So what had happened was, for B’s eighth birthday, my bff asked if they could give him a fish. It would be his first pet, and something he would remember, and we were all home all the time anyway, so we figured, why not. I got the equipment from Petco so we would be ready, Drew and I assembled it and hid it under a towel on the kitchen counter (good things our kids can be totally unobservant), and then that afternoon, Liz came by with her boys to surprise my boy with a fish and some fun tank accessories.

It was an angelfish, said to be a hardy breed, and B named it Professor Fishey. We called him The Professor, and he seemed happy for a bit. Then he started getting slower and just hanging out in the corner of the tank. I got worried and pinned a lot of pressure to keeping The Professor alive. So I went back to Petco and talked to a guy there, and came back with a bunch of other stuff: a heater, a couple different water cleansers, some test strips, a new appreciation of the nitrogen cycle, and two more fish to be The Professor’s friends—the Petco guy said angelfish are social fish and so maybe he was lonely.

So that maybe worked for a couple days? But then one day Drew and I saw The Professor swimming and then he flipped upside down, and we were like, that’s not a good sign. And shortly after he had passed on. We took him out of the tank and told B the truth, and he seemed like, bummed, but not traumatized, which is probably the best you can hope for.

A couple days later fish #2 (Fifi, a moonrise pink tetra) also died, and we were like, Wow, fish really don’t last that long. I thought we had goldfish the whole time I was a kid, but when I asked my mom, she said they lasted like, a week or two each. So okay, I guess this is what we signed up for. Again, the kids were bummed about Fifi but not super traumatized.

Tiger and his trophies

So then we pinned all our hopes on Tiger, a tiger barb, to see how he would do. He was speedy, darting around the tank, but seemed friendly. One day, H noticed he had turned red on his nose and fins, and Drew and I nodded like fish experts, like, Okay, here comes the end. And then I googled tiger barbs, and it’s just what happens to them when they come into maturity.

What’s kind of funny is that when I got Tiger and Fifi, as I was leaving the Petco parking lot, they were in their bags on the passenger seat next to me, and then a car in front of me in the parking lot stopped inexplicably, and I slammed on my brakes, and both fish bags went flying into the footwell. (Oops…) And then when we were putting them into the tank, Tiger escaped and jumped into the back part of the tank where the filter is, and I had to scoop him out with my hand, and I almost crushed him against the filter. So like, maybe this fish is invincible. Three months later, he’s still going strong. So strong, in fact, that we sometimes wonder if he might have bullied the other two into dying. Tiger barbs are aggressive…

Anyway, while dealing with The Professor’s death (but NOT in the way described below), I had this super intense flashback to college, when my roommate had a betta fish that she kept in a vase on our kitchen table, and to this piece I wrote sometime that year. I’m pretty sure this was published in one of the campus lit mags, because college lit mags love a meandering piece that pretends to have a deeper meaning.

I had to track it down on a backup external hard drive, in a folder called “old computer stuff > transfer > writing > old computer.” Just a fantastic filing method. So intuitive. Also I had to take out all the double spaces between sentences, that’s how old this is. Also, yes, I did remove a few phrases that made me wince. But I left in others that also make me wince. So. Enjoy!


Are stars really clearer when it’s cold?

Warmth seems to blur them into submissive lines, but in the cold they’re sharper, crisper. It’s the same feeling as when I get new contact lens subscriptions, and I realize that things have been getting progressively less distinct for the last four months.

It’s fifty-two degrees Fahrenheit, and they want to go in the hot tub.

“Come on.”

“Yeah, so I can die of hypothermia? I don’t think that’s what I want to do tonight.”

“It’ll be warm in the water! And then you get out, wrap yourself in a towel, and walk back to the apartment. You’ll be cold for a total of 45 seconds…Will you at least come sit with us? You can bring a book.”

“I’ll come sit with you, yeah, but I’m not getting in the water.”

Outside, the house lights from the apartments and townhouses positioned around the pool area made little skating figures on the surface of the water. Steam rose out of the hot tub, making it look like something meant for cooking.

I’d gone upstairs to change into pj pants so that when peer pressure got the better of me, I could roll up the legs and put my feet in the water. This delay meant that by the time I got outside everyone else was already in, and looking at me with that semi-uncomfortable-I-know-I’m-going-to-get-used-to-this-water-really-soon-any-time-now look on his or her face.

Sitting cross-legged on the deck of the hot tub, I pulled my sleeves down around my hands and stuffed them in my jacket pockets. Their skin looked shiny and warm, glistening from the chlorine in the water, steam rising from their hair, and when the jets broke off after fifteen minutes, they asked me to run over to the controls and twist the knob to send more bubbles into the tub. When they started splashing each other, I moved back on the cement, leaving behind the patch of warmth I’d created, trying to stay out of the way of the drops of water that they sent through the air.

One by one, the three boys dared each other to swim a lap in the pool. The first one stood on the edge of the pool, contemplating the water, plié-ing to dip his toe in, fingering the drawstring on his swim trunks. The other two watched, knowing he held the power in this situation…if he didn’t do it, they wouldn’t either.

I was looking away when I heard the splash. He surfaced and began swimming, pausing every so often to swear. I knew he was probably dying in the water, but it was a matter of masculinity now, and of dignity, and of being able to look the other two in the eye. K and I laughed, and the other two boys also dove into the pool, unable to resist the call of competition.

They swam like huge shivering fish, across the surface of the pool, breaking up the moonlight into slivers that floated away in their wakes. K and I paced the side of the pool, laughing, sympathizing.

The huge boyfish, having proven their ruggedness and strength, sank down once more into the hot tub, leaving only their wet footprints on the deck, and the dying waves in the surface of the water in the pool. The steam rose over everything and turned the darkness white. The ghost traces of the boys in the water reminded me of Jynx.

When Jynx died, I think H put him down the garbage disposal instead of employing the conventional flush down the toilet, or—the suggestion made vehemently (albeit insensitively) by K and me—leaving him on one of our neighbor’s front doorsteps.  She had his vase in the kitchen, and then suddenly it was empty and she was throwing the rocks out into our tiny back patio, which consisted of half torn-up cement and half torn-up rocky lawn. K looked at me and mouthed:

“Where’s Jynx?”

I looked at H, emptying rocks into rocks.

“It sounds like jingle bells!” K called, but her mortified eyes were on me.  “Did she put him down the garbage disposal?”

I had to use the disposal tonight to shred potato peels before they backed up our pipes. (It’s happened once before.) When I flipped the switch, the heavy blades that lived beneath the sink roared into life and ground up whatever was down there.  Potato peels…orange rinds…Jynx the fish….

I couldn’t think about it.  I kept worrying that tiny fish bones would explode out of the drain and into my face.

For some reason, our culture teaches us that burial at sea is the appropriate method of disposal for Siamese fighting fish.

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