September 5th, 2014
So I’m at the bar and this girl orders the same drink as me and I use it as an excuse to talk to her. Her name is Ariel and I tell her my name and she thanks me for not making a Little Mermaid joke. I ask her why would I make a Little Mermaid joke and she says Ariel was the name of the mermaid in the movie. I tell her I’ve never seen the movie and she thinks that’s fantastic and tells me I’d lived a deprived childhood. I don’t know what she means but I laugh and say okay and try not to look down her blouse. And then she looks startled and tells me to pretend to be on a date with her because an acquaintance of hers, some guy who can’t take no for an answer, just walked in. I make a small turn and glance behind me, toward the door. He’s much bigger than me. She puts her hand on my shoulder and laughs and the acquaintance stares at us for a little while and then leaves, his face fallen, like someone just gave him the worst news of his life.
The next thing I know, we’re back at her apartment kissing on the couch with The Little Mermaid on in the background while I try and fail to unhook her bra. We have a nervous laugh about it and then she rescues me and does it herself.
The next thing I know, it’s two weeks later and Arial and I are at the brunch place that hangs local art on the walls. While we sip our coffee and wait for our food, she asks if I remember that guy in the bar on the night we met. I say I do and she confesses that he’s her ex, not an annoying acquaintance, who broke up with her about a month ago. She studies me to see how I take the news and says she doesn’t want me to feel like she used me to make him jealous, even though that’s sort of what she did, and even though her phone won’t stop buzzing with text messages from him. She touches my hand and tells me she likes me, that I’m not a rebound. I joke that I would be okay with being a rebound. We share another nervous laugh and then our food arrives.
The next thing I know, I’m meeting Ariel’s family at her sister’s wedding. Ariel’s mom looks me over and does a horrible job of masking her disappointment. I wonder what the problem is. My cheap suit? I know I need a haircut. I become self-conscious about my posture and then feel awkward and unnatural about the way I’m standing. She says it’s nice to meet me but what I think she means is I’m not good enough for her daughter but she’s sick of waiting for Ariel to settle down with someone ideal, someone with a better job and who knows how to clean up better for weddings. I say it’s nice to meet her too. It’s a religious ceremony, so while everyone else is bowed in prayer, I look around the room to see if anyone else is looking around and I lock eyes with one of the bridesmaids. She smiles and looks away. I straighten my tie. Later, after dinner and champagne and wine and beer, Ariel and I dance to the last slow song of the night and she whispers that she loves me. I tell her I love her too because I don’t want to spoil the romantic moment. Do I love her? Sure. I probably love her. I’m pretty sure I love her. I’ll figure it out later.
The next thing I know, it’s Thanksgiving at her parents’ house and her dad drunkenly invites me on a hunting trip in Montana and I drunkenly accept, forgetting that I’d never been hunting or even fired a gun before. In the moment, it feels like an offer for an adventure I’d regret turning down. I imagine photos from the 1930s of men with waxed mustaches on safari. Her dad orders plane tickets online to prove he’s serious. Her mom swears to herself in the kitchen while she wipes down the counters and then disappears for the rest of the evening. After dinner, Ariel pulls me aside, beaming, and says she’s so happy that the two most important men in her life are going to get to know each other better. In the cold, sober morning of Black Friday, her father and I see the regret in the other’s eyes over breakfast, but neither one of us takes it back.
The next thing I know, I’m in Montana with her dad and uncle, huddled under a camouflage shelter, hunting moose. Her dad tells me I won’t believe how big the moose are out here and tells me that, a couple years earlier, the two of them were almost run down and gored to death. He says that big fella was really angry because they’d clipped him and didn’t bring him down right away. They have a great laugh and open more beers and make me promise to never tell Ariel or Ariel’s mom that story. Seriously, don’t tell Ariel’s mom, they say. I say okay. The sun sets and it gets cold. While they clean their guns and pass a bottle of Wild Turkey back and forth, I imagine crawling into the new sleeping bag I bought for the trip, a sleeping bag that’s supposed to stay warm down to something like twenty degrees below zero, but instead I pull my jacket tighter around myself and fold my arms because I don’t want Ariel’s dad to think I’m some kind of pussy. I doze in my camping chair while they laugh at inside jokes. I awake when Ariel’s dad accidentally fires his rifle and obliterates three of the toes on my left foot.
The next thing I know, we’re on our way to the emergency room. My foot is numb because Ariel’s dad made me stick it in the ice-filled cooler as we began our manic off-road drive toward the highway. I ask if Ariel’s uncle is sober enough to drive and they tell me I’m in shock. When we get to the small, rural hospital, there is only one doctor and she frowns at the the bloody ice water, my foot, and Ariel’s dad and uncle, who hover outside the examination room and avoid eye contact with me. The doctor banishes them to the waiting room, closes the door, and tells me to lie down in the hospital bed. She says the police will be there soon to write a report because all gunshot wounds have to be reported, even accidental ones. I joke that maybe it wasn’t an accident because he’s my girlfriend’s dad, but she doesn’t laugh. I ask her if my foot is going to be okay and she tells me to stay still. She gives me good pain killers. An officer shows up and asks me questions, which I answer, though I can’t stop giggling because I think the squawks and clicks from his radio sound hilarious.
The next thing I know, I’m back at my hometown airport in a wheelchair and an airport employee pushes me toward baggage claim. I tell him it’s not necessary, but he tells me in a very friendly way that, yes, it is. What am I going to do, hop all the way there? He has a laugh that makes me laugh too, even though I don’t want to. Ariel is waiting for me by the carousel and looks pale with rage. She asks me if I’m okay, and I say no, I’m missing three toes because of her drunk father. She asks why I pressed charges and then I understand why she looks so mad. I say I pressed charges because I’m missing three toes and the police officer asked me if I wanted to press charges. I point to my bandaged foot. The airport employee makes up an excuse to leave. She says her dad spent two nights in jail because of me and I say no, he spent two nights in jail because he shot off three of my toes while he was drunk. She tells me I need to drop the charges, that I’m jeopardizing her dad’s career, that her family had to borrow money to post his bail. I ask her if she’s nuts, which I realize right away was the wrong thing to say. Her face shifts from pale with rage to red with rage and calls me a coward. I ask her if she wants to see the wound where my toes used to be. I start to unwrap the bandage. Other people, waiting for their luggage, side-step away from us. She tells me to stop and I tell her no, she should really get a good look at it. I say that it looks really cool and that I’ll have a limp. The words make a fist in my throat. And then my bag slides down the chute and onto the carousel. I stop unwrapping the bandage, re-wrap it sloppily, and ask Ariel if she would please grab my bag for me.
The next thing I know, we’re on our way back to my apartment. We don’t speak in the car. When we get to my building, she pulls out a pair of crutches from the trunk. She says she got them for me, that she thought I could use them. She carries my bag upstairs and helps me inside. She asks if I need anything and I try to joke that, yeah, I need my three toes back, but it doesn’t come out sounding like a joke. I sink into my couch and put my foot on the coffee table. The pain killers must be wearing off because I can feel a dull ache inside the bandages. She says her dad is sorry, that he feels terrible, and asks me to at least think about it. I tell her I don’t know and she says she’ll call me in the morning to check on me. She stands there by the door and we look at each other for a moment. I try to think of something to say when she starts to leave and end up saying that thanks to her, I’m living in a whole new world now. She stops in the doorway and asks me what I just said. I repeat it and she asks me what the hell it means. I tell her it’s a Little Mermaid joke and she says, no, “A Whole New World” was from Aladdin; it’s “A Part of Your World” in The Little Mermaid. She gives me an empty look, exhales, and then leaves. I listen to her go down the stairs, start her car, and drive away.
Author’s Note: The original version of this story ended with the wrong Disney song. Thanks to Amber Marlow for pointing out my egregious mistake, which I’ve turned into a plot point because I am a professional.