I’ve always been in love with Nyla.
At the age of ice cream and action figures, when little boys are expected to hate girls, pulling their hair and running away, I was already in love with the girl next door.
I met her the day she moved to my neighborhood. Her father was a self-made man, a salesman who had traveled to Nueva Yol and made a profit buying and selling silk clothes and bedclothes to those who could barely afford them. He wanted to show off his new money, and the first step was to move his family from their humble Barrio to the shore, where la gente rica, the rich folk, lived.
I watched them move while playing a game of kickball with friends. Sometimes the ball would get away from us, and I would see it as an excuse to catch a glimpse of my new neighbors. They had few belongings; old thrown in with the new so that their new status was obvious even to me.
Old couch with plastic covers, new bedroom set, tattered chair.
Nyla was sitting on the lawn watching the movers, observing their work intently, oblivious to our game until someone kicked the ball too hard and it landed beside her. But she didn’t kick it back. Instead she held it and waited for someone brave enough to take it from her hands.
I was that person.
She stared at me intently with those deep brown eyes as I walked toward her.
She had sand in her hair from playing at the beach, and from far away she smelled like vanilla orchids. When I reached her I had completely forgotten why I was standing there, but could only continue to sink inside her gaze.
She handed me the ball and simply said, “I’ve been waiting for you.”
Just like that, I was in love.
That night I laid awake in bed listening to the melancholy Boleros my parents danced to, and for the first time I understood their words of lost loves and soul mates. I pictured myself dancing with Nyla like my parents were, feeling the love they felt.
Days later she died.
It was that Sunday afternoon. Her father took his new neighbors out on a brand new boat he could barely control. Some came out with good intentions, bringing their famous plates of Mangú and Pernil to eat on board. Others came to watch as the salesman made a spectacle of himself, eating his food and laughing at his jokes, all the while snickering at his ignorance.
Nyla was sitting on the deck, wearing a heavy pink dress that was not appropriate for the weather. She looked so out of place, her feet shoved in tight patent leather shoes, perspiration rolling down her neck and dampening her hair.
She spotted me for the first time, and smiled a smile so wonderful and sweet that the memory of it alone makes me warm to my toes.
And then she was gone.
The boat had taken a sharp turn. Others merely slipped. I bumped my head on a sail and for a moment could see nothing but stars. But once I got my balance back I realized, in horror, that she had fallen overboard.
I tried to jump after her but they held me back.
“What’s going on, son?” They asked.
I could barely get the words out.
She fell in.
Her dress was so heavy that she couldn’t swim. Instead she sank so deep into the ocean that it took six men and ten minutes to find her. By then we had lost all hope, but somehow, after they brought her back on board, she came back to life.
Later she would tell me that dying felt like falling asleep. A mermaid took pity on her, kept her alive by giving her the magic she would need to breathe underwater.
When Nyla was resurrected, she came back part human, part mermaid, part child of the sea.
Her father never sailed that boat again.
* * *
She stands beside me now. It’s been ten years since the day I watched her die. We are no longer next door neighbors or live by the shore. But we are on her father’s boat again, stolen in the middle of the night while our families believe we are at a movie, being normal for once.
I watch her as she tries to pull lightning out of the sky, but nothing happens. She gives up and tries to create a whirlpool, but the ocean remains calm. She used to be able to call a storm with a single breath, now she can barely create ripples in a pond.
Her powers are fading, fast. She looks at me with tears in her eyes, searching for an answer. Her vibrant sea foam green hair has faded to gray.
“When did this begin?” I ask, but I already know.
“About a week ago.”
I don’t ask her the question that is on both our minds. Instead I try to listen to the waves and pretend this is not happening again. But she answers it anyways.
“Dylan, I have to die again. To continue to live, I have to die.”
“No,” I say looking at her fiercely. “I won’t let you drown again.”
“Then I will die anyways. My powers are what are keeping me alive.”
I know she is right. She wouldn’t have brought me out here unless it was true. Her health is fading fast and there are bags under her eyes. But part of me is afraid of losing her.
“We are a world of lonely people,” she says to me. “We hurt each other when someone gets too close. It’s like the idea of intimacy hurts too much. But it’s what we want the most. If I die, Dylan, please don’t be lonely for me.”
She kisses me goodbye. Her lips taste like absinthe, and for a moment I’m drunk with the taste of her.
Then she’s gone.
She barely makes a splash when she hits the water. I stand there for a long time watching the spot where she disappeared. Then I jump in, not sure of what I will find, but hoping for something.
But she is nowhere to be found. I dive and swim for hours, the sun rises and I’m still in the water, freezing but unwilling to give up.
I get home hours later. The salt water has sunk so deep into my skin so that I worry that I will never be able to smell anything but the ocean. Then the smell of vanilla orchids hit me.
There on my bed is Nyla, fast asleep.
Her hair is the color of grass and her skin has been restored to its golden brown shade. She hears me and opens her eyes, giving me a warm smile.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she says simply.
And I’m in love all over again.