold my tail, and Marielle waded over, visibly concerned as well.
I was annoyed at how badly I was doing, but tried not to be discouraged. I flapped my way to the wall and gathered some optimism for the next stroke. I followed Vickie along with the arm gestures to try getting the technique down.
I took a deep breath, pushed off the wall, and sunk steadily and pathetically below the surface, completely in denial of my failure for a moment, like Wile E. Coyote stepping off a cliff.At this point I had squirmed around so much in my monofin that my feet had popped out, and were now floating aimlessly in the spandex part of my tail. I pulled myself out of the water and tried to adjust my ensemble. Marielle spotted me and rushed over, smiling and glistening with pool water. I rearranged my limbs, somewhat embarrassed, and was successfully refitted.Vickie showed us how she could point her legs straight up out of the water, a skill she honed in her ten years as a synchronized swimmer. I was impressed, and looked down at my own pathetic blue legs in contrast.
Next Vickie told us to try swimming sidestroke, which saw me getting some sporadic breaths in, but basically had the same fate as the last exercises. My tail was starting to piss me off. It basically bound my legs together with a giant thing at the end to make sure my movements were both laborious and useless. How was this supposed to send me gliding majestically through the water like a fucking Greek Triton? So far I had basically just practiced different forms of drowning in blue spandex.
I sought brief consolation in the fact that the man-tails were a little bigger and harder to maneuver, but realistically this wasn't an excuse. I saw Mikael happily splashing around with his girlfriend, who I realized was probably the "long story" that brought him here. Great for you, guys. I'm so happy for you.I was starting to feel pretty bitter. My tail wasn't cute or ironic anymore. It was the object of the slow, creeping onset of total failure. At this point Vickie told us to find a partner, so I paired up with the other anglophone girl beside me named Theresa. She seemed really sweet, and I felt bad about how I was going to ruin the next part of the lesson for her. I apologized to her in advance."I've always really liked mermaids," she said, gazing into rippling water.Vickie came and explained that we were going to join, tail-to-front, and swim together as a unit."I think, um she should go in front?" she told me, trying to not hurt my feelings.We tried the exercise but I inevitably weighed us both down. We floundered mid-pool, surrounded by more successful and mobile couples. The sound of delightful splashing and laughter bounced off the pool walls as we continued to fail.The class was all in good fun on the surface, but these people felt it important enough to pay $80 to attend. I felt genuinely bad about unintentionally undermining it.The whole class then got together to hold hands and swim together as a single line.
This, too, failed because of me. I sank down and fragmented the line like a complete deadweight, disorganizing the whole setup. At this point I was essentially a physically handicapped merman, and I was pretty resentful about it. I was just slowing everyone down. If I lived in some kind of underwater mermaid city they would have to build special entrances for me to be able to enter libraries and hospitals.Next we saw how far we could swim underwater in one breath. I hadn't really been breathing properly since the class began anyway, so that was fine. I took a deep breath and propelled myself forward with my arms, dragging my dead, fused together legs behind me. I did pretty well, powered by my brute force and bitterness.I surfaced about three-fourths of the way across the pool. Vickie came over, impressed and surprised, and said, "Wow that was actually really good."After that we did a core workout on the side of the pool, making a wave with our line of tails. I had kind of checked out by then but was trying to be a good sport.
Finally we had a game of "tag" followed by free time. It felt a bit juvenile but then again we were dressed up as creatures that don't exist. I paddled around reluctantly in a rubber dingy before sitting off to the side, swishing my tail back and forth away from the action.
The class was over and I put on a brave face to speak with Marielle about how this all started. She told me she has backgrounds in business, modeling, and water sports, and decided to combine them. She also, like everyone else there, loved mermaids. There was so much life and excitement coming out of her as she described her mermaid school that I began to cheer up a little.Everyone lined up with their tails up in the shallow end for a photo shoot, so I joined on the side beside Theresa.
I thought about what had just transpired with the class in general. It had turned out to be more of an aqua-fitness class than a chance for people to actualize their aggressive, hysterical obsession with mermaids. Judging by their flushed, happy faces and the fact that they were still wading around in their tails, everyone else seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed it.I took off my tail and stood there, dejected and shivering a little on the deck. I had learned a lot about myself and my limits. I just don't have what it takes to be a merman. I said goodbye to Marielle and Vickie, and changed in humbled silence. You don't know shame, failure, and the loss of dignity until you've done it in a mythical creature costume.Follow Stephen Keefe on Twitter.