Salt water enveloped my bare feet as the foam cleared away. They glistened in the late morning sun as I studied the sand that lingered in the crevasses between my toes. I dug them deeper into the sand until I could no longer see the chipped jade polish, as I watched the water trickle away back down the beach from where it came, only to be swallowed by the next wave coming in.
I thought of the new girl now taking my place in my old band. How bright eyed and eager she had been, though a little naïve she was, and star struck. Living the dream, she was, right? Give it time, I thought. That world would swallow her up too, just as it had swallowed me. Of course, she loved it, just as I had, and lived for the buzz of that stage and the lights loved her, as they had once loved me, but I knew only too well how unforgiving those lights could be. She of course showed promise, but I wondered how my girls truly received her. Would they accept her as a Mermaid? Those girls squabbled over the lead spot after I left, but I wondered if she would surpass and outshine them in the spotlight, better than all of them put together? Growing up, they were my best friends, as close to me as sisters, but that was so long ago now. I wondered if they thought of me still in that way. Were they angry, or perhaps even a little jealous? I missed them all but it was no secret I was outgrowing them fast. Everybody knew it, including Ursula, my singing coach and Sebastian Fish, Dad’s assistant who was like another father to me.
Everybody of course saw me growing in leaps and bounds away from The Mermaids, except Dad. He had poured so much money and effort into marketing the Mermaids and managed our rising success, as founder of Triton Records, though I felt in safeguarding me from the clutches of the solo career that was beckoning me, I felt he was holding me back, just a little too tight, and the harder he tried to reign me in, the stronger I dug my heels in, determined to break away from his Label, The Mermaids and everything that kept me from a chance to shine on my own.
I remembered the last words he’d said when I finally left The Mermaids for the promise of a solo career. “You’re not ready, but I have to let you go find your way. I’m disappointed in you, Aria.” Those words stung my heart and to this day would haunt me. We never spoke again.
I pushed on with Ursula as my new manager under her newly formed Label, Silverfish, and rose to the top with my first Number one hit. Sebastian stuck around for a while, but feeling that he was only there to report back to Dad of my success and every failure between, I pushed him away too, not realizing he was the only one who could see what Ursula was doing to my career. Never satisfied with what success trickled my way like the waves on that beach I was now sitting, Ursula pushed me harder than I’d ever worked in my life. Every song I sang required her seal of approval and I was oblivious to my voice slowly slipping away. In the studio, Ursula was relentless.
“Do it again!” She would scream at me after every take and I would sing the track again. “Again!” She would scream and I would lay track after track till I was hoarse.
“Don’t get complacent, girl!” She once told me after I won Best New Single and Female Vocalist of the Year in my first year, as a soloist. Fame was fleeting she told me, ripping away any remnant of joy from the moment. There was no after party for me, no downtime, only more studio time working on the follow up album.
“Hard work! That’s what will set you up in this business.” Longevity was the magic word she threw at me every time, I uttered a syllable of complaint. “In the music industry,” she told me, “That is how you measure success.” The harder I worked, the harder she pushed.
With Dad no longer speaking me and the Mermaids nothing more than a memory to me, and my voice all but gone I had nothing left to lose. Silverfish had everything to gain from my rapidly drying career, and my successes which soon grew fewer and farther between.
Ursula was like a mad woman steering what was left of my career in any direction she could sniff out the smallest fumes of a promise for more success, but really, she was driving my career into the ground fast. All but swallowed up by Ursula’s greed, I’d pushed myself so hard, for so long, for no reward, that even the music was losing its magic for me. In the nightmare of my life, I was losing sight of my dream.
While I pasted on a smile and shone on a different stage every night, sprinkling my song like star dust over an adoring crowd, the feeling was always the same dread. I had forgotten to save some of that magic for myself, no not forgotten, now I realized as I looked back on those times. I had forbidden myself from keeping enough to sustain myself, and as a result I was dead inside. By the time I finally collapsed from exhaustion on stage, I was no longer singing from my heart, just my throat, and it hurt like hell. “Go! I have no use for you now,” Ursula had told me as we severed the contract. As far as she was concerned I was done as a singer.
I sat on that beach in the warm sun that gently burned my flesh, I watched the sea as each new wave swallowed the one before and I shuddered. How caught I felt in rip of a now dead career. The Mermaids would never want me back, and even though I considered reuniting with the girls, I knew deep down I no longer belonged there anyway.
I picked up a small twig and with it I drew a large shell in the wet sand beside me, studying its perfect shape as I brushed away the excess mess of sand, leaving a crisp line. In the center I wrote my name, Aria, and I noted how most of the letters clung together as if they belonged that way, while the A stood alone at the start, as if daring to break away as I had from The Mermaids, in a desperate now failed attempt to shine on my own. Dad was right. I was not ready and now I was sitting there feeling alone on the beach in my grief for all I had lost in my climb to the top of a crumbling ladder, falling hard when I could no longer hang on.
I twisted a long strand of my hair, red as fire, into a thick ringlet, before raking my fingers through it breaking it apart into smaller masses of spring curls over my now glowing pink shoulder, the ends meeting the sand where the water washed over them and the shell till it and my name disappeared.
I extended that same hand I’d been using to comb my hair, and found the hand of the one man who managed to breathe life back into my heart, after Ursula had sucked out my soul and left me for dead. I laced my fingers through Erik’s as we watched the sea together. My turquoise eyes met his sparkling sapphire blues and he smiled. His love washed over me warm like the sunlight in a clear blue sky, and it was then I realized, he was the one person in my life who never made me question his love. With all the warmth he showered me with, he asked for nothing in return, yet until that moment I was always too afraid to open my heart to him, for fear he would eventually spit me out too when he was done. How could I love him? I hadn’t figured out how to even open my heart to myself.
“What’s going on in that head of yours?” he asked as I struggled to return his smile.
“Stuff,” I answered as I dropped my hand and my eyes to the spot where my name had been, scooping away the remaining water that had washed it away. A tear burned its way down my cheek before dropping to the sand where it dissolved. I felt in that moment that I could disappear too.
Erik retraced my name and then taking my hand in his again, he used my finger to draw a heart around my name, where the shell had been and I knew what he was trying to remind me. “Love yourself, Aria.” He would tell me always. It was something I struggled a lot, to remind myself, but with each passing day I was getting better at it.
Impulsively thinking this was the perfect time to start honouring me, I rose to my feet. Taking Erik’s hand, I helped him to his feet too. Not yet ready to let his hand go again, I raced with him in tow to the sea. He matched my stride by stride as we jumped the waves till we were both thigh deep in the ocean. It was then I let go.
This was something only I could do for me. I dived under the sea and let the waves swallow me as I forged my way forward, clawing the sand beneath me, towards my future. In that moment, despite everything I’d lost, my Dad, The Mermaids, my career and my voice for a while, I realized what I found was more important. Erik was the first to love me for me and he was teaching me to love me also. I would learn to sing again, this time not with the Voice of Ursula, and her team of songwriters and producers, but with my own.
With beautiful Erik by my side, allowing me my own space, his love never faltering, I was finding my strength to stand in that space, and shine on my own for the first time ever. It was in finding me, for the first time in my life, I was no longer lost, but free.